It was a sunny spring day in Maspeth, Queens which seemed just like any other sunny spring day to a 7-year old kid. Little did I realize that it would be the day that innocent, carefree, fun loving child started down a slippery slope into an unsympathetic wall of heartbreak – one that would last for 56 years.
My mom wanted me to help her with shopping on Grand Avenue. I was torn between going shopping and playing stick ball, or just about anything that a kid would rather be doing than going shopping with his mom. But the gains that could be had from going shopping were endless. Grand Avenue had many fascinating and otherworldly qualities. I would get to pass by Ledeux pet store and look at the puppies in the window, and the plastic models of Superman, Dracula, or cars (whatever was up for the best model contest at that time) and if the stars were in alignment, my mother would let me go inside and look around.
The next stop would be the bike shop, with the most recent Stingray bicycles lined up left to right, shiny and new, taking their rightful place of honor right smack at the window’s edge. There were bikes of many colors, and different banana seats, some with road knobby tires, some with slick rear tires, manly shock absorbers, and of course the high handle bars. I don’t know why I put myself through the pain of looking, because I knew I was never going to get a bike. But there was a much worse pain waiting for me just half a block ahead. The next stop, and the first stop for my yet to be discovered emotions, was the 5&10-cent store that was well stocked with plastic machine guns, planes, trains, and rubber balls. Their mechanical horse had intrigued me, although at seven, I was starting to outgrow the fascination. I had to jump through hoops and try to outsmart my mom with all the logical reasons that a 7-year old could come up with for why I had to ride that horse, and why she must fork over that lousy thin little dime that had no value to me other than it made the horse come alive.
Well, as luck would have it, while my mom was fumbling thru her change purse, a moment happened that changed me into a starstruck, slap ‘em upside the head, heart-pounding, jaw-dropping kid in love.
A young girl was now for the first time in my sight, and although it was unknown to me at the time that she would become the love of my life and ruler of my heart, everything became slow motion. Her hair was backlit with summer sun light as if she was an angel. She looked at me and smiled with a smile that caused me to swallow hard and made my legs weak. I thought for sure I was gonna die.
Then I heard her infectious laughter for the very first time. It was a sound I would never forget, and would always enjoy hearing for years to come, but at that moment it was like the Mighty Hulk had punched me in the chest. Then I noticed her eyes: They were the lightest and greenest that I’d ever seen, and it was as if they had lighting behind them that was hypnotizing me. She flipped her light-colored hair back like a flag waving in the wind while turning her attention away from me and toward her mom as if I wasn’t there. The moment was nothing to her, but life changing for me. I’ll never forget what she was wearing. It was a light tan hippie-style cotton pullover with red embroidery along the neck and edges of the short sleeves. She wore tight faded blue jean bell bottoms with a yellow cloth band belt that hung down along the side of her left leg, and of course those hippie-style leather sandals that made a slapping flicking sound with every step she took. I was tall for my age and felt like a big guy, and I thought, “How could this little girl make me feel this way?” as she briskly walked away with her mom. I couldn’t stop watching her as she moved down the street while her hair was swaying from side to side.
In a distant far away voice that became louder and louder I heard my mom calling my name. I turned to look up at her while she was now scolding me for not paying attention to her, and asking me, “Well do you want to ride, or not? I have things to do.” I said, “No, it’s ok, I don’t want to.” My mom then started to mumble things about me changing my mind and not knowing what I want. What she didn’t know was that I was a mess and didn’t know what was happening to me. I had no idea that I was in love. I was not prepared for this. After all, this was not in any of the books I’d read, not on Abbott & Costello or Soupy Sales, and certainly not in any Cracker Jack box. I had no reference; I couldn’t describe what was coming over me. I could only think of her over and over again. I don’t remember the walk home.
In my mid-teens, I had no choice but to go out of my way to make friends with her. It was a mission – a magnetic force that was not under my control. As I got to know her, I realized that she was also beautiful on the inside, caring, smart, compassionate and tender, which is hard to find in one package as I would discover as I grew older. This is why I did all sorts of stupid things, like walk past her house even though it was out of my way, or later on drive past her house hoping that she would be outside.
Sometimes it was yes, sometimes, no. The best was when it was yes, because then I could spend time with her and cause myself more of that lovesick stomachache, rapid heartbeat, weak in the legs, pathetic gob-of-goo feeling that in time became like the medication side effects we hear about on those commercials.
Despite that I still never told her how I felt. I was never shy and did my fair share of shenanigans, but when it came to talking to her about my feelings, I got nervous, and the words got stuck in my throat, and things just didn’t come out right. All I wanted to do was to say, “I Love You”, and kiss her but I never felt the time was right. Looking back, I had many opportunities, but there was that fear that perhaps it would turn out to be a train wreck or I’d get a pie in the face.
With high school finished and everyone moving in different directions, I no longer had the school hallway meetings or after school visits with her. At the end of the summer I moved to Manhattan: Horatio Street, between 8th Ave & 9th – The Village! I made new friends and kept in touch with some old friends, but always kept myself informed of how she was and what she was up to. As a young man I moved to California to explore my opportunities.
Another sunny summer day (you know, this is why I prefer cloudy days) while talking long distance to an old friend in Queens, I was told the news. I was stunned at first and felt a bit empty when I was told she had married. This somehow symbolized a closed door that I always hoped would be kept open. In my mind I thought that somehow, just maybe, there might be that chance we could be together. When reality set in I did feel sorry for myself, but after all, I had my chances and blew all of them. I was three thousand miles away starting a business and I had a girlfriend. I later became happy for her, and happy to hear that she was married with children.
You may be thinking, “How hard could it have been for this guy to have just made the move?” Well there were a lot of things going on in my life. My father passed away when I was seven and my mom moved us out of the house that I was born and raised in on Mazeau Street – the same house my grandfather had built where he lived downstairs with my aunt Stella and my uncle Dutch, who were stable people in my young life. Shortly after I found myself living in a new house with my mom and the landlord living downstairs, who was a complete stranger to me, and it was a bit scary. I was on a new block, and in a new school district, and no longer going to PS 102. I was now attending PS 78. It was an Old English Gothic-looking school with pointed features – a structure that I came to admire for its complex design which was later senselessly torn down. I had to deal with all new teachers and students. Oh man, the students were tough, not like PS 102. I knew absolutely no one, and had to learn to protect myself. I think the many changes and uncertainties that hit me all at once played a part in how I handled my feelings for everything from that point on, but mainly for her, and led to my inability to express myself.
As I write this, it makes me stop and wonder what would have happened if I were not that gob of goo, and told her how I felt, and what if, just what if, she felt the same. I would have been the happiest young man in the world. I would have continued to admire her like one does with a fine painting or that sunset that only lasts a few moments. I would have still been intoxicated by her infectious laugh and the smell of her hair. If it was cold outside I’d make sure her coat was buttoned, and if it was raining, I’d make sure she had an umbrella. I would listen to what she said just to hear the sound of her voice. I would pay attention when she spoke because nothing could be more beautiful than her face, her eyes and her lips. Her smile could have rescued me from the fires of hell. If she had asked I would have listened and watched, because it was important to her. I would have held her hand, just to be that much closer, and held her tight whenever I had the chance. I would have brushed away her hair and kissed her neck, and for me time would have stopped and the world would have disappeared. I’m sure of it. I would have been sad when she walked away, but then excited when she came near. I would make sure she never felt scared or alone. I’d make it certain that she knew that I would never let anything happen to her, and if it were me and her against the world, the world would be outnumbered.
Well, that was then and this is now, and that’s what I prefer to believe. I did learn from this that for every loss there is a gain, and for every door that is closed another is opened. I have fallen in love since, never in comparison to what I just wrote, but I’ve been lucky. Maybe I’m a fool and I’ll never feel this way again, but now I know what love is for me, and at my age I realize that if I ever again experience a fraction of what I felt for her, I’ll die a rich and happy man.
Paul DeFalco grew up in Maspeth.