The loves of my childhood and youth were romantic obsessions
which fuel and inspire my soul to this day.
The most magical of my loves were the earliest, the most sublimated—and the most childish.
♥ My first love was Mary of the golden hair. I was confused about beauty as a child. For many years I thought that being blonde meant the same as being “beautiful”. Perhaps this notion came from fairy tales, sappy TV specials, or Barbie commercials. Maybe even religious art (?) In Mary’s case, this conception was absolutely true. From Kindergarten to 6th grade, I dreamed vague dreams of Mary. An incoherent yearning would affect me when I thought of her. I longed to impress her. I became self-conscious and show-offy when I talked to her. I recall having hero-fantasies, in some mythical context, about saving her. I imagined myself as Tom Sawyer and she as Becky and we two trapped in the cave. I wanted to be good at sports—for her. I wanted her to like me and applaud my grade-school triumphs. I would write her initials, like some sort of magic cipher, on my composition book and then scribble over it or erase it before anyone could read it but me:
I LOVE M.W.
I love M. W.
Two anecdotes, two jewels of memory I will always cherish from the days of Mary:
I was actually not in her class that year. The obsession must have begun in second grade the year before. My friend Charles and I were in third grade. I remember craning my neck often to look through the door that joined the two 3rd-grade classrooms, hoping for a glimpse of golden tresses of the distant Mary. One day, Charles invited me to his house following school. After being shown his glow-in-the-dark monster models, eating a snack and exploring the spacious garden, we played on his swing-set. In the elegant shadow of his family’s imposing home, Charles suddenly confided in me shyly. I recall to this day his foot scuffing lines in the sandy dirt below his swing to the sounds of passing traffic beyond the garden wall as he revealed his secret:
You know what? I love someone . . .
I found this intriguing, since I also loved someone in my heart of hearts.
I love somebody too, I said.
There ensued pregnant seconds of silence.
Then I asked him:
Who do YOU love?
Mary W, he murmured.
I was elated and crestfallen at the same time; elated because my playmate had confided such a world-shaking secret to me but also alarmed and disappointed that we both loved the same girl.
I said to Charles:
Guess what: I also love Mary . . .
I don’t remember anything further about that afternoon with my friend Charles. I only know that there was a slight confusion and momentary alarm, which passed quickly enough, as I realized that others besides me also loved Mary. We went on playing in the way all 3rd graders play and the afternoon lengthened into dusk . . .
The second fortuitous coincidence of my grade-school crush occurred the following year, in fourth grade. My yearning for Golden Mary was as strong as ever (although a new girl from California was beginning to glimmer and vie with the Marian magic). It was December. Amid the grey chill and icy slush of New England winter, the inner flame of Mary burned warm as Christmas vacation drew near. We were picking Secret Santa recipients out of a can held by our beloved Teacher, Miss P. I drew a small piece of paper and thrilled as I read Mary’s name upon it. I was amazed and elated at this marvelous and auspicious providence. I knew just what to get her. This was the early 70’s and everyone played with trolls, those pug-faced shiny-eyed plastic figures with long colored hair. The fateful last school-day of 1972 arrived. I am sure there were cookies, games, Christmas songs and assemblies . . . but what stands out forty-seven years later is this: when it came time to exchange gifts, there was a double delight from heaven for me. Now, this secret-Santa affair was strictly random; the seventeen names of my classmates had been mingled in the can from which we all drew. The probability was slim that it could happen—but it did. Mary had also picked MY name and so we exchanged gifts that winter afternoon, as far as I know the only pair in the class who had picked each other. I think she also gave me a troll. Tell me there is no omniscient God ruling in fourth grade affairs.
♦ In 1972 a secret love began smoldering deep within my Fourth grade soul. A new girl, Emmy, had joined our class in the first weeks of September. She was unremarkable; pleasant and present. It became known that she was from distant and mysterious California, a state I knew nothing about. As the first weeks of school became months, I found myself strangely attracted to this new arrival from distant coasts. I don’t know why Emmy B. made such an impression on me. I recall intense details about her: light brown wavy hair, a silvery laugh, and a slight accent, indefinable, something that set her apart from the New England kids in the cohort I had known since preschool. California began to appeal to me in some vague exotic way; notable because Emmy was from there. Her name began to take on significance and magic. I began to notice what she wore, how she smiled, what kind of jokes she made.
This was the first time I got a ten-speed bike. It was a Christmas gift, and it seemed to me a very extravagant thing. The down-curved handlebars and the dual stick-shifts really had me dazzled. I remember I had coveted this bike at the store and probably pestered my parents about buying it for me. It cost in dollars something close to the date of that romantic year of ’72, which seemed an impossibly high price to my mind. Later, as spring warmed the Northeast, kids began biking to school. It seemed noteworthy that Emmy B. rode a Motobecane racing bike, another exotic name I always associate with her in memory. My friend once mocked her by calling it a motor-pecan, and I flinched at this callous outrage.
It must be partly due to Emmy that I developed a love of rhyming poetry. Miss Prescott had asked all of us to memorize a poem. It may have been in late winter, I’m not sure. I chose Tennyson’s The Eagle, mainly because it was short but I also liked the sound of it. Emmy had developed an inseparable bond with another girl; it was one of those grade-school best-friendships where the two students are so often together their names meld into one, in this case DebbyandEmmy. They requested permission to memorize their poem together. Finally the week of recitation arrived. I had no problem rattling off my six lines of avian intensity . . . but later, Debby and Emmy blew the whole class away. They stood up and flawlessly intoned Alfred Noyes’ Highwayman in its entirety. I can still see them before the grey-green board and smell the chalk-dust of that hallowed moment. Those two girls looked us all in the eye, stated title and author, then launched into it, every galloping rolling stanza. I had never heard of it. I can never forget it. They did the whole thing from memory.
We presented a Greek drama that spring outdoors in a sacred grove.
It was the abduction of Persephone to the underworld by Hades. I was Hades.
I think Emmy was Persephone but she might have been Demeter or a member of the chorus, not sure. The fact that I remember her as Persephone to my Hades says a lot. In any case, I recall adoring her in her chiton. As spring grew warmer, Emmy started wearing these embroidered girl-shorts to school. I have a distinct visual memory of the floral designs along the hem. By this time, I was smitten. I found her very . . . fascinating. She had said she was moving back to California at the end of the year. I learned that she lived on Appleton Street, about 10 blocks away. That name began to conjure up magic in my fourth grade soul. Sometimes I would ride my bike past her home, a grey house with high walls enclosing a shady yard. With racing heart, pedaling past those high barriers, I would think to myself: somewhere inside that house lives Emmy, the mysterious Californian whom I adore. The place held my soul in bondage and enchantment. But I knew she was leaving in June and would not be in fifth grade with all of us.
When school ended that year, after the Mayday celebration and with the plaintive melodies still ringing, the reality that Emmy was leaving hit me very hard. I had not even said goodbye and now school was over. I rode my bike alone past her house, but did not know if they had already moved out. A great melancholy overwhelmed my mind. I never saw her again. I sometimes pray for her still.
♠ 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 long-ships 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, three continents and six 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.
♣ Peggy was fifteen in 1979, a freshman at our prep school. Sephardic soul in a tawny body, she had a mane of frizzy dark hair which usually reeked of cigarette smoke. I learned to love that magic smell. Sometimes she wore Candies™ high-heels and encased herself in tight jeans.
She did interesting things with her hair: some days in a bun pinned with massive hairpins, long oriental tendrils trailing; other days a Pre-Raphaelite look, locks beatifically bound at her shoulders. I recall twin pigtails of dark delight as well as a massive Pocahontas braid once. Her eyebrows sloped at a dizzying angle. They made her look like an enraged dakini-goddess, but the fearsome brows only accentuated her inherent kindness. I don’t know if she plucked them that way or if it was an exaggeration of the natural line, but they dazzled me to no end, those crazy eyebrows.
We were in Biology, Music Theory, and French together. In one math classroom she had scrawled ‘Planet Darvon’ on the desk. Peggy was somewhat extreme, for a 15 year-old . . .
As the year progressed we started sitting together in Biology. We passed notes and generally mocked the teacher and certain classmates. It amazed me that she seemed to enjoy our friendship. I felt privileged in her deigning to favor me. We got high in the woods a few times. Peggy drank and smoked somewhat. I remember one morning in music class she looked at me with her crazy-beautiful olive smile and said:
Hook, I woke up this morning and did six shots of poison before breakfast.
She meant Vodka. I could barely conceive of such a thing. The amazing aspect of it all was her effortless ability to live this way and get good grades. She was musical; she taught herself the piano solo in Skynyrd’s Call me the Breeze and played it for me like it was nothing. She had hard-rock albums by April Wine and Crack the Sky. The fact that I recall the names of these bands proves my infatuation with her. When Boston played at Boston Garden, she saw them first and told me about it. I saw them a show or two later. She also had Skeletons in the Closet, a collection of Grateful Dead hits. Years later, I learned to appreciate the Dead due to memories of her.
There was a dance that spring at a venue next to a country club with a golf course. I remember her mischievous smile when she informed me that she had scored a bottle of apricot brandy to drink together. We sneaked out of the dance and lay under the stars on an immaculately-trimmed putting green next to a sand-trap, partaking of the forbidden libation. Whenever I hear More Than a Feeling, I think of Peggy.
The fragrance of that amazing mass of hair impregnated with cigarette smoke overwhelms me once again. I see her Semitic gray-green cat eyes and the arch of her brows, I recall how perfect she looked in her designer jeans, her laugh, her walk, her voice, sitting next to me in class passing notes. I didn’t deserve that she should even gaze at me.
She left my school after that spring to attend another, and as our romance faded, all she offered in parting was a bottle of vodka she was hiding from her parents and a nonchalant
well Hook I guess this is it—bye bye . . .
then she walked away into oblivion, through a corridor of trees lining Main Street in dazzling late spring light, just like Maryann in the Boston song. I never saw her again. I still think about her almost every day. It is strange what the feminine other can do to an impressionable mind. I am still stoned on memories of a girl who will always be perfectly fifteen in the spring of 1979.