She grew up just around the corner from 20 Prospect, but we didn’t meet until she transferred from BHS to Notre Dame at the start of our junior year of high school. I was introduced to her by my best friend, who met her when girl’s soccer practices began in late August.
From the first day at ND it was clear that she was different. She didn’t dress like the other ND girls. While it was the very height of the 80’s, the girl next door had a wardrobe that would have not been out of place at a New England girl’s college in the 1960’s. While most girls at Notre Dame wore their hair in big 80’s style, or with swoopy Farrah Fawcett bangs, she wore her hair bobbed to her shirt collar, which was usually turned up. She wore penny loafers, and fuzzy sweaters, and could have stepped from the pages of a J. Crew catalog.
For those first few weeks, she didn’t say much, but followed my BFF around everywhere like a shadow. Perhaps she was intimidated by us. Lord knows we were a loud bunch of brawling, kids. I didn’t blame her if she felt a little out of place. It wasn’t like I was Mr. Extrovert. If we hadn’t been in Sudsy’s social studies class together who knows how long it would have been before we started talking. But fate was kind, and my BFF ended up in another class, so when she walked into class that first day I was the first friendly face she recognized, and she sat down at the desk in front of me. There she stayed for several weeks, both of us too shy and nervous to say much more than hello to each other. I stared at her back as I day-dreamed the classes away, until by the 3rd week I pretty much had her wardrobe memorized.
Usually I preferred the girls in the class to wear their classic plaid skirts, but she had a way of filling out a pair of blue slacks that made it hard for me to concentrate. (Not that it took much to distract me in those days). She also had a collection of fuzzy sweaters that she wore that probably didn’t come from J.C. Penney’s. Even after 25 years I can still remember the rainbow striped wool one that was my favorite.
Our dress code at ND required us to wear sweaters from Oct 1st, to May 1st, and in those ancient days, real wool was still prevalent. I had my own wool sweaters that used to make me itch like I had poison ivy. One day as I sat behind her in Social Studies, groaning as I tried to scratch my back with a ruler, she turned around and gave me a puzzled look. Embarrassed, I blurted out “I’ve got an itch”. She huffed loudly, and spun back around in her seat. When class was over she gave me an evil look, and I asked her what I had done to offend her. “Well, you called me a bitch!” she said, and my face turned deep red. Stammering, I tried to explain that I did not call her anything, but that she must have misunderstood me when I said I had an itch. She smiled coyly, and in that very moment I knew the hook had been set.
It wasn’t long before we were whispering to each other all class long, or seeking each other out in the hallway between classes. When hockey season started I discovered that she was a bigger Sabres fan than I was. By Christmas time, I had finally mustered the courage to call her one evening with a contrived question about homework. We talked for an hour, and soon we began calling each other between periods of the Sabres games to compare notes.
Looking back I was so naïve that I ignored all the obvious signs. She liked me, but I was already dating a girl from BHS and had been since August. So I told myself we were just friends, and used that excuse to justify our time together. By February though there could be no ignoring it. It was during a dance at BHS one weekend, that I finally realized how much I had grown to like her. My girlfriend was babysitting as usual, and I was attending the dance with my good friend Chris. The girl next door was there as well, with her old BHS classmates. I spent the night dancing with her, and when the night was over I knew in my heart that I had a dilemma. I spent more time thinking about her than I did my girlfriend, and looked forward to every chance I had to see her outside of school. Walking the dog around the block in the evenings, my pulse always quickened when I passed her house, hoping she’d be outside.
In April, I clumsily broke things off with my girlfriend. It was the first time I had broken up with anyone, and I can’t say it was something that I relished doing. But in my heart I knew it was the only fair thing to do. To continue would just lead to more lies. My family was not happy about it, and quickly deduced that the girl next door was the reason. Consequently they never liked her. Neither did my now-ex girlfriend, who could rightly sense what was going on despite my denials. It didn’t take long for the girl next door to realize she was being called a homewrecker, and worse behind her back.
Despite my Catholic guilt I was at last free to start dating the girl next door. Then a strange thing happened. I chickened out. For some reason I never followed through on my feelings, even though those feelings were undeniable and apparent to everyone who knew me. It made no sense, but I was frozen and could move neither forward nor backward. Spring bloomed, and with it began a new season of romance for all the kids in our group. Everyone was coupling and re-coupling, pairing off with new kids for the summer. It should have been so easy to call her up, ask her out alone, and then profess my feelings to her, but I never did.
When the school year ended she left ND to go back to BHS. I never understood why, anymore than I understood what brought her to ND in the first place. Before summer was over, I had fallen back into the relationship with my ex-girlfriend, where I would stay for the next 2 years although I would never again stay faithful to her. The girl next door started dating a guy at BHS, and life continued on. Years would pass, and we would remain friends, but we would never come close to dating. I carried a torch for her far longer than I care to admit, but even once we were in college and I was single again I couldn’t bring us back.
There are forks in the road that we pass by, and choose not to take, and others that we mean to take, but end up passing by. Once you’ve turned down several roads it becomes impossible to retrace your steps. As much as I valued our friendship in the coming years I could never let myself stop wondering “what if”. That wasn’t a fun way to live, and I spent the next few years in the wilderness of the North Country pining away for a love that never was. Eventually I came to resent her and hated myself for feeling that way. Then even the self loathing passed, until there was nothing left but embarrassment, and memories fading into the distant past. Memories, added to the others that have accumulated here, like stones marking the paths I’ve walked.