First Girl

Dating at thirteen is never what you expect: a mishmash of guesswork and lucky moves.

Diary Entry, May 8, 1961[1]

IN WHICH I learn not quite enough about love.

On the playing field of girlfriend getting, my best friend Steve scored a touchdown his first try. He was always besting me: he got the first clangy barbell set, the first model airplane kit, and the first victory over the rascals of recess. He went after what he wanted and usually got it. No doubt he still does. So when Steve suddenly announced he had a girlfriend, Paula Grodin, a sweet, cute, and what my father would call “filled-out girl,” I had some feelings about it.

“I can’t believe it. You got a girl before me!” I shouted at him that balmy spring day.

The Redoubtable Paula

Even though I’d seen Steve and Paula walking through the park together, we’d made a solemn vow that I’d be the first girlfriend-getter and not him. I figured I’d be doing him a huge favor by warning him of hazardous road conditions up ahead.

“Was an accident,” he said. “I bumped into her in the hall.”

Alas, true, I was a witness. What really happened was that two days before, during period change, he’d bumped into her chest with his shoulder blades and almost immediately rushed over to tell me. “Man, they’re spongy!” Then he turned around and followed her to her next class, which wasn’t his, so they threw him out.

“Hey, we were supposed to plan this girl thing,” I said. “So what’d you say to her?” I asked.

“You mean after I explained boobs to you?” he said. “I went over and apologized and said I’d get her an ice cream.”

“You bribed her? That doesn’t count.”

“Come on, Rip Van Winkle, wake up! How you think guys around here get girls? You can’t do their homework for them; they’re too smart already. So you get ‘em something from Putnam Pantry. Anything. Anything they want. Can’t believe you’re so dumb you don’t know that. Even Timmy Nurdan knows it. Look who he’s hanging around with. Dolores Mitchell.”

“Yeah, a sixth-grader!”

“What the hell. Look at Dougie Small. He just landed the prettiest girl in the class, Lois Howell. And he’s short!”

Lois Howell. He could have her as far as I was concerned. True, she was a looker and a good dancer, but she was way too . . . observant. She liked pointing out that my fly was down. You’d think that after she’d nailed it the first time, I’d be extra careful to keep it zipped up. But I didn’t, and she pointed it out an additional three or four times. She was taller than I, so it was obvious when she was looking down to catch me unzipped.

“Dougie’s not short,” I said, “Same height we are.”

“Man, you deaf too? You haven’t heard? He stayed back twice, so he’s two years older. Time we’re his age, we’ll be bigger than him.”

That proved to be true.

“So Dougie Small really is small?”

“You got it. Someday Lois’ll be taller than him and out he goes.”

Also true.

“So, wanna play touch football?” Steve asked.

Fist on my chin, I tried my new “serious thinking” pose. “Not today. I gotta digest this.”

“Good idea. Just don’t puke it up.”

Steve and Paula hung around everywhere seventh-grade regulations called for. Like the gym. Whenever there was a dance, they’d sit next to each other and trudge across the dance floor to songs like “All I Have To Do Is Dream” by The Everly Brothers. They slumped along because Steve was a worse dancer than I. Paula didn’t care, as long as he didn’t steer her into a basketball post. She was so trusting that most of the time she danced with her eyes closed. Probably pretending he was Tab Hunter.

I tried, really tried, to get my own girlfriend. Brown-haired and slender Noreen Murray seemed a likely prospect. She maybe liked me because I’d caught her smiling my way more than once, so after school I gave her a Hostess cupcake I’d saved from the cafeteria.

“Thanks. I’m starving. These are really good.”

“Yeah, but they don’t make ‘em here. Heard they ship ‘em in.”

She wolfed it down and I got her going about our math teacher, Miss Augier, who had some weird ideas about homework. Like me, Noreen didn’t care for Augier, a stern stocky woman who the class wits among us called Miss Asia (not me, not because it was cruel but because it wasn’t funny). But to my delight Noreen remembered my classroom jokes.

“That thing you said about the way she graded. You know, the F grade. That was as funny as you know what.”

First day of class, Miss Augier told everybody to shut the hell up by saying “All right people, may I have your attention.” It wasn’t a question. She barked it out with such a deep voice that she actually got everyone’s attention, quicker than any male teacher would have. I was slightly amazed but not enough to be really impressed.

“We have a very special rule around here about homework. You miss turning in one assignment, your grade drops by one third of a point. For example, if you were going to get a B- this term, you would get a C+ instead.”

Until she said this, it hadn’t occurred to me that grades were divided into thirds. So I decided to push the matter.

“Miss Augier, what happens if you were going to get a D-? Does that mean you get an F+?”

“No, an F is an F. There are no degrees of failure. You either fail or you don’t.” I knew that. I was just being a wise ass and I got about four laughs from others who knew it, too, including Noreen. But not Miss Augier. I tried a few more times that year to get a rise out of her, and gave up. In the entire school year, I never made her smile even once. Big fat zero for me.

But Noreen got my sense of humor! Maybe she and I had a lot in common.

A week or so later, I saw her at a school sock hop, but we were allowed to keep our shoes on. I pointed that out to Noreen and she sort of laughed. Just one “ha.”

“So Noreen. You wanna dance?”

“Uh, all right.”

She wrinkled her eyebrows like she was still thinking about it.

“It’s okay,” I said “I’ve been to dancing school. Two whole years. I can do the foxtrot real good.”

She took my left hand. “Oh yeah, that one. I learned to dance, too, but my Aunt Millie taught me because she’s, uh, she teaches ballet.”

“Huh, that’s interesting.”

“Which doesn’t mean I learned ballet, even though my mother got me free lessons because she plays the piano in my aunt’s studio. Classical piano.”

“My grandfather plays classical music on his violin. But you can’t dance to it.”

“It was always steamy hot there, and I must’ve gone 100 times and took 100 lessons and I still didn’t get it.”

“Yeah, I’m that way with the Hully Gully. Too many steps.”

Plié this and Port de bras that, and those arabesques, boy were they hard!”

“Wait, is that French?” I wondered.

“I couldn’t hold the arabesque, I kept tipping over!”

“They make you learn French?”

Her hand was starting to sweat, and the one on my shoulder felt hot.

“Just some words. And my leotard got two holes in it, one in a really bad place, so my mother finally said ‘teach her something easy,’ so she taught me the foxtrot, which I sort of learned. But I can see you didn’t, I mean not exactly, because isn’t it supposed to go slow, slow, quick, quick, and you’re doing it like slow, slow, quick, not-so quick? Right?”

She didn’t stop talking, then shifted gears and was chattering so extra fast her hands got even sweatier and both her arms were trembling. I had no idea what was happening, or why she seemed so scared because hey, I wasn’t exactly a scary guy.

So could I deal with a girl who shook every time I had my arm around her waist? Solicitous questions – “Something wrong? You upset about something?” – were still decades beyond any of us.

Almost a Girlfriend

I ended this romance before it began.

The next day I asked Steve about Paula. “She got any friends?”

He rolled his eyes.

“A sister?”

He shook his head.

One whole girlfriendless-year later, on another balmy spring day, I started walking the mile to afternoon Monday school because my bike chain had fallen off the day before. It was actually called “Christian Doctrine Class” and all public-school Catholic kids had to attend the 90-minute sessions. It was assumed – correctly – that we weren’t getting nearly enough religious instruction. We started this training at thirteen, about the time our hormones were kicking in. That day in May a pretty girl named Elizabeth Atkinson walked past me.

“Going to Monday school?” she said.

“Yes.”

“I’ll walk with you.”

I’d noticed her before. She had blonde hair, medium length so I could just see her cute little ears, which had clip-on kitty earrings. What really got me were her contrasty black eyebrows, which set off her larger-than-normal eyes and friendly face. In school I had used any excuse to interact with her. Asking for a pencil usually worked, except when it was obvious that I already had one. Once when that happened, she just giggled and said “Oh, here’s another one anyway.”

Our Monday school teacher that day was Father Cronin, a burly man with a buzz cut who looked like he ate dumbbells for breakfast.

“How many of you have seen the film The Ten Commandments?

Probably every hand in the room went up, but then I didn’t bother looking in back of me. I’d seen it one and a half times, the last time up until the scene in which Moses’s staff turns into a snake. After that, it was all downhill.

“Well, that’s very good, I would expect all of you to have seen this very fine film. But there is one important part that they left out. According to the Old Testament, during the years of captivity, the Israelites suffered greatly at the hands of the Egyptians.”

I already knew that. Ho hum.

“Among the many indignities they experienced, their women were made to dress in immodest clothing.”

Didn’t know that. Tell us more, Father Cronin.

“This had . . . disastrous consequences, both for then and for now. So let me get right to the point, young people. That problem is still with us. Recently I heard a rock ‘n roll song with disturbing lyrics. You may have heard it, too: ‘she’s wearing tight dresses and lipstick.’ It is emblematic of our times that such an image would be glorified in popular music on the radio.”

Okay, usually my mind wandered all over the place in Monday school, but this handy historical fact focused me. I wondered if the Israelite girls were forced to wear short tight dresses that slowly rode up their thighs when they sat down, so high you could see their underpants like Roberta Brayson’s in home room. In no time at all, I got a thumping erection.

What, Me Impious?

I had to squelch it somehow, particularly with Elizabeth sitting right next to me. My eyes wandered around the room for tamping-down distractions. I started with the crucifix on the left, with Jesus’s body painted in only three colors: cross-wood brown, dying-man tan, and drippy-blood red. Oh yes, and poached-egg white for his huge loincloth. Then I moved over to the flag, with its tarnished brass eagle, and down to Father Cronin’s shoes, black, scuffed, with at least three mud stains. That did it, things went back to normal. I’d finally figured out a way to control the cursed thing! So I thought. I didn’t know then that its trouble-causing days were far from over.

Soon Elizabeth and I were walking together more often than just back and forth to Monday school. I escorted her home a mile every afternoon it wasn’t raining. We bought each other ice cream cones. We chatted about so many things she became the one girl that I’d talked to the longest about anything. The first time we talked on the phone I was actually scared she’d answer, but she did after two rings. The phone conversation, which I made in my parents’ bedroom to ward off my brother, went so well that I immediately forgot everything we talked about. But I did remember this: when we said goodbye, I heard her shout in the background, “Dad, it was Peter!” Wow, I thought. My calling had been some kind of event.

While on the phone or walking, we talked about almost everything.

First Girl I Could Talk With

“I love going to see my grandmother in Hamilton,” she said, “because she’s so sweet.”

“My grandfather’s really cool,” I replied. “He helped me put together a plastic dinosaur. It’s a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and it’s right on top of our television so we see it each time Cheyenne’s on.”

She looked at me blankly, so I changed the subject. She obviously wasn’t crazy about extinct behemoths or Clint Walker, so we talked about kids in school.

“Denise Braun’s got a Dutch-boy haircut now,” she said.

“Yeah, and it didn’t help. She doesn’t even look Dutch. Or like a boy.”

One afternoon I finally nerved it up to ask, “Do you, like, want to go to the graduation prom with me?”

“Oh!”

“You don’t have to if you don’t want.”

“Of course I want to. That’s great! Yes, of course yes!”

“Just hope there’ll be more slow dances than fast ones.”

“So what difference would that make?”

So I can hold you real close and press against your most wonderful breasts.

“Uh, I’m not that good at fast dances.” I had to be extra careful about accidentally saying something too true.

“No?”

“But I can slow dance. The foxtrot.”

“Oh, I know that.”

“Why they call it the foxtrot? I’ve never seen a fox trot, have you?”

I don’t remember how she answered. But she did say something about not knowing what she was going to wear and that she’d better get busy.

I shrugged. What was I supposed to say? That I’d be happy if she went in a yellow polka-dot bikini?

She said “Don’t worry, I’ll figure out something.”

It was years before I came across another girl who knew I couldn’t find the right words because I was talking to a girl.

She taught me not to take things so seriously. One day on a walk home I told her about what had happened in shop class.

“Mr. Humphreys caught me tossing sawdust at some kid so he went bananas! He turned over three trash cans, and handed me a broom. Then he said ‘That floor better be so clean you can eat off it.’” I shook my head like I was trying to shake loose the shame of it all.

Elizabeth stopped walking, looked right at me and tilted her head slightly. “Don’t worry about him. He obviously overreacted.”

Right then I figured she was the wisest person I’d ever met. Without knowing it, she was giving me relationship training. How do boyfriends and girlfriends talk to each other? I soon found out. How should I respond? Eventually I found that out, too, but back then I had zero conversational skills. I’d gone to the library and researched like I did female anatomy, but couldn’t find any articles about how to talk to girls. There were no books, not even by Dick Clark, who later wrote To Goof or Not to Goof, which my mother cheerfully left on my bed one day. It turned out to be totally useless. (There was no mention of sex in it.) I had no idea I was about to make my first serious goof.

The Book of Rules

One afternoon I was shooting baskets with Steve and he said he’d walked Paula home and on the way he’d held her hand for, like, five whole minutes.

“You and Liz ever hold hands?” he asked. “It’s not a sin, you know. I checked.”

How do you check? Who’d he talk to? I never asked. “No. Uh, not yet.”

“Man, you gotta hold her hand, it’s great. It’s like the best ice cream you ever ate. Plus it lasts longer. I can’t wait to find out what kissing’s like.”

He was right on both accounts. Of course I’d never told Liz I wanted to kiss her. I calculated we were about twenty hand-holdings away from actual kissing. Hand-holding sessions were huge in junior-high Catholic dating in 1961. They actually meant something. I constantly worried about the correct hand-holding procedure: How tight are you supposed to hold, and for how long, and most importantly, how much were you allowed to move your fingers around? We were living at a time when two years later, the Beatles’s song “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” blew everybody’s mind. It sure did mine.[2] After talking to Steve, I imagined a twilight walk along the Lynn Beach seawall, with the moonlight in Elizabeth’s hair. I’d grasp her hand and we’d walk a long way, and then I would turn to her and pull her close and maybe then, kiss her for a long time. Like two minutes straight. Not sure whether my eyes would be open or not. Obviously, I’d have to wing it.

I tried squashing this thought. I knew I shouldn’t be thinking it. It was wrong, maybe even sinful. After all, I was “a sensible young man” (according to my Aunt Eve) and should never entertain such thoughts. But my heart was beating fast and my fantasies loped ahead like a big slobbery dog and soon ran out of sight, off leash. I was so revved up that night I didn’t get my history homework done and had to resort to trickery the next day.

Deceiving Mr. Cullen

A couple of days later, on one of those warm June days that dangled summer in front of you like coconut peanut brittle, I decided this was the day. It must’ve been about 77° when I walked her home. We paused briefly to look at the brook near her yard. Suddenly I went for her hand. I thought it was something you just spontaneously did, overtaken by the magic of the moment.

I sure didn’t expect what happened next. She snapped her hand away, not angrily, but more like half surprised, half scared. “Oh no Peter! My father’s home, he’ll see!”

It didn’t occur to me to say “Sorry, should have asked first.” Had this happened three years later, I would have released a fusillade of poetry, probably by Andrew Marvell. (“Had we but world enough, and time / This coyness, lady, were no crime.”) Had it been six years later, I would’ve flipped the sneakiness switch: “Okay no prob. So there’s this nice woodsy area we can go to. Little privacy, you know?” And had I encountered this situation twenty years later, I would’ve said, “Sounds like your father has some issues. Why don’t we sit down and talk it out with him, okay?”

Instead, I looked down at the water and said, “Hey, look at that huge bullfrog!”

“Where? I don’t see it. Where?”

“Over there, behind the branch.”

“Oh yeah. You know, I’ve never touched a frog. And yes, I know they don’t give you warts.”

“Actually, it’s toads that don’t give you warts.”

She cocked her head.

“Hey, want me to catch him for you? Then you can touch his skin all you want.”

“No, not today. Maybe someday.”

“Someday?”

She smiled. “That’s the day.”

“So you let me know then?

“Yes! Sure.” She never did.

I wondered if Elizabeth’s father had ever told her “Don’t ever let him take your hand. It’s a sin!” Steve said it wasn’t, so I should have pushed it and asked her father.

Is holding hands a sin, Mr. Atkinson?

Well, I’m afraid it is, Peter. The Holy Bible is very clear on this. The Gospel of Mark says if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to do that than end up in hell. It’s also in Matthew. Twice! The Bible doesn’t repeat admonitions unless they’re serious.

How serious?

We Catholics call it “a proximate occasion of sin.” That means it can lead to even more severe sins down the road.

Wait, there’s a road?

Uh, you haven’t been holding my daughter’s hand, have you, Peter?

Oh no! Not at all. Not even her little finger. Uh, Mr. Atkinson?

Yes, Peter.

Are there many people walking around with their hands cut off so they won’t get sent to hell for holding hands?

But I didn’t ask him. Turned out it didn’t matter. Exactly a week later I would get to hold her hand – and her waist – at least eighteen times. Dancing together on that well-lit dance floor would be the perfect opportunity to tell her what I felt about her. But there was this problem. I didn’t know how.

A few days earlier I was flipping through TV Guide and saw one of my favorite Dr. Kildare episodes, “Tyger, Tyger,” was going to be repeated. It had a scene in which Dr. Kildare, who’d fallen for a free-spirited surfer girl, goes to see her when he’s not patching up broken legs and tells her everything he feels. I thought it was really cool so I decided to watch it with a notepad. It was hard getting all the words, but I managed to write down most of them. I memorized them, plus some poetry. I was good at memorizing poems, I’d done the first two stanzas of “The Raven” last month for English and successfully recited them to my dog.

It was the last dance of the evening, and for some reason the lights had gone down and parental chaperones were busy dancing with each other. So I leaned close to her and she snapped back and held up her index finger. “No cheek to cheek!”

Tyger Teaches Dick to Surf

“No, I want to tell you something.”

“Okay!”

God, she looks beautiful. Look at her, all that done-up hair and red lipstick and perfume. She doesn’t smell at all like Mom’s friends. Wow! She’s done herself up just for me. So here goes.

“I know we’ve gotten close over the past few weeks and in that short time I’ve found myself thinking of you more and more. You are the most amazing person I’ve ever met and probably one of the freest. But neither of us can possibly consider . . . well, my schedule as a doctor prevents. . . “

She looked at me strangely, like I’d tripped over a curb while carrying ice cream. Oh no, I got distracted! I memorized too much!

“I mean I’m studying to be a doctor, I mean I want to be a doctor. Someday.”

She pulled back again, this time a whole foot. “Wait. You want to be a doctor? You never told me that.”

“Oh yeah, I do. I read So You Want to Be a Doctor. And I put together the whole Visible Man model and painted it too, even the kidneys, which were hard because they have really tiny veins. Plus I just completed The Visible Woman.”

Very Distracting to Assemble

She pulled back a third time, as if I were looking inside her; that is, a clear polystyrene version of her.

“Well, if you want to be a doctor, I think that’s great. They make tons of money and they don’t work that hard and get to visit people in their homes, and I know everybody appreciates their curing people of terrible diseases.”

She didn’t mention that medicine also had its defeats, a detail that So You Want to Be a Doctor also omitted. Like palliative care, which was a strategic retreat, a tacit acknowledgment that the disease had won and the best you could do was pad the loss with drugs, drugs, and more drugs as the patient slipped away from you. Like my shiny youthful ambition to become a doctor.

“Plus,” she continued, “on weekends, they get to play a lot of golf.”

“Oh. I hate golf.”

“You do? Okay, that does it then. You can’t become a doctor.”

She waited a few seconds and then laughed like she’d made the biggest joke that evening, and it probably was. It was certainly the best one I’d ever heard a girl make at my expense.

“Just kidding!”

Her interruption had thrown off my Dr. Kildare recitation so I rolled out the heavy artillery.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?[3]

I thought it might impress her, and it did. Sort of. “Wow, nice poem. Never heard that one before. What’s it mean?”

“Ah, you want to know what it means.[4] Well that’s okay, every poem has to mean something. Otherwise, why bother writing it? First, it’s about a tiger, but not your everyday tiger. It’s spelled ‘Tyger,’ so it must be a very special tiger. Maybe a magic one because . . . because it’s symmetrical. No matter how you’re looking at it, it’s the same on the right half as the left. It can probably grow an extra head on the other end, you know to be symmetrical. Like in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.”

Okay, so that’s not in the movie, but it should have been.

“Why’s the hand and eye immortal?”

“Oh, good question. But, it’s obvious. It’s such a fearful tyger that it can kill you real easy. And you know, like when we die, we become immortal. We have to. No choice.”

She tilted her head and sort of grinned like I’d never seen her do before, and sighed. “I suppose we’ll be reading it in high school and then we’ll find out.”

That shut me up.

“Still, I think it’s nice you memorized it. Someday you might be able to use it as a homework assignment and go out and play ball after supper instead.”

My plan to draw her close during the dance from the raw power of my eloquence had fallen flat, much flatter than the pancakes I couldn’t eat that morning because I was too nervous about the very moment in which I was floundering.

But it must not have been a total bust, because here’s what I wrote about it:

Best Dance in My Whole Thirteen Years

My diary says that we went to Landolfi’s restaurant after the event, but I don’t remember it, probably because our parents accompanied us and monopolized the conversation. Most likely, my father bragged about having season tickets to the Celtics and Mr. Atkinson talked about, oh who knows what? It was possible my mother complained about the spaghetti bolognese (“kinda chintzy on the meat”). Elizabeth and I may have just gazed at each other across the table.

In the weeks that followed, Elizabeth came over to our house exactly once, and I showed her our fallout shelter.

“Uh, where’s the toilet?” she asked.

“Upstairs, first door on the right.”

“No, I mean the toilet in the fallout shelter.”

Good point. There wasn’t one.

The answer was complicated. My father had busy-hands syndrome. Every evening after supper he would work on one of his projects: a three-car garage, a rec room, even an entire cabin cruiser constructed from a kit on the porch one winter. He had tools that the old Danvers Hardware didn’t, like a huge power table saw, a six-foot high drill press, and fifteen types of planer blades. He also totally lacked cleanup skills. He pretty much left his tools where he dropped them, even though he’d built an oak tool-hanging rack for them.

We didn’t have a fully functioning fallout-shelter toilet, because my father had ordered an “Age Chemical Toilet,” which quickly achieved backorder status after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion (April 1961), and then never arrived. As with many of the projects he completed, just as many had invisible “incomplete” stamps on them. Like the Heath Parasol Single Seat High-wing Monoplane. Luckily, that one got only as far as the blueprints he’d purchased.

After Fourteen Days You’re on Your Own!

Elizabeth then asked about the two orange marks near the ceiling. I told her they marked the brackets where the shotgun was going to go. Back then there was a widespread fear that neighbors would storm your fallout shelter and take it over, just prior to the bomb striking.

I gave my best Dad imitation: “Fred Pratt tries to barge in, kapow!

She looked dismayed. “I don’t think I could kill anybody trying to get in my fallout shelter.”

Before the discussion got any further, my mother came down to take us to miniature golf, and as much as I hated it, I endured because Elizabeth’s silvery laugh made up for it.

A few weeks later the letter incident happened. It was July and my family was enjoying its three-week vacation at the Prospect Slope Lodges in New Hampshire, the same place that Father Berube visited during the high weirdness period with our family. (See “We Decide to Adopt.”) One rainy afternoon I wrote Elizabeth a letter telling her about stuff I’d been doing, like fishing and shuffleboard, and avoiding Mitch Miller music at the adults-only club gatherings. I signed it “Your boyfriend, Peter.” She immediately wrote back a letter full of news but woefully lacking in gush. I read it fast so I could get to the closing, where I was sure to find “Love, Elizabeth.” Alas, no love. This is how she signed off, next to my diary reaction.

Elizabeth’s Letter Closing and My July 14, 1961, Diary Response

I was depressed for two days. Couldn’t shake it loose. But who could I tell? My mother? Good lord no! Come on, “Sincerely?!” That’s what banks wrote in their form letters to people when they did their mortgages! I didn’t even get a “fondly.” My diary comment was “she sounded very sincere,” but I probably meant “she seemed . . . uh, very sincere.” (This is how I would have written it sarcastically, if I’d known how.) All day I couldn’t stop thinking of the hit song “Sealed with a Kiss.”[5]

Though we've got to say
Goodbye for the summer
Baby, I promise you this
I'll send you all my love
Every day in a letter
Sealed with a kiss.
Always Got His Kiss

“Sealed with a Kiss.” I mean, she could have at least used that. Or “S.W.A.K.”, which was very popular at the time. Hell, I would have been happy for a few crudely drawn hearts next to her ornate signature. I couldn’t stop imagining the following conversation:

I didn’t sign it “love” because I don’t love you.

You don’t?

I like you a lot, but love, that’s kinda pushing it, isn’t it?

It is?

‘Cause if I did love you, all sorts of things would have to happen.

What things?

I couldn’t go out with other boys, even though I’m supposed to.

Who says?

“Ask Beth” in the paper. So if I signed that letter “Love, Elizabeth,” you and I would have to go steady for four years. We’d be stuck together like Elmer’s. And you’d have to buy me stuff like flowers and whole dinners, dessert included. And then right after graduation . . . you’d have to marry me.

What other boys?

Well, Paul Thomas[6]is kinda cute. And smart. He got an Oscar for good marks at the junior high graduation. You didn’t.

That’s because I got a C in shop. That blasted tie rack.

And he gets my jokes.

But Paul Thomas! Bet he doesn’t even know what a Stegosaurus looks like.

So?

Oh he’s so smiley smiley. Should have known he was up to something.

I didn’t consciously make the next decision; it just sort of happened. Come September, we’d be at different schools. Mine was Bishop Fenwick, which was the next city over, so I wouldn’t be sitting next to her in Monday school anymore. I’d be getting so much religious education at Bishop Fenwick – daily it turned out — I wouldn’t require the ministrations of Father Cronin.

When I came home from vacation, I didn’t visit her and ask what she’d meant by her insensitive letter-closing technique; in fact, I didn’t even call her. I just didn’t see her again for fifty-nine years. What began so intensely, taught us so much, was both fun and confusing for three whole months, disappeared like milkweed seeds in the wind. The oddest thing about our breakup is that I didn’t find it odd. There was no anger and no discussion, no wisp of regret or a single choked-up word. Ever. Not even in my diary where it was supposed to go. We didn’t sit down and agree to stop seeing each other, or part with a final teary hug.

This may help explain it. Around this time my friends and I had heard about “training bras” and even suspected some girls might be wearing them. We saw them prominently displayed in girls magazines. They were odd looking accoutrements: straps with no cups. They performed no purpose other than to acquaint young girls with the sensation of wearing elastic bands around their chests the rest of their lives.

The romance between Elizabeth and me was also missing key components. It had no physical intimacy, no wild abandon, no sleep-depriving joy, no conflict. And no angst.[7] It ended without a word. We just stopped. And our breakup, if that’s what it was, was never mentioned again, even when my wife and I double dated with her and her husband John fifty-nine years later.

When I think about my time with her, I realize that it wasn’t really a romance at all, not for one second. It was – and always had been –a training-romance.

  1. This chapter contains pages from the diary I got for my thirteenth Christmas. I hadn’t even asked for It. It had a lock, which I figured was to prevent my snoopy brother from penetrating its secrets. I asked my mother what I was supposed to write in it. She said “Things you do, things you think about.” So for the next ten months I faithfully recorded my days, one page at a time. Apart from what I’ve highlighted, it’s mostly pretty boring.
  2. “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” was the Beatles’s first number 1 hit in the United States in early 1964. It became their best-selling single worldwide, totaling more than 12 million copies. It was so popular they also recorded it in German with a courtly translation: “Komm, gib mir deine Hand” (“Come, give me your hand”).
  3. I realize it’s unrealistic that a top-rated network TV show from the early sixties would title an episode after Romantic poet William Blake, a religious skeptic and fan of the French Revolution. (“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”) But not only did they title the episode after “The Tyger,” they made Richard Chamberlain recite it. Twice.
  4. Back then, the idea of researching a puzzling poem to find out what it was about was unthinkable. Even for adults. I still don’t understand all of “The Tyger.”
  5. I may have heard this song’s first release, sung by The Four Voices. A year later, it was a hit for Brian Hyland, who’d released the novelty song “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini” that we’d sung in the woods to warn Shirley Mercer.
  6. For information about Paul Thomas’s fate in life, see Epilogue.
  7. Well, nearly none. I admit the “Sincerely” episode did bother me for a few days.

Author: Peter Bates

Peter Bates is a writer and photographer living in Florida. He is the administrator of this blog and also runs the blogs Stylus and Hdrbodegaphoto.

8 thoughts on “First Girl”

  1. Re: “Tyger, Tyger.” Elizabeth confided in me all those years ago that she knew she couldn’t compete in your eyes, Peter, with the comely….and nicely filled-out…..Yvette Mimieux.

  2. Yes, Elizabeth is strikingly lovely. Looks a lot like the unapproachable girl in high school a year ahead of me I never spoke to. As for, “no wild abandon, no sleep-depriving joy, no conflict” — makes me think of the over romanticized image Hollywood teaches us – bang, 50 seconds and they’re in love. Seems like the reason you didn’t have a romance with Elizabeth is like it’s Junior High. Maybe thinking grandiose thoughts of where it ought to be, and it wasn’t there yet. And so you were disillusioned. And maybe her too: Maybe she had these romantic Tab Hunter / Richard Chamberlain images as well. And so it felt flat so far even though many months have gone by. The moral being, like so much else in life, ”Wait for it. Wait till it gets there”, perhaps?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge