This is the story about my first love and what happened. And how it’s affected me up to the present.
I’ve been wanting to tell this story for a while, but I kept putting it off because, well, in the face of the other love stories I’ve been blogging about, this one feels like a kitsch little baby experience, especially considering my last ‘real’ blog post was about my grandmother’s survival in a bloody Prussia in the aftermath of World War II.
My story is definitely not as a dramatic as my grandmother’s, but it’s still a story of fights, laughter, love, and loyalty among friends, brothers, and sisters… in miniature, as in, in elementary school, and to protect anyone who might feel threatened by it, the names have been changed, even my brother’s.
It started on the school playground
I was nine years old, and it started at recess with someone who wasn’t even a main player in the tale, but we’ll start with him because he sets the stage.
Mark: tall, dark-skinned, and handsome. Dark hair, dark eyes, didn’t speak much, rarely smiled.
I had a total crush on him, and to judge by the oh-so-complex cultural standards of our school, he probably had one on me, as well, because ‘flirting’ was done like this: at recess, the girls would sit on the playground benches and each guy would come steal something from the girl he liked, then the chosen girl would have to chase him to get it back. Chases! Pounces! Excitement!
Sound like fun?
Yeah, probably not for everyone. Anyway, I sat on that bench right alongside the other girls as the guys came running up every day. Each girl in turn would vault off the bench, squealing, and race off in pursuit after the guy who’d dared steal her whatever.
Mark would show up along with the other guys, and he would whip in straight for me. He’d grab my headband off my hair, sending my bangs falling into my face, and then he would skip back, singing, “If you want it back, better come get it!”
Translated: if you want me, come and get me
And I wanted him – well, as much as a nine-year-old girl could. He’s the first guy I recall liking, and I wanted to get up and chase him, I did, honest.
But I didn’t. I was too shy to. Jumping up and running after him simply felt too humiliating. So, with my hair straggling in my face over my eyes and mouth, I would cross my arms, shake my head, and declare: “I don’t need it.”
Apparently this pose was normal for me even when I wasn’t being flirted with. Oh, hey, there, 9-year-old ‘happy’ Sonya:
But I knew how to smile, too. Here is the happy-smiley nine-year-old me 😀 BEFORE BRACES!
Anyway, Mark would try taunting a little more and keep it up for a while, but when he realized I wasn’t playing, inevitably he would slam my headband in the dirt and storm off.
I would stand up then, awkwardly, pick up my headband, brush it off, put it back on, and wonder why I couldn’t just chase him when it was what I wanted. It looked like so much fun, but I just couldn’t.
I was always the only girl who never left that bench while the others ran screaming and laughing after the other guys, having fun.
I, shy, inhibited, awkward, just couldn’t do the chasing thing.
Then the new kid came to town
Audacious, confident, swaggering. Sandy blond hair always falling in his blue eyes, careless grin, freckles dashed across his cheeks – essentially the 9-year-old embodiment of a pirate – that was Dominic. I remember him almost always grinning, or on the verge of it, and shaking his head to get his hair out of his face.
He moved into our neighborhood, just around the corner, and was enrolled in our school in the middle of the year, upon which occasion he promptly proceeded to make Mark his best friend, and buh-bye, Mark’s infrequent smiles. I don’t think I ever saw them together when Mark wasn’t laughing at something Dominic had said. He seemed genuinely happy.
Then Dominic got me to be his girlfriend (without once stealing my headband). Don’t ask me how; all I know is that thus began the kid version of whirlwind romance between Dominic and me:
Tons of shared grins and laughs and once, on the bus, I turned around at some commotion and he was hunched forward, hair in his face, grin on his lips, his mother’s diamond earrings in hand, and I was like ‘Holy crap!’ and spun back around real quick, thinking ‘Holy crap, he’d better NOT give those to me or his dad will kill us both!’
He wasn’t afraid of anything
He would throw me into his backyard pool and then jump in the water himself, screaming like a banshee. He would eat flowers that were supposedly poisonous just to prove he wouldn’t die. He would chase me around his backyard and I loved it. I would run like mad, uninhibited – forget shyness – shyness didn’t even exist for me when I was with him. He was so crazily alive and so utterly untamed that I was willing to play any game he threw out there, even – especially – those chases in his backyard. Running, giggling, getting caught…
They always ended with me getting caught.
And one ended by the side of the pool, with him straddling my waist, my wrists pinned to the autumn grass, both of us out of breath and exhilarated, eyes shining, heartbeats hammering, and he was laughing – at first, but then… as he looked down at me, his laughter stopped, and mine did, too. Then only he was breathing, because as I looked at him, I stopped breathing, sensing something more, something different because he wasn’t smiling anymore. And I knew he was going to kiss me; I practically felt it happening as he lowered his head–
But I turned away at the last instant… because at the time, I was terrified my dad had spy cameras everywhere and would know if I kissed a boy… so Dominic’s lips ended up kissing my cheek instead.
He paused there and didn’t move, and I didn’t move, either, terrified he’d try to kiss me on the lips after all, and my dad would find out, but…
Dominic let me up.
I didn’t know then he knew more than most what it was to fear one’s father
I respected my own dad, but my brother told me later (after we were grown up) that Dominic had said that his father sometimes beat him with the water hose… and maybe, looking back now, he’d done the same to Dominic’s sister Tina, as well.
Tina’s important in this, too.
She was two years younger than me, but she was big for her age and tough, all rough edges and messy curly hair, and almost as tall as me. In contrast to Dominic, she never smiled and had an aggressive streak that she openly unleashed on the world. Truth be told, she intimidated the heck out of me, but I took her in as my friend, and she, this other girl Liz, and I would play together sometimes.
But one day, while spending the afternoon with them, I got bored and said I needed to pick up some Barbie clothes from my friend Maura.
It was a lie. The truth was I just didn’t want to play with them anymore.
Yeah, I know, I was a little snot back then. Still am sometimes.
Anyway, when I didn’t come back from Maura’s, Tina figured out I’d ditched them… and she took major offense.
She showed up banging on Maura’s door
Let me describe Maura: elfin face, milky skin, always put together, her posture perfect. She possessed the grace I never achieved but she seemed to have been born with, that innate elegance of movement incapable of roughness.
At this uncouth banging on her door, she opened it, and viola! There stood Tina, her jaw jutting out bullishly.
This is what she said: “I wanna fight Sonya.”
At which Maura delicately lifted her chin into the air and said, “You can’t come over here without calling first.”
Tina: “I wanna fight Sonya.”
Maura, a bit long-suffering: “You can’t come over without calling first.”
Tina: “I wanna fight Sonya.”
“You need to call first.”
Hard to say how long that would have gone on, but I stepped in and said, “I’ll go out.”
“No.” Maura crossed her arms, her chin hitching even higher now. “She needs to call first.”
Tina: “I wanna fight Sonya.”
Then one of the neighborhood boys chanced by and overheard the conversation, realized the cause, and took off to find the other kids.
In seconds, all the neighborhood boys were amassing on Maura’s doorstep
They were all there: her brother Brandon, my brother Mike, Tina’s brother Dominic (a.k.a. my wild, not-afraid-of-any-freaking-thing boyfriend) , and who knew how many others. To me, it felt like there were at least twenty.
They added their chorus to Tina’s: “Come on, Sonya!” they called out. “Fight her! You can beat her!”
I didn’t want to, but in my mind, I thought: If I don’t do this now, they’ll never respect me. If I don’t do this, no one will want to talk to me ever again. Maura will be ashamed. Dominic will think me a coward. I’ll embarrass my brother in school because his sister was a wuss afraid to fight. Tina’s willing, and everyone knows about it now, so I can’t be the one to back down.
So I agreed, and they all busted out in hollers and whoops, and in seconds they’d ushered Tina and me into Maura and Brandon’s front yard and formed a circle around us.
But neither Tina nor I attacked right away.
We circled first, watching… waiting for the other to move…
I remember walking in that circle, thinking I wouldn’t slap, bite, or pull her hair, because those were supposed ‘girlie’ ways to fight.
No. I clenched my fist; I would punch her. I would fight like a ‘boy’ and make my brother and the other guys proud…
And Dominic? He was cheering for me, and something felt wrong about that when I was facing his sister. But whatever.
She and I kept circling… and then…
I squeezed my eyes shut and bashed; my fists found her shoulders, her head, while she pulled my hair and pummeled me where she could, too.
Then we broke apart and staggered back.
We started circling again, watching… waiting…
We fought like tigresses.
My fists smashed wherever I could get, her fingers yanking at my hair, and I was furious that she was fighting like a girl, pulling my hair and scratching my arms–
Then we broke apart and circled again, watching… waiting.
And lunged and fought–
And broke apart and circled… and lunged…
It became a nightmare I thought would never end.
I just wanted it to end.
And the guys were getting bored. One of them announced a new rule:
“The first one to draw blood wins.”
I wasn’t sure what was supposed to have been the rule before that one – were we supposed to have fought until one of us collapsed unconscious or something?
Whatever, I just wanted it over, so we lunged again and I fought for all I was worth, whacking her with my fists hard and hard and hard and thinking I want this over over over–
Then we broke apart and circled again, watching, waiting – and lunged.
I want this over over please please end-
We broke apart and circled, watching, waiting… please end – we lunged.
Apart again and circling…
Then she sniffed.
And blood dripped out her nose.
For an instant, everyone froze, then:
They all flew at me, their shouts and cheers deafening.
They crowded around me, their bodies jostling on every side, body heat and grins and hands smacking my shoulders. Dominic. My brother. The other guys grinning and whooping behind them. “You won, Sonya, you won!” A constant in my ears.
But I was numb. I looked between their shoulders at Tina.
No one cared. She didn’t exist for them.
That’s when I burst into tears
At that, Dominic’s face changed completely.
“Did she hurt you?” he asked, the triumph gone, replaced by something else as he looked over his shoulder at his sister.
I couldn’t stop crying, though, couldn’t speak, and he twisted away from me, pushing between the other guys, his voice rising. “Did you hurt her? I’m going to kill you if you hurt her!” he screamed, lunging at her.
The other guys snagged his shirt and hauled him back, three of them having to hold him as he raged against them and tried to get at her while screaming over and over, “I’m going to kill you! I’m going to kill you if you hurt her!”
I stared, dumbfounded, just shaking my head and saying she hadn’t hurt me, she hadn’t hurt me, and finally he heard me and subsided, but it felt like the world shifted in that instant, or maybe it had altered in the instants before, and then altered again in the aftermath.
All I could think was that my brother would never say that to me, even if I beat up his girlfriend. We were family, after all, and no matter how much we fought, we would never scream that at each other. I couldn’t imagine it. I didn’t understand it.
I didn’t know what to think. What to do. Who I was that I’d hurled fists at my boyfriend’s sister, who he was that he defended me over her. What that meant, what I meant, what he’d meant.
Fortunately, Maura took me inside and gave me some water.
I was still shaking, though, the water salty-sweet from my tears, and it was then, in that instant, that I swore inside that I would never, ever, ever fight anyone again. I realized how horrible violence is, how terrible winning is when it comes at another’s expense, how unfair and fickle favoritism can be, and how empty popularity is. It’s only a vacant sense of belonging that passes with the next fad, and I wanted nothing to do with it if it came at this price.
I didn’t want to fight, didn’t want blood speckling my knuckles as I rose triumphant to the roars of the masses in my ears; I just wanted us to lay down our anger and work out our problems in peace.
But Tina – she’d wanted to fight. Maybe to teach me a lesson, such as not to ditch my friends under false pretenses like I had her. I don’t know why she wanted it.
And Dominic – he’d wanted me to fight, too, not caring that I’d hurt her, only that I was alright. Maybe he just wanted to know his girlfriend wasn’t a weakling. I don’t know.
And several of the others – they’d been excited by the rush, excited that I’d won, that the girl they’d cheered on had vanquished the one lesser favored. Though maybe that’s just what I saw, what they all pretended, because now that we’re grown up, my brother can’t even read this blog post due to the shame he feels that he was one of those in the crowd who’d pressured me to fight. He said he felt bad even then but didn’t want to be the oddball out.
Maybe everyone was caught up in the moment and, like me, didn’t want to be the coward who backed out or showed opposition. It’s hard to do that as a child, right?
But now that I’d done it and fought, given my boyfriend’s sister a bloody nose and ousted her from everyone’s respect, I was torn up inside and couldn’t stop crying.
Did anyone understand why I was crying?
I think that moment changed me because I realized some people in this world had different values, and those values weren’t mine
I realized that, for whatever reason, some people wanted things that I didn’t.
Tina – she wanted to prove something, whatever that was, and didn’t care if someone got hurt in the process, but me?
I decided that day that I had nothing to prove to anyone anymore except to myself, and that was this: I would never again be pressured into a fight I didn’t want. Never again would I hurt someone simply because not to would make me out to be a pussycat. Let them call me weak, but I would not cave. That was my resolve.
They taught me that.
And what happened to Dominic and Tina afterward?
Not immediately, and I don’t know how long after that it happened, but one day their house was just empty.
No warning, no note, no call (I don’t even know if they’d had a working phone); their father simply packed them up overnight and bailed. From one day to the next: poof. The same way they’d shown up.
No one knew where they’d gone, and I can only hope they moved on to lives that got better.
I hope Dominic kept his grin and that irresistible charm that made me so happy and made taciturn Mark laugh.
I hope Tina let someone in who ended up loving her forever.
I hope they got out of that domestic situation and made better homes with their partners, that they kept fighting through and surviving even if nightmares dragged them back into memories that wouldn’t fade.
I hope no one ever hurt them again, and that, no matter how damaged, they forged onward, because they can’t go back.
Forward is the only real direction survivors can take.
But the story doesn’t end there, not really, not for me
I think that relationship with Dominic had a ripple effect on my life that affected how I view romantic relationships and what they should be. The chases, the laughter, the grins, the vibrancy that made me feel alive.
It comes out in my books, in the relationships I paint there. That vivid joy felt in the company of another human being who makes you dare, makes you want to experience more. That zing, that zest, that hunger to be more.
And then there’s the darker side, or perhaps just a grayer area
Seeing him shout, “I’m gonna kill you if you hurt her!” isn’t something that ever left me, and it comes out in my stories, too, in the relationships in them, because in every one, there’s that underlying, powerful certainty that if the time came, if necessity left no other option, my love interests would kill for their loved ones. No question about it. Some more readily than others, but ultimately…
Maybe that’s why sometimes my heroes don’t quite adhere to an ethical code and why my writers’ group members say all my stories, even the fluffy fairy-tale ones, have a dark element to them. And why a few of my editors have questioned some of my characters’ actions. And why my characters often have pasts of abuse that leave them with self-destructive or self-sabotaging behaviors that they have to overcome.
Maybe that’s why, in between the romance, I occasionally delve into character histories that aren’t happy places to be and are often places that allow no true escape.
But, knowing all this, would I go back and undo Dominic and Tina and everything that happened?
Not a chance. Because nine-year-old me? I think she really loved.
But perhaps more importantly, she lived.
That made me who I am.
Thanks for reading.
If anyone’s curious about what I write, my most recent book is an emotionally wrought dark fantasy where the chases are much more adult and the darkness much greater than the blog post above. It’s up on Amazon, B&N, apple iBooks, Kobo, scribd, inktera, and 24symbols if you want to check it out!