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January 8, 2015

The Sweetest Heart Anyone ever gave Me.

first love

Does everyone remember their first love?

I do. In fact, I have remembered my first love my whole life.

Johnnie Portero was a new boy joining our fifth grade class and the minute I saw him an invisible ribbon of energy unfurled from my heart and wrapped itself around his young body. I wasn’t sophisticated enough to call it love in those days but I knew I felt some kind of wonderful feeling all over whenever I saw Johnnie and—oh—I wanted more of it.

With his quick mind, eagerness to learn and pleasing ways, Johnnie soon became Sister St. Thomas’s favorite and she would always pick him to put the homework assignment on the board. I remember watching as strong, even letters flowed from Johnnie’s upraised arm. I loved his handwriting and I loved watching his hips sway from side to side as he wrote.

It gave me a delicious feeling in my legs.

At first Johnnie acted like I didn’t exist but after a while that changed. He started to throw me quick glances, as if he wanted to make sure I saw him. And every now and then, a beaming boy-smile flashed my way for no obvious reason at all.

Soon enough the other girls noticed that something was going on between me and Johnnie and they started teasing me. “Carmie loves Johnnie. Carmie loves Johnnie.” Their sing-song hung in the air around my head. I didn’t like it. It wasn’t friendly teasing; it was mean teasing.

I myself was a newcomer at St. Christopher’s and I had never felt like I had been accepted among the tight-knit groups of kids who had started there together in the first grade.

Somehow Johnnie made me feel like I belonged, like I was not so alone. I admired the way it didn’t seem to bother him that the other kids didn’t play with him and made me yearn all the more for something from him, something I couldn’t even name.

Then, one cold morning, I happened to see Johnnie being dropped off by his mother when she leaned over to him and pointed a slender finger to her cheek. That was it. I knew then that it was the tender kiss I saw Johnnie give his mother that I wanted for myself.

I had to do after-school chores to help pay for tuition and I would take my bucketful of erasers out to the breezeway behind the buildings to clap the dust out of them.

One day, Johnnie suddenly showed up.

I put the bucket down and sat on the ground next to it, wanting him to go and wanting him to stay all at the same time.

Clap. Clap.

Floury clouds of dust puffed into the air in front of my face.

“Want some help?” he asked.

I looked up at Johnnie through the chalk powder, a bright outline around his head and shoulders as he stood against the sun. Without waiting for an answer, he reached down into the bucket, picked up an eraser and sent it flying toward the brick wall across from where I was sitting. I watched as the eraser hit the wall with a solid thud and fell to the ground. Again, he took an eraser and threw it at the wall, again and again, until the bucket was empty. I sat mesmerized as small bursts of chalk turned the dark wall into a starry, starry night.

After that, Johnnie regularly showed up in the afternoons when I was doing my chores. He would help me sweep the floor. Empty the trash cans. And just hang out with me and while he had begun to work his way into the cliques at school, my outsider status remained—except with him.

With him, I felt like I wasn’t an outsider. He had drawn me close to him and I felt like I had a friend.

Summer came and went and on the first day of sixth grade, I was walking to my bus stop when I saw some marks on the sidewalk in front of me. As I approached I could see it was a drawing of a big chalk heart. When I got close enough to read it, I was shocked.

Written inside the heart, in Johnnie’s big, beautiful handwriting, were the words “Johnnie loves Carmie” right there for everyone to see. “Johnnie loves Carmie.” I was a little fazed by how daring it was. All the kids would know how Johnnie felt about me.

But I was also very, very pleased. In that era of black telephones with dials and party lines, I hadn’t heard from Johnnie all summer and I had been counting the days to when school started and I would see him again.

Everybody lined up on the playground in a buzz of anticipation about the first day of school while I looked for Johnnie.

“Where’s Johnnie?” I asked. “Has anyone seen Johnnie Portero?”

He wasn’t there. Didn’t I know? Johnnie had to go live with his grandparents in Chicago. He wasn’t coming back to St. Christopher’s.

I would never see him again.

When the line of new sixth graders began to move toward the classroom I bolted off to the girl’s lavatory and quickly turned on the water so nobody could hear me.

I cried and cried the broken hearted tears of a young girl.

But when I looked into the mirror I saw Johnnie’s face smiling back at me. All at once I knew that even though the chalk heart he had left me would eventually get scuffed and faded, it would never disappear. In some way, the words would always be there and I knew the words were true.

I had loved Johnnie and he had loved me. He said so.  “Johnnie loves Carmie.”

Fifty years later, when I first wrote this story, I decided to try and find Johnnie Portero. By then of course, there was the Internet, and with little effort I reached him in Northern California where he lived with the woman he had met and married during college.

Yes. He remembered me. And yes, he would like to read the story. I wrapped it up like a present and sent it to him in the mail.

A few days later he called me up and told me he wanted to meet the woman who had written that story and a few weeks after that, I de-planed at the Sacramento airport where I recognized him and his beaming smile waiting for me at the bottom of the escalator.

He had been to the Italian Deli and had packed a picnic lunch. We went to a park and sat on a blanket on the grass. We drank wine—champagne, actually. Told stories about our lives. And looked at each other—just looked at each other.

When Johnnie took me back to the airport he walked me to the security gate, put both his arms around me and kissed me full on the mouth. “That’s 50 years in the making,” he said, and I kissed him back.

A few days after I got home, I got a card from Johnnie in which he had written a poem and enclosed a picture of himself at about the age of 10.

Within the year Johnnie Portero was dead of lung cancer. He must have known his diagnosis when he flew me to Sacramento to meet him. In the card with the poem and the picture, he had drawn a heart with felt tip pen.

Inside the heart it said, “Johnnie loves Carmie.”

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Author: Carmelene Siani

Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock

Photo: flickr

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