You Are Here: The Mall
My first trip back to the mall on Route 4 had a ‘return to the scene of the crime’ flavor to it. I wasn’t there to shop. It was a trip steeped in nostalgia, maybe some regret, but definitely an effort to recapture some of the good feelings of the past.
We’d met here four years ago to the day, Jenny and I. She was with a couple of friends and so was I. Three boys, three girls, all 17, all sensing the symmetry, but too fearful to act.
All except me. I asked Jenny if she was hungry, she nodded, and we went to Houlihans down the mall, leaving the other four to stand helplessly.
Two orders of potato skins, two orders of onion rings, and we were simpatico, good to go, ready for the next level. Put whatever phrase you want on it, we were inseparable from the third skin and ring on.
She was from Hackensack, me Paramus. Just a couple of Jersey high school juniors who still thought Springsteen and Bon Jovi rocked, even though most kids our age had moved on to Usher, Notorious B.I.G. and Green Day.
Jenny was pretty in a prep school sort of way. She had chosen, at some point, maybe even subconsciously, to underplay her cuteness sartorially. Plaid red and black skirts and black tights with huge chunky heeled black shoes were staples in her wardrobe. Cowl neck sweaters strained vainly to cover what turned out to be a pair of prized breasts so magnificent as to have ruined me in that category for women the rest of my life. Makeup rarely found its way to her face, and hardly anyone noticed. Alabaster skin shone out from under a thick, luscious mane of auburn hair. Her green eyes radiated intelligence and alone were two fields of green that were portals to a wise and pragmatic mind. In many ways, she was perfect for me.
We had felt separated from our peers thus far in high school, and upon discovering kindred spirits with each other, we never again longed for the sense of security automatically linked with joining a crowd. Our independent status only proved to make us more popular, almost Bohemian, as people envied something they rarely saw in high school: independence.
Jenny and I skated through our Junior and Senior years. The 730 days went by in a kaleidoscope of colorful images and stolen snapshots. Great dances where we honed swing skills attained in the summer before our last year at a dance class in Tenafly; looking up from the tennis court during my matches and seeing her sitting serenely, applauding my efforts politely, trying to hide the more urgent fist pump she would show me on big points; seeing her break the fourth wall onstage during a play, catching my eye for the briefest of moments, sharing her passion for her craft in that sliver of time, luring me in; late night t-peeing raids with classmates, almost always hitting the same houses, the same athletes (never mine), and the taboo flavor never getting old; making love for the first time, while shockingly waiting till we finished before sharing mutual confessions of prior virginity. All evenly divided between multiple AP courses that prepped us for college.
We started talking about where we would go to college in the summer between our junior and senior years.
Our parents had planned and saved well, and since we were each an only child, we were limited, it turns out, only by our imaginations. Ivy League schools were contemplated, not to mention far distant tier 1 non-ivies out in California such as Stanford, Berkeley and USC. Our options seemed boundary- less.
Sports took up much of my time as a senior, and Jenny was taking so many courses that she barely had time for her own extra curricular activities like Band (she was a drummer) and Theatre (female lead in Othello).
Life moved so fast for us then, we rarely took the time to stop and smell the coffee, let alone the roses. But it was OK. Hectic was a pace we both seemed to prefer. We had a saying, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”, pinched from a Warren Zevon song of the same title. It’s probably not all that unique to feel on top of the world at that age. Turning 18 is a door-opening plateau, a non lethal gateway drug to 21. Those were heady times, and we took full advantage of the energy spawned from such innocent ambition.
Choosing a college became our relationship’s first real test. We did not want to sever our bond, but just the same, thought it would be stupid and shortsighted to make a decision that could impact the rest of our lives, individually, based on what the other person was deciding. It turned out to be easier than we’d thought.
We compromised. When I got into Stanford (tennis scholarship), she quickly decided to enter U.C. Berkeley. We would be separated by over a hundred years of fierce rivalry, and San Francisco Bay.
We were changing oceans. We were changing everything.
Jenny was chasing a double major of Theatre and Sociology, an aggressive rout she hoped would have her graduate on time with two degrees and a delicious choice, post college, between work or play. I stuck with my tennis commitment and decided to pursue Psychology. I’d learned over the years they were not unrelated.
Given the full docket we both faced, our time together was more limited and, at first, made for a nice new spark, combined with our new geographic surroundings. The Bay Area was a long way from North Jersey, on just about every level. Whenever we could, we’d hike in the hills above her rural campus, or visit the Cantor Museum on the expansive grounds of Stanford. There was always the 30 minute ride to the ocean just over the western foothills, and the culinary scene for both of us made crossing the Bay Bridge a treat for either of us, whether to dine in Palo Alto, or Berkeley.
Of course, we were on fixed budgets, so Chez Panisse was not exactly on our radar. But there were plenty of affordable places on both sides of the bay for us to continue dating like we were still teenagers. Which we were.
We were not necessarily growing up parallel, but we weren’t growing apart either. It was a major adjustment, and looking back, I thought we did the best that could be expected considering the depth of the fundamental transition we underwent.
I wandered down the mall, passing the familiar stores and shops and boutiques. Up ahead loomed Houlihans, which held a larger than life seat in the theatre of my mind, as that was where our love had sprouted. In front of the restaurant entrance, next to a sunglass kiosk, was a large steel framed, glass encased map of the mall, with the ubiquitous fat curved arrow indicating “You are here”. Standing in front of it, I chuckled, remembering encountering this for the first time around 14, and wondering, ‘how the hell do they know where I am?’
I’d gotten smarter since then. I think.
I strolled into Houlihans and slid on a stool at the empty bar. It was 11:45am. The bartender asked for my ID and upon a satisfactory inspection, asked what I would like.
“Bass Ale, draft.”
I looked around the virtually empty restaurant. 21 was four years older than 17, but it may as well have been 100 years ago. I no longer knew those two love birds who were ‘born to run’ back in 1995. They were strangers.
The beer was placed in front of me on a gnarled cardboard coaster. I laid a five dollar bill on the bar and took a swallow. The Brits finally got something right, I thought, tasting the semi-bitter ale.
When our freshman year ended, we both came home for the summer. She had a part time job and I worked on my tennis game with a teaching pro. We spent time together, though things seemed different somehow. We no longer spoke glowingly of the future, or our plans. Most of our conversations resided in the here and now, as if moving beyond the immediacy of that summer was going to curse us.
We returned to the Bay Area in the fall, on separate flights. We started to go days at a time between contact. One night, over pizza in her small Berkeley apartment, I asked her what she thought about us.
She poured more red wine in each of our glasses, set the bottle down, and drank from hers.
Then she looked directly at me and said, “I don’t know.”
When Jenny accepted the lead in ‘Lend Me a Tenor’, we were both excited about the opportunity. She’d had one turn already in that role back in her sophomore year in Jersey, so now she could apply some adult characteristics to the part, fleshing it out.
I never thought about her male counterpart, and the concentrated amount of time they would have to spend together. Jeffrey began to creep into many of her conversations. Reading between the lines was painful.
With my tennis season in full swing, between matches on The Farm, traveling, and practice, and then my ¾ full study load, I was spending less time with Jenny as she studied and rehearsed for her play.
Her “I don’t know” still hung between us, like a hovering rain cloud. Swollen, threatening to burst.
A perfect storm appeared to be forming for a break up, and we couldn’t avoid the tempest forever.
Long story short, Jeffrey and Jenny are getting married next year, After graduation.
We haven’t stayed in touch, Jenny and me. I heard from my mom that she visited her folks recently in Hackensack. If she followed Cardinal tennis, she would have known I was also in the area at that time, for a tournament in Madison Square Garden.
Two ships that passed in the Jersey night, from opposite sides of Route 4, separated only by the hum of speeding traffic, but we might as well have been from Rome and Bakersfield.
It’s summer now, 1999. I graduate next year from Stanford.
I may give the pro tennis circuit a try. My coach says I should. Some of the fire I once had for tennis has dimmed.
Mom and dad have offered their home as a transition pad after school. Who knows. Paramus is home. No real reason for that to ever change.
I finished my beer and left the five on the bar.
I went out and slowly walked the length of the mall back to mom’s car.
When the automatic glass doors that led to the parking lot came into view, I looked to my right and saw a store where Jenny and I had stopped after those potato skins, long ago. I’d bought her a necklace, a cheap one, but she seemed to like it. She wore it for the next two years until we graduated.
I stared at the sign above the store that jutted perpendicularly from the wall. The letters of the two words were in a fancy cursive. They were thick and boldly framed and each letter housed small light bulbs within it, not unlike the ones circling a mirror in a dressing room. The bulbs flowed on and off, a moving visual guideline up and around each letter, as if chasing each other.
Lit up like a Broadway show.
Come see the play!
Now Playing: ‘Lend Me a Tenor’.
The sign said, “Memory Lane”.
© Copyright 2016 Bill Rayburn. All rights reserved.