So yesterday I’m sitting at my computer getting some work done when an e-mail nonchalantly makes it way to my inbox. It’s a Facebook notification of a new Friend request. The request is from someone I haven’t heard from in roughly 30 years.
A little back-story first. In February 1975, at the age of 11, my family moved out of Camden, New Jersey which, at the time, still wasn’t the mess it was soon to become. We managed to get out of there while the getting was good and moved to a new town—Williamstown, New Jersey—that couldn’t possibly have been more a polar opposite from whence we came. I’d been used to car noises, sounds of passing fire trucks, flashing neon lights in my bedroom window, busy streets, concrete and suddenly there was the deafening silence of suburbia. The loud chatter of crickets and frogs, trees, trees and more trees and, of course, a new school.
In the middle of fifth grade I went from H.C. Sharp Elementary School to Saint Mary’s Catholic School and, believe it or not, found myself, initially, two full years ahead of the others in reading and math. Imagine trying to say that about Camden schooling today. My parents initially thought the move to a “private” school would be good for me. After just a half-year there things were so bad that the experiment came to an immediate end at the close of that first school year. Asked to turn in a paper about what we’d learned that year, I had written a long diatribe about how I learned a lot. I’d learned how to stand at attention for hours on end as a punishment for infractions we were not responsible for. I learned that values and honesty meant nothing there. I’d learned that incompetence was rewarded and that creativity and drive were the enemy and shunned at every opportunity. My mother took that paper to the school and chastised them for doing this to a child and informed my father that the following year I’d be back in public school.
That fall I moved on to Oak Knoll Middle School (grades 5-8). The experience at Oak Knoll felt more like an assembly line than a school day to me and the challenge vanished along with my interests. Soon thereafter my mother left home running away from a badly-failed marriage and that added to the wall that was growing between me and my entire world. The move away from the deteriorating city was quickly becoming, for me at least, a disaster of major proportions.
It was then, in the beginning of sixth grade, that I found a friend in someone that seemed to fly above it all. She was, on first glance to everyone that met her, the smartest kid in the room with ample gas in reserve. The earliest conversations with her were riveting. I’d spent more than six months flailing about looking for any sort of real connection to any intellectual endeavor and suddenly it was right in front of me. There was only one problem: Donna was, of course, a girl and at that age girls, for me, were still a thing of mystery to be approached with the care a one-handed junkie would give to handling nitroglycerin.
In no time we were hanging out everywhere and meeting after school. I became acutely aware that Donna saw me in some other light that I slowly (densely) realized was affection. The feeling of being desired that way was enthralling but, again, it came with the dilemma of it coming from an alien sex for which I lacked any sort of foundation from which to work from. Nothing in this life throws me into an alternate universe like the feeling of not knowing what the hell I’m doing and here I was every bit the model of awkwardness but I still kept on.
My home life continued to dissolve and distractions became essential and also a bit complex. For example, I found that I could no longer read anything of any significance because I simply couldn’t stay focused on it long enough for it to make any sense. Salvation came in the form of Peanuts. Yes, those Peanuts—Snoopy, Lucy, Charlie Brown. I began taking out every single volume available at the school library (later my mother told me that she could judge my disinterest in the current status quo by how much time I would opt to be at the library—and she was absolutely right). Peanuts books required no deep thought. The stories were all mildly humorous and quickly resolved. They provided a meal that was easily digested and entirely devoid of any connection with reality. No color, no depth and, more to the point, no parents.
Unfortunately my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Masso, had become aware of my infatuation with all things Schulz and decided it was a good idea to ridicule me in front of the entire class ultimately choosing to brand me with the nickname Charlie Brown. When he’d call on me he’d say, “What do you say Charlie Brown?” Mr. Masso will never know the extent of the damage he caused. He didn’t know that I had previously come to view him as the best thing going on at that school and now he’d suddenly turned into a tyrant. One day in class he was being particularly cutting when, out of nowhere, Donna started to take him to task for this behavior in front of everyone. She thought it was unprofessional of a teacher to behave that way and said something about how it clearly wasn’t helping to reach me as a student. The tormenting stopped that very afternoon and Mr. Masso quickly did a full 180 and attempted to reach out. Unfortunately there just weren’t enough squares left on the calendar before sixth grade came to an end.
That summer Donna and I saw each other here and there but back then we lived a few miles apart which meant we were separated by a virtual ocean of distance that kept me firmly attached to my neighborhood friends for much of the break. When seventh grade arrived so did the very beginnings of puberty and, with that, an even more pronounced awkwardness towards anyone lacking a Y chromosome. It also seemed that the passing time had only heightened Donna’s physical interests and that meant I spent a lot of time that year playing a very disjointed game of slight-of-hand. Donna’s desire at trying anything resembling affection would be met with an equal and opposite reaction of my pushing away. What Donna never knew was that I really was just struggling to understand what it was that was happening. I just wasn’t ready and really had no idea at that point what on earth I was supposed to be doing. I was entirely paralyzed by my fear of doing the wrong thing which, of course, made me do everything entirely wrong.
Then one day something magical happened. I don’t recall whose idea it was or what the entire circumstances were that allowed it to happen but one of us decided it would be a good idea to skip school. I’d never done that before and I suspect neither had Donna. We spent the afternoon playfully socializing at her house watching TV, laying around, acting silly and then, in an instant it happened—Donna reached over and kissed me—my first real kiss. It was, I must say, incredible. She had wonderfully full lips that were softer than the softest pillows I could imagine and it came with a look in her eyes that I could have gotten lost for a lifetime in. And then, just as quickly as it happened it was over. I suddenly became aware of my situation which meant that the awkwardness came back in a flurry and I quickly forced a change in our activities. Donna tried, for the rest of the afternoon, to get us back to that moment but I simply wouldn’t have it. Awkwardness demanded that I gather more information first—that I find some tome of knowledge to research and practice before returning to this kind of interaction.
As I said, nothing causes me to push away harder and faster than being in a situation for which I have no understanding or experience. I can quickly become insecure as others often look to me to take the lead but I can only lead effectively when I have some basic feeling for the terrain. In this area I couldn’t even guess. Over the coming months I responded to the moment by distancing myself from Donna. Nearly every attempt she made to get together was met with an excuse for why that couldn’t happen. I figured that some day I’d be ready and, heck, Donna would be there when that day came so it seemed a great idea to simply play for time. But like a plane caught in a long stall suddenly everything can go wrong and a crash quickly becomes imminent.
I don’t recall if it was later that spring or the following year (my instincts tell me it was later that year—still in seventh grade) when a new student arrived named Steve who had blonde hair and a cocky, self-confident demeanor. Donna was drawn to him almost immediately, and I, was crushed. Steve tried to befriend me and I spurned him like a dog shakes off unwanted water. His only crime was to have become the object of interest of my reliable partner in youth and I gave him a life sentence.
The final straw was a school trip we all took to Washington D.C. Everything was fine on the bus ride down but then in one of the museums Donna and Steve were taking every opportunity to make-out behind what seemed like every corner and dark shadowy area. They were the talk of the class. I ended up on the ride home next to a fellow classmate, Dave Stiles, who informed me that one of our other classmates on the bus had a crush on me and was interested in making-out. I jumped at the chance only to rub Donna’s nose in it and spent the entire ride home acting like a totally inept Lothario. I’m not even sure Donna noticed. I also recall making her life a bit miserable for a while after that with some brusque interactions here and there followed only by a complete disconnect.
Not long after our parting high school beckoned and, I don’t know why, but Donna wasn’t there. She apparently was off to another school though I recall her later re-materializing later along the way for a brief period. I don’t know if her parents moved around a lot or what the cause was but suffice to say that was all I saw of Donna ever again.
Over the years I’ve often wondered if Donna thought of me—if she even remembered the white horse she rode in on to defend me that day, or the lost afternoon of awkward affection, or the boy she moved onto that I soon looked at as the enemy. Through it all the memory of Donna was always one of warmth. Whatever the manner in which it came undone, mostly likely due entirely to my youth-oriented infirmities and life challenges, the residual imprint was one of youthful wonder—my own special Wonder Years.
So it was that yesterday Donna came out of the clouds and haze to Friend me on Facebook and with that simple action brought forth a plethora of great memories and regrets of what might have been. Her life, at least from this vast distance, has gone very much as I would have guessed. She’s spent a career in the military as a JAG (Judge Advocate General—or lawyer to you and me) and she’s a full-bird Colonel which can only happen with a finely honed laser-like focus on The Goal of succeeding that was always at the core of her being. What struck me most was that she seems to have not aged a day. Maybe she has and maybe it’s just the rose-colored glasses that I’ll always see her through, but I think not.
So few of the Friend requests we get come with any real sense of positive emotion, but for me, I can honestly say that this one made an impact and it was truly an honor to have known Donna at all even if nothing ever became of those initial awkward steps into intimacy. To be able to recall those moments at all was incredible and I just had to jot some of them down before they once again fell back into the recesses of my mind, perhaps for the final time. Thank you Donna.