Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Jackie Oh

I found this picture from my old yearbook from Christian Brothers High School in Memphis, Tennessee.

The school was (and still is) all-boys so naturally there are few places where females make an appearance in my old yearbook (other than the few brave, battle worthy female faculty members). Yet several girls appear on the few pages which were dedicated to the school dances. These pages show markedly awkward high-schoolers doing what they mostly do at high school dances – looking around at other kids who are likewise standing around, looking and so on and so forth. The boys look like they normally did during class hours, only now wearing blazers or sports coats. The girls all have corsages on their wrists and are wearing dresses of endless fabric that look stolen from the wives of polygamists. These pictures are stiff yet somehow they merited nerve-deadening captions: “Junior Gary Scott and his date, Wendy Gibbs find that a dance adds to their social life,” or “Exchange student Fabrizio Cappello and Senior Chris Meeks converse over a cup of Coke.” Well, I’m certainly glad we all cleared that up.

I was new to this school in my sophomore year, having just been transplanted from New York. The absence of females amid the pages of this yearbook is as jarring now as was their absence when I first walked the halls of this school. There was, however, one girl who commanded a substantial share of a yearbook for this, a school she was not attending: Jackie Adams. She was featured on the homecoming page, as homecoming queen. She was captain of the cheerleading squad. (CBHS had a cheerleading squad made up of girls who naturally, did not attend the school. Despite this paradox, Jackie’s squad managed to win a national championship, however it is that cheerleading championships are won). In addition there were other co-ed events; fund raisers, pep rallies and the like. Each of these had their own yearbook spread within which Jackie Adams was the center of gravity. Her every picture was anchored by the intransigent whole grain smile and waves of chestnut hair which framed her impossibly blue eyes. Everyone knew her name and whether admitted or not, every boy had a crush on her that crippled due to the impossibility of her beauty and the inordinate inadequacy of you being you. Without any close rival, she was the most popular girl in a school of all boys.

I’d never seen girls like this, so replete in perkiness, so American looking, so perfectly compiled. The young girls I went to school with in New York were precociously forming the niche identities they’d adopt in adulthood – hippie chicks, mafia spouses, mousy intellectuals, assertive professionals, moody affluent housewives – formations seeding in their early teens. Though I found many of them very attractive, none had Jackie Adams’ ironclad perfection. None exuded such Americaness in their poise. Jackie’s evolution was light years ahead, congealing towards the lead role in a real-life breakfast cereal commercial lit by transcendent sunshine amid white picket fences and floral oceans.

I found her intoxicating to the point of madness. The first time I saw her I was feebly playing my trumpet at a pep rally. The rally was in the school courtyard – Jackie’s cheerleading troupe was performing a routine surrounded by 800 teenage boys. We were all quite well behaved but the scene inside each one of us would have been more reminiscent of the when the Playboy bunnies visited the troops in Apocalypse Now. This was midway through my first semester and I’d fallen numb to the strange experience of existing for months with my mother being the only female with whom I’d conversed. I was physically and mentally light years away from any romantic capabilities. Due to their everyday absence, girls had now become an alien life form, talked about among the hallways like produce by football players and like the elusive Sasquatch among the rest of us.

I was convinced her existence was splendid at every turn and free of rainy days, bad grades, problematic relationships or defecation. For months, I’d harbored endless fantasies about her although these were hardly pornographic as I lacked the experience and exposure to conjure the colorful mechanics of sex. These fantasies mostly involved her abandonment of the popular crowd to join me in my room. She’d gaze longingly at me while I talked about Hendrix. She’d gush about my C- artwork to her friends. Mostly though, she’d just walk with me, as though to force the world to acknowledge me.

And so at that first pep rally, as I fumbled about with the spit valves of my trumpet, so entirely swept up in Jackie Adams, I was ignorant that every boy was under the same maddening state of delusion. Our collective lust and bewildering sense of futility must have been like a palatable cloud to her. She would simply continue this juggernaut of beauty effortlessly ignoring the din of hundreds of choirs of angels singing in vain in the heads of hundreds of repressed boys.

At the time we were heavy into F. Scott Fitzgerald in my English class. In Winter Dreams, Dexter Green must continually confront the siren of his passions, Judy Jones. I was convinced that I knew how the poor bastard felt. At the end of Gatsby, there’s that amazing line:
‘…No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will shore up in his ghostly heart.’
Brother Stephen asked the class what that meant. Of course no fifteen year old boy can hope to articulate how that passage is conveying that empty disappointment felt by life’s inability to deliver upon the enormities of passion’s expectations. But I became convinced that the surface poetry behind these words was drafted to describe the romantic quandary that was Jackie Adams and me. It became a mantra I’d chuck up against the negative reality that Jackie Adams could never be mine.

At the end of Winter Dreams, Dexter Green and Judy Jones are both married to other people and a mutual acquaintance describes Judy to Dexter as being somewhat less than magnanimous. The experience leaves Dexter almost paralyzed.

Years after CBHS, I was visiting Memphis with some friends from New York. I took them downtown to check out the sights – the blues clubs on Beale Street and the ducks in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel. We stopped in to have drinks at the lobby bar. And there was Jackie Adams sitting with what I’d say looked like two Ole Miss standard-issue twenty-something Alumni. It was a jarring experience. Her beauty was still there, a few years on but still within the Better Homes and Garden milieu. Yet, somehow there was now something entirely unremarkable about the way she carried herself, gracelessly drinking beer from a prosaic bottle of Michelob. I pointed her out to my friends the way one would sight a celebrity. They gazed at her for a second or two and then, obviously unimpressed, continued on where they’d left off in our conversation.

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