Last week, Gretchen made her first appearance in these excerpts from my unpublished high school memoir when she accepted my advice on how to reject a boy who was interested in her. Her name came up as I broke up with my girlfriend, Theresa. In this week’s episode, Gretchen is front and center.
Most of the other people this week appeared in my first high school excerpt here: Doug drove the car when several of us went to meet a friend at the train station, Priscilla was his girlfriend, and Molly was the host of the party we were about to attend. Mr. Virgil was my mobility instructor who appeared in the episode “White Cane Ambivalence.”
It turned out Gretchen really had been on my mind. She wasn’t the cause of my breakup with Theresa, but my interest in her had been one more sign that it was in the making. I realized it while talking to Molly during one of our sandwich lunches in the library closet, the small room the school had given me to work with my readers.
Molly was saying, “Gretchen told me last night she’s looking for a boy who is intelligent, thoughtful and sincere. Isn’t that funny? That’s the boy every girl wants, but she thinks it’s so unusual.”
I perked up. “I think I’m sincere.”
“Okay. And since you’re fishing, she probably considers you intelligent.”
It happened that a minor accident had recently brought Gretchen and me closer. We were both headed to the lounge at the end of B wing, and she offered her arm, which I was glad to accept. As we descended the steps to the lower level, I tripped. To avoid dragging her down with me, I let go of her arm and landed halfway down on my back. Recovering, I realized she’d ended up close by, her groan telling me she, too, was on her back. No one else was around.
I asked, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” Her answer sounded pained.
“Are you sure?”
“Winded. Shaken. How about you?” This time her voice was strong.
I struggled to get up, reached out and found the handrail. I used it to guide me down the remaining steps, where I again took her arm. Afterwards, I was pleased that my first impulse had been to check on her. I might not be as self-absorbed as I accused myself.
* * *
I called Doug to ask what he thought about my inviting Gretchen to the senior class play the coming Saturday.
“Why not, man?”
I had good reasons why not. In addition to a guy’s usual insecurities, there was Mr. Virgil’s conviction that I’d need to wait until my late twenties to interest girls. Beyond all that, there was that difficulty over Joe I’d admitted to Theresa. Now that I was trying to accomplish what I’d helped him fail at, I was ashamed for having encouraged Gretchen to turn him down. I explained to Doug.
“Gretchen wouldn’t think that about you. No way. Tell her Priscilla and I will pick you both up.”
I dialed Gretchen’s number. She sounded surprised and pleased to hear from me. After fumbling through a preamble, I put the question to her.
“Sure,” she said, now sounding nervous.
I called Doug to report the date was on.
“Great. Here’s what’s going to happen. Priscilla and I will pick you up in the Dougmobile, then we’ll drive to Gretchen’s. When we get there, I’ll honk the horn, like I do with you, and she’ll come and sit with you in the back. At the school, it will only be natural for her to go inside with you.”
“I’d like to talk to her on my own at some point.”
“That’s what intermissions are for. Suggest you go outside for some air. Even if we go outside, I’ll steer clear, and I’ll make sure Priscilla doesn’t hover around. Now, after the play, we’ll go somewhere for ice cream, or whatever. You don’t mind if we join you then, right?”
“Of course not.”
“Then to end the evening, there’s the ‘goodbye’ part. You will say, ‘I’ll come to the door with you, Gretchen,’ and get out of the car with her.”
“Okay,” I said. But between hating to be seen with a cane and lack of confidence in my mobility skills, I worried about getting back to the car on my own.
As I was trying to figure out a minimally cringe-inducing way of admitting it, Doug said, “I’ll park so that we’re out of sight of the entrance. Now, after you’ve given her a goodnight kiss—”
“Gotta try, man. Like I say, after the goodnight kiss, she’ll go inside and I’ll charge up and grab you and bring you back to the car.”
* * *
Saturday arrived, cold and damp. Doug and Priscilla drew up in our driveway, and I sat behind Doug. When we reached Gretchen’s, she waved from a window, then took an age closing the front door.
“There’s something wrong with the lock,” she explained when she at last got into the back, behind Priscilla. “Hi, everyone. My parents aren’t home, so I should get back right after the play.”
I said, “They’re in Ohio, right?”
“Visiting the clan. I had too much work to do.”
Unhappy about the implications, I was glad the ever-garrulous Doug took the conversational lead.
Gretchen and I walked into the auditorium together, trailing Doug and Priscilla. I handed my ticket to Molly, who was ushering that evening. When she greeted me, something in her voice conveyed a wink.
The four of us walked down the center aisle until Gretchen pointed out several free seats in a row.
“You take those,” Doug said. “We have some people over there we need to see.”
Gretchen edged sideways into the row of seats, saying, “Let’s go in farther so people don’t keep climbing over us.” I edged along beside her. “Here,” she said, rather loudly I thought, as if to make sure I didn’t bump into her. I took off my coat, sat down and laid it on my lap.
“Know anything about the play?” I said.
“Molly gave me a program. Let me see.”
As she started reading, a guy named Peter came to the seat in front of her. Molly had told me Gretchen was interested in him, then added for my peace of mind it had been several months ago. The two of them got so animated, I had my doubts. Then Molly and some other girls sat in the row behind us as the curtain was about to rise. Peter turned away, but Gretchen and the girls chatted away until an actor strode onto the stage.
The performance was funny when meant to be serious, tedious when meant to be funny. Considering I almost always ended up dismayed after showing my poems around, I should have empathized with my classmates on the stage. Instead, I whispered withering comments to Gretchen, and her giggles encouraged me. Well, she giggled at my comments when she wasn’t being distracted by Peter, who kept turning around and making his own comments.
At intermission, I said, “Shall we go outside for some air?”
“Too cold for me. You go ahead.”
“Oh, I’m fine. I was just thinking it would be good to move around.”
Peter wished Gretchen goodnight, eliminating one hindrance to the plan, and she turned her attention to me.
“Did you ever find out what’s causing that whistling?” she asked. I’d told her that I’d been going to see a specialist about high-pitched noises in my head.
“The doc doesn’t know, but he doesn’t think it’s serious.”
“I think it’s the wind blowing through the open spaces in your brain,” she said.
Delighted she was engaging in the repartee we’d shared in school and at parties, I laughed.
Then from behind us, Molly said to her, “I couldn’t understand what we’re supposed to do for the biology assignment. Did you?”
Gretchen, Molly and the other girls around us were science students, my worst subject, and their conversation lasted the rest of the intermission.
As the second half began, Molly whispered down, “Gretchen, you realize it’s about a dream, right?”
Gretchen snapped back at her, “Yes, I realize it’s about a dream.”
So, she was on edge. Although her sudden annoyance hadn’t been directed at me, I felt sure I was the cause. We were all pretty quiet the rest of the play.
During the last round of applause, Gretchen asked me for the time. Assuming she had a watch, I took it as a hint.
“I’ve got to get home,” she said.
I stood, but as I began zipping up my coat, she said, “The people next to you have left. You can go ahead.” She gave me a push. When I reached the aisle, she shoved me again. I gave up on the zipper and resigned myself to being cold.
As we walked to the car, she said, “Boy, am I glad for some air.”
Doug and Priscilla appeared. “Sure you won’t join us for ice cream?” he asked Gretchen.
“I’m sure. Sorry, but I’ve got to get home.”
We set off in the car, and I went over in my head the next and last stage of the plan.
Drawing up to Gretchen’s house, Doug said, “I’m not sure we’ll fit in that space, so I’ll just park along here. It’s only a few extra steps.”
“Well, thank you, everyone,” Gretchen said, already turned to the door and opening it.
Taking the handle on my side, I said, “I’ll go with you.”
“Don’t bother,” she said. “See you Monday.” She slammed her door.
Another guy would have hopped out anyway and sidled up next to her, but I’d received enough warning shots that evening to stop a battleship.
Pulling up at my house, Doug and Priscilla insisted on coming in. We went through to the room my parents had set aside for me. They took the couch, and I turned my desk chair around to face them.
After we trashed the play, I said, “I don’t think I should ask Gretchen out again.”
Doug agreed. “Excellent Plan B.”
Priscilla, ever the conciliator, tried to be positive. “I was talking to her a few days ago, and she said she valued your friendship and doesn’t want to lose it.”
“And,” I guessed, “she was afraid going out with me would ruin it?”
“Um, no. Well, yeah.”
* * *
At the first Group party after the senior play, Gretchen said, “Now I know why you encouraged me to drop Joe.” I bowed my head.
At the next party, I resolved to set the record straight. “Gretchen, I need you to know my advice about Joe had nothing to do with personal motives. If you’d said you liked him, I would have encouraged you.”
“I know,” she said. “I worked it out for myself.” She went on to say I was always there for her, always willing to give her support. Which was true.
To read all my memoir excerpts to date, along with other recent posts, please go to the blog page of my website here.