In 1959, I knew a girl who (like me) aspired to be a writer.
Her name was Ann.
She was an oddity of sorts among the girls I occasionally accompanied to Brown’s Pharmacy where we sat at the counter on hot summer afternoons and ate Cheese Doodles while sipping Cokes through waxed paper straws in glasses topped off with half inch ice cubes.
At barely five feet and under 90 pounds, I was a wisp. She was taller by five inches and heavier, with a pronounced pear shaped body. Although her family was prominent, living in a big house in a better neighborhood, Ann dressed in drab colors, had wing shaped eyeglasses that she was constantly shoving back up to the top of her flat nostril nose, wore braces to correct an overbite and fixed her mousey brown hair in an unflattering bob.
But Ann was smart and witty and we made each other laugh.
We’d both turned 13 in ‘59 (on a maturity scale of 8 by todays standards) and were as innocent as the hits of Brenda Lee, Del Shannon, Connie Francis and Dion sounded on the radio, or Leave It To Beaver, Donna Reed, and Bonanza appeared on the tube. Girls wore skirts or dresses to school with knee highs or bobby socks. Family dinners were served at 6. Nobody smoked, nobody swore, and if anyone knew about sex, nobody said.
When the 20th anniversary showing of Gone With The Wind came to town that year, Ann and I went to a matinee together, sitting in the front row of the balcony in a downtown theater.
Enthralled by the majesty of the production and enchanted by the correspondence exchanged between Scarlett O’Hara and Ashley Wilkes who was off to war, we decided the best way to hone our writing skills would be to challenge each other by pretending to be Scarlett, writing letters to Ashley.
We did this by purchasing a small brown notebook of lined paper in which Ann, as Scarlett, would pen a love letter to Ashley, and give it to me as a challenge. I’d try to out write her by following course. We would hand this booklet back and forth from day to day, each one allowed the evening after school to compose a new letter.
The notebook and whatever words we might have written are now long gone and forgotten, but nothing we wrote was vulgar or suggestive; neither of us understood the intimacies of love, the innuendo of scenes seen on the screen, nor even the emotional definition of words at the time. It was just a game of pretend.
This exchange went on until a week before our first day of 9th grade. That’s when Ann informed me her mother said she could no longer associate with me in any manner, anywhere, at any time.
“Can I have the notebook back?” I asked.
“My mom burned it.”
I assumed our friendship ended because her parents were wealthier than mine and members of the country club set, or because Ann always buttoned her blouses at the top and I didn’t, or because I was color coordinated, or they didn’t want her being a writer.
It never occurred to me that her mother interpreted the innocence of our words as perverse.
I would tell you that I was hurt by both it and the many years of meanness from other former classmates and several teachers that followed — but I wasn’t.
Because I didn’t know that Ann had been told I was queer, and I didn’t know Ann told all our mutual friends her mother said I was queer, and I didn’t know her mother told the parents of our mutual friends I was queer, and I didn’t know certain teachers were warned of the same.
In fact, I didn’t even know the word ‘queer’ meant anything other than unconventional and curious.
(I’ve always been both of those.)
Nevertheless, over time and looking back I came to wonder why one girl had written “queer” in two places in my 9th grade yearbook, and the word was scrawled as graffiti in large block letters taking up the full five feet of my hall locker in 11th grade.
It must have been disappointing that I never seemed fazed by the queer tag given me by that childhood clique of classmates and group of teachers. But how could they know, the primary reason I never accepted party invitations, or attended sports events, or showed up at school dances was because, by 14, I’d forged my folks names to a work permit so I could take a job from 4 to 9, five nights a week, and 9 to 9 on Saturdays.
All that hatred shot to hell on the target being oblivious.
Five years later, after never having had a crush, fling, or intimate relationship of any kind with anyone (male or female), I looked across a crowded room and fell in love with the woman looking back at me.
Fast forward to this morning.
Upon checking my emails, I found one from someone who’d attended my 50th high school reunion over the weekend, 1300 miles away. The celebration had come and gone (as did all other reunions before this one) without me.
The email was part apology and part confession for having heard of the brown book, and being complicit in the mocking, backstabbing and shunning, and remaining silent, even to the snide remarks made at the reunion of “have you heard” and “I told you so” from those who never knew squat.
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This essay is copyright by Marguerite Quantaine © 2019.
P L E A S E S H A R E
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I’m all eyes and heart.