Reception. Observation. Perception. Emotion.

The Nine

How come I end up where I started?
How come I end up where I went wrong?
Won’t take my eyes off the ball again
You reel me out then
You cut the string

—Radiohead, “15 Steps”

This will probably backfire. But if so, it will have been worth it. I have maintained for a while that what I value most in life is truth. I love to expose truth, love to write about truth, love to celebrate truth. You might say I have a debilitating crush on truth, and that would seem to provide a proper segue. I am going to elaborate on nine women from my history for whom I possess a special admiration. Some I have dated, some I haven’t. But from each of them I learned something valuable, perhaps even some universal truths to which most of us can relate.

Girl One

I plan to protect the identity of these ladies (and hopefully spare them any embarrassment) by not mentioning their names, but for the first girl I will make an exception for reasons soon explained. Let us begin our safari through time at the dawn of my high school years. Let us begin, ladies and gentlemen, with Jessica Haslam.

To say that Girl One set the stage for my future endeavors would be understating the matter. The two of us never dated, but we became pretty good friends by the end of my tenure at Dickson County High School. Girl One is one of those rare individuals who has become something of a platonic ideal. No doubt anyone else from that epoch would offer similar impressions. She was quite strikingly gorgeous, but was also self-assured enough to avoid the pitfalls that afflict those for whom good looks might be the sole redeeming characteristic. Girl One was talented, friendly, and, most impressively to me, unafraid to adhere to principles that placed her in a minority—specifically a set of Christian morals that precluded her from becoming involved in the types of wanton behavior many associate with high schoolers. Mind you, society at large was in the thick of the grunge era—Christianity wasn’t cool yet, remember? I like to think we were on the same general page in this regard, although my trademark acerbic bluntness highlighted the still existing disparity between our personalities.

Girl One produced the rather unforeseen effect of setting the bar quite high for my future evaluations of women, at least for a while. Of course I realize that no one is perfect, believe you me, but some folks just happen to have their ducks in a row and do a fairly good job of keeping them lined up. These days I can honestly say I don’t measure other girls up against Girl One, because I strongly believe the inherent variety in our human race is something to be cherished. Ultimately Girl One has become one part of the eclectic cast of characters in my faded memory—a point of reference at which to reminisce with old friends. And this is why I openly use her name: she is now a mythical character in the story of my past.

What I Learned

The last time I heard from Girl One, I had randomly called her up one day maybe seven or eight years ago. She had just gotten engaged either that day or the day before, and I was essentially the first person outside her family to find out. I have since tried to apply some sort of irony to this fact, but there probably is none. The last rumor I heard about her was that she and her husband became missionaries to the Ukraine, but I never heard it from the source. I have already hinted at the greatest lesson I learned from Girl One—that you truly cannot judge a book by its cover. Everyone has a story. Everyone has something splendid to offer. The joy is in the discovery. The challenge is being unafraid to begin the journey.

Girl Two

During my junior year of high school I was nominated by one of my teachers, the identity of whom is still a mystery, to attend a “leadership conference” of some sort in Washington, D. C. The trip lasted about a week and a half if I remember correctly, and this is when I met Girl Two. The proceedings started innocently enough. The other students and myself were divided into groups, and we met together to hammer out some sort of faux government policies that would be certain to amuse and delight the rest of our peers later that week. After the first day or so had passed, I noticed her. She had been newly elected as one of the two or three representatives of our group who would speak on “game day.” All of what followed seems now a blur, but I know I acted somewhat atypically, just waltzed right up to her and asked if she wanted to get some ice cream.

We found out that we had very different political perspectives, but I think we were both intrigued by the other’s point of view. Girl Two had drive and intelligence and an arresting smile. We toured the Smithsonian together, perused the Washington Monument, and were “tour bus buddies” for the rest of our time there, which culminated in what I am sure was a spellbinding performance by our team during the official presentations. Our final moments together came during an evening formal, where I attempted partially successfully to avoid stepping on her or anyone else’s feet while dodging those who took a more “martial arts” approach to the dance floor. That last bus ride back to campus was one for the memory banks, and like the fading moon, that was that.

What I Learned

Girl Two and I wrote each other a few times through the mail afterwards, but we both knew those events were destined to exist in their own capsule, a brief blink of time that would soon take on a life of its own in our memories. I learned from her the valuable lesson that taking a risk can produce wondrous results. Those risks don’t necessarily become easier, I guess due to pride or anxiety or apathy, but a small ember will always burn in my heart, reminding me when all seems futile to seize the day.

Girl Three

I started to develop a keen interest in Girl Three during my senior year in high school. What I remember are those light blue eyes and dark hair, and those freckles… We hung out together a lot that year. I remember being asked numerous times whether we were dating, but the fact is we never got to that level.

At that time I was at the very height of my anti-establishment phase. For various reasons I went out of my way on a myriad of occasions to “buck the system.” A mere two years earlier I ran for student body council and won. I came in second place for class vice president, losing to the most popular girl at the school—another friendly beauty who could have made this list if I felt like typing forever. And lest you think I am embellishing (which I have previously railed against at length), our school size was about 1400 students, our class size somewhere around 600. I bring this up only to show how far I veered in the opposite direction by my senior year. I had a geyser of angst pent up inside me, and I was unleashing it all at once, most forcefully in an essay I wrote protesting what I deemed the “widespread fakeness and hypocrisy at Dickson County High School.” My eventual plan was to post multiple copies of this essay all over the school’s walls, Martin Luther style, during the week of graduation.

What I Learned

You should be able to tell from the amount of time since I mentioned Girl Three what the problem was. My head was in a weird place, and I never bothered to attempt any sort of official status with her. I rejected the prom, the pep rallies, homecoming—you name it, I wasn’t there. But in fairness the fault, though mostly mine, was not entirely so. Girl Three had a best friend who seemed to cause her to alter her behavior when they were together, and this would give me great difficulty in communicating with her. I am not implying that the two of them were overtly immature, but I did learn that generally if I am alone with a girl and her best friend, I am at a disadvantage. I also learned that fighting for a cause, no matter how worthy, can consume your passion and compel you to miss out on something potentially great.

Girl Four

I had already been at college for more than a year when I first crossed paths with Girl Four. She was a prospective freshman, and on this particular evening she was sitting in on a weekly Baptist Student Union meeting. I noticed her in a heartbeat—the kind of woman our esteemed Western poets wrote about so prolifically. The events that follow comprise a minor miracle.

After the meeting, Girl Four was headed back to campus and needed a guide. Strangely none of the other students who were there that night lived on campus except yours truly. Granted the BSU was not a large group, but this was still a major coincidence. I did what I had to do and volunteered for the job. On our way back, as if possessed by the spirit of Making the Right Call, I invited her on a detour to the student cafe for coffee. She accepted with effervescent charm, and an evening of wonderful conversation ensued. Now would be an appropriate time for me to inform you that Girl Four was an experienced beauty pageant contestant, and all of the requisite hallmarks were accounted for. Flowing blond hair, eyes that could melt metal, skin that directly benefited from the hallowed secrets of her industry. At the cafe all eyes were on her, the glances washing over her like nothing but a brisk breeze while I sat there in abject wonderment. Eventually we headed back to campus and parted ways, but not before exchanging our contact information.

Fast forward several months. We had emailed each other sporadically, and she was now a student at another high-profile university—one that happened to be situated right next to my hometown. I emailed her about the possibility of getting together one weekend when I came home for a visit, and she agreed. This is what became the Demos’ Date, so named after my favorite restaurant in Nashville. I don’t mind telling you that she pulled out all the stops that evening, looking unfathomably radiant in some sort of bluish silver short skirt with skillfully matched accouterments. That night seemed to lend credence to the idea that a couple will be seated in a restaurant based on the visual appeal of the female. As we thus dined prominently, once again the careful and not so careful glances were lobbed over at our table with the precision of trained archers. I could almost hear the thoughts: “What the heck is this dude doing with that chick?” Our conversation that night contained some treasured nuggets that I simply must keep for myself, for all time. Suffice to say I enjoyed my first of what would become many visits to Demos’ Italian Steakhouse. We drove back to campus and hung out for a long while in her room, where I must point out that no shenanigans ensued—if nothing else, I do try to date girls with class, and Girl Four is transcendent beauty and class.

What I Learned

Girl Four and I went out a couple more times after that, even enduring a memorable series of events that included my getting a flat tire, changing that tire, then promptly getting another flat with the spare. She handled it all with good humor. I’d like to say things between us didn’t eventually blossom into something greater simply because of the distance between us—my college was still about eight hours away. But the unavoidable reality is that at the time I still lacked the total confidence necessary to establish and maintain a relationship with a blatant show stopper such as Girl Four. However, my time with her certainly left a lasting mark that continues to improve my self-confidence with each passing year. The philosophy I learned from Girl Two—carpe diem—paid off during my initial encounter with Girl Four. What I learned from her is the equally valuable corollary that I must still apply a reality check to every situation. Know my limits, know where things will lead, but don’t hesitate to enjoy a beautiful thing while it lasts.

Girl Five

I would classify my experience with Girl Five as one of the three or four foundational turning points of my life. Even now I see the faint glow of the times we shared, her irresistible laugh, her waves of hypnotically dark hair, that unmistakable grace with which she carried herself at all times. I was blindly certain that Girl Five was The One. We got along so famously and brightened each other’s countenance so effortlessly that all seemed right with the world when I was with her. And I will not deny that the ashes of once profound emotion still smolder when all seems as but a dream.

I met Girl Five within a few weeks of arriving at Bob Jones University, after enduring a five-year interim of holding an office job that I knew was not my destiny, the fleeting remembrances of Girl Four growing weaker by the month, overtaken by the stark realization that I needed to change my direction and soon. Though I knew what I should do, it nevertheless took an unexpected chain of events to force my return to school in order to complete my degree requirements. Only this time I would be attending a place wholly different from the secular school I had withdrawn from half a decade earlier, a place where my sister had enrolled the previous semester and a place not even remotely on my radar as recently as a month before I got there. It was under these wildly disjointed circumstances that I met Girl Five through my sister’s friends. Our group of friends hung out for hours every day, so it wasn’t long before I asked her out. The dates we had were nothing but pure enjoyment. I was bewildered by how right it all felt, and I began to believe I could legitimately love someone for perhaps the first time in my life.

Then the walls came crashing down, and my life became a hellish morass from which I could never find a moment’s respite. You must realize that I came to Bob Jones of my own free will and that the vast majority of my fellow students were “encouraged” to some extent or another by their families to attend. I on the other hand felt a powerful need for discipline in my life and was convinced seemingly all of the sudden that this place would meet that need, and I also instituted my own measures in an attempt to take control of my spiritual life. I felt closer to God than I had in many years, I read my Bible daily and fervently, and I believed that the developments with Girl Five were something of an assurance that my life was finally on the right track. This last conviction was abruptly blown apart in spectacular fashion. There was a very brief period, maybe a couple of days, dotted with warning signs of what was about to happen. A new coldness that was utterly alien to me was apparent in Girl Five. Surely my own denial was ignoring what became as plain as the noon sun after those few days: Girl Five began dating another guy from our close-knit group of friends. If I could express the crushing blow of betrayal I felt, rightly or wrongly, from both of them that day, I would have already won a Pulitzer Prize by now. If I could convey the breathlessness, the tears, the wrenching anguish of heart, I wouldn’t even wish to do so. The devastation was intense. The aftermath was regrettable but in hindsight wholly doomed to occur. I sent a scathing email her way, and she shed tears. It was a pathetic attempt on my part to assert some inkling of control over a chaotic scenario. When the dust settled after what seemed like years of slowly decaying pain, we both stepped forward and made amends as best we could. Quite obviously things could never be the same, but I give both her and myself credit for trying to apply our Christian morals to the situation as best we could in an attempt to right some of our wrongs.

What I Learned

I look back on my time with Girl Five as a marvelously surreal era that gave me some of my highest highs and lowest lows. A torrent of feeling sweeps over my soul when I spend more than a few seconds dwelling on it and quite lucidly reminds me of the overriding lesson I learned from her: never trust my feelings or anyone else’s feelings until marriage vows have been spoken, and even then perform regular evaluations. It’s a hard truth to come to terms with, but I believe it was necessary for me to realize. I wholeheartedly wish Girl Five the best in her future. I choose to remember her as that beautiful, bright woman who stole my heart and gave me a zeal for life I hope to recapture someday. If I shed a tear in your honor tonight, I can only hope that you find what we are all searching for.

Girl Six

I am including Girl Six in the mix because she became the first substantial step towards my recovery. We never dated, and indeed she was already engaged when I met her, but we became fast friends while attending the same church and hung out together at various church-related functions. I’m pretty sure I first spoke to her while we were doing some grunt work at a local park, clearing a hiking path of plants and debris. I’m sure I offered some phenomenally witty remark about our plight and that she was duly consoled. Whatever the case, we later got the attention of my friends, who wondered whether this blond bombshell would routinely come into Sunday School and plop down right beside me for reasons other than my own natural charm. By the way, if you cannot tell that I have been quite facetious in describing myself, let me assuage your fears and remind you that I was still a crumpled heap in need of human kindness at this time. Girl Six proved to be a warm-hearted, bubbly spirit that was just the elixir my heart needed, and for that I am eternally grateful.

What I Learned

Girl Six reminded me of one the core truths of life, but one that I tend to forget if I am not careful: absolutely hold on to hope for a better tomorrow, no matter how bleak the present condition. Now I acknowledge that might sound lame if you just hear me spout it, so if you need to read a library full of biographies about other people who have persevered through harsh and hateful events, then I implore you to do just that. By no means must you paint a smile on your face. On the contrary, cry, wail, let those around you feel just an iota of your suffering. Human compassion runs deep, and you will find a friend to lift you from the mire. Moreover you just might find a film or an album or a Bible that speaks to your situation and calms your troubled heart. And after all of that, time will lend you the invaluable gift of perspective, and your hopes will be manifest.

Girl Seven

In some alternate dimension I am firmly persuaded that Girl Seven and I end up together and live happily ever after. But I am still stuck in our present reality, where I must explain to you how she ended up impacting my life in a different way. Realizing the trouble with becoming too close to an engaged woman, I naturally drifted away from Girl Six, and I suspect she had similar concerns. At that same church I met Girl Seven, who I guarantee will never be able to enter a room without commanding immediate attention and playing tricks with men’s desires. Those regal eyes, the hair that refuses to be completely tamed, the sense of style, that figure… When I first got to know Girl Seven, the other guy was already in the picture. As she and I gradually became friends and hung out together that summer, I could already see the fork in the road miles ahead. I was going to have to make a decision, whether I wanted to or not. When the other guy came back from summer vacation, I would be forced either to commit myself fully to the pursuit of her favor or to back off and allow for that tandem to solidify. Any casual observer with half a brain could see that the latter pairing made more sense, but should attraction always be held to rational standards?

What I Learned

In this case common sense won the day. Girl Seven and I ended up having a class together months later, and the chemistry we had was just as apparent as ever. But by this time I had gained some insight about the other guy. My sister was in the same speech class with him and discovered that he had endured a family tragedy very similar to our own—a father’s premature death. When I can relate to someone on this unspoken level, which goes well beyond the capricious nature of attraction, I have no will to jeopardize that. Girl Seven and the other guy are now married, and I wish them the best unreservedly. But this woman did leave me with another important life lesson: mutual admiration does not have to progress any further than just that. No doubt this lesson carries extra weight after one is married. Life sometimes dictates the most sensible course of action, and our attempts to alter that course must be considered with due caution.

Girl Eight

File this one under completely irrational fascination—you know, the kind where the odds of success are around 1% but you persist anyway because America loves an underdog. But therein lies the fun and whimsy that make life, well, realistic. Girl Eight and I are polar opposites who have a limited group of common friends. We went on a date one time to a symphony orchestra performance, and I for one enjoyed myself. Since then we have run into each other a few times, but there is more to this story, and frankly I am entertained merely by writing about it. You see, because we are so different, I find nearly everything she does unpredictable and therefore completely intriguing. Granted, our peculiar idiosyncrasies have produced a few awkward exchanges through the years (and it has been years now, I do believe), but deep down I think she knows I mean well. What can I say? Raven-haired beauties whose DNA contains noticeable ethnic variety will always hold a special place in my heart—I can think of two such examples right away from my high school years, and another few from the first college I attended. Girl Eight will simply have to accept that I have a crush on her.

What I Learned

Since I first met Girl Eight I have bestowed her with various thoughtful gifts from time to time—this tactic is proven to succeed in movies, but the jury is still out on its effects in real life. Girl Eight has solid moral character but is prone to bluntness, some might say rudeness. Meanwhile my closest associates will tell you that I possess this same trait. So perhaps we are not really different in all respects—indeed this commonality may be the only reason we can communicate on any level at all. Plus I have verifiable proof that we both enjoy football. I have learned from Girl Eight that attraction is very often irrational and furthermore that I should keep things simple and stay true to myself. And anyone who points my compass back towards truth is okay by me.

Girl Nine

It is fitting that I should end this trek with an examination of Girl Nine, who has been a friend of mine for a considerably longer time than any of the others. It has taken me a while to see Girl Nine for the indisputably beautiful woman she is, yet there are reasons (excuses?) for the delay. But I never doubted for a minute that her personality was a perfect complement to my own. When we are together, something greater than both of us emerges, and I find myself wishing I could capture just a glimmer of it and keep it someplace safe forever.

Probably the biggest problem with Girl Nine is that everyone from our church back home has long ago already set our wedding date on their calendars, as if it were a foregone conclusion. Nothing assaults my pride quite like others predicting my future, so we were doomed from that perspective. And when we first got to know each other, our age difference of six years made any prospects unimaginable. Then we were separated at various times through the years because of our globe-trotting ways. But eventually we both ended up at Bob Jones, my arrival having been laid out for you at some earlier point in this essay. Girl Nine and my sister, who were already the same age and pretty good pals, became best friends during their time at the university, and my own friendship with her was strengthened as well. We went out once or twice, but I thought of her almost as a second sister—a valued member of my family whom I would never want to lose. This became my primary reason for not trying to take things to any sort of substantial level. As you should be able to tell by now, relationships don’t exactly pan out for me. It’s as if my life is a book of short stories with sharp disconnects between one section and the next. But I have recently found within myself the spark of desire to write that much anticipated novel, as it were.

Girl Nine and I took a road trip almost a year ago to my sister’s wedding. I believe we both understood after that drive that our feelings for each other were no longer strictly familial. For whatever reason I finally allowed myself to see the plain truth that the “folks back home” had long ago identified: we make a great team. After the weekend’s prescribed events, we made the drive back to Greenville, and our time together then was just as memorable as before. But not long after that, and as a perverse reminder of my lot in life, events transpired that resulted in Girl Nine leaving the state rather suddenly and relocating about 1000 miles away.

What I Learned

Simply put, I have learned that timing is everything. A few people had said that to me before, and I always felt there was a hint of truth in it, but now I know it to be so. Things just seem to happen in their appointed time. We can do crazy things like write profusely long-winded essays about our trials and tribulations, but they will only change so much. Certainly I benefit mentally and emotionally from writing—it’s a critical aspect of my life that I can depend on and have depended on many times before. I can’t depend on timing. I have to put a measure of faith in it. I will continue to use the previous eight lessons to accomplish as much as I can by myself, but to put this final lesson into practice, I simply have to let go.

The women I have just described for you have indelibly shaped my perspective of life and my attitude towards my fellow man. Fortunately I can say that I am a healthier and happier individual today for having known them, and I don’t think I could have written my four Givens without them. Even though I am still single at the grizzled age of 29, my experiences with these ladies have largely made me who I am, and frankly I kinda like myself nowadays. To these nine incredible human beings I offer my perpetual love and respect, no matter what happens. And I leave you with two words plainly spoken: “Thank you.”

—Brad Garrett, 12/8/2007

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