The thwarted romances of youth.
The first time, I was 10 or 11, our family helping out with somebody’s house-fixing something in the suburbs. I was inside, painting. I slowly pulled a brush along a window frame on a clear, sunny day, applying fresh off-white to the aged, underlying off-white. To my right stood a girl a year or two older, also painting. I recall nothing but her arm, the sun amplified on the blonde hairs. I loved her, loved her arm, loved that glistening hair.
I never saw her again.
In the ancient decommissioned church hall in Powelton that served as the local community center, I was corralled into a square dance. I almost never dance. My appendages don’t work that way. But square dancing is impersonal, in the best sense, and it’s hard to be obviously clumsy.
At 34th and Baring Sts., a lush Victorian house had some rehabilitation function that no one could quite explain. It housed girls who…I guess needed housing.
At the square dance, I was paired with one of those girls. I remember her face: simple, open, slightly heavy eyebrows, dark hair, shy yet engaging, asking nothing obvious of anybody. We do-si-doed, allemanded right and whatever else you do in a square dance. We barely talked. We smiled and, I think, understood each other. Ahhh…
I never saw her again.
At St. Agatha’s, my Catholic grade school, the boys and girls were taught in separate classrooms until the last grade (eighth), when the class size had pared down to “only” 40 students total, so we were all, boys and girls, shrugged together in one room.
Connie was the class beauty – a description I’ll defend to my dying day. Geeky me – short, lank-haired, sway-backed, class brain, eyeglassed with black tape on the lenses – there was little I cared about in that room but the impossible hope of Connie. Though the rest of the class must have noticed my continually glancing back at her – blonde, serene, virginal but delectable – no one ever ranked me for it. Had they, I would have dissolved.
We spoke once, I think.
After I graduated St. Agatha’s, I was invited back for excursions that honored those expatriates who had gone on to do well in Catholic high school (and shit, did I do well … academically). The first time was the grade school’s annual spring outing to Woodside Park, one of two amusement parks back then, to the north of Philadelphia.
(“Amusement parks”: You went to a place with a couple roller coasters and bumper cars and simple-ass spinning rides and balloon stands with games and wandered a lot and didn’t have to stand in line too long, bought trinkets, there was a fun house, maybe two, you sat on park benches, ate not too much, laughed at stuff that didn’t matter…. God was it fun.)
I mentally/spiritually hooked up with a brunette, short, unassuming, glasses, nothing specific to attach to, but I was snagged. I wanted to cruise with her in the “tunnel of love,” where a multi-personed gondola drifted through whateverthehell might be in there. Our little four-person squad got up to the stepping-off point and the gondolier filling the boat ahead yowled, “C’mon, we need one more.” And I, alone, stepped into that be-sataned boat. Why would I do such an absurd, pointless, self-defeating thing?
The good little boy listened to authority and lost one of the most promising experiences of his young lifetime. Sure, nothing would have happened in that wretched boat. But my day was ruined, my sense of self tanked like a decommissioned submarine. Few dumbnesses I’ve perpetrated in life have rankled with such an abiding sense of shame.
I never saw her again.
Another St. A’s high-school-reward trip took us to Washington DC. We visited the catacombs. You didn’t know there were Catholic catacombs under DC? I don’t have any idea why/how they’re there, but as a budding teen they were a load of mildly spooky fun. On the way back in the bus, I sat next to a sharp-featured girl who thought a lot of herself. You could tell that. And though she wasn’t really attractive, I thought a fair amount of her too. We sang songs together.
What songs? I never saw her again.
In my teens, on the few days I took the Lancaster Ave. trolley (rather than walked) to St. Thomas More, my high school, a cocoa-colored girl often hung from the strap of the crowded car. Oh lord. The mornings when she didn’t dangle across from me were empty.
I never spoke to her.
In the house next door to us (home of Peter Boyle’s sister), lived a girl who had a rabbit. I’m not sure why I remember that, because I was concerned only with the girl, not the rabbit. In the summer she wore shorts, unleashing lovely, abundant white legs. She would sit on the front steps with her friend, someone I recognized from back in grade school but barely knew.
Squinting out through the internal shutters shielding our seven-foot front windows, I’d pine away until I couldn’t stand it, then creep out and sit on our front steps, next to them, separated by the simple iron stair-fence between the two houses.
I never said a word. They never acknowledged me. What in god’s name could they have thought of such an idjit?
Can you overcome through time, rehabilitate the years you’ve made a fool of yourself? Oddly enough, I think you can. But maybe you have to have (again) the good luck to live long enough. Had I died in my 40s, 50s, even 60s, I would have left behind what so often seems, to me, a wasteland. Now it hangs in bemused retrospect. I could have been anybody, have probably done what most did at one time, in one way or another.