The loves of my childhood and youth were for the most part purely romantic obsessions which fuel and inspire my soul to this day. Until the end of 9th grade, I had never kissed a girl. The most magical of my loves were the earliest, the most sublimated—and the most childish.
♠ In 1976 my family moved to East Africa where I attended school with students from all over the world. From the swelter of America’s Bicentennial Disco summer I was transplanted to live in Kenya. ABBA was topping the charts as I fell hard for the Nordic girls in 8th Grade. It was still a sublimated yearning type of affair, the truth is I had not even reached puberty yet; my late-blooming mind was unable to assimilate these Scandinavian maidens. They had wild names that evoked Varangian longships and fjords in morning mist: Inga Johanssen, Erika Skudal, Kristen Hafstad, and Else-Merete of the red-gold hair. I had schoolboy crushes on most of them, but it was more a sense of awe and pre-pubescent infatuation. Sometime at the start of 9th grade, my second year at the school, I noticed a rare creature on the schoolbus. I recall her silky shirt and her slender face. I can’t recall quite what it was. . . but this new girl made a massive impression on me. I learned that her name was Else and she was Norwegian. She was one year behind me, in 8th grade, so I only caught glimpses of her here and there around campus, yet she seemed to have cast some sort of spell on my soul. She awakened a hormonal interest that had lain dormant until her arrival. Yet, I rarely saw her and had no chance to even utter a word to her. I knew I was leaving that school next year. My unspoken longings intensified. Many of my cohort were already getting high, talking locker-room raunch and making out at parentless parties I never attended, but I was still an earnest, skinny youth.
Then, at the end of that year, it all came together. One day I found a note slipped into my locker: You are a cute boy. I was elated and panic-stricken all at once. It turned out that Else and her Ethiopian friend had put the note there. Someone told me: she likes you. I think I asked her friend about this. I remember some girlish giggling and the onset of a long and intense euphoria. I wound up slow-dancing and making out with her at the last dance of the year. I still couldn’t believe she liked me. I became aware at close range of her beauty. I went out with her to a movie where I held her hand: rocket to Venus.
We made out some more on her sofa. She lent me her older brother’s records. Because of Else, I will adore Santana’s Greatest Hits (white dove on black breast) unto the grave and beyond. I listened to Queen’s Day at the Races over and over, just because it was lent to me by her. I still think of her when I hear ‘Drowse’ and ‘Tie Your Mother Down’.
A Nairobi vignette: The first time I got dropped off at her home near Westlands for dinner, I was met at the door by her younger brother, who was about 6 or 7. He scowled up at me and pointing, said: You—Pakistan. It took a while for me to grasp that he thought I was Pakistani. Soon after that hostile welcome, Else told me in a fearful hush that she had noticed something strange.
Come up on the roof with me, she whispered.
We crawled out of a window of her home, which was one in a line of contiguous tract-style ranch houses with small low-walled courtyards in each adjoining house. She pointed down to an irregular dark blot on the ground of the neighboring yard as she spoke:
The people who live next to us are African. There used to be a dog constantly barking, every day and all night. But a day ago it became completely silent. I think that is the dog’s skin there.
I craned my neck to peer into the silent courtyard of Else’s neighbors. The dark blot was indeed something like a freshly flayed animal skin pegged-out around the edges to dry on the grass . . . maybe they were not African. Maybe they were Korean. But I know what I saw.
Else’s Icelandic mother offered me some unfamiliar food, I think it was fish in some sort of dill-sauce. Else’s father told me his daughter had been sleepwalking recently; they had found her gathering things from her closet after midnight. When asked what she was doing she had answered, somnambulistically, that she was going somewhere with me. I soon left Africa to begin 10th grade at a boarding school in New England.
When I saw her again at Christmas vacation, 3 continents and 6 months later, the magic was gone. I had become a self-conscious zit-faced adolescent geek and she was going out with her Ethiopian friend’s older brother.