She had me understanding

In the photo, she stands with her hands crossed at her waist. She wears a bracelet on her right forearm and a thin gold watch whose faces flares like a tiny sun as it catches the flash from the camera. The slated-glass window of the door behind her left shoulder also catches the flash, reflecting back as a perfect white circle. It looks like an intense Cyclopean eye staring in through the window from the dark outside.

But it’s her smile in the picture that catches me. It’s relaxed, friendly, earnest. She wants me to have a nice picture of her. 

In the photo, it’s June, 1985. I have just moved from Milford, Maine, to Eldred, Pennsylvania, from my father’s farm along the Penobscot to my mother’s parents’ house near the Allegheny. Laurie promised she write to me, and she’s as good as her word, sending me a letter in her big, loopy handwriting. She’s enclosed a picture she’s had taken especially for the occasion.

She wears a pink top of some sort, mostly obscured by the white button-down shirt she wears over it, mostly unbuttoned but tied in a knot over her midriff. The style of pants she wears—pink, to match her shirt—rides high up over her hips so that the knot of the shirt rests on the waistline. The bottom edge of the photo cuts across her at mid-thigh.

Her hair is not just feathered back in that typical mid-80s sort of way, but it also has a kind of roll to it as it falls back from her face. I used to study that particular aspect of her as she sat in front of me in English class or on the bus, or beside me in biology; I know the contours of her hair particularly well.

She wears pearls. I have always remembered her long, sender neck, have always remembered that string of pearls.

Even when the photo’s not in front of me, I can still recall the details: the five house plants, the steel-blue curtains over the windows that flanked the door, the two bookshelves, the porcelain bell that sat on one of the shelves, the candlesticks that sat on another. It was, I presumed, the living room of her house—the only view of it I’d ever had.

The room was dark enough that Laurie, in her white shirt and white pearls and white smile, well lit in the foreground, stood out from all those darkened details in sharp contrast. She had, after all, wanted to take a good photo for me.

Sitting in my bedroom in Eldred that summer, hundreds of miles from the friends I’d made, through great effort, during my first two years of high school, I studied that photo of Laurie for what must’ve been hours. Two years later, when I went to college, I took the photo with me and pinned it on my wall above my desk, where it stayed for two and a half years until my college sweetheart hinted that I could take it down.

By then, Laurie had stopped sending those letters with the big loopy handwriting, and I’d stopped writing back to her. They were the days before the internet, the days before e-mail and Facebook made staying in touch so effortless. To sit down and write a letter seemed almost impossible considering everything else college beckoned us to do.

But letters, by then, wouldn’t have made much difference. Laurie had already risen to the level of myth in my life—one of only a small handful of people to ever do so. Laurie had a special claim, though, because she was the first girl I’d ever really, truly liked.

Sure, I’d had crushes on girls before then. Katie McKinney, a fourth-grade classmate at Hershey Elementary School, could rightfully claim the title of the first girl I’d ever had a crush on. In subsequent years, there were Felicia Williard, Alicia Willard (no relation), and Cornelia Applebee, and then a particularly tempestuous crush with Shaleen McLaughlin in eighth grade.

But it was Laurie Cote, who lived one-point-four miles down the road from me on Route Two when I moved to my dad’s in Milford, and who got on the school bus just five minutes after I did, who made the butterflies fly for the first time for real.

I’d just moved to Milford from a fairly traumatic living situation with my mother in Montpelier, Vermont. I felt adrift in the world. By that point, I’d been uprooted and moved around so many times I’d left a trail of broken friendships all over the northeast, so going into ninth grade, I was socially awkward and still very much a boy in a young man’s body.

Girls scared the hell out of me. But this one seemed so pretty. And so friendly and nice—nice enough, it turned out, that she somehow befriended me despite my painfully obvious nerdiness. To this day, I have no idea how that happened other than to chalk it up as a sheer miracle.

Laurie and I took to sitting next to each other when we had class together. We’d pass notes back and forth constantly. I still have some of them in a folder somewhere. I’d let her cheat off me in English and also biology, a class she’d one day credit me for helping her pass.

On the way home from school, she’d sit in the seat in front of me and we’d gab. She was quick to laugh, which worked to my benefit because I seemed to amuse her to no end. Maybe that’s why I liked her so much: I knew how to make her laugh.

She had a boyfriend, of course. All the cute girls did, it seems, although thinking back on it now, it’s amazing how oblivious I was to the love lives of most of my friends. I knew Laurie had a boyfriend, though—a guy named Kirk.

That still didn’t prevent me from asking her out—one of the bravest (or most foolish) acts of my life. It was during note-passing one day in Mrs. Dorr’s English class during a lesson about Shakespeare. I asked Laurie if she wanted to go to the movies. I think it was The Sure Thing, one of John Cusak’s first films. She didn’t say yes—but she didn’t say no, either. We tried to work out the details of such an excursion, which proved to be tough since neither of us drove yet, and that ultimately proved to be the undoing of the plan.

Nor did the fact she had a boyfriend stop me from picking fresh lilacs for her each spring because she happened to mention to me one day that she loved lilacs. I’d pick a huge bunch, then hop on my bike and ride down to her house with them and knock on her front door to deliver them.

By tenth grade, it was well-established between us that I liked her and she knew it, and that I wasn’t really going to be a player in the game and I knew it. But that détente between the two of us actually made it easy to remain great friends.

The first time I went out with friends on an underage drinking adventure, Laurie was with me. We even decided to serve as co-managers of the baseball team together. She did it because she liked one of the juniors on the team, a guy named Zeke whose family owned a big donut bakery in town. Every time I passed her house and saw his big donut-delivery truck in her driveway, I’d renew a silent pledge to never buy his family’s donuts again.

I managed the baseball team because it was a chance to hang around with my friends on the team even though I had no athletic aptitude of my own—and, of course, because it was a chance to hang out with Laurie. Mind you, I didn’t hang around her like a stalker and just stare at her doe-eyed. No, by then, because of the détente, it was just enough for us to be around each other and share laughs and enjoy each other’s company.

When I moved to Pennsylvania, I knew I’d miss Laurie most of all. There were many other friends I knew I’d miss, too—the equally-mythical (for other reasons) Darcy Willette, the fantastically cool Tracey Smith (who was probably the best-all-around-matched girl for me, perhaps ever, although I was too dumb-struck by Laurie to notice), and guys like Kevin Blanchard and Steve “Foop” Guay. But Laurie was the first real love of my life, and that would be hard to leave behind.

I’d resolved at some point back then that I’d one day write to Casey Kasem, the then-host of American Top 40, and do a long-distance dedication to Laurie. I’d want him to play “Understanding” by Bob Seger from the soundtrack of the 1984 Nick Nolte movie Teachers. I always associated that song with Laurie because she was the girl who first helped me understand what it meant to be in love—even if it was young schoolboy love.

It always seemed like no one cared
Then you took the time
Now I look and everything seems clear.

They call it understanding.
You really helped me see.
I’m finally understanding.
It’s meant so much to me.

I never did send in that long-distance dedication, but the song still shuffles up on my iTunes every so often, and of course I always think of her when it does. She did, indeed, help me understand what it meant to like someone, and what it meant to be nice to someone because you liked them so much. Simply by being the first girl I ever liked, and by being kind about it, Laurie gave me a gift that I have always treasured.

Understanding of a sort came to Laurie, too, somewhere along the line. At the end of my senior year in Pennsylvania, my friends from Maine sent me a copy of the school yearbook that almost the entire class signed. “They gave me the honor of signing your yearbook first,” Laurie wrote on the inside back cover. She and I had both known that I liked her—and everyone else had known, too.

She filled a page and a half. “You always used to make me laugh and talk about my problems. You always had a way of making me feel better. I don’t know what I would’ve done without you,” she wrote. “To be honest with you, you were the nicest guy I knew. You treated me better than any of my boyfriends, or any of my girl friends, for that matter.”

We pledged, even then, to keep writing, to never lose touch. And for the most part, we’ve been able to, although we’ve not always been good about it. That seems to be a pattern in my life—one of my greatest failings as a person, I think, unfortunately, and a result of my lack of deep roots. The last time I spoke to Laurie was in May of 2009. I was on my way out the door to a school board meeting, so I had two minutes to talk, but I promised I’d call her back soon. But then I had to campaign. Then I went to China. And by the time I finally got back to her, I was afraid she was mad at me and would blow off my calls.

But this summer when I went to Maine, Laurie and I managed to connect for a mid-afternoon visit over tea at Timmy Ho’s. It was the first time I’d seen her in almost twenty years. I worried whether I’d recognize her, but when she came in, she looked just the same although well-bronzed from being out in the sun so much this summer. Her hairdo was virtually the same (but in a less-80s way). Her smile was the same. Her laugh was the same.

She couldn’t resist making a comment about her weight. She’d lost all her baby weight a few years ago, she explained, but put weight back on after a relatively recent knee injury. She was just starting to shed it again, she said. Heck, I thought she looked great—but no worries, I told her: If she’d seen me a year and a half ago, seventy-five pounds heavier than I am now, she wouldn’t have believed it was me.

We talked for almost an hour and a half, and it was one of the best get-togethers I’ve had in a long time. The Laurie Cote I knew twenty-five years ago remains a wonderful person and someone I can still, after all these years, have a great conversation with—and can still make laugh. Were we forty now, really? Has it really been twenty-five years since those days together at Old Town High School?

That fact really hit home the other day as I was, again, looking at the picture, which I’d come across as I was moving into my new apartment. In the photo, Laurie is the same age that my daughter is now. My God, I thought, that all felt so important and so real back then. We had no idea what real really was.

Who knew, when Laurie stood there in her living room, having her photo taken for me, what the future held in store for either of us. All that mattered, every time I looked at the photo, is that her smile looked so friendly, so earnest.

It’s nice to be reminded that, sometimes, some things never change.

4 replies »

  1. what a wonderful story about my dear friend Laurie!! We have been friends since our kids were in preschool together and she really is a friend to treasure!! 😉

  2. You have wrapped a beautiful ribbon around my heart that I will treasure ALWAYS! You are a fabulous writer and a very dear friend! I am truely blessed 🙂