Waiting Against the Wall

Another dance.  Another wall to lean against.  Rosie Coors stared at the milling crowd, looking for her best friend’s face, but she was nowhere to be found.  Maria had promised to meet her by the buffet table, at exactly seven o’clock, a reasonable time to eat dinner.  Rosie has stood there, looking foolish, every now and then grabbing something and stuffing it in her mouth so as to have something to do.

It was now almost nine, the so-called friend had not appeared and tears had formed, fallen and been wiped away countless times.

Rosie though, “I wish I had stayed home.  This is so embarrassing!” Another round of tears fell which wiped away using the sleeve of her old-fashioned cardigan sweater.  She looked at the sleeve, at the holes that were scattered about, and wondered if Maria had seen her, and stayed away, embarrassed to call Rosie friend.

In the background, or maybe it was in the foreground, the band hired by her school’s Activity Director played rap and hip-hop, types of music she detested both because the loud bass beat gave her a headache and because the lyrics offended her sensibilities.

Rosie spotted an empty chair against the wall and hustled over to claim it.

“That’s my chair.”

“I don’t see your name on it,” Rosie responded.  Her eyes traveled upward, past the neatly creased black slacks, starched white shirt, and bright red bowtie.  No othere than the school pariah, Dave Nickols, Geeky Dave, stood there glowering at her. “I’m sitting in it, so it’s not yours.”

 

            “If you won’t get up, then will you dance with me?”  Dave’s tenor voice came out as a shout as he tried to be heard over the noisy band.  “Please?”

“Sure,” Rosie replied.  “I came here to dance, so yes.”

As they stepped onto the dance floor, the band switched to a slow song. Dave placed his right hand on Rosie’s waist and pulled her close.  Step, step, step, they moved.

She smiled as they glided over the floor. Rosie loved to dance, had learned from her father as a child, but had never danced with a boy who knew what he was doing. Whoever would have thought that Geeky Dave would have known how to twirl her under his arm, and then pull her tightly against his chest?

“You’re a good dancer,” he said.

“Thanks.  My father taught me when I was a kid.” She leaned forward, enticed by his cologne, a strange mix of deodorant and something she’d once smelled as she passed through a department smell. Kind of musk-like. Feral. “You’re a good dancer as well.”

“My mom insisted on lessons, which I went to reluctantly because I was the only boy,” he said.  They flew around the floor, in rhythm to the music.  Dave skillfully guided them through the crowds, finding pathways that opened and then disappeared, consuming them like some symbiotic monster.

Rosie’s long-brown hair swirled around her head, flowing like water. When the music stopped she smiled at Dave, whose grin was as wide as a canyon.  “Thank you,” he said.  “I really enjoyed that.”

“Thank you.  Would you like to get some punch?” Rosie reached for his hand before he could scamper away.

“I’m starving,” he said, “so can we grab some food and find a table?” Dave disentangled his hand from Rosie’s, and then placed it in the center of her back. He gently guided her to the food table.  They went down the line, loading up with salads, rolls, and cookies for dessert.

At the end, after stuffing two packages of utensils in his shirt pocket, Dave handed Rosie a cup of punch, got one for himself, then said, “Let’s go outside.  It’s hot in here.”

Rosie led the way through the gym doors.  The cool night air felt good on her flushed cheeks.  “Let’s sit on the benches over by the cafeteria.”

“Sure.”

After taking a few bites, Rosie realized she’d have to be the one to initiate conversation. She was shy, but Dave was known to be practically nonverbal. “Aren’t you in my Chemistry class?”

“Yes.  We’ve had the same science teacher, the same period, since junior high.  Weird, huh? Plus we’re in the same Advanced Algebra class,” Dave said.

“Oh.  I don’t pay much attention to the other students.  They ignore me, so I ignore them. It’s been that way since I was a kid.”

“Yeah, I know what that’s like.”

“I’m sorry that I’ve never seen you before,” Rosie said as she fnished off her potato salad. “Who do you have for English?”

“I’m in Davidson’s AP class. Same as you.” Dave wiped a splatter of punch off his plaid shirt, “Have you decided on a thesis for your term paper?”

“I’ve been thinking about analyzing Steinbeck’s use of light and dark in his novels,” Rosie said.  “Light always indicates that something positive is going to happen to a main character.  It seems to be pretty consistent.  What about you?”

“I’m torn between comparing themes in Dickens’ novels and writing about Angelou’s use of language to create emotional reactions.  Which one do you think I should choose?”

“I don’t know,” Rosie said. She stood, looked around, found a garbage can near a planter, then dumped her remains inside. She dusted off her hands, then, realizing that Dave had followed her, asked, “Do you want to dance?  The band’s playing a slow song.”

Dave reached out his hand, palm up. Rosie gently placed her hand in his.

“He sure is a gentleman” she thought. “How come I’ve never noticed before?”

            As soon as they entered the gym, Dave pulled her close.  Their steps matched as they glided around the room.

For the rest of the evening, they danced, talked, ate, and smiled.

“I’ve had a great time,” Dave said after the band finished playing.  He walked Rosie out to the parking lot. “Do you need a ride home?”

“No. My Dad’s coming.”

Dave’s shoulders slumped. He sighed and without raising his head, asked, “Would you be interested in going out some time?”

Rosie nodded. “How about Saturday night?”

“Great. I’d love to talk more, but I’ve got to go. Thanks for dancing with me.”

“Yeah. I had a great time. Let’s talk Monday. Work out the details.”  Rosie smiled as she watched him walk away. Her senior year finally looked a whole lot brighter.

Learning Curve

She’d always heard that Catholic girls go wild when they enter college, but she didn’t believe it. That didn’t mean that Jessie wouldn’t wonder what would happen once her classes began. Would she adhere to the morals and values she’d had drilled into her head? Or would she date recklessly, use drugs and drink until sloppy drunk?

On her first day at Chabot College, her local community college, Jessie stepped on campus with her nerves a tingle. Everywhere she looked were couples. Some walked hand-in-hand with serene looks on their faces. Some sat on benches, walls and lawns, often with arms and legs entwined. Still there were others leaning against trees with lips locked and bodies pressed firmly against one another.

Which would she be? A wanton hussy? A tender lover? A lonely spinster?

Jessie didn’t know which description fit her best. All she knew and hoped was that someone, some nice young man would find her interesting. But she set her sights low as she was not pretty, not even comely, but a frumpy, old-lady-like ultra conservative spinster at the ripe old age of eighteen.

As days passed she got to know the names of people in her classes. There were the outspoken types who knew everything and wanted their voices to be the only ones heard. There were the silent, but giggly cheerleader-types with skinny bodies, lanky legs and long hair well past shoulders. There were some like Jessie, not many, with limp hair, blotchy complexions and puffy bodies, and they were the ones who always sat alone. Jessie thought about joining them, but realized that even at her age you were defined by your friends. She knew she was socially awkward, but didn’t want to hang out with her kind. She wanted to establish a new identity: that of a smart, datable woman.

Months passed. Despite using her mother-taught skills to sew more fashionable clothes, nothing changed. Day after day Jessie ate alone, walked alone, spent study hours alone in the library or in some alcove tucked into a recess. The only change that she noticed was what was happening to some of her classmates. Pregnancies blossomed as winter neared. Were those the wanton hussies she’d heard about? Catholic girls gone wild?

Jessie wanted to feel what it was like to be held in a tight embrace, to be kissed tenderly, passionately, until her body responded in the way she’d read about in books. Maybe not to the point of losing her virginity, but it would be nice to come close.

Second semester George Atwood sat next to her in Advanced Calculus. He was a good-looking guy, but not what you’d call handsome. Not built like a football player with broad shoulders, but more like a golfer. He smiled at her and said hi every class period.

One day he slipped her a note, like she saw kids do in high school. When Jessie opened it later, she discovered an interest quiz which George must have copied from a magazine. He had listed a variety of activities and placed a box in front of each. She was supposed to check all those she liked and then return the note during the next class.

This was exciting! A man was interested in her!

Jessie checked off bowling, walking, reading, movies. She didn’t know what spelunking was and didn’t like going underwater, so diving and snorkeling were out. She didn’t want to swim because she was ashamed of her lumpy body. She did mark sports because she enjoyed playing soccer, baseball and had bowled for many years, and she loved watching almost any sport on television.

When George sat down next to her at class, Jessie slid the note to him, then waited to see his reaction. His face remained blank, his focus on the professor.

Jessie’s heart was broken before it ever had the chance to fall in love. She sat with downcast eyes throughout class, struggling to contain tears that filled her eyes. Sadness sat on her shoulders like a huge weight.

But after class, instead of rushing out like he usually did, George lingered. He smiled shyly as he rubbed one toe on the carpet. “Want to go on a date?”

Jessie smiled demurely. “Yes.”

Without saying a word, George placed his hand on her back and led her outside the building. “Are you free Saturday?”

She nodded.

“What would you like to do? See a movie? Go bowling? Go for a ride? We could go to Garin Park and hike.”

“Garin Park would be nice,” she said. “I’ve never been there.”

“Great. Do you want me to pick you up or would you prefer to meet there?”

“I don’t have a car, so how about you pick me up? If you tell me what you like to eat, I’ll pack a picnic lunch.”

They exchanged information, then said goodbye. Jessie smiled all through the rest of the day. She smiled on the way home on the bus. But when she walked through the front door, her mother gave her a funny look and then the cross examination began.

“Why’s that smile on your face? What have you done?” her mother demanded.

“Nothing wrong,” Jessie said. “A nice guy asked me on a date. We’re going to Garin Park.” She wasn’t prepared for the snicker that erupted from her mother’s lips.

“You’ve got to be kidding. Any guy who dates you is only looking for one thing and you’d better not give it to him.”

Jessie’s cheeks burned red. She knew what her mom was implying and there was no way she was doing that. She’d never been kissed, but she wasn’t so naïve as to not understand the implications of going further. “Nothing’s going to happen. We’re going to picnic and hike. That’s it.”

“I’d better meet him first,” her mother said.

“Don’t worry. He’s picking me up.”

The next two days Jessie worried about what to wear, what to fix for lunch, and what would happen when her parents met George. She’d seen movies where the parents were rude, embarrassing both the daughter and the date. She was sure her parents would behave poorly.

When Saturday arrived, Jessie put on her best jeans, and a royal blue Warriors sweatshirt. She brushed her shoulder-length hair a thousand times, positive that when she was finished, that it was smoother and shinier. Jessie fixed ham sandwiches with mayo, tomatoes and pickles, plus a slice of Swiss cheese.  She put two cans of soda in a bag along with two chocolate chip cookies she’d made that morning.

George arrived driving a recently washed gray Hyundai Sonata. When he got out of the car, he smoothed back his hair, tugged the hem of his college sweatshirt and headed to the door. Before he could ring the bell, Jessie opened it with a smile on her face.

She escorted him to the front room where her parent lay in wait. Neither responded to his polite greeting, instead glowered at him as if he was evil incarnate.

“So,” her dad said, “why are you interested in her?”

George stammered a bit before responding, “Jessie’s nice and smart.”

“But she’s ugly,” her dad said as he shrugged his shoulders. “There’s only one thing a guy would want, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll walk out and never come back.”

George grabbed Jessie’s hand tightly in his own. “I don’t think of Jessie that way. She’s a friend, someone I’d like to get to know better.” With that, he led Jessie out of the house and into the car. “Wow, that was intense.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know he’d be like that. Well, I feared he would, but I had hoped not.”

“Listen,” George said as he drove down Mission Boulevard, “if you’re uncomfortable being with me, I can bring you back home.”

“No,” she said as she brushed her hand against his arm. “I want to be with you. Really, I do.” She folded her hands primly in her lap. She stared at her fingers as she said, “I mean, I should tell you that I’ve never dated before. You’re my first.”

All went well. They found an empty picnic table right away. George ate everything, even praising the cookies when Jessie said she’d made them. They talked, shared stories, even discussed Calculus problems, which was a bit weird for Jessie as she’d never talked about schoolwork before.

“Let’s go for a walk,” George said after they’d stowed the bag in the trunk. “There’s a nice trail that encircles the park. If we’re lucky, we’ll see some deer.”

As they walked, they talked about the blue sky dotted with cumulus clouds and the possibility of rain. About the flowers that were still in bloom, typical for California. The dragonflies that zipped about, the giant moths and even a herd of cows grazing near an apple orchard.

When no more people were about, when there were no sounds of laughter, kids playing or conversation, George led Jessie into a copse of trees. He leaned against a trunk as he pulled her to his chest. “I really like you,” he said as he brushed his hand over her hair. “You’re smart and kind and thoughtful.”

“Thanks,” she said as she felt her cheeks turn crimson. “I like you too.”

His breath tickled her neck as he gently kissed her, over and over.

Jessie had never felt loved, not even from her parents who had ridiculed her for her whole life. Called her ugly, dumb, stupid, idiot, and many other terms that she preferred not to think about.  George’s kind words filled her insides, making her feel light as air.

When his lips met hers, she kissed him back. It was wonderful. His lips weren’t squishy, but firm. Not too firm. She responded in kind, not sure if she was doing it right, but when George intensified the pressure of his lips, Jessie began to question the safety of her situation.

She pushed back, trying to put some distance between them, but George resisted, pulling her tighter against him. He ran his right hand up under her shirt, rubbing her back in circles that at first were soft and enticing, but soon became firm and painful.

“Stop,” she said as she took a step backward. “Remove your hand.”

George’s grip around her waist increased until she was smashed against him, barely able to breathe. His hand undid her bra, then moved to her chest.

“No. I don’t want this.”

“Yes, you do,” he said. “You said you’d never dated. You must have dreamt about this. I’m going to be your first. You’ll love it.” He bent over and kissed her breasts. His hands went under the waistband of her jeans, rubbing back and forth, back and forth.

“No!” she yelled as she grabbed his hands and pushed them away. Jessie pulled her sweatshirt down and ran back down the trail toward the parking lot. Tears coursed down her cheeks as she cursed herself for being so stupid as to think he liked her, really liked her for who she was, not what he could take from her.

George followed, whistling a merry tune. No matter how fast Jessie ran, she could hear him. She knew he was there, probably even smirking at her stupidity. Her foolishness.

When Jessie reached the parking lot, she realized her mistake. She had no way home. She had no money, so couldn’t call her parents to come get her. She wouldn’t do that anyway as it would reinforce their belief in how undesirable she was. How they had told her over and over that no many would marry her, that men would only want was her body, not her love.

The walk home was too far. Granted, she was in good enough shape to do it, but the park was at the top of a huge hill, on a street with no sidewalks that, on a Saturday, was filled with fast-moving vehicles. Jessie thought about flagging down a friendly-looking driver, but realized that was as dangerous, if not more so, than riding with George.

“I knew you liked me,” he said as he walked up to the car. He pressed her against the hood, forcing her to bend backwards. He resumed kissing her, fondling her, ignoring her mumbled cries to stop.

“Is there a problem?” a deep voice asked.

“No,” George said as he hastily pulled away.

“Yes,” Jessie cried when she saw the uniform of a park ranger. “Please, help me.”

“Sir, let the lady go.” The ranger glowered at George as he pulled Jessie aside. “Get in your car and drive away.”

“She’s got no way to get home. I’m her ride, so let her go.”

The ranger looked at Jessie. “Do you want to go with him?”

Jessie shook her head no. “But I’ll need help getting home.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll take care of that.”

Once George left, the ranger led her to an information booth. He had her sit on a folding metal chair next to his desk. “Now,” he said, “did he hurt you?”

“No. I’m okay. A little shaken up, though.”

“Do you have money for a cab?”

She shook her head.

“Can someone pick you up?”

“No. My parents, but I don’t want them to know about this. Please, don’t call them.”

The ranger nodded as he picked up the phone and made a call. He walked her to the parking lot and stayed with her until the cab came. He handed the driver money, then wished Jessie a good rest of the day.

Jessie dreaded what was waiting for her at home. Her parents would laugh uproariously, making fun of her with an intensity she’d felt over and over as she grew up.

“Well, what happened?” her mom asked when she came through the front door. “Why didn’t that guy bring you home? Who paid for the cab?”

“Nothing happened,” Jessie said as she headed down the hall to her bedroom, her mother trailing behind.

“You’re lying.”

Jessie turned on her mother, her face contorted with anger. “You always think the worst. You never see anything good about me. You don’t trust me to know right from wrong. In fact, I’ve never heard you say you love me.” She closed the door to block out her mother’s shouts.

Jessie knew she’d have to see George again since he was her table partner, so she dreaded returning to class on Monday. But when the professor began his lecture, no George had appeared. She sighed. It was over. No love, no boyfriend, nothing except her parents.

Saddened, but relieved, Jessie wrote down copious notes.

 

Ninth Grade Dreams

I wanted to be popular. The type of girl that guys drool over and that girlfriends cling to while giggling hysterically about some life-changing event. One of those guys, preferably someone tall, dark, and not too handsome would ask me on a date. Not just any date, but a late night movie where you tremble in fear when a serial killer sneaks up on a defenseless little kid, and the boyfriend squeezes your hand to show that he’s there to support you. Or maybe he’d take me bowling. No, that’s no good as my dad just might show up and send poisoned arrows our way. Definitely not to a school dance as I have no sense of rhythm.

The guy, probably named Stan, would ask me to go steady after that first date. He’d tell me how much he liked my hazel eyes and slightly off-center smile. I’d smell the shaving lotion on his chin and nod, speechless in the classic sense. I’d wrap my arms around his muscular shoulders, nestle my tear-filled face against his neck and feel his Adam’s apple move up and down as he swallowed back his own tears. He’d pull back a bit, slip off his school ring, and offer it to me as a token of his “like.” I’d smile stupidly and admire it in the fluorescent lights of the theater lobby. Then I’d stick it in the deep pocket of my overcoat so as to not lose it.

The next day I’d beg my mom to take me to Woolworth’s. While she meandered the aisles gathering miscellaneous junk, I’d rush to the yarn section. My eyes would light up at the rainbow of colors awaiting my careful selection. Like every other girl in my school, I’d choose alpaca wool. A sky blue color, the color of his eyes. At home I’d wrap the yarn around and around the ring until it fit snuggly on my ring finger and plan how I was going to show it off at school.

Those were my dreams. There’s a song that tells you to reach for the impossible. It would take a miracle to make any of these things happen, as I was an overweight, painfully shy teenager. I had no friends and was clearly toward the bottom of the social pecking order. Unless I could be reinvented through plastic surgery, fat removal from over 90% of my body, and a hefty dose of makeup, applied liberally to disguise my puppy-dog sad face, the impossible would remain impossible.

So, what did I do? Smiled a lot and changed my hairstyle to a ratted-out bouffant. Dabbed on cheap, yet tasteful cologne and asked my mom to sew more contemporarily styled clothing. Practiced the “cool” walk and the “I-don’t-give-a –darn” egotistical look that the school’s cheerleaders displayed naturally. In a rather foolhardy moment, I submitted my name to run for Student Body Treasurer, thinking that if I plastered my posters all over the campus, that I would rise in social stature.

When you’re unpopular, you are as invisible as Glad Wrap. The odds of ever experiencing that first date decreased daily. Boys weren’t interested in the homely-looking girl who wore glasses that sported wings sparkling with fake diamonds. Or the smart girl who got the best grades in math and who spoke Latin like the ancients. And who could throw further than many of the boys who hung out at the neighborhood park.

No matter how longingly I looked at the athletes and cheerleaders, they uniformly never saw me. In the teenage world, you are who you hang out with, and what popular kid would want someone like me tagging along? Let alone as a girlfriend who hung on your muscular arm and leaned against your chest as you walked her about the campus. Wasn’t going to happen.

Geoffrey, the high school punching bag for pranks and tasteless jokes, stepped up one lunch break and asked me on a date. I put on a plastic smile and attempted to move far away, as the cheerleaders had repeatedly done to others like me. Geoffrey, however, was persistent. He pushed his thick-lensed glasses up his acne-covered nose and smiled. His favorite ratty sweatshirt, dirty slacks, and scuffed black dress shoes stunk almost as bad as his unwashed hair, but not quite.

His belly hung over his belt and his hairy wrists stuck out from his too-short sleeves. Talk about nerd. Geoffrey was beneath me on the social scale, not worthy of a platonic nod hello. The idea of going to the upcoming school dance was no more attractive than sitting in a darkened theater where his body odor would overpower the entire audience. Even so I said yes, despite the interior warning lights that blinked crimson, just to experience that first date.

What a couple we made. Me in my homemade pretend-silk, A-frame, square-necked dress that was in style five years earlier, while Geoffrey wore a black suit two sizes too big accompanied by a stiffly starched white shirt that crinkled audibly when he moved. He placed his left hand on my waist, while gripping my hand in his sweaty right. We stumbled around the dance floor, stepping on each other’s feet accompanied by loud guffaws and barely stifled snickers.

If Geoffrey had thought about asking me to go steady, he must have erased that thought from his mind after a rather emotionless and sloppy kiss while standing on my front porch. All evening I’d thought about what excuse I could offer. The best was that my dad would kill Geoffrey, a likely scenario. After drying the slobber off my lips, Geoffrey simply walked away.

So, I didn’t have to decline the going steady offer. Part of me was disappointed, as it meant that I wasn’t worthy of even his “like,” but the other part of me rejoiced.

Still without a “steady,” I solved the dilemma by purchasing a cheap man’s ring which I wrapped in blue alpaca and wore proudly.  When asked, I wove a magical story of the perfect boyfriend that I’d met while visiting my aunt in Vandalia, more than fifty miles away. My face glowed with an imitated “in love” radiance. I stood taller and blessed the popular kids with an “I’m one of you” sophisticated smirk. I invented dates, details, and dialogue.

Ninth grade turned out to not be too bad. Popularity continued to evade me, but I put on a good show of “belonging.” I experienced a first date, even though it was with the nerdiest boy in school. Best of all, I went steady with my secret self.