This story is really a recollection in the form of a meditation. I haven't even bothered to change the names. It was so long ago and so far away that by now this shouldn't matter. Of course, if Edith (still in Hungary, as far as I know) were to read it and recognize "us" and send me e-mail, I would be very happy to chat with her.
First Love: Very Far Away & Very Long Ago
Steven C. Scheer
Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?
Women don't like it when men like them for their looks. The idea is that looks are not constant and inconstant looks may make for inconstant love. However this may be, a separation between form and content is impossible. What we see is, of course, not what we get, yet what we want begins with what we see. Even in classical mythology, love's arrow struck a man through the heart by means of the eyes. This is the story of one such instance in another time and in another place.
I was in seventh grade when it happened. I had no idea it was going to happen. One never does. You live your life as best you can, then suddenly everything changes. Just because you see a girl. But I am getting ahead of myself (as usual). I remember the day in question distinctly, as if the whole thing happened yesterday. The music teacher was asking certain members of the class to join the school choir. Though I don't have perfect pitch (or perfect anything, for that matter), I had wanted desperately to join. I don't know why. Just something to do, I guess. Now in the days I am talking about, boys and girls were in separate parts of the school in unisex classes. The Hungarian educational establishment in those days felt this was a healthy thing. I don't know about that. It certainly made us shy in the presence of the opposite sex, but perhaps that was the idea. It was, at any rate, an innocent age, those years of the early 50s.
The choir having been selected, the class proceeded with a rousing march. I was sitting in the front seat in the middle of the room, right in front of the music teacher. I gave that song all I had. If you could die from sheer enthusiasm, you could have been dead in my place. My efforts didn't go unheeded, or should I say unrewarded? When the song was over, the teacher wanted to know if I had been asked to join the choir. This was the beginning of my membership. This was also the beginning of the end. Love was now literally just around the corner. But I didn't know it yet. Not quite yet.
Whether this took place the same day on which I was asked to join the choir or not I'll not swear. All I know is that after the last class of the day (classes ended either at noon or at 1:00 p.m. in those days), the boys all filed into the gym for the first choir practice. We were already seated on what I remember as bleachers in the far end of the gym, as if on a stage, when the girls came filing in. I shall never forget the moment, or the profile of Edith Rogendorf, my first love. The song from South Pacific claims that some enchanted evening you shall see that stranger across a crowded room. For me the enchantment came in a dusty gym early in the afternoon.
Edith Rogendorf's profile (for I first saw her from a lateral perspective) had done its work in a split second. All I remember of that first choir practice is that my heart was racing as if I had entered it in the Olympics and was bound and determined to win the gold medal. And speaking of singing, everything was singing for me all that afternoon except, of course, the choir.
When it was all over, I instinctively decided to follow my enchantress home (at that point, you understand, I did not know her name, but what does that matter, since the name of the rose is always love). Naturally, she lived in a direction opposite from mine. Already I was launched on uncharted territory. I don't think she noticed that I was following her. Not that first time. Once I saw her enter the building of her residence, I ran home, my heart still racing, loudly, if you can believe it, pounding in my chest.
My Aunt Gabi noticed that I came home later than usual and all red in the face, but I don't remember a fuss at this point. All I know is that immediately after finishing my noon meal, I was off again. Not to my usual haunts, either. I headed straight back to the building of her residence and took up post there. I was hoping against hope that she would come out. I knew that sooner or later she would have to go somewhere.
In the meantime I just waited. Waited and waited. I don't know now how long I had to wait that first time. It seems to me that some boys I knew came by that way and were wondering what I was doing there, just waiting. I don't remember what I told them. All I remember is that eventually the miracle happened. She ran out of the building with a milk jug, obviously heading for the store diagonally across the corner. I am also sure that she noticed me now. She knew me by sight, perhaps, since we were both members of the choir, after all, but she also knew that I didn't live in that neighborhood, otherwise I would have been a more familiar sight.
I just watched her cross the street and disappear in the grocery store. When she came out with the milk, I was still standing there watching her. She took this in, crossed the street, and entered the building of her residence. I decided to wait on. I had no particular strategy, but I harbored the hope (perhaps, perhaps) that she might come down again just to see if I was still there. She did come, too, about an hour or so later, carrying some kind of clothing wrapped in plastic. She looked at me and then set off in the direction of St. Stephen's Boulevard. I followed.
By the time she was crossing the Margaret Bridge to Buda, she knew I was deliberately following her. She looked back from time to time, as if to make sure that I was still there. I followed her to this place in Buda. And then I waited again. I waited and waited.
A couple of hours later she reappeared. I think she was surprised to see me still there, but also perhaps impressed by my steadfastness, loyalty, fidelity - words that were not yet in my vocabulary. Thus, our game began. For several days thereafter I hung around her house and waited for her to come out, run errands, or go to her ballet lessons (which is what she was doing in Buda that first time). I can't quite recall the duration of this first phase of our love. But looking back on it, it strikes me as the height of innocence.
The next step, of course, was the letter, the love letter. I say this now as if it were a matter of course for a 13-year-old boy to write a love letter to a 13-year-old girl he happened to have just fallen in love with. I don't remember now what the letter said, not exactly. But I am sure it said "I love you," and I am sure it contained the drawing of an anatomically incorrect heart with an arrow piercing it through from back to front (for love always stabs you in the back, does it not?). And now came the unbearable suspense. It seems that whole eternities came and went while I was waiting for her response.
Then one afternoon when we came out of school (it was a beautiful sunny afternoon to boot, and I remember this distinctly), she handed me her reply. It simply said, "You are a nice boy, a smart boy, and I want to go out with you." Needless to say, I was in seventh heaven. Those childish words represented a veritable masterpiece for the benefit of my foolish heart. In my joyous enthusiasm I was careless with that piece of paper in my hand. The result was that my Aunt Gabi promptly confiscated it. Later, other love letters were intercepted, in most cases by teachers, a math teacher in particular, the somewhat sadistic Mrs. László.
Mrs. László used to slap us repeatedly in the Men's Room for offenses by now totally forgotten. They say, though, that the whole world loves a lover. I don't particularly remember anything unseemly about Mrs. László's handling of my intercepted letters. My mother was informed, of course. Ah, what an age of innocence we lived in in the early 50s in Budapest, Hungary.
The rest of this story should be highly predictable. Secret meetings, walks in the park. Eventually a girl friend of Edith's told me about the "k." I was, by a certain point, expected to kiss my love. What is interesting in retrospect is that the girls had control over the entire romance. The kiss eventually took place in the dark corridor of a tenement building across the street from her place of residence. It was awkward and tentative, as I imagine all first kisses must be if they are to mean anything at all.
What wasn't strange or awkward at any moment during this first "love" story in my life (I think the "affair" survived that school year, but it didn't follow me into the next year, which was at another school in another part of town), is the authenticity of the feeling of love that was born in the moment of that first sight in a dusty gym on an otherwise unremarkable afternoon. Can the very sight of a woman change a man's life? I insist that this is true love. Even if it doesn't last. Even if, as in many cases, it never even commences.
The paths of our lives are strewn not just with the signs of sure obliteration, but also with those of nameless loves that are born in a look and disappear as unobtrusively as they have flashed "upon that inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude." And I am not talking about mere flirtation here, or simply of the honorable work of hormones. These love-looks are different. They blaze across the clear skies of our being unexpectedly but always at the sight of that person we instantly intuit to be that special person who could so easily become our most significant other - if it weren't for other circumstances, other (even nameless and elusive) obstacles.
Yes, love is indeed a sight for sore eyes. It may be many other things as well, but in this physical world its appearance is as important as its substance. The one contains the other, like taste the redness of the rose.