Some Things Never Change
I met a girl at the house of my older brother’s friend. He had gone over to play guitar with him and he invited me along. They sang folk songs before they were popular a few years later, in the 1960s. Dave had a long repertoire of such songs, and my favorite was “The Darkies’ Sunday School,” which bounced along and invited you to a black church to hear bible stories, and to listen to the choir. Another song, a spiritual, began, “I’ve got a mansion/ just over the hill top,/ in that bright land where/ you never grow old.” We all sang the words in a living room of soft gray light filtered by the trees that had grown up close to the front porch. He and my brother Ken were good at harmonies; I had to fake a few words since I was new to the songs. But the music was good, the guitar spare and low-key, just enough to keep the rhythm going. We might while away an hour or two on a Saturday singing these old songs, and it was always better than the baseball game on TV.
About the time Dave was thumbing through his songbook, a girl appeared on the stairs wearing shorts and a blue top. Her hair was pinned up and her smile was honest and confident. I liked her the moment she looked at me. She brushed back the hair over her forehead and came over to sit next to me. Dave, who was neglectful of all those niceties of social life, let us introduce ourselves with a handshake while he tuned up. Her name was Marianna, and she sat back with her arm touching mine. She joined in the next song with a low, silvery voice, while I hummed the melody. She laughed with her eyes on me.
On the following Monday, I saved a seat for her on the school bus when we got to her street. She saw me at once and sat down with a nice thank you. I was smitten. I walked with her down the hall of our high school in McClean, Virginia, a sign that we were “together.” We met again at the bus stop and sat together on the way home. I loved her simple, honest ways; her talk was practical, and before long, a few days more, we were holding hands over our book bags. She would come to my locker at the end of class and smile, and straighten my shirt collar. I would slip an arm around her waist and hold her briefly. She would sink into me at my touch.
My friends were all “hoods” in that era, wearing leather jackets and clunking around in engineer boots, the kind with steel toes and composition heels. I bought a pair with my allowance and borrowed my brother’s jacket, and put up the collar. I let my hair grow. I began to imitate the tough walk of my buddies, and the way they kept their hands shoved into their jeans’ pockets. We all wore plaid shirts open at the neck to show our tee shirts. We had thick belts with large, steel buckles. Who knows what we meant by it. But there was some lingering connection with the working classes of another generation, a longing to belong to something disappearing in our own time – manual labor, manly forms of work and rebellion. I was the son of a government bureaucrat, and I had no genuine connection to this past or its lost cause. I simply wanted to belong to a fringe, not the center. So I swaggered a bit, and added a few hard words to my vocabulary, and hung around the shop class where we made gun cabinets out of white pine.
Marlon Brando in The Wild One was our model of what it meany to be young and male in America. He had the scowl, the one Elvis Presley wore when he sang on the Ed Sullivan show. It wasn’t anger so much as distrust, the kind of mood James Dean expressed in Rebel without a Cause. I wouldn’t read Jack Kerouac for several more years, but when I did I saw the whole notion of what I only glimpsed at sixteen. It was a complicated metamorphosis men entered. If you really believed in it, you left home early. A lot of my friends found disenchanted girlfriends who wore tight sweaters and long skirts slashed up to mid-thigh, and white socks rolled down over penny loafers. And they were reputed to be sexually active, going to bed with their boyfriends, who wore long sideburns and combed back their greasy hair like Cookie in 77 Sunset Strip. The girls, some of them, got pregnant and dropped out, and the boyfriends followed them into the fringe world of grocery clerks and drive-in waitresses. They made it look cool, the thing to do if you’re turning seventeen or eighteen. They were the real ones, we thought.
Marianna and I would hug on the bus and kiss; she opened her mouth to me, and I splashed my tongue around her warm breath. She would blush and avert her eyes after one of our longer clinches. It wasn’t quite her. She was modest, and wore sweaters with a white blouse underneath, the collar neatly arranged over it, a tiny gold charm hanging from a hair-thin gold necklace. Her hands were delicate, and she held my hand as if she were petting a wild bird. She had set her heart on me; there was no doubting her sincerity, the decision she had made about me. She was mine, forever if I wanted her to be. She wore a coat that had frayed a little at the cuffs, and her shoes were worn and polished. I guess she meant to save her parents money; she didn’t splurge on herself the way some girls did. She had no earrings to wear, or rings on her fingers. She was just herself, a girl with plain words to say about things she felt deeply about. There was nothing dull about her. Except that I was now trying harder to evolve into this prototype of the male chafing at his limits, pulling on the chain that bound him to the bland future. I was growing frustrated.
By December, we had crossed the halfway mark of ninth grade, a time when others had begun to align themselves to the visions of the middle class or to see their futures coming to an end. The teachers let us know who would survive and who were sliding off the path into the ordinary world. The smart ones were in the academic track; the rest studied car repair, woodworking, bookkeeping. The girls talked about Vassar and Hunter College, or about the new job they were starting at the drug store. There was no middle ground for any of us – either you were rising or you were falling. I slipped unnoticed into the academic track and divided my loyalties stealthily – no chess club for me, just the gang out back after school that smoked cigarettes and pitched pennies. That meant I had less time for Marianna, who waited for me sometimes until the bus had gone. She had to catch a ride with the librarian. She didn’t complain.
But she could tell I was no longer as attentive. I liked her well enough; I wanted to move our relationship to some more dangerous edge, but I couldn’t bring myself to force her into it. She was so gentle, and candid, and perhaps willing but not eager to follow me there. But at some point my feelings went cold. I didn’t want her to impose her domesticity on me. I felt embarrassed to be walking down the hall hand in hand like Jack and Jill. She was steady in her feelings and would button my coat in the cold, and lay her head on my shoulder as we waited for the bus. She was already acting like a wife. But that was her desire, and her heart was mine. I kept it in my pocket like a pocket watch. I took her for granted and began to chafe even more. And her smiles never diminished for me.
One afternoon I turned to my middle brother Joe and asked if he would drive her home in his car. I had to stay behind. He said okay. Then I asked if he would tell her I wanted to break up, that I didn’t want us to be together any more. He gave me a long look. He was very popular with the girls; he loved their company, even though he had on boots and the jacket, the plaid shirt showing the curls of his chest hair. He nodded. He drove her home and when they were a mile or so from her road, he said what I told him to. She cringed and writhed and said for him to let her out. She ran into the woods and cried bitterly. She waved him away. He drove off and left her there in the clots of snow on the ground and in the branches. The cold gray day enclosed her while she sank down in anguish, astounded at my betrayal. She had been constant, honest, faultless, and I had struck her with some brutal instrument. She no longer trusted me.
The curious thing is, I woke up from a dream two weeks later with such pain in my heart I could barely breathe. I knew at that moment I loved her, as much as I could love anyone at that age. I was dazed at what I had done. I had to change things, if I could. I waited for her when the bus came along, but she went with her brother to school. She didn’t wait around after, although I was there, hoping to catch sight of her. For some odd reason she was never in the halls when I was there; never at the locker when I had the time to see her. She didn’t eat lunch at the cafeteria. She went with other girls out to the tennis courts to eat and study. She had evaporated from my life. Although I did glimpse her now and then at an assembly, or in a huge crowd that walled her off from me.
When my brother Ken said he was going over to Dave’s to play guitar, I asked if could go along. So there I was, in the living room, sitting uneasily on the couch, hoping she would appear. And she did, in a tennis skirt and sweater, with a racket. She didn’t see me. She stood there in some original glow of youth and warmth, a girl whose eagerness to be loved was visible in her lips and eyes, but which never once turned to me. She had smoothed over a place inside her that had once been completely vulnerable. And all these years later, I think about this moment, about my fatal error, my unchangeable fate – even though I was right to escape from what would certainly have been an ordinary life with her, with chintz curtains on the kitchen window, a piano in the living room, kids in diapers, a sedan in the drive, a white collar job, a longing for the life I didn’t have. I knew that, but I couldn’t heal the wound I had made with my own will.