I’d been in love with Judy Clark since kindergarten, when we launched our relationship with exquisite naked-dancing in her mother’s bathroom, The Platters and The Penguins on the acid green transistor radio. Behind the button-locked door we felt for the first time the warm ease of skin across our flat chests, our round little child bellies, our inner arms and thighs. The part of me that was different from Judy remained in place, unnoticed, but our peach-fuzz stood on end as we tingled with delight.
It seems to me now that the most pleasant times of my childhood were spent in Judy’s room playing house. Mom was busy with my baby brother, and Judy’s mother had a sick husband and two toddlers to care for. We never quarreled or made noise, so they left us to ourselves. We played and talked and pretended. We came to know the rules. Our little dance was never spoken of.
For six years there were no other girls Judy’s age on our block. I had four or five boys to play with, but Judy was isolated. For her I was the next best thing to a best friend. But to me she was my future wife. We played and joked about “when we’re married.” I don’t think Judy ever believed it. I just assumed it.
As the training wheels came off my childhood, I played Little League and basketball and ran with the mob of boys on the block, but I continued to play with Judy. I always thought of Judy as “My Girlfriend,” because that was the label my parents used. Most kids—our brothers and sisters, other kids on the block—thought the opposite sex had cooties. But Judy and I were comfortable together, and when we showed off—holding hands, walking arm in arm—the adults loved it. I think now that the young parents of baby boomers had a lurking fear of their kids not “turning out right.” Heaven forbid that we should be “fruitcakes” or “lezzies.” This unspeakable fear was dispelled every time they saw the miniature couple we knew by their every encouragement they wanted us to be.
Carla Bass moved in around the corner at the start of our sixth grade year, about the same time Judy’s father died. Judy and I never talked about her father—sickness and death were far too scary.
Judy latched onto Carla immediately and they began spending most of their time together—time I would have spent with Judy. Whenever I was with them both, even just walking home from school, I felt like we were playing a game with rules only they understood. I was exhilarated, but confused. Too young to see what was happening, I floated along with my feelings, loving the way I felt when I was with either or both of them, no matter how uncomfortable or confused I was.
That 6th grade winter Judy and I played house a few more times, but it wasn’t the same. Judy’s smile seemed different. It gleamed like she knew a breathtaking secret. Each of those last few times we played in her room, she would strike up an argument on some pretense and we would end up play-fighting on her bed. We hadn’t been that physically close since our naked dance. I remember her smile—a smile of secret knowledge—all the while we pushed and rolled.
As our play changed, my feelings about Judy changed as well. I began to feel a need to state my intentions. I was unsure what they might be, but I knew they involved going steady, getting married, and something called sex.
I thought I should start by making our relationship official. 6th grade boys with paper routes are millionaires, so one spring afternoon, swept up by some kind of seasonal confidence, I took my wad of bills, floating on a pocket-full of silver coins chinking against my bike seat, down to the strip-mall jewelry store and bought Judy a stainless-steel steady-ring-on-a-chain just like the ones the high school girls wear. Trembling and breathless, I gave it to her one afternoon at the end of Easter vacation.
I pulled the weighty bauble from my pocket without preamble.
“Does this mean we’re going steady?”
“I guess so.”
Neither of us was ready to start kissing and I didn’t know what else to say, so I quickly suggested that we go outside with the other kids. Only then did it become real to me that everyone would see what had always been private. I wavered between being proud, wanting all the kids to see, and hoping she would keep her shiny new token hidden in her blouse with her training bra. But the uproar among the kids over Judy’s steady ring—which she ended up taking off and swinging around her finger like a sling—was no more than over somebody’s really cool aggie shooter. We heard a few of choruses of “Two Little Lovebirds…” then everything was back to normal. I played along, but I knew things had changed. I understood only later how the change involved the arrival of Carla Bass.
Carla and Judy were opposites in many ways. Judy was round-faced and pink, the bangs of her bright blonde Dutch-boy cut straight above dark eyebrows and clear blue eyes. Carla’s skin was Hessian olive, her face long and lean, with lank ringlets of nut-brown hair falling about searching black eyes. They were a striking, mismatched pair.
I got my first fruitful erections thinking of Carla.
We began to talk on the phone—something Judy and I had never done.
Speaking into my ear as I curled on the floor in the dark kitchen while everyone else watched TV, Carla was not a disembodied voice. As she spoke, I could see her more clearly than I ever could when we were with Judy or other kids. On the phone we had privacy. Her froggy little voice spoke only to me, telling me about problems with the other girls, about her parents fighting, her brothers smoking and drinking. The things she told me frightened me some, but she seemed so cool and different and exciting. I would think of her long after we hung up. I would fall asleep thinking of how it would be to make her happy, to stroke her face, to touch her lips.
I began to write her love letters.
When Judy and I began as friends we hadn’t learned to write yet, so we never wrote notes to each other. It was different with Carla. By eleven years old I was literate enough to get myself into trouble. I spent one entire rainy afternoon with the only picture I had of Carla, in the school portrait of Mrs. Potts’ class sixth grade class, filling in every margin with tortured cursive purple prose. I hid it in the deepest recess of my closet.
I had just seen The Pride and the Passion for the third time that week on “The Million Dollar Movie” and I was moved. I identified with the Sophia Loren character, divided in her feelings between the long-beloved and admired Spanish revolutionary, played by Sinatra—the Pride—and the dashing Duke of Wellington, played by Cary Grant—the Passion. I wept throughout the final scene as the Duke carried the limp bodies, first of Sofia, then of Sinatra, back into their recaptured city. I was attracted to the idea of these different aspects of love. Love could feel many ways. I could be in love with two girls at the same time. I poured my passion out to Carla with my pen.
I never gave Carla the unedited versions of my letters. She got my feelings, watered down to the level of commercial Valentines, in the form of notes passed to her through the hands of other girls in class. At first it didn’t enter my mind that Judy would read the notes. After all, she was in a different room at school and the girls who passed the notes always promised not to read them. I assumed Carla would never share them with anyone. I didn’t want to think of what Judy’s reaction might be if she did read them. But when we talked on the phone Carla pretended she hadn’t even read my notes. It was all too embarrassing to mention. And besides, in my pubescent mind my feelings about Carla were separate from what Judy and I were to each other—whatever that might have been.
In the midst of a hormone storm, I was in a warm bath of ignorance. The water would get cold quickly and soon.
But as spring approached that sixth grade year, some kind of awareness grew within me. It could have come from clues I picked up when I was with Judy and Carla together—the conspiratorial tittering, the under-current of whispers. Or I might have been starting the long haul to catch up with the girls’ march through puberty while slowly getting wise to the world in 1964, taking in the new ways by osmosis through the media. Whatever way awareness dawned, my reaction was to panic. Judy will be jealous. She’ll hate me. I’m too weird for Carla. She’ll drop me and I’ll lose them both.
I decided I had to stop thinking about Carla—stop writing dangerous notes to her anyway— and make a commitment to Judy. By giving Judy that ring and chain, I chose Pride over Passion. Judy and I were going steady.
Only when Mr. Clark died did I understand how sick he had been, and why Judy’s mother was unhappy all the time. But soon after the funeral, Mrs. Clark seemed happier than ever. As the days grew warm, she cut and colored her dark, curly hair to a bouncy blonde halo, and she took to wearing short-shorts and halter tops. She would sun-bathe in a bikini in the middle of the back yard lawn, smiling with cucumber slices on her eyes. In March, when Mrs. Clark’s Greek boyfriend, Ilia, moved in, it seemed as if they had known each other for a long time.
None of the other kids on the block liked Ilia much. He treated us like the nuisances we probably were. But he was a warm breeze to the Clarks. He rough-housed with the boys and, though he kept a certain distance from her, Judy bragged about Ilia’s worldly travels and really seemed to like him. I think she liked the way he made her mother laugh. Judy had never known what it was like to have a happy mother.
On the morning of the day my oblivion crumbled, I’d been mowing the Clarks’ lawn. A Southern California Saturday in May, the mingled odors of green grass and blue smoke, and the drone of lawn engines infused the endless suburban neighborhood. Ilia had been hollering at me about a patch of lawn that looked uncut no matter how many times I ran over it with the mower. I tried to explain that it was because the ground was uneven and there was nothing I could do. The second time I mowed it Ilia must have known I was right, but he made me do it a third time just to show me who was boss.
That afternoon we played in the water for the first time that season in Judy’s backyard. Judy and her brothers, and Carla and I, with two or three neighbor boys, gliding on the Slip-n-Slide and lying on beach towels sucking the juice out of late Valencias that were still falling off the Clarks’ tree, ripe and ready. Ilia rolled out the barbeque while Mrs. Clark, in a brand new bikini, basked on a chaise lounge in the sun. I remember it as a kind of Eden.
I had gone into the utility room to dry off before going into the house to use the bathroom. Judy stepped out through the kitchen door at the same time Carla came in behind me from the yard.
“Come’ere, I want to show you something.”
Judy took me by the arm and turned me toward the adjoining garage. Carla was right behind me as we entered the dimly lit space. The odor of fresh-cut grass rose through the dusty air. Carla’s lips were so near my ear I felt her breath as she spoke.
“Do you know what pussy is?” Her whispered voice held back a squeal. I looked in panic from face to face, both smiling maliciously, eyes darting back and forth from each other to me.
“Sure I do.”
My mind scrambled to make sense of what they were doing, sifting my vague knowledge of sex gleaned from children’s apocrypha and sex-ed films. I knew that a pussy was the same as a vagina, but I had never said the word vagina out loud, and was sure I didn’t know how to pronounce it. I had no idea what Carla meant by the word without the article.
“It’s your… thing,” I said, “Where you pee.”
The girls were not yet old enough for bikinis themselves. Their wet swimsuits were modest, with skirty frills around their burgeoning hips, but their legs and arms glistened in the angled light from the utility room so that in the darkened garage we seemed to be in a silvery black-and-white photograph.
Judy stood next to the trash barrel that held the grass from the morning’s lawn job. Topping the full barrel was a newly deposited layer of paper trash from a bathroom wastebasket.
“Look at what we found.”
Judy picked up an envelope from the trash and offered it to me. Taut with nerves without knowing why, I recoiled into Carla. She was ready for just such a response. Her hands were up, pushing me back toward Judy and the envelope. I had no choice but to take it.
It was not like any envelope I had ever seen. It was small and square, and even in the dim light I could see it wasn’t white, but purple or pink. Between my fingers the envelope made a kind of crunching sound. It was not sealed. When I lifted the flap, instead of the nasty note I was sure they would force me to read aloud, I felt some kind of dry, springy substance lining the bottom of the envelope.
“Did you know it was hairy?” said Judy with wicked delight.
I slowly withdrew my fingers from the envelope, trying not to betray my confusion. Carla’s chin was at my shoulder, a giggle beginning to bubble in her throat.
“Yeah, sure I did,” I lied.
With a clench of my stomach it came to me that somehow this was Mrs. Clark’s pubic hair. It was something adults had. I’d seen the illustrations and heard about “body changes” in that infamous film at school. I remembered catching glimpses of it on my mom at awkward moments in the past. How and why Mrs. Clark’s pubic hair came to be in that envelope and what Judy and Carla expected me to do with it were too much for me to consider at the time.
My forehead burned. I could feel the water that was dripping off my trunks as it splashed on the hard, cool floor and onto my feet. Standing in a little puddle of my own making, I started to shiver, though the garage was hot and stuffy. My bladder ached as Judy stepped closer.
“Look at it. It’s my mom’s.”
I almost knocked Carla down when I dropped the envelope and ran.
Judy kept the ring. It was never spoken of. I spent the summer developing a passion for baseball. At the beginning of seventh grade Judy moved to Anaheim.
I saw Carla only at school and, later, through the windows of older guys’ cars. I know she saw me but our eyes never met.
I tried once more with Judy just after seventh grade. I called her on the telephone one lonely night. I don’t remember asking her Read any good books lately? nearly as well as I remember the lengthy silence that followed the question, and the sick feeling it gave me.
Somehow I convinced her to go on a movie date with me—an Elvis double feature. My mom drove us to the Brookhurst. Judy was wearing strange new clothes—a short skirt with giant cartoon flowers and a clingy sweater that showed off her newly acquired breasts. I wore what I considered dress-up clothes—a white dress shirt tucked in to a pair of black slacks. All her new friends were there at the matinee—the girls in similar skirts and sweaters, the boys in jeans and tee shirts. Before Kissin’ Cousins and during intermission, Judy would sit with me for a minute or two while she looked around, then jump up and return a few seconds later with someone else to show me off to as her old boyfriend. During the movies we didn’t talk or touch. At times during Harum Scarum I wasn’t sure if she was sitting next to me at all. I didn’t look.