The Girl on the Cover of Seventeen
© Copyright 2014 by Carl Winderl
2014 Biographical Nonfiction Winner
I was just seventeen myself, when she appeared as the cover girl of the March, 1967, issue of Seventeen magazine.
Catherine Jean Dix. Cathy Dix, as she was known in my senior Bio-Chemistry class at Pompano Beach Senior High School (PBSHS), when she earlier appeared in our class on the Tuesday after Labor Day as she and I and about 750 other students began our senior year together.
But the absolute very first time I’d ever seen her was in Advanced Junior English the fall before.
She’d transferred in to PBSHS as a new student, sometime in October, because her father’d been transferred to our little Florida beach town. He was some kind of upper-management executive type high up in the Florida Bell Telephone System.
On that fall October day she appeared in our class as if freshly sprung fully formed from the very head of Zeus. Not as Athena so much, perhaps more like Venus. With a strong aura of Aphrodite also about her, maybe like a corolla. Obviously, I’d been taking Latin II at the time, translating Horace and his roll call of the gods and goddesses.
And what was I then but a scrawny five-ten 145-pound scrub on the varsity basketball team. Pimple-faced and teeth-braced for the worst, I was also a scrub in that Advanced English class, trying to disguise my manifold insecurities and self-imposed misgivings stemming from my poor white trailer-trash legacy, artfully concealed behind a carefully veneered Gwendolyn Brooks’ inspired “scholarly nonchalance.”
I feared my peers at-large would discover my itinerant alcoholic father’s prolonged absences, his rages and rampages fueled by hard liquor, capitalizing his Merciful Departures for parts unknown for months and sometimes years on end, God willing. And I dreaded too my peers knowing my mother toiled six days a week waiting tables at a marginal breakfast & lunch joint up in Deerfield Beach, on Federal Highway, a.k.a., U.S. 1.
Then I’d be undone, known for what uncool parents I’d sprung from.
Into my carefully manicured and cultivated façade, Cathy not so much entered as floated – no, glided into my adolescent daymare world. No. It was more like she had washed ashore on opalescent sea foam, to barefoot press her toes on the beach sand of my heart.
At five-ten-and-a-half with luxuriant dark chocolate waist-length hair she slipped into the room, a goddess pure and simple, innocent and complete. I knew it then, and recognized it so. She tred upon the earth in Gina Lolabrigida’s body and smiled from Audrey Hepburn’s face gracefully photo-shopped in place.
As if to confirm my early awareness, the editors at Seventeen would officially crown her as such a wonder eighteen months later.
That was then. Now, I’m a Professor of Writing, Creative Writing actually, with a Ph.D. in it from New York University, and four years from retirement, should I so choose. And I’m feeling very Vonnegut-esque these days, as he did at about the same age: an old man, late at night, alone with his Pall-Malls, a rotary phone, and a telephone directory. That is so me now, except for the Pall-Malls. And the phone. I don’t even have a cell, or some variation thereof. But I do have access to classmates.com. Or used to, actually. I let that membership lapse, shortly after our 40th Class Re-union, which I did not attend. Like all of the other high school re-unions I’d also not attended.
Because of self-imposed sequestering and time-release though, I think I’m finally to the point that I can write about her and what didn’t happen, then. Only almost did.
So, fair warning: read no more. Stop, right now. If not interested in just one more love-gone-wrong, pathetic sob story before it even got very much started – read no further. I freely admonish and admit: this slice-of-life piece has its pathos, and its nadir.
Most sincerely: do not read on. Or read something tried, true, and proven on this topic, like Sherwood Anderson’s short story “I’m a Fool.” In fact, I highly recommend it.
I even thought about titling this piece “I’m a Fool, too.” But now I don’t have to. I’ve said as much. And will show so.
As Holden Caulfield might say, “if you really want to know the truth,” I dropped out of that Advanced Junior English class at mid-year, even though I’d taken to worshipping Cathy from afar, from about three rows over and several seats back. She was a “D” and I was a “W”; even so, I had a good sightline from where I sat, catty-corner pretty much from the back of the room to the front.
I sat usually mesmerized by her profile and occasional sidelong glances and over-the-shoulder looks at our classmates, and certainly once or twice to me, I’m sure of it, as we all answered up in turn when called upon.
But my lingering stares and her once-in-a-great-while glance my way was not compensation enough for the ridicule and scorn I received from the rocket-scientists-in-training and future self-proclaimed Einsteins-to-be. I was the only jock in the class, perhaps only a pseudo-jock since I was such a basketball scrub. Well, in that class I was a certifiable scrub.
But how bad off was I as a hoop scrub? This bad: I was constantly, desperately scrambling, scrabbling, scrapping for any playing time whatsoever. Any end-of-the-game garbage time would have suited me just fine. However little didn’t matter, I was so desperate for some playing time. Any at all.
A minute would have been a personal best. But I was happy with 15 or 20 seconds. Just to get my warm-up off, report to the scorer’s table, kneel in anticipation, praying for a clock stoppage. I had that play down. Warm-up off. Report in. Kneel down. Pray for time to stand still.
I was so practiced at it. I could do it in my sleep. In fact, I so often did.
Just to step onto the court, with the hopes of even touching the ball. I became almost delirious at the thought. Giddy even. My mouth could go all cottony at the mere prospect of it.
And I was content with “pity seconds,” even with only 8, or 6, a few times. Just to get my name in the scorebook. And in the box scores for the games in the afternoon edition of The Fort Lauderdale News and the morning Sun-Sentinel. So what if my last name was listed last in the box score. As long as it was there. Even with nothing but zeroes after it, including full minutes played.
For that I struggled all week long in practices, endured suicides and being a dummy on the scout team. For so little recognition, and acknowledgment that I barely existed. Despite my best efforts.
And despite my best efforts to stay apace with all the brainy nerds, male and female, including Cathy, my recognition to be accepted by my peers always fell a little short to their notice, not the teacher’s necessarily. But I couldn’t quite cut it in there, kind of like a jump shot just grazing the net because it was released on the way down, not at the peak of the jump.
But no matter my meager academic accomplishments, they were put in the shade by the witty repartee among the class’ intelligentsia and cognoscenti who lampooned and broadcast to our classmates my pathetic lack of playing time and my even more dismal productivity where it counted most – with “the scarcity” and even “paucity” of points. Their S.A.T. words. Not mine.
I suffered mostly in silence with my perfected scholarly nonchalance, not eager to venture into any battle of wits, so overmatched whether by their sheer physical numbers or by any individual’s IQ.
And yet, if memory serves me at all, I do recall, maybe once, even just once, oh, God, please let it be true, if only in my imaginative re-memory, seeing Cathy react with evident facial disdain to one of my tormentor’s taunts. Like maybe after this one, “Hey, Winderl – think they’ll ever let you take a shot before the season’s over?!!”
Bottom line, she was at least two million light years ahead of me on J. Frederick Coons’ “Developmental Stages of the Late Adolescent” continuum. I mean, she was about to be the cover girl for Seventeen, hard-copy circulation in those days of about 12½ million, while I was about to move up from super scrub at the very end of the bench to crack – maybe – the starting line-up sometime possibly before the end of my senior year. Depending on, helped along by, injuries to some starter(s).
As it was, I didn’t start the first game of my senior season but did come off the middle of the bench to score 14 very meaningful and timely points in a low-scoring game (we didn’t even score 50 points as a team – but won anyway), in a tooth-and-nail scrum narrowly defeating the Conchs from Key West High School, a state-ranked 3A basketball program. From that game on though I started for the rest of our 30+ game season.
All I needed – all I felt I ever needed – was just a chance. And that game proved to be one.
At the season’s end I reaped the rewards of my diligence: I had the pick of a half-dozen full-ride basketball scholarships.
So, on that first day-of-school Tuesday after Labor Day of our senior year, I sat already in Bio-Chem, next to my lab partner for the year, Rick Spadoni. He’d been a team-mate of mine the only year I ventured onto the football playing field of life: ninth grade, at Deerfield Beach Junior High School.
I’d weighed all of 105 pounds and stood 5’6” dripping soaking wet, which I often did during those desultory sultry August and September dog days, as the 4th-string fullback. Truly a pity position. By that season’s end though I would move up to 3rd-string only because Charles Inninger no doubt had my good fortune in mind when he broke his ankle.
Moving up to third string had not been my goal that season; if you really want to know the truth, finishing the season still weighing 100 pounds was the goal. Which I barely achieved.
But sitting next to Rick that day toward end of my first growth spurt, I topped out at 6’1” and 165 pounds, wet or dry. That was going to be a huge help in the upcoming hoop season.
Plus, that’d make me officially 2½” inches taller than Cathy.
And then what to my wondering eyes should appear in Bio-Chem but Cathy Dix, and her good friend Jan Bankert. Cathy glided and Jan walked into the classroom, slowing down just perceptibly enough to survey the seating options. Then Cathy took the lead and slid into a seat at the vacant black slate lab table-for-2 in front of Rick’s and mine.
Jan positioned herself in the seat directly in front of me. But Cathy swiveled in hers, catty-corner to me, and in front of Rick. “Hi, Carl,” she breathed at me from sideways in her chair, and “Hello, Rick,” she said to him, over her right shoulder. Then she returned her gaze to me, and let it rest there. And she smiled too.
Fortunately, it was one of those heavenly close-lipped smiles. Otherwise, if she’d parted her lips and teeth even a smidgen, I’d’ve slid right down her voice into her heart, and into the very core of her being.
So, I think now. But that is how I felt then.
And that’s how we sat, configured just that way all school year long. Mrs. Rhinehardt, our ultra-cool Bio-Chem teacher, whose husband was mayor of ultra-trendy Lighthouse Point, had let us choose our own seats, five days a week, during 6th period, right after lunch from 1:05 until 2:00. That’s the way the four of us sat, from that day until we graduated.
Seventh period was a free period for me, until 3:00 when I had to be ‘somewhere’ in the gym, readying for practice: getting taped, joking around in the locker room, jacking around on- or just off-court playing horse, eyeing the comings and goings of the cheerleaders, but warmed up and ready to go when Coach Morris blew his whistle only once at 3:30, to the minute when the second hand touched the 12. His style. And I’d eventually benefit from it.
By the end of the school year, Cathy and I’d progressed to the point in our “friendship” that we’d leave Bio-Chem together a couple three times a week or so to stroll toward mid-campus for 10 or 15 minutes of casual chit-chat. There we’d stand alone or with a classmate or two. Then we’d part, she to her Quill & Scroll after-school sessions, where she was the recording secretary, and me to the gym, where I was slowly but surely climbing the ladder to the starting line-up.
My growth spurt was going to soon produce dividends but moreso would be the payoff from playing 2 – 3 hours every day from the past season’s end, throughout the summer, up to the onset of fall practices.
Plus, I’d picked up some extra shifts at the local Kwik-Check where I bagged groceries 15 – 20 hours a week so that I could be a two-week camper at the Glen Wilkes Basketball Camp at Stetson University in Deland, up in North Central Florida. That had been a huge confidence builder as well as a significant skill enhancer.
All the while Cathy merely continued to glow and grow in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man. Awaiting too, I think, a Petrarch, a Shakespeare, or an e.e. cummings to immortalize her in a sonnet sequence.
That’d have to wait. I guess.
We never really dated, as such, our senior year, during school, that is. So now would be another place to stop reading, because the payoff, again, is not going to be pretty, as expected, or even hoped for, as in some hot ‘n’ heavy paradise by the dashboard light teen romance scenes.
Oh, I had some of those with Patrice Wilson, and with a couple of girls too from my home church and another church down in Fort Lauderdale, while Cathy probably had some with Steve Zimmerman.
So, they were the nemeses, I suppose, for Cathy and me. Patrice was the daughter of an enterprising pharmacist, owner of several drugstores in Broward County, later bought up by Eckerd Drugs, to be part of that chain’s megalithic Florida-wide stranglehold. And she was one of the Esther Williams on our men’s and women’s state championship swim teams. Middle-distance freestyle was her strength. Man, she could swim all day long.
I don’t know what Steve’s parental scene was all about, but he was our class’ perennial class president, would later graduate from Suwanee University and then on to seminary, and would become an Episcopal priest. And Cathy’d eventually be the vicar’s wife.
But before all that, Patrice would groom me, starting early in our senior year, mid-September or thereabouts, kind of like how Herbert Pocket improved upon Pip in Great Expectations. Looking back, I know now, and I think I suspected even then, she had singled me out, made herself available to me, just happening to show up enough times and in enough places, so that I’d notice her and think I was making the first move.
Whoever made the first move, she clearly set it in motion.
Not only was Patrice from a very wealthy family, living on the intracoastal, on the “right” side of A1A, but she was especially in the Clique. The Cool Kids Club. Which I never really was a bona fide member of. Even while she and I dated.
I lacked the pedigree, and the money. And as F. Scott Fitzgerald bemoaned a couple or so generations before I could: I’d missed out on the rugged good looks and sheer animal magnetism genes.
Well, I maybe achieved peripheral status in the clique, an honorary member sort of, after I’d been named MVP of our prestigious statewide Christmas Basketball Tournament and later Player of the Week once by The Fort Lauderdale News and also by The Miami Herald.
Maybe Patrice saw something in me early on that others would not see for a long time. Or ever. But Cathy, I now know, may have seen it even before Patrice.
Now might be another good stopping point, to go to YouTube and click on Bob Seeger’s “In the Wind.” Then listen real close to the refrain, “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” That’s real high up on my “to Tattoo” list. Ever my personal binary late lament, “to tattoo or not tattoo.”
But until basketball season was over, maybe into the end of March or the beginning of April Patrice and I were an on-again/off-again couple. Mostly on, or enough so that our brief and seldom off-times never really coincided too well with Cathy and Steve’s.
I now know and remember too too well.
Patrice and I weren’t on enough and late enough toward the end of our senior year to go to the Senior Prom, although Cathy and Steve were, and did go.
As David Ives might opine, “It’s all in the timing.”
Or not. As in our lives. Or mine.
Patrice and I hit it off often enough, long enough, and well enough, until I felt confident enough to enter a sub-orbital pattern near Cathy’s sphere.
Evenso, enough doubts lingered beneath the veneer of my studied nonchalance. I just couldn’t quite take it in that Cathy’d be someone who’d be more than casually interested in someone like me, beyond a casual tete te tete after class for 10 or 15 minutes strolling down the covered walkways after class, shielded from the relentless sunsplash of those clear blue cloudless spring Florida skies.
But she appeared to be so inclined.
Then came the cover of Seventeen.
How my feature stories in The Fort Lauderdale News and The Miami Herald paled, no blanched, to the glories of Cathy’s cover story; the several page photo-spread featured Cathy mounted on her favorite steed cantering effortlessly, standing as incongruity personified next to her steed’s stall, and smiling winsomely from the stables’ entrance, an oxymoron against the bucolic background; and flourished in her world in a meta-mini-essay on a photo shoot for an upscale woman’s boutique in Coral Gables.
My black & white newspaper features counted maybe 10 or l1 inches of column type and one accompanying grainy B & W action-shot per story. But it was a big deal to me.
And for most girls at PBSHS they professed Cathy’s Technicolor feature was no big deal, although inwardly no doubt they seethed, as Patrice herself revealed to me; and what I know now that I didn’t then was that collectively they all did “protest too much.”
As if to say, “Who was she?!” in Greek choral fashion and further opine, “that I am not?!!”
I thought the differences were all too obvious.
But Patrice, in her role as Leader of the Chorus, discounted Cathy’s lily-white complexion; I likened it to alabaster (and yet was smart enough not to say as much, out loud), while Seventeen regaled her southern porcelain charm. For Cathy shunned the sun, as she told me later, and revealed in her story that she preferred not the leathery look of a tan. Which of course Patrice had no control over since she spent hours a day in our high school’s outdoor Olympic-size pool. Ironically though, her daily exposure in the pool produced great tanlines, as I now still rather clearly recall.
And yet, my first-date with Cathy finally and at last occurred, almost, as school was about to end, after the Big Senior Prom Weekend I’d been absent from. Patrice had gone with the hot-shot son of some high-powered banker in Lauderdale; he’d taken time off from being a sophomore pledge at the University of Miami to squire around Patrice at the Prom, the Senior Breakfast the morning after, and on the day-trip cruise to the Bahamas.
As if I could have afforded any of that. Even if I’d wanted to go.
But Cathy and I were to have the most unlikely of first dates. Taking Cathy scuba-diving.
Maybe I mentally assumed the suppliant position, on bended knee, to clasp her goddess knees with my mortal hands, while she deigned to hear my plea. Yeah, it was probably something like that.
How I ever summoned the courage to propose such a preposterous first date, I truly do not remember. And, I have used every strategy in my creative writing arsenal to trigger some kind of recollection. Nothing. Blank. Zero. Nada. Batsu. Zilch.
However. Truly, the details of the past are not nearly as important as the feelings of the moment. In the remembering.
Nor as real.
But that was the set up. To be.
I’d arranged to take her scuba-diving, teach her how; she’d never been before. But she was game. First, I told her though, I’d teach her how to snorkel, and after she was used to that, I’d strap a tank onto her back, loop a two-stage regulator hose around her neck, and let her bite down on the mouthpiece, to receive the cool, dry fresh air under pressure, only on demand.
To do all of that she’d have to be in her bathing suit, a modest two-piece bikini, in those days no doubt. How I ever screwed up my courage to even suggest a thing still amazes me, when I ponder upon it.
Maybe I’m just making all of this up.
Unfortunately, I’m not.
I was to take Gina & Audrey by the hand and side-by-side swim beneath the waves. What was I thinking.
She was the girl on the cover of Seventeen for crying out loud.
Of course I had to have her phone number and her address, and I did. After Bio-Chem on Friday, we did what had become our usual after-class stroll and chat, and then we parted, she to her Quill & Scroll Meeting and me to the gym.
I was to swing by her house at nine on the next morning, Saturday.
We went our separate ways after saying to each other, “See you tomorrow morning.”
I remember turning around to watch her sedate, confident, purposeful, assured walk down the covered walkway away from me.
I swear I also never saw a goddess go her way, treading the earth, but I swear too there was something very unearthly in her gait.
Then I re-turned and headed to the gym where I’d work out, informally, with the next year’s varsity hopefuls. Even though I’d finally decided to accept a scholarship to play basketball for a small N.A.I.A. school in Illinois, Coach Morris still encouraged me to play during Spring Practice, to help the hopefull, and I knew it’d help me, as did he. So I did.
Not until sometime during my freshman year in college did I realize that of the half-dozen or so solid offers to play hoop in college, the one I’d chosen was not the best academically nor had the strongest hoop program in its conference. Rather, the one I chose was geographically the farthest from home. Over fifteen hundred miles away.
The next morning, Saturday, dawned gray, overcast, and gloomy. And the wind had picked up. It was an onshore breeze, gusty at times too. Of course, these details I remember.
And when I arrived beforehand at the beach, around eight or so to scout out the seas’s particulars, my suspicions were tragically confirmed.
White caps crested the sets, and wind-whipped waves broke in frothy cream upon the shore. Patches of loosened seaweed and seagrass floated in the troughs until scattered in the shorebreak, to lazily ebb and flow in the shallows, then to lie in rows along the high water mark, to dry in the gray humid air, once the tide would fully recede. And sand clouded the murky shallows, all the way out to the first reef, and beyond. The sea floor was nowhere to be seen. Visibility: zero.
I sat on one of the man-made rock jetties thinking, hoping, even praying, I am sure, for a turn in the wind, waves, and weather conditions, which I knew would never happen til at least the first of the week. A low pressure system had drifted across the Atlantic from the Bahamas. The gods were conspiring against me I was certain, Poseidon for sure, urged on no doubt by his father Zeus, all because I dared presume to consort with one of “theirs.” I was just another hapless mortal who should’ve known better than presume beyond mortal status my feeble attempt to consort with some one descended from Olympus. Even though the gods themselves commingled with normal mortals from the dawn of time itself.
Well past nine o’clock I sat there gazing at the leaden horizon, wondering no doubt why I’d been allowed, been brought so close to the cheese, but could not nibble at all upon it, only to see my hopes dashed and drowned in the rolling surf. I wasn’t quite that aware of Stephen Crane back then, though I had read “The Open Boat” for Advanced Junior English, but I know it now.
I went home, got through that day, church the next day, both Sunday services, Sunday after church lunch at my grandmother’s, and somehow dragged my sorry ass off to school Monday, and struggled through classes, until I slipped almost late into Bio-Chem, with not even a pity minute left on the clock before the tardy bell.
I slid into my seat, and Cathy greeted Rich and me pretty much like she always did, cheerily, and as usual made me feel like she always did, with that certain smile of hers for me.
Then she said, “Carl, I waited for you til twelve or so – I thought, I hoped maybe you’d call or something.”
I was brilliantly speechless, numb, as it settled in fully upon me. Why – hadn’t I even called.
Too scared. Too out of my league was she. I’d chosen the worst part of valor: to withdraw, into my scared self-estimate.
No, I couldn’t say any of the above, so into my gaping silence she then breathed, “I guess the weather was kind of yucky.”
The tardy bell clanged. I wasn’t saved nor spared by it, but into the deafening silence after I lamely squeaked, “Yeah, -- the water was really cloudy. Like the skies . . . we couldn’t have seen our hands in front of our faces.”
I managed to stammer all that out, including the limpid simile. Oh at last, my poetic brilliance was rearing its daft head.
Cathy simply smiled her Seventeen smile, exhaled, “too bad,” and turned to face forward as Mrs. Rhinehardt called the class to order.
And when the dismissal bell sounded freedom, Cathy gathered her things and stood, to wait beside her pushed back chair, for me, as I still lamely, gathered myself to stand almost next to her, and receive her usual celestial smile.
Together we walked out of the classroom, down the hallway, to the first covered-over walkway, and pretty much as always parted: she to Quill & Scroll, and me – to the gym. At our usual parting place, the intersection of our differences.
Wow. No blood, no foul.
I’d so set up Cathy and then stood her up so royally. Probably just about any other girl at school would have never ever had anything to do with me again. I know Patrice never would have; in fact, for less, she hadn’t.
But then Cathy wasn’t like anyone else. I knew it, but I couldn’t get myself to just be “me” then when with her.
My insecurities, my carefully contrived façade, and my studied scholarly nonchalance wouldn’t let me.
In the coming days graduation ceremonies loomed, the formal pomp and circumstance lurched at us. I sensed time’s wingéd chariot hovering ever near and felt the mixed blessing and curse of my high school career tumbling headfirst to its end, and my release to college far away, from home and a high school whose memories I longed to mostly forget, except for some senior year hoop moments and what was left of my “times with Cathy.”
After I’d stood her up and after Senior Prom when she’d been so squired around by Steve, I assumed I’d be relegated again to the back of the classroom in Junior Advanced English. But actually, Cathy seemed to want to talk more and longer after class, lingering til 3 o’clock some days at our intersection, even touching my arm on occasion, not just at my wrist or on my forearm, but squeezing my bicep I now do recall on occasion, as if to emphasize some point she was intent on making or in response to some half-hearted but fully lame attempt at humor I’d blurted, and I’m sure of this also: we even might have held hands a few times, too inappropriately long, letting them guiltily drop when we sensed someone approaching. But it was never Steve.
Were those halcyon days of yore, or what.
By then, as I too recall, Mrs. Rhinehardt had announced to the class even though it had been in the school paper, and the local ones before that that I’d accepted a scholarship to play basketball at a college in Illinois. The only other scholarship taken by one of my teammates was to Biscayne College, just south of Miami proper and a school half the size of the one I’d be attending up North. I think now that might have factored somehow into Cathy’s still lingering interest in me.
I remember though Patrice harranging me once during those last long but now lost dog days of Senior Skip Week, for why she railed at me exactly I don’t know since we had long since ended it for the final time and she was firmly ensconced in the arms of the UM glamour boy.
She button-holed me one day during Senior lunch out on the crowded patio with, “You walked right by me yesterday – and didn’t even say, ‘hi’ – didn’t even look at me.”
“Uh, -- what?” I cleverly rejoined.
“You know ‘what’!” she clamored, pointing an accusatory finger at me. “After school yesterday, you and your ‘Seventeen’ Queen just marched right past me!”
I looked around, a little nervously at our senior classmates watching, trying to listen in. Her finger jabbed me in the shoulder. I turned back to her, to hear her rail some more.
“You think you’re so High & Mighty. No – Tall & Mighty – the two of you. The Model. And the college basketball star. Hmmmph!” as she stomped off parting the sea of our classmates, leaving me in her wake. Standing in the shoals of remembrance. Blinking back at the sunshine’s blare.
Ironically, what I think I remember thinking as I watched her stomp off was, Wow – all the time in the sun and the chlorinated pool water had left her hair with some pretty amazing golden highlights and streaks in her naturally dirty blond hair. I’m sure the UM glamour boy couldn’t help but notice that too.
And so, graduation came and went; seven hundred plus of my classmates and I and Cathy marched across the stage at the far end of the gym where I had achieved so much hoop success and notoriety. No, actually, Cathy floated across the stage, as I recall, early on in the ceremonies when I was still on Red Alert; afterall, she was a “D.” And I merely still a “W,” who had to practically be roused from my half-awake dream of next year’s hoped- and longed-for college hoop glories. With some 500-plus students between her floating and my trudging across the stage I had plenty of time to daydream.
And I remember being particularly jolted into full wakefulness and awareness by Patrice’s scowl and hiss, “Wake up, Winderl! You’re not in class anymore.”
She too was a “W,” for Wilson, and so we sat with no more than a dozen students separating us. I complied, rose to my feet, joined the ranks, to shuffle off ahead.
Unlike most of the graduating seniors, I had no graduation parties to attend. Wasn’t invited to any. Evenso, I cared more than I ever would have dared to admit about being unceremoniously left out. I felt stoic, actually, because I was leaving my non-clique status and all that behind. And I consoled myself with the promise that I’d more than make up for it all in college.
And I would.
Instead, my grandmother planned a little commencement party at her house, for me, my mom and two younger sisters, my maiden aunt and her roommate, and of course my grandfather.
Neither she nor my “Pop” had even finished elementary school. And I was the first of their twelve grandchildren to go to college, and on a basketball scholarship no less. Only one other of my cousins would even go to college, but I’d be the only one to graduate. So to them it was a big deal.
To celebrate, my grandmother had baked a George Washington cake for me. And we had store-bought ice cream.
But what I most remember about that night was, pulling out of the gym parking lot after graduation, sitting in the passenger seat as my mom drove, with my sisters in the backseat, seeing Patrice skipping gaily through the parking lot, arm-in-arm, with the UM glamour boy.
And seeing her step out of her gown, throw it and her mortarboard into the crawlspace of his black as night Corvette convertible. Then she leaned into him for a big smooch and full body press before flouncing into her bucket seat while he gallantly held the door open for her then ceremoniously swung it closed upon her.
Knowing her as I did, I felt and feel relatively certain that scene was for my benefit as we inched past in the traffic crawl to the street exit. Oh, and for my mom and sisters’ too.
For the summer, I landed a job working construction, as a laborer for a small-time construction company out of Boca Raton; the general contractor for the crew was an early-morning regular at the diner where my mom waited at the counter and the four booths there. So, I dug footers, hauled lumber, concrete blocks, bags of cement, lugged anything else around the carpenters were too busy or too good to move, and generally did whatever anybody not too distracted from what they were doing to tell me what to do. I knew it was just for the summer.
All that I did for minimum wage, $1.75 per hr. back then. But I was happy for the work. The days were long and hot, and dragged mercilessly by, because I counted them over and over and over again, each day, until I’d leave for college.
It was a means to an end. I kept telling myself.
In the evenings I played hoop in a summer league run by Coach Morris and on off-nights played pick-up at the Lighthouse Point Courts, honing my game, enjoying my second growth spurt, and able to dunk the ball, at last, and with some authority.
But my dating life was a zero. Much as I had wanted school to be over and get on to college, the PBSHS scene was all my real social life was, such as it “was,” except for church, and playing hoop. I’d never really been any good at cruisin’ around and just pickin’ up chicks.
If you really want to know the truth, that’s probably the main reason I most wanted to play hoop: to make girls notice me.
As a ninth grader, even after I was cut from the boy’s freshman team at Deerfield Beach Junior High School, I longed more than ever to play hoop and just be around it, and so I hitched a ride to a few of the high school games at the huge PBSHS stadium-style gymnasium. After my second or third game there I hung around in the foyer afterwards: I wanted to see the players up close, in their street clothes, worship but not fawn before them. After all, they were mostly giants at 6’4”, 6’5”, and 6’6” – so much huger than life, especially to my lilliputian 5’6”.
And they were gods. I was sure of it, as all these stunning, drop-dead gorgeous high school girls clustered around them and clung to them once they’d emerged from the locker room and entered the foyer, stocked with trophy cases laden with state, regional, district, conference, and Christmas Tournament championship hardware. The players then strolled out into the brisk Florida night, dripping with beautiful 16- and 17- and 18-year old cheerleader types draped from their arms.
If Mephistopheles had been sharp enough to be on the sidewalk outside the hallowed halls of that gymnasium that night, I’d’ve signed on the dotted line, in triplicate, with my blood, or anybody else’s.
Instead, from then on, I knew what to dream about, hope for, and work toward. And I did.
But once I got to where I so longed and wanted and desired and craved to be I still couldn’t quite yet get a handle on who I was and how I was to act, even after I’d achieved their lofty status.
It’d still be a couple years away, once I’d been in college, and knew a little better how to really be the real me, with a woman I truly cared for.
Somehow though, and again the “early-on” details escape me, but I managed to one way or another ask Cathy to go out with me, on a real car date. And somehow or other I actually pulled it off; we went to a movie, the then newest Sean Connery James Bond flick “You Only Live Twice,” and afterwards for a bite to eat at Wolfie’s upscale New York-style delicatessen on then ultra-cool 17th Street Causeway in Fort Lauderdale, not far from then trendy Las Olas Boulevard, where we’d watched the movie at the ultra-cool Cinema 4-Plex – the first of its kind in all of Broward County.
I have no problems recalling those details, and more details about those details.
This too: my opening line and major pitch on the phone with Cathy to get her to go out with me in the first place: since I’d be leaving for college in a couple weeks and wouldn’t be back again for who knows how long maybe I can talk you into taking a chance on going out with me once before I go. All that, stammering and stumbling around Robin Hood’s barn about 40 times, and so carefully rehearsed into our bathroom mirror, to which Cathy simply said, “Yes – I’d love to Carl.”
I was transported by those simple words. I do so clearly recall them still.
Ever since school’d been out I had tried to stay in touch with her, calling every 2 or 3 weeks, hoping I’d have enough courage to pop the question for a date, but still too loudly hearing the clanging in my head of “I guess it was kind of yucky.”
In those days, guys still had to make all the first and follow-up moves, or so I assumed. And my moves were complicated, because I didn’t see her daily, couldn’t bask in the sunshine of her ethereal smiles. I had so little to go on, especially over the phone. First I had to have all of the house to myself, alone, no mom or sisters around to hear my halting attempts at being cool over the phone. I remember pacing the house, walking around the block on the nights I’d try to steel myself to simply dial her number.
Those were the days before social networks, when girls weren’t able to feel free to text, IM, e-mail, MySpace, Facebook, InstaGram, electronically stalk boys. It was all on me then, and it was always easier to skip calling her and just go play hoop.
Honestly, Cathy wasn’t the only egg in my basket. Other girls had my attention, 2 or 3 others, mostly a little younger girl and barely a moon in Cathy’s inter-planetary empyrium, where her orbit was only 2 or 3 planets removed in her ellipsoid from the helios. With those few others though, I could be me, the natural, transparent, real me, someone who didn’t feel the need to posture, to have to measure up to some real or imagined standard to be granted entrance into Cathy’s court.
Still Cathy was the one, the obvious one I focused on, hoped for, daydreamed about, even wished upon on those dark bleak desultory sultry Florida summer nights.
But she’d agreed to go with me, on the next-to-last Saturday before I’d leave for college.
On the drive down to the movie in Lauderdale proper, I’d chosen to wind our way through the upscale North Lauderdale residential neighborhoods along 23rd Avenue, eschewing the commercial hub-bub on Federal Highway, a.k.a., US 1.
Of all that we talked about on the way to the movie this one snippet still resonates too vividly from my unerasable memory tapes. We were coasting toward a red light ahead on Sunrise Boulevard, so I could afford to look at length at her as she mused aloud, “Carl, you know, I have a reputation to uphold -- live up to, don’t you?”
At the time I wasn’t sure if she was serious or not, for all senior year in homeroom I had had to overhear Steve boast of failures to get Cathy to do any more than park with him at the beach. And it was not at the clothing optional section of the stretch of sand. All this he regaled off in a corner to a select few fellow cliquers and assorted wannabes to the in-crowd.
Although he talked in conspiratorial whispers, they were still overspoken enough so that the rest of us had no choice, couldn’t help but overhear, despite my best efforts to concentrate on double-checking whatever Bio-Chem homework I’d rushed through the night before.
So I thought I had a pretty good idea of what reputation Cathy spoke, but I couldn’t tell from my vantage point behind the wheel to know where firmly planted was her tongue: alongside her cheek or at the ready behind those amazing lips and dazzling teeth. Although she smiled her coy smile at me.
To all of which I finally replied, “Yeah, don’t we all. Even me, I suppose.” My intent of course had meant to reflect upon Patrice and me which I knew, from my teammates’ occasional snide locker room comments that they assumed much more about us than had or ever would transpire. I had not yet become sexually active. That’d have to wait til college.
So maybe Cathy and I were both being everso ironic, in each our separate ways.
But on that drive to the movie my comment and its intent were perhaps a little too enigmatic to me who had let it be sent, and from she to me, unsure for sure of what she meant.
Cathy’s response gives me more clarity now, much more so than then when she through her smile replied, “And I suppose too you’ve heard that I’m the president of my local chapter of the PVA? . . . ”
That too I had heard, and I briefly said as much, not in so many words, but with a little nod, for numerous times in homeroom I had overheard Steve’s boastful complaint that he was sure Cathy was a member in good standing of the Pure Virgins of American – and maybe should be president of the local chapter.
And with a slightly arched eyebrow Cathy layered another of her famous smiles on me then turned her gaze upon the red tail lights of the cars in line at the traffic light before us.
Her glance as always was somewhat less than an arrow but somewhat more than a dart, and my heart an eager quiver to sheathe any of them.
I had no verbal response for that, no matter how deep and hard I struggle for any kind of recall. Nothing more than a shrug, a nod, a meager smile, or perhaps just a lame amalgam of the three. Maybe a total of a ‘1’ on the Richter scale.
My beating brain was frozen in place by my heart’s enkindled fire.
Oh, I was so out of my element with her.
Nonetheless, we made it, somehow to the movie, and sitting in our seats I exhaled a sigh of knowing that for at least 90 minutes I could silently recoup my equanimity, gather my wits, and shore up the crumbling façade of my nonchalant persona. Sort of like halftime, of a pressure-packed ballgame, down by seven, and with three personal fouls. But with 16 points, 6-for-6 from the line, 5-for-7 from the field, 4 offensive rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, and only 1 turnover.
But then the opening credits for the Bond movie began to roll.
And what to my wondering eyes should appear but the black silhouettes of naked nubile young women against a solid red background across which rolled in white the names and duties of the actors, actresses, and production crew.
It didn’t take my 17-year-old mind long to envision one of those silhouettes as Cathy. Then from lechery to remorse my guilt-ridden hybrid Catholic/Protestant mind shifted, over missed opportunities at seeing Cathy for hours on end in her bathing suit, floating in the waters off Deerfield Beach. Or just sitting and lounging and lying on towels in the sand.
What a goof I was.
Not much else resonates with me at the movie or on the drive after.
Instead, I picture us at Wolfie’s Delicatessen on the 17th Street Causeway, at a table for two, seated among the ultra-chic ten o’clock or later trendy very grown-up late-eve diners at this too-upscale for the likes of me New York Style Deli.
I was still so out of my element.
But Cathy looked like she belonged, like she was born to be there, like she was placed there to be adored and admired by patrons hand-chosen to follow her with their eyes as we were led by the hostess to our places, front and center. From my vantage point behind Cathy I could see all too clearly the heads turn and the eyes caress her as she passed.
She could have had any of the men in that restaurant that night.
And probably half of the women.
But she deigned to sit with me.
Of all that transpired at our table and of all that we no doubt talked about that night I remember two things only.
I can still see what I ordered to eat and drink but not what Cathy had placed before her. Probably it was some kind of manna-based dish served with a side of ambrosia alongside a goblet of nectar.
I on the other hand ordered a slice of Wolfie’s world-famous New York Style cheesecake and a large glass of milk.
Very monochromatic but it caught Cathy’s eye, as I’d hoped, and it did for she said as much when she observed that it matched my out-of-the-ordinary unpredictable personality. I was so atypical to any of the other guys she knew. She further noted that I was the smartest, most different athlete she knew at school.
That brought a smile of success from me, although I’m sure I prayed I hadn’t over-smiled in response.
But that’s not what I remember most about what I ordered.
What I most remember is what I tried quickly, perhaps too quickly, to amend.
Under Patrice’s tutelage I had been introduced to everso many table graces I never knew had existed, the full intestate beneficiary of them now though is my wife.
Like don’t let your silverware touch your teeth, take no more than half-forkful bites, dab or pat your lips with your napkin not wipe away with it, don’t yawn, stretch, or sing at the table, elbows and forearms off not on the table, straight back against the straight back of the chair, etc. And, watch your backwash in your drink glass.
Especially when it collects on the inside of the glass. Which a large smear of cheesecake did after I’d swallowed a Patrice-instructed size sip of milk.
I replaced my milk glass on the table next to my half-eaten cheesecake only to see the smear-and-a-half of cheesecake oozing down the inside of the glass. I was mortified. And tried not to register as much as I grabbed at my glass and surreptitiously, or so I hoped and prayed, returned it to my lips to noiselessly slurp a little more than a sip again of milk.
When I returned the glass to the tabletop only a film of milk coated the glass and descended appropriately to the half-empty contents inside.
All was right with the world again.
If Cathy had noticed, she didn’t let on. She sat, regal as ever, a part but aloof as ever to the plebians scattered around her, which had to have included my glass, my plate, me, and my real or imagined faux pas.
Thanks a lot, Patrice.
As to what we said, talked about, held in conversation, just this. We’d been talking about my heading off to college, in about 10 days, and how excited I must be, and how sad she was not to be going away. Her plans were to stay at home and start at Broward Junior College, not her first choice, but her agency and agent wanted her to stay local, so that she’d be more readily available for modeling assignments and could formally start acting and dance classes, to help further her career.
She’d already been cast in a small role for the Broward Players’ Theatre in their fall production, hoping to build upon and break out from her high school roles as Cinderella and Snow White. And even though she’d three Beauty Pageant Titles to her credit already, she, her parents, and her agent had decided she’d not participate in any more. If she was going to walk around and stand around in various outfits and bathing suits and have to answer stupid mindless questions she’d do that and get paid money doing it for a camera and not a bunch of leering judges. And not have to answer stupid questions in the meantime.
I agreed with all of them too. As if she needed for me to.
I kept deflecting the questions from my going-away life to her stay-at-home life. I was being more than polite, although I was adhering to Patrice’s coaching: to make your conversational partner feel you were truly interested in her.
And I truly was.
But the one comment Cathy made that I distinctly remember was, that she envied her cousin who was going away to Columbia, where she would be studying to become a paleontologist.
I remarked, “Wow, Cathy, that’s really cool.”
Which caused her to stop, not say anything else for a while, until she had glossed me over with one of her famous cover girl smiles. “Oh, Carl, you so amaze me. Of all my friends or anyone I told about her becoming a paleontologist, you’re the only one who’s ever known what that is.”
I do remember this: I simply shrugged and tried to give her my best Player-of-the-Week smile in return. I didn’t define the word to her, to prove that I knew it.
She knew I knew. How – I don’t know. But from her eyes and her look, and her smile, she let me know.
Then there was the ride home, unmemorable – too forgettable – then the invitation to come inside her house again, for a while, where I met her parents again, who quickly retired to some other part of their expansive home, leaving Cathy and me alone in the living room, where we talked. About nothing consequential, or memorable, all too forgettable, again.
Then she and I were out on her front porch, where I remember just about everything, or just this much for certain. No, what I am haunted by for certain.
We were not entirely alone; she held her rather large but docile marmalade cat in her arms. It purred, as only I wish I could have. But I doubt not that I would have too, had she been holding me so close, nestled in, nuzzling up against her generous breasts, off to the side but enough over the heavenly beat of her unearthly heart.
Instead, I stood at least an arm’s length away, hoping, praying, scrambling for just the right way to end what had been, I was feeling, a really rather ideal and idyllic first date.
When all of a sudden, something in the night caused Cathy’s cat’s ears to prick forward, and it leaped out of her arms, to bound in the air just past my left shoulder, which made me think, at first, she’d maybe thrown him at me. Which of course she hadn’t. But it caused me to step back, down, and off the porch’s steps, stumbled actually, but equally cat-like regained my balance, as if ready for the offensive rebound and the easy put-back.
There I remained, on sidewalk level, looking up at her.
She apologized for her cat’s strange behavior, and I aw-shucks passed it off as no big deal, although it had rattled me like no missed call on the court ever had.
Then she said this, which I’ll no doubt remember to my dying day, “Do you like to write letters?”
And my overly-glib response I’ll beyond the shadow of a doubt remember well past my dying day lying eternally inert in the shade of some shallow grave, beneath the shadeless limbs of a barren tree, a bare ruined choir wherein nonce the birds have or ever will sing.
Thus, I responded: “That depends on who I’m writing them to.” Attempting to be oh-so coy and super-uber cool. But failing miserably.
And that was it.
As soon as it was out and as soon as I saw Cathy’s bemused look, I wanted to take it back. I wanted to add to it. Clarify it. Anything. But my “stance,” my “cool persona,” the “basketball Carlie” image I projected, then, when I felt it was expected of me to be. Or when I fell back on it because I was too uncomfortable to just be me.
But for whatever reason, I couldn’t. And I didn’t.
Her cat must have re-appeared in her front yard, for Cathy called out over my shoulder, “Kitty? . . . Here, Kitty-Kitty.”
And the moment was gone. Never to be recovered.
Sad as that was, it gets sadder. I became a really great letter writer. And not that long after. Back in those days, before technology smothered the world with saturated instantaneous communication, letter writing was the way to go.
Ironically enough, a couple of other girls began to write me from home that fall while I was away in college, and I began to reply. One was a varsity cheerleader, who would be a senior that year, and another was a girl from my home church a year or so younger than her.
And during college I became a most proficient letter writer, more than sufficiently so that it cemented and advanced numerous relationships. Afterall, I was an English major, and that was but one benefit of spending days and nights with words.
My expertise and facility with the epistolary format eventually caught my wife’s eye, so proficient was I that she has variously testified that my letter-writing was what probably first attracted her to me, and kept me attractive. And not my hoop skills, advanced as they became during my college career.
But Cathy and I never wrote, ever. And we fell out of touch, personally, at first, and permanently, at last.
Oh, I tried.
At Christmas, my freshman year, finally home, for about ten days in Florida, because of the hoop season’s travel and tournament schedule. But I wasted too many days stalling around and not calling her.
When I finally nerved up and dialed, a couple days after New Year’s, a scant three days before I’d have to return to school for a mid-west tournament, her father picked up the phone, and I was encouraged: he remembered me, asked how my season had been going, said he’d read in the paper a couple of general references to me, in a local athletes’ update column. I was further encouraged, hopeful that Cathy knew what he knew.
But when I asked of her, he said she wasn’t home.
I asked when would be a better time to call her, and he chuckled, saying he wasn’t sure when she’d be home.
I said I left in a few days to get back to school, to start playing ball again. What would be a better time.
He simply said she was on the West Coast.
Oh, I said, thinking the Florida West Coast, where I remembered from high school, she often went to Tampa and St. Pete on modeling assignments.
He laughed, I too eerily recall, and said, no, like the California West Coast, and that he wasn’t sure if she’d ever come back.
And that was that.
Somehow I got through the rest of the conversation. What little there was. And after we finished talking, I sat a long long time with the handset still in my hand, not hung up, but not hearing nor feeling the throb of the recorded voice, pleading, or how I so seemed to hear it, “If you are through with this call, please hang up; if you are through . . . ” ad infinitum.
Instead I heard, and still hear, “Yucky” and “letter writing,” and “Yucky” and . . . ad infinitum.
So. I got on with my life back at school, playing hoop more intensely than ever, concerned considerably much more with my p.p.g. average than my G.P.A.
Along about the middle of February my heart nearly stopped, then recovered, but continued never really the same, ever since that god-foreordained October day in my Advanced Junior English class, days just shy of my 16th birthday.
One night, at college in Illinois, I sat on a couch in the living room of a one-bedroom married students’ apartment in a complex of them adjacent to campus. Next to me on the couch sat a girl I’d been dating for a couple weeks or so, whose older sister rented the apartment with her husband, and they were conveniently out for the evening so that she and I could doubledate along with my roommate and his girlfriend to watch some TV alone, just the four of us, taking a “study break” from campus, on a week night when I didn’t have a ball game.
We were watching “I Spy” with Robert Culp and Bill Cosby.
During the first commercial break, a group of 7 or 8 hip young people on horseback rode across a hilltop against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean coastline. The camera zoomed in to frame in particular the three women on horseback, and front and center and most prominently featured casually astride her mount sat Cathy. One of the guys rode over and snapped her image with the new Polaroid 60-second Swinger Camera looped onto his wrist.
The on-screen camera zoomed in to frame Cathy’s face, even tighter, as if a still image captured from the must-have recently released Swinger.
Cathy beamed beatifically from the black & white freeze frame, smiling that same celestial smile no longer just at me, but now at all the viewing world.
Then she and her equestrian companions laughed and smiled gaily as they cantered west to the coast and the sunset. They might as well have been the living embodiment of John Donne’s ode to “Riding Westward,” where I too did yet “see a sun by rising set.” And again in speechless silence sat; I sit there still, confounded in my mute irony.
And Cathy, her hair luxuriates, as always, along her shoulders and down her back. For all the world to have seen, and me – only me – the only rememberer, unable to forget.
I swallowed, and more or less regained the normal functions of my lungs and heart, beating somewhat regularly again.
I said nothing at all, to my date, nor to my roommate and his date, even after the commercial re-played once more at the show’s last commercial break.
Throughout the spring I chanced upon that commercial several other times but never said anything to anyone about it. Ever. Not even to my roommate, and certainly not to my date.
That was not the last time I’d see her on the screen.
Late in that yucky Illinois spring, long after the hoop season had ended, but not yet at the semester’s end, my roommate and I double-dated on a Saturday to Chicago. He with the same girl, I with a different one.
We were there to take in a movie, the title I’ve not been able to recover in any way, but in that movie Cathy appeared to me yet again.
First she was the subject of a full-length portrait prominently hung on a formal library wall in a magnificent west coast estate. Later in the movie she appeared, less and less briefly in several scenes until the movie’s eventual and climactic conclusion.
In two or three of the scenes she was little more than window-dressing, mostly the portrait come to life, walking everso gracefully from Point A to Point B, and a couple times to Point C. And smiling, of course, her singularly dis-arming ethereal and slightly enigmatic smile -- for her ever-expanding audience.
And in two or three scenes she had a few lines as if to confirm her ability to talk as well as walk. And smile. Everso beatific. Certainly that.
And that was it.
For the movie.
And for us.
Although I did see her once more on a screen. This time my TV screen in Boston, where I was then paying my dues as an English Professor. I’d been sent a VHS tape of the PBSHS class of ‘67’s 20th Re-Union. And she was there too as always grace and beauty personified – but then as the vicar’s wife. Father Steve’s. And some time later I saw her in a few stills on classmates.com, which as I earlier admitted I’ve let my membership lapse.
Just as well.
And so, after all, with the time that’s lapsed and the eons that linger, foreshadowing eternity, my struggles to write have yielded this piece, and what else only: some scattered poems published now and then and here & there; and three slender volumes of poetry. That’s it. And a very occasional piece of non-fiction. Sort of like this one.
Four-plus decades of struggling, scrambling, scrabbling, and scrapping for any the least recognition and acknowledgement of a bare, strained existence.
So, just another poetry scrub.
Still. Despite my best efforts.
(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)
Carl's story list and biography
The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher