A Lesson Learned
by Veronica Mello
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Riding down the country road, radio blasting Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own way," I noticed her hitchhiking on the side of the road. Normally, I wouldn't have stopped, but the temperature was ninety-eight degrees and pity got the best of me.
"Thanks so much!" The petite teenager eagerly got into my car. "It's so hot...I'm sick from the heat."
"My name is Cindy," I said noticing her flawless complexion and large blue eyes. The scent of summer sweat came out of her pores as if she were a human pomander. A hint of jasmine accompanied it.
"Hi. I'm Carrie. Where ya headin'?"
"Actually, just taking a ride. Need to clear my mind." At my response, she raised her eyebrows.
"Life does warrant that sometimes...mind clearing," she replied with a sigh. I felt a connection with her. My best friend had just moved to Oklahoma, and I missed her sorely. Perhaps that was the reason I welcomed the conversation Carrie initiated. "You look like you're trying to adjust to a life change or something."
The question surprised me. "Well, you must be a psychic."
She laughed. "Just get vibes sometimes." With her response came an open easiness. It seemed like I had known her forever.
"Me, too! You aren't going anywhere in particular, are you?"
"Good observation! Actually, I'm trying to make a decision...been thinkin' about joining the Peace Corp. My folks don't want me to. Just had a fight with them...I left the house, walked down the road, and started hitchhiking. Thank God you came along cuz the heat almost made me go back home...can't do that right now. I'll be twenty next week...need to decide things for myself. I'm either gonna cave in to their wishes or do what my heart tells me."
"That's one tough decision," I replied as we drove into town. "Want to stop at Denny's for a cold drink or ice cream?"
Over a couple of Coke Floats, we spoke of our dreams and goals. Three hours later, we left the restaurant, and I drove her home.
When I pulled into the driveway, a large dog with a bandage around it's leg greeted Carrie. "I rescued her. A car just dumped her off the side of the road...wish I got the license plate. Her leg was injured. I named her Dutchess. That's Sugar Pie," she pointed to the white cat sitting on the porch. "Got her from the animal shelter. They were going to put her down." Being an animal lover myself, I was impressed by Carrie's compassion
As we exchanged phone numbers, friendship's seeds were planted. The summer brought many memories, starting with the Special Olympics.
We volunteered to help out with the basketball games. The experience was particularly memorable for my dear friend. While she tried to teach a seven-year-old child with Down's Syndrome how to play basketball, her directions were taken literally. The boy was standing a foot away from Carrie. She knelt down next to him and said, "Just throw the ball as hard as you can when...." Before she could finish the sentence the young man flung the ball right into Carrie's face breaking her glasses.
"You have to learn to give directions differently," one of the officials commented.
"Oh, now you tell me!" She was a good sport about it, even through her nose bled for quite a while. I really shouldn't have laughed as hard as I did, but the surprised expression on her face was priceless.
A few days later, we happened to be bike riding down Carlson Path. The heat and humidity were stifling. Drenched in prespiration and exhausted, we reached Harris Pond and decided to take a dip. The area was desserted, so we took our clothes off behind the bushes and dived into the cool water. About five minutes later, cruiser approached from the road on the opposite side of the pond. A policewoman exited the vehicle and walked over to us.
"Out of there...now," she ordered.
After getting our clothes back on, we were arrested for indecent exposure. We had to go to court and appear before a judge. After hearing our explanation, the judge dismissed the case; however, the arrest made the newspaper, which caused embarrassment.
Fourth of July brought more memorable events. We spent days decorating the float for the American Veteran's Association. It was a lot of fun, but we did get sun burns. The association invited Carrie and me to ride on the float. Dressed in red, white, and blue, we waved and threw candy to the kids. Suddenly, dark clouds approached, and a downpour resulted. Everyone scrambled to take cover. The dye from the streamers stained our clothes, and the flag pole on the float got blown over and hit me in the head. Carrie laughed. Guess that was karma.
That was the day Joel Jackson came to our rescue and into our lives.
"Come here!" He grabbed our arms and quickly escorted us off the float and into his Honda Accord. Joel pulled blankets from the trunk of his car and handed one each to Carrie and me. He removed his star spangled shirt and threw it over the back of his seat. Rain poured off his sandy blonde hair down around his Robert Redford face and onto his chest. The water formed streams that flowed around tiny islands of wirey hair. I never had such an instant attraction, but Joel's attention focused on Carrie. That's the way it always was when guys were around. A tiny waist and ample bosoms only added to her appeal. Sometimes even I stared admiring her dimples and cherub-like features. For the first time since we met, I hoped Carrie would join the Peace Corps as soon as possible. Then perhaps my dreams of a romantic connection with Joel would reach fruition.
We spent a good deal of time building houses that summer. Carrie, Joel, and I went to Appalachia with a group of other volunteers, as part of program to provide shelter for residents of the poverty stricken area.
While we were there, I fell in love with Joel. His biceps were like magnets to my eyes. Watching him walk around shirtless sure didn't help me stay in control. His dedication to the building effort and the way he showed compassion for the people there just added to my desire for him. It pained me to see Joel look at Carrie the way I looked at him.
I considered making a romantic move on Joel, but that would have ruined my friendship with him and with Carrie. Both of them were too precious to risk taking the chance. Besides, Carrie and Joel were good together. They were made of that same substance. I saw that a week after we arrived in the mountains.
Gabe, a young man about the age of eight, resided near the construction site. Extremely gifted, but poorly educated, the boy's potential was stifled by his environment. Carrie and Joel became mentors to the lad. At day's end, they spent hours with the child. They provided him with books, clothes, and plenty of undivided attention. I don't know where their stamina came from, as the days were grueling and exhausting. Together my best friends reached out to help Gabe. They did that without reservation. I, on the other hand, was too tired to contribute to their efforts. My only part in the scenario consisted of watching the young man thrive and flourish.
When it was time to return home, Joel announced that he was staying in Appalachia. He became a permanent member of the team of volunteers. The three of us spent the next few days talking, hugging, and sharing every free minute we had together. We said "I love you" to each other more times than I could count. After leaving Joel in the mountains, Carrie and I cried most of the way home. Our bond became stronger than ever. As the summer neared an end, Carrie still struggled with her decision about joining the Peace Corps.
One afternoon, while at a carnival, we had a serious discussion. Carrie was more determined than ever to enter the Peace Corps. She cried at the idea of leaving her parents while they stronly objected to her decision. I tried to console and encourage her. While we were talking, Carrie went to give me a kiss on the cheek. When I turned toward her, she ended up kissing my lips. I laughed, and said, "Hey! People are going to think we're strange!" She got really quiet and seemed to be hurt. At the time, the reason was not apparent.
A week had passed, and I couldn't get in touch with Carrie. I began to worry. Then her letter came.
I am joining the Peace Corps. Sorry to say goodbye like this but I can't say this to your face. When I kissed you at the carnival, you said you didn't want people to think we were strange. The fact that you used that word hurt me deeply.
We have been so close, but you never noticed how I feel. So many times I've wanted to feel your skin against mine. It hasn't been easy being near you when so many times I just wanted to hold you in my arms, feel your hair fall across my face, and tell you that I love you. There I said it. I fear the look you must have on your face right now. I couldn't bear to see it in person. Can't say I wonder what you're thinking because I already know. You summed it up in one word...strange.
The summer's memories will be kept in my heart and cherished. Joel and you enhanced my life more than I can say. I love you both in very different ways.
In time, perhaps you'll be able to put all of this in perspective. For now, all I can hope for is that you don't hate me for what I am.
It took a while for me to grasp the reality of the situation. "Shock and awe" accurately described my reaction. I kept Carrie's letter. Summer was gone, but the essence remained in every recollection and reflection.
Carrie rescued me during a sad time in my life, just like she saved those poor animals. Remembering her zeal while in Appalachia, and the way she cared for Gabe brought tears to my eyes. I know my inconsiderate comment hurt her deeply. My word usage and ideas about gay people changed dramatically after that summer.
Kind, compassionate, sweet, giving, unselfish, heroic ...Carrie was all those things. "Strange" did not apply.
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