Squirrel

“Glen, why is your window open?!”

It was a fair question, considering we were on the school bus en route to Horlick High School in Racine, Wisconsin, and it was about ten below zero outside.

A few moments later, my face red with shame, a tear of humiliation freezing on my cheek, I thought of how I should have responded. The bus had stopped at a railroad crossing. The gates were down, and the throb of the approaching freight pulsed through the frozen earth. The bus windows were obscured with ice on the outside, and the frozen fog of our breath on the inside, ­so, being a rail fan, I had opened my window a little to take a look at the passing train. The question came from a nice-looking girl whose name I forget; let’s call her Andrea.

Andrea:           Glen, why is your window open?!

Glen:               There’s a train coming, I want to take a look.

Andrea:           But why?It’s freezing!

Glen:               Because I love trains.

Andrea (wrapping her arms around herself):  But why?

Glen (pulls head away from window, gazes into middle distance, strikes a philosophic pose):  Well now… I’m not sure… why does anyone love anything? (returns nobly to window)

Andrea (awestruck):   He is so deep!

She crosses the aisle and slips into the empty seat next to him, leans in close, places a hand gently on his shoulder, and speaks softly in his ear.

Andrea:           May I watch with you?

* POP *

So that’s what should have happened. What actually happened was this: in response to her question, I shot her a cheesy grin, wiggled my eyebrows at her and returned to the open window. And I heard her shriek “He! Is! So! WEIRD!”

Alas it was true. I was beyond weird. I was a dork. Why do you think the seat next to me was empty? It was always empty. As the Chicago & Northwestern freight rumbled by, I mechanically counted each type of car while agonizing in my humiliation.

In those days I had one defense against the anguish of social ostracism, something Andrea couldn’t reach: I had a friend. A really good friend, who loved me unconditionally, no matter how dorky. I wasn’t sure why, but I new she did. Yes, she! One of my best friends ever was a girl! Can you believe it? Take THAT, Andrea!!

Sheila Carey was my friend.

I met Sheila on the first day of 8th Grade Algebra class. I was either recovering from, or dreading, the humiliation of walking into the wrong classroom. I was wearing my denim jacket with its colorful collection of embroidered patches, which looked only slightly less ridiculous back then in 1978 than it does now in my closet, where it still hangs. Suddenly, this girl to my left just struck up a conversation with me, just like that! A girl, talking to me! I loved her immediately and followed her around for a year pestering her with my attentions. She took it all in stride and mostly laughed it off. She chuckled a lot. I don’t know why she put up with me sometimes. I would call her from a payphone during Boy Scout outings to tell her I missed her, and she’d chuckle and say “Well, I don’t especially miss you! You’re coming back on Monday, right?”

In 9th grade, to my chagrin she started dating Bill Wishau, a lumbering oaf of a fellow. We’d walk home from school together every day, the three of us plus Bill’s cousin Brian. (Their parents were brothers and sisters. Does that make them double cousins or something?) Bill and Sheila would laugh and joke and tussle and chatter and say absolutely nothing. I could not figure out what had happened to my friend’s sense, or taste. Years later she told me she took on Bill as a project, to see if she could draw him out of himself. As soon as she figured she’d gotten him as far along as she was going to get him, she dumped him. Bill shed bitter tears.

Wind Point, Raciine

Wind Point, Racine

Then Sheila and her family moved to Indiana, and I shed bitter tears. But whenever anyone in her family had cause to travel back to Racine, Sheila always came along to visit – guess who? – ME! I even visited them once, while we were still in high school. I think her mom really liked me. They were all a good bunch. It was a nice visit.

I finished high school overseas, then did my freshman year of college in Chicago. Sheila was at university in Valparaiso, and she came up to Chicago once to see me. We watched “Casablanca”, playing at the student union. It was the first time I saw that film. Do you remember the first time you saw “Casablanca”, and who you were with? Of course you do. Is it a pleasant, even cherished memory? Of course it is.

Later, I was in school in Terre Haute, Indiana and she was at Ball State in Muncie. My girlfriend (yes, I had finally found one) had dumped me (for the second and last time) (easy come, easy go, huh?) and I made a bus trip upstate to see Sheila and her family. I was pretty wrecked and adrift. Sheila shot me straight and gave me some hope.

She started dating another Bill, Bill Miles, a really nice guy, and much more substantial than the other Bill. They wound up happily marriedin Indiana, and I wound up happily married in Chicago (yes, me, married to an incredible woman! It blows my mind every day, even after seventeen years.) The last time I heard from Sheila, she called me to say her husband was trying for a job in the Chicago area, and they were thinking of making the interview the occasion of a family day-trip, and could they come see us? There was a little girl’s voice in the background calling my friend mommy! What a trip! We made tentative plans, but I never heard from her again. I don’t know what happened with the interview or where the family wound up.

Really, I never heard from her again. That was maybe fifteen years ago. I was thinking about her last year, did some web research, and found a possible home address in Louisville, Kentucky, and maybe a workplace number. This year my wife Sara and I are planning a vacation in that area, and I thought, Wow, I should get in touch with Bill and Sheila, see if we can stop by. I wrote Sheila a letter (are you old enough to remember letters?) and sent it to the home address.

It had been so long since I had used Snail Mail, I had no idea how long it would take a letter to get from Chicago to Louisville. I jumped every time the phone rang… but she didn’t call. I checked email a couple times a day… but she didn’t write.

I told Sara I was surprised and disappointed Sheila did not respond right away. I told her about the day Sheila and I met, in algebra. There I was, cringing in my dorkiness, when I became aware of a female voice to my left, chattering in something between a murmur and a mumble. It was a while before I realized the girl was talking to me.

She had straight brown hair, parted in the middle and hanging not quite to her collar; immense tinted eyeglasses with brown plastic frames; a fair, freckly and pimply Irish complexion; and a prominent, pointy chin. You could not accuse her of great beauty. As she spoke, seemingly to herself, but apparently to me, she flung her limbs about in exaggerated accompaniment. I was utterly fascinated.

And then, as I described this scene to my wife, as I am now pushing 50, I pictured a plain 13-year-old girl behaving in this way, and I realized something with a shock.

Sheila Carey was a dork too.

As a kid she was just amazing to me. I considered it some sort of mistake of grace that she deigned to be my friend. Now I suddenly wonder: Did she spot me from afar as a fellow dork? I was easily spotted: my slightly wild brown hair was parted on the side and hung just below my collar; my giant tinted glasses were wire-rimmed, each lens thicker than the other; not to mention the absurd jacket. Did she not deign to be my friend, but need to be my friend? Did she yearn for a companion in her own dorkiness? (Obliviousness to my best friend’s emotional needs is emerging, in my middle age, as a lifelong pattern.) This new understanding, rather than diminishing the significance I attributed to her interest in me, actually enhances it. Back then, I thought she just allowed me to hang around her. Now I realize, maybe she wanted me around, or even needed me around. It feels good to be needed… especially when you’re a dork.

After I mailed the note, a week passed, and no word came. I called her workplace: was Sheila Carey-Miles in? No, she was not; no, I’m not sure when to expect her; no, I don’t know her schedule; sure I can take a message. I carefully dictated my complicated name, and made the receptionist read my cell phone number back to me.

It’s been another two weeks and I have not heard from Bill and Sheila. What could account for that? Are they in such life commotion just now that dealing with me is just too much? What sort of commotion could that be that she would not want to share it with me? Are we no longer friends? What does a dork do during fifteen years of non-communication to offend and alienate an old friend?

Is Bill still sore about that incident from when we first met? Is it possible? But we met many times after that, and he was always so amiable… Maybe he only accepted me in those days for his new bride’s sake, but after fifteen years figured he was well shot of me… You tell me, go ahead, judge for yourself: I was visiting them at their apartment in Muncie. I think she was still in grad school in those days. On the morning following my arrival, Sheila was fixing her world-famous pancakes when a witticism (witty in my own eyes) entered my mind, and I poked my head into the bedroom to deliver it for Bill’s amusement and edification. There I encountered a stark naked Bill standing in the middle of the room. As he grabbed for a piece of bedding with which to cover himself, I made a split-second decision. Do I make an embarrassing situation worse by acknowledging it, cutting off the joke with “Oh! Excuse me!” and withdrawing my head from the doorway? Or do I  smooth things over by pretending the embarrassing incident is not occurring? If I ignore it, we can all ignore it and pretend it didn’t happen. I went with the latter option. I remained in the doorway, delivered my one-liner, and strolled back toward the kitchen like nothing untoward had happened. (When I told my wife this story, she shook her head and said “Only you.” What did she mean?)

Or could Sheila be holding a grudge, after all these years, for the time I nearly killed her (and myself, and our friend Hope) in that awful car wreck for which I do not recall ever apologizing to her? I was not yet seventeen, and had just gotten my driver’s license. We were in my mother’s ’76 Chevy Chevette, pulling out of the Shopko parking lot on Washington Avenue in Racine, turning left across the highway to head towards the mall. All I remember is, I was heading across the highway when a black immensity appeared out of nowhere at 45 miles per hour and coincided with the front end of my mother’s car. And then I was facing 90 degrees to the right, staring down the street, and the front of the car was missing. I was quite dazed. It was a while before I became aware of an angry young woman yelling at me through my window. I blinked at her stupidly, she grunted and stormed off. Sheila was seated directly behind me. I could not see her but I could hear her. Laughing. I craned around to look at Hope. She was fine. We were all fine, though both cars were demolished. Hope was looking steadily out her window, as if by ignoring the embarrassing situation she could pretend it wasn’t happening. (See? It’s not “only” me!) And Sheila was laughing.

A policeman showed up and told me I was in a world of trouble. My mother showed up and screamed at me for ruining her plans for a road trip to Florida. My father showed up and I threw myself into his arms and burst into tears. And Sheila stood nearby, chuckling.

Gee I wish she would write.

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