This story appears in the book Toward an Interior Sun: Awakening by a Master, and the Difficult Journey toward Discipleship. In this collection of short stories, Max Reif digs deep to offer an entertaining and insightful account of this arduous spiritual trek. The tales lead the reader from epiphanies of youth, to the life of a spiritual seeker, to a deepening awareness of the maturity required for true discipleship. Learn more about the book.
For a long time I didn’t know her name, the pretty girl who’d come to our school in the fall of ’61. I’d never heard her talk, either, and I imagined that she came from France. She wore her hair in shiny, brown curls. My favourite outfit of hers was a knee-length, form-fitting blue skirt combined with a pink blouse that accentuated her curves nicely.
A couple months after school started, my friend Ralph Frey took her to a party at our social club, the Achim—the Hebrew word for “Brothers,” since the club met at the Jewish Community Centre—was having, and we double-dated. That was how I learned her name was Leah, and that she came from Baltimore, not France.
Since we weren’t yet 16, our fathers had to drive us to these parties that the club kept having because most of my friends were roaring with hormones and socially quite advanced for ninth graders. Many of these boys lived in the Delmar Loop tenements. Some had immigrant parents who gave them a lot of freedom. At least that was my mother’s theory.
I was kind of an anomaly. It had taken a lot of what’s commonly known as social climbing for me to get into this club. Once I was in, the boys, many of whom were the school’s leaders and best athletes, had elected me president two years in a row. My impression was that they considered me some sort of scholar, and admired me for that.
My skills lagged way behind when it came to girls, though. Once a little time had elapsed since our last party, I’d start to dread our meetings. I knew someone would bring up having another such event, and everyone would vote for it. But that meant I’d have to get a date, a thought which filled me with terror unmixed with any presentiment of joy.
My dating history had begun in seventh grade when a girl in my class had phoned me and asked if I knew the math assignment. Once I’d told her, she said, “Oh, and by the way, will you come to the sock hop with me?”
Talking to her that brief minute, I’d felt enormous discomfort. The sock hop and the few dances and club parties I’d attended since, had all been emotional disasters for me. I’d kept up appearances by going, however, and so there were no untoward consequences of the social afternoons or evenings—only great relief when each one ended.
I worried about myself. My socially precocious friends had been talking about their sexual and romantic adventures since I’d first met them in seventh grade. One of them had described how allowing his dog to lick him had accidentally brought on his first ejaculation. Once they’d laughed about a “circle jerk,” in which they’d taken turns masturbating into a coke bottle. I had no idea whether they were being truthful or making it up.
They talked about their exploits on Saturday nights “over at some girl’s house” or in the balconies of the Varsity or Tivoli movie theatres in the Loop. I was almost 15 and I’d never kissed a girl or had an orgasm while awake. I wasn’t even completely certain that the one or two “wet dreams” I thought I’d had hadn’t really been bed-wetting episodes.
To tell the truth, I wasn’t sure if what anyone said about sex was true. Maybe this whole idea of white stuff coming out of men’s penises was just something people made up—a conspiracy, a prank they were playing on me. Once I’d had a dream that Randy Bornstein, the tallest, most physically mature boy and best athlete in our club, reached into my penis and pulled out some sperm, like a tribal elder priming my pump.
Our party passed like the others had. To tell you the truth, I don’t even remember who I brought. Ralph’s dad picked us up. As he drove, he kept making left turns, joking that his steering wheel was stuck and couldn’t turn right.
In the living room of the Finley’s house, where the party was, I saw the usual couples, soon to be making out on the sofas. Dick Hart, whose basketball moves were quick as lightning, stood talking with his girlfriend, Gilda. Randy Bornstein had an arm around Sheila Mink. Seeing them together always lit a little flame of embarrassment in me. At a JCCA event, I had once gotten the nerve to ask Sheila to dance, not knowing that she and Randy had already fallen in love.
Nate Brandon and Cherie Shuman; Greg Moriarty and Lanie Bernstein; and Mark Vinsky and Lisa Ferdman, three inseparable couples, stood in a circle eating, drinking and laughing.
Most of the Achim picked their dates and girlfriends from the same group of girls. Ralph’s bringing Leah was bold, but Ralph never lacked confidence where girls were concerned.
There seemed to be a distinct order of status among the pool of girls we chose from, as distinct as in any Polynesian tribe. I was hard put to understand this social ranking, but I accepted it, subtly deferring to the more popular girls and looking down slightly on the ones who, for some reason, were at the periphery of acceptability.
There were two sisters, for example, both of them in our grade. Whether they were non-identical twins, I still don’t know. One of them was very popular. Her name was Susan. I would be doomed to forever label her in my thoughts as “Runaround Sue,” after seeing her jitterbugging to that currently popular song with Sam Sanders at our party that night.
She and Sam were sort of like boyfriend and girlfriend for a while, though they never really went steady. I remember him walking her to the refreshment table after the song, steering her with an arm behind her waist. It reminded me a little of the way you might guide a mule. I wondered if that was how a boy was supposed to lead a girl.
Sam was a passionate boy, fast on a playing field, with flaming curls of brilliant orange hair. For the past year, he’d been so possessed by the rising sap of testosterone that half of what came out of his mouthit seemed, was crudely sexual.
Somehow Susan, an intelligent and cultured young woman, gravitated to him. Susan’s sister Mindy, on the other hand, didn’t seem to be quite as popular. She often seemed slightly nervous. Probably just hadn’t quite “come into herself” yet. I always tried to play it safe and ask “acceptable” girls to our parties, and when I once told someone I was thinking of asking Mindy, the approval ratings seemed weak.
After the party where Ralph and Leah doubled with my unmemorable date and me, I didn’t talk to Leah for quite awhile. I’d see her in the halls occasionally. Now that we’d been introduced, I’d nod to her and she’d nod or wave back.
A couple months later, though, in January, I happened to find her outside of one of my classes as I exited, heading in the same direction I was. We walked together. Our conversation was easy and light. Thereafter, we became frequent hallway companions during the four or five minutes between classes.
Looking back, I have my doubts whether even that first meeting was a coincidence. Though I’ve already established that I wasn’t Casanova, I was making a name for myself in some areas of school life. I’d become co-editor of the school newspaper and had won an area-wide journalism competition.
I’d also surprised everyone, including myself, by winding up as a starting guard and linebacker on the football team, rising from third string in the first few weeks of practice after going out for a sport I’d scarcely ever played. I even got the male lead in Victor Herbert’s musical, “The Red Mill,” though I burned in fires of ironic embarrassment every time I had to sing my solo, a song called “Every Day is Ladies’ Day with Me.”
My accomplishments didn’t relieve the unhappiness I carried inside because of my paralysis in the most intimate spheres. But Leah’s company, even for those few minutes each day, began to brighten my world and give it colour. For the first time I began to feel it might be possible for me to live all the dimensions of my being, no longer shadowed by shame.
Leah came to me— I’d been incapable of going to her. A pretty girl named Evelyn Mann, a few months before, had started smiling at me in journalism class. Every time I’d looked her way I’d seen her beaming at me. It was obvious that she was inviting my approach, and yet there was some ancient line I wasn’t warrior enough to charge past, and after a time her smile had disappeared like the sun going behind clouds.
I didn’t know how to reach out further to Leah, either. But then, one Friday afternoon, we were walking to her math class, across the hall from my history class. I was carrying her books, having requested the honour as a jocular symbol of our friendship. As I gave them back to her, Leah asked, “Would you like to come over tomorrow night? ‘The Bird Man of Alcatraz’ is on TV.”
I tried not to betray my excitement or my fear. Her eyes were gentle and caring. Would I know what to do when I got there, though? Who could be sure?
“Yeah, sure!” I finally managed to stammer out.
Crossing the hall to history class, I felt my own history to be on the verge of a revolution. I scarcely heard Mr. Wilson’s lecture. A girl had invited me to her house on a Saturday night!
All my friends’ stories came flooding into me. Would Leah attack me? Would I be able to keep up a conversation? She said she just wanted to watch television. But suddenly I was about to do something I’d never done! Some rite of passage to a new life had presented itself, at least as a possibility.
That rite of passage led through a ribbon of streets I knew pretty well, straight east a mile from our large, brick house by the tall, wrought-iron street light on the quiet corner of Waterman and Williams. It led down Waterman and across Big Bend Boulevard in the direction of the city of St. Louis. Parkview Place, where Leah’s family lived, close to the Washington University campus, bordered on the city.
My parents had gone out on that cold Saturday evening and I was alone with my crippled grandmother, who lived with us. I showered at 7 p.m. in eager, nervous expectancy. Looking in the mirror while drying my hair, I noticed the fuzz that had lately been growing on my face. Decisively, if sneakily, I reached for my father’s razor and the shaving cream. The bathroom suddenly seemed bathed in soft angel glow.
I emerged a few minutes later, toilet paper bits covering two small wounds I had opened in the blood-ritual of my first shave.
“You tried to shave?” my grandmother asked as I presented myself to her, dressed in my best sweater and my winter coat.
“Yes, ‘Maw,” I shyly admitted. A rare look of love and wisdom came into her eyes. I felt closer to her than I had since sitting on her bed as a small child, discussing “the poor Chinese” and other world problems.
“You’re going to see Leah?” she asked. She still looked happy for me, but I felt embarrassed, and wondered if it had been wise to have told my parents where I was going.
Once out the door in the cold, purple-sky winter night, though, I was leaving all that had happened in my life so far back in the mythic, golden-lighted house behind me. Every room in that house bore the ghosts of my actions, words and thoughts. I’d been just five when we’d moved there.
In front of me, once I left the lighted sphere of the corner streetlight, there were only the purple sky, the black winter shadows of trees, some light snow dusting the ground, and the silent hulks of homes and dark cars. Pulling up the hood of my parka, I braved that ribbon of road—the road, perhaps, beyond boyhood.
My thoughts, accompanying me, whirled like the snow—thoughts of anticipation, still alloyed with a bit of anxiety. The unknown stretched ahead like the dark night I was cutting through with every step.
I crossed Big Bend, not going to Williams’ Drugstore this time. No, I was going past everywhere I’d gone before. Leaving behind the lions atop the stone pillars that guarded the entrance to Ames Place, I quickly covered the several blocks of that neighbourhood. A grassy back path led me into Parkview Place, with its carriage houses and the park in the median of its gated, private streets.
Across the park I could see Leah’s house, bright porch beacon illumining white brick, bright red shutters and door. Only one home, amid the row of stately, sleeping structures, fit Leah’s description. Could the light be burning for me and for me alone, I wondered with a touch of pride?
I rang the bell. A moment later, I heard sounds behind the oaken door and pulled on the handle of the glass storm door. After a moment of typical door-opening fumbling and air pressure resistance, Leah stood before me smiling, wearing a white sweatshirt and a dark, plaid skirt.
I stepped up the stone step from the porch to the living room, wondering what to say first. As I walked into the room, a great cry of many voices suddenly broke the silence of the room, pouring into my ears, vibrating my whole body. A hundred people seemed to leap out of woodwork, jump from behind chairs, fly from landings and chandeliers and kitchen.
“Surprise!” they all shouted. “Surprise!“
Faces of everyone I knew seemed to be approaching me from all directions—my friends from my club and their girlfriends, my friends from journalism class, my friends from the football team. How had Leah found out my birthday was next week? No one had ever given me a surprise party before! It was like being welcomed in heaven!
People stood around me, talking and laughing. After some time, greetings began to simmer down. The crowd slowly melted away. Music came on. People went back to their conversations, their eating. Couples on the couches began making out.
Finally, Leah alone stood beside me. She took my hand and led me over to a small sofa in front of the fireplace. She gave me a little push in the belly so that I’d sit down. Then, joining me on the sofa, she proceeded to give me a pert little kiss on my left cheek, and another one on my right.
Leah straightened up and sat beside me, smiling. I took her strongly in my arms and pressed my lips, eyes closed, fully and deeply into hers, into the lips and soul of this dear girl who had led me single-handedly to myself.