On that cold February morning at St. Charles schoolyard, my friend and classmate, Shady Kane, confirmed the week-long rumor that Noreen O’Rourke, a former freckle-faced queen at Springside Park, and a Who’s Who in my book of ultimate heartbreak, was to host a Spin the Bottle party that coming Saturday to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
"What I do know," exclaimed Shady, encircled by a throng of fellow 8th-graders, "is that Noreen’s going to invite six of us guys to match six girls from our class."
"Who are the girls?" asked Tony, a certain shoo-in owing to his smarts and genuine good looks.
Shady bellowed out their names with lusty abandon: "Noreen, Donna, Sandy, Christine, Helen of Troy, and Maureen. All showstoppers! But we won’t know the lucky guys until Sister dishes out Noreen’s six large red cards, along with everyone else’s tomorrow."
"Who cares?" mouthed Chicklets, whose erector set braces would keep him out of the running for years to come. "My brother went to one last year and all the girls did was eat pink cupcakes. Besides, if they don’t like their Spin, they can shout ‘Pass,’ and keep spinning the bottle until it points to their stupid boyfriends."
Shingles, another non-contender who’d be found sulking at home on Saturday, chimed in. "And guess what? I hear the girls are planning to smear petroleum jelly all over their lips, so when you do kiss ‘em, it’ll be just like kissing Vaseline.
I slumped away from my fired-up mates, knowing I hadn’t a cretin’s chance at being invited. Noreen had hated me since third grade after I got caught that year gathering loose strands of her luxurious red hair that had dropped to her shoulders, and dumbly confessed I’d plenty more at home just like it.
On Valentine’s Day, classmates dropped their cards into a massive red box sitting atop Sister’s desk, including Noreen, whose radiant auburn tresses were knotted into a swirling honey bun. Since most kids gave every other kid a card, over a thousand would be handed out, taking a goodly chunk of the day. Midway through, I’d collected two dozen el cheapos captioned with silly rhymes, "You’re no bunny ‘til some bunny loves you."
Suddenly, the incessant drone of name-calling was electrified when our unsuspecting nun handed Tony the first of Noreen’s six red invites. The card, adorned with fat candy wax lips read, "Pucker up for Saturday! 2 to 4. X’s and O’s, Noreen and pals."
Three more cards were shortly drawn -- Johnny, Pete, and Joey -- and I almost popped an eyeball when Stinky got the fifth! Nothing against Stinky, but he was no Tab Hunter, and wore glasses thicker than Gilbert telescopes! Finally, Sister pulled out the sixth and final invite. I took a deep breath, knowing my lowly life could forever change if she but called my name. She didn’t: "Shady Kane."
All the talk Saturday morning at the CYC was about Noreen’s party that afternoon. Tony and Pete whiled away the hours pretending to play caroms, while Shady, Johnny, Stinky and Joey twirled empty Coke bottles on the floor, their thoughts in the clouds. When they finally skedaddled to Noreen’s house, I carried my sorry self to the gym to play basketball with the St. Mary’s guys. They were playing shirts and skins, but when picked a skin, I made the phony excuse of having to go home, too embarrassed to expose my sunken birdcage chest to the brawny Clark brothers.
Not willing to spend the long agonizing afternoon at home, I sought solace at the footbridge where I spent the cheerless hours heaving snowballs into the icy chasm of the falls below, painfully envisioning my buddies kissing Noreen’s freckled face, while finger-twirling her tumbling chestnut curls.
Just when my brain was set to explode like a hot pan of Jiffy-Pop, I looked up to see Alison, a perky 7th-grader in pigtails, skipping across the footbridge toward me.
"Hey, why aren’t you at Noreen’s party?"
"I wasn’t invited."
She seemed genuinely surprised. "Not invited? I thought you’d be one of the six, for sure."
I dropped my snowballs. "Really?"
"Really! I mean if I ever gave a Spin the Bottle party, you’d be on my list. And why so glum? That party’s going to be a disaster."
"All the girls are planning to wear gobs of cherry ChapStick."
"Yep! But if I was ever to kiss a boy, it’d be straight and true, no artificial sweeteners."
My eyes went pinpoint, seeing this dazzling underling for the first time in my life! Dizzied by her frankness, I moved to kiss her, but was halted by her flailing picket-thin arms.
"I said you’d be on my list, not on TOP of it!"
Humiliated, I felt my chest cave in, but she revived me with a playful pinch to my nose.
"Well, best be getting home before my dad sends out a scouting party. Hey, maybe I’ll see you at the Girl’s Club dance next Friday?"
She pranced across the bridge and waved back twice -- no, three times, and I swear my heart gave out a little squeal, believing I’d someday be a prospect for a girl’s tender kiss.
Kevin O’Hara is an occasional Eagle contributor.