page 1




      For a long time I didn't know her name, the pretty girl who'd come to our school in the fall of '61. I'd never heard her talk, either, and I imagined that she came from France. She wore her hair in shiny, brown curls. My favorite outfit of hers was a knee-length, form-fitting blue skirt combined with a pink blouse, that accentuated her curves nicely.
      A couple months after school started, my friend Ralph Frey took her to a party our social club, the Achim—the Hebrew word for "Brothers", since the club met at the Jewish Community Center—was having, and we double-dated. That was how I learned her name was Leah, and that she came from Baltimore, not France.
      Since we weren't yet sixteen, our fathers had to drive us to these parties that the club kept having because most of my friends were roaring with hormones and socially quite advanced for ninth-graders. Many of these boys lived in the Delmar Loop tenements. Some had immigrant parents who gave them a lot of freedom. At least that was my mother's theory.
      I was kind of an anamoly. It had taken a lot of what is commonly known as social climbing for me to get into this club. Once I was in, the boys, many of whom were the school's leaders and best athletes, had elected me president two years in a row. My impression was that they considered me some sort of scholar, and admired me for that.
     My skills lagged way behind when it came to girls, though. Once a little time had elapsed since our last party, I would start to dread our meetings. I knew someone would bring up having another such event, and everyone would vote for it. But that meant I'd have to get a date, a thought which filled me with terror unmixed with any presentiment of joy.

      My dating history had begun in 7th grade when a girl in my class had phoned me and asked if I knew the math assignment. Once I'd told her, she said, "Oh, and by the way, will you come to the sock hop with me?"
      Talking to her that brief minute, I'd felt enormous discomfort. The sock hop and the few dances and club parties I had attended since, had all been emotional disasters for me. I had kept up appearances by going, however, and so there were no untoward consequences of the social afternoons or evenings—only great relief when each one ended.
      I worried about myself. My socially precocious friends had been talking about their sexual and romantic adventures since I'd first met them in seventh grade. One of them had described how allowing his dog to lick him had accidentally brought on his first ejaculation. Once they'd laughed about a "circle jerk", in which they'd taken turns masturbating into a coke bottle. I had no idea whether they were being truthful or making it up.
      They talked about their exploits on Saturday nights "over at some girl's house" or in the balconies of the Varsity and the Tivoli movie theaters in the Loop. I was almost fifteen and I had never kissed a girl or had an orgasm while awake. I wasn't even completely certain that the one or two "wet dreams" I thought I'd had hadn't really been bedwetting episodes.
      To tell the truth, I was not sure if what anyone said about sex was true. Maybe this whole idea of white stuff coming out of men's penises was just something people made up—a conspiracy, a prank they were playing on me. Once I'd had a dream that Randy Bornstein, the tallest, most physically mature boy and best athlete in our club, reached into my penis and pulled out some sperm, like a tribal elder priming my pump.

 Our party passed like the others had. To tell you the truth, I don't even remember who I brought. Ralph's dad picked us up. As he drove, he kept making left turns, joking that his steering wheel was stuck and couldn't turn right.
      In the living room of the Finley's house, where the party was, I saw the usual couples, soon to be making out on the sofas. Dick Hart, whose basketball moves were quick as lightning, stood talking with his girl friend, Gilda. Randy Bornstein had an arm around Sheila Mink. Seeing them together always lit a little flame of embarassment in me. At a JCCA event, I had once gotten the nerve to ask Sheila to dance, not knowing that she and Randy had already fallen in love.
      Nate Brandon and Cherie Shuman; Greg Moriarty and Lanie Bernstein;
and Mark Vinsky and Lisa Ferdman, three inseparable couples, stood in a circle eating, drinking and laughing.
      Most of the Achim picked their dates and girl friends from the same group of girls. Ralph's bringing Leah was bold, but Ralph never lacked for confidence where girls were concerned.
      There seemed to be a distinct order of status among the pool of girls we chose from, as distinct as in any Polynesian tribe. I was hard put to understand this social ranking, and had no idea where it came from. But lacking in my own self-confidence, I accepted the anonymous authority, subtly deferring to the more popular girls and looking down slightly on certain others.
      There were two sisters, both in our grade. Whether they were non-identical twins, or sisters 9 months apart, or whether one was adopted, I still don't know. One of them was very popular. Her name was Susan. I would be doomed to forever label her in my thoughts as "Runaround Sue", after seeing her jitterbugging to that popular song with Sam Craven at our party that night.
     She and Sam were sort of like boy friend and girl friend for awhile, though they never really went steady. I remember him walking her to the refreshment table after the song. He seemed to be steering her with an arm behind her waist. It reminded me a little of the way someone might guide a mule. I wondered if that was how a boy was supposed to lead a girl.
      Sam was a passionate boy, fast on a playing field, with flaming curls of brilliant orange hair. For the past year, though, he'd been so possessed by the rising sap of testosterone that almost everything out of his mouth was crudely sexual. Somehow Susan, an intelligent and cultured young woman, gravitated to him.
      Susan's sister Mindy didn't seem to be quite as popular. This may have been due to some subtle lack of confidence, or a very mild skin condition. It didn't take much to lower someone in these popularity ratings. I saw one girl lose rank by gaining just a few pounds.
      I always tried to play it safe and ask "acceptable" girls to our parties. Acceptable to whom, I wasn't even sure.

     After the party where Ralph and Leah doubled with my unmemorable date and me, I didn't talk to Leah for quite awhile. I'd see her in the halls occasionally. Now that we'd been introduced, I'd nod to her and she'd nod or wave back.
      A couple months later, though, in January, I happened to find her outside of one of my classes as I exited, heading in the same direction I was. We walked together. Our conversation was easy and light. Thereafter, we became frequent hallway-companions during the four or five minutes between classes.      
      Looking back, I have my doubts whether even that first meeting was a coincidence. Though I've already established that I was not Casanova, I was making a name for myself in some areas of school life. I had become co-editor of the school newspaper and had won an area-wide journalism competition.
       I had also surprised everyone, including myself, by winding up as a starting guard and linebacker on the football team, rising from third string in the first few weeks of practice after going out for a sport I'd scarcely ever played. I even got the male lead in Victor Herbert's musical, "The Red Mill," though I burned in fires of ironic embarassment every time I had to sing my solo, a song called "Every Day Is Ladies' Day For Me".
      My accomplishments did not relieve the unhappiness I carried inside because of my paralysis in the most intimate spheres. But Leah's company, even for those few minutes each day, began to brighten my world and give it color. For the first time I began to feel it might be possible for me to live all the dimensions of my being, no longer shadowed by shame.

     Leah came to me— I had been incapable of going to her. A pretty girl named Evelyn Mann, a few months before, had started smiling at me in journalism class. Every time I'd looked her way I'd seen her beaming at me. It was obvious that she was inviting my approach, and yet there was some ancient line I was not warrior enough to charge past, and after a time her smile had disappeared like the sun going behind clouds.
      I did not know how to reach out further to Leah, either. But then, one Friday afternoon, we were walking to her math class, across the hall from my history class. I was carrying her books, having requested the honor as a jocular symbol of our friendship. As I gave them back to her, Leah asked, "Would you like to come over tomorrow night? 'The Bird Man of Alcatraz' is on TV."
      I tried not to betray my excitement or my fear. Her eyes were gentle and caring. Would I know what to do when I got there, though? Who could be sure?
      "Yeah, sure!" I finally managed to stammer out.
      Crossing the hall to History class, I felt my own history to be on the verge of a revolution. I scarcely heard Mr. Wilson's lecture. A girl had invited me to her house on a Saturday night!
      All my friends' stories came flooding into me. Would Leah attack me? Would I be able to keep up a conversation? She said she just wanted to watch television. But suddenly I was about to do something I'd never done! Some rite of passage to a new life had presented itself, at least as a possibility.


Return to "Stories"       Home