Is there a song that instantly catapults you back to a poignant time in your life?
For me, that song is Christopher Cross’ Sailing.
The year was 1980. I was 23. In April of that year I had traveled to Germany alone for a few months. The plan had been for Tom and I to go together after three years of an on-again, off-again relationship (my schemey plot to nab him once and for all), but he couldn’t afford the trip and I ended up going alone.
Eight weeks into that trip the most unexpected thing happened: I fell madly in love at first sight when the best friend of the son of a childhood friend of my mom’s (!) walked into the room.
I had arrived in Nurnberg the day before and had reached the point in my trip where I was looking more forward to going home than to the next destination on the itinerary that my mother had enthusiastically organized for me. As I lay awake late at night on my first night with the Horvath family (a family who not-so-coincidentally had a boy exactly my age… my mom’s own schemey maneuver), I wrote Tom a long love letter, telling him how much I was looking forward to seeing him in just a few weeks. I was much more demonstrative and verbally expressive than Tom and I remember thinking, as I signed the letter “I love you,” that here I was yet again spilling my heart, hoping he’d “come around” and spill his just a little bit.
The next morning I walked to the corner mailbox and mailed the letter. A few minutes after I arrived back at the Horvath’s house, the doorbell rang. Stephan, the young man my mom was so eager for me to meet, answered the door. Standing there was his best friend and classmate, Thomas. He had dropped by to pick up a homework assignment.
Cliché as it sounds, fireworks ignited the minute I saw Thomas -- and they exploded when he spoke his first words, probably something along the lines of “Do you have tonight’s homework assignment?” (In German of course.)
Let me just say right here that everyone should experience love at first sight at some point in their lifetime.
While the sudden lightning storm lit up my life like the most brilliant fireworks imaginable, I was numbly aware that it could jolt Tom and burn him badly if I were to heed it. But I also knew that I had no chance BUT to heed it, that it was an absolute inevitability. I can’t ask anyone – even (and perhaps especially) Tom -- to understand that, even now almost 30 years later, but that’s how it was. Pure and simple.
I won’t write about what happened over the next few days or months because I wrote about it here. But I will say that when I hear Christopher Cross’ Sailing it reminds me instantly of those fourteen months and “sailing away,” first from what I knew to be my own life and love, and then from what I had discovered to be my new life and my new love.
“It's not far to never never land
No reason to pretend
And if the wind is right you can find the joy
Of innocence again
Oh, the canvas can do miracles
Just you wait and see
You'll be with me”
Two weeks after meeting Thomas and completely rearranging my trip so as to spend the rest of it with him, I flew back to California alone and immediately called Tom, shaking, to tell him that I’d fallen in love and it was over, I’m so sorry…
(If there had been e-mail or IM then, would I have told Tom right away? I’d like to think so… but truth be told, I just don’t know. Nothing that happened during those weeks conformed to the normal guidelines of my life, and I felt dreadfully – and delightfully -- out of control.)
I won’t write about the last half of 1980 and most of 1981, when Thomas and I carried on a long-distance relationship, sprinkled with a few sporadic visits together. During that year Tom had spilled his heart many, many times just as I’d so hoped he would before my life had suddenly changed within moments of mailing the love letter to him – the letter which, oh god, he’d probably received while I was in Florence, the most romantic city in the world, with my new love. (Yes, I feel guilty about that even to this day.)
Tom was utterly shocked at the news I’d returned with. How could I? (Really, how could I?) He was angry, but more than that, he was deeply hurt. I’d betrayed him. Hadn’t I just told him that I loved him? (I had.) Hadn’t I told him how much I was looking forward to coming home to him? (I had.) Hadn’t I just spilled my heart? (I had.)
Suddenly, when my own heart was no longer available to him, Tom spilled his heart to me, professing his love to me and asking me to come back to him. At first, Tom called me incessantly and even made a few unannounced trips from Los Angeles to Stanford, where I was in graduate school, in an effort to win me back, but by the following summer when I was back in Santa Barbara working as a camp counselor at the University of California’s Family Vacation Center, I’d heard from him less and less frequently.
One day in August 1981, fourteen months after Thomas walked into a room in Nurnberg and turned my life upside down, Tom called and asked if he could come see me in Santa Barbara the next day. Of course, I answered, surprised at my own enthusiasm.
Christopher Cross was playing on the turntable when the knock came at the door.
“Well, it's not far back to sanity
At least it's not for me
And when the wind is right you can sail away
Oh, the canvas can do miracles
Just you wait and see
Then you'll believe me”
Tom looked happy and healthy, very different from the broken man I’d last seen a few months previous on one of his impromptu overnight visits to the Bay Area . He’d obviously recovered from his broken heart. He gave me a long, tight hug that told me that he was genuinely happy to see me but not needy of me – and definitely no longer broken. It was good to see him like this. The fact that he looked incredibly sexy, in his light blue Polo shirt and tanned, smooth skin wasn’t lost on me.
In fact, I suddenly couldn’t think of anything else.
‘Crap. Not good,’ I thought. ‘Not good at ALL.’
As Christopher Cross played in the background, Tom told me about his new corporate job at Northrop. ‘He’s getting ready to settle down,’ I found myself thinking, then shunning the thought and wondering why I’d even allowed it to enter my consciousness.
What is going ON? Stop this!
Tom then challenged me to a game of backgammon on the beach, just a few hundred yards from the dorm room that I’d called my home for the past five summers. I lifted the needle from the record player, cutting off Christopher Cross mid-sentence, and heading with Tom to the beach…
...and to my life as I now know it, almost thirty happy years later.
So Christopher Cross' Sailing reminds me of love and youth. It reminds me of exhilarating joy and excruciating pain. It signifies a crossroads in my life and, quite simply, my life's destiny.
"Oh, the canvas can do miracles..."
(Yes, Thomas -- who, coincidentally, has become a passionate and avid sailor -- remains a dear friend and I’ve seen him a few times since 1981 – a testament to Tom’s love and trust.)