Learning to Lose (excerpt from Brooklyn Reveries) by Ruth Q. Leibowitz

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70s car in front of bungalow cottage

At Hanna’s Bungalow Colony I swam every day and took walks with Penelope. A genius among guinea pigs, Penelope trotted by my side across the grass to a spot with a good view of the lake. I wrote in my journal or daydreamed while Penelope munched on grass. The thick white fur of her rump and the coffee brown fur of her head shone. Her ears glowed pinkish-brown in the sunlight with tiny branches of veins.

At first, Penelope was my only friend at Hanna’s, but soon I met other children. We did what children did then at summer resort colonies for the urban middle class: hikes, volleyball, campfire singalongs, lolling on the raft until we were baked, then diving into cool water.

I was happily submerged in that water when I first met Eddie West. “Hi,” he said, rising up from a shallow dive, flicking water from his dark hair. “I don’t remember you; you must be new here.”

The first thing I noticed were the tiny droplets of water that shone on his eyelashes. Then I took in his tall body, strong and sleek; the constellations of pimples on his long, angular face: summer-pink skin, freckled and glimmering. His brown eyes had flecks of hazel-gold. But mostly and always I would remember those beautiful, thick lashes, sparkling with liquid stars.

I wore a plaid, two-piece bathing suit that day. I remember this detail because it was the only bathing suit I owned the summer my body began its awkward, unwanted transformation.

Until then I had never thought of my body as being of interest to anyone except me. A prepubescent girl whose parents, Ida and Leon, were not alarmed when she ran around firing ray gun bursts at alien creatures, and only forced her to wear dresses at weddings, funerals, and bar mitzvahs, could still own her own body, not caring what anyone else thought.

That summer two hard buds had sprouted up on my chest, and between my legs a little beard of thick dark fuzz had grown. I feared the bathing suit would not conceal these changes.

Luckily, when Eddie introduced himself with a smile as gentle and warm as the lake’s surface, all the body parts of concern were completely submerged. I don’t remember much about that first conversation except how it ended — with a plan to play our first game of ping-pong in the rec room the following afternoon.

I excelled at ping-pong. I was a natural, with good eye-hand coordination and a competitive spirit. Plus, the ambidextrousness that served me well on Brooklyn paddle ball courts foiled indoor opponents too. Hit that little white ball to whichever side you wished – I’d simply switch that trusty paddle to the hand on that side and connect. Less work for me, more for you. And I loved the rhythmic sounds — the higher ping of the paddle-to-ball connection followed by the pong on the tabletop.

A good volley could mesmerize me. I never liked those “killer shots” that hit the table low, hard, and fast. Those shots could win you the game, but they destroyed the rhythm.

Eddie and I played scores of ping-pong games through the hot summer afternoons. He was good but I was better, and I almost always won.

Our games were so spirited and frequent, they became a Colony-wide sports attraction. Other kids lingered in the doorway or sat on the benches around the table drinking bottles of Coke or licking Popsicles. They were a good natured bunch who tended to cheer whoever was losing, so most often it was cries of “Go Eddie! Hit it, Eddie!” That, along with songs of the Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, and the Rolling Stones formed the acoustic backdrop of our games.

One day as I stepped out of the rec room into sunlight, a tall, dark-haired girl named Mandy asked to speak with me in private. She was one of a clique of slightly older girls. I’d seen and heard them at times giggling in high voices as they flirted with Eddie and a couple of other cute boys.

Mandy was 15 or 16. She was svelte and sophisticated, with straight shiny hair in a fashionable bob (mine was curly and mop-like) and lipstick the same bright color as her fingernail polish. She bent down towards me and half-whispered in a friendly, conspiratorial tone, “You obviously are unaware of this, but you really should let him win more often.”

I asked her to explain. “Girls should let the boy win. Otherwise, it’s embarrassing for the boy, because they’re supposed to be better.”

“Eddie doesn’t seem to mind.” I felt the muscles of my face and fists beginning to clench, my heart pump in preparation for a clash.

“He wouldn’t necessarily say anything,” she said, “But that doesn’t mean he likes it.”

“But I’m better,” I said, “Why shouldn’t I win?” She rolled her eyeballs, shook her head, walked off to join her flock. They laughed, and my confidence melted.

Had I made a big mistake all along? Through his easygoing friendliness, was Eddie secretly seething with rage or quivering with insecurity? Then why would he continue to play? Did he like me so much that for me he was willing to risk embarrassment and ridicule? Had he confided in any of those girls, and not me?

My face was hot as I searched within for answers. What I came up with offered some solace: Maybe, beneath his bashful seeming acceptance, Eddie didn’t like losing at ping-pong. But this had not made him less interested in our kisses.

I don’t know how many times Eddie and I kissed during those three weeks far from Brooklyn. I remember one soft kiss in particular. It happened in the middle of the afternoon, and unlike previous kisses received and offered in cool forest shadows, we made no attempt to hide it. We were sitting together on the hood of a Chevy parked in the shade of an oak, and my body had come alive with a delightful longing. I didn’t know what it was, but I wanted more.

Eddie and I never joined together in anything but a kiss and some gentle strokes of hair, neck, and shoulders. He never touched my little buds (although they cried out in an unknown language to be touched), or brought his hand anywhere near my moist little crotch (which radiated with a strange warmth with Eddie very near).

For Eddie was a gentleman. He opened doors for me, always asked what I wanted to do when we were together, and — the tall girl’s whispers notwithstanding — lost game after game of ping-pong with complete grace.

Eddie was not a summer visitor like me. He lived about a half mile down the road with his family and worked as the bungalow colony’s handyman. I didn’t know much more than that about him, because our relationship was not one of words but doing: swimming, hiking, playing, kissing. Perhaps we spoke a great deal but I simply don’t remember. In my solar system I was the planet and he was the moon. Perhaps he was not even a very interesting moon — just the one who by chance got cast in the role of “first boyfriend.”

After we’d known each other almost two weeks, Eddie asked if I would like to visit his home and listen to some of his records. I informed my parents I was going to visit him the following day.

“Certainly not!” Ida bellowed. “You tell him to visit you here! You tell him he has to see you here. I don’t want you going off alone with him. How do you know what he wants?”

Leon strove for greater rationality. “Now Ida,” he said in the low voice designed to fool people into thinking he was a reasonable man, “He seems like a perfectly fine boy, we just don’t know him well enough.”

“He’s four years older than she is! His parents won’t be home. What else do we need to know about him? You want them to be alone together?”

Alone together, yes, that was the idea. But I said, “What makes you think we’ll be alone?”

This stopped Ida in her tracks for a moment. “His parents will be there?” she asked, weakly.

“I don’t know, and I don’t care.” Big mistake. If I had simply lied it would have been easier. But I hadn’t thought I needed to lie. It was a simple matter of visiting a sweet teenage boy.

As I stood in the doorway, I tried to understand this unexpected twist in my story. Ida predictably stood in the way of most experiences I longed to have, but her reaction to this one was particularly vehement. What exactly was she thinking about gentle Eddie, whom I’d never feared for a second? He was much larger and stronger than I, knew the area well. He could long ago have carried me into the woods and murdered me, then hidden my body where my corpse would never be found. Besides, my intuitions about who to trust were pretty good. After all, I had not chosen my family.

“His parents probably work during the day.” Ida had regained her foothold. “You’re not going.”

“I’m just going to listen to some of Eddie’s records,” I insisted. He has the Sgt. Pepper’s album! And all the older ones too!”

“No! You’re not going alone with him to his house!” Ida, stamped her foot. Her red lips hovering inches from my face.

“I’m going. You’ll have to tie me to a chair.”

“Label,” Ida pleaded, using my father’s Yiddish name, which means “little lion.” “Label, don’t let her go. You can’t let her go.”

“I’m gonna go whether you like it or not. What do you think he’s gonna do? Chop me up into bite-sized pieces and serve me for dinner?”

“That’s NOT funny,” Ida cried. “This is not funny at all. Label! Tell her!”

My big brother, the young Einstein, now appeared as if on cue. His eyes widened with curiosity about the cause and context of this most recent battle in a war that had started several years ago and was destined to never end, even after several of the opposing forces had become ghosts.

Leon appeared thoughtful. The gifted mediator would find a compromise. In fact, the vehicle for this compromise had just entered the battlefield. “I have an idea,” he began, and in a rare moment my brother and I sighed together.

The deal was this: I could go to Eddie’s house, but my brother would go along. The young Einstein did not like this. He did not want to babysit, and he hated the music of popular culture. He preferred listening over and over to Bach’s “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desire” and Gounod’s “Faust.”

His other passion was Balkan music. At our rustic hideaway he had found a girl named Carrie with large moist eyes and hairy arms who shared his love of Bulgarian folk dancing. They had rigged up a record player in one of the picnic areas, where they practiced the footwork for favorites like “Korovo rachenitsa.” While the choral splendor of women’s voices and the notes of flutes and bagpipes reached from the mountains and villages of Bulgaria to the hills of Pennsylvania, he and Carrie found bliss in their energetic footwork.

My brother had no romantic interest in Carrie, since she was merely pretty and did not have the perfect proportions of a ballet dancer. But he would rather spend an afternoon yipping in folk dance delight with her than protect his little sister from improbable harm while listening to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

The verbal part of the battle was over, but in my internal book of books another check mark was placed in the “they are stupid and unreasonable” column. That night before I fell asleep I held Penelope close and kissed the top of her head. Then, as she sat next to me in bed nibbling on lettuce and carrots, I stroked her behind the ears and told her how beautiful she was, how lucky I was that she was part of my family. I shared some of my dreams with her. Though I no longer remember the details of those dreams, their silky, bittersweet qualities linger.

Penelope was a comfort. She spoke occasionally in the quick trilling-rumbling sounds guinea pigs make when they are content: a rodent version of the purr. After she deposited several small dark pellets next to my pillow it was time to put her into her own little house, an enclosure made out of a large dresser drawer with chicken wire placed around the top. There was a little box inside where she could hide when she wanted to be left alone.

Penelope looked up at me as I wished her a good night and stroked the top of her head. Then she ducked into her little shelter, where she had a soft pile of shredded newspaper. I returned to my own bed to ponder the events of the day and my parents’ reaction to my intended visit.

The next day I tried to dissuade my brother from honoring his pact with my parents. Don’t, I pleaded, and say you did. But he too bore the curse of honesty. And when he insisted on accompanying me, I hated the meek child in me who was a little bit glad that he had.

Eddie and I set off on the path to his house, our babysitter with the gargantuan IQ tagging along. We spoke even less than usual. I had explained to Eddie that my brother wanted to come along to hear his records, but in the universal language of words never spoken, Eddie understood.

My brother had never deigned to speak with Eddie. They were different kinds of young men. One fixed plumbing and lawnmowers and listened to hit parades on AM radio. The other studied the neuronal synapses of the sea slug Aplysia and played Chopin’s Preludes by ear. We walked to Eddie West’s house in silence.

As we ventured together down the dirt and gravel pathway, I began to see a boy like Eddie through the lens of my brother’s world. Eddie was so ordinary, so unintelligent. Where was his spark? What would he ever discover that would benefit the world? What were his dreams? He had never shared them. Perhaps he did not even have any. How could I have enjoyed our kisses? Why had it never bothered me that he had so many zits?

At Eddie’s house, we sat in the living room while he played us some of his favorite records. My brother asked questions about Eddie’s parents, his upbringing, and what he knew about the Beatles, and then politely nodded at Eddie’s answers. I remained silent as the boys played out their charade.

Eddie and I never mentioned that visit afterward. We went on as if nothing had happened, but something joyful that had lived before had been deflated. He was at our bungalow one day and picked up Penelope. He didn’t support her body properly with his hands, and she squirmed and squealed with discomfort.

“You’re not holding her right!” I shouted, and snatched her away from him, shielding her body with mine. How could I be spending my time with someone who didn’t know how to make a small animal feel safe? I glared at the boy who for a moment had become the enemy. In his warm eyes flecked with hazel, I recognized confusion and hurt and didn’t know what to do about it. I was glad the summer was almost over.

I wondered, too, if the tall girl had not been right. I felt confused rather than jubilant about my ping-pong victories. Perhaps I shouldn’t win so often after all. Did my victories cause Eddie pain? Was winning after all the road to losing?

I looked at the older girls with envy. I could never be so pretty, know how to flirt, and use makeup as they did. And I could not pretend to lose. I would rather give up the game. Eddie and I continued to play, but the ping and pong of the little ball did not sound as much like music, and it seemed as if uneven thuds had entered into the equation of perfect rhythm.

A couple of days before my family returned to the city, Eddie and I sat together on the back stairs of the rec hall. “What will you do after the summer?” I asked. He had often asked about me, but it may have been the first time I had inquired about his plans for the future, what he really wanted.

“I want to go to Vietnam,” he said. “I hope they will take me.”

“Aren’t you still too young?”

“I’m almost 17. I know some guys my age who figured out how to go.”

I was stunned. The Vietnam War had been raging, but we had never spoken of it — or anything that occurred in the world beyond the Pennsylvania countryside.

Here rose another wall. I had been transported to numerous antiwar demonstrations. There had been the long car rides to D.C. for marches on Capitol Hill, and the local demonstrations. Once, in Central Park, Ida and I had yelled barbs back and forth until someone behind us said, “Ladies, this is a peace march.”

Earlier that year the young Einstein had been hit over the head by a police officer’s club when he and fellow students took over the administration building and shut down Columbia University’s campus to protest the war. Leon and Ida, of course, had doted on their beloved son and his poor, stitched head with great concern, though the only negative results I could see were an extremely short-term decrease in IQ from 160 to 157, and his own bitter disappointment to be snatched from campus before the takeover had ended.

And here was Eddie West, wanting to go to war. For the boy sitting beside me I experienced some stirring tendril of feeling, if not love then something like it, for the sweetness of his simplicity and his beliefs. Belief in his country, fairness at ping-pong, embarrassment at awkwardly holding a small animal he had never intended to hurt, the perfect imperfection of his acne, the stars that had once shimmered in his eyelashes.

I asked other things: what interested him in school, what he wanted to be when he grew up, if he would work again at Hanna’s the following summer if he did not get his wish to enlist. Eddie wanted to join the U.S. Air Force because of his love for airplanes and other machinery, and because his father had been a pilot in the Second World War. “It wasn’t even the Air Force back then,” he told me. “It was kind of an extension of the Army.”

Eddie studied mechanics at a vocational school. He loved figuring out how machines worked, how to improve them, even design them. He liked building and fixing things with his hands. “It’s hard to explain,” he said. “But sometimes I can put my hands on something that is broken, and I know just what to do, even if I’ve never seen anything like it before. I hope that doesn’t sound too strange.”

“I make airplane models,” he said, “I make them as close to the real thing as I can. I’m part of a club and have won some awards.” His models were displayed in a special workshop room at home that he shared with his father. “I would have shown you, but I didn’t think you and your brother would want to see them.”

We both looked down. Then I pointed to his silver bracelet and asked him what its meaning was to him. “Oh,” he said. “It’s just an ID bracelet.” Then, “Would you like it? I can give it to you,” he asked, with some hesitation.

Giving a girl your ID bracelet – that’s what a boy did when you were “going steady” with him to show the world that you were a couple. But for us, it was the breaking apart of something, not its formation. I knew enough about the polite, gentlemanly Eddie to guess at his puzzlement. He thought he ought to give it to me, now that I knew what it was, because maybe he would hurt my feelings if he didn’t offer.

But I didn’t occupy that important place in his heart, not really. I was not, after all, the planet and he, the moon. He was his own planet many lightyears from mine. “It’s very nice,” I told him, “But it’s yours. You keep it.”

Eddie didn’t argue. We said goodbye with a heavy, quiet gentleness and without a kiss, and didn’t see each other again before my family packed up and returned home.

I was never quite sure what Eddie West saw in me, why he chose me when, as one of the few boys at Hanna’s Bungalow Colony, and a cute one at that, he could have had his pick of any in a bevy of laughing, graceful girls. I was not the only one with buds, and mine were not the largest. And I had terrible social skills, for even after fair warning I had continued to hit those ping pong balls with the deadly force and accuracy of what a later boyfriend labeled “a true Brooklyn Babe.”

Could I with my unpretty, tomboyish ways and my love for an unusual rodent have been, perhaps, less threatening than the premeditated femininity of the older girls? Or was there some strong, real part of me who loved to swim and to win and who had not yet lost her embodiment to the image in the mirror who caught the heart of that skinny, serious teenager?

As curious as I am to know the answer, I cannot, half a century later, do an internet search for Eddie West and contact him. Eddie and I wrote one letter each, then no more. The next summer my family did not return to Pennsylvania, and in the autumn that followed Eddie’s remains were shipped home to his parents from Vietnam. The owners of Hanna’s Bungalow Colony told my parents, and they told me.

I didn’t cry for Eddie then, because I didn’t yet comprehend death or any permanent absence. I had never known the living sphere that was his, its beliefs, yearnings, values, or courage — so there was no pathway to mourn its loss. I hadn’t yet heard the stories of sacrifice, confusion, love, and destruction that would populate my inner landscape many years later as a psychologist in the Veterans Administration system.

The war that for many has still not ended, continued. Life in Brooklyn stayed pretty much the same.

Meet the Contributor

Ruth q Leibowitz

Ruth Q. Leibowitz was born and bred in Brooklyn, New York, and lives in Portland, Oregon, with a beloved elderly cat. She writes poetry, short stories, flash fiction, and memoir, and has been published in Five on the Fifth, Soul-lit, Calyx and Coal City Review. She intermittently facilitates writing groups in the Amherst Writers and Artists tradition. She is passionate about words, trees, rivers, creatures, and kindness.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/moominsean

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