Wednesday, December 14, 2011

And you can tell everybody, this is your song.

I have come to the conclusion that it’s not Christmas unless I am newly in possession of every available variety of Avon Naturals shower wash.  This occurs because my mother, an Avon Lady in remote Nebraska, cleans out her sample cabinet every year and sends me a box full of soaps and lotions that smell like bubble gum approximations of fruits, and cosmetics that seem more appropriate for a daughter half my age.  Still, I tear into the box every year with relish, and look forward to briefly sporting taxi-hued eyelids and glittery pink lips that are then washed away in raspberry-scented showers.  This year, I’m sure because I am currently unemployed, she also sent me a check for an amount large enough that it inspired in me, her 50-year-old daughter, not a feeling of happiness or relief, but of shame.  So I sent her an email thanking her, but also broaching the subject that the amount was, I felt, more than she should be sending.  I got this in return:

I am sure you remember the Christmas you and your friend won one of Marsh's money cards, and you bought us presents.  Mine was Windsong, so the other day I was ordering from my drug store and needed a few bucks to make free shipping, so I bought a bottle of it!!!!  I still love it.  Don't tell anyone your Avon Mom bought Windsong!!    

Sitting there at my desk in my bathrobe, I read her email, closed my computer, walked into the living room where my boyfriend was watching television, and burst into tears.

It was 1974, seventh grade, and I was thirteen years old.  A boy liked me.  His name was Mike, and he wrote a poem about me, the first verse of which I can still recite from memory:

You’re a special lady
 A little kinky maybe
You sure know what’s going down
Just to see you makes me glad
That I found
Someone like you

What do you want?  It was the ‘70s, and we all thought Rod McKuen and Bernie Taupin were poets.

Mike was a little chubby.  Just a little, though, and his height and broad shoulders allowed him to carry it well.  He wore the dark turtlenecks and corduroys that were favored by the serious, non-athletic boys of that era.  He had pale skin and plenty of freckles and thick, coarse red hair that was cut to look like he was wearing an orange football helmet.   But he loved science fiction, and his favorite subject was English, and he was smart like me, and funny, and in our moments together between classes we were beginning to formulate our first tentative theories, fueled by the more sensitive musicians that populated our local Top 40 station and the pages of Creem magazine, that adults, and particularly teachers, didn’t really care about us at all.  Plus, the ruination of the Earth by pollution and greed was imminent, we both concurred.

Mike had a job as a bag boy at the local Marsh’s grocery store, and that Christmas, he asked me to go with him to the Marsh’s annual employee Christmas party, which was being held at the fanciest restaurant in our small town.  The restaurant was called Emily’s, and it was dark inside with candles on the tables, and one wall near the entry was all rocks with water trickling into a pond at the bottom where patrons of the restaurant threw wish-laden pennies.  Next to the waterfall was a stuffed brown bear standing on its hind legs and with front paws raised back in a menacing manner.  As you might imagine, it was not the kind of restaurant that a kid forgets about easily.  I had been to Emily’s only once or twice before on very special occasions in the years before my parents divorced, so I was pleased to be doing something that was reminiscent of my previous life, and not the one I was living now where I fretted with my mother over the paying of rent and how much my school shoes cost.

That night I wore my best maxi dress, the one with the black quilted skirt and the ruffled yellow collar.  It was over a year old and my skinny wrists hung too far below the ruffled cuffs, and the hem was a little too high on me now as well, but I was glad that I had something that I considered fancy enough for Emily’s.  When I opened the front door, Mike was standing there in a tie and sports jacket, and with a red carnation corsage inside a clear plastic shell.  It was all quite impressive, and I might have begun to feel nervous about how I was going to act the right way and say the right things if Mike’s mother, who was to chauffer us that evening, hadn’t been so calm and friendly.  After she dropped us off outside the restaurant entrance, Mike took my hand in his for a few brief seconds before he opened the door for me.  I don’t know why it hadn’t really occurred to me earlier, but I was on an actual date.

All the guests were seated at large round tables with white tablecloths and pinecone centerpieces, and we were the only teenagers at our table.  All the rest seemed to be older female cashiers and their bored husbands, whose conversation I remember consisted mostly of remarks about the quality of the establishment’s prime rib.  When the waiter came to ask us what we wanted to drink, Mike thought for a moment, and then ordered a Pepsi, and I ordered a Shirley Temple.  At the time I was proud that I had been in so many grown-up bars with my mom that I knew how to order a real mixed drink with a name, even if it was kind of a kiddie drink, and it seemed to have made an impression on the staff as well, because when I ordered another from a different waitress, she laughed and exclaimed “Oh, you’re the Shirley Temple!” 

At the end of the evening, there was a drawing for cash prizes from $25 to $200, and the store manager called my name for the $100 prize!  When I walked past the bar on my way to the front of the room to claim it, the bartender said “Hey, Shirley Temple won!” and he clapped for me.  The waitresses heard him, and soon all of the staff in the dining room appeared to be applauding and calling out “Shirley Temple!  Hey, good for you, Shirley Temple!”

As I was walking back to the table, it occurred to me that Mike would probably be disappointed that he didn’t win, and I knew that I should share my money order with him.  Mike’s mother was there at the table waiting to take us home.  I told Mike that I would split the $100 with him, and he looked surprised, but I told him that I had planned all along to share if I won, because I wouldn’t have won if not for him inviting me.  I don’t know why I’d told him that my act of generosity had not been spontaneous.  Maybe I had surmised that by appearing to have thought it out beforehand, I would seem resolute, and so avoid any discussions of the deal.  I don’t know, but in any event, he quietly accepted his half of the prize, and as I glanced around, I remember his mom looking at me with an approving smile.  People I did not know were walking up to me and congratulating me!  The evening was an unmitigated success! 

That’s all I remember.  I take my mother’s word for it that I used my $50, which was a considerable sum for a teenager in 1974, to buy Christmas gifts for my brother, my sister, and her.  I do remember that Windsong bottle sitting on my mother’s dresser, because of course her mother’s dresser is an altar of worship for every girl; I’m pretty sure I could still draw my mother’s jewelry box and hand mirror from memory.  And I hope she forgives me for squealing on her regarding her recent purchase of non-Avon perfume.

But so there was that email from my mother, and there was me, trying to tell my boyfriend the story, while still sobbing, of the Marsh’s cash prize and how I had forgotten what I’d done with the money and when he asked me why that would make me cry so hard, all I could only say in response was, “I was a good kid.”

By the end of 7th grade, I had broken up with Mike, such as we were, because I just didn’t feel romantic about him.  Not like he wanted me to.  I did still truly want to be his friend because I felt like no one else understood me the way he did, but he was bitter about being relegated to “just a friend” status, and then soon thereafter his family moved away.  He wrote me another poem right before the last time I saw him, which I still have, in his handwriting, on lined yellow paper, the last verse of which is this:

I think I’ll be a lot better off
Lost in a trillion
Knowing that somewhere
You’re out there.

I’m still out here, Mike.  It’s not easy, sometimes, but I’m still out here.  I miss you.  I miss all the Mikes.  I was a good kid, and I’m still out here.