While puberty’s puppet shadow romantically fantasied during soapy showers, I remained boy shy, embarrassed of my back ground, full lips, big teeth, skinny body and breasts. If they tried to talk, I assumed it was because of these plus my long neck. They wanted to mock me. My siblings already assured I was ugly. I didn’t need additional confirmation.
Attending an all-girls school also meant there weren’t boys anyway. My good grades, ability to cook and sew, my helping run the house, these were the assurances I was better than others, if not beautiful.
Mom and I rode the bus to her work and my school in the morning. We caught the 7:15 AM at a stop on Story Road, a couple blocks from our house. If, after work and school, we met at the downtown bus stop, we rode home together.
Public transit back then wasn’t just for losers but perhaps, I assume incorrectly Mom and I weren’t losers.
On a cold 1966 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, a 1957 Chevy two door hardtop, on his driveway. As Mom and I passed, he looked up, a wash rag in one hand a hose gurgling water in the other and smiled openly. I assumed his smile 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 from the bus stop. I wore a hand knitted sweater over my school uniform blouse to protect from the cold. When I turned the corner, I saw him on his front porch. I changed my gaze to the discarded Christmas trees along the curb awaiting pick and increased my pace, hoping to past unnoticed. As I approached his house, I shifted my books and Pee Che folder in front for a better defense. I was going to pretend not to see him and rush past, unmolested.
Instead, he left his porch perch, boldly stepped on the sidewalk, blocked my path and asked when I tried to pass.
"What school do you go to where you need to ride the bus?"
Who does he think he is to speak to me without introduction?
I hugged the books and Pee Che, my breast shield, 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 rid the bus. What makes him think he can block my path?
His hair’s blond almost, 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. You know, the college, its downtown, near Norte Dame, I'll give you a ride in my car tomorrow morning."
More affronts, asking me to drive with him and not even asking my name then admitting he knew about Norte Dame.
"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, "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 to work at 7:15 and go with my daughter."
"That's when I leave, we can all go."
Mom thought about saving our dime bus fares.
"What are you charging?"
"Free, I just don't want to see you wasting time and money on the bus. It’s a free ride."
“I'll think about it. I’ll ask my 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 each or snide comments but he simply chatted about the cold weather and possible rain then dropped me off first saying.
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. I was nervous riding 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 seeing me get a ride, a ride with a man, an eligible one.
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.
The next morning, we sat in the front with Mom sitting next to him. I became relaxed on the afternoon trips and scooting 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 front porch on a Saturday morning. When I opened the front door, he asked.
"You want a driver's license?"
Nodded, he replied.
"I'll get a learner's permit application and test study booklet. When you pass the test, I'll teach you to drive."
Putting a hush finger to my lips, worried Mom would overhear and say no, I nodded excited agreement, closed the door and told Mom he came to say he would pick us up as usual Monday even though it was his spring break time. She was beginning to worry about his interest in me but still counted the dimes saved.
With his break the week before Easter and Norte Dame’s the week after I went to school while he didn’t. He insisted, however, on still driving us with the excuse he needed to study at the library. Monday, on picking me up after school, he handed me a learner's permit application and study booklet before we met Mom.
I hid the application and study booklet in my Pee Che folder. In the security of my room, I filled it out and read the booklet. Tuesday, during school lunch break, I walked to the county court house 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 unquestioning signatures as neither ever read what the school had them sign. With papers completed, I subtly said while driving to school with Mom.
“I’ve studied. I’m ready for my test.”
Mom assumed I was referring to a school exam. That afternoon, before we picked Mom up, he asked when I could take the test. I told him.
“Meet me at the old civic center park downtown on Friday, at noon. On Good Friday, the nuns troop us the half mile over to Saint Joseph's Church for the Stations of the Cross. I’ll sneak out and hide by the big aspen tree at the corner.”
As a condemned sinner, I no longer cared about church orthodoxy. If the priest knew my soul status on taking communion with Mom, I’d be excommunicated.
As students gaggled over to church, herded by vigilant nuns, I deftly drifted back. As the group streamed through the park, I dropped out and hid behind the aspen tree, my school uniform an obvious indicator of my runaway status. Soon his car drove to the curb, I scrambled in and escaped undetected. Free, we drove to the Department of Motor Vehicles where I answered simple questions and got my learner’s permit.
At 6:30 the next morning, before anyone at home was up, I went next door to his already running car for my driving lesson. I climbed in and as usual, sat scrunched next to the passenger 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? 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 small hill, parked the car facing downhill, 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. Totally confused he started me slow.
First, with the gear in neutral and the parking brake on, I just started the engine then turned it off. After I mastered this, he showed how to put the clutch pedal in, then took my hand and guided me through the gears, our first physical contact.
Confident I knew the gears, with the car running in neutral, he had me push on the brake pedal, release the parking brake, push in the clutch pedal, shift to first gear and ease off the clutch. When the car wanted to lurch forward, he had me ease off the brake and let the car roll forward. Then he had me push the clutch and brake pedals back in and stop. I kept killing the engine and wanted to just fail my test and go home but he kept me trying.
With a few more stalls I got the hang of getting the car moving. Once on the level stretch at the base of the hill I repeated the process. After a few stalls and jerk starts in first gear I got to where I could move the car without killing the engine. Once confident at this, he made me shift to second then third as I raced to fifteen and then twenty miles per hour.
My palms were sweaty, the steering wheel and shift lever wet, when finally, I was free to change gears without his hand guidance. Confident I was capable, he had me drive back to face the hill upward. There I struggled again until I could get the car into gear and moving uphill, without stalling.
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. They would want to know why I wasn’t there to fix breakfast.
I had him drop me off at the Story Road grocery market where I bought a bottle of maple syrup then walked home. Everyone was up and stared at me when I walked in. Mom demanded to know where I was. My weak explanation was.
“I met Julie, you know Julie. She has a new hair style. Cut short and bobbed in the back. I told her to stop by the house. She has a boyfriend!”
I lifted my hair as if bobbed. As a condemned sinner, lying in confession and to Mom at communion, I’d become a good liar as taught by Dad. I’d learned to stare directly at them, present what’s false as obviously true, believe it myself to avoid a tongue slip and throw in diversion truth spice. Julie did have a new hair style and a boyfriend which they could verify if interested but of course they wouldn’t. It was also obvious I did buy a bottle of maple syrup.
Lying with diversion truths sidetracks inquiry of their question asked and your reply lie. Their verification of the diversion is evidence of your credibility. If your lie is subsequently brought up or questioned remember the diversion truths and forget the rest. The excuse I talked too long was forgotten as they gulped down the overdue pancakes. The topic of conversation shifted to why I wasted money on real maple syrup. Cheap Log Cabin syrup was in the cupboard. I had to have an excuse to cover my absence so I bought the real stuff. Hunger is a good sauce for a lie’s acceptance as the gulped down their unexpected enhanced treat of real stuff instead of imitation.
The following week was my school Easter break. Each day in the afternoon, I walked to the market and leaving its parking lot, took more driving lessons. He was a good teacher. I was a good student. Monday morning after 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 while he sat next to me with Mom stuck next to the passenger door. To her amazement and muttered protests, I adroitly backed out the driveway without stalling. Once on the street her amazement grew to the comfort level of my driving. As I pulled up to school the girls nearby again stared in amazement. I hopped out and he drove off to take Mom to work.
Soon afterwards, 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 stare in head lights picture. My dark face, slanted eyes and big lips stared back at me. I treasured it, my certificate of becoming an adult. My family status rose. Dad let me drive the Buick to run errands.
Mom, however, worried about, "the boy next door", as she called him and started warning more about pregnancy and being boy crazy. 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 by 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 the car, backed out the driveway, he next to me and drove away. It was my unofficial announcement he was a boyfriend.
I drove the Bay Shore Freeway, (aka US 101 or "Bloody Bay Shore" without a divider back then), to San Francisco where he had me park at the base of a steep hill. I had sweaty palms from driving the freeway and then in the city's confusing streets. He didn't let me rest. He told me to drive up the hill and stop at the crest.
After many attempts 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 crest and make the light when it turned green without killing the engine. My legs ached, were even shaky, but I was proud.
He then guided me to Fisherman's Wharf. There I assumed the next lesson was parallel parking. Instead 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 and opened my door and took me by the hand to Alioto's Restaurant. Exhilarated, I tried to act sophisticated with a boyfriend old enough to drink while my driver's license said I was just a 16-year-old girl. I ordered cioppino, the first suggestion of the waiter.
Afterwards he drove home, me close 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 the ugly duckling with the long neck.
Author Notes: Shy Asian girl meets older white man who moves in next door.