This is how it all went down.
I went to the prom, wearing a pink chiffon dress that my mother had made for the occasion. It had puffy sleeves and an empire waist, and it made me feel like a princess. George arrived on time to pick me up, wearing a white jacket, tie and jeans. He led me to his car, opened the passenger door and as I took my seat, I felt a sense of dread that just wouldn’t quit. A few minutes later, we were at the school, where the prom was being held.
I wanted to leave as soon as I’d arrived. How long ago it was that I dreamt of this prom, of going with Jake? Now, here I was with George, Jake’s best friend, whom I had used in order to make Jake jealous. And, for what? What did it get me? Bupkis, served with a slice of misery.
I soon saw Jake there. He looked as handsome as ever, with his dreamy eyes that sparkled when he smiled. Yet, seeing him now, with Miss Pinched Face in tow, I realized I no longer cared about either of them. Jake saw me too, and for a moment it seemed as though he was actually glad to see me. He flashed a smile and started to walk toward me. Perhaps he had something important to say, after all this time. Or maybe he was just going to rub it in how happy he was without me. I didn’t know and I didn’t care. I turned and walked away, making it clear I wasn’t interested in whatever he was going to say. And, for the first time, it was true.
I wanted to leave. I looked around at all the seniors, most of whom I didn’t know, and there didn’t seem to be much point in staying. I didn’t want to make small talk or dance or munch on the platters of cheese and crackers, cold cuts and pickles that had been set out in the school cafeteria. I didn’t want to sneak off with George, as he’d asked, to smoke a joint behind the school, which is where most everyone else had gone to, George included.
All I wanted was to go home, get into my bed, curl up into a tiny little knot and disappear. I wanted to stop walking around the cafeteria like some kind of zombie, with my smile etched in place, and I knew if I didn’t leave soon, the smile would splinter into countless bits of clay.
Halfway through the evening, with the prospect of heading to the beach to make out and see the sunset before me, I finally told George I wasn’t feeling well and asked to be taken home. Relieved, George obliged and was rather sweet about it, offering to stop at a pharmacy to pick up some aspirin.
With June came graduation for the seniors, including Jake. After that near encounter at the prom, I only saw him one more time, the day everyone was signing yearbooks. He asked if it’d be okay to sign mine. Hesitantly and nervously, I handed it to him, as I wasn’t sure what he intended to write. For all I knew he was going to spew hateful words at me on how vile I’d become since he’d dumped me. He took quite a while to write in my book, and I held my breath the entire time. When finally he handed the book back to me, with great curiosity I opened to the page he wrote on, to read his message. I was soon awash with new emotions, for this is what he’d written.
“I really don’t know how you feel about me anymore, whether you believe it or not, I loved you very much. I’ll never regret ever saying anything or doing anything we did. I’m sorry that we’re so far apart now. I hope you stay as kind and as beautiful as you are now. With all my love, Jake”
When I finished, I looked up, feeling an old ache reawaken inside me. He was gone, and I never saw him again.
I saw Max off at the train station. He left for Manhattan the day after graduation and stood at the front platform on the train, eager to start his life anew.
As the train pulled away, I could almost hear him channeling Barbra Streisand, as he belted out in his best, wobbly voice, “Don’t tell me not to live, just sit and putter! Life’s candy and the sun’s a ball of butter! Don’t bring around a cloud to rain on my parade…”
Max’s parting gift to me were two original drawings he created for the posters promoting the school musical, Good News. Never one for sentimentality, here’s what he wrote in my yearbook:
“Miss Thing, It’s been nice knowing you (sounds like you’re dead, huh?). Take care, and don’t get the clap. Love, Max”
After the prom, when George took me home early, he got out of his car and walked me to the door.
I looked him in the eye and stammered, “I’m sorry, George. I didn’t know. I didn’t want it to be like this. I so wish–”
He cut me off. “It’s okay,” he assured me. “I understand.”
He started to walk away, then, changing his mind, came back and kissed me lightly on the cheek. As he returned to his car, I stood under the porch light and felt my eyes burn with tears. As easily as he came into my life, he slipped out. Poor George, I felt so bad. Later, I heard that he spent that summer working in his father’s office, and met a nice girl there. In the fall, he would go to school somewhere upstate. Needless to say, I never saw him again. Here’s what he wrote in my yearbook:
“I’m really glad that I met you because you are really a fine person with many beautiful qualities. Remember me, and I hope I can continue to be friends with you. Love, George.”
I hurt James by going to the prom with George. I hurt him so many times, that I could no longer face him. I’d see him from a distance and turn away, not wanting the reminder of having broken his heart and, along with it, my own.
On the day everyone was signing yearbooks, he walked up to me and, pointing to my copy, asked, “May I?”
I nodded. As I handed it to him, our fingers touched for a moment, rekindling the feelings of yearning he’d once stirred in me. And, just like that, it passed. He opened it to the back of the book and happened upon Jake’s message. I saw him hesitate as he read what Jake had written. Then, he turned to the next page and wrote his own. Years later, damaged by water and mildew, some of what he wrote was lost. But, here’s what is still legible:
“Hope you find what you’re looking for without any help from Ann Landers. You’ll find happiness with…anyone though, Bubbles. It’ll probably be someone like… Love, James.”
I didn’t see James that summer, but I would see him again in the fall. In the coming year, our relationship would continue, more or less. I loved him, I wanted him, and I pulled away, holding him at bay as long as I could, until I collapsed from the weight of it.
To be continued.
Missed an installment? Catch up by visiting the page, Lightning in a Jar: High School Years.