Excerpts from Formative: A Reconstruction of the Years That Changed Everything
The following is the fifth part in The New York Series, a piece I’ve been working on that tells the stories of my grandparents and myself. If you’d like to start from the beginning, click here!
Kathleen, September 1963
Kathleen was exhausted. As she scribbled out the end of her shift on the time card, she realized that this week she’d worked almost thirty hours at the hospital, in addition to three tests and all of her classes.
She fetched her purse and washed her hands one last time before leaving the ICU, checking her watch on the way out. It was only 8:15, meaning she had almost two hours until she had to catch the last train out of the city.
She saw Tommy standing in front of the hospital’s entrance before he noticed her walking down the stairs. She could tell he was wearing one of his nicer polos. He turned and saw her, habitually straightening his glasses and smoothing his hair.
She pushed out of the revolving door and felt the slight chill of September air.
He fake bowed in front of her, swinging his hands down to the pavement and making her laugh.
“She lives! Welcome back to the real world. You’ve saved me Kath — my family is driving me insane. Margaret can piss off as far as I’m concerned. How was work?”
She rolled her eyes at him. She’d been in the hospital for twelve hours and was sure she looked like a mess. She, too, reached up to smooth out her hair, unfixing it from the tight pins it had been held in all day behind her cap.
“Hi Tommy, it went on just fine. What have you been doing all day, waiting for me?”
She teased him lightly and felt a jump in her stomach as he reached over and looped his arm through hers. They started off down the street in search of something to kill two hours time. After complaining about how badly he wanted to move out of the house for the hundredth time, he told her a story about last night and how hilarious it was to see Bennie grovel and ask out some girl they’d met.
“Kath, you shoulda seen it. Couldn’t keep myself from bursting out laughing, seeing the poor kid struggle like that.”
Kath. He’d done it again — shortened her name without even realizing it. It felt big to her, a special twitch of intimacy he didn’t even think about. Maybe they were getting closer than she’d realized. Her heart felt like it was surging forward.
She’d have to tell her parents soon — every night that she’d been coming home late they grew more irritated knowing there was something she wasn’t fully sharing. Though he went to a Catholic school and had a good family, she knew her father would see the same trouble in his face as so many others often did. Eventually, she’d have to tell them. But for now, she was a sophomore in college, and she reasoned that she was old enough to make her own decisions. It was easier to keep her arm looped around Tommy in bliss and deal with a lecture at home later.
“So what are you thinking? Maybe we stop in for some food at Marco’s up the street? Catch a bit of one of the movies? See what they’ve got this month up in Times Square?”
“I don’t know, whatever you want, really.”
“Oh, come on. What does the pretty girl who agreed to let me take her out after work want to do?”
He always seemed to know the answers, to have the exciting stories, and be really living his life, and sometimes she didn’t know what to contribute. She just liked to hear him talk. They had been casually dating throughout the summer when they could see each other, but now that she was in the city more regularly with school and work, they saw each other almost once a week. Her nervousness around him often translated into shyness. Finally she decided.
“Let’s grab a bite at Marco’s. I have to hear the rest of your stories from the weekend.”
She grinned at him as he pulled her along. As she moved close to him, she smelled a hint of beer on his breath from the afternoon.
“I thought we didn’t like Timmy. I thought you said he was too mean.”
My mom is prying, trying to get a feel for what’s going on in my love life as I sit confined by the seat belt in her passenger seat. I find myself reaching for an answer that will placate her.
“Yeah, I know, but that was after the end of high school. He’s gotten a lot better after a year of college. He’s mellowed out a bit.”
This is hardly true. I know she doesn’t fully believe me either. After graduating high school, Timmy and I slipped into the same group of friends for the summer. When we parted ways for college, I would hear updates through friends and quick conversations on breaks, like how he was hardly even eligible to play lacrosse with a 2 point-something GPA. I would see pictures posted on social media throughout the spring of him in his uniform and slowly I became more curious about what day he’d be returning home to Northfield for the summer. As June rolled in and our friend group started seeing each other again, I found myself wanting to lean my head on his shoulder at bonfires or sit next to him on boat cruises around the lake.
The night before I sit in the car with my mom, my plan with girlfriends had fallen through and I was settled into watching trashy reality TV by 8pm. My phone lit up with a text from Timmy. A simple, “What’s up?”
An idea came into my head. Casually, I responded.
“Oh nothing, my friends ditched me tonight because they all have to work early. Just hangin’ alone :/”
“Yeah I’m pretty bored too. With Grant but we’re just watching TV.”
He gave me a window to ask him to come over. I crafted a careful text back to him, waiting a few minutes to press send so I don’t seem too eager.
“Well, if that’s all you’re doing and you’re still bored you can always join me! Just chillin…”
He responds, “Sure. I’ll be over in ten minutes.”
I read this and my whole body jumps. I shoot up and change out of my stained sweatshirt into something nicer that says, “This is what I always look like when I sit around and watch TV.” I pour myself a glass of my mom’s chardonnay and drink it in record time, ignoring how bad it tastes compared to my favorite boxed moscato. As I finish, I hear a small knock on the door.
The TV was muted and stayed that way for hours. We stayed up until almost three in the morning talking. He shared about the hardest months of freshman year, what it was like to grow being a pastor’s kid, about having siblings seven and nine years older than him. We swapped stories from college parties, discussed future jobs, and retold funny memories from high school. He filled out a life for me beyond small details I’ve heard through other friends.
Our conversation died down and the basement felt eerily quiet. I thought to myself, if there was a moment when he should kiss me, it’s right now.
I could fill the conversation lull but instead I waited. I wanted to see what he’d do. Finally he looked like he was getting ready to say something.
“Ah, this is going to be so awkward…”
Was he talking about a kiss? Why did he need to say that? Why not just lean in and kiss me? I preemptively cringed at whatever move he was about to make.
“But, I really like you, Emma. You’re one of the coolest girls I’ve ever met. So I just, like, felt like we should talk about it before things got, you know, I don’t know.”
Of all of the things he could have done, I had never expected him to come right out and say it.
“I guess I’m just trying to ask, where do you see this going? We’re only here for the summer. But I really like you.”
And so into the next day, I thought about this question. My mom’s inquiry in the car only reminded me that I still didn’t know the answer.
“I don’t know, Mom. We’ll see what happens. He’s a really good guy though, despite what I might have said about him.”
“Mmhmm. Well, let’s not have him over until three in the morning again. Even if you’re just talking.”
Part VI is coming soon! Stay tuned…