TO A WAGNERIAN SPRING
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 Achimthe
Hebrew word for "Brothers", since the club met at the Jewish Community
Centerwas 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 eveningsonly
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 upa
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.
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
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.