Someone Else

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.