My first high school boyfriend and I resemble each other. Drew and I each have big, blue eyes, a soft smile, and fair hair. Drew is from Rochester, New York. He was sent to live with his aunt, uncle and cousins in Lambeth, Ontario after he got into some trouble at home in New York State. He goes to Catholic Central high school with those Canadian cousins, and that is where I meet him. He and I are put on the bus that takes Grade nine CCH students with last names starting with a letter between A and H, to the satellite campus at St. Peter’s Catholic School next to the basilica on Angel Street. We go on that bus every morning and have French then History at that old elementary school.
I love being in the main building off Queen’s Avenue. The narrow passageway that leads from the West Wing café to hallways in the East Wing is lined with the lockers of senior football players. The connector tunnel smells like deep fried gym socks and is abuzz with frenzied youthful movement. I glance at the stream of teenage heads floating towards me until I feel too conspicuous looking at my peers, and shift my gaze on the bare trees and parking lot beyond the tunnel’s bordering windows. On one such day, Gus Zutto walks ahead of me and Drew, Gus’s long legs stride with easy movements as his elongated arms swing low to his sides, his text books clutched in his left hand. Angelo D’sca runs at Gus from behind, bumping my elbow as he passes. He bends low to Gus’s waist and pulls his track pants down to his ankles. Angelo continues to run, his furry knuckles dragging across the light-blue tiled floor of the CCH tunnel. Gus tries to chase Angelo, but he stumbles over his pants now wrapped around his boney ankles as the crowd’s laughter fills the narrow passageway that joins the East and West wings of CCH.
I try to fit into high school by not standing out too terribly much. All Crusader females wear the standard Catholic school girl uniform and I am as self-conscious of every emerging curve as I am of any hair out of place in my carefully coiffed Farrah Fawcett do.
Gus’s unexpected exposure seems invasive to me though intended for levity. It immediately occurs to me as part of the CCH collective that there is nowhere for either Gabe or I to run or hide. Revelation in high school means more than the sudden uncovering of my white cotton panties beneath my Crusader kilt. I fear the removal of the Cover-girl mask that I meticulously apply to my bare face each day before I leave my house and head for the school bus. I know that no one will ever love me if it is revealed that my life and family are imperfect. I am severely flawed by genetic association and thus, undeserving of tenderness and respect. The voices in my head echo the messages of my mother and Cissy: “God help the man that gets you, lassie!” and “He’ll want you until he sees you for the bitch you are and then he’ll drop you!”
Angelo and Gus both play on the CCH senior boys’ basketball team, and are buddies on and off the court. Angelo D’sca’s prank of pants-ing Gus Zutto is the frivolity of friendship. Witnesses, including me, laugh good-naturedly as Angelo runs away post-pants-ing. After all, Angelo means no harm and his speedy, bent-double get-a-way is comedic. His act is not vindictive in nature though I later learn that every practical joke is malicious in nature. Perhaps five-foot-eight Angelo is jealous of Gus’s six-foot-six slender frame or of his prowess on and off the basketball court as one of the team’s first-string players. Gus is co-Captain of the basketball team along with Drew, my six-foot-four boyfriend. Angelo D’sca is a bench warmer.
According to Drew, Angelo is on the team for his personality, humour and spirit more than skill or speed. “The guy’s hilarious!” Drew tells me. “During one game Coach Farrow called Angelo off the bench. Angelo couldn’t play because he wasn’t wearing anything under his warm-up suit. He’d never been subbed in before so he came to the game commando. Coach Farrow freaked on him!” Drew laughs. “Gus Zutto knew that Angelo wasn’t wearing his shorts under his tear-a-ways that night so Gus asked Coach to play Angelo. It was a big joke, but Angelo was pissed.” I stand spinning the dial of my combination at my locker, giggling and shaking my head as Drew tells me this story about his team-mates. With every word my boyfriend is welcoming me into some sacred boy circle that I crave to enter as his girl. For his commando stunt Angelo was suspended for three games, which seemed no different from his time as first-string plank rider. Angelo is the team mascot, Andy says. Gus’s pants-ing is Angelo D’sca’s Sicilianesque act of retribution because Gus narked on him for coming to a Friday triple-header commando.
Though Drew is in Grade nine with me, Coach Farrow plays him as a senior because he is tall and skilled as a ball player. I love to watch him play on a Friday night at the weekly school triple-header. Lina and I always go together, and I’d stand in the gallery looking down at Drew as Queen’s We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions play over the spectator gallery sound system. Drew smiles and winks at me from center court making me feel like a million bucks. Drew Blunt is so tall and gorgeous that many of the senior girls chase after him, but he just wants me. I never really know why. I never see myself as special, beautiful or deserving of someone like Drew Blunt except when I look into his open face and see myself there as someone worthwhile and lovable.
Drew calls me ‘babe’. It is very American and I revel in this moniker as it rolls off his Yankee tongue. Maybe it is Drew’s raspy New York accent that makes it more palatable to my ear. He gives me a powder blue T-shirt that says Angie Baby on it and then flies home to New York for the Christmas break in 1979. A plane crashes outside of Rochester the same day Drew flies home, and I work myself into a state convinced that he is on that downed plane. When he calls me to tell me that he has landed safely, I cry into the phone. My mother laughs at me and snaps a photograph of me cradling the phone, looking like shit in my blue and white bathrobe with ‘78 emblazoned on the left breast. When I stumble upon that picture many years later I am instantly reminded of how vulnerable I felt in that moment, and how lonely I was for Drew over that Christmas break.
Some of the boys with whom I go to high school often crowd at the bottom of the polished staircases with hand mirrors, or sporting black boots that shine with an incriminating gleam to see if they can catch a glimpse of what we, their female classmates, wear under our short kilts as we ascend the shiny stairs of Catholic Central. Drew is too decent to do that. He and I make out in his buddy’s truck during one school dance, and all we do is kiss and laugh together. Coach Farrow, my French teacher and Drew’s coach, is chaperoning the dance, and as Drew runs inside the school with my hand in his, Coach Farrow stops us. I feel that he knows we have been making out in the parking lot. I blush bright red and look at the hall floor as ’70s rock music blasts from the gymnasium.
“Mr. Blunt. I trust you’re treating Miss Griffin with the greatest of respect as she deserves.”
“Yes, sir,” Drew smiles, wink at Coach Farrow and pulls me into the gym behind him.
Drew never pretends to look up my kilt as I bounce up a set of stairs on my way to a class after kissing him good-bye. In the moment of Gus’s pants-ing, I imagine someone (other than my respectful boyfriend) pulling up my kilt to expose me as Gus is suddenly unclothed. When I become a teacher at CCH twenty years after that in 1999, I notice that my clever female students wear black workout shorts under their kilts that are visible as their diminutive, blue and white plaid swishes back and forth when they travel the halls. My generation was never that smart or that prepared. We seemed to be begging to be uncovered in the corridors of Catholic Central. Crusader girls in my class courageously chose to risk sudden exposure during our time of blood-and-guts adolescent vulnerability.
When Drew and I break up, it is because he has fallen in love with his own celebrity. He decides that dating the senior girls at CCH is preferable. In fairness to Drew and to the girls he dates after me, I am not a human being who is truly open. My borers are closed off. Teenage boys like Drew don’t know how to deal with my closed heart and protected life. Drew walks me downtown on a snowy winter night after we had already broken up, and I cry softly without speaking a word.
“Babe. Babe. Don’t cry. It isn’t that bad that you have to cry, is it, babe? It doesn’t hurt that bad, does it?” he smiles.
Drew is always positive and jovial and he remains happy even as we break up. His seeming nonchalance deepens my wound and I cannot answer him when he asks about the depth of my pain. It does hurt though. I opened myself to him as much as I was capable of doing and he was leaving because the little I offered him simply wasn’t enough. This habit of closing off my heart and life to people I care about will persist throughout my life. Drew is the first person to stumble upon that tendency in me though at that age neither of us can put our finger on what it is that is wrong between us.