Study Abroad is Key to Success

Study Abroad is Key to Success

When I was in college I remember overhearing a fellow student talk about her plans for spending her junior year studying abroad. She was going to go to France for a semester and planning to get a Eurail pass to … Continue reading

Not the Beatles

Not the Beatles

John, Paul, George and Ringo? Try Michael, Davy, Peter and Micky instead. Think Junior Varsity Beatles. The Beatles 2.0. I’m talking about The Monkees, the imaginary boy band/actors created by Hollywood central casting in an attempt to cash in on the sensation created by the Beatles. (I’m not joking about the central casting angle: Stephen Stills, the brilliant musician who as a member of Crosby Stills & Nash recorded some of the classic albums of the ‘70s, auditioned for the group/TV show, but was rejected as not “cute” enough. So instead they cast Peter Tork, with the goofy smile and room temperature IQ.) Continue reading

Change is the Word

Change is the Word

So, I went to see Lee Daniels’ The Butler this weekend and found it emotionally powerful and riveting. Wow. I cannot tell you how many times I got all teary with a major lump in my throat. But, once I … Continue reading

Lightning in a Jar: The Misfits

The hip hooray and bally hoo,
The lullaby of Broadway.
The rumble of the subway train,
The rattle of the taxis.
The daffodills who entertain
At Angelo’s and Maxie’s.

–From the song, Lullaby of Broadway by Harry Warren and Al Dubin

Chapter 12:

They say the teen years can be the most trying of times. We falter, we plow ahead. We push, we dare. We make mistakes and presumably learn from them. Some of us handle the awkwardness of transitioning from childhood to adulthood a whole lot better than others. Some of us come out the other end with flying colors, embracing the change it brings to our lives.

Joan Crawford in the film, "Mildred Pierce."

Joan Crawford in the film, “Mildred Pierce.”

Not me. Having to face adulthood is what I dreaded most. I wasn’t ready and doubted I’d ever be. Young people aren’t supposed to worry about getting old or the passage of time. But, I did. On the eve of 1970, while revelers were partying and rattling their noisemakers in Times Square, I sat in my room and cried, lamenting the end of a decade that, to me, represented my youth. It was as if the new decade was quashing what was left of my childhood, snuffing out the free spirit inside. Peter Pan didn’t want to grow up and neither did I. My mother put her arms around me, not really understanding why I felt so bad.

Well, my friends seemed oblivious, too, eager as they were to get their driver’s licenses, and get on with their plans for college. So I tried not to think too much about the future, nor how junior year would be ending soon, and I would need to find a job for the summer. Whether I liked it or not, the pressures of adulthood were creeping in.

My feelings for James continued to run the gamut. One minute I couldn’t imagine life without him. The next, I’d flat out ignore him, feeling the shame of being a year older than him burn my cheeks. I could kiss him and spurn him in the space of a minute. And always, he waited. No matter what I did, he stood by patiently. I knew he deserved better, but I couldn’t bring myself to be any other way. Yet, I worried what would happen to us once school let out.

Max proved to be a fresh dose of reality. When the day of our planned trip to the city arrived, he showed up to pick me up with his usual panache.

“Miss Thing! I’ve seen hyenas in heat that look better than you!”

It was 8:30, Saturday morning. Crack of dawn if you ask me, but he insisted we get an early start.

I was at Liza’s, where I’d spent the night. Max, dressed in a flaming red ascot and a silk smoking jacket, was looking rather cavalier as he assessed my “I just fell out of bed appearance”—gray circles under my eyes, and my black ringlet curls were all frizzed out. Having gone into panic mode, they looked more like a mound of Brillo pads that had been pinned to the top of my head.

“This simply won’t do!” He said fretfully, plopping down a valise he’d brought along with him.  “Now, where can we go to doll you up?”

I was curious as to what he had in mind, but also dreading it. Still, I pointed to the parlor to the left of the entryway of Liza’s Victorian home.

Yanking my arm, he grabbed his valise and pulled me into the small, cozy room with over-stuffed chairs and an upright piano. Motioning me to sit down, he flicked his suitcase open and began pulling out an assortment of garments, circa 1940s, as well as cosmetics, a hairbrush and hairspray, and a container of bobby pins. For the next 30 minutes, he did my hair as best he could, working feverishly to stick pins in all sorts of ways, until, miraculously, my hair looked quite fashionable–had I been Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, that is. Then, he handed me a violet-colored dress to wear. All I needed were a pair of arched eyebrows and a smear of red lipstick to complete the Mildred Pierce look.

When he was finished and pleased with the results, we hastily rushed off to make the 9:23 train to Penn Station, New York. I was consciously aware of the looks we got as we boarded the train. Taking our seats, Max began to tell me what he planned for the day, how many shops we’d be visiting, and where we’d be having lunch.

“There’s a whole world beyond school, Miss Thing,” he’d say, “and you need to see it!”

I rolled my eyes, once again feeling like I was the only one not ready to move outside my comfort zone of school and riding my bike around the island. I imagined it was easier for Max, as he’d be graduating soon and seemed eager to move to the city. Maybe I’d feel better when it was my turn, and, like him, I’d find myself hankering to leave home.

As I gazed out the window, watching the scenery whiz by, I knew one thing to be certain. Sitting next to Max on the train, he in his ascot, eyeliner and mascara, and me, donning a vintage dress, it occurred to me we were nothing more than a pair of misfits.

Max must’ve known what I was thinking because he smiled and blew me a kiss.

“Now, about your love life,” he said exuberantly. “Tell me, is there something going on between you and James, or are you still dating that insipid George?”

Nothing like cutting to the chase. Max never ceased to leave me dumbfounded. He had his arrows and knew exactly where to sling them. Perhaps he sensed the angst his question gave me, for his face was filled with consternation.

“You’re not going to the prom with George!” I wasn’t sure if that was a command or a plea.

“I’m sorry?”

“Well, I’ve heard George mention it this week in the cafeteria, but I assumed he was lying. You wouldn’t waste your time.”

“He asked me weeks ago. I said yes. It’d be rude to back out now.”

“It would be crazy not to! Tell him you’ve come down with the flu–or, better yet, the clap. That boy is as bland as tapioca pudding, and furthermore, he doesn’t appreciate you. Not like James.”

I winced. “What do you know about James? You only met him once!”

“Don’t think I missed the looks between the two of you, Miss Thing. That boy’s pining for you like nobody’s business, and if you don’t snap him up, I will, because he’s drop-dead gorgeous!”

The idea of Max finding James attractive made me uncomfortable and I was suddenly overcome with a fierce desire to protect James.

“I like James,” I said flatly. “Only it’s complicated, which is why I haven’t told anyone.”

“Why’s it complicated?”

“Because he’s a sophomore and I’m a junior. That’s why.”

Max looked at me incredulously and then laughed. “That’s your reason? I thought you were going to say he has cancer and only weeks to live. Darling, don’t let that stop you. Show him off! Walk arm in arm with him at school and watch all the other girls be insanely jealous. I know I am.”

“You don’t think I’d be ridiculed?”

“Honestly, do you know how many times I’ve been the source of ridicule? Has that ever bothered me? Sometimes, maybe, but you just deal. Each of us has something to hide. The question is, are you willing to own up to it or are you going to let it eat you up?”

As the train reached Penn Station, passengers began to gather their belongings and move towards the doors. As Max and I followed suit, he gave a wink.

“Choose wisely, Love. James is hot and adores you,” he said, adding salaciously, “You’ve no idea what I’d do to him if he were mine!”

I cringed at the thought, wishing Max wouldn’t be so forthcoming, but I knew he had a point. Yet, was I willing to heed his advice?

Once on the platform, he took my hand, and guided me through the throng of travelers. Two misfits were we, trying hard not to melt into the crowd. Only one of us was succeeding.

Missed an installment? Catch up by visiting the page, Lightning in a Jar: High School Years.

Lightning in a Jar: In Like a Lion

My high school in Long Island, New York.

Yearbook photo of my high school in Long Island, New York.

CHAPTER 2:

Time passed. Winter was loosening its clutch on the North Shore of Long Island and signs of spring were beginning to emerge everywhere. In my mother’s daffodils and in the hydrangea bushes in our backyard. In the local park, where they were mowing the lawn and adding fresh sand to the ground by the swings. And, in my bicycle, which had become dusty in the garage, from non-use during the cold months. Now that it was getting warmer, I could once again ride my bike to school in lieu of taking the school bus. These signs were a reminder of the old adage taught to us in grade school. “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.”

Spring break was just weeks away, and I couldn’t wait, though I was hoping to stay home for the break so I could hang with Jake. He seemed a bit aloof lately. I asked him if anything was wrong but he looked at me tenuously and then shook his head.

My parents had other ideas for the break. They were making plans to go to Washington, D.C. to see our nation’s Capital. This was their way of making it up to me for not allowing me to go on the 11th grade field trip to D.C. in October. The idea that girls and boys were going to be sleeping in the same hotel (though not in the same rooms) caused my traditional, Latino parents to forbid my participation altogether. I remember being crestfallen the entire week, when nearly all the juniors were away on the trip and I had to stay and attend school, business as usual. Going to D.C. with my parents just wasn’t going to be the same, and I was doing my best to talk them out of it.

Meanwhile, for the first time, I was excited about math. Turns out, when explained s-l-o-w-l-y, geometry is relatively easy to comprehend. But the real reason I was excited was Sam and James. I enjoyed their company and loved hanging out with them in class. We’d get there early, and gab before class started, during class—whenever we could get away with it—and afterwards. It was the “afterwards” part that annoyed Jake, because he’d be waiting for me in the hallway to walk me to my next period, and more and more, I was one of the last to leave as I tried to squeeze in more time with James and Sam. Something Jake didn’t understand at all.

“Why bother? They’re just kids!” he asked, exasperated.

“Because they’re helping me with my homework, I guess.” Not entirely true, but I wasn’t about to let him know that I genuinely liked my sophomore friends. So instead I said, “It’s okay if you can’t always meet me after class. I don’t want you to be late for yours.”

He seemed relieved. I looked back at the classroom and spotted James gathering his books. He looked up at me and smiled warmly. I was trying to think of something pithy to say to him, when Jake grabbed my hand and books, and pulled me away.

The next day, there was no sign of Jake after class. For a moment, I was disappointed. But then I heard a voice behind me say,

“Hey, Bubbles, mind if I walk you to your class?”

It was James. Quietly soothing James. Who seemed to know as much about old movies as I did, and could crack me up with a wry observation. Because of his shyness, he seemed like a lamb, but there was a hint of wildness underneath his demeanor. James had already conjured up a nickname for me, Bubbles, because, as he said, I had a “bubbly” spirit. I wasn’t sure about that, nor was I crazy about a nickname that sounded like it belonged to a stripper, but secretly I was digging that he had his own name for me.

“Where’s Sam?” I wasn’t used to seeing one without the other.

“Oh, he’s staying. He wants to talk to Mrs. C. about the grade he got on the last test.”

“Well then, I suppose you can walk me, but don’t you normally make a left here to go to social studies? I’m actually headed the other way for my English class.”

“I don’t mind,” he smiled, adding rather expectantly, “Would you like some help with your books? You’ve got quite a few there.”

I reddened. True, I had a lot of books in my hands because I’d been to the school library earlier for a report I was writing and was going to continue working on it during study period, but somehow, I felt James was getting too close for comfort.

“Um, no thanks.” I then paused and said, “James, last I heard you’re not my boyfriend. I don’t mind walking with you, really, because you’re a friend. A very nice friend. But that’s all. It’s weird for you to carry my books.” Ugh. Why did I just say that? I could see how deflated he looked.

“Sorry. Just thought I’d ask, that’s all.”  This wasn’t going well and I had a feeling it was my fault. It felt so awkward being here without Sam to balance us out.

James must have felt it, too, because suddenly he surprised me and quietly said, “Maybe you’re right. I thought it’d be nice to walk with you, but I should just probably get going before the bell rings. Later.” With that, he turned and walked away.

After school, as I was unlocking my bike to go home, I ran into Sam. He was alone and about to head to the public library. I glanced around hoping to see James, wanting to make sure we were okay.

Sam greeted me and said, “If you’re looking for James. His mom picked him up earlier. Doctor’s appointment.”

“Why would you assume I’m looking for James?”

“I just figured,” he remarked matter-of-factly.

“Figured what, exactly?”

“Well, it’s kind of obvious. He’s crazy about you and I think you feel the same.”

I stammered. “Sam, no way. You’re crazy!”

“You think so? From where I’m standing, you seem to be all he thinks about.”

I was aghast. As Sam took off on his bike, I zipped up my windbreaker, and started to think about what he’d said.

James liked me? Suddenly I felt like I was in an Agatha Christie mystery, when all the suspects are gathered together at dinner and all the clues start falling into place, revealing the identity of the murderer. Only instead of exposing the killer, the clues were now revealing this attraction that had caught me unawares. Did I feel it, too?

But now, I could see. Sam was right. I began to remember how my cheeks would burn each time I felt James’ seemingly constant gaze upon me. How he’d wink at me as if he and I were the only ones in on a joke. How he’d hold the door open for me when we got to class. The electric current I felt when my arm briefly brushed his. And, I remembered just how much I looked forward to seeing him, and how, despite his shyness, James had proven to be even funnier and more scintillating than Sam. And his eyes, how beautiful and open there were to me.

I pedaled feverishly all the way home, and by the time I arrived, I knew what I had to do. Two things were certain: James was too young and Jake was my boyfriend. There was only one solution. I had to stop talking to James!

Yet, nothing really is certain, is it? That night, the wind blew furiously, bringing with it a new morning frost that made it too cold to ride my bike to school.

So much for spring. Seems like the lion wasn’t yet ready to yield to the lamb.

(To be continued.)

Missed an installment? Catch up by visiting the High School Years page.