I spoke to an old friend the other day. We hadn't heard each other's voices for 41 years. As soon as I heard her say "Hi" over the cell phone, the years melted away.
I was a nerd. She was a beauty. A Golden Girl. She showed me great kindness at a time when I felt humiliation and pain. Now we were different people but our connection to each other wasn't different at all.
She shared details of her life over the years. And I shared moments of my own. We spoke of joys and regrets, of jobs that came and went. We spoke of laughing and crying. Of illnesses and achievements. Of obstacles yet to overcome.
We spoke of who we were and who we had become. When the conversation ended more than an hour later I felt energized and incredibly happy. I told my brother about the experience and he scoffed. "Why would you want to get in touch with someone you hadn't seen or talked to in 41 years?" Here's why: Our friends are a bridge through time and space. With true friends you can pick up where you left off. Time doesn't erase a thing. And it didn't with Karen either.
It was my sophomore year in high school. I was the smart kid with the taped glasses always wanting to fit in. Just like the movie Mean Girls, it was a world of cliques within cliques. There were the Yearbook Geeks and the Debate team Geeks. There were the Drama Club outcasts and there was the Band. There were the beautiful girls in their long shiny hair parted down the middle.
The cheerleaders were another clique. The Homecoming Court another. There were the jocks always preening and flashing their Pepsodent smiles. The worlds might collide but seldom meet. In many ways it might remind one of the TV show Glee --but without the tossed slushies.
The ostracism was far more subtle. Turned away faces. Silent sneers. The Stink Eye. The scrunched up nose as if smelling the foulest of odors. The Geeks would cast their downaward glances as the popular girls and guys walked by. But every once and a while, one of the "chosen" girls would acknowledge one of the Geeks. They were articulate and thoughful and gentemanly compared to the oafish quarterbacks. And that's how I met Karen.
I had a crush. She was tall and graceful with brown hair that cascaded to her shoulders. She had sparkling blue eyes. I was slightly chubby with wavy coarse hair. I tried to look more like a "surfer" by combing Dippity-Do through my hair -- but it didn't work. I was in awe of Karen. She was an "Anchor." I was just a nerd. And what was Anchor? Well it was the most exclusive girl's club at Hialeah High.
But before I tell you more about my friendship with Karen, I must acknowledge the elephant in the room. I felt there was something "different" about me. Life was not like it was depicted on Glee. Guys who were gay at the time never acknowledged it -- sometimes not even to themselves. There was no "coming out" of the closet. You may have recognized the feelings stirring inside-but back then there were few role models for gay kids to emulate.
So we suppressed the feeling. Some of us even thought that if we fell in love with a girl -- we wouldn't have to be part a lifestyle that the media cast in a negative light. The Stonewall riots had occured just a few years earlier. The play Boys In The Band had opened on Broadway. But the ripples of the gay rights movement had not extended to hopelessly conventional Hialeah High. About a year or so after I met Karen, I remember that a local Anchorman began an investigative report with the words: "And now we take you into the sad, twilight world of the homosexual." The images that followed were grainy and shot at night. They showed men furtively going in and out of a beach bathroom. These were different times. Tough Times at Hialeah High.
It was against this backdrop that I had met Karen. Every spring Anchor Club would choose their "Sweethearts." The Sweethearts usually included the biggest jocks in the school. A night or two after the audition the selected shipmates would be surprised by a gaggle of screeching Anchor girls. They hung large paper Anchors around the guys necks. I told Karen I was trying out for Anchor sweetheart. She encouraged me but warned me not to be too upset if I wasn't chosen. I think she realized even then I was placing too much stake on a popularity contest. I practiced the routine that would become my "audition."
Each prospective Anchor Sweetheart had to come up with a "talent." For some of the guys it would be a skit, a dance or a song. I decided on singing even though I couldn't carry a tune. On the appointed evening my dad drove me to a house in Hialeah. As I walked to the front door I could hear loud music and the voices of teenage girls.
Enter the Nerd. In the living room, the most popular guys in school had gathered. They wore letter jackets and their bangs fell in their faces just like the surfers I tried pathetically to emulate. Karen, dressed impeccably in a jacket and plaid skirt, emerged from another room and reassured me. "Now don't be nervous, Chuck," she said. I waited on the sofa wearing my gold blazer with a ridiculously wide green tie to be called in for my audition.
Finally the moment came. I walked in with my goggle-like thick glasses. The Anchors sat in judgement. I began my song. "Anchor, Anchor I do hold to your colors green and gold. Anchor , Anchor be my fate, please pick me as your shipmate," I warbled miserably. I caught my breath and continued the ridiculous song. "And Anchor, Anchor if you do, I do promise to be true. Anchor Anchor be my fate, please pick me as shipmate!" I finished with a grand flourish, my arms outstreched. At first there was silence. Deafening silence. Then it started.
First one girl began to laugh. Then another. Soon it seemed they were all laughing hysterically and pointing their fingers at me. The popular girls had turned into the mean girls and I was the butt of their jokes. I felt like "Carrie" after she was crowned Prom Queen. But instead of unleashing bloody fury -- I ran. I ran out of the room. I ran out of the house. And I didn't stop until I ran all the way home. I had been humiliated. The nerd cried himself to sleep that night. In his nightmares he could hear the Anchor girls laughing louder and louder.
The next day Karen sought me out after classes. "Don't pay attention to those dumb girls,' she advised. "They were being jerks. I voted for you, that's all that matters." The next day the Anchors chose their Shipmates. I was not among them. I learned later I had received only one vote -- Karen's.
As a senior, the nerd who had been rejected by Anchor Club ran for senior class president. Again Karen encouraged me. I won. I gained a new confidence. I was named editor of the school paper. I won a county-wide "Silver Knight" Award for journalism, beating out dozens of competitors. I learned a valuable lesson. I didn't need the Anchors to validate me. My self esteem was something I controlled. A paper anchor around my neck wouldn't bestow it.
That was the lesson Karen taught me. Soon she disappeared. I lost track of my special friend after high school. I had heard she married and moved away. We lived our lives. We lost track of each other. But we never forgot.
I didn't hear from Karen again until this summer when she "friended" me on Facebook. Four long decades had passed. I was recovering at home from a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery. Karen sent me a message asking about my health. Then she added: "Remember you used to say to me -- you would never like me. We were pretty good friends back then. I have missed being in touch with you."
We exchanged numbers and agreed to speak on the phone. I called her the next morning. And I heard that unmistakable voice. Four decades, later the voice had not changed. When she spoke there was music in her words. She told me she had married a great guy (Frank) and had beautiful kids and grandkids. I told her about retiring from my career as a reporter and my health scares. She spoke to me about nursing. She told me her son was moving to California. I told her about my fears following my heart attack. I told her I felt that I was experiencing a "rebirth." It was a conversation that flowed easily like calls between good friends do. We promised to stay connected.
For my birthday she sent me a poster of a Matisse painting. I also received a journal. It featured the Empire State Building on the cover. "For your rebirth," she wrote in the accompanying note. "Thinking of you until we meet again. We are Forever Friends."
On Facebook I sent her a message. I asked permission to write a story about how we had reconnected after four decades. She responded: "You touched my heart. The smart guy and the friend who could spot character, talent, warmth so many years ago. Glad we are back together." " So it's okay," I asked. "Can I write it?" Karen responded: "I look forward to reading it." I hope she's doing that right now. Friends are special. Embrace them. In a cold tough world they stand next to us like family. And they can make us smile after 41 years -- just like the first time we saw their faces.