It’s been a long time since I updated — the last one was when I did the storytelling at Shit Creek. My story was more of a love letter to a friend, to tell him how much I loved him and how much he meant to me. He didn’t show up, and I was pissed at him. And I never sent him this, just to be bitchy. I figured I’d send it someday, but I’d hold on to it when I wasn’t mad. When maybe he deserved it. And then I wasn’t mad, and I forgot all about it.
That friend died this morning. I never called him back when I said I would, and I never sent him this love letter. And now it’s too late. But I’m sending it to him now, as an offering to him and to the gods of the otherworld, or wherever Bob is going to, so that he will know how much I loved him. And how much I miss him. And how I now have to change the ending of this story, but I’m not ready yet. Today I still need to be 15, to be sitting next to Bob on a white metal chair, drinking peppermint tea and listening to The Three O’Clock and looking at the rain and trying to outweird one another. Tomorrow I will start on the new ending, but for today I want my memories in amber, with a little bit of golden sheen, a little more beauty than reality. And we will stay young.
My first boyfriend was Donny Osmond. Heidi Duncan and I would listen to her transistor radio in her basement and while waiting for “Puppy Love” to come on, we’d jump off the steps into a nest of beanbag chairs. I don’t know what was more dangerous – falling in luv, or a potential concussion. But then we’d hear Donny and scream and jump around and fight over which one of us he would choose. Heidi was smaller and bossier – she would always win. Though in hindsight, neither of us were Mormon and we were only five, so neither of us really stood a chance.
My next boyfriend was Davy Jones because I loved the way his eyes sparkled at me through the TV, and then he was replaced by Paul McCartney, but when I was 12 I realized that John Lennon was funnier and wittier, so he became my Beatle boyfriend. But then Timothy Hutton came along, and oh my God. He was SO cute AND tragic AND sensitive, unlike all the gross boys at my school, who told me I was ugly and would never ask me to dance at any of the school dances. Instead I sat on the sidelines of the gym with my friends, wearing my satin shirt and corduroy knickers and Jean Nate After Bath splash, watching wistfully as couples swayed to “Open Arms” by Journey with their hands in each other’s butt pockets, and wondered what it would feel like to have a boy stick his hands in my butt pockets or anywhere else.
Our school had a hierarchal popularity system, which was mapped out by where you sat in the cafeteria at lunch. The popular kids sat at the A tables, pretty girls and boys together, laughing easily and flirting. Across the way were the B tables, though boys and girls did NOT sit together and comingle, because the pain of that would have been excruciating. Then there were the C tables, which were the nerdy kids and the foreign exchange students not adopted by the popular girls. Then there was the library, where the kids who didn’t ever wash their hair or the ones who hunched into the ski jackets they wore year-round hid out. I was a B table girl, because I did have friends and I also had a mom who packed Hostess treats for lunch and giving them away helped my social status. A bit.
But then I discovered NEW WAVE, so depending on how you looked at it, I either plummeted to the lower depths of the Stone Valley School hierarchy, or I stopped giving so many shits about how my hair would never feather, which was a good thing. Either way, my spiky dumb haircut and I heart Oingo Boingo and Madness pins weren’t exactly gaining me any points in the boy department – if they thought I was weird and creepy before, I was even weirder and creepier now.
But then I got to high school, and that was a different battlefield altogether. The boys were mean in junior high; they were brutal in high school. My nickname was Medusa, because they said that I was so ugly that if I looked at them, they would turn to stone. The popular girls let me know that only poor people and freaks wore clothes from thrift stores, and I needed to get a fashion clue. (It was the 80s. EVERYONE needed a fashion clue.) Even though that was pretty awful, it wasn’t all bad – I liked my weirdness, and I wore it like a Girl Scout badge. I still had friends, but I was finding more and more that I didn’t have that much in common with them. When we went to the mall I looked for new records, and they looked for new boys.
In ninth grade, I spent countless hours on the phone as my friends wept and cried about their boyfriends. Well, they talked and carried on, and I hung upside down over my bed and rolled my eyes or read, inserting “uh huhs” where it seemed appropriate. What did *I* know about anything like that? One of my friends was “doing it,” and when her boyfriend, whom I sat next to in French class, didn’t call her back, she threatened suicide. That was less alarming than me having to ask him if he was mad at her on a daily basis. “I had to go to dinner with my PARENTS,” he said. “Tell her to knock it off and I want my Dark Side of the Moon tee shirt back.” As for me, I had a crush on a senior named Dale Welch, who was a waiter at the local country club and who I mistook for being a punk rocker because he had a cropped haircut. I was wrong – he was a football player, and his hair was growing out from when he shaved his head for the Championships. But whatever, I thought he was cute and I memorized his license plate and it gave me a boy to write notes to my friends about, claiming that he was a total babe. Plus he was safe – he would never give me the time of day, so I never had to worry about anything. My friends may have been “going all the way,” but I wasn’t ready for it. And in the early 80s, the era of “Little Darlings” and “Foxes” and “The Blue Lagoon,” that wasn’t cool.
But still, I wanted a boyfriend. “I know someone who would be perfect for you!” my friend Katy told me. She was a senior at the other high school in town. “He’s weird, just like you!”
“Uh, thanks?” I said.
“No, I mean, he’s cool… He’s super cute. His name is Bob Smith.”
“You’re lying!” I said. “There’s nobody named BOB SMITH!” That sounded a little too much like Jan Brady’s fake boyfriend, George Glass. She assured me that there was, and that he would be the perfect boyfriend. Except I never met him – she never got around to setting us up before she graduated and went off to college. But it gave me hope that somewhere out there there was a boy who was weird and cute and cool, and he might like me, too.
One night, in the parking lot after a dance at my high school (where nobody really danced with their hands in each other’s butt pockets anymore), a boy I didn’t know walked up to me. He had soft brown hair with blonde streaks, cut into an 80s mod wedge, startling blue eyes, and a square jaw, and was wearing a trenchcoat and wing tip shoes. He flicked one of the little plastic Gumbys I had hanging from my ears. (I told you I was new wave.)
“I love your earrings,” he said. I blushed and my knees went weak. No boy that I wasn’t related to or didn’t know had ever complimented me before, and even then I could probably count those on one hand. It was love at first sight.
“Oh my God,” I said. “You’re Bob Smith!”
“You’re Karen Finlay,” he said, as he walked away. “I know. I’ll call you tomorrow.” I thought I was going to PASS OUT. I didn’t even question how he knew my name much less my phone number, but I was ecstatic.
And he did call. And instead of spending hours on the phone talking to my friends about their boyfriends, I spent hours on the phone with a real, live boy, and someone with whom I had everything in common. We talked about our favorite bands, what our rooms looked like, what posters we had on our walls, how much we hated our schools, how much we hated the jocks and cheerleaders, McDonald’s vs Carl’s Jr. French fries… It was destiny! I had a REAL boy’s name to write on my PeeChee folders, and scrawled Karen + Bob all over the paper bag cover of my geometry book. We drank peppermint tea and ate gelato at an outdoor café, went record shopping in Berkeley and ate Blondie’s Pizza while sitting on the curb, and tried on clothes at Big Fun and Stop the Clock and Aardvark’s. He gave me my first real kiss in the bathroom at the MacArthur BART station, on our way to a Three O’Clock concert, drunk on wine coolers. He told me how much he loved me and how fabulous I was. I was giddy, and head over heels in love with him.
But he wasn’t in love with me. “You are my best friend,” he would tell me, and then tell me about other girls he liked. My heart would fracture each time, especially when they were girls who were either my friends, or who called themselves names like “Nigel Glitz” and wrote poetry about Nina Hagen. (Clearly she was WAY more new wave than I was.) Yet I still harbored a terrible crush on him – I luuuuuved him. I sat on my bed and listened to The Thompson Twins extended remix “Hold Me Now” MAXI-SINGLE that I had bought at Tower with him, over and over again and cried. I cursed my stupid red hair and stupid choppy haircut and my big nose and pimples and the wrinkles in my forehead (eye roll) and my obnoxious geekiness. Why couldn’t I be pretty? Why couldn’t I be classy? Why couldn’t I be COOL? Why couldn’t I make up a name like NIGEL GLITZ? I knew I was kind of smart, not a genius, but at least I wasn’t dumb. Except I was pretty dumb because I still had my unrequited crush on Bob, long after I knew it was never going to happen. After all, I had known him for like three whole months at that point. Three months when you’re fifteen is the equivalent to a thousand years.
More time passed, and my crush faded bit by bit. By then the honeymoon period of our friendship was over, and we started to fight. We fought because we were each so tormented at our schools, and we took out the aggression and frustration on each other rather than on the actual bullies, because we knew each other could take it. It was always dramatic and stupid, but it made our friendship stronger. But even though we were still best friends, I would never be as dazzling to Bob as he was to me. He had changed and expanded his horizons, pushing more boundaries. His soft brown hair in the wedge was now bleached and spiked, and he dressed like someone in Interview Magazine. He liked girls who looked and danced like Madonna. I did not look or dance like Madonna. I wrote in my journal how much I HATED Madonna, and that I wished Bob didn’t like her so much, and that I wished that he would stop wearing rosary beads because they looked dumb.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise when Bob came out our junior year. I think deep down inside I always knew – I wasn’t THAT naïve. But I had been so in love with him – and he talked about other girls so much – I still had some doubt. “Do you really think Bob’s 100% gay?” I asked our other best friend, Traecy. She looked at me like I was insane. “You’re kidding, aren’t you?” she said. “He knows all the words to every Culture Club and Bronski Beat song, picks out shoes for you, and wears more makeup and rhinestones than anyone we know. He’s like a THOUSAND percent gay.” She was right – the signs were all there, but for a long time I refused to read them. I mean, come on, let’s face it – the first thing he ever said to me was that he loved my earrings, so I really should have known from the beginning, right? But he had been the boy of my dreams – smart, cute, artistic, funny, and cool, and he was the first boy who made me feel the same way. He showed me that it was a good thing to forge our own path and not fit into the standards others had prescribed for us. How could I not have helped but to fall in mad, passionate and unrequited teenage love, crying over The Thompson Twins and “Somebody” by Depeche Mode, and writing sappy and heartfelt journal entries and terrible poetry?
And he was brave. Back then, things weren’t quite as open as they are now – it was a different time. To come out was a big deal in our conservative suburban middle class town, and Bob was one of the first ones of our friends to do so. If the kids were mean to him simply for being different, they were merciless for being gay. He was thrown into garbage cans, and was nominated Homecoming Queen. It was NOT a compliment. They made AIDS jokes. It was ugly. My heart ached for him.
My heart ached for me, too. I couldn’t help but wonder what was wrong with me that I would fall in love with a boy who was gay. (And then I went ahead and did it TWO MORE TIMES, but that’s a whole ‘nother story for a whole ‘nother time.) How weird was I? But at the same time, it absolved me in a way. It wasn’t because I wasn’t cute or classy or cool or that my hair was stupid and I was loud and obnoxious – I was a girl. He didn’t like me because I was a girl. If anything, he loved me because I was more like a gay boy than anything. We were both FABULOUS. Instead of breaking my fragile self-esteem, he actually helped it by encouraging me to be myself.
And despite all the heartache, this story does have a happy ending. I still love Bob to this day. Not in love with him – I won’t be playing “Hold Me Now” and crying about him – but I love him like family, which is what happens when you’re friends with someone for over thirty years. And I’m grateful to him – I don’t know what would have happened to me if I hadn’t met him when I did, and if he hadn’t encouraged me to be kooky and have fun. I still am drawn to the odd and offbeat, and my life is so much richer for that. And there was someone out there who was weird and cute and cool. And straight. And he liked me, too. So I married him… And the first dance at our wedding was The Thompson Twins, but it was “If You Were Here” and NOT “Hold Me Now.”
And the most important lesson of all that falling in love and potential concussions are both dangerous, yes. But they are risks that I am so glad I took. And I’m super glad I got over that Donny Osmond thing.
But Timothy Hutton… I STILL have a crush on him.
Oh man, I wish I got to go to Shit Creek because I can totally imagine you reading it. It is wonderful. Just perfect. Thank you so much for sharing it and I’m sure Bob is smiling.
Beautiful. I loved Bob Smith too and I lived lots of that story with you. I am so glad you have such a great memory and that you’re a WRITER so we can re-live those times with you. I’m going to think that there was a David Bowie concert in Heaven that Bob didn’t want to miss. xoxox
Oh Karen, this is beautiful. Please keep writing so we can keep reading. Your memory astounds me and you have an amazing talent for putting words together to elicit real emotion for the reader. I’m a fan. XoxoxoX
I can almost smell the cloves and aqua net. Now I get why you were so crazy about ‘hold me now’ and ‘somebody’… great story. It’s just like being there (all over again).