After I dropped out of college I got a job programming for a small consulting firm in Pittsburgh. I was brilliant. My clients loved me. I earned in a week what my father earned in a month. I devoted myself to my job because I had something to prove: despite my degreeless exit from Carnegie, I wasn’t completely worthless.
I rented a luxury apartment in a new high rise. How much of a loser could I be with such a fine balcony? I ordered imported rosewood Danish modern furniture. They wouldn’t sell this stuff to just anyone. I bought a shiny ’66 Mustang with testosterone dripping from the tailpipe. And I began eating in actual restaurants instead of grabbing a cheeseburger three times a week at a campus soda fountain. As a kid, going out to eat meant a once a month trip to a local Chinese restaurant for chicken Chowmein. Now I could afford eateries with tablecloths.
There was a place near campus that served an item called strawberry pancakes. The idea of strawberry pancakes for breakfast was downright decadent. The fluffy disks were served with strawberries, a dollop of whipped cream, and a touch of powdered sugar on an over-sized plate. Heavenly. The best thing I had ever put in my mouth. How worthless could I be?
As the years passed, memories of that glorious dish called to me. Eventually I decided to drive from Manhattan back to that restaurant to relive that gastronomic delight. One weekend I hopped in my shiny new yellow Corvette and sped my way along the Pennsylvania Turnpike back to Pittsburgh driven by visions of gustatory perfection.
I found the restaurant and ordered the object of my desire. A few minutes later the waitress brought a plate of pancakes with the strawberries, whipped cream, and powdered sugar just the way I’d remembered them.
I took my first bite. Something was wrong. The strawberries were mushy, the whipped cream canned, the dish ordinary. The pancakes in my memory were so much more enticing. This was a plate I could have gotten at any of hundreds of pancake houses anywhere in the country. Had their quality really sunk that low in my absence?
It was only a few years ago that I figured out what actually happened to my beloved strawberry pancakes. As a twenty-year old pancake virgin, my first plate of strawberry pancakes was amazing. Scores of restaurants later I had become more experienced, more discerning. What had changed was me: my taste, my sophistication, my expectations. And no plate of pancakes could ever match my memory of the pleasure those first pancakes brought.
My life is filled with strawberry pancakes. That first kiss, the first time my boss said Good job!, my first raise, the first time a venture capitalist said yes. Real life seldom measures up to the glorious pancakes in my mind.
But these enhanced images of perfection turn out to be double-edged swords. A pancake named Susan, a Chem E with butt-length hair and a perfect GPA, lies just beyond my reach. She says she has a boyfriend named Richard who goes to Penn and we can take walks in the park and laugh and cry – but touching is impossible. No holding hands, no hugs, no fingers on a cheek. For two years we pass notes in class, sit on the grass together, I write poems, I give her my best puppy eyes. Two years.
Four and half decades later that perfect pancake shows up in dreams as the ultimate symbol of rejection. I’m back on campus. It’s our Junior year. She says if she was going to fall in love with me it would have already happened. In my race with Richard I earn silver. I give up my scholarship, drop out of school, and feel hollow, drained, worthless all over again.
For some reason tonight I wonder how Susan’s choice turned out. Google. Click here, click there. Process for the production of isopropanol by the hydration of propylene. Seven patents. Not such a much. I’ve got my own patents. None for any of the really clever stuff I did – just mundane inventing for this employer and that who were trying to impress investors.
A few more clicks. Son of a gun. She has the same address as a guy named Richard. He’s got some patents too.
But it can’t be. Some more clicks. It is. I guess she really did know what she wanted way back then. Smart girl.
Or maybe she’s just another strawberry pancake in a long line of pancakes in my mind.