At age six, there was Bradley with freckles and a voice oddly raspy for his age, the same as mine. A witty boy who laughed a lot; his freckles glowed with humor. We walked to school together holding hands. He grew up to manage a Las Vegas casino and, as rumor had it, dealt drugs on the side. Not suitable at all for the long haul. I can see us hand in hand, walking down East New York Avenue, looking both ways at every corner, finally making it to the schoolyard and running to our respective lines. This was true love. Our romance was brief, but all the years through high school, when we met in the halls, we greeted each other warmly, ripples of memory passing between us.
The next was a girl, Paula. I was nine. It was her name that drew me, exotic, so different from the names of my daily friends, the Barbaras, Carols, Judys and Susans of Brooklyn. Paula came from afar, somewhere upstate, and visited her aunt and uncle across the street during school vacations. Distance, too, was exotic. There was little distance in Brooklyn, the outer or inner sort. I always craved the exotic; my father mocked me when I used the word. Also exotic was Paula’s skin, not black, that wouldn’t have been possible on our block back then, but brown like a Native American or a Mexican although she was neither, most likely descended from Sephardic Jews of the Middle East. I waited eagerly for my mother to announce, Paula’s here. I rushed across the street to ring her bell. I didn’t know then that I was in love.
I picture her sitting on my bed, both of us cross-legged, playing cards or playing with dolls or simply talking about whatever nine-year-olds talk about. After a year or so, she stopped coming. Paula, wherever you are, I missed you so.
Thirteen, a bad year for any girl. We summered in the Catskills, a site of torpor worse even than Brooklyn, and shared a wall and porch with the family next door. The two sons, sixteen and nineteen, worked in the day camp. It was the older boy I mooned over, as girls often fix on the unattainable. He was large and dark (dark like Paula), with black hair in a crew cut, a handsome beefy face, good-natured, unmarred by thought or introspection. He walked around in bathing trunks, making it easy for me to admire his tanned body and hairy legs. For some forgotten reason he called me Tex; I thrilled to the name. One day I sat on my porch in my bathing suit, holding my towel, hoping he would appear. And, miracle, his screen door opened and out he came in his trunks, carrying a towel. Hi, Tex. His voice sliced a path through my innards. I remember the slicing feeling to this day. Going to the pool? I nodded. Me too, he said. Walk with me. Indescribable joy, walking down the dirt road with Lenny, hoping ardently that my friends would see us. It was almost like a date. I dreamed that from then on we’d be a couple, like the many transient couples the summer shaped—only coupledom could ease the smothering dullness—those little loves that ended at Labor Day. But when we reached the pool, he joined his friends and I joined mine. I’d been imagining some horseplay in the water, maybe with a ball.
I relived that five-minute walk all through the summer and the deadly fall. Some years later I married a boy, not my preferred dark or brawny. I loved him anyway. I imagined he was taller than he was. We talked on the phone at night for hours, I in my older sister’s bedroom I’d inherited when she left to get married, as every girl had to do. I was amazed to find a boy who could actually talk and who read books. I didn’t realize till later that such boys were plentiful if you had the patience to wait and knew where to look. It was like buying the first house that you see, and sometimes that works out quite well. I love him but as we grow old I wonder how I could have plunged so thoughtlessly, blind-eyed, into the future with a stranger.