The girl in the long sleeves

R.J. Colleary

“Memories… the way we were...”  

Or, were we?  

Once upon a time the writing world provided two choices: “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction.”  Black and white.  Chocolate and vanilla.  Pick one, end of story.  But then somebody invented “Memoir” –- in effect, your chocolate/vanilla swirl.  Round and round it goes; where it stops, nobody knows.  A taste of “lived it” here, a bite of “made it up” there -– well, you get it.  And once the swirl is served inside a Cone of Perception (I love it when a good metaphor comes together)… well, who knows.

Let’s call her Patti Ann.  That isn’t her name, never was, I’ve changed it.  (She’s on Facebook, for God’s sake.)  But for our purposes, in the here and now, so many years later ex post facto, her name was Patti Ann.

Cut to the chase.  Or more precisely, the flashback of the chase:  


The ‘70s.  High school.  High school is hell.  High school in the ‘70s?  Hell-squared.  The platform shoes, The Hustle, the hair?  Oh God, the hair.  It’s amazing any of us made it to the ‘80s alive.

It’s sophomore year.  Patti Ann and I shared a couple of classes, English (which I could handle) and Advanced Biology, which I was mistakenly recommended for and stupidly took and would eventually flunk so badly the teacher pulled me aside and gently told me not to even bother TAKING the Final Exam.  But anyway.

Patti Ann and I were not particularly on speaking terms.  This was primarily because she was a girl.  I couldn’t talk to them.  Not in anything that sounded like actual words, anyway.  It was also because I was part of the invisible high school majority.  It must be noted that Patti Ann was pleasant, even to wallflowers such as I.  But to ratchet this up a notch or three on TIM (The Intimidation Meter), she was not only a girl –- she was also a (wait for it…) cheerleader.  Yes.  Meaning in the high school caste system, as a non-football player I was beneath her station.  Way.  Not that she put on those airs.  But it was, as they say, The Unwritten Law.

Patti Ann was not like the other cheerleaders though. Yes, she was beautiful.  Small-boned, dark-haired, dark-eyed.  But she was also quiet, unlike Gail.  Smart, unlike Emily.  And there was no schoolwide rumor of sluttiness, unlike Marcia.  And Christine.  And Sarah.  Patti Ann wasn’t the cheerleading captain.  She didn’t lead a single cheer.  She was never the top of the pyramid.  Patti Ann was, if it’s possible, the wallflower of cheerleaders.

We went to a public school.  No uniforms.  But Patti Ann had her own.  She usually –- maybe always? -– wore black Danskins as tops.  Those ballet clothes?  Long sleeves.  In fact, when she cheered she wore a white long-sleeved shirt underneath.  

Okay, so, as stages go this one is nearly set.  In one corner we have a beautiful smart popular girl.  In the other – me -- None Of The Above.  In a very fair sense, we had ZERO in common.  

Except one thing.  And sometimes that’s all you need.

Patti Ann’s family happened to live on the direct route between my house and the high school.  So I had to pass her house every day (twice actually) walking to, and then later, fro.  I had walked past it for nearly two years without incident.

And then…  

It was late Spring and a Friday.  No doubt on those.  I was walking home, by myself as per usual, thinking about the sleepover I was headed for later that evening at my friend John’s and the pre-Jerky Boys prank phone calls we would make.  As I passed Patti Ann’s, I heard a noise.  It was coming from Patti Ann’s house.  I looked up, and there she was, at a second floor window, knocking on it.  Apparently to get my attention.  She held up one finger -– her index finger, to be specific -- the universal sign for “Wait a minute.”  She left the window.  I looked around to see to whom she was actually gesturing but realized I was alone out there.  Well, me alone with my puzzlement.  

A moment later she came out the front door.  She had changed from her school clothes and was wearing cutoff jean shorts.  Her ever-present long sleeves remained.  The beginning of the conversation is lost to history, probably because I was legally in shock by that point.  Patti Ann wasn’t just TALKING to me, she had gone out of her way to stop me.  And off-campus for God’s sake.

We chatted and then walked to a nearby park and just strolled and talked.  And who knows why, but she told me a story.  About a fire when she was a little girl.  About her nightgown catching fire and her father putting it out.  And how it had left scarring on her back and on her arms.  Long sleeves.  Always long sleeves.  She rolled one up.  There were these fine, thin white marks, almost spider-webby.  They weren’t ugly.  What could make Patti Ann ugly?  They were just lines on her skin.  I would have told her “No biggie” but the phrase was decades from invention.  I told her the 1970s equivalent.  But I was aware this was not common knowledge.  It was a secret.  

We talked a long time, two hours maybe?  And then I went to my sleepover and she went home.  And I wondered, what would this mean at school on Monday?

A chance meeting, a very personal confession from her, compassionate response from me.  This is where the teenage love story begins.  

Well, the fictional version, that is.  

The non-fiction version is that Monday came and it was like Friday had never happened.  Not only did I never have another meaningful discussion with Patti Ann, I can’t even recall a non-meaningful discussion.  Though I would walk past her house ten times a week over our final two high school years, never again did she knock on the window.  We graduated, she didn’t sign my yearbook, and after that I never saw her again.

In the meantime, my mind has occasionally wandered and wondered what exactly had happened that day.  Why had she singled me out?  What happened between us that caused her to never single me out again?  Why did she tell me her secret?  Did she mistake me for someone else walking by and was then horrified to get outside and realize it was only me?  Had she then just thrown me a mercy walk?

But in a bigger picture, it got me thinking about how our brains work.  Memory vs. memories.  How could a day I will never forget be a day she could never remember?  What did it mean to me?  What did I learn from it?  Why am I still thinking about it?  Why am I writing about it?  Why do I have so many questions and so few answers?

Last year I saw her name on Facebook, on the Friends list of one of our ex-high school classmates.  I went to her page.  Apparently we both headed west.  She stopped halfway and I kept going until the land ended.  She ended up an advertising bigwig.  

There were two photos on her Facebook.  One was of a teenage daughter.  Beautiful, small-boned, dark-haired, dark-eyed.  She looks like a cheerleader.  Maybe even the captain.

The other photo was Patti Ann herself.  She’s dropped the “Ann.”  And she’s looking into the camera, smiling, arms crossed, like somebody who knows a secret she’s not telling.

Long sleeves.

R.J. Colleary is a writer living in California who remembers yesterday like it was yesterday.  He believes.

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