Brand building through storytelling

My first love

It was a perfect morning for a walk in the woods with the boy I loved. No one could see us as we slipped under low-hanging branches, last summer’s leaves crunching under our feet. Robbie blazed the trail to his secret place, a fallen tree that would be our pirate ship like the one we’d just seen in Disney’s movie Peter Pan. Claiming he role of Captain Hook, he ordered me to walk the plank—and held my hand all the way. He knew I was afraid of stumbling.

We were five years old, the classic age for what’s belittlingly called “puppy love.” But there’s nothing trivial or cute about the tenderness of children’s first longings for each other or the anguish of their first heartbreaks.

Our kindergarten class was abuzz the day Robbie brought his new doll to school and announced that he had named her Rona. I remember the thrill of being chosen by a child who seemed to shimmer with specialness. The only little boy I knew who played with dolls, he would have looked cherubic if not for two things: the gravity in his big dark eyes and a withered leg (he’d had polio as a toddler). What I loved about Robbie was his sweet, open-hearted vulnerability.

In Grade 1 he dropped me to hang out with the boys. Now that I’ve raised a son, I know boys go through a stage when the ultimate insult is “You’re a girl.” At the time, though, losing Robbie cut deep. The boys liked to make fun of me for standing on the sidelines when other kids played sports (my clumsiness embarrassed me). Sometimes Robbie, who had once promised to marry me, would join in their taunts. But the truth is, neither one of us quite fitted in with our classmates. Although he tried to ignore his bad leg, Robbie couldn’t run as fast as other boys. Watching him fall behind, I felt compassion for the first time—not that I’d admit it to anyone.

For years I looked the other way whenever I saw Robbie, as if ignoring him could heal the pain of his rejecting me. I was relieved when his parents sent him to boarding school. Our paths didn’t cross again until the night of my high school graduation.

I felt pretty sorry for myself that night. My parents had taken my sister on vacation, missing my graduation speech, and I’d gone alone to the dance, convinced that everyone else had a date. In fact at least one other person had come alone—Robbie. While Smokey Robinson crooned, “I Second That Emotion,” he asked me to dance. We swayed together under gaudy paper lanterns as if we’d never been apart since kindergarten.

Robbie drove me home that night and we talked for hours in his car outside my parents’ empty house. We marveled at the wisdom we’d shown as five-year-olds, and regretted the fears that had kept us apart. After he finally drove away, I wondered why he hadn’t even kissed me. I was too shy to take the initiative, and he, it turned out, was most likely too ill. Soon after that night, he suffered a catastrophic breakdown, diagnosed as schizophrenia. I never saw him again.

I have a family and a career that I love. As far as I know, Robbie never married or held a job for long. Like Peter Pan, whose adventures once enthralled us in the Disney movie, he never really grew up. Yet we share an extraordinary bond: we recognized each other’s fragility and cherished each other for it. Replaying the scene outside my parents’ house—the two of us sharing our secrets in the car—I know something I didn’t know then. If Robbie had taken me in his arms and swept me up my parents’ stairs, as a bolder boy might have done, he would not have been the boy I’d loved for years. A boy who came to school with a doll named Rona.

First published in Chatelaine, September 1998. Copyright by Rogers Media Publishing.

Posted by Rona

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