BITTER INFATUATION 1961 . . .
COMPOSED 1971 . . .
RE-READ THROUGH TEARS 2019 . . .
“THAT THOUGH THE RADIANCE WHICH WAS ONCE SO BRIGHT BE NOW FOREVER TAKEN FROM MY SIGHT. THOUGH NOTHING CAN BRING BACK THE HOUR OF SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS, GLORY IN THE FLOWER. WE WILL GRIEVE NOT, RATHER FIND STRENGTH IN WHAT REMAINS BEHIND.” (WORDSWORTH)
Puberty first smirked at me early in seventh grade. That awakening came even more cruelly to me than to most. “Nerd” had not yet become the operative word in a world whose boundaries were defined by “cool” and “un-cool.” I was bluntly un-cool, but I had not yet given in to it.
Armstrong Elementary: I fumbled and stumbled in my attempts to be numbered among the cool, oblivious that it had already been deemed unattainable by the social conventions of adolescence in Jewish Chicago, circa 1961.
Truth be told, I was every mother’s dream. But deep inside I knew that I was no more than the product of my own ambivalence: desperately yearning to be cool, yet equally desperate to please parents who demanded a son who was obedient, neatly groomed, respectful, academically superior, the very antithesis of cool.
The path to cool could not be paved with science fair victories, prize-winning essays on Americanism, sharing a bedroom with one’s grandmother, a wardrobe determined by a mother’s definition of taste, a father’s insistence that a crew cut was the only sensible utilization of a barber’s services. No, this was match for Jerry’s well-greased pompadour, or Eddie’s slack-jawed indifference, or Barry’s talent for producing disruptive burps.
The payoff of coolness was entree to a circle of girls who were “cute.” Elaine and Marlene wanted me, but they were not cute. Lois Lanzbaum’s mother would have signed the pre-nup on the spot, but Lois was not cute, although she finally married a rabbi. “Cutes” wore jackets designating them as “Coledas.” They teased their hair, popped their gum, talked back to their mothers, and had discovered that coquettish-ness could co-opt a boy’s nascent sexual urges without violating the line that discerned between “cute” and “fast.”
Cool boys got cute girls. That did not deter my fantasies, nor sober me to the truth that adolescence cruelest when one tries to intrude where he does not belong.
The synagogue youth group was having a dance. Let parental advice be damned. Nothing would suffice but to ask a cute girl to be my date. Egged on by cool boys, eager for a good laugh at Marc-the-lummox trying to penetrate their circle, I got the bravado to call the lissome Shelly. She would, er, uh, have to let me know. Shelly did not call.
“I wouldn’t waste my time on a girl who swears,” my mother counseled.
Undaunted, I shifted my intentions to the voluptuous Eva. It was as if the script for rejecting un-cool boys were the Coledas’ rite on initiation. She too errrr-ed and uhhhhh-ed and never called back.
“Why do the boys like her so much, anyway?” my mother attempted to soothe.
Time drew short. Among the cute, only the diminutive Robin remained. I approached her in the schoolyard.
“Will you come with me to the dance tonight?”
“Er . . . Uh . . . “
“I’m going to Hebrew School,” I said, “but if you call my mom, she’ll pick you up and we’ll go to the dance right afterward.”
I can still remember the outfit I wore, knowing – in denial – that Robin would not emerge from our Rambler to dance the Bristol Stomp with me. My white v-neck, gray pants, white crew socks, and dirty bucks.
The only part of the fantasy that came true was the Rambler. No call, no picking up, no dropping off, no Robin, no dance.
I returned to my place not angry, but humiliated.
Humiliation lingered like most pubescent dreams until I discovered deeper circumspect wisdom that I refuse to admit sounded conspicuously like the advice my mother would dispense: The virtues of inner charm, the deceit of superficial beauty, the fleetingness of popularity, the preciousness of a good companion, the qualities that truly endure.
So now, I find myself embracing the same virtues that loving parents encouraged upon me. They are the values that I, wiser for the years and tears, have preached to my own children, who seem to have transcended the vaunted merits of cool and cute. I have, though, carefully avoided telling them that a little unsettled part of me would still trade all my platitudes about inner beauty for it to be 1961 and me to be cool.
Shelly, Eva, Robin, if by some unearthly chance you read this, I still have a pair of dirty bucks, and I’m still hanging by the phone waiting for you to tell me that you’ll come to the dance. Linda would doubtlessly understand. If you call, I don’t know whether I’d laugh or cry.