I didn't have a real girlfriend until seventh grade. I came close in kindergarten when Cheryl Haimowitz was my "Heel and Toe, and Away We Go" dance partner, but before I could close the deal, she moved 3,000 miles away to Van Nuys, California. Living in 1950s Brooklyn, that may as well have been the moon.
In second grade, I lusted after Susan Kaufman. Only problem was, she was the teacher. And married. Two grades later, I fell hard for Ilene Paritz. She was tall, dark and beautiful, and would occasionally smile in my direction. I was crushed when I realized the smiles were for Larry Robbins, who sat directly behind me. Larry was everything I wasn't. Actually, he had only one quality I lacked: He wasn't fat.
My mom was fat too. So fat, the kids in the neighborhood called her "Elephant Ankles." Whenever somebody said that to my face, I would have to fight him. Mark Litman and I once had a legendary battle in the P.S. 225 schoolyard that lasted from noon to dusk. When I released him from the five-hour headlock hold, I could not feel my arm. Out of mutual respect, he promised never to call my mother the E. A. name again and I promised never to call his mother "Witch Face."
Even though my mother was a "big" woman, my father seemed to really love her. I knew this firsthand because we lived in a three-room walk up apartment and the sounds of their affection for each other would often waft from their Castro Convertible sofa into my bedroom. When I think of all the reasons why I've been in therapy most of my life, my mother shouting "F" bombs in the throes of passion is in the top 10.
She expressed her love for me through food, putting massive portions on my dinner plate each night. If I dared to not finish, she would remind me how lucky I was compared to the starving children in Africa. So out of guilt for the plight of some hungry kid in the Congo, I devoured every morsel. Soon I was buying my clothes in the "husky" section of E.J. Korvette's department store. By the way, E.J. Korvette stands for Eight Jewish Korean War Veterans. Fat kids love trivia.
Despite my chubby stature, I was a pretty good athlete, the result of hundreds of hours spent in the schoolyard playing stickball, punchball, basketball and whatever other game with a ball could be made up. It made me popular with the other boys. Girls were another story. They just couldn't seem to get past the fact that I was plump. Some were outright cruel. Joanne Feldmesser, the beautiful blonde in sixth grade, used to blow kisses my way, then crack up at the absurdity of it. Her partner-in-crime, Diane Packer, once asked me if we wore the same size of training bra. My comeback was that I didn't wear one but if I did it would probably be bigger than hers. Told her, didn't I?
So, that day in seventh grade when Sharon Grant said she liked me, I of course was suspicious. Sharon had just broken up with Lloyd Shulman, one of the most popular dudes in the school. She said she was tired of stuck-up pretty boys and wanted to concentrate less on looks and more on personality. It was my lucky day.
Over the next few weeks, we were inseparable. We rode the roller coaster at Coney Island, went skating at Prospect Park and made out in the balcony of the Oceana movie theater during "Frankenstein Meets Dracula." I was on cloud nine. With Sharon's 13th birthday coming up, I took my entire savings of $25 and bought her a bracelet with the engraving: "To My Girlfriend Sharon, Love Gary." Her best friend Debbie was throwing her a party and since I was Sharon's new squeeze, she was forced to invite me. It was the perfect place to give Sharon the bracelet.
The party started out real groovy. Debbie's older brother had the coolest collection of 45s, including Elvis' "Can't Help Falling in Love," which Sharon and I slow danced to. I had practiced slow dancing in my room with a pillow and it seemed to be paying off. When the song ended, I took out the wrapped gift and was about to give it to Sharon, when in walked Lloyd Shulman.
All eyes were on him as he searched the room. I was standing next to Sharon with a potato chip loaded with dip when he came over to her and offered up a heartfelt apology. The look on Sharon's face told me I was in trouble. When it came time to play Seven Minutes in Heaven, Lloyd picked Sharon. She asked me if it was OK, promising they would just talk. I didn't know what to say. Sharon repeated "Just to talk" one more time as she went into the bedroom with Lloyd. At about the five-minute mark, I left.
When I got home, my father was sitting at the kitchen table. He asked if something was wrong so I poured my heart out to him. Then this man, who had escaped from czarist Russia as a young boy, put his arm around me and uttered these profound words, "Son, there are plenty of fish in the sea." With that, he went into the living room to watch "The Friday Night Fights." I sat down at the kitchen table, took out the box with the bracelet and cried.
Fortunately, this tale has a happy ending. It's called puberty. It hit me during eighth grade, and it hit me hard. My voice deepened, the weight started pouring off and I began growing vertically as opposed to horizontally. Each day, a little of my former self disappeared. The transformation was nothing short of miraculous. By the time I entered high school, I was a tall, lean freshman machine. And the fish—I mean girls—were all around me.