by Robert K. Johnson
I never tried to speak to Jenny Chase,
two years ahead of me in Lynbrook High.
Not because girls didn’t interest me—I
to slide my fingers under the short skirts
of our cheerleaders who, my flesh felt sure,
delighted in flashing their gold tights.
was different. She read books no teacher assigned.
Novels like Buddenbrooks and The Idiot.
The term we both took first-year Spanish, she—
unlike the other girls who got high grades—
didn’t smirk or roll her eyes when a classmate’s answer
was dead wrong. And no matter how wild a class
sometimes became—with students shouting
and the teacher shouting threats of punishment—
Jenny was always quiet, like a reading room
next to a busy street.
She had blonde hair
that shone like a sunlit tree’s top branches; skin
without a blemish; and when she smiled, for me
it was as if someone suddenly strummed a harp.
One morning in her senior year, her class
put on a talent show. Two girls tapdanced.
A trio sang the latest pop songs. One boy
did “feats of magic.” Jenny came on stage
and played what I had never heard before:
a flute solo.
I told myself I, too,
read books on my own—read Steinbeck, Hemingway,
and Thomas Wolfe, read all of Leaves of Grass.
And knew at least a bit about opera, knew
“Vesti la guibba” and “Un bel dì.” Each spring
I loved to see the maple trees’ gold buds
and, later, see the leaves that autumn flamed
bright yellow, red, and orange
But at home
my parents argued seven days a week,
shouting, shoving, slamming doors. And sometimes
I hated them, then sweated with shame for hours.
I hated my sister, who’d run away and left me
alone with my parents—then I mocked myself
for whimpering like a little kid. I stared
into the bathroom mirror every day
and hated my pimpled face. I hated not
stopping myself from getting fat. At night,
I was ashamed again—I imagined I’d tied
a cheerleader to my bed and while she writhed,
trying to free her wrists, I entered her.
I worshipped Jenny Chase for two churning years.
But never tried to speak to her. Instead,
I avoided being anywhere she might glance;
just as I never wanted to put on
a clean white shirt, because I was afraid—
I knew—sooner or later, I would stain
Copyright © 2001 by Robert K. Johnson.