He was not attractive. We did not care.
“He looks like a turtle,” said my friend Sara. “And I love him.”
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”310″ ]
The roundness of his head, the delicate beaky point of his upper lip — it was true. He also had rimless glasses, and a rust-brown mole the size of a jellybean nestled in his left sideburn. Adam Camden had arrived at the start of my senior year to teach upper school English at Castilleja, and Sara and Julia and I scoped him out from our many campus vantage points (as peer advisors, as newspaper editors, as club presidents) before taking 20th Century British Literature second semester. At the beginning of each class we would watch him unpeel: scarf, coat, jacket, maybe sweater. We ourselves wore scarves and jackets stupidly, ornamentally, indoors and out through the California autumn. He was from New York, a product of prep school and Columbia before the Stanford Ph.D. program: he knew how things were supposed to work. We were sold.
“I’m not saying that I like him in spite of the way he looks,” Sara would later clarify. “Like, ‘Oh, he has a good personality, that makes him attractive.’ I mean I like that he looks like a turtle.”
There were always rumors (there are probably such rumors at any all-girls school) that they wouldn’t hire attractive male teachers. If this was true, I’m sorry, hiring committee, because we spent a year making a mockery of your intentions.
Castilleja wasn’t a Catholic girls’ school. The idea wasn’t to have lots of rules to prevent us from doing bad things. The idea was that we were all too smart and happy and cozy to do bad things, or anything, really, aside from learning. In this sense, it was a perfect extension of my family: I never had a curfew, because I never went out. Good behavior was assumed. I suppose this is why my parents felt few qualms putting me behind the wheel. I would not drink and drive, obviously. I would not have sex in the car because I did not have sex, nor did I know anyone with whom I might conceivably do so.
My dad bought the Civic the summer before my senior year. “It’s a fun little car,” he said. “It’s like driving a roller skate.” And it was! The Civic was low and zippy. The outside was shimmering green; the inside had tan plastic moldings and foamy beige upholstery. I filled it with empty brownie trays from club meetings, damply crumpled homework papers, spare uniform sweatshirts. My detritus sprawled, but the Civic itself didn’t have a single thing more than was necessary. The locks were manual; there was no tape or CD player. It met my needs exactly.
I drove fast; I drove distractedly; I drove hazardously. I remember thumbing through a French-English dictionary at red lights. My fender-benders and moving violations were the only encounters I had with the police during my teenage life, and while they terrified me, I was always confident that the officer would understand. Who could ticket a girl so eager to get to high school on time? Adam Camden and the open road became the twin liberating thrills of my senior year. Flying through the yellow hills of Los Altos at 85 miles per hour, in the privacy of my little Civic, I practiced saying his name: Adam Camden, Adam Camden, Adam Camden.
Adam Camden talked about Barnett Newman’s zips, Frank O’Hara’s poems, the time Allen Ginsberg performed “The Tyger” at his middle school, the time his brother marched onto the Brown football field with a giant dildo, and the way he met his wife (she stalked him; we found this promising). He managed the class poorly: we spent weeks on Dubliners (“baffled desire” — this phrase from “Araby” rang in my head) and maybe two days on Orlando. But we were always goading him to tell us more stories, and besides, enthusiasm counted for a lot. If our lives had been movies, this would have been the part where we all began to feel inspired, flushed with the freedom to be our true selves, filled with excitement about 20th Century British Literature — a swelling of love for life, for learning. We did not. We primarily felt love for Mr. Camden.
We studied him. This was the remarkable thing: we were allowed to stare at him! We were supposed to stare at him. In my limited experience, the default response to boys I liked was to ignore them, to make sure they didn’t suspect anything. But in class, we could be blatant. We could make eye contact at exactly the right moments, speak with sharp insight about Muriel Spark, catch the jokes that everyone else had missed, wear our uniform skirts at exactly the right length…
Outside of class we sidled and scurried, coming up with excuses for a thousand tiny encounters that then crystallized into hoardable somethings. E-mails were especially prized: Mr. Camden reciprocated the just-shy-of-flirtatious banter, he punctuated with a profusion of dashes, and he signed each message “AC.”
We would go to Siam Royal on University Avenue and talk about him endlessly. Sometimes Julia and I worried that Sara was his favorite. Sometimes we all worried that maybe he liked Rachel, a junior, the best. Sometimes, at night, we would drive by his house — in my Civic, or Julia’s Civic, or Sara’s Volvo station wagon. We groaned at ourselves, we laughed with hysterical mortification, but we did it anyway. In his front yard there was a flag with a pineapple on it, and somewhere behind the pineapple flag there was Adam Camden.
In March Julia and I came up with a great plan: we would get Camden to chaperone the 24-Hour Plays, an annual event that involved writing, rehearsing, and performing one-act plays within a single day. We were the producers, which mostly meant that we had to buy a lot of food and sit around chatting with Camden all night. Or so we hoped. Our charming e-mail went through several drafts, but finally we sent it, and, gloriously, AC agreed. He would come Friday night, around eight.
He showed up with a bag of bubblegum to contribute to our ration supply. Sara told a story about the Tony awards, and we all laughed very hard. Julia and I sprinted through Castilleja’s corridors until my shoes fell off and I tripped. The playwrights (Rachel included) were stashed in various classrooms, typing away. Camden stayed as long as we did — three a.m., maybe four. When the writing was finished, we returned home for an interlude of sleep. The performances would be the next night at seven; he should come then, we said, and see the show.
The next morning, when we returned to campus, we were happily groggy. If only he could have chaperoned on Saturday, too. But his wife probably wouldn’t let him do that, we surmised wisely. She probably wouldn’t want to be stuck at home with the baby all weekend. We pressed through the day’s tasks (prodding directors and photocopying programs) fired with the anticipation of seeing Camden that night. We put on small floaty dresses and heels.
And when Julia and I went to the podium to thank the audience and introduce the first play, we scanned the back rows of the theater. We were a good double act — charming, as always — but when we returned to the light booth we worried. Where was he? Maybe he would come late? We craned our necks and squinted against our own reflections in the booth’s glass. Maybe we should call him?
There were three plays, and I think we held out hope through the last one. We were silly; we knew we were silly. It was perfectly understandable that he hadn’t made it. Still, when we left that night, we were listless.
On the drive home, as I turned left off Churchill, my phone beeped. I had a new voicemail, the result of a call I had ignored while backing out. He had called! Maybe — to apologize for missing the show, to ask how it went. I reached past the passenger seat to the floor, and searched (fingers only) for my phone. No luck. I looked down.
It felt at first as if something was clawing at my right hubcaps, grabbing the car and pulling it from my control. This, of course, was the curb. The curb caught my right tires and dragged the car away from Alma Street, up the embankment that separated the road from the train tracks, and over the gravel and patchy shrubs before letting it stutter back down toward the road. The Civic settled finally on its left side, its wheels helpless in the air and its driver in a cloud of airbags.
Everything smelled powdery and explosive. Blue light hung on the particles in the air, but I didn’t understand where it was coming from. I screamed. It wasn’t a panicked, helpless scream, it was like a scream instead of breathing: a harder way of getting air out. I inhaled and screamed again. Get out, I thought. I have to get out of here. Wasn’t this the part when fires started, and people died? The passenger-side door was now above me; gravity prevented me from opening it. My window was flush with the asphalt. The windshield: do I have to break it? How do I break it? How do I know if I have to?
Then there was someone someplace nearby speaking at me loudly and firmly.
“Hi. Hi.” This was me.
“ARE YOU ALRIGHT?”
“I have to get out. How do I get out?”
Hands reached through the shattered back window, which was now a vertical passage. I unbuckled my seatbelt and reached for them.
As I stepped out into the night, the street sparkled with glass. I realized acutely that I was barefoot — I had taken off my heels to drive — and I walked carefully as I stepped away from my car. The police were already there, blocking off the street, floodlights trained on the wreck. There were no other cars involved. It was just me. I was fragile and miraculously unharmed (“miraculously unharmed”: I tried the words out in my mind). The people along Alma stood on their front lawns. One of them held a broom.
I wasn’t frightened, quite. I felt like I was onstage. I wasn’t sure whether my life was ending or beginning.
Editor’s Note: Rachel’s last name has been removed for privacy reasons.