She was the most physically beautiful human being I had ever seen in person. Janice showed up a couple of days late that first week of junior high. Blonde and lithe, her figure already exhibited the adult elegance and grace of a real American Beauty. I thought she was perfect.
I learned through the Facebook grapevine that Janice died a few years ago. She had to be just over fifty. I don’t know how she died, but I just couldn’t imagine her body, that body, succumbing to the usual ravages of age and disease. Nor did I know her well as a kid. We graduated from different grammar schools in Throgs Neck, a corner of the Bronx just beyond the last stop on the 6 train. But if we exchanged few words, it was because I believed my body disqualified me from talking to her.
I was a chubby kid — husky, as my parents and the Barneys’ boys shop called it. Other chubby boys, some of them my friends, seemed oblivious to their bodies’ flaws and thought nothing of talking to Janice. This behavior struck me as blasphemous. One had to know one’s place, and chubby boys were to be neither seen nor heard by beautiful girls.
But they could look, and I did. I would stare openly at her across the classroom. And when I happened to sit next to her, I would indulge only in sidelong glances and not speak unless spoken to. I was a very orthodox boy.
It never dawned on me that anyone would notice where my eyes went. But now I wonder how they couldn’t. When I recall how often I was seated next to Janice, I cringe to think that my teachers saw and thought how cute it would be to put the chubby bookish kid together with the class beauty.
My piety slipped one spring afternoon in science class. Janice and I sat down to find our table set up with an alcohol burner and a beaker sitting atop a burner stand, the same as every table. Each beaker contained a golden liquid that turned out to be cooking oil. Next to this apparatus was another beaker full of popcorn kernels, two pairs of tongs, a tablespoon, a dish of salt, a stack of brown paper towels and a six-by-six inch square of thick glass.
“What do you think he’s gonna makes us do?” she asked. “He” was Mr. Newenflugel, ex-Grumman Aerospace engineer and resident mad scientist known for wacky experiments, most involving open flames, volatile chemicals and explosions.
Before I could come up with an answer, Mr. N. came by and flicked his Zippo to light our alcohol burner, which he slipped beneath the oiled filled beaker. After lighting every burner, including the one on his lab table in front, he hushed the class.
“Alrighty boys and girls,” he announced, “take one spoon full of popcorn… Just one! And pour it into the oil. Then cover the beaker with the glass right away!” He demonstrated. “And I mean right away!”
Janice and I grinned at each other. We were hungry. We were growing up, and we were always hungry. I poured the kernels and covered the beaker. Then we stared through the glass. After two or three minutes, the kernels blossomed before our eyes. Like stop action flowers. One after the other. At each table at the same time. Giggles and chatter erupted. Mr. N’s classes always ended up in pandemonium.
Ostensibly, we were learning how extreme heat rapidly evaporated the moisture in each kernel until the pressure caused it to explode. Using the tongs, I fished the oily popcorns out of the beaker, piled them on a paper towel and doused them with salt. Then like every other table pair, Janice and I dug in, greasy fingers freely sliding over each other, shoving clumps of popcorn into our mouths.
Then she cooked, then I cooked, then she cooked, and so on until we finished every last kernel. Mr. N. had to refill our oil beaker twice. So delicious! We couldn’t get them into our mouths fast enough. In that feeding frenzy, I forgot myself and did something I never would have dared otherwise. I grabbed a clump of popcorn, raised them to her mouth, and she took them! I’ll never forget my fingers grazing her teeth as I drew my hand back.
I froze. What had I done? Did anyone see?
But Janice just laughed. “I’m making such a pig of myself!” she said, swallowing and grabbing the last of the popcorn.
The bell rang. We left with our lips swollen from too much salt and our table strewn with oil soaked, salt crusted paper towels. No one made a remark about my lapse. By the time the next period ended, I felt secure that it went unnoticed.
As much as I relished sitting next to Janice, my brand of orthodoxy reserved her for boys older, thinner and more roguish. But I secretly chafed against my dogma. Salvation finally came in the form of a television documentary promoting diet and exercise: “The Fountain of Groovy.” (Hey, it was 1970.)
I remember little of the show except that it featured Barbara Eden, whom I had known from “I Dream of Jeannie,” one of a half dozen reruns I watched religiously. Apparently, Miss Eden was a health and fitness enthusiast. She presaged the exercise craze that would soon get America working out and making it burn.
While the show also featured interviews with other celebrities extolling the virtues of regular exercise and good nutrition, California was Miss Eden’s real co-star. With its fab beaches and iconic bikini girls, it had practically invented the body beautiful seventies style: sculpted by exercise and defined not by big biceps but by a tight belly. Miss Eden had made her mark in a pink genie costume that exposed her navel on prime time, her belly clearly qualifying as groovy.
But that was TV. Everyday, I could gaze across homeroom at the pinnacle of groovy in the flesh, her slim midriff peeking from under the short shirts that were the style of the day. I wanted that midriff. Or rather, I wanted one like it for myself. I wanted my own body to be groovy, too.
So I set myself on a daily regimen of sit-ups, push-ups, jumping jacks and deep knee bends. Hundreds and hundreds of reps. I also decided that I had to take control of my eating, though I faltered in this more often than not. A sudden growth spurt finally helped move things along. Soon I towered over my tiny mother. My body shed its love handles and became positively skinny, though not quite groovy.
By ninth grade, I had become something of junior high BMOC. Janice, however, had left our school to start her freshman year at one of the local Catholic high schools. For a while, I saw her around the neighborhood. She always said hello and exchanged a little small talk. But soon our lives took us down very different paths, hers characterized by an older and faster crowd.
I ran into Janice again in the mid-eighties. I was twenty-seven. College and grad school had come and gone, and grooviness still eluded me. I had just quit a good job, broken the lease on my studio apartment and moved back into my parents’ house. I had no prospects, no money, no girlfriend and only the vaguest notion of going back to graduate school to study philosophy. That’s how badly I was floundering.
Through an older cousin in the corporate world, I had landed a freelance gig writing brochures, which I worked on in my old room. Being my own boss, I could take long walks on nice spring afternoons whenever I wanted. My Bronx neighborhood had more in common with a small town than with the great metropolis on the other side of the river. Long walks alone on its quiet streets had been my habit since high school, something I did for the soul as much as for the exercise.
My favorite route took me to Pelham Bay Park via Stadium Avenue, a tree shaded street lined with modest brick homes and a few old gated mansions. One afternoon, I turned the corner onto Stadium, and there she stood shimmering like Aphrodite on the clamshell. She was nonchalantly chatting with three or four others about our age.
I considered walking right by. Given my current state of affairs, I wasn’t up for a reunion with goddess or girl. Before I could decide, however, Janice turned and looked me right in the face.
“Eugene!” she called.
Still in our late twenties, we didn’t look much different than we did as teenagers. But just as we got to talking, a late-model Trans Am pulled up. The window rolled down and the guy driving barked at her to get in. Her boyfriend, I assumed.
Janice did as she was told without question, comment or goodbye. The Trans Am peeled off, and I found myself standing among strangers. They just shook their heads. They seemed to know all about Janice and Mr. Trans Am, but they weren’t going to say anything in front of me. In fact, they ignored me completely.
I went on my way, too excited to care. Good fortune had reunited me with my junior high American Beauty, and she had grown up to be even more beautiful.
It never struck me how odd it was to run into her in the middle of Stadium Avenue. Looking back, I suspect the others were just as surprised to see her. I don’t think long walks were Janice’s thing, or why would anyone have been cruising around looking for her?
Yet, there she was at least half a mile from her parents’ house — where, I shortly learned, she was still living. A long way on foot, especially without a destination. If she were going to visit someone, she had easily broken that engagement. Whatever was going on, she was clearly out of place.
But I saw only opportunity. So two days later I called her. I found her name in the phonebook, or rather her father’s name. In the mid-eighties, looking up a girl’s number and calling her out of the blue was not beyond the pale, though it took more nerve than “friending” one on Facebook.
Reprising my adolescence didn’t help, either. My own hubris had landed me back in my old room, its shelves still cluttered with my science fiction book collection and B-17 models. I had convinced myself that a job and salary were bourgeois superfluities for a writer. Now I felt superfluous. But superfluous or not, I knew I would kick myself if I didn’t call. Besides, what was the worse that could happen? Nothing, I told myself.
In the course of a few phone calls, I learned many interesting and surprising things about Janice. The first time I called, her mother answered. This was the first surprise, that Janice had a mother.
Somehow, I couldn’t imagine her having parents. In my memory, she and her friends seemed to live an emancipated existence, to come and go as they pleased without the curfews and accountability the rest of us had to endure. But here was her mother sounding as polite and friendly as any other girl’s mother. I liked her voice right off. And though she didn’t know me, she seemed glad I called. I mentioned, of course, that I was an old classmate of Janice’s, but I think it was more than that.
“Hold on and I’ll get my daughter,” she offered before I asked. A few moments later, I heard Janice’s voice.
“Hello? Who is this?”
“Eugene,” I said, and waited.
“Oh, hi! How are you?”
Before she asked, I explained that I was sorry we couldn’t finish our last conversation, and so I looked her up in the phonebook. She didn’t apologize for splitting so suddenly. In fact, she didn’t say anything at all about it, which was fine with me.
“Would you like to meet for coffee some time?” I asked eventually. “To catch up.”
“Sure,” she said without hesitation.
This was the safe coffee date. A dozen years before, I couldn’t bring myself to ask her the time, and here I was segueing her into a casual date. Mr. Trans Am never even crossed my mind. But this was how it was done among us progressive, university educated rogues. Our model was Woody Allen of “Annie Hall,” not John Travolta of “Saturday Night Fever.” Janice, of course, would have seen the same movies.
We set a date and agreed to talk the day before to decide on a place. But when I called, she asked to reschedule and apologized for reneging. I had long ago learned to be patient in these matters and expect some skittishness. After all, she hadn’t seen me in years. Besides, I knew from experience that a few phone calls could make a girl comfortable enough to meet face to face. This agreeing and reneging happened two more times, but Janice always seemed eager to talk and tell me about herself.
“I won the Kiwanis essay contest in sixth grade,” she announced when I mentioned that I was a “professional” writer.
This was the same Kiwanis essay contest that I had won in sixth grade — first prizes were awarded to the best essay from each school. It was the very event that set me on the path to being a writer.
Yet, I had gone through seventh and eighth grades with this girl, sat next to her in several classes, and had no idea she and I shared this, that she, too, was the writer in her class. I would never have imagined it. I always thought that because she was beautiful, things like writing stories didn’t matter to her.
But it shouldn’t have surprised me. I already knew that she also liked to draw, except that her drawing skills far surpassed mine. We sat together in art class, and so I got to know her work. She clearly had a gift. Our teacher saw it, too, and was always stopping by our table to see how Janice was progressing on one project or another.
There was one character Janice drew over and over: a girl down on one knee, hand raised up, palm to the viewer, tresses flying. Janice also made her muscular, like a superhero. This was the early seventies, still too early for Madonna’s cut arms and Jane Fonda’s hardbody. So the athleticism of the character stood out. But had Janice posed her in a defensive or offensive posture?
I’m not sure. Either way, she clearly had been drawing since she was little. Our generation’s parents didn’t send their kids to lessons for everything. To draw as well as she did, Janice had to have taught herself, learning by trial and error over several years. And she had taught herself to draw the kneeling girl very well.
¨What do you think was the best novel ever written?” she asked during another call.
I don’t remember how this came up, but I know that I didn’t have to make any effort to turn the conversation to books.
“The Brothers Karamazov,” I answered, though I had only half read it.
I should have said All the King’s Men or Of Human Bondage or Middlemarch, novels I actually couldn’t put down. But Dostoyevsky was my standard answer with girls. He was more fashionably existential than the American and English writers I really liked.
“I really like Canetti,” she said, referring to the great German modernist who had won a Nobel a few years before.
I had not read him, and this I admitted. I did know that he ranked as a heavyweight, the kind of author serious writers and intellectuals read. But Janice was not in graduate school. I don’t think she had even finished college. What was she doing reading Canetti? Who gave her his book? (Certainly not the Trans Am guy.) And why was she telling me about it?
I probably figured she was trying to prove that she was smart, too, but I don’t think so now. Since I had come to her out of the blue, I suspect I had walked in on a crisis already well in progress. It never occurred to me that she might have moved back home because she was floundering as badly as I was.
And why not? We grew up in the same neighborhood, watched the same cartoons, listened to the same music and probably cried over the same terrors. Perhaps she chafed against her own orthodoxy and wanted a life where her body didn’t matter but reading Canetti did.
She also told me that she was a runway model — no surprise there. “I just got back from Quito,” she added. “I was in the Miss Ecuador pageant.”
Now I was impressed. She explained that Miss Ecuador was one of the feeder contests for Miss Universe. Apparently anyone from anywhere could apply to a local competition. I think her mother worked in the fashion business, too, and got Janice in. Or maybe I just assumed so because she had accompanied her daughter to Ecuador. Whatever the connection, nothing came of it. Janice ended up back home, in her old room like me.
A few days after our last call, I came home to find my parents waiting for me. Did I know a Janice? Someone who said he was her boyfriend had called asking to speak to Eugene. I am named after my father, and so my mother had given the phone to him. I was mortified.
My mother’s question instantly reduced me to a stammering fifteen-year-old with his worried parents looming over him. What trouble had I gotten myself in now? My father asked if he needed to step in.
I assured him I could take care of it and mumbled some vague explanation that satisfied neither of them, if they could hear me at all. My mother handed me a piece of paper with a number on it. She said the boyfriend had asked that I call him back right away.
I went into my parents’ bedroom for privacy — this was long before the cell phone, when an entire household shared one phone line — and returned the call. He was mercifully quick. He told me in no uncertain terms to stop calling Janice. I apologized, saying I didn’t know she was with someone — which, of course, was not really true. The truth was I didn’t care whether she was or not. But whatever derring-do I had mustered to make that first call dissipated at the sound of that gruff voice. I never called her again.
A few weeks later an odd coincidence occurred.
I was visiting a graduate school classmate and her husband, who happened to be Ecuadorian. They had recently returned from Ecuador after a long visit to see his family and do some sightseeing on the Galápagos Islands. On their dining room table lay a few old newspapers from Quito. What were the odds, I thought as I opened one up?
Sure enough, there she was, sitting in a bathing suit with several other Miss Ecuador contestants, sashes across their lovely bodies, smiles on their faces. Despite the worn newsprint, I recognized Janice right away. And the caption listed her name, erasing any doubt. My shame came roaring back.
I said nothing to my friends except to mention that I knew the blonde in the picture. “We went to school together,” I added.
They seemed unimpressed and the topic was dropped.
We left for dinner, or whatever we had planned, but the memory of how it all ended gnawed at me the whole evening and for a few days after. To this day, I can’t think about the experience without wincing.
I saw Janice for the last time a few months later. She seemed as out of place as she did that past spring.
It was a fall evening, and I was midway on one of my long walks. I stopped to cross East Tremont — the Main Street in my old neighborhood — when I turned and saw her waiting in front of Louie’s Seafood Restaurant and Clam Bar.
She stood alone in a red gown and high heels. But for her hair, I might not have recognized her. She wore it swept up on one side with a long gold tress flowing down the other. What a contrast to the way she wore it as a kid: always long and loose, never even a ponytail never mind a braid.
All that gold! It seemed somehow over the top. Certainly too much for Louie’s, if that was where she was coming from. She should have been walking the red carpet at the Oscars. But on a cold night on East Tremont in the Bronx, she just looked lost and alone.
We stood only a few yards apart, but I didn’t say hello or acknowledge her in any way. I looked directly at her for several seconds, let my eyes absorb her lovely image, then turned away, out of spite as much as shame. I knew she saw me.
A few years after Janice died, someone posted our class picture on Facebook. Janice sits in the front row, hands folded on her lap, her hair long and parted in the middle — the style of the times. She is smiling, a sweet smile, a child’s smile.
Of course, she was a child. But I believed her precocious figure set her above and apart from me. In truth she and I shared much at twelve, especially vulnerability. And the young woman I snubbed years later seemed no less vulnerable. What would it have cost me to say hello to her, even if she ignored me? Nothing. Most likely, it would have been a polite exchange, maybe no more than a wave and a nod between two lost kids who once liked to draw and write.