Thursday, January 10, 2008

WRITTEN WORD 55 – Debating and Writing V - Payoff

I was still shy, and speaking hesitantly, and not winning as often as I thought I could. But Dmitri took me aside, in an act of great kindness, and pointed out that I did not need to worry about performing badly in these outlying towns since no one who saw me in practice debates in small New Hampshire high schools was likely to ever see me again. I should just speak right out, he said. I should keep in mind that I had nothing to lose.

So I started booming out my arguments at these practice debates. My voice suddenly stopped cracking. It was moving down into baritone and towards bass. To my surprise, people told me it was resonate like a radio announcer's. Me, 15, the weakling outcast. Suddenly I was winning.

Moreover, debating took me inside our sister School, St. Mary’s-in-the-Mountains. Four of us were driven up there late one afternoon by our English teacher and debate coach, Joe Abbey, so we could stage a debate for the St. Mary’s girls.Their English teacher, who had nice breasts and wore fluffy sweaters, was considering starting a debate team with the girls. The rumor was that she was dating Joe.

The debate went well – here in this soft feminine place. As well as my debates were going in raw-bone high school rooms. We came, and we orated, and we had sandwiches and cocoa, but we left without any one-on-one contact with any of the girls. Though I did notice during the debate that a brown-eyed girl was looking my way even when I was not speaking.

Two months later, I went along in freezing cold in a school van to an early Sunday evening dance up at St. Mary's, which was in the White Mountains, where mysteriously in the summers I was as popular as I was unpopular the rest of the year in school.

St. Mary's, now in this northern winter, feels like a warm place. The room where they have the dance, it is all soft colors and gentle lights – not at all like our school’s place for rare social gatherings, which is a room in Livermore Hall where there is almost no color, a cold linoleum floor, harsh lights and black leather chairs.

Now, from one end of this girl-like room at St. Mary’s we boys burst in from the cold. And we see at the other end these girls in girl clothes, some, like Joe’s teacher friend, with soft sweaters that follow their girl shapes, including, sometimes, as with Joe's friend, actual breasts. It is art and it is poetry and it is music!

But I might have been crossing a dangerous mountain pass to get to that end of the room where the girls were standing, looking unconcerned – where this girl was standing. Smiling. Brown hair and brown eyes. Chubby, which was okay. Actually nice. Big sad eyes that she turned to me and then averted. White teeth. The girl who had watched me so closely during the debate.

She asked me to dance. That was the way it was done here. The girls would do the asking the first time around here on their home ground.

She came over and said, "My name is Cindy." I said, "I'm Fred." She said, "Would you dance with me?" Otherwise, we did not speak. I followed her out to the dance floor area, which seemed suddenly a really glamorous place though it was just the floor of St. Mary's big lounge room with the tables pushed back.

It quickly became clear that this girl with the averted eyes and the new breasts knew things people like us had to learn outside the formal white-glove dancing classes to which parents like ours had sent us on Friday evenings back in Connecticut.

Without conversation now, my outstretched left arm and her outstretched right arm gave way at precisely the same time. Her right hand, which had no glove on it, was now turned and cupped in my left hand against my school blazer shoulder. My right hand was way out of dancing-class position, way down her soft back. Our bodies were together – and this “cheek to cheek” thing began, me leaning down and she pulling herself up. And the fingers of her left hand, oh God, touched the back of my neck. And as we swayed, her leg went between mine and pressed against me.

The next week I overheard one of the popular athletes say, "Speedy’s in love… Speedy has a pig…. The girl who necked with Marty last year." But I was becoming just confident enough now to see at least a small element of jealousy. For it was rare now that they used that nickname “Speedy” that had haunted me until I began to seem a winner.

I saw Cindy again when there was a joint Holderness-St.Mary's glee club concert at Plymouth State Teachers College. It seemed magical, though I had to watch from the back of the darkened hall because the Holderness glee club director, Mr. English, had rejected me. But I did speak to Cindy and invited her down to our spring dance weekend, which was one of only three such Holderness weekends with girls each school year.

By the spring I had behind me a debate before the entire school against last year's New England championship team from Portland, Maine. We not only won but the judges, members of the Plymouth branch of the League of Women Voters, named me "Best Speaker." Something unprecedented for a third former. And soon afterwards I was on the team that won this year's New England championship at Boston University.

For the moment I had stopped thinking about my debating career. Cindy and I now were in the old school gym, which had been decorated with blue and silver-like bunting, our school colors. All the boys were in dinner jackets, rented from a place on the edge of Plymouth across from a shoe-tree factory, and all the girls were in formal gowns. The girls all had gardenia corsages, which had been given out at the door. The smell of gardenias overwhelmed the usual fart and sweat smells of the gym.

And here I was with Cindy for a second time. This time Cindy was in a dress held up by what looked to be flimsy strings. Her leg was between my legs again, her leg frankly against my hard penis – my hand now sliding down her partially bare back, her fingers linked at my neck – her gown such that when I drew back just enough to look down as we swayed it was easy to imagine my real life had begun and I was with an actual naked woman. I was a very long way away from cold hard debater's facts.

But it seemed certain to me that without debating I would not be in this position. With cold logic, I attributed Cindy to my increasing success with cold logic in debating.

Debating was taking me out that hollow shell in which I had felt trapped all my life, and Cindy, it seemed, had been waiting for me outside the shell. It really seemed like it was my ability to be coldly logical that got me here.

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