Case in point: my first crush. When I was in fifth grade, I discovered that my life would be a drab, dreary affair if I could not win the affection of a beautiful red-headed girl named Sarah Cusk. Sarah was the best friend of my younger sister, Jennifer, and had the added distinction of being the smartest kid in school. That was a bit tough for me to take, since I was a) the smartest kid in my class; b) she was a year behind me; c) she was a girl, which also meant she was supposed to be yucky to my male classmates at St. Michael’s grammar school in North Hollywood; and d) she was a bit bigger than I was, even at that age, so I couldn't bully her the way I did my siblings.
She also had a bit of a “Veruca Salt” attitude that begged to be dropped down a peg. Most of my courtship of the lass consisted of me trying to prove how smart I was, and she shooting me down with some withering remark about what a stupid boy I was. So we became archenemies, my Newman to her Seinfeld, and whenever we were in the same room, we’d fight, with victory invariably going to the lady. She always had the knack of pulling the football away at the last second.
We had lots of opportunities to argue, too, since, as I heretofore mentioned, she was my sister’s best friend. In fact, her little sister, Rachel, was a friend of my other sister, Catherine (all of us attending the same tiny school). The Cusks were English, and together with another British family at my school, the Yarletts (their eldest daughter, Claire Yarlett, was Jenny’s other best friend), our families socialized together quite a bit.
At least a couple times each summer, and always during the pumpkin harvest before Halloween, our families would take trips together up to Santa Barbara, either in my mom’s station wagon, or in the vehicle that was popularly known as the “Cusk Bus.” The Cusk Bus was an early-70’s VW van, a precursor to the SUV, which you can still see on the roads today, although it’s usually in the context of it being impounded by the police from its meth lab or serial killer owners. Back then, though, if you owned one, you were definitely styling.
I was always a shy boy, so these outings, fraught with the tension of unrequited pre-adolescent love, always had the potential of unleashing my inner psycho. Even worse, Jenny, Sarah and Claire were all huge fans of Olivia Newton-John and Helen Reddy, whom I couldn’t stand, so these car trips usually featured some family sing-a-longs of “If You Love Me” or “Please Mister Please.” As I said, pure torture.
Finally, I graduated from grammar school in 1975, and around the same time, both the Cusks and the Yarletts returned to England, seemingly out of my life forever. The same social skills that I had honed to perfection with Sarah were put to use on other unfortunate women, and thirty years passed.
The other day, my sister Jennifer was at my house, and we decided to set up her Facebook page. Since one of the best uses for the online social network is to get in contact with old classmates, I thought I would use the search engine at the site to look for old friends of hers, and I discovered a “Sarah Cusk” living in Bristol, England. It turns out she’s about a quarter century too young to be the girl we went to school with, so I tried Google.
And lo and behold, I found her. Like many of the other women I’ve fallen for, she’s gone and had a pretty successful life, which I’ve always figured was simply the Tao of Smythe: if you can suffer my advances, and survive the clusterfuckery of my existence, good fortune beckons. One ex-crush from Cal ended up being a wealthy chiropractor in Avila Beach, California, while my great unrequited love from high school is now a much talked-about reporter for the New York Times. I have exquisite taste.
But Lady Sarah topped them. She ended up bouncing from elite school to elite school like an academic version of Randy Moss,
Even more intriguing is the googlized story of her sister, Rachel Cusk. I seem to recall that little Rachel was dark-haired, unlike the others in her family, and was a sweet little girl who was inseparable from her sister, which included a shared Olivia Newton-John worship. Well, it turns out she’s gone and made herself into a major literary figure of the English language, a writer of Serious Fiction.
Incidentally, did you know there is an entire subculture of people who read Serious Fiction? Not merely “fiction,” in the sense of Grisham, Patterson, the Harry Potter stories, etc., or even in the sense of a Bush Administration press conference on the “surge,” but Serious Fiction. It’s a subculture that is disproportionately well-educated and wealthy, consisting of people who, for example, not only read the novel “Atonement” before the movie came out, but before “Atonement” had even been optioned.
Not only that, there’s a special supplement in most Sunday newspapers targeted at precisely this audience; in fact, there are even periodicals that are devoted to writers like Coetzee, Pynchon, DeLillo, and my ex-schoolmate. This subculture is almost as large as that of American fans of soccer, or tennis, and most of these people don't even have to read those books, having long since left college. They just read them because it's what they do. Who knew? And if reading John Updike or Martin Amis can get me laid more often, count me in.
In any event, Google only provides a superficial accounting of others, even public figures. With a little research, we can find out the notable accomplishments and failures of others, but not whether they are truly happy, or if they are a good friend to others. But it does mark out the location whenever our lives leave skid marks, insuring that neither time nor distance can totally erase each other from our existence. So wherever you are, Sarah, this is for you: