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Generally, I find that my memory is pretty good, surprisingly so. I’ve tried to cross check facts with my sister and, to a lesser extent, with my mother, and this cross checking has left me with the feeling that my memory’s pretty reliable. That’s a good thing since I’ve never been able to keep a diary for more than about a week. I guess this blog is the closest thing to a diary that I’ve ever had. Sometimes, I remember entire conversations or sequences of events, but mostly it’s spottier, more like a series of snapshots and the occasional sentence. If I have enough of these snippets, I can usually string them together into a coherent, readable narrative. Unfortunately, there are some events I need to cover where my memory is not good. This is one of them. I’m going to try to make it as easy to follow as possible. I also behaved very badly, and I’m going to try to not whitewash my own behavior. That’s difficult. We all want to hide our faults a little.

In the days following being slapped by Lanky Joe, the other girls behaved in a way that I can only describe as cool. No one said anything, at least not openly. The other girls, of course, continued to date their boyfriends, and Chuck E and Hazy Davy remained friends with Lanky Joe. The result was that they would all continue to get together and I became alienated from the group. There was no consequence for Lanky Joe for slapping me, but instead I was the one who was socially punished. No one thought this through, I’m sure. It was just a chain of human weakness and self-interest. The exception was Suzy Q. She was beginning to develop something of a feminist sensibility, although I’m not sure whether or not we would have called it that at the time. We were aware of feminism, but only in a childish way. The tennis player, Billie Jean King, was probably the most well-known feminist among children. Since I wasn’t athletic, I felt that it didn’t have much to do with me. Suzy Q, however, saw the idea of me being alone while the boy who hit me continued to be invited as an unjust situation.

One Saturday shortly afterward, Suzy Q and I went to the shopping mall. We went there, in part, because the others rarely did, although it was a common enough destination for kids our age. The shopping mall was laid out around a central atrium. All of the stores were on the first floor and on the second floor, ringing the atrium like a great big doughnut, was a food court. In the center, was a double height waterfall landscaped with potted plants. In my provincial little mind it was quite snazzy. Behind the waterfall were several staircases. They twisted and turned and opened out into areas with benches and then narrowed again. When the shopping mall first opened and I was still quite young, I loved these staircases. They were like a labyrinth. As I got older, they became partially hidden places to hold hands with boys and maybe even exchange some kisses. There were escalators and an elevator going to the second floor, but I always took one of the staircases and I preferred the path with the greatest number of turns.

Suzy Q and I headed up to the second floor to get something to eat. We passed a landing with a nook where I once sat with a redheaded boy whose name was the masculine version of my own and we held hands and giggled, too young to even yet understand why we wanted to do that.  Further up, there was a larger landing where another staircase joined the one we had taken. As we passed by, I heard somebody call my name. I turned to see Lanky Joe. Behind him were Chuck E and Hazy Davy. He said something. To this day, I’ve never been able to recall what he said. Suzy Q was a couple of feet behind me and didn’t hear it, neither did Hazy Davy. Chuck E would later tell me that he heard but wouldn’t repeat it. I am entirely clueless about what he said. Entirely. All I know is that I flew at him. All reason entirely left me. I have no idea what I would have done had I actually managed to reach him. There was no thought, only action. I charged like an enraged bull. Chuck E lunged forward and grabbed me. So did Hazy Davy. I caught a glimpse of Lanky Joe and he was smirking. The smirk sent a chill through me and I started to calm down. I saw that Cherry Bomb and Cat Eyes were there. Cherry Bomb was angry, “You scratched Chuck E!” Indeed, Chuck E had a faint red line across his cheek, although I didn’t remember doing it.

My mind was foggy and I felt confused. Chuck E turned to Cherry Bomb and said, “Calm down. It wasn’t intentional.” Then he took me by the shoulder and led me around the corner. I started to apologize for scratching him.

“Don’t think about it,” he said. “I know it was an accident. Look at you. Either of us could have overpowered you without even trying. It was only because I was trying not to hurt you, so I was grabbing you in a funny way. You didn’t scratch me. Your hand brushed against my face. That’s all. I don’t know why Cherry Bomb’s so upset. I’m sure she’ll calm down and forget about it.

“Do yourself a favor and keep far away from Lanky Joe. I wouldn’t care if you hit him. You’re too small to hurt him and he probably deserves it. He’s looking for an excuse to hurt you and you don’t know what he’s capable of.”

My mind was still spinning, trying to believe what had just happened had actually happened. Had I really done what I just did? Why? Can your body just go without your mind’s consent? I asked Chuck E what Lanky Joe had said. He was taken aback that I had no memory of it. In fact, my memory is spotty of everything between hearing my name and seeing that smirk. Chuck E shook his head, “Then I’m not going to tell you. Forget about Lanky Joe. Forget about everything.”

Cherry Bomb wouldn’t forget, however. She would repeat later to me that I had scratched Chuck E. If the other girls had distanced themselves from me before due to circumstance, now it was intentional. A few days later, Chuck E would seek me out after school. He emphasized yet again that he felt it was an accident. He told me that he’d be perfectly happy to have me hang out with them again and would ask Lanky Joe to not come by. He said that he tried to make it okay again with Cherry Bomb, but she wouldn’t have any of it. He seemed to feel really awkward and bad about it.

Cherry Bomb, Cat Eyes and Sour Puss didn’t stop at simply avoiding me themselves. They started putting pressure on Suzy Q to not be friends with me. Suzy Q, however, stuck by me.

 

It was a mild day and, when I arrived at Cherry Bomb’s place, everyone was in the backyard. Cherry Bomb, of course was there, as were Cat Eyes and Sour Puss. I can’t recall if Suzie Q was there or not. The boys were there, too, and they had with them someone I’d never seen before. At six-foot-four Lanky Joe was noticeably taller than the boys in my class, many of whom weren’t yet done growing, and he was more than a foot taller than I was. It didn’t escape my notice that he kept looking at me. I didn’t know him and didn’t know how to respond. I made some lame jokes, walked away, talked to someone else, came back.

Finally, it began to get darker and the group started to move down the driveway towards the front porch where there was light. Lanky Joe slipped his hand in mine and held it firmly holding me back while everyone else disappeared around the corner of the house. He sat down on the steps leading to the backdoor and pulled me onto his lap. I began to make another lame joke but was halted in mid-sentence by a passionate kiss. We got up and rejoined everyone before they quite realized that we had gone missing.

I saw him a few more times, always in the company of the others, and we engaged in furtive kisses when no one was looking. It wasn’t long before everyone realized that we were “together.”

A few weeks after that first meeting, Sheepdog came back to visit his friends and he was there when I arrived. So was Lanky Joe. We were too young for jealousy, I think. In the evening, we moved indoors and we were all sitting in Cherry Bomb’s living room. Lanky Joe and I were seated on the sofa. At some point, we were alone in the living room. I don’t remember why. I’ve mentioned before that Cherry Bomb kept her records and her record player in her bedroom and, if I had to guess, I would guess that they had gone to listen to a new record and we had stayed behind for some more furtive smooching.

Lanky Joe picked up a decorative pillow and hit me over the head with it. We were still kids in many ways and that didn’t strike me as anything but playful. I picked up the pillow on my side of the sofa and hit him back.

“Hey, don’t do that,” he said.

“What? You mean this,” I said, and bopped him lightly over the head a second time.

He pushed me onto the sofa so that I was in a prone position. Then he slapped me hard across the face. This wasn’t playful and it wasn’t a joke. It seemed to me that he was making a fist. My parents didn’t believe in corporeal punishment and no one had ever hit me before, not in earnest.

“Hey, what are you guys up to.” It was Sheepdog’s voice. It had the sound of forced casualness. I looked up and he was standing in the opening between the dining room and the living room.

Lanky Joe straightened himself. “Nothing much. What are you up to?”

“I just thought I might join you two,” Sheepdog said lowering himself into an easy chair.

Slowly, the others began to wander in. Chuck E was twitchy and had a lot of nervous energy even on a good day. “Everything okay here?” he asked, taking his hands in and out of his pockets as if he wasn’t quite sure what they were doing at the ends of his arms. The awkwardness was evident.

“Everything’s great.” Lanky Joe said flatly.

After a few minutes, Sheepdog noted that I lived on the other side of town and that it was getting late. He offered to walk me home. It wasn’t that late and I walked home alone all the time. I understood what it was, a request to talk.

When we were a few block’s from Cherry Bomb’s house he said to me, “You need to know I’m not jealous. You know that, right? I couldn’t believe it when I saw you were with him. Did Chuck E tell you about him?”

I shook my head no.

“Do you know why you never met him before? He just got out of reform school. He beat up his last girlfriend, badly. I don’t know what his problem is, but he has a problem with girls. I can’t believe Chuck E didn’t tell you this.”

I felt confused and mixed up and started to cry. I wanted to be alone and told Sheepdog I could get home on my own.

What had happened hadn’t registered in my mind yet. I couldn’t believe the tall, skinny, sweet boy who kissed me when no one was looking was the same boy who beat up a girl so badly that he was arrested and sent to prison. I didn’t believe it was true. I wanted to think it was all a misunderstanding.

I told my father and he became livid when I seemed ambivalent about ending it with Lanky Joe. He insisted that I call and end it and he sat in front of me to watch and listen and make sure I did. I got a long lecture from my mother about how I must not ever let any man hit me for any reason.

Suzie Q’s mother ran a hand laundry and her family lived in the back of the store. They were among the last people I knew to have a party line. For you young’uns, that’s when several households shared one phone line. If you picked up the phone, someone else might already be using that line and you could hear the conversation. Likewise, they could hear yours. One of the people who shared a line with them was an older woman, unknown outside of the sporadic contact over the phone. Suzie Q told me not to talk about boys over the phone because that woman listened in and reported everything back to her parents, who kept her on a tight leash. She was usually only allowed out for a specific purpose, like a movie. Lazy Saturday afternoons hanging out on Cherry Bomb’s porch were not on list of approved activities, and it wasn’t long before I got used to Suzie Q’s absence and started developing an independent friendship with the other girls.

All human associations build natural hierarchies. I’m not going to hedge that statement by saying “most” or “usually” until I personally come across one group that functions differently. Cherry Bomb was the center of this group. Of Polish descent, she bore a slight resemblance to Debbie Harry, with blond hair, blue eyes and prominent cheekbones. She, Cat Eyes and Sour Puss had been friends since elementary school. Cherry Bomb and Cat Eyes were extremely close, as if they were a binary star in which Cherry Bomb was the primary star. But then there was Sour Puss, and Suzie Q, and eventually I showed up. To extend the astronomical analogy, an n-body problem may result in chaos.  In the back of my mind, I was aware of this fact and tried hard not to step on Sour Puss’s toes as I, without intent or forethought, began to replace her in the hierarchy. My closeness to Suzie Q, as opposed to the central star of Cherry Bomb, didn’t help the way I hoped it would. This only made Sour Puss more of an outsider.

If Cherry Bomb was in a close female friendship with Cat Eyes, she was in a romantic relationship with Chuck E. You know the Billy Joel song, “Brenda and Eddie were the popular steadies, and the king and the queen of the prom.” It was junior high school, not high school, so there was no prom, but that sums up the relationship. Conveniently, Chuck E had a best friend, Hazy Davy, with whom Cat Eyes had taken up the summer before I joined the group.

Cherry Bomb lived in a craftsman bungalow and a Saturday routine would soon take shape, in which we’d sit on her porch, Cherry Bomb, Cat Eyes, Sour Puss and I. Suzie Q, who lived very close by, might join us for an hour or two. Eventually, Chuck E and Hazy Davy would show up on their bicycles. Frequently, this was not long before Suzie Q would have to depart. As evening descended, the two couples would start to do things like hold hands and Sour Puss and I would pick up the cue that it was time to leave. As the two single girls being abandoned by the friends with boyfriends, I tried to make some overtures of friendship towards Sour Puss and she responded in a friendly manner. However, one weekend, when Chuck E and Hazy Davy arrived on their Bicycles, there was another with them, let’s call him Sheep Dog. I’m calling him Sheep Dog because he was larger than the others, but in a gentle, loping way. He had blue eyes that were almost always obscured by light brown hair that hung in his face and a modest self-effacing manner. I almost didn’t notice him until he walked up the steps of the porch. He would soon become by first real boyfriend.

Along the southern edge of our town ran a road we called Broadway. If you followed it towards the east, it would take you to New York City. This road separated our town from the one in which the boys lived, all the boys except Sheep Dog. Sheep Dog’s family had moved about forty minutes away by car, in the same state, but another county. Every once in a while, he’d persuade his older brother to drive him back to their old town so he could visit his friends. That’s why I hadn’t met him before. His demeanor was true to his personality. He was a gentle person and a bit shy.