Road 2 Elsewhere, Excerpt #40*: Underfoot. Undersized. Underachieving. And so, to Paris.
How general disparagement prepared me for the next big phase of my life. WRITTEN AND ILLUSTRATED BY PETER MOORE
MY PRIVILEGE WAS SUBSTANTIAL. But it’s not as if my childhood was an extended spree.
My three older brothers frequently pointed out what a puny dope I was. It hurt to hear that, especially because I was puny and dopey.
One brother pioneered the practice of “keeping a bruise going” on my right thigh; he would always knuckle me in the same place, ensuring a perpetual sore spot that came to define my world view.
Underachieving, especially compared with my brainy brothers.
But there was also a carried-forward benefit from being one of the Moore boys. I visited the high school as part of a middle-school choir, and was pulled off the risers during rehearsal by the choral director, who noted: “This is Billy, Chuck, and Steve’s little brother.”
Then he turned to me: “What’s your name?”
“Peter,” I choked, wary of what was next.
“Watch out, everybody,” the man said. “Here comes Peter!”
And they all laughed.
I couldn’t live up to my brothers’ academic achievement, so I developed other priorities (hair growth, puberty). Nothing to prove here, people.
But I did understand the family legacy of something-or-other, and my need to uphold my genetic whatchamacallit.
My family wasn’t particularly social. We were never on any kind of party circuit. Numbering six, we were our own party. But sociality seemed to increase as my parents extended their genetic line, to the point where my next eldest brother and I were the Bush family of student politics.
I assumed leadership roles, in both senses of “assumed.”
Yet still I felt quite certain, when I arrived in college, that I was destined to flunk out and embarrass everyone. Would I fulfill my mother’s high expectations, or live down to my brothers’ low ones? (My dad was in wait-and-see mode, so I marked him in the “skeptical” column.) I surprised myself by succeeding, though it would have taken more than dean’s list to convince my brothers that I wasn’t the moron in the Moore family.
That was my emotional mix when I arrived in Paris: I had expensive “free” time ahead of me, accompanied by grave doubts that DNA had blessed me. Would the runt suckle at fate’s teat, or only the pushier piglets?
Because I was deemed “bright” as a four-year old, I matriculated nearly a year ahead of my age cohort. As a result, I was chronically undersized compared with my peers. This was OK at times. In 7th grade, I was head-high to my female classmates’ blooming bosoms, so I sought and accepted my own level for once. But puberty was just a tantalizing rumor for me as my male peers’ voices and testicles dropped. Some guys began shaving; I projected pinkness.
That untouched, untouchable quality extended to my love life, which was largely imaginary.
I did have a couple of girlfriends in high school, but I wasn’t likely to grope for second base when I was so grateful just to be standing on first. Opportunities in college, even during the sexual revolution, were more like the high-school makeouts I barely had, rather than the full-on bacchanal my classmates were enjoying, which extended to the communal showers in the dorm bathrooms.
Rub-a-dub for them, “aye, there’s the rub” for me.
And that’s how it was when I approached my first intercontinental crush, a Dutchwoman named Diamant, in Paris: I couldn’t even see home plate from outside the ballpark. Did Dutch girls understand the baseball metaphor for sexual advances? Maybe love, over there, was more of a baffling two-day affair, like cricket? Or a muddy scrum, like rugby? What if she sprung a leak, as Hollanders are wont to do? Where would I put my finger?
Nevertheless, I mustered the will to invite Diamant to spend my 22nd birthday with me. Maybe we could just play catch?
My journal — which carried the minutest daily details in my microscopic handwriting — fails to tell the tale. And that, I guess, tells the tale.
“Last night it was Diamant,” I wrote, “discussions of love, three kisses, [her gift to me of] Narziss and Goldmund (Herman Hesse!) three more kisses, and a smile which lasted me all the way back to the Notre Dame des Champs metro stop.”
Reading between the lines: Oh. I went back home that night.
Nice work, cowboy.
*On alternating weekends I run excerpts from The Road to Elsewhere, my coming-of-age-travel-memoir-with-funny-drawings. (The first entry is here. Most recent one is here. Or dive in here, here, or even here.) It details the story of my road through Paris, London, and god help me, Zagreb, in search of the ultimate destination: a life worth living. The story so far: Young Peter has arrived in Paris, occupied a dorm room at the Alliance Française language school, tiptoed out onto the Boulevard Raspail and the Paris Metro, and made the first steps on the road to elsewhere. If it’s too much to read, just look at the illustrations. They’re my favorite part, too.