My first day of high school I discover Linda and Marie are in none of my classes. Over the summer, Lizzie Hardwick, my best friend from eighth grade, moved to Ohio. Alone, I follow my ninth grade schedule: algebra II, world history, biology, freshman English, French, gym, home-ec, and personal typing.
The school is a one-story sprawl in a maze of corridors. But no matter where you’re headed: classrooms, gym, or cafeteria, you need to pass the crossroads, a key intersection where the upperclassmen hang out at round tables.
Within a week Linda, Marie, and I are rushed for Kappa Beta Epsilon, the high school sorority Linda’s older sister, Laura, belongs to. At an introductory meeting I eat yellow cake with vanilla frosting, and listen to the bylaws. Basically I have to pin a blue and white bow to my clothing at all times, learn the Greek alphabet, and memorize all the KBE sisters in my school, so I can say hi whenever I see them. Not saying hi is a demerit that might keep me out of something I’m not sure I want into. Most of the cheerleaders are KBE and sit by the crossroads—a daily gauntlet.
Don Bouchard is a senior who’s always there seventh period on my way to gym. Cindy Dickinson, KBE, slouches at his table.
I turn my head. “Hi, Cindy.”
“Hi, sweetheart.” Don gives me a mincing wave, and Cindy laughs.
That night, after dinner, the phone rings. I answer, “Hello.”
“Don’t you mean, hi?”
It’s Don Bouchard. I can’t think.
“I was wondering if you want to go out with me Saturday.”
I want to scream no, but, “I’ll ask my mom,” comes out my mouth.
“Okee dokee.” He snickers.
I poke my head around the corner of the living room. Mom is reading the paper. Dad is snoozing in his naugahyde recliner. “Can I go out with a senior on Saturday?”
“What?” Dad is alert.
My question hangs in the air. I can’t say it again.
They glance at each other. Dad speaks, “I believe your mom and I agreed you’re not allowed to date until you’re sixteen.”
My shoulders relax. “Thanks.”
I sprint for the phone, say, “Sorry, I’m not allowed,” and hang up.
Next day, at the crossroads, Cindy and Laura catch up to me.
Cindy walks to my right. “You going to the dance on Saturday?”
Laura walks to my left. “My parents said they can take us if your parents can pick us up.”
I gulp. “Probably, I’ll ask.”
There’s no parental sanction against school dances, so Saturday at 8:00 PM, wearing my Black Watch hip hugger skirt, and a green poor boy sweater, I enter the gym with Linda and Laura. Kyle Gardner quickly asks Linda to dance. Laura disappears. I’m abandoned to scan the room for girls I have to say hi to.
Andy Johnson, a friend of Marie’s brothers, pulls me onto the dance floor. He shakes his curly brown hair to the beat of “A Little Bit of Soul” and flashes his goofy smile. I shake my Twiggy cut and grin.
Groovin’ by The Rascals plays next. I let Andy enfold me in his arms as the dance floor swells with swaying couples.
Danny Gallagher, a cute junior with dark eyebrows cuts in for “Respect.” My shoulders shimmy as Aretha belts, “What you want? Baby I got it. What you need? You know I got it.” My neck swivels.
Laura swoops over. “Linda and I are taking off with Dale Eagan. There’s a party at Phil Blomberg’s.”
“Come on! We’ll be back before your parents pick us up.”
A white Chevy wagon with wood paneling idles at the curb where my Dad’s car will be parked by 11:00. Linda is already on Kyle’s lap in the left back seat. Laura climbs in the middle. Danny Gallagher slides next to Laura and gives me a place on his lap. Marie climbs onto the roof rack with Hawley Jenkins. Upper classmen I don’t know fill the front seat and the back back. By the time Dale squeals out of the parking lot, there must be fifteen kids packed inside, passing around bottles of Ripple. I drink a whole one since it’s the size of a Coke. But if this is what wine tastes like, yick!
We take a right on Balltown and another right at the light. We slide around the traffic circle by the GE R&D Center and blow by Knolls Atomic Power Lab on River Road. By the time we hit the straight away by the farm where my mom buys summer corn, we must be doing ninety. I hope Marie is still on the roof. We jerk right on Rosendale Road, and I realize my head is spinning.
The next thing I know, the car door opens. I get out. The ground tilts. I guess we’re at Phil Blomberg’s, a well-kept split level surrounded by rhododendrons. Kids pour past me into the front door. The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” blasts into the street. My head swims. I grab the railing in the entry where the stairs split up or down. I look above and blink.
"Aren't you gonna say hi?" Don Bouchard, shouts from the top of the stairs, wearing nothing but a blue tie.
Cindy Dickinson tickles him in the ribs and cackles.
“Hi, I mean hi,” I don’t know where to put my eyes.
“Out of the way Bouchard!” Danny helps me into the kitchen.
He makes me a cup of coffee, but I don’t drink coffee. The table sloshes as if we’re at sea.
A guy appears from a bedroom. “Out, everybody, out! The neighbors called the cops.”
I squint at Danny. “Is that Phil Blomberg? We just got here.”
Danny ushers me into Dale’s Chevy. My head hangs out the window like a dog’s. We’re flying down River Road, when my puke splatters the wood paneling. Danny rummages in the glove compartment and hands me a mashed packet of dusty Kleenex.
Back in the school lot, Danny puts his arm around me, and escorts me to the girls’ room as if I’m the perfect date. I drink water out of my hand and spit in the sink. I take off my cool octagonal glasses and splash my face. I finger my Twiggy cut into place. By the time I come out of the bathroom, my Dad is waiting in the hall.
I look for Danny, but he is gone. My mom is waiting in the car. Linda and Laura materialize from the dark and file into the backseat. As we pull away from the curb, I’m relieved to see Marie alive, making out with Hawley Jenkins in front of the flag pole.
My dad stops at the red light by the First National Bank.
“Have a good time?” my mom asks without turning.
“Yes,” we chirp in unison.
We drop off Linda and Laura. “Good night.” My parents wave.
Back in my bed, my head swirls. I can’t believe what I’ve gotten away with.
But Monday morning the gauntlet awaits.
Don Bouchard is grinning at his table. Cindy giggles. “Hi.”
I don’t remember if I said hi back.
I don’t remember if I ever got into KBE.
But I can't forget the kindness of Danny Gallagher. He didn’t seem much like a Christ figure that night so long ago, but when I was at my worst, he offered me a dignity I didn’t deserve. “What you want… What you need… R-E-S-P-E-C-T!