When you look like Ronald McDonald at age ten, the other kids notice. My shoes, though not always red and white, were gargantuan, and my fiery red curls exploded from my cranium like an orange tumbleweed. Perpetually the “new kid” in school, having moved seventeen times before the age of fourteen, my physical appearance was a neon sign plastered to the forehead of a student that already had every pair of eyes in the building fixed on his presence. I’d arrived mid-year, which was typical, shortly before Thanksgiving, and a collage of hand-traced turkeys adorned the cement walls in vibrant pastels. As was customary in grade school, the teacher would announce my arrival to the class, her arm resting gently on my shoulder as I waited, stupefied, in front of the wide-eyed children. Once seated, I’d slink down into the wooden chair, hoping to dissolve into the slippery oak before recess, sparing myself the inevitable questions and eventual wedgie.
“Why is your hair like that? Are you too poor to get it cut?”
“Why are you wearing skis on your feet?”
“Where is your Happy Meal, Ronald?”
“Are you gonna cry?”
They were all wonderful kids.
If I could sidestep the questions, I’d find a place off by myself, usually on a swing, and think about the prettiest girl in the class. Imagine the two of us walking hand in hand around the playground, our eyes meeting sporadically, lovingly. We’d sit in the field and watch the smooth brains play Duck Duck Goose, Simon Says, and Tetherball while we reveled in our superiority and bliss, too posh for their childish whimsy.
One such beauty was Leslie Mills. When I’d arrived at Windermere elementary school in Ellington, CT, she shined brighter than my lambent hair on a summer’s day. Long, flowing locks of gold, a pearly white smile, soft voice, and moon pie sized eyes that could rip your heart out through your own adoring lanterns. I was all-in from the first moment she ignored me.
My father, who was living with us at the time even though my parents had divorced years earlier, caught wind of fair Leslie when he saw me scribble her name on a book cover. Skillfully, meticulously he coaxed the story from me. Without hesitation he insisted I pen a note to her, professing my love, admirations, desire, and affection. Into the mailbox the unsolicited, maudlin confession went, solidifying my place as an adolescent stalker with the help of dear old dad.
There’s a multitude of ways such a letter might be received—with joy, fear, confusion, rancor, or embarrassment—though mine induced the worst of all reactions: apathy. “The opposite of love is indifference,” I’d heard once. Leslie never acknowledged my declaration of love. No smile in the hall, no wink, no gagging, and no hushed laughter with friends during homeroom. Only silence. My fear that the letter never reached its intended audience was compounded into mortal terror when my father called Leslie’s mother, asking if the sappy note had arrived, and she’d confirmed that she and Leslie thought it was “cute.” I was no Rhode scholar at that age, or any age, but even my spaghetti-headed noggin understood that Mrs. Hill was simply being kind, placating me through my father—my consigliere of adolescent love affairs. I was ravaged, eviscerated.
The “Leslie Incident,” though completely of my own doing, became the genesis of years of adolescent torment. Some born from my own idiocy, though most spawned from the sociopathy of young children eager to see how far they could push a fire-headed clown boy before he’d start crying. Much of the bullying involved the victories said bully would notch to their belts by making others bawl, I’d surmised early on. Attracting an audience while the resident tough called you names, knocked your books to the ground, yanked your tighty whities up over your ears, or made you say uncle as he wrung your arm like a wet chamois was only the appetizer. Leaving you sobbing as you sat alone, penniless, and covered in the dirt and shame was the main course, and I was always on the menu.
The mornings were the worst. My mother would roust me and my brother from our beds while the sky was still dark, shouting about being late and missing the bus. I’d lie frozen in the top bunk, staring at the popcorn ceilings of wherever our current home was, hoping it would collapse and land on my head and send me straight to dork heaven. The final warning came when mom would start the shower running, which meant she was done messing around. When I could see the steam in the hallway, I knew it was time to move.
My little brother, Geoff, had a vastly different schooling experience than I did growing up. Sure, there were the occasional pinheads that gave him lip now and again, but being cute, blonde, more confident, and devoid of the seven trillion freckles I had made his days in the halls of Wherever Elementary less turbulent. He’d hop out of bed, jump in the shower, lather up with nine times more soap and shampoo than he needed while he played with Micronauts and G.I. Joe toys in the scorching downpour, usually humming a merry tune. I’d stand there at the back of the shower, dumbfounded at his lack of anxiety, misted by the lukewarm spray that careened off his tiny body, wondering during which class I’d be forced to eat my lunchbox. The shower was big enough for the two of us small boys but standing in the back observing my brother’s jubilance as I was sprinkled with tepid water bullets, anticipating the coming hours, was too much. I needed a safe space before anyone knew what safe spaces were.
One morning, as my brother mashed action figures into each other in an imaged battle under the steaming rain, I took a step from the back of the shower into the space between the shower curtain and plastic liner. The curtain, dotted with seashells, crabs, and fish like every other household in America in the early eighties, rested on the outside of the shower, while the liner remained inside the tub. In the middle, the five-inch-wide top edge of the basin provided a small bench seat to sit and wait for my brother to finish his myriad of activities. No annoying spray, no standing, less chance one of his tiny fists belts me in the lip as he thrashed his toys around. A place of my own. A sanctuary nestled in between mildew, plastic, and polyester. The waiting area.
Sitting on the cold ceramic edge of the tub, the plastic liner clinging to my knobby knees, a rush of cool air running up the curtain and across my back from the floor should have been an unpleasant experience. No reasonable child, or adult, would want half their butt hanging off a cliff while experiencing temperature oscillations while a humming, steam-drunk little brother stepped on their toes. Yet, for me it was sublime. The white noise of the water pelting the liner, the warm moisture creeping up the front of my legs, battling the crisp, dry air behind me, the drone of my little brother lost in his action figure wars. A brief pause in the anxieties of youth. A shelter from tangible and intangible foes. A charging station for my own wars to come.
Despite the saffron brillo pad on my head and my paltry attempts at self-defense in moments of torment, somehow, I survived my pre-teen years and made it to high school. The waiting area, and being an exceptional hider and sprinter, aided in my preservation. Numerous phone battles between my divorced parents resulted in my brother and I staying put for all our remaining school years, which I was over the moon about. My freshman year saw mild bullying flare-ups, exacerbated by the parachute pants and Megadeth t-shirts on the new kid with the fuzzy red mullet, but these events were nothing like my younger days. My shower sanctuary, however, was utilized more than ever, despite there no longer being anyone to wait for.
I can’t remember exactly at what age my brother and I stopped sharing the shower, but there comes a moment when it’s no longer two kids goofing around, trying to clumsily wash up, and instead a crowded, steamy box with too many fleshy jiggly bits clamoring for space. It was time to move on. Showers for me became a time to reconcile all the new anxieties that came with Bob Segar’s “awkward teenage blues.” I’d ham fist a few rubs of soap across my lanky, pale frame, and then slide into the waiting area by myself. Pondering everything, waiting on no one. Something about knowing the hot water was there, gushing out, cloaked in steam, stabbing at my toes as I sat, was more comforting than a pillow after an awful day. Many mornings I’d exhaust the hot water supply, much to the chagrin of little brother. He was good-looking, had real hair, and didn’t appreciate the solace of the waiting area. Cold water was fine for him.
High school ended, and sporadic college courses followed. New relationships began, some ending swiftly, and some meandering. Career paths were forged, before being abandoned, and close friends came and went. Some pulled, some pushed. Geography changed, along with pant size. A former spaghetti head lays on a cold table as a urologist pokes around with some sort of laser, eventually confirming that the other urologist was correct. You can’t have children of your own. A father and best friend die too soon, swallowed by demons festering since youth. Darkness prevailed, lurking around every corner.
Until there was light.
She didn’t save me, she never could. No one person has the capacity, nor the right to even try. What she had was the belief that I could save myself. A selfless love, built on friendship, that illuminated the dark corners and freed me from years of sorrow. One morning, at her apartment, I’d left the door open as I ran the shower and she popped in. Seeing me sitting in between the curtain and liner, she laughed and asked, “What on earth are you doing?” to which I replied, “Seeing if I still need it.” This answer was lost on her, so I think I just joked about the water being too hot and that I was taking a break. She smiled and accepted it. No judgment, no criticism. Many years later, after having told her the truth about the waiting area—its origins and benefits—she responded with warmth and understanding, as I’d expected. We traded stories about our childhood fears and run-ins with bullies and tormentors. Our living near the poverty line for much of our youth, ever fearful of being uprooted or not having enough food. Our awkward, nervous natures that somehow managed to evolve into confident, formidable personas. I did it with a retreat between plastic and fibers, resetting myself as needed. She did it because she’s the strongest yet most gentle person I’ve ever known, naturally.
I don’t find myself in the waiting area much anymore. I get in the shower, polish myself up, smile once and a while thinking about my little brother’s silly water games, and then get back to life. I still see darkness now and again, and fears still beckon, but the place I seek refuge has changed. It’s in her big blue eyes and the safety of her smile. A hand placed on mine in even the most ominous moment will quell any unease. I can’t be certain I can always do the same for her, but I try. She’s no Leslie Mills, but who could be, really?
What she is, for me, is the place I’d been waiting for all those years.