My First Love
Ciro T. De
© Copyright 2003 by Ciro T. De Rosa
The first time I saw Natalie was the morning we stepped into Mr. Diogardia’s history class at the Alfred A. Keegan High School on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn. It was 1963 and we were beginning our freshman year. As it turned out, I sat directly across from her in the adjacent row. The first thing anybody would have noticed about Natalie was her corkscrew curls flecked with shards of red and gold seemingly to defy gravity that framed her angular features, dominated by her large brown eyes. She wasn’t a tall girl, but she carried herself with a kind of self-assurance that enhanced her rather boyish frame. As she took her seat, she pressed the folds of her skirt primly under her and crossed her ankles. She happened to glance my way and our eyes met momentarily. I acknowledged her with a weak smile and a brief nod. I watched her as we listened to our teacher tell us what as expected of the class for the next six weeks. The intensity of her attention to what was being said was apparent as she began scribbling notes immediately. I was impressed with the no nonsense way she attacked the note taking, and knew that she would be a star in this class in no time.
The first chance I had to speak to her was during lunch. I saw her seated by herself at the table at the far end of the cafeteria. Every table around her was taken so I figured that gave me the excuse to ask her if I could join her. There was something about her that compelled me to get to know her better. It wasn’t that she was a pretty kid, but there was that indefinable essence that some people exude that captures another’s attention. You can’t quantify it; it’s like they block your vision so that they become the only thing you want to know. For me, Natalie was someone I wanted to know. She caught me moving toward her table and for a moment it looked like she was going to get up. When she saw that all the tables were full, she opened a book and buried her head in it.”Hi, mind if I sit here?” I waited for her to pull her eyes from he page and acknowledge me before I put my tray on the table and sat down. She looked past me and shrugged her indifference as to whether I sat there or not. A couple of minutes passed and I decided to break the ice. “I guess you’re a freshman like me, eh? What do you think of the place?” I made a vague wave of my hand at nothing in particular. Natalie dragged her eyes from the book, looked around the noisy room and mumbled, “It’s ok, I guess,” was her terse reply. Then she was back to the book. I watched her for a minute trying to figure out what to say next when she turned the page. I saw the title A Farewell To Arms. As it turned out it was one of the few novels I had read. I decide to make some comment about the book thinking that she might be a little more talkative. “I see you’re readin’ A Farewell To Arms. It’s a great book. I personally think he’s the best American writer of our time.” That got her attention. She searched my face with her large brown eyes trying to determine if I was telling her the truth or just being a wise guy. I managed a bright smile and forged ahead. Oh yeah, I mean he’s got to be the best. Ya know when the nurse, eh, I forget her name right now, dies at childbirth, I really felt for him. It must have been terrible for him to go on, don’t ya think?” Natalie closed the book. She continued to look at me, then a wry grin played across her face, “It’s the only book you’ve ever read, right?” I was about to protest, but instead, I settled for an embarrassed grimace and shook my head in agreement. “Well yeah, I mean no. I’ve read other books, but only that one by Hemingway.” She smiled for the first time. It’s amazing what a smile can do to a face. She was pretty and her smile made her so. I guess my owning up to not knowing a damn thing about the novel, she figured I wasn’t a total jerk and decided I was worth getting to know. “My name is Natalie Fuchs, hi.” She extended her small hand in a formal fashion. I took it and said, “I’m Vinny Russo, hi.” We spent the rest of the period talking about our first impressions of the school and compared class schedules. We were in two classes, the History class and American Literature with Mrs. Hamilton. I also learned that Natalie lived on Eastern Parkway a couple of blocks from Grand Army Plaza and only a few blocks from Prospect Place where I lived. So I knew the area very well. It’s funny, you know, sometimes a thing feels right. You may not know just why it’s right, but something in your gut tells you it is. That’s the way I felt about Natalie. I liked her from the start. I could tell the feeling was mutual. The rest of the day passed quickly and along with three hundred other kids, we were dismissed at two o’clock.
I caught up with her at the bus stop. We were both going to Pacific Street, where we would transfer to another bus that let us off at the corner of the Brooklyn Library at the head of the Plaza. The ride took about fifteen minutes and in that time we continued getting to know each other. To tell the truth, it was like we knew each other forever. We talked about when we were kids, our friends, even about music. Natalie told me she regularly went to the Band Shell in the East Meadow of Prospect Park to listen to the R and B groups that performed every Sunday afternoon. I told her I did that too. Then I asked her if she’d like to go on Sunday. She thought a moment, then said she’d like it fine. I burst into a broad grin. The next couple of minutes we checked the street signs as the bus sped along the busy streets until the driver announced the Plaza stop.
We stood awkwardly near the library steps not quite sure how to end the moment. I kind of guided her to the nearest step with a gentle tug at her elbow. I sat next to her and fiddled with a bit of stray lint that found its way onto my pants. She just sat watching folks scurrying back and forth going who knows where. “ Natalie, I… It’s been awfully nice meetin’ you. I mean… we kinda hit it off, don’t ya think?” She turned her and smiled and said almost in a whisper, “ Yes, I guess we have, haven’t we.” The way she said it, I felt funny all over. After a moment she got up, brushed invisible dirt from the back of her skirt, and adjusted her books in her arms. She gave me a little wave and started to walk up the Parkway. I watched her until she got to the corner and crossed onto the median. Then I lost sight of her as the traffic passed me. I turned and headed home, my mind filled with Natalie.
Sunday was a pure golden day. The afternoon sun warmed the air. Around the park the flowers were still in bloom and the trees heavy with their dark green leaves. As we strolled toward the wide pasture directly in front of us, kids heading in the same direction passed us. By the time we got to the band shell, most of the front seats were taken so we sat in one of the back rows. It didn’t matter; the loud speaker system projected the music just fine.
During intermission, I got us a coke and some chips. While we waited for the second half of the show to start, a lot of kids were necking all around us. I reached for Natalie’s hand and held it in mine, squeezing it ever so gently. She reached for mine so that we were holding hands in my lap. Natalie looked at me as if searching my face for some kind of sign to let her know what was going on in my mind. As for me, I returned her stare and then I shifted my self until there was only a breath that separated our lips. She closed her eyes; my lips rested gently on hers in a brief kiss. As I pulled away, her eyes remained closed and a soft satisfied smile crept across her lips. I bent to her again. I put my lips on hers and pressed a bit harder. Our mouths opened a bit and the tips of our tongues touched. We embraced and I felt her body tightening against mine. I must have done the same because she gently pulled back keeping me at arm’s length. I understood her shy smile and remained there. I wanted her to know that I didn’t have any bad intentions toward her, but that I kissed her with true affection. The music started up as kids began scrambling back to their seats. I put my arm around her shoulder and rested my head next to hers. We stayed that way until the end of the concert.
As we walked out of the park, we stopped a couple of times under a bower of trees and kissed. Now that we had kissed, it was like we just couldn’t get enough of it or each other. With each kiss I felt my feelings for Natalie growing stronger. I couldn’t explain just what it was, but I thought it felt a lot like love. She eagerly returned my kisses and held me tightly close to her. We didn’t say much as we headed out the park, as if we were afraid if we spoke, the magic would evaporate like a thin cloud under a warm sun. So we just walked and held each other close.
When we got to the library, Natalie pecked me on the cheek and started to walk up the block before I had a chance to say anything. “Natalie, wait a minute will ya! I’ll walk ya home. No need for you to go home alone.” I said when I caught up with her. “No Vinny, it’s not necessary, really. I can walk it from here, honest.” She said this as she continued walking up the avenue. I didn’t think much of it then. It happened so fast, I never expected it I guess. Maybe I should have figured something wasn’t right. What girl doesn’t want to be escorted home by her date? Natalie continued down the street, crossed the avenue and disappeared in the crowd of people promenading under the huge maple trees that acted as a sort of green canopy on the wide median dotted with park benches that separated the broad avenue.
The next few weeks went by pretty fast what with school work and my job at Philly’s Cigar store, and Natalie pretty much involved in her class work, we managed to get to see each other during lunch and riding home on the bus. When I asked her to the park again I said I wanted to pick her up at her house. She said she didn’t think that was a good idea. When I pressed her about it she became a little edgy and danced around the question. “I don’t understand, Nat. I would think you’d want me to pick you up so’s your folks would know who you’re goin’ with. Are you ashamed of me or somthin’?” “Oh no Vinny, it’s not that at all, honest. Don’t ever say that. How could I be ashamed of you?” She insisted it wasn’t necessary; that her folks trusted her. “Really Vinny, meeting me at the library will be ok, trust me.” When I asked her if I could walk her home at least, she said that wasn’t necessary either. She said the library would be fine. Then she told me to trust her. To this day when someone says trust me, I get an odd feeling at the back of my neck like my hackles warning me something isn’t right. I couldn’t understand why the idea of picking her up and walking her home was a problem. But I wasn’t about to make a scene about it. I figured when we got a chance to talk, I’d ask her if there was any reason why she rather I meet her at the library. I mean, although Natalie wasn’t into all that boy friend, girl friend stuff like other girls, I couldn’t believe that the idea of a guy walking her home wouldn’t make her feel good. Afterall, I wasn’t bad looking. My teeth were straight, I had a shock of brown wavy hair, and I was in pretty good shape. So, I wasn’t a Quasimodo, if you know what I mean.
The music was great, and we sang to each other, kissed, giggled, oh, all sorts of goofy things kids do when they’re head over heels crazy about each other. And that we were. These past weeks were happy times for us. I grew closer to Natalie than I ever thought I could to any person. She too expressed her feelings in so many small gentle ways. Sometimes she’d kiss me tenderly on my eyes and then caress my face, or maybe just cuddle up on my arm holding tight. Those little things that tell a person how someone feels about them. I couldn’t get over my good luck. What I didn’t know was that this bliss wouldn’t last. Within a month we’d never see each other again.
It began when I went to Natalie’s apartment building to pick her up for our Sunday date. I had decided to see just what the big deal about picking her up was about. We talked about a couple of times, but she always avoided a real explanation. So this time instead of waiting for her, I walked up the Parkway, crossed the avenue and walked to her building. It was like all the rest of the brownstones on the long block. It looked like it had three stories. I climbed the steps and looked for Fuchs on the mail panel. I rang the bell and in a moment the buzzer let me in. When I got to the head of the stairs, a man with a full beard and wearing what looked like a black skullcap pinned to the crown of his head was at the door. I walked towards him and said, “Hi, Mister Fuchs? I’m Vinny Rizzo. I’ve come to pick up Nat, I mean Natalie.” I extended my hand. He looked at me as if seeing me for the first time and was trying to comprehend what he had just heard. He stepped toward me, “Who are you? Ver ist Natalia goink, eh?” By this time we were practically on top of each other. I stepped back a bit, but before I had a chance to say anything, he turned, “Natalia! Natalia! Kommen sie hier!” his big voice echoed throughout the quiet building. Natalie appeared at the door. Not believing her eyes when she saw me, she blurted out, “Vinny, what are you doing here!?” Her father grabbed her by the arm and shouted at her, “Wer ist das! Eh? Who vis dis?” Then he turned to me, “Wer siud sie!? Who are you?” Frightened and shaking she desperately tried to calm her father down. The both spoke in what I later learned was Yiddish, he practically screaming, she attempting to quiet him down before the entire building heard them. No amount of Natalie’s protestations would work. He was furious. I hadn’t the vaguest idea what was going on. I thought that maybe he was a little nuts and that’s why she never wanted me to pick her up. Now I wasn’t sure my going there was such a good idea. He got real red in the face and was making all kinds of gestures with his free hand while still gripping her arm tightly. Natalie was starting to cry as she tried to pull away from him. He wouldn’t let her go and just continued shouting what I guessed were curse words, because Natalie’s gaze kept darting back and forth at the surrounding doors of the other apartments expecting them to open any minute.
I thought it was time for me to step in and at least get her released from the old man’s grip. I stepped toward them and gripped his shoulder. “Mister Fuchs! Hey! Let her go will you! You’re hurting her! Let her go!” He was as strong as an ox. I couldn’t move him an inch. In fact, he brushed my arm away and damn near sent me sprawling over the banister. “Vinny, please go! Go now! Please” she pleaded to me. I realized that the longer I stayed, the longer this would go on. “I’m goin’, ok I’m goin’ I’m sorry Nat, I don’t understand what the hell is goin’ on here!” I bounded down the stairs, out on to the stoop, down those stairs and walked briskly up the block All the while trying to figure out just what had happened up there. Why would her father act that way? I would get the whole story the next day I thought, but by the time I saw Natalie next, everything had changed.
I spent the rest of Sunday trying to understand what had happened. Natalie looked so scared, I couldn’t imagine why. It was obvious that her folks had no idea she was meeting a boy on Sunday afternoons. I could see them being a little annoyed at her, but not what the old man did. He looked like he was ready to kill her. I hoped we’d get a chance to talk about this if she wasn’t too angry with me.
The next morning I waited for Natalie at the bus stop. She never showed up. She didn’t come to school all that week. I started waiting at the library after school just in case I might see her. She never came. I was starting to worry when on the following Monday she was waiting for the bus. She looked tired, but she didn’t look like she had been knocked around. “Nat, honey are you ok? What happened?” She didn’t speak nor look at me; instead she mounted the bus, walked quickly toward the rear and sat next to a lady. I followed and took a seat across from her. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want anybody listening to us. So I just sat and waited. Natalie kept her eyes glued out the window. Her books were pressed tightly to her chest and she looked pale. When we arrived at our stop, she attempted to scurry away before I could get to her. I caught up to her and tried to ask her what the problem was. She walked quickly to the school steps, scampered up them into the lobby all the while not acknowledging me. I followed her into the hall. Kids were streaming to homeroom and the loud din made trying to talk impossible. I pulled her to one side under the staircase that went to the second floor. “Listen!” frustration tinged my voice. She squirmed trying to brake my hold and escape. “Listen! What the hell is goin’ on? Why won’t you talk to me? I’m sorry about comin’ to your house. Why should your old man get so crazy.” The questions spilled out in a desperate jumble. She wouldn’t look at me. “Please, let me go, will you!” Tears welled up in her eyes, then whatever strength she had faded and she fell on my chest, sobbing.
We didn’t make class. Instead we left the building and walked to the local diner. She shuffled like a person drugged or out of it. She didn’t protest, rather she allowed me to lead her there. When we were seated in a back booth, I ordered a coke and took her hand. I think I started to cry at the way she looked, like a lost child unable to comprehend what had happened to her. “Natalie, what happened?” I begged. She pulled her gaze from the tabletop and looked at me. “Vinny, we can’t see each other any more.” Tears rolled down her pale cheeks. “My father forbade me to see you again. I’m not supposed to talk to you or anything.” Her answer came like a punch in the face. I felt sick to my stomach. “Why! What did I do? I only came to pick you up, for God’s sake!” She didn’t answer me, but just shook her head piteously. As she attempted to speak she burst into muffled sobs. I reached once again for her hand, but she drew it back into her lap. She found a bit of hanky and wiped her eyes. Then girding herself, she looked at me steadily and said in a small voice, “ Vinny, we never talked about… I mean… we never mentioned our religions. It was all my fault, I know. I always knew we would never … I mean, you’re a Christian and I’m a Jew. My father is…a very holy man. He takes his faith very seriously and he expects his children to do the same.” I didn’t understand what she was getting at. I never considered what she was. I was about to say I didn’t care. “No let me say what I’ve got to tell you, please. We come from different worlds. The traditions of my faith demand obedience and I can’t dishonor my father. I can never break loose from them. Vinny it was wrong what we did, I know that now, and because of that we mustn’t see each other any more.” A great shiver ran through her small frame as if a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders. I never expected that. While I was trying to get what she said straight in my mind, she slid out of the booth and walked out the door. Dumbfounded, I sat there trying to sort out what had just taken place.
A few weeks later I learned that Natalie had
transferred to a Hebrew Academy on the Parkway. I never saw her after
that even though I went to the library any number of times in the
hope that I might see her walking along the avenue. I never did. The
years have passed and I still find myself thinking about her.
Wondering what ever became of her and if she was happy. I guess one
never forgets a first love and creates a special place in the heart
for those memories associated with the event. I remembered what
Natalie said about tradition and I figured that it was wound tight,
like a ball of string that traps you inside, destroying youthful
dreams and altering lives forever. It struck me years later that some
traditions survive because we’re not able to free ourselves
from Old World notions that perpetuate divisions and ultimately
unhappiness. I have survived the loss of my first love, but those
memories will haunt me forever.
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