This is the ninth pre-publication draft in my series of pieces (many of them memoir) about Buffalo, my hometown, that will be released in 2013. If you liked this, you can find the others in my blog archives.
I lay on my bed, ceiling spinning above me, sweat pouring out; dreading the face, the figure, the pretty green uniform I treasure. Her scent when she walks by. She gives me fever. A stupor that confers a whole new meaning upon – no, perhaps renders definitively for all of humankind – the word “lovesick.”
I was spinning – or was it careening? It was a late Tuesday afternoon in December – my senior year of high school. I knew that soon, I’d be walking through the railroad field, across the trestle that carries the tracks over first Elmwood and then Hertel Avenues, and then down a steep embankment to the street level, just a couple hundred yards from the school to see the basketball game – and her.
We were the Mighty Cardinals, and though the Diocese of Buffalo would fold up my all-boys school for want of enough students a mere two years after I graduated, there were still about four hundred of us Green Birds that year. We sent the twelve best and most motivated basketball players among us to challenge other schools that were named after Saints, Bishops, and Members of the Blessed Trinity. We played home games on Tuesday and Friday nights in our raucous gym. Four hundred Cardinals in a high school that was run by the order of Catholic priests established by St. John Eude in seventeenth-century France as the Society of Jesus and Mary.
On Tuesday and Friday nights, Jesus and Mary were not so much on the minds of Cardinals, Cardinal parents and other Cardinal hangers-on who came to roost at our gym at the end of St. Florian Street. We were the Mighty Cardinals, damn it. Most of us were sons of working men who paid our tuition with sweat and sacrifice. The Cardinals weren’t known as Rhodes Scholars (though last time I caught up with a bunch of the boys as we were turning 50, most of our lives turned out just fine, thank you). Neither were we known as league champs. The bigger, more expensive Catholic prep schools could afford the better coaches, could recruit the best eighth graders, could afford the occasional well-timed buy-off of a game official – or so, at least through a Cardinal’s eye, it seems to this very day.
“We are the Mighty Cardinals! Stop, look and listen! We are the Mighty Cardinals! Stop!”
She was also a senior that year; and the captain of our cheerleading squad. Not having girls of our own, we had a “sister school;” in fact, I think we had three sister schools, none of which were particularly vying for that honor, because the Cardinals were known as Dirty Birds. Cardinals were blamed in the local media for all kinds of transgressions from over-publicized bar room brawls, to peddling dope to grade school kids… you get the idea. In reality, we Cards were no dirtier than the Saints, Crusaders, Tigers, or other various cartoon characters that made up the Monsignor Martin Athletic Association, the confabulation of eighteen or so Catholic schools that competed against each other. We just might have been a little less clever about our mischief.
We Cardinals did have a chip on our shoulder. We saw ourselves – I think many of us did, anyway, as the sons of Joe Six-Pack, proud to walk in the ways of our fathers, many of whom still had jobs in Buffalo’s teetering-but-still alive industrial complex. Our dads manned the plants; Crusader and Maurader dads, for instance, were more likely to manage them. If we Cardinals can’t afford your neighborhood or the college you’ll attend, we’ll kick your butt on the field or court. And if we can’t always win on the scoreboard, you’re still gonna know you tangled with some very nasty, determined Birds.
She was beautiful. Daughter of Italy with blonde hair, an improbable cross between Sophia Loren and the bright-eyed, bouncy girl next door. When she walked into my field of vision, I was her captive. Countless images of her were affixed to the insides of my eyelids; so very often, wherever I was, I was in her jail. She was otherworldly to me, a pedestal princess. In reality, she may have been the daughter of another Joe Six-Pack, but I never did learn her dad’s station in life. She may not have been a natural blonde, either. Never learned many personal details about her.
She was known to some as cold and untouchable, though I think to this day that reputation was unearned. Looking back, I think she had those “healthy boundaries” I now preach to my own teenaged daughter. But she let her guard down with me once, when we were juniors, at some sort of charity event our school was hosting. She was very talkative. That was her mistake. I’m sure she didn’t realize how that half-hour of friendliness would fuel months of my fantasies.
She was with her mom that day as we talked. I suppose she felt like she needed to exhibit courtesy toward me.
“D-O-U-G-HERT-Y! Victory! Victory is our pride!” (pom-poms moving just so as cartwheels and splits are being performed)
But if she was an “it” girl, I was most definitely not an “it” guy. My claim to fame on Tuesday and Friday nights had nothing to do with my points, rebounds or assists; nor did it have to do with my shot-blocking skill. Nor were my contributions to the Mighty Cardinals as a reliable practice player who rode the bench as we managed to win three-quarters of our games that senior year. I was the Cardinal. That’s right. For the first several weeks of the season I wore a green track suit and a big red Cardinal head – for this, I volunteered. It was a chance to get close to her.
I was an awesome mascot. But she was most definitely not looking for that in a man.
It’s a credit to the character of most of our varsity basketball squad – and for that matter, the Mighty Cardinal gridders – that they remained friends with the Lovesick Green Bird. I took a fair share of abuse, but it was mostly good-natured. And, the fact that my buddies on the team often piled into a couple of cars after home games and headed to Dad’s restaurant for a free feast of all-you-can-eat pizza and chicken wings, probably helped my social standing. But it couldn’t keep me from my Waterloo moment with the Captain of the Cheerleading Squad.
No, let’s be clear; it was the Waterloo moment of the first eighteen years or so of my life.
It happened on a Friday night when I screwed on my courage to call her on the phone after a full night of basketball, followed by the ritual feast of pizza and chicken wings attended by team, fans – cheerleaders – her – and I called her to discuss her indifference toward me.
“Dave, why… why are you calling me? Again?”
That did not bode well for the rest of the conversation. What followed, as I recall, was about ten brutal minutes of my frustration deflecting off her healthy boundaries.
“I’m… um… sorry. I’m not going to go out with you. In fact, I’m not going to date anyone from your school.” I guess the second sentence was her way of trying to soften the blow. My buddy had taken her to our junior prom.
But the blow had been delivered. I was spinning. No, I was careening. My psyche over the next few days was like the stock market crash: all who knew me had to be wondering, “When will he hit bottom?”
It was really that ugly. Over the next few days grandmothers were yelled at and household Christmas decorations came crashing down. Whiskey and beer were consumed and vomited. God was cursed. City streets were walked – miles of them, between the hours of midnight and six in the morning, by a careening-out-of-control teen on a collision course with suicide.
Obviously, other things were amiss in my life at that stage besides shattered romantic ambition.
Hey green! Hey white! Hey team! Hey fight! Hey green, hey white, hey team, hey fight!
I’m not sure where the chutzpah came from, the morning I finally ended my holdout and returned to class. Officially, I had not been in school for a couple of days because I had taken ill – clearly, that much was true. I am sure that I’ll never forget the Wednesday morning I walked into my second period history class, over an hour late for the beginning of the school day but finally back in the Cardinal’s nest. No one tried to sugar-coat their reaction to what I imagined had been the well-publicized flameout of the team mascot. The entire class laughed. That’s what Mighty Cardinals do. I also remember how after I sat down, Charlie, our all-Western New York defensive tackle who now sat immediately in front of me, turned around and smiled meekly. I knew instantly that it was not a mean smile.
I also still recall how when that class ended, Mark, our gargantuan defensive end, went out of his way to stop me on the way out of the classroom. He put an arm around me and told me in a fatherly sort of voice, “You’re okay, man.”
After that first history class back at school, there were no more hugs from bruising athletes; no more kind smiles. In fact, there was no more talk of it. Instead, during the home stretch of our high school careers there were heartless body checks delivered by the footballers during intramural floor hockey. There were pranks, a number of pickup basketball games with my friends on the varsity when we should have been attending math class; and a staged, if half-hearted fight between myself and the football coach’s son Bill, our star halfback (I acquitted myself well though he may have won on points). And, there was a well-timed intervention by Bill’s father Jim, our football coach and athletic director; because he noticed that I was showing up to basketball games in January nipping from a flask, completely trashed on tequila. Working through teenage trauma can be a process.
I remember how, after they got the initial, obligatory ridicule out of their system in a quick ten-second burst, the Mighty Cardinals, almost every last one of them, spent the next few months making sure I healed.
It was a warm, sunny June day on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie, and Charlie had invited a bunch of us to a graduation party at his family’s cottage. A dozen or so of us were swimming a couple of hundred yards from shore to a boat that belonged to someone Charlie knew. A speedboat passed entirely too close to us, and its wake created a bit of a scare for us. The boat’s pilot stopped a hundred feet away and could be seen pointing and laughing at us. We all yelled and threatened and cursed a blue streak at the guy, because that’s what Mighty Cardinals do.
That was the last day I ever saw her. It was after our swim, and most of our cheerleading squad had arrived at the cottage. In the backyard, with burgers and dogs on the grill and all of us with beers in hand, she stood several feet from me. Tied-off red blouse, doe eyes and shorts revealing legs that gave her an unfair advantage in – well, in life, I suppose. We didn’t acknowledge one another. That was okay with me. By then, I knew that I was going to live.
I don’t spend a lot of time reminiscing about high school these days, but when I do, I smile. Sometimes I wake up in the morning, all these years later, and I’m singing the school’s fight song – my wife asks me to tone it down. Maybe that’s because I smashed the school’s Cardinal head into about a hundred pieces just after the Christmas holiday of my senior year. Everyone suspected. No one complained. At least, not to me.