October 1, 2023 | Rome, Italy

19. Spain: The End of the Affair

By |2023-09-12T16:48:46+02:00September 12th, 2023|Boyhood Empire|
When ships pass....

h, girls. What little boy under age ten, however partisan to his lizardly reptilian tribe, could simply pretend they did not exist? I certainly did, since aside from my mother and the maids Vini and Gabina, no women crossed my paths. Segreto the cat was female, and that placed her in the girl category, just a denomination of non-maleness, but which was entirely acceptable in a cat.

Even my mother and the maids were exempt, since they exercised no mysterious hold over me, nor did they try. True, the maids made me into naked royalty to better distract me while they scrubbed, but my mother, despite her six-inch heels and stunning Polish looks – I did notice the inexplicable rapture of men while around her during cocktail parties – was still ultimately “mother.” The commander-in-chief of my manners and upbringing was my animated father (animated despite his intellectual doom and gloom).

So in effect girls did not exist, and puberty, described to me by Paco as a time when a boy became a man in terms of girls, was lost on me. Since Paco refused to elaborate, I assumed this ritual was contrived and would take place in some park where I’d have to take an oath of allegiance in the presence of countless brothers and cousins.

This rumination was abruptly shattered in the winter of 1962 by a girl named DiDi McGregor, who was one grade ahead of me, and one day, for reasons I couldn’t fathom, said she’d seen me after school running around near the pylon and wanted to know why. Had I lost something, perhaps my mind?

Lizards, she said, had tails that detached, so I’d probably had more detached tails than lizards.

No, I replied casually. I hunt lizards.

Since DiDi was a girl, I assumed she’d walk away from this declaration and tell her friends how strange a boy I was, stranger even than most thought.

This is the moment it happened.

All changed in seconds.

Lizards, she said, had tails that detached, so I’d probably had more detached tails than lizards.

I looked at DiDi for the first time and saw her blue eyes and her freckles and tried to absorb what she had just said, which was not only true but unusually well informed, and I stumbled to answer back that it was true, many got away, but a few I caught and could caress in my hands before letting go. The pleasure was in that act of letting go, of knowing I’d captured and liberated.

DiDi listened to this explosion of shy bluster, smiled, and kissed me on the cheek. And left.

I was in love.

The maids were gone, my mother also, so were all the other girls in the world, and so was Paco’s eventual invitation to a rite of male passage.

There was DiDi and DiDi alone, and though she was eleven, I imagined her immediately as by my side hunting reptiles, and even imagined her when I was trying to get to sleep at night.

Try as I did to quash this terrible abnormality, which interfered in the essence of the me- alone side of my character that I treasured, I could not.

I made up ways of coming close to DiDi at school, though she never again paused as she had that day. I wanted so badly to speak to her again, but she seemed to have no interest whatsoever.

I thought of telling her I had been to the Rock of Gibraltar and even seen lizards there, but could not summon the courage to approach her directly. Paco felt betrayed and warned me that worse was to come unless I mended my ways, returned to the tribe, and went through the more established rites of girl-learning.

But nothing worked. My father had little to say about girls, let alone women; my mother seemed to have parked her puberty under the heels of her stilettoes, letting their suggestiveness do her work, thus cutting down on the need of actually dealing with men, many of whom were tacitly in love with her.

How could this be happening to me, the small warrior beholden to no one and considered as Peck at the Cafeteria California? How could I be felled by an eleven-year-old girl at ten, and what really did I want from her?

I dropped the rose on the street and walked away into the barren lizard fields.

Since sex meant nothing to me, I finally understood there was something in girls that brought out a need in boys they often refused to acknowledge, namely that they badly needed to be singled out for attention, doted on, stroked like cats, and once that happened, they’d want it to happen again, from the same girl, and if that girl refused they’d try to fill the absence elsewhere because they couldn’t live without doses of this swelling up.

I went months waiting for DiDi to again approach me, once even buying a flower from a peasant merchant near the school. I was determined to give it to her one day when classes were over, never mind what everyone said. Be bold, I told myself.

And I, in fact, bought that flower, a rose, and summoned courage I didn’t think was possible, telling myself there was nothing to lose as I walked toward the girls section of the school after the bell.

It was then that I saw her on the pavement with a boy who was at least a year or two older, perhaps even a dreaded teen, and she was in generous chat with this handsome boy, so intense that boys and girls walked around them, leaving them be, and as I watched intently from a distance, the chat ended with DiDi placing her lips not on this boy’s cheeks but on his lips, very quickly and lightly, and the boy smiling and crying out something about a meeting in the park.

I have never been partial to Hollywood endings, and that instant may have triggered my resistance. I dropped the rose on the street and walked away, back to my half of the compound and then, after a period of reflection, into the barren lizard fields.

I renewed my inner pledge to always do things my way and beat down impulses that might make me need anything or anyone. I might want a vanilla milkshake but if I did not get it, I would move on. I might want to understand the remarkable things I saw in my Telefonica dreams, but I would not try to understand them, instead merely take them in. Life would in this way be an accumulation of events that might or might not include other DiDis, but if it did, I’d know better than to suddenly go from hating girls to idolizing one.

I would live my life loyal to my mind’s ferocious imagination, while always expecting that this kiss, if it ever came again, would likely be on the cheek.

As for girls, after DiDi I took a prolonged leave of absence, even skipping Paco’s rites. I repossessed the world, my world, flying freely between the cables of Telefonica until one day my father came home and tersely announced we’d be leaving Spain to return to Washington. It had been but two years. My mother wept openly. Segreto, undone by all the emotion, leapt on my head.

I would soon be eleven and again we would be moving on, or back, and the bits and pieces of the world I have described in these stories I would never get back again, except in words, a balm that coats over sadness without ever allowing you to forget it.

In June 1963 we sailed back to America. Our ocean liner, the “Cristoforo Colombo” westward bound, crossed paths with its sister, the “Leonardo da Vinci,” and the vessels passed so close that people could actually shout greetings, wishing well to the comers and the goers. Only afterward did it strike me that I had no idea on which side I was, coming or going.

That would take years to figure out, and in fact, remains unsettled nearly sixty years later.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.