(About a 5 minute read)
Neil was raised in a tiny settlement in the San Luis Valley by artists. The San Luis — over a mile above sea level, and the largest alpine valley in the world — is Colorado’s poorest region.
Because it’s so poor, the cost of living is moderate, and maybe it’s the cost of living that attracts the artists. More than 500 working artists make their homes in the Valley.
Yet, because artists are quirky people, it might be more than the cost of living that attracts so many of them to the San Luis. It could be the miles of open space, for instance. Or the huge elk herd, the bald eagles and the sandhill cranes. Or perhaps even the stars — for at night, the sky above the San Luis explodes with the music of light.
Neil’s parents were not religious people but they sent their son to church each Sunday. When he was 13 or 14, he rebelled. He told his parents he hated church, didn’t believe a word of anything he heard there, and was a confirmed agnostic. “Good”, said his mother and father, “You’ve learned everything a church can teach you about life: Nothing. We could have told you that ourselves about churches, but we wanted you to figure it out. You can stop going now.”
When Neil turned old enough for high school, his parents decided he needed a better school than the one in the settlement. So they packed Neil off to live with his grandmother in Colorado Springs and to attend Palmer High. There, in his first art class, he met Sarah and Beth. The three shared an intense interest in art and quickly became best friends.
It was Sarah who introduced me to Neil. Sarah was regular at the Coffee Shop, and the two of us now and then shared each other’s company. At 16, she was poised, sophisticated, and self-confident. She liked to flirt with older men, even though she knew, as she put it, that she “couldn’t let it go anywhere”, and she once told me how much I disappointed her because I wouldn’t flirt. I felt like a killjoy, and wrote a poem about her to make amends.
Sarah, Beth, and Neil spent hours together each day. They seemed more mature than many kids their age. For one thing, both Neil and Sarah held themselves much like adults, and all three of them would look you right in the eye when listening or speaking to you. For another thing, there were seldom conflicts between them, and the three friends were remarkably free from adolescent dramas.
Back in those days, I heard enough adolescent dramas to fill a social calendar. I had somehow stumbled into the role of confident for many of the kids who hung out at the Coffee Shop. Sometimes, up to a half-dozen kids a day would confess their woes to me — pretty much one kid after the other. Yet, I understood their need to talk and never rejected them.
Most of their stories were about sex and relationships, and some of the stories were painful to hear, because there were kids who kept repeating the same mistakes over and over again. Yet, even the kids who didn’t repeat their mistakes — kids like Sarah, for instance — still seemed determined to make an allotted number of foolish mistakes, for how else do people learn? I quickly discovered the role of confident was often more depressing than rewarding.
Through-out high school, Sarah, Beth and Neil remained as best friends, but when it was time for college, they parted ways. Each went to a different university, and while Sarah and Beth stayed in contact with each other, Neil dropped out of the group.
I recall Neil was 22 and back from college when I ran across him one evening at the Coffee Shop. We chatted for a while and I suggested we go to a restaurant for something to eat.
We ordered beer with our food, and were soon rambling along from one topic to the next. A few beers into the evening, Neil decided to tell me how he lost his virginity. “Was it Sarah?”, I asked. I knew she’d been sexually active from the age of 16, and given their close friendship, it seemed logical to suspect her of having been his first partner.
“Not at all”, Neil said, “I wasn’t ready for sex back then, and I knew it.”
“I’m curious how you knew that about yourself.”
“I don’t make really important decisions up here”, he said, pointing to his forehead, “Instead, I go with what my soul tells me.” He looked at me quizzically. “Do you believe we have a soul, Paul?”
I didn’t want to sidetrack us into metaphysics, so I said, “I believe I can understand what you’re getting at. Do you mean something like your sense of yourself…of who you are…of what’s right for you?”
“Yes! That’s close! I knew I wasn’t ready for sex because the opportunities never felt right to me. None of them passed the soul test. I didn’t want my first time to feel wrong in any way.”
“Was it ever hard waiting?”
“Sometimes. Everyone else was having sex, and I wanted to have sex. I was always horny. It’s not like I wasn’t.”
“So what happened?” At that point, I wanted him to cut to the chase.
“Last year, I finally met the person I knew was right for me. We met in a bar, but we weren’t drunk, and everything just clicked. I knew she was the one.”
“Did you have sex that night?”
“No. I called her on Thursday, a few days later, and we got together that Saturday. I wasn’t in a hurry. I knew it was going to happen. I took her to dinner, and we went to her place afterwards. That’s when I lost my virginity. And I was right to wait. I was vindicated. It was beautiful, Paul. It felt perfect and it was beautiful.”
“Was it her first time too?”
“Oh no! She was 26 last year — an older woman, and experienced.”
“Are you two still together?”
“No”, he said, “We never got together as a couple. That wasn’t something she wanted or I wanted, and we understood that about each other from the start. We’re friends now, but we’ve only had sex that one time.”
“I’m very proud,” he went on, “that I waited until everything felt right…until I knew it was right.”
“Not many people do that, Neil.”, I remarked, “Did your parents raise you to consult your soul?” I had a strong suspicion at this point that Neil’s parents, both artists, raised him to pay careful attention to his “soul”. It seemed like something artists would do naturally — perhaps even do necessarily.
“Very much so.”, Neil said, and he went on about that for a while. But I wasn’t really following him at that point.
I’d begun to feel the beer and my mind was wandering back to the days when Neil was in high school and I was something of the neighborhood confident for a third of the kids at the Coffee Shop. Neil had made the decision that was right for him and come out shining. All in all, his story was one of the best I’d heard then or now, and I felt grateful to him for sharing it with me.
This post was originally published July 7, 2008, and was last updated April 23, 2017 for clarity.