Besotted, my obsession became a singularity, Palm Springs Junior High its event horizon. As the months wore on, I willingly surrendered to its infinite gravity. School was now a venue for seeking, searching, dreaming and vicariously living above my station—a new form of in-depth study. I was able to investigate, to learn in various ways. Oh, and I lost about fifteen pounds.
Sometimes I played remora, casually shadowing my brother, picking him clean in this symbiotic dance, feeding from his clout and Round Table status. I’d also float through the dense, waxed halls, cloaked in bland inconsequence, lurking in the shadows, detecting her signal like a sturdy transistor. Other times I’d hang out with my peers, slowly herding the group toward the socially elite, creating our own hub of conversation near theirs. Then I’d completely ignore my friends and concentrate on her frequency, a sultry alto that spoke sensual things and awakened hidden geysers in my breast and pants.
Sometimes I’d just pass her in the hall or courtyard. Mind you, many of these coincidental meetings were highly planned and deftly executed. I slowed my pace as she walked by so I could listen to whatever she was saying, ardently praying for a whiff of her scent trail. It was the best I could do, for opportunities were limited. I seized most with fierce alacrity, and I was acutely aware of her always. I never took a moment for granted, and there was nothing selfish in my adoration, for she was never put upon.
I began collecting traces of her, artifacts and worthless objects that meant the world to me. A hall pass discarded after use; a gum wrapper; a flower she picked from the entrance garden, held for a while, and got tired of; any and all assignments already graded, good for the waste basket; a broken nail; a lost brass buckle, lusterless and tarnished, from her black Chinese sandal; a tiny glob of wax, picked from her braces and balled inside a pink Kleenex tissue; and so on.
My collection grew steadily. I’d sit in my room at night and spread its contents on the floor before me. I’d relive moments and create impossible scenarios through sensory manipulation. I began to know her because these things, collectively, composed so much of her habits and daily routine. I was the most pathetic of profilers. The lights would go off at bedtime, but my flashlight stayed on under the covers, lighting the scene of many a conversation, a dialogue that existed solely for my own exploration of what might have been had I been born a little earlier, looked a little better or felt a little stronger.
I lost interest in academics, concentrating on the arts as strategy and catharsis. I’d been playing drums since the age of eight, and I began beating the skins with renewed vigor and LA/NY studio cat aspirations. I also joined the drama club. I figured I’d hone my acting craft and try out for some school shows. At least it would give me another reason to hang around the theater gang. She and my brother were at the center of this clique, a group that lounged about the sofas and chairs of the drama room, fingering stage props and discussing the next production or planning the next social outing.
A new musical was in the works. It was called Teen and casting would begin immediately. The show presented all sorts of scenarios in which teenagers faced crises and coming-of-age dilemmas. Everyone knew she would get the lead. She could act, sing, dance, and rip your heart out with her saucy smile. She could also make you kick someone’s ass, do drugs, tell your parents to f**k off, be truant in order to be near her, and maybe even contemplate suicide; she was perfect for the part.
I auditioned to play drums for the pit orchestra. The show, attempting to reach adolescents, had an upbeat score with electric instrumentation and a slew of disturbingly lame pop-rock tunes. But I grew to love every one of those songs, their lack of musical quality and substance notwithstanding.
I was informed two days later that I’d be manning the kit. Elation! Hours of rehearsal, comfortably hidden behind a four-piece Ludwig, dropping the groove that would shape her moves. But I had to be rock solid, my time had to be atomic clock steady, and the arrangements committed to memory securely. There was no room for error, but I added my own flair to the dreary sheet music. I’d lay pocket deep as Jeff Porcaro’s, Steve Gadd’s, or John Bonham’s. These drummers were personal heroes, and listening to Gadd’s work on Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”, Porcaro’s on Bozz Scagg’s “Lowdon” and, of course, Bonham’s on Zepplin’s “Fool in the Rain” was enough to make me throw my sticks across the room in utter frustration and admiration. In emulating their mastery, I was also shaping my own style and improving steadily. I’d been blessed with a keen musical ear. I had something to offer, something I knew was of substance and would never embarrass me.
A drummer needs patience beyond belief. He is the foundation but is permanently upstaged. His ego, or the need for others to stroke it, must be minimal, for most of the attention is placed on the other performers and musicians. Good drummers, in fact, are ghosts, silent and watchful, ready on command while others are trying to get it together.
There was much redundancy and down time, but I didn’t mind. I’d look forward to a missed line or cue. Repetition became a thing of discovery, for I’d pick up something new about her on each take. A subtle physical quirk, a vocal nuance, fresh and angelic, an exasperated sigh aimed at a guilty performer after a botched musical number. These were the things I eagerly awaited when Mrs. Gramling, our drama teacher and show’s director would yell, “Again!”
My brother looked on with encouragement as I played my role with finesse and understatement.
I’d ask him constantly, “Did she say anything about my drumming?”
“No, but she thinks you’re hot and wants to know if you’ll go steady.”
“Real funny. Seriously, anything?”
“She thinks about her part and the rest of the cast. You’re just playing drums. I don’t want to make you feel like crap, but stop asking stupid questions.”
Weeks of rehearsal passed, and I never got beyond a single-word greeting. There was no courage for a phrase, God forbid an entire sentence. When she did initiate a hello, there was an involuntary and slight lowering of my head. I think I was instinctively going for the full bow, but some sort of dignity stopped me at half-mast, and my response was invariably shy and inaudible. My brother confessed that she found my behavior endearing in a sad puppy kind of way, so I started ignoring her completely. I was disappointed, outraged with her perception of me. I was a needy child tugging at her pant leg, begging her to notice.
I was livid, and for several days, I avoided her completely. A feat that brought about fits of rabid defiance towards my parents, disastrous and quickly decided fist fights with my brother, and several office visits to the assistant principal for not tolerating teachers’ injustices. I wouldn’t drink or smoke or take drugs (yet), so I vented the agony in ways more suitable for a twelve-year-old, angry at the world for making him want the impossible.
One day, I was walking towards rehearsal and singing to myself, as I often did when alone and thankful for the day. Concentrating on my phrasing, for “Mandy” requires just the right melodic sensibility to ring true, I didn’t hear the footsteps slowly gaining on me. Then I felt a presence and my song died before it reached its bridge, a bridge that should have collapsed before me, swallowing me by a many-toothed abyss, like Boba Fett in Return of the Jedi. Without stopping, she walked past me in her poised quickstep, and threw the words, “Nice voice.”
I said nothing because I couldn’t. I wasn’t sticking to my proud moratorium, I simply lost my tongue completely, and, as I searched for it everywhere, the distance between us grew quickly, like stars stretching endlessly when a ship accelerates to light speed. I tore and cursed at cotton and flesh, frantically searching for the damned, elusive muscle. I found it just as she was out of reach, happily exploring another world. I was vexed at my uncontrollable silence, but I soared from the tentative confidence and joy derived from this unexpected compliment.
This occurrence made me feel closer to her because she acknowledged something good in me. She bore witness to a moment showcasing an attribute that was so fundamental to my person, my true voice. I was in anguish for several nights, however, thinking about the selection I warbled on that particular day. When smitten, I tend to lean towards the thickest molasses of pop balladry. Yes, Manilow was a source of comfort at times, but it was a well-kept secret.
My cousin Mary introduced me to Barry. Mary, who was fanatical about the man and exposed me to the underrated, overly criticized and constantly ridiculed artist and his music, was always so good to me, so willing to listen and share my pain. Would these songs have moved me without her influence? Maybe not. I think you need to endure a girl’s tears during “Weekend in New England,” for example, to understand their full potential and true purpose. They serve as tools of empathy, a familiar, soothing shoulder to cry on, an LP that can last as long as your grief. Over the years, I learned to embrace and openly admit to my appreciation for his contribution to sorrow—hell, it became a source of pride. Laugh, but Barry knew.
This self-conjured feeling of closeness prompted me to write her. I longed for an extended correspondence but settled for far less. Also, correspondence implies written dialogue, but there was never a response from her. You see, she had no idea who was writing, and I could never tell her. To admit the deed would surely incite laughter and lead to minor legal action. At first, I was reluctant to leave a letter in her locker, for how many had done the same? Was I to join the ranks of the silly who secretly admired? But the first time I watched her read my note thrilled me, and I no longer cared about the cowardice of anonymity.
I knew exactly when she would visit her locker and between what periods. I’d get a pass towards the end of a period, case the corridor, wait for a window, and drop my love through the private slit of her locker. Then I’d return to class, anxiously awaiting the bell. The ring would put me on her path, carefully avoiding exposure, but I was like Waldo, easily lost in the crowd, hopelessly average in the adolescent jean pool, a powerful asset for undercover work.
I’d skulk by a fire extinguisher, a trophy case, or the plaster pacer (our school’s mascot), and watch her reading, her eyes shining, her lips slightly parted, probably thinking of her latest crush, but I didn’t care. I had written it, and she was drinking it, and it was all the same to me. To know I’d put a charge in her for a second was enough to keep me stoked for the rest of the day. And the feeling, the indescribable loveliness of knowing she was reading my words. It was all so covert and fantastic. I was a spy in the halls of love, and her locker was the safe house of my devotion.