For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir. The Post will publish a new segment each week.
My friend Mary Ann Stuart was even more excited than I was at my landing a boy. “You like Steve, right? He’s cute. I think he’s cute, not as cute as Dave, but cute. I think he likes you a lot.” This was all we talked about as we walked from her house to the Deeps, where we spread our towels on a flat rock and rubbed baby oil on each other’s backs. Dave and Steve extracted themselves from a clutch of Cathedral High boys and came and sat with us. My life was complete. A boy liked me. We were SteveandGay, one of the acknowledged couples of the Deeps.
We started leaving the Deeps while the sun was still high, eager to get back to Mary Ann’s dimly-lit cabin, each day spending less time watching other boys make harrowing jumps into the river, and more time paired off, Mary Ann and Dave doing who knows what in her bedroom, Steve and I entwined on the couch, WEBC on the radio, playing that summer’s top 40. One afternoon, “Sunshine of Your Love” came on, and I could feel Steve shift his weight on me, pushing me deep down on the sofa and releasing another layer of dust. At the same time, his right hand cupped my bikini-enclosed breast. Without thinking, I grabbed the offending hand and pulled it off. Steve yanked his hand out of mine and stuck it back on my chest. We repeated this a few times before he sat up and asked “Why?” I couldn’t answer, “Because that’s what I think I’m supposed to do,” which was the truth. I said, “I don’t want to” and made a show of draping my shirt over what were my obviously irresistible breasts.
Steve looked down at the floor, then got up, banged on Mary Ann’s door, and shouted “Dave! I gotta go!” I had landed and lost a boyfriend in less than a week.
When Mary Ann and I got to the Deeps the next day, there was Steve. Talking to another girl. He did not so much as look my way the entire day. I wanted to pull my towel over my head or throw myself on top of that deadly refrigerator.
“What happened?” asked Mary Ann. “I thought he liked you.” She was horrified that I had lost my first boyfriend because he was trying to cop a feel. “Why didn’t you let him?” Mary Ann scolded me. “I don’t know,” I wailed, on the verge of adding to my public humiliation by bursting into tears. But what could I do now? I couldn’t go over to Steve and tell him I changed my mind, he could touch my breast if he wanted to. Mary Ann and I wracked our brains trying to figure out something to tell Dave to tell Steve that would give me a second chance. But it was too late. The next day at the Deeps, I got to watch Steve put his arm around his new girl, her mouth wide with laughter as she gazed adoringly at him. Mary Ann scooped up our stuff and hustled me back to her house, where I had a good cry until Dave showed up and I trudged home alone.
I didn’t go back to the Deeps that summer. I still hung out at Mary Ann’s house when Dave wasn’t around, which was more and more as summer tilted towards fall and the start of football practice. Mary Ann had begun to cool on Dave when he showed up sporting a Johnny Unitas buzzcut. A new boy began hanging out at Mary Ann’s. John Bean was sixteen and had a car and money from his job at the Canal Drive-in, down on Duluth’s tatty lakefront. Dave, stuck on the playing fields of Cathedral High School, was history. I spent the rest of my time with Mary Ann listening to how much she loved John Bean up until the day her father put her on a plane to Florida.
I confessed the whole sordid story of getting dumped by Steve to Cindy Moreland, who was a sympathetic ear and insisted that I had done the right thing, not letting a boy touch me there. I wasn’t so sure.
Cindy was in the midst of an audacious plan: a back to school boy-girl party. Neither Cindy nor I had ever been invited to a boy-girl party, although we had heard of raucous ninth-grade goings-on at houses where the parents were away for the weekend. There were rumors of beer drinking and couples sneaking off to dark bedrooms; at one out-of-control party at the home of one of the most popular girls, Michelle Messier, the door to the refrigerator somehow got torn off and Michelle was grounded for the rest of her life.
Unfortunately, at Cindy’s party her parents were watching TV upstairs while a dozen of us kids sat around her basement, sipped cokes, burned our mouths with Jeno’s pizza rolls, and listened to records, until someone turned down the music and started a mildly exciting game of Truth or Dare.
Cindy had decided that my glasses were too weird and off-putting and I shouldn’t wear them at her party, especially because she had invited boys from Ordean, the other junior high, boys who didn’t know of our reputation as non-starters. Without my glasses I could barely make out Cindy’s face and everyone else at the party was an indistinguishable blur. I worried that if I had to pee I wouldn’t be able to find my way upstairs to the bathroom.
As I put down my giant glass of Coke, I heard my name and rashly called out “Dare!” I was dared to go into a closet and kiss Brad McCarthy, whoever he was. One of the blurs stood up, took my hand, and let me off somewhere. A door shut and we were in the pitch black, kissing. I didn’t get too excited, as I had no idea who Brad McCarthy was or what he looked like. At least by this point thanks to Steve LaFlamme I was an experienced kisser. Brad was not, and after enduring a few moments of his slobbering on my face, I said, “We should go back” and fumbled for the doorknob. I sat down next to Cindy, who gave me an odd look, and wiped something off my face with a pizza-stained napkin.
And now came the great day, the first day of high school. I had given up on the hope of miraculously transforming myself into anything but me, yet I still spent hours trying on outfits before I decided to make my East High debut in a cute floral printed baby blue minidress with open sleeves that tied at the wrist in dainty white ribbon bows. Thanks Mom. I gathered up the required huge fabric-covered navy binder filled with lined paper and colored acetate dividers, lots of sharpened pencils, a fistful of pens, and a slide rule. The backpack still had not been invented.
While I had been looking for love at the Deeps, my family had moved into 101 Hawthorne Road, a stately five-bedroom house one block from the high school, so it took but a minute for me to walk to East, leaving childhood behind, ready to start my new life as a full-fledged teenager. I plunged into the cacophonous halls of East, twice the size of my junior high, with thirteen hundred kids streaming in all directions, one-third unbelievably cool Seniors, one third stuck-in-the-middle Juniors, and one-third us nervous Sophomores, who were all anxiously piping up “Hi! Hi! Hi!” to anyone who looked vaguely familiar.
I had advanced classes in math, English, and history, and in each one I was greeted by my old fellow smarty-pants from elementary school, Nancy Erman, as if I were a long-lost sister, a bond forged back when we had combed our troll dolls’ hair together, moved little cars full of peg people around in the Game of Life, and smeared cream cheese and Welch’s jelly on white bread. Nancy had progressed in junior high to Queen Bee status, and had her own coterie of popular girls. She had a generous spirit and insisted that I was one of her gang, and suddenly, as if I had been touched by a fairy godmother’s wand, I was a member of the cool girls.
First I had to deal with an unforeseen and unfortunate predicament. As Nancy scooched over at the cafeteria table to make room for me, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see a boy whose face was peeling away. I blinked, looked away, and tried to sit down as quickly as possible. From behind I heard, “I didn’t recognize you with your glasses. It’s me, Brad McCarthy.” Brad had severe psoriasis, his skin was patches of red and white, with flecks sheering off from his eye lids and lips and landing on his shirt. Nancy, who would have nicely shaken hands with a leper, looked up, smiled and chirped, “Hi Brad!” before going back to her sandwich. I wondered what it was that Cindy had wiped from my face, and took myself off to the girls bathroom, with Brad yelling behind, “Gay! Gay! I thought we could…”
I spent my first week of high school hiding behind doors and running into the bathroom before Brad got the message and left me alone, although he did give me the hangdog look every time we passed in the hall for the next three years. I was not that desperate, even though Nancy and most of the other girls in my new circle had boyfriends.
My magical transformation had happened, just when I had given up believing. I was finally one of the popular girls. We called ourselves T.H.E. Gang and were as loyal to each other as the Foreign Legion, the Musketeers, or the U.S. Marines. Nancy was our leader, tall, smiley, freckly and friendly to even the most outcast of our fellow students. Teachers and parents adored her. Nancy’s closest friend was Paula Rivers, The Pretty One, with the face of a Disney heroine, a heart-melting smile, and long Breck blonde hair.
You did not have to be pretty to be in our gang, as evidenced by my acceptance, with my weirdly thick glasses and hair that had decided to go from mousy blonde to rat brown. You could have a beaky, bumpy nose or be as plump as Mama Cass. It didn’t matter what you looked like as long as you were quick to laugh, brave, eager to drink until you were legless, and steadfastly loyal; if you were willing to lie to cover up your friend’s whereabouts (“Yes Mrs. Haubner, Gay spent the night at my house.”), and showed up on the spot when needed, ready to help a girlfriend organize her pants so she could squat and pee in the snow.
These girls taught me how to be a friend and how to accept friendship, always with a whole heart, and I have expected and received nothing less from all the women in my life who have chosen to call me pal.
Tucked under Nancy’s wing I was escorted into this band of sisters, acknowledged as The Smart One, even by Nancy, who still bested me in math. Wendi Carlson was The Crazy One, who set her underpants on fire lighting farts and was the first girl in Duluth history to hop on the ladder of a moving train, ending her short, drunken ride with a tumble that left just a few bits of gravel embedded in her knees. I loved Wendi, even though her mother banned me from their house after I shouldered the blame for the scorched undies Wendi had thoughtlessly tossed in the clothes hamper. I was happy to do that far, far better thing, as Wendi was on the verge of being grounded until graduation, due to previous misdeeds.
In our gang there was none of the catty, petty behavior girl cliques are famous for. There were hysterical giggling fits and shared tears over duplicitous boyfriends. We borrowed clothes and forgot to bring them back. We played hairdresser, and took turns botching up each other’s hair, starting with Wendi using pinking shears to trim my bangs and ending with a hair coloring disaster: instead of the sun-streaked locks shown on the box of dye, Betsy Strauss ended up with big polka dots of orangey blonde in her hair. There were also matching splotches on several of my mother’s white towels. At parties we held back each other’s hair while we puked out bright orange Tango, a disgusting pre-mixed screwdriver, then scrubbed our faces with clean Minnesota snow before going back inside. We even pierced each other’s ears, using an ice cube, a potato, and a sewing needle sterilized in a wooden match for three seconds, which is why my earrings are crooked.
We slept over en masse at my home, taking over the empty bedrooms on the third floor, or at Nancy’s, whose elderly parents went to bed reliably at seven. We gorged on take out cheeseburgers and fries from the London Inn and swapped secrets and confessions until the last girl passed out in her sleeping bag. Best of all, at any home that was temporarily parent-free on a Friday or Saturday night, there were those illicit boy-girl parties I had only heard of, fueled by Tang, Boone’s Farm, sickly sweet booze siphoned off by Linda Lewis from her parents’ extensive and untouched collection of Bols after-dinner drinks, and for the boys, cans of Fitger’s beer Paula spirited away from the back room of her dad’s liquor store. Eventually all the lights would be turned off in the basement or the rec room and couples would disappear into dark corners. I sipped water-downed cream de cacao, put records on the hi-fi, and waited for a boy to sit next to me, until I gave up and went home, well before my curfew of ten o’clock, alone, drunk, and utterly happy.