There comes a time in each boy’s life when girls cease to be an abstract concept, and become the living, breathing, human enigmas that they will remain for the rest of our days. In my life, that time was eighth grade. Oh, sure, I had noticed them long before that. In 5th grade there was the painful crush I had on Holly Miller, a petite, little brunette, with doe eyes that brought a lump to my throat every time she was within 10 feet. Despite there being only 24 kids in our class, I don’t think I ever actually spoke to the girl, and when her family moved to Cleveland at the start of 6th grade I lost whatever chance I had.
But 8th grade was a time of change. It was our last year at St. Joes, and we were finally the big kids. Our hormones were raging, and sitting still in class, and keeping our eyes off of the girls became nearly impossible. For their part something had changed as well. No longer did they scowl at us, or roll their eyes at our desperate attempts to get their attention. Disgust was replaced with a coy smile, and something deep inside our hearts leapt at the change.
It wasn’t long before something resembling flirtation began. Out of the blue one day a girl that I had gone to school with for 8 years, turned around in her chair and spoke to me. Whatever she said to me, was lost in the mists of time, and perhaps was no more profound than “can I borrow a pencil”, but it wasn’t what she said that was important. It was the way that she said it. Whether one believes in Darwin and the theory of evolution, or not, you cannot deny that there are times in our lives when instinct replaces reason, and our bodies react of their own accord. My response to her was immediate, and where 10 minutes earlier she hardly existed, now her presence, just inches away, was magnetic.
Her name was Marianne, and ever since she ate paste one day in kindergarten, her mere existence had been enough to turn my stomach. But that day in October when she turned around in her chair, flipped her Farrah Fawcett bangs back, and batted those brown eyes at me, suddenly paste began to sound downright tasty. And so, borrowing a pencil turned into small talk between class, and before long, I was receiving furtive notes on pink stationary when the teacher had turned his back.
Yes kids, in the days before cell phones, and text messaging, your Mom’s and Dad’s used to pass each other little slips of paper with messages of love scrawled upon them. Profound thoughts, crafted with the skill and wit of Shakespearian sonnets. Things like “This class is so boring!”, or “Tell Dan that Eileen said that Kim likes him.” OMG, LOL indeed.
I wasn’t the only one being drawn into this intriguing world of coeducational communication. All over Mr. Crimando’s 8th grade classroom little slips of paper were making the rounds, with a sense of clandestine urgency not seen since the days of the French resistance.
Marianne and I had hit it off immediately. That is if you can call taking 8 years to acknowledge each other’s existence “immediate”. I discovered for the first time in my life that the written word was my true medium. With pen in hand my thoughts didn’t stammer out in quivering uncertainty, they flowed forth with poetic grace. By that point it was only a matter of time until the little pink stationary could no longer contain the depth and breadth of our interest in each other. If our relationship was going to continue to blossom we were going to have to take it to the next level. And so one Friday evening before Christmas, I pulled out our dog eared copy of the Batavia phone book, and looked up her number. With sweaty hands, and palpitating heart, I sat in the upstairs hallway holding the hand piece of the black rotary dial phone, my heart rate increasing with each successive ring. After an eternity her Mother answered, and seconds later Marianne’s deep, velvety voice was whispering in my ear. I don’t think I had ever felt so alive in my life. Well, not since the first time I saw Star Wars anyway.
Our conversation lasted a mere 20 minutes, but a connection had been established, and a new channel opened. From that evening onward my Friday nights no longer revolved around watching “The Dukes of Hazzard”. As cupid would have it my best friend Chris had also begun to establish a connection with Marianne’s best friend Eileen, and our weekly phone calls turned into telephone double dates. Each Friday Chris would stay over at my house, and Eileen would stay over at Marianne’s, and while my parents were off working Bingo at Notre Dame, Chris and I would call them up.
It was 1982 and there was so much to discuss. Cable TV had just arrived on Prospect Avenue, and our lives had finally been wired into the great flowering of youth culture that was occurring on TV sets all over America. Yes, we wanted our MTV. Pat Benetar, J. Geils, Kim Carnes, Madness, and Dexys Midnight Runners, had found their way to Batavia New York. No small feat considering that the only radio stations in Western New York were either playing Classic Rawk, or Commodity Farm reports.
Video games had also appeared over night, and weekday afternoons, in the hour between when school ended and basketball practice began, me and my team mates would wander over to the Video Arcade on Center Street, and drop our quarters on Galazga, Tempest, Asteroids, and Defender. Being a man of discerning taste, I preferred Vanguard.
Life at 20 Prospect was buzzing that winter. After living alone with my parents for the previous two years as my siblings were off on their own, excitement and life had returned to 20 Prospect. My “bratty” Big Sis had graduated from Paul Smith’s College the previous spring, and was back living in Batavia with her fiancé. Mom and Dad had decided that it was time to update the inside of the house in advance of the coming wedding, and had begun stripping the wallpaper off of the walls. As we soon learned there was little else holding the plaster on the wall than the 24 coats of old wall paper dating back to the Ulysses S. Grant administration. So as the wall paper came off in my bedroom, so did the plaster, leaving big holes of lathing showing through. We began referring to it as “the Ghetto”.
Something else had changed too. Despite being my source of torment for most of my natural born life, suddenly my Bratty big sister had changed. Maybe it was her engagement, or maybe it was the fact I was now as tall as she was, but she was suddenly fun to be around. When Dad was busy hanging wall paper, and patching holes in the walls, we sat in the living room with her fiancé playing the Magnavox Odyssey2 that I got for Christmas.
There was one other great thing about my suddenly cool big sister that would have a huge effect on my life that year. Since returning from college she had volunteered to coach the St. Joe’s Cheerleading Squad. I basked in the long shadow of her coolness in the eyes of the 8th grade girls. As winter wore on to its slushy end, our parochial basketball season came to a close, and my sister planned to host a party for the cheerleaders at 20 Prospect. For the first time in my life, I had finally realized a benefit to having an older sister.
Not only would Marianne and Eileen be there, but the entire 8th grade cheerleading team. Naturally, I made sure that my best friends Chris and Dan were also in attendance on the evening of the party. Don’t ever let it be said I didn’t take care of my friends. It was an epic night. After 8 years of seeing these girls daily in their plaid skirts, and jumpers and peter pan blouses, there was something slightly illicit about seeing them in Jordache jeans and fuzzy sweaters. Video games were played, records were listened too, and many 2 liter bottles of Coke and Dr. Pepper were emptied. In a photo album on a shelf in my laundry room, I still have a picture of all 13 of us piled onto the couch in the front living room for a group photo.
With winter ending, and basketball season over, I began to look ahead and ponder where our relationship was heading. In the fall I would be heading to Notre Dame, while Marianne would be going to BHS. Surely, we’d be splitting up by then, but there was still one milestone left to accomplish before we graduated from St. Joe’s and went our separate ways. We had never actually been on a “date”. So with great planning, and nervousness, Chris and I arranged to take Marianne and Eileen to the movies on Saturday afternoon.
It really didn’t matter what the movie was, but for the record it was “Taps”. A morbid film about a bunch of boys in a military school, that end up dying for some tragic cause which totally escapes me at the moment. In any case, being just 13, and it still being cold, rainy and miserable outside, we arranged to meet the girls at Mancuso’s theater. Dressed in our best jeans and polo shirts, and smelling like English Leather and Brut, we waited outside of the theater for them to arrive. When they did, we bought our tickets and went inside, but I could sense immediately that something wasn’t right. Unlike our lively and droll conversations on the phone Marianne and Eileen hardly said more than one or two words to us.
When the movie was over, we had planned to take them down the street to Pontillo’s for that classic Batavia first date experience. However, after a brief trip to the “ladies” room, they informed us that they had to get going, and used the pay phone to call Marianne’s folks to come pick them up.
I was heartsick, and panicked. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen. We were supposed to stroll down East Main, in full view of the entire town, and sit in one of those red vinyl booths at Pontillo’s eating pizza, and enjoying sparkling, witty banter. Then as the night ended, we’d stand on the front steps in the glow of the Pizzeria lights and get a kiss goodbye. A kiss! A kiss! What about a kiss?
Standing out front under the marquee waiting, the girls hardly paid any attention to us. When the car pulled up along the curb, they ran out to meet it shouting goodbye over their shoulders. There would be no kiss that night, nor any other night. That kiss would take another 3 years to arrive and when it did it wouldn’t be with Marianne.
It only took a few days of note passing in class to discover that Marianne was seeing someone else. The news stabbed through me with a pain I had never experienced before, but would eventually become all too familiar with. She had met a guy from the public school. A Sicilian kid named Sam from the south side, who was one of the inmates at the Batavia Junior High Correctional facility. I didn’t have a clue what he looked like, but I could imagine him well enough. Dark brooding good looks, an aura of danger hanging around him. How could I compete with that? What girl would pass on a bad boy for a nice nerd like me?
I spent the rest of the school year wallowing in my grief and self pity. Laying in the dark of my bedroom, with Simon and Garfunkel’s greatest hits playing over and over as I pined away for her. Suddenly I understood what loneliness was. I wondered about this mysterious thug named Sam that had stolen my girl away from me. I wondered how I would compare against him in some medieval battle for the hand of my fair maid Marianne. I didn’t need to wonder very long.
(to be continued…)