Saturday, January 30, 2010

Goodbye Ruby Tuesday

This blog has a soundtrack.

Rod Stewart "Gasoline Alley"

I started a new job a few weeks ago.  One of my colleagues is a startlingly pretty woman named Daniella. My second morning in the office, she stopped by my desk and said, "Do you remember me?" I knew her the moment she said her name.  She had been a few grades ahead of me in school and I was surprised she remembered me.

A fun routine soon developed, where Daniella came by my desk and dropped long lost names on me.  I remembered them all.  She then provided updates, courtesy of Facebook.

Daniella's gotten older, as we all have -- she's a mom now, too -- but there are moments while we're talking that I find myself thinking, Were there girls in my neighborhood who looked like this when I was growing up? They went to my school?

The Velvet Underground "I'll Be Your Mirror"

And I remember. Yes.

Among them, there was Leslie.

We were through elementary school together, kindergarten to eighth grade. She had blond hair and brown eyes, she had a great laugh and a deceptively subtle sense of humor.  I stole so many furtive glances in class, over the years, that I'm sure I wore a tunnel in the air that stood between us.  Decades after the fact, I can say without 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 gym or free time in the library, being confronted in the most intense, delicious, laughing manner by a girl's friends, who asked, "So, do you like her?"  When Leslie's friends asked me, the air around my face ionized, the blood slammed through my skull like the Music Express at the Freedom Festival, and nerves I never knew I had awoke and turned in the direction of the sun.

And I would say, "No! Of course not!" 

We went to school together, day-in, day-out, surrounded by our friends, their siblings -- particularly their older siblings -- and their siblings' friends. That was an army of laughing voices just waiting for a personal revelation. Admitting to liking someone was like having your heart raised on a flagpole like a pair of dirty underwear.

The Romantics "When I Look In Your Eyes"

At times, there was a perverse pleasure in saying No because it was so obvious that I meant Yes. Leslie's friends knew that, but they wanted to hear me say it. I never could.

The pang of longing was most sickly-sweet during the autumn and spring afternoons, after school, when I sat on my bike at the corner of Curry and University, looking down Leslie's street, hoping for a glimpse of her. I had known her years before I even knew which house on the block was hers.

A friend lived on her street.  His older sister was friends with Leslie.  Sometimes I was there, his sister and Leslie would walk in and my nervous system would suddenly feel like an air plane veering through turbulence. And my inner town fool took over and I'd try to be funny, or start wrestling with my friend. He'd look at me like I was crazy and accuse me of showing-off.

There was an afternoon when my friend and I were playing in his back yard.  Leslie and my friend's sister came in. Next thing I knew, I climbed one of the steel T-shaped ends of the backyard clothesline and hung upside down from the crossbar. When I attempted a fancy dismount, it seemed like I had performed accidental magic -- I let go of the clothesline stand and my feet remained in the air.  I looked up and saw the cuff of my jeans had caught on one of the clothesline hooks. As I dangled by one leg, everyone broke out laughing. By all rights, my skinny, showboating ass should have slid out of my jeans, dumping me in my blue Fruit of the Looms right there on the grass before Leslie, but the universal malignity had mercy and I somehow remained lodged within my trousers. My cuff ripped and I landed in a heap.

The echo of Leslie's sudden laughter stayed with me for weeks. It's still with me.


When we were in fourth grade, a rumor arose that Leslie liked me. The news -- sketchy as it was; third- or fourth-hand as it was -- hit me like a cannon blast. At some point, Leslie's friends upped the ante and telephoned me to ask if I liked her. Even at home, the schoolyard was never far away.  Part of me wondered if Leslie's friends were playing a joke.  Maybe the rumor wasn't true.  Regardless, it was impossible to admit my own feelings. Personal information was paraded in the schoolyard like a captured enemy flag. 

All I had to do was recall the drubbing I took the day I let it slip that I liked a Supertramp song -- a band that the guys in the schoolyard considered unequivocally fag. The only way to quell the teasing was to go through the unwritten -- yet formal-as-a-courtroom motion -- act of saying that I was "only joking", that "yes, Supertramp was fag... everybody knows that..." and the teasing tapered off.

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

So, I told Leslie's friends, No, I didn't like Leslie. 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, Leslie got on the phone, and we stumbled through an awkward pantomime of a conversation.  Once, her older sister, Christine, got on the phone and asked why would I bother with Leslie, anyhow, when her friends were prettier.  Then she laughed and handed the phone off to someone else as Leslie protested in the background.

And 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.

Leslie's older sister Christine was going out with a guy on my street named Bill.  Bill had the courage of an astronaut, of a firewalker.  Christine and Bill were three, or so, years older than us.  He didn't care who knew he and Christine were together.  He should have been an example of someone who could make that admission and survive, but I was no astronaut... I was no firewalker.

But Bill could do anything. He once hurdled the frontend of a neighbor's TR-7 sports car that was parked blocking the sidewalk.  He hit half-court jumpshots like free throws.  He could be funny at will, doing scathing impressions of a teacher who furtively picked his nose when he thought no one was looking, or kids in the schoolyard who had a funny laugh or an awkward walk.

On top of it all, Bill owned an electric guitar and played it with preternatural skill. He brought it to my next door neighbor's house one day.  Seeing an actual electric guitar was like beholding King Arthur's sword.  Bill plugged into his tiny amp and launched into "Limelight" by Rush, followed by "Over the Hills and Faraway" by Led Zeppelin.  It was like he knew a secret language. He heard I had just started taking guitar lessons and asked if I wanted to try it out. I strummed through a few chords of the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" making it sound like emasculated AM radio, then handed the guitar back to Bill.  He ran through a few more songs, playing as though he'd co-written them with Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend.


The phone calls from Leslie and her friends tapered off after a few weeks. Soon, the rumor winds carried news that Leslie liked someone else, and that was that.

Time passed, life went on. 

The thing about memories is that, for me, they're often similar to dreams -- I can't remember how I came to be in certain circumstances, I just recall being there.

Somewhere in this timeline, on a cool, rainy late afternoon when it just becoming jacket weather -- either late autumn or early spring -- I found myself riding my bike, alone.  Muscle memory brought me to Leslie's street.  I was killing time before dinner, riding down her street... and it never hurt having another look at her house. 

So, I pedaled along, listening to the drizzle in the trees, my wheels zzz-ing along the road when...  I couldn't believe my eyes: As I approached Leslie's house, there she was, sitting alone on the front porch. 

Normally, I would have clenched up, my brain heaving into vapor lock and at best, I would have muttered a quick "Hi!" and sped home... to spend the rest of the evening hating myself for the missed opportunity. 

On this one evening, however, I shocked myself by steering up a driveway, coasting up Leslie's front walk and stopping at the first step of her porch.  She was her usual sweet, softspoken self, smiling at my sudden appearance.  And there I stood, straddling my bike, chatting with her with none of the guile and guardedness of the schoolyard. Next thing I knew, I sat on the porch next to her. My gawd, there I was, at Leslie's house, where she lived, where she slept at night, where she woke in the morning, where she lived her life, where her parents and sisters lived with her. It was like being invited into Graceland by Elvis himself.

We chatted about nothing in particular.  My inner village idiot was occupied elsewhere.  I didn't even ask why she was sitting alone on her front porch on such a dismal evening.  We just talked. And though I had a parents who loved me, friends who accepted me, a brother who tolerated me, that moment I shared with Leslie was one of first moments of perfect peace I ever experienced with another person.

At some point, the front door opened and Leslie's Mom called her in for dinner.  There was no grand goodbye.  We each said, "See ya" and she went inside and I got back on my bike.  But I was a very different guy pedaling home through the damp evening.  I felt like an archaeologist who had discovered a lost civilization.  I had caught a glimpse of Leslie's life beyond school, and I carried it away with me like an artifact.

Led Zeppelin "Fool in the Rain"

Meeting Daniella at work has had the feel of weird, neighborhood magic about it -- the same magic that kept me from sliding out of my jeans when I hung upside down from my friend's clothesline stand; or, deciding to take a chance riding down Curry Avenue in the rain. 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.

Daniella's updates about people whose names I haven't heard in 30 years has been like archeology of the heart, opening long dormant chambers.

Yesterday, she told me that Leslie 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 Leslie. Christine's younger sister had died of cancer a couple of years ago.

I may not have seen Leslie 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. 

Every guy has that girl who's the archetype of all he finds beautiful.  Who, as Billy Dee Williams once said, "Sings your heart's song." 

Leslie was mine.

The Rolling Stones "Goodbye Ruby Tuesday"

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