Happy Birthday

September

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Crazily, the summer sped by, and soon it was my birthday.

I had always hated the placement of my birthday in early September.  It made it hard to have birthday parties (not that anyone really ever planned one for me as a child) because you never knew exactly who would be in your class, and you never had much contact with your friends from school during the summer unless they lived in your neighborhood.  Not like today with computers and Facebook and IMing and texting.  When I got older it was better, because I had the car.

I was turning 18 and getting ready for college.   Michigan State started back then in later September, because they worked in trimesters rather than semesters.  So me and my pals were mostly still back at home for my birthday.

Joe wanted to make my birthday special, and I love d him for it for many reasons.  Firstly, he hadn’t had an easy time of it.  His mother was in some sort of financial trouble due to her divorce, and they had to leave their apartment.   Joe was spending the last few weeks before school started living with his grandparents’ house.  His mother, for lack of a better term, was “in hiding”, I think from the IRS.   She contacted Joe when she was sure no one else would be home, and no one else was supposed to know where she was.  He didn’t really care for his aunt, who also lived with the grandparents, but he was making the best of it for the last few weeks before we went to State.

Joe promised to take me out to a fancy restaurant on the other side of town for my birthday.   It was the most grown up thing I’d ever done with a boy; dressed up and went out to dinner, just like real adults.  It was calm and quiet and beautiful.  During dinner, he presented me with my gift:  a jewelry box with a hand painted iris on the front.  It played music when it opened up, and it was stunning.

I couldn’t believe how thoughtful his gift was.  It wasn’t a silly gift that a boy picked up in a last ditch effort to have something to give the girl.  He spent hours, clearly, trying to find the best gift he could for me.  It was not cheap.  It was the nicest thing anyone my age had ever given me.  In fact, I have no recollection at all of most of the birthday gifts I’ve ever been given, but I still remember (and own) this one.

After dinner we decided to go over to my father’s house.  He lived not far away.  Again, I was in awe of Joe.  Going to my father’s house was fraught with issues; Joe knew about my father’s boyfriend, but it was another thing entirely to meet the boyfriend.  I trusted him completely to meet the boyfriend and be polite, something I couldn’t say about most of the rest of the people I knew at the time (I was just eighteen, after all).

My father and his partner were gracious and invited us out to the patio for cold drinks.  I sat there, soaking in the surreal moment:  just a few years ago I was screaming at my father, wondering why he wasn’t there for me to protect me.  Now here I was, sipping iced tea on his quiet, lush patio with my boyfriend, getting ready for college.  Everything was different.  Everything was good.

It was the perfect birthday.

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A Hot Summer Night

My mother was spending a weekend up north at her friend’s cabin on the lake.  This is what people do in the summer in Michigan, they all go up to cabins on lakes in the proverbial lands labeled “Up North”, which means they are somewhere north of the outer ring suburbs.

She often did this.  She would leave on Friday afternoon or maybe early Saturday morning, and come back Sunday evening.  Sometimes my sister was around, and sometimes she wasn’t; I had friends over and had my one and only drinking party one weekend when she wasn’t.

Joe’s mother sometimes did a similar thing.  She had a boyfriend, and he had a place out on the western side of the state near Lake Michigan.   She too would disappear, leaving Joe alone for an overnight, all summer long, every other weekend or so.

One weekend, both of our mothers plans coincided.  And we quietly made plans to Do It.  We agreed to spend the night at his apartment, since at my place my sister might show up.  My sister might not have much to say about me spending all night out (I might just be at a girlfriend’s), but she might have something to say if she heard such goings on while she was home.

The difference between my only other partner and Joe were extreme.  With Joe we discussed everything ahead of time, talked about the protection we’d use, planned for it, and even worried aloud about the trauma I might experience since the last time I’d had sex it was not consensual.  He was kind, thoughtful and in a total surprise to me, a virgin.   It was mature, and honest, and thoughtful, and equal.

We’d gone pretty far in our two months together prior to this moment, so I was rather surprised at how fearful I was during the experience.  I cried so much I couldn’t breathe; and poor Joe quietly talked to me and soothed me through all of it.  He was so kind and so thoughtful that I couldn’t believe it.   I was honestly scared, and rather than take it personally or have a problem with it, instead he genuinely wanted to help me through it and understood that it wasn’t about him.

And then, finally, after four hours of soaking his sheets with snot and tears and shame, we did it.   Joe’s quick breathing and sheer joy was palpable.  I wanted to do it, I told him, over and over as the tears kept coming.  I wanted to be able to do this with him, and I was sure that once I got through this first time, I would be fine.  The happiness I saw in him as we shared the moment together was a gift that I treasured.

We tried again the next morning.  It was so much different than anything I’d ever experienced.   The sensations I felt were so intense that I wasn’t sure they could be real.  This was not dirty, or wrong.  This was what heaven must be like.

July 14

I was working at Burger King that summer.

I had ditched my mall job at the Children’s Place earlier in the spring.  They were unhappy with my constant need to have this day off or that as my senior year schedule heated up.  I needed a lot of Fridays off, a lot of evenings for various awards assemblies and graduation activities.  My manager started complaining, and it didn’t take me long to look for something else.

My friend Karen was working at Burger King.  She told me that I could work whenever I wanted; they wouldn’t complain.  And I’d likely be able to work a ton in the summer to save up for college, when I hoped to not have to work.   A few other kids from school worked there, and nearly everyone we knew hung out there.  I’d been trying to avoid working fast food for years, but I wanted something that would fit better with my schedule.  It was a perfect fit.

Since I was also one of the few teenagers whose parents didn’t mind them out past midnight, I’d often find myself getting assigned the late shift.   The place closed at 2 in the mornings on the weekends.  By the time we got everything cleaned up, it would be three or so.  Who would sign up for that?

I did.  Our young, twenty something manager loved the hardworking crew of older teens he had working for him.  He would take us often out to breakfast afterwards, or he’d buy us beers and we would drink behind the restaurant after it closed.   There were many nights that summer when I would come home as my mother was getting up for work; she never said a word about my late hours.  She had to have known that Burger King wasn’t open quite that late.  But she never gave me any grief about it.

It was on one such morning, as I brushed my teeth while she curled her hair, that she was unusually bitchy.  I of course was unused to her saying anything about my crazy hours that summer, and so I finally said, “Gee, what is your problem today?”

“Today?  Today is my problem,” she answered curtly.  “Today is his birthday.”

It took only a second for me to know who she was talking about.  The baby she’d had and given up, the one that she’d told me about years ago.  I’d never known his birthday before, only the year.

The date was July 14, Bastille Day.  Now I knew:  my half brother was born on July 14, 1962.  He was, somewhere, celebrating his 26th birthday.

“I’m so sorry, Mom,” I told her and reached to hug her.

She didn’t have tears in her eyes, but she held on tight and returned the hug for longer than was usual for her.

We never mentioned that date again.

The Luckiest Girl in the World

I was insanely happy.

I’d never felt anything like this. I’d never been in a relationship where both parties were equally invested. Joe seemed crazily as infatuated with me as I was with him. I’d never had that. I was either more in than the other person, or vice versa. I’d never experienced anything like this.

Joe wanted to share everything with me. He brought me to everything he and his friends did. He stopped by my work if I was working the late shift and he was not busy. We did our homework together, what little there was left for us in the last month before graduation. He introduced me to his mother and asked to be introduced to mine. He brought me to the apartment he shared with his mother after school when we both were off in the afternoons. He was smart, he was talented, he was good looking, a hard worker; all of it made him incredibly sexy to me. He liked doing things like walking in the woods holding hands or laying out under the stars on a warm spring evening. He would stop by with a single rose, just because.

He talked easily to me about his past and his family, what his values were and what he wanted to do with his life. He wasn’t most guys I knew who were so guarded with their feelings and their privacy; he talked to be as an equal, as the friend I’d been before we’d kissed and started dating. It didn’t change; in fact it only got better. He was more willing to share the sad details of his parents’ divorce, and how he and his brother were basically put so much in the the middle of it all that the brother went to live with the father and Joe went to live with the mother. He had the same sad experience I did of having to move out of the house and neighborhood that was safe and suburban to a smaller place that just screamed “Life Is Not The Same Anymore.” It was such a relief to share with him my stories; so few people I knew actually had any frame of reference to be able to have any real sort of sympathy. But he got it, and me.

The final piece was the sexual chemistry between us. I’d made out with boys before, but this was different. We just clicked. Neither Joe nor I were terribly experienced; truth be told I was more experienced than he was. This made me more daring with him and the anticipation of every new piece of each other we shared was incredibly hot. There was such a respect about it all between us. We knew eventually that we would sleep together but there was no rush, there was no pressure; we were just enjoying each new step and phase on the way.

I couldn’t believe my luck. Just six months after my lowest point, when I felt that life was no longer worth living , I was the luckiest girl in the world. I was about to graduate from a large suburban high school at the top of my class; I had the respect of many of my teachers and peers; and I had the world’s best, kindest, sweetest, sexiest boy by my side.

I couldn’t stop smiling.

This Changes Everything

I was waiting alone in front of a grocery store on a warm, May day in 1988.

I thought I looked pretty good, actually. I had picked my clothes carefully; I can still remember exactly what I wore. Black pants, a black tank top, and a white cardigan style knit top over the tank top. I dressed carefully because I wanted to look good that day.

I was going to see a performance by the school’s jazz band. I’d been invited the previous night by Joe, of my sixth hour independent music study. I’d been thinking about going anyway; all of my best friends these days were in the jazz band. There was Joe, of course, who had continued to grow his friendship with me while taking breaks from practicing for college auditions. There was Dean, a piano player who was so extraordinary in his talent that we all thought he might seriously be a little nuts. But he had a kind heart, and I had been getting closer with him this year as well. There was Mike, who was salutatorian to my valedictorian, and the other Mike, who was a year younger than us but had more talent than most of us. I knew pretty much everyone in the group, and liked them, so I wanted to support them by showing up. It wasn’t like a lot of people would show up to a grocery store performance.

When I showed up, I was the only person there. Everyone was grateful I’d shown up, and I soaked in the sun and the music gratefully. I was finally starting to feel good about my life; I was about to graduate, I had many new and wonderful friends, I knew what I wanted, finally. No one was pushing me down, I was moving forward. A few more people showed up as the performance began.

Dean and Joe invited me out after the performance. Dean was a piano player I’d been working with for a performance that was coming up. He and Joe happened to be best friends, so it was a natural thing; I knew and liked both of them. I was excited that they both wanted to spend some time with me, a girl. I respected them both for their musicianship; plus the both just seemed like cool guys.

Not only that, but I felt like something was happening with Joe. Each time I saw him, I felt like a thin wire was drawing us closer together. As the hours passed, I started to tick off small confirmations that he felt the same. Dean was driving the three of us; I would catch Joe looking at me and then quickly look away when I caught him at it. He offered to sit in the back seat with me so I wouldn’t be alone back there; his body was just a little closer than it needed to be. There were questions, there was talking, and suddenly it was evening and none of us wanted to leave each other’s company.

We went back to Dean’s house and to his finished basement. He had tons of music equipment down there; Dean and Joe started futzing on the equipment while I supplied an eager and interested audience. And then suddenly, Dean needed to leave; I don’t remember at all why. What I do remember was that Joe and I started joking and laughing, and then he was tickling me.

We were on the floor, laughing and rolling and giddy with all of the physical contact, when suddenly I looked into his eyes, with a question. A moment, a hesitation, and then we both moved towards each other with our mouths slightly open.

It was the longest, sweetest, slowest first kiss. It went on for what seemed like hours. I didn’t want it to stop; it was the most amazing feeling. I’d never experienced anything like it. It was sweet, like thick honey; I knew I should stop, but I just couldn’t.

We heard Dean coming back and pulled apart. We got up quickly off of the floor and sat together on the sofa, so close to each other that our legs were touching. Joe took my hand in his, and used his free hand to stroke the top of mine.

Dean took one look at us, with our flushed cheeks and intertwined hands, and said, “Oh, wow, that’s awesome! Good for you guys!”

Joe and I looked at each other; we both knew that this was going to be something big.

College Bound

It was official. Despite a rough year filled with roller coaster worthy ups and downs, despite several attempts at trying to take my own life, despite the therapy sessions that I was sure no one else I knew had to engage in, despite rotten choices all around me and self destructive behavior, in spite of all of those things, I still had done it.

I had been named class valedictorian, along with two other boys. I was going to give the benediction at graduation, the valedictory being given to one of the other “Vals”.

I had been accepted to every college I’d applied to. I had won a full scholarship to Wayne State University, the local urban university. I won a much smaller scholarship to Michigan State University. Calvin College in Grand Rapids also offered me a small stipend. Boston University and Tulane offered me nothing but their acceptances and well wishes.

My sister and brother had both gone to Wayne State. Both had dropped out of school prior to graduation. My sister had lived at home with us, driving downtown each day to attend classes. She dropped out in her sophomore year when her then boyfriend, now fiance, got terribly ill and was hospitalized.

My brother dropped out after his freshman year. My father, who had taken custody of him after three psychiatric hospitals proved his current environment was not the best place for him or anyone else involved, had enrolled him in a prestigious Catholic boarding high school. Not ready to have him homebound and commuting after that experience, my father leased an apartment for my brother and furnished it with garage sale finds from all over the Detroit metro area. My brother, who thrived under the strict structure of the Catholic boarding school, floundered with his new found freedom and failed more courses than he passed. My father did not renew his lease and told him he had no other choice but to enlist in the military.

So while WSU with its fat scholarship offer would seem the logical choice, the alarm bells that went off in my head at the thought of it gave me pause. Further, my mother encouraged me to go away to school and have a campus experience, something that could not happen at WSU, which had no dorms.

Michigan State, with its proximity to Ray’s family, held an easy familiarity to me and seemed like the most logical choice. They were still offering money, they had an excellent teaching and music program, and they were close enough to home should anything happen. My friend Karen was also planning on attending MSU, so we could room together.

So the choice was made, in April of 1988, that would direct the next turn in the road for me. I would go away to State. I would turn down the full scholarship to the commuter school. I would major in music education, combining my love of music with the practicality of a teaching degree. It all seemed to make perfect sense.

Inappropriate Excitement

I could hear the trumpet’s tinny melody vaguely through the practice room wall. I stopped my playing of Claude Bolling’s “Sentimentale” (I had been repeating the insanely fast slur of high to low notes that separated the slow and fast movements of the piece) to listen more closely. Who was playing? As far as I knew, I was the only senior stupid enough to take an independent study in music during the last hour of the school day. Most other seniors with enough credits would simply not bother and leave school early to get a jump start on working that afternoon. Me, I needed the forced practice time during the school day or I knew I would never nail this piece.

I set my flute gently down on the chair that I hadn’t been sitting in (standing made for a better posture for full lungs), and gently opened the door of the practice room. I listened for the clear notes of the trumpet and began slowly walking towards them. It took exactly four steps down the hallway to figure out who it was.

It was Joe, from the Homecoming Dance.

He was the top trumpet player in the school; I should have known it was him. I paused for the slightest second outside his door, only a narrow square of glass allowing me sight of his intense concentration on his music. I started to walk away, only to hear his door open up behind me and him say, “Hey.”

“Hey, Joe, I didn’t mean to bother you. I didn’t realize you had independent study sixth hour, too.”

“Yeah,” he answered in his raspy voice. “I need the practice before Solo and Ensemble.”

“Me too,” I said quickly, my cheeks glowing red He was dating my friend Karen’s neighbor, Amy. He was completely off limits, which left me free to be as friendly as I wanted without worrying about the consequences. “You sounded really good.”

“Thanks,” he offered. “You did too. Is that jazz flute?”

Over the next few weeks, Joe and I spoke frequently. When he needed breaks from his music, he’d stop in my practice room to chat. We talked about college (we’d both applied to Michigan State and were waiting for responses), about our mutual friends, about our band instructor, about everything. I found myself liking him, a lot. I had the oddest feeling that he liked me too, even though I knew fully well he had a girlfriend.

One day, as I plodded through Sentimentale and pushed out high Gs over and over in an attempt to get my lips able to form the note reliably, I realized I hadn’t seen Joe yet that afternoon. By this point, we’d always at least say Hi to each other, every day. I looked out of my practice room window to find him sitting on the floor, his head in his hands. The hallway at this hour was deserted, and he’d clearly chosen the most private place (minus me) he could think of to have his breakdown.

I sat next to him and gently touched his arm. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

He looked up at me with red eyes. I’d never seen a boy my age cry, or at least allow others to see that he’d been crying. “Amy broke up with me,” he offered, choking out the words.

I’m not going to lie here. My heart leapt in my chest. In a classic case of proceeding carefully, I modulated the excitement out of my voice before responding: “Oh, Joe, I’m so sorry.”

Slowly, carefully, he told me the story of what had happened. Our bodies were close enough to be touching as he told me how she’d just dumped him, because she was going away to school the next year and didn’t want to be “tied down” over the approaching summer. I soothed him with words of comfort, of youth and fun ahead, of his character and how he would find someone who was more worthy of his careful thoughts and attention.

By the end of the conversation I was holding his hand. I meant this purely as a gesture of comfort to him, and that was how he gladly accepted it. But when I took my hand away, my palm was sweaty and my head was hot. I felt horrible for the amount of pain he was clearly in, I did.

But I also felt a feeling I hadn’t felt since the day I’d first held Ray’s hand. The inappropriate excitement was tight in my chest.

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