Prologue: The Fragility of Memory
One of the things that bother me about the nature of memories is how fragile, how unreliable, and woefully imperfect they are.
Take, for example, my memories about an event that occurred when I was 20 years old – my last day as a high school student at South Miami High School in 1983.
For many years – starting as long ago as 1987, when I first started working on the story that evolved into Reunion – I thought my last day of regular attendance at South Miami had been Tuesday, June 14, 1983.
Don’t ask me why I misremembered the date, especially because there are inscriptions on my 1983 De Capello yearbook dated “Wednesday, June 15, 1983” – there’s one by Diana Lynn Jehl, my 11th grade English teacher, which bears the complete date, including the day of the week as well as the Month/Day/Year-formatted calendar date. All I know is that when I began writing a pivotal dream sequence in what became the core for Reunion for my creative writing course at Miami-Dade Community College, I was convinced that Tuesday, June 14, 1983 was the day in which I took my last final exams and walked out the doors of South Miami High as a student one last time.
Even worse, when I wrote that dream sequence – which was far different than the one I ended up updating, editing, and rewriting in 1998 – in the Winter Term of the 1986-1987 academic year, my high school graduation was only four years’ distant in the rearview mirror, so to speak. And yet, in that brief span of time, I’d convinced myself that there’d been a two-day gap between the last day of classes and my Graduation Day, which took place on June 17, 1983 – a Friday – at the same college campus that I’d start to attend a year and a half later.
What I’m saying is that memories are not like a document file on Word that you can click on the “Open File” button and voila! You get a total recall of an event – good or bad or meh – right down to the last detail of what you saw, heard, touched, smelled, thought, or felt emotionally. We sometimes think that there are memories that our subconscious minds store with such fidelity, but my experience tells me otherwise. Vivid, down-to-the-last-detail memories, even those of events you treasure because they were so important to you at the time, are the exception, not the rule.
I want you to keep this in mind when you read this, my long-promised and much-delayed final article about my first childhood girlfriend, Cheryl T, the “girl I left behind me” when I was transferred from Coral Park Elementary School to Tropical Elementary School 50 years ago this week.
Tempus Fugit: Farewell & Adieu, Cheryl T.
“…and when he thought about the way she laughed, as though she owned the air around her, his heart thundered inside his chest, a lonely rada.” ― Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
My first experience with what I thought was “true love” as a nine-going-on-10-year-old kid perceives such things was during my brief (late August to early November of 1972) stay at Coral Park Elementary School, which is the closest public school to our house at 1001 SW 102nd Avenue. Located only one mile away – a three-minute drive, or a somewhat risky 19-minute walk along SW 8th Street to SW 97th Avenue, the latter of which I was not yet allowed to attempt at the time – Coral Park Elementary School was supposed to be the first stepping stone on the Quest for a Diploma that would theoretically end for me in 1981, the earliest year that my third grade class could expect to graduate from Coral Park Senior High, “Home of the Rams.”
I don’t remember much about my short stay at Coral Park. I recall only that my classroom was numbered E-13; that I was in the third grade partly because of my age, and partly because I had been assessed as having third-grade level academic skills despite my still not being fluent in English; that my third-grade teacher was a pretty but (to me, anyway) intimidating brunette named Mrs. Turtetaub (I later found out her first name was Cynthia); that I felt awkward and even a bit paranoid about not being liked by many of my classmates; and that at the time, I was struggling academically, with math class and, of course, language arts.
“Homework, I have discovered, involves a sharp pencil and thick books and long sighs.” ― Katherine Applegate, The One and Only Ivan
Oh, and I remember that I hated homework. Not because I’d never done homework before; in Bogota, when I attended Colegio El Nogal, we had to do classwork and homework, and lots of the latter. I wasn’t fond of that, and I’m sure I struggled with math and the basic-level English language drills that I had to do at home before I was “free” to watch TV or play with my toys.
In Miami, it was the language barrier that made the homework experience 1000% more unpleasant and difficult. Under normal circumstances, for most kids, homework is a chore to be endured rather than an activity to relish. When you’re in a new-to-you country and you’re not yet able to read or write a language that is not the one you learned as a kid, homework, well, it sucks.
Most of all, though, my memories of Coral Park center on an auburn-haired girl that sat a few desks away from me in the middle row (third one from the teacher’s desk at the front of the classroom) that I knew only as “Cheryl T.”
In Classroom E-13 at Coral Park Elementary during the 1972-1973 school year – 10 years before my senior year at South Miami – there were two sets of students with the same first name: there were two boys named Alex; Alex R., (who was one of the few friends I made at the time because we could talk in Spanish during lunch) and me; and two Cheryls: Cheryl A. and “my” Cheryl T.
I still have, somewhere in storage, the “class photo” for Ms. Turtletaub’s class for the ’72-’73 school year, and if I had access to both it and a scanner, I’d scan it so I could show you what Cheryl T. looked like. Other than Ms. Turtletaub, the school principal, and me, Cheryl is the only person I can identify from that collection of thumbnails of our school pictures. Alas, I do not know where, exactly, some of my stuff is, and even if I did have access to it, I don’t have a scanner.
The closest lookalikes to Cheryl, at least the Cheryl I remember, are the late actor Suzanne Crough, who played Tracy Partridge on ABC-TV’s The Partridge Family, and actor Diane Lane – who is two years younger than Crough and Cheryl T – when she started acting at age 14. (In my mind’s eye, Lane in A Little Romance is how I imagine Cheryl would have looked as a young teen; how closely the two women resemble each other, of course, is anyone’s guess; I only saw Cheryl during my short stay at Coral Park in 1972, but not after that.)
“Love, like everything else in life, should be a discovery, an adventure, and like most adventures, you don’t know you’re having one until you’re right in the middle of it.” ― E.A. Bucchianeri, Brushstrokes of a Gadfly,
Even though at the age of nine I knew nothing about sex, I found girls, especially ones that had a certain look (long hair, fair skin, and pretty smiles) attractive. I tended to have a “thing” for either blondes or “gingers” – probably because my mom was a redhead, and more likely because American mass media tends to put blondes on a pedestal. Cheryl T. had long, auburn hair that fell past her shoulders, hazel eyes, and a sprinkling of freckles that complemented her fair skin.
As I remember her, Cheryl was pretty, but she was not one of those girls who had a “look but don’t touch” attitude. She was, like me, quiet and shy in class, but the few times that she and I exchanged glances during class – we obviously could not talk while Ms. Turtletaub was giving us her lessons – she’d either smile or give me a quick, subtle wave, then point at Ms. Turtletaub as if to say, “Pay attention, or you’ll get in trouble!”
“I think there is no difference between love and infatuation. If it works out, we call it love; if it doesn’t, we shrug our shoulders and say it was infatuation. It’s a hindsight word.” ― Deborah Meyler, The Bookstore
Fifty years on, I can’t remember when, exactly, I became infatuated with Cheryl T. I don’t recall ‘falling in love” (as I would have categorized the feelings I had at that age) from the moment I saw her on our first day of school in the “fall” of 1972. The only emotions I remember from that part of my Coral Park Elementary experience were nervousness about the language issues I had then, the last lingering bits of regret that I was not with the friends at Bogota’s Colegio El Nogal that I had left behind unexpectedly halfway through the 1971-1972 school year, and the happiness, short-lived as it was, about being reunited with my half-sister Victoria, who had been compelled to move to Miami by the rest of the family in Bogota around the same time that Mom bought the house on 102nd Avenue.
The best estimate of when I realized that I “liked” Cheryl T. (as kids used to say when they were attracted to each other) is late October or early November of 1972. All I know is one day Cheryl was just one of my classmates, albeit a cute one, and the next she was the only girl that I had eyes for.
I mean, as I remember it, my crush on Cheryl was like a bolt out of the blue. To this day I can’t remember the wherefores, rhymes, or reasons. I wasn’t “looking for a girlfriend” (as we understand the concept now) nor did one of my classmates do the “Well, who you like?” thing that older kids do in the last years of elementary school and the start of middle school.
The one truth, the one fact that I can tell you for sure, Dear Reader, is that sometime between October 31 (a Tuesday, and therefore a school day) and November 10, 1972 (a Friday), is when I realized that I “liked” Cheryl, and that I had to let her know ASAP.
The way I remember it, one day during lunch, I walked up to one of the few boys in my classroom who I could talk to and considered to be a friend. I can’t tell you with any certainty if it was the “other Alex” or if it was another boy. All I remember is that we had a conversation – in Spanish – that went something like this:
Me: Hi. How are you doing?
Coral Park Classmate: Hey, Alex! I’m okay. How are you?
Me: I’m fine. Listen, can I ask you something?
Coral Park Classmate: Sure! What’s up? It looks serious.
Me: Yeah, well…. You know that cute girl that sits like two desks away from me? Cheryl?
Coral Park Classmate: Yeah, kinda. She’s nice. Why? What’s up?
Me: (Hesitating a bit) I want to tell her that I like her, but you know, no hablo ingles muy bien yet, and I don’t know how to say anything like, “Hey, I think you’re pretty,” or “I love you.”
Coral Park Classmate: Oh, boy. That’s…heavy stuff. Love, huh?
Me: Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned anything….
Coral Park Classmate: (In a placating manner) No, no. It’s cool. I get it. She’s pretty. She’s nice. And (in a conspiratorial tone), I think she likes you.
Me: (Surprised) What? How do you know? Has she said anything?
Coral Park Classmate: Well, she keeps to herself, mostly, and doesn’t talk a lot except maybe to some of the other girls in class. But I have seen how she smiles at you in class. She doesn’t “just smile” at boys. She’s too shy for that.
Me: So, should I tell her? I mean, I’ve liked girls since, like, forever, but I’ve never told a girl in one of my classes that I think she’s pretty, much less, you know, that I love her.
Coral Park Classmate: Wow. Well, if you spoke English, you could just tell her at recess or when the school day ends, but…I guess you could write her a note.
Me: A note? But I don’t know what to say, much less how to say it in English.
Coral Park Classmate: Okay, Alex. I’ll help you out. When we get back to class, I’ll write something in English on a sheet of paper. Something like, “Cheryl, I think you’re cute. I love you!” I’ll give it to you after class; you know how strict Ms. Turtletaub is about us passing notes or talking in class when we’re not supposed to. Then, tonight, you copy that in your own handwriting – it has to be from you, and not from me, see – and then you can give it to her at lunch tomorrow or, you know, pass it in class when Ms. Turtletaub is not looking.
I can’t say, Dear Reader, that this is exactly how the conversation went down – see the prologue about the fragility and fallibility of human memory above – but that’s the essential context of the exchange between my friend and my nine-year-old self.
Did I take my classmate’s advice? Yes.
Did I follow my friend’s instructions about the note? Yes, yes, I did. I still remember that since writing notes in longhand was not my forte, I decided to keep it short and simply wrote, “Cheryl, I love you. (Signed) Alex D.”
A quick look at a calendar from November of 1972 and a deep introspective dive into what I do remember about this event tells me a few things:
- The earliest date that the conversation about the note could have taken place is Monday November 6, 1972, although I tend to lean toward Tuesday, November 7, mainly because the one thing that I am certain of is that my time at Coral Park, as well as my budding romance with Cheryl, ended when I left campus on Friday
- The most likely date on which I carried out Operation Love Sonnet (as I call it now, 50 years later), based on various details such as what was going on in class, the weather in early November of 1972, plus my gut instincts and the brevity of my “relationship” with Cheryl T. is Wednesday, November 8, simply because that day’s in-class activities (especially those related to the mock election – see footnote 2 below – held that day made it easy for kids to pass notes to each other surreptitiously
‘My Memories of Love Will Be of You,’ or: ‘Operation Love Sonnet’
“You remember your first love because they show you, prove to you, that you can love and be loved, that nothing in this world is deserved except for love, that love is both how you become a person and why.” ― John Green, Turtles All the Way Down
In my nearly 60 years on Earth, I have experienced various forms of infatuation, lust, and romantic love. Like millions of people who watch TV or movies, I’ve had fantasies of “being with” various female actors who were “sex symbols” or “hot” during the 1970s, ‘80s, 90s, and on up to the present day. I even had one “hookup” with someone I met online back when Yahoo! Messenger and Yahoo! Chat were the “in” thing and online dating sites had not yet come into their own.
In real life (IRL), I’ve also been in a few long-term relationships, some of which lasted four years or more but did not end well, at least from my perspective.
I have many memories from my IRL relationships and even the various (and ultimately unrequited) crushes that I had on women whom I went to high school or college with. And as with all human endeavors and relationships, the memories range from heavenly bliss – such as my first time kissing a girl on the lips (at age nine), my first “French kiss” (at age 19) and my first heavy petting session not that much later, and my first time having sex (which, fairly or not, occurred when I was already in my mid-30s and not, say, as a result of that petting session) – to the depths of despair, such as the two occasions when my partner left me for another guy.
“No one compares to you, but there’s no you, except in my dreams tonight.” ― Lana Del Rey
Of all my relationships, including the “successful ones” I had both as a kid and an adult, the one that my heart and mind eventually make their way back to is my first, all-too-brief one with the girl I knew only as Cheryl T.
Mainly because it was my first, even though I can honestly say that the most romantic that we could get was a single kiss on the cheek – she was the giver, I was the recipient – a day after we exchanged hurried, pass-this-down-to-X notes in Ms. Turtletaub’s third grade classroom at Coral Park Elementary School.
Part of why my relationship-related reveries seem to circle back to Cheryl T, Coral Park Elementary School, and my transfer to Tropical Elementary School is because this brief schoolyard romance that ended as quickly as it began was the first time I ever said – or wrote – “I love you” to a girl…and the response was not, “Alex, you’re a sweet guy, you’re cute, you’re funny…but I love you like a brother…not that way.”
Operation Love Sonnet
On or around late morning on the eighth of November in 1972, while we were discussing the Presidential election in Ms. Turtletaub’s class, I dug into the pockets of my blue windbreaker jacket and took out a carefully folded piece of notebook paper. As my Spanish-speaking classmate had told me, I’d written a concise message that I’d written the previous night before doing battle with my homework – Cheryl, I love you. (Signed) Alex – in my best handwriting. It wasn’t in cursive; I had not yet been taught that style of handwriting, and it sure as hell was not precise or flawless. It was, however, legible enough, and it made its point clearly and – I thought then – honestly.
As I mentioned earlier, while Ms. Turtletaub was not a Captain Queeg or Nurse Ratched-type of person, but she did have rules that governed our behavior while we pupils were in class and supposed to be paying attention to lessons or doing classwork at our desks. Talking in class without permission or note-passing were, naturally, verboten, and although corporal punishment was not an option, being sent to the principal’s office or having to take a note home to our parents if we broke a disciplinary rule certainly were on the table.
Still, if we were “very, very” careful and subtle, we students occasionally circumvented the rules and passed notes to each other in class.
The trick, of course, was having a friend or two in the same row of desks in which we sat, according to Ms. Turtletaub’s seating chart. I was lucky; the boy to my immediate right was bilingual and one of the few real buddies that I had in class. In the few months that I was at Coral Park, he was one of the few kids who “took me under his wing” and schooled me on how to survive and thrive in an English-speaking environment. He also had some inkling that I “liked” Cheryl, so when I handed him the folded note and said, sotto voce, “Pass this to Cheryl, please,” he nudged the girl who sat between Cheryl and him and, with subtle hand-signals so Ms. Turtletaub – who, as I recall, was writing “PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION RESULTS 1972!” on the blackboard and therefore had her back turned to us – would not discover what we were doing, deftly passed the note to his next-desk neighbor.
“99% of natural poets discovered their talents through love letters.” ― Michael Bassey Johnson
I couldn’t resist the urge to look over to my right and see what was going on with my love note for Cheryl T. I’d written “FOR CHERYL T” on the “outside” of the folded note so that it would not get “delivered” to the other Cheryl – who was also pretty but was a bit more standoffish and probably would not have welcomed my affections at the time – so the girl who sat next to Cheryl T. quietly nudged her on the shoulder and handed her my note.
If I had not been scared of getting caught by Ms. Turtletaub and kept gazing in Cheryl’s direction, I might have seen her immediate reaction. I sometimes dream as if I had seen it, imagining her look of curiosity at the folded piece of paper, then her fingers working quietly and efficiently to unfold it, and then an expression that mixed surprise, happiness, and affection appearing on her face.
“No love defines us as much
as the losses we have made in its name.”― Laura Chouette
Instead, even though I barely understood the lesson being taught – sometimes Ms. Turtletaub would pause in her lectures to allow my Spanish-speaking friends to give me a quick translation of what she was saying, but I was still “mostly clueless” and afraid to show it – I had my eyes on the blackboard, partly because I wanted to do well in school and learn, but mostly because I was afraid Ms. Turtletaub would see me looking at Cheryl while she read my note and quickly deduce what was going on. I wasn’t exactly the most well-behaved kid when I was in elementary school, but I also did not make it a habit of courting trouble or breaking rules.
It thus seemed like an eternity had passed since I had passed my note to Cheryl, and it felt even longer than that by my mind’s efforts to focus on both the Election Day lesson and the possibility of being laughed at or rejected by a girl in my first sally forth into the world of romance and love.
In truth, it must only have been a couple of minutes when, suddenly, I felt a nudge on my right arm from my next-desk neighbor and the sensation of someone pressing a folded piece of paper into my right hand.
Now, I’m left-handed, and I tended to have a lot of “oops” moments and drop things that were handed to me in my weak hand. That I did not reflects either deft sleight-of-hand on my classmate’s part or I was quite lucky that day. I did not have an “oops” moment and drop the folded piece of paper, nor did I take leave of my senses and excitedly unfold the note, which was addressed – in green Bic pen ink – “To Alex D.”
To Be Continued…..
 Of course, it’s possible that I worded it differently, a la “I love you, Cheryl!”
 Oddly enough, Monday, November 6 – the day before Election Day in the 1972 campaign – is one of the few days for which I still have one or two sharp memories. Ms. Turtletaub spoke to our class, in non-partisan style, about the elections, and at the end of her lecture, she asked the class to write, on a sheet of paper that had to be folded for secrecy and placed into a “ballot box,” the name of the candidate each student wanted to “vote” for. I, not knowing any better, wrote “NIXON” in capital letters, folded my paper per the teacher’s instructions, and stuffed it into the simulated ballot box. Just as in the real election, the votes would be counted (30 or so kids in E-13), and the results would be released on Wednesday, November 8. As I recall, Nixon won both in our classroom and in the real election for adult voters.
 My current celebrity crushes are, in case you’re wondering, Margot Robbie, Amy Adams, Jessica Chastain, and Maitland Ward. Crushes from my younger days include: Jennifer O’Neill, Sylvia Kristel, Cheryl Ladd, Kathleen Turner, and Kathy Shower – the last one being Playboy’s Miss May of 1985 and that year’s Playmate of the Year. Interestingly, Shower is the oldest woman who posed as a Playmate; she was 33 and a single mom of two when she appeared in Playboy.
 At age nine, I thought Cynthia Turtletaub was “mean,” but when I visited her at Coral Park Elementary in June of 1983 after I left South Miami High on my last day as a student and went to both my elementary schools to say “Thank you” to teachers that I knew were still teaching there, I realized she was a sweet and caring woman. I think she remembered me. She rose from behind her desk and gave me a hug when I shyly introduced myself – elementary schools were still in their last class period or about to let students out when a fellow SMH grad-to-be drove me on my nostalgic trip to both Tropical and Coral Park, and she was at her desk in the same classroom where I’d seen her last a decade earlier. My 20-year-old self was astonished not just at how kind she was, but also at how gorgeous she still was even though she must have been in her early 50s by then.
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