In 11th grade, my friends Jim and Heather started dating. This would prove to be hilarious for everyone in retrospect, as it was clear that Jim was gay. In the late 80s/early 90s in Garland, Texas, though, there were no gay people. I knew they existed, like the Loch Ness Monster, but I didn’t have any personal experience with them. And there certainly weren’t any at my school. However, as it turns out, Jim was not the only one who would turn out to be gay: everyone I knew was gay (including Heather!).
Anyway, Jim and Heather were in a form of 16-year old love, and because it was 1989 and they didn’t know they were gay yet, they dated, and then they broke up. This was painful for everyone, of course, the breaking of young hearts and whatnot (whatnot = hymens), but worse because we were all on newspaper staff together, which was a class that met during 4th period each day. Perhaps I could blame this frosty environment on my story submissions that year:
Survey: Are Your Parents Too Strict?
Twins: They Are Fascinating
Music: Insight into a Teen’s Soul?
Yes: These Were Actual Stories I Wrote.
One day after they’d broken up, Jim attempted to reconcile with Heather by bringing her a cellophane-wrapped Single Red Rose. The part that I found especially hilarious was that Jim didn’t have a car, and so I enjoyed imagining this gay guy asking his mom to stop at the 7-11 so he could pop in and buy his ex-girlfriend a flower. It was a nice gesture, but it was obviously awful. Heather was not into public displays, such as handholding or talking to each other in front of other people, but she was especially not into roses, and even if she were, she would not be into this one from a gas station.
He opened his backpack during newspaper class and showed me the rose. “Oh, god. No. You cannot give her this.”
It was determined that throwing it away in the newspaper trash would draw attention, so we decided to hide it.
Directly across the hall from the journalism lab was the back door of the auditorium, where the backstage area was. We went in, and in the dark, we saw that next to the ropes that open the curtains there was an antiquated and abandoned lightboard built into the wall, probably installed when the building was constructed twenty years earlier. Under the long-broken dials and slide controls, there was a drawer, presumably to hold the latest in inexpensive stage equipment, circa 1968. The rose was deposited there and dismissed.
Except sometimes, when newspaper class was especially boring, Jim would whisper, Let’s do a plant check. We would dart across the hall and note the rose’s progress from symbol of convenience store affection to crusty remnant of teenage love. It remained there throughout the year, and miraculously, the North Garland High School production of Romeo and Juliet (for which I was stage manager and the crucial-to-Shakespeare’s-vision Townsperson #2) did not disturb the rose in its grave. Perhaps Lady Capulet opened the drawer, saw the rose and quickly closed it again, thankful that she was neither the rose’s donor nor its recipient.
Either way, it was still there the next year, and Jim, Heather, and I were all still on newspaper staff. Being on staff had its advantages, namely in the form of the press pass. This not only allowed you to leave campus on occasion (although it did not help me the time I tried to steal a friend’s car just so I could tell her I did, had a sudden attack of forgetting how to operate a moving vehicle, and was denied access out of the parking lot by the lot attendant, who sent me back inside), but even better, it gave you permission to casually walk into the administrative office and look up someone’s schedule, allegedly in order to get the person out of class for interviews or photos. While this part was fun for getting your friends out of class for a few minutes, the noteworthy part of this was that class schedules also had other tidbits of hard-to-obtain information like addresses, phone numbers, and locker combinations. Just in case you are in the business of having crushes on people you’ve never spoken to and are hard up for information about them, breaking into their lockers could give you some key insight into their life depending on what you find. Like I did when I broke into this handsome track team guy’s locker and found a jock strap and The Book of Mormon (sadly not the musical soundtrack).
Sometimes during newspaper class I pretended to employ my press pass and would instead go backstage, do a plant check, and then sit in the darkened auditorium for the remainder of the class period. You may wonder how I was able to write fair and balanced stories peppered with student opinions if I was instead hiding in the dark. The shocking answer is that I made the quotes up. And when I had attributed opinions about the cafeteria’s new fries to my friends too many times, I crossed the line even farther and made up Lang Pha, junior, who was quoted as saying, “This is deplorable and also racist that you thought no one would notice a fake Vietnamese person.”
One day when I was about to give Lang Pha a real workout, I went into the back door of the auditorium to do a quick plant check. I was already inside when I heard someone playing the piano onstage. Not just that: someone was playing “Eleanor Rigby.”
I stood in the wings and watched. I knew him. His name was Andy and we had had a few classes together throughout the years, but he had gone off to a program for supersmarties our junior year — he was part of the TAMS program, the Texas Academy of Math and Science, where high school kids have the opportunity to go to college early their junior or senior years. I felt terrible for this guy for getting to go live on campus for a year and then have to come back to the confines of high school. (Later, I felt bad for myself, as the TAMS program was housed at the University of North Texas, where I ended up going. It is annoying to say the least to be upstaged in French class by the 15-year old in the beret and trench coat.)
Andy was about as awkward as they come — not only was he smart, which is already the kiss of death, but he was extremely tall and lanky with a big pouf of orangey-white cotton candy hair. He had eyebrows and eyelashes to match, which is to say he looked as though he had none.
He heard me come in and stopped playing, thinking he had been busted.
“Hey. Andy? Hi.”
“What are you doing?”
He explained that on Thursdays he came to school for half days after taking classes at the community college in the morning. A few weeks ago, he had discovered the piano, probably there for a choir rehearsal.
“What are you doing in here?” he asked.
“Oh. I was just…checking…on something. Play some more!”
“You pick something.”
Andy had the Complete Beatles Songbook and so I chose “Norwegian Wood,” and because we were insulated in our darkened auditorium, we sang. Not particularly well, perhaps, but we opened our mouths and sang like only suburban teenaged nerds who are mildly breaking the rules can do.
I am not a good singer, but at the time I probably thought I was gracing Andy with my gift. My sophomore year, our school put on a production of Mame and I wanted to be Vera, the sidekick (you know she’s the sidekick because the show isn’t called Vera). I was called back after my stellar audition, during which I sang “One” from A Chorus Line and did jazz hands in earnest, to sing for the role of Vera. I did not get it. A week later I failed geometry and had to relinquish my spot in the chorus, as you were not allowed in fun time extra-curriculars like theater if you were a flunkie, so I wouldn’t have been able to be Vera anyway.
However, the drama teacher told me later that she knew I made cruddy grades and had talked to my geometry teacher, who confirmed to her that I was incapable of identifying a triangle, and that was why I was not given the role of Vera. While it is possible that she made a point of telling everyone who auditioned and then failed a class that the impending bad grades were the reason they didn’t get the part, I chose — choose — to believe that Vera and I have the kind of theatrical fate reserved for true star pairings.
But we were singing. It didn’t hurt that while I was not popular in any form, I was miles above Andy on the totem pole of coolness. Yes: I thought about such things. Where do I rank? Am I cuter? Smarter? Funnier? I might’ve also been under the impression that Andy was madly in love with me, which was based upon something he wrote in my freshman yearbook. In my memory, it was something fairly overt, but when I looked at it recently, oof. The synapses in my brain were firing, but in another language or using a different set of instructions.
Because I was Andy’s waitress for a spaghetti dinner fundraiser, he wrote this in my yearbook — keep in mind this is what I thought meant that Andy loved me: “You make a great waitress, even though you were headed for better things.” (I suppose if nothing interesting ever happens to you AND you read a lot of books, you could maybe make that into a secret love declaration.)
The next Thursday, I left newspaper class under the guise of hard-hitting journalistic integrity and instead went directly into the auditorium. Our secret Beatling resumed with “Hello, Goodbye,” a fitting song due to the fact that outside of the auditorium, Andy and I did not acknowledge the other’s presence. There may have been a brief nod pass between us in the hall, but no high-fiving or HEY ISN’T IT AWESOME THAT WE SING BEATLES SONGS TOGETHER IN THE DARK or anything that would betray that we shared a weird, nerdy secret.
Our underground Beatles sessions continued for the next few weeks and once, while we were singing, I crossed the line. You can’t expect hormonal teenagers to have secret meetings without something happening. Unlike Angela Chase and Jordan Catalano meeting in the janitor’s closet for feverish making out, however, I placed my hand on his shoulder and then took it off as if he were an unattended stove. We did not speak of it.
The next week, I opened the auditorium door to find…nothing. It was dark. There was no piano, no Andy, no Andy’s shoulder for me to molest, and no Complete Beatles Songbook. While I wasn’t interested in Andy as a boyfriend, it was hard not to have tender feelings for the experience. I have always been a terrible secret-keeper, especially when the secrets are my own, and I managed to keep this one, even though part of the reason was embarrassment. How could I accurately explain this to my friends? Y’all, you know the guy with the poof of orangey hair? No, not that guy, that guy’s an albino. This one is only kind of albino-y and his eyelashes are kind of invisible and he’s tall and in honors classes. Not ringing a bell? Oh, well, never mind. I was going to tell you how we meet secretly to, you know — no, not that! Jesus. We meet secretly to sing Beatles songs. (Perhaps I wouldn’t have been so close-mouthed had I been meeting some standard-level-hot football player, but if that were the case, I wouldn’t have approached him at the piano and I really wouldn’t have sung “Norwegian Wood,” because as we know all football players are dumb and only listen to Whitesnake.)
In the spring, I took my favorite high school class: Advanced Reading. It was an honors class where we read and discussed books, played word games like Balderdash or Scrabble, and did handouts on prefixes and suffixes. As someone who not only has a favorite reference book, but also a favorite dictionary, I could go for a big damp pile of mimeographed etymology handouts right about now, even if the purple ink was smudgy and hard to read. (Do you remember the smell? I never liked it, but the kids that I remember opening their nostrils and taking big gulping nosefuls of the aroma were also the kids who turned out bad and ended up in woodworking class.)
Monthly we had to present a book to the class, which was fine except for the visual aid requirement. Visual aids require effort and time, and as someone who often did her 3rd period homework during 2nd period, this posed a problem. When I had to tell the class all about The Member of the Wedding — Carson McCullers’s novel about Frankie, a 12-year-old girl who is kind of in love with her brother and his bride — I conveniently forgot about the visual aid and figured I would just have to get points off for having no such thing. Until in 2nd period government class, I did this: I wrote out an invitation to the wedding of Janice Adams, Jarvis Addams, and Frankie Addams (along with the title and author) four times on a sheet of paper. Then I folded it up, jammed it in my pocket, and asked if I could go to the restroom. Then I went to the library, made copies of the invitation, and cut them out. Back in class, I borrowed some girl’s pink and purple markers and scribbled swirly doodles around the edges. In Advanced Reading, I put one invitation on each student’s desk and saved my own ass. Beats a lame poster board any day.
Actual sample invitation, c. 1990
A poster board was in order, however, when Rebecca Watson and I were to present The Catcher in the Rye, as group work requires one to at least attempt to have it together and do one’s work ahead of time. Amanda and I were okay friends even though she was popular and was the drill team captain. I was fascinated when she would tell me about her boyfriend, Sandy, especially this story: during Arby’s 5 for $5 campaign, Sandy would pick up 5 Beef’ n Cheddars and then they would get a hotel room and alternate between doing it and eating Arby’s. I had never done either one so this story stuck with me.
Our Catcher in the Rye presentation was on February 15, so Rebecca was coming over on Valentine’s Day to work on the poster. When I got home from school that day, I checked the mail and found that my dad had put a jumbo bag of peanut M&Ms in there as a Valentine’s gift. As I opened them in my room, the bag ripped and peanut M&Ms flew all over my bed. Then the doorbell rang. Rebecca was early.
While I did see a glimpse of something red through the stained-glass front door, I thought it was Rebecca’s drill team uniform. People, it was not. It was Andy. He was not in the darkened auditorium, hunched over a baby grand like the Phantom of the Opera in his underground lair, but standing in the harsh afternoon light, the sun making his puffy, orange-white hair glow like an electric halo atop his head … while he clutched a cellophane-wrapped Single Red Rose.
A brief quiz! Guess what happened next.
a) I said, “Thank you very much for the cellophane-wrapped Single Red Rose! Shall we embrace and/or kiss with tongue?”
b) I burst into flames out of embarrassment.
c) I said, “Oh, thanks” and casually took the rose from him like he was returning a Pyrex dish his mother had borrowed.
Then I offered my guest some peanut M&Ms, and even though I said, “Wait, let me pick them up — they’re all over the bed,” he half sat, half laid down on my bed on top of the M&Ms. Perhaps he thought I had sprinkled them there in the hopes that a gentleman caller would come by and recline on them, or perhaps he thought I would go hunting for them, but either way, he wasn’t deterred.
The doorbell rang again. Shit! It was Rebecca, the symbol of all that is popular bouncing through the door in her drill team uniform. Fortunately Rebecca had probably received many unsolicited Single Red Roses and similar gestures in her life, so she didn’t even react when she saw this skinny near-albino in repose on my candy-strewn bed with a Single Red Rose lying on the desk.
We got to work on our unimaginative poster board and planned to draw Holden’s brother Allie’s baseball mitt and then write poems all over it in green ink. Only our attempts at drawing a mitt looked like Mickey Mouse gloves.
“We need a mitt,” Rebecca said.
“Maybe my brother has one in his closet,” I said. I found it, but our attempts at drawing it were no better than when we had nothing to go on.
“I have a glove,” Andy said.
“It doesn’t matter — we still suck as artists.”
“No, I mean, I have a glove you can have. It’s new. I just got it. You can write poems on it.”
Obviously, I could do no such thing, especially not a brand new glove. It was certainly a sweet gesture, much sweeter and more spontaneous than a Single Red Rose. Romantic teenage boys, none of whom are reading this, take note: giving a girl a baseball mitt with poems in green ink is one million percent nicer than a Single Red Rose.
Andy ended up drawing the glove for us (using the new glove as a model), and then he left. I don’t think we spoke again for the rest of the school year. What was there to say? “Thanks for the rose and the Norwegian Wood, but no thanks to the rest you are undoubtedly offering”?
In the fall when we went to our separate colleges, he got my address from a mutual friend and we exchanged a few letters. An example of the kinds of letters I received:
Hi Tracy. How is school? Here is a list of the things I have in my dorm room: tv, microwave, Magic 8 Ball, Casio keyboard. Soon I’m going to get a lava lamp. Well, gotta go. Sincerely, Andy
I successfully dodged meeting up with him when we were both home for Christmas, and he stayed at his college over the summer, but one night my sophomore year, the phone in my dorm room rang — twice. It was the on-campus ring. I was suspicious because all of my friends were too cool to live on campus and my dorm friends just came over if they wanted something.
“Hey, Tracy! It’s Andy Phelps!”
Pause. I was suspicious.
“Oh, hi! What are you doing? Are you…on campus?”
“Yeah, I’m at the Union. I was just coming through town and wanted to see if you wanted to get something to eat.”
It was here. I had avoided him, but here he was a few buildings away, cashing in on that hand on his shoulder two years before.
In a robotic voice completely devoid of emotion or human feeling, I said as if it were one word, “Oh wow huh you know what that sounds really fun but I can’t.” My mother taught me to say as little as possible in these situations, and for once I didn’t blather on and make up weird excuses.
There was silence except for the sounds of Andy breathing into the phone and the mild rumble of air conditioning and people talking in the background.
Then I added in a cheery voice, “But write me a letter when you get back to school!”
And then he said something that I’ve never forgotten, something that I feel certain is etched upon my soul. He said, “I don’t have time for that kind of crap.” And then he hung up.
I go back and forth between thinking I was mean to him and thinking my behavior was ok. On the one hand, perhaps hand-on-shoulder secret singing was a breach of friendly behavior and I was leading him on. On the other hand, I was only leading him on to the next page of the Complete Beatles Songbook. On the one hand, I wanted to correspond with him at college. On the other, I pretty clearly defined the kind of relationship I was interested in with him: underground, on paper, with musical accompaniment.
Perhaps I should have explicitly stated, “I do not wish to kiss you, ever, even if your rendition of ‘If I Fell’ is making me swoon a little in this darkened auditorium where we are both breaking the rules and cutting class when we are nerds who generally do not do this sort of thing, except I actually am the sort to do this sort of thing and you don’t know it because we don’t know each other and therefore you don’t know that I got in-school suspension for using vulgar language (‘butt’) and also had to go to Saturday School for unexcused absences. But you are a very nice boy and I appreciate the new glove offer. I predict that you will marry a nice girl and have two cute children with her, as evidenced by your Facebook profile twenty years later.”
And when I awoke, I was alone. This nerd had flown.