Thursday, January 20, 2005


Love's Labour Lost and Found (A Random Anecdote)

I remembered Robin from my first day of class in 8th grade because she got in trouble for wearing clogs, and was therefore out of uniform.

It was my first time back in Catholic school in a long time, and I was a little shocked by how strict the place was. Being new to the lockdown environment, my reaction to the predicament of this slender girl with the pert little nose and chestnut hair was, I'm sure, uncharacteristic. Everyone else was smirking or sighing with relief that they hadn't gotten in trouble. I just felt bad for her.

This poor, befreckled child of angels stood there, tears of shame splashing down the length of her standard-issue parochial school plaid jumper. Chestnut hair shining in the light, she stared down at her feet, at the offending footwear, soaking in the abuse of our teacher.

Mrs. Moore. My eyes still narrow at the name. My, what a puckered, nasty piece of work she was. Soak Ernest Borgnine in a tub for an hour, put him in drag, and you'd pretty much have my 8th grade teacher, in looks anyway. For personality, you'd have to go somewhere south of Hitler, somewhat north of, oh, pretty much any of the crazier Roman emperors (pick one).

If I were Tom Sawyer, I'm sure I could have figured out some way to shield this poor, quivering girl (did I mention her chestnut hair?) from our teacher. But really, what could I do in the event? Stand up and shout, "Those are my clogs! Punish me!" or "Injun Joe! He did it!"? All I could manage was a sympathetic smile, which she remembered, since I was the only one in class who made eye contact with her.

We both ended up on Safety Patrol. My post was on the stairwells at recess and after class, making sure the little kids never ran or trampled each other. Her job was to make rounds and see that everyone was at their assigned post. But she always stopped to talk to me, and I lived for those moments. Unlike with Maryanne, I had recovered my gift of gab. More than that, I tried out different lines on her. Some days I was goofily courtly, like a cartoon dog in armor, other times I tried to a sarcastic rake, making fun of all the teachers we had. Eventually, I just, this smartass goofball who liked to make girls laugh.

I could not get that girl out of my mind (I don't know if I mentioned her chestnut hair yet). I'd think about her on the bus, daydream about her at school. I even wrote a fairly decent mystery story involving her and me (and a few other classmates thrown in, but I gave her all the good scenes, at least til my character solved the mystery, which involved a locket that someone had stolen from Robin).

And then there was the Dream. (no, not that kind of Dream. Jeezus, you people think everything's about one thing. I swear...)

On the eve of our 8th grade class trip to New York City, I had this terrible dream in which our class was up on the observation deck of some skyscraper (no idea which) and somehow Robin fell over the side. I raced to the edge...and woke up.

We can trade Freudian interpretations of this dream down in the comments section and have a right good chuckle about it there, but let me tell you, on that day, it was no laughing matter. I was convinced this was a pure-D premonition and from the bus ride into the city on throughout the entire day, I shadowed that girl.

At one point, walking on the sidewalk in front of the UN, she turned and asked why I was following her. I was caught so unawares I actually told her the truth, "I don't want anything to happen to you," I blurted out. Which embarrassed us both (there were enough of our classmates nearby who overheard this that it prompted a round of teasing) but I think she was secretly charmed by my statement, because later she kept looking at me and smiling and I thought, Okay, this is love. I'm in love. Which was really the first time I can remember giving voice to such a thought. A pretty obvious realization, I suppose, but it made me a little giddy just to think it. To feel it (I have goosebumps even now).

And then we went in the World Trade Center and up to an observation deck and I stopped being giddy and started quietly to freak out. Oh God, this was the dream, come to life. Surely, this would be the scene of Robin's doom! Unless...

Nah, nothing happened. We peered into the fog and then went off to catch a Broadway show. (And yes, since you were wondering, 20 years later, after 9/11, I DID secretly check around--and learned that Robin was nowhere near the WTC when it collapsed. She was safely ensconced in southern New Jersey).

No too long after that trip, our school hosted a little end-of-year dance, and it was there that I faced my moment of truth. The dance was on a Friday afternoon, in the gym, and only lasted a couple hours. But it was a big deal because we didn't have to wear our school uniforms so it was interesting to see people--especially female people--dressed in casual clothes, wearing their hair differently. We all filed into the gym, our hair parted by the deafening music, our eyes blinded by the glitter of a genuine, era-appropriate disco ball. We assumed the classic school-dance positions: girls on one side of the gym, dancing, boys on the other side, sitting, feet nailed to the floor.

About an hour or so in, Robin's best friend came over and wondered in an overly casual way why I didn't ask Robin to dance at the next slow dance. This was the kind of dance where they only played two slow songs during the entire thing, and one had already been played. So basically, this was my last chance. I told her friend I'd think about it, and when she left, I began to feel a little sick.

Oh, the pressure! Of course I wanted to dance with this girl. And I thought maybe there was a good chance my invitation wouldn't be rejected. I was abominably thick when it came to girls, but I wasn't a complete moron. I was pretty close to sure Robin had sent her friend over to pave the way for my approach.

And yet...I remembered what happened when they played the first slow song. How kids vanished from the dance floor as though a neutron bomb had vaporized them. I didn't think I had the guts to ask this girl to dance and take her out onto an empty dance floor in front of the entire school.

The current fast song was ending.

There was only about 10 minutes left before the dance was over. The next song was going to be the last slow one, I just knew it.

I thought about how, after 4th grade, I had blown the chance to talk to Maryanne on the playground when I came back for a visit.

Was I going to blow this chance too? Well, was I?

I'd like to tell you that I took my shot, that I got up and walked over and smiled my smartass, goofy grin and extended my hand and said, "Whaddayasay, Robin?" and that it was the beginning of something special. I'd love to be able to reach back across the years, knowing what I know now--my skin thickened by years of working in a field where you learn to shrug off self-doubt and smile in the face of rejection and ridicule--and give that poor 12-year-old kid the moment of devil-may-care confidence it would have taken to propel him across the floor and ask the girl with the chestnut hair to dance.

But as you probably know by now, I choked.

The slow dance started, and even after one or two brave couples started their awkward staggering across the floor, I remained in my seat as surely and immovably as if I had been bolted there. I never asked her to dance.

I seethed about it on the entire bus ride home that day, but by the time I was sitting in my bedroom, I had convinced myself that this was not my only chance. I vowed that it would be different next time. In the fall, we'd both be going to the same high school, the Homecoming dance was just a couple months into the new school year. I'd ask her to that.

Yeah, it was a good plan: I'd ask her next time...

My son is 14 and in 9th grade..I am reliving those horrid awkward moments all over again, only this time I see the male perspective. How did we ever live through it all?!
Looking forward to the conclusion!

Ahh shucks... I built that one up to a big ending, The trials by fire when your 14.
Oh, a big fat ending is coming all right...just not the one you think (or at this point in my hapless narrative, perhaps it is exactly what you think). Stay tuned...
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