I saw her as soon as I got in the door. It had been a few years, but she looked pretty much the same as I remembered her, maybe a little thinner. I looked for signs of what my mother had told me, but saw nothing. She was the same old Elizabeth. Her mother smiled at us, and introduced us to their other dinner guests.
Her name isn’t really Elizabeth, but I have to change it. Even so, people might figure out who I’m talking about. That’s what happens when you grow up in a small town. But this is worth telling, I think, and it doesn’t reflect too badly on her. So she’s Elizabeth. I’ve known some girls whose real names were Elizabeth, but this isn’t about any of them. This is about a girl whose name isn’t really Elizabeth.
I remembered how worldly she and her older sister seemed when I met them. They talked about all kinds of things that I didn’t really know about, like the Oranges. Who knew there were towns called the Oranges? Their mother and my mother were friends, and we saw them every so often.
I remembered the summer after fifth grade, when my mom kept repeating, “Elizabeth had her outfit for the first day of class already picked out … on the last day of class!” At the time I didn’t expect to see that outfit on that day. I was still expecting to go back to my old school and see the same old kids that I had failed to get along with for the past five and a half years. But my mom suggested a change. Maybe I should walk the other way to the other bus stop, and go to the other school with the hippie kids. Maybe I’d get along better with them than with the country kids. She talked to the principal, and it was arranged. And there I was, on the first day of school, looking at Elizabeth in her carefully selected outfit.
Elizabeth was quite something for an eleven year old. So were a few other girls in the class. Everyone remarked on how wild they were, how daring, how … grown up. My mom didn’t like it. She thought their clothes were too sexual, too provocative. She said they wore things that would have been too sexual on a seventeen-year-old. And she was one to know: by her accounts she dressed provocatively when she was seventeen.
I have no memory of Elizabeth’s outfit that day. By my memory she was one of four girls in the class who attracted my attention that year. Sometimes they wore miniskirts, sometimes hot pants. Sometimes hot pants with stripes, or tights with stripes under miniskirts. They were dramatic; they sang songs from the musical Grease 2 and called themselves the Pink Ladies; Helga was particularly fond of the song “Reproduction,” and later she was a “Madonna wannabe.”
Years later I had a class with Penny Eckert and she talked about adolescent social development, and mentioned the kids who were still playing on the monkey bars when the other kids were starting to take on gender roles and play courtship games. I was one of those kids on the monkey bars. The monkey bars in that schoolyard were pretty good.
I was never particularly attracted to Elizabeth that year. She wasn’t unattractive, but I just wasn’t sexual yet. I don’t remember feeling real, physical sexual attraction for anyone until at least a year later. Instead I feared her. I was intimidated by her. But I did admire her, and wish that I could be more like her and Helga and their friends. They were brash and confident and sassy. They got lots of attention, and people wanted to hang out with them. I was brash and confident too, but I was geeky instead of sassy, and people complained about me and avoided me. It was hard to find friends to play with on the monkey bars.
These were some of the memories that went through my head ten years later, as I sat in Elizabeth’s house eating dinner with her family and guests, and talking about how I’d soon be leaving for a year of college in Paris. By then I was definitely sexual, and I thought Elizabeth was pretty attractive. So was one of her guests, a Tunisian woman a few years older than us. And then, Elizabeth invited me upstairs to her room to look at some photos.
I wasn’t expecting that. Elizabeth had never before shown any interest in doing anything alone with me. We’d always been acquaintances, polite to each other, but never really … interested in each other. Or at least, she’d never shown any interest in me before.
I knew she could show interest in guys. Some time in eleventh grade I was talking with my friend Brent, and he said, “Do you know Elizabeth? Well she’s grown up since you were in sixth grade with her, and she’s gorgeous! I was sitting on a bed with her one time, and she rolled right on top of me! And I was just eleven at the time!”
So there we were, me and Elizabeth, sitting on the floor of her bedroom, looking at photos. I have no idea what was in the photos, I just remember Elizabeth sitting next to me. I didn’t want to think about anything else, but my mind went back to sixth grade, when Elizabeth and I were in a classroom with a group of other kids, practicing for a class play.
I don’t know what it was that I said. I was trying to be brash and clever, but I could tell that Elizabeth was getting annoyed. I kept on saying it, because I didn’t think she had any right to be annoyed, because clearly (to my ten-year-old brain) what I was saying was the height of wit and sophistication. And then, with a cry of exasperation she leaned back, gracefully lifted one of her lean legs and rubbed her foot in my face.
I can still see in my mind the sole of her ballet slipper coming right towards me. Of course there was no physical pain and the dirt was minimal, but the humiliation was total. I remember crying and going to the principal’s office. I have no idea if Elizabeth was punished and if so, what the punishment was. If she ever apologized, I don’t think it was sincere. I’m sure the incident was talked about all over the sixth grade, but I don’t remember any conversations about it with other kids. I can’t really say it ruined my status, because I had already pretty much done that on my own.
So there I was, sitting next to Elizabeth and wondering what to do if she made a move on me like she did with Brent. Here’s an attractive woman who ten years ago smushed her ballet slipper into my face. Should I kiss her as though that had never happened? Should I use the opportunity for revenge and smush my own foot in her face? Or was I deluding myself that she was even attracted to me?
I never had to make that decision. My sister poked her head in the room and then sat down with us. I don’t think she had any clue that I was half-hoping to kiss Elizabeth; I think she was bored and wanted to see if we were doing anything more interesting than the folks downstairs. After a while, when she showed no signs of leaving, we all went downstairs. We talked with the guests for a while, and while we were talking, I noticed that Elizabeth kind of leaned against me, and then somehow I had my arm around her waist. I don’t know how it happened, but there we were, arm in arm. And the way she leaned against me made me think that she had probably wanted to kiss me upstairs.
That made me wonder what she would have thought if she knew that within six months after the shoe-rubbing incident, I snuck into my sister’s bedroom and put on one of her dresses. I looked at myself in the mirror and I no longer saw the annoying geeky guy that nobody wanted to hang out with. I saw a brash, sassy, attractive girl who, I thought, would have fit right in with Elizabeth and her friends. And I kept going back, week after week, year after year. I thought I was finished with that when I went to college, but shortly before I had dinner with Elizabeth and her parents, I had spent two weeks housesitting for a woman in town and wearing her clothes every night.
If Elizabeth knew that, would she still have wanted have my arm around her? Would she still have wanted to show me her photos? If she knew that I dressed up, would she have liked my style and wanted to go shopping with me? Could I have been a girl like her, and had the attention of a girl like her, at the same time? As I was thinking that, Al Sharpton showed up.
He wasn’t Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader. His name wasn’t really Al Sharpton, but it might as well have been. He was white, and he had been in our sixth grade class. He and I were friendly for a while, until an unpleasant birthday party that snowballed into a really nasty pre-adolescent feud which left me with exactly two friends for a time. We had patched things up years ago, and were cordial to each other. My sister says he still asks about me sometimes.
I don’t think that Al had been invited to this dinner party, but there he was. He seemed perturbed that Elizabeth and I were arm in arm, and for a while we wound up both with our arms around Elizabeth. And then it was time to go home. We said our goodbyes, and I don’t think I’ve seen Elizabeth since.
On the way home I remembered way back to fourth grade, when our class had sat down and watched a film about a terrible degenerative disease. There were animated diagrams of nerve linings being eaten away, but I think the film was pretty sketchy on the actual symptoms of the disease. Then we were asked to participate in a fund drive where we read books, and signed up sponsors to donate money for each book we read. I think my sponsors must have known what they were in for, but I did a lot of reading, and I was still surprised that it all counted towards the total.
I remembered when my mom told me that Elizabeth had the disease, and still not knowing what that meant. She seemed normal at the party, maybe a little thin, that was all. I knew I had a few weeks until I left for Paris, and I thought about calling Elizabeth to see if maybe I could get some time alone with her after all. But then I thought about Al Sharpton and the ballet slipper, and I decided against it.
Sometimes my mother mentions Elizabeth’s family, and I ask about her. Usually it’s hard to get much more out of my mom than a sad, “Oh, she’s not doing very well,” or “Ugh! It’s a horrible disease.” The main thing I know that she’s in a wheelchair. I hope the rest of her life is as good as it can be.