A bit long – but I promise it’s worth it! 😉
In 1958, I was a pale, dreamy twelve-year-old girl longing to grow up. That summer, my parents inadvertently co-operated by plunking me down in the midst of a horde of families in a country-cottage community. They thought that a two-month respite from smog and concrete would “put some color” into my cheeks.
I quickly became friends with a precocious eleven-year-old who gave me make-up and leg-shaving lessons—everything a freshly pubescent girl should know. If my face had more “color,” it certainly wasn’t from the sun.
Annie bolstered my fragile ego. Once we were walking along the highway towards the local greasy spoon, speculating on what or who was pretty. Annie flashed her mascara’d eyes at me and declared, “You’re pretty. You’re very pretty.” I was astonished. Nobody had ever said that to me before, except my mother, and mothers didn’t count.
My budding sensual awareness soon alerted me to Scott. He was stunning, an “older man” of seventeen. Blond crew-cut, aquamarine eyes you could drown in, tanned body by Hollywood. It was Scott’s mother who rented out the cottages for the summer. They must have been quite wealthy, now that I think of it. But that summer, dollars did not concern me. I was preoccupied by the alien hormones taking over my body. I yearned for Scott, but he didn’t seem to notice I existed.
The first time I got close to him was a disaster. I had spotted him in front of the dance hall. He was alone, lounging in a deck chair in all his golden glory, reading “Sports Illustrated.” Bravely, I ambled over and sat down in the chair beside him. I could not have been more nervous had I been told to dance the jitterbug on “American Bandstand.” And I didn’t know how to dance! But my determination to get Scott’s attention outweighed my fear of rejection.
So there we were, sitting side by side in twin deck chairs. We exchanged “Hi’s” and lapsed into silence. He resumed reading. I stared down at my lap, trying desperately to think of something witty or interesting or—at the very least—mature, to say. Suddenly he exclaimed, “Hey! Look at that!” I stared at him, following his gaze down to my right forearm, which was about one tantalizing inch away from his arm. I looked. I didn’t see anything. His tan was a lot darker than mine, but so was everybody else’s. Then he said, “Look! Your arm’s hairier than mine!”
I wanted to die.
My lovesickness for Scott wasn’t muted for long, however. I was the besotted moth, and he was the insouciant flame. Another boy who did notice me (but not my hairy arms) couldn’t catch my interest. His name was Warren. He was a sweet thirteen-year-old, but compared to Scott, he was… well, if Scott was James Dean, Warren was Lou Costello.
Soon it was time for the first Saturday Night Dance. All the families from the community were there: parents, teens, even the Romper-Room set. Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, and Elvis dominated the jukebox. Earlier that week, Annie-with-the-mascara had discreetly taught me how to dance, and I could now do a passable jitterbug.
Unfortunately, the only boy I managed to dance with was Warren. I was not thrilled: Warren was pudgy. Warren was short. Warren didn’t even shave yet. I wanted Scott! But my hero was surrounded by admirers I could never compete with—blonde, brazen, busty sixteen-year-olds in skin-tight capris and full make-up regalia. I was a mere spindly little sparrow with brown steel-wool hair, who had barely mastered lipstick.
Warren determinedly led me around the wooden dance floor to the strains of “Put Your Head On My Shoulder,” while giving me his best melting look. But he was only a blur to me; all I could think about was Scott.
The days sped past. Sun, beach, swimming; volleyball, raspberry-picking, and Cokes at the greasy spoon with Annie-mascara.
Then, one Saturday, the older kids came up with a daring plan: a bonfire on the beach, to start at dusk, for kids only. Ah, the skills I had to call upon to convince my father to let me go! When I swore to be back at our cottage by eleven o’clock, he finally relented.
I remember that crackling bonfire, the chattering clusters of teenagers, the marshmallows roasting, portable radios blaring, illicit beer bottles clinking. As twilight dissolved into darkness, the music softened and the crowd thinned. Somehow I eluded Warren, who had almost become my shadow. I soon found myself sitting cross-legged on the sand next to Scott, who was, to my surprise and immense relief, alone.
Nothing in the world is as romantic as flickering firelight, with its lush orange glow. It makes a twelve-year-old girl’s face look not half-bad to a boy of seventeen. Firelight was beginning to help my fantasy come true, for Scott was now looking at me with obvious approval. I was shivering… but it wasn’t from the cold. We gazed at the fire and at each other, electrified, unaware of anything or anyone else.
We sat like that for a long time, suspended, it seemed, in eternity. Finally his arm stole around my shoulder, hugging me closer. O rapture! I turned and looked at his beautiful face, inches from mine. I was just about to close my eyes for a miracle of a kiss, when suddenly, terribly, I heard my father roar my name. I froze, rabbit-like, blinking into the glare of his flashlight.
“Let’s go! It’s past eleven,” he said, in a cold, clipped voice, with that quiet fury reserved for his daughter’s major crimes.
I had to slink after him, of course. In one appalling second, I had metamorphosed from a desirable female about to be gifted with her first kiss to a skinny little twerp whose father comes to drag her home!
* * *
After that debacle, I moped around our cabin for days. My parents had gone back to the city for the week, as usual, to work in their clothing shop. They always left me plenty of food, and Scott’s mother kept an eye on me. While his mom was my mother-substitute, Scott himself now avoided me as if I were a malaria-laden mosquito.
Anyway, on one of those depressing days…
…Here I am, lying on my bed, idly swatting at the odd fly and flipping through “Seventeen” magazine. I hear scratching and knocking at the screen door. “Who is it?” I ask, dully, and a familiar voice says, “It’s Warren. Can I talk to you for a sec?”
Warren?? What does he want with dumb little me? I figure everyone in the camp knows about my public “disgrace” at the bonfire, and is snickering at me behind my back.
I go to the door and say, warily, “What?” He wants to know if I would like to see the puppies that his dog, Princess, had a few weeks ago. They’re really cute, he says. Well, how can I resist? I’m a sucker for fluff-ball puppies. So off I go with Warren to his cottage to see Princess’s litter.
They’re adorable all right. Then his mother serves us homemade chocolate-chip cookies and milk, which really hit the spot. I’m starting to perk up. Next, Warren says to me, “Listen, I know you love dogs. Why don’t you take one of these puppies?”
I say, “Gee, if my parents would let, I’d love to!” And he says, “Pick your favorite, then.” So I choose the puppy that seems most affectionate. How can I tell? The one that licks my hand, of course. (I like to think the affection is for my hand, not the cookie crumbs stuck to it.)
Anyway, I’m holding this little black ball of fluff—he’s got white paws and a white tip on his tiny tail—and Warren says, “Let’s take him outside, okay?”
I say sure. Then he says, “I got an idea! Why don’t we take him to your cottage? So he’ll start getting used to you, you know?” Sounds real sensible to me. Hey, this Warren’s pretty smart. And nice, too, giving me a puppy just like that.
So we go up the hill with the fluff-ball to my family’s cottage. We sit on the deck chairs on the porch, and try to think of a name for him. I’m leaning towards “Pepper” because he’s so full of pep. Warren likes “Tippy” because of his white-tipped tail. Anyway, Pepper—my choice prevails—Pepper’s getting squirmy in my arms, so I put him down on the floor. We watch the little guy to see what he’s going to do. What he does is, he trots through the open door and into the house like he already owns the place. Warren and I look at each other. A wordless signal passes between us that says: “Follow that dog!” We get up and do just that, barely in time to see Pepper scoot into my parents’ bedroom.
We stand in the doorway of my parents’ room, peering in. No Pepper. I call him, but of course that’s futile—he doesn’t know his name yet. Only one place he can hide in there. I look at Warren and say, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” And he smiles and says “Yep.”
My parents’ bed is against the wall and has a white chenille bedspread that comes down to the floor; it’s a perfect hiding place for a playful puppy. Warren and I go over and kneel on the floor and lift up the spread. We peek under the bed, and there he is! It’s dark under there. You can’t see much of a black puppy except his white paws and bright eyes. We try to reach him with outstretched arms, but he’s backed up against the wall and we can’t get him. We try moving the bed away from the wall, but Pepper’s no dummy, he moves too.
We shove the bed back; boy it’s heavy! We gotta think this through. This is a tough dilemma, you know? We sit down on the bed. We turn to each other, to say something, but our eyes lock, words get forgotten, and instead we bring our mouths together and his arms wrap around me and we fall gently back on the bed with our mouths still together doing warm moist things and I feel all tingly and then—and then I get scared. And confused. I sit bolt upright. He sits up too. “What’s the matter?” he asks.
I walk out, dazed, to the porch, and collapse in a chair. In a moment, Warren comes out and does the same. He says “You okay?” I say “I don’t know,” because I really don’t. Then I say, “Where—how—how did you know what to do?” And he just kind of shrugs and says, “I don’t know. I just did.” And he smiles sweetly at me.
I sit, my mind reeling with flashes of contradictory thoughts and emotions. The kiss I had longed for felt so good… but it’s bad, we’re too young… but it felt right… but he’s the wrong boy!… but is he the wrong boy? Warren… Scott… pleasure… fear… guilt. My hands cover my ears, though there is no noise. I mutter, “Gotta go now,” and dash down the porch steps.
Now where to? The first source of comfort I think of, my mom, she’s not here, so I run to my mother-substitute—Scott’s mother. It’s only when I find her, throw my arms around her, and bury my face in her shoulder, that I begin to cry in earnest. She asks me what’s wrong, but how can I tell her, when I don’t really know myself?
My turmoil eventually dissipated as summer wound down. I entered high school, my pallor returned, and life and its dreams went on. Pepper gave me twelve good years of loyalty and affection. But I never saw Warren or Scott or Annie-mascara or any of those people again. I did look up Warren’s name in the phone book once, a few years ago, but it wasn’t listed.
One thing, though. I will never forget that first kiss. Know what I mean?
© 1991 by Ellie Presner
Anthologized in The Issues Collection: Gender Issues, ed. Greta Hofmann Nemiroff and Gillda Leitenberg, 1993