Bob Alper

Life Doesn't Get Any Better Than This:
The Holiness of Little Daily Dramas

Chapter 12: LUST AND LOVE

It's a good thing sensitivity training and sexual harassment awareness weren't around in 1954, because I would have been in BIG trouble.

It was just before lunch, in Miss Hanley's fourth-grade class. I can't recall all of the details, but I do know that for some reason I snuck up beside Lenore Dubinsky, the prettiest girl in the class, and kissed her full on her right cheek. The recipient wrinkled her freckled nose, shot me a semi-disgusted look, and continued her conversation with Tena Marks.

I retreated victoriously to my seat (front left side of the room, as always; my last name begins with "A"). And then my lips began to burn.

Not an intense heat. Just a kind of warm, tingly sensation. I didn't quite know what to make of it until I started thinking of the lyrics of some popular songs, and the term "kiss of fire" began running through my mind. That's what it was! The kiss of fire! My nine-year-old mind convinced me Lenore was THE one, and that even though she completely ignored me now, we were somehow destined to be with each other. I needed only to wait for it to happen.

And so I waited. I never told Lenore about the kiss of fire. And I never dated her, although we were classmates right on through high school. Finally, though, it occurred to me that on the fateful day of the kiss, Lenore had probably applied some kind of medicine to her prepubescent face, and my sensitive, moist little lips initiated a chemical reaction that resulted in physical, but no, not really metaphysical, heat.

Ever since I began riding my battered little red Schwinn bicycle to Jeanne Brown's house in the second grade, or stood-up Cory Goldenberg, my first real "date" in the third grade (it was a misunderstanding, and the following week I took her to see Hondo in 3D), I always wrestled with the questions of love and marriage. Frequently I'd consider the fact that somewhere in the world there is a person I would marry. I probably hadn't met her yet. On the other hand, maybe I knew her well. Maybe it was even Lenore, or Cory, or Tena. It was fun to speculate.

It was also confusing. What exactly is love, and why do people choose each other?

When we think of it, we're all amateurs at selecting a marriage partner, unless, of course, we're approaching it for a second or third or fourth time, in which case our status lies somewhere between expert and serial failure. No matter how we go about it, though, it seems to me that one of the biggest stumbling blocks is the widely accepted and bizzarely inaccurate cliché, "It was love at first sight."

Really. How can one fall in love, true love, just by taking a look at a person? That's not love at all. It's lust.

I'm not frightened by the word lust. It's a good word, an apt word that describes what can be a very appropriate emotion in the right context. Lust is what draws people to each other, assuring the perpetuation of our species. One sees an attractive person "across a crowded room" and it can be "lust at first sight." Later, the lust might actually turn to love. And it might not.

Take, for instance, an average young lawyer, a fairly intelligent fellow cruising the Saturday night bar scene at a local restaurant. From out of the corner of his eye he spots an adorable young woman, nicely dressed, with an appealing figure and a pleasant manner. This could be love at first sight, he thinks, as he elbows his way through the raucous crowd.

And just as he closes in on this woman of his dreams he hears her declare to those in her group, "Durn, don't that Rush Limbaugh just hit the nail on the haid?"

Our attorney may still feel a smidgen of lust, but love will probably not be an option here.

Just how does one make the transition from lust to love? Each person's stories are unique. Mine might be instructive.

One of the many times I fell in lust occurred during the early summer of 1964. I had finished my sophomore year at Lehigh University and was visiting my parents in Bennington, Vermont, the town to which they had moved after I graduated from high school. During earlier school vacations I had made some local friends, and that night I decided to visit Bill and his younger sister Alison at their home.

There wasn't a lot to do in Bennington, Vermont, in those days. Mainly what we'd do was watch a little television, walk outside and sit on someone's motorcycle, then go back for more TV. That was about it.

Except that on this particular night Alison was hosting a party for six or seven of her girlfriends with whom she had just graduated from high school. They were all sitting on the kitchen floor for some reason when I arrived, and from my vantage point, standing by the stove, I was able to survey the entire group to see if any interested me.

One did. I fell, slightly, preliminarily, in lust.

We dated a few times that summer, and then it was an on-again, mostly off-again relationship for the next six months. In February of my junior year I visited her in Manhattan. Then a freshman at Bennington College, she was spending her "non-resident term" interning at an accounting firm. We enjoyed a mildly beatnik evening, as was the custom of Bennington women and the men who squired them in that era. She wore black from head to toe. Our wanderings took us from an avant garde theater to a coffee house, all, of course, in Greenwich Village.

It was a delicious night, made even better when she agreed to attend a major party at Lehigh two weeks later.

The following Sunday evening I was summoned to the phone at the fraternity house. She was calling to back out. "I just got pinned."

Sure. Pinned. The old "engaged to become engaged" bit. I knew that "getting pinned" was something a Bennington woman wouldn't be caught dead doing. But maybe going to a fraternity party fell into that same category. Whatever the reason, I had been dumped.

Fast forward to late January of my senior year, when I had a few days to kill between semesters and now, finally, also had my very first car. Maybe she was back in New York, maybe even un-pinned. "And besides," I rationalized, "nearly a year has passed, so I'm ready to be humiliated again."

I tracked her down.

During this "non-resident term" she was not in Manhattan but, of all places, Scranton, Pennsylvania, the city to which her parents had recently moved. She was even happy to hear from me, although I suspect that, living temporarily in Scranton, she would have been happy to hear from anybody. A few days later I drove up to see her.

It's funny what you remember about events so long ago. My Rambler's transmission made strange noises on the drive up, and one repairman in Scranton warned that only a major overhaul would get me on the road again. Another mechanic tightened a plug, added some fluid, and the car was good for another six months until I sold it.

Most of all, of course, I remember my date. I guess that after the eighteen months knowing her, I was still in lust. And proper lust does serve an important function . . . such as drawing me to Scranton in pursuit of a girl who had already rejected me several times. We decided to go to a good restaurant, one fancy enough to take reservations. This was 1966; I wore a suit and tie, and she wore her best dress. Black, of course.

That winter she was working as an aide at a school for severely retarded children, a sad place populated with about forty boys and girls, from infants to adolescents. On the way to the restaurant she suggested we detour slightly and stop by the school so she could show it to me.

It was more than thirty years ago, but I'll never forget what happened when we came through the large doors and into the foyer. Some of the staff and a few of the children were standing about or sitting on the floor of the adjacent rooms. As soon as we walked within their sight we heard a very happy yelp as a five-year-old boy with Down syndrome raced awkwardly out of the living room and toward my date.

He was not a pretty sight. His shirt bore the remains of his recently eaten spaghetti dinner, and his cheeks were red with tomato sauce. A combination of old and new mucus, some dried, some still glistening, cascaded from his nose, and even an expert chemist would be incapable of determining all that was stuck to his hands.

I flinched as he drew closer, and prepared somehow to guard my newly dry cleaned suit from what I knew would be a very grimy touch.

He ran toward us, calling out a word over and over, a word I could not understand. My date interpreted for me: it was her name that he was shouting with such delight.

Just as the little boy reached us, the Bennington girl in her black tights and best dress and long dangly earrings bent forward and with a graceful rhythm caught the child and lifted him in her arms till they were face to face, giving him the monumental hug he so correctly expected.

I looked on, amazed. I realized that in her schedule of priorities, her clothing and her combed hair and her freshly scrubbed face meant absolutely nothing in comparison to hugging that little boy.

I also realized that ever since I crashed a party eighteen months before, I had been in lust.

Now I was in love.

Three-and-one-half years later we were married.