Almost like Praying

Almost Like PrayingWest Side Story

It is 1967 and that’s all I know about that. I do know that I looked in the mirror tonight and I didn’t see me. What I saw was the face of a thirteen year old girl with a pony tail pulling back on acne plagued skin. The adult woman I had wanted to see was really a decrepit adolescent in the bedroom mirror. This would-be woman, this child, this me with a hint of a baby face, stood in front of her dresser preparing herself for a night with her best friend Jane and Jane’s boyfriend Mick. They invited me along, feeling sorry for me, I think, knowing that I don’t have a boyfriend. If my mirror is any gauge, my chances of getting one are slim to negative. So, I see myself sitting alone in the backseat of Mick’s Chevy Impala Caprice tonight, hiding far from view. All eyes would be focused on Jane and Mick or on Tony and Maria. The three of us were going to the Sky-Hi Drive-In on Route 53 to watch West Side Story. I am just going to try to forget myself, hide my face and just let the movie carry me away in its arms. I wish I had someone to share it with, though. Maybe the gods of love will see me alone in the back seat of Mick’s car as they look down on me from their huge screen throne. Maybe, speaking with their muted voices in merciful tones through little black boxes, they will intervene on my behalf. Or, perhaps not.

As always, I’m not sure what to do with my hair. When I was a young girl it was easy. A pony tail was easy. Now it’s up or down, ratted or flat, sophisticated or playful? And, I’m not sure whether I should be a Greaser or a Climber tonight. In my school Indian Trail Junior High everyone has to be one or the other. The Greasers wear only black: black socks, black shoes, black clothes and black leather jackets; the girls wear black tight skirts and ratted hair above their black Dracula-like mascara staked eye lashes. The Climbers, the ones like me, wear white socks, paisley, plaid and colored school clothes and letter jackets and pink makeup. It doesn’t matter if you are a Climber or a Greaser-acne shows up where it wants to. As usual, tonight I have nothing black to wear except for some Buster Brown shoes that I wear to church. The black church shoes won’t do for the drive in. So, I’ll wear my dark brown penny loafers. But, what do I do about socks? I know, I’ll wear black socks. I’ll be a Greaser and a Climber.

My face is a blotchy patchwork of pointy blemishes. I’ve had it with puberty. I need different skin. This skin isn’t working. My body and clothes are just another battle on the same front. I tug on my dryer shrunk top until I fit inside its shamrock green sheath. My jeans, which I had pulled out of the dryer half an hour ago, are still wet. They will surrender to my lower half after I complete my wrangling dance yoga inside the resisting denim. I’ve done this before.

My friends are going to show up in fifteen minutes and I still am still not made up. This is the first time I would be at a drive-in without my parents. I am pacing myself to the AM radio: Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell are singing, “Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby… I’ve got to move faster.

I find my purse and I am trying to find my cotton candy pink lipstick somewhere inside. My mom convinced my dad that I was old enough to wear lipstick. Lipstick and some cover stick. (The lipstick was like Chapstick, my mom tells my father. He’s not sure. “It’s good for her lips.” Mom goes on. “Every girl needs cover stick, too.”) No mascara. No blush. No eye shadow. Yet. I dab my face with the cover stick trying to hit every red spot at least twice. I look at my profile standing sideways to the mirror with my eyes shifted right. Then, I turn around and look in the mirror with my eyes shifted left. I apply move cover stick. I look straight into the mirror. There is a rose bud on my nose. More cover stick. I don’t see the pretty girl there I used to know. Pretty is not going to happen tonight. Where are my shoes? “Mom?” I yell downstairs.

“Honey,” my dad yells from the living room, “Your mother’s on the phone. She can’t talk right now. She’s talking to Jane’s mom.”

“Oh, no. Now what? Something’s coming.”

“Jane’s mom said they are on the way. They got a late start.” My mom talks to me from the bottom of the stairs. “Your shoes are under your bed, remember?”

“Whew.” I grab my shoes and do more denim leg stretching as I bend over to get them. I walk to the hallway and I take a last look at myself in the hallway mirror. “Ugh.” The figure I see is an embarrassing collision of childhood and adulthood, of Climber and Greaser. I want to go back to my room and hide. I take another look and I think that it is getting dark soon and my “ghastly” appearance won’t matter. Besides, I’ve wanted to see West Side Story. I turn around and pause to think about what I need for tonight’s movie: I have my baby sitting money. I have my lipstick. I have my comb. Where’s my good luck pink troll key chain? Ah, I remember. It’s under my pillow.

I head downstairs and my dad says, “Hi, beautiful. Have fun tonight. I’ll be waiting up.”

“Dad, I’m gross.”

“No your not, sweetie.”

“Dad, I am, too.”

“No, No, No.” Dad protests.

Mom says, “They’re here.” Then she says, “Oh, there is someone in the back seat of Mick’s car. I wonder who that is. Jane’s mom didn’t mention that there would be someone else going with. Did Mick and Jane pick him up on the way over? I wonder.”

So do I. I look out the window and see Mick and Jane in the front seat of the Caprice and in the back seat is Juan from school. “Oh, god!” Now my dad is looking out the window, too and I say, “Mom and dad get away from the window. Quick!”

Maybe we should go say “Hi” to them and see who this is? My dad talks to my mother.

“Good idea. You go first.” My mom responds.

I stand on the front door porch. I see my parents talking to Mick and Jane parked in the driveway. My dad is now talking to Juan. He shakes his hand as he does with everyone he meets for the first time. I see him smiling. I hear a scream inside of me. I look horrible and Juan, a Greaser, always looks so cool. The scream is edging upwards towards my mouth. A flood of terror rushes through my heart like a tidal wave. I take out my pocket mirror for one last look. I see my dad and mom heading towards me. I am almost fainting. I turn and face the house.

“Honey, Mick and Jane picked up Juan on the way over to our house. Juan is Mick’s friend and I guess Juan didn’t have anything to do tonight, so they picked him up. I will call Jane’s mom and let her know that he is going along. I talked to Juan. He seems like a nice kid. He says that he is in some of your classes. Is that true?”

“Yeah, dad. I didn’t think anyone would be around to see me except Mick and Jane. I look gross.”

“Honey, all I can tell you is that you look pretty, tonight. Don’t worry. Have fun watching the movie and come home right afterwards, as you promised. I told Mick to bring you right home after the movie. Here’s some money for a Coke and some popcorn. I know that you wanted to see this movie. You have been talking about it since it came out, since you sang some of the songs in chorus.”

“I do want to see it, dad, but maybe some other time. Maybe…”

“Marianne,” my mother says my name when she wants my attention, “Marianne,” her voice lowers, “your skin looks fine. I like your hair down and your lipstick is just right. You may feel embarrassed about how you look but your father and I see a beautiful young lady. Go ahead and have some fun. We’ll be waiting for you later and you can tell us how it goes. OK?”

“All right, mom. I’ll go. I’m very nervous, though. My stomach feels like it’s in a pillow fight. I’ll go. I see you later.” With that I head over to Mick’s car and get in the back seat behind Mick. Juan smiles over at me and says, “Hi, Marianne.” And, I say, “Hi.”

From the front seat Jane turns around and says, “You look great Mare. I like that lipstick.”

I see Mick looking in the rear view mirror. “Thanks. Hi Mick.”

Mick backs the car down the driveway and says “Hi, kiddo. Juan wanted something to do tonight so I invited him along. Is that OK?”

“Ah, yeah, I guess so.”

“Good” Mick smiles back in the mirror.

I lean toward my window and look out. I don’t know what to say to Juan so I’m just going to wait for him to talk. I’ve seen him at school in the hallways and waiting in line to go into the school building. I now remember him looking at me when our school was evacuated during a bomb scare. He was in the crowd with the Greaser girls but he was looking over at me standing with my girl friends. Now I remember Juan.

Five minutes later, “Marianne, you look swell.” Juan speaks to me while combing his hair straight back.

“Thanks, Juan. You look nice, too.”

“Did you hear about Mrs. Rhoades? She’s leaving the school. I guess she’s too old to teach.”

“Yeah, she must be a hundred years old. She was always nice to me but she got angry with some of the kids, mostly the Grea…” I stopped myself.

“Yeah, you’re right. She was very strict. I won’t miss her.” Juan looked over to me.

“She was nice to me. I’m not sure why.” I looked over at Juan. He was trying to get a black forelock to stay in a curl.

“I hear that you are in the band. What instrument do you play?”

“I play the French horn.”

“I don’t know what that is.”

“It’s a brass instrument.”

“Like a trumpet?”

“Well, a French horn is round with a lot of tubes and a big bell where the sound comes out. It has a small mouthpiece. It takes a lot of air to play and it heavy to carry but I like it.”

“Cool.” Juan replies, sitting slightly forward from the seat. (I think he does that so he won’t mess his hair.) “I play the radio.” Juan laughs to himself.

I break into Mick and Jane’s conversation. “Hey Jane, put on WLS. I want to hear some music.”

Jane turns on the radio and finds 890 AM. The Hollies are singing Just One Look. I sing the words to myself as I look at my orange-pink reflection in the car window. Outside the window the sunset is washing the sky like an art class project.

We arrive at the Sky-Hi and we buy our tickets. The ticket guy checks the trunk to make there is no alcohol and no food hidden anywhere. We drive in and find a good spot in the middle about half way to the screen. All around are cars driving into their uphill spots, the car windows begin rolling down. I hear music everywhere, from every car. There are people walking to the concession stand and coming back with window trays full of food. I sit back and wait. I don’t want to be the first one in the car to get some popcorn.

Finally Mick says, “Hey, everyone let’s get our food now before this thing gets started.” We all say “Yeah” and we get out of the car. Mick and Jane walk hand in hand while I walk with Juan a few feet apart. I felt like we were being watched by everyone, that we were the movie, yet I felt safely obscure.  I wasn’t alone at the drive in and all eyes weren’t focused on me, just on our group.  At least, that’s how I pictured the way our audience of inclined viewers would view us.

At the concession stand I get a medium Coke and medium bag of popcorn. Juan gets some nachos with jalapeno and a Coke. Mick and Jane share a large bucket of buttered popcorn and a large Coke. We head back to the car. From the overhead loudspeakers I hear the Monkees sing, “I’m a Believer.” I notice as we walk back to the car that there are ascending pillars of cigarette smoke coming from many open car windows. Each pillar has an extended arm attached. The approaching midnight blue sky consumes the grey smoke while dancing on the giant screen, behind the plumes of smoke is Mr. Popcorn and Mrs. Cola.

We return to the car and listen to WLS until the sun disappears and darkness pulls in front of us. We can hear the cars around us and all the chatter of voices coming from those cars. Out of our speaker box comes the voice of the drive-in announcer telling us to be courteous to our neighbors and to not make a lot of noise. He tells us: “There are bathrooms behind the concession stand.” The previews begin with a commercial about the concession stand food: popcorn, nachos, hot dogs, Coke, Seven-Up, Jujubes, Milk-Duds, Affy-Tapples…. Hmmm, Milk Duds sound good. The previews start to appear on the screen. Car horns begin beeping and some guy is shouting “Shut up!” and “Hey, be quiet!” The surrounding murmur siphoned down into the movie sound coming from the little black box hanging on Mick’s open car window:

“The Graduate, opening January 1968… starring Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Katherine Ross and directed by Mike Nichols. A movie about an impulsive, rebellious kind of love, but the old-fashioned notion of love conquers all.”…

…“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, opening in December, starring Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Houghton…a love story of today. Does love conquer all?”…

…“Thoroughly Modern Millie starring Julie Andrews, James Fox, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing, in the happiest motion picture hit of the year. Directed by George Roy Hill. “You’ve come a long way…”

…“Wait until Dark starring Audrey Hepburn who plays Susy Hendrix, a blind woman who unwittingly becomes involved in three murderous crimnals’ drug scheme. How does a blind woman defend herself? Now playing in a theatre near you.”……Feature Presentation…Technicolor…Now were getting somewhere. At last the movie is beginning. There’s another reminder on the screen to be courteous to our movie neighbors. I sit back and lean a little to the middle of the car to see around Jane’s head. Juan moves his head towards the middle also making sure his hair doesn’t touch the car seat. I can smell his cologne. It’s not like my dads. It smells musky. It smells like a rain forest would smell: fresh, earthy, inviting.

Music begins the movie. The overture fills our small space with jarring and unsettling tritones. The music sounds jazzy, modern and classical. It sounds hip (I got this word from listening to DJ Dick Biondi). The clashing dissonance of the music causes me to wonder about the story. Will it be like Romeo and Juliet? Will there be guys fighting? Will there be romance? “O Romeo, O Romeo…” Juan says that he wants the music to end and the story to begin and yet I see him tapping his hand while looking out his rear window. I crane my neck further toward the front of the car. I want to be closer to the sound. A cool breeze floods the car through the open window. My bare arms are covered with goose bumps. I shiver. Juan remains cool. Mick and Jane continue munching on popcorn while holding hands.

Juan returns his gaze to the screen when two street gangs appear, the American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. The Jets have names like Riff, Action, Diesel, A-Rab, Baby John Big Deal and Ice. The Sharks: Chino, Pepe, Indio Luis, Anxious and Toro. There’s talk of a rumble and a dance. Tony is cute and so is Bernardo. Anita and Maria, two Puerto Rican women, work at a bridal shop. I find out that Bernardo is Maria’s brother and Anita’s boyfriend. Maria wants to wear a new dress to the dance and she asks Anita to make it for her. Maria wants her dress lower in the front but Anita, the older woman, is resisting her. She won’t lower the bust line of the white eyelet party dress for Maria even though Maria insists.

Something is coming. I am beginning to sense it. At the dance the two gangs meet and square off for a dance challenge. I love the warm feminine summer dresses of the Latin women. The rival couples dance the Mambo while doing a version of musical chairs with their dance partners. It doesn’t end well. There is tension everywhere in the room except in the eyes of Maria and Tony. They see each other across the room. They come together and dance. They are falling in love. They kiss warmly and I suddenly I don’t mind the chilly car.

Bernardo, Maria’s brother, does not like what he sees and he pulls them apart. He wants to fight. A war council is set up at Doc’s Candy Store. I don’t get this. Why don’t they just fight at the dance and get it over with. Maybe because the cop is there. I don’t know. After the dance, Tony can’t stay away from Maria. I like this. He finds her apartment window and he serenades Maria. I see myself on the fire escape. “Maria…the most beautiful sound…Maria”. More tritones and more melting. Maria and Tony sing to each other while the two gangs get ready to fight:

“Today the minutes seem like hours…

…Well, they began it!…
The hours go so slowly,

…Well, they began it!…
And still the sky is light.

…And we’re the ones to stop ’em once and for all,
Tonight!…

Oh moon, grow bright,
And make this endless day endless night,

Tonight!”

There’s a war council at Doc’s Candy Store. Now I’m wishing I had bought some Milk Duds. Tony tells Doc about Maria. Doc’s not crazy about the idea but Tony says he is in love. It will be alright. Tony only wants a fair fight. Things are heating up for the Jets and the Sharks and for Tony and Maria. The next day Tony meets Maria at the bridal shop. They dream and I begin to dream…

“I, Anton, take thee Maria…”

“I, Maria, take thee, Anton…”

“For richer, for poorer…”

“In sickness and in health…”

“To love and to honor…”

“From each sun to each moon…”

“From tomorrow to tomorrow…”

“From now to forever…”

“Till death do us part.”

Tony and Maria are holding hands:

“With this ring, I thee wed.”

“With this ring, I thee wed.”

A cool breeze floods in through the open window. I shiver and think to myself, “My hands are cold.” I nest them together on my lap. Juan reaches over and puts his warm hand on top of my left hand. He gently pulls my hands apart and brings our hands to rest on the seat between us. He holds my hand there. I don’t look at him. I don’t know what to do. No one has ever held my hand before. I feel the racing pulse of my wrist in my chest and my throat tightens. I try to swallow. This is all new and all good.

Tony sings:

“Make of our hands one hand.

Make of our hearts one heart

Make of our vows one last vow

Only death will part us now.”

Maria sings:

“Make of our lives one life,

Day after day, one life,”

Now they both sing:

“Now it begins, now we start

One hand, one heart;

Even death can’t part us now.”

“Make of our lives one life,

Day after day, one life,

Now it begins, now we start

One hand, one heart

Even death won’t part us now.”

The movie rolls on but my thoughts are removed from the movie. Instead, I picture myself in the back seat of the car with Juan. I imagine concentric circles of newly found energy flowing out of me. I’m not sure about the end of the movie: There is a fight. I think Bernardo stabbed Riff and then Tony killed Bernardo, Maria’s brother. I think Tony is shot by Chino. The fighting stopped. Maria is waving a gun and saying that it was hatred that killed Tony and the others. Maria is left alone to grieve about Tony. But now, I am outside their story and inside my own. I am sitting in the back seat with Juan, pimples, baby face and all, one hand one heart.

The credits begin to roll and Mick says, “Hey, that was pretty good.”

Everyone says, “Yeah, it was.” I am still not looking at Juan.

“I better get you home, Marianne. You dad’s waiting.”

I cringe under the weight of his words. “OK.”

Mick drives me home. In our driveway he looks in his rear view mirror and then looks over at Jane. He smiles at Jane. Jane doesn’t turn around. She just says, “I’ll call you tomorrow, Mar.”

I say, “OK.” I finally look at Juan. I think I had a shy smirky grin on my face. There was too much blood flowing in my cheeks to feel the words come out of my mouth. “Goodnight, Juan.”

Juan gently squeezes my hand and says, “See ya, Marianne. On Monday.” He gently squeezed my hand again and then let go.

I smile back him and when I do see moon glow sparkle in his dark eyes. I start to speak. “Juan…”, but my words are choked off when my brain decides to stop working. I return to the smile when I get out of the car. The cool night air revives my brain: “See you guys on Monday!  I had a great time! Thanks Mick and Jane. Bye Juan.”

I walk to the front door of my house. Mick waits for me to go in the house like my dad would. I turn and wave a goodbye and smile a smile that I think could be seen a mile away. I go in and shut the door. I lean back on the door. I feel that I had just begun living. I feel my heart racing.  My head is swirling.  I look at my left hand and I see his hand. I feel Juan’s pulse in my hand. I sense his heart beating as my own. The rush of romance feels like an unstoppable prayer.

Dad is sitting in his arm-chair watching his favorite movie Pork Chop Hill. He turns and sees me leaning against the door not moving. “Hey honey, how did it go tonight?”

“Dad, you would like the movie. There were a lot of guys fighting. I guess I’ll just go up to bed. Good night dad.”

“Goodnight, Sweetie. I love you.”

Now I know that I won’t fall asleep for the rest of my life. I will stay awake and be completely alive forever. I will think of Juan and how the movie gods looked down into the back seat of Mick’s Impala Caprice and made a musical out of me with a touch of his hand.

© Sally Paradise, 2010, All Rights Reserved

All Rights Reserved

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