When Local James Dean Goes Soft
I grew up in a tight-knit community that was a suburban part of a major city. The area was far enough removed from the center of the city and its surrounding ghettos, that even though it was a modest, working-class community, we grew up kind of sheltered and protected. Everyone knew everyone else it seemed, or at least their brother or sister.
In eighth grade, I heard about a neighborhood boy that had a reputation for his good looks and bad boy aura. His name was even exotic for the time – “Guy.” Since we had never met, the talk only fueled my desire to get to know this mysterious schoolmate.
Between his dashing name and his dark, slicked-back hair and his devil-may-care attitude, I guess you could say he was the “Fonzie” of our neighborhood. At the time I met him, the rumor mill was going about Guy. He came from a broken home – a bit unusual in that time and place, and he lived with his mother who worked as a waitress, and with his three equally exotically named siblings. A girl I knew that befriended Guy’s older sister told me they all lived in somewhat of a hippie den. For our time, both a broken home and a hippie den would be the topic of gossip.
He smoked cigarettes, and it was rumored he drank a bit too. Guy cut school at times, and he had a way of playing around with just about all of the rules we were bound by because did not seem to care about convention or rules.
Although he acted cool and was considered very cool; and I was an under-developed, immature, awkward 13-year-old when we finally shared a class, we befriended each other. (Note: My strategy in getting through those hard, dorky years was pretending that I didn’t know how dorky I was, and acted super friendly to anyone approachable. This strategy worked sometimes and also failed sometimes.)
Academics didn’t interest Guy and I was a studious and smart nerd.. He didn’t like to study – and that’s where I, the friendly nerd, came to be his friend and tutor. I must have killed him with kindness because he seemed to like our study sessions very much and we met often. We became friends – not unusual for me as I was a tomboy and had loads of friends who were boys. Still, it was a hormonal age, and sometimes those platonic relationships turned into something more.
Guy, the guy who didn’t care for rules and convention, did not care if I was a nerd. He was sweet to me, and eventually, as he got to know me, he became attracted to me, lethal-weapon mouth braces and all. For many glorious weeks, we held hands, and we were vaguely known as boyfriend and girlfriend. (in an 8th-grade classification of the term) I was actually respected and envied when I achieved this status.
I went to his place – the alleged hippie den -when we had a school project to do together; it was an apartment above a store.
I was enthralled to meet his gorgeous siblings, one prettier than the next, all with movie star glamorous names. Even more exciting was a chance to be in the hippie den. It was just as advertised: all lava lamps, hanging macramé swings, and bright colors.
Being naive, and trusting the rebel I had come to know, we worked on the project in his room. Somehow I had forgotten how dangerous Guy was supposed to be, and he became just a sweet boy that I had very tender feelings for at that time. He has to be given a lot of credit, that he was kind enough to give me his own valuation despite my school-wide status as a smart nerd, with underdeveloped looks. He saw through my braces and glasses, and my scrawny body, and saw the pretty girl I would eventually become when puberty was complete. I saw past his bad-boy image and knew he had a good heart, just as James Dean and Fonzie did even with their tough-guy demeanor.
On one occasion, Guy had to visit his father, who lived about 8 blocks away. Since I was officially his girlfriend, and we had kissed and held hands for a while in the 8th-grade version of “going together,” he invited me to join him. The entire way while walking there, Guy tried to apologetically brace me for what I was about to see at his father’s apartment. He trusted me, as I am sure not many were brought to this place.
All the preparation and talking in the world could not have altered my utter shock upon entering his father’s crazy duplex apartment. (Rather than a hippie den, it was more like a den of inequity.) It was kind of bare with some strange mood lighting that cast a reflection on large photographs of naked women everywhere on the walls and easels. There was photographic equipment littered everywhere as well. Guy explained that his father was a photographer. Blushing profusely, I had to be polite, but I couldn’t wait to leave that house. It was excruciatingly uncomfortable for me, but I felt even sorrier for Guy, because this was his dad, and the reality of having his radical parents in our Donna Reed or Ozzie Nelson-like type of neighborhood, had to be a burden that was difficult.
Maybe I imagined it, but I felt his father stare at me, probably wondering what his son saw in the gawky girl he had brought along, but he didn’t suggest or try anything, and for that I was relieved. That experience with Guy really summed up our relationship — I always felt there was immense danger lurking around the corner with him, and it was just a matter of time before I got in over my head.
Eventually, the goody-two-shoes that I was decided that living on the edge with this wild-child was not for me. There was a seminal moment for me when Guy suggested something I was uncomfortable with, and that was when I bailed. Not only did it end a beautiful friendship, but it also ended my status as temporarily cool.
Before we entered high school, he moved away and went to another high school. I saw him exactly once again when I was a high schooler and my steady boyfriend invited me to a pool party at his cousin’s house. It turns out that Guy and my boyfriend’s cousin went to the same high school and were good friends. At that time, it was an awkward reunion- I had grown into a pretty young lady wearing a gorgeous bikini. I didn’t tell my very jealous boyfriend that Guy was my short-lived eighth-grade boyfriend, but it came out later that day when my boyfriend’s cousin informed my boyfriend of that fact. The cousin also told him that Guy claimed we got to second base – a blatant and horrifying lie as we only kissed, (I was still a goody-two-shoes) but that was Guy with his tough-guy bravado so it wasn’t entirely unexpected. I was upset at him at that time for his lack of chivalry, and for spreading false gossip about me but I knew he was just trying to show off for my boyfriend’s cousin. That was the last that I thought about him at all for a very long time. Below is what I looked like, with my front braces removed for this Jr. High photo and minus my glasses.
As an adult, I did remember him though as the guy who taught me how to kiss properly and I even mentioned him in a blog I wrote about my kissing history that went viral. (worth reading if you have not! Now relocated to my site from the Huff Post) Publishing that blog made me think about him, and whenever I imagined his adulthood, all forms of trouble always came to my mind based on how out of step he was from the typical families in our neighborhood.
If he wasn’t high risk to have a rough road ahead, no one was, but perhaps he moved away from the rumors and gossip just in the nick of time and that probably saved him.
Fast forward to the present day, and I was at my computer with a boring writing assignment causing me to do a bunch of research on Google. (Due to getting good research skills in by Googling, I also have a bad habit of Googling people from my past for grins.)
On this particular day, this specific research I did had a gentleman named Guy come up in one of my searches.
It’s not a name you hear every day for a man, and so I thought of “my 8th grade Guy.” Of course, I had to Google him. Since he had an unusual first and last name, he was easy to search and lots of good stuff came up on Google.
He still lived in the farther suburbs of our native city, and he was married and had become an absolute pillar of the community.
I learned that he was serving as vice president of a large Jewish synagogue, leading an effort to restore an unkempt public park into a renovated park and bird sanctuary, he was an active fundraiser for a terrible disease, the winner of Rotary Club awards for leadership, and coach of his son’s soccer team. It appeared that he was a successful businessman, living an admirable life.
I was dumbfounded — I could not believe this was the same person who courted trouble and lived such an unconventional life. I wanted further proof that this was the same Guy.
Fortunately, again on Google, photos taken at the dedication of the bird sanctuary and posted online proved it was indeed him. He looked exactly the same, only as a grown-up man – still dark haired handsome.
He had defied the odds. I felt pleased that I had recognized a promising person lurking beneath a “couldn’t care less” demeanor, even way back then.
It’s almost as if Arthur Fonzarelli (Fonzie) grew up to be Henry Winkler as he is in real life, or as if James Dean grew up to be James Stewart or Robert Young from “Father Knows Best.”
And to that, I can only say, “Way to go, Guy!” I am proud of him.