I met Gary on a sticky summer morning in 1979 when I boarded the minibus for my first day of camp. Like most girls my age, I had been enamored of any number of Tiger Beat centerfolds, but I'd never been in love. Sometimes, though, when I looked at the Ricky Schroder poster on my bedroom wall, I wanted a boy of my own.
I knew lots of boys. I was a tomboy, after all, and a lover of XY chromosome owners everywhere who played sports, got dirty and rode bikes with baseball cards clothespinned to the spokes to make them sound like motorcycles. Boys didn't think twice about peeing in front of me, and I was the only girl at recess allowed to play Kill the Guy with the Ball.
Gary sat smooth and alone on the Naugahyde seat, looking like a grade school Clint Eastwood -- at least that's what I thought, since I had recently watched one of his movies and decided I liked him. In reality, Gary lisped and had a cherubic face that retained some of the most adorable baby fat I'd ever seen. He had bright blue eyes and eyelashes as thick and dark as a girl's, and short, brown hair that his mother parted on the side. He wore terrycloth shorts and a T-shirt with an iron-on Goofy decal. Yes, he was for me, even if he was shorter than I was and had a higher voice.
Every day I waited eagerly for the bus to arrive. Then I would swing my curve-less hips, strutting down the driveway just like Daisy Duke. I'd climb aboard, look at Gary and say, "Hey." Sometimes he'd say something back, like, "Hey," but I couldn't think of anything else to say, and before I could make him fall in love with me, summer was over and it was time to go back to school.
One Saturday I was at my friend Robin's house, and her older sister told us she had French-kissed a boy at a party.
"What do you mean, French?" I asked.
"Like this." She stuck out her tongue and circled it in the air. It occurred to me that I wanted to kiss Gary, and I wanted to do it like a French person.
I went home, found his phone number in the white pages and dialed.
"Hello?" his mother answered.
"Is Gary there?" I asked. I had a deep voice, so parents always thought I was a boy on the phone. With my short shag haircut, breast-less chest and the frequency with which I wore sports uniforms, people thought I was a boy upon meeting me, too, and then usually for several weeks more.
"Hello?" said my beloved.
"It's Leigh... from camp."
"Hi," he said, unenthusiastically.
"There's a carnival at my school Friday. Wanna go?"
"I'll ask," he said with a lispy emphasis on the "s." "Can I go to a carnival?"
I heard his mother say yes.
"Maybe we could... make out."
"With our tongues."
"Great. Meet me at the bouncy castle at 7."
Friday arrived, and I told Robin my plan; she gallantly helped with the reconnaissance and we found a far-off tree with enough privacy to give a girl and her tongue some room to roam. Robin wished me luck and went on her way. I checked my watch; a player kicked a soccer ball to make the seconds go by: Kick, kick, kick.
7:15. Kick, kick, kick. At 7:30, I went to yell at him. I found him standing with his mother, holding her hand. He saw me and cringed. He looked smaller than I remembered and for some reason I felt sorry for him. What happened to Clint Eastwood?
I ran away in search of Robin, whom I found holding a plastic bag filled with water and a goldfish. I looked at the fish and knew it would be dead by Sunday.
"He stood me up," I said.
Robin put her arm around me and we went to wait in line for the roller coaster. I decided that I might want to forget about French-kissing -- and maybe even love -- for a while.
A year later I got a call from Robin.
"Guess who's in my Hebrew class?" she asked. "Gary!"
My mouth went dry.
"He's in fourth grade!" she squealed. "He's younger than us!" That was a big deal, because as any kid will tell you, a year is a huge difference, especially when you've got double digits under your belt.
I hung up, and suddenly everything made sense. It was like the end of The Usual Suspects when Chazz Palminteri realizes that Kevin Spacey made it all up. In a blur I heard Gary's lisp and saw his Goofy T-shirt and watched him hold his mother's hand. How could I have been so stupid?
I later realized this had been my first lesson in love -- the humiliation and elation that always seem to go together. I hoped I hadn't scarred Gary or made him afraid of girls. I admit it; I Googled him. I found a blog belonging to his wife. To my relief, there were pictures of children, and one of him, too. He looked pretty much the same, with that sweet face and those long, beautiful eyelashes. I was glad to see they still looked good on him.