Saturday, August 14, 2010

Hot Chocolate and Heavy Petting

To the casual observer, my being fantastically good-looking might have seemed a real boon during my high school years, but in many instances it was anything but. My second week in 10th grade (back in those days, you went to what was called junior high through ninth grade), the girlfriends of both the scariest hoodlum on campus, Refugio Torres, and the quarterback of the football team asked me over to their respective homes for “the best Mexican food you’ve ever tasted” in the one case, and hot chocolate and heavy petting in the other.

I had heard that the hoodlums’ girlfriends, all of whom looked as though in the Ronettes, concealed razor blades in their enormous hair, but my gut told me to do the safe thing and go for the Mexican food. It turned out hardly to have mattered, as Refugio and his posse (though no one would have dared call it that at the time, for fear of being heard to have said pussy) cornered me in the lavatory and nearly drowned me in the sink. He said if I were seen within an acre of Consuelo, his girlfriend, he would cut my tongue out and make a belt out of it. Apparently tongues can stretch to several times their original length. Later that afternoon, just before sixth period, a quartet of football players held me by my ankles out of the window of an empty classroom on the fifth floor of the janitorial arts building.

But those torments were nothing compared to those I suffered my first semester of 11th grade. First my English teacher, Ms. Cooke — who I liked because she was forever complimenting me on my writing — summoned me for an after-school conference at which, in a lot more makeup than she usually wore, she told me that ever since her late husband’s death from emphysema two years before, she hadn’t to much as looked at a male with anything like longing. But then I had come along, and she had begun daring to hope that her life wasn’t effectively over after all. The problem was that, because she was around 80 years old, or so it seemed at the time, I’d rather have drowned in the sink than see her naked, and here she was unbuttoning her blouse.

I was immature and impulsive, and couldn’t keep myself from running in panic from her classroom. Two days later, she returned some essays she’d had the class write at the end of the preceding week. She’d never given me anything less than an A-minus before, but on this one she gave me a B, and wrote at the bottom of the last paragraph, “No one has ever hurt me as deeply as you did. I hope you’re pleased with yourself.”

Not two weeks later, Marcia Finkelman, the least desirable girl in the entire school, if not in California, if not west of the Mississippi, cornered me by my locker. At 16, the poor thing was already shaped like a middleaged Russian peasant woman, with frizzy black hair, a nose approximately the shape and size of a slightly shrunken baseball, and braces that were perpetually full of egg salad, even on days when she got her lunch in the cafeteria. Sweating and hyperventilating, her hair even more a-frizz than usual with anxiety, she tried twice to start speaking, and twice looked as though about to faint. I held her to steady her, inspiring several classmates to cat-call, “Got a new girlfriend, John?” as they passed. At last she managed to blurt, “I know you must think I’m ugly. Everybody does. But you’re all I’ve got to live for!”

“Oh, Marcia,” I said, because it felt the right, merciful thing to do, “you’re not ugly, exactly.”

She was transformed. Her tears stopped immediately. Her nose seemed a little smaller, her braces less full of egg salad. What had I done? “Do you mean that,” she gasped, rhapsodically. “Do you really mean that? Do you think I’m even a little bitchin’?” Bitchin’ was for kids in my day what I think hot is today.

“What I think,” I said, struggling for a way out of the hole I’d dug for myself, “is that you’re a very nice…”

That was all I was able to get out before she turned back into the other version of herself, but even more anguished. I’d never seen a human face so full of blood. “Don’t say it,” she shrieked. “Don’t tell me how nice I am! I don’t want to be nice! Fuck you! I want to be bitchin’! Fuck you. Fuck your mother and father for conceiving you, and your grandparents for conceiving them!”

Not a person in the corridor, neither student nor teacher nor custodian, wasn’t open-mouthed with horror. Time seemed to stand still. Then she exploded, and I’m not being entirely metaphorical here, into tears, spun on her heel, and staggered as though full of bullets toward the exit, dropping her books one after the other as she went.

Through something like this, the less good-looking never had to go.

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