- By Jill Smolowe
A lifetime ago, when I was 11, a 14-year-old boy asked me to dance.
The year was 1966. The place: a co-ed sleepaway camp in upstate New York. The boy was a stranger to me and his invitation was hardly magical. Just moments before, I’d seen him scowling at his counselor, who was pointing him firmly in my direction.
Still, grateful for any excuse to escape the humiliation of the wallflower bench, I followed the boy onto the dance floor, where we began to gyrate, he looking at his feet, I gazing over his shoulder.
Perhaps 30 seconds into this dispiriting exercise, he spoke his only words: “Could you turn your head? You have bad breath.” In a daze of embarrassment, I finished the dance, then fled back to the bench.
Thirty-seven years later, that memory would resurface to yield an unexpected lesson in forgiveness. First, though, I need to make another stop along the years, this one circa 1972.
Things Had Changed
Once again, the place is that camp where, after a six-year hiatus, I had returned as a counselor. The 12-year-old girls assigned to me were receptive and energetic. We hit it off immediately.
It was remarkable that a guy with whom I’d crossed paths 37 years earlier remained more haunted by the incident than I, the injured party.
At my girls’ first dance, the counselor who was my summer boyfriend tugged me onto the floor to get things started. Then we kept going, boogeying to the fast songs, draping ourselves around each other when the tempo slowed. The evening felt a wonderful success — until my group got back to the dorm where my girls slept in the attic beneath eaves and the occasional bat.
I was changing in my tiny room off the campers’ quarters when one of the girls came to my door and said, “Elly is in the closet crying.” I rushed to the large communal closet, and there, crumpled amid the rows of sandals and sneakers, was Elly, sobbing.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, dropping to her side.
“No one asked me to dance,” she said. “I sat there the whole night. Everyone else in the group danced, but not me.”
A Distressing Memory
Her words summoned that boy, that dance. Pain shot through me, first the angst of the wallflower, then the shame of my hand in her misery.
Though just 17, I felt a keen responsibility to see that my girls had a good time at all of their activities, dances included. While I’d been attending to my own good time, I’d failed to pay attention to my girls. Wrapping Elly in a hug, I said: “I am so, so sorry. I’m sure you’ll get asked the next time.”
“No, I won’t,” she said.
“You will,” I persisted. “I remember feeling exactly the same way.” Then I told her about the boy and his cruel crack about my breath.
“No!” Elly gasped.
“I promise you,” I said. “It will get better.”
And I knew that it would, because in that moment I vowed that no one in my group would ever again spend the night on the wallflower bench.
To ensure that the dance invitations were more gracious than that boy’s, I befriended several male campers and helped the matches along. At each of the subsequent dances that summer — the next summer, too — all of my girls hit the dance floor at least once.
An Odd Phone Call
Fast forward to 2003. As I grabbed my ringing phone, caller ID indicated it was my sister in Oregon.
“Ann!” I greeted her.
“You might want to sit down,” she said. “I have the most bizarre story to tell you.”
A gifts officer for a West Coast college, Ann had recently invited a group of alums to meet with her. One of them, a man I’ll call Arnie, RSVP’d by sending a donation.
When Ann phoned to thank him, he pressed for a private meeting. The evening of their appointment, Arnie got right down to business.
“I sent that check to make sure I’d get a chance to talk to you,” he said. “First, I have some questions.”
He asked Ann if she’d ever attended camp in upstate New York, then rattled off a bunch of names, all from our camp days.
“You have an unusual last name,” he continued. “Do you know someone named Jill who has the same last name?”
“She’s my sister.”
“I already knew that,” Arnie said.
Bothered By the Past
Arnie knew a lot, in fact, all of it readily available on the Internet.
He knew that Ann and I had written a business book together. He knew that I had written a memoir. He knew where I had worked and where I was currently employed.
“I’ve been following Jill’s career,” he said.
“Why?” Ann asked, growing uneasy.
He responded that when he was 14, he’d attended a dance at that New York camp and been forced by his counselor to ask a girl to dance. “I asked Jill,” Arnie said. “I said something terrible to her. Ask her if she remembers. I’ve never forgotten.”
“Do you know what he’s talking about?” Ann asked me.
Instantly, that boy, that dance came to mind. After describing my experience, I said, “I have no idea if it’s the same guy. I just remember his remark.”
When Ann asked if she could share the story with Arnie, I said: “Sure. What’s he like, by the way?”
“I don’t know. I just found the whole thing so strange.”
“I bet he’s a nice man,” I responded.
“What makes you say that?” she asked, her tone skeptical.
“Think about it. That was my very first dance. It makes sense that I would remember his nasty comment. But why would he? If that was typical of the things he said back then, he would have forgotten it immediately. Instead, it’s bothered him all these years. It must have been very uncharacteristic of him.”
Forgiveness for Both of Us
After we hung up, I sat at my kitchen table marveling. It was remarkable that a guy with whom I’d crossed paths 37 years earlier remained more haunted by the incident than I, the injured party. It was touching that he’d manufactured a meeting with my sister to convey an apology that, for some unknown reason, he still felt uncomfortable offering directly to me.
At the same time, I found his memory of our brief encounter entirely understandable.
Though Arnie’s had been a sin of commission, and mine of ignoring Elly’s wallflower status one of omission, we were both haunted by the memory of having hurt someone.
Though I’d chaperoned perhaps a dozen dances during my two summers as a counselor, only one memory had stuck with perfect clarity: Elly on the closet floor — and me beside her, feeling like my heart had been yanked through my throat because of my heedless behavior.
With that thought, my mind forged an unexpected connection. If Arnie’s memory of his thoughtless conduct told me something positive about him, didn’t my memory of my own thoughtless conduct tell me something positive about me?
A few days later, Ann forwarded me Arnie’s emailed response. “So she did remember,” he wrote. “Well, if [her breath] did smell, which it probably didn’t, I wouldn’t have known. And if it’s any consolation to her, I have been plagued by this memory ever since. She deserved better.”
I hope that by reaching across the decades, Arnie put his demon to rest. Though he doesn’t know it, he gave me a gift far greater than the apology he intended: He gave me license to forgive myself.