Friday, August 20, 2010

Sadie Hawkins Crucifixion

"I think I have been shot!” I said to Keith, my voice raising up brittle and shocky over the dying music, “Why would somebody want to shoot me?”

Why me?  I am just a nobody, I thought.
Then things went all trippy. The disco lights softened into dangling multi-colored cotton balls, the music began to echo and fade, and the room irised in as I felt myself collapse into his arms.

The Sadie Hawkins Dance was an annual affair that was intended to shake things up a little bit between the male and female denizens of Cardinal McStibbens Catholic High School.  For one shining moment in time, the girls were permitted to ask, no, demand that the guy of their choice escort them to the event.  Inspired by Al Capp’s hilarious, and now undoubtedly non-politically correct comic strip L’il Abner, it was strictly ladies night.

According to the comic strip, in the fictional mountain hamlet of Dogpatch, one of the town’s founding fathers had a romantically challenged daughter named Sadie who was approaching spinsterhood with no suitors knocking down  the cabin door.  So old man Hawkins decreed a special day for his daughter marked by a footrace where all the town’s eligible bachelors would get a head start.  And when that shotgun went off they ran like jackelopes since if caught by an eligible bachelorette, a marriage would be the pact by Dogpatch law.

This boiled down, like corn likker in Pappy Yokum’s still, into this scenario at my high school:  If the hot stuff star of the football team was asked by the bookish bespectacled allergically sinus-infected girl president of the Math/Chess club to the dance, he could not turn her down.  It was a date. 

We spent weeks before the dance watching the big men on campus bob, weave and serpentine if they had the slightest inkling some uncool mad crushing chick was going to corner them, poke their glasses up on the bridge of their noses, and commit them to a night a sheer embarrassment.

Me?  Oh, yes.  I had a dream date for Sadie Hawkins all thought out but shelved it.  He was the very established boyfriend of Haley, the Cheerleader, and untouchable upon penalty of potentially intense mean girl scrutiny.  

I was not a cheerleader.  I was queen of the drama club.

You know the type.

But, as karma would have it, I got to spend a magical amount of unrequited time with my biggest high school crush ever.   Keith and I co-edited the school newspaper together.   The nun in charge of the paper, Sister Janet, had a twinkle in her eye when she paired us up for the task and I learned at that malleable age to keep my hormones to myself in a “working” situation.  It was post-adolescent torture. 

Tall and strong with a competitive swimmer’s physique and deep ocean green eyes, Keith had perfect teeth and smiled constantly, even when pissed off, rendering me, all tied up in braces and Janice Ian angst at 17,  weak kneed. 

But I couldn’t show it. 

His passion was photography and he gently taught me about f-stops and depths of field.  I turned down invitations to water ski with him and his brothers because I was too shy to be seen in a bathing suit, much less photographed.  The horror!
We spent many a Sunday afternoon at my house writing articles together, but mostly laughing ourselves silly about shenanigans at school. Or satirizing each other.

Keith was just plain kind to me but wouldn’t let me bail out on anything.  I was proud when I could show him my spine in a situation requiring a stand.  He made me strong.

One day we were up in the Journalism lab laying out the galleys together.

“Well, are you going to Sadie Hawkins?”

“No.  Good God no.”

“Why not?’

“It’s stupid and I don’t want to humiliate myself.”  I remember I bit off the words like they were crispy.

“Oh that was dramatic.  You get an Oscar.  Now, cut it out.” he said chuckling under his breath.  He had a good chuckle.

He knew my hot buttons by then so he fiddled around with the waxed copy sheets for a while, pulling them up and rolling them down on the galleys with a T-rule waiting for me to chill.
“So…”  I jumped like a startled cat, his voice seemed loud. “I guess I’m not going either.”

“What about the great and wonderful Haley?  Didn’t she already get dibs?”

“Nope.  She’s got other plans or something.”


Exponentially awkward pause.
My eyes swung around in my head to catch him looking directly into them.

And suddenly I did not give two damns about being the subject of the cheerleader’s popular tyrannies.   They could all go stuff their pom-poms right up…

“Keith.  I am asking you right now to accompany me to the Sadie Hawkins Dance. You got no choice.  You’re going with me like it or not!”

“Alright!” he said with a huge grin.  “Cool!” 

Kevin, Keith, My brother Chris crashing the party, me, and Voni 

The big night arrived and I made a hillbilly bar-b- que dinner with cornbread, greens and homemade apple pie for him and a few friends at my house. We actually had a scandalous glass of wine.  I pinned a pink carnation corsage to the denim overalls he wore in keeping with the Dogpatch theme of the night.  I was costumed in a short denim skirt and a little poufy shirt with cap sleeves and actually went barefoot to the dance, just like Sadie would’ve.
I felt like I could’ve been popular that night. I felt beautiful and witty and daring.

We all piled into Keith’s car and went to the Sadie Hawkins Dance.

Kind of looked like this...

The school gym was decked out in hay bales, scarecrows and yellow, orange and red crepe paper dangling down like Spanish moss. Life-sized cut outs of L’il Abner, Daisy Mae and even Sadie herself were propped up for photo opportunities.  The art classes outdid themselves. 

It went so fast, two hours just flew.
 The band didn’t stink, as it turned out, and we danced to Smoke on the Water, Layla, Free Bird, Walk This Way and Stairway to Heaven.  It was a good time for great music in those days. 
Unlike many of the mismatched couples that night, Keith bravely slow danced with me when the music prompted, close enough so that Sister Janet had to come by and make sure she could see space between us.  Close enough to send the cheerleaders into a tizzy.  Close enough I was floating.  Close enough he was whispering in my ear.

Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow?
And did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind?”

It was the last strains of Stairway I heard when the band was winding down, and in Keith’s arms, we were just standing still.  I could hear the nuns chirping “good night!”

“And she’s buying a stairway…to heaven.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Anthony Dugan swinging like a primate on the crepe paper decorations, tearing them down as the mercury lights came up in the gym.  What an ass he was. Chose to ignore.

Something hit my arm, hard.

The force of it spun me around, out of Keith’s embrace and a searing pain welled up.

“I think I’ve been shot! Why would somebody want to shoot me?”

Keith stared white-faced at my arm and said:  “Don’t look at it.”
But I did.
A six inch long carpenter’s nail had pierced my upper arm and had emerged out the other side.  My poufy shirt sleeve was pinned to my arm like a poster stuck on a bulletin board.  A delicious touch of additional horror, the nail in my arm was still attached to the monofilament sixty pound test fishing line formerly used to hold up the decorations.

My arm was flailing wildly like a possessed marionette every time Anthony across the gym tore down another swath of decorations!

Seems the decorating committee hammered nails into the cement block walls of the gym, tied off fishing line to them, and draped crepe paper on the line.  The force of Anthony’s efforts made one of those nails launch out of the wall with the velocity of a bullet and it found my arm.

Keith caught me and sat me down on the floor.  He grabbed the fishing line and as a function of pure adrenalin, broke it so my arm would quit dancing.
Next I knew I was being carried to the locker room in strong arms.  I smelled flowers and I could hear his voice saying, “I like the carnation you gave me, Linda.  Keep your nose right there in that flower.  Smells so good.  It’s going to be all right.”

My dad, the doctor, was called and came roaring up to the gym in his convertible Oldsmobile, jumped out and retrieved Keith and I from the locker room.
Back home, dad sat me on the kitchen table, had mom stand by with towels as he felt around the nail to see if it was in something important, like an artery.  Satisfying himself, he called Keith over to observe. 

“I don’t think it’s serious. Ok, Lois on my count with the towels just in case she spurts a little.   Ready?”

I squeezed my eyes shut and braced.

“One – Two - Hey, Keith, my daughter has a big crush on you.”

And he whipped that nail out like lightning.  Didn’t feel a thing.

Keith declined the offer from my dad to learn how to give a tetanus shot that night, even though it included the opportunity to see my exposed rear.  

That’s why I had such a crush on him.

Rest in Peace Keith. 
Your stairway came a little sooner I guess. I’ll never forget you.  
 Every time I see a pink carnation...  

photos:  Personal Collection 
Some names have been changed in this essay to protect privacy.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Tarot of the Beach Divas

 The Beach Divas mascot sitting on the iconic Red Cooler.

“So,  if these chicks have turned onto Stepford Wives or something, y’know perfect in every way, I am so out of here in the morning!”

Karen arrived first and delivered this ultimatum with one hand on her car and the other clutching her keys.  I flew down the path at the beach house to greet her with a hug that was thirty-six years delinquent.

That Karen arrived first made cosmic sense since she and I had been classmates from first grade through twelfth.  Sister Simon Peter to Sister Janet Riordan.  
Memories are tricky things, but overall I remember many times catching and matching the impish glint in her eye just before participating in some Karen-instigated episode of pure lunacy.  We little Catholic girls did uncivilized and unladylike things that could make a grown nun cry.

And we never hesitated. 

She was, and is still, small, blonde, with a crooked smile, a wicked sense of irony and a massive cache of mischievous energy. The events of the years had not pulled that out of her at all. Not even losing her beloved husband to a heart attack too early. 

She is still Karen, yes, and although in her company I only stopped laughing when I slept, I could hear her faint underscore in a minor key resonating with mine.
She didn’t leave the next morning.  She is the Queen of Pentacles.

We six 50-something friends gathered again at the shore of our mutual ocean this abnormally hot summer.
It was the first High School Pals Beach Divas Weekend.  Karen, Sue, Mary, Mary Ann, Des and I all graduated from Catholic high school together and met up again, as people often do now, on FaceBook.  

Go figure.
This was an offshoot event born fully formed from an impromptu class “reunion” we all had in April.  I just invited all the women, (sorry guys) every one of which seemed to need a break from life in general, to join me at the beach for the weekend.  Five could make it.

The rules?  None.
Advice?  Bring a towel and Don’t Panic.

Here’s the funny thing:  None of us were super close in high school.  We orbited in circles that would sometimes intersect and bingo-bango, a funny story to tell and re-tell.  We’re all raucous storytellers when given the floor.

But now, we are fascinated with each other.  Karen may have said it best.  We’ve all travelled parallel roads getting married, raising kids, shepherding careers, and now we have circled back to each other as these life phases slowly release us. 

It’s a checkpoint, a tag-off in the ring, a long awaited embrace.  A wrinkle in time.

And a reason to drink and eat ourselves into a stupor.

Sue, Mary and Des showed up next bearing the now iconic “red cooler” full of happy hour nibbles and booze, the holy elements of the weekend in addition to the beach, the pool and as many life stories as we could fit in.

Sue, of the supernatural Caribbean blue eyes, is the warm radiant hug of this group.  She married her husband very soon after high school and is still with him, the lucky guy.  Her long brown locks  are now short and stylish in a gorgeous shade of silver. She is an amazing wit, competing quip for quip with those of us with an annoying need for attention.   She  just waits patiently for an opening in the conversation, lobs a pithy intelligent observation in like a lit M-80 firecracker, and then stands back to observe its effect. She is another instigator, provoker, and maker of mischief.  And she's always in for an adventure, enthusiastically organizing and fine tuning life around her. It is her hand that holds ours when things are hard. She gets me crying when we part ways.  She is the Queen of Wands.

Mary was our true north for the weekend keeping the party hopping. Tall and gorgeous and a true sun worshipper, the pool was her domain.  Getting all sandy and salty was not her deal, so she hung at the “cement pond” more than the rest of us who didn’t mind so much getting salty and gritty at the shore.  She did not allow me to wimp out, ordering me into the shower to prep for dinner out. I obeyed.  She is powerful when she gets a notion.  And dirty eyeglasses make her crazy.  She whipped off both Des's and my glasses and Windexed them, never missing  a beat in the story she was telling.  We will all celebrate when her stumpy little ponytail grows out and she stops smoking those short Virginia Slims.  I wore her silver earrings to dinner like Joni Mitchell in the song Carey…”I’ll put on some silver."  She is the Queen of Cups.

Des was a firefighter.  Titanium holds her spine together, her back broken by an adrenalin and drug addled man who resisted violently as she attempted to help him to safety. She was one of the first women to serve as a firefighter in South Florida with stories of ill-fitting gear and crude practical jokes played on her by the guys that would light up lawyers for years.   She won them over by feeding their spirits and stomachs after all.  She served up homemade food and comfort meticulously erasing their unease at having a female amongst them when people were burning to death.  She gave us stuffed mushrooms, shrimp and fruit. And a heart bigger than describable.  She brings the Holy Eucharist to shut-ins now.  I am unsettled in her presence since my faith lost me. She has seen things that would crumble me into pieces. She is the Priestess.

And Mary Ann came last, just in time for happy hour.  She has one of those Dorian Grey pictures in her attic since she barely changed since high school.  Model pretty, petite, a cardiology nurse and tough as nails. She had done double shifts that week, coped with a car that blew up in flames, drove another car all the way to her daughter in college, moved that daughter to her new residence, and ended up with us late in the day spent.   And, she brought homemade cakes.  And beer margueritas to be consumed in special stemmed glasses.  The cake baking and the margueritas may have cast her as the Stepford wife that Karen feared, but she never flinched as we peppered our commentaries with juicy curses and crude anatomical references even adding a few of her own.  By vote, she got her own bedroom for the weekend by virtue of how hellish her week had been.
In a gesture of pure female friendship, she slapped my fumbling hands away, grabbed my hairbrush, and French braided my unruly wet ocean tangled hair saying, “I don’t get to do this very often.  Got to show your friendship when you can!”  She is the Queen of Swords.

Over cocktails and throw-your-diet-out-the-window food, we got to know a few things we never knew before like –
  • Whose prom date fell asleep in the family station wagon sucking on the tip of his tie.
  • Why one entire family had heads that were flat in the back.
  • Why the Hansel & Gretel hotel on the beach had significance to one of us.
  • Why one of us had a perpetually sunny disposition at school due to sparking up of certain kind of cigarette every morning.
  • Why at the mention of one Catholic priest’s name, one of us cannot help but follow it up with “perv.”
  • Why there is a black kid in one of our current family photographs.
  • How one of us used to smoke cigarettes with a nun on the roof of the school.
  • Why the best light is in the car for tweezing eyebrows and chin hairs.
  • Who asked the innocent virginal red-faced Irish priest to elaborate on the notion of the orgasm as he tried to teach the “birds and the bees” class.
  • How one of us got a carpenter’s nail imbedded in her arm at a school dance.
  • How wasted we all got before basketball games riding around in a van named "Fred."
  • Who’s got the biggest surgical scar.
  • Who disappeared.
  • Who divorced.
  • Who died.
  • Who snores.
How the hours flew by, much like the years had, and we left each other threatening to slap each other silly if we cried. 

Our mutual ocean had stretched out endlessly when we graduated from high school and set sail to make our lives.
The cards could not predict the tempests, doldrums, shark attacks and cyclones that would attempt to bring a drastic sea change to every one of us during those thirty-six years apart. We're too tough to let those things rock us, though.

For a short time, we navigated back to the shore from whence we launched, and made safe harbor. And not a Stepford wife to be seen.