Ed's family moved around a lot while he was growing up, which meant that he attended several different junior high and high schools. This in turn provided him with much fodder for sociological observation, and he decided fairly early that there were two basic truths: the first was that there is always an alpha group, jocks, cheerleaders, student body officers, and prom queens. They headed for the soda shop in a body after school, wearing their sweaters like little capes, sleeves knotted across their chests. His second great truth was that he would never qualify to be a member of the alpha group.
He fetched up at another high school in another affluent suburb at the start of his junior year. He and Beverly Westfal were in several classes together: Beverly was generally understood to be dating the captain of the football team, and she was strikingly attractive, though by no means conventionally pretty. In other words, she was close to the top of the alpha heap. It came as a great surprise one day, a couple of weeks into the school year, when she accosted him as they left their history class. "One thing about you puzzles me," she said.
"You're smart, but you dress well. Why is that?"
"It's my mother. She picks out my clothes. Isn't that the usual thing?"
"I guess so," she said. Ed could have retorted with a question of his own: You're dating the captain of the football team, but you aren't shallow and self-absorbed. Why is that? But he refrained.
Nevertheless, they began to banter in the hall between classes, until one day he jokingly asked her out on a date, and she jokingly agreed. They went out. As friends, of course. I don't know how she was able to square this with the football captain, but she did. And it wasn't just the one date; they went out now and then, as friends, of course.
He could see that, despite her social standing, she was thoughtful and not a snob, and he spoke now and then of his views about alpha groups and his sense that he would never quite qualify. "Why not?" she asked him. "You're broad shouldered - in fact, rather attractive." If a high school career were to last 20 years instead of just three or four, he thought, she might have a point; maybe he could somehow work his way in. But as a practical matter, there wasn't time.
In due course, the alphamost of the alphas, along with a small contingent of those who were merely smart but dressed well, were accepted at prestigious universities, and both Beverly and Ed went off to Ivy League schools. That summer, Ed worked as a counselor at a summer camp, and he and Beverly exchanged letters. As friends, of course.
At one point, she confided about an issue that caused near-panic: she asked him how close one can come to the target, so to speak, without scoring an unintentional bulls-eye. Ed had no definitive answer to the gynecological conundrum, but it struck him as entirely appropriate to her relationship with the football captain and certainly an indication that his own relationship with her, while close, was only friendship. And fortunately for her, it proved to be a false alarm.
They kept sending occasional letters and e-mails into the fall, when they started at their respective Ivies. Then Ed's date for the homecoming weekend came down with mono and had to cancel. With football tickets paid for and other arrangements made, he decided to check with Beverly and see if she'd be interested. She was. Even if they were just friends, it would be fun to see her and certainly better than no date at all. They went to the football game; Yale had a good team that year, but the home school won anyhow in an exciting game. They dropped by some fraternity parties. Ed realized that, even if he didn't take this as seriously as he might, Beverly was impressed.
They got back to his room; Ed had some vague idea that they'd just chat for a while as friends, and then he'd take her back to the rooming house. Beverly sat down on his bed. "Ed," she said, "I've always wondered if you kiss as well as Bob Wendel." This was new. Bob Wendel wasn't her football captain, but he was another A-lister from back in high school. Her tone was jocular, but then, they'd never completely dropped the jokes.
"You're not serious," said Ed, keeping up the jocular tone. In fact, for reasons he wouldn't have been able to explain fully, he was hoping the whole thing would stay at a joking level.
"I mean it, Ed," she said. "I want you to kiss me." She adopted an exaggeratedly theatrical vamping pose and pulled the neck of her sweater to the side, over her shoulder. Her bra strap sat in plain sight, clean and white, almost hygienic. The thought crossed his mind that it was probably an expensive bra. "Really," she said. "Are you a good kisser?"
"You're teasing me," he answered, keeping up the jocular tone. The moment passed. There would be no kissing, no business with boobs. Their e-mails and letters after that trailed off.
Years later, the news got to him - he could never quite remember how - that the guy she married, not the football player and not Bob Wendel, had fallen dead of a heart attack at age 38. It wasn't really a narrow escape he'd had, he reflected, but it was indeed an escape.