January 27, 2016

Pom Poms

We huddled on the floor in her room as Beth whispered, words tumbling out. Her eyes locked on mine, she tried all at once to impress and ask for approval. I knew little about the subject, it could have been car brakes instead of arousal and sex. At 13, I was still a runt, still wore an undershirt.

She told me how Adam, one of the most popular boys in our class, led her downstairs to his bedroom. After making out for a long time, he began trying to open her bra. Finally unhooking the back strap, he slid his hand around, cupping it on her breast. With his other hand, he pulled at her jeans. It was awkward. She didn’t want to seem easy by helping. Finally, he pushed his hand inside her underwear and fingered her. Paralyzed hearing such talk, I wanted to look away but couldn’t. He started asking if she wanted to do it. “DO it.”

Head bowed, Beth was practically looking at me through her eyebrows. “And he’s feeling me up, you know? And we’re, like, doing it, and I’m like...but it’s good, you know?” We both assumed she lost her virginity, even though I wasn’t exactly sure what happened. “What do you think?” she asked.

I couldn’t admit I was shocked and in way over my head. And I didn’t want to sound like the nuns or a parent. That would be suicide. So I told her what I thought she’d want to hear. “Like, hey, it’s no big deal,” I told her. “It’s cool.”

I don’t know why I was Beth’s confidante in eighth grade. Maybe because our school was small and I made a good listener. Anyway, it wasn’t like she had the same options life offered at the big public junior high. I was known to be funny but wasn’t popular, not how it really counted. Boys weren’t trying to get into my underwear and, if they were, I’d probably lie there like a doll in an undershirt. Equipped with Catholic sex ed, I was prepped to repeat age-old mistakes. What I did understand was Beth’s friendship mattered. Hell, the way she adjusted her uniform on that curvy body and smoked and drank was impressive, no matter where you went to school.

Our parents, like many, enrolled their kids in a parochial setting to avoid the morally rudderless public system. To this I say, though we attended Mass often, we also stole booze, lied easily, and swore. I belonged to a seasoned bunch at St. Thomas and, desperate to mimic, finally overreached by bragging that I used to get high a lot. Said the reason I didn’t smoke anymore was because it was boring. (Boring? I was also too stupid to realize how ridiculous this sounded coming from a kid.) Beth correctly suspected I was lying and dogged me to join her. My real fear wasn’t reefer madness, it was that I couldn’t inhale an ordinary cigarette without choking. After running the bullshit string out to its end, I had no choice but to report to the woods after school and prove I was a veteran pothead.

Unfortunately for me, spectators came despite the fear of getting busted. (Hedging the bet, one friend watched seated on her bicycle while leaning against a tree.) Fessing to a whopper lie was not an option so I acted familiar with the routinized talk around cleaning weed and preparing a pipe. Finally, the lit bowl was passed. Freaking out on the inside, I took a tense, weak drag and...felt nothing. Nothing! Smooth as silk that smoke went down. The relief was palpable. I quickly took another, bigger hit and then broke protocol by hogging. “I told you I did this before!” My coolness skyrocketed in the way where you’re powerful when no adults exist.

That winter, I made the basketball cheerleading squad because I was small and easy to lift. Beth, on the other hand, was the best athlete and best-built cheerleader. As a dare, she suggested we get high before a game, just us two. Even she never did something like this before. Suffice it to say, there’s a qualitative difference between getting high in an empty house after school and cheering Catholic grade school sports. Unable to stop the momentum, I was in.

Game night turned out to be super cold. It was miserable crouching in a dark field in pleated skirts with bare legs. After a couple of deep hits and gum chewing, we cut through the parking lot. Crossing the threshold into fluorescent lights, I stepped inside an intensely colorful gymnasium mocked-up at three-quarter scale.

The seventh-grade game was winding down and that darn game buzzer kept randomly going off. Piling our coats and purses into a corner, my squad lined up in front of the bleachers. For some reason, we cheered constantly. How on earth was I supposed to remember words with parents and teachers staring back at me? I asked no one in particular, “Um, which end is our basket again?”
I couldn’t look at Beth. We both knew this was some crazy shit. Two really high children wearing fresh blue and gold uniforms, swishing our pom poms and shouting, “DEFENSE! DEFENSE!” When I wasn’t laughing, I was guilty and soiled standing next to a squad-mate in crisp hair bows and strawberry lip gloss.

That summer, Beth hooked up with an older boy from a nearby town and our friendship trailed off. Kids I met at the public high school were unfamiliar with details of my old life. Hanging with runners and tennis players, I jogged and picked up a racket. And I hit puberty after, instead of before, living some stuff. This time around, I wore loafers, button-downs, and feigned ignorance about smoking weed. Not cunning so much, I just understood how people don’t let you change.

Teachers took Beth at face value, with her wild hair and dirty feet, and stopped trying. Word at school was her 16-year-old sister had to get married. The last time we spoke was during a passing period and I nosily asked about it. She insisted her sister wasn’t pregnant, declaring “No, they’re really in love, man!” This time she looked away.

At 15, Beth got pregnant, too, and her parents mind-blowingly signed off on a marriage to the boy-father. They had three children by the time she turned 21 and worked as caretakers for a small resort motel up north. When her kids were still young, an old classmate ran into her shepherding them one Sunday morning outside Mass. He told me that when she saw him, she started crying.

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Names have been changed for this piece. Years in the writing, I think of Beth often.