i found maria sitting in the guidance office during the first week of my senior year of high school. she was very thin, with a sort of plaid chin-length bob. pretty, but the kind of exotic pretty that the boys of lourdes high school would not recognize for years. she was wearing a combination of clothes that was either inventive and risky, or begged for a sassy magazine tutorial. turns out it was the former: maria was a foreign exchange student from turin, italy, sporting a european color palate that defied conventional minnesota fashion.
i was on year 12 staring at the same faces, navigating the same old personality quirks. i knew about seventy percent of my best friends before they knew cursive. i liked the idea of having a friend who had never seen me with a perm. i wanted to be maria's all-american high school tour guide: the front row at boys' basketball games, maid rite's and mr. misty's from dairy queen, pep fests, watching movies in polish's living room, his mom serving us chocolate chip cookies. slumber parties, state tournaments, sledding at judd park.
everything maria knew about being an american teenager came from watching "90210." unfortunately for her, we were more like "saved by the bell."
maria loved mcdonalds. from the back seat of my car she would pipe: "i would like one hamburger," and hold up her bony index finger.
"hmm," she would say, wrinkling her nose, "i smell somfing ...?"
she studied the eagles' point guard jason, an athletic and cute junior, as he dribbled down the court. "hmmm ...," she said. "is there a potato in his pants?" and then took to calling him "big cazzo" for the rest of the season.
"keep your eyes on the road, your hands. upon. the wheel," she would sing to herself, a huge doors fan.
unlike the rest of american teenagers, maria prefered brenda walsh to kelly taylor. in italy, brenda's dubbed voice was better than kelly's dubbed voice and this made a great difference in beverly hills loyalty.
lourdes high school must have been an endless string of disappointments for maria. she came from a world of discotheques on school nights. we all had curfews. high school dances were supposed to be where girls slapped each other and virginity loss found an audience in the back of a limo, but maria's prom date was just a friend and the kind of friend you don't even brush your teeth for.
on the cusp of 1994, neva threw a new year's eve party in her parent's basement, just like she did every year since eighth grade. bbq weiners, doritos, coke and a card table. maybe a movie or game -- like the previous year when we had thrown names into a hat, then spent three minutes on her water bed kissing one of our boy friends: a handful of guys that ranged from "only three minutes?!" to gay to "can i wrap my face in syran wrap first?"
maria explained to us that in italy it is a tradition to wear red underwear on new year's eve. it brings luck. if you wear purple, on the other hand, you will have terrible luck for the year. princess linda and i took this very seriously. i dug through a discount bin in search of something silky and red. i could use a little luck.
neva's party was my front. princess linda and i were actually scheduled to sneak out her back door sometime around 11 p.m., for a nearby party with the class that graduated a year ahead of us. the night was pure drama. princess linda's crush ignored her; my boyfriend's exgirlfriend called the party from lawrence, kansas, her voice received a hero's welcome. "gawd," i rolled my eyes. "she's a division one basketball player, not ace of base."
neva's mom saw us sneak back into the basement at 6 a.m., but didn't narc us out. neva, however, was mad for the rest of the school year. maybe even now.
neva's party sucked, maria explained. at midnight neva was staring at a game of computer solitaire; betsy was laying on the waterbed. the boys were in the backyard on the playground equipment used by neva's mom's daycare kids.
"... and polish and i were in the living room watching 'dying young,'" maria said, "why would neva rent 'dying young' for a new year's eve party?"
even donna martin knew better than that.
graduation was the final bored shrug for maria: 86 of us wrapped in purple and gold table cloths, crammed into the high school gym. family's sprawled across the bleachers. "do not, under any circumstances, toss your cap into the air," the principal told us, inferring that somehow this infraction would result in summer school or jail.
"i thought we would have graduation outside," maria sighed.
and that's when i knew that no amount of hamburgers, basketball games, dances or doors' tapes could erase the fact that we had stolen a year of maria's life. and she wasn't happy.