My kindergarten classroom had tall windows that stretched to the ceiling, filling our fingerpaint-scented room with bright swaths of yellow-white sunlight. I still remember my teacher’s name, Mrs. Orton, and her kind face. The faces of my classmates have blurred with time, except for one, the pleasant face of Tina, a girl of Swedish descent whose fair hair reflected the sunlight and whose lips resembled red rose petals in contrast to her pale skin. I don’t remember interacting with Tina, but I knew with the animal-like instinct of small children that she was good, and I was glad she was there.
This was 1961-62 at Marshall Annex School in Arlington, Virginia. Tina and I went on to attend Nottingham Elementary, Williamsburg Junior High, and Yorktown High together. Whether we shared classes or simply passed each other with smiles in the hallway, I knew I liked her and she liked me—in fact, I sensed she had a crush on me, a suspicion she confirmed by placing a valentine in my mailbox on a snowy Saturday afternoon when we were in sixth grade. I was touched, then concerned I would hurt her feelings if I didn’t reciprocate. I quickly constructed a valentine, slipped it into an envelope bearing her name, rode my bike through snow flurries to her house, which was only a few blocks away, and deposited it in her mailbox. I was terrified her father would open the front door while I was about my furtive business. But the door remained closed, and I rode triumphantly home, reveling in the bracing cold and the hiss of falling snow.
Once home, I initiated the most terrifying part of my plan: I dialed Tina’s phone number to tell her to look in her mailbox. Our twelve-year-old conversation went something like this:
“Tina—uh—this is Allen.”
“Allen,” she said in a surprised, excited voice.
“Uh—listen—uh—I got your valentine—uh—it’s very nice—uh—thank you.”
“You’re welcome. I’m glad you liked it.”
“Uh—look in your mailbox.”
“Uh—just look, okay? I gotta go.”
Despite this Neanderthal-like conversation on my part, Tina agreed to dance with me the next year at our first junior high dance, which was held in our laser-and-mirror-ball-lit gym. We had no trouble rocking out to songs like “I Got a Line on You,” “Get Back,” and “Pinball Wizard”. However, when it came to slow-dance tunes like The Beatles’ “Something,” we jumped away from each other like polarized magnets. Actually, I think Tina was game for anything, but we were shy, and she wanted me to take the lead. I was too frightened to ask her to slow dance, and we missed out. Because, at fifty-five, here’s what I know: if we’d held each other in our arms, we would have fallen in love.
Why was I so frightened? I certainly wasn’t afraid of rejection from Tina. No, I was terrified of the emotional intensity I instinctively knew would result from physical contact with her.
I remained a coward, and Tina and I danced our way through junior high without ever touching. The gym always smelled of sweat, perfume, and that odd chicken soup tang of adolescent body odor. Tina chose not to wear perfume, but she bore the delicious scent of her mother’s pear soap.
In high school, we still smiled at each other in the hallway, but we no longer shared classes. Eventually, we grew up and went to college. I matriculated to Virginia Tech, where I earned a B.A. in journalism. I don’t know where Tina attended college, but she became a registered nurse.
As you know, it’s easy to lose track of your classmates after high school. However, Tina was close to my friend Van’s sister, Jill, who was in turn a friend of my mom’s. Therefore, I received little trickles of intelligence regarding Tina over the next twenty-five years, and the news was disturbing: Tina was living out in the Virginia countryside with a ne’er-do-well husband who beat her and refused to work to help pay the bills. I never heard any mention of children, and I assumed Tina had given up on this dream to protect her would-be children from their violent father.
When I attended my twenty-fifth Yorktown High School class reunion in 2000, this intelligence was still current. Like a hunting dog, I quartered the banquet room until I came upon Tina, who stood with Jill and several other girlfriends. Tina’s beautiful face brightened, then blushed, when I inserted myself next to her in the circle of women. If the intervening years had been hard on her, not more than a faint line or two near her cerulean eyes revealed it. I must have blushed also because my face felt ferociously hot, like melting wax.
I longed to talk with Tina alone, but the other women were aware of our history, and they didn’t want to miss a word. Also, maybe Tina declined to step away for fear I’d ask her too many painful questions about her current circumstances. If there’d been music, I’d have asked Tina to dance, especially if it were a slow dance, but the dancing had been at the event the night before, which Tina had not attended. In the end, I simply asked Tina how she was.
She was fine, she assured me, not quite meeting my eye. And then she looked directly at me and said, “You know what I’ve learned? I love living out in the country so close to nature. I can’t tell you what joy it brings me.”
I held her gaze. “I’m glad you’ve found something that makes you happy,” I said.
I didn’t mean for my words to bear any unusual weight, but they emerged with a warmth and sincerity that allowed us to finally, fully connect. We knew we’d always liked each other, we knew we easily could have fallen in love, we felt sadness over the missed opportunity, and we knew we still cared for each other, although our adult lives had irrevocably pulled us apart. She was an unhappily married, childless woman who found solace in nature while I was happily married with four children and living just outside of San Francisco. We both knew I no longer represented any hope, happiness, or salvation for her. We saw this in each other’s eyes, and then there was nothing else to say. I kissed her cheek, she smiled, and I moved on.
And where, you might wonder, was my wife, Elizabeth, when I kissed Tina? She had generously stayed home in California to care for our children so I could take this brief trip to visit my parents and brother in Arlington and attend the reunion activities. She also stayed home for my thirtieth class reunion trip as well. Although I palpably missed her presence, her absence at these reunions put me in the unusual position of having an extra-marital affair with my past.
When I attended Williamsburg Junior High in the early 1970s, I was a pimple-faced, straight-A student with an out-of-fashion crew cut—my parents didn’t want me to look like a hippie. Needless to say, I was despised by many of my more fashionable, more clear-skinned, and less studious classmates. I had several good guy friends but no girlfriend or even a girl buddy.
Probably my one redeeming feature in the eyes of my classmates was I had a large-framed, muscular body and played on the football, wrestling, and track teams. This brought me into frequent contact with the school’s cheerleading squad, and one girl, Kate, caught my eye. She had long, glossy black hair and a pretty face. She smiled frequently, including at me, and when she did, her smile lit up her warm and sincere brown eyes. When Kate was with the other cheerleaders, she giggled with them over private jokes, but she wasn’t stuck up, raucous, or cruel-tongued like some of her cohorts. Alone, she was quiet and shy but friendly. Also, there was something endearing about the way the cuffs of her navy blue Peters jacket partially covered her delicate hands, as if indicating she was still mostly a sweet and innocent girl rather than a worldly woman.
We spent the first two years of junior high simply smiling warmly whenever we saw each other. This gave me the courage to ask her out on a date during our third year. The school was sponsoring a private party and dance for the athletes, cheerleaders, and their dates at the home of one of the athletes.
I knew immediately Kate was the girl I wanted to ask to the dance. The question was how to find the privacy and right moment to do so. Finally, I decided to ask Kate out as we were the last two students filing out of the formaldehyde-and-chalk-scented biology classroom. The students ahead of us were oblivious to our presence, and our teacher, Mr. Seabridge, had disappeared into the supply room at the back of the classroom. I wasn’t going to find a better moment.
Just before we stepped into the crowded chaos of the hallway, I gently touched Kate on the shoulder. Uncertain I’d touched her firmly enough to get her attention, I said, “Kate?”
She turned immediately, her face open and friendly. “Yes, Allen?”
“Can I talk to you for a second, here?”
She smiled encouragingly. “Sure. What’s up?”
My ears roared, and I felt time slow to a near-standstill. “Uh—well—uh—I was wondering if you’d go to the athletes’ dance with me.”
Her smile widened; then she looked at me with regret.
“Allen, I’d love to go with you, but I’m babysitting that night—I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
I scanned her face for any signs of insincerity, but she continued to smile, and she looked directly at me, her eyes showing deep concern that she’d hurt my feelings.
“That’s okay,” I said. “I was just hoping…”
“I know,” she said softly. “I’m really sorry.” She reached and squeezed my arm. “Thanks for asking. It means a lot to me.”
We stepped out into the hallway, where we were soon whipped apart by the wild and ruthless current.
I attended the athletes’ party. As I walked down the polished maple stairs to the basement party room, I hoped for two things: either Kate would be at the party waiting for me, having changed her mind about babysitting, or there’d be no sign of her. I was terrified Kate would be there with another date.
When I stepped into the plush party room, I noted with a mix of disappointment and relief that Kate was not present. I also observed that all of the party guests were jocks and cheerleaders, and there were no girls with whom I wished to dance. To my relief, Craig S. and his band were set up in a corner blasting out a medley of Jimi Hendrix tunes—Craig S. was one of our school’s two guitar virtuosos; the other was my friend Craig V.; to my knowledge, I was the third-best guitar player, but either Craig could easily have blown me off the stage. I gave Craig S. a nod of acknowledgement, then stood in front of the largest speaker I could find and surrendered to the boom and scream of the music.
Kate and I continued to smile at each other warmly through the rest of junior high and high school, but we never spoke again before graduating. One reason was cowardice on my part. In high school, I dropped out of sports to work at Pizza Hut to earn the money for my first car. Without the athlete/cheerleader connection I’d had with Kate, it would have been difficult and very socially awkward for me to have maintained my connection to her. Despite my affection for her, fear protected my heart from pain and embarrassment. Also, I’d never experienced romantic love, so I didn’t know what I was missing. Therefore, I was content to fill my spare time with swimming, reading science fiction, playing electric guitar, and hanging out with my buddies.
But here’s what I know now: We can never get enough love. It is a lingering pain realizing one might have had it, at any time, and let it go. If Kate and I had enjoyed some intimate conversations and hugs and kisses in high school, there’s at least the possibility we could have become a happy, loving couple.
Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but when I was eighteen, I slow danced with a girl for the first time, and I was so emotionally high from holding her in my arms, I gently nibbled her throat. The next moment, we kissed, and soon we were lovers in love. My boyish instincts about the intensity of physical contact with a girl proved true.
Thirty-three years after asking Kate to the athletes’ dance, I attended Yorktown High’s thirtieth class reunion. As I approached the registration table set up on the edge of the park where our reunion picnic was held, a dark-haired woman on the other side of the table turned toward me and called out, “Allen!”
Before I could focus on her, a woman who was directly across the table from me said, “Hi, Allen. I can help you with your nametag right here.” I recognized her as a blonde cheerleader I hadn’t particularly liked, although her face was, to paraphrase George H. W. Bush, kinder and gentler now. This was a good thing because I knew she’d married a neighborhood friend of mine whom I hadn’t known particularly well but had always liked. He had a deep love of baseball, and he possessed an aura of natural leadership.
When I turned toward the dark-haired woman who’d first called my name, she had her back to me, busily pinning nametags on a clump of new arrivals. Also, I was partially blinded by the late summer afternoon sunlight. I memorized her stylish black dress and hair so I could find her later.
For the next few hours, I ate Southern barbeque and visited with old friends while keeping an eye out for the mysterious woman in black. As sunset approached, I became concerned the picnic would end before I tracked her down. I excused myself from conversation and systematically searched the park until I recognized her walking away from me up a grassy incline. I quickly caught up to her and touched her shoulder.
“Kate, is that you?” I said.
She turned toward me, smiling. “Allen, yes, it’s me. I’m so glad to see you.”
We observed each other for a moment.
Kate began to look uncomfortable. Her face was heavier than that of the skinny waif of a girl I so fondly remembered, and her black dress bulged near her stomach in a non-pregnant way.
She could easily pull herself together and look the way she used to, I thought. Be the beautiful girl I remember. This was an unfair thought, of course. Kate owed me nothing, but part of me craved to see her as a gracefully aged version of her younger self.
Kate seemed to read my thoughts, and she clearly wished she’d aged gracefully as well.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “My life hasn’t turned out the way I hoped, and I’ve let myself go.” She searched my face for kindness and understanding. I have no idea if this is true, but in my imagination Kate had been unhappily married and was now divorced and lonely.
“It’s okay,” I said softly. “You’re fine.”
She smiled with relief.
Neither of us felt the need to speak further. We wrapped our arms around each other and stood in the fading light until a vespertine stillness settled into the woods around us, and we knew we’d made our peace and it was time to go home.
As you know, children can be very cruel to one another. When I attended Williamsburg Junior High, we had a short, round kid with a crew cut who’d been dubbed Pumpkin by a cruel-witted classmate. We also had a skinny boy with a bony face and a thatch of red-gold hair known as Scarecrow. Girls who were not skinny as stick figures were considered fat and christened Thunder Thighs.
My strong impression is that this malice originated with our school’s power elite students—kids who were rich, handsome or gorgeous, or sports heroes or cheerleaders. Also, the kids who supplied pot to the power elite were allowed a place in this hallowed circle of young gods.
One girl tormented by the power elite was Emily, a pretty girl with shoulder-length raven hair who shared seventh grade history class with me. She came to class every day sniffling and wiping tears from her eyes. Her nose was bright red and raw from excessive contact with tissue. The reason for Emily’s unhappiness? Every time she changed classes, one or more of the power elite would corner her in the hallway and shout, “Thunder Thighs!”
As soon as Emily took her seat next to me, Jake, a short and overweight but rich power-elite kid who sat directly behind her would say, “Thunder Thighs!”
Emily would resume crying. Then Charlie, a pot supplier to the power elite who sat a few desks away on the other side of me would say, “What’s the matter, Thunder Thighs? Why you crying, Thunder Thighs? You sad because you got Thunder Thighs?” Jake and Charlie’s voices were loud, and all of our classmates and our teacher, Mr. Fergusson, could hear them.
At the beginning of class, Mr. Fergusson always had his back to us as he wrote key points of our lesson on the blackboard. I always hoped he’d whip around and harshly scold Jake and Charlie, but he pretended not to hear. Looking back, I realize he was gay and hiding it during the 1969-70 school year, when the word “gay” did not yet exist in mainstream society, let alone the concept of gay rights. Mr. Fergusson definitely did not want to draw attention to himself. Or maybe his gay status had nothing to do with it—maybe he was simply a man who disliked confrontation.
So that left me. “Jake, shut up and leave her alone!” I’d say. “Charlie, cut it out! How can you be so cruel?”
Surprisingly this worked, perhaps because Jake and Charlie knew I could pound them into two little grease spots on the hallway floor if I were so inclined, or perhaps I simply embarrassed them in front of their classmates, many of whom despised the power elite. Anyway, my defense of Emily always worked, and she’d flash me a grateful smile, which I’d return.
Decades later, these events were deeply buried in my memory as I stood talking with a former classmate on a floating bar on the Potomac River, the site of one of my Yorktown High thirtieth class reunion events. I was talking with a woman named Sally I’d known and liked since first grade.
We halted our conversation to watch a couple descend the gangplank that led from the riverbank to our floating bar. The woman was attractive with honey-blonde hair, and she wore a becoming burnt orange dress that complemented her slim figure and exposed her tanned neck, shoulders, and ample cleavage. Her husband was tall and handsome, and he looked around in a neutral way that signaled he wasn’t a former classmate. When the couple reached the deck, the woman peered at Sally’s nametag and said, “Oh, I remember you.” Then she examined mine. “Allen, thank God,” she said. “You’re the sole reason I came to this reunion—I saw you were going to be here, and I came to thank you.”
I read her nametag: Emily. The name tugged at my memory. I looked at her face, suddenly imagining her with shoulder-length black hair and a ruby nose, and instantly I felt like we were back in seventh grade history class. “Emily,” I said. “I remember you—I remember everything, how you were treated so horribly.”
“Then you know why I’ve come to thank you.”
Sensing our conversation was going deep, my sweet friend Sally asked Emily’s husband a question and led him a few feet away.
“Do you know you were the only person who ever stood up for me when I was teased and insulted?” Emily said.
“It’s not a big deal,” I said. “Those guys were jerks—somebody needed to shut them up.”
“It’s a giant deal. Allen, I’ve been in therapy my entire adult life trying to get over those traumatic school years. In fact, my therapist recommended I come here tonight to get some closure, but you’re the only person I want to see—there’s many people here I definitely don’t want to see. I’m so glad I found you—I’ve been thinking about you for years.”
“Well, it’s wonderful to see you,” I said.
Emily drew herself up and looked deeply into my eyes. “So thank you,” she said. “Thank you so much.”
“Emily, it was my pleasure.”
She smiled, but she stood rigidly with her arms at her sides, and a look of disappointment began to creep into her expression, as if she’d been cheated out of a special moment of healing or closure she’d been desperately expecting.
Next to us, Emily’s husband chatted animatedly with Sally.
I didn’t want Emily to feel disappointed. “May I give you a hug?” I asked.
Her face brightened. “Of course,” she said. “That would be wonderful.” She threw her arms around me, and I held her tight. She was soft and warm against me, and she clung to me as if she were drowning out on the dark river and I was a log that had drifted into her floundering grasp. It was only after I’d held her for a few moments that I realized the fabric of her dress was stiff and unyielding, like armor.
Allen Long’s fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in The Copperfield Review, Milk Sugar, All Destiny, 42opus, Amarillo Bay, and Concho River Review. Allen is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine, and he lives with his wife near San Francisco.