TRUE BLUE: The Quarterback and the Cheerleader
By about April or May of this past year, I started hearing more and more people pray for 2020 to be done. They kept clinging by their claws to the day when Blessed 2021 would at last save them.
No fucking way. This pandemic isn't over. The social crises of last summer and the past few years didn't disappear just because we had an election coming up.
Did everyone forget what happened four years ago when a TV personality became our next President? Did everyone forget what happens to powder kegs--I mean people who have been put under the ginormous thumb of protracted, catastrophic trauma and then lit on fire? Did everyone forget what happens when a bunch of those people who are D-U-N-Done with being trapped under soul-squishing heels for centuries or millennia are then subjected to The Plague?
But I was a History Major, and I build fantastical political/social entities and then crumble or explode them into smithereens for fun. (My fiction is Twisted History & Myth, if you didn't know.)
So since there's nothing I can do today except continue to clean up my own personal messes and try to make sense of how I got here in the hopes of never repeating the mistakes of my own history...since sharing this journey might help anyone else in similar situations--or heck, maybe just take your mind off Elephants & Donkies for awhile...let's return to September 1987, a very different world from the one in which we live today.
But not really.
...by the time I walked back into those halls as a 9th grader, all those steamrolling, back-to-back traumas had irrevocably altered me from the owl-eyed little girl who had first opened my 8th grade locker.
I applied myself diligently in school. Nothing new there. I remained my straight-A self. I devoted myself to dance, gymnastics, and cheerleading. I determined to teach myself how to do a back-handspring the way I had taught myself to do back-walkovers. After volleyball season ended, I clamped tenacious teeth onto figuring out how to hack my rapidly changing fourteen-year-old body that I couldn't quite control. Midway through my fifteenth year, I had acquired a three-foot-vertical jump that allowed me to spike the ball inside the ten-foot-line--and I wasn't yet 5'5". I remained the junior and senior flute players' steadfast third chair, sometimes rocked the oboe part because we had no oboe players, and I began learning piccolo. I starred in the One Act Play Contest.
And I wasn't.
School was the place that contained the facilities where I could participate in my hobbies and passions, and it contained the five boxes I needed to check off my list in order to launch out of that town forever-amen:
✅ Freshman Year: EXCEL.
✅ Sophomore Year: EXCEL.
✅ Junior Year: EXCEL.
✅ Senior Year: EXCEL.
✅ Graduate: NEVER LOOK BACK.
If I could remain on top, I could get a scholarship to college without having to rely on my parents' questionable ability to pay for it. That ability increased with every year through my high school adventures, but I remained keenly attuned to the stress in my dad's face and posture as he hunched over the checkbook every week. The image of that little red budget book had been branded into my mind's eye. It had a golden envelope to hold the cash for each of our household's expenses, and I never forgot all those years when my parents had no more than $5 for the rest of the month after paying them. Back then, a lot of my clothes and those of my dolls had been hand-me-downs or made by hand, sometimes from recycled fabric. Many of my toys were the same.
Upon starting ninth grade, I had closed and locked the beloved treasure chest that had once held Reliance On Mother (we didn't know she had Chrons' Disease), and my teenage personality caused ever-worsening clashes with my dad, so I refused to place my essential need of escaping Hell in anybody's hands but my own.
I strode through those locker-laden halls with my eyes focused on one thing: Leaving.
To my shock and relief, my classmates did not resume that two-month bombardment of torment when we came back in the fall. That wasn't out of the ordinary. It usually took some major transgression to re-trigger the standard undercurrent of dislike and ostracizing into the typhoons that sometimes raged.
But even more surprising: the degree of ruthlessness I had experienced in eighth grade never returned. Not once over the entirety of our high school years.
I don't know if my classmates grew up a little over the summer, if my prior transgressions had slipped their minds and they had other fish to fry, or if my Ice Princess attitude made it less fun to pick on me. Maybe it had something to do with the obnoxious blue-and-white letter jacket of our rival school's all-star athlete wrapped around me, reminding them day after day that there was another 6'2" jock who might be inspired to kick their asses if they kept putting their hands on me.
I honestly can't say why. I never asked, and they certainly never told me.
Whatever it was, they let me pass through those halls unmolested, and I pretended they didn't exist except when we were forced to cooperate for some universal school endeavor.
I know I talked to people. I know I smiled and laughed and participated. But my high school memories do not include the energy of genuine friendship-bonding with anyone except my bestie Mari, and to a lesser degree, a handful of other smart, kind kids who came and went in my social proximity--mostly misfits. I also had a soft spot for the younger cheerleaders who hadn't been tainted by my old reputation.
But I had lost something.
It had been tenuous to begin with. From the moment I popped out of my mother's womb, I'd never understood the ways in which the majority of people around me--even friendly, amazing people--bonded. After everything that happened in eighth grade, most of the pathways in me that might have allowed me to figure it out had been severed. I replaced the joys of connection and community with the dopamine of accomplishment.
You can recognize the disparity between those things by what is almost always missing amidst my torrent of activities: a smile that reached my eyes.
I did make...yes...I would call them friends with a few of the girls who moved to our school in our final years. But they were instantly popular, so there was always a level of disconnect that prevented deep trust and intimate connection. That was partly from the gossipy influence of who they hung out with, and partly from my reaction to their presence in The Enemy Camp. I didn't blame them wanting to find safety in a new school, but I kept my wary distance, even though I didn't want to. I liked them a great deal. (Kind of a general theme for me.)
One of them was also a flutist. Her arrival officially did in my chances of ever obtaining that coveted first-chair position in band--a well-earned ousting. She was amazing, and we spent many a study hall in the echoey stairwell outside the band room working our way through a monster book of duets.
Another of our latecomers discovered my amenable nature toward the end of senior year. One afternoon, she made a surprise confession of her broken heart to me after some nastiness had left her alone, slumped over in the library during study hall.
I could feel her pain from two tables away. "Are you okay?" I asked her.
She came to sit with me, and before I knew it, she had spilled the whole tale. She, like many strangers throughout my life, learned that my shoulder is a soft place upon which to lay an aching head. People have always opened their hearts with me in ways they normally don't, and I have always been a gazillion times better one-on-one than in groups. In those last couple months of high school, she and I developed a kinship I always wished had gotten to spark earlier.
Other than that, I had sworn a vow about The Pack, Queenie's Court, and the boys in my school.
And I kept it: Never Again.
I know we interacted. There are photos of us laughing together, doing activities together. Here and there, I shared sweet moments with the kids who had never been cruel. But with every year that passed, I became less and less a member of that school, and more an adoptee of our rival town.
It had started with that dance at the end of eighth grade, and became official early in ninth grade.
At the volleyball championships, I sat in the bleachers with Mari between games, watching our rival school play their opposition. Across the way, a swath of blue-and-white-clad spectators had gathered, including one of the boys I knew from all those hikes and swim nights with Suzy over the summer. Next to him sat someone who was...
Tall, muscular, handsome.
I couldn't be sure across the breadth of a gymnasium, but I was pretty sure he was staring at me like I was staring at him. The next day, I called my buddy to ask. Turns out, the guy he was sitting with was his cousin.
My buddy set us up and the rest is history. I officially became a trope: The Quarterback and the Cheerleader.
His name was Carlton Gregg, and like many of the guys he ran with, people called him by his last name more often than his first. Some even assumed that was his first name--Greg.
But I was not most people, and I called him Carl, like his family did. In certain moments...in certain...situations, I called him Carlton Gabriel.
(Although rarely with the full vociferous magnitude of my cheerleader's booming alto.)
After all, Carl and I were fifteen and not-quite-seventeen, so our explorations of each other had to be conducted undercover through intense machination. Make no mistake, I rectified my former cluelessness about where to bring a hot, older boy for make-out-sessions in short order.
I will admit though, the first time Carl and I ventured past kissing, we were curled up together in the windbreak provided by the side entryway of my high school, not far from where the Mosquito Incident had gone down. It was spring break, which meant there weren't even any teachers or janitors around. Not a single car in the parking lot, so when Carl and I went for a walk to enjoy a blessedly sunny day at the end of the bitter Minnesota winter, we just happened to migrate over to that secluded, covered bit of concrete that looked out onto the football field.
Appropriate, I thought.
I also thought his reaction to my hands was a thing of magnificence. In contrast to the despicable way I had been introduced to sexual rapture in the male species, the only thing that kept Carl (mostly) silent was that we were in (sorta) public space. This time, the experience also included plenty of words and kisses and soft touches to my face as he gazed into my eyes like I was his dream come true.
He was certainly mine. In spite of being Mr. Quarterback, Mr. Slamdunk, Mr. Trumpet Player Extraordinaire, Mr. Slapshot, and Mr. Baseball All-State, he was even quieter and shier than I was.
Okay, who are we kidding? I'm an outspoken, thunder-voiced hothead. What? It made me a fabulous cheerleader and it served me well onstage. I only played the shy wallflower Ice Princess to keep The Pack off my back, and to prevent conservative Minnesotans from truly comprehending the degree of weirdo projects, too-geeky encyclopedia references, and diabolically twisted, dark-chocolate things running mazes through my head.
Carlton Gregg, on the other hand, allowed me to finally, at long last and hallelujah, explore which delectable toppings I preferred to drizzle all over his vanilla ice cream cone.
We strolled the long route to everything we did, fully savoring every sight and scent along the way. I mean, it took half a year before we even started rounding bases, which was perfect for me. He was incredibly sweet. Deeply kind. Conscientious and intelligent, and as serious about school as I was.
He was also as serious about me as I was about him. He beat me to the punch in using that Almighty L-Word, and I didn't hesitate to say it back.
It was his letterman's jacket that caused all that ruckus in my school. He wrapped it around me one afternoon as we made our way back to my house after another walk. I'd shown him the springtime woods of my childhood this time. The day was warm enough for him to take it off, yet he noticed that that the freeze-baby was shivering in her garish black-and-neon-pink ski coat. (Hey, man, it was the 80s, don'tcha know.)
When we got back to my house and lingered outside his car, neither one wanting to part, I went to take his jacket off and return it. He grasped the sleeves to halt me. "You can keep wearing it," he said, with that subdued smile of his, eyes downcast, grin growing bigger by the second. "If you want to."
I held it close, overjoyed. Then I tackled him in a hug.
For the better part of a week, that jacket still smelled like him. I liked smelling like him. It wasn't long before I had his class ring to match it. I wound thick white yarn around it so I could wear it on the first finger of my left hand. When we began talking about marriage, I moved it to the ring-finger. It was huge and clunky and I adored its cumbersome weight.
I adored Carlton Gabriel Gregg a thousand times more.
Memory: Summer 1988
15 years old
Craning my head, I peer down the dirt road with a hard squint. My lips quirk up. My eyebrow lifts. There is no dust stirred up by an approaching car. No one's coming up the driveway behind us either. Of course not. No one is home at Carl’s house. But I have to make sure one more time.
With the certainty that we’re alone, I waggle my eyebrows at him. He flashes a mischievous grin back. Then we grasp hands and sprint across the waist-high field of grass toward the two-room shack.
His family calls it the Playhouse, because it was built for him and his sister when they were kids. It's painted blue with pink trim, a glorious eyesore of dilapidated splendor atop the hill that overlooks their long driveway. The drive takes a sharp curve where it dips below the hill, swooping past the ditch near the house. From there, all view of the Playhouse is obscured by trees and hillside, so we can get away with doing this even when his family is home.
And we do.
Only the neighbors far and away down the road would be able to see our miscreant dash, were they to get out their binoculars or drive down the dirt road.
But the road is empty today, so we bound across the field. Giggling, we scramble through the door, past the kitchen with its broken-down table and old play stove, over crunchy leaves and dust-covered toys, pots, dishes and dolls, into the back room--the bedroom.
Three old mattresses, stained from years of household use and then neglect in the Playhouse are piled atop a rickety frame. A dresser is crammed between it and the wall, heaped with old lamps and other unused furniture.
Carl wedges his way in and opens the middle drawer to grab the pillows we have stashed inside. I retrieve the blankets we’ve stuffed between the mattresses. Once we’ve made our love nest, we climb up and are soon naked and entwined, two young, supple bodies moving near each other, against each other. Hands testing, exploring, lips locked, sweat mingling. The whirring hum of insects drills through the walls and wafts through the broken windows. The low buzz of a bumblebee descends from the attic.
I glance above Carl’s shoulder to watch it ricochet off the remaining shards of glass in the window up there. Finally, it finds the hole and zips outside.
As Carl’s kisses recapture my mouth and my undivided attention, I wrap all my limbs around him. He rolls me onto my back and sprawls up my abdomen. I love the muscular weight of him, the size of him, the scent of him. Our bodies are slick, sliding against each other. Our kisses are slow, as heady as the summertime swelter.
When he draws back, he beams down at me, and my heart flutters. He often smiles with his mouth closed because his teeth are a little crooked. People used to tease him about that, but I’ve finally gotten him to show me his full grin whenever he’s happy. He must be incredibly happy right now, by the size of his smile and the glow in his eyes. He is so beautiful with his sandy hair stuck to his forehead. His eyes are the color of melted milk chocolate. So sweet, so beautiful and mine.
“I love you,” he murmurs.
I hug him close, eyes shutting in rapture, for he is all I need in the world. “I love you, too, Carl.”
He kisses me, touches, moves, teases, moves in to kiss me once more--
Both our eyes shoot open.
That movement shifted our bodies half an inch. More than enough.
He’s frozen there, poised on the edge of the cliff, rock-solid and precarious. A sudden gravity overtakes his expression. The summer heat takes a hefty surge upward. Five degrees. Ten. The air is so hot, so heavy. There’s a rushing in my ears. My eyes grow even wider.
His gaze questions.
I can barely breathe.
Then all sound ceases and the world vanishes. A wave of complete calm washes through me. I exhale slowly. Easily. My body melts toward him, barely a movement, but with the way we’re joined I see it in his face--he can see it in mine.
My unmistakeable YES with copious please drizzled all over the top of it.
There is a moment of awkward maneuvering. One side of his mouth lifts. We share another giggle, and then there is only him and me. Him joined with me. The ship steering into the canal. The parting of the Red Sea. There is no pain--there wouldn’t be. He’s already memorized my most intimate space by hand, so there is nothing but this magnificent opening. Broadening.
The warmth of robust heaven fills and fills and fills each iota of every emptiness I have ever known. He is here with me, in here where I live my most secluded, private moments. With his searing hardness, he delves into me. In where I breathe. Then beyond into a space within me that I did not know existed. His gaze penetrates mine, plumbing, plumbing until it kisses that space.
My fingers clutch his forearms. He moves again, a touch deeper. Then he starts to pump in and out. My breathing tumbles out. Gasping. “Carl…” My feet grip the mattress. I push my hips up to meet him--wreck his rhythm. He makes a low noise, finds it again--IN, out…IN, out…
Something is happening. A thrum. A tingling thrum, making all my hairs sing on end with his every thrust. My sweaty palms clap onto his face. His brows furrow and his panting grows louder, then vocal.
IN, out…IN, out…IN—
“Oh, my God!” He trembles, muscles and sinews straining. Then he jerks himself out of me and throws his head back with a series of satisfied bellows.
I watch him in mesmerized wonder. He is glorious with his face all contorted, his tendons and veins popped out.
With a titanic sigh, he collapses on top of me, heavy with his full weight, utterly spent. His breath echoes in the silence of the Playhouse.
I grin. Playhouse, indeed.
As his frame gives off a few little tremors, I pat his back, rub his shoulder, press his head close to me. One of his damp hands reaches up to grasp mine. We twine fingers and chuckle into the summer haze, replacing our intermingled bodies with intermingled laughter. There is a wonderful little pool growing cool beneath me where he has dumped himself out onto the mattress.
I exhale against his shoulder, kissing it. My grin could split my face. My heart could burst my ribcage--could burst the very walls of this place. As I breathe out another rapturous sigh, my eyes trail the dust particles floating in the sunbeam of the attic window.
“I love you,” he whispers again, into my ear as he burrows closer and closer. "Oh, my God, I love you so much."
With a euphoric hum, I enfold him in all my limbs and press his cheek more tightly against my breast. “I love you, too.” With a soft kiss on his temple, I murmur that most cherished of names. “Carlton Gabriel Gregg.”
Once dressed again and tidied up, and once our secret love-bower is transformed back into a pile of unused furniture, we peek out the doorway. The afternoon shadows have grown longer. The sun is lower, more muted from the brilliance that beamed down upon us when we dashed across the field a few hours ago. There are still no cars on the road, so we clasp hands and sprint once more through the grass. We’re sure to take a different route each time so that we never trample a tell-tale path. Skidding onto the dirt, we skip down the drive, our hair soggy, our cheeks full of heat, our smiles more radiant than the sun.
We paint on the casual-face, acting as though we have just come from a trek through the state park, which is what we would say if anyone asked where we were.
What? Sometimes it's true.
Okay, it used to be true before that first sneak to the Playhouse.
My tennis shoes crunch the gravel of the road, but I can barely feel it. I feel as though I have just accomplished the most wondrous feat in the history of the world!
When I glance at Carl, the light in his eyes says that he feels it, too. He walks a little taller with his chin lifted and his steps bouncy. My hand twines more tightly about his. I have never felt closer to anyone in my whole life. We have done this thing together.
We’ll do everything together from now on, I just know it.
Upon reaching the empty house, we whip up a box of macaroni-and-cheese to fulfill our ravenous appetites. We quench our thirsts with cherry Kool-Aid.
When his mom bustles in from work, she is met with the same scene as yesterday and three days before--her son and his girlfriend sitting at the table, smiling at each other and eating a wholesome lunch, fit to be served to any good, Midwestern children.
But everything has changed. I've given Carl my First Time, and he's given me his.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE:
--UP NEXT: CINDER-BELLA - Ballrooms, Ballplayers, Boulders & Byrds
--OR: for my neuro-nerds, this is the talk by Simon Sinek that helped me understand how the stresses of childhood bullying and social isolation impacted my budding brain, and why I chose the coping mechanisms I did. Many people who lack the serotonin and oxytocin produced by communal belonging try to fill their neurological voids with drugs, alcohol, and other addictive substitutions that at least produce dopamine and endorphins. Are you beginning to understand which ones I chose?
--OR: if you don't know the past incidents I referenced, you can find them LOVE, SEX & VIOLENCE - My Earliest Experiences