I was 15, going on 16 – just like the song says in The Sound of Music.
I was invited to my first party at a friend’s house without parental supervision. Of course, this was unbeknownst to my parents, who would never have let me go if they had known that the Hendersons were off somewhere for the weekend, leaving my friend, Catherine, alone with her ten year-old sister. Obviously, the Hendersons had much more faith in their daughter’s good judgment and moral compass than my parents had in mine – a fact which I deeply resented, and I thought to myself, “Sure! Might as well fulfill their worst fears, since it’s clear that being a nice, compliant, goody two-shoes – which I have always been – doesn’t get me any respect!” I don’t remember anymore how I got to the party. Probably, my father drove me there. He probably gave me the “third degree” all the way over. I probably lied through my teeth, swearing up and down that the party would be duly chaperoned and there would only be girls and absolutely NO alcohol.
When I walked into Catherine’s house, I had some expectations. I thought it would be a rather quiet, nerdy group of kids (I was never, ever part of the “popular” crowd). I expected there might be some punch with a miniscule amount of cooking wine mixed in it and there would be some chips and dip. I expected that we would all sit around and talk about school until about 11:00, at which point, we’d all go home in time to watch “The Midnight Special” on TV. (Remember “Wolfman Jack?”). This to me constituted excitement.
It was a little bit different.
When I walked in there were wall-to-wall kids. I had never seen so many kids in all my life! Lots of kids I didn’t know. Some of the boys looked like they shaved! (Older men!). Some of the girls wore blue eye shadow and black mascara. Some looked like they bleached their hair, and they were wearing tight, revealing sweaters and heels, snapping gum. Some were even smoking cigarettes! I nearly choked on the thick, acrid smoke mixed with the heavy scents of Tigress by Faberge, Shalimar and Jean Naté mingling with Canoe Cologne for Men and Old Spice.
I immediately felt like a dork in my green plaid kilt, which hit below my knobby knees, my penny loafers and my dark green cardigan – worn backwards, naturally, over a round-collared white oxford shirt with a circle pin. My curly hair was pulled back behind my ears, which was about as exotic as I could get. The whole house was vibrating with the sounds of Motown – songs like, “He’s So Fine” and “Baby Love”. But when the strains of “Hello, Stranger” filled the room, the bleach-blondes and the peach-fuzz boys started dancing slow. The lights went down, bottles of Iron City Beer appeared out of nowhere.
Ready to call my father, confess all and bolt, I located the hostess who was in the kitchen doling out beer. She glanced up at me and asked if I wanted one. “No!” I shouted, a little too loud. “I hate beer! How can you drink that stuff?” She laughed, but I was close to tears. “Really, Catherine!” I implored. Isn’t there someplace quiet I can go for a few minutes? I feel like I’m going to be sick!”
Catherine waved me upstairs saying, off-handedly, “Why don’t you go up and introduce yourself to Corey. Corey doesn’t like beer, either.”
When I got upstairs to the tiny room just off the landing, there was Corey seated on the daybed. He was different, somehow, in a way I couldn’t really describe. He had wildly curly hair (like me), which stuck out in all directions. He didn’t even notice when I stepped into the room, because he was intently strumming Catherine’s old, beat-up gut string guitar. He was wearing blue jeans and a white oxford cloth shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbow. There was a pack of Lucky Strikes beside him on the bed, along with an ashtray. He had the faintest trace of down over his top lip. I said, “Hello” and he looked up at me. His eyes seemed to register amusement, and he answered with his own soft, “Hello”. I said, “Don’t let me stop you, please”, and I started to back out of the room, feeling for sure that I would call my father and rush home immediately. But Corey just kept fixing me with that vaguely amused stare and offered me the chair next to him.
For a long time, we just sat there, him strumming his guitar, and me just being tongue-tied and amazed at this very strange boy and the very strange way that he affected me. By ten o’clock, I knew I had to get home, but I was unwilling to break the spell.
There was a small stereo turntable against the wall. Next to it was a stack of LPs. On the top of the stack was “Bookends” by Simon and Garfunkle. Corey picked up the album with the large, arresting black and white image of the duo on the cover. He asked, “Have you heard this?” I had to admit, I had not. With extreme care, he slid the record from the white sleeve, placed it on the turntable, and cued the song, “America”. I remember the shock of hearing the first phrase, Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon humming together in perfect, sweet, gentle harmony, and then the first line: “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together . . .” My breath caught in my chest. I closed my eyes because I was embarrassed by the flood of emotion I knew was written all over my face. Here was this strange boy playing this utterly unknown music in the guest bedroom of my friend’s home during an illicit party rife with cigarettes and alcohol. My parents would have killed me. I half wished they would come and get me now, this very second, and drive me home so I could bury myself deep under the covers and forget the whole episode. But they didn’t. And I couldn’t.
We sat and talked for hours. I don’t remember how I got home, or when. Corey never touched me, except to brush my hand opening the screen door as I was leaving. All through the summer, though, I remember the beautiful song ringing through my head, and even now, I can’t listen to the opening line without being caught up, just a little bit, in that timeless moment as I trembled on the brink of my sixteenth birthday.