Judy Barkley's Creative Non-Fiction classes included the writing of memoirs. For various reasons, my memories of junior high school and high school, to this day, are tinged with emotion and magic (a magic I also try to communicate in A Cupp and a Saucer).
In Letting Go of Linda I recall a friendship of that period and how hard it is to let go.
“If you don't, I will. It's dirty. It smells awful. Throw it in.”
My step-grandmother pointed to the concrete furnace behind our apartment. Charcoal scuffs spattered its textured gray surface. The squeaky metal door, too hot to touch, was swung wide open. The flames licked, growling for the fluffy cotton I pressed to my face. With the cold night biting my legs, I sucked my thumb harder, rubbing the soft blanket against my cheek.
She tore it out of my hand and threw it in. “It's dirty,” she said. The flames blurred to shimmering stars, the charcoal to dark smears. My blankie curled into a ball. It turned yellow, orange, blue, brown, and then as black as the sky overhead. In the end it went white. The furnace inhaled. Its hot breath sucked at my face. The chimney coughed out wispy flakes of scorched cotton. They spiraled higher and higher into the dark sky.
As the years passed I found new blankies. A teddy bear. Three imaginary playmates. Playground friends. Special classmates. Then, when I was thirteen, I met someone special. I'd just completed a year of piano lessons. It seemed incredible to me that symbols on paper could slip into my eyes, slide down my fingers, hop into the piano, and make music.
Into the midst of this magic walked Linda. A friend of hers invited me to accompany the two of them for a school performance where they would sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. I agreed.
Because my mother had once again divorced, this was a time of deep insecurity. As Linda and her friend rehearsed, their voices summoned images of stability, home, and hope—
Somewhere over the rainbow way up high,
There's a land that I heard of once in a lullaby,
Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue,
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.
Linda wore the white socks, saddle oxfords, and rich lipstick popular at the time. With her wavy, reddish-brown hair tucked behind her ears, dressed in a long skirt and white sweater, most would describe her as “unassuming.” Where others saw simply a plain face, I caught the upturned corner of a smile, the twinkle, the look of recognition that says, “In some foggy far-off place, before we drifted here, I knew you.”
After a conversation or two, Linda and I made a discovery. We were born on the same day, at the same hospital, separated by only hours. Once our mothers met, they recalled having passed each other outside the delivery room. Had Linda and I too, during those same few seconds, fluttered above the hospital, brushing by on our way to this place below?
Linda's shyness clothed a spirit unwilling to force its opinion, its affection, or its presence where it was unwelcome. Her eyes searched you quietly, acutely. Because she chose whom to invite into her home, you wouldn't see her clambering for popularity or power. You wouldn't hear her shout in a crowd. Once you and she clasped hands, she was yours forever.
Soon we were studying homework together. Linda lived in a single-story, stucco house owned by a hard-working father and a mother who in those days would have been called a “homemaker.” Often, while her mother baked afternoon pastries, Linda and I played duets at the piano.
When she found I was too self-conscious to dance, Linda gave her own lessons on the living room floor.
“Come on, Vic. Try it.”
“I can't. I look stupid.”
“No, you don't. Give it a try.”
It wasn't long before Linda and I went to my first school dance, a “sock hop.” Then came parties, school plays, movies, and dances at the House of Hospitality. I ate dinner with her family. Sometimes we attended Starlight Opera musicals.
Inevitably, Linda joined the flying saucer club I was president of (the World Investigators of Saucer Phenomena). Soon she was elected secretary. When she designed and sewed the club's flag, we tormented her with the thought that one day she would be known as the “Betsy Ross” of WISP.
By our last year in junior high school, Linda and I were finishing our third year in the Boys' and Girls' choirs. Our teacher invited us to join others in a singing group, with me as accompanist. He named it the “Junior High Notes.” Our one performance before the student body called forth both the defiance and dignity of teenage life.
Screaming twelve- through fifteen-year-olds sat, wrestled, and tumbled in the twilight of the two-story auditorium. Paper airplanes hissed by. Teachers mysteriously vanished. The student body president led the pledge of allegiance and then announced the schedule of performers. The lights lowered. At the appointed time, the six Junior High Notes walked into the bright beam of center stage. I sat at the piano, safe in the darkness below.
The first song, A Donkey Serenade, was not one to entertain this crowd. Restless teenagers don't want to hear about donkeys. When the three girls, following Mr. Julian's adaptation, hee-hawed, the best the audience could muster were snickers. The final song, Be Kind to Your Parents, was too much. Adolescents flexing identities against the adult world groan to “Be kind to your parents, though they don't deserve it.” Catcalls bounced from balcony to below and back.
It took courage for Linda to stand on stage, knowing that in her classmates' eyes she was too “nice,” too “correct.” Protected in the shadows, I could only admire. Buffeted by floor stomps, spitwads, and jeers, what struck me was the poise of a friend.
That special day soon arrived when those of us in our last year in junior high school wore costumes on campus. What was I to wear? I hated public attention. The idea soon came to three of us who were members of WISP. UFO books of the day wrote of a secret group of men who roamed the world silencing those who spoke publicly of having seen a flying saucer (a group portrayed years later in the motion picture, Men in Black). Wearing black hoods that hid our faces—and signs saying, “See no saucers, speak no saucers, hear no saucers”—we disguised ourselves as what we called the “Sneaky Silence Group” (and I had found a way to wear a costume and avoid eyes staring at my face).
That same year I was wrenched from my home. My mother's savings had dried up. We could no longer survive on public welfare. She would have to move to Oregon and work at her mother's dress shop. I would remain in San Diego and live with my father and his wife until, savings restored, my mother could return.
At a surprise birthday party a few days before the move, a chilly wind flapped the Venetian blinds in Linda's living room. While we opened gifts, I'm certain Linda read the sadness on my face. I was about to lose mother and home. She understood the welling eyes others overlooked. Her thoughtfulness penetrated the nervous smile. She caught the softened brow, the eyes that flick down, unable to endure another rejection.
From the instant I moved into my father's house I was an intrusion. Day after day that hot summer, as his patio clinked with cocktail glasses and his guests splashed in the swimming pool, Linda became my refuge. She met me at the bus stop. Together we walked the mile to her home. When my father confined my piano playing to a few sparse minutes in his garage, Linda and I, hour after hour, played duets in her living room. During the nights I lay alone in the small bedroom of my father's house, thoughts of Linda and her home pushed the icy, air conditioned atmosphere out into the corridors where it belonged.
Within six months my mother returned. I had a home again. I entered high school, and Linda and I continued to see one another. As the months passed, and as I started to date other girls, a half-buried thought stirred. At last it hit me headlong—Linda and I weren't boyfriend and girlfriend. It wasn't a decision. It was a discovery. We'd locked hands when our lives were still drawing the line between friend and lover. By college, the line was drawn.
Though I thought of her often, I didn't see Linda until perhaps fifteen years later. I was walking out of a classroom at the college where I teach, and there she was. It was so good to see my friend again.
After a few minutes I asked, “Do you think we could get together and play the piano?”
It was a child's question.
“I'd love to, but I'm married now, and my husband's back east on duty. I'll have to check with him and make sure it's okay.”
To me it was odd to need permission for such an innocent encounter, but we agreed to talk within a week. Before a day or two passed, Linda phoned to say that her husband would feel uncomfortable with such a meeting. We parted sadly, hoping our paths would cross again one day.
That day arrived about ten years later. I stood in line at the corner donut shop, not fully awake. In my peripheral vision I was sure eyes were staring.
I turned but couldn't recognize the face.
The voice called out my full name.
“Yes,” I answered. But I couldn't jog the memory. Then I said one of those things that pops clumsily, foolishly out of the mouth.
“And how do I know you?”
The phrasing was embarrassing. What snob had seized me?
“It's Linda,” she pleaded.
“Yes,” she answered, relieved of the awkwardness.
My heart was pounding. Here she was, the Linda of my boyhood. The excitement was mixed, though, with a wave of guilt. How could I fail to recognize my Linda? She was the last person I wanted to feel like a stranger.
We talked. But no matter how hard I tried, it was just talk. How to connect the surface to the subterranean rumble? How to stitch the years into words?
I studied her. She was dressed in a tan suit and matching shoes. Each coat button was fastened in place. Her shoulders were pointed with padding. She stood erect.
Linda had grown so worn. Her face sagged with the same circles, the same fatigue, the same unwanted weathering that turned me from my own mirror each morning. How could this happen to my Linda?
Now it was my time to order. I purchased a bag of my favorite pastries and turned to Linda. We exchanged telephone numbers.
And then this adult Linda did something that made my heart sink. It was such a little thing, a gesture that would have no significance to those who speak of protocol and parlance and propriety.
She extended her hand.
I couldn't bear it. This was what one would expect when two business acquaintances part. This was the signal of strangers, the remnant of a medieval rite signifying that neither party bears arms. How could I leave this way?
I reached forward to put my arms around her. I wanted to embrace her, to squeeze her tightly against me. But she stood her ground. In her business suit she was unwrinklable.
I reached around her from the side.
“Linda,” I said, “it's so good to see you.”
As I walked home, the breeze played about my ears, twirling, breathing, whispering. Heavy thoughts rustled. They turned into an indigestible sickness swirling in my stomach. The sickness throbbed into my fingers. And then I knew. I wouldn't use the phone number.
Before long a young man with long brown hair appeared in a class I taught. He stepped forward at the end of the first lecture to tell me he was Linda's son. I beamed, flooded by excitement I knew he couldn't understand. It was hard to hold back the tears. I had just met him, and yet I was proud of this unknown figure. Stirred by a far-off impulse, I wanted to hold him.
In the years since that morning in the donut shop, I've been haunted by images of Linda. Her face, her smile, her touch—they roam my mind. In quiet times I hear her sing—
Some day I'll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far behind me,
Where troubles melt like lemon drops,
Away above the chimney tops
That's where you'll find me.
A cottony ache nudges me. I need solid, soft earth. I lie on the grass, the air-tossed blades tickling my ears. The sun warms my face. The clouds wash by. Soon I'm drawn to two wispy puffs. Slow, easy, they float together, sliding along the slippery breeze. They brush, intermingle, and in an instant I'm lifted into the feathery fog. The mist strokes, caresses, cools. Joined, we rock, and drift, and dream. Then, pulled by some unseen current, we part. Returned to earth's carpet, I watch. The waters unwrap, tugged in two by the cruel wind.
It is so hard to let go.