While puberty’s puppet shadow romantically fantasied during soapy showers, I remained boy shy, embarrassed of my background, full lips, big teeth, skinny body, and enlarged breasts. If a boy tried to talk, I assumed he wanted to mock me. My siblings already assured me I was ugly. I didn't need supplemental verification.
Attending Notre Dame ensured there weren’t boys to evade at school. Riding the bus meant I left too early and returned home too late for interaction with neighborhood boys. My good grades, ability to cook, sew, help run the house, these were the assurances I was better than others, if unattractive.
In the morning, Mom and I walked to a bus stop on Story Road, a couple of blocks from our house. We rode the bus together, her to work, and me to school. In the afternoon, if we met at the downtown bus stop, we rode home together.
On a cold, 1967 January afternoon, Mom and I walked home together from our Story Road bus stop. Next door to our house, I met my future husband. He was twenty-one, I, sixteen.
His family, in a step-down, had just moved in. They were white. He was washing his car on his driveway. As Mom and I passed, he looked up, a washrag in one hand, a hose gurgling water in the other and smiled openly. I assumed it was a smirk about us being Asians or my looks and pretended not to notice him. Mom smiled back.
The next afternoon, again blustery cold, I walked home alone, a hand-knitted sweater over my school uniform blouse. When I turned the street corner to our house, I saw him on his front porch. I changed my gaze to the discarded Christmas trees along the curb awaiting pick-up and increased my gait. I wanted to pass by unnoticed, my books and Pee Che folder held in front for defense.
He left his porch perch, boldly stepped on the sidewalk, blocked my path and asked, when I tried to go around him.
"What school do you go to where you need to ride the bus?"
Who does he think he is to speak to me without an introduction?
I hugged the books and Pee Che folder closer, looked down at my feet, then back up to face him.
He knows where I go to school by my uniform. He knows why I ride the bus. What makes him think he can block my path?
His hair’s almost blond, cut short, not a crew cut, just short with a little wave in front. He’s just short of 6 feet, not a lot taller than me. Crystal blue eyes, he’s got crystal blue eyes.
Glancing away I responded meekly.
Wishing I’d said.
"It's none of your business!"
"I go to San Jose State in the morning, it’s downtown, near Norte Dame, I'll give you a ride in my car tomorrow."
More affronts, asking me to drive with him and not asking my name, then admitting he knew about Norte Dame and assumes I’m stupid and don’t know about the college.
"No, I can't. I ride with my mother."
Relieved I had an excuse to get away.
"I'll take both of you".
"I know her answer, no!"
I walked past him without replying to his asking what my name was. In my room, I was pleased I’d, at last, summoned the courage to put him down. After setting my books on the dresser I wrote on my Pee Che folder, "Crystal Blue Eyes" then scribbled it out. I didn't tell Mom what happened.
After dinner, he showed up at our front porch and told a brother he needed to talk to Mom. When she came to the front door, he introduced himself.
"Hi, just moved next door and drive to San Jose State in the morning. You take the bus. Would you like a ride instead?"
"No, I leave early, go work, 7:15, go with daughter."
"That's when I leave, we can all go."
Mom thought about saving dime bus fares.
"What you charge?"
"Free, I just don't want to see you wasting time and money on the bus. It’s a free ride."
“I think about it. I ask husband."
She closed the door on him without saying more. He stood on the porch a moment then realized she wasn’t coming back and walked away. Her saying she was asking Dad was her excuse to get rid of him, her polite no. The next morning, however, his car was waiting in our driveway.
With no reason not to, we climbed in the back seat and exchanged names. I expected an agenda such as charging a dime or snide comments but he simply chatted about the cold weather and possible rain then dropped me off and said.
He sped off with a pop of the clutch to take Mom to work. Girls standing around by the curb asked who he was.
“He’s just a neighbor.”
The pattern was repeated but after a week, when I got out of school, he was waiting for me.
“Elizabeth, over here, I’m here to pick you up. Hop in. We’ll go pick your Mom up. Come on, I’m not going to bite you. I promise.”
I stood next to the passenger door as he coaxed me in through the open window, nervous to ride alone with him. I’d have to sit on the front seat. It’d look stupid to ride in the back as if he was my chauffeur. Disconcerted, hesitant, I got in and scrunched next to the door. Classmates looked amazed to see me get a ride, a ride with a young man with a 1957 hardtop Chevy.
Mom was walking toward our downtown bus stop when we caught up with her. She smiled seeing us, got in and forced me next to him. For the first time, I could smell him, a hair pomade scent with a hint of vanilla, possibly, greasy Dixie Peach.
The next morning, we sat in the front with Mom sitting next to him. I became relaxed on the afternoon trips and scooted next to him if we picked up Mom and enjoyed the envy of classmates.
At sixteen, I was old enough to get a driver's license. After being chauffeured awhile, he showed up at the house on a Saturday morning. When I opened the front door, he asked.
"You want a driver's license?"
He replied to my vigorous nodded response.
"I'll get a learner's permit application and test study booklet. When you pass the test, I'll teach you to drive."
Worried Mom would overhear and say no, I put a hush finger to my lips, smiled agreement, closed the door and told Mom he’d just came to say he’d drive us Monday even though it was his Spring Break. She had started to worry about his interest in me but counted the dimes saved.
With his Spring Break, the week before Easter and Norte Dame's the week after, I went to school on Monday while he didn’t. He drove with the excuse he needed to study at school. In the afternoon pickup, he handed me a learner's permit application and study booklet before we met Mom.
I hid them in my Pee Che folder and in the security of my room, completed the application and read the booklet. Tuesday, during school lunch break, I walked to the county courthouse and got a copy of my birth certificate from the county registrar. I learned my mother's maiden name; I was born at home and was relieved my father's name was on it.
My next-door driving instructor got an affidavit for my parent's signature to allow me to get a license as a minor. I shuffled it among school papers for their unquestioned signatures. Neither read what the school had them sign. With the study book memorized, application and parental consent completed, I subtly said while driving to school with Mom.
“I’ve studied, completed my homework and am prepared for my test.”
“Great, you’re ready to rock and roll.”
Mom assumed we co-conspirators were referring to a school exam. That afternoon, before we picked Mom up, he asked when I could take the test.
“On Good Friday, the nuns, troop us over to Saint Joseph's for the Stations of the Cross. I’ll sneak out of the group when we walk through civic center park and hide at the corner behind an aspen tree. Pick me up there at noon.”
As a condemned sinner, I no longer cared about church orthodoxy. If the priest knew my soul status on taking communion, I’d be excommunicated.
At noon Friday, the students were trooped the half-mile over to Saint Joseph’s, herded by vigilant nuns. As the group gaggled through the park, I drifted back and hid behind a tree, my school uniform an exclamation of my escapee status. His car drove to the curb, I scrambled in and escaped undetected. Free for three hours, we drove to the Department of Motor Vehicles where I answered simple questions and got my learner’s permit. Before we picked up Mom, I agreed to take my first driving lesson early the next morning.
I was up, out the door and at his house by 6:30 AM before anyone at home was awake. He sat in his car with the engine running awaiting me. I climbed in and, as usual, scrunched next to the passer door. He smiled.
“My little mouse, always ready to scurry away.”
At least I am not his duck or bean pole. Is he commenting on my Oriental nose? What’s this, I’m his?
He patted the seat area next to him. I scooted over, the biggest move in my life. Thereafter, I was his.
He drove to a secluded hill, faced the car downhill, parked, got out, came to the passenger side and eased me behind the steering wheel. Sitting close, he explained the ignition key, the parking brake, the floor brake, clutch and gas foot pedals, and shift lever leaving me totally confused.
With the gears in neutral, the parking brake on, he said.
“Use the ignitions key to start and turn off the engine. Turn the key right to turn off and left to turn on but before you turn it on, tap the gas pedal on the floor to goose some fuel into the carburetor.”
I turned the key to the right. The motor shut off. I tapped the gas pedal, turned the key left and restarted the engine. After I mastered this, he showed which was the clutch pedal, had me push it in with my right foot, took my hand and guided me through the “H” pattern of the gears. It was our first physical contact, a nervous sweaty one.
Confident I knew how to locate each gear on the stick steering wheel column, he had me shut the car off and let me release the clutch pedal.
“Elizabeth, you’re going to start the car in neutral, push in the clutch pedal with your right foot, shift to first gear and ease off the clutch until the car jerks forward. It’ll probably kill the engine but that’s okay, you can just restart. As soon as you feel the car wanting to jerk forward, push the clutch pedal back in until you get the feel of the transmission engaging when you release the clutch.”
“I don’t think I’m ready for this. Tell me again what to do.”
“Just do as I say.”
I followed his directions, the beginning of doing what he said to do. Soon I could tickle engage the transmission and quickly push the clutch in without killing the engine.
“Good, good now we’re ready to let the car creep forward in first gear. First, put the transmission in neutral.
Good, now let the clutch pedal out and push on the brake pedal with your right foot. Good, good, now release the emergency brake."
“Emergency brake? Where’s the emergency brake?”
"Sorry, that's the parking brake. It's also called an emergency brake. Good, good, now let the brake pedal out a bit. Good, push on it again. See how the car wants to roll down the hill when you release the brake?”
“I think I’d better go home now.”
No, no, you’re doing great. Don’t worry. Now we’re going to cheat a little. Push the brake pedal with your left foot and take the right foot off.
Good, now push the clutch in with the right foot.
Now slide the shift lever into first gear.
No, that’s third.
Okay, good, now it’s in first. Now ease the clutch out to tease the transmission in.”
The car jerked forward and the engine died.
"Okay Elizabeth that's the trick of driving a stick shift, It's three pedals, brake, clutch, and gas. You ease out the clutch to tease the transmission in while easing off the brake then switch the right foot to the gas pedal. It appears complicated but once you get the knack, it’s easier than riding a bicycle.”
‘It took me a long time to learn to ride a bike. My older brother showed me.”
To simplify it in my mind, I named the pedals, brake, God the Father, clutch the Holy Spirt and gas, Jesus.
With the car in first gear, I released first God the Father, eased out the Holy Spirit and as the transmission kicked in gave Jesus a tap.
The car lurched forward with my sweaty palms clutching the steering wheel.
“Okay, okay, push the clutch and brake pedals back in!”
Confused, I left my right foot on Jesus and slammed my left foot on the Holy Spirit as the car coasted down the hill, the engine racing.
He leaned over me, pulled on the emergency brake, took control of the steering wheel and shifted the transmission into neutral. The car slammed to a stop
I took my foot off Jesus and the engine idled.
“We better stop now before I destroy your car.”
No, no, that was better than I expected you to do! We just need you to keep doing it until you get the knack.”
It was a lie but I liked it and submitted to his control.
With the help of gravity, repeated attempts, more stalls, the Trinity eventually magically joined in harmony and the car moved forward in first gear. Soon the knack of comingling God the Father, the Holy Spirit and Jesus was easier than riding a bike.
He switched to the level stretch at the base of the hill. There, I repeated the process without the aid of gravity and after a few more stalls and jerk starts, I got to where I could move the car without killing the engine or jilting forward. Once I was confident at this, he made me shift to second, then third gears as the car raced to fifteen, then twenty miles an hour.
With wet palms, steering wheel and shift lever, I changed gears without his hand guidance. Relentless, he gave no succor and had me drive back to face the hill upward. There, I struggled again, until I could get the car into gear and move uphill, without stalling.
We stopped after this accomplishment at a donut shop where he had coffee and me, tea. I rushed to the restroom to dry as much of me as I could. Back at the table, he kept smiling and telling me he knew I could do it while I fretted about body moisture.
Back at the car, he told me not to use my left foot unless necessary or I’d wind up pushing on the brake and gas pedals at the same time. He kept me driving until I could do stop signs and stop lights but after three hours, I panicked. I’d been gone longer than intended and knew my absence would be questioned at home.
Why I’m there to fix breakfast?
I had him drop me off at the Pink Elephant Market on King Road where I bought a bottle of maple syrup, then walked home, still fretting over perspiration. By 10 o’clock, everyone was up. They stared at me when I walked in. Mom demanded to know where I was.
“I’m sorry. I ran to get here. I met Julie; you know Julie. She has a new hairstyle. Cut short and bobbed in the back. I told her to stop by the house but she couldn’t. She has a boyfriend! I ran home when I realized how late it was."
I lifted my hair as if bobbed. As a condemned sinner, I’d become a good liar with Dad’s prior suggestions and an example.
He’d told a whopper with me in the passenger seat when stopped by a cop for speeding. He convinced the cop he wasn’t really speeding, just rushing home, a falsehood created by saying I wasn’t well. Then he diverted with a couple of truths. He explained Mom was Filipina and was the hysterical type. The officer asked where I felt ill. I whined.
He gave us an escort home and Mom was hysterical to see a cop car pull up. Dad tied his lie to diversion. When I questioned him about it, he explained how best to lie but to save them for when necessary.
Julie did have a new hairstyle and a boyfriend. I used the ran home to cover my clothing sweat marks.
Lying with diversions sidetracks inquiries of your falsehood. If your lie is subsequently questioned, remembered the diversion and forget the lie, that’s what Dad said.
My lie was forgotten as they gulped down the overdue pancakes. The topic of conversation shifted to why I wasted money on real maple syrup, a second schemed diversion. Dad didn’t eat pancakes. He looked at me askance and smiled while he ate his fried noodles but asked no question.
The following week was my school Easter Spring Break. Each afternoon, I walked to the Story Road market and drove out its parking lot for another lesson before my driving instructor rushed off to his school classes. Monday morning, after my Spring Break, he stood next to the car in the driveway and announced to Mom as we approached.
"Guess what? Elizabeth’s driving today."
Mom didn't believe him but he had me pull my learner's permit from my purse. Behind the wheel, I started the car, he sat next to me and Mom was next to the passenger door. To her amazement and muttered protests, I adroitly backed out the driveway. On the street, her amazement grew to a comfort level. I pulled up to school, the girls nearby stared in amazement, I hopped out and he drove off to take Mom to work. My school status rose.
Soon afterward, I went with him, chaperoned by Mom, for my driver's test. With my rabbit’s foot talisman as backup, I passed without difficulty and was issued a California driver's license with standard-issue, deer headlights picture stare. My dark face, slanted eyes, and big lips looked back at me. It was my certification passage to adulthood, more defining than the Catholic Church’s sacrament of Confirmation. Dad let me drive the Buick to get his cigarettes and take Mom to the store for shopping.
My family status increased but Mom, worried about, "the boy next door", as she called him. Dad referred to him as, "white devil", "yáng guǐzi" in Mandarin or as "guǐlǎo", in Cantonese if on a second bottle of plum wine.
Until getting my license, we were just neighbors. Soon after teaching me to drive, he came on a Saturday morning when Dad was on one of his weekend escapades and asked me to drive to San Francisco. Mom protested but with insouciance, I got in his car backed out our driveway and drove off, he next to me, an unofficial announcement he was a boyfriend.
I drove the Bay Shore Freeway, (aka Bloody Bay Shore), without a divider back then, to San Francisco. There he had me park at the base of a steep hill. I had sweaty palms from driving the freeway and on the city's confusing streets but he didn't let me rest. He told me to drive up the hill and stop at the crest.
With his prodding, I succeeded in not stalling at its crest and other steep hills he selected. By the end of the day, I could stay stopped at a steep hill's crest and make the light when it turned green without killing the engine. My right leg ached but I was proud I’d harmonized the Trinity pedals on San Francisco’s steep hills.
He then guided me to Fisherman's Wharf. There, I assumed the next lesson was about parking but he had me park in an easy diagonal slot and turn off the engine. Turning to him questioningly, he leaned over and kissed me on the lips, my first boy-girl kiss.
Before I could respond, he got out, came around, opened my door and took me by the hand to Alioto's Restaurant. In the restaurant I tried to act sophisticated with a boyfriend old enough to drink and with a driver's license that aid I was a sixteen. I ordered cioppino, the first suggestion of the waiter.
Afterward, he drove home, me next to him. In front of my house, he kissed me again, longer and harder.
I giggled. He asked what was funny.
“I’m sixteen and never been kissed.”
I opened the door, ran in the house, undressed, showered, and lay in bed with one hand cupping a breast and the other feeling my lips in wonderment. I had a boyfriend, me an ugly duckling.
Author Notes: Shy Asian girl meets older white man who moves in next door.