Hearts & Glowers
It’s February 14th again and the day is met with the usual sense of ambivalence and vague suffering that I’ve experienced since approximately the 6th grade, when I was the new kid at St. Mary’s Middle School. I was taller, thinner and paler than almost all of my predominantly Hispanic classmates, an unfortunate confluence of genetics and adolescence that soon earned me the nickname Casper the String Bean. I was not very popular. But people thought I was funny, which ultimately saved me from permanent residence on Planet Tease; such was the doom of Dawn Ratcliffe (aka “Rat-lips”) who was nasty and rarely washed her hair, so you could sort of understand her fate, and Freddy Gonzales, who ended up there for no apparent reason. My heart truly went out to him because the other boys mocked him relentlessly when the teachers weren’t around.
I had a huge crush on several boys, naturally the most unattainable for someone of my social standing. But still, like most 12-yr-old girls, and my daughter now, my Catholic heart was full of hopes and prayers that someday one or all of them would recognize the fantastic Real Me, find me irresistible, and ask me to “go around” or “get together.” I wasn’t sure what having a boyfriend/girlfriend meant at St. Mary’s Middle School, except, perhaps, meeting behind a zoo exhibit or State Fair ride for a kiss during a field trip, or copping a clandestine feel of slight and developing bodies in the dark Catholic school corridors. I didn’t know, but I’d heard the rumors, internalized the mystery, and knew it had something to do with popularity. I wanted it.
Anyway, Valentine’s Day Dance, 1978: I walked into the gym to the sounds of The Commodores, The Eagles, and Elton John in my coolest outfit: blue corduroys, a shirt with little bluebirds printed on it, and a velvety orange vest with gold buttons. I immediately noticed the decorations which consisted of crepe paper, and red paper hearts with the names of all the school couples written in glitter and spread around the gym: Pete + JoPaulla, Vince + Julie, Nina + Greg. This thoughtful gesture on behalf of the Decoration Committee had the dual effect of proclaiming the popularity of those featured on hearts, while reminding everyone else of their desperate, lonely situations, or so it was interpreted by the fragile. And we were all fragile.
My name was not written in glitter on a paper heart that year, or any year. I did, however, experience my first slow-dance that 1978 Valentine’s Day with Rodney Howard, a diminutive African-American boy who was the best dancer in our class. We had just danced to Brick House [which I would encourage all of you to click and play now… go ahead, I’ll wait… because this post will read much better with a funk soundtrack] when a slow song came on and he held out his hand. Nervous and unprepared, I accepted because I thought I should. Not knowing quite what to do, I clenched one of his arms in my left hand, and gripped his shoulder with my other (I can’t remember where his hands were), and thus began the strained and graceless rocking back-n-forth that was our dance. He seemed unbothered by the fact that I was a good 6″ taller than him, awkward, and held him at a rigid distance while our classmates were draped together so tightly that no light shone between them. Somehow I got through it.
I haven’t seen or talked to Rodney Howard since we graduated from St. Mary’s in 1980. But I recently learned through an old classmate that he was convicted of a crime a couple of years ago: possession of child porn with intent to distribute. Hmmm. This information only enhances the delicate and esoteric flavor of my personal Valentine’s Day experiences, pleasures and pains brought to the surface each year by the effervescence of commercial culture and habit. And still, the heart, the organ of love and fire with a mind of its own, persists, and I usually have the courage or foolishness (depending) to follow it. A mixed bag at best. I should write that in glitter.