Will You Be Mine?

by Arlene Mandell

UtS 14 essay photo Mandell

I read the first line: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Forty-two students stared, some at me, some out the window. After a desultory discussion I tried again: “How do I love thee?” No response except, “Professor Mandell, that sounds like a Hallmark card.”
So much for Shakespeare and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I was having a hard time reaching my working class students in William Paterson College’s cinder block classroom. Many were from Newark and Paterson, NJ. “Introduction to Literature” was a required course. Some read the assignment; others didn’t bother. The concept of exalted love didn’t interest them and didn’t jibe with their own hands-on experience. In desperation I assigned one of my own poems which had just been published online:
Creamsicle Lover
Standing in front
of the frozen food case
I see Creamsicles
and remember
the way you’d suck
the breath out of my body
with your wet kisses
and remember the first time
outside the candy store
you in tight jeans
and a T-shirt rolled
above bulging biceps
and me in white shorts
legs already suntanned in May
licking my Creamsicle hard
to keep the sweet syrup
from running down my arm,
poking my tongue
in its creamy center
and you with a portable radio
on your shoulder
harmonizing with the Platters
Earth Angel, Earth Angel,
will you be mi-ine”
your hot eyes
and those black eyelashes
brushing your olive cheeks
while you slid
down my body
and me an innocent 12-year-old
tossing my ponytail
sauntering down Hemlock Street
hoping you’d follow.
I brought in an old-fashioned LP of “Earth Angel” and read the piece aloud. Angela stopped eating Fritos. Jose stopped writing on his desk. My students stared and I felt my face getting hot. Was it possible that the middle-aged lady standing in front of them had sexual feelings and acted on them at twelve? I had really been thirteen but twelve sounded more provocative. Call it poetic license.
They were stunned when they learned he was seventeen. “What did your parents say?”
His parents and mine were good friends and I guess they trusted us.
The class laughed and I had to laugh with them. Actually we never got beyond heavy petting, but I let them assume whatever they liked.
Was he black?” Yolanda asked. The class held their breath.
Show me where in the poem you see that,” I countered.
Olive cheeks,” Yolanda said.
He was Jewish, like me.”
Latisha wanted to know whatever happened to him. “That was a long time ago,” I said. “I doubt that I could find him.”
I bet you can, Professor Mandell. I know you can.”
I had no intention of trying. Nearly forty years had passed since we locked eyes in that Brooklyn candy store. But for three weeks Latisha would start each class by asking, “Did you find him yet?”
I had more important things to do, but one afternoon I went to the Internet’s white pages. Anyone living in Brooklyn in the 1950s would most likely be in Long Island, New Jersey, or southern Florida, I reasoned.
I tried Long Island first, and there he was! Less than five minutes’ effort to find the first love of my life. From the listing I could tell he was married and was a house painter.
I printed out the page with his address and phone number and hid it under a pile of papers. After a week of sneaking peeks at the phone number, I finally called: “Hi, is this the Barry who lived on Hemlock Street?”
A warm deep voice with the trace of a Southern accent (he had lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee as a child) said a cautious yes.
“I think you were my boyfriend.”
Silence on the other end. In the background I could hear a shrill woman’s voice with a Long Island accent.
“Arlene?”
“Yes.” He remembered!
“How’d you find me?”
“On the Internet. I wrote a poem about you and thought you might like a copy.”
Then his reserve broke down. He must have shooed his wife away. We talked for half an hour. My mother had told me both of his parents had died. He didn’t know my father had. I knew his first wife had died of a brain tumor and that he had a little girl. And I remembered the sharp jab of jealousy years earlier when he showed his new girlfriend’s picture. Rosalyn of the bountiful breasts and waist so small he could encircle it with his hands.
We talked about our first and second marriages. I told him my first husband was also named Barry, and he laughed his deep infectious laugh while I pictured him in his thirties, a passionate man no longer having to suppress his desires. I wondered what he was imagining about me. He wasn’t surprised I was a college professor.
“It’s blonde, but short. Do you still have black curly hair?”
“It’s thinner and mostly gray.”
Then we started talking about our grandchildren. I had one. He had three. As we exchanged anecdotes, my image of a virile man with sweet, coaxing ways faded, replaced by a gray-haired grandfather with a beer belly and a shrill wife who was now back in the room demanding, “What does she want?”
“I’ll send you a copy of the poem,” I said. I didn’t expect a reply and never got one.
Fortunately Latasha stopped asking about my Creamsicle Lover. I think my class might be disappointed with the conversation. They might not get it. They might not understand that he will always be mine.