The first time they spoke was at his best friend’s funeral. They knew each other but they were teenagers, awkward and shy. He hadn’t really thought much about her before that day, bewildered and full of a sorrow foreign and terrifying. Their families attended 9:30 mass every Sunday at St. Michael Church in South Providence.
After they carried the casket down the terracotta colored stairs to the hearse, people were milling about the vestibule. She was wearing a pink dress. Her pitch black hair draped slender shoulders. He approached her and said, “You look beautiful.” Her cheeks flushed red. “Thank you,” she smiled and looked away. He walked away and down the stairs.
A month later the youth group took a ski trip to New Hampshire. On the bus ride back he sat next to her. “I’ll pay you a quarter if you let me sit here,” he said, giving her the coin. They laughed and teased each other. She took his baseball cap and put it on. The other kids noticed and busted their chops. They didn’t care. He was 16, she 15. She got in her dad’s car and for the first time in his life he felt something strange, a longing. She waved to him as they drove off, his cap backwards on her head.
They started looking forward to going to mass on Sundays. A different family took care of the coffee hour after church: a big urn of Maxwell house and Dunkin Donuts or Danish from Almacs. Her family lived in Warwick but came to South Providence because their church was pluralistic and progressive and so neglected and even hated by the big wigs at the diocese downtown; for a while they had “alter girls” and let anyone give the homily. They would each take a donut and find a corner of the big hall to linger in, until her dad or his mom called for them.
She was a sophomore at Bay View in East Providence, he, a junior at Classical High. He didn’t have his driving license but had a month left of driver’s ed. He did have his Fuji road racer. She gave him vague directions to her house on Warwick Neck. On a Saturday after track practice he hopped on his steed and went down Broad Street, weaving in and out the incessant traffic; even in the 80’s Broad St. resembled a road in Santo Domingo more than any road in Providence. He got lost and was chased by a dog. It got so close he felt it’s hot breath on his calf as he pedaled away.
He put his bike behind her house. They took a walk around the suburb. Her mother made chicken salad sandwiches. Her little brother and sister peeked through the windows as they sat on a blanket on the grass in her backyard, cautiously touching each other. He stayed until an hour before dark. Standing over his bike on the street, she next to him on the grass in the front yard. The street light came on. She wore a pink sweater, her black hair in a pony tail. He saw her dad staring blatantly from the bay window. They didn’t kiss.
A few weeks later he asked her to be his girlfriend. This was during a phone call. “Do you want to go out with me?” Going out, meant going steady. She messed with him. “What? Say that again? I couldn’t hear you.” He did, and when he realized she was yanking his chain he almost got upset. “Yes,” she said, “I’ll go out with you,” after the third request.
They tried to see each other as often as they could. Their parents rationed their “phone time” to a half hour a day. He went to her softball games, she to his track meets. Young love happened. They got physical. That summer was one of exploration, kissing, touching, feeling the fire rise and saturate their entire beings. He got his license and they found all the make out spots in Roger Williams Park and on Warwick Neck.
A year later they decided to do it. They planned a day when her folks wouldn’t be home. He rode his bike down Warwick Ave in a state of excited anticipation and left it in the woods down the block from her house just in case they came back early. They were devout Catholic kids, taught that sex was only something to do when married. They both wrestled with this and spoke about it. They convinced themselves they would marry. They believed it. They prayed together on the soft carpet, promising God they loved each other and they would be together for ever.
She escorted him to her bedroom downstairs. A nightlight in the wall formed an elongated circle on the wall. She wore a long Minnie mouse t-shirt, but not for long.