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May 20, 2024

Symptoms of Love

By Jerry Seeger

It was lunchtime, more years ago than I care to admit. I was in the high school cafeteria with Alice, enjoying her company. Probably there were others at the table as well; I don't remember. Memory is funny that way.

English was my next class. There was an assignment due; of course I hadn't started it yet. The assignment: Write an essay about an emotion. I sat, prodding the food of the day around on my tray, pondering which emotion I might find something to say about.

"Write about love," Alice said. "Teachers eat that stuff up."

I looked across the table at her. She was watching me perhaps a little too carefully, this young woman who was my girlfriend in some sense of the word. What 'girlfriend' meant in our case was a mystery all the more frustrating because deep down I knew she was waiting for me to solve it. Write about love? Of all the emotions, I understood love least of all -- but I was familiar with the symptoms.

Plus, Alice was right. Teachers eat that stuff up.

Thirty minutes until class. On any other subject, I could have simply opened up my notebook and scribbled out the essay, but not love, not with Alice there chatting with our friends and looking my way every once in a while, knowing. I excused myself and went to the library, to ponder the mysteries of the heart.

I thought it came out pretty well, all things considered, a fictitious memoir of a chance perhaps lost, perhaps gained, just a moment in a string of moments. Doubt, fear, longing, hope, they were all there. All the symptoms.

I wonder what I'd think of it now, were I to read it again. So much time has passed, so much passion, so many symptoms, but do I know any more now than I did then?

The teacher, true to form, ate it up. So much so, in fact, that she asked my permission to publish it in the local paper, as part of a collection of the best work by students that semester. The paper came out and there it was in black and white; I found I could not be in the room when my family read it.

At the bus stop the next day, a neighbor asked coyly, "So, who is she?" It was a small town; everyone read the paper, and whoever the mystery girl in the story was, everyone would know her. It was a long day for a guy who didn't really mind not being noticed.

I don't remember Alice's reaction at all. She must have liked it -- I'm sure I'd remember if she didn't -- but perhaps she looked beneath the surface and saw it for what it was: a story about the symptoms, but not about love. If she read my words hoping to find in them a message to her, secret code composed over the remains of a cafeteria lunch, I imagine she got her answer, even if I didn't understand the question.

Article © Jerry Seeger. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-04-07
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