During elementary school I had a lot of questions for my mother about Jesus. The one I remember best, because of it’s aftermath, related to miracles. We were Catholic, and although Carrie and I were public school kids, we spent our weekly hour at CCD, and hour from after which we after deprogrammed by my mother. Jesus turned water into wine so people could get drunk at a wedding? He rose a guy from the dead because they were friends? He turned stones into bread and fishes just for lunch? The answer from the CCD instructor, that God worked in mysterious ways, was horribly unsatisfying. Raising a personal friend from the dead while strangers died did not sound very mysterious too me.
A miracle is not a magic trick, my mother said. God does not snap his fingers and turn water into wine. A miracle is performed by a living person, a person who acts unselfishly to help someone else. The bread and the fishes? Rich people, touched by Jesus’ love, shared with the poor, a miracle in those greedy times. The dead guy? Lazarus? Maybe sick, but not dead, inspired by the touch of Christ to go on living. What a gyp, I replied. Theology. Whatever that meant.
Soon after our conversation my mother tried to make me into one of those miracle performing do-gooders.
Reka Zuppas was the fifth grade class outcast. But not the shy variety. Her athletic frame, tanned, scarred arms, prematurely sexy strut, and defiant use of the word "fuck" on the playground separated her from most of the wimps like me. She sat alone, rode the bus alone, and seemed pretty happy about it to me. I maintained a respectful but distant acquaintance, careful not to be a friend, but afraid to be an enemy.
On the first day of fifth grade, I accidentally cut in front of her in line. She pushed my violently, saying, "get in the back you little pussy." A few other kids repeated the phrase while others laughed. I stiffly walked to the back, muttering something about how I wouldn’t fight a girl. I came dangerously close to getting labeled.
I don’t know how my mother found out about Reka. Probably at some parent teacher night.
"You should be nice to her," she said.
"She doesn’t want anyone to be nice to her," I replied.
"That’s not true and you know it. Kids like you. You could include her," she said.
"She hates us," I insisted. I didn’t mention that kids wouldn’t like me for long if I made it my business to befriend Reka. Not only that, I could get hurt.
"Okay, have it your way, " she said, adding, to my horror, " I thought you were tough."
Thought. A few days later, I trudged to the bus stop, bookbag heavy with the weight of my mother’s plan. Carrie walked beside me, recently out of the hospital. She had long blond hair then, and she bounced along next to me with a devilish little smile, amused at my attempt to be like Jesus, but well aware of the importance of keeping it a secret.
In my bag was a small wrapped gift, a bar of special scented soap, bought with a host of other Reka gifts by my mother. Each gift, she suggested, I could secretly give to Reka by leaving it in her desk while no one watched. I would never get caught, but I might provide Reka some happiness, making her aware that she had a secret admirer.
I clutched the bag with a sweaty hand. Reka, standing off to the side at the bus stop in her tight jeans and faded Levi’s jacket, stared off into the distance. Alone but unafraid. I stood with my friends.
When the class marched to lunch in a line, I pretended to forget my lunch money. With permission to go back to the classroom, I ran down the hall, grabbed my bookbag out of my desk, and rifled through it for the gift. Heart pounding, I set it inside Reka’s desk and rushed out, hoping no one even noticed my forgotten dollar.
On the bus ride home, Carrie saw Reka sniffing the soap. But Reka did not tell anybody.
A candle, some stickers, a little china doll. The presents mercilessly flowed from my mother, to me, to Reka. Finally, the last day of school arrived. One last present.
I arrived in the classroom and set my bookbag on my desk. Last day of school, a half day, no work, no structure, just a roomful of wired kids, giddy with the onset of summer. It was Bill Armstrong that ruined me. Before I could react, he grabbed my bookbag and started swinging it over his head, whooping like a cowboy.
"Why’d you bring your damn bookbag today, dork!!?" he yelled. Then it happened. The final Reka present flew out of the bookbag and hit the wall. It was a small bottle of perfume. A crowd gathered. Bill excitedly examined the shattered present. A note, pinned to it, said, in my mother’s handwriting, "TO: Reka. FROM: Your secret admirer."
"He’s got a damn present for Reka!," Bill announced, passing the present around. The class went crazy. Where in the world was Ms. Nadeau when I needed her? Finally, Reka appeared at the center of the parted crowd. The gift, thrust into her hand, leaked on her as she sniffed it and looked at me. She had a second to think about what to say, obviously knowing that it was I, all year, her secret admirer. I bet she was disappointed. She took the safe path, and I forgave her immediately.
"Why would you give me a fuckin’ present?"
Years later, after my own high school graduation, I walked down the street in Ocean City, Maryland with a friend. Beach week. As Dave and I passed a bus stop, I noticed Reka waiting for the bus. She had moved way before high school. She smoked a cigarette. Her body looked the same, plus large, shapely breasts and a tattoo visible on her ankle. Still tough, but the meaning had changed. She recognized me.
We ended up at our hotel room, drinking cans of Milwaukee’s Best and smoking, seated in a circle on the floor; me, Reka, Dave. As we talked, she flicked her hand off to the side, aiming her cigarette ashes at an empty beer. The movement jostled her huge breasts each time. Shoes off and legs spread in front of her, she still had a deep tan all the way to her frayed cut off jeans. I wished we were alone. Any minute, I would mention the gifts. Of course she would remember?
I woke up surrounded by beer cans. Dave slept on a bed. Reka, my secret admiree, was gone.