Monday, March 30, 2015

Too Fast To Live

By Lisabet Sarai

She was a preacher’s daughter. Maybe that explains her wildness, that bright, crazy spark in her that drew me like a moth to a flame. On the other hand, it’s not as though her dad was a Bible-thumping fundamentalist. He led a progressive Congregational church in a liberal New England suburban community. Her parents trusted her, too—they gave her a good deal more freedom than mine gave me. Perhaps that was the core problem—too much energy, with too few rules.

History abounds with theories.

I loved Rebecca from the moment I met her, which I believe was in tenth grade when her family moved to town. She stood out in a crowd, taller than many of the boys in our class, big-boned but curvy, with a shimmering mane of platinum hair that reached to her waist. Although she wasn’t conventionally pretty—her face was too long, her mouth too big—you couldn’t take your eyes off her. Or, at least I couldn’t.

Like me, Rebecca belonged to the “intellectual” clique, the ones who were smart but not necessarily popular or stylish. With her scarves and her hats, she created a style of her own. She was an artist, a poet, a gourmet cook. I admired her accomplishments as much as I appreciated her physical attributes. Somehow everything seemed to come easily for her. Her breezy smile suggested that she never worried about grades the way I did, that she never agonized about whether the boys liked her (they did) or about where she’d go to college.

We worked together on the high school yearbook and the school literary review. We played together, to the extent my over-protective mother allowed. After the junior prom, a dozen of us converged on her house. Still in our gowns and tuxes, we sprawled on the carpet in front of her fireplace while she fed us miniature cherry tarts and sparkling cider. I remember feeling drunk, though I’m quite sure no alcohol was involved. I think it was lust, lust for my date, and thought I wouldn’t have recognized it then, lust for her.

The yearbook includes a candid photo of us taken in the shower: Rebecca, me, my brother Larry (younger than me by two years) and a male friend. We’re not naked, though you wouldn’t know that from the picture. She’s shampooing Larry’s hair, obviously laughing out loud. I’m behind her, wearing a manic grin. The story behind that photo isn’t nearly as outrageous as you might imagine. It was a hot summer night. To cool off, we’d been running through the lawn sprinkler in my backyard, in our bathing suits. The grass had been mowed that day, and bits of it were plastered all over our skin. A shower was the only option.


Where was my mother that night? I can’t imagine she would have sanctioned our crazy shenanigans. My first lover took the photo. Given that he was six years older than me, perhaps Mom thought he was adequate supervision.

Hah. Paul wasn’t any more mature than us high school kids.

I don’t think I was a virgin then, though it’s a bit difficult now to sort out the time line. I wonder about Rebecca. She sometimes roamed around with a rougher crowd than our group of passionate nerds. For some reason, despite our closeness, I never asked.

In those days, teenagers didn’t talk about sex. Not in my crowd.

After graduation, we all scattered to our various academic destinations. As I recall, Rebecca went to Colby. Meanwhile, struggling with anorexia, I dropped out of college after six weeks.

I was in the hospital, living a kind of dazed half-life, when I heard the news about Rebecca. Home for Thanksgiving break, she’d met a bloody end in a car accident, on one of the back roads at the edge of town. I remembered driving those roads, the summer before, with her perched in the open window, hanging out into thin air, yelling into the wind.

At least that’s the picture I have now. Maybe it’s just my imagination. Anorexia really messed up my memory.

They let me out of the hospital to attend the memorial service, which was held in the stately gray stone edifice where her father presided. All my high school friends were there, a tragic holiday reunion. Anorexia numbs your emotions, except as far as food is concerned. I recall a dull ache of sadness, not the sharp pangs of grief I should have felt at the loss of a close friend. Perhaps in some way my pathological calm was a blessing.

What I didn’t feel was shock. Intellectually I knew Rebecca was much too young to die, but she’d been streaking through life so fast that I wasn’t surprised she’d burned herself out.

I’d always thought of her as a person who really understood how to enjoy life. When I went back to read the last poem of hers that I’ve kept, I saw that I might have been wrong. The title is “Desperation”. It’s full of dark imagery, much of it linked to the church.

She never showed me that darkness. I’m not sure I could have helped her, anyway. I was just blind, innocent, and in love.

Rebecca has been gone almost forty five years now. Still, she shows up every now and again in my stories. I’ve written a couple of heroines with her hair and others with her Amazonian build. More fundamentally, although she and I never had any sort of physical relationship, I recognize now that my enchantment with her contained a powerful sexual element. In a sense, every time I write a Sapphic tale, I’m drawing on my feelings for Rebecca.

What sort of person would she have been, if she’d lived? Would she and I still be friends? (I’m still connected with a handful of my high school mates, across the years and the miles.) Most tantalizing of all, would we have ever consummated the sort of relationship I craved but didn’t understand?

Probably not. She was, after all, a minister’s daughter.

But you never know.


  1. Wow. Thank you, Lisabet.

    Big ed

    1. Hey, Ed!

      I didn't know you hung out at OGG. Thanks!

  2. Replies
    1. And all true.

      I'd love to post the photo from the yearbook. But that would be too much of a risk to my anonymity, and maybe a violation of her privacy as well.

  3. What a tragedy. What a powerful story.

    Over the years, I've know too many lives that ended in burnout.

    But what you say about a child not understanding the sexual nature of attraction rings true. When I think of the attachments I formed as a child, I remember having a "Sharon craze" or a "Jeanie craze, when I spent the better part of several months after grammar school with one or another girl. I recognized that as sexual, even then. That she was my 'girlfriend'. But, at the time of my "Roger craze", or my "Michael craze", I wouldn't have thought of it as sexual. Now, looking back, I can see that those close relationships weren't *that* different. I guess we sort things out.

    1. Looking back, I can label many feelings as sexual that I didn't recognize at the time. I was "in love" with someone for most of my childhood and teen years.

      At some level, though, I knew something about sex. In grade school, boys used to pay me to draw curvy girls in bikinis.

    2. Perhaps you should have been an artist who paints or draws. Although that kind of artist may make even less than artists who write. :>)

  4. This is so moving, Lisabet.It's not surprising that her life has inspired you.The unexpected death of someone that young always suggests an unfinished novel.

    1. Looking back, I'm embarrassed that I wasn't more grief-stricken. But those years of being anorexic were a bit like being wrapped up in cotton, emotionally muffled. Fear was the only emotion that had any bite.

  5. It seems to me that our our emotions and physical reactions are too complex and interwoven to draw sharp lines between sexual attraction and non-sexual fascination (or even obsession.) Whether or not we have (or repress) thoughts of "having sex" with someone, our pulse rates, heartbeats, feelings of euphoria or desolation, intense focus, are pretty similar in both cases. Yes, there are certain physical reactions of the male or female variety that seem to clearly indicate sexual arousal, but many physical reactions short of those can be the same whether or not we think of them as sexual.

    1. My sexual response has always been very much "in my head" in any case. So the physical reactions have never been my primary focus.

      I was thinking yesterday how lucky I am, too, to have grown up with very little sense of sexual shame. Even if I had recognized my attraction to Rebecca as sexual, I don't think that would have bothered me much. I just didn't have the categories or labels at that point.

    2. To Sacchi's point, it's been interesting to me to consider romantic attraction and sexual attraction, both together and on their own. I've definitely had romantic attractions that weren't sexual, and vice versa. Yet societally, we tend to put them together.

      Lisabet, I think it's awesome that you had very little sense of sexual shame growing up.

  6. Hi Lisabet!

    I think that women, in general more than men, have a bisexual streak in them. I think you've said that you do, which is probably why you write well about it. Myself, I haven't even attempted to write gay fiction, I couldn't pull it off.

    Nevertheless our high school crushes and affairs have a very special sheen to them in our memories, don't they?


    1. You're right. Life in high school was so intense. Every emotion magnified. Then came the anorexia, that shut down that intensity for years. It's very weird, looking back.

    2. Garce, I read an interesting book recently called Sexual Fluidity that included some interesting data on a study comparing men with same-sex attractions to women with same-sex attractions. For men, plotting their attractions on a graph looked like a U--while there were men in the middle, most men with same-sex attractions were either heteroflexible or gay. Women, on the other hand, occupied the middle spectrum a lot more. So there is some research to back up your observation. Though I personally balk at calling it a streak.

    3. There's some recent research looking at physical signs of sexual arousal in men and women when they were shown photos of attractive naked people and also (I think) of people having sex. It turned out that men were either very aroused by women and images of men and women together (presumably the straight men) or very aroused by men, singly or together (the gay men). Women, on average, were aroused by all the photos!

  7. Lisabet, thank you for writing this. It's such a vivid portrait of Rebecca. My chest actually constricted when I got to the end. I'm so sad to learn what happened to her, and that's a testament to how well you paid tribute to her life.

    Numbness has often accompanied tragedy for me. I totally understand feeling bad for not being more grief-stricken, but I think that in addition to the effects of anorexia, the feeling of being emotionally muffled is relatively common in terrible circumstances.

    Hugs to you, and I'm glad you've honored her memory here.

    1. Hello, Annabeth,

      She came back so vividly during the writing process. Rebecca had an elegance about her that I could never hope to match. Just watching her was a joy.

      But I'm sure you know what I mean.


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