I found out the other day that Julie Dilday was dead.
I met her in Third Grade at Braeburn Elementary, in Mrs. Smith’s class. Dilday came right after Davidson, and we were stuck with each other throughout elementary school.
Julie had the reddest hair and the fairest skin and the greenest Irish eyes of any person I’ve known, before or since, and from the moment we met we were enemies, enemies as only people who like each other and sit next to each other in Third Grade can be. Julie was tall and athletic; I was average height and had an extremely athletic mouth, which Mrs. Smith, and later Mrs. Owen, and after her, Mrs. Livingston, punished liberally, with help from Mrs. Goode, Mrs. Allan, Mrs. Cox, the vice principal Mrs. Riley, and later the principal Mr. Bob Bradford.
In junior high Julie and I were stuck with each other again, this time for three years in Mr. Byrd’s homeroom class. Julie still played basketball and I still played the fool, and we had gone from active enmity to simply ignoring each other. Well, she ignored me. I spent hours of my life staring at her bright red hair.
Since Jane Long Junior High was a long way from home, everyone took the bus except for the handful of weirdos who rode bicycles, and that was me for three years, pedaling rain or shine, in cold or through the brutal Houston heat, astride my gray Murray ten-speed. My route passed the Carlton Woods apartments where Julie lived, and most mornings I’d see her walking to the bus stop, very cool and very pretty, carrying a huge stack of books.
In those days no one had a backpack. Girls carried them out in front with two hands, the books stacked up, and the boys carried them with one hand tucked under their arm. I stuffed mine into an orange Wilderness Experience backpack, the most embarrassing accessory known to junior high man, and quickly became a speed master at whipping it off and stuffing it into my locker before it attracted beatings.
The mornings I rode by Julie’s apartment I always kept an eye out for her bright red hair, and most mornings I saw it. She never saw me, not once, and how could she? I was on a bike. I was invisible.
When high school started I was desperate to ditch the bike and get a driver license, and I did. My mom and dad divorced and my mom took up with a guy ten years younger than her who drove a Pontiac Firebird. Pretty soon she had bought him a very nice car and somehow the Firebird wound up sitting in our driveway, and eventually it became my school car.
My sophomore year I think it was, I got tickets to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. This was right after they came out with Damn the Torpedoes. Of course Julie and I were in the same homeroom again, and I screwed myself up one day and asked her if she wanted to go to the concert with me.
“Sure!” she said.
I was stunned and didn’t know what to say. It seemed as if she had meant it. “Okay,” I said, almost adding “thank you” but catching myself and saying “Great!”
The night of the concert it was weird. We had known each other most of our lives but had never held hands or been in any situation that anyone would ever mistake for a date, and suddenly there we were, around each other for the first time, almost. She was as nervous as I was. The concert was amazing and as we left the Summit a kid ran by and snatched her bag. I gave chase and Julie followed. She was still athletic and fast, and we closed in on the snatcher as he ducked into the underground parking and jumped into a waiting car filled with older, very tough looking guys.
“Give back the purse,” I tried to shout, but it is hard to shout when you are envisioning four people jumping out of a car and smashing your face in.
“Who’s gonna make us?” laughed the driver.
“I’ve got their license number,” Julie said. “Let’s go get the cops.”
The guy tossed her purse back out and they sped off. She picked it up and looked at me. “I can’t believe you chased that kid. I didn’t have anything in my purse. Just a couple of bucks.”
“I wouldn’t have chased him if I’d known he had his family of felons in the car waiting for us.”
Julie laughed. “Yes, you would have. I could tell you didn’t care.”
“I was scared.”
“Me, too,” she said.
We found my car and I drove her home, got out, and walked her to her door. I was shaking, I was so nervous. “Good night,” I said.
I swallowed hard. “Can I kiss you good night?”
“Of course,” she said.
Julie Dilday closed her eyes and tilted her head back, and our lips met. Then before I knew what was happening she had put her arms around me, holding me tighter than I had ever been held in my life, her soft Irish lips covering mine, her mouth “as sweet as horde of apples leyn in hey or heeth,” and her delicate tongue touching mine as she pulled me close.
I thought we kissed for twelve days but it was only for a few seconds. Our mouths unlocked and she put her hands on my chest and gently but firmly pushed me away. I looked at her green eyes, the greenest I have ever seen, before or since, eyes that said “Do you see me now?”
My throat choked up, I didn’t know what to say.
“Glad you ditched the bike,” she said.