April 18, 2016
By Laura Stassi
I used to believe I had superior recollection of significant events in my life. But that was before the night I heard the gentle ping of my cellphone’s email notification several minutes after I had already laid the phone on the nightstand, switched off the table lamp, and pulled up the bed covers for sleep.
Unable to resist, I fumbled for the phone and squinted to read without my glasses.
“It is quite possible you are the first person I kissed.”
The one-line message was from Steve, a boy I knew best in junior high school in the early 1970s. I had fuzzy memories of how our lives had intersected back then, but we had friended each other on Facebook several years ago and had casually caught up. Steve was living in California, where he had moved during our sophomore year at West Springfield High School.
A few days before Steve had emailed me, a woman who had been two grades ahead of us at West Springfield had started a Facebook page for alumni. The page immediately was flooded with photos, tributes and shout-outs from men and women who had been classmates as well as neighbors and friends throughout childhood.
All of this social media activity undoubtedly was uncovering decades of dusty memories. But Steve? I didn’t remember kissing him—not a first time, not ever. I reached for my glasses and laughed as I typed my reply.
“Oh lordy, this email is cracking me up,” I wrote. “Are you sure it was me? When? I always thought the first person I kissed was redheaded Dave in eighth grade at a cast party, and I didn’t go around kissing a lot of boys. Do tell.”
“Cast party,” Steve responded, confirming my memory of a tame Spin the Bottle game after a junior high school stage production. When it had been my turn, Steve wrote, I spun the bottle and it stopped at a girl. So I got a do-over – this was the early ’70s, after all – and it had landed on him.
“Given our antagonistic relationship at the time, it was ironic,” Steve wrote.
“Refresh my memory about antagonistic,” I responded. I didn’t remember that, either.
“You and I worked on the WISP [Washington Irving School Paper] and had differing views of boys vs. girls sports,” Steve wrote. “We decided a basketball game was in order,” no doubt inspired by the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in September of that school year. “Think Pat & Mike without the rom-com ending, I suppose.”
Writing for the school paper. Organizing the basketball game. These were details about my 13-year-old self that I had long forgotten until Steve’s memories prompted my own. In an email conversation that continued over the next few days, Steve sparked additional recall. The name of that eighth-grade play (You Were Born on a Rotten Day). The host of the cast party (Stu). The girl who had served as the kissing game expert (Isa). I became convinced that not only was I Steve’s first kiss but that Steve had also been mine, and that I had mistakenly believed all these years that Dave was first because I remembered clearly what happened at school after the party. Dave had painstakingly copied the lyrics to three songs onto sheets of loose-leaf notebook paper, then folded them into fat little squares that he pushed through my locker vent.
“That damn Dave and his love notes,” I wrote Steve. They had taken all the brain space I had for eighth-grade memories.
I began to wonder if perhaps it wasn’t that Steve’s sense of recall was sharp, but that mine was much duller than I had realized. I searched online for Dave to see what he remembered; alas, I couldn’t find him. But I did connect with Stu, who had hosted the cast party.
“I DO remember playing Spin the Bottle but don’t recall who I kissed,” Stu wrote. “Oh, that just sounds awful. Was it you?”
I also found Isa, who said she couldn’t recall the name of the play, who hosted the party or why she was even there, since she wasn’t an official member of the cast or crew. She did remember playing Spin the Bottle but had no memories of whom she kissed.
It was official, then: Steve’s recall was uncanny.
Steve told me that he didn’t know why or how, but he’s always been able to recall “facts, dates and figures for tests” better than most. He also has an eye for detail, such as remembering what his now-wife was wearing (cowboy hat, purple tank top) when they met in 1979, about four years before they started dating.
There’s more. A little over 35 years ago, under the most horrifying, tragic and stressful of circumstances, Steve’s ability to remember details would prove to have a profound impact on a community that had been terrorized by a sick and brutal killer.
“I’ve kept any public comments about this case to court transcripts,” Steve told me, adding that in the past year alone, he’s turned down appeals from U.S. and British broadcasters to talk about what happened. “But with my friends, I have always been open,” he said. “I could not have survived otherwise.”
With Steve’s gracious permission, I’m sharing his extraordinary story.
Next: A Survivor’s Key Testimony