Saturday, January 30, 2010

Goodbye Ruby Tuesday

This blog has a soundtrack.

Rod Stewart "Gasoline Alley"

The other day, I learned that one of my new colleagues grew up in my old neighborhood. She's about five years older than I am, but after she introduced herself, I remembered her from "way back when."

Every once in a while, she'll ask if I knew various people from grade school, and give me a news update on them, courtesy of Facebook, sending another shock-blast of ancient memories through me.

Daniella's gotten older, as we all have -- she's a mom now, too -- but she's still very much from the same gorgeous sorority (that of The Fourth Charlie's Angel) as my wife and mother-in-law and sister-in-law.

Sometimes when I'm talking to Daniella, I'll think to myself, There were girls who looked like this in my neighborhood when I was growing up? They went to the same school as me?

Bono "I Can't Help (Falling in Love)"

And then I remember. Yes.

Among them was Lesley.

She'd been in my kindergarten class right through to eighth grade. She was blond with brown eyes, and I can say without any hesitation that she was the first girl I ever loved. Or, more powerfully put -- liked.

You remember how it was among kids, particularly if you were a guy: at some point, during recess or something, being confronted in the most pressing, delicious, intense, laughing manner by the friends of the girl you liked, asking, "So, do you like her?" And the air around your face ionizing, and the blood slamming through your skull turning candied and oxygenated, gliding through your veins like the Music Express at the carnival, throbbing in your arteries like your favorite song, and nerves where you never even knew you had any raised their heads and turned in the direction of the sun.

And you'd reply, "No! Of course not!" Because who in the world could admit to liking someone?

We went to school with these people, day after day; were surrounded by our friends, their friends, their older siblings, and their older siblings' friends. Admitting to liking someone was tantamount to having your heart raised on a flagpole like a pair of dirty underwear.

J. Geils Band "Love Stinks"

So, when friends of Lesley's made their way over to me, with their hopeful smiles, their eyes filled with gypsy knowledge, (and yet some innocent hopefulness that I might in some insane, unguarded moment, actually give an honest answer to their query) asked me: "So, do you like Lesley?"

At times, it was actually fun saying No because it was so obvious that I meant Yes. Her friends knew that. They knew I did, but they wanted to hear me say it. But I never could.

And there were those late September and early May afternoons, after school, when I'd sit on my bike at the corner of Curry and University, looking down Curry Avenue, hoping for a glimpse of Lesley. Until fourth grade, I wasn't even sure which house she lived in, the odd time I'd assemble my Chinese-Checkers-courage, and do a ride-by.

One of the guys in my class lived on Curry. He had a sister who was a year or two older than us who was friends with Lesley. The odd time I was at that guy's house, his sister and Lesley would suddenly walk in the front door, or enter the back yard, and I'd light up, my nervous system stuttering like a plane going through turbulence. And all my natural tendencies took over and I'd try to be funny, or start wrestling with my buddy. He'd look at me like I was crazy, and later accuse me of showing-off. I'd go into this painful buffoon act, as though Lesley's presence was a poultice that drew all my stupid to the surface.

There was the afternoon that Lesley came around that I climbed one of the metal T-shaped ends of my buddy's backyard clothesline. I hung upside down with a cocky smirk on my face, as though pulling some kind of Uri Geller trick. I tried some fancy dismount by grabbing onto the center of the T-shaped metal stand, but the cuff of my jeans got caught in one of the hooks onto which the clothesline hung. Suddenly, I was hanging upside down, dangling by one leg. In the midst of my immediate confusion and what-the-fuckness, Lesley and my buddy and my buddy's sister broke out laughing. By all rights, my skinny, stupid ass should have slid out of those jeans, dumping me in my blue Fruit of the Looms right there on the grass before Lesley. But I guess the universal malignity had a little mercy on me and I somehow remained lodged within my trousers. My cuff soon ripped and I landed in a heap.

But the echo of Lesley's sudden laughter stayed with me for weeks. It's still with me.

REM "The Flowers of Guatemala"

The thing about memories, for me, is that they're so similar to dreams -- similar in that I can't remember, sometimes, how I got into a certain circumstance, I just recall the situation. It's like the mind swallows up all the mundane shit, but holds on to those few moments when we woke within the waking dream of a given day.

There was one gray, cold, rainy autumn evening, which was just the sort of mundane scene my mind would ball-up and toss away like an old grocery list or ATM receipt. But this particular evening I rode my bike by Lesley's house and there she sat, alone, on her front porch.

Normally, all of my usual repressed, anxiety-besotted reactions would have had me simply say hello and continue riding past. But that evening, I coasted up her short front walk, and stood there, straddling my bike, chatting with her. Next thing I knew, I sat on the porch next to Lesley. My gawd, there I was, at Lesley's house, where she lived when she wasn't at school, where she slept at night, where she woke in the morning, where she lived her life, where her parents and sisters lived with her. And I was there with her. It was like being invited into Graceland by Elvis himself.

We chatted about nothing in particular, but I do recall that given the fact that it was only the two of us, with no others around in front of whom I had to be guarded, I didn't act the part of schoolyard jester-fool. I was just my regular, not-really-knowing-what-to-say self.

At some point, the front door opened and Lesley was called in for dinner. I looked up and caught a glimpse of her mother. At that time, I'd never seen her parents. Every part of Lesley's life away from school -- as anyone's other than my buddies -- was an opaque mystery, as far removed and unknown to me as the Tomb of Tutankhamun. But on this day I caught a glimpse of Lesley's life beyond school, and I carried that away with me, on my bike, like an artifact.

Johnny Rivers "Do You Wanna Dance?"

When we were in fourth or fifth grade, there was a rumor that Lesley liked me. The news -- sketchy as it was; third- or fourth-hand as it was -- hit me like a narcotic. At some point, Lesley's friends telephoned my house to ask me if I liked her, too. Having witnessed the metaphysics and sociology of the schoolyard, it was impossible to make such an admission. Personal information was paraded in the schoolyard like captured enemy flag. Having that which was secret made known in the schoolyard was like having one's skin peeled from the bone.

Gawddamn, I was all too aware of the drubbing I took when I let it slip, one day, that I liked Supertramp -- a band the guys in the schoolyard considered fag. The only way to quell the teasing was to go through the unwritten, yet formal-as-a-courtroom motion of saying that I was only joking about liking Supertramp and that all those who teased me were stupid for not getting the joke.

That was just over liking a band. The reaction to revealing how I felt about Lesley would have resulted in nothing short of public crucifixion.

So, I told Lesley's friends, No, I didn't like Lesley. But of course I did. They knew it. I knew it. But I hid behind the filmy, cowardly shield of denying the obvious.

Other times, Lesley got on the phone, and we'd go through an awkward pantomime of a conversation. What the hell did I know? Nothing. Less than nothing. I've spent a lifetime just digging myself out of the immense deficit of knowledge I was shouldering when I came into this world.

Lesley had an older sister named Christine whom she resembled very much. Christine was going out with a guy on my street named Bill. I marveled how Bill had had the strength to make his like known. He should have been an example of somebody who could make that admission and survive.

Rush "Limelight"

But Bill was Bill. He could do anything. He was an amazing athlete. Once, on our street, he'd hurdled the front end of a neighbor's TR-7 that was parked blocking the sidewalk. And Bill was no dumb jock. He could be funny at will. Where I come from, being funny trumped all else.

On top of it all, Bill had an electric guitar and played it with preternatural virtuosity. He once brought his guitar and amp to my next door neighbor's house and played Rush's song "Limelight" for us -- one of my all-time favorite songs to this day -- and then Led Zeppelin's "Over the Hills and Faraway." He was even kind enough to give me a try on the guitar. I played, but I knew nothing. I strummed through a few chords of the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" and managed to make it sound like emasculated AM radio. I handed the guitar back to Bill, and he ran through a few more songs that were popular on the radio at that time, playing as though he'd co-written them with Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend.

I was no Bill.

The Rolling Stones "Ruby Tuesday"

The phone calls from Lesley and her friends lasted a few weeks, and then tapered off. Soon after, the same rumor winds that brought word that Lesley liked me, carried the news that she liked someone else. The silent disappointment and let-down I felt opened within me like a deep, narrow dry well. I had no one to blame but myself.

I graduated elementary school with Lesley, and we even went to the same high school. It wasn't long into high school that I began losing track of my grade school friends. Just the natural ebb and flow of meeting new people, and not seeing the old friends so much. I never figured myself to be an "out of sight, out of mind" kind of person, but that's just what I became in high school. And soon enough, other girls took up pedestals in the gallery of my unspoken affections.

The only thing I can say in my lame defense is that I took the lesson of Lesley -- I got to a point where I had lived long enough mastered by fear, and finally just said, "Enough."

Although I never had the guts to own up to my feelings about Lesley, I did so with other girls. And I learned the lesson of the schoolyard: to make the admissions, to bear the slings and arrows of laughter and ridicule. The introverted, word-barren boy I once was became a writer who's willing to make every stray idea or realization known on his small, mostly-ignored front porch in the Internet. I still can't play "Over the Hills and Faraway," but I did get a handle on "Limelight."

Bono "Dreaming With Tears in My Eyes"

Meeting Daniella at work has had the feel of weird, neighborhood magic about it -- the same weird, neighborhood magic that kept me from sliding out of my jeans when I hung upside down from my friend's clothesline stand; or, that found me pedaling my bike past Lesley's house that autumn evening when she was sitting alone on her front porch. The kind of neighborhood magic that propels a guy over the front end of a TR-7 blocking the sidewalk, or hitting a half court jump shot.

And hearing the updates from Daniella about people whose names I haven't heard in 30 years has been like archaeology of the heart.

Yesterday, she told me that Lesley died a couple of years ago.

I asked Daniella if she was thinking of the right person. She went through the schoolyard lineage of Bill and then Christine, and Christine's younger sister being Lesley. Christine's younger sister had died of cancer a couple of years ago.

I may not have seen Lesley since high school, twenty-some years ago, but I learned in that moment just how close she was to the surface of my thoughts -- she was right there.

And I recalled in that moment how I always thought of Lesley when I heard the Stones' song "Ruby Tuesday." Because, I could never be honest about how I felt about her, it would only ever be goodbye to Lesley. Like her calls to my house tapering off all those years ago. A person can only stay in a self-protecting, defensive crouch for so long before everyone around him goes away.

Every guy has that girl who's the archetype of all he finds beautiful and, as Billy Dee Williams once said, "Sings your heart's song." Lesley was mine. And if I understood Daniella correctly, she's gone. Gone for good this time.

I feel like getting drunk.

The Faces "Ooh La La (I Wish I Knew What I Know Now When I Was Younger)"

Bob Dylan's "Series of Dreams"

1 comment:

Grace said...

What a touching story. I can picture very clearly your younger self. I wish I would have met you back then to meet this younger you.
Grace