My [first love]. It still hurts what happened last fall; the fall of 1973. I lost her. I thought I had her all through last summer and that when school started again, we’d be boyfriend and girlfriend. I dreamed of how we’d hold hands all the time and how I’d carry her books to class for her. I wanted us to live happily ever after with her.
But a week into our 7th grade school year, I got mad at her because she beat me in an argument we were having. We sat on a push merry-go-round in the school playground having the discussion. It was the evening of September 13th, 1973. The day was overcast and twilight had fallen around us. While she argued, she was also pushing the merry-go-round, and as she argued her last idea, I knew I could not top it. I hated how she could so often best me and leave me quiet and confused. So I slid off the merry-go-round and stood off to the side, waiting for her to pass by. When she did, I thrust out my leg into her path, tripping her. She fell down, skinning a knee. This made her mad and she said, “That’s it. I hate you. Don’t ever speak to me again. We’re breaking up!” With that, her and her girl friends briskly headed upstairs.
So there I was in mid May, 1974. [First Love] and I never did get back together, though I’ve asked her several times to forgive me and reconsider. I regret tripping her, and truly wish I hadn’t. God, can you get [First Love] to forgive me? I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I can’t believe I ruined the loveI most wanted. She was going to be the girl I’d marry at graduation. I had it all planned out. Just after graduation, I was going to get a ride to her home town and pick her up, and we were both going to go back to Altoona, get married, havekids, and live happily ever after. But I made her fall, and now, none of that was going to happen, was it. I messed it all up. It wasn’t fair how easily I wrecked something I’d spent so long building. Please, God. If anyone can make this happen, it’s you. Make her come back to me. I’ll never hurt her again. I promise!
I prayed to you God, since that previous autumn. But [First Love] still did not like me. Soon after leaving me, she begain going with my friend [Mentat], and I was lucky if I got to see her a couple times a day in class. All the free time she had, she spent with him. It mademe sick, seeing them walking hand-in-hand on the playground, sitting on the lawn swings, and laughing on that merry-go-round that she used to enjoy with me. She appeared really into him too, and their relationship lasted months longer than hers and mine had.
Though the pain of first love gone bad followed me around relentlessly that year, I kept busy studying electronics and other school work. Along with electronics repair, I enjoyed horticulture class where we grew flowers and shrubs to plant around the school grounds. One day, I was attending this class, filling petepots with pearlite and dirt, planting tiny cuttings in them, and all the while feeling rather blue as I did most of the time since the previous fall. The teacher, [John], asked me what the matter was. So, crying, I told him the whole story of how my heart had been broken, mostly by my own hand, and how powerless I felt to fix it. I didn’t know how to set things right.
He smiled and patted me on the shoulder. “I know what you can do,” he said. “Meet me in the front circle after supper tonight, and I’ll show you. By the end of today, you’ll have your girlfriend back. I promise.”
For the rest of that day I couldn’t think of anything but [First Love] and how [John] the plant man was going to fix everything. Seeing her having lunch with [Mentat] didn’t bother me either, because I knew that they’d be broken up by the next day and that she’d be mine again.
I trusted [John] the grounds keeper. I had no reason not to. He really believed that he would make this work, though I had no idea what he had in mind. All I could do was hope and dream, as the afternoon dragged on. Why couldn’t time go faster? Maybe God was answering my prayers, through [John]. Maybe [First Love] would kick [Memtat] out and take me back. Maybe [First Love] and I would marry after all. Maybe my dream of living happily ever after with her in Altoona would still come true.
I didn’t care if using [John] to get her back would hurt[Mentat]. He shouldn’t have stolen my girl, so he’s just getting what he deserves. She belongs with me; not him, and tonight. Tonight I’m going to win her back. [John] said it and I believe him. [First Love] and I will be together again. Oh, I just wish tonight would hurry up and get here!
At supper, I watched [Mentat] and [First Love] as my nervousness grew. I believed in [John] the grounds keeper turned teacher and love coach, and was almost certain that everything would go as planned. I wasn’t worried that she would say no. But I did worry about what I would do when she said yes. What would we do together? I’m not a reader like [Mentat] is. Ah but I don’t care. We’ll find lots to talk about. She didn’t care last year that I don’t read. So she wouldn’t care now. I was good enough that spring for her, and I would be good enough now as well.
Finally, supper was over. I went to my dorm to kill a few minutes, to give [John] a chance to make it out to the front circle. I could see the circle from the window at the foot of my bed through the aluminum-barred windows, so I watched, paced around, watched some more, and paced some more. I breathed in the fresh spring air and listened to the birds chirping and flitting about in the big oak trees above the circle. Had there been no screens in the windows, I might have been able to touch a few of their limbs; they grew that tall and close to my dorm building.
Oop. There he was! He wore a bright white tee shirt with gray pants and black, weather-beaten boots. The bearingson the wheelbarrow he pushed along squeaked, and the spades and buckets he’d brought with him rattled around inside it.
I ran down the front stairs, skipping two or three at a time to meet him, hoping that the house parents didn’t see me going so fast, for they’d havesurely scolded me. By the time I reached him, I was so out of breath that I grew dizzy and could see my heartbeat in my vision; the images momentarily dimming then brightening again with each rapid pulsation of blood. He watched and grinned as I got myself together. “Wow, you must really love this girl,” he said.
“Yes. More than you know,” I coughed and gasped.
“Well, we’re going to fix everything,” he assured me with such confidence that it never occurred to me even once to doubt him. “Let me tell you something about girls,” he went on. “They just love flowers; especially roses.”
“Yea?” I begged. “Do they?”
“Yes, they do, and we have lots of roses here in the circle. True, none are in bloom yet. So we can’t pick any. But we can dig out a whole bush. Yes, we’ll find a sturdy one, and I have a nice big plastic pot here for it that we’ll wrap up in aluminum foil once the bush is planted, to make it look extra special.”
“Are we going to give a bush to [First Love]?” I asked.
“Yes, and I promise: This will change how she thinks of you forever. It should more than make up for when you tripped her last fall. It will show her that not only do you regret what you did, but that you’ll never do it again. Finally, a rose is perhaps the strongest symbol of love I know. So it will tell her how much you care and how much you’ve been thinking about her this year. Is that what you want to say to her?”
“Oh yes,” I sighed. “Yes!” A giddy feeling passed over me. “Let’s do it.”
“Sure thing. Now, look around here and find the bush you think she’d like the most.”
I must have walked around that circle five times before settling on the largest bush in the garden. It stood around eight inches tall with lots of green leaves and thorns as well. Not a dead leaf on it. “That looks like a nice one,” the teacher said. “Now, let’s dig it out. Here, put on these gloves to keep from being jabbed.” I did as instructed. “Now, use the shovel to outline where you’re going to dig. I’d make a seven-inch circle around the plant.” I did this. “Then, go way deep with the shovel. You’re trying to get under the roots of the rose. Follow the circle around the entire bush, going deep every shovel-width.”
“You know,” I mused. “I really hope this works. I’m tired of being without her because she’s everything to me.”
“I know,” he said understandingly. “She’ll be yours again.” I dug as we talked, growing more excited with each stroke. I’d come to like [John] the groundskeeper a lot that year. He reminded me of my grandfather Jewell, who I missed terribly being so far away from home so much of the time. His word carried equal weight to Pap’s. “Easy,” [John] gently commanded. “Don’t make your digging angle too low. Otherwise, you’ll tear up the roots on your plant, and it will die soon after she gets it.” I continued digging, being careful to hold the shovel near plum but with just enough pitch to get under the plant yet still avoid slicing into its roots.
[John] was one of the few grown-ups that could give me orders without me getting upset at being told what to do. He never yelled or grounded me. But then come to think of it, he never had cause. I was always on my best behavior around him; tonight especially so. Unlike with most adults in my life at the time, it never occurred to me once to defy him, because he was clearly the more knowledgeable of the two of us in just about everything we talked about. He was a powerful, knowing man who cared about me besides, and all of this deepened my sense that he was surely going to come through for me again tonight as he had so many times throughout this, my seventh grade year.
“Careful now,” he said. I finished digging the circle around the rosebush, and it flopped over to one side as its roots no longer held it in the ground. Never once did [John] show impatience with me, and he was always so willing to spend hours if needed, answering my questions on girls, life, and love. He got my unwavering respect because he so respected me. He taught me how to plant geraniums, separate new shoots of the aloe plant, and grow nice-smelling hyacinth for Mom at Easter that year. [John] was like a big brother, father, teacher, grandfather, and best friend all rolled up into one.
He brought this deep green, plastic pot over to me that was ten inches tall and probably about the same diameter on its top. I put a few pieces of stone in the bottom to assure that the plant would drain well when watered, yet prevent the dirt from running out with the water. Then, I threw in a couple spades full of moist, dark dirt that I’d gathered from the hole where the plant had just been. Then, with his help, I lifted the plant and gently placed it in the pot. I spent nearly five minutes making sure the rosebush was perfectly straight up and down all the way around, and must have rotated the pot ten times to be certain. Whenever I found a crooked spot, I’d stuff in a small amount of dirt to get the plant to lean the other way. Everything about this just had to be perfect.
[John] waited patiently while I fussed and doted over [First Love’s] gift. I could almost see a throbbing power in that plant as I held it; a power like Cupid’s arrow that would make [First Love] love me once more. As I became mesmerized by it, [John] laid a square of green aluminum foil on the ground beneath where I was holding the bush. “Sit it down in the middle of that,” he directed. I did, and he then showed me how to wrap it up so that the dull green pot itself was totally covered in brilliant, vibrant green foil. Even the dirt around the bush was hidden, leaving only the shiny green leaves and trunk of the bush exposed. As a boy, there weren’t many things that impressed me as ‘beautiful.’ But this potted bush was one. It really looked wonderful, though it had no roses on it yet.
“Let’s fill in that hole,” [John] told me. So I hurriedly scooped a few spades full of dirt from other parts of the circle and filled in the hole where the rosebush had grown. Then, I raked over that to level it out with the surrounding ground, and when we finished, you couldn’t tell that a plant had even been there. “Good job!” [John] said, patting me on the shoulder.
But my impatience grew. Let’s get on with it, I thought. Still though, I managed to finish filling in the hole and putting the tools back in the wheelbarrow.
“Let’s take this stuff back to the greenhouse,” John said. “Then we’ll give your rosebush to [First Love].”
He carried the plant while I pushed the wheelbarrow past the playground. On the way, I glanced [First Love] with [Mentat] on the upper lawn swing and started to panic. “This’ll never work,” I said with a shaky voice to [John]. “Just look at those two. She really likes him.”
“Ah but she likes you too,” [John] counseled. “She’s just forgotten that, and this rose will remind her. Trust me.”
How [John] could stay so calm, I wondered. My hands were all sweaty and I could feel my heart throbbing in my throat as we passed by the two love birds. I could hear her giggling. I could see him smiling. I could smell her perfume. I could feel her heart being as excited to be with him as it had to be with me a year earlier. Oh my God, what had I gotten myself into?
For a split second, I wanted to back out. “I don’t want to do this,” I said in an almost whimpering tone. I thought of how she would hate me for trying to break up her and [Mentat]. I feared how [Mentat] would hate me, and how he might even beat me up for this.
“There, there,” [John] comforted. “You’ll be alright. I’ll be nearby. Don’t be afraid. After all, a faint heart never won a fair lady.”
I was glad he’d be there too, because confronting [First Love] with the rosebush was not something I wanted to do by myself. I felt so privileged to have an ally like that teacher, and I never understood why he wanted to help me so, although at that point, I didn’t care. He was powerful and he was on my side. So all it took was a reassuring glance from him, and my fears vanished, replaced with the certainty that this would all work out for the best. Of course, the fact that we had now moved out of earshot of the lawn swing no doubt heightened my courage as well as I could no longer hear how completely enthralled [First Love] was with [Mentat].
We continued up past the wood shop and rounded the corner to the left past the electronics shop, and then straight up the hill to the athletic field. Just before the final ramp that led onto that field, we took a left. This led back to the greenhouse. Once there, [John] took the tools and wheelbarrow inside while I held the bush, and after what seemed like forever, he appeared in the doorway. “Are you ready?” he asked.
“Yes,” I croaked.
“Well then, let’s go,” he ordered gently but firmly. “You take the plant.”
So, the two of us walked back down the hill past the boiler house on the left, and the steps down to the home maintenance shop on the right. As we rounded the corner of the wood shop, we could again see the playground with the green and orange push merry-go-round in front of us and the upper lawn swing just beyond that. My eyes frantically scanned the swing. No [Mentat], and no [First Love]. They were gone. “She’s not here,” I said to [John].
“Don’t worry,” he replied. “We’ll find her. It’s early and so, I’m sure she hasn’t gone upstairs for the night yet.” True. It was only just after 7:30 PM, and [First Love] never went up to her dorm until 8:00. So, we continued our stroll around the playground, and stopped to watch as the kids played kickball in the basement underneath the boy’s side porch; an area we affectionately called “the dugout”. I spent many an hour hiding there myself the past couple months, chewing tobacco, and hoping to conceal this habit from the house parents. They weren’t overly vigilant but did have keen senses of smell and could tell in a minute if a kid had been smoking cigarettes or rubbing snuff.
The girls had a playground as well as a porch and dugout on the east side of the building as well. However, they usually came over to our side because their side was directly accessible from the street. So to minimize the chance that a stranger would come off the street and do harm, that playground was rarely used, and the girls played on the boy’s side mostly. [John] and I walked around the girls’ playground a little hoping we might find [First Love]. But we didn’t. So after ten minutes, we went indoors and checked the basement pop room. No luck.
I listened for her throughout the loud, echoey halls of the first floor, in the main building. For a while, I heard nothing. But then, as I passed the high school dining room which was close to the boy’s side recreation area, I heard her far-away yet distinctive laughter. Straining to see in the dimly lit white and yellow halls at twilight, I could make her out. She was at the other end of the back hall, past the kitchen, apparently talking to [Mentat]. “There she is,” I whispered to [John].
[John] took the rosebush from me. “Now, you wait here. I’ll set up a meeting between she and you,” and with that, he was off. I could hear his official-sounding boots on the hard wood, tile-covered floors as he approached her. It took him less than a minute to traverse the 100 feet or so. Then abruptly, his foot falls stopped and after what seemed like an eternity to me, he interrupted their conversation, which had fallen into a faint murmur at his lessening proximity. They were curious about who was coming up to them. “Hi,” he said jovially. “Sorry to bother you. But I’m here to fix things up between Tom and his girl friend.”
Silence. Both [Mentat] and [First Love] were no doubt surprised, as was I. He was so direct and so matter-of-fact about it. I couldn’t make out their faces from where I stood. But they didn’t say much more to each other. [John] went on, “[First Love], Tom will call you in ten minutes on the girl’s second floor annex phone. He has something to give you, and wants to arrange a time and a place where you can meet him to take it.”
“Okay,” [First Love] said curtly. [Mentat] later told me that at that instant, she gave his arm two rapid and pulsating squeezes (squeeze squeeze), and hurried away up the stairs as if to say to him, “Don’t worry. I’ll get this straightened out.” That wasn’t enough to comfort [Mentat] however. Bewildered, he came back the hall to the boy’s side and passed me without a word; he didn’t know I was standing there and had no idea that [John] and I had conspired against him. Thus, he did not know why [John] would be trying to get [First Love] and me back together, since we hadn’t been together for over six months now. I didn’t care that I was sabotaging his relationship because my needs were all-important, and his meant nothing to me. That’s how selfish I was. That’s how much I loved [First Love]. Damn anyone who would stand in my way of getting her, even if that was [First Love] herself.
[John] came back after him, still holding the rosebush. Apparently, he had thought better of giving it to her himself and decided that the whole gift touch would work better if I presented it to her instead of doing it through a messenger. “Here,” he said, handing the bobbing bush to me. “Go call her and arrange a meeting. She’s waiting for you. I’m going to leave now because I have some stuff to take care of in the green house. But good luck to you my boy. You’ll be all right.” He turned and walked toward the boy’s side porch door, leaving me shaking like a leaf. God I was so afraid again and for the first time in this whole escapade, I was truly on my own.
I turned then and headed for the phone some twenty feet away in the boy’s recreation annex. Extension 50 it was, and it was mounted right beside the water fountain. Good thing too, because my lips and mouth were as dry as a desert, and I must have taken thirty swigs from it before finally working up the courage to make the call.
“Hello?” It was [First Love]. She answered on the second ring.
“Um, [First Love]?” I asked.
“Yes? Is this Tom?”
“Yes,” I whispered, wondering where my voice had gone. “Could I meet you in about ten minutes at the entrance to the girls practice annex? I have something for you.”
“Sure!” she said with a curious excitement. Aparently she was not mad at me for interrupting her evening with [Mentat]. “I’ll be there. See ya then.” She knew I was going to do something big from what [John] had said earlier to her, and was just as curious about what that was as I was about how she would react to the bush.
She had no idea that I was about to give her a rosebush though. Yet she acted as though she was about to receive something quite valuable, and she was already sounding very grateful to me for the gift, even though she knew not what it was. There had been this cold and business-like distance between us ever since our breakup last September. But tonight, I could find no evidence of that in her tone. The rosebush love symbol had already started doing its work as an olive branch.
My fear lessened and excitement grew as the second hand on my watch went around three, four, six times, and on its eighth revolution, it was time to head up to the annex. I took the boy’s side stairs to the second floor and made a right through the door into the second floor back hall. Then, I made a left past the music room on the left and the chapel stage doors on the right. I felt relieved to find no one at the meeting place at the entrance to the girls instrument practice annex. This gave me a chance to relish my victory which was sure to come any minute now.
It was quiet. All the girls were still downstairs on the playground and no one was practicing piano in the annex. A cold, gray twilight filtered through the textured glass window inside the annex just past the girl’s steps, and I peered through it, trying to decode the distorted images of the ground below. I was pretty sure that tomorrow, she’d be my girlfriend once again. Bbut I knew I shouldn’t be nervous and worrying about what would happen if this didn’t bring her back. She might never speak to me again. Or she’d tell all her girlfriends to avoid me. That wouldn’t be very fun, as I was lonely enough as it was. I didn’t need an organized girly boycott to starve me more. All this I pondered while gazing at the squiggly lines of the antique glass window, and then decided to force these thoughts out of my head. A faint noise brought me back to the present.
I heard her footsteps. [First Love] was fond of wearing hard-heeled shoes that could be heard from one end of the building with its wooden floors and large halls, to the other. The rhythmic clacking echoed for nearly two seconds after each step. She was coming, and the steps grew louder.
I grabbed the rosebush and it quivered in my hands; partly from the act of me picking it up, but mostly from my shaking hands. Petrified, I hoped that I’d be able to speak once she got there, and by the sounds of her walking I wouldn’t have to wait long to find out. She had a very tentative gate, and so she was never one to stomp around and announce herself with her loud shoes. But because everything was so quiet, I could hear her a full minute before she arrived, and as each step grew progressively louder, so grew my fear of proceeding. But I was committed, like a raft on white water after it has left the starting point. There was no turning back; not after all the work [John] and I did to make this possible. So I clutched the steam pipe for the radiator which by this time of year was cool to the touch, and held on, fighting my legs as they tried to carry me away.
Oop. Too late now. I heard her start down the steps from the third floor. When she reached the bottom, she would be here. Oh my goodness, I thought. I want to go home. Why did Mom ever send me over here to this place? Why did I ever have to meet [First Love]? How come things have to be so hard?
She didn’t sound like she was scared of anything though. Her steps were even and slow; way slower than my pounding heart. [First Love] had wonderfully long hair, arms, fingers, and legs.
She rounded the last landing and I could see her coming. Tonight, she wore blue jeans and a dark blue sweater. “Tom?” she enquired. “Are you here?”
“Yes, I am,” I said, thankful that my voice worked. “Come here.”
She came a little faster, and I waited at the bottom of the steps for her. I’d left the plant sitting on the windowsill in the annex, so I could spend a few seconds walking her to it. Every additional second I could get with her was a cherished joy. So I was always planning and scheming to get some extra time wherever I could. This trick was the latest example of that.
We walked as slowly as I could go without appearing conspicuous. “So,” she asked, “you have something for me?”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s over here.” I led her to the windowsill and placed her hands on the bush, being careful to guide her away from the thorns.
“Oh God,” she exclaimed. “What is it?”
“It’s a rosebush,” I told her proudly. “And it’s for you. I dug it up myself.”
“Gee,” she whispered. “That’s so nice of you!”
Then, we just stood there for perhaps a minute or two, in an awkward silence. I knew not what to say next. I hadn’t planned that far ahead. I wanted to ask straight away if I could be her boyfriend again. But something stilled my tongue. Perhaps it was my knowledge that she really cared about [Mentat] that kept me quiet. Or maybe I was afraid of ruining this special moment by introducing my own selfish desires into it. Whatever the reason, I could ask no more of her; not until she gave me some positive sign that she’d accepted my “olive branch.”
She made busy by examining the rosebush and pricking herself with a thorn. “Ouch!” she squealed, and then broke into a quiet laugh. “It’s a real rosebush! I never had anyone give me a live rosebush before. Where did you get it?” So I told her the story of the front circle garden and [John] the groundskeeper, although I kept his coaching me to myself.
“I really want you to have this,” I said. “I’m so sorry for hurting you last September, and I hope this will make up for that, at least a little.”
She stopped fondling the rosebush and turned to me. “Tom,” she said. “You know that [Mentat] and I are going out now. I can’t just leave him. Did you think that your gift would make me?”
“Well,” I stammered, “I guess I was hoping…” I trailed off.
She went on, “You’re a great guy, and you really must care about me to do this.”
“Oh yes, I do!” I whispered, the pure truth of the statement ringing throughout my entire body and shaking me as I said it. “I know this was a bad thing to do to [Mentat]. But [First Love], I care about you so much. I really screwed up last fall when I tripped you, and believe me. I promise you I’ll never, ever do that again.”
She gently picked up the bush. “I need to think, Tom. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Okay?”
“Yes, that will be great,” I replied. True, her uncertainty about getting back with me wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. But it was far better than an out-and-out rejection.
Her steps as she departed dragged a little more than when she came. Apparently, she wasn’t as eager to leave me as she had been to reach me. Another good sign, I assured myself.
I stood there for several minutes after hearing her footsteps fade off and become one with the church-like silence that hovered around this place during most every evening. The fact that the deed was now done relaxed me but saddened me a little as well. Before I gave her the rose, my mind was just buzzing with all sorts of possible positive outcomes. I didn’t know then how much it might mean to [First Love]. But now, after seeing her react with such ambivalence, and now that [John] wasn’t there to pep me up either, fewer of those possibilities seemed likely or even realistic now.
I went back to the window again, trying to find patterns in the curvy lines. Perhaps I sought a message in the squiggles; something like “She loves you too, Tom. Just hang in there.” But I never found that, even after ten minutes. For the first time this evening, the very real possibility that the rosebush would not get her to leave [Mentat] for me, burst in, and tears distorted my vision as I scurried back to the boys side of the building before some house parent or night watchman saw me loitering on the girls side. I ran back the way I’d come, past the chapel (now on my left) and the music studio (now on my right), and entered the boys stairwell, whereupon I climbed up to the third (the last) floor, and headed back the outer hall of dorms to room number 306; my dorm.
Sleep avoided me this night. I tossed and turned, looking out at the traffic light on Bayard street. I listened to an episode of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater too, which played each night from 10:00 to 11:00. After that was over, I just laid on my back, looking up at the white ceiling. My two roommates noticed that I wasn’t as talkative as usual and asked what the matter was. But I didn’t feel like chatting, and so told them I’d tell them about it later and asked them not to talk to me anymore until morning. They honored my request and just talked to each other until 11:30 or so.
As the rest of the boys in the nearby dorms quieted down, my anxiety grew. My poor stomach was tense and hurting, and my heart was beating fast again like it did the instant I heard her coming earlier. When I imagined her face, it hurt even more. My intense desire for [First Love] heightened my fear of her rejecting me. She would definitely reject me tomorrow. But then, she might not. She seemed pretty impressed with the rose. But she really liked [Mentat] too.
Though she thought he was cool, my rose would at least get me back into the running. It had to. If this works, maybe someday, she’ll kiss me and hold my hand. Maybe we would sneak off together one day. But naah. That isn’t going to happen. Tomorrow, she’ll give me back the bush and tell me to leave her alone. Yea, but maybe [Mentat] won’t want her anymore once he learns how much I DO want her. That’s possible. Right? This sort of back and forth thinking kept me awake until the eastern sky began to brighten. What was going to happen? I wasn’t anymore sure at dawn than I’d been at the previous dusk.
See the next installment for more of this story, coming soon.