My mom taught me about love. She taught me about generosity. She taught me to respect my elders, my teachers, my friends and those less fortunate. She taught me to treat people the way that I would want to be treated, and to never bully or tease. She taught me to walk, to put sponge rollers in my hair and how to shine my patent leather shoes with Vaseline for church on Sundays.
But the one thing my mom never taught me about was boys. I don’t know why, but I never learned the boy basics. It was Debbie Brewington who gave me “the sex talk,” behind the garage in her backyard when I was seven. My mom never once mentioned it to me. I learned about my period in hygiene class. Hygiene class. Do schools even have hygiene class anymore? Had my mom just once sat me down and said, “Lisa, if you want a boy, sit back and let him come to you,” my life would have been totally different. I would have married Billy Pepper and had 3 kids by the time I was 22.
Ahhhh…Billy Pepper. From an early age, I was a boy chaser. Poor Billy Pepper was my first victim circa grade 4. He had red, curly hair and a mole on his cheek. I thought he was the cutest thing I had ever laid my eyes on. He was a tap dancer (that should have been my first clue). I did everything in my power to get Billy Pepper’s attention. I’d sit next to him, draw pictures of him in art class, gaze at him longingly from across the crowded classroom, let him hit me with the ball in gym class during dodge ball. He never once looked my way. But that didn’t stop me. I had zero concept of “hard to get.” My motto was “if at first I don’t succeed, mow him over with a tractor.”
We would have square dancing on Friday in gym class. One week – rather than have our teacher pair us up – the teacher let girls pick boys. Oh man, this was my chance! I pushed my way to the front of the line so that no one else would get their hands on my hot little Ginger before I could. When Mrs. Sybeck called my name, I could hear the angels sing. In slow motion, I walked toward Billy Pepper, reached out my hand as we were formally taught to do when offering a dance to someone in square dancing. Billy looked at my hand, turned on his toes, and do-si-do’d right out of there. In front of the whole class, I was rejected by Billy Pepper. It was the first of many humiliations I’d receive in my lifetime at the hands of a boy. Unfortunately, not the last from Billy.
Yes, I went back for more. (See: “If at first I don’t succeed…” above).
It was the end of the year in fourth grade. Autograph books were popular at the time. The little rectangular books with their pages folded into triangular origami shapes were our Twitter, our Facebook and our Instagram rolled into one. I handed my book to Billy Pepper and asked him to sign it. He asked if he could bring it home and give it back to me the next day. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!? You mean, my autograph book would travel back to BILLY PEPPER’S HOUSE with him tonight? Sit on his dining room table? Maybe be opened on the floor in front of his TV? Perhaps he’d take it to…I can’t even go there…BED with him and tuck it under his pillow as he fell asleep? Oh this was just too much for me to handle. “Of course!” I said. “Just bring it back to school tomorrow.” I skipped away with love in my eyes and hearts rolling down my sleeves.
I could barely sleep that night. Sugar plum, unicorned, white and pink glitter dreams filled my head. I laid there on my back, staring at my Bobby Sherman posters on the wall, certain that Billy Pepper was laying on his back thinking of me and thinking about the message of love he was going to pen to me. Perhaps he’d write my name, “Lisa” with a heart above the i. Or he’d put the interlocking TLA at the bottom of the page for “True Love Always.” Or he’d put his school picture inside the book, with a secret message written to me on the back. The anticipation was so sweet. I never wanted the wondering to end.
The following day, we were sitting in the auditorium. Billy Pepper was in the row behind me. He tapped me on the shoulder and passed my autograph book to me. I didn’t want to read it in front of him so I tucked it in my school bag and brought it home to read that night. After dinner that evening, I prepared for the unveiling ceremony by going into my bedroom, closing the door, putting on some music – The Partridge Family, of course – sitting on my bed and pulling the autograph book out of my school bag.
“I think I love you, so what am I so afraid of? I’m afraid that I’m not sure of a love there is no cure for…” David Cassidy crooned as I held my future in my hands. I opened the autograph book to the last folded page, flipped the fold back to reveal Billy’s handwriting. The first thing I saw was a little stick figure of a guy smoking a cigarette. Okay. That’s cute…I guess. Then I read the message. “To a stupid kid with no sense. Ha ha ha. Billy Pepper”.
Now I know why they call it a Crush. That’s exactly what it did to me. And it wasn’t until 40 years later – when I saw his name listed as a member of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles – that I finally got over it.
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