Inside the White Picket Fence

white picket fence

By Marni Zarr I met him in sophomore geometry. My head in the clouds over his best friend, the subject of which made easy fodder for conversation. Our instructor happened to be his basketball coach which miraculously made me privy to over the shoulder glances at his correct answers during tests thus saving me from failing. Happy that I had this advantage I was big on smiles and loved conversing with this insider who knew everything I wanted to know about my not so secret crush on his goofy yet charming friend.  In between the hand holding and break ups between his friend and I, the two of us grew into good pals. Hours spent with him on the phone, nothing said in coded whispers as was required with other friends.  I wasn’t afraid of my parent’s overhearing me as I spoke to him through the avocado kitchen rotary, only that our phone time would be cut off before I was ready to say good-bye. The curly cord a slinky in my hand, I’d wind it’s twisting loops through my toes while talking and daydream about compliments from the older girls in the P.E. locker room. One insisted I should be a foot model. The perfect shape and always polished, the only blemish a growing bunion on the right side, enough to squash that idea. My self doting thoughts were suddenly interrupted by his innocent question, “So what about going to the movies with me this weekend?”

My parents prejudices were a good cover-up for my own fear. I wasn’t totally comfortable with the thought of going on a date, although I considered him a friend, a black guy. Would people think he was my boyfriend? Would they stare and tag me with another accessory like my religion that I wasn’t comfortable carrying around? Did I want to say no but blame my parents prejudices as a shield for my own? How could I decline without hurting his feelings? All of these thoughts swirled in my head like an alphabet soup of questions whirring audibly in a blender, a jumble of words and feelings that in the end was so thick and unrecognizable my thoughts a messy mush. and then, the honest answer rose to the top, “ I can’t, I have to be sixteen to date.” Although valid, we both communicated the understood underlying truth with an awkward moment of silence.

Who knows what would have happened if I had been allowed to experience my first date with him. I could sense his feelings for me were different than mine for him, but his character spoke only of respect. I could have breached my parent’s rules and told them I was going to a movie with a girlfriend and met him there but didn’t. Instead I packed the incident neatly away, we stayed friends, I denied my feelings, and life went on with the blame pinned to my parents, folding my confusion neatly away to be dealt with later.

We remained friends while the dating excuse covered the dark truth until late winter. Still three months shy of my 16th birthday I successfully convinced my parents to lift the dating rule, “just this once.”  The most popular boy in high school, a year ahead of me had asked me out on a Valentine’s date.  Possessing perfect all American good boy looks with mischievous sparkly blue eyes and a California like carelessness to his confident athletic walk, he was the stud of the school. How I was chosen to be his valentine crush was never clear . . . to anyone. He was the boy on a pedestal. The one that everyone remembers.

All nerves electric at the sound of the doorbell, awkward introductions were made and off we went down the front walkway to his pristine truck where he opened the door politely and I raised myself up and sat on the soft burnished brown velour seat. First stop, a weathered liquor store in a strip mall just outside the cozy confines of his country club community. I waited while he confidently strutted in and came out minutes later with a six-pack, gum and a pink plastic comb which became my souvenir of the evening.  I loved how he played with my hair and teased me with it as we listened to “The Cars”  cassette on his fancy stereo and drank the lukewarm bottled beer in the theatre parking lot. Three for him, two for me, time for the movie. We each popped a fresh stick of doublemint gum in our mouths and before getting out to walk around and open my door, hand resting softly on my thigh, he asked me to reach into his glove compartment so he could reapply more of his “Polo” cologne. My senses heightened to the first hints of sexual tension the scent was forever branded on my memory so that years later I could smell our song whenever it played and feel his hand as it went up my shirt.

After the movie, fully clothed but rolling in the cool winter grass of the church on the corner, we kissed and I assumed it was true love forever, hearts floating in my head I went home to dream about our wedding and how envious everyone would be as I walked down the aisle with the dream god of the high school universe.  Two weeks later, as the deities of high school often do, he moved on to new and easier waters. My elevated ego smarted from the fall, but I had the song “Just What I Needed” by The Cars and my light pink comb for comfort. Even if never allowed to pray at the feet of his graven image again I knew I had earned his blessing and to me that was timeless.

A few years ago I ran into a former high school friend at a neighborhood restaurant as I walked out the door. Turning at my name there was instant recognition in the hint of a smile, the way you see through someone’s voice and facial expressions and it transports you back in time. We started talking about our current lives, family, kids, jobs etc., the creamy pre-prepared information filling the space between high school graduation and now. The conversation turned to people we occasionally ran into from school and we shared short clips of what we knew or had heard.  His son was on the high school football team at a small school in California and being coached by another former classmate’s younger brother, small world. The topic of football sparked my curiosity about my long ago crush and the question rolled off my tongue with a wistful lilt. His face fell as he told me what he had heard a while back. This boy who many of us had assumed would go on to have it all, just as he did in school, grew up and had taken his own life. I couldn’t help but wonder if every one of us who had assisted him in rising to that highest spot of teen-age stardom hadn’t somehow contributed to his fall.