February 15, 2015 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
The theme for WordSprout’s February’s Story Slam – which I did not perform at – was “Spill the Beans.” This is the story I would have performed had I been up for the occasion, which for a variety of reasons, I was not. An earlier version appeared on my first blog, Ordinary Time. With gratitude to Cheri Register, my teacher at the Loft, may her memory be a blessing, who unpacked more of the meaning of this story than I understood when it had happened.
In 1971, at the age of 15, I joined the church youth group –a sort of local Up with People! called Celebrate Life.
We sang at St. Mary’s 12:30 folk Mass every week. Most of us were awkward and out of place with our peers for one reason or another, but in Celebrate Life, we were all a family. For us the peace could last 20 minutes, we were so hug-starved.
At the end of Mass we would always sing the same song, ‘Let there be peace on Earth / and let it begin with me,” our arms around each others shoulders, swaying back and forth like an ocean of love. Celebrate Life had no tryouts, and we weren’t very good, but peace could roll off us in waves.
I had my first boyfriend in Celebrate Life.
His name was Kevin, and he was a dork. Kevin was small and sallow, with short tight curls and crooked granny glasses covered with fingerprints. He had a caterpillar of fuzz on his upper lip. It did not make him look cool. His arms dangled out of his shirt sleeves; he was jointed like a marionette. But there was one exotic and interesting thing about Kevin: he was adopted. Did I tell you I grew up in a very small town?
My father and I were butting heads a lot, because teenagers think they know everything.
“Don’t let it get too serious. You don’t know what stock he’s from,” he said.
“He’s light-skinned, but you just don’t know.”
We were all light skinned. “Know what?”
He looked uncomfortable, in a way I’d never seen before. “He might be… he might be part Negro.”
God. “It’s not Negro, it’s black. They like black.” I knew this. I watched the Mod Squad.
“I’m sure he’s a nice kid, Paula.” His eyes pleaded with me. “But you can’t be too careful. You don’t want to get a reputation. This is a small town. People talk.”
Well, after that I started paying more attention to Kevin.
I let him put his arm around me once in awhile. Served my father right. But Kevin was no Linc Hayes. He still told the same fart jokes, and laughed at them himself. He never said “solid.” And he kept trying to take our relationship to The Next Level, which seemed to involve his tongue, and a lot of saliva. I had no idea why anyone though the French kiss was an erotic experience.
Eventually he asked me to go steady. Now I had a real problem. I couldn’t tell Kevin he was a dork. That would be cruel. But I didn’t really think I liked Kevin that much. On the other side of going steady was the French kiss. And I knew I didn’t like Kevin that much. What was I supposed to do?
Then it hit me: I could play the parent card.
“I can’t,” I said. “My dad won’t let me. He thinks you’re black or something.”
Kevin gave me a strange look. “I’m not black,” he stammered. “I’m Italian. My mom told me. I’m Italian.”
“It wouldn’t matter to me,” I said. “I’m not prejudiced. It’s my dad.”
“I’m Italian,” Kevin said . “My mom told me.”
After that, Kevin didn’t even want to talk to me, let alone go steady.
Eventually, he stopped coming to Celebrate Life. I saw his mother once, picking him up after school. And she saw me. She stared at me hard through the car window, till I had to drop my own eyes. But not before I saw, behind the judgment and anger, that same pleading look my father had worn. This is a small town. What was I supposed to do? People talk.