First Love…Ah, The Pain…

oldwriterMy foster parents, Larry and Charlotte, began looking around for a bigger house in the summer of 1963. But it wasn’t until the first week of December that we finally moved into a three-bedroom, bath-and-a-half stucco house on Eldridge Street in Allied Gardens—nearly one year to the day after I first came to live with them. The house had a small backyard with some grass and a concrete patio and a wall of ice plant, and cost thirty-thousand dollars, a sum I could hardly conceive of. I instantly loved Allied Gardens, with its wide streets and plentiful leafy trees, the vast canyons of sage and rock that separated us from the rest of San Diego, and finally the abundance of kids of all ages that seemed to spill out of just about every middle-class house in the area. (At this stage of my life, ‘tract’ wasn’t necessarily a bad word.)

Coincidentally, the day we moved into our new house, something in my head went ‘click’ and ‘whirr’, and I was in love with any walking, breathing thing that resembled a girl—beginning with the slender brown-haired beauty I glimpsed playing hopscotch on the sidewalk a half-block up the street, while I was helping to carry boxes from the moving truck into the house. Her name, I would learn, was Cheryl Buksas. Our new house, of course, was nice. But it was probably my budding interest in girls like Cheryl which figured most prominently in my counting the two years I would live in Allied Gardens as the happiest—and perhaps the most painful—of my life.

The first Monday after we’d moved in, Charlotte took her son Butchie next door to her new friend Arlene, who had offered to watch him whenever Charlotte needed to go anywhere. Then we walked together down Zion Street to Stephen Foster Elementary School, where she registered me. It was the fifth elementary school I would attend; the sixth, if I counted my brief classroom experience in Juvenile Hall. I was assigned to Mr. Epler’s sixth grade class. There was no wasted time: after a brief hug goodbye from Charlotte, I was taken by an office worker to my classroom.

I should have been used to it by now: coming to a new school during the middle of the year. Nonetheless, a feeling of nervousness began brewing in my belly as we neared the open door of the classroom. New kids had always been the butt of cruel jokes and ridicule in every other school I’d attended. Doubtless it would be the same here. I took a personal inventory, and came up way short of okay. My hair was too long and greasy. Even though my clothes were relatively new and in style, I knew they could have been better. I could be taller. My voice could have been lower. I was too young (this wasn’t just a matter of opinion, given that I had skipped a grade in San Francisco). I heard the kids in the classroom and the purposeful racket they made, punctuated by the occasional resonant upraised voice of (I assumed) Mr. Epler, calling for someone to quiet down or for an answer to a question.

I walked into the room with my escort, and a sudden pall settled over the place. I felt all eyes on me.

Mr. Epler, who sat on the front of his desk with a large book in his hands, was a soft-spoken man in his late forties, who (I would soon discover) always wore the same green button-up sweater atop a starched white shirt and black tie and gray slacks, no matter the weather or temperature. He put down his book and took my information sheet from the escort. “I’m glad to meet you, Mr. Campbell,” he said, reading my name and smiling warmly. Then he spun me around by my shoulders until I faced the rest of the kids. “Class,” Mr. Epler announced, “we have a new student. His name is William Campbell, and he’s just moved here from La Mesa.” There was a brief, awkward moment of silence. “You can sit next to Mr. Polischuk,” Mr. Epler said to me, guiding me with his hand toward the middle of the room. “Peter,” he said, “would you mind raising your hand so William here can see you?”

A smallish kid with short dark hair raised a hand tentatively into the air, and I hurried toward the empty chair next to him, avoiding kids’ eyes and feet as best I could. “I expect each of you to go over and introduce yourselves to Mr. Campbell like the good citizens you are,” Mr. Epler said, his exhortation followed immediately by groans and whispering, which Mr. Epler chose to ignore, but which made me suddenly want to run away and hide. “William—or do you prefer being called Bill? Anyway, you can put your coat and lunch in the cloak closet at the back of the room. Peter, while William is putting his things away, perhaps you can come to my desk and get his books for him?”

I stashed my jacket and the bologna sandwich Charlotte had made for me in the crammed coat room, and when I got back to my seat, a neat pile of books had been set on my desk, along with pens and pencils, lined paper, and other supplies.

“All right, class,” Mr. Epler said, “let’s get back to our lesson. Who can tell me from their reading what Ecuador’s primary exports are?”

Peter had his book in front of him, and pushed it a little toward my side of the desk and pointed to the page. I opened my own book to the same page, and tried to learn something about Ecuador. Gradually, I got up the courage to look around me. A few of the kids still glanced at me occasionally, but for the most part, they were busy with the things kids generally did in school. I breathed.

When I got home that afternoon, Charlotte had unpacked what was left of our household goods, and, except for a couple of rugs that still had to be unrolled in our living room, the house was beginning to look lived-in. “How was your first day in class?” she asked. She was sitting on a stepstool in her short pants, smoking a cigarette, listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary on the radio. Behind her I could see she had been cleaning out kitchen cupboards and lining them with yellow-plaid No-Bugs-M’Lady. A huge carton labeled ‘DISHES’ was open next to her. Glassware and plates wrapped in newsprint were waiting to be put away.

I shrugged. “Alright, I guess. The kids were okay. Mr. Epler’s nice.”

“Did you learn anything new?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Ecuador sells a lot of bananas.”

Charlotte laughed at that, a smoky laugh that turned quickly into a cough, but she cleared her throat and laughed some more. “Oh, boy,” she said. “That’s sure important stuff.”

It didn’t take long to learn who was who in Mr. Epler’s class, enough that I could call most of the kids by name. It also didn’t take long for me to fall in love.

The first was Linda Johnson, with her long dark hair and sad eyes, and who wore her Blue Bird uniform to school every Tuesday. A month later, Linda was supplanted by yet another Linda: this one tall Linda Wilson, with her shining, bright blue eyes and wavy blonde hair that hung perpetually in front of her eyes. And finally, in the spring, there was Ethel Charboneau. Ethel was a slender, tallish eleven-year-old girl with perfectly straight chestnut hair (with the barest hint of red), parted neatly down the center of her scalp, and dark mahogany eyes arranged on her face into a permanent smile. Her smooth olive skin was covered ever-so-finely by a thin layer of what was politely referred to as ‘peach fuzz’. Ethel wasn’t merely beautiful; she was rapturous; she was divine. She was—well, there really wasn’t a word for Ethel.

I would have died for Ethel. In fact, I regularly began to feel as if I were dying for Ethel. I died each time I glimpsed her approaching from the end of the hall outside our sixth grade classroom each morning (I always managed to get to class a half-hour earlier than everyone else, just to make sure I was there to watch her arrival). I died again, this time more poignantly, when she finally came into the room, for she had to pass directly in front of me to get to her seat. Then I died (at least) a thousand deaths more, whenever I glanced over to her desk throughout the day and saw her doing anything except to acknowledge my existence, my obvious, undying love for her. And, finally, I died when she left again at the end of the day, strolling past my desk with nary a glance, let alone a good-bye. I was invisible to Ethel. Oh, the pain! Walking to my own home was a daily descent into hell, made tolerable only barely by the fact that the evening always held the promise of the morning after, and another day of agonized ecstasy. And weekends! Weekends were completely intolerable: two whole days without a glimpse of Ethel! I was desperate for Ethel. I’d never known such desperation, such a strange all-consuming hunger.

Nights, I dreamed of her. I dreamed she dragged her silky chestnut hair across my face. I dreamed she looked squarely into my eyes and whispered my name. Billy. Billy Campbell. No one could say my name the way Ethel could. (Not even, unfortunately, her real-life persona. But I was certain she’d talk that smoky, sultry way if she could.) I dreamed she held me close and put her breast against my cheek. (Of course, she didn’t really have any breasts yet—being only eleven years old—but that didn’t matter. It was the idea of her breasts, the intellectual concept, which counted. This was better: I didn’t want to taint my vision of Ethel with something as base as—sex.)

Ethel was all the things a boy could possibly want in a girl. In team ball, she could hurl the ball farther and harder than many of the boys, and more accurately than most. My heart pounded wildly whenever Ethel got the ball; I prayed it would be me she would try to hit. I made myself an almost embarrassingly easy target, running up to the line directly in front of her. Unfortunately, she enjoyed the challenge too much to try to hit such a willing victim. Ethel’s intellectual skills in the classroom were equally marvelous. Her spaghetti constructions were complex and architecturally daring, and Mr. Epler even commented admiringly to the class about the mountains on Ethel’s starch-and-salt relief maps. She was in the advanced Spanish group, could count to a thousand in base five, was able to recite the Preamble to the Constitution perfectly, and had read virtually every issue of Archie Comics published to date—twice. Of course, I loved Ethel for all of these things.

But what I most admired Ethel for—and what caused me to notice her in the first place— were her Beatles sneakers.

The Beatles were just then making their worldwide debut. “She Loves You”, “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, and “Do You Want To Know a Secret?” were riding high on the pop charts, and the world was going Beatles-crazy. Beatles wigs. Beatles lunch boxes. Beatles notebooks. Beatles trading cards. And an endless stream of Beatles photos in the teen magazines.

Ethel was the first in our class—and the last—to wear Beatles sneakers: white canvas tennis shoes with the smiling black-ink images of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, complete with their printed names (for the benefit of those Beatles non-initiates recently arrived on the earth from another planet). For the one day she wore her Beatles shoes to class, she was the unchallenged Queen, the hit of the day. So much of a hit, as a matter of fact, that, by the end of the day, Mr. Epler asked her not to wear them again, and announced to the class that Beatles clothes were thenceforth prohibited in his class. “Too much of a disruption,” he said simply.

But the audacity Ethel had exhibited by wearing the sneakers in the first place (most adults were still outraged and perplexed by the Beatles phenomenon) had won my heart. I had to have such a girl for my own. I couldn’t live another day without her. I would win Ethel’s heart—or I would die.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a clue how to go about making this happen. As my love for Ethel had reduced my brain to a bowl of mush, the best tactic I could come up with was to stare at her wistfully—and more or less constantly—from across the room, simultaneously hoping and deathly afraid I would eventually catch her eye. Her initial reaction was to ignore me entirely. I kept up the assault. She turned the other cold shoulder toward me. Then I wondered: even if my lame efforts were successful, then what? Was merely gazing at her with starry-eyes going to be enough to make Ethel really understand the depth of my feelings for her? Certainly not. Still, there had to be some way to proclaim my love for Ethel without actually going up to her and saying it. But how? How?

“Why don’t you just call her,” my table-mate Pete offered simply. Then he wrote down her phone number.

I was thunderstruck. “You know her phone number?” I asked him.

Pete chuckled. “I know her older brother David,” he said. “He’s one of my best friends.”

This was too much of a coincidence. This was providence. I decided then and there I would call her that day.

I lived less than a half mile from the school, and each step homeward made me more giddy, nearly dizzy with anticipation, my heart beating so hard I thought I might actually not make it home, I’d die of heart failure halfway there. But I did make it, and I mustered all the resolve I could and burst into the house, ready to hit the phone and declare my love for Ethel.

She’s just a girl, I kept telling myself, though I knew I was a liar. The phone on its brass stand in the hallway seemed suddenly more than a harmless tool for communication: suddenly it was a device for torture, or even death. I gathered my resolve and reached into my pants pocket where I had the folded paper with Ethel’s phone number on it. The neatly printed numbers on the paper, which I now held in my hand, carried behind them the smiling face of Ethel. In a way, they were a code for Ethel, they meant Ethel.

I sat on the small leatherette bench beside the phone and picked up the receiver. It felt strangely heavy in my hands and cold against my ear. I laid the paper on the bench and slowly, painfully, dialed the number.

The first ring alone was enough to nearly take the breath from my lungs. My mind’s eye saw Ethel sitting on the family couch, perhaps, watching TV, or maybe they were already eating dinner! I thought of the thousand possible things Ethel and her family might be doing, and how irritated they’d be that the phone was ringing.

But it was the second ring that I figured would bring the expected heart attack, because with it came this sudden terrible realization: I didn’t know what to say!

But before this horrible thought fully registered in my brain, there was a click, followed by an adult man’s voice: “Hullo?”

I wasn’t sure I was even breathing enough for the man to know there was someone on the line. “Hullo?” he said again.

I was finally able to clear my voice enough to stammer: “Uh—hi—uh, is Ethel Charboneau there?” In my own ears, my voice sounded as if it came from the inside of a tin can.

The voice yelled away from the mouthpiece: “Ethel! Phone!” There was a thump as the receiver was put down, and some banging around in the background (or was that my heart inside my chest?), then audible footsteps. Another thump as the receiver was picked up.


It was Ethel’s voice. I knew this because I’d heard it so many times in class when Ethel answered one of the teacher’s questions, or when I heard her giggling at one of her friends’ stupid jokes. I knew this was Ethel’s voice, but now, somehow it seemed completely different, and not only because it was coming across phone wires. It was different because Ethel was actually addressing me (albeit unbeknownst to her).

It suddenly occurred to me I had never heard Ethel speak to me. Just as suddenly, I realized I wasn’t the least bit prepared to have Ethel, this goddess, speak to me—a mere mortal. The sound of God’s voice was well known to be fatal to mere mortals.

“Hello?” she said again. “Who is this?”

I certainly didn’t want to die, despite my earlier conviction. I hung up the phone, with Ethel’s puzzled voice still coming through the receiver.

I was certain I was going to cry, and I went into my bedroom to do just that.

The next day, when Pete came into class and sat down next to me, the first thing out of his mouth was: “So? You call Ethel?”

“Well, yeah, sorta.”

“Sorta? Did you or didn’t you?”

“Well, I did call her. But I—”

Pete sighed and shook his head sadly. “You hung up on her, didn’t you?”

I didn’t have to answer: the look on my face said it all.

I finally decided to quit playing silly, juvenile games and be a man: I wrote her a letter:

Dear Ethel:

I’m writing you to tell you I really like your tennis shoes, and it’s rotten that Mr. Epler won’t let you wear them any more. They’re really neato. I think it’s a wonderful coincidence that you like the Beatles, because I like the Beatles, too, especially when they sing I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Well, goodbye. See you in class.

Yours Very Truly,

William Thomas Campbell, Jr.

“It’s not much of a love letter,” said Pete, when I showed him the letter. “You don’t even say the word ‘love’ once. I mean, what kind of a love letter is that?”

“Hey,” I said, “Ethel is really sophisticated. You have to take it slow with these sophisticated chicks.” (I liked saying the word ‘chick’. It made me feel hip, and—well, sophisticated.)

Pete looked at me like I was an idiot, but he didn’t say anything else about the letter. I asked him if he’d give me Ethel’s address. “Sure,” he said. “In fact, I’ll take you where she lives myself, if you want. You can deliver it yourself.” He flapped his eyebrows up and down provocatively. “I’ll even show you her bedroom window,” he said lowly.

I thought this was a splendid idea. We snuck off the school grounds and went during lunch, riding our bicycles down the Twain Avenue hill, then turned right onto a street I didn’t recognize, then left, and halfway down the block. We stopped, then, and Pete pointed to a dark green stucco house with a nondescript yard, fence, garage. “There’s Ethel’s house,” he said.

I felt the letter in my pocket. But I didn’t move.

“Well?” said Peter. “Aren’t you going to put the letter in her mailbox?”

I remembered then how I hadn’t been able to talk to Ethel on the phone, her irritated voice, Who is this? when I didn’t—couldn’t—answer. I imagined her opening my letter and, for some reason, laughing. I started feeling sick to my stomach. It was too much of a risk. I couldn’t do that. Better that she never knew how much I loved her than to risk her throwing it back into my face. “No,” I said. I turned my bike around and started pedaling back toward the big hill that would be hard work. “I can’t,” I said.

“Well then why the heck did we come all this way?” Pete called after me. I could tell he was a little mad, thinking maybe that the trip had been for nothing. But I didn’t think it had been for nothing, though I couldn’t really explain to him why. I didn’t answer him, and he didn’t ask again.

Then, a week later, after I’d gone into the cloak room to get my jacket, I turned and discovered Ethel standing behind me, staring into my saucer-wide eyes with an amused little smile on her face. Behind her were several of the other kids in the class, a bunch of heads sticking into the doorway, watching and snickering. It didn’t take me long to figure out what was going on. She knew exactly what she was doing; though it wasn’t likely she was aware of the exquisite pain I felt when I realized her cruel intentions.

And yet, feeling her eyes upon me, I think I loved her more at that moment than I loved life itself, more than I loved my Stingray bicycle I’d got for Christmas, or my model cars, or the new house we’d just moved into, or my chance to fly airplanes, or my 1909 S-VDB penny (which I didn’t yet have, but which I someday hoped to own). I loved her even more, I was sure, than my very next breath. I would have given it all up that very moment if I could have stayed forever frozen in that tiny room with Ethel Charboneau, looking at me, at Billy Campbell, someone who’d never had anyone so beautiful look at him so closely, so intently, even if it was to mock him, to make him feel small.

But I knew I couldn’t stay there forever, it hurt too much. I stood gazing back into her smiling eyes until I couldn’t stand it anymore, my heart acting as if it was going to punch its way out of my chest and fall out onto the floor. Neither of us said anything. What was there to say? I tried to smile and sucked in a deep breath and tore my eyes away from hers and walked past her, past the teasing eyes of my classmates, and left the classroom for the short walk home.

Walking, though, was hard. I was dizzy. Still, there was something giddy in me. Something strangely happy.

I wouldn’t understand for many years what that something was. Yes, I understood she had tried to be cruel. She’d known, I think, just how terrified I would be having her so close to me, looking at me. She’d wanted to humiliate me, to demonstrate her power over me in front of her friends. And yet, for someone as beautiful as Ethel to pay any attention to me at all was wondrous, inconceivable, even if it had been to spit on me. Oh, to be spat upon by a goddess! (I should have kissed her! Boy, wouldn’t that have been something!)

But even then, I knew her little scheme had backfired. She hadn’t made me feel small at all. She’d made me feel like Superman, a hundred times bigger and stronger than I’d ever felt, or was likely to ever feel again. For that, I would always be grateful to Ethel, would always, in a small way, love her.

Still, when I rounded the corner of my street and headed up toward my house, I noticed the neighbor girls Cheryl Buksas and Luann Hargrove playing hopscotch again in front of Cheryl’s house. They turned and looked at me for a second, then resumed their play. And when Cheryl looked back at me a second time, I felt my heartbeat quicken.

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