Wednesday, December 28, 2011

When I Was 17....Was It a Very Good Year?

1. Who were your best friends, or were you a friendless geek? What was the most interesting fun that you had together? 

My best friends at that age were Richard de la Pena* and Betsy Matteis, with whom I had gone to school in elementary, junior high, high school, and on to community college. Richard and I still hang out every so often; he visits when he has a day off and we watch movies on the DVD player and talk about the "old days" of the early 1980s and women. 

Betsy used to hang out with us until a few years ago, when she dropped out of sight. I am still very fond of her, not only because she's very smart and was instrumental in my early success in college, but because she has the distinction of being the first woman to French kiss me. 

As for the "most interesting fun" part of the question, I don't recall anything particularly memorable, except maybe Betsy's 18th birthday party, which was when we played "Spin the Bottle" and I got to French kiss her. 

I actually was a very gregarious fellow, if you exclude dating-wise. I made friends easily, and I seem to have made fairly good impressions on people....at least that's what I can assume from all the inscriptions on my three yearbooks from high school. 

2. What was your favorite food? Have you outgrown your fondness for it? Was this food involved in a food fight? 

I guess that at 17 my favorite food was GOOD Chinese food (or what Americans consider "Chinese," which it's certainly not). I have not outgrown my fondness for it, though the quality of "Chinese" restaurants in Miami has deteriorated quite a bit. (It seems that some restaurants hire Latino cooks who use way too much garlic and other spices common in Cuban and other Latin American cuisines...or they employ careless cooks who use old fat to fry egg rolls.) Of course, I liked Pizza Hut fare and Tex-Mex fast food, too. And no...no food fights! 

3. Did you have a pet- real or imaginary? Were you the teacher's pet. Maybe you were the animal- fess up! 

No, I didn't have a pet at that age. Pets came a bit later. 

In school I got along with almost all my teachers, maybe because I was shy with girls my age and could talk to older people with more aplomb than with my peers, but I don't think I was a "teacher's pet." In my junior year, I DID fall passionately in love/lust with Ms. Jehl, my 31-year-old fifth period English teacher; nothing happened, but does that count? 

4. What was your most memorable, life changing moment- in school or out. Did it involve any psychedelics? 

My most memorable, life changing moment? 

Being placed in a journalism class without my knowledge. I was befuddled as hell, since it was an elective and not a mandatory class, but being in Special Ed at the time (1980) gave counselors and teachers more control over my destiny than people realize. I had no choice over which school to attend (in 9th grade, supposedly "frosh" year but in those days part of junior high, the Special Ed students who would have attended Southwest High were transferred to South Miami High, separating me from most of the friends I had made when I was "mainstreamed" into regular classes....) or which electives to choose, at least for my first semester. All I was told by my 9th grade home room teacher was that at South Miami I'd be taking a writing class of some kind. He did NOT elaborate. 

Imagine my surprise, then, when (very late on my first morning at South Miami) the powers-that-be finally find my schedule and I see Beginning Journalism A - Newspaper Reporting and Editing on the fourth period slot. I was scared, sure, but I fell in love with newspaper writing, stuck it out and went on to study journalism until my learning disability derailed my college career. (I'm an Epinions reviewer now in part because I learned how to write reviews in that class.) 

5. Were you still a virgin at 17? Are you still? 

Oh, I so badly wanted to get laid at 17! I even considered a proposition from my then-ex to have sex IF I would agree to be her boyfriend again after having been apart for three years. I really gave it a lot of thought, and we even started planning the when and where parts of a tryst, but I had been badly hurt by this girl a few times, so I thought better of it and we called it off. I did not lose my virginity until I was in my late 30s.

6. What was the most wicked thing you did? Did anyone find out? Were you grounded or just thrown in jail? 

At 17, the most wicked thing I did was to drink a beer with another underage fellow to celebrate my first performance as a singer in the South Miami High chorus. I haven't told anyone...until now. 

7. How many guys or girls did you date when you were 17? Do you still keep in touch with them? Is your current mate jealous? 

Uh. I was a dateless wonder at that age. My ex wanted me back for some reason, but I always resisted. I had lots of crushes on other women, but I was too insecure to tell them, or they'd be already taken. 


8. What was your favorite subject in school? Or are you a high school drop out? Did you get to skip a grade because you are a genius? 

My favorite course was journalism, followed very closely by chorus. I am NOT a high school drop-out, and I was actually HELD BACK because I was in Special Ed. (They had a stupid rule that you had to be either 14 or very proficient in classwork to be promoted to junior high if you were in Special Ed.) 

9. What was the make and the condition of the car you drove. Were you guilty of any traffic violations or worse? Were you randy? 

I don't drive. 

Was I randy? As in "horny?" Not 24/7, mind you, but sex was on my mind a lot. But...even though I had to wait till I was almost 37 to lose my virginity, I think it was worth the wait. 

10. Did you know what you wanted to do with your life? Did you aspire to be a beauty queen, fireman or a Dentist? Or just be plain old brilliant and discover... 

I wanted to be a world-famous writer, believe it or not. 

11. Where did you live? The city, rural America, suburbia, out of this country... or in your own private, little world? 

I lived where I still live, the outlying suburban sprawl of Miami. Same house since junior high. 

12. Sisters and brothers are, were, still are.....
How many? Were you an only child? Do you wish you were an only child? Did you see to it that you were?
 

I have an older half-sister. We don't get along very well, even at our ages.  In fact, we barely tolerate each other's existence, so maybe I do wish I were an only child. 

13. Did you get into the college of your choice? Were you college bound? Did you end up with a great job flipping burgers? Are you famous now because of the choice you made then? 

I wasn't exactly sure if I could get into college. At 17, I was not even thinking about college. I did, eventually, go to Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus for a while, became a Dean's List student for many semesters, climbed the ranks of the student paper from Staff Writer to Managing Editor, then dropped out when I flunked remedial math...twice. 

14. What was your favorite music, group, singer at 17? Do you listen to them today? Did your parents ever break your records? Did you play an instrument or in a group? 

I was, and still am, an odd duck. I liked classical music and film scores. I'm sure my poor mom got sick of hearing the music from Star Wars so much, and even though I still listen to that every so often, my taste has become a bit more varied. As for performing, I never did play any instruments, but I did join the school choir. Surely that counts for something. 

15. Tell us about your prom... Theme, date, outfit. What dance was popular then. What was your "after the prom" fun. I dare you to post a picture of yourself, your date. 

I had promised myself that I would only go to my prom IF I had a girlfriend. That was something I had sworn the moment I stepped inside South Miami High. My ex did try to get me to go in 1983, but since we were not dating, I did not go. 

16. Did you belong to any after school clubs or sports? Were you ever in the newspaper because of these activities? 

I was a geek, so my only after-school activities were the TV Club (I was among the first members of Cobra Media Productions) and (when I had rides home) I stayed after school to help with newspaper production chores that could not be done in class time. 

I was also a singer in the school chorus, and even though most of our practice time was during our regularly scheduled class period, we did have to stay after school on the afternoon before a night-time performance. 

17. The biggie and final question... Would you ever do it all over again if you could? Remember the drama and the hormones and the angst before you answer. 

I probably SHOULD have been more forgiving with my ex....I would have gotten laid then, more than likely. However, all things considered, no....being 17 once is enough. 

* Updated on February 18, 2017: My friend Richard passed away in June 2007, after a brief but valiant battle with cancer. I had originally written this in 2004 for Epinions, when he was still alive. When I posted this to my blog six years ago, I forgot to make an appropriate edit. 


© 2012 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved

Paul F. Boller, Jr: Presidential Anecdotes (an old book review)



The Lady Loses

The best story about Coolidge's taciturnity, told by his wife, concerns the society woman who said, as she sat down next to him at a dinner party, "You must talk to me, Mr. Coolidge. I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you." "You lose," said Coolidge.

How to Charge

Once when Lincoln was in the War Department an officer who was in a big hurry slam-banged into him, then offered "ten thousand pardons" when he saw who it was. "One is enough," smiled Lincoln. "I wish the whole army would charge like that."


-- From Presidential Anecdotes, by Paul F. Boller, Jr.

One of the most curious -- and vexing -- flaws in the U.S. public education system is the way that American history, especially its political history, is taught in all the 50 states. Having attended public schools in the 1970s and 1980s, I still have vivid memories of (a) textbooks with tons of illustrations but dry, boring, and didactic text, (b) history teachers who rarely attempted to get their pupils even remotely interested about, say, the American Revolution, and (c) an overemphasis on certain events to the detriment of others. (For instance, in 12th grade our history teacher spent so much time on the pre-Civil War era that we barely covered World War II; for us, the calendar basically froze on World War II and the Truman Administration.)

Thus it's no wonder that when I ask people if they've read any books by Stephen E. Ambrose or David McCullough. I get these blank expressions that seem to say "Who are those dudes?" Worse, I get eye-rolls of exasperated dismissal when I point out that those two authors write readable and engrossing books about history.

Pity, too, because history, when presented in an entertaining and informative manner, can be terribly fascinating. All a writer (or teacher) has to do is find enough human detail -- preferrably a mix of humor, personality sketches, and notable incidents that highlight a historical figure's strengths and weaknesses as a flesh-and-blood mortal -- and find a suitable format to capture an audience's attention, even if it's for a few hours or even minutes.

Texas Christian University professor Paul F. Boller, Jr. is apparently very much aware of the importance of both approach and format, because in his various works (Presidential Campaigns, Hollywood Anecdotes) he has a knack for choosing the right balance between historical analysis and just the right amount of humorous or just very human detail to grab even the most casual of readers' attention and pass along some knowledge mixed in with amusement.

Presidential Anecdotes is a book of what my journalism professor would have labeled mini-personality profiles about the 41 men who served as America's Chief Executive from 1789 to 1996, "commencing with that aristocratic Virginian, George Washington," and ending with a pre-impeachment, pre-Kosovo Bill Clinton. As Boller himself describes them, " some of the anecdotes are dramatic in nature and some are rather poignant. Most, however, are on the light side." He points out that although few of the occupants of the White House "were noted for their wit and humor," they did say many things that people thought -- and still think -- are funny. And like any good history book that deals exclusively with personalities, Presidential Anecdotes proves that tidbits about our Presidents -- Lincoln's homespun humor, Coolidge's famous taciturnity, FDR's exuberance, Truman's forthright "the buck stops here" attitude, and LBJ's earthiness -- reveal much not only about the men but also about American culture and society as it has evolved over the centuries.

The format of Presidential Anecdotes is similar to Boller's other works: each President has his own chapter, which usually consists of a summary (three to five pages in length) about his Administration, which is followed by -- depending on the President's personality, standing in history, and human interest -- one (Millard Fillmore) to 31 (Lyndon Johnson) anecdotes. As Boller said, most are funny -- see the one about Gerald R. Ford getting locked out of the White House while walking his dog! -- while others, such as the one in which Lincoln says "goodbye" rather than the usual "good night" to one of his aides on the night he went to see (reluctantly) Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater, are sad. The result: a book that a casual reader can read from at random and without getting bored. The style is informative yet never dull-as-watching-grass-grow, and humorous without stooping to low-brow humor or wink-wink-nod-nod innuendoes. As the late NBC News anchorman John Chancellor wrote in the back-cover testimonial for the 1981 edition, Presidential Anecdotes is "fresh and surprising and wonderful fun to read!"  

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Love Unspoken, Love Unbroken: My Short Story

Love Unspoken, Love Unbroken

Dedicated to everyone I've loved, past...and present

No Absolution: February 1998

It’s quiet here. But then again, it’s supposed to be quiet. Cemeteries, even those in the heart of a city, tend to be full of silence. The sounds of the neighborhood – barking dogs, laughing children, even the traffic on the adjacent streets – are swallowed up by the silence of the graveyard. The walls around the perimeter of the cemetery – imposing redbrick walls six feet high and adorned with a black iron fence – have something to do with it, I suppose. I’m a historian, not an acoustical engineer.

I’ve been here some fifteen minutes, but it seems as if I have been here for hours. It has been twenty minutes since I drove into the parking lot, walked into the main office, and asked one of the dark-suited employees where Marty’s grave is. The employee – or Service Representative, as her desktop nameplate so eloquently states her job title – quietly tapped a few keys on her computer’s keyboard, squinted at her glowing monitor, then gave me a lot number and directions. “I could show you myself,” she suggested, “if you’d like.”

“No, thank you,” I said. I have a pretty good sense of direction. Besides, the Service Representative looks too much like my wife – correction, ex-wife. Red hair, green eyes. Carrie is a bit taller, of course, and she doesn’t work in a funeral home. Still, in just the right light, the Service Representative – Jennifer Something-or-Other – is a dead ringer for the woman I have just divorced. Oh, swell.

It took me three minutes to find Marty’s grave. It wasn’t hard at all; Jennifer’s directions were explicit enough, and as I said before, I have a good sense of direction.

Besides, for some reason I can’t begin to comprehend, Martina Elizabeth Reynaud, even in death, has been tugging at me like a magnet attracts an iron filing. She has been doing this since I first saw her in the chorus practice room at our high school nearly 20 years ago, and I suppose she always will. Perhaps that explains why I left Miami to study, and, later, teach history at Harvard, Georgetown and even Oxford. Why I chose to live in Washington, DC for five years after becoming a professor of history at the American University. (I now live and work in New York City.) Why I roamed Northwestern Europe and the UK for another year to research my book – still unfinished, I am afraid – on Operation Market-Garden. My friend (and ex-lover) Nicole says I’m just a restless soul. My barhopping friend Mark thinks it’s just a premature middle age crisis; I just celebrated my 33rd birthday last week, after all. I have another theory. It’s not original, so I can’t call it the James Garraty Theory of Life. Want to hear it? Here goes. No matter how old you get, how affluent or successful you become, you’ll never outrun the ghosts of your past. Particularly the ghosts of your adolescence. Put simply, you can graduate from high school, but your soul will never leave that place.

God, it sure is quiet here. Then again, it is supposed to be quiet.

***

I received a phone call a week ago from my friend Mark Prieto. I have known Mark since we were fifth graders. He is a real estate broker who has lived in Miami all his life; except for two trips to New York City (once for my wedding, once for my recent divorce), Mark has never felt compelled to leave South Florida. We talk over the phone at least twice a month, and we exchange e-mails on a weekly basis. Most of the time we talk about trivia– sports, mostly, or Mark’s latest sales exploits. Last year Mark was the first broker in his firm to make over a million in sales, and all of those in residential properties. We also talk a great deal about women. Actually, he does most of the talking; since my divorce from Carrie I have spent most of my non-teaching hours on Uncertain Trumpets: Operation Market-Garden, a critical study of the ill-fated Allied airborne assault on Holland in September 1944. Mark constantly chastises me for burying my nose in books, maps and archival photos. His advice, simply put, is this: “What you need, Jimmy boy, is to go to a bar, pick up some sweet young thing, and get laid.”

“I’m not you, Mark,” I say wearily. “Don’t get me wrong, pal; I like the company of women. I like sex. But I’m not into one-night stands, cheap, meaningless liaisons – that sort of thing. It’s – empty, somehow.”

“So you say, Jim,” Mark says, and I can almost see him smirk, even though he’s a thousand miles away. “But you’re not doing yourself any favors by sleeping alone every night.”

And so it goes. At least, that is how it usually goes.

But the phone call I received last Tuesday night did not go as usual.

***

Mark always lets me know when he is going to call me by sending an e-mail. Since I spend most of my time at the university – teaching, preparing lectures, grading papers, advising students, attending faculty meetings, or working on my Market-Garden manuscript – it is very likely that my telephone will go unanswered. I don’t give my home number to my students; they can leave any messages on the university’s voice mail system. I haven’t spent too much time at home since the divorce.

My apartment is in a nice mid-Manhattan brownstone building. It is on the third floor and has a nice view of New York City. Right now it is a bit unkempt; my ex-wife, a stockbroker for a large investment firm, has good taste in home decoration, so it’s more stylish than it would be if I’d decorated it. At the moment, however, every available piece of furniture – except a smallish couch in the living room – is cluttered with maps, photos, books and stacks of transcripts from oral histories provided by the staff of the Eisenhower Center in New Orleans. I’ve written two other historical books – Triumph in the Pacific and Lost Victory: Desert Storm 1991 – and it’s always been like that. I keep my personal computer in my office – there’s no room at the inn for it at what Mark calls “the command center.”

Every night before I reluctantly leave my office I check my computer for e-mail messages. I get them all the time from all over the world. But on that Tuesday night, there was only one message.

To: Professor James K. Garraty
From: Mark
11 February 1998, 1634 EST
Subject: m.e.r.

Jim,
Be home by 10 PM. Got to tell you something.
Mark


That’s it. There were no details, none of Mark ’s acerbic observations, no jokes. Just a cryptic subject line and that terse message.

Be home by 10 PM. Got to tell you something.


I looked at my watch. It was nearly eight o’clock. A few of my colleagues in the History Department were in their cubicles. The department chairman, Henry Townsend, Ph.D., poked his head into my cubicle just as I was shutting down my computer. “Hey, James,” he said casually, “calling it a night?”

“Yes, Henry,” I replied as I shut off the power to my monitor.

“Hmm,” the department chair said drolly. “How’s your research coming along?”

“Oh, just great,” I said. “I think I’ll hop over to London during the semester break to take a look at some of the dispatches from 21st Army Group, maybe interview some of the old ‘troopers from the First Airborne Division.”

“You’re sure the British will let you into the country? Weren’t you the one who wrote that Montgomery was Eisenhower’s worst impediment to the conduct of the campaign in Northwest Europe? I bet they love you for that assessment.”

“Well, I’ll just let the record speak for itself, Henry. Besides, Ambrose and Hastings have said the same thing.” I really wasn’t in the mood for a debate. “Look, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Good night,” my boss replied. “Hey,” he said as I switched off my desktop lamp, “are you okay?”

“I’m just a little peaked,” I said, settling for a half-truth. I had given three lectures in my regular Tuesday-Thursday history classes, spent most of the afternoon grading papers, and part of the evening reading my correspondence. Not exactly backbreaking, and it was still early in the semester. Mark’s cryptic message had, however, left me a bit unsettled. But I’ve never been very good at letting people know what I’m feeling, and I don’t like opening up to just anybody. Henry Townsend is my boss and colleague. We get along nicely within those well-defined boundaries, but I never discuss my personal life with him.

“Go home,” he said quietly, and then he walked away.

***

“Hi, Mark,” I said when I picked up my telephone receiver. I glanced casually at my watch; it was 10:05 PM.

“Jim, Marty died yesterday afternoon.”

No preamble. No jokes. Just this hellish bolt-out-of-the-blue.

“What?” I had been standing next to the couch in the living room. In the blink of an eye I was sitting on the couch. My legs had lost their strength. I felt the blood rush out of my face.

“I know,” Mark said apologetically. “I just heard about it this morning. I had hoped it wasn’t her, y’know, and I didn’t want you to find about it from the papers.”

“I-I understand,” I managed to say bleakly. I took a deep breath. “Mark, how…how did she –?” I couldn’t bring myself to say the word die. It has such an ugly aura of finality to it.

“Well,” Mark paused, then he continued. “A car accident of some sort. Three other people were killed, Jim, so it must have been pretty bad. The cops haven’t really said anything else.”

“My God, no,” I whispered.

“I’m really sorry, man,” Mark said quietly. “Is there anything I can do?”

“No, not really,” I said. “Look, thanks for telling me yourself. You did good, man.”

“You okay?” he asked, and I could almost see him frowning with concern.

“No, not really,” I said again.

“Can you come down for the funeral?”

“When is it?”

“Well, it’s not until Friday, from what I’ve heard,” Mark said.

“I’ve got a bunch of office hours appointments with some of my undergraduate students, and I can’t break away from them.” It was true, but it sounded pretty lame, even to me. “I’ll see if I can get one of my teaching assistants to cover for me next week. Is it okay if I stay at your place?”

“Hey, doesn’t the university pay you history weenies enough so you can pay for a hotel?” Mark mock-wailed in an attempt to cheer me up. “Sure,” he said in a more subdued tone. “When do you think you’re coming down?”

“Sunday, maybe Monday.”

“Okay. Give me a heads-up call as soon as you know, all right?”

“Yeah, sure,” I said, then I hung up the phone.

***

I was not able to sleep that night. To be honest, I didn’t even try. I stood in front of my living room window, staring out at the bright lights of New York City. I don’t know how long I stood there; in fact, I didn’t see the millions of multicolored lights or the never-ending streams of headlights and taillights on the busy streets below. Instead I saw, in my mind’s eye, the crowded high school classrooms and halls where my friends and I had shared triumphs and tragedies; where the ghosts of our past still reside. Images flickered in my mind. I saw the faces of teachers and fellow students I hadn’t seen in years. I heard snatches of songs I had rehearsed in third period chorus. I saw the library where I had spent long hours studying after school.

Most of all, I saw Marty.

Marty as a shy sophomore, auditioning for Mrs. Quincy, the school choir director.

Marty at the 1981 Homecoming Dance, looking radiant after being selected as Junior Princess.

Marty singing her first solo at the 1981 Christmas concert.

Marty sitting alone in the chorus practice room on the last day of our senior year.

I stared long and hard at those sepia-colored memories. And as my mind carried me back to the place I’d sworn I’d never return to, I remembered.


Journey’s End: 14th of June, 1983

6:00 a.m. Home:

I woke up on the morning of my last day of high school with a blinding headache. I had not slept well. I’d stayed up too late, spent far too many hours leafing through my still new yearbook. (In one of those strange moments of reflection, I wondered if 20 years later I would recognize myself in those black and white photos after drinking one scotch and soda too many.) At three in the morning I finally turned off my reading lamp and plopped my head on my pillow. Even so, I’d only managed to doze off when it was suddenly time to get up again; the Sony radio/alarm clock was blasting out Sousa’s “Semper Fidelis March” at what seemed to sound like 180 decibels. I switched it off quickly before my head exploded.

I reluctantly took one of my hands out from under the bed sheets, and keeping my eyes closed, turned on the lamp on the night table next to my bed. I opened my eyes slowly, letting them grow accustomed to the light little by little.

“Gotta get up, buddy-boy,” I muttered under my breath, “so get movin’."

I got out of bed slowly, but my body was not yet in synch with my brain. I stood up tentatively, looking for all the world like a newborn fawn trying to get up on its feet. My legs were not sure if they could support my body weight, and for a few seconds I felt sure that I was going to fall flat on my face. I was surprised when I didn’t fall. Not only were my legs capable of supporting my 160-pound body weight, they could propel me across my room. I tried crossing the space between my bed and my battered student’s desk (still cluttered with half a year’s worth of English assignments, a Smith-Corona typewriter, a rough draft of my last research paper, and several issues of Time magazine), and, although my knees wobbled ever so slightly, I made the short round trip twice before I was certain I’d make it to the bathroom. Taking one last look around, I turned off the light from the wall switch, then shuffled blearily across the hallway to the bathroom.

***

10:55 a.m.: South Miami Senior High School: A Classroom:

On the last day of school, things always seem to take place at a slower pace than usual, especially after the last final exams have been completed. Since Finals Week is so markedly different from the norm, with schedules switched to accommodate final exams, there is a battle between the faculty and the restive students for the maintenance of order and discipline. The administration insists on enforcing strict attendance even on this last day, and the students demand to be released after 180 days of boredom and drudgery. For the first two days of Finals Week the administration blusters, bullies, and cajoles, and a majority of the student body remains on campus to review for the remaining exams.

On the last day, however, as soon as the third period (actually, it’s second period, but old habits die hard) bell rings there is a mass exodus from the school, even though there are a few faculty and staff members stationed like guards in the hallways as a deterrent. They are either bypassed or ignored altogether, and in some cases the teachers simply turn their backs on the whole thing. There are more important details to attend to – grading exams, recording grades, and putting away materials until another school year begins in the fall semester – and standing guard duty seems to be a waste of time. What few students remain do so out of habit or loyalty to friends, favorite teachers, or alma mater. In every classroom small groups of students sit together in a corner or at their desks, exchanging yearbooks, pens and maudlin inscriptions. On each of the high school’s three floors, a smaller group of students, with no place to go and nothing else to do, pulls itself together into a work party and carries away armloads of textbooks into the departmental storage room. An even smaller group just wanders aimlessly about like a desert tribe without a leader or plan of action.

Every once in a while, the silence that has prevailed since the last finals period commenced is broken by the loud metallic SLAM of a locker being violently opened. This is followed by the soft thudding sounds of notebooks being carelessly dumped on the carpeted floor. Papers fly all over the place like an out-of-place snowstorm, becoming, for a few hours, a weird carpet upon a carpet. Then the silence returns, only to be broken again by the slam-thudding sounds or an infrequent “Hey-hey-hey Cobras, Number One, Cobras Num-ber One!” chant recalling football games and pep rallies of the past. The chant echoes eerily through the halls…then the silence returns, falling like a final curtain on a deserted stage. This is South Miami High on the 14th of June, 1983.

“Here you go,” I said to the attractive cheerleader (ex-cheerleader, I mentally corrected myself) whose yearbook I’d just signed. Hastily I had jotted this entry: To Ann Saroyan: It was nice having you for a classmate in English this year. It really was a trip and a half! Best Wishes, Jim. I closed the yearbook and handed it back with an I-aim-to-please smile.

Ann Saroyan – she looked sort of strange dressed in “civilian” clothes; I was accustomed to seeing her in her cheerleader’s uniform – beamed happily. Her hazel eyes gleamed with end-of-high-school joy. “Thanks, Jim,” she said. She smiled at me and handed me my yearbook. She had quickly scribbled: Good luck in the future. Love, Ann Saroyan, Class of ’83.

“Thank you,” I said after reading the inscription and closing my yearbook. “Really.”

Ann smiled again. She looked wonderful. I stood there for a minute, still thinking how strange it was to see the captain of the cheerleaders in jeans and a brown-and-beige plaid blouse. She was very pretty. She leaned toward me slightly and kissed me chastely on the cheek. “Goodbye, Jim,” she said in a half-whisper. Then glancing back over her shoulder at the clock on the wall, she gathered her belongings and walked out of the classroom, presumably to collect a few more yearbook inscriptions.

I watched her leave, and after looking around the nearly empty classroom – Mrs. DeVargas, my English 4 instructor, had departed some time before to get a cup of Sanka so she could finish grading some thirty-odd final exams in the refuge of the English Department office – I grabbed my backpack, stuffed my yearbook inside, and walked out into the corridor.


Forgotten Dreams: 14th of June 1983

11 a.m.: South Miami Senior High/ The Library

I had been sitting in the library for nearly an hour when fatigue and emotional exhaustion finally caught up with me. I’d been leafing listlessly through the final issue of the school newspaper and had nearly finished the lead article (Assistant principal announces retirement) when my eyelids suddenly dropped like shutters on a window and I drifted off into a deep slumber. I vaguely thought about classes, but – nothing ever happens on the last day – I suddenly didn’t care. Without hesitation, I put my head down on the table and allowed my mind to drop off into a misty netherworld of dreams.

This is what I dreamed:

I am sitting alone in my old English classroom at my old desk, reading from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The only sounds in the room are the ticking of the clock and the occasional rustling of the pages of the book. Then, Martina Reynaud, the most beautiful girl in the Class of ’83, walks in. She’s tall, graceful and absolutely breathtaking. She’s wearing a black dress, one that shows off her long dancer’s legs. Her peaches-and-cream complexion is flawless; there is no sign of a pimple anywhere. Her long chestnut hair cascades down over her shoulders. In short, she is the personification of feminine elegance from the top of her head to her high-heeled shoes.

I try to get back to my reading assignment, but the scent of her perfume, a mixture of jasmine and orange blossoms, is beguiling. I look to my right; she is sitting at the desk right next to mine. She gives me a smile. My heart skips a beat. I know guys who would kill for one of Marty’s smiles. She has that effect on most men. Her smile is full of genuine warmth and affection; I can tell by the look in her hazel eyes.


“Hi, Jimmy,” she says. Her voice is soft and melodious; she speaks with a lilting British accent. From what I’ve heard, her family is from England. London, actually.

“Hi,” I reply, feeling about as articulate as your average mango. Then, mustering my last reserves of willpower, I focus my attention on Shakespeare’s play.

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,” I recite slowly, like a child learning to read for the first time, “creeps in this petty pace from day to day….”

I falter. I try to read further, but the urge to sneak a peek at Marty is irresistible. It is easier to stop an avalanche than to resist the temptation. I put the book down again and I steal a furtive glance at her, hoping fervently she won’t catch me.

Suddenly, her hazel eyes meet mine.

I freeze, thinking that soon I will be flying across the classroom.

I close my eyes, expecting – what? A rebuke? A sarcastic laugh? A stiletto to the heart?

Nothing happens.

I open my eyes. Blink once. Blink twice. Look around.

The classroom is, well, gone. Instead of being in a room with thirty-five desks, a blackboard, a lectern, a teacher’s desk and a bookshelf, I am standing in the middle of what looks like the ballroom in a fashionable hotel. Confused, I look to my right to see if Marty is still there. Yes, she is still there. She gives me another one of those dazzling smiles.

“Come on, Jimmy, let’s dance,” she says. She extends her right hand invitingly and gives me a come-hither stare. In the background, a Fifties-style rock band, dressed in white tuxes, begins to play.

I hesitate. I take her outstretched hand, but my feet feel as though they are stuck in industrial strength concrete. “I’m not a good dancer,” I gasp.

“Come on,” she repeats softly, almost imploringly, “it’s a slow dance.” She tugs insistently at my hand. I don’t dare resist.

The band starts to play the Platters' cover of Jerome Kerns' "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," and Martina pulls me closer to her. She places my left hand on her waist and holds my other hand gently but firmly to her side as we sway to the beat of the music. She is right; it is a slow dance. I feel as though I am Fred Astaire. The music picks up momentum. As we dance, my ears prick up as the bandleader segues from instruments to the lead singer, whose mellow but sorrowful voice reflects the melancholic lyrics about love irretrievably lost forever.


My heart aches with pent-up yearning as I hold the girl of my dreams in my arms. I look into those wonderful eyes and a million questions rush into my fevered mind at that instant. I try to speak, but Marty places her index finger on my lips and gently shushes me with a Mona Lisa smile. “Don’t say a word,” she whispers. “Let’s just dance, okay?”

I nod meekly, and she gently lays her head on my shoulder. We dance as smoothly and flawlessly as if we have been dance partners forever. As I close my eyes and follow the rhythm of the song, I feel Marty’s heartbeat and the slow rise and fall of her breathing – we’re that close.

Where time's winds blow Things cannot last; We come and we go Like ships that pass. Love's not always sweet, nor is it just "tomorrows" It has sharp edges, barbs, and is full of sorrows; Yet we must love, and face the storm When time's winds blow.....

The music stops after a while, and we stand in the center of the ballroom, still in each other’s arms. I try again to collect my thoughts, to formulate a question, but all I can think about is her presence. Finally, I manage to whisper: “Marty, I….”


Just then, the school bell – irrelevant now because there were no real classes in session – rang loudly, shattering my dream like a bomb blast breaking a mirror.

I awoke with a start, hating the damned school bell with every fiber of my soul.


Scenes from a Long Good bye: 14th of June, 1983

The school cafeteria was nearly as deserted as a ghost town. I sat alone at one of the outermost tables, picking at my lunch with little enthusiasm. It wasn’t that the food was awful – for cafeteria fare, the Salisbury steak wasn’t too bad, really. I wasn’t all that hungry. My headache was receding somewhat, but the emptiness of the school, the sense that this was going to a day full of finality (The final moments of the Class of ’83, crowed the last issue of The Serpent’s Tale) simply was a bit too much for my already overloaded emotional defenses. I picked up the plastic utensil known colloquially as a “spork” and ate a few bites of Salisbury steak without enthusiasm, like a condemned man eating a last meal.

I heard the sound of a chair being pulled away from the table and felt, rather than saw, Mark Prieto’s presence.

“So, how are you, Jim?” Mark asked as he placed his lunch tray on the cafeteria table and sat down across from me.

“I’ve got a bit of a headache,” I replied without looking up from my half-eaten lunch. I picked at my Salisbury steak listlessly with my plastic Spork.

“How did your finals go?” Mark asked.

“I only had one test this morning – in economics. We didn’t have a test in chorus.” I looked at Mark, then at my Spork. A piece of Salisbury steak was impaled on its tines. Cold gravy dripped onto the tray with little wet splashing sounds. I put the plastic utensil on the tray. Suddenly I wasn’t very hungry anymore.

“Oh, yeah,” Mark said. I could almost see the proverbial light bulb clicking on above his head. “Mrs. Quincy left in March, didn’t she?” Mark was referring to the chorus director’s unexpected departure three months earlier; Mrs. Quincy had been offered the choral director’s position at the Julliard School of Music. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Mrs. Quincy had said when she announced her decision, “and if there is anything I want you to learn from me is that you have to take advantage of these rare opportunities.”

I blinked with surprise when Mrs. Quincy’s words resounded in my mind. A snippet of visual memory flickered before me like an old newsreel: as our teacher was giving us an explanation of why she was leaving before the Spring Concert in May, I was gazing at Martina, who sat with the altos and sopranos across the chorus room from my seat in the bass section. She didn’t notice; she was paying attention to Mrs. Quincy. Our teacher’s announcement had caught us all unaware, and on Marty’s face there was shock and disappointment. I looked around the room; everyone had a stunned, what-are-we-going-to-do mien. Some of the girls wept unabashedly.

A substitute teacher, a semi-famous concert cellist named Mr. Abner, came to class the following day and tried to keep things going. We dutifully attended class and tried to follow our routine of vocal exercises and practicing the last pieces Mrs. Quincy had selected for the Spring Concert, but our hearts were not in it. Some of the singers – the underclassmen, mostly – were so disheartened by Mrs. Quincy’s departure that they never sang another note and used their class time as an ersatz Study Hall. The seniors, including Marty and me, tried to keep things going as if by sheer willpower we could pull off one last concert before graduation. But with no real leadership from Mr. Abner and one-third of the class abstaining from even basic practice, it all fell apart. In the end, there was no Spring Concert, and we never sang another note on stage.

I sighed and shook my head to clear away this bitter memory. As I did, I realized how empty the cafeteria was. Only five tables were occupied.

“Hey, dude,” Mark said, “did you hear what I said?”

I looked at Mark dazedly. “Huh?”

He shook his head in irritation. “I asked you if Mrs. Quincy retired in March, man.”

“Oh. Yeah, in March.” This conversation was not getting my morale any better. I decided to change the subject. “Speaking of finals, how did you do?”

He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. “Me? I think I passed algebra. I did okay in world history, even though you’re the brain in the topic.” He paused. “So, only one final, huh? Lucky dog.”

I looked at Mark blankly and shrugged noncommittally.

“So, are you gonna stay here till 2:30, or are you gonna go to the beach?” Mark asked.

“I don’t know yet,” I lied.

Mark’s eyes narrowed. He knew I was lying, and he didn’t appreciate it. “Don’t bullshit me, pal. You’re going to stay – and you’re hoping you’ll get to see her before the final bell rings.”

“Her?”

“Yes, her. Marty. The girl you’ve been dreaming about for three years in a row. The one you’ve never actually told how much you like. Do I need to draw you a word picture?”

I looked down at my tray. The cold Salisbury steak looked even less appetizing than it had just a minute earlier. I reached for my milk carton and took a sip.

“So, are you going to tell her?” Mark asked. He was, and still is, a persistent fellow.

Good question, I thought as I stared blankly into space. Am I going to march up to Martina Elizabeth and tell her that I love her? I pondered the question carefully as though it was part of some unscheduled final exam. Instead of answers, however, all I could come up with was a series of dilemmas.

I noticed that Mark was still staring at me with a quizzical look on his face. “What?” I yelped.

“You haven’t answered my question, man,”

I looked down, inhaled deeply, looked up and exhaled very slowly. “I, uh, don’t know.” I turned my gaze to my lunch tray, the other tables, and the clock on the wall. Anything to avoid my best friend’s inquisitive gaze.

“I’ll take that as a resounding ‘no,’” Mark said.

“I didn’t say that.”

“No,” Mark said, “but it’s what you meant to say.”

“I – I can’t tell her. Not now.”

“Why the fuck not?” Mark asked, his voice rising in pitch and volume. A group of student journalists from The Serpent’s Tale – Alan Goode, Francisco Vargas, Juan Calderon and Roger Lawrence – looked at us with bemused expressions from one of the neighboring tables. Mark noticed, cleared his throat and lowered his voice to a half-whisper. “Why don’t you tell her, you dumbass?”

“I can’t,” I repeated, shaking my head emphatically.

“What are you so afraid of?”

Another good question. “Nothing…everything,” I replied.

“What, pray tell, do you mean?” Mark asked. “Are you more afraid that she doesn’t like you, or that she does?”

“I don’t know, dammit!” Now I was raising my voice, and even the ever-present assistant principal turned in my direction to see what the hubbub was about. It was my turn to calm down and lower my voice.

“Is it, um, Kathy?” Mark asked.

“Did you have to mention her?” I felt my eyes narrow in barely repressed anger. “What relevance does that little -” and here I paused as I searched for just the right word, “bitch have in any of this?”

“You know,” Mark said coolly, “for a future historian, you are actually pretty stupid. Why are you ignoring your own past?”

“Kathy is irrelevant,” I said. “Macht nichts.” I added in German. Roughly translated, it means “it makes no difference.”

“I don’t think so. She hurt you, and she hurt you pretty bad.”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, she did. She lied to me, and she cheated on me. I still don’t see what she has to do with this.”

Mark raised his hand and held his palm outward. “Wait Hear me out.”

“Okay, fine.”

“I think,” Mark said quietly, “that you haven’t told Marty how you feel for several reasons.” He made a fist, then extended one finger. “One, you’re not sure if she likes you.”

I nodded.

He extended another finger and continued. “Two, you’ve waited too long, and you are afraid that even if she does like you, you’ll be with her only a little while before you have to go to Boston.”

I nodded again.

“Finally,” Mark said, extending a third finger, “you’re wondering if, in the remote likelihood that you have a ‘long distance relationship,’ she’ll leave you for someone else.” Like Kathy, he did not add. Then again, he didn’t have to.

I closed my eyes and nodded yet again.

“Oh, man,” Mark said quietly.

There was a long silent interval as we sat at our table. I looked down at my shoes. Mark stared fixedly at me. Finally, he broke the uneasy silence that hung between us like the Berlin Wall.

“I’d tell her anyway, if I were you,” he said. “If you don’t, regret is going to come back and bite you on the ass someday. Think about it, Jim.”

In my mind, a grainy black-and-white image formed. Ingrid Bergman. Humphrey Bogart. The airfield scene in Casablanca. What was Bogey’s classic line about regret? If you don’t get on that plane, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life. I could almost hear As Time Goes By tinkling in the background.

Mark rose from his chair and gave me a lopsided grin. “Look, I’m going to say goodbye to a couple of people before they go off who-knows-where. See you around, dude.”

I managed to give him a thumbs-up. “See you, man,” I said.

***

1:40 p.m.

June 14, 1983

My dearest Martina,

I’m not sure if I am doing the right thing by telling you this now, or if I should tell you this at all. I wish I had the answers.

I can’t believe our three years at SMSH have come to an end. It seems as though only yesterday we were sophomores starting our high school years. I can close my eyes and see you exactly as you were that moment when you stepped into Mrs. Quincy’s 3rd period class – you looked so cute and sweet. Since that day in 1980 I have come to know you pretty well. You are not only a beautiful girl young woman, but you’re also kind, thoughtful and intelligent.

I know I have picked an awful time to tell you this, Marty, but I have been in love with you for a long time. Perhaps not in the beginning, for 3 years ago I was having a hard time coping with the end of a two-year relationship with someone who, unfortunately, was unfaithful. I was hurt and terribly insecure. In some ways I still am hurt and insecure. That having been said, however, the truth is that somewhere along the line, I fell in love with you.

I didn’t tell you before for various reasons. First, I suppose, is the fact that in 10th grade you were seeing someone else, and you seemed to be content back then. I never expected that you and Kenny would go your separate ways, but then I thought my own relationship with my ex-girlfriend would last forever Life, I have learned, is full of surprises.

Martina, I’ve loved you not just because you are one of the prettiest women I’ve known. Your looks are, of course, part of what attracts me to you. But you are the one of the most generous and sweetest souls that I have met in my 18 years, and you are the one person who has the ability to brighten up a sour day. You have always managed to make me return a smile to someone else. As I write this, I can hear the clock ticking. There isn’t much time left to our last day of high school. I wish I had enough time to tell you how I feel about you, but I haven’t the courage, the words, the space or the time to fully express my feelings. I looked at my watch just now – 1:39 p.m. to be precise. I wish for so many things, Marty. I hope you understand what I’m trying to tell you. I love you, my dear Marty, and I always will.

With all my love and affection,

Jim

The library was so quiet. But then again, it was supposed to be quiet. The QUIET PLEASE signs and the smoldering glare of the librarians made sure this was so. Still, on this last day of school it was deathly quiet, and no wonder: I was alone among the bookshelves and study tables. The only sound I had heard had been the scratching of the pen against the paper as I was writing. That, and the loud ticking of the wall clock.

The clock! I looked over my shoulder at the clock, then at my wristwatch. 2:00 p.m.! Damn it! I’ve only got 30 minutes to find Marty!

I hurriedly folded the letter I’d just finished and stuffed it into an envelope I had acquired from the school librarian. I wrote For Marty – Do not open until after Graduation on the front of the envelope. Carefully, I put the now-sealed envelope in my jacket pocket. It stuck out a bit, but it didn’t feel as though it would easily fall out if I ran or jogged. Oh, well, what was done, was done. I looked at my watch again, picked up my backpack – that yearbook was getting heavier by the minute, or so it seemed – and made my way out of the library.

***

2:15 p.m.

The school was as quiet as an abandoned ship as I walked along the extensive and empty hallways – now covered by a layer of the detritus of now-empty lockers – towards the music department wing. I had no idea why I knew Marty would be there. I hadn’t seen her on the second floor, and although there was always the possibility that she’d left campus, somehow I had the feeling she would be in the chorus practice room.

I half-walked, half-ran past the cafeteria and down the steps that led to the music department wing. I quickened my pace as I made a right turn and pushed a door open; past it lay the department’s band, chorus, guitar and piano practice rooms. I wasn’t an athlete; I’d only taken the two-year PE courses half-heartedly, and I was really way out of shape. My sneakers made heavy pad-pad-pad sounds as I ran, and I was beginning to hyperventilate. I wheezed like a victim of an asthma attack. A bead of sweat, bright, heavy and salty, dripped down into my left eye, blinding me for a second or two. I slowed down to avoid becoming one with a wall or closed door. Fortunately, the chorus practice room wasn’t far away. I came to a stop and, placing my backpack on the floor, leaned against the wall to catch my breath, collect my thoughts, and tidy up my appearance.

As I stood there, just a few feet away from the open door of the choral practice room, I heard Marty’s lilting voice as she said goodbye to two of her friends. My heart skipped a beat as I realized my intuition had led me to her. She sounded tired, or perhaps sad, and I hesitated, not wanting to go in and disturb her. I stood there for a moment; it was only a minute or so, but it seemed like an eternity.

Two girls, walking backward and waving their hands in leave-taking, turned around and saw me standing there, leaning against the wall with my hands jammed tightly in my jeans’ pockets. They smiled at me; one of them, a tall, pretty redhead whose name I didn’t remember, walked up to me and hugged me.

“Well, fellow graduate, we’re finally outta here,” the redhead said when we were apart once again. “I haven’t had a chance to ask, but what are your plans, Jim?”

I smiled sheepishly. “I’m going to college in the fall,” I said.

“Where are you going to school?” asked the redhead’s companion, a blonde from my fifth period art class. Her name was Maria Theresa.

“Ah, Harvard,” I said.

“Congratulations,” Maria Theresa said politely.

“Good luck,” said Redhead with more enthusiasm. She leaned close and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. I blushed, embarrassed because I couldn’t remember her name.

“Well,” Maria Theresa said presently, “see you at the graduation.” She led Redhead away like a woman leading her pet poodle. Redhead looked back at me over her shoulder and waved.

I stood there quietly, debating whether or not to go inside the chorus room. I glanced at my watch. It was now 2:22 p.m.; only eight minutes left. When that final bell rang, a school year – and a phase of my life – would end.

Well, it’s now or never, kid, I thought.

I felt like a GI about to hit the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. My, you’re full of happy thoughts, I chided myself.

Grabbing my backpack, I took a deep breath, pushed the heavy door ajar, and stepped inside.

Like most of the school now, the chorus room had the ambiance of a deserted house. The metal music stands, songbooks and piano scores were locked away in the storage closet in the back of the soundproof room. In a corner of the room, the black Kawai piano with the sticky C-note was shrouded with a protective canvas cover; it looked like a corpse covered with a sheet. I looked at the empty space where it had been only a few hours before. Snippets of memories flashed before me like mental newsreels: Mrs. Quincy sitting on her piano bench, peering at the sheet music through bifocal lenses and playing the keyboard with gusto…Mrs. Quincy correcting our off-key slips or breaks in pitch…our attempts to keep a straight face while learning the lyrics to a particularly hilarious song. I smiled wistfully at these visions of the not-so-long-ago past, wanting to keep the moment etched deeply in my mind and not wanting it to dissolve – like the dream – forever. I placed my backpack on the tiled floor.

“Hello, Jimmy,” said an all-too familiar voice from somewhere behind me. It was Marty. No one else at South Miami had that delightful, almost exotic English accent.

I turned around slowly until I faced her. “Hi, Marty,” I said.

She got up from one of the few chairs that had not been placed in storage and gave me a shy half-smile. “So, come to say goodbye, then?” Marty asked.

I gazed at her, committing every detail of her appearance to memory. She wore faded blue jeans, a white and orange SOUTH MIAMI CHORUS T-shirt, white socks and an old pair of Keds sneakers. Her chestnut hair was tied into a ponytail. She wore very little makeup; a touch of mascara here, a hint of blush there, a bit of lip-gloss to make things a bit interesting. She was shockingly, heartrendingly beautiful.

My heart skipped a beat. “I couldn’t go without seeing you, you know,” I said.

She smiled. “Oh, come on; I bet you say that to all the girls.”

“It’s true,” I said. “And no, I don’t say that to all the girls.”

She smiled again. “I see,” she said. “How did you do on your final?”

“Okay, I guess. How about you?”

She shrugged. “All right, I suppose. Biology is not my cup of tea. I’ll be happy if I pass with a 75.”

I essayed a small smile. “I’m sure you did better than that,” I said.

Another shrug. “We’ll see.” She sighed.

“What?” I asked.

“It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?” she asked wistfully.

“What?”

“That this,” she said with a sweeping gesture, “part of our lives is over, Jimmy. Three years sure went fast, didn’t they?”

“Yes – yes, they did,” I said, feeling suddenly as if the stars and the planets had been placed on my shoulders. I felt my smile vanish. I slouched forward and let out a deep breath.

“I’m sorry,” she said unexpectedly.

“Huh?”

“That we never got to perform that duet together. Don’t you remember? For the Spring Concert?”

“Oh, yeah. What was that song we were going to sing?” I asked.

She placed her right hand on her hip and mock-pouted at me. “James Garraty, don’t tell me you forgot.”

I gave her an impish who, me look. When she smiled, I said in a more serious tone: “‘Somewhere,’ from West Side Story.” I hummed the song’s first measure; it sounded a half-octave off key.

Marty frowned. “You haven’t practiced lately,” she said disapprovingly.

“No, I haven’t,” I said, and as I said it waves of melancholy washed over me like a dark tide. Marty saw my expression change; she walked up to me and placed her arm around my shoulder comfortingly.

“I know,” she said softly, “how much you were looking forward to it, Jim. I was looking forward to singing that duet with you, too.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Really. You’re a terrific singer. Who wouldn’t want to sing a duet with you?”

“I bet,” I said, “you say that to all the boys.”

She laughed. My heart jumped as it usually did when she laughed. A thought clicked in my brain: What was it I’d written just a while ago? You are the one person who has the ability to brighten up a sour day. You have always managed to make me return a smile to someone else.

The letter! I had almost forgotten it was still in my jacket pocket. A horrible idea occurred to me at that moment – I thought maybe it had slipped out of my pocket as I’d made my way here. I patted my left side with my free hand – Martina’s arm was still draped around my other shoulder – until I felt its weight and shape. I carefully reached inside the pocket and pulled out the now slightly creased envelope.

“What’s that?” asked Marty.

I turned slightly to my right so that I was facing her. I looked into her lovely hazel eyes. At that instant, I became aware that if I leaned forward just a bit, I could kiss her. Her arm was still resting on my shoulder. Suddenly the only thing I wanted to do was to hold her gently and kiss those lovely lips.

I shook my head. “This,” I said, “is for you.”

She reached for the envelope, but I moved it out of the way before she could take it. She looked at me with a mixture of confusion and curiosity. “It is for me, isn’t it?” she asked peevishly.

“Yes, yes it is,” I said. “But I need you to promise me something.”

“What?”

I gathered my steadily dissolving reserves of courage. I gazed into her eyes again. “Promise me,” I said haltingly, “that you won’t open this until after the ceremony on Thursday.”

Marty’s eyes narrowed a bit. “Why?”

I pulled the envelope a bit farther away. “Promise me,” I said imploringly.

She sighed. Closed her eyes. Nodded. “All right,” she said softly, “I promise.”

I pressed the envelope into her free hand. She accepted it wordlessly.

The school bell rang just then, breaking the silence that had come between us with a jarring insistent dinging sound. Startled, Marty removed her arm from my shoulder. I took a small backward step, feeling a mixture of relief and regret as the physical contact was broken.

“Well,” I said in my best Harrison Ford voice, “this is it, sweetheart.” I picked up my backpack, turned toward the door and started to make my exit. As I did, I felt Marty tug at my hand. I stopped dead in my tracks.

“Hey,” she said gently as I turned around to face her, “you’re just going to leave without ¾” She hesitated, then looked directly into my eyes. “Without a kiss goodbye?”

“Well, I….”

Before I could finish my reply, the most beautiful girl in South Miami High wrapped her arms around me in a tight embrace, and, softly, tenderly, placed her lips on mine. Gently, tentatively, I returned the kiss. I closed my eyes. A million sensations hit me all at once – the scent of her perfume, the slight taste of strawberries from her lips, the clean minty taste of her breath, the rise and fall of her chest as she slowly breathed, the palpable beating of her heart, the welcome warmth of her presence – and I heard, as if from a distance so vast it couldn't be measured, the sad melody of "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes."

The wall clock ticked loudly. Almost reluctantly (or so I thought), Marty broke off the kiss. I opened my eyes and looked shyly at her. She gave me a sad little smile. She reached out with her right hand and gave my cheek a gentle caress.

“I’m going to miss you,” she said.

I nodded. “I’m – I’m going to miss you, Marty.”

Outside, hundreds of cheering students ran down the halls and out the nearest exits. Summer had arrived. Another school year was now, at long last, over.

Indecision washed over me like a cold tide. I still had a brief window of opportunity to say the three little words that are, paradoxically, the hardest words in the English language to express. Part of me wanted to tell Marty right there and then that I truly loved her. Part of me, however, still remembered what had happened the last time I’d said I love you to someone. The dissolution of that romantic relationship had left an indelible stain on my soul. What was it that Mark had said earlier about my ex-girlfriend? She hurt you, and she hurt you pretty bad. I winced inwardly. Three years had not assuaged the pain from the breakup.

As these thoughts raced in my head, I felt the window of opportunity closing fast. I resigned myself to the easiest – but worst – of all the courses of action available to me. Unwilling to take a leap of faith, I chose not to say the three little words.

Marty simply stood there. She looked at me with a curiously hopeful mien. Looking back at the moment with some perspective, I think that she knew what was transpiring. Sometimes, in my dreams, I can clearly see a trace of sadness, of regret at what-might-have-been, in those lovely hazel eyes. At the age of eighteen, however, the things that are so evident to adults aren’t so easily discerned.

She looked at her watch. She gave me an apologetic look. “Look, my ride is waiting outside,” she said. “I have to go.”

“Uh, okay,” I said.

Marty walked over to the chair she’d been sitting on when I had entered the room. Her big, brown leather purse lay next to it. She picked it up, looked quizzically at the envelope I’d handed her, then placed the letter inside the purse. She slung the purse over her shoulder. She looked over her shoulder at me, and I could see that expectant expression on her face.

“Take care of yourself, Jimmy,” she said softly. “Knock ‘em dead at Harvard, okay?”

“I will,” I replied. I felt a stinging sensation in my eyes. I rubbed my hand across my face in what I hoped was a casual manner. I didn’t want Marty to see tears welling up in my eyes.

She grabbed her purse tightly, gave me a final smile, then walked out of the chorus practice room before I could say anything. I watched her leave, then I stared sadly at the now-empty space she had just occupied.

“Oh, well,” I sighed as I strapped on my backpack and slowly walked toward the door.

As I stepped out onto the hallway, I stopped in my tracks. I took two, three more steps. I looked over my shoulder at the empty chorus room. It looked so dead now. I felt strangely torn. I was unwilling to leave, unable to stay.

I heard the door at the far end of the hallway swing open. Then I heard familiar footsteps approaching. After going to three different schools for seven years, I knew it was Mark.

“Hi, Mark,” I said.

“Hey, pal. I thought I’d find you here,” Mark said.

I sighed wearily.

“Did you find her?” Mark asked tentatively.

“Yeah.”

“Did you tell her how you feel?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes.”

“What did she say?”

I turned around to face my best friend. Concern born of seven years’ worth of friendship was written on his open face. Whatever his faults, you could never accuse Mark of being unconcerned.

“I – ah – wrote her a letter,” I said slightly embarrassed.

“I see,” he said quietly. He pursed his lips. “Did she say anything?”

“I asked her not to read it until after commencement.”

“I see,” he said again. I could tell he was disappointed in me.

There was another one of those awkward silences. I felt oddly like a mischievous schoolboy who’d been sent to the principal’s office for some infraction of the rules. Mark just shook his head in disbelief and gave me a tut-tut look.

“You know,” he said quietly, “sometimes playing it safe can be the worst thing you can do.”

“Macht nichts,” I said bitterly.

“Like hell, macht nichts, pal. It makes a hell of a difference, if you ask me.” Mark shook his head sadly. “I really don’t want to be there when you find out for yourself what a stupid mistake it is that you made today.”

I accepted this rebuke stoically.

We slowly walked out of the music department wing, up the steps that led to the corridor connecting that section with the rest of the building. There were just a few students on campus now. Those that remained gathered in twos and threes, looking either overjoyed or forlorn – the day was not one for intermediate emotions, it seemed. Some waved us goodbye as we passed by, others gave us exuberant thumbs-ups. “See you guys at commencement!” shouted some guy from my American government class as we reached the main entrance by the school office. Without breaking stride, Mark and I waved in farewell.

“Well,” said Mark quietly, “this is the last time we’re going to pass through these doors.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said.

We stopped just a few feet from the doorway. We turned and looked around the vestibule. Everything – the office area, the hallways, and the brightly lit cafeteria – was taking on a strange sheen of unreality, as if the building and everything in it were being pulled into another dimension.

Mark tugged at my jacket sleeve. “Come on. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

“Yeah,” I said.

Mark pushed the door open. He looked at me impatiently.

“Yeah,” I said. “I want to go home.”

With quick, deliberate strides, I stepped out into the brightly sunlit June afternoon. A warm breeze wafted gently from the west. In the trees, barely heard above the din of cars and buses on the adjacent street, a mockingbird sang.

***

February 1998: A Conversation Between Friends

“Hey, Jim,” Mark says softly as he walks up to where I’m standing. “Been here long?”

I look up from Marty’s grave. I glance at my watch; it’s been an hour since I got here. “An eternity,” I say.

Mark bends down and places a small floral arrangement on the small brass marker with Marty’s name and dates of birth and death. Martina Elizabeth Reynaud. March 6, 1965 – February 19, 1998. Beloved Daughter and Sister. There are several other such arrangements, including one from me. I chose a half-dozen pink roses. Pink because that was her favorite color. Roses because I had always intended to give her a bouquet for Valentine’s Day. I never did, though. Besides, the English have a knack for growing roses.

“You all right?” Mark asks.

“I don’t think so,” I reply. I’m too tired, too numb, to lie.

“It’s always so sad when things like this happen,” Mark said quietly.

I nod. “You know, Mark, you were right.”

Mark looks at me with confusion in his pale blue eyes. “Huh?”

“Do you recall what you said to me on the last day of school?” I ask.

“I said a lot of things, Jim. But that was, what? 14? 15 years ago?”

“You said that if I didn’t tell her how I felt, it would come back someday and bite me on my ass.”

“That sounds like something I would say.”

“I hate to admit it,” I say, “but you were right.”

“I was wise beyond my years,” Mark says lightly.

“At the time, I thought you were just messing with my head.”

“I was messing with your head. I was also telling you the truth.”

“Yeah,”

I say. “Well, I always wondered how things would have turned out if I had told her.”

Mark purses his lips and furrows his brows a bit. “I think you should have told her in ’82, if you ask me.”

“Hmm. Why?”

“Well, the way I see it, that way you could have dated Marty for a while – a year, at least – before graduation. Telling her at the last minute – even a few weeks or months before school ended – would have done nothing.”

I think about this assessment for a few minutes. “I know,” I say. “It wouldn’t have lasted longer than a few months. We had so much to do in the last weeks at South Miami, then her dad gave her that trip to London. By the time she got back, I was already on my way to Cambridge.”

“Why didn’t you at least try to ask her out after she and Kenny broke up?”

“I didn’t have the guts to,” I answer. “I wasn’t sure if I was ready for another relationship after breaking up with Kathy. I didn’t know if Marty liked me.” I look down at the floral arrangements around Marty’s grave. “I was a kid. I was insecure, I guess.”

A breeze drifts softly across the cemetery from the north, stirring the flowers’ petals ever so gently. The aromas of roses, gardenias and chrysanthemums blend in an eerie fashion. The result is a scent suggestive of Marty’s favorite perfume.

I close my eyes. I remember how she looked on that long ago June afternoon. She had worn faded blue jeans, a white and orange SOUTH MIAMI CHORUS T-shirt, white socks and an old pair of Keds sneakers. Her brown hair had been tied into a ponytail.

The memory fades momentarily. Another ethereal image takes its place. It’s the dream sequence that had been interrupted by the school bell nearly 15 years ago.

Marty and I are dancing as if we have been dance partners forever. As we sway and sashay across that mystical ballroom where we’re 18 years old and everything is possible, I look into Marty’s eyes. She gives me an inquisitive glance. “What is it, Jimmy?” she asks.

“Have I told you how pretty you look?” I ask.

“I bet,” she replies with an impish smile, “you say that to every pretty woman you meet.”

“Oh, no. Just you.”

She laughs.

“Marty?”

“Hmm?”

“You look very pretty tonight.”

She closes her eyes and lays her head on my shoulder. “Thank you,” she says.

“Marty?” I whisper tentatively.

“Hmm?”

“I have something to say,” I venture with trepidation. Even in my dreams, this is always the hardest moment, the part I call leaving the Line of Departure.

She straightens up and gazes directly into my eyes. A familiar expectant expression appears on her face. It’s the same look she gave me when I handed her that letter. Curiosity, anticipation and a touch of regret and sadness are combined in that look.

“I love you, Marty, and I always will,” I say, echoing the very words I’d written in real life.

She looks at me pensively. She says nothing; she simply nods in acknowledgment.

Suddenly, the vision vanishes. The dream, which has changed little over the past 15 years, dissolves into nothingness. As always, the dream’s irresolution leaves behind a wake of sadness and regret. I never know what’s worse – having the dream at all, or not knowing how it will end.

“Hey, are you all right?” Mark asks solicitously.

“Huh?” I ask, momentarily startled.

“I thought I’d lost you for a minute there.”

“Oh,” I say, “I was just lost in thought, I guess.”

“Are you going to be all right?”

“Eventually, I suppose.”

Mark looks at his watch. “I have to get going, Jim. I’ve got a house to show in the Gables area in about an hour,” he explains apologetically.

“Yeah, sure,” I say.

“I’ll catch up to you later, right?”

“Right.”

“Okay,” he says. He pats me gently on the shoulder, then leaves.

I stand alone next to Marty’s grave, acutely aware of the solemn silence of the cemetery. It’s somewhat unnerving, this stillness.

I can’t believe you’re gone, Marty, I think. I can’t believe I’ve lost you again.

I look at my watch. I’ve been here for two hours. I look down at Marty’s grave, pondering the choices I made when I was young and insecure. What an awful price we humans pay when we make the wrong choices, the wrong decisions. It is ironic, isn’t it? In my history classes I always tell my students that bad decisions in wartime cost lives. The MARKET-GARDEN plan, for instance, was doomed to failure by – among other things – Montgomery’s disregard for intelligence reports that revealed the presence of German armor at Arnhem. He chose to ignore those reports, launched the operation anyway and failed to reach his objective. Well, I suppose my decision not to tell Marty how I felt in time for her to tell me how she felt was just as bad. Now she’s dead, killed in a stupid car wreck, and I’ll never know one way or the other. That’s the worst part. Not knowing, I mean.

A brisk northerly breeze blows across the cemetery. It’s chilly; the weather reports all say there is a cold front moving in. The zephyr moans sadly through the limbs of the trees and the wrought iron fence railings atop the high brick wall. An apt accompaniment to the scene, I think.

“I miss you, Marty,” I say wistfully as I take one last look at her grave. “I love you, and I always will.”

With that, I slowly turn around and make my way to the parking lot, wondering why I’d said that now, wishing I had said it 15 years ago– when it might have made a difference.


© 2012 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved