Yesterday morning, I stopped by the AM/PM on the way to work to pick up provisions for the day, since we’re out of pop at the house. (Would you believe they didn’t have a single caffeine-free cola for sale?) When I got into the car, Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” was playing on the radio, and I was instantly catapulted into a nondescript hotel ballroom that was made quasi-festive with Christmas decorations from a party goods store. Mike Wagner had his hands on my waist, my arms were around his neck, and we were doing the seventh-grade shuffle to that song. It was 1988.
We were at the company Christmas party. I was 17 and working in the Ladies’ Department at ShopKo; it was my first real job. There were 2 ShopKos in town, and my dad managed one of them. He and the manager of the other one were friendly and hired each other’s kids because there were anti-nepotism rules preventing them from hiring their own, so while I was nervous I’d flub the interview, I realize now that there was almost no way I wasn’t getting that job. I got some flak from my area manager who knew who my dad was and made snide comments, but the truth is that I busted my ass at that job; it required it, and it never occurred to me not to work hard; that’s how I was raised, and in any case, I wouldn’t have embarrassed my dad by being a slacker. I was 17 years old; back then, I believed that hard work would be noticed and rewarded.
Mike worked the layaway desk, which was right next to the doors I went in and out of all shift long as I brought stuff out of backstock to fill the racks. The layaway desk was also next to the ladies’ fitting rooms, and it was also my job to put back all the stuff people tried on, so Mike and I had a lot of time to chat when we were on the same shift.
He was 21, was in the Army Reserves and had the crew cut to prove it. He was pretty good-looking, although I do have a distinct memory of him having unusually large nostrils. I think I was slightly taller than he, as well. He was going to community college to become a contractor, and he lived on his own, and this was enough for him to qualify as “sophisticated” to me. In time, we started taking breaks and lunches together, and I’d help him with his work sometimes when my worklist was done and the night was slow. Eventually we had a date, my first one. We went to see Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and afterwards we drove around looking at Christmas lights. There was no goodnight kiss. He didn’t try, and I wouldn’t have had the guts to make the first move. But we kept hanging out at work, and he was my date at the Christmas party. I was pretty proud to have a date at all. And we slow-danced, awkwardly, to Poison. Ah, the romance of it!
I don’t know quite what my parents thought about me and this 21-year-old, but when I asked to attend a party at his place out in Milford, 22 miles west of town, their answer was a resounding “NO.” They were unimpressed with the idea of sending their underage daughter (who had barely been driving a year) out into the country alone on a Nebraska winter night to attend a kegger with a bunch community college kids. At the time, I was totally miffed, but, having lived with my parents my entire life, I hadn’t really expected a different answer. (If it were my 17-year-old, I’d say no, too.) I really do think that put an end to our nascent romance (or what I thought was our nascent romance), though.
Being the naïf I was, though, I didn’t realize it was all over until I received a Valentine’s gift from Shelley, the girl who worked over in the Girls & Infants department. She and I were friendly, but we weren’t gift-giving friendly, so I was surprised. I was confused for moment when I saw that the little card had her name AND Mike’s name on it, but eventually the light dawned. I’d been replaced, and hadn’t even realized it, because he and I still talked all the time at work. But Shelley was of legal drinking age, so, you know, how could I compete with that?
I didn’t have much to say to him after that, and made myself busy on the sales floor, rather than speak to him. I didn’t have much to say to Shelley, either. They’d betrayed me, as far as I was concerned. Things are very black and white when you’re 17. And that is probably the last time they are.
When I was growing up, a song would come on the radio and my folks would be able to tell me exactly the year it came out, and what they were doing when they heard it, and I was amazed at their ability to remember with such precision. But it seems that music is a time machine, the keys to which are granted us by age. I got mine Thursday morning.