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 that raucous 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, a sexual 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-poised. At home, I'd relive 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.