Love and Romance in the Eighth Grade

I kissed my mom each morning as she left for work. When she closed the door, I'd move to the big window on the east side of our house and watch her Volkswagen sputter down Adwen Street, sound and motion suspended in front of the Shepherds' house as she shifted from first to second gear. I watched her until the car went out of sight. Chances were she would die that day. I knew that. Crazy kid.Once, as a high school freshman, I used the occasion of a science teacher's absence to walk around a classroom imitating a ballpark vendor. But instead of barking "Peanuts! Popcorn!" I said "Penis! Popcorn! Get your penis!" saying it very fast, grinning not only because I was saying it but also because the rest of the class, which ignored me, was oblivious to it. On my last time around, a boy (who I was to learn later in gym class had the largest penis in my class, though this is only incidental to the story) stood up and said, "You know, we all know you're saying 'penis.'" And then he sat down. This is how I begin to tell you about searching for the woman I loved when I was a boy. A pee-pee joke. A pee-pee joke that didn't involve her because, by the time of the joke, the two of us were at different high schools, destined not to see each other for 24 years until I set out to track her down with the elan one displays in locating a deadbeat dad. But the penis-and-popcorn incident is instructive in that it shows that I have always thought myself cleverer than I am. I thought doing this story was a clever thing. I had wanted a reunion with this woman for the longest time, but I had never been able to do it on my own. One day, things came together so that I could do it under the cover of journalism. A Valentine story: Did you know that many private investigators, using the Internet and CD-ROM databases, make a good chunk of change reuniting old flames? That, my friends, is what we in the journalism business call a hook, and with a good hook, you can be pulling down a paycheck looking up an old girlfriend, who isn't old and wasn't your girlfriend. Nothing wrong with that. Just doing your job. If someone asks you what you've been doing, you say, "Working on a story."And you figure you've beaten the game. Actually, you've put yourself in the middle of it. Even after you meet her, you're left with questions: Why was all this necessary? Why did you put this woman through this? Why did you put your wife through this? And why can't you leave this alone because, c'mon, it's not like you're looking for wrinkled-up Nazis, right? She was only a 13-year-old girl you knew in eighth grade with green eyes and long, wavy dark hair who wore short skirts and made you feel wonderful and inadequate. And when you went home, you'd close the door to your room, prop up a pillow at the end of your bed, sit next to it with your arm around it, and say things to it that you couldn't say to her, like: "Of course, I love you. You know that." Ryan O'Neal-like, you'd press her to your chest and look out at the horizon, at your future together, except you had neck-locked the pillow and were looking at the Radio Shack stereo on the shelf attached to the wall that bordered the bathroom. That may sound heartwarming, but now that memory and so many others start you staring into space, and soon you're overwhelmed not only with what happened but also with how to present it without appearing to be a maniac. Because, really, you're a very normal, happy 37-year-old man with a wife and kids. A very normal 37-year-old man who gets paralyzed when he thinks how he could have better handled a slow dance with a 13-year-old girl and everything that entails. Let me just say this. Do not fuck with Mr. Memory.I know this now, and I wish that could be the end of it: "Do not fuck with Mr. Memory, people! Gewd night! God bless!" But I've cleverly pitched a story about finding a woman, and it has been planned on now for months. Space has been allotted for it, and people ask me about it from time to time, and so I have to write it, and something is rising up saying, "Everybody knows . . ." And this is weighing on me, weighing on every word, as is the fact that not only are you reading this, but so is the woman I searched for and so is the woman to whom I've been married for nine years. Hiya, honey. She was beautiful. Rumor was that she went to high school parties. She knew things. She lived in an apartment -in Downey, California, where lawns defined who and what you were. An apartment. Where maybe high school people would hang out and do high school things. She knew. Things. We attended St. Raymond's eight years together but were only put in the same class during our eighth-and last-year at the school. Someone asked me about the first time I saw her. I can't remember. All I remember is that she dominated every moment of my life that year. But do anything about it? God, no. I wouldn't think to walk her home, wouldn't think to ask for her phone number, wouldn't think to ask her out. Though it had become respectable in eighth grade to have a girlfriend, I would never. Afraid of being rejected? Yes. But I was afraid of so many things. The night of our eighth-grade graduation party, we slow danced together on the pool deck of Roy Shabla's home. We probably held each other for an hour. "Stairway to Heaven" was playing, and every time the song began to pick up tempo-making it ridiculous to slow dance to, not that it isn't ridiculous to dance to altogether-she'd break from me, go to the record player, and set the needle back to the beginning of the song. It's one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. I did nothing. And when I left there that night, hugging her as politely as I did the others, I went home feeling I had passed a great test. And I've thought about that evening for the rest of my life. I found her on my own. I had used others-private investigators necessary to sell the idea of the story to my editors. I used 1-800-US SEARCH; a guy who billed himself as the "Old Flame Finder"; Lloyd Shulman, who went by "Finder of Lost Loves"; and a woman named Chris Rice who owns a company called Searchnet in Los Alamitos. I told them about the woman but always within the context of the story, the job. I don't think any of them believed me. "So," Lloyd said, "who did you want to find, Steve?" "Me? Well, we just want to do a story about this whole thing." "Yeah, I know." "I mean, do you think you can find someone for us?" Us. "Who do you want to find?" "Well, how far back should we go, what would be a good search for us?" "You know better than I do." Chris said she never followed up with these kinds of cases, said she didn't want to know because she believes the reasons a lot of people give for trying to find people usually aren't true. She told me she refused to complete a job once for a guy who said he was looking for an old flame and gave Chris a license-plate number. It turned out to be for a stripper in Ontario. When she confronted the guy, he said he owed her money. "I don't think people are very honest about that stuff." And I wondered if she thought as much when I called and said that my paper wanted to do a story about this, and could she run a search for us, and the search would be for me because, well, I drew the short straw.Chris and Lloyd both found her. But I did, too, by making a few phone calls. I had panicked that the PIs wouldn't be able to find her with the small amount of information I was able to give them-her name in eighth grade, the high school she attended-and the plain fact was I had to produce a story. I called St. Raymond's and told the woman there I was doing a piece about attending Catholic school and was trying to track down some old schoolmates. I gave her four or five names, including the woman's, padding my order like a teenager buying condoms. Three phone calls later, I was calling the woman's mother, trying to figure how best to put it: "Hello, you don't know me, but I had a crush on your daughter 24 years ago, and I've never forgotten her. That sounds healthy, doesn't it? Me, an adult man, thinking about your 13-year-old daughter, who's now all grown-up. That's a good thing, right? So, you got her number handy or what?" Fortunately, the mother didn't answer. It was the woman's older sister, who remembered me after a moment. I apologized for calling, told her I was working on a story, and tossed around the word "deadline" liberally. She gave me her sister's number. I called. She remembered me-after a moment. "Oh, sure," she said. Had I called at a bad time? No, not really, but she was putting her kids in bed. I'll call back a little later, I said. How about 9 p.m.? Great. I called her back at 9:15 so as not to seem too eager. We talked for a while. She lived in Orange County now. Worked at an area college. She said she was happy to hear from me, that she had such great memories of St. Raymond's, that she was waiting for someone to arrange a reunion. We laughed and spoke over each other. We arranged to meet for lunch and hung up. That was it. Four phone calls and 24 years later: How about lunch? Great. See you then. "This is weird for you, isn't it?" "Yeah, it is." "No, I mean, I can totally understand. . . . I mean, you've been great about this. . . .""It's not that I'm worried or anything; it's just that it's weird. It is. And I know that you think you have to do it, and I want you to do it if you want to do it, but it is weird, and I just want it to be over with." "I know. It sounded good at first, and now it's just raking me." "Except that you're the one who came up with the idea. You're the one who wanted to do it. You're the one." "Yeah." I arrive early but drive around so as not to seem too eager. When I do park and walk onto the campus, I find the building she works in-and walk the other way. It's still too early. So I walk (it must seem to the college kids) aimlessly. But I never get so far away as to lose sight of her building, and I never get so close as to risk meeting her before the time we've agreed upon-before "your date," as my wife has taken to calling it, only half-joking. (Not joking at all, really.) I stop at a pay phone and call in for my messages. There's one; it's from the private investigator. He wants to know how things turned out with the woman. Heading back to her building, glancing in the mirrored panels, I discover I look like a frigging idiot, slumped over and disjointed, my head and neck jutting out from my body like Maine. When did I start to look like this? Jesus! I've got an Adam's apple! There was a guy in my neighborhood who walked like this. We threw apricots at him. I walk into her building and find out it's not. Her building is across the way, and instead of looking too eager, I'm now in danger of being late. I arrive at the correct building moments after my head, open the door, move to my left and spot her eyes immediately behind the counter. They haven't changed. Except that they're brown. She has brown eyes. Not green. Brown. I will answer the question on your mind here. No, she had not become enormously fat. She is still beautiful. And not just to me. Not just to my 13-year-old eyes. If you saw her, you'd know. We walk from her building, me ahead of her, glancing back, trying to say something but unable to think of anything. We end up at a nearby fast-food place where neither of us orders food even though it's 1:30 in the afternoon. My stomach is queasy. We order iced tea and sit at an outside table. "Are you going to take notes?" she says. "Oh, I don't know." She sits, arms crossed, looking off. When I talk about finding her, her expression lies somewhere between a smile and a grimace. When I tell her I got her phone number from her sister, she says, "Yeah, I've got to talk to her about giving my number out." When I mention the private investigators, she seems politely alarmed. This is different from the phone call. The notebook. The PIs. The ground rules aren't clear. What are we doing here? I ask a question; she answers. I can't figure out if I'm supposed to be interviewing her for the story or if we are supposed to be engaged in friendly conversation and I'm supposed to write about that. I can't figure out if she really wants to be here. Can't figure out how far I should probe. Should I probe at all? I make up for all of this by talking incessantly. The way I'd envisioned things, she would talk on and on, and I would punctuate her thoughts with witty asides, self-deprecation, perspective. But that isn't happening. The conversation lightens when she mentions how cruel we had been to each other. I had completely forgotten about this. We were really vicious to each other and found new ways each day to verbally abuse and taunt the other. "Oh, we were really mean to each other," she says. "I guess by then, we were too old to pull each other's hair, so we were just nasty to each other all the time." And she could be very nasty, I remember. She had a way of seething, of shooting dismissive glances with the kind of threatening smile I came to recognize on guys who just wanted you to give them an excuse. I say the way we treated each other probably was the reason dancing with her at Shabla's house was so special to me. She says she remembers the party, but not dancing with me. I say: "I have to ask you for the story: Did you like me back then?" "Yes, I liked you," she says. "When I told my daughter I was going to meet you, she asked me if I had a crush on you, and I told her yes. I told her you were cute and you were funny." I am giggly, and she smiles warmly. She still knows more than I do. I can feel it. She is getting a divorce, and she went through the death of her brother six years ago. I tell her that she always seemed more together, more sophisticated than I was. She says she wasn't. That she always felt out of place being the only kid in school whose parents were divorced. But, I tell her, my parents were divorced, too. She didn't know that. I didn't know that her folks had split. I didn't know that, like me, she found herself befriending people with big families and spending as much time as she could over at their houses. The hour is up, and we walk back to her building, say goodbye and hug each other politely, which is how we had left it 24 years before. That's how it happened. My little boy is after me to play football with him, and I've been keeping him waiting. This story is done because it has to be. Because every time I've written it, it turns out differently. I have no idea what this all means. I met a woman I hadn't seen in 24 years, and she was lovely and kind. It was wonderful to see her, but it did nothing about the 13-year-old I think about. The past isn't the past. The past is. I still watch my mother whenever she leaves my house. I watch my wife when she leaves. I watch my daughter and my son. I don't want to die. I don't want anyone to die.

 
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