I graduated high school in the late eighties and discovered that the short period of actually fitting in with my peers had come to an end.

Many of my classmates had been counting down the days to graduation and their sweet, delectable freedom. They planned graduation parties to kick off one last knock-down, drag-out summer in boring Santa Rosa, California. When fall came and the hangovers were finally banished, my fellow students would eagerly hop in the cars they’d been given by their parents or bought with their after-school job money, and they’d drive off to a new town with just a couple of banker’s boxes in the back seat. They’d arrive on a Friday afternoon, park in an available parking space, and lug their few possessions into their shiny new dorm room under the watchful eye of an RA just one year older than they were. For weeks they would fantasize about hooking up with that RA, until they saw that RA at a party vomiting into a hot tub.

Anyway, after a weekend of breaking in the place and kicking it with their hundred and fifty new friends, they’d go to their new school and begin their new lives; no matter what else happened during their freshman year, no matter how little their experience actually resembled a John Hughes movie, they could say one thing for sure: they were free.

Me, on the other hand… as for me, I felt none of that urgency. At the tender age of 17 and as the latest late bloomer of them all, I felt like I had just barely come into my own identity, and that identity was student with a capital S. I couldn’t even take a break from being in an academic institution for more than a few weeks. I’d enrolled in a summer course that started less than a month after graduation at the local junior college that I’d end up attending for the next three years.

I did at least have a graduation party. Because I was a strict non-drinker and we were partying at my sister’s place for the night, the wildest stuff we got up to was turning off all the lights and setting off a camera flash in the dark, which left three-dimensional after-images on our retinas. One of my friends – say, Frank – would jump in the air as I set off the flash, and then we’d laugh ourselves silly at the phosphene Frank that hovered before our eyes no matter which way we looked.

I’m pretty sure such hijinks were normally the province of younger people, but we were a bunch of silly geeks.

The evening began to draw to a close, and those who were staying the night began fluffing the couch cushions they’d soon be passing out on. One person who wasn’t staying was a female friend from another school, who I’ll call Deb. As the party’s gracious host, I walked her outside to wait for her ride. It was 11pm, it was summer, it was quiet; we could see the stars twinkling above the apartment complex’s lush and blooming trees.

Okay, now let me tell you a little about Deb.

Deb was one year older than me, and we’d met each other on the spelling bee circuit. We’d run into each other over the years at various competitions, becoming intermittent friends; and then one day she showed up somewhere I didn’t expect her: at one of the pizza meetings we local BBS geeks held from time to time. Although it’s hard to imagine now, BBSes were our computer networks that bound us together before the Internet. Back then, meeting off and on in person seemed almost compulsory, so we could see the faces behind the names and messages on our screens that we saw typing themselves out at 300 baud. I’d had no idea Deb was a BBS geek. It turned out she’d been logging in under an unidentifiable handle. Being a young, conventionally attractive woman, she didn’t want to attract unwanted attention.

One more thing about Deb: she’d saved my bacon earlier that year at the county spelling bee finals. Before we’d even gotten to the midpoint of the competition, when the words were still fairly easy, I’d received the word “cauldron” and spelled it with a “u”, unaware that the official American spelling didn’t have one. The incautious presenter, who I think was a local real estate developer and not even a speller himself, consulted his little dictionary, declared I’d gotten the word wrong and sent me back to the audience.

Seventeen-year-old me – rule-following and authority-respecting to a great fault – was utterly defenseless against such a mistake. With shame roaring in my ears, knowing I must be right but lacking the wherewithal to protest, I walked down the stage steps and down the aisle, headed for the seat next to my parents.

It felt like a very long walk, but it was shorter than it could have been.

As if it were a scene from a John Hughes movie, smack dab in the middle of the audience, Deb suddenly shot to her feet. People looked over at her and gasped – actually gasped! She was holding, I shit you not, an unabridged dictionary open to the letter “c”.

Then Deb cried out in protest, “It’s not wrong! It’s the British spelling!”

I stood there like a big idiot. There was a brief and intense commotion onstage, full of chaotic dictionary-checking, laughter both on-mic and off, and the delicate offstage handling of real estate developer ego. Shortly thereafter, I was welcomed back to the stage with a standing ovation. My eyes beamed gratitude at Deb, who had closed her dictionary and taken her seat and was now applauding with some satisfaction. Even the spellers I was competing against were clapping. Justice had been served.

I went on to win the fuck out of that spelling bee (and came twelfth in the state of California that year). And I owe it all to Deb.

So: back to the night of my grad party. Deb and I were sitting outside on my sister’s front steps, waiting for her dad to pick her up. We were chatting about nothing in particular I can remember. It wasn’t really about words. She was sitting on the top step, and I had taken a seat on the step below. I think it was because I felt happier and safer than I ever had before – I felt confident enough to lean back against her, and she put her hands on my shoulders. Nothing more than that. Nothing more was needed.

I remember only disconnected details of that short span of time. I accidentally brushed my arms against her calves – I noticed she’d shaved her legs. The once-boisterous crowd inside the apartment had quieted down, and now the night rested peacefully over us and across the trees, which rustled in the light breeze.

Soon Deb’s dad drove up, and he skillfully tooted a short, tight blat with his car horn, indicating that Deb should walk over to the car to prevent his intruding on our moment. In fact our moment had passed, and that was just as it should be. Deb and I stood up, and I thanked her for coming and wished her good night. I kissed her. She vanished.