I first fell in love in 1975 at the ripe old age of nine. A neighbor took a bunch of us kids to see the rock opera and cinematic event “Tommy”. The film traumatized me deeply at the time but also provided me with my first taste of that blessed nectar, true love. The object of my affection was none other than the 30-year-old star of the film, the delicately handsome and terrifically swoon-worthy Roger Daltrey from the rock band The Who. Later on in life I developed other crushes, all seemingly informed by that first crush on the blue-eyed blond-haired beauty Roger Daltrey. I loved them all. A tanned and permed Christopher Atkins in the Blue Lagoon, Billy Idol, the bad boy from the UK music scene, even Dolph Lundgren, the Swedish hunk who played Rocky’s Russian nemesis Ivan Drago in one of the one-too-many Rocky reboots. I see now, embarrassingly enough, that all the crushes from my early years looked like something out of the Aryan Nations handbook. Blond hair, blue eyes, chiseled chin. Not the easiest thing to find in Westchester, New York in the 1980s.
So imagine my delight when I found myself freshman year of high school hanging out in a group with none other than THE Cruise O’Connor. Cruise had all my young-girl-crush specifications: blond hair, blue eyes, a sharp jaw. But he had something else. And it wasn't just his exotic and spicy first name. Cruise was wild and cool at the same time. There was a glint in those glacial blue eyes, something icy and intimidating. Those cat-like nordic looking eyes of his. Sardonic, twinkling, inviting and aloof at the same time, barely visible through the long straight blond hair framing his face on either side. I was hooked. So I mooned over Cruise for the next two years, in the way that only a love-sick teenage girl can moon. Ceaselessly. Two years of surreptitiously staring at him, only to have him or his friends bust me. Two years of walking slowly down hallways hoping to “bump into” him. I memorized his schedule, knowing where he would be and when - if he went to class that is. Two years of linking our names in every font imaginable and practicing the numerous variations of my future name on any surface that could hold lead or ink. Practice for when we were married, when we had a joint bank account and I needed to sign our checks. We were friends, in the same group, and I played it cool. Probably too cool now that I think about it. But Cruise was always on my mind, always in my thoughts, like an itch that you just can’t scratch. It was a long two years.
Cruise's house was not close to mine but I found an excuse to ride my bike over there to hang out whenever it seemed plausible that I would be in his neighborhood. Babysitting perhaps? Soccer practice? Visiting a friend? Lost? Once I could drive I simply circled his house like a shark stalking its prey. Driving around and around his block, willing him to appear in the middle of the street. Playing scratchy cassettes of music that I knew he might like, The Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd. All in the hopes that….. What? That he would suddenly materialize and finally realize that I was the girl of his dreams and we could elope together? Drive off into the sunset in my ancient VW rabbit? Have some ice cream? Go see a movie together? I assume it’s because I was young or immature or just made very nervous by these new “feelings” but all my fantasies regarding Cruise were very innocent, very reserved. I didn’t have a real boyfriend until I got to college so I had no idea what a “high school romance” was supposed to look like.
Cruise’s kingdom was the basement of his family home. A basement that could be accessed by his driveway. A driveway that sloped right off of the street where he lived in a compact Tudor. You could park your bike or car in front of the house and just mosey on over to the basement door, about 50 feet and a small hill down from the road. The excellent benefit of this entrance was that there were no pesky parental units to deal with on your way in. The basement was where most of the action took place. I felt like Cruise's basement was the nucleus for a few different groups of people. Cool kids, burnouts, athletes, the occasional nerd, a bully or two, the works. Part of the appeal of this lair I imagined, for the sports fans anyway, was a small television set that was set up in the corner and always seemed to be tuned to some sports channel. But this was the 80s. Sports broadcasting was like watching a never ending blizzard, the players and whatever the hell they were doing almost invisible through the terrible reception and haze-filled static of that era's immature technology.
There Cruise would hold court, leaning back on his pleather couch, his arms spread wide over the back. In his jeans and a concert t-shirt, his omnipresent Marlboro red would hang from his lip, making him squint his right eye in a gesture that I found heart-thumpingly adorable. Everyone smoked back then. But no one could smoke like Cruise. Even as a freshman in high school he must have been going through a pack a day. And although today that might be seen as a turnoff, back in high school in the eighties it was just plain old cool. In fact, everything about Cruise was just plain old cool.
Occasionally Cruise’s mother would call down into her son’s domain from the stairs which led from the kitchen down to the basement. The door would fly open and the light from the kitchen would pour down, mixing in with the light cast by the bare bulb shining weakly from the ceiling. The light struggling valiantly to shine its way through the blueish cloud of cigarette smoke that always hung in the room if Cruise was in residence.
“Cruise!!!! Cruise O’Khanna!!!!” she would yell, her voice and accent so redolent of Boston that it felt quite exotic to me. “Is your mother from America?” I had asked him the first time I heard her voice blazing down the stairs. Cruise would lean his head back on the couch, not bothering to get up or even turn his head.
“Ma!!!! What??! MA!!!” he would yell, head thrown back, blond hair spilling down the back of the couch, vulnerable white neck exposed, his face pointing up to the ceiling.
“Cruise O’Khanna! It smells like smoke up he-yah. Are you smokin’ down they-ah? Answer me! Cruise…?????”
And then Cruise would bark back, “NO! Ma! No one’s smokin'” as he lit his next cigarette with his old one and winked at his cohorts, one of whom, thrillingly that day, was me.
My mooning went on for two years until one night - the summer between sophomore and junior year - when Cruise and I found ourselves alone at a party at Bella Romanov’s house.
We went for a walk and held hands. We gazed into each other’s eyes and poured our young hearts out to each other. This was so many decades ago it’s hard to pin down the exact details but all I know is that the next morning (we had all stayed over at Bella's as her parents were out of town - boys with boys, girls with girls) Cruise was looking at me the way I had been looking at him for 24 straight months. He looked lovesick, gaga, intoxicated, and I suddenly realized how I had looked all through my freshman and sophomore years. Suddenly I had to get out of there. I felt itchy and short of breath. I didn't have a car so I asked my friend for a ride home, tripping over my own feet in my haste to get the hell out of there.
And just like that our roles were reversed, permanently and irrevocably. Now Cruise was mooning over me, as obsessed with me as I had been with him, and I wanted nothing to do with him. Nothing at all.
That to me was the first time ever that I experienced what I now call the Cruise O’Connor effect. The sad realization that the minute I had something (something that I’d spent two solid years pining for, mind you) I no longer wanted it. I fought and plotted and manipulated to get what I wanted and the minute it was mine I got scared and I talked myself right out of it. Maybe it was simply the chase that I liked. I was done with Cruise the second I knew he liked me. I was off to the next conquest, the next goal, the next Cruise O’Connor or whatever it was that I wanted so badly I could taste it. What is it with me? Why am I never satisfied? I was irritated with myself and my confounding dissatisfaction then, and I still am now.
After high school Cruise and I went our separate ways. But we still had many friends in common and kept in touch that way. I dreamt about Cruise often. More often than any of my other high school friends in fact, and it was always the same dream. A sort of peach-tinted hazy high school throwback, me mooning over Cruise and then the all-in-one-day complete turnaround of him mooning over me. The pathos of it. The young unrequited love of it. Our youth in the dreams. It’s poignant and nostalgic and I wake up sad.
A few years ago I got a call from one of our close friends. Cruise was dead. He was in his early fifties and died of multiple organ failure after years of battles and struggles with addiction. It got him in the end, leaving his ex-wife, his two children and all of his friends and family deeply heartbroken. My friend who called me sent me the last photo of Cruise that he had taken, a few weeks before he died. Cruise is sitting at his sister's kitchen counter. He definitely looks worse for wear. 30 years of addiction will do that to a person. But the hair is the same, falling in his eyes like old times, as is the mischievous and adorable smile, as are those bright blue eyes.
I wonder now if what pulled Cruise and me toward each other with such magnetism in our early years was related to the fact that we both grew up to be alcoholics and addicts. We had the same disease even then. The same dis-ease. The same anxious apartness. Maybe we felt that connection, without really understanding what that feeling was. What it was that drew us toward each other. We could see each other, we could feel each other. Maybe we could recognize the budding addict in each other, the loneliness of that. Whatever it was, it was a strong bond at the time.
I wish I had told Cruise that he had been a special person to me in high school. That I thought of him as a friend from my youth and dreamt of him often. That he was the inspiration for the Cruise O’Connor effect story. A parable that I use to remind myself to try and appreciate what I have at all times. To be very careful about telling myself stories about what I think I want. Of course back then neither of us knew what paths we would take and how the monster of addiction would eventually bring us both to our knees…and one of us to an early grave.