It was Teriyaki Chicken for lunch today at school. Needless to say, I was busy packing the kids lunch boxes this morning. I appreciate the efforts of the lunch ladies to put together nutritious meals for our finicky kids, but I half expect they put stuff like this in the menu on purpose so they can take a day off. Hard to blame them. For the most part, I am amazed at the stuff that my kids will eat. Lord knows I never bought lunch at school during my time at St. Joe’s.
Seriously. I made it from Kindergarten to 8th grade without ever buying lunch. Not once. Not even on pizza day when Mrs. Suranni would make huge sheets of Sicilian style pizza. I was a very strange little child. Why my Mother humored me by making me lunch every day for 9 years is beyond me. I would eat the exact same thing for lunch every day for months, before I would decide to make a change. Sometimes the change was only from PB to PB&J, but these were not the kind of momentous changes a guy should rush into.
Unlike my siblings, I’ve never been big on spontaneity. My Big Bruddah was the one who dropped out of college, and hitch hiked his way around the country. My Bratty Big sister just celebrated her 49th birthday by jumping out of a perfectly good airplane somewhere over Missouri. As for me, the thought of not knowing where I would sleep at night would have given me ulcers. When I did take to the road, it was for work and I was on an expense account. I doubt I’d have ever become a field service engineer if my life hadn’t become such a flaming wreckage during my last year at Clarkson. Some people will only use a parachute when the plane is on fire, and luckily, I had a parachute handy.
Still, the romance of the road was something that I could relate to. As a kid I would ride my bike down the sidewalk to the corner of Mix & Prospect, and stand there looking out at the traffic on Oak Street thinking, “a person could take that road south, and keep on going until they came to the Gulf of Mexico.” That always amazed me, even if I never had the courage to ride another two blocks and cross the Tonawanda creek.
It wasn’t until I read Kerouac during my Junior year at Clarkson, that I began to understand the lure of the road and how the romance of it must have called to my Big Bruddah like a siren’s song. As the interminable weeks of winter dragged on in Potsdam, cabin fever took hold, and for the first time in my life I began to feel the itch to wander. So when a room mate told me one Friday morning, that he had decided to drive home to Rochester for the weekend, I asked if he had room in the car for one more. A few hours later I was headed south down I-81, with a change of clothes and a toothbrush, and no idea where I would be sleeping that night.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I did have a plan, however it was far from a sure thing. As I have mentioned before I spent a good portion of my later teenage years pining away for the girl next door. (Well, technically she lived around the corner from Prospect, but “the girl next door” makes a better story than “the girl around the corner from Prospect”.) She was attending RIT at the time, and living in a sorority on campus. Whether or not she had a boyfriend at the time, I can no longer remember, although I doubt that would have prevented me from showing up on her doorstep. We had been “friends” now for over 4 years, despite the fact that I had been following her around like a puppy dog for at least 3 of those years. Like many of the girls I have known in my life, if we had met in another time and place we probably would have ended up dating. But for a variety of reasons fate had somehow always stood in the way, and by the time we were both “free” to get together, we had known each other so long it just didn’t seem right. Well, it didn’t seem right to her that is. Lord knows I would have walked from Potsdam to Rochester if she had asked me to.
So while I wasn’t sure where I would end up that night, I had a plan that if I showed up on her doorstep like a stray dog she’d feel sorry enough to take me in. After all, isn’t that what ‘friends” do? So after our 4 hour drive down from the North Country my room mate pulled up in front of the utilitarian red brick campus buildings, and dropped me off. There I stood in a cold drizzly mist, with my backpack over my shoulder, screwing up my courage to go find her, half hoping, and half dreading whether or not she would be there.
RIT is not your typical collegiate campus. It doesn’t have ivy covered walls, or gothic buildings with age old gargoyles peering out from the eaves. It looks more like an office park than a college. The dorms on campus were cheerless rectangular blocks of red brick, connected via tunnels and treeless sidewalks. Like most of the buildings built in Western New York since the 60’s it would not have look out of place in Stalingrad.
The falling mist made the streetlights glow like candles in the gloom as I walked the sidewalks to the generic two story dorm building that served as her sorority house. The lobby of the “house” was deserted so I stood conspicuously in the entryway waiting for someone to let me in, holding my breath in the hope that she would be home. After what seemed like an eternity of nervous sweating, a pudgy brunette came up the steps and let me in. I explained who I was, and where I had come from, and told her I was here to see the girl next door. She walked me up to her room, but she was nowhere to be found. So she handed me off to another sorority sister, who led me down a hallway to where she thought she might be, asking all along the way if anyone had seen the girl next door, and relaying the story that I had just come four hours to see her. This seemed to intrigue the sorority girls that a guy would make such an effort to see one of their sisters. Why, it was like something out of a book! (Apparently, sorority girls read books. Who knew?)
It took awhile, but we eventually found the girl next door. By that point I think that half of the girls at the RIT campus knew I was there. The girl next door was in a basement bar at a nearby fraternity house, hanging out with some friends, and was probably the last girl on the RIT campus to hear my story. She squealed with delight when she saw me, and ran up and threw her arms around my neck. I’d like to say that I had that kind of effect on women, but alas, I think it had more to do with the three beers she had already downed by that point in the evening. Not that I was complaining. To be honest, that hug made the entire journey worthwhile. I could have turned around right then and left a happy man.
But I didn’t.
No, the night was just beginning. She was thrilled to see me, and basked in the glow of jealousy that my visit had aroused in her sisters. She led me back to her room, where I dropped my bags, and then she took me out on the rounds of the Friday night frat parties. Now, I have never been into the frat scene. In fact, I pretty much despised it, but I’d have followed her into a biker joint, or a gay bar if she’d have led me there. I never dreamt she would be so happy to see me. We danced, and we drank, and I met more eligible, attractive women in one evening that I had met in 3 years at Clarkson. But the girl next door was the only one I had come to see. At some point in the evening we picked up her “little sister” who became her tag along, and most likely her “wingman”, if sorority girls have such things.
We danced as the disco ball twirled around, and lousy 80’s dance music played. When a slow song came on she hung her arms around my neck, and leaned her head on my shoulder. It was hot down in those basement bars, and we were both sweating. When the song ended, we walked over to the shadows along the wall, and stood there laughing. I hadn’t been this close to her in over 3 years. We caught our breath while we waited for the music to start again. I turned towards her, and she looked up into my eyes, smiling. There was a look there that I had never seen before, and I think for an instant she must have finally realized how I felt for her. I leaned forward and she turned her mouth up to meet mine. We kissed, and for that brief moment all the world disappeared. It seemed to last forever, but before we could even come up for air, her little sister tapped me on the shoulder and screamed into my ear “Hey! You’re kissing my big sister!”
When I turned back to the girl next door, she had flown away like a startled bird. The night continued, but the mood had changed. She never let herself get that close to me again, and by the end of the night, it was as if it had never happened.
I awoke on the floor of her room the next morning, wondering if I had dreamed it. Could it really have happened? If it happened once, could it happen again? Those were my thoughts as I lay there looking up at the gray light creeping in through the window. My answer came soon enough. The spell was broken, and the kaleidoscope of the previous evening had been replaced by the grayness of an overcast March morning.
The remainder of the weekend passed like a trip to the library, all quietness, and formality. When my room mate arrived to pick me up, I knew that I would never get a chance to kiss her again. By summer her folks had moved out of Batavia, and she would spend the summer at RIT. Any time we spent together was in the company of friends, and the safety of a crowd. Summer would quickly melt into Senior year, and with it came the end of the remaining ties that bound us. We exchanged a few letters that year, but we were already heading away from each other on diverging roads.
The night I showed up on her doorstep, one of her sisters snapped a picture of us. It was taken just a few moments after my arrival. I am still in my coat, with a backpack slung over my shoulder. Our arms are around each other, and our cheeks are squeezed together in an embrace. The light from the flash bulb, couldn’t blur the glow in her eyes as we smiled at the camera. Somewhere deep in a shoebox, in the closet, I have it still. Just a memory of a moment when I closed my eyes, stepped out of the plane, and felt the rush of air upon my face, as I waited for the chute to open.
All our youth is training for the real life that begins when we step out that door. If we’re lucky we do our learning on the ground before we find ourselves falling through space. I like to think that those years spent chasing the girl next door were not spent in vain, for I was a far different person at the end of them, than I had been at the beginning, and she was one of many people who played a part in that. Looking back on them now, I am smiling as much as I was in that photo. If she is reading this story I hope she is smiling too, and if her “sisters” ever read it, I hope that they’re still jealous.