But she never came out of the building when he rode by.
It is a mistake to believe that people only make decisions about their lives once they are, or have, grown up. Children take actions and adopt attitudes with the same decisiveness as adults. They don't stay with their decisions forever, but then adults cast aside decisions about their lives too.
A year later the boy decided to be somebody in his new school and circumstances. He was strong enough to have no trouble earning respect, and since he was also clever and inventive, he soon became part of a hierarchy, which in his as in every school class was defined by an amorphous mix of strength, impudence, wit, and parental affluence. These things counted with the girls, too --- not in his own school, which had no girls, but in the girls' high school a couple of blocks away.
The boy did not fall in love. He picked out a girl who was popular and provocatively attractive, quick with a smart remark, and who allowed herself to be known as having had experience with boys, but also was hard to get. He impressed her with his strength, with the respect he was shown--and the fact that there was something more. She didn't know what this "more" was, but there was something she hadn't found in other boys, and this she wanted to see and to have. He noticed, and would occasionally drop a hint that he had treasures he didn't show to just anyone, but that he might show to her if . . . if she would go steady with him? Neck with him? Sleep with him? He didn't exactly know himself. His public pursuit of her, to which she yielded increasingly, was more interesting, brought him greater rewards and prestige, than what actually happened between them. Sauntering with friends past the girls' high school, where she and her group would sometimes be leaning against the iron gate after classes, and where he would casually put his arm around her, or waving to her if her team was playing handball and getting a kiss blown in return, or crossing the grass on the way to the swimming pool with her, admired and envied--that was the thing.
When they finally did sleep together it was a disaster. She was experienced enough to have certain expectations, but not enough to deal with his awkwardness. He lacked the assurance that comes with love and makes up for the clumsiness of the first time. Once the swimming pool had closed and the guard had made his rounds, and they were together behind the bushes near the fence, it suddenly seemed all wrong to him--the kisses, the tenderness, the desire. Nothing was right. It was a betrayal of everything he loved and had loved--he thought of his mother, of her friend in the fur coat, of the neighbor girl with the red curls and freckles, and of the girl with the lizard. When it was all over--the embarrassment of dealing with the condom, his orgasm which had happened far too fast, his inept and merely irritating attempts to satisfy her with his hand--he cuddled up to her, seeking consolation for his own failure. She stood up, dressed, and left. He lay there in a huddle, staring at the trunk of the bush he was lying under, at last year's leaves, at his underwear and the mesh of the fence. It turned dark. He went on lying there even though he was cold now; as if he could somehow shiver away his being with her, pursuing her, struggling conceitedly to win her these past few months, the way you sweat out an illness. Finally he got up and swam a few laps in the main pool.
When he came home around midnight, the door to the lighted study was open. His father was lying on the couch, snoring and reeking of alcohol. A bookcase had been overturned, and the drawers of the desk were open and empty; the floor was strewn with books and papers. The boy made sure the painting hadn't been damaged, turned out the light, and closed the door.
Excerpted from Flights of Love by Bernhard Schlink Copyright 2001 by Bernhard Schlink. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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