As a sophomore in high school, I’m back at the same drive-in, in the front seat with a basketball player named Nate Finck. He mounts the speaker on his partially cranked down window, and an impressive fanfare fills the interior of his Dad’s Galaxie 500. I fix my eyes on the title screen of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Nate offers me an Oreo from an opened bag he brought from home. “Do you have any brothers?”
“What’s his name?”
At sixteen I‘m finally, officially allowed to go on dates, but I wouldn’t be here if Penny Moranis, captain of the JV cheerleaders, hadn’t cornered me after a game. “Nate Finck wants to go out with you.”
Nate is the shortest guy on the JV team. I am the shortest cheerleader. That’s all we seem to have in common. His black, kinky hair is as big as the ball he dribbles down the court. He’s skin and bones with knobby joints, and chest hair that peeks out the top of his N.H. S. jersey. Maybe he noticed me on the sidelines when it was my turn to cheer his basket. I’d shake my pom poms and shout, “Nate Finck, Nate Finck let’s go!” Then I’d leap off the glossy floorboards like a trained dolphin out of the water. I know I have dolphins on the brain, but honestly after fifteen minutes of waltzing through deep space –with absolutely no dialogue—I have to say, Flipper should have won the Academy Award!
Nate puts his arm around my back. His attempt at Frenching yields nothing but Oreo crumbs. He puts his hand on my knee, and I turn on the radio.
He removes his hand to turn off the dial. “What are you doing? We’re watching a movie.”
I want to shout ARE WE? REALLY? l place my purse over my lap, stare into deep space, and don’t say a word.
No more basketball players ask me out.
Instead, John Kersey starts calling me. He’s best friends with Chip Alesio, a junior going out with my best friend Linda. Both John and Chip are stocky. John’s hair is a blonde Brillo Pad, Chip’s is a dark brown nest of tightly coiled springs.
When John calls, I grab the princess phone in my parents’ room and lay on their chenille spread.
“You looked really pretty in your cheerleader outfit today.”
“Thanks.” I plump up my mom’s pillow and count the slats in the venetian blinds opposite the bed. “You wanna know the truth?”
“I hate having to wear my uniform on School Spirit Days. I feel like such a fake being all rah, rah. I don’t even like our school, any school. And I don’t see the point of football. It’s a perpetual train wreck, and you can’t even tell who is in the wreck because everybody wears the same helmet and whitey tighty pants.”
“Basketball is better, but by the end of the game, the gym smells worse than my brother’s sneakers.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t even be a cheerleader.”
“No, no, you’re really good!”
“I’d rather be the athlete. During gymnastics, Miss Novak strapped me into a harness, so I could do flip after flip on the trampoline without worrying about boinging off into outer space. It was a blast! Do boys do gymnastics?”
“It’s not the same.”
I laugh out loud at the image of bulky John and Chip bouncing on the tramp.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing.” I turn on my side. “I like ballet too, but I don’t take it anymore.”
“My sister used to take ballet.”
My mom calls up the stairs, “Time to get off the phone.”
Real quick I tell John, “I like watching old Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. I like visiting my cousins in Virginia on my Grandmother’s farm, and swinging from the rafters from one hay loft to the other, but,” I caution him,” you have to be careful of brown recluse spiders.”
John interrupts as I’m describing the black widow we found one time behind my grandmother’s outhouse. “You wanna go out Saturday night with me and Chip and Linda?”
John calls every night until our date. I can tell him anything on the phone, but somehow in the halls of N.H.S. I am mute.
Saturday night the doorbell rings. I run downstairs to answer before my parents, but my mom intercepts as I reach the bottom step. She pulls the knob, and stands behind the half-opened door. “Come in. Come in. You must be John.”
“Hi.” He steps into our narrow front hall.
My father appears behind my mom from the living room. “So where are you kids going?”
John puts his hands in his pockets. “Not exactly sure yet.”
My dad pulls the door flat against the wall. “It’s a double date, correct? With Linda?”
“Yeah, and my friend Chip.”
“Well, remember, back by 11:00.”
We nod and fly out the door.
Chip is driving his dad’s Dodge Dart, and Linda is beside him on the bench seat. John and I crawl in the back.
I lean forward. “Where are we going?”
Chip looks into the rear view mirror, “The airport.”
“Airport?” I look at John. Linda passes back a Knickerbocker beer.
A quick drive down Route 7, and we park at the end of a runway outlined in tiny blue lights. John and I share the brown bottle as a Boeing 727 lines up for takeoff. Its headlights come right for us. The engine roar shakes Chip’s compact car. John hugs me close as the gigantic jet lifts off only feet in front of us on the other side of a chain link fence.
Out the rear window I watch its wheels tuck into its smooth metallic belly. “Wow, wow, wooow!”
John touches my lips with his finger. I gaze into his bright blue eyes, and suddenly see myself—so beautiful in my cheerleader uniform, so fascinating, he can listen to me for hours, so precious he draws me to his side before launch into the stratosphere. His kiss is magnetic. I am floating among the stars.
The car doors open and slam shut. Chip and Linda shout, “Come on. Come on. It’s even cooler from out here.”
John and I unlock and join them in the weedy gravel. Four souls. Flat on our backs. On the border of takeoff. Peering into deep space with absolutely no dialogue. Why does feeling known and safe change everything?