Excerpt: Beyond Nostalgia
I once believed soft, warm, beautiful things could never flourish in an environment of hard concrete and cold, dark bricks. In a tough, paycheck-to-paycheck, hard-luck place with a name like Flushing, life’s finer things appeared only in dreams.
I thought on the rare occasions when good things did happen in neighborhoods such as mine, to people like me, they had no place there and were always short-lived. I thought the phrase I’d penned on the cover of my loose leaf notebook senior year was quite ingenious for a kid with such a humble background and education. In large block letters, it shouted ELATION IS ELUSIVE – HARD LUCK ENDURING. Just beneath that, I’d borrowed a line from Bob Dylan, “WHEN YOU GOT NUTHIN’, YOU GOT NUTHIN’ TO LOSE”.
My negative philosophy was deeply entrenched not only in my mind but also my soul. I’d been thinking that way all my young life, but you can’t blame me. I clearly saw what was happening all around me. I could read the writing on the walls when there wasn’t graffiti obscuring it. But one night during my eighteenth spring all that changed in a New York second. My perception of life, love, hope, and pain would never be the same. For that was the night I met Theresa Wayman.
Nearly forty years have slipped away since then, yet I can still recollect most of what happened that damp, cold April night in 1967. I was at a dance with my three best friends: Don Scully, Jimmy Curtin, and Steve Waters. At the time, we all played basketball for our respective high schools and everybody knew it. The Borough of Queens is a big place, yet at every dance, we went to we always saw some familiar faces. In that respect, and only that respect, this dance, this night would be no different.
As always, we wore our varsity jackets over shirts and ties. We thought we were H-O-T hot, too cocky and headstrong if you ask me now, real smooth if you asked me then. Still, we were four nice looking, young guys, drenched in English Leather, who could dance with the best of them and fight when we had to. We were always together.
That night we were at Saint Agnes Girls High School in College Point. I was dancing near the gym’s center court line when, as it does so often in the city, trouble erupted. Fueled by a six-pack of Rheingold Beer, I was feeling right; getting into the Shing-a-Ling with Debra Kennedy, a cute little blonde I knew. We were dancing really well together to The Rascals’ hit “Lonely Too Long” and soon, after seeing what we could do, most of the couples around us started giving us a wider berth on the hardwood floor. By now I was feeling cool, really cool, like Travolta, must have a few years later in Saturday Night Fever.
But there was somebody in the crowd who didn’t think I was all that much, or maybe he did, and that’s why he started in. All I know is this guy who had been dancing next to me, a real tall oriental dude with a greased-back Elvis hairdo, suddenly slammed an elbow into my kidney. Instantly, I saw stars, an entire galaxy, and my eyes glazed over just as fast. I hunched over, grabbed my side, tried really hard to squeeze away some of the pain. Then, just as quickly, I spun back up and around, aimed real high, and nailed the troublemaker with a good one to the cheekbone.
Fists were flying; a flurry of rights and lefts; hard punches, and I was getting the better of him. But it didn’t last long. Mere seconds elapsed before two chaperones grabbed me; big burly blue-collar types in ill-fitting sportscoats and mismatched polyester ties. They yanked me off the instigator and started dragging me, no questions asked, toward the principal’s office.
“Lemme go,” I shouted, “he started the whole thing!” But it did no good. My captors wouldn’t say a word or listen to one either. They continued to strong arm me out of the gymnasium then down a long empty hallway. One beefy handcuffing each of my skinny arms, I felt like Lee Harvey Oswald just before he ran into Jack Ruby.
After successfully transporting me to the principal’s office, my captors paused for a moment and eyeballed the long row of empty metal folding chairs lining the wall just inside the doorway. “Let’s put ‘im over there,” one of them finally said, jutting his square jaw toward the farthest chair from the doorway. They marched me over, plopped me down, and gave me two nasty looks that said Don’t even think about making a run for it.
They then strode across the linoleum to where this very old nun, a tiny woman the size of a pixie sat behind the biggest desk I’d ever seen. She couldn’t have been an ounce over eighty pounds. Translucent skin stretched across her forehead and tiny cheeks tight as leather on a bongo. With only that tiny face and miniature black habit visible behind that huge mahogany desk, she looked like something you’d see on “Laugh In”. But that’s where the humor ended. The chaperones surely didn’t think anything was funny. With their backs to me now, both of them facing the toy nun, their heads bowed like altar boys, they began murmuring to her. I leaned this way and that, but their voices were too low. I couldn’t discern one word of my indictment.
At first I wasn’t overly concerned about the whole thing. There had been other times my friends and I had been in fights, and all anybody ever did was kick us out. Our only concern on those nights was how many guys might be waiting for us outside. But this thing was beginning to drag on a bit too long. I was getting antsy. I thought, Shit man, maybe they don’t play around here at Saint Agnes. Then, when one of the chaperones pointed to the telephone and I thought I heard him say something about the police, I really started getting uptight. Even with the buzz still going on in my head I realized things could get real serious, real quick.
A minute or so went by. I looked out into the hall and considered making my break. Ten, fifteen feet, and I’m out of here, wouldn’t take but a second or two. I could do it so fast they wouldn’t know what was happening. I’ll haul ass outta here; go down the hall right to the coatroom. Then I’ll… Right there my scheming ended. That’s as far as I got. Boom! Poof! It simply shut down, just like that. Because standing outside that doorway, on the far side of the hall, off to one side, apparently trying to remain hidden from everybody else in the office, was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. And her dark, alluring eyes were locked on mine.
Holy Christmas! What a knockout! She’s got to be the prettiest girl this side of the G.W. Bridge. A little on the hood or hitter side maybe, like the kind of girl who’s into guys with greased back hair and leather jackets, but still, what a fox!
I felt like I was in Westside Story, one of the “Jets” checking out one of the forbidden “Sharks” girls. This girl was utterly captivating, no, beyond captivating. Forget that she wasn’t all that tall or overly busty, that she didn’t dress collegiate like me and my friends. She had this rare beauty that was as subtle as it was striking. Wrapped tight in a sleek, black dress with spaghetti straps, I’d have been content just to stare at her bare shoulders all night.
But there was so much more to take in. Her hair, blacker and silkier than her dress, cascaded from a perfectly centered part like two dramatic stage curtains, framing her face like a masterpiece. A teenage Cleopatra with eyes so dark, so mysterious, they almost looked oriental; like sideways drops of dark coffee that looked into you rather than at you. And talk about lips, full, sensual, all-female lips coated ever so carefully with a sexy flesh-tone gloss. Lips that somehow seemed familiar but, of course, weren’t.
She lifted her chin just a bit now; arched her feline brows and slowly brought an index finger to those lips. “Shhhh!” Then she lowered her hand from her mouth and pantomimed a word, just one word, system…or assistant…something like that. I wasn’t sure. She then straightened her dress, cleared her throat, twice ran her fingers through her hair, and strode into that office looking like the queen of Queens. Exuding an air of confidence that nobody alive could put on, she marched directly over to the nun and chaperones and began talking to them.
With her back to me, I couldn’t hear a word she was saying.
A few moments later she and the chaperones turned toward me. The toy nun looked my way too. I noticed the girl’s forehead was a bit crinkled, as if she was perturbed at something. Forcing what felt like some goofy innocent expression onto my face I wondered, what the hell is going on here now?
Then my jury turned back around to resume their deliberation. But before the girl turned away she snuck me a quick wink and an assuring smile.
Side by side in Saint Agnes’ hallway, both of us stepping quickly, our eyes connected once again. It was then that we shared our first smile.
Who is this dream girl? I wondered. Why did she come to my rescue? Have I met her before? Nahhh, I would have definitely remembered.
Without breaking stride I peeked over my shoulder, back toward the office, making sure no one was in sight or hearing range. Then I looked at her again and asked quizzically, “Do I know you?” My beer buzz not yet totally worn off, my words came out louder than I’d intended and ricocheted off the narrow hallway walls.
“Shhh…” my new friend said, “…wait till we get outside.” Even her voice was intriguing, a bit deeper than I’d expected…
“But, I’ve got to tell my friends I’m…”
“No…you can’t,” she whispered forcefully. “Those men see you back inside there, it’ll be all over. They told me to take you directly out of the building. We’ll get our coats then we have to leave.”
Oh well, I figured, no big thing. Plenty of times before me and the guys had split up when we met girls. Times when we took them home, or took whatever they’d give us in apartment building basements or on their rooftops.
It seemed very strange, but as we descended the steps outside the school, thoughts of making sexual advances didn’t even enter my mind. Usually by now I’d be conjuring where to take a girl, but with this one it was different. Somehow it felt special just to be with her. I was not only flattered by what she had just done for me and intrigued by her beauty, but also dumbfounded by how unpretentious she was.
We took a stroll beneath a starry sky, she sensibly dressed in a knee-length, quilted coat; me underdressed in my lightweight varsity jacket. A log burning in a nearby fireplace filled the night air with a pleasant richness, but it was getting colder by the minute, and I shivered as I dug a chilled hand into my pocket for my Kools.
“Want one?” I asked, holding out the pack.
“No thanks. I have my own.”
From her purse she extracted a Marlboro, the hitter’s cigarette of choice. But this small cultural difference didn’t bother me either. Somehow it made her even more appealing, sort of like being with the enemy’s woman during wartime. With my brushed-metal Zippo, I lit her smoke first. I did this the conventional way, not the cool way I always did when with the guys; jerking it back and forth across my thigh in two, quick, well-practiced motions; one to open the hood, the other to activate the flint wheel.
“How’d you do it?” I asked, holding the windblown blue flame to the end of her cigarette. “How’d you get me outta there?”
“Easy. I just told Sister Carmella that you were my brother.”
So that was what she had mimed to me from the hallway, not system, or assistant, but sister.
“I also told her that I saw that other boy start the fight…which I did.” Then she smiled, a small bashful smile that warmed my heart when she admitted, “I was watching you dance.”
I drew on my cigarette meditatively then exhaled. Mixing words with smoke I said, “Thanks a lot, but why’d you do it? You don’t even know me.”
“I do now!” she said, looking at me with those eyes, her lips evolving into a most captivating smile. “I thought you were cute!”
Our eyes, still embraced in the darkness, I smiled back at her shyly. Totally disarmed by her beauty I was forced to admit to myself something I’d never dare tell anyone else; that no way could such a perfect creature possibly be interested in me. In just, what, ten, fifteen minutes, this living, breathing doll had stripped away every ounce of all that thin bravado I was so used to flaunting. Of all the girls I’d met in my young life, this was the only one who seemed too good for me. I didn’t much like the feeling, yet still, I ached with desperate desire. With no mask to hide behind now, I could only resort to acting like my true self. And it’s a lucky thing I did, because whether I realized it or not at the time, frankness and honesty form the very foundation of all true romances.
I knew she liked what she saw when she said, “I’m glad I met you tonight, Dean Cassidy.”
Suddenly, I no longer felt cold. I actually felt warm inside. The warmth of her words had gone straight to my heart and pumped throughout my body.
Though Theresa lived just a few blocks from Saint Agnes, she and I walked all over College Point that night. We strolled up and down quiet side streets where unbroken chains of parked cars buffered sidewalks alongside interminable rows of two-family homes. We spoke easily about the things that newly acquainted teenagers do: school, music, movies, likes and pet peeves, favorite aftershaves and perfumes. We inventoried our friends to find out if any were mutual. A few were. We talked about our families, but only briefly. I said nothing of my mother’s mental problems or my father’s vile temper. All she said about her family was that she and her mother lived alone. Since she didn’t volunteer any information about her father, I didn’t push the issue.
As I said before, I wasn’t about to try any funny stuff. No way was I going to jeopardize her apparent fondness for me. As a matter of fact, she made the first show of affection.
She put her arm around me first. It happened on Broadway when we were oohing and ahhing in front of an unlit jewelry shop window. Well, really, I was sneaking glances at her reflection in the plate glass more than I was surveying the trove of gold and silver behind it. We had been walking for some time now and it had gone from chilly to downright cold. If I hadn’t been broke I would have taken her to the all-night diner and warmed us both up with coffee. But all I had in my pockets besides my Zippo, and maybe some lint, was twenty cents for bus fare home. I strained to hide my shivers the best I could. But Theresa was sharp. She quickly picked up on the tremor in my hand when I pointed to a real spiffy, Florentine-finished ID bracelet behind the glass.
It was then that I felt her arm slide around the small of my back. Nothing pretentious about the gesture, just a heartfelt, benevolent reflex meant to help warm me up. Talk about being in heaven! This was it. Looking down at her, directly into those dark exotic eyes, I lowered my shivering hand and laid it gently around her slender waist. For a second or two we held this pose, then, slowly, allowing her ample time to pull away, I leaned to kiss her.
She let me. It was nothing passionate, just a meeting of young lips, pressing gently, yet eagerly. Right then both our lives took on a whole new meaning. Instantly, my old world transformed into a totally different place. A wonderful alien place, saturated with new hope.
It was nearing 1 a.m. when we finally arrived outside Theresa’s house. She pointed across the dark, deserted street, to a two-story house that was exactly the same as all the rest on the block. “That’s where I live,” she said, “on the first floor.” The happy glow that had been in her voice and on her face all night disappeared, replaced now by concern and disappointment. She focused intently on the front window. A pale light was on inside, and there was music playing, sad music, depressing bluesy stuff that kids our age definitely were not into.
Still arm in arm as we stepped between two parked cars to cross the narrow street, I looked at her again and asked, “What’s the matter, something wrong?”
“Ohhh, nooo…nothing.” She managed a melancholic smile. “It’s just that I…I can’t ask you inside, and I feel bad about it.” Then we stepped onto the sidewalk and she turned to face me. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I wanted to invite you in, let you get warm, make you a cheeseburger or something.”
Seeing the disappointment intensify on her face, I put my hands on her trim waist. Not having a clue as to what was troubling her, I said, “It’s OK, I understand.” Then I forced a smile, “Can I call you?”
“Of course! You better!” she said, as she hurriedly fumbled through her purse for something to write with.
In the time it took her to dig out a pen and a matchbook, she had twice glanced at her front window.
“Please call me, Dean.”
“Tomorrow, I promise.”
Rising to her toes, she slipped her hand on the back of my neck and kissed me once again. God, she knew how to kiss! She eased her tongue inside my mouth, slowly sweeping it over my teeth and gums, exploring for a moment before bringing it to meet mine. Holding her in my arms, I felt through her coat the swell of her breasts as they pressed against my chest. I wasn’t shaking any more. Our tongues now sliding against each others, I cheated a little. I opened my eyes, just a bit, to see if she was into this as much as I was.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Is this something I can help with?”
She bit her lower lip then said, “No. It’s nothing major…I’ll explain another time.”
She sniffled, then smiled for my benefit and said, “I won’t go anywhere tomorrow. I’ll wait for your call…Dean Cassidy.” Then she kissed my cheek, turned quickly, and went into her house.
I can no longer bring the feeling back, but I still remember how ecstatic I was waiting for the bus outside Bogart’s Bar on Broadway that special night so many years ago. Looking up at the nighttime city sky I saw new stars, brighter stars, more stars than ever before. I even recall the misty stream rising from my mouth as I muttered to the heavens, “God, please, let there be many more nights that I’ll wait on this bus stop.”