In the spring of 1989, I was 20 and I still planned on taking over the world. I’d been running my first business for close to two years with no vacation, working through most weekends, to the tune of over 120 hours per week. When a friend of mine who was attending BYU called and invited me to come and visit him, it occurred to me to take some time off of work. So I actually booked a vacation to Provo, Utah. Imagine that: a vacation to Provo, Utah. My only excuse is that working like a dog for two years plays terrible tricks on one’s sense of what is normal.

What I found at BYU was absolutely astonishing. When you go to college, you can roll out of bed whenever you want. You can decide to go to class — if you feel like it. During an ultra-heavy course load, you only average about 4 hours of classes a day. After every big deadline, you get a major vacation break. It had never occurred to me that a place like this could exist. This was way easier than working for a living. I could so do this.

Plus, I met this chick I’ll call Helena. Helena was kinda’ hot. And she was really amazing. And she was 28. We started talking at some party that we went to, so I asked her out.

There’s a Tony Roma’s restaurant in Provo near Albertson’s on University Parkway, and it used to be a Mexican Restaurant until a bunch of people who ate there got botulism or some other kind of food poisoning. I can’t remember exactly what kind. Anyway, that’s where we ate dinner — that Mexican place where they got botulism.

Helena told me a story about this woman who had been tremendously influential in her life. She was in her late 50s. She had been in an accident that left her confined to a wheel chair, after which her husband left her for another woman. She was well respected in her ward and stake, and she held a stake calling. Shortly before Helena went on her mission, Helena helped this woman move a bunch of things out of her attic. During the process of doing this, Helena discovered that the woman owned a sex toy.

Helena was, of course, shocked. The woman wasn’t bashful about it at all, in spite of Helena’s obvious dismay. The woman simply stated that at her age and in her condition, she had little hope of finding another mate and experiencing physical intimacy again.

Helena then discussed all of the emotions she had felt after learning all of this: the conflict that she wrestled with on her mission, her gradual acceptance after she returned home, and especially the moments of empathy that she felt as she grew older and her friends got married while she remained single.

I was enthralled — enraptured even. I was hanging on her every word. Then she dropped the bomb. As nonchalantly as one might ask the time of day, she asked me, “How often do you masturbate?”

I immediately became aware that I was standing before a major crossroads in my life. But which path should I choose? In spite of my impeccable reputation for flouting authority, I was something of a stuffed shirt. Was I ready to be that candid? Was I ready stop hiding behind the comfortable lies of boyhood adolescence? Was I ready to discuss something so thoroughly undignified? Would she even believe me if I denied it? What was I to say?

I leaned forward and smiled. I looked her straight in the eye and out came my answer. I told the truth, and we discussed it for some time. After that, the conversation continued for hours, meandering through all kinds of topics. I don’t know how well I held up my end of conversation, but Helena was very kind. We had a really great time that night, and we had a terrific conversation. Helena was preparing to attend graduate school in Florida for the fall semester. Though we kept in touch for a while, I never saw her again after my vacation to Provo. That was 18 years ago. It changed my life.

Once I arrived back home from that vacation to Provo, I resolved to go to college. I took the ACT and applied to BYU. BYU rejected my application, because I never graduated from high school and (what’s worse) I’d been thrown out of every school I’d ever attended. Undeterred, I started attending anyway (fall 1989). I did manage to eventually weasel my way in, but that’s a topic for another post.

My resolve to go to college amounted to little more than a whim. I had this vague but urgent belief that attending college would be tremendously liberating, and not just because of the extreme comparative easiness of the endeavor. At 20 years old, I was young and naïve enough to base this belief on a few unforgettable and life changing experiences that I’d had during a week-long vacation to Provo; specifically, some very candid conversations that I’d had with a woman about sex. In the end, it was like so very many things in a guy’s life: it was about a girl as much as it was about anything.

And I’m happy to report that it was a liberating experience, both at Brigham Young University and later (after BYU threw me out) at Wabash College.