Dirty, nasty, foul-smelling Cleveland. It was there I fell in love for the first time. It was the year the Indians won 111 games before the Giants swept them in the World Series. A chilling parallel to me and Cyndy Lou.
My Dad had moved us three times in five years. Last year, I was a junior at Calvert Hall in Baltimore. This year, a senior at Trinity High. I was the new kid. Again. 5’5” at 155 with glasses and somehow I ended up in the home room with jocks and cheerleaders.
Then, and I don’t know to this day which of the gods to sing praises to, I got Cyndy Lou Miller as my lab partner in chemistry. Ah, Cyndy Lou, straight blonde hair she sometimes wore in a French twist. Her skin, wax pale and luminous, shone in the dark.
Our first experiment was the flame test on minerals. We ground up some rock chips and before we stirred in the hydrochloric acid, Sister Angelina went on and on about how we would lose a finger if any spilled.
“Roger, would you do that, I’m scared.”
It was easy, I’d done it before, I’d played with a Porter Chemistry Set since I was ten.
“You’re so brave,” she whispered.
I blushed and knocked over the Bunsen burner. Fortunately, unlit.
“Did you know that the man who made the Bunsen burner was named Peter Desaga, not Bunsen? But Bunsen published a description of it so everyone now calls it Bunsen, not Desaga.”
“That seems so unfair.”
I shook my head in solemn agreement. When I lit the burner, the flame was high and yellow. I gradually increased the amount of air until it became an intense blazing blue. She leaned down and peered at the flame. My heart soared. “Cyndy Lou, your eyes are Bunsen burner blue.”
She took out a mirror, compared the flame and her eyes, and gave me a you’re-so-sweet smile. The teacher called out, “What are you two doing back there?”
“Us? Oh, we discovered we have some strontianite. Dark, dark red.”
Cyndy Lou turned to me. “How did you know that?” I shrugged modestly.
She liked me. She thought I was brave. The fun we had with mercury, tossing it back and forth. Yeah, I know now that wasn’t too smart, but compared to living in Cleveland?
When I’d see her in the hall, in the middle of a bunch of guys, a queen and her hive, she’d wave. I heard the guys in a not-too-quiet whisper, Who’s the dork? I don’t know what she said back, but she never stopped waving. Then one afternoon, one of the hive broke off. A big guy, blond flat-top, crooked nose, unhappy grin, played left tackle.
“What are you doing with Cyndy Lou, you grungy little chicken shit? How do you get off even saying hello to her?”
Then he picked me up and threw me into the lockers.
Cyndy Lou came running down the hall, hollering, “Joey, you leave him alone. Roger’s my friend.”
He gave me a kick in the side before he went the other way. She knelt down and put her hand on my brow, cooed, and said not to worry about him.
* * *
We were in lab, about a week before the Christmas dance. I’d been rehearsing for weeks, the bell was ringing, I blurted it out, “Cyndy Lou, will you go to the dance with me?”
“Me? You want me to go to the dance with you? That’s very sweet. I thought you’d never ask. I almost said yes to Joey yesterday. I’d love to go with you.”
I couldn’t believe it–me and Cyndy Lou, Cyndy Lou and me. My dad couldn’t either. When I showed him her picture he asked me, How’d you pull that off, son? You got something you’re hiding?
Getting the car ready for the dance. It’s the middle of winter, I’m out in the freezing cold, the wind is blowing icicles off the lake, and I’m washing our old gray 1950 Studebaker, the one with the rocket nose, and shinning the tailpipe. Not like anyone will even see it in the dark.
I drove up to Cyndy Lou’s house, a big one in Shaker Heights. Where else would she live? Her dad came to the door. Tall, blond flat-top, chiseled face, ex-linebacker at Notre Dame. He put a paw on my shoulder, surrounded my hand with his, and shook my arm off. “So you’re the chemistry genius Cynthia’s been telling us about?”
“Well, I guess so, sir.”
“Don’t be modest, son. Chemistry’s a good thing. There’s a great future in chemistry. Now before Cynthia comes down, and I don’t want to say I don’t trust you,” he leaned down closer to my ear, “but you bring my little girl home before midnight or I’ll be out looking for you.”
A little extra squeeze on my shoulder sent slivers of pain through my left arm. I had almost recovered when she floated down the stairway in a pink skirt all net and gauze and crinolines. And on top she was wrapped in pink satin ribbon. If this wasn’t heaven.
Heaven it was, for the rest of the school year. Joey remained a jerk, always careful to wreak havoc on me when Cyndy Lou wasn’t looking—wedgies, body slams, glue on my locker. All the stuff big dumb guys do, and why I was sure she preferred me.
* * *
Then it was summer. Cleveland traded to get Vic Wertz from Baltimore and I wished I was back there, instead of in Cleveland working as a car hop. Nights and weekends. Mel’s Drive-In—a round building in the middle of a parking lot, wrapped in glass and shiny steel bands with a roof that failed as a spaceship, but succeeded as a mushroom. At night, the roof was encircled by a bright flamingo pink neon band. On top was a faux theatre marquis in the same flamingo pink and royal blue neon shouting Mel’s in yellow. And who hung out there? After tennis and swimming, after a night at the movies, Cyndy Lou and Joey and Mary and Bobby in Joey’s red Chevy convertible. I couldn’t get a single private moment with Cyndy Lou, but I knew she cared by the way her eyes winked at me. The guys never tipped, sometimes didn’t even pay.
I got a Saturday night off and asked her if she wanted to go out. “Gee, I’d love to, but I’ve got this party. One of my very, very best friends from the sixth grade. She moved over to Avon. I haven’t seen her for years. I’ve really missed not seeing you, but I have to go to this. You understand, don’t you?”
The following week we had a date, parked out by the lake and kissed a lot, and if I remember, I’d gotten to first and was about to steal second when a bunch of cars pulled up beside us, horns blaring. She pulled back and shrank down on the seat. That night was over.
Late August. I’d been out with her all of two times since June. So I called and told her I was leaving for college the next week and wanted to see her. She was waiting outside when I drove up and bounced down the walk in a pink and white stripped sun dress showing off her tan. “It’s been so long Roger. I’m so glad we could get together.”
I laid it on thick. Dinner at the White Oaks with its coffered ceiling and dark wood paneling. The Barefoot Contessa with steamy Ava Gardner, to get her in the mood. A 100% guaranteed secluded spot by the lake. I had my arm around her bare shoulder, still warm from the sun, she leaned into me, I kissed her silky hair, we talked about college, I put my hand on her knee and moved it slowly up under her skirt. There was a pause, she put her hand on mine, straightened up.
“There’s something I have to tell you. It’s about Joey. We’ve been going out this summer. He’s going to Holy Cross, too. I mean, that way I’ll know somebody there.”
Even though it was nighttime I saw her blue eyes flicker.
“The chemistry between you and me is gone, Roger, I can’t feel it anymore.”
She actually said that with a straight face, the bit about chemistry. She rummaged around in her purse and pulled out a hair-brush. As I backed the car out, she combed her hair.
I went off to Purdue. It was September, about the time Cleveland first baseman Vic Wertz’s sure fire double went over Willie Mays’s left shoulder into his glove. I tried to write her a letter, telling her what she had meant to me and how I still loved her. But when I sat down, I couldn’t write her name.
The Write Side Up