During Pauline's second year in high school, something really amazing happened to her. She went from being this lonely girl to Miss Popular almost overnight. It all started when she decided to try out for the cheerleading squad. She told me about her plans in one of our phone conversations and naturally I encouraged her. I didn't want to tell her the truth — I didn't think she had an icicle's chance in hell of making the cheerleader squad. I guess I should have known it was only a matter of time until everyone else recognized the special qualities in Pauline I loved.
She was really excited when I called her the night after she got the good news. I listened while she chattered away like she had just won a million bucks in the lottery or something. Finally, she stopped to take a breath and then remarked: "You haven't said a word. Don't you think it's fantastic?"
I broke up laughing. "You've been talking nonstop for at least ten minutes."
"God, I'm sorry. But I really want to know what you think about it."
"I think the cheerleading squad is lucky to get you."
"You mean it?"
"Stop fishing for compliments."
Then she laughed. "Is that what I'm doing? I guess I'm just nervous."
"I'm sure you'll do fine if you relax and try to enjoy it."
"I hope you're right."
"I'll come watch you during practice."
"I'll be the tall handsome guy in the back of the crowd with a cigarette dangling from his mouth."
"You don't really smoke, do you?"
"Now I know you're kidding."
I couldn't fool Pauline, but I did begin checking out cheerleader practice. Only there wasn't any crowd of onlookers, which made me feel conspicuous, so I sort of hid behind the bleachers in the gymnasium. Pauline was pretty damn good right from the start, probably second best of the five girls. I thought Jill Kramer was slightly better because she had the most perfect figure I ever saw and she knew how to use it for maximum effect. But Pauline always looked very graceful in the way she moved around, sort of like a ballet dancer. It made me feel happy watching her go through the cheerleading routines and I carried the good feeling home with me after practice. Sometimes it lasted until I went to sleep at night.
Over the next couple months I noticed something ususual about Pauline. She was actually getting prettier. I suddenly had this strong feeling that Pauline would grow into a drop-dead beautiful woman some day. In case you haven't noticed, most women don't get more beautiful with age. A man tends to look distinguished when he's older while the typical woman turns into an uggo. I know this isn't fair, but it seems to be how things work out most of the time. Anyway, I could picture Pauline as this really gorgeous woman of forty or fifty. Growing old with a woman who looked that good would make any man happy, like he was living in the Garden of Eden or something.
After Pauline became a cheerleader, she started dating the quarterback on the football team. I admit I was jealous, but another part of me couldn't help feeling kind of proud of her. It was like watching this ugly duckling I had discovered blossom into a swan that everyone loved. I could tell how much she enjoyed all the attention she received and if she was happy, then I figured it was my duty as a friend act happy for her. Even if it hurt seeing her kiss another guy and walk around holding hands with him, which happened all the time.
I went to football games and froze my ass off in the stands just to watch Pauline cheer on the spectators. Every time the quarterback threw a touchdown pass he would run to the sideline and hug Pauline. That used to make me crazy. What kind of coach lets a player act like that on the field? Unfortunately, the quarterback was a good passer and threw a lot of touchdowns.
Harold couldn't wait to torture me when he noticed Pauline hanging out with the quarterback. I swear he enjoyed seeing other people as miserable as he was.
"Well, that's the end of that," he smirked one day in study hall.
"Are you kidding me? You don't have a chance against Foster."
Foster was the quarterback's last name, but I refused to call him by name. It made him seem less real or something if I never said it aloud.
"Pauline and I are still good friends," I pointed out.
"Big deal. Foster's all over her like an octupus."
"You're a goddamn prince, Harold. You know that?"
"Don't get sore at me. I'm not playing stink finger with the girl you love."
"I take it back. You're a swine."
He made oinking sounds, like he thought it was hilarious or something. With friends like Harold, I sure as hell didn't need any enemies. Rudy tried to console me and after Harold's bullshit I had to give him credit for being a true friend. Even if he did stretch the truth in my favor.
"Foster's a jerk," he said. "Pauline would be much better off with you."
I only wished I could have believed him, but the whole situation looked pretty grim now that she was glued to the quarterback. I still telephoned Pauline, but not as often as before. She noticed and asked me how come one night.
"I've been sort of busy lately," I said. I hated lying to Pauline, but I'd rather stick a fork in my eye than tell her the truth.
"Doing what?" she asked.
Girls always want goddamn details when you're lying to them. "I'm studying Judo for one thing." I had no idea where that came from. It just tumbled out of my mouth while my brain was out of gear.
"Judo? Isn't that dangerous?"
"Not really. You sort of learn how to throw people around using their weight and all." I was really winging it because I knew exactly nothing about Judo.
"I hope you don't get hurt."
"It's totally safe with this good instructor I signed up with. In fact, I have a lesson in about twenty minutes, so I'm sort of in a rush. I just called to see how you were doing." "I'm fine. Eddie is taking me to the dance after the game Friday night." Eddie was Foster's first name, which I didn't want to hear at that moment, so I didn't say anything for awhile. "Hello. You still on the line?" "Yeah." "Are you going to the game?" "I never miss a football game." "Do you like football or do you come to see me and the other cheerleaders?" Jesus, she was asking for it. "You know I don't care about the other cheerleaders." "Are you going to the dance?" "Listen, I really have to split or I'll be late for my Judo lesson. Take it easy, Pauline." I hung up and stared at my reflection in the telephone booth glass. It was really weird, but I hardly recognized the face. It looked more like the face of stranger than my face. All of a sudden I felt like a stranger who did creepy things like making anonymous telephone calls to girls who didn't love him. Chester the molester or something. What the hell happened to the kid I used to be? I walked home sort of talking to myself. I do that sometimes when I get depressed. I try to consider it thinking out loud so I don't feel like a maniac, but it's really talking to myself. It helps me clarify my thoughts when my head fills up with crazy ideas. Once in awhile I get these terrible anxiety attacks. I feel like running or hiding, as if a monster was chasing me, only there isn't any monster. It's just this weird goddamn fear that comes out of nowhere. That night walking home I could feel The Fear, but this time I sort of knew what caused it. I realized I wasn't really a kid anymore. That scared me because I wasn't exactly an adult either. I didn't know who the hell I was, which made me feel panicky. It seemed like the real me had died or something and nobody noticed except me. If you want my opinion, there is nothing more gloomy than walking around feeling like a ghost. Try it sometime if you don't believe me.
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