This is about two little girls in green dresses, families, a school dance and how it changed lives, and its reverberations.
Amazingly, at least to me, this story starts 50 years ago.
I grew up in Levittown in the era of large families. It was a time of stricter Catholicism and an innocent optimism. Birth control was restricted and popping a pill was not yet a common thing. There were these huge, iconic families with children in every grade. People said that Levittown looked alike. It wasn’t the houses. It was the children, families of little rubber stamps. About 10 years ago, I went to a party of Levittown people. One of the men asked, “Do you know who I am?” An interesting question that I have heard throughout the years. There were at least 3 – 4 of them, one older than me, one my age, one my brother’s “You are one of the P brothers.” We all laughed and he told me which one he was. He was my age.
Another family was the Gs. I don’t know how many there were but there was my age and brackets. B had a crush on me when he was in kindergarten and I must have been in third grade. Upon seeing me at a reunion decades later, he asked, “Don’t you feel anything between us?” “Yes, I do. Your wife.” His brother T was/is my age. The family was large, popular and unbridled. I remember Mrs. G writing a letter to the local paper about her children being able to look into what passed for a strip club at the time, at 9:30 at night! My thought was why were they out then when that was my bedtime. T was popular and arrogant with that teenage boy swagger.
He was part of a crowd of those boys. Every school has them, in every year. They band together in their adorable cuteness. Girls love them, for the most part unrequitedly. Teachers pander to them in order for their classes to be unencumbered with chaos and testosterone. They rule the halls, the classrooms and the schoolyards for that brief, shining moment in their lives. It’s been my experience, for the most part, that those charmed boys and girls, once school is behind us, morph into fatness, polyester and, for the guys, baldness. I had liked T in 2nd and 3rd grade but outgrew it. By the time junior high school rolled around, I steered clear of him and those boys. They weren’t part of my world and I didn’t want them to be.
I met Sue(no initials here, we share the same name) in the fall of 9th grade. She had transferred from Catholic school. We were introduced because we had the same name. 9th grade is a cusp between the child and the young adult. We shared a name so we must have similarities. Well, we did both have brown hair, wore glasses and were “nice” girls.
There was a holiday dance that year. These were simple affairs. It was in the cafeteria. There may have been crepe paper. The lighting was dimmed. There were records with pop tunes. I had attended the end of school dance the previous spring, worn white lipstick for the first time and had had fun with my friends. We were nerds although the term was not in use then. I believe we were known as weirdos. We were the advanced class and in many cases had known each other all our lives. When you grow up as closely as that, you have a defined role and place. However, there was still the remote possibility that things might change. A dance held magic, unnamed possibilities for a girl like me. Glamour was an undercurrent. It was still the era where girls could not wear pants, let alone jeans to school. Mini skirts had arrived but were not yet micro.
The afternoon of the dance, E asked me if I wanted to go? Sure. I didn’t take it as a date. My first real date happened on the last day of 11th grade. I had known E since we were both 7. He was funny and nice. He liked comic books. He was thin but was gaining a bit of weight He was blond. I don’t particularly care for blond guys. Apparently, E saw it as a date, as I found out later. We were driven separately. In those days, once you arrived at the dance, you stayed. Your coats were taken and left in the gym. It was only E and I from our regular set that night. As soon as the coats were locked and we entered the cafeteria, E had a severe asthma attack and had to go home. This apparently was brought on by the pressure of the “date”. Instead of telling a teacher, we had come together which would have allowed me to call my parents and leave; I was adolescent, awkward. embarrassed and found myself to a folding metal chair at the edge of the dance floor.
I had been excited about going to this dance. It was an occasion. Since, it was late notice, my mother let me wear her green sheath. Since it was hers, I felt it was the height of sophistication. She gave me a long chain necklace with green stones. I had graduated from white lipstick to pearlized pink. I have always had my own specific sense of style. In my mind’s eye, I was adult and glamorous. Teenagers at that time in Levittown went to Mays Department Stores for their clothes. Everyone wore the same thing. This was not me. It accentuated my differences. The houses may not have been the same but at times, it appeared the people were uniform. So, there I was in my version of sophistication, sitting on the edge of the dance floor, counting the hours and minutes until I could escape. Counting the minutes is something that I later learned from Sue to do correctly. A group of about three of those boys approached. The only one I remember after all these years was the ringleader, T. Those boys mocked me, asked me to dance, grabbed at me, made apelike motions. It was awful. I sat there, mortified. The chaperones didn’t materialize. A was a stocky boy. Boys are not fat. A was middle of the road. He was smart. A was also brave. He stepped up to those boys. “Leave her alone. Just leave her alone.” They were stunned. And then, Sue swept in. “You are in a green dress, so am I. C’mon and dance with us.” Sue was in a moss green chiffon dress that had been cut down, if I remember, from a wedding. An age of glamor, mystery and possibility. Two little girls in green dresses; she led me by the hand to a circle of girls dancing . The evening eventually ended. I went home, cried hysterically and threw up. My parents declared I was never to go to another dance again. I never did until I reached college.
It was the start of a decades long friendship for Sue and I. She has taught me so much about how to live my life. I carry those lessons with me. Counting the time lets me cope with infusions and MRIs. Okay, I also sleep through MRIs. She taught me about connecting to life and to others. Reaching out and being brave can change a life.
We ran into A at a reunion some years back and thanked him for that evening. He remembered! He also remembered that he was slightly scared because he, too had to go against those boys. It was the right thing to do. He is still a lovely man.
T is in my life. We saw each other at our 10th reunion. We spoke. I met his wife. He was adult as was I. Years later and I don’t remember how, he asked me to read a play he was writing and subsequently had produced. He knew that I read tons and attended lots of theater. We became distant friends on Facebook.
All three of us have faced significant health issues and situations. It has been a true and deep comfort to share with people who knew you when and before. We weren’t always broken. When we talk, I picture us as we used to be. We are young and healthy.
T is now my health insurance broker yet we speak of many things. “Of shoes — and ships — and sealing–wax —. Of cabbages — and kings —. And why the sea is boiling hot —. And whether pigs have wings.” We have a common past. It’s not only a shared geographic past but of a certain time and place, a shared youth. We have never spoken of that dance. I don’t even believe he remembers it. We talk of people. And if you are reading this T, this is what I want to say, not what I should say. We have had conversations around that topic. I love that my life moved on and can still include that boy.
I recently came across that green dress. Yes, I still have it although I had forgotten. It looks so tiny. It’s hard to imagine my mother wearing it; let alone me. I kept it for all it represented to me – sophistication, pain, strength, deep and abiding friendship. Two little girls in green dresses at a dance and a lifetime.