My first romantic relationship with a boy was a clandestine affair. He was, in my mind, the most beautiful boy at school, maybe the most beautiful boy I had ever seen. Even today I remember the incredible glow of his youthful beauty. He was a milky mocha colored boy with the softest fuzzy hair, burning black eyes and an intensely serious attitude about everything. He was a rebel, a bona fide bad boy. He’d been left back for juvenile delinquency and led a gang of loyal followers of equally shady reputation.
As a good nerdy girl in the Intellectually Gifted program at school, a girl who'd always followed all the rules, he was everything I was not. He wasn't afraid of anything. His name was Walter and after weeks of staring at him, he finally got a clue and approached me in the schoolyard. I remember that he walked me half-way home that day. When he told me I had a nice shape, making the two-handed sign of the peanut in the air, my brain exploded.
No one had ever talked to me like this. I was barely 12. He was 13 and clearly a man of the world. Just the man I had always dreamed about (well, at least since I was 9 or 10). Beautiful and smart and bad. In a matter of days, I was in love with Walter and he was in love with me. We conspired to hook up every day after the final bell, meeting behind a staircase near a seldom-used emergency exit. There, holding our breath to listen for footsteps, I kissed him the way I’d seen people do it in movies. I crammed my lips so tight against his he couldn’t breathe. When he pulled away I grabbed him tighter. For reasons I couldn’t explain, I would sometimes strike him hard, often in the back while we clutched in tight embrace. A few times I really hurt him and he would gasp and ask me why. I didn’t know why. I did know I was really curious to watch his reaction and that seeing him suffer made me want to kiss him even more.
We loved each other. We completely understood one another. But it was impossible to keep our great love secret. And the minute anyone found out about us, we met aggressive opposition. One of his female cousins was a nasty piece of work – an angry bully with her own little group of misfits and budding sociopaths. She threatened to beat me up because she didn’t think a white girl should date a Negro boy, and felt I was ruining her cousin's reputation. I remember Walter escorting me out of school with his boys behind us in case the girls attacked, and me taking alternate routes home until he got her cooled down.
It was my sixth grade teacher who delivered a more hurtful blow. I had always looked up to my teacher, a pious Jewish man who seemed to have a heart of gold for children, and doted on the six Jewish kids in the class as if we were his own. I didn't realize until much later that the only thing that matched his affection for his Jewish students was his disinterest in the non-Jewish ones. So when rumor of my dalliance with Walter finally reached his ears, he felt compelled to talk to me about it, as my moral guide. He walked up to me as we were leaving the building one afternoon, and in the noisy chaos of the stairs spoke to me in a low voice, indicating he knew I'd been seen hanging out with Walter.
“I’m disappointed in you,” he said, “nice Jewish girls don’t associate with people like that.”
I was first hurt by his disappointment. But I was also shocked. Mr. Isaacs was a racist? This educated, kindly, pious spirit was a bigot?! It didn’t even seem possible to me, the child of Holocaust survivors, that someone intelligent COULD be a racist. After that, I never trusted Mr. Isaacs again, and was very relieved when graduation came.
Nothing stopped us. Walter and I rose above everyone’s racism. We kept going right up to the summer day he mournfully told me his mother was moving the family to Florida before school started up again. I remember us standing outside P.S. 169 together, neither of us able to speak, both of us gazing like two wounded baby deer into each other’s eyes. We were children. We had no control over out destinies. We both knew we'd never see each other again. Before he left, he gave me a bauble he took from her jewelry box: a very pretty little flower pin I have kept to this day.
It was the first time that I was hurt by love. In a way, I liked it. Not so much the hurt, which frankly wasn’t that deep since I was only 12; but the idea that I’d had my first grown-up-style affair, with star-crossed lovers and racial tensions and all kinds of novelistic details that made my pubertal brain spin. I missed kissing him. I missed the way he'd suffer for me and ask me why?
I spent most of the summer lying in bed and listening to Johnny Mathis over and over again, knowing I’d never see Walter again, and finally emerged with a fresh agenda. Walter was over. But boys and men had just begun.