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Monday, April 21, 2014

Deserving Angels

by Nancy Caronia

n high school, I felt cheated by adults and ignored by peers. I had worked hard to pass the school budget, but we lost by less than 100 votes—it was the eighth time in nine years those who were old enough to vote decided against an increase. That year, my senior year, the school board deemed it necessary to cut all extra-curricular activities in order to convince its tax paying citizens to vote in favor of an increased school budget. There were no cheerleading squads, no sports, no musical concerts, no theatrical productions, no chess or folk music clubs—in short, there were no after-school activities. Longwood High School’s halls were quiet in the early evening. My senior class experienced loss as promising football, baseball, and basketball players left for other high schools to compete for college athletic scholarships. Those of us who excelled academically learned that we’d have to find outside activities to show our intellectual and extracurricular diversity.
We were afforded one brief respite for three weeks in the spring. Against the school board’s stringent rules, members of the faculty, staff, and student body enacted a yearly ritual—The Mad Show—on the school’s outdated auditorium stage. This variety show, made up of skits from television and theater, raised money, ironically, for programs that were forbidden that school year. The faculty and school administration went forward anyway; they knew the show would boost an injured school spirit.
I had been cast as a performer and a student director/choreographer. It was a large cast of almost thirty students and a handful of faculty and administrators, including the vice principal. Most of my classmates didn’t know me as anyone but a nerdy kid with a smart mouth who dressed in Levis and big shirts. If boys found me attractive, I didn’t know it. But under the big shirts I was a dancer with a lithe and muscular, if slightly curvy, frame. My body was put on display when the female student cast members performed “Don’t Tell Mama” from Cabaret. By today’s standards, we were modest. We wore Danskin leotards and tights with high heels. My body eclipsed the other, more popular, girls on stage. My plum leotard had spaghetti straps that crisscrossed through the back and was high cut across my thighs. I was proud of being asked to hold positions of authority in the show, but I was even happier when boys, boys who’d never noticed me before, wanted to talk to me after the show.
On Saturday night, I called home and told my mother I got a ride to the cast party with Opal and Eddie. I shouted over the music and chatter of the party: “Is it okay if I stay out a little bit longer? I think some of the teachers are coming. I’m with Eddie and Opal, and Eddie will drive us home. He promised.” I twirled the cord on the yellow kitchen phone, eyed the pre-mixed Vodka and Orange juices sitting in gallon juice containers, and listened as she took a drag on her cigarette before she said: “Stay out as late as you want. Just be home by 1 AM.” Always contradictory, I knew my mother trusted me, but trusted Eddie—an honors student like me—more.
I drank the pre-mixed vodka and orange juices and wandered from room to room. There were no teachers present. Within twenty minutes I was drunk—my guess is the drinks were 80 percent vodka and 20 percent orange juice. I lost Eddie and Opal in the crowd and boys who’d graduated, boys who might have been athletes, but were now nothing more than unemployed, made their way over to talk—to me. They were cute boys, but I didn’t know them, and they didn’t know me, except for what they’d seen of me on stage. One of them, with dark greased-back hair, blue eyes, and white teeth, leaned over, refilled my drink before he hooked his fingers in his Levi’s belt loop, and asked me: “So, how did you get so pretty?” I smelled his Old Spice and stared at the collar of his red flannel shirt; I didn’t dare look too closely at his face.
I remember thinking, how did I get so lucky? I remember I hadn’t yet kissed a boy. I remember thinking it was about time a boy kissed me. I remember flirting or what I thought was flirting.
Soon, as this handsome boy leaned into me and joked easily, even as I couldn’t understand half of what he was insinuating, Opal and Eddie emerged at my side. Opal grabbed my wrist and said, “C’mon, Nancy, we have to go. We have to get you home.”
I answered, “I don’t want to go home yet. The party is just getting started.”
The cute boy grabbed at my free arm and stared from Opal to Eddie and back. “Yeah, the party’s just gettin’ started!” he mimicked. Then he smiled, showing all of his white, white teeth, and said: “Don’t worry. She can stay. I’ll take her home.”
I remember Eddie stepped between the cute boy and me and said, “I promised her mother I would take her home.” I remember his voice shaking just a bit, but he held his ground.
Opal held onto my wrist and started walking away from the boy and his friends. The cute boy said, “Don’t take her, don’t take her from me. Please. Nooooo.” He pretended to buckle at the knees as he reached his arms towards me and his friends laughed. Eddie, with his skinny pale body and kinky Afro, walked backwards away from the crowd while I whined, “It’s too early. My mother said I could stay out late! Why do I have to go home now?”
Once I was buckled in, Eddie said, “We don’t want you throwing up in the car,” and demanded that I roll down the backseat window. Eddie and Opal remained patient, if frustrated by my non-stop babbling. I saw them shoot each other a look and smile. The wind blew on my face and I dreamed about cute boys who were kissable. When we arrived at my house, Eddie jumped out and beat me to my front door where he rang the doorbell. When my mother opened the door, I whizzed past her and plopped down on the sofa in the den, next to my mother’s recliner. She watched Johnny Carson while everyone else slept. She and Eddie whispered at the door. He must have told her that there was alcohol at the party but I didn’t know what I was drinking. I heard my mother tell him not to worry and thanked him for bringing me home.
When my mother sat next to me, there was a small smirk on her face. She said, “Why are you home so early? I thought you’d be out until at least 1 am.” Only an hour had passed since my phone call. I tried to pretend I was not drunk. My mother played along—this behavior was not a normal me so there was no need to worry. It was not as if I would do it again and again and again. I thought I’d fooled her. I said goodnight and walked up to my bedroom, but never made it to my bed. I dropped into my sister’s instead and woke her up. She kicked and screamed: “Get out! Get out of my bed!” I was already half asleep and didn’t budge. My mother told my sister not to mind me. I’d pay for my debauchery in the morning with a hangover.
Here’s the thing, she was right. My head pounded, my mouth was dry, and my stomach ached. But that was all I felt. I wasn’t ashamed of what I’d done or not done. I didn’t wonder what had happened to me.
In the years that have followed, I have come to realize just how brave Opal and Eddie were that night. They were my protectors; they refused to leave without me. Opal was one of the few African Americans at the party—our high school was a fairly mixed population in terms of working class white ethnic, black, and Latino students, but that didn’t mean the students mixed at after school activities. Opal was a beautiful and smart young woman, but she was still a Black girl in the late 1970s. She put herself in the middle of what could have been trouble with older boys who had been former high school athletes—white male athletes. She held onto my wrist and refused to let go. Then there was Eddie—smart, small, wiry, a bundle of nerves—he looked like a young Woody Allen wearing a slightly less full Michael Jackson “Rockin’ Robin” Afro. He did not allow those boys to dissuade him from what he took to be his promise although he never spoke to my mother prior to bringing me home. Opal and Eddie knew what would have happened to me if they left me at the party in the care of that cute boy.

ix months later during the first weekend of college, I was drunk—again. The drinking age was 18 and beers in the Rathskellar were 50 cents, not that it mattered since I didn’t pay for any drinks. During Freshmen Orientation Weekend, a boy inserted himself into a small group of people I knew from high school, from my community theater group, and my dorm. It was my first time away from home. This cute freshman boy watched me down four beers in quick succession, danced with me, and then offered to walk me back to my dorm room. Gifford, another high school friend turned college-drinking buddy, stepped in after I laughed and said, “okay!”
I didn’t drink and yet, here are two tales of drunkenness—tales of naiveté overriding judgment.
Gifford said, “No, I’ll walk you home, Nance.” My shaggy haired St. Bernard of a friend walked back to my dorm and hit the fifth floor elevator button—his body strategically inserted between this boy and me. Giff opened my door and watched as I hoisted myself up into my bunk. Then he turned to the boy and told him to leave. Gifford took my key and only after the boy left did he look me in the eye and state, “Go to sleep. I’ll be back in the morning to take you for some hangover food. You’re gonna feel like crap.” He placed a wastebasket on my desk under my bunk bed and walked to my door. “I’m going to lock your door now and then put the key under the door. Don’t let anyone in,” he said.
“Giff,” I joked, “Now that I’m in my bunk, I don’t think I can get down from here.”
“Good,” he replied, “just sleep. I’ll come and check on you in the morning.” And he did.

earing the verdict of the Steubenville trial, a case where an intoxicated high school girl was sexually assaulted by football players from her school and the act was documented on social media, I remembered Opal, Eddie, and Gifford, whom I never properly thanked. I was older than the girl in Steubenville, but I was at least as naive and helpless; Opal, Eddie, and Gifford saved me from her fate. They were angels who stepped forward when stepping forward might have placed them in uncomfortable (or even dangerous) positions. Eddie and Gifford were boys who didn’t buy into the “boys will be boys” rhetoric and understood, at their core, that they did not need to be aggressive, violent, and destructive in order to prove their manhood. Opal stepped in for a young girl who didn’t understand what might happen to her even though she appeared to want it—to want it all.
I remember that a month after the cast party Eddie was my date to my senior prom—he was only a junior, and no one had asked me. Eddie was coerced into being my date by a faculty member—“Nancy, of all people, cannot be allowed not to go to her prom,” he’d told Eddie. And so I went. We were comrades-in-arms. We worked to pass the school budget together; I made phone calls that late spring in the hopes that his senior year wouldn’t be like mine. It passed by approximately eight votes and Eddie thanked me for helping when I could have been bitter and walked away. But I never thanked him or Opal or Gifford for the nights when they readily played my angels. I didn’t recognize what protectors they were until the media saturation of the Steubenville trial brought back these memories of my innocent, yet drunken actions. Eddie, Opal, and Gifford deserve my gratitude for fighting for my safety in a moment when others might have thought I was asking for it. They deserve to be thanked for understanding that being drunk is not giving consent. Most especially, they deserve to be remembered for having my back when I didn’t know my back needed protecting.

y friend Anna’s four-your-old son tells everyone he meets that he is a protector: “I protect everyone from the bad guys. I fight all the bad guys!” Right now he thinks the only way to “fight the bad guys” is with swords or fists. The other day, I suggested, “there are other ways to ward off the bad guys.” He gave me a look that says, I don’t believe you, but go on anyway. “Sometimes,” I said, “you need to use your words or you need to help someone leave. That can be a way to fight the bad guys too.” He raised his eyebrows, looked down at his sneakers, and then said to his mom, “Can I have the cookie now? I need it.” We were at the farmers market where the men all grow or make things with their hands. Anna gave him the cookie even though she knew the sugar would send him flying off. And he did. Everyone smiled as Eli ran from stall to stall, the little capes on his Superman socks flying behind him in the breeze.

Nancy Caronia is a lecturer at the University of Rhode Island. Her creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including New Delta ReviewLowestoft ChronicleTell Us a Story, and Don’t Tell Mama! The Penguin Book of Italian American Writing. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2013. She is co-editor with Edvige Giunta of Personal Effects: Essays on Memoir, Teaching, and Culture in the Works of Louise DeSalvo (Fordham University Press, October 2014).

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