During my first year at Dickinson College, I spent most non-studying and non-soccer-playing time with a collection of socially naive males. We named ourselves Kappa Wu which was intended to mock the Greek system we all despised with every disdainful and intellectually superior ounce of our bodies. Yet, decades later, I can see it also expressed some envy.
The core of Kappa Wu consisted of about twelve members who had virtually no contact with the opposite sex outside of classrooms. For a variety of reasons, we were inexperienced and awkward, and found it easier to hang out together than to reach out socially.
This is not to say I had no female friends. I had one. The closest thing our soccer team had to a groupie was a sophomore named Liz. She staked out our preseason practices and commenced dating our best player before the season had even begun. When they broke up, Liz dated several other players, one-at-a-time. Somehow, she managed to remain on friendly terms with all of them. She never reached as far down the roster as me, of course, the shy freshman goalie, but she did once bring her roommate, Maura, to a game.
Maura recognized me from Music 101 and, during warm-ups, in front of my teammates asked if I would help her study. Self-conscious to the extreme, I feared being razzed by the guys with insensitive male insinuations. But Maura apparently appeared too weird to them to attract and hold their attention, so I was spared.
In its two hundred year history, Maura was probably Dickinson’s first student from New Mexico. She was a thin brunette of medium height, and if one could get an unobstructed look at her, she would probably have been considered attractive. However, in a milieu that favored conventional styles, Maura was an outlier. She usually wore beat-up overalls and a changing selection of oversized, bright-colored plastic glasses that dominated her face. She frequently wore a scuffed cowboy hat and boots, too, basically the western grunge version of Diane Keaton.
Maura’s sideline approach to me could have represented a landmark in my social history; a girl had publicly expressed interest in spending time with me. But I also felt a whiff of “otherness,” which left me with no expectation we would ever be more than friends. After just one or two encounters, it was clear I would be like the big brother in all matters of classical music, and Maura would be the big sister in every other way.
It turned out that Maura was nineteen going on thirty. She had traveled all over the west. She’d ridden motorcycles and horses and real bucking broncos (outside, not in a bar). Unlike Liz, she was not the least attracted by the soccer team; “college boys are so immature,” she declared. Even the local law students, some of whom approached twenty-five, were beneath her level of interest. “I like real men,” said Maura to me, her local, musically advanced little brother (if the music was written before 1900).
Music 101 was a survey course of Renaissance and Baroque music; having studied music history and theory in high school, as well as having had a lifetime of exposure to classical music, I found the course simple. To Maura, as to many who thought “Baroque” meant something had to be fixed, Music 101 was a quagmire. Discerning the difference between major and minor keys was difficult for her. Recognizing stylistic differences between a sixteenth century Italian and a seventeenth century German composer was nearly impossible.
“It’s Bach,” I would say. “Listen to the polyphony, the fugal elements.”
“What does fugal mean again?” Maura would ask.
And so it went. Still, in spite of such challenges, I enjoyed spending time with Maura. She was interesting and obviously different from all my other friends. Sometimes, we shared a meal at the cafeteria or took a walk together. Using a skill that placed me in the forefront of technology in 1975, I typed several of her papers. “Would you mind if I did some editing, while I’m at it?” I asked.
“Okay with me,” she responded.
I did not feel Maura took advantage of me. Her requests were infrequent, and I had plenty of time, particularly after the soccer season ended. In the spring, she sat beside me in Music 102 and we walked together to the local ice cream shop several times. I don’t recall ever discussing anything consequential, so I was surprised when Maura told me, at the end of the year, she would be transferring back to New Mexico. It had never occurred to me I was one of her only friends and she must have been lonely, so far from home and so far from the mainstream, stylistically.
How blind I was. How oblivious. Of course she was transferring home! In a whole year of discussions, I never learned why she had chosen to come across the country to attend college in Pennsylvania. I should have asked. I should have tried to understand her situation, or tried to help. I should have invited her home for Thanksgiving. I learned later she had stayed in the dorm, herself, over the holiday.

I thought I had seen the last of Maura when the school year ended. So I was pleasantly surprised to receive a letter inviting me to visit her in Albuquerque.
“That’s nice,” said my mother. “You never mentioned having a girlfriend.”
Doubtless blushing, I said: “She’s really just someone I know.”
Initially, I declared I wouldn’t go. But I had a terrible summer job and the idea of leaving it a week early was appealing. My mother encouraged me to visit my older brother in Los Angeles, and stop to see Maura for several days on the way back. The idea gelled. There is cachet, after all, in saying: “I’m visiting a girl in Albuquerque,” and I definitely needed some cachet.
During the weeks leading up to the visit, Maura and I exchanged several letters. They were chattier and more familiar than our spoken exchanges. She was apparently not the last to find me wittier and more expressive in writing than in person. “I just broke up with a rodeo rider,” she wrote. “He moved back in with his wife and kid.”
“I’ll do what I can to cheer you up,” I wrote back, jauntily.
“It’ll be nice to have a friendly shoulder to lean on,” she wrote.
“Anything you need,” I wrote back, feeling like a knight in shining armor.
The following week, she wrote: “You’ve become such a special friend to me. I can’t wait to see you and give you a squeeze.”
“I’ll do some extra push-ups,” I wrote back, like a dork. “Don’t want to disappoint.”
Having managed to complete high school and the first year of college without dating anyone, I did not envision myself as Maura’s “boyfriend.” I would not have known exactly what that entailed, if I tried. Yet, I was beginning to think of her as more than just an acquaintance. I chose a pretty scarf as a gift for her instead of the Liberty Bell replica, or something similar, that I might have chosen a few weeks earlier.
By the time I walked off the plane I had butterflies in my stomach. Though I couldn’t recall ever touching Maura, even on the fingertips, I’d had weeks to picture a first hug, the promised squeeze, and who knows what else? It was hot in Albuquerque in August, I deduced. Perhaps, I hoped, she will be wearing a tee-shirt and shorts like everyone else, not those hideous overalls. On the cusp of my twentieth birthday, I wondered if this visit would mark my evolution from awkward teen to young adult in some important way.
Maura indeed looked terrific approaching me in the small terminal, just as I’d imagined. Not only was she dressed in trim khakis and a pink blouse, she was even wearing contacts. I felt an unfamiliar surge of adrenaline and my heart pounded. My habitual inhibitions barely kept me from running the last fifty feet, like in a movie, to claim my hug. Good thing. Maura greeted me with a smile, but that was all. She motioned to a nearby man in a cowboy hat, Wrangler jeans, boots and a moustache.
“That’s Jack,” she said, fawning. “We got back together last night. My mom and brother are home; they can’t wait to meet you.”
Jack looked about forty to me, though he may have only been twenty-seven. I had the sense of meeting the Marlboro Man in the flesh. His crushing handshake nearly ended my goaltending career. We squeezed into the front of his pick-up truck, Jack, Maura essentially on his lap and me against the passenger door, more superfluous than an appendix.
At home, after introducing me to her mother and eleven-year-old brother, Billy, Maura looked ill-at-ease. “I feel awful about this,” she said, “but would you really mind if Jack and I go out. Billy would love to play some basketball with you.”
She did not look like she felt awful at all, just excited to be free. It seemed my entry to young adulthood was still on hold, while I experienced the familiar lifestyle of an eleven-year-old. Billy and I shot baskets in the driveway until my hands were calloused, then watched sports on television. In the evening, Maura’s mom made chili and took me on a drive around the University of New Mexico.
I think Maura returned home that night, but I’m not certain, since I didn’t see her at breakfast the next morning. Her mom took me and Billy up to the top of a mountain where the view was spectacular, and I recall a tram-ride down. That evening, she took us out for a steak dinner. I had the impression that she found me, a literature major from Philadelphia, who did not even own a pair of jeans, to be as exotic as Maura was at Dickinson.
The next day, Billy was busy with friends, so Maura’s mother drove me to Santa Fe. On the way, I saw canyons and buttes and washes, and spectacular cloud formations. It was like living inside a Remington painting. I recall enjoying the day immensely; there was certainly an element of relief to spend the day sightseeing with a kind, middle-aged tour guide instead of trying to comprehend my diminished standing with Maura.
That evening, while I was playing basketball with Billy, I overheard snatches of a phone conversation inside the adjacent kitchen:
“He is your guest…. Maura…. This isn’t right. Today was fine, but…. Listen to me…. Yes, you should. Okay, ‘bye.”
Maura’s mom opened the front door, and said to me:
“Maura and Jack will be by in a few minutes. They’re going to take you to the movies with them.”
“Can I go, too?” asked Billy. “Can I?”
She looked at me.
“I don’t mind,” I said. I felt loyal to Billy.
When the pick-up arrived we all squeezed into the front seat, and proceeded to the local theater to see “Murder by Death.” My companion, essentially, was Billy, while Maura and Jack canoodled in the dark. Afterwards, they dropped Billy and me off at home before heading out to a bar. It was a relief to be returned to the airport by Maura’s mother the next day. I thanked her for her hospitality and asked her to say “good-bye” to Maura for me.
On reflection, I don’t miss the awkwardness of that period of life at all. But I am nostalgic for one thing that was achievable then and is now extremely difficult: in the days before Facebook, it was possible to say good-bye, and never hear from a person again.