I eyed delicious, and definitely off the market, Danny Pignato across the school bus bench. The bedlam around me faded like I’d landed in a movie. The hour between Stuart Middle School and Jupiter was a long time to avoid all that cuteness. Too long, it turned out.
Danny’s girlfriend, Terri Orino, left yesterday for Maine with her snowbird family. They’d gone out for the last few months—almost married in the dog years of middle school.
Even though I knew better, I couldn’t take my eyes off his thick blond hair curling randomly in the Florida humidity. The kid wore cocky like a well-washed shirt that hugged the contours of his solid frame.
I shushed my conscience, banked on my blonde-haired, fair-skinned resemblance to Terri, and flirted all weekend with eighth grade expertise until Danny gave up a kiss.
I should have felt glorious, but that’s when my Catholic sensibilities slammed me. And they didn’t shut up until I ended things with Danny, tracked down Terri’s address in Maine, and wrote,
I’m so sorry I stole your boyfriend. Please forgive me. I won’t blame you if you hate me forever…
Before it seemed possible for our letters to fly the length of the country and back, her reply arrived.
I forgive you.
I read the words, giddy with absolution. I read them again. I felt clean.
And Terri wanted to keep writing.
By the time Terri returned to Florida five months later, we traipsed around ninth grade like hazel-eyed twins.
Danny was so last year, but Jupiter—twenty-two miles south of Stuart Middle and jam packed with the cool kids—held its appeal.
On Friday we hopped the Jupiter school bus, then knocked on the doors of every girl we knew in Jupiter to see if we could spend the night.
As the sun set fire to the treetops of Tequesta, I smacked a mosquito dead on my arm. No way did I want to sleep in Jonathan Dickinson State Park sans sleeping bag and tent. “What time is it?”
Terri looked at her watch. “Eight thirty-five.” She held up her hand, reading my mind. “If I call Mom I’ll be grounded for the rest of my life.”
“And if I call mine, this will be my last trip to Jupiter.”
We walked down the street to where Johnny Seabrook and Jeff Cameron admired Artie Beauford’s black snake.
Artie held it out to Terri and the snake slithered down her tank top.
Terri screamed, “Get that thing off me, Artie. Now!”
Artie commandeered his pervy snake while Jeff and Johnny took off for home.
Terri tried to wipe off snake slime.
I told Artie our plight. “Could we stay here?” My voice cracked with desperation.
“I’ll ask.” Artie swung toward the house with the snake wound around his wrist.
I thought about saying a Hail Mary for a place to sleep, but I didn’t want to draw God’s attention to the fact I wasn’t where I told Mom I’d be.
Artie appeared in a few minutes, minus his reptile. “Mom said you can stay here.” He twisted a key in the door of the rattletrap camper in the driveway.
My jaw unclenched, and my knees went weak with relief.
Artie high-tailed it back into the house. His mom probably told him to stay away from the little tramps.
Terri flipped on the light and two roaches scurried across the camper floor.
We didn’t scream, didn’t say a word, just shook out the sheets to scare off their roach relatives, and crawled into bed.
The next morning I woke to the scent of bacon and eggs and the growl of my stomach.
Terri sat up and wiped sleep out of her eyes.
“How much money do we have?”
We emptied our pockets on the rumpled sheets.
Three dollars and forty-seven cents.
How were we going to pay for food till Sunday afternoon when Terri’s mom would pick us up?
Artie knocked on the camper door. “Mom said to come on in for breakfast.”
We hauled our trampy selves straight to Mrs. Beauford’s kitchen table, cleaned our plates, and called Terri’s mom to come get us.
After ninth grade, I snowbirded back to New England with Terri and her family for a month.
We walked or biked around microscopic Mexico, Maine. Sometimes we crossed the Androscoggin River into Rumford, where the Rumford Paper Mill chugged stink into pristine northern air. We ate ice cream or watched Matt, her almost-boyfriend, play baseball. Or we tooled around the countryside, me on the back of Terri’s tiny Honda 90 motor cycle, stopping to swim in the icy Swift River or Rangeley Lake. We lay in her bed under the eaves of their aging Victorian house at 9 Harlow Hill Road talking and giggling till we fell asleep every night.
Three years—that passed like heartbeats—later, I found myself lying in Terri’s room again at 9 Harlow Hill Road, talking about God and dreams and boys.
The minutes evaporated too quickly.
The next day I stood beside Terri, snug from Maine’s forty-degree fall, in the First Baptist Church in the dress I’d worn to high school Homecoming.
Terri, pink-cheeked and pretty with happiness in her milk-white dress, stared up at Matt and mouthed forever.
On Sunday, I piled into Terri and Matt’s Toyota Celica for the ride to the Auburn airport.
On the sidewalk we girls hugged and pushed tears away with our palms.
I looked Matt in the eye. “Love Terri. Keep her safe.”
“Of course.” Matt patted my back. “Don’t I always?”
Trees poked their bare branches into silver sky. I climbed aboard a steel gray plane, taking the bleakness with me.
Our sandy days in Stuart played in my mind through the puddle-jump flight. I recalled the cold blue of Maine’s water, the rich green of the trees in summer—intense—like my love for my friend.
I deplaned in Portland’s slate sky for a twenty-minute layover and headed to the restroom.
I glanced at my face in the mirror and washed my hands.
Terri burst through the swinging restroom door.
I grabbed the sink, blinking my eyes, my mind not computing how Terri could be standing in front of me.
Her words whooshed out—they’d sped their Toyota to Portland to catch me between flights.
Comprehension and joy sprung up inside. I lunged for one last hug and hung on. I had never felt so loved.
Terri gave me friendship, but she also gave me a picture of God’s eager forgiveness, His chasing me down with His love.
Terri and Matt spent their lives in Maine, not far from 9 Harlow Hill Road. And I landed in Phoenix, kitty-corner across America, twelve states, 2,731 miles, forty-two hours in their Toyota Celica if it were still running.
Today we chat about Terri’s dream to see the Grand Canyon, my love for Maine, and JetBlue’s $232 bargain fare. After almost forty years apart, I think we’re due a hug.