The words stung me like a knife to the heart.
I was lighting my Bunsen burner in Science class. She was my Lab partner.
Debbie was 13 years old, and when the teacher matched us together, I won the equivalent of the 7th Grade lottery – I got the nicest, cutest girl to be my partner for Science Projects.
Debbie was cute. She had long brown hair, slender, with an amazingly positive personality. I had a crush on her ever since I arrived at Churchill Junior High School.
Churchill is a school that has grades 7-9, and it’s student body comes from 6 elementary schools around the town. 7th grade exposes kids in rural East Brunswick, NJ, to a variety of different and unique people -- that elementary school does not.
Debbie was one of those people.
When the Science Teacher, said the words, “Andy and Debbie will be lab partners for the year” – I thought I was the luckiest guy on earth.
We immediately hit it off. I was trying to be cool by ignoring her, and not speaking much – but she quickly cut through all the “boyhood BS” – that afflicts most 7th grade boys. It certainly had me in its grips.
We had a large Science Project of some sort, and she said to me – “Come over after school, and we can work on it it at my apartment.”
Debbie lived behind our school in a cluster of apartment buildings.
We left school and cut through the fence behind Churchill, and went into her apartment.
The apartment was horrible. She lived in conditions that were the opposite of her beauty. The kitchen was gross, the furniture worn and old – and the place smelled of an odor that was a combination of cigarettes, and something else…….
(It was many years later living at a fraternity house that I learned about the smell of alcohol left out and dropped on the floor, it was then that the memory of Debbie, and the smell of that apartment came flooding back)
I did not know what to say.
She addressed it.
“My Dad and Mom are having a tough time, and going through a separation, my brother and I really don’t want them to break up – but, my Dad gets really angry at my Mom – and my Mom finally said enough is enough.”
Her Mom moved out. She (her Mom) left her brother Michael (2 years older than us, and in the 9th grade) – alone, living with the Dad.
Debbie’s father worked at the Hostess Factory. The factory was located about a ½ mile from the school. He worked many double shifts, and often he rode a Harley Davidson around. The local kids knew the factory he worked in, from the amazing smell that emananted, and poured out into the air from it’s large ovens -- that made the air smell so sweet, for many miles around…….we knew Debbie's father because of his loud motorcycle, and his shiny leather jackets...
“My Dad was in a war called Vietnam, and he came back angry and confused, “ she blurted out as we started our homework.
Debbie and her Mom and brother were living with a veteran dealing with what is commonly known today as PTSD. (post traumatic stress) – but, back in 1980 – I did not know about it as a 12 year old – and I’m not sure it was even diagnosed yet.
We spoke at length about what she was dealing with.
I went home, and realized how lucky I was.
A few months went by, and Debbie and I became more friendly. She took an interest in the Phillies (because I was a Phillies fan) and, in 1980 our friendship and partnership was both innocent, and caring, in a 7th grade kind of way.
I felt bad for what she was going through. I never knew how to ask her about it.
“I’m moving.” The words hit me, and I was floored.
I was lighting the Bunsen burner, and I was wearing those stupid plastic goggles that were way too tight on me – and I snapped them off.
“What, where are you moving, and why?” I pleaded back to her….
She told me her Mother came back. But, her father would not give her up…..
And, then she told me something that has remained with like a tattoo on my soul…
She started to tear up, as the following came flowing out of her mouth, and into my heart…….
“My Dad wants to get back together with my Mom, but she wont do it. So, he said he wont give up both kids to her, she can pick one of us to leave with her – or they would ROLL ONE DICE to see which kid would go live with which parent."
My Mom rolled the dice, and if it came up EVEN, I go with live my Dad, if it came up ODDS I live with my Mom."
My jaw dropped, and my eyes welled up.
“It came out 6, and I’m going to be living with Dad, my Mom and Michael are moving to NYC – I’m staying with my Dad – but, we are moving to South River.”
South River was only one town away -- but, it was as far away as Texas to a 7th grader.
She cried, as she told me the story – and, how her Mom begged and pleaded with the Father -- but, he was violent and angry, and would not let her have both kids. Debbie's father was getting her, and the Mom was getting Michael. (Debbie's brother)
I finished the year in another Lab Group, and Debbie left.
The Brunswick Square Mall is located on Rt.18 on East Brunswick. Back in the early 80’s many parents would drop their kids off at mall, and return in 3 hours to get them.
We would play video games, or just walk around.
It was a year after Debbie left Churchill, and moved to South River.
When I saw her in the mall she was wearing all black, with feathered earings– and, a ton of black make-up on her eyes.......
It wasn’t the same girl who was my lab partner. She had changed.
I was standing outside of Orange Julius, sipping my drink – and she clearly saw me, we locked eyes, and she looked away. She was with a group of boys much older, and much “rougher looking” than anyone I hung around with.
I stared at her, and she plainly ignored me.
After I graduated from college, I moved to La Jolla, California. In 1992 my college roommate (Jeff) was getting married (Ellen) and I flew back to NJ from San Diego for the wedding.
It was 10 years since I had seen Debbie. I rarely thought about her, as our lives did not cross paths....
I came (to NJ) with my girlfriend at the time, who was from Southern California. She was dating a guy “from Jersey” (me) --- and, she heard me rave about the pizza in NJ, as well as this place called, White Castle.
We landed at Newark Airport, and proceeded to go into Elizabeth NJ – the closest White Castle that I knew of, and a location I was familiar with.
We walked in, and I ordered.
Confidently, I said, “10 burgers, and 2 large fries.”
I went to pay the cashier.
It was Debbie.
She was working the cash register.
My heart dropped.
She looked embarrassed and dejected as she saw me.
I did not know what to say.
She blurted out, “Hey Lab partner, how ya doing?”
My girlfriend at the time was incredulous that I knew this woman working the register at a fast food place --- I did not know what to say.
Debbie looked worn.
She came to sit with us.
She told me she no longer speaks to her Mother, or brother. Her brother went to college, became a banker in NYC, and her Mom was a teacher. She clearly had resentment to her Mother for, giving her up.....
Her Father died of AIDS, and Debbie took care of him in his final months of his life.
She did all this with 2 kids of her own, and going through a divorce herself.
Debbie was only 23 years old, with 2 kids, and an ex -- but, she looked like she had lived the life of a 50 year old.
She was still upbeat, but her stories and journey, made me appreciate the "simpleness" and luck of my life at that point.....
The dice that fateful day in 1980 made all the difference in her journey. The simple roll of the dice, was the most important determining factor in the fate of her existence.....
One simple roll. One lousy 6 on dice, changed her destiny.
Do you know what changed and altered your destiny?
Sometimes we ignore it, and we never acknowledge -- or even realize the proverbial "dice" in each of our lives.
Embrace it, and share it with those you are closest with.
I did in my life.
Destiny is a funny thing........