Susie vs. The Almighty

When I was a little girl I had a big crush on a little boy named Joey McCaffery. He was funny and silly and cute with curly brown hair and smiling twinkly eyes. He didn’t go to my school. I went to Catholic school, he went to public school, which to me, made it all the more Romeo and Juliet romantic. In the summertime, I saw him almost every day at Lakewood Park. Sometimes at the baseball diamond. Sometimes on the giant wall, but it was at the pool where romance bloomed. We chased each other around the deck and snapped wet towels, he dunked me and we wrestled underwater until I nearly drowned, we ran up the high dive steps and cannonballed on top of one another. We performed every pre-kissing and hugging expression of violent juvenile desire imaginable. Until one day, while pushing him into the water, I ripped the back of his well-worn American flag Speedo bathing suit and exposed his butt. Something I found hilarious, but the lifeguard did not. We were expelled from the pool for two weeks. I didn’t see Joey during that punishing time, but I did paint “I love Joey” in big letters on my closet wall, so you could say I was pretty excited the first day I returned to the pool to resume our shenanigans. But he wasn’t there. Well, not exactly. Instead of being inside the pool area, he was sitting on his 10-speed, hanging onto the fence, looking in. I ran up to him and said, “Hey! Why aren’t you swimming?” He shrugged like a punk and said he didn’t feel like it. I jumped in the water, got my hair wet, ran back and shook it out on him. He told me to cut it out, and not in a cute way. Day after day, this continued. I’d go to the pool, he’d stay on the other side of the fence. So close, but so far away. I tried to remind him how much fun he could be having by doing Belly Flops and Jack Knives and Nestea Plunges off the low dive. I tried to get his attention by perfecting backflips off the high dive. But it didn’t work — I’d look up smiling and triumphant from the water only to discover that he wasn’t looking at me, at all. Finally, it dawned on me — Oh! He’s mad at me for ripping his bathing suit because he’s too proud to admit it, but his family is too poor to buy him another one! So I went home and I stole my brother’s much too large trunk bathing suit and I returned to the pool completely confident that I could fix everything. I approached Joey and I thought, he’s going to be embarrassed about this, so just be cool, Susie. I coiled the suit as small and narrow as I could and I tried to slip it to him through the hole in the fence without anyone else seeing and I whispered, “I’m sorry I ripped your bathing suit, you can have this one.” He angrily pushed the bathing suit back to me and he said he didn’t want it, and then he rode off. I ran home crying and I never talked to him again.

Months later, while folding up the newspapers I delivered to my neighborhood, I saw a photo of Joey on the front page of the Sports section. He was sitting beside a Cleveland Indians baseball player. There was a Chief Wahoo cap on Joey’s head where his beautiful curly hair used to be and his athletic body was now just skin and sharp bones. The article said he was dying and it was Joey’s final wish to meet his hero, this stupid baseball player. I cut the photo out of the newspaper and I put it in my scrapbook. And weeks later, I opened that scrapbook again and wrote, “Joey died” beside the photograph.

But I didn’t know where to put my agonizing feelings, or the endless conversations I kept having with Joey in my head. So I wrote my first play and it was about us. Or rather, an idealized version of us. In my play we were older and more beautiful and less awkward and kisses and hugs replaced of violent noogies, and feelings were beautifully articulated instead of spitted out via chlorinated water, and all hurts were forgiven because in my version of events Joey loved me so very, very much that his final wish wasn’t to meet a stupid Cleveland Indians player, it was to see me. In my version Joey forgives me for everything and I forgive myself for everything, we have a beautiful goodbye … and then I furiously blame God for everything. I gave this play to my old 5th grade teacher, a tough, non-nonsense nun. Sr. Allan wasn’t prone to praise, but she had appreciated my first “novel” — a yarn bound piece of fiction I entitled “My Little Brother Paul” so I trusted her to be straight with me. Sr. Allan read my play and she asked me to meet with her after school. I was sure she’d be mad about the kissing section but surprisingly, she told me she thought it was a tremendous play and she wanted the school to produce it. I was beyond thrilled. She then added that she just had a few “notes” on the very end. For some reason, Sr. Allen didn’t think it was appropriate for St. Luke’s grammar school to produce a play that ended with an irate finger-to-the-sky diatribe against God. We battled on this point for some time until she proposed that I keep the everything, minus the finger, but allow another character — the boy’s mother — to add the final perspective. That perspective was that as devastating as this boy’s death was, it was God’s plan and that some day I will understand that plan. I disagreed both artistically and emotionally, but as an early sign of my future ability to work with Hollywood producers, I made the change so that the project could move forward. We cast my play with schoolmates and I directed it and we put it on for a small baffled audience.

And that’s how my first crush inspired my first play, my first crisis of faith, and my first romantic delusion. Because to this day, if the boy I loves ignores me — I still think that if I do enough backflips he’ll come around. And if he doesn’t. Well. I’m sure it’s nothing personal. He probably has Leukemia.

And as for blaming God vs. Believing it is all God’s plan vs. Not believing in God at all. All I know is that I still cry for that beautiful boy, and everything that could have been, and all the pain he endured and I want to blame God for that. But I also still smile at the enormity of love he inspired in me and I want to thank God for that too.

And that’s how my play ends.