Roosevelt Junior High, February 11th, 1972
Everyone at Roosevelt Jr. High had been “encouraged” to bring their Valentine’s cards to exchange in homeroom on the Friday before Valentine’s Day because the Pep Club dance was set for Friday evening. Jackson wanted to jump in the air, kick his heels up like a cheerleader and shout something stupid because his Friday laundry bag duty for coach Stephens would get him out of homeroom and all the card swapping. He wouldn’t have to watch guys with their “special for you” Valentine’s cards stand in line and wait to clear on the Hot Girl. Who, unlike him, was a for real cheerleader that wasn’t known for shouting, or even saying anything stupid. Word was she’d already dropped on Matt for the dance so she was, as his mom said, “just being polite.” Yeah, Mom. Politely letting those guys wait in line to hand off their dollar-fifty Hallmark’s for a “Thank you so-o much!” and a chance to dream for a split second about being the lip gloss that rubbed off on her teeth.
Jackson’s “date” to the dance was already set with Mary, his across the street neighbor. The “date” pre-arranged by both their mothers, even though he’d had to ask and she’d had to say “yes.” Sitting next to her in the backseat of his Mom’s Oldsmobile was like sitting next to a cement garden statue. And once at the dance, like every girl he’d gone to a party with since sixth grade, she dumped him immediately on arrival to go make out with somebody else. He climbed high enough up in the gym bleachers to be out of the band’s strobe light, but not far enough into the darkened upper tier to bother the making-out instead of dancing couples, and sat by himself.
A blonde girl with a figure like a tongue depressor stepped down onto his row, sat far enough away to look disinterested for ninety seconds before she scooted over.
“Hey, Ellen.” He couldn’t miss the snuffle in her voice. “Where’s, uh…Whatsis —”
“Jim. Cooke.” She pointed her thumb over her shoulder toward the slurp and slobber zone. “Jim. Horndog. Cooke.”
“Sorry.” He checked her puffy eyes, red nose.
“What is it, Jax?” She blew her nose on a Kleenex she stuffed into a small silver patent purse she snapped shut with a flourish and some force. “What do you guys want?”
“A lot of guys just want to make out.”
“Why aren’t you?”
“Making out is cool, I guess.” He wished he was, or even had the option. “But sitting by a girl, just talking to her, that’s okay too. You can’t make out forever.” He hoped she didn’t call bullshit on home for being a guy who hardly made out at all and didn’t know what to say to a girl, ever. He did love to look at girls, though. How they wore their hair, how their dresses fit, girls with freckles and suntans, girls without either one. Girls with sideburns kind of creeped him out, but mostly all girls were fine with him. Sometimes he’d follow a girl with the right perfume down the hall past where he was supposed to go.
A tall girl wearing coke bottle glasses, white gloves and a new, “you’ll grow into it” blue shift with pleats materialized on his left side. “Have you two seen Deanna anywhere?”
“I’d kinda have to be looking for her, huh Alice?” Jesus. Yeah, he’d seen the Hot Girl, earlier. Hard to miss the pink sweater, but —
“Don’t be a snot, Jax. Matt was asking ’cause he, uh, lost her.” Alice pointed discretely at the makeout section. “He’s up there, but she’s not. I know ‘cause I just…uh…Had to leave.” She sat, knees wide and unladylike, dropped her gloved hands into the fold of her skirt and sighed. “I swear to God, Jim Cooke is the horniest guy in this school. I mean the tongue is one thing, but…”
Ellen honked a big snuffle, Jackson thought he’d be better off out the middle of whatever was coming. He rattled down out of the bleachers past a few more kindred lost and lonely, thought how only a supreme loser could misplace the Hot Girl. He hit the gym floor, scanned the room and couldn’t spot a chaperon anywhere on the dance floor or posted at the doors. He knew it was now or never bail time, seized the moment, slipped behind the band and through the un-monitored cafeteria kitchen doors. He crossed through the cafeteria and eased out, his heels echoing against the metal lockers and marble floors that lined the dark and empty hallways of Roosevelt. He let go of the breath he’d been holding when he’d stepped down the half flight of stairs and grabbed the south exit door’s cold brass arm.
He leaned the door open slow, almost kicked her in the back. Jesus! It was The Hot Girl! Deanna Collings, sitting all alone, on the old, cold concrete steps of Roosevelt Junior High. He had the urge to pee, but found his nerve and sat down next to her.
“Hey, um…Collings. What’re you doing out here?”
“Waiting for my brother to come get me.”
“Aren’t you cold?”
“A little, I guess.”
“Here.” He draped his jacket over her shoulders. Now he was cold. They never mentioned that in the movies.
“Thank you.” She snuggled into his jacket and stopped shivering. After he’d seen her rescued by his jacket, it could have been thirty below and he wouldn’t have cared.
“You got it nice and warm, too.” She looked over her shoulder in his direction, had the telltale puffy eyes like the other dumped girls. Only an idiot would dump the Hot Girl.
“I heard Matt was looking for you. I thought you guys were —”
“Were what? Were what, Jackson? Huh? What were we?”
“I, uh…dunno…” Wow. She was pissed at Matt and she remembered his name. “Having a good time? Maybe?”
“No! Not a good time. At all. At first, I guess, but then he got, well, he got…” She stopped looking at him, glared straight ahead. “Never mind. I should have stayed home, that’s all. I just need to go home.”
He knew he wasn’t supposed to say “that sucks” to the Hot Girl, or insult her by saying he thought Matt was a serious wuss poser with his Summer Blonde hair and surfer’s cross he had to keep tucked away or a teacher would yank it, so they sat in silence for a while. She was drawing invisible somethings with her fingers on the concrete by her feet when she snuffled pretty big. He knew it was a leftover from how crying sometimes got your nose all into it. He tried to find something sympathetic to say, thought about telling her how his dad had called his little brother a “screaming snot machine” when he cried, pulled it at the last second and went to the bank of manners his mother had hammered into him.
“There’s one of the Pep Club napkins, you know, from the snacks and stuff table, in my jacket pocket. Half a cookie, too. If you want. Can I tell you something funny? About Matt?”
“No.” She wiped her eyes, blew her nose, balled up the napkin and put it back in his jacket pocket. “Well, okay.” She pulled out the half a dry chocolate chip cookie and took a bite.
“When his sister dyed his hair with the blonde streaks she messed it all up, you know, some of his hair and lift up sideburns are like invisible. He draws them back on, and up the side. With some kind of makeup pencil.”
“Eyebrow pencil. I know. Some came off on my hand when I slapped him.” She laughed a little through the cookie. “You don’t like him, do you?”
“Tell me why?”
“Well, you know, I hate to talk sh –”
“Please?” Girls could load words with so much stuff.
“Okay. He’s a fake. I mean, I know girls think he’s cute and everything but you’re a beach boy surfer or you’re not. And he’s not. Not in Oklahoma in winter, anyway. It’s just kinda stupid, I think. Sorry.”
“It’s okay. My mom told me not to go. With him, I mean.” She looked at the remaining cookie, put it in the pocket with the used napkin. “Anyway, some guys in my homeroom didn’t ask me or even give me a Valentine. I thought you had to in homeroom.”
“I didn’t know that, about homeroom Valentine’s cards. Is that still true?”
“Yes, always. Didn’t Mr. Stephens tell you?”
“Maybe, but I might have been across the street. I’m not there all the time on Wednesday and Friday. I take his laundry to the cleaners.”
“Because it’s dirty?”
“No, I mean, out of all the guys over there, how come you get to leave?”
“He told me he knew I was smart enough to handle it and I wasn’t so stupid I’d forget to come back.” Why did looking at her in his jacket and telling her a story make him feel so strange? “Anyway, ‘cause of that he kept me in gym homeroom for both years. Sort of like I flunked homeroom.”
“That’s silly, Jackson. You can’t flunk homeroom.”
“I could be in a regular homeroom, one with girls if I hadn’t flunked.”
“You didn’t flunk and there are girls in your homeroom. But you have to walk across the gym to talk to them and you’re supposed to give them a Valentine.”
“I didn’t know. So I owe you one, I guess. A Valentine, I mean.”
“I guess, huh?” She gave him a smile that seemed to confuse her face for a second. “Deanna, with two Ns. Here’s my brother.” She stood, retrieved the last of the cookie, shrugged out of his jacket and handed it to him. “Thank you for the cookie, and sitting with me, Jax. Really. I…Didn’t like it out here, by myself.”
“Thanks for, um, letting me. You know, sit. Sorry. ‘Bout Matt. And everything.” He was so glad she hadn’t stayed home and Matt was a loser he wanted to scream. A car rumbled up directly in front of them, blinding him with the headlights. Her brother unwound from the car like a bear from a cave.
“Is this him, little sister?”
“No, Jax just waited with me. So I wasn’t outside alone.”
“Yeah?” Jackson’s hand disappeared when her brother shook it. “You know the guy that did whatever, pissed her off?”
“Think you could kick his ass for me?”
“Give it some thought, man. You did the right thing, hangin’ with DeeDee.”
“Stop it, Doug! DeeDee? Really? Goddaa —” Her door closed with a BAM.
Her brother laughed. “Awww sorry DeeDee, I forgot –” His door slammed, the car backed away with a roar, the tires screeched, threw up burnt rubber smoke.
She’d slapped Matt, huh? Wow. Wonder what he did? Jackson knew he’d never get close enough to get in that kind of trouble with the Hot Girl, but his jacket sure smelled good. Wait till he told his parents what a gentleman he’d…Shit! Valentine’s was Monday! And he had to find Deanna with the double ‘n’ a card. Where was he supposed to get a Hot Girl Valentine card that didn’t come in a package with thirty other ones?
Saturday morning Jackson upended the paper delivery bag on his bike, brushed out all the funk inside, and pedaled off with enough lead time to make the twenty-four block ride to the mall when the stores opened. He guessed nobody knew about the bookstore because they had tons of righteous Valentine’s cards.
Some were what his mom would call sexist smut, so he stayed away from them. Well, he looked, because boobs were boobs, even cartoon boobs, but he didn’t buy one. He did find a funny one he was sure nobody had gotten double N Deanna. On the front was a black and white picture of a Gerber-ish baby, its face all screwed up with a finger way up in its nose. It was two bucks. He figured because of the book store and the mall and everything, but he bought it.
Valentine’s Monday morning Jackson stood up as tall as he could with the extra boost afforded by his cowboy boots and waded through the before school huddle around Deanna Collings. He handed her his card, along with an apology for forgetting in the first place, and instead of a canned smile and “Thank you so-o much!” he got a flustered “For me? Really?” and another one of those smiles that seemed to confuse her face. He also got glared out by her entourage.
He banged his locker door closed back in the hall on his side of the gym, turned, ran into his friend Kirk and three other guys who surrounded him.
“What’s with the big red envelope, man? Crushing out on Collings?”
“C’mon, I had to. I missed Stephens’ ‘Valentine’s for everyone’ announcement. She told me —”
“That never happened. Stephens giving a crap about Valentine’s cards or Collings telling you anything. You’re hopeless, man.” They shoulder punched him, shoved him toward the gym door. “Lying so you can be another Collings Fan Club dork? You’re pathetic.”
Jackson cast a furtive glance across the gym where Deanna with two N’s was surrounded by girls. They were all laughing, a few looked over, checked him out. Dork? Maybe so. But unlike every other guy at Roosevelt, he’d talked to her, alone. No crowd, all by herself. She’d snotted up his napkin, eaten his cookie, even told him how to spell her name like he was the one person at Roosevelt who didn’t know. And his jacket still smelled like her. He shoulder punched back. They could all fuck off. He’d earned his Valentine card moment with the Hot Girl.
Jean Collings the Biologist was the guest of honor somewhere she hadn’t been since her son had gone on to high school. In the Roosevelt Junior High Principal’s office where she was presented with her usually compliant, rule-abiding honor student, cheerleader and class president turned angry and defiant daughter who refused to give up a “note” she was accused of passing in homeroom. Along with a Girls’ Gym teacher who should wear looser sweats that weren’t almost high-water capris, and fat old Mr. Greer who remembered her well from Doug Collings’ glory days at Roosevelt.
Mom Collings held out her hand.
“The card, sweetheart? May I see it?”
“NO. It’s mine, and, and, nobody else’s.” Deanna clutched the card to her chest with both hands.
“You showed it to the girls in homeroom and started a ‘disruption’ with it. That’s why I’m —”
“It’s funny. That’s why we were laughing.” She tightened her grip on the card. “And nobody else got one like it. At all.”
“Deanna? The card. Now.”
Mom Collings opened the envelope, made a small face about the baby with the finger buried in its nose.
I Sure Had to Work
She flipped it open
To Pick a Winner Like You!
Be My Valentine?
Happy V Day, Two N’s DeaNNa – J
Jean Collings laughed out loud, looked at the gym teacher and the principal with some serious adult stink eye. “This is why I’m here?” She held the card up, wedged between her fingers. “This? No M-80s in the trash cans or toilets? No math teacher’s upside-down Volkswagen? Just this?”
“The issue I believe, Mrs. Collings, is insubordination. Your daughter refused to show the, um, ‘note,’ to Miss Riordan.”
“This is not a note, Walter. This is a Valentine’s card. In a large, red envelope, addressed to my daughter on what I believe is Valentine’s Day. Where is the problem? Miss Riordan?”
“They were all almost out of control giggling and laughing and I am charged with their physical and moral safety, Mrs. Collings. Deanna is a class officer and a role model. I felt I should intervene.”
“That’s nothing but a large bucket of double talk that allowed you to use the ‘passing a note’ rule as an excuse to get my daughter in here. So you could read her dangerous and immoral Valentine’s card? A card that did nothing but make a group of young girls laugh?” Her glare bounced between the other two adults. “I am less than pleased with both of you. This card is my daughter’s business. I have read it, approve of it and, as she has said and I agree, it is none of your business. The young man on the bench outside, who is sitting there I assume because he is the one who gave this card to my daughter? He should go back to class as well. Don’t you agree?” She waited a few seconds short of getting an answer. “Good. We’re done here.” She banged the door of Walter Greer’s office closed hard enough to rattle the mottled green glass with his name stenciled on it.
“Sorry, mom. Really.”
Mom Collings laughed, pulled her daughter close in a one-armed hug. “Don’t be ridiculous, Deanna. They should be sorry. I’d like to know where he got the card, though. I haven’t bought your father one yet.”