Lightning in a Jar: Chapter 1

James at 16 – continued

MM in High School

It is said that when we grow up, we spend the rest of our lives trying to recapture our youth. Each in our own way, we long to relive the best moments and hold on to them forever. Like a roll of bright, shiny pennies we keep in our pocket for safe keeping. Or the pouch of jacks your mom once bought you at the five and dime. These are the things we treasure, the mementos of our life.

But here’s the quandary: You can’t go home again. You can’t get it back, and thinking otherwise is like trying to capture lightning in a jar. For me, it’s the memory of James at 16.  When I think of him then, I feel an ache of a thousand dreams, for the choices we make in our youth can reverberate for a very long time.

By the time I met James, I was already dating Jake, a senior. I was a junior, and dating a senior carried a lot of cache, particularly if he had a car. Meanwhile, James was a lowly sophomore. Our high school only went from 10th to 12th grade, so you couldn’t get more bottom of the barrel than being a sophomore.

I was giddy, head over heels in love. Jake was an amazing guy who was so dazzling and over the top, he was like the host of his own game show, unabashedly greeting the rest of us as if we were the audience–his legions of fans. And perhaps, we were.

With his razzmatazz smile, he’d be pumping hands and doing his best game show host appeal. Guys loved hanging out with him. There were always a few around who didn’t seem to have girlfriends of their own, and, the fact that Jake had a car, while most of us relied on bikes was key, no doubt. But more importantly, Jake always had on hand a stash of pot, and he was happy to share. He’d look you in the eye, flash his best TV host grin and dare you to figure out your utmost desires–did you want what was behind door number one or door number two? I could never decide.

I was so crazy wild in love with Jake, I thought this was it (Read more about him in my post, First Love). That we’d marry one day, and have a slew of game host children. He told me what I wanted to hear, wrote me poetry, spent hours with me on the phone, and said we’d have a future together. I almost stopped breathing, holding all that joy inside. I was that happy.

James was in my geometry class. We called it remedial math because it was for slow learners who needed that “extra push”—a year and a half to learn about isosceles triangles and the like, when most everyone else could do it in just one year. I took the class because I didn’t have a choice. Math of any kind was definitely not my forte. Blame my guidance counselor, Mrs. W., who never really took me seriously as a student and was just trying to put me anywhere she could in order for me to stop pestering her. Mrs. W., with her teased, bouffant hairdo and a look that always made her appear dumbfounded.

“Mrs. W.,” I’d say. “I want to sign up for chorus.”

“Mrs. W., I have a note from home that excuses me from debating in debate class the rest of the semester.”

“Mrs. W, is there another English class I can take? Everyone says Mr. D is a tough grader.”

“Mrs. W, is it too late to sign up for music appreciation instead of home ec?”

Honestly, you’d think that someone who showed as much interest in my education as I did, would get a break from the guidance counselor. But she never did, which later proved to be a tricky thing when it came to my college apps.

Anyway, back to geometry. I spent at least two months, maybe more, without saying bupkis to James. I sat in the second to last seat, in the middle of the classroom and had a great view of the entire class, except the back row—and guess who sat right behind me? Yep, James, and next to him was his best friend from grade school, Sam.

Somewhere around the third month of class, our teacher, Mrs. C, had a brain fart. Mrs. C. was actually really nice. She only looked strict and scary. Inside her was one of those hearts of gold. Outside, she was painfully thin with pale, taut skin. Wait—who am I kidding? The woman was ghostly white. Practically skeletal, with a smear of red on her thin, veiny lips. Her stark black hair was cut off at the chin. If you ask me, she appeared almost like an aging Snow White. No make that Snow White as an addict. Addicted to what? I don’t know. Parallelograms, I suppose.

On this particular day, Mrs. C. decided we should break out into small groups to do some team assignment. Ugh. I hated group assignments. It usually meant you had to produce some work and actually participate, demonstrating that you understood how the problem was solved. And then someone had to be designated as the spokesperson for the group. And, you better believe, it wasn’t going to be me.

When it came time to break into groups, Mrs. C. assigned me to work with, you guessed it, James and Sam. Being in the class was bad enough, but now I had to team up with sophomores?

Don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends were sophomores. Like Barbara. She and I would sometimes hang out during lunch and sing duets of old tunes like, “Lullaby of Broadway” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” We were so good, we could’ve taken our act on the road. Okay, maybe not.

But, the verdict was out on these two yahoos. True, I had talked to Sam a few times and he was pretty funny. Acerbic and witty. My kind of humor. But, James on the other hand was shy. Super shy. I never really heard him talk. Perhaps he was thinking hard of what to say, but I didn’t have time to wait around and find out. On the few occasions that I had given him a nod in greeting, I always caught him gazing at me with some foolish grin on his face. Okay, maybe it was a cute grin. More like a half smile. But really, who smiles like that for no reason?

I turned my chair around and said, as I often did, as a result of watching too many late night Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney movies on TV, “Okay, you dirty rats. Let’s cut to the chase. Which one of you is going to do the assignment and which one is going to present?”

For a second, they blankly stared at each other. Then, James looked me square in the eye. Handing me a pencil, he replied, in his best Bogart impression, “Listen here, Sister, this is how it’s going to be, see? You’re gonna help us solve this problem, and Sam here, he’s gonna present. I’ll make sure of that. But, you’re in it for the long haul, see? Now, suppose we get to work.”

So, the kid could talk and hold his own, too. Feeling somewhat chastened, I took the pencil and moved my chair closer in. Maybe team work wasn’t going to be so bad, after all.

(To be continued.)

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

First Love

First loves are perfection. They’re the kinds who look like Adonis. They court you, shower you with compliments, and hold the door open for you. They know all the right moves and the right things to say to sweep you off your feet. They romance you as if you’re the last one on earth, besides them of course, and recite poetry to you for hours on end.

They tell you how beautiful your smile is, and how enchanting you look in your sweatshirt and dungarees. Oh, yes! They see right through your teenage veneer and angst, and right into your soul. And, all they see is desire. Their’s, mostly.

High school hallways and memories of make-out sessions.

High school hallways stir memories of make-out sessions.

First loves only have eyes for you and often, when Cupid’s arrow hits, you don’t even see it coming. Which is what happened to me.

I was 16 and in the 11th grade. I was a volunteer in the high school library. Having memorized the Dewey Decimal System, I was charged with putting back on the shelves all the books that had been returned to the library. Thankfully, my job was made easier by a little cart on which I could stack the books while I weaved my way around the aisles.

And, that’s what I was doing  one day in early October when a senior, who I’d never met before, but had seen from a distance, approached me.  He was just under six feet tall, with sleepy, twinkling brown eyes, and longish brown hair, reminiscent of Buster Brown, the mascot featured on the shoe by the same name.  He also had a pock-marked face.

“Well, hello, honey. How come we’ve never met?”

Of course, when it’s your first, you have no idea how trite that sounds.

I turned around, looking to the left and to the right to make sure he wasn’t speaking to anyone else. And I replied with a “pithy” line of my own.

“Uh…I don’t know,” I said shyly. (I was very shy. VERY.)

He stood, blocking my cart, so I could not move to the next aisle.

“Can I help you find something? A book?”

“No,” he smiled broadly as he winked at me. “I think I’ve found all I need right here.”

As someone with olive skin, I don’t blush, but I’m pretty sure I turned six shades of red right then. “Well, um, excuse me, cause, um, I have to put these books away,” I practically fell over in embarrassment, I was stammering so much, and tried to maneuver around him, which was difficult, given the cart.

After my shift was over, I left the library to head to my next class. There he was, waiting in the hallway for me. This time, he pinned me to the wall and wouldn’t let me leave until I agreed to go out on a date. I explained that there was a school football game that weekend and I was part of some sort of pep team. He said he’d meet me there. Which he did.

The rest, as they say, is history. We were inseparable. I fell hard for my senior, who happened to have a car of his own, an Oldsmobile Plymouth or something to that effect. I was so smitten, I was sure we’d go off together into the sunset, and marry upon graduation.

He was a big fan of Shakespeare and would read sonnets to me, spending hours on the phone as he recited them all. He’d also write me notes of love. It was corny, I know. Worst, we couldn’t keep our hands off each other. More than once, a teacher would pull us apart in the hallway between class, shaking his head about our PDA’s. But I didn’t care. Neither did he.

And, then came spring break. My parents insisted the family take a trip to Washington, DC, and see the sights.  When I returned to school, a week later, my knight in shining armor had found someone else. She was a pretty, petite girl, with a head of soft brown curls, a turned up nose and a smattering of freckles. In other words, she looked like the proverbial girl next door, and, like him, she was a senior.

As he explained to me, they were deeply in love. And, just like that, it was over.

Let the agony begin.

So tell me, do you remember your first love?