Talking to Girls

Ferris Wheel

Each semester, my report card made the same complaint: “Eugene’s refusal to speak up in class discussions will hold him back.” I didn’t worry about it, though. As an only child, silence suited me just fine. And being a bookish one, getting good grades came easily to me. But when I reached my teens, I realized my teachers were right about a more important aspect of life: love.

In Throgs Neck, the working class section of the Bronx where I grew up, you had to speak up if you wanted love. Here’s how it went: you said to the girl, “Wanna go out with me?” If she said yes, bingo, she became your girlfriend. It was marriage proposal light, and practice for the real thing. With acceptance came three privileges: kissing her, holding her hand, and putting your arm around her on the way home from school. The latter declared to the world that you got love.

I tried my hand at asking girls out, but my words never seemed to stick. She would say yes, then no the next day. What was I missing? Looking back, I’m sure the girls were just as confused as I was. But having grown up without siblings, I found social life a mystery. I assumed everyone but me knew what they were doing.

Silence, not talk, turned out to be my path to first love. Theatre set the stage, but not on the stage. An English teacher had co-opted me into being the head scene designer for the annual spring musical, “How to Succeed in High School without Really Trying.” On Saturday afternoons, the gym became my scene shop. There I oversaw a crew of two dozen kids painting giant backdrops laid out across the shiny gym floor. I couldn’t sing or dance, but I did have a knack for delegating work. Never needing to negotiate with brothers and sisters, I was used to running the show where I was the star and only audience member.

My crew consisted mostly of girls, but it was Liz in the red halter who caught my eye, or rather my nose one May afternoon. With the sun streaming through the tall gym windows, the place got a little steamy. After the first few minutes of painting, her skin gave off a sweet and sour mix of perfume and sweat that kept me going over to instruct and, I hoped, encourage her.

A member of the chorus, Liz had a lot of down time from rehearsal. So she and her girlfriend Pat spent most of the afternoon painting for me. When she did get called to rehearse, she returned, but without Pat. I assumed she really liked set painting. Back then, I had no idea why any girl would pay attention to bookish me.

After rehearsal, I ended up walking her home. I didn’t offer to do so, and she didn’t ask. We just started walking together up Lafayette Avenue hill. By the time we got to Tremont Avenue and turned north, the crowd had gone their own way, and we were alone. She lived far from school, far enough to take the bus. But she just kept walking beside me, and I just followed along, passing the street I would normally turn down to go home. She did most of the talking, but I held my own. I found Liz very easy to talk to, and we had the show to talk about.

When we reached the long stretch of Tremont that passed by old St. Raymond’s Cemetery, she stopped talking. Late Saturday afternoon by now, only a few cars passed. Across the street, the florists stood closed, their windows displaying funeral wreaths as big as truck tires and lush with the reddest roses. It got very quiet.

This silence differed from what I was used to. It seemed to demand something of me. We had just passed the cemetery gates when I reached over and put my arm around her waist. She smiled. Knowingly? Expectantly? I’ll never know. She didn’t look at me. Her smile just lingered. Under my palm I felt her hip roll with each step she took. Girls have bones! Amazing.

No one there to see except for the Bronxites laid to rest behind St. Raymond’s iron bars, we stopped. Pressed against a parked car, she taught me to tongue kiss. I had no trouble opening my mouth for that.

Within a week, Liz said she loved me and I said it back, just like that. The second week, she asked if we would get married, and I said yes without a second thought. Our little romance ended a few weeks after that.

The worst thing about first love, of course, is that it doesn’t last, nor should it. We were young and had a lot more growing up to do. The best thing is that it’s not last love. For me, much talking to girls, and later, to women followed. And much love, and loss, and love again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s