Tuesday, November 28, 2006

FROM THE TOP ROW OF THE BLEACHERS

“T.F.” was the name he went by.

I remember him from gym class, Freshman year. He was a senior, not actually in my class which was all ninth graders but in the class that met in the same gym at the same time. The image I retain is of him and some friend next to him sitting in the top row of the bleachers, and T.F. grinning away. At me, or at everyone? I took it to be at me. It was a mischievous grin, and I think teasing came with it, the teasing was definitely specific to me, and it was of the affectionate and sexually flirtatious kind, not to be confused with the pernicious, mean-spirited, and/or psychosexual kind.

I know almost nothing about T.F. Bishop or his family. As I lived in a small town, this is significant, yet if I scratch my head, I can learn things by deduction. That I know little about T.F. Bishop means that he didn’t go to my church (Catholic, the only one in town), he didn’t live in my neighborhood (a large subdivision on what was once the outskirts of town), and he didn’t have younger siblings. It means he probably wasn’t in my class--he was either wealthy and possibly lived out in the country in some big old estate, or perhaps he was less well off than my family, and lived out in the country in some big old farmhouse.

That I know little about him likely means that his family was old Virginia or old Loudoun County--because we seemed to know most of the transplants, the newcomers to town. When we moved there in 1978, we moved into the newest neighborhood in town, whose quarter-acre lots and aluminum-siding homes were only a few years into existence, replacing a sprawling old farm. Most of the inhabitants, our neighbors, were just in from Ohio, New Jersey, or New England. Any number of new neighborhoods cropped up in town between our arrival and my entrance into high school, but still it always seemed easier for out of towners to co-mingle.

(Nor is this formula cut and dry. I remember homes before this one, in Oregon and Massachusetts; so, I was an out of towner. My younger brothers don’t remember anything before Virginia; they befriended Virginians; consequently they have a Virginia drawl that I lack. I identified with my parents’ relatives from Massachusetts and New Jersey, and in college was always mistaken for a New Yorker.)

T.F. was a brave one if it’s true he was publicly giving me the eye. In ninth grade, I was not out of the awkward years: I had braces, bones that stuck out everywhere, a nose too big for my face, a height I wasn’t yet proud of, a bad short haircut I didn’t know what to do with. (I had managed to ditch my glasses and was pretending to wear contact lenses but in reality was letting my right eye slide into near-uselessness so that I’m now a bespectacled cyclops.) More to the point, I had a stigma on me, I had the picked-on nerd curse, and in that gym class in particular I was always the last left standing when kids chose teams.

These memories seem to exist in parallel, in fact. Ninth grade was like the waning of my victim-nerd career. Everyone who was going to traumatize me probably already had; now we were just going through the motions, numbly playing our roles. I was there in gym class, in high school, steeling myself to the social environs over which I had no choice, and alternatively hoping for the best.

Meanwhile, T.F. Bishop, smiling sexual approval down on me from his bleacher heights was the first dude in school to do so. And so his smile exists in parallel--it had nothing to do with “me.” There was nothing to do with it. Somehow, I couldn’t take that affection into me and let it touch me--”I” was an Untouchable. I had to store T.F.’s smile somewhere in my brain for understanding later. T.F. was left smiling at the sexual girl I wasn’t yet ready to be, at a face I couldn’t bear to look at (I would brush my teeth in the dark for a few more years), at a person in a body I hadn’t yet begun to inhabit.

T.F., who had never known me before that year, was looking at 14 year old me--while a big chunk of me was stuck in time, busy protecting my 11-12-13 year old selves from my vicious classmates who were also stuck in time. We were all so stuck in time that I never dated anyone who knew me “before”--my boyfriends in high school were the newest of newcomers, who would meet me at 16, 17.

Time is funny. T.F.’s smiling face now gets crosswired in my brain with Thomas’ high school face as I’ve seen it in pictures--the same handsome jaw, the same curious blue eyes, the same high-bridged nose, but especially the same boyish grin. Thomas who I wouldn’t meet for six more years, then a fourteen year gap, then an unforeseen reunion. Thomas who is sitting next to me on the train as I write this, on a together-train trip which I have been dreaming of for sixteen years.

Time is funny. I was driving back home from Beverly’s house, two summers after high school. Beverly lived on North 15 and I lived off South 15, with our town in between us; at night this was an 8-minute drive. But this particular night, a tractor trailer plowed into me, just in front of Safeway, making a wide right turn; and my life flashed before my eyes. “My life flashed before my eyes”--I always thought this was a turn of phrase, but that’s what happened. For a moment, I was still driving my mother’s car forward towards my own death, except that I happened to brake just in time for the truck to crunch my hood and fender and not my door and me behind it; and something in arresting that momentum (in coming that close to the draw of death) made scenes that I knew to be “my life” blur past my mind’s eye. Regret was in there, too, somewhere in that short moment I felt deep regret for the life I hadn’t yet lived, and the greediest part of me screamed out “I WANT TO KEEP GOING!” Was that the very moment that I applied the brakes?

This occurred at midnight, which soon turned into my next thought. I had dutifully limped my car into the Safeway parking lot after the offending tractor trailer, but suddenly remembered I was a young woman alone and didn’t trust this driver a whit. I was scared to leave my car. I probably said a Hail Mary.

Five minutes hadn’t passed when a police car pulled up. The officer got out, walked over to my window, and calmly and professionally explained that someone across the street had phoned in an accident.

The policeman didn’t recognize me, but I was never happier to see him. It was T.F. Bishop.

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