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Fingertips (Pt. Three)
By Terry Barr
From the time I saw her in the summer before 7th grade, I thought Melanie Shumacher was the most beautiful girl I’d ever see. Girls were a dicey thing: They seemed to want so little to do with me, and I had no idea what to do with them. That first day, Melanie looked right through me, even though my eyes and mouth were wide open and plainly in view. The pain of 7th grade affairs.
However, as unsophisticated as I was, even I knew that when I saw Melanie, my life in the coming years would be utterly hopeless.
Melanie dyed her hair some version of burnt orange, which didn’t exactly hide her brown roots. I’m thinking that even now her hair is that same shade of orange, the one lost in my spectrum.
So what was so special about her? Why are certain people beautiful to us? Is this about aesthetics or desire? Or simple youthful infatuation? Even my normally reticent and taciturn father pronounced Melanie beautiful when she was thirteen. That sounds creepy, I know, but I promise you, my Dad was no creep. And anyway, his appreciation didn’t help me one bit.
Nope, I had to learn over and over for myself that just because I thought a girl beautiful had nothing to do with the way she thought about me. I’m sure that at first, if she did notice me, I was just another silly boy who wouldn’t stop staring at her. But by eighth grade when we had classes together, she must have felt my creep factor lower to “harmless.” By mid-year we had even become pretty good buddies. She was the first girl I ever called on the phone, and somewhere behind our scenes she tacitly agreed to spend an hour or two from that safe distance talking to me roughly twice a week. I know she liked me, for I was a good guy. Easy to talk to. Safe. Dependable. Everything, I was assured by advice columnists, that a junior high girl would eventually want.
I was also the type of guy who would do anything for his friends, and of course, I would do everything for Melanie.
Once, she called me on a Saturday afternoon to ask if I’d call the boy she had a date with that evening and break it for her. That became my first and only time to crush the hopes of another boy. But I did so because she had already broken many semi-dates with me, like the time the state fair came to town when we were in 9th grade. We were talking on the phone and getting excited about the prospects of the fair: the corndogs with mustard, the Himalaya, the Double Ferris Wheel, and the Zipper.
“We ought to get a group together and go,” Melanie suggested.
And that’s what I thought we’d do. However, when I asked certain friends, they responded in that lukewarm fashion meaning they either already had plans that didn’t and wouldn’t include me, or they didn’t have plans yet and were hoping for brighter prospects. I assumed Melanie would have more success, seeing as how she was the center of the popular clique. All she’d have to do was say she wanted it, and a group would materialize at the fair entrance. But the night before the day we had agreed upon, she told me that no one else could go and, in fact, she herself wasn’t feeling too good. That bad cold everyone but me was getting.
Much more boldly that same year, I asked her to go to a Sunday matinee performance of the touring company of Jesus Christ Superstar. The one with Yvonne Elliman singing “I Don’t Know How To Love Him.” Melanie agreed, perhaps because she wanted to see the show or perhaps because she figured what harm could come from a matinee about our Savior? During the show I did have better sense than to try to hold her hand, and afterward, she went with me to our church’s youth group gathering. But as we selected rides home at the end of the evening, Melanie got into another guy’s car, while I stood at the curb, watching.
And still, I never gave up on my crush throughout high school and into college too. I didn’t give up even when she began dating a so-called friend of mine, Corky.
In those innocent Bessemer, Alabama, days of the early 1970’s, I had no idea what a “Sociopath” was. I doubt I’d even heard the term. More disturbing to me, for decades after I did understand its meaning, I didn’t apply this term to Corky, or even consider that it was a descriptor for him. Maybe I never would have applied it to him if it hadn’t been for the editor of a journal who published an essay of mine about Corky. At the beginning of that essay, the editor tagged a few words to entice readers, and one of those words was “Sociopath.” So of course I thought about it deeply then, and when I did, I was shaken by my memory of Corky and all that he did.
When I discuss these memories with my wife, she tells me that I should know the difference between the clinical meaning of the term and the way ordinary people like that editor throw it around.
“It’s just too casual,” she says, and I know that she’s right; I know that she’s seen a few of “them” or the ones they’ve decimated in her years of counseling. “People often confuse Sociopath with Narcissist,” she adds. “A Sociopath is necessarily a Narcissist, but not the reverse.”
“So do you think Corky is a Sociopath?”
“No,” she says. But then she pauses. “Do you think he is? You’ve known him practically all your life.”
True. But it occurs to me that I never understood why we were friends. He could be fun, adventurous, even dangerous, and maybe that was his allure. But what did I offer him? Safety? Stability? Someone who’d follow him around and conform to his ideas of excitement?
“Well, one of our mutual friends says it sounds right—that part about being unable to feel empathy anyway. He says that Corky’s brothers have that tendency too.”
“Can he feel remorse?”
I consider this. Can I recall or imagine him saying “I’m sorry” for anything he did?
“I don’t know what he feels. I never did. He could turn on you without notice or hesitation, and he had a cruel streak like no one else I’ve ever known well.”
Corky is standing amongst a group of our male friends, the summer after our freshman year of college. They’re freshly-minted frat brothers at the University of Alabama. I’m the incoming editor of our campus paper at the University of Montevallo, a college that would almost fit into Bama’s football stadium. I believe these former high school buddies of mine, former athletes all, will welcome me back into them. I don’t think that it will matter that I’ve gained noticeable weight, the result of discovering late night snacks of Busch beer and Braunschweiger.
As I approach the guys looking forward to a beer and some good-natured ribbing, Corky looks at me. I don’t see quickly enough his mouth forming into that sneer of disdain. I’ll never know why he did this, what he had to gain or prove. But then, maybe that’s the point.
“Hey Buddy. When’s it due?”
Do I say anything at all? Maybe I stay for another minute or two, or maybe I have enough dignity to walk away. But whatever it is that I do, I doubt Corky remembers, much less replays, this scene five minutes after it happens.
“Wow,” my wife said. “You guys were friends, right?”
“Yeah, right. A couple of years later though, Corky had ballooned out—all that excess of a former football lineman catching up with him. I had thinned a good bit, and when I ran into him again, I returned the favor, word for word. But I would have never done that to him had he not hurt me so bad.”
“Of course you wouldn’t have,” the woman who loved me said.
“But is that any proof of sociopathy? We know at least that he’s a sex addict. He’s obsessed both with doing it and talking about it.”
“True. Maybe he was abused as a child?”
Maybe. The youngest boy in a highly competitive male family could easily have been. His family moved back to Bessemer when he was nine. I didn’t know him well before they moved away. When they returned, I knew him mainly as a bully to other people, though not so much to me. Barrel-chested, strong, relentlessly aggressive, when Corky was in pursuit-mode he wore single-minded blinders.
Once on a church youth trip to a beachfront lake, Corky spent his afternoon drifting semi-casually with a girl through the current. I say “semi-casually,” for while she was animatedly chatting with him about fourteen year-old girly stuff, he had her by the waist with only his enormous head above the surface. He was “humping her,” as was obvious to all but the adults who were supposedly supervising us.
In that same era, he regaled me with the details of the orgy he participated in one afternoon at the home of a guy I barely knew. In mid-thrust, Corky said the other guy suddenly announced, “Time to swap!”
“Man, his girl was gorgeous, too, so I just ‘All right,’ and climbed right on.”
By this point in my fifteen year-old life, I still hadn’t kissed a girl.
Corky eventually married a nice woman—outgoing, warm, and open. In 1982, they visited me on the occasion of the Knoxville World’s Fair. After a long day trudging over the exhibit grounds, she wanted an early night’s sleep.
“Hey,” Corky whispered as she was preparing her bath, “I saw a place we need to go to.” The Fox Trap out on old Alcoa Highway. Not being married at that time, I didn’t have a problem going to a strip club, but I wondered what his wife might think and where he told her we were going. But I didn’t ask, and so for the next few hours Corky and I witnessed the rhythmic gyrations from supposedly exotic worlds. The next morning, as his wife was getting ready for another World’s Fair day, Corky leaned into me:
“Man, that was some night. I got so horny that when we got back I had to wake her up, you know?”
But maybe that story pales in the light of the business trip he told me about after he had become father to his second daughter. At some sales convention, he was lounging with colleagues in the heated indoor hotel pool when a woman floated over. After a few moments of casual wading, she let him, as he so delicately put it, “finger her.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
But there were much better questions I could have asked, mainly of myself.
That story reminded me of an earlier time when we were just into adolescence and Corky spent the night with me. My bedroom lay at the front of our house—easy pickings for those interested in sneaking out the front door in the days when we thought burglar alarms were unnecessary. A girl he wanted was spending the night across the street with a girlfriend who happened to be a good friend of mine.
“Leave the door unlocked for me. I’ll be back later,” he commanded. So badly did I want to be cool like I thought he was, I complied, not worrying at all what would happen if we were caught. Not worrying at all what he intended to do. Sometime later I felt him climb into the double bed we were sharing in the bedroom that formerly belonged to my poor old grandmother who had died the previous summer. Corky pushed my shoulder, and when I turned, he stuck his index finger in my nose.
“Smell this, “ he said.
And very sleepily, before I understood it, I did.
I heard that in our college years he trapped a girl in the bedroom of the apartment she shared with two other girls. They all knew Corky, and why the other two didn’t check on their roommate after he followed her into her bedroom is anyone’s guess. It was one of the roommates who told me this story. She said that the girl successfully fought Corky off all night but that she didn’t want to yell or make a scene. I wanted to believe that she did keep him out of her, but he was so much bigger than she was, and I knew him so well.
In his thirties, after he was married, Corky once said to a mutual friend of ours, “I used to fuck your sister.” And after his divorce, late one morning he appeared unexpectedly at the front door of another childhood friend of ours, just when he knew the friend would be at work, and the friend’s wife would be home alone. She had to lock and bar the door to keep him away.
It took the accumulation of these incidents for me to cut off contact with him finally, to refuse to pick up his calls or return his Happy New Year’s texts. I stopped going to class reunions because I knew he’d be there.
Just last summer, my mother told me in one of our weekly chats that Corky had a heart attack. He had to have surgery, she said, but was recovering nicely. A few months later when our 40th high school reunion rolled around, the friend who was hosting called me, saying he hoped I could make it. I told him I didn’t think I could, but he sent me the list of those who had confirmed anyway. Corky’s name was near the bottom, next to that of the girl he claimed he “used to fuck.” Her husband would be attending too, the list said, and the best I could hope for was that he might know all this and kick Corky’s ass.
A week after the event the host sent out photos, and in them, there’s Corky hanging with the crowd. He looks Botoxed, like the last images of poor old bloated Marlon Brando. I don’t know if it’s his heart meds, steroids, or a life that has finally caught up to him. It would all be very sad if I didn’t know as much as I know. If my friend’s sister wasn’t standing right by him in those photos.
By chance I did run into Corky recently. Politely, I greeted him, and just as politely, he introduced me to the woman he was with. She was a pretty blond with an engaging smile and comforting eyes. As he went to get her a glass of wine, she asked, “So how well do you know Corky?”
I paused. There was too much to say.
“About as well as you do.”
“What do you mean? Aren’t y’all old friends?” She tilted her head.
But I just half-smiled and excused myself. As I left, I wondered if I had done the right thing. Or if I ever had.
Back in high school, after play practice one night Melanie offers to drive me home. We’re in A Midsummer Night’s Dream together, our senior play. I don’t know if she realizes that offering me anything just revives a crush that is never really dormant. It’s late on this Thursday night, just a week before the play opens.
Melanie is talking about Corky as she drives, how she isn’t sure if she wants to keep dating him. “He’s just so cute,” she says. “The cutest boy in school.”
Why is she telling me these things, I wonder? We’re passing underneath the streetlights of my neighborhood now, and I fade for a moment as I hear that radio song, the one that seems to play every night about this time:
“There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold…”
I wonder if I’ll ever get tired of this song, if I’ll ever get over my crush on Melanie.
And then she says, “He took advantage of me.”
“Corky. He took advantage of me last week when we were at Kenny’s house. We had all cooked steaks and then, you know, we went back to the bedroom. I told him I didn’t want to, but he did it anyway. I didn’t like it. I don’t like it.”
I don’t ask her why she feels compelled to confess this. What I’m thinking, though, is that Corky doesn’t deserve this girl, the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.
“And you still want to go out with him,” I ask.
“Yes. I can’t help it. I like him a lot.”
“Are you going to let him do that to you again? I really hope you don’t.”
I’ve never had a conversation like this with a girl.
“No, I won’t do that again. He has to stop.”
“Good. You don’t deserve that.”
We’re parked in front of my house now, and on the radio, the singer is concluding his plaintive tune: “And she’s buying a stairway. To heaven.”
I don’t know what else happened between Melanie and Corky. They never married at least. And I’m not sure what this says, but of all the exploits he narrated to me, he never mentioned this incident with Melanie.
Melanie lives in a European capital now. She’s married too, and we’re Facebook pals. She seems very happy, at least as far as I can tell. I didn’t realize it then, but today I see why she revealed her secret to me, to another guy. Like I always hoped she would, on that unglittering night she gave me her trust.
#Real #Love #Crushes #Sociopath #Rape #HighSchoolMemories #FirstPersonEssays #CreativeNonfiction #WayBackWhen
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