By Jim Bolone
Maybe it was fate that the transfer to public school from parochial school marked a first and a last in my family. I was the youngest of seven to attend the local Catholic school, which had sort of become a tradition. And by no doing of my own, after fourth grade — together with the nuns, the morning prayers, the Ave Maria — it all ended. I wasn’t so sure about it, but I knew change was inevitable because I overheard Dad complaining to Mom about how things were changing in the church and after all he did to raise money for it, after all the days he’d volunteered, joined clubs, donated money, carried the bricks that made it (literally), etc. that they had the heartlessness to double tuition and deny the last of his seven kids the same eight years all the other six had gotten. He said whenever the church wanted a handout they were nice, but when it came time to give back they weren’t so nice. “It was time,” he said. “Time you go to public school in the fall. Besides,” he added, “your new school has an all wood gym floor…and there’s band.” It was an easy sell because I had wanted to learn to play the drums. In the end we all won.
At public school I got more than wood gym floors and drums. I got new friends in new neighborhoods. Before transferring to public school I could walk the four blocks to class. All my classmates lived in the neighborhood. We could spit as far as we lived from each other.
Changing schools meant I’d be riding my bike almost two miles away in what seemed like another country with streets I’d never heard of or seen.
One of the first friends I met my first year at public school was John Taylor. This was a kid who by all accounts was more than a kid. John was a hunter! He had his own shot gun and every fall hunted duck and partridge with his father. John was the youngest of four and the only boy. His personality was magnetic and his looks just right for the girls to notice. He played every sport and was not small by any means, and yet he wasn’t a giant either. His strength was probably twice mine and he was someone you wanted on your side in a fight. In library class John and some of the other boys and I paged through issues of Boys Life and Outdoor Life. It was exciting to argue who’d get the next best shot gun or fishing rod, even though I had none. Sometimes we’d look through National Geographic to find photographs of topless tribal women. Or we’d open the fat unabridged dictionary to find the really bad cuss words and marvel at them and their definitions and at the presence of such a book in our own library. The best thing I liked doing with John was playing catch, which we did at school during recess or after school at either his house or mine. Playing catch with John might as well have been the same as playing catch with Mickey Mantle for all I cared.
It was in the eighth grade, my final year at school and my last with John when I first laid eyes on Teresa Monticelli. She was sitting high on the bleachers in a cluster of popular girls at our first junior high pep rally in the school auditorium. That moment is a water-marked memory in my life pages. It wasn’t lust because I knew what that was and felt it strong when I saw those topless tribal women in National Geographic. No. It was something else. I mean, it was her face. Too young for beautiful, Theresa’s was fresh and bright. She was heaven personified. Instantly I fell for her fully knowing she didn’t have any idea who I was. John was with me that day. I found out later through friends that Theresa had noticed him.
Funny how obsession closes in on teens and wrangles them to the ground, how it causes unwanted night terrors, how it makes every song played on the radio suddenly about the girl or boy, while every other girl or boy they see gets compared with someone and never matches up. That’s how it was with me and the idea of Theresa. You could say I was in love. She was different and so was everything about her, even her smell, which was a unique blend of perfume and a peculiar hint of cigarette smoke. I did my best to get to know her, and that included what I was good at to get her attention: being funny. And it worked. Until one day in study hall she said to me “You’re hilarious!” but in the kind of way that made the whole thing feel more like a service, like I was her jester.
One of the great ironies in the course of my life was how John made it clear he wanted nothing to do with Theresa. He was dead set against ever dating her. I couldn’t understand it, but at the same time was overjoyed. Problem was as much as John avoided Theresa, she became more obsessed with him. I mean notes in his locker, candy in his coat pocket, greeting cards secretly placed in his binder, all to my self-embarrassing envy.
After eighth grade most kids took different paths to a mix of high schools. Some, like John and Theresa, went to Parochial ones. (I didn’t even entertain the notion of asking my dad if I could go.) Sadly, after this John and I didn’t hang out as much; I really missed playing catch with him and talking about camping or hunting or reading Outdoor life and National Geographic magazines. I really missed just John.
Late in the fall of my ninth grade year I mustered the guts to call Theresa Monticelli, though now what once was complete obsession had subsided to an idled attraction. I’d heard through friends and acquaintances she didn’t have a boyfriend so I figured I’d see what she was up to at her new school and other stuff. She was very happy to hear my voice and told me it would be awesome if I stopped by any night of the week “But only after dinner,” she emphasized.
That’s when those old junior high feelings for her returned from out of a bottle filled with yesterday.
After dinner the next day I threw on my hoody and started out on my bike for Theresa’s house. The late afternoon sky was wide open, clear, and just cold enough to be uncomfortable in the hoody, but I wasn’t about to waste time going back for something warmer. I pedaled on, my hands and face reddening from the cold. By the time I rolled up her driveway they burned with chill. My lips felt novacained.
Her house was small, but nice. I knocked at the door and an older man — her father I guessed — answered. He wore frayed and faded flannel paisley pajama pants, a stained and worn tee shirt, his feet bare, dark, and hairy.
“Is Theresa home?” I said. The words labored through hypothermic lips.
He smiled at me then turned. “Theresa!” he shouted into the house. He opened the door wide and invited me in. I watched him silently and slowly drag his hairy feet to a recliner chair, next to it jazz music played from a hifi unit; he lit a cigarette, crossed his leg and moved his hairy foot up and down with the music with a large grin on his face and his eyes closed. “She’ll be down, don’t worry. She will be,” he smiled, eyes still closed, retreating to his music.
“Hello? who’s there?” a woman’s voice called from downstairs in the kitchen. “Who is it Sam?” She showed herself. She wore black high heels and a beige skirt with a floral top. Her hair the results of a perfect permanent. She looked proper, but didn’t look in place standing in their small tri-level kitchen. She disappeared for a while then showed herself again. “Oh. Who are you?” she said.
“I’m Theresa’s friend from school. David, David Fleming,” I said.
“I’ve never seen you at St. Al’s,” she said. ‘St. Al’s’ was short for St. Aloysius School.
“Uh no. We met at Clark Junior High,” I said.
“Really? I don’t remember you. That, that was a couple years ago.” She put her finger on her lips to think. “Where are you now?”
“Poor boy.” She shot me this grandiose patronizing look. “Your parents won’t send you to private school?”
I was unprepared for that question and equally unprepared to answer truthfully. Soon as I made the attempt she interrupted.
“So you’ve met Theresa’s dad. I apologize for him in advance. He’s not dealing with a full deck and as you can hear; lives in his jazz world. I’m sorry.”
Theresa came down the stairs. She saw her mother, but said nothing to her. Then she saw me and greeted me.
“You smell like the cold,” she said. “I love that smell.”
I never thought about that smell until she said that.
“You two can come down here in the kitchen. I was on my way up anyhow,” Mrs. Monticelli said as she made her way up to the living room, wiping her top with a wash cloth. “Dad needs company,” she said with a note of sarcasm. Theresa ignored her.
We sat at the kitchen table. And for just the right amount of time we made eye contact.
“Let’s play something,” Theresa said.
“Sure, what?” I was hoping we’d talk or something but I wasn’t going to push the issue.
“Circles,” she said.
She explained it all and it was simple. We took turns circling words in the newspaper that matched our feelings. “Go ahead, you start,” she said.
I started first and from the lead story on the front page chose Excited.
Theresa circled New.
I circled Interesting.
She turned the page and scanned until circling Lapse.
Then I circled Unknown.
“Theresa your friend needs to leave by eight thirty, that’s in half an hour,” her mother said. Oblivious, Theresa only hummed as she hunted down her next word and while we played the game, her parents conversation grew louder. It was very awkward and difficult not to listen.
“Please turn down the sound; I’m not listening to it tonight,” her mother shouted. “I want to hear my shows!”
“Awe c’mon. Just a little longer?” Sam pleaded. He cleared his throat then mumbled something. I heard the hinge of a steel lighter squeak open and then snap close.
“Dammit Sam!” she said, “Why’s it always about you and your blasted jazz music. I don’t like it. And while I’m at it I won’t be home till late tomorrow so unless Theresa makes you dinner, you’re on you own.”
“Awe hell,” he said. Then the telephone rang. “You gonna get that?” he said.
“Why don’t you,” she said.
The phone rang until the caller gave up. Theresa pursed her lips then circled Psychological. The parent war continued.
“Don’t you ever get tired?” her mother said. “Don’t you ever want more than just sitting on disability checks?”
There was an audible sigh. Theresa turned the page. I searched. This entire situation was starting to get weird, like somewhere in between imagination and reality. When I saw the word Disrupt I circled it. I thought for a moment the bantering stopped. I was wrong.
“I mean don’t you want more? I’m worried about you. You’re like this giant codependent baby we have to watch and feed every day,” her mother said.
“I’m not co-dependent.”
The hell you’re not.”
“I’m. Not. Fucking. Co-dependent!” he screamed. “I’ll tell you what I am and that’s sick and tired of hearing the same old shit come out of that exhaust pipe you call your mouth every goddam day!”
“Yeah well welcome to the club asshole. Should never have married you. Should have listened to my mother.”
“You don’t know shit,” he said.
“Right back at ya,” she said.
“To hell with you.”
I nervously swallowed and was glad the music was up to cover sound. I circled Time. Theresa smiled. I noticed her mother walk up the stairs.
Theresa circled Difficulty.
I nervously circled Genuine.
“Don’t think you’re going anywhere this weekend young lady,” her mother shouted.
Apathetic. Tired. Theresa broke the rule of one word at a time and circled both.
Amid the quarrel, we continued to focus on the game, and didn’t talk much; the game was beginning to lose steam.
I noticed two empty wine bottles standing on a corner table, its surface marked with beverage ring stains, one still fresh. I was thinking how Theresa hadn’t changed much since junior high. I wondered where she got the strength in a situation where I’d be crazy sick with embarrassment.
Eight thirty arrived. Mrs. Monticello came down to the kitchen. “I feel sorry for you kids,” she said. Theresa didn’t raise an eye. “Do yourselves a favor and never marry,” she said. She walked to the corner and grabbed the two empty bottles and threw them into the garbage. “And if you do,” she continued, “marry well and you won’t end up being the bread winner like me scrounging every goddam penny every goddam day for a daughter who never says a thing!” The volume of the music rose.
“Probably a good time to go,” Theresa said.
“I know,” I said.
Our goodbye was civil and courteous. I was grateful for seeing her. She was pleasant about the whole thing. She never once mentioned her parents. We went to the back door. Then it all changed, as if I’d been struck by lightning and brainwashed. She immediately appeared to me as less, less than what I thought she was. “Come over again,” she said. “Oh. Something else,” she continued. She seemed reluctant, nervous. “Do you still hang around with John?”
“Not much anymore,” I said.
“That’s too bad,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “It is.” I opened the door and a cold rush of air streamed in and closed it behind me, pulling on the knob to make sure the lock engaged. That was it. I was out of the house of the girl I had loved since I could remember and felt disconnected. It wasn’t what might have been puppy love anymore as much as a very deep sense of pity, even if she was in Catholic school.
My ride home was cold and dark. There were lots of stars out, and I made them into all the kids I knew in grade school now and maybe for the rest of my life. I promised myself the next day I’d call John Taylor to see if he’d play some catch with me, even if it was going to be cold outside. And neither of us would think about Theresa.
Years later I heard through the grapevine that John Taylor was living in Georgia with his husband, that Theresa Monticelli’s parents were eventually divorced, and sadly Theresa herself had a short-lived marriage with some rich oppressive guy, and not too long after her divorce she was struck by a car and killed while carrying the Thanksgiving groceries she bought to make dinner for her father.
About the Author:
Jim Bolone has been a bartender, dockporter, bouncer, and for the past twenty-three years, a teacher. He grew up in Detroit, d from Wayne State University with a B.A. in English. Jim and his wife share their home in Toledo, Ohio with three great kids, a dog, a cat, and lots of books.attended the public schools, and ultimately graduate