Three Kisses, One PastbyYDB95©
I know everyone has their Christmas rituals, reading A Christmas Carol or watching It's a Wonderful Life and so forth. Mine is reading the last few pages of The Great Gatsby, where Nick waxes nostalgic about the "thrilling returning trains of my youth". From the first time I read that, when I was a kid from the slums trying to fit in at my ritzy private school, the blend of holiday cheer and vanishing effortlessly into the rural landscape far, far away delighted me. I always loved Christmas, you see, but the harsh realities of my childhood had not made that easy -- who wants to hear about peace and goodwill when you have never known much of either? -- and the idea if getting on a train headed deep into the Midwestern hinterlands was delightful.
By the time I read that, my escape from the harsh life of Pelham Street had begun; that wonderfully snooty school was the first step. I was starting to learn to trust people and appreciate that there were others my age who were nothing like the monsters I'd had to grow up with back in my own neighborhood. But I was also coming to learn that just as Nick and Gatsby and Daisy and their gang were all Westerners and never quite at home in New York, so was I a kid from the slums and never quite at home among the upper middle class friends into whose presence I had been lucky enough to be thrust. And so there were many December nights I lay in the same bed I'd slept in all my life on Pelham Street, imagining greatness and never quite sure what I would do if I found it. But it did beat the bad old days of coming to the school Christmas party and finding snotty notes and teasing in the place of Christmas cards.
Which brings us to Christine. She was from the slums just like me, like it or not. Maybe she and I had a little too much in common, or maybe her past couldn't quite be exorcised. Or maybe it could and I was the one who couldn't put the past behind me. Either way, she taught me a lot that Christmas, for better and for worse.
Judge me all you want when you get to the end of this story, but please remember that you can only understand so much of what came before the second kiss. That happened on Thanksgiving afternoon and the third kiss came just before Christmas, so we're really not talking about much time. As for what came after the third kiss, all I can say for myself is what I've just said already: my past is a reality I've had to deal with, and Christine was -- is -- a part of that past.
What can I tell you about that reality? Not much, because I've blocked a lot of it out -- at least where I was able to. What haven't I been able to block out? Thoughts of suicide at age twelve, that's what. You don't forget a thing like that no matter how well you bounce back. And it stings, especially at Christmas and especially if you're a guy like me who loves Christmas. But that year, Christine made it all flood back for me.
And that's where our story begins. The fun part of the story -- if you want to call it that -- begins on Thanksgiving, like I said. I was nineteen and, I was often told, mature for my age. Growing up lonely in a lousy neighborhood can have several different effects on you, and maturing fast is one of them. Maybe I was lucky in a really backhanded way. In any case, by that Thanksgiving, my mother and I had both escaped from the cruddy old duplex on Pelham Street where I had grown up: I to an elite college out in the countryside where I was a sophomore at the time, she to a big house out on the edge of town thanks to the big promotion she had finally scored at work. She was very proud of the hard-won success that house represented -- I could hardly blame her for that, of course -- and so she often had friends and neighbors over for special occasions. Thanksgiving was a favorite of hers. "We'll have about a dozen people over, honey," she had told me the day before when I arrived from the train station. "You'll have to help me set up the card tables in the dining room so there's room for everybody."
"No problem," I'd said. "It'll be nice to meet your neighbors."
"There's one in particular I think you're going to love," she'd told me with a knowing smile. "The girl next door. She's really your type, I think."
"You always say that," I'd reminded her. But my mother was right, she did have a knack for spotting girls who had a lot in common with me.
"No pressure, honey," she'd said. "I just think it's a shame that you have no one your own age to spend time with when you come home. It'd be great for you to have a friend in the neighborhood."
"Especially this one, I take it," I'd said, and I couldn't help saying it in that wry tone my mother had always resented.
"Yes, Jack," she'd told me a bit more firmly. "Especially this one. She's a nice, well-adjusted girl, and she has an outlook a lot like yours. It'd be good for you to have more friends like that. A lot of people in this neighborhood are like us, Jack, and it'd be good for you to spend some time with them." I didn't know just what she meant by "like us" -- probably something about adjusting to my ritzy private college after growing up in the ghetto -- but from her tone I judged it was best not to push the issue any further. So I didn't. If only I had known then just who this girl next door was!
A word about my mother is in order here, I think. She's a saint, simple as that. She made one tragic mistake early in life, and that was trusting the jerk who got her pregnant with me (you will note that I do not call him my father, because he wasn't), and after he abandoned her she spent years pulling her life back together. And shielding me from any knowledge of how poor we were back then. At that at least, she succeeded: I had no idea until years later how close we were to being thrown out in the street for the first several years of my life.
And what a street it was: Pelham Street. Not the worst neighborhood in our town, but within a nice short walk of there. The druggies and troublemakers and teenage mothers were always out and about, setting a lousy example for anyone unlucky enough to be growing up on our block. But I was lucky -- thanks to Mom, that is -- and I was scarcely aware of any of that in my youngest innocent years. No, my earliest memories are of the nursery she set up for me in the master bedroom of our walk-up apartment. The living room was Mom's domain -- she slept on our fold-out couch -- and the tiny second bedroom was where I slept from the day she brought me home from the hospital. But the master bedroom was my kingdom, painted in cheerful pastel colors on the wall and lined with toys all across the worn but clean white rug where I romped and played nearly every day until I was old enough for school. My imagination ran wild, from beaches to mountains to picturesque small towns right out of some Disney movie, often within a few minutes of one another, day after day throughout my earliest years. If the urban decay of Pelham Street was just outside, I never saw it for what it was. If I'm ever well-adjusted in this lifetime, you can thank my golden memories of the nursery for that, and you can thank Mom for them. I'll never know how many meals Mom had to skip to make that wonderful room full of toys possible, and I don't think I want to know.
I was aware that Mom got awfully tired and angry now and then, and of course that sent me packing to the safety of the nursery! But it wasn't until years later that I understood just how much frustration and misery was causing that anger. By the time it did start to dawn on me that Pelham Street was a rather nasty place to live, Mom was already well on her way to pulling herself out of the gutter, and me with her. Years of night-school classes (with the old lady downstairs keeping an eye on me) eventually landed her a sweet job at a software company downtown. By the time I was in high school, she was a manager and, because she had prevailed upon me to always do my homework when I was safe back home in the nursery, I was off to a swanky private school out in the suburbs. Although we still lived on Pelham Street, I got to spend six hours a day in my nice clothes, making friends with the kids from uptown and out in the exurbs who actually liked school and respected their classmates, and learning from teachers who knew and liked their jobs for a change. And oh, the girls in their school uniforms! But I digress, again. The point is, I arrived at that school a punk with a chip on my shoulder from Pelham Street, and the positive atmosphere made me want to be a better student, have a better attitude, be a better kid. And if I do say so myself, I succeeded!
That, of course, threw Pelham Street into relief for me, as the high tuition meant Mom couldn't afford to move just yet. So after days spent in opulent classrooms with my well-dressed and well-mannered classmates and lots of trees and grass, taking the bus back into the deepest reaches of the inner-city at night made me realize for the first time that I was from the ghetto. Although the worst was already behind me by then (more about that in a bit), home was a rather nasty reminder of it all in those otherwise-great years. But that just made me all the more determined to do well in school and do my part to escape, just like Mom had done her part. And I did. By now the room I'd called "the nursery" no longer looked like a nursery, but it was still my space for playing and, now more often, working. I worked my fingers to the bone for good grades, and I got them. Which is why I'd made my escape out to that elite little college from which I was home for Thanksgiving when the second kiss happened.
As for Mom, shortly after I'd graduated from high school -- about a year and a half before the Thanksgiving of the second kiss -- she had finally made her escape. Another promotion meant a big pay raise and she could finally put away enough money for a down payment on her very own house, in a great neighborhood out on the outskirts of town. Coming "home" to that house could be rather bittersweet for me sometimes, since those well-kept streets and beautiful houses were such a stark contrast to Pelham Street. Of course I sometimes felt cheated out of living in such a nice neighborhood when I was younger. But I was always very careful to avoid letting Mom know that. She had earned the nice change and so very much more!
I've gone on longer than I intended to about my mother. But I do think it's important, dear reader, that you understand just who she and I are and where we came from. Now you see why she was so eager to open her home to the neighbors on that chilly but bright November afternoon. And maybe you can also see why she was so excited that the neighbors included a young woman my age who was -- Mom believed -- unencumbered by the scars that came with clawing one's way up to the middle class like we had. We didn't talk much about the bad old days, as the memories were just as horrible for her as for me; but Mom knew I still bore the scars of Pelham Street and she wanted me to get over it. I'd have liked to forgive and forget too, truth be told. But some things are easier to let go of than others.
I, of course, spent the morning in a state of cautious curiosity about the mystery girl while I helped Mom prepare for the feast. I didn't ask Mom any further questions about the guest of honor, figuring why spoil the surprise? This way I could imagine anything I wanted about her. And imagine I did, for I hadn't had much luck in dating lately and I was certainly ready for a bit of fun!
A few other neighbors and friends arrived well before dinner was to begin, to watch the parade on TV and just socialize. These included a family down the street with two teenage daughters, but I could tell at first glance that neither one was the one Mom was so excited about. I knew what Mom liked, after all. I mingled with the guests, sipping my ginger-ale (I may have been mature for nineteen, but I was still only nineteen, and Mom had her rules) and getting to know Mom's friends.
When the other guests did start arriving just before one o'clock, there was no question as to which one she was. I was engrossed in a discussion with an older woman from across the street about our favorite nineteenth century authors when I saw her coming in the front door in the corner of my eye. A lovely brunette with big eyes and a pleasant smile that she seemed to flash at me the moment she was in the door, she was accompanied by an older man (I would later learn he was her uncle, and she lived with him), and from the very first moment she looked familiar to me. I just chalked that up to the fact that Mom had been so excited about my meeting her, and put it from my mind as I continued my conversation with the neighbor.
I could see immediately why Mom was so fond of her: everything about her gave off a sense of being cut from the same resilient-yet-gentle cloth Mom was. She wore a long floral print dress that offset her shapely figure perfectly, and her long hair was perfectly coiffed as well, and from my vantage point across the room she seemed to have a quietly pleasant disposition to match her appearance. As the pre-dinner mingling continued, I was busy with small talk with Mom's friends and helping with last minute preparations for the meal, so for the time being we didn't meet. But I did notice her smiling at me from across the room several times, as if she knew me.
As if she knew me. I probably even said those exact words to myself as I finished setting up.
Now, she was beautiful, but I have a thing about being pushed into anything serious, especially dating. And as you've probably already gathered, I do have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about my hardscrabble childhood and mixing with people who wouldn't understand it. Besides, I wasn't crazy about Mom's attitude about her young friend the night before. I was also a bit jealous when I noticed her uncle -- I didn't yet know that was who he was -- handed her a glass of wine and Mom made no objection to her drinking it in her home. So I admired her from a distance only as the meal got underway.
Mom noticed, I knew, and she clearly wasn't happy when she saw how I made a point of seating myself as far as possible from the young woman and her older escort. But it was time to eat, and there was etiquette to be dealt with. So Mom kept her annoyance with me mostly to herself as she stood at the head of the table and held up her wine glass. "Welcome, everyone, and happy Thanksgiving!" she said. "I have an awful lot to be thankful for this year, especially calling this wonderful new neighborhood home and sharing it with all of you. But most of all, I'm pleased to have my son, Jack, home from college to join us!" She gestured at me, and everyone gave me an embarrassingly warm welcome, which melted my resolve a bit.
I nodded my thanks and waved -- rather than raising my silly ginger ale glass -- and acknowledged as many of the friendly faces as I could. Inevitably I couldn't ignore the mystery girl completely, so I allowed myself to make quick eye-contact with her. When I did, I saw she was grinning at me like an old friend. Again, that sense that we knew each other from somewhere...or maybe Mom had talked me up to her like she had talked her up to me?
I didn't dwell on that as I tucked into the turkey and stuffing. Instead I made a point of keeping up the conversation with my immediate neighbors. Mrs. Kawalzyc, the mother of the two girls I mentioned before, was on my right and wanted to hear all about my college in case her girls wanted to go there. On my left, Bernard -- old enough to be my father, but he insisted I call him by his first name -- was from down the block and also an escapee from downtown, so we compared notes on our favorite hangouts there. (I had to pretend I had some, other than my nice safe room on Pelham Street.) The meal passed agreeably enough, and for a while I thought I might escape from Mom's schemes altogether.
It wasn't to be. When dessert was over and a few guests were insisting on helping clear the dishes while others headed for the TV to watch football, I of course made no effort to avoid helping to clean up. On my third trip back from the kitchen to collect more dirty dishes, Mom finally cornered me by the door, and her young friend was beside her looking as radiant as ever. "Jack! Meet Christine from next door. I've been hoping to introduce you all afternoon." Her firm smile added an unspoken but unmistakable "and you know it."
Smiling through my irritation, I shook her hand. "Hi, Christine. Nice to meet you."
And in a way, it was. From up close -- so close I could smell her perfume -- I couldn't deny that she was beautiful, and her warm welcome put me further at ease. "Your mother's told me so much about you, Jack, it's great to see you." (That's right, she said "see" rather than "meet". You'll see why shortly.)
"Christine is taking classes at the junior college and working at that bowling alley out on Route 4 that you spent so much time at last summer," Mom continued.
"Oh, I thought you looked familiar," I admitted. "I must have seen you when I was bowling. I'm the one who always threw a tantrum when I got a seven-ten split, you know."
Christine laughed, and Mom turned to her and said, "See, I told you he had a great sense of humor!"
"And you were right," Christine said, "But you know, that doesn't narrow it down very much. We have so many drunks throwing lousy games and they get so wound up about it!"
"I remember that," I admitted. Mom took her leave of us then, as I knew she would at her first chance, so I continued. "Not that I ever got drunk there. I had to drive home, after all."
"Your mom also said you were really responsible," Christine said. "I could see that, too, the way you helped her out with the dishes and everything. That's sweet. So many guys would have just let the women do all the work."
"Well, I grew up watching her bust her ass for me -- sorry, pardon my language!"
"No, it's okay!" Christine said, touching my hand. I had to admit it felt good. "I grew up surrounded by people who used much worse language than that!" She said that with a knowing nod, but I had no clue what her point was -- yet.
"I take it you're not from here originally either?" I asked. "We're from Pelham Street, you know." Embarrassing to admit, but I refused to be ashamed of where I had come from.
"I grew up on Malvern Street," she said. "So I get it."
"Wow," I couldn't help saying. Malvern Street was just a few blocks from Pelham, and just as run down. Not the kind of place I'd have expected to find anyone like Christine.
"There's nothing too spectacular about it," she said. "You know what that neighborhood is like."
"That's what I meant," I said. "No offense, but you don't look like you're from Malvern Street. But I guess I don't look like I'm from Pelham either."
"Jack, I had a really bad, um, I guess you could call it a 'crash' about halfway through high school. I'd been mixed up in all sorts of things a kid my age shouldn't have had to deal with, and my mother didn't know what to do about any of it. No one ever does in a place like that. So I got sent away for a few years, and when I'd cleaned up my act, my uncle offered to take me in. That's the guy I came in with, if you're wondering. I have my own little apartment now, over his garage. He's been a godsend, really! I'm hoping to switch to a full-time college after next semester and really get my life back on track all the way."
"Wow," I said again. "I mean, I hope this isn't getting too personal, but it sounds like you've already really got things together."
"Thanks!" she said, and she looked like she wanted to hug me all of a sudden. To my surprise, I was not averse to that idea.