my Bernstein was over and under and into the moon, and I was, by chance, the only boy within reach of her voracious lips. I was a ninth-grader in a junior high school whose basketball team — I was the scrawny statistician — had just won its first, and as it would turn out, only game of the year. In the school’s cramped foyer, team and cheerleaders just back, Amy Bernstein saw that all the boys on the team were out of immediate reach or already taken, so she kissed me. On the lips.
It lasted only a second, but all around us saw, and snickered. And as she pulled away to rejoin the jubilant team members, I found myself in a state midway between grace and shock. What, the fourteen-year-old side me demanded to know, had just happened, and why, now standing alone with my green scorebook in hand, did I feel so dizzy?
This might, under most circumstances, be the tickling start of a puberty story, but not so fast. Instead, it is all about the language of bewilderment.
As it turns out, the kiss news — Amy kissed that kid! — made the rounds, and the next day at school I wasn’t asked about the beginning of my passionate love affair with Amy Bernstein, but how the prettiest girl in school had come to kiss me.
I was mocked and heckled by my suddenly turncoat friends. When I tried defending myself — “We won, and she got carried away…” — they poked fun at me. You got kissed on the lips by the prettiest “something” in school.
“Something,” I say, because I had no idea what they were calling her, which sounded for all the world like “Jap.”
Except Amy was definitely not Japanese. She was the brunette daughter of a businessman who lived just a few blocks from the public school and had a brother named Aaron, which was, to my knowledge, not a Japanese name.
I pondered this matter for a long time, since a kiss was a kiss, but could find no clues. Thanks to my erudite father, who always spoke to me as an adult, I did know that the head of the North Vietnamese army — we were at war at the time — was a man named Giáp, so for a while I thought maybe Amy’s father was actually a military man who had, for whatever reason, decided to nickname his daughter after an enemy Vietnamese general, a detail likely known by all in the school except for me, the skinny statistician.
In any event, the consensus was unmoving: My unworthy, virgin lips had been singled out by a Jap, depending on your geopolitical leanings.
Only a boy as devotedly detached from commonplace realities and language could have missed the obvious — the same boy who, 50 years later, has no idea just what LOL or BFF truly stand for and has sent perhaps a total of 40 text messages in his Internet life. . . . never mind not belonging to, please have mercy, X (formerly known as Twitter) or Instagram and who still regards tinder as that which you gather from forest detritus to start a Boy Scout-worthy fire.
In a word, I am as hopeless now as I was in the era of Amy Bernstein, who, it goes without saying, not only never kissed me again but had to live down the shame of her spontaneous silliness among her cheerleader peers. (She would later marry her college sweetheart, the quarterback of the Dartmouth football team.)
Jap for Japanese? Come now, Mr. Christopher.
Jap, as in Giáp, a short and stocky enemy general whose military strategies would ultimately bring the mighty United States of America to heel? No, Mr. Christopher, he did not secretly hanker for a cheerleading daughter. On the contrary, most of the young women around him and under his command were guerrilla fighters.
Jap, in fact, was too simple for either my father or his quirky, precocious son to comprehend.
So, who was Amy Bernstein, my non-Asian kisser, known as “princess” to her friends?
Pity the slow statistician who knew a great deal about basketball but all too little about that period’s slang, in which “princess” said it all, if, that is, you were Jewish and reveled in acronyms.
A Jap wasn’t a Jap but a JAP, a Jewish American Princess, the pinnacle, then, of a femaleness that counted above all others — at least to some, which is why that once-upon-a-time kiss had everyone gawking as I stood bewitched and bewildered.
What a minor and silly event, you exclaim.
Minor indeed. Had that random one-time kiss not removed me from General Giáp’s toy-soldier universe, then suddenly and mysteriously ensnared me in the thrall of a female gravity it took a (before gender fluidity) princess all of a whimsical instant to create, there’s no telling where I’d be today, or with whom.