Part 51: 1st Christmas
I drove several cars that were bound together with loose ends, one with a starter held in place by the end of a broom handle and it was not uncommon for a few bolts to be laying in the gravel driveway when I pulled out, bald tires struggling to gain traction on the small gray pebbles. Every car ride was a trial in hesitation, deep breaths as the engine struggled to turn over, at times a small billow of smoke emanating from the hood, was it more oil leaking or had that brave wooden handle finally caught fire? there was no money in my wallet, a small black cracked bit of leather I had been given after my grandfather had died. It never had any money in it when he owned it as well. At times, I would look in it, hoping that maybe, just maybe a five dollar bill would appear, but it only held an old Social Security card, a blemished and forged ID and my own driver’s license. Getting gas money was a trial in itself, a mad scramble around the house, pushing aside couch and chair cushions in search of loose change, a return of a few Coca-Cola bottles and a quick rummage through my step fathers change jar that sat atop his misty room. Sunshine illuminating the gray room with specks of dust, in calm panic pushing aside old buttons, scraps of paper with scribbled phone numbers and empty match books, grabbing a handful of change, hoping that there was more silver and copper. If luck was with me, there may be $1.75 or so to put into the tank. Gas was hovering around a dollar a gallon, and a gallon and a half could get an anxious high school boy to school and back a few times. Taking the bus was unheard of, an exercise in self oppression that one would avoid at all costs. It was better not to go to school than to take the nausea inducing trail of fear over the rolling hills and creaky shocks that was part and parcel of the bus number 24.
A date, perhaps the first one with a girl from my high school, even though I was halfway through my senior year, the mutual attraction between myself and the girls of Northeastern was unspoken at best, and most likely in complete abstinence. In the world of avoidance that I tended to move in a furtive glance was what I would hope for, perhaps a short moment of sparkle as quip would dart out of my mouth would give me a moment of hope but usually my own neediness in a mountain of farmer boy machismo would have prevented even the most interested gal to think secondly. My high school dates involved girls from other schools or more often during my summer and spring breaks in Athens where it was ok to wear glasses and be of minor stature.
The snow fell in clumps, big, fat flakes that swirled in circles before nestling atop a field of other frozen particles. The rolling hills leading into Catawba were shrouded in white, at times the snow fell so heavily that the road melded into the side of the road, causing the relic of a Toyota to work extra hard as brakes were pushed and coaxed into keeping the orange metal on course. There was sweat dripping from my hands, and next to me there was a portable Panasonic cassette player with failing batteries but was a better alternative to the generic teased hair music that was prevalent in the mid-west during the mid-nineties eighties. Driving with a slight amount of the overpowering testosterone that coursed through my body, a permanent hard-on for the past four years of my life had now blended into the reality of a date. Passing barns that appeared asleep, with the white powder of snow freezing them into what appeared to a postcard of a fast vanishing America, the car galloped over paltry hills that were more mounds than hills. Catawba lay on a small bluff, that overlooked several large fields of corn and soybeans, with an abandoned corn mill on the edge of town, it provided a picturesque view of the town but upon closer inspection the years of neglect wore off its lumbering metal sides through chestnut colored rust as it crawled alongside of the mill like a giant spider web. Everything in this town failed the scrutiny test, from the perspective on my seventeen year old eyes, but now as the old mill faded into the mist of snow in a cracked rearview mirror held in place by shiny duct tape, that was no concern of mine.
South Vienna, which some of us referred to as “South-by-God-Vienna!” was roughly six miles or so from Catawba, it was itself a tiny burp of a town, located between I-70 and the old National Road, it almost dwarfed Catawba as it had at least five traffic lights, curbs, a carpet store and a grocery. Jenny lived at the edge of town, in a small ranch right smack dab in the middle of the National Road. The car chugged and surged in the snow, with small burps of exhaust it behaved like the Engine-That-Could while snow swirled around in a winter ballet of young lust and the hope of opportunity. I knocked on the door, trying to make the large lenses on my wire framed glasses smaller by leaning away from the porch light. I wore a bigger-than-me camouflaged US Army jacket that my brother had brought me back from his first foreign deployment in Germany. Jenny answered, and I as I stepped hesitantly into the living room, I eyed her family as much as they eyed me. A little boy lay on the carpet with tiny action figures spread around as if they had been blown apart, two younger sisters lay on opposite end of the couch, staring into the television. One I recognized, Rachel, who nodded at me. She was a freshman. The other just a few years older than the boy, said “hey,” and resumed watching the television. Jenny’s mother, got up from an yellow easy chair, “well, you’re this Bela everyone has been talking about. I have heard so much about you, Jenny says you are very funny. And you live in Catawba, did Jenny tell you we used to live there. I grew up in Catawba. You can see how far, I’ve come,” laughing she added, “all the way to South Vienna.” Wearing a shaky smile, I stammered, “yeah, um, yeah, hmmm….Jenny’s pretty funny herself.” “well, I’m Ginger, and welcome to our house” she turned her head, and raised her voice towards the kitchen, “Harry, Jenny’s date is here!”
Upon those words, the insides of a young man’s stomach crunched a little, and for the first time in what would be a lifetime of emotional hesitation reared its head in my belly that I would lead to the fact that I would be figured out. Jenny’s father entered, carrying a bowl of chips, “hey, how are you” with a quick glance, “you kids better watch this quick, me and the boy will be watching the game in a little bit. By the way,” looking me over again, “what have you got planned tonight?” “Well, I thought I would take your daughter back to the parsonage and fuck her brains out” was the first thing that I thought of but instead I replied, “maybe get a pizza or something, I don’t really know, I thought I would ask Jenny”, turning my head towards her for a rescue. “Sure, that sounds good, Bye mom, bye dad.” She said and pulled me out the door. “you don’t wanna talk to my dad too long, he loves to scare any boy that comes to my house.” I had no money for a date, in fact I only had about $7, five of which I had given to Chris Biester to buy a six pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. “I thought we would go back to my house, hang out—listen to music.” Jenny thought this was a good idea. She was amazed at my record and tape collection. She had never seen so much music in anybody’s room. My brother Zoltan, home on leave was doing what most young mid-west American’s were doing on Christmas break were doing, getting loaded on a nightly basis. My stepfather was out, most likely at a support group meeting or in Columbus.
Jenny had never heard of much of the music I had, “Who is R.E.M.? Is that short for something? What is the Replacements? I have never heard any of this, oh wait, I know who the Beatles and The Rolling Stones are, you listen to them huh?” She scanned the wall of tapes, “how did you get so many of these, there must be at least a hundred.” Opening the first beer of the night, “Well, I love music, I got to DJ at the Wittenberg radio station for the past few years, so some I taped from them, some from my friends in Athens. You can pick whatever you want to.” Leaning into the wall of cassettes she would pull one out and without looking towards me, hand it over. “Wow, this is a lot. Who is Lou Reed and if he has so many records how come I’ve never heard of him?…..Oh, here play this, I love Pink Floyd and then play this” pushing a Cars tape into my hand. We stayed there in my room, drinking beer, eventually having our first kiss together and with the clumsiness that comes from teenage love, discovered one another’s body’s. When she pulled her top off, she wore an emerald green brassiere and later, to my astonishment, matching green panties which she refused to remove. By the end of the evening we were finishing each other’s sentences, laughing at how we had appeared to know one since birth but had only, tonight really talked to one another. The anxiety I had felt, slipped away, replaced by an inner confidence that, somehow, this is the way things were supposed to be and I was ok with this. The snow covered the car as we left the house, it was nearly ten o’clock and Christmas was just a few days away. Praying for the car to start, the key turned in the ignition, it seemed to have a gasp while groaning, “it had better start, my dad would kill me if he knew we came back to your house.” A deep breath seemed to do the trick, as the ignition turned again, and in some manner looked to have winked at me and came to a shuddering start. The exhaust convulsed with black smoke, the caused us to laugh nervously, and we roared out of the driveway into the twirling snow.
Two days later on Christmas Eve, as we sat in hard wooden pew while Midnight Christmas Services went on, we exchanged notes. Holding sweating hands, one said, “only two days.” It had felt like forever and at the same time as if the future was complete in our twitchy arms.
Below: Jenny playing for only the second time in 14 years, nearly 27 years to the day of that first date. (thanks to Shirley Tobias for the video)