Monday, September 5, 2011

"First Love" by Jerry Guarino







March 17th, 1978 (New Brunswick, N.J.) - Tony packed his green duffel bag and headed to Newark airport. His dreams of a journalism career on hold, he decided to pursue, for the last time, one Pamela Jean Johnson, formerly of North Augusta, South Carolina. Even though he was leaving college three months before graduation, he was of a singular mindset, to have the love of his life, his first love, the best love he had ever known. Nothing else seemed to matter. It all started eight years ago.

November 1969 (East Orange, N.J.) – Pam is visiting Laura. Red and orange leaves were blowing around the high school soccer field; the air was a cool 50 degrees. John, Laura’s boyfriend, and Tony were moving the ball downfield on attack. When Laura’s slow walk passed across John’s line of sight, he missed a pass from Tony, turning the ball over. Tony glanced at John and carped, “How did you miss that?” Then he saw Laura and her cousin Pam, dressed in cotton sweaters, plaid wool skirts, navy blue tights and clogs. They were both 5’9” tall, athletic, with clear, slightly olive skin tones. They each had long, straight hair, cut evenly eight inches below the shoulder; Laura’s was dark brown, while Pam’s shade was light brown, like stained oak, the same color as her tortoise style, semi-round eyeglasses. 

“Never mind” said Tony as he recognized the source of his friend’s distraction.  “Who is that with Laura?”

John moved closer so other players couldn’t hear his answer. “Her cousin Pam, visiting for Thanksgiving break,” said John. Laura and Pam were sharing thoughts that Tony only hoped he was a part of. Pam adjusted her eyeglasses, stroked her hair and whispered something in Laura’s ear.

“Double date” Tony said, more like a command than a question, to John as they returned their attention to the game.

On the way off the field after a win, the crowd applauding, Tony and John stopped for a moment to meet the girls. “Pam, this is my friend Tony.” Pam held out her hand. “Hi”, her southern accent apparent even in this one syllable.

“Hi”, said Tony, the poor kid from Jersey.

John tried to close this favor for his friend. “Laura, maybe Pam and Tony can join us at the movie tonight?”

Laura didn’t even confer with her cousin before replying, “That’s just what we were thinking. Pick us up at 7.”

As John and Tony left the field for the locker room, Tony turned back for one more look at Pam; framed in the autumn dusk, a long shadow trailing behind, she held Laura’s arm and giggled. Tony slapped John on the back. “John, I’m going to marry that girl.”

John laughed. “It’s only a first date, Romeo. Take some time to get to know her.”

Tony and Pam held hands in the theater and whispered to each other, their connection not unnoticed by Laura. “Look,” she said to John.
John just smiled. “You’ll never guess what Tony said to me earlier,” but he didn’t tell Laura even as she coaxed him. Later that night getting pizza, the two girls sitting opposite of the boys, you could see that Tony and Pam were becoming closer.

Pam was a proper 17-year-old Christian girl, so anything more than petting was out of the question, even in the era of free love. But Tony was so enamored that he would wait, a long time as it turns out. After spending the week together, Pam returned home. They talked on the phone for the next six months. “Pam, can you come back this summer, stay with Laura?”

At this point, Pam was trying to work this out with her parents. “If I can, Tony. My parents want me to work this summer.”

Tony had an idea. “Bond’s Ice Cream is looking for help. We could both work there.” Both Tony and Pam were going to be seniors, planning for college and the future.

July 1970 (East Orange, N.J.) – Although Pam was able to come back North, working with Tony didn’t happen. Tony worked at Bonds, pushing ice cream, while Pam and Laura worked at the new clothing store for teenagers, The Gap. Pam had done some modeling for a local store in South Carolina; both she and Laura loved to use their paycheck to buy the latest fashions from San Francisco, the epicenter for this generation. “Oh Pam, you must try this on; it goes perfectly with your eyes.” Laura held the cornflower hippie dress up to her neck.

“With crème color knee socks?” said Pam. “Tony will love it!”

Most summer nights, the four had dinner together and listened to music. The Beatles (of course), Three Dog Night, Simon and Garfunkel, Chicago and Rare Earth were putting out new songs while the classics of the 1960s were still popular. MASH and Catch 22 were playing at the movies and poor kids were heading to Vietnam. Richard Nixon was in the White House. The country was splitting up and taking sides.

At the pizza shop, Edwin Starr was pumping out ‘War’. “I’m not going to Vietnam,” said John. “I’ll be in college.” Pam and Laura stopped in mid bite.

“John is applying to Rutgers and I’m applying to Douglas,” said his girlfriend. Tony knew his family didn’t have money for college.

“What about you, Tony?” said Pam, holding his hand. ‘Bridge over Troubled Waters’ started to play. Tony hadn’t thought about this before and didn’t know what Pam’s plans were.

“I’m not sure, maybe RU,” looking at her.

“What about you, Pam?” said John. Laura nudged her boyfriend, gesturing to be quiet.

“Laura wants me to join her at Douglas, but my parents want me to go to a church college closer to home.” The jukebox blared ‘Give Me Just a Little More Time’, the plea Tony was thinking about.

It was late August and Pam was going home the next day. Making out in the back seat of Tony’s Dodge Dart, on a hill overlooking the skyline of Manhattan, Pam leaned back and asked him the question he had been avoiding. “What about college, Tony? Do you think you could go to school in the South?”

Tony knew that out-of-state tuition, even at a state school, was out of his reach. He would be lucky to get loans to cover Rutgers. “I could do that,” he lied, “as long as we could be together.” Pam smiled and kissed Tony. She seemed satisfied with the possibility for now.

Starting their senior year, Tony and Pam kept in touch in writing or on the phone. It was Tony and John’s last year on the soccer team and they enjoyed a championship season. But as John went off with Laura to celebrate after games, Tony could only call Pam, telling her how much he missed her. While time flew by for John and Laura, it seemed like a year until Christmas for Tony. He sent Pam a music box that played Serenade #12 by Mozart. She decided to come up to New Jersey for a week.

January 1971 (East Orange, N.J.) – It was a week of bliss. Tony and Pam spent most of their time together by themselves, away from their family and friends. Fortunately, college admissions letters hadn’t come back yet, saving a discussion Tony dreaded. “I got an early admission to Presbyterian College and I’m still waiting to hear from Douglas,” said Pam.

“I’m still waiting to hear from both schools,” Tony said. He had applied to Rutgers, but not the private school Pam’s parents wanted her to attend. “So I guess we’re still not settled,” as she squeezed his hand.

“It will work out,” said Tony. She was so beautiful and was wearing the same kind of outfit she had on that afternoon of the soccer game, triggering a love flashback memory. Tony hadn’t dated anyone else since they had met, feeling they were destined to be together.

April 14th, 1971, Tony’s birthday. Pam had sent him a gift and called him that night. “Happy birthday, Tony. I miss you.”

Tony had a feeling the college discussion was going to come up. “I miss you too, sweetheart.”

A pause. “My parents want me to go to Presbyterian. Did you get in?”

Tony had to modify his lie. “No, sorry,” only a half truth since he never applied. “But there’s some bad news. I was drafted, number 28. I’ll be heading off to the Army.”

Pam began to cry. “No. You’ll be sent to Vietnam. What about the college deferment?”

Tony used the political situation to get out of his predicament. “College deferments ended this month. Only a serious medical condition will get you out of the draft.”

Pam continued to cry. “I don’t want to lose you.”

Tony had planned for this. Realizing he didn’t have the money for college, he had decided to enlist in the Air Force, avoiding direct combat in Vietnam and giving him money for college. “It’s OK, Pam. I’m going to join the Air Force. I won’t be going to Vietnam. We can be together after that.”

Pam sobbed a little less now. “How long will that be?”

Now Tony choked up a little. “Four years.” Tony and Pam spent the next hours remembering the time they spent together and promising to continue their relationship, though it would have to be long-distance.

November 1971 (Takhli Royal Air Force Base, Thailand) – In the middle of the jungle, Tony was writing his weekly letter.

Dear Pam,

I miss you so much. Even though it’s late November, it’s very hot, 90s during the day and not much cooler at night. There’s no air conditioning, just large fans in the tents we live in. I’m hoping to get stationed at Shaw Air Force Base in Charleston when we leave here. We could see each other again.

All my love,

Tony

Pam and Tony continued to write each other every week, making small talk and expressions of love. After a year in Thailand, Tony was stationed in California, far from his girlfriend. Later, he was sent back to South East Asia, for another year of duty. Toward the end of his third year, the frequency of letters diminished. Then his orders came through: Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle. It was a nine-hour drive to Columbia, S.C., but infinitely closer than he had been since high school graduation. He was eager to write the good news when he opened a letter from her.

Dear Tony,

I am so sorry. It’s been so long since we have been together and I have been lonely. I met someone here at college. He’s going to be a pastor and he asked me to marry him. I didn’t want to say anything before it became serious. I’m going to say yes.

I wish I could have waited for you. I will never forget the time we had together. I hope you find someone as good as you are.

Love,

Pam

Tony knew that Pam had made a difficult decision, one that she wouldn’t change. He decided that he would spare them both more pain by not responding to her letter, not writing her anymore or calling her when he returned to the states.

Tony had been taking college courses while he was in the Air Force, to take his mind off the loneliness and to get ahead on his education. Now that he and Pam were finished, he could go to Rutgers on the G.I. Bill and still have money for living expenses.

September 1975 (New Brunswick, N.J.) – Tony entered Rutgers as a sophomore, having accumulated 36 college credits during his time in the military. John was a senior now and engaged to Laura who went to Douglas, the women’s college at Rutgers. Tony and John still hung out together. One day at Patti’s Pizza, John saw his good friend looking sad. “You still miss her, don’t you?” said John.

“Of course I do. She was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

John was curious. “Why don’t you try to get her back?”

Tony shrugged. “She’s engaged. I don’t want to ruin that. Even if I wanted to, I’m in school here now and she’s graduating.”

December 1977 (New Brunswick, N.J.) - Tony dated many women during college, but never found one that made him feel like Pam did. John wanted to cheer him up and invited him to an engagement/Christmas party at Laura’s house. Not being attached, Tony decided to go. He arrived with a bottle of wine and an engagement present for the couple. John met him at the door and took the presents. “Hey buddy, thanks. I have a present for you too.” Tony looked confused. “Guess who is here?”

Tony’s heart began to race. “Pam?” John opened the door and there she was. They rushed to each other and hugged. “What are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be with your fiancé?”

Pam took his hand quickly to a room away from the guests. Her smile turned to sadness and she began to cry. “We broke up last week. He was cheating on me.” She hugged him tightly.

“I’m sorry, dear, I’m really sorry,” said Tony with genuine empathy. Then he took her head gently, pulled it towards him and kissed her. Pam responded and suddenly they were both reminded how much they meant to each other.

“Laura said I could move in with her this summer, to help her plan the wedding.” Tony’s world had turned around. This miraculous ending must mean they were meant to be together.

March 10th, 1978. Pam called Tony for their nightly talk. “Tony, my ex has been pursuing me again, begging me to take him back. I don’t know what to do.”

Tony was floored, but tried to remain composed. “I thought you loved me. I thought we were going to be together again.”

Pam began to cry. “I know. I thought so too. I told him I had to think about it and give him an answer at the end of the semester.”

Tony didn’t want to pressure Pam into her ex fiancée’s arms, but needed reassurance. “I love you, Pam. I will do anything to be with you. It has to be your decision.” It was time for a grand gesture, but what?

Spring break had just ended. If he had gone down South during this time, maybe he could have prevented this. But he was busy completing his writing portfolio for graduate school and had a reference from a former professor at the Columbia School of Journalism. The next week was torture for Tony and graduate school seemed less important as each day passed.
March 18th, 1978 (Columbia, S.C.) – Tony’s plane landed and he rented a car. He found an apartment and put down two month’s cash toward the lease. Then he headed to the office of the Columbia S.C. News. His writing and photography portfolio in hand, he met with the editor, who appreciated this veteran’s enthusiasm and gave him a position. Now he had a job and a place to live. It was time to find Pam.

He showed up at her apartment and rang the bell. Pam opened the door. “Tony! What are you doing here?”

They kissed. “I was going crazy, waiting to hear from you. I came down and already have an apartment and a job. Pam, will you marry me?” Pam was in shock.

“Tony, I don’t know what to say.”

Tony and Pam made love that night for the first time. Tony knew that it would be magical.

Pam thought it would be too, but it wasn’t. She felt so guilty and confused. “Tony, I need more time to think about it.”

But Tony realized that it wasn’t meant to be.

He packed up, returned the rental car and flew back to New Jersey. He finished his senior year, but did poorly on his final exams, his heart still broken.

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