Several years ago, I was searching online for an old friend named Bob Cohen, and I signed on to a social networking site that specializes in bringing together former classmates. I never did find Bob, but recently I received a nod, the equivalent of a Facebook poke, from someone else from my past. Although her last name had changed — she'd obviously married — I knew immediately who she was. She was my first.
Her name was Tiina, and that exotic spelling confirmed what I recognized the first time I saw her: She stood apart. With pale eyes and Nordic-looking blonde hair, she seemed uniquely poised for a girl of her age. When we finally spoke, I found her friendly and down to earth. Still, she came across like a visitor from a faraway land — which, in fact, she was. This was decades ago, during the Cold War, and Tiina had moved to our New Jersey town from Estonia, one of the Baltic nations then annexed to the Soviet Union. Not only was she lovely, her story had an air of adventure.
In those days, it took a lot to get my attention. I was detached and distracted, partly because that was my nature, but also because for many months I had a hearing deficiency. My semi-deafness didn't cause great suffering. I just felt cut off, lost in a fog. Everything sounded muffled and distant, and teachers accused me of not listening.
Yet my most vivid memory from that period was of something I heard. In the middle of December, Tiina performed a cappella for our class. The song was "Silent Night." She sang it in Estonian, her voice pure and angelic, and the fog mysteriously lifted as the uncanny combination of a strange language and an unmistakable melody pulled me into the moment. I was captivated.
What I can't remember is how I got her to invite me home. I know it took a while. Is it possible she made the first move? In any case, at some point near the end of that winter, she actually drew a map with arrows and an X indicating the location of her house. I arranged to drop by on Saturday. When the day came, I went by bicycle — only a mile or so, no big deal — but the weather was stormy and I recall the ride being absurdly difficult. More than once, I was nearly knocked over by the wind. Still, nothing would induce me to turn back.
Tiina was natural and gracious, as always, when she greeted me at the door. Then she ushered me to her living room, where I was taken aback to discover that she had another caller: On the sofa sat my old friend Bobby C. He seemed settled in — apparently they'd been hanging out together for much of the afternoon. I can't say exactly what I'd been expecting, but it certainly didn't include him.
Some long-ago memories make me cringe. This isn't one of them. Although I was deflated, I'm pretty sure I managed not to show it. After a respectable visit, maybe an hour, I discreetly took off. And that was it. Although I would continue to regard Tiina as special, whatever I'd imagined was going on between the two of us had abruptly ended.
I didn't actively decide to swear off girls. Nor did I give them much thought for the next four years, until I reached the sixth grade and found myself moved by the music as I sat next to a classmate named Laurie at a Lincoln Center concert — we were on a school trip — and I was back in the moment and that exquisite feeling came over me again.