For years, I wondered about Susan Cagle, one of the top tier cuties in Fallstaff Junior High. She was petite and beautiful and so very popular as the result. Kids who didn't know Susan at least knew who she was. My most vivid memory of her was one day walking behind her in the hall between classes, mesmerized by the straight blond hair that dropped to the middle of her back, her V-shape of an upper body, her cute butt and those perfect diamond-shaped calves.
Actually, Susan and I went back further than that. I'd bet I'm one of the few who still has their first and second grade class photos, both black and white and shot during the Eisenhower administration. The photos were taken in the late spring, outside on one of the school playgrounds. There's a pig-tailed Susan in the first-grade photo, sitting in the front row in a sailor suit dress, her short legs dangling over the chair. And there's Susan in the second-grade photo, standing right next to me and smiling, her head cocked slightly to the left, just as adorable as she can be, with those pouty lips and high cheek bones and her hair set with bangs and braids.
That summer, her family moved to another zip code and so, come fall, she attended a different elementary school. I didn't see her again until we both entered Fallstaff. My ninth-grade class yearbook contains just headshots of our graduating class, and it reveals Susan with a slightly different hair style (flipped up in the back per the style of the times). Other than that, her looks hadn't changed that much.
We were never an item, not even friends. We were in different classes in junior high, not to mention in different social leagues—she being among the crème de la crème of the school's elite pulchritude. Nevertheless, I thought about approaching her, even had an opening line: 'Hi, did you ever go to Marion Woods Elementary School?' knowing damn well she had. It was an ice breaker of a line that I never had the nerve to pull off. I lost track of her after middle school. Well, almost. In the mid-sixties, there was this dance club for the under-twenty-one set, and one Friday night, I saw Susan Cagle dancing the Boogaloo, cute as ever. Did I approach her then? Nope. Couldn't get up the nerve, even then. We were going to different high schools and then, a few years later, I heard that she had moved to California.
End of story, or it would have been if not for the wonder of the Web and Facebook and this regional Facebook nostalgia group I had joined. Many of the members had attended Fallstaff Junior High and grew up, as I did, in the area. My post was about Charles 21 and Under, that dance club where I had last seen Susan. I asked if anyone remembered it, then added that I had seen Susan Cagle there. Well, my post lit up like a dark sky during a July 4th fireworks display. Susan was incidental to my post, yet not one of the over fifty respondents mentioned the club. It was all about Susan. Several recalled how beautiful she was back in the day. "Gorgeous," one woman wrote. Another said that she car-pooled with Susan to and from high school, while another revealed that she and Susan were neighbors growing up. Another confirmed that she had indeed moved to California a few years after college. A guy claimed he had dated her in junior high, a specious claim, I thought, because nobody actually "dated" in junior high in the sense they did later on. And on it went.
I followed up with another post, prevailing upon Susan to chime in. In a parody of a Beatles song, I wrote: "Send us a postcard, drop us a line, stating point of view. Indicate precisely what you mean to say, yours sincerely wasting away..." Of course, we didn't have a clue if she actually saw what was going on in our little corner of Facebook. Group member Nikki Lascko declined to reveal Susan's current last name. "Sorry, Derrick Shulman," she wrote, "but it's not my story to tell." Nikki did agree to send her a private message about all the fuss; the two had been in touch. She also revealed that Susan and her husband were entrepreneurs, that they owned some restaurants and fitness gyms in Los Angeles and elsewhere.
I kept my expectations in check, thinking that Susan might be embarrassed by all the unsolicited attention. After a week of not hearing anything further, I decided to act on my own. I figured that if Nikki Lascko knew her well enough to send a private message, the two might be friends on Facebook. That's if Nikki even had any friends listed. It turned out she did, over two-thousand of them! In other words, I'd be sifting through an ocean of names, looking for a Susan whose current last name I didn't know, a woman I hadn't seen in over fifty years.
Much to my surprise, it didn't take more than ten minutes after I began to scroll down. After bypassing at least two other Susans, I came to a Suzy Grant. Bingo! I knew I had hit pay dirt only seconds after seeing that postage stamp-sized profile pic on Nikki Lascko's friends list. Some people change beyond recognition through the years. Not Susan Cagle, who became Suzy Grant, just as beautiful as ever, the peak of chic, with her fashionable clothes, long blond hair, mega-watt smile, prominent cheek bones and that cute, perfect little bod that once drove young teen boys wild. Her numerous photos, those on her Facebook site and the ones I found on Bing, spoke for themselves. One showed Suzy all dressed up in a low-cut dress, greeting guests in one of her restaurants. Another showed her in tight leotards, doing stretching exercises in one of her gyms. Other photos showed her next to Kenneth Grant, her husband/business partner. He looked the part of an aggressive and successful entrepreneur, a guy with the sort of looks and personality that someone like Suzy would go for. Tall, with long, coal-black wavy hair and chiseled features, the sort of dude you'd see in the movies when the part called for a handsome but hard, New York kind of masculinity. In fact, according to a Web bio, he landed parts in a couple of major motion pictures in the eighties and nineties. One video showed him and Suzy at the grand opening of one of their restaurants.
So, I had finally "found" Suzy Grant, who had apparently come a long way from that little girl in pigtails. Now what? I wanted to know more, and the only way to do that was to contact Suzy myself. I hesitated, thinking she might not want to be bothered. Then I thought, why not? She could always ignore my message. Nothing lost. Going ahead, I sent her a private message through Facebook. Besides identifying myself, I told her that I still had those class photos from elementary school, and asked if she'd like to see them. "Yes, very much," she messaged back. "Send them through my email."
Her quick response surprised me because I didn't think a woman with so much going on could be bothered with a past life that she might deem trivial, if not forgettable. I scanned the photos (identifying myself in them) and then sent them on, along with my cell number. "Oh my God, these are priceless," she emailed back. "Thanks so much, Derrick. Will call you soon."
True to her word, she did. She thought it was funny, all the attention she got per Nikki Lascko's message. "I didn't think I was that popular," she said, a self-deprecating remark that sounded sincere. Although she grew up in the same region as many of the Facebook group members, she had no desire to join. "I've taken a break from Facebook," she said. "It gets old after a while."
I couldn't resist telling her how good she looked. "Thanks, I work at it," she said. "It helps being a gym owner."
Then I added, "I guess it does. But besides that, you're one of those women, like Sally Field, who will always be cute. No matter your age."
She laughed. "If only I was the actress that Sally is. Anyway, those photos you saw were taken a few years ago."
"Do you still play piano?"
"Yes. Ohmygod, you remember that?!"
It was a vague memory at best, this vision of adorable Susan giving a brief piano recital in front of our class—either first or second grade, I couldn't remember which.
"I can barely remember that," she said. "Wow...it must have made quite an impression on you, the three or four notes, or whatever I could play back then. If you were impressed back then, you might want to hear some Chopin pieces I've learned to play. Do you like classical music?"
"Very much," I said, "including Chopin."
We spent the next few minutes rattling off names in the photos. Suzy left the school after second grade, so she couldn't name as many of the kids as I could. She did fine with those that went on to Fallstaff. Mindy Saiontz. Sheldon Block. Jon Haner. Randi Litofsky. Barbara Klein. "Barbara and I were tight for a while," she revealed. "We lost touch after high school. Years later, I heard she died." I had heard the same thing but neither of us knew the cause of her death.
She asked about me, my life in retirement, marriage, kids, etc. Then I said, "You seem to enjoy an exciting life. It appears that everything has fallen into place for you. We should all be so lucky."
She sighed. "If only. Derrick, you should know by now that nothing is ever what it first appears to be. I've had my share of problems, too. Both Kenneth and me were married before. None of us has the perfect life."
"No, I guess not," I said, "though Facebook can create the illusion of a perfect life."
"That's one of the reasons I'm giving Facebook a rest. Look, since Covid-19, we've been struggling. We've lost eighty percent of our restaurant business. We're restricted to carryout and delivery only. And our gyms, after reopening following the initial surge, were forced to close again. Only outdoor gyms are allowed to operate but we're not one of them. And even when we were allowed to stay open, our membership dropped by over fifty percent. You've heard what they say about gyms being the perfect petri dish for viruses. True or not, people are fearful of catching this thing, and I can't blame them."
"Covid altered our landscape in so many ways," I said. "Before that, from what I can see, you seemed to be doing quite well."
"Yes, at times. But we struggled in other ways. I don't know about your marriage, but mine has been filled with perhaps more ups and downs than many. We've had a couple separations in the fifteen years we've been married. Kenneth is an intense sort of guy, at times a volatile guy. He's, well, he's gotten physical with me. We're still together but things have been more tense than usual because of what this virus has done to our livelihood. Josh, our adopted son who works in the business, has struggled with substance abuse since he was a teen. Of course, you won't see any of this on Facebook."
Indeed, you won't. Suzy and her family are all smiles, allegedly enjoying the sort of life that many would envy. Mine had been far from perfect as well, but thanks to wise investments and a loving second marriage, I've done okay. Still, I've had my struggles. In troubling times, I've looked back to a simpler time—simpler in retrospect, that is. Childhood memories give me a comforting solace. I asked Suzy if thinking about the past helps her cope with the rocky times of the present.
She didn't hesitate. "Yes, absolutely. So many good memories. When I was at Fallstaff, a good time for me was hanging out with friends at the Liberty Mall or listening to Beatles records on my little record player. My dad provided well for my mom, my kid sister Carly and me. He bought us both cars when we turned driving age. He took us to cultural events like plays and the symphony. I went to parties, I had boyfriends."
"Loads of them, I bet."
"Not really, but I did okay. I went with a guy for most of my college years. Anyway, I had a wonderful life back then and still do in ways. I mean, I'm still in relatively good health, Covid-free as are Kenneth and Josh. I don't mean to give the impression that it's all bad. It's just not the perfect, carefree life that people might see on Facebook."
We talked on for a few minutes more before the conversation had run its course.
"Thanks for reaching out," she said. "I'm not an overly sentimental person, but it was fun reliving those memories. Kenneth liked the photos. He joked that he would have hit on me if we had been in class together." She chuckled. "He's actually a bit younger than me."
I then confessed that I had wanted to approach her in junior high but didn't have the nerve. "I thought you were so beautiful, so out of my league."
"Oh my, Derrick, you should have. Yes, I guess I was popular but a snob I wasn't. Listen, if you and you're your wife ever get to LA, give me a call. Maybe we can meet up."
After hanging up, I turned my attention once again to those class photos of long ago. They reminded me of how unpredictable life can be, of roads taken and not taken, of a future that no young grade school kid (or their parents) could ever imagine, of lives, no matter how shining and wonderful they look on Facebook, are filled with the problems and struggles and disappointments we all face. Lives that will never be perfect.