I didn't discover girls in any serious way until my junior year in high school. I guess I was slow, and definitely shy. Girls seemed fundamentally different to me. They seemed to know all the things I was still guessing about.
The only girl I spoke to on a regular basis was my older sister, Linda. Speaking is probably the wrong word. What we did was snipe at each other. Linda accused me of anything she thought might get our mother to yell at me.
"Butch left all the towels on the bathroom floor," she'd say. "He's such a pig."
"Did not, idiot."
"Mom, did you hear what your little son just said to me?"
"Shut up, pimple face."
I suspected I might have a better relationship with other girls, but I wasn't sure. Maybe they were all secretly mean or bitchy. Still, I wanted to find out. There was one girl in my English class who I stared at—a lot. Maybe it was because I sat right behind her and so she didn't know (I thought) that I couldn't take my eyes off her. She had long blond hair that had streaks of brown in it, soft sloping shoulders and a syrupy voice that I got lost in when she would answer one of Mr. Maimon's questions about Silas Marner or the use of semicolons.
It's not that I didn't know how to approach her, it was that I couldn't even imagine doing such a thing. I was sure that I wasn't anyone she'd ever bother with. I mean, she was seriously pretty and sometimes I'd spot her in the hallways, hanging out and laughing with senior guys.
Then one day she turned around and spoke to me. "Did you do the homework, Butch?" I was flabbergasted that she knew my name.
"Yeah, I think so."
"You think so?" She laughed. "You either did it or you didn't."
"You're a funny one." She moved to turn back around.
"Do you wanna see it?"
She laughed. Barbara laughed. And every day after that we talked and shared homework and sometimes walked out of class together, brushing shoulders, the feelings swelling inside me.
It took weeks to get up the nerve. I didn't dare talk to anyone about it. But I wanted to ask Barbara to go out with me. Wanted it in the worst way and was completely petrified by the imagining. I knew if I somehow managed to get the words out and she said no, or worse, didn't take me seriously, I would have to hide under the covers and not get out of bed for the rest of my life.
I fumbled my way through the asking. Barbara helped, laughing and joking and saying, "Sure, I'll go out with you if that's what you're trying to say here."
I was deeply relieved, and then elated. That day we held hands walking out of Mrs. Wendkos' chem class. I asked my dad if I could borrow his old clunker Buick. He didn't say anything, but maybe he was secretly happy that I was going out on a date. He may have even smiled when he tossed me the keys.
Mom was not smiling. "So, who is this girl?" she asked. "What do you know about her?"
I was trying to get out of the house and didn't have time for my mother's interrogation. I was hoping only that I looked OK in my new blue V-neck sweater.
"She's just a girl," I said. "No big deal."
Mom lit a cigarette and blew the smoke at the ceiling. "She's Jewish, this girl?"
"No, she's not Jewish. Damn. What's that matter anyway?"
"I want you home by 11 o'clock. Sharp."
"That's ridiculous. It's already 7:30."
"So, you'd better hurry up and go."
And so I did.
"My parents are insane," I told Barbara. She was settled into the passenger seat.
"All parents are crazy," she said.
I glanced over, stunned that this lovely girl was in my car. She looked even better than she did in class. I couldn't believe my good luck. Then she scooted over close to me on the big bench seat, and my breath caught in my chest. It was all I could do to keep the car on the road.
"I'm glad we're doing this," Barbara said. "I was afraid you'd never ask."
"I was afraid you'd turn me down."
"Why would I do that?"
"Because you're Barbara Davidson."
"What does that mean?"
"It's just that I thought you were sorta out of my league. Really popular, and attractive and all."
Barbara laughed. I liked the sound, soft and tinkly, like bells ringing. "I don't know why people think of me that way. It's not at all how I think of myself. I wasn't even sure if you liked me."
"I like you," I said. "A lot."
She leaned her head against my shoulder. "Where do you wanta go, Butch?"
"Wherever you do."
"I don't care," Barbara said.
"We could just drive then."
And so we drove. Mostly just listening to the radio and talking about school, about our parents and what we wanted to do after high school. It all felt terribly and wonderfully important. Like no other conversation I'd ever had before. I was happy. Sort of a strange feeling.
Two or three hours later, I pulled back up in front of Barbara's place. "Come on," she said and reached over and touched my hand. "Walk me to the door."
I quickly got out and came around to Barbara's side. She took my hand and we walked up the concrete steps toward her front door. Her hand felt soft and warm in mine. I would've been happy to stay in that moment for the rest of my life.
Then we were standing on the top step, in front of the door. "This was really nice, Butch." We were facing each other now, inches apart.
"Yeah, thanks," I said, feeling immediately stupid again.
"You don't have to thank me," Barbara laughed softly.
"I only meant . . ." Then Barbara leaned into me and we kissed.
Though she wasn't the first girl I'd ever kissed, it had never been like this before. I felt like Barbara and I had become one person, all warm and delicious and stimulating. Oh my God, was I stimulated!
Barbara said, "I have to go in now. My mother will be waiting up."
"OK,' I said. "I guess I'll see you in school."
"Guess so," Barbara said. "Or you could call me." She smiled and gave me another quick kiss on the lips.
I managed to get back down the stairs and into the car. Started it up and drove off. Before I got to the end of the block, I let out a long whoop, like some kind of crazed cowboy. What a night, I thought. What a goddamned, beautiful night. I looked down at my watch. And I'd even be home by 11 o'clock.