Sometimes when I look in a mirror I see about twenty different expressions all trying to fit on my face at the same time. I'm thinking now of Rosemary Wiseman, my first true love. She was in my 8th grade science class, where I got the highest grades I ever got in school. She was petite, smart, blonde, and cute with a precocious body for 13 or 14. She was from Canada, which you could only tell when she said words with O-U, like “out.” She'd say “ewt.” When Mr. McMannis, the best teacher I ever had, asked, “Where does digestion begin?” Rosemary raised her hand and confidently said, “In the mewth.” “Where?” he asked. “In the mewth,” she repeated emphatically. He looked puzzled. “What …?” “In your MOWWWTH,” she loudly exaggerated, causing an uproar of laughter, as that phrase was a popular obscene insult in those days.
We started going steady early in the school year. The only ring I had to give her was my mother's high school ring which Ma had given me, with a deep red garnet and 1927 engraved large on the side. Rosemary wore it on a gold chain constantly throughout the year. We were thought of as the perfect couple, like the Ken and Barbie of the arty clique of the collegiate crowd.
Even though we lived about 10 miles apart we'd ride our bikes to each other's houses after school. Her dad was an airline pilot and they lived in a new upscale development, not far from the water near Cold Spring Harbor. We used to walk through the woods near her house and cross the LIRR tracks to a hidden field with tall grass, lots of huckleberry bushes and small cedars. We'd put down a blanket and sit or lay back and talk, or read poetry, until I felt the courage to start making out and petting. I sensed Rosemary wanted to do more, to really explore sexually, but I was shy and inhibited. Back then, that's all I could say about the nagging tension and aching frustration swelling and coursing through my body. I was pretty serious and philosophical for an 8th grader. She was bright and light-hearted compared to me. We both liked Buddy Holly and loved to dance together. She painted watercolors and I made masks and puppets and liked taking pictures. I didn't consider that art, not like what she or my friend Alan did, who could sketch a likeness of anything in a minute. I thought photography was cheating, that the camera made the image, not the photographer.
When a train passed by our field, slowing down for the Cold Spring Harbor station just ahead, sometimes, when the engineer saw us lying in our secret field, he'd give a quick pull on his air horn,
as if to tip his hat to our youthful, carefree pleasure. One spring day we got caught in a downpour and as we walked back along the tracks to the path through the woods to her house, we both got thoroughly drenched. Her soaked blouse and bra became completely transparent, as if she were naked, her beautiful breasts and nipples pushing themselves right up at me. She stopped, looked directly in my eyes, silently begging to be held and fondled. I only remember the awkward, fearful, hollow, incompleteness of my response.
When the school year was finished, Rosemary had a surprise summer party. It was to be her going away party. Her Dad had gotten stationed in Florida and they were moving immediately. She was a popular girl and there were a lot of kids at the party. At one point I saw Rosemary, not just kissing, but really making out with Peter Vaughn, a red headed jock, friend, classmate of ours, and neighbor of hers. My world was toppled by the news of her leaving on short notice, and now shattered by seeing her with Peter. “I'll never see him again,” she explained, “and he's always wanted to kiss me.” I don't know how I kept myself together, stuffing feelings that were so overwhelming that if I allowed myself to fully embrace them, I think I'd have gone insane. I wondered, since they were close neighbors, how much of this had gone on unseen. I can't remember when she gave me back my ring.
The Saturday she left, Rosemary and her father and mother drove to my house on their way out of town so she could say goodbye. Her parents waited in the driveway as Rosemary came to kiss me goodbye and give me her new address in Florida. “I'll write everyday,” she affirmed. “Me too,” I replied, helplessly. When they drove away, my dad came and stood next to me as I melted into tears. He looked at me, seemed embarassed for me, under the sway of such emotion. He tried to minimize my pain, saying, “Aww – don't fret... there'll be another.” There was no other that summer, writing to Rosemary was all I could think of. And in the new school year, there was no other. Some of the girls expressed their sympathy for me without Rosemary. I was obviously like the short half of a broken wishbone, for awhile anyway, until we all got used to me being just me. Through the whole of 9th grade, I didn't have girlfriend. Sometime that year, I lost my mother's graduation ring. And long into my adult years, whenever I took the train to or from New York, I'd always look for our field near Cold Spring Harbor, the field that held the secrets of those treasured bitter-sweet memories of first love.