Lightning in a Jar: Signing Yearbooks

Lightning in a Jar: Signing Yearbooks

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. 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: Cat’s Out of the Bag

Chapter 11:

“Well, hello! And, who might this delicious young man be?”

Speaking with his usual flare for the dramatic, as if he were emoting on a stage, and not standing in the musty hallways of our high school, Max was referring to James. We were amidst a flurry of students who were in the process of getting to their next class, some of whom couldn’t help but stare at us, drawn as they were by Max’s gregarious persona.

I blanched. Max and I had been talking about venturing into the city, when suddenly James appeared out of nowhere. Having completely ignored the coda I had established—no speaking to me at school (except in geometry, of course)—James had nonchalantly greeted me as if I were any old friend whom he’d bumped into between classes.

Only, I wasn’t.

I was, however, in a clandestine relationship with him.  Emphasis on clandestine. Private. Mum’s the word, and all that.

Since that day in the park, James and I had become practically inseparable. Outside of school, that is. No one knew or suspected one iota. We’d meet surreptitiously after school, taking walks through his secluded, tree-shaded neighborhood. Then we’d head to his home, and slip under the covers of his bed. No going all the way, mind you–I wasn’t ready for that–just a lot of hot and heavy, shall we say, breathing. You get the picture.

I couldn’t get enough of him. When we were together, I felt more buoyant, more adventurous, and yes, more alive. Happier than I’d been in ages. Still, I’d tell no one about our relationship. As far as I was concerned, that’s how it had to be, mostly because of the embarrassment I felt in being with a younger guy. The last thing I wanted was to let the cat out of the bag. Still, every time we met, in my head there were many others in the room along with us. And, they were all judging.

whiteheat2as4

“Top of the world, Ma,” cries James Cagney in one of the best gangster movies of all time, “White Heat.”

First and foremost, my parents, who’d have read me the riot act had they known what I was up to, particularly since, in the six months that I dated Jake, I never stepped foot in his bedroom. Then, there was my best friend, Liza, who was smarter and savvier than I, and almost certain to see my interest in James as a sign of inopportune weakness.

As for my other friends, whom I’d party and hang out with, I could feel their disapproving eyes boring tiny holes into my back. Had this been one of those James Cagney gangster flicks, you would’ve heard me yelling, “Top of the World, Ma!” as my parents and friends riddled me with bullets for bringing a pox upon all their houses.

So, for these reasons, I lived my double life. Publicly, I continued to meet up with my friends, have lunch with George, and have the occasional sleepover at Liza’s. At home, I was the dutiful (sort of) daughter, doing my chores and homework, while my mother sewed my dress for the prom.  And, whenever I could, I’d sneak off to see James. Yes, everything was going smoothly.

Until Max.

I hadn’t counted on Max.

Max was a senior and the only openly gay guy at my school. Jake somehow knew him and had introduced us one night, just before a school performance of the musical, Good News. Max, who had designed the scenery, and the show’s posters which had been plastered all over town, was backstage doing last minute makeup touches on the female lead.

Upon meeting me, he took hold of my face and, holding it up to the light, cheekily remarked, “Miss Thing, don’t ever wear blue eye shadow. It’s absolutely not your color.”

I wasn’t wearing any makeup that night, but I figured, he must know what he was talking about. Most days, Max came to school wearing tons of makeup. He’d keep it on until one of the teachers sent him to the men’s room to wash off. He’d oblige but, first chance he got, you’d find him back in the bathroom, reapplying it. Max never stopped testing the school’s boundaries, and would often end up in the principal’s office.

I didn’t know what to make of him, having never met anyone who seemed to enjoy calling as much attention to himself as he did. Without fear of consequence. When everybody else was trying to fit in, he was embracing his own flamboyant self.

And now, he was commanding me to spend the day with him in the city, and there was no turning him down.

“Miss Thing, what is wrong with you?” He cried in mock horror. “I can’t believe you haven’t been to any of the vintage clothing shops in East Village. Looks like I’m going to have to take you there myself! This weekend, no excuses. Trust me, you will love it!”

I was skeptical. I’d never gone into Manhattan with anyone outside my family, except Liza, and our favorite place to shop was Macy’s or Gimbel’s in Herald Square, so I didn’t know what to expect. But Max knew I had a thing for movies of the 30s and 40s, particularly the musicals, and I did love the style–padded shoulders, sweeping skirts and cocktail hats–so, maybe it would be fun.

While we stood in the school hallway finalizing plans, James happened by. Max waited expectantly for an introduction.

“So, whom do we have here, Miss Thing?” He tapped his foot, impatiently. “Aren’t you going to introduce us?”

I tensed up, as a sense of doom crossed my face. I wasn’t sure James could hold his own with Max. In some ways, James seemed too innocent.

Max glanced from me to James, and slowly, he nodded, as if things were beginning to gel.

“Oh, I see,” was all he said.

“Max,” I began to stammer. “This is–”

Max cut me off, taking matters into his own hands.

“Dear boy, I’m Max and believe me, the pleasure is all mine.”

James shrugged, muttering a casual, “Hey,” under his breath.

“This is James,” I intervened. “A friend from geometry. He sometimes helps me with homework assignments.” I was hoping my words would convince Max that there was nothing more than a distant connection between us.

“You mean he’s in that remedial class you’ve told me about?” Max nodded, seemingly going along with the bill of goods I was selling. “Now, why didn’t I sign up for that class, I wonder?”

I could tell James was feeling uncomfortable by his keen interest in him. Frankly, so was I.

“Well, then,” said Max, “I don’t suppose James would like to join us for our excursion Saturday?”

Getting together with James and Sam was one thing, but James and Max? Out of the question.

“Probably not a good idea,” I replied before James could say anything. His shyness seemed to have kicked in, full throttle.

“No?” He feigned a forlorn look. “How disappointing. Oh well, I guess I’ll leave you two alone. Seems the lad is eager to help you with, ahem–your homework?”

With a smile and a flick of his hand, he tipped the fedora he was wearing to one side, adding,

“Until Saturday, Dear Heart! I expect a full report on your–what was it? Oh, yes. Your homework!”

And, with that, he strode off, disappearing down the hall.

“Uh, that was weird,” said James, matter-of-factly.

The bell marking the start of the next period sounded. There’d be no time for explanations. I simply nodded in agreement, and headed to my class, wondering what Max had surmised about me and James. Could he tell there was something between us? Would he even care?

Knowing Max, I’d be in for a grilling.

(To be continued.)

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

 

Lightning in a Jar: Saturday in the Park with James

 

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photo credit: Jean Marcelo

Chapter 10:

I will never forget that day in the park with you and Sam.

A clear, warm day in May, filled with the scent of black-eyed Susan and primrose flowers.  We sat on the grass, and you plucked two puffy dandelions, handing me one to make a wish upon. How many wishes did we make that day?  I remember mine, and refusing to tell you, even when you tickled me until I squirmed and cried uncle. I so wanted my wishes to come true.

I wished that day would never end. I wished you’d kiss me, and ask me to be your girl, and I wished us to be okay, unfettered by the perceived thoughts of others.

I also wished I could be as good to you as you were to me. Kind, sincere, James. I fell hard for you that day, as we wandered through the park, aimlessly chatting. Sam seemed happy, too, ignoring our flirtation and, instead, he kept cracking us up with his jokes.

There was much laughter that day. Laughter and mirth.

But stop for a moment and think. Did you know? Could you see what I was harboring inside? Not all the time, mind you. Sometimes I was truly happy, as I was that day in the park, and I could forget. But it was always there, James. Inside me. I was crumbling, finding it hard to cope with–

life

school

heartbreak

moving on

It was the moving-on part I was dreading most, what with senior year looming for me. But, first there would be summer and all that it would bring. After that, the thought of what lay ahead–the unknown of it–was frightening. I wanted things to stay the same, but with each passing day, that appeared less likely.

Sometimes I felt as though my skin was made of tempered glass and if I moved the wrong way, I’d fall and burst into a million pieces. Other days, I’d stay in bed, fearing if I stood up, I’d find my feet sinking into quicksand.

But then I’d go to school and smile and kid around, like the best of them, feeling happy and joyful, seeing you and my friends, and singing. How I loved to sing! I’d flit through the day, dancing like a sprite, and singing. And sometimes, the sadder I was, the louder I’d sing.

There was also George. Silly George. Drab George. Why did he keep coming back for more? He had a crush on me, I don’t know why, and I could feel nothing in return. Though I tried, I really did.

But, that was a good day, our day in the park with Sam. A fine day. I remember noticing the sun on your hair, flickering like stars flitting about your head. Your skin so pale and smooth, your black, soulful eyes, inviting, and your smile that still gave away the layer of shyness beneath. I drank them all in.  My heart pulsates, remembering.

I was punch-drunk giddy that day, for you brought out the best in me, and I was deliriously taken with you. We were happy, James, the three of us together, bantering, teasing, and you, no longer shy around me.

I won’t forget how every conversation and every story I shared, I’d use as an opportunity to impishly touch your hand, your shoulder and yes, even your leg, on the pretense that I was making my point. I’d leave my hand on you longer than needed, for I craved the feel of you.  And, you smiled, all the while, knowing what I was up to, reminding me of a Cheshire cat that had swallowed the fish whole. Ah, the folly of it all, we were kids in a game of love.

When it was time to part, we lingered as long as we could. A sideways glance, a forlorn gaze–now I knew why I disliked goodbyes. Out of earshot from Sam, you softly said,

“Meet me here next Saturday. Just us.”

Eagerly, I nodded. Without hesitation.

The following weekend was even more magical. We met soon after breakfast and, meandering through the park, you took my hand. It felt so right, talking about everything, except the future. Only the now. When we reached a clearing, we stopped and sat on a bench.

And, that’s when you looked at me. I mean, you got all serious and looked at me, and I felt my blood rush through me. A little scared, a little sense of anticipation. Right then, I wanted to say, I love you, James!

But, the words hesitated on my tongue, held back by a fleeting fear. And, that is when you kissed me. Your lips brushing against mine, delicately and sweetly at first, then more intense and I lost myself in the moment.

That day would be the beginning of a relationship filled with sultry kisses, looks of longing, and endless passion. Oh, yes there was passion, James–and joy. But, there was also pain. We’d meet after school, most often at your home, in your bedroom, in the shadows of our solitude. Wrapping ourselves in each others arms, you were my panacea, for all that ailed me.

And, yet…

When I’d head home, I’d be overcome with guilt, and the next day I wouldn’t show up. You’d wait for me and I wouldn’t come over. You were a tenth grader, after all, and I was too mortified to tell a soul about our relationship. And, that was adding to the ache gnawing inside me. You must’ve felt it, too.

Loving you, James, brought me unbridled joy. It also chipped away at me, exposing the rawness beneath. Though you swore age didn’t matter, it did, James, which is why I kept you a secret.

I was leading a double life, and I needed to make things right. For this reason, I accepted George’s invitation to the prom.

Only I couldn’t tell you, James.

Secrets. They sure can mess you up.

(To be continued.)

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

Lightning in a Jar: My She Was Yar

Chapter 9:

Anxious. That was me. I was on the phone with George, and the clock was ticking, as I was supposed to meet up with James and Sam at Eisenhower Park in less than an hour. My plan had been to get an early start, so by now I should’ve been on my bike, halfway there.  After all, it was six miles away and I didn’t want to show up all sweaty and out of breath. I needed time to compose myself, and here, one phone call was threatening to derail everything.

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Eisenhower Park today looks very much like it did then.

George was being his usual, persistent self.

“Who the heck is James?” He’d repeated his question, a question that startled me out of what had been my quiet reverie and anticipation of seeing James soon.

Who the heck is James? His intonation made the name sound more like a contagious disease than someone for whom I was feeling a growing attraction.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure I owed George any explanation. After all, it wasn’t as if he and I were going steady or anything. We’d just dated a few times and after the third date, I did all I could to discourage him, short of demanding him to cease and desist.

For the first time, someone was daring me to explain what I was not prepared to reveal, all because of a slip of the tongue. My slip. What could I possibly say that would make any sense, when I, myself, hadn’t figured out what James was to me?

James was my secret, hidden from prying eyes. Partly because I was embarrassed to admit I liked him. Partly because there was something so different about him. Nothing like the other guys I knew. James was like an orchid requiring extra care from outside pollutants, and I worried letting others in would spoil it. They’d draw their own conclusions and judge unfairly. I’d told no one about my friendship with him and Sam. Not even my closest friend, Liza. Not a soul.

So why bring him up now, especially to someone like George? In all likelihood, he’d run and tell Jake. Not that he’d care. The two of them would probably just have a good laugh over how, after being dumped by a senior, I was dating a measly sophomore. Which, wasn’t true, of course, but soon word would be all over school as if it was. Yes, I cared what people thought. Opinions of others mattered. Which is why I decided to ignore George’s question, and instead focus on the purpose of his call.

“Hey George, what’s up?”

“Okay, if you’re not going to tell me, fine. I’m calling to see if you’d like to go on a bike ride today, and maybe stop at Friendly’s?”

Was this his way of saying he was on to me?

“Um, don’t think I can,” I said cautiously.

“Why not?”

Think, think. “My mother needs help with a sewing project?” I said the first thing that came to mind, more like a question than a statement. Which was dumb. Most people knew my travails with Home Economics and sewing. If my mother did need help, I’d be the last person she’d ask, on account I couldn’t sew a stitch.

He was quiet for a moment, which should’ve been my in to say goodbye and hang up, but instead, I asked, “Is there anything else?”

He took a deep breath. “Well, I was calling to see if you’d like to be my date for the prom.”

The prom? As in the senior prom–the one that I had hoped to attend with Jake? Somehow, the idea of going with George felt like it would be a consolation prize. George, with whom I didn’t have a thing in common or felt an iota of spark. And yet…

Yet, I had to admit, the idea was tempting. It could be my last chance to remind Jake of what he’d given up, and make him pine for me in a way he never had before. This thought made me waver, though, when I thought of going to the beach with George, and making out, I wasn’t as sure. I’d sooner swallow fistfuls of sand.

“Hmm.” I paused, then added, “Let me get back to you on that.” I needed time to think this through. Time that I didn’t have right then. The clock was still ticking.

“Okay, but let me know soon. ” He seemed disappointed.

“I will. Promise.” Click. Poor George. I was sure he deserved better.

Looking at my watch, twenty minutes had passed since the time I had originally planned to leave. With the half hour it took to get there on bike, I wasn’t sure I’d make it on time.  I needed to make haste. I bolted out the door and hurried to the garage to get my bicycle.

When we first moved to Long Island, I didn’t know how to ride a bicycle. I never had one in Queens. It’s not that I was deprived. I did own a tricycle, which I used until the age of five, but a bike didn’t seem a neccesity in Queens, where you could get just about anywhere on foot or by public transportation.

But soon, after moving to Jericho, my brother, who’d figured out how to ride a bike on his own, offered to teach me. I was 12. From then on, there was no pinning me down.

My, she was yar. I’d heard Katharine Hepburn say it to Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story, about a yacht they once owned together, and the sentiment sounded perfectly apropos for my bicycle. “My she is yar,” is what I’d say when anyone asked me why I spent so much time on my bike. Purple and shiny, I could give a little upward flick to the kickstand, climb onto the triangular seat, and be off in one fell swoop.

I’d go anywhere. I knew all the short cuts and back roads to get to school, the library, and the parks. I could ride my bike to the mall, and to neighboring communities, through Hicksville, Westbury, Mineola, East Meadowbrook, and even all the way out to Jones Beach.

My, she was yar.

There was no greater feeling than the one of riding your bike at top speed, along traffic, weaving in and out as I pleased to get where I needed to go. I even rode along one of the highways, and through lush winding roads dense with foliage, as well as through corporate parks and along railroad tracks. Just me and my bicycle, free to be me. I’d astound myself by how far my bike could take me before I’d turn around and head home.

Now, I was pedaling as if my life depended on it, and maybe it did. I’d been so miserable, these last few months after the breakup, that I didn’t realize until now how much I needed this. How much I was looking forward to it. Yes, there it was again. A yearning deep inside, beckoning me forward. To him.

As I reached the appointed spot for our assignation, I eyed James and Sam right away. James looked up and I could see his face immediately relax. Sam made a face and said something about it being high time I got there and what took me so long.

But I wasn’t listening. My eyes were on James and his on me, and my heart was full.

We were magically entranced, until Sam broke the spell by making a big deal about getting on his bike. James and I followed suit, and soon the three of us took off down a trail that led deeper into the park.

Just James and me–and Sam. There would be no more talk of prom that day.

(To be continued.)

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