WRITING WELL 13 - sicomac avenue

by Susan Weber

John McKee was a kid I’d known since the sixth grade when my dad’s job moved us from Ohio to New Jersey. He was a quiet boy with a crew cut and if nerd had been a part of Ramapo High School’s lexicon, John with his braininess, his tucked-in shirt, his immunity to feminine wiles, would have more than qualified.

I was pimple-faced and baffled by the social proclivity of popular kids. Especially the girls spoke in perky quips to each other and, every so often, to me. My blinking stutter as the brain stem whirred might have amused them, had they taken the time to observe. I can’t say I liked being nonexistent, but by then it was what Mr. Quackenbush in the chem lab would have called a stasis state. My family was a much more reliable cauldron when it came to the distillation of identity and love.

John McKee had pot-handle ears and a straight nose like my grandpa’s, the handsomeness of which my mother pointed out on more than one occasion. Mom was an only child, a daddy’s girl as I never would be. That my siblings and I had to share whatever lavishing our father handed out was yet another unexamined norm.

I remember one time a few of us — a sister, a brother, a mom — took an unlikely after-dinner stroll. We trudged single-file along the narrow berm of Sicomac Avenue, commuter traffic drowning out whatever conversation we intended. Turning off, we wound up in a subdivision I’d never seen before. My teenage brain had been tricking me lately. For instance, when I considered theater kids who smoked outside the gym at school and were said to hitchhike to Greenwich Village on weekends, I envied and admired them in a way I didn’t think my parents would appreciate. Back then, my innocence of the wide world pulling me toward it was yet another invisibility cloak, giving me permission to emerge in my own sweet time. So it didn’t surprise me on our walk when my trickster brain found the long shadows overtaking lawns and modest houses otherworldly and exotic, their magic spell coopting the ordinary trappings of suburbia.

Charmed by the curious landscape, I looked up and there stood John McKee. He and a friend or brother were breathless from a bike ride, or flushed from a game of catch on the green lawn I took to be John’s front yard. His appearance toggled a switch in my brain. Uncanny was the evidence that this boy and apparently all my classmates had lives and homes and families outside of school. It was then, as he began to put words together and direct them at me, that I noticed a very thick wad of mucus fluttering from a nostril of his well-appointed nose. In the parlance of the day, this was the kind of thing to gross a budding teenager out. I could neither focus on nor look away from his wavering flag of snot. At the same time the sheer quantity of words he was producing, one or two phrases at least, had me in its alien thrall. I looked, I listened, brain cells thrummed. By the time we were heading back to the homework my mother always remembered, my impression of John McKee had changed from shy boy to kind of interesting person.

In the days and weeks that followed, we did not end up in a story about studious, awkward souls who found young love against all codes of popular social science. Another girl or boy might have figured out how to make that happen. But there are some kids who don’t want to find out everything all at once. And really, which one of us can blame them?

Photo by Mark Dixon CC BY 4.0