The story begins in Catholic school, where Gina was a grade ahead of me. She was a tall, willowy girl, thin as the metaphorical rail, and something of a grind. Today’s kids would probably call her a nerd, I think, unless there’s a new word around that means the same thing. She studied hard, paid attention to everything the nuns had to say, and was always on the honor roll. Everyone liked her; she was always pleasant, but very frankly the more popular girls in the school didn’t even bother to give her a second thought; she was no competition. We parted company in the eighth grade; she went on to the local Catholic high school twenty miles away in the county seat, and I went to the local public high school, where, due to the concept of social promotion, they enrolled me despite my failing the eighth grade. And that, in the ordinary course of affairs, would have been that; I can count on the fingers on one hand the number of times I’ve met the people I went to junior high with since we left the place back in 1972. Gina’s case was not going to be ordinary, however.
Gina got into the local Catholic high school because her grades were high and her parents could afford the tuition; even then, having a nun yell at you as your hormones raged was a bit pricey; and for the first year, or so I am told, there was nothing about Gina that would excite the least amount of interest from anyone. She did what she always did: she studied, she worked at her father’s store, she did her homework, she was quiet and respectful to the nuns, etc. etc. And then, in the summer after her freshman year, her father sent her to visit the relatives in Aci Castello, a small town on the outskirts of Catania in Sicily. She went there the tall, willowy girl I have previously described; she returned having put on a lot of weight. In short, she filled out and the history of our happy little burg would never be the same again.
Now, the thing to remember is this: Gina was never an ugly girl—this is not an ugly duckling story at all. She was always attractive, but she was always one of those girls whose attractiveness has to grow on men because men, like the grotesque leering swine that we are, do not always appreciate brainy girls. As Dorothy Parker famously put it, “men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.” When she returned from Italy, she was one of those girls whose attractiveness men appreciate instantaneously, grotesque leering swine that we are, and no one cared about her glasses. No one was looking at her eyes.
I realize that sounds terrible, but the truth is that even with the best will in the world, even with the absolute determination that you were going to look straight into her eyes (and she had very nice eyes, too) and appreciate her as a highly intelligent young woman, you couldn’t help noticing that neither her eyes nor her intelligence were not the first things you noticed about her, her most prominent features being, as it were, extremely prominent. And Gina now realized that she didn’t have to play second fiddle to all those girls who’d been the queen bees in junior high anymore. I’m pretty sure they cut her to little pieces in smoking bouts in the girls’ room between American History and Pre-Calculus class, and a more insecure girl would have crumpled under the weight of the bitchy sarcasm, I’m sure, but Gina didn’t; she knew she’d hit the biological equivalent of the Megamillions jackpot and she didn’t need their good opinion anymore. She knew that all she had to do was crook her little finger and all of their boyfriends would come a-running after her like your friendly neighborhood loan shark after a deadbeat two months behind in his payments; men are fairly predictable that way.
And so it came to pass that the Catholic high school sent its football team south to play our football team, which always poses something of a problem for the local kids who go to the Catholic high school; our local high school bears the name of our happy little burg, so the kids who go to the Catholic school must root against a team full of their friends and neighbors, opening them to serious charges of divided municipal loyalties. We lost that game, 21-7; we just weren’t that good that year; and we also lost our quarterback, Tommy Schmidt. Tommy spotted Gina in the stands and it was love at first and second sight.
The problem was that Tommy already had a girl friend; he was the personal property of Kelly Myers, who was the homecoming queen and student president and a host of other things worth mentioning, but who was not, despite being a very pretty and pleasant girl, in Gina’s league at all. So the fight was definitely unfair, leading inexorably to a preordained conclusion: Kelly was out and she was not happy about it, but there was precious little she could do about it; Gina wanted a football hero and she got one. She could have gotten the quarterback on the Catholic school team, of course, but he was taken, and the girl who had him was one of Gina’s best friends, so he was off limits; whatever else you could say about her, Gina was loyal to her pals, especially the ones who’d been her friends before hormones had had their way with her. Everyone else’s boyfriend, on the other hand, was fair game.
Watching Tommy those few weeks was something of a riot, since he was a guy’s guy, a real macho type, and seeing Gina lead him around by the nose was a major league hoot (all right, so it wasn’t his nose she was leading him by; the actual organ in question is not the point of the metaphor—get your mind out of the gutter, would you?). All good things, however, must come to an end, and after a while, Tommy started hearing the jokes his fellow jocks were telling about whipped guys and decided he didn’t like them much, so that began to poison the relationship. I think Gina was getting tired of him too; Tommy’s conversation didn’t veer much from football and cars; Gina liked both subjects, (she once changed a tire on my mother’s station wagon in the parking lot of our church, and did it better and a lot faster than I could have) but she had other interests as well. So, they were both looking to dump each other; it was only a question of who would do the dumping. The honeymoon was definitely almost over except for the shouting.
Matters came to a head at the carnival aforementioned. Tommy was already going behind Gina’s back, trying to return to Kelly’s good graces, and somehow or other Gina found out about it. So one fall afternoon, they went to this carnival and while Tommy was off doing something else, I’m not sure what, Gina struck up a conversation with Shawn Jones, the captain of the basketball team. Well, the thing of it is, definitely almost over is not the same as absolutely definitely over, not by a long shot, and Tommy hit the roof and then hit Shawn, who’d come to the carnival with some of his friends, and one thing led to another and before you knew it our happy little burg had itself a nice little race riot going on. The cops broke it up, but at school the next day, the aggrieved parties decided they still had some pent up hostility to work off and went at it again. This time the principal called in the local cops and the state police to restore order in the halls. The state troopers came in, cracked some skulls and sent some kids to the hospital, and Gina DiNapoli’s ego got a pleasant stroking that week. The local TV news reported the thing in gory detail, although they left Gina out of it, since they couldn’t know that she was the cause of the whole thing.
And so the stupidities of adolescence change, with time, into a civic holiday. The local do-gooder community, shocked by the racial violence, which was, in fact, just your usual youthful male testosteronic violence, implored the City Council to institute a holiday celebrating the diversity of cultures here in our happy little burg. They did, and from that day to this the people of our town join together and hold a parade and wander aimlessly from one end of Main Street to the other, buying a wide range of ethnic foods and listening to music from all over the world. For some unknown reason, the kids like to buy shaving cream on this day of days and spray each other until they look like mobile snowmen and Main Street smells like it just needs some hot water and a good aftershave to be ready for a great night on the town. I see Tommy sometimes; he didn’t marry Kelly but some girl he met while he was in the Air Force. I haven’t seen Gina in about ten years, so I can’t really say what happened to her. But we still celebrate the holiday she and her most prominent features started, and what more can anyone ask than that?
*Names, but not ethnicities, have been changed to keep me from getting my ass kicked; some of the original people mentioned still live here.