The 19th-century novelist Anthony Trollope almost certainly did not sleep with his friend Kate Field. She liked him. They corresponded frequently. They saw each other as often as they could, which, given that Trollope lived in Britain and Field in America, was not often. Trollope was enough of a public figure to generate some tabloid press over the non-affair. He was happily married, and faithful. For all that, I have no doubt there were times when Anthony and Kate sat across from each other and he wished she would jump out of her chair and into his arms. Kate was stunning, funny, an early feminist, and altogether formidable. He wrote of feeling his heart flutter in her presence. Everything remained platonic—the novelist had often written about hobbledehoys, and at the core of hobbledehoydom there is a commitment to reasonableness, a tempering of one’s acts if not one’s thoughts, all born out of terror in the presence of beautiful women. So he sat. Had he moved at all, Kate might have responded favorably. Who knows? He did not dare. He was a putz, a coward, a Charlie Brown, a hobbledehoy.
I discovered Trollope’s novels during the worst of my hobbledehoydom, while living in Bogotá and dropping out of various universities from 1993 to 1996. Not even Trollope, by the way, could find a way to place a hobbledehoy in the center of the action—in his novels they often play second-fiddle: quiet, incidental, well intentioned, but inept.
Finding a mirror in Trollope’s world pleased me to no end, but it did not happen right away, nor did it keep me from fucking up royally, over and over again, as I pinballed between schools, skipped classes, and fooled myself into thinking I was cooler than I was—that some measure of hipness was being achieved, and that something was accomplished by my drifting, by writing for an English-language weekly that paid poorly and late and whose checks often bounced, by teaching a few English classes for just enough money to keep me at a ratty boarding house in Chapinero Bajo, hoping to overcome my Charlie-Brownness via beer and books and obscure music and unbelievably cool acquaintances. The awkwardness remained. I could not approach women. I tried to imagine a past filled with innumerable conquests—when in a bar, I tried to set my face like that of a man who has seen it all, done it all. I drank and learned that, in Colombia, women in bars would pull you onto the dance floor and did not care if you danced, did not care if you wanted to dance, did not care for you particularly. By some kind of institutional democracy, everyone at a given table, at some point or another, would have to dance. Their job was to make sure this happened. They held you close. You told them you didn’t know how to dance, so they led and you followed. I never slept with any of them. At that point I had never slept with anyone—I’d fooled around some, and was already aware that at 20 I was woefully behind the curve, and ungainly, and timid, and, worse, I’d been away from Colombia for four years so I spoke with a half-gringo accent that sounded affected and irritated even me.
When it finally happened a year into my return, in 1994, it happened as I hope it happens to everyone, hobbledehoys or not, with a mix of wonder and alarm and surprise, an unutterable burst of bliss. But even then there was a feeling of an unearned reward. I remember waking up, or not waking up so much as stirring from whatever approximate sleep one achieves when lying next to a body that has only recently become familiar, and being hit by the realization that people did this all the time, that regardless of any evidence to the contrary, this was a perfectly ordinary thing. When it ended, it ended more or less well. She was 36 and had uneven teeth, was recently divorced and in great shape—a Colombian woman who spent most of her time in company of foreigners, so our brief time together, two Colombians in a cluster of Anglos, hinged on a kind of fascination with this group we had stumbled upon. I was 21 and had grown a beard.
Trollope maintained that one grows out of one’s hobbledehoydom while never having grown out of it himself. The truth is one adjusts. One learns to live with the limitations and advantages of hobbledehoydom. The Colombian woman and I ran into each other at a party a few months after we broke it off and I was thrilled to see her, and she seemed happy enough to see me. She looked more beautiful than I remembered—out of reach once again—and had a boyfriend she had picked up at one of the language institutes where I taught: tall and fair, way taller than me. I drank too much. I puked off a balcony and accidentally knocked some plants over. Hungover and sour, awkward and sad—once a hobbledehoy, always a hobbledehoy.
Immediately following this paragraph is another one that also begins with waking up next to a woman—British, 27, engaged. But first a few problems need to be addressed, the first being that this essay should be less about monkeying around and more about the hobbledehoydom, where the latter leads to a paucity of the former. The second is that in focusing on these moments I distort those three years. I jump from one bed to the next in the space of a paragraph, whereas if done to scale, several blank pages would separate one encounter from the next with, granted, a few smallish exclamation marks added here and there, minor instances of drunken contact at expatriate parties. And yet these are the only moments that seem to matter. Another problem is the whole sentimental education angle. There shouldn’t be one. Despite the one minor epiphany dotting the end of the next paragraph, what I learned from that encounter, from any of these encounters, really, is little, or little other than that they’re probably one of the best things about being alive. No sentimental education angle exists. No education. Just waking up, once in a while, not really understanding how it happened, next to an implausibly beautiful woman in the north of Bogotá.
In 1994, I wake up next to an implausibly beautiful woman, Mina, in the north of Bogotá. She’s British. Twenty-seven. She’s into 10,000 Maniacs, is trying to read García Márquez in Spanish, teaches science and math at a private school, is witty and sweet and easygoing. I’m still 21. Her apartment is clean, spare, has two floors and an invisible roommate. I don’t see the roommate once in the months I’ll spend with her.
The night before, the first night, before I knew that it would be a first in a series of nights, we’d been at a bar with a group of British and Irish people I didn’t know too well—they all had real or real-sounding jobs: stringers for the Christian Science Monitor and Time, translators for Café de Colombia and smaller enterprises, a few freelance writers who also doubled as instructors at English-language schools, a few legitimate teachers locked into contracts for private schools. The expected amount of drinking occured. Everyone danced. Late in the evening, she took my hand and led me to the floor, and soon leapt—leapt, literally, bounded—into me, knocking me flat onto a table and knocking down a couple of empty Aguila bottles and aguardiente shots. She pulled me up from the table and kissed me. We were drunk, making out, doing nothing that is not done by everyone at one point or another under the influence (and of course, yes, without the influence as well, but the influence helps)—and the only claim I can make for including it here, amidst all the hobbledehoydom, is that it is rare for one of us hobbledehoys to happen upon this situation.
We don’t leap, not even when drunk. We are seldom leapt upon, but are graceful, I think, in receiving the leapee, or if not graceful (knocking down things, being knocked down ourselves) we are grateful. A great deal of sloppy dancing followed. As we left, a good friend of hers grabbed my arm and reminded me that not a week ago I had puked in her living room (true), and that I should be good to her, the British girl who has leapt into my arms, the joke being that I owe them on account of the puking, but her grasp makes it clear that she is not really joking. I nod. I feel sophisticated, worldly. I know exactly where this is heading. It heads exactly there, with one brief pause, in the taxi, where she has to roll down the window to vomit.
We’re up. She walks to the bathroom, naked and lithe, and while she’s in there I read a poem taped to the wall, printed in block letters next to a photograph of her and a guy. Other photographs have been pasted to the wall. Friends. Coworkers. Snippets of England behind them. The poem is not much—trite, sentimental, plodding, something about her face in the moonlight, written by someone who is clearly nuts about her. She returns—bobbed black hair, green eyes, smelling of the Body Shop. We kiss. She has brushed her teeth. She tells me about her life back home. Family. School. Pets.
She talks about her fiancé, the boy who wrote the poem, the boy in the photographs, and explains, before I ask (and I wanted to ask, would perhaps have asked, maybe not) she tells that they agreed, given her 10-month-contract, to see other people. We kiss again and she offers me breakfast (I decline, I don’t know why) and we exchange numbers and I leave, bowled over by the practicality of this couple, their pragmatism, a kind of hard-nosed non-romanticism that is, in its own fucked-up way, sweet and almost romantic. Just as I am about to leave, I realize I know nothing of how the heart operates. I know nothing of my own heart or of the hearts of others—even the most ordinary couples (in one photograph they looked like the least exotic pairing in the world) inhabit a world I do not understand, don’t have a key for.
I ran out of cigarettes the night before. As I leave I ask if I can bum one, and she says she doesn’t keep them in the house, she only smokes when she’s drinking, it’s a filthy habit she’s trying to quit altogether. She also says she wants to see me again. We kiss once more.
We see each other for the next three months. It trails off, and while it does, while several blank pages await, I should get back to Trollope. Actually, this makes sense because it is while the Mina thing is losing momentum that I first hit upon Trollope in the British Council library.
Know this: we won’t get back to the British Council library. We jump several novels ahead of the first one I read by Trollope. And know, too, that I will keep edging away from what should be the meat of the essay—though you will find a long quote by Trollope on what makes a hobbledehoy a hobbledehoy, nothing will follow on my own immobility, my awkward pauses and silences, my inability to engage. Nothing on the months spent alone between each encounter. Nothing on the frustrations inherent in knowing that the bulk of these encounters are, for the women involved, transitory—the penguin as a way station or rest stop. Nothing on how little the situation has changed, post-1996. Not even so much as an acknowledgement of the whining going on here: Which, come on, if you lack the courage to initiate any kind of contact and still find yourself messing around, even if it happens rarely, even so, somewhere in here there should be a nod to those who try and try and try and, because of bad luck or the ambivalence and randomness and unfairness inherent in the rules of attraction, fail, or those who don’t try and are not swooped upon, ever. Nothing on failure. Nothing but a bitter little coda on shyness and immobility.
Several hobbledehoys appear in Trollope’s novels, but none as Charlie Brownish as John Eames, who shuffles into The Small House at Allington almost apologetically and falls in love with Lily Dale, a girl as lovely as one would expect, given the name. John gets engaged, by accident, to someone he shouldn’t, falls heavily into debt, drinks too much, but later whips up into shape, discards his disreputable acquaintances, becomes an honorable civil servant, all right before heading for Lily Dale’s place to have his heart broken into many small jagged bits. Trollope allowed himself the satisfaction of having Lily marry no one at all, and in The Last Chronicle of Barset, the novel that followed, he would keep Lily and John apart despite hundreds of letters from readers pleading for marriage. (The other suitor in Allington is a genuine asshole. John, while a schlep and often prone to asshole-ish behavior, remains for the most part clueless but sweet. In Barset John comes close to losing h’doydom—but traces remain.) Trollope knew the heart of his hobbledehoys, and he knew the hearts of the girls hobbledehoys fall for. In Allington he provides as a good a summation as one could hope for on John Eames, and on himself, and on me, and on every other hobbledehoy who has ever walked the earth:
I have said that John Eames had been petted by none but his mother, but I would not have it supposed, on this account, that John Eames had no friends. There is a class of young men who never get petted, though they may not be the less esteemed, or perhaps loved. They do not come forth to the world as Apollos, nor shine at all, keeping what light they may have for inward purposes. Such young men are often awkward, ungainly, and not yet formed in their gait; they straggle with their limbs, and are shy; words do not come to them with ease, when words are required, among any but their accustomed associates. Social meetings are periods of penance to them, and any appearance in public will unnerve them. They go much about alone, and blush when women speak to them. In truth, they are not as yet men, whatever the number may be of their years; and, as they are no longer boys, the world has found for them the ungraceful name of hobbledehoy.
Such observations, however, as I have been enabled to make in this matter have led me to believe that the hobbledehoy is by no means the least valuable species of the human race. When I compare the hobbledehoy of one or two and twenty to some finished Apollo of the same age, I regard the former as unripe fruit, and the latter as fruit that is ripe. Then comes the question as to the two fruits. Which is the better fruit, that which ripens early—which is, perhaps, favoured with some little forcing apparatus, or which, at least, is backed by the warmth of a southern wall; or that fruit of slower growth, as to which nature works without assistance, on which the sun operates in its own time—or perhaps never operates if some ungenial shade has been allowed to interpose itself? The world, no doubt, is in favour of the forcing apparatus or of the southern wall. The fruit comes certainly, and at an assured period. It is spotless, speck-less, and of a certain quality by no means despicable. The owner has it when he wants it, and it serves its turn. But, nevertheless, according to my thinking, the fullest flavour of the sun is given to that other fruit—is given in the sun’s own good time, if so be that no ungenial shade has interposed itself. I like the smack of the natural growth, and like it, perhaps, the better because that which has been obtained has been obtained without favour.
But the hobbledehoy, though he blushes when women address him, and is uneasy even when he is near them, though he is not master of his limbs in a ball-room, and is hardly master of his tongue at any time, is the most eloquent of beings, and especially eloquent among beautiful women. He enjoys all the triumphs of a Don Juan, without any of Don Juan’s heartlessness, and is able to conquer in all encounters, through the force of his wit and the sweetness of his voice. But this eloquence is heard only by his own inner ears, and these triumphs are the triumphs of his imagination.
That middle paragraph, the one arguing for the superiority of hobbledehoys, is mostly wishful thinking. But we do improve with age. We can’t get any worse. We grow more aware of our limitations, our flaws, our fatal passivity—we stop trying to pretend we’re someone else, and if it isn’t growth it’s a gentle resignation, the dawning that we were probably old and feeble and weak on the inside anyway, so all we’re doing is growing into the face and the body of our inner Charlie Browns. We weather the indignities of old age better than those who had something to lose in their youth. We were undignified to begin with. We know how to deal with it. We improve on the sloth and ungainliness of our early years. (I’m 28 and in better shape than then: I could beat my 21-year-old self, no sweat, smash him to a pulp with my fists, or I could outrun him. I do about 120 pushups every day. My former self could do none, didn’t know that exercise mattered, was bored by that kind of physical activity, thought he knew everything there was to know—it took him a while to wise up. Not that I’m anywhere near wising up enough. We’re slow learners. Mostly we learn that we don’t know much. We learn that we need to learn more. But Trollope is wrong. I detest the smack of natural growth. I’m terrified of 30, and of how time keeps rolling and of how nothing remains fixed.)
Our looks improve. We were always plain and time adds nothing but character to that plainness:
Kate Field was much, much younger.
Anyway, I kept on reading and writing, and somewhere in the middle of all this inactivity— all these blank pages, all those days wanting women but unable to do much about it, being swooped up only on rare instances— I happened upon one of my favorite Sundays in Bogotá.
The newspaper I worked for, the Colombian Post, subscribed to the Reuters wire service (no Internet for us in 1995, not much of one). I assembled my pages with odd bits from the service (themed snippets: animals found in inappropriate places, inept Brazilian thieves, that sort of thing), with hastily written fluff, and with film and book reviews that only a few oddballs cared for (a nervous flyer discovering the paper in an Ecuadorian airline—she wrote a few letters from different airports, an ex-embassy worker living in Cartagena). But my coworkers and I always suspected that the Post was a front, a laundering operation, because our circulation was pathetic and no one believed even those low numbers. We didn’t think we had any readers.
That Monday I’d written a real article. It started as a cursory tour of bars in the Zona Rosa neighborhood and turned, by chance, into a straightforward account of 10-year-old flower girls, underage street vendors, and the men who controlled them. Mostly it was straight reportage. The kids, their stories. The acknowledgement that some of the stories were clearly made up on the spot, fabrications to induce sympathy but masking stories as sad and terrible just beneath. I’d also done the layout and the photograph.
On Sunday, the day our newspaper was distributed, I walked to Oma, a wildly overpriced boosktore and cafe, to celebrate. I bought a copy of the the Miami Herald— the cheapest English-language daily they carried— and a cup of coffee, and sat down with my pack of Marlboros. I was hung over, red-eyed, unshaven, a seedy penguin. Two American women sat down at the adjacent table—lovely (thin, fit, hair cut short) and well-dressed, one a blonde. They had purchased copies of the International Herald Tribune and the Colombian Post. They flipped through the Post until they happened upon my article and read it. I watched them read it. They seemed to like it. Of course I didn’t say anything, wouldn’t have dared say anything, but it didn’t keep me from feeling elated. This isn’t much of moment to end on. It isn’t much of a victory or a vindication. It isn’t much of anything. But watching them read felt wonderful and impossible and meaningful. It felt like contact.
We end more or less where we began. The man at one table, the two women at the next. Charlie Brown on the bench, the little red-haired girl on the other side of the cafeteria. Or Anthony in the parlor, sitting not too far away from Kate. No one moves. No one says anything. Nothing happens.