A surge of adrenalin, a rush of blood, a thing of innocence and pain that lasts a lifetime
I REMEMBER the way the light touched her hair. She turned her head, and our eyes met, a momentary awareness in thatraucous fifth-grade classroom. I felt as though I’d been struck a blow under the heart. Thus began my first love affair.
Her name was Rachel, and I mooned my way through grade and high school, stricken at the mere sight of her, tongue-tied in her presence. Does anyone, anymore, linger in the shadows of evening, drawn by the pale light of a window-her window-like some hapless summer insect? That delirious swooning, asexual but urgent and obsessive, that made me awkward and my voice crack, is like some impossible dream now. I know I was so afflicted, but I cannot actually believe what memory insists I did. Which was to suffer. Exquisitely.
I would catch sight of her, walking down an aisle of trees to or from school, and I’d become paralyzed. She always seemed so poised, so self-possessed. At home, I’d relieve each encounter, writhing at the thought of my inadequacies. Even so, as we entered our teens, I sensed her affectionate tolerance for me.
“Going steady” implied a maturity we still lacked. Her Orthodox Jewish upbringing and my own Catholic scruples imposed a celibate grace that made even kissing a distant prospect, however fervently desired. I managed to hold her once at a dance - chaperoned, of course. Our embrace made her giggle, a sound so trusting that I hated myself for what I’d been thinking.
At any rate, my love for Rachel remained unrequited. We graduated from high school, she went on to college, and I joined the Army. When World War II engulfed us, I was sent overseas. For a time we corresponded, and her letters were the highlight of those grinding, endless years. Once she sent me a snapshot of herself in a bathing suit, which drove me to the wildest of fantasies. I mentioned the possibility of marriage in my next letter, and almost immediately her replies became less frequent, less personal.
The first thing I did when I returned to the States was to call on Rachel. Her mother answered the door. Rachel no longer lived there. She had married a medical student she’d met in college. “I thought she wrote you,” her mother said.
Her “Dear John” letter finally caught up with me while I was awaiting discharge. She gently explained the impossibility of a marriage between us. Looking back on it, I must have recovered rather quickly, although for the first few months I believed I didn’t want to live. Like Rachel, I found someone else, whom I learned to love with a deep and permanent commitment that has lasted to this day.
Then recently, after an interval of more than 40 years, I heard from Rachel again. Her husband had died. She was passing through town and had learned of my whereabouts through a mutual friend. We agreed to meet.
I felt both curious and excited. In the last few years, I hadn’t thought about her, and her sudden call one morning had taken me aback. The actual sight of her was a shock. This white-haired matron at the restaurant table was the Rachel of my dreams and desires, the supple mermaid of that snapshot?
Yet time had given us a common reference and respect. We talked as old friends, and quickly discovered we were both grandparents.
“Do you remember this?” She handed me a slip of worn paper. It was a poem I’d written her while still in school. I examined the crude meter and pallid rhymes. Watching my face, she snatched the poem from me and returned it to her purse, as though fearful I was going to destroy it.
I told her about the snapshot, how I’d carried it all through the war.
“It wouldn’t have worked out, you know,” she said.
“How can you be sure?” I countered. “Ah, Colleen, it might have been grand indeed - my Irish conscience and your Jewish guilt!”
Our laughter startled people at a nearby table. During the time left to us, out glances were furtive, oblique. I think that what we saw in each other repudiated what we’d once been to ourselves, we immortals.
Before I put her into a taxi, she turned to me. “I just wanted to see you once more. To tell you something.” Her eyes met mine. “I wanted to thank you for having loved me as you did.” We kissed, and she left.
From a store window my reflection stared back at me, an aging man with gray hair stirred by an evening breeze. I decided to walk home. Her kiss still burned on my lips. I felt faint, and sat on a park bench. All around me the grass and trees were shining in the surreal glow of sunset. Something was being lifted out of me. Something had been completed, and the scene before me was so beautiful that I wanted to shout and dance and sing for joy.
That soon passed, as everything must, and presently I was able to stand and start for home.