Being raised in a home that was influenced by my Greek lineage, it comes as no surprise that I had more than a passing awareness of the goddess of Love, Aphrodite. So much so that not a Valentine’s Day passes that I don’t think back on some of the most important women in my life. I’m not referring to the obvious biggies here, like my lovely wife, my dear Mom, or every pretty girl who has stood in front of me while standing in line at the bank–I am referring to the I women from whom I’ve learned some of love’s greatest lessons.
My first watershed experience came in the third grade; I had a friend whose stunning seventeen year-old sister Madge had eyes that were so green that they seemed more dangerous to me than the murky waters of our favorite swimming hole. Whenever she walked into the room, I diverted my eyes from hers because I could not bear to dive headlong into them. Thankfully, Madge moved out after she graduated high school and I didn’t have to address my inability to look beauty square in the eye for years to come.
My next foray was much more direct, in an indirect sort of way. It happened when I was introduced to the blissful act of holding hands. Forget that I was in the fourth grade and the only reason Jean Anne held my hand was because we were on a field trip to Brookfield Zoo and we were using the buddy system to make sure no one got lost. There was something about the way she offered her hand to me, and how it relaxed into mine when I took it firmly in my own that profoundly moved me. I was so deeply touched that I totally ignored the fact that she had a small wart on the inside of her index finger, indicating to me that she had direct contact with a pollywog at least, and quite possibly a frog, at worst. But love is blind, and I clutched her hand close that day, pollywogs be damned.
The next day, however, when I tried to hold her hand again, she recoiled. She said that the field trip was just a field trip and we were just buddies. For the rest of the year, Jean Anne avoided me when it came to buddy-assignments. Crushed, I moved on.
By the time fifth grade came I had grown surer of myself, mainly because I had been taking acrobatics from an elderly band of steel who went by the name of Mr. Ernie. He prodded me to the point where I could do a handspring, which was the equivalent of flying to me. Brimming with my accomplishment, I decided to pitch a little woo at a classmate named Susan. She was spirited and reminded me of a colt.
So one day when my feelings reached critical mass, I walked over to her house and on the sidewalk out front, I began doing acrobatics for her. I started with a few cartwheels just to get her to come to the window. When I saw someone stir through the glass, I upped the stakes and did a backbend, traversing the length of her front yard on my hands and feet, bent over backward from the waist.
Hearing the front door cued my grand finale—the handspring—which, up till this point, had only been performed indoors under Mr. Ernie’s iron gaze. As I looked up I saw the sun glint off of Susan’s front door as it swung open—she had come to profess her love for me! A love fueled by my desire to perform for her, to show her what love was capable of inspiring me to do! With great determination I marked my steps and began the sprint that would vault me into the air, spinning head over heels, (how’s that for symbolism?), landing at her dainty feet.
But just as I planted my hands, I saw something on the ground in front of me, and the sharpest of doubts pierced my subconscious. But I was airborne now and my body was all that I knew as my feet whipped over my head. The soles of my feet reached out for the ground, but only one found its mark—the other landed and slid out from under me, leaving me to fall like a clump of dirty laundry.
When I looked up, there was Susan’s mother with a very concerned look on her face. Susan was nowhere to be found. But there was someone I hadn’t reckoned with—Susan’s dog. Unbeknownst to me, I had chosen the dog’s “play area” in which to perform. And what I’d thought I’d seen as I started my handspring is what I’d landed in. I walked home, literally trying to scrape the experience off my shoes and clothes, to no avail.
Mortified by my ill-fated attempt, I never found out if Susan ever knew what I had done, much less what she’d thought of it. Crushed by my crush, I just moved on.
It was only recently when I was taking a mental inventory of what I knew about love that I realized that so much of what I needed to learn, I’d acquired by that time: green-eyed Madge taught me that to truly engage beauty, and thus love, you have to be strong enough to look it straight in the eye. But your eyes aren’t the operative organ—you have to use your heart. From Jean Anne you might think I learned to overlook external flaws, which I intuitively seemed to grasp. No, she taught me that sometimes a gesture is just that, regardless of how it makes you feel.
But Susan’s lesson is my favorite: that love is capable of launching you into the stratosphere, catapulting you to heights you never would have imagined in its absence. Just understand that in sending you heavenward, there is no guarantee your descent will be smooth. Hell, you could even land in…a state you never imagined. But, despite that, whenever love extends its hand to you, you’ll always clasp it tightly, warts and all. Which is ecstatically Greek to me…