When I chose Camille Dumas as the subject of this essay, I intended to describe her as my "first love" and then explain how that term applied to her in spite of the three or four girlfriends who predated her. That worked until I remembered Linda Ward; suddenly I was thinking of the classic polarity of American female stereotypes, the virgin and the slut, Dante's Beatrice and Molly Bloom. The "virgin" is the pure, untouchable woman we are supposed to marry; the "slut" is the earthy creature our ids yearn for. It's a polarity I have always been uncomfortable with.
I find it interesting that my first conscious love fit the pattern — the blonde, anaseptic, virginal Linda Ward. I "fell in love" with Linda when I was seven. It was, I realize now, an odd little living soap opera that my mother propagated, encouraged, and drew some private pleasure from which I won't presume to identify. But the effect was a five-year obsession with her which I had the good fortune to terminate painlessly.
The myth of loving Linda Ward was a central theme of my childhood. Her family moved away less than a year after we met; I can remember absolutely nothing about us together except getting into my first fistfight when I attacked a boy who tried to kiss her at my eighth birthday party. During those next five years, while she became a vague memory, I sketched onto that shapeless stone a beautiful girl who remembered me. I daydreamed the tragedy that neither of us knew how to find the other. And I harbored the expectation that one day, we would find each other; we would discover our mutual love and live happily, etc. The small world of military life flexed, and find each other we did.
We were, I think, at the same base where I later met Camille — Camp Zama, Japan. A few days after we arrived, my parents announced that they had a surprise for me. We got in the car and travelled to another base, where we met with Linda and her family. She was, as I had always imagined, beautiful. (So was I, then, thirteen and pretty as a boy can be, during my Everly Brothers phase, when my curvy, feminine mouth and half-asleep eyes were reinforced as a standard of male good looks by Elvis Presley and dozens of look-alikes.) And she hadn't a clue who I was. She was patient with the four romantic adults who thought it was "so cute" that we were seeing each other again. I was embarrassed beyond survival, confronted at last with a reality that actually matched, in so many ways, the ideal I had constructed and differed in one crucial element.
I meant nothing to her. I don't even remember being discouraged by that; our "love" was such an abstraction, such a fictional construct, that my unhappiness was a self-deceiving artifice. A few weeks after that meeting, her junior high came to play basketball against mine, and I went to the game, knowing she was a cheerleader. I sat in the bleachers and watched her. She never noticed me — deliberately or not, I didn't know.
I am sure I thought of her now and then, after that day, but that day, seeing who she was and recognizing the lack of connection, was the end of the affair.
There were girlfriends after Linda, and girls I pined after hopelessly, like the one who wore Shalimar perfume and permanently imprinted me on that scent. There was the improbably named Janet Leigh, who was as pretty as the actress and astonished me when she accepted the date my friends dared me to offer. It was a disaster, that date, a dance where my shyness nearly killed me. And there was Ann, the "bad girl" who didn't do well in school but found me an interesting challenge, with my academic excellence and poet maudit poses. She taught me how to make out. She was older than I, a grade ahead. We rode around at night in the back of the camp bus exploring the sensual delights of kissing and fondling. One night she asked me a question framed in a code that I didn't understand; I realized a few years later that she had been referring to sexual intercourse, but I am unsure, even today, if her 'badness' extended to sexual activity or only to talking about it.
Ann taught me the mechanics of mutual pleasure, but it was Camille who taught me to love with my body. Linda Ward was pure 'spirit,' the unattainable, even after she resurfaced in the flesh. She had the Hummel look of a movie star of the time, Yvette Mimieux. She was emphatically to be worshipped from afar, respected. We married them, the ethereal virgins, American men did, but only after the earthy brunettes had harvested our wild oats, and we sought out the Jane Russells and Sophia Lorens covertly when the marriage got too tame.
Camille was a gentle, unself-conscious Molly Bloom, more proof of my mother's stereotype that "French" women had no morals. She was the school's sex goddess, pursued by every male with a gram of testosterone, picking and choosing among them, and yet not dogged with sly rumors of "putting out." And she made no sense. She was unbeautiful, with a nose broken so badly that face-front, it made an 'S' between her eyes. Her mouth was shapeless as a feather pillow, soft and undefined. She was a poor student, not stupid but mediocre, struggling for B- grades in all her classes. She was not especially clever or funny. She was "mature for her age," as our mothers were given to saying with disapproval; we boys understood that meant tits. But Camille was not big, just shapely, emphatically female. She was a cheerleader, and at sixteen her chest obeyed the rules of inertia and gravity during leaps that made her the envy of other girls and kept the boys interested in the sidelines. And she was popular, with both boys and girls. She did not have the defiant relationship with her female peers that the "easy girls" had.
She was, I think, that rarity, a person of essential goodness. She was unconsciously unselfish; for her, friendliness was the default. We lived, at that place and time, in a sheltered environment where such a creature could survive. Somehow she decided to gather me up and I became, for what must have been a few months only, one of the three boys that she loved and could not decide among. We dated. I broke ranks with my Protestant family to attend Mass with her. And the three of us struggled to displace the others, desperate to claim her.
I took her to her Senior Prom, which was a bit of a scandal because I was a the only sophomore attending. She was, you see, an "older woman," and a terminus of our relationship was that she would be leaving soon, after graduation. I wore a tailormade, black silk suit to the prom (It was Japan, after all, and the suit probably cost $20), a matching black shirt, and a gold brocade tie. She wore a dress the color of my tie, and her corsage was a black orchid. We were, we imagined, a vision of Bohemian elegance, and we moved from the prom to an all-night party that ended with us sitting on a picnic table in someone's back yard, watching the sun rise.
I wrote an essay a few years ago called "The Spirit Was Made Flesh", and Camille was pure flesh in the sense I meant the word there. She was a person utterly comfortable with her body, generous in her physical contacts. This was the key to her for me, as innocent of physical contact as the Wild Boy of Avedon was of speech. I had been nurtured in abstinence by a household of relentless Puritanism. A kiss, I knew, was nothing more or less than a substitute for an act dark in the details and utterly sordid. But kissing Camille was as innocent and sensual as playing with a dessert. It was like sinking into a feather bed, unimaginably sexual but without the gross signals we've grown used to with our new graphic Puritanisms. She did not suck me in, engulfing me in a mouth as open and resistanceless as possible. Whatever the appeal of that exaggerated eros is, it was not that with her. Her kiss was at once passive and as langorously aggressive as the liquid advances of a octopus. Her lips were soft. It seems a trivial observation, but it was, I think as I examine the women I have kissed, the memorable thing about Camille's body, the comfortableness of those soft lips. They were expressive of her maternal, nurturing spirit.
Those were days when very few of us actually went much beyond kissing and petting, and I, at least, retained my virginity for a few more years. I don't know if Camille had sex with the other two boys, who were older than I, nor do I care, nor did I care then. I wanted to be first in her heart, and when she left Japan it seemed I might be. I actually corresponded with her until I got a sad letter from her. She had decided, she said, to marry the oldest of her three suitors. He was, she said, the best she could do, given her looks and brains; she would be foolish to miss the opportunity. It is hard, I think, to imagine that old world where a woman's goal, from high school through, if she was unlucky, college, was to find a husband. I was married three years later, a month after my 20th birthday. Camille would have been foolish, by our standards, to reject a man so promising, and I doubt if she had to mull her decision.
I have modifed her name (as I have Linda's, and as I will routinely for most of these women) because of that letter. I don't want to embarrass her. Looking back, I hope that the hopeless cynicism of that decision was not borne out. I know that she cared for him, just as she did for me and, I reflected when I read the letter, a bit more. The man, a year or two older than her, was a nice enough fellow; my only conflict with him was our rivalry, and in a time when dating across a grade was considered scandalous when the boy was the younger, I had always known that he had the edge on me with his three or four years of seniority.
I would like to think that she married well and happily, that what was rationalized as a compromise grew, as such things can, into a permanent bond of love and respect. It was what she deserved, something rarer than an arranged marriage, a grander prize than merely the best she could expect. She was proof that although beauty is nice and brains are nice, essential goodness lends glamour to plainness and inarticulate wisdom is its own intelligence. Of all the women in my life, none was more deserving of happiness nor better prepared to enjoy it.