I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired
The valentines I never knew
The Friday night charades of youth
Were spent on one more beautiful
At seventeen I learned the truth...
Lafayette, New Jersey...
The boy looked at his reflection. One might have told him to stay home if he actually had friends who would have known enough to warn him. Even in middle school, he was one of those kids you see in the establishing shot in every teen movie. You know? The ones walking across all the way at the other end of the hallway? The barely noticeable who even up close seemed to either fade into the background or worse yet, be recognized just long enough to be brushed aside with a rude shove or glanced at and ignored. That was the crowd he hung with.
But like I said, Sal had no one to warn him. Most of the friends he had in middle school seemed to have fallen away. Imagine being so out of place as to not fit in with the geeks and nerds. Three days before his seventeenth birthday he had every intention of at least trying to renew a relationship with a girl, but it wasn’t going to be easy, since Sally-Boy, as his brother Vinnie called him when he was in a good mood….Sal was taught that no matter what, it paid to be honest. He had yet to discover that there’s honest and then there’s honest. And that lack of vital information was going to add grief to an already painful existence.
“Sal?” Vinnie called from down the hall.
“Mom says to put in a load of whites. Her boss has everyone working late for the end of the month.” A loud door slam indicated an empty apartment since Vinnie had baseball practice and he never did laundry. It didn’t occur to Sal to ask Estelle why Vinnie never did laundry or even why she always seemed to relay messages about dinner and cleaning and laundry through Vinnie. He breathed out a sigh; relieved didn’t even begin to describe how he felt as he looked back at his reflection.
The hair was no longer than it had ever been, and pretty much styled the same as it always was other than the large swath of blue. The face was fairly clear; a decent dermatologist makes for an easier if not all-that-easy adolescence. The eyes looked back; foreign — like they belonged to somebody else. They did in a way, since it really wasn’t Sally-Boy staring back. An almost Ptolemaic appearance, he thought, remembering the pictures of Cleopatra from the online-encyclopedia. No Cleopatra he, though there were times in the recent past he might have placed an asp close to his heart.
And finally the lips; lush glossy pink lips he hoped would be kissable. Tara Martinelli might be as geeky as him, but she was up for all the petitions and rallies for the whole not-your-mother’s-lesbian causes. He hoped his body and face would look exactly like he wanted to be known…those pesky details of pronouns and names notwithstanding. He had chosen everything carefully; from the outfit to the makeup to the quick call to his therapist to schedule an appointment for Wednesday.
And he hoped Vinnie would be wrapped up with practice and the usual community college stuff on a Tuesday night; no sense tempting fate with a sibling who demonstrated very little if any empathy for him, and that with just seeing his younger brother as a geek; not knowing that Sal wasn’t going to be hanging around at all after high school even if Sally would.
And he prayed the entire package would be like the sum of the parts being greater than the whole. Tara was going to be off but still hanging around near closing at Joey and Sons pizzeria. It remained a mystery why Joey Martinelli would name a restaurant partly after his two lazy-ass sons when Tara and her mom did most of the work alongside Tara’s father. And a Tuesday meant a slow night with few customers and Joey maybe taking the evening off since he worked from opening to closing every other day.
And those of us with ravaged faces
Lacking in the social graces
Desperately remained at home
Inventing lovers on the phone
Who called to say "come dance with me"
And murmured vague obscenities
It isn't all it seems at seventeen...
Joey and Sons Pizzaria, Sparta, New Jersey...
The parking lot was filled with puddles from the evening rain; street light reflected off the oily water giving the asphalt an eerie nighttime rainbow-ish glow. Sally parked the old Sentra in a space out front and walked slowly to the entrance. First times for everything always seem promising on paper, but there are no guarantees in life; leastwise with pithy sayings off posters on Facebook. She looked down at her body.
Black tights — Check; Black Sketchers with pink laces — Check; Blue-Black Denim mini — Check; Black tee - Check; Blue Denim jacket — Check; nervous demeanor and scared-of-Sally’s-own-shadow — Check.
Sally entered the restaurant and practically died then and there. Instead of just Mrs. Martinelli and Tara, the whole clan was there along with the entire SCCC baseball team, including his...her brother. And at least three of Tara’s best friends from school. No geeks or freaks or nerds in sight other than the very nervous Italian-Lithuanian girl that stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. It actually crossed her mind to question why sore thumbs might stand out even as her cheeks grew ironically red and hot.
“Sal?” Tara said in a loud whisper as she grabbed Sally’s jacket sleeve; pulling her back out into the small foyer.
“What the fuck?” Three years of hope and six years of friendship just went away in an instant as the girl glared angrily at her.
“Are you serious? ‘Cause if this is serious….”
“I thought….I thought you liked girls?” The girl protested.
“Girls, yes. This?" She eyed Sally up and down.
"I don’t know what the fuck you’re trying to prove, but you should just leave…Now.” She shoved the girl rudely toward the front door.
“I thought we were friends.”
“You thought right…but this is….I can’t, Sal. This is so fucking wrong. Just go home, okay.” Sally stared at her. Tara made a look like she was probably going to get over this; as if Sally finally coming out was something to ‘get over.’ She motioned once again to the door.
“I’ll….I’ll see you tomorrow in Physics.”
A hopeful promise that really meant little since they had to see each other in the classes they shared. Sally paused as Tara walked back into the restaurant. Looking past the girl’s shoulder she saw Vinnie standing by the counter drinking a can of Arizona Tea. She went to turn around, but her stare caught her brother’s eyes and Vinnie just shook his head before turning his back.
Sally went back to the car and sat down behind the wheel and pulled the rearview mirror to look at herself. Starting the car, she drove around the side of the restaurant and parked; struggling to see through the tears. She grabbed the roll of paper towels from the front passenger seat and rubbed the gloss from her lips. In a few moments she had done a fairly good job between the tears and the rubbing, and Sally disappeared in a way, leaving Salvatore DiStefano to drive as they both cried all the way home.
To those of us who knew the pain
Of valentines that never came
And those whose names were never called
When choosing sides for basketball
It was long ago and far away
the world was younger than today
when dreams were all they gave for free
to ugly duckling girls like me...
We all play the game, and when we dare
We cheat ourselves at solitaire
Inventing lovers on the phone
Repenting other lives unknown
That call and say: "Come on, dance with me"
And murmur vague obscenities
At ugly girls like me, at seventeen...
Written and Performed
by Janis Ian
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