SONIA
by Eric Hammel

Copyright © 2010 by Eric Hammel



At the end of the school year, on a whim, I signed up for summer school. I was sixteen and midway through eleventh grade, and I just got it into my head at the last minute that I could graduate a term early if I took two advanced courses that summer—1962—and the next summer. I hated school—had grown indignant over having to be there every day—but I was willing to endure fourteen straight months of class time if the payoff was getting out six months early. Besides, I had no plans for the summer. All my friends were at Camp Delaware or doing other things away from the city. I had thought I would get a summer job, but I hadn’t done any looking. I had money saved, and I knew I could always make more anytime by schlepping lights for Jay Sachs, my photographer friend, at bar mitzvahs and weddings. So I signed up for the second halves of advanced algebra and U.S. history, the only useful combination available to me at Gratz High, which was in walking distance from my house.

*

Something strange and wonderful happened on the very first day of summer school, before classes even began. I was sitting with two Central High classmates on a low slate-stone wall in front of the school when I saw a familiar face in the passing crowd.

No, it wasn’t Glenda.

Sonia Ruschinsky had been my secret puppy love all the way through junior high. I had invited her to my bar mitzvah, but back then I didn’t have a clue about how to follow up. So, other than dancing a few slow dances with her that one time, in the bosom of my extended family, I had never seen her outside of school. She was a striking, beautiful girl, modest and friendly, but also exotic in a way that attracted the kind of older boys young teenage girls swooned over.

I knew a little about her background, which was itself quite exotic. It was a story that fascinated me.

Sonia had been born in Shanghai of a Russian-Jewish father and a Chinese-Jewish mother. Her father was a really old man who had been a refugee from the Russian Revolution. A moderate Menshevik on the run from radical Bolsheviks, I think. He had settled with other refugees in Shanghai because, amazing to me when I heard it, there had been Jews living there for many hundreds of years. These Jews were the descendents of Jewish traders who had migrated along the old Silk Road across central Asia and married local women after settling in Shanghai to establish permanent import-export concessions. In fact, though Sonia’s mother appeared to be a Han Chinese woman—I had met her once, when she picked Sonia up after my bar mitzvah—she came from such a Jewish family, a very old Jewish-Han Chinese family that traced its roots to Silk Road times and had married within the community since then. No doubt because her father was European, Sonia’s facial features were not quite Asian nor quite Caucasian but also a bit of both. She was a little taller than average, and, even in seventh grade, had an unmistakably curvy, womanly body.

Sonia and her parents had come to the United States in 1949, as refugees fleeing the Communists, who had just taken over in China. The family would have perished had it stayed in China. Sonia’s father died after only a few years in America, and Sonia’s mother had remarried—a Jewish doctor, no less! Dr. Ruschinsky.

Since we met in seventh grade, I have known Sonia as, all around, in every department, the most authentically beautiful person I ever met. Also, one of the smartest, a person in a perpetual state of enthusiasm about the secrets and subtleties of the world around her. Based on absolutely no overlapping interests or experiences, she had been friendly enough in junior high to notice some sort of bond between us, and to act on it. Overlooking my constant and unrequited state of puppy love for her, we had palled around at school as much as boys and girls of that age and from distant neighborhoods and social environments could pal around. I never understood her stake in our friendship—which, seen in retrospect, was really quite modest—but I did sense that she was way out of my league in the emerging hormone-driven circus we were attending in that time and place.

Okay, I was attracted. I admit now that I felt attraction even though I wasn’t sure what attraction was until I possessed the incontrovertible evidence of my attraction to Glenda, nearly two years after I moved on to an all-male high school and a series of soulless dating experiences. But it was just a meager stirring that I never dealt with; I knew it was there, but I was never consciously moved to act on it. In the two years I attended junior high, I saw Sonia Ruschinsky only during school hours and at my bar mitzvah. I never came close to experiencing the multiple high-voltage charges provided by clear-eyed proximity to Glenda Greenwald, once she had made me aware of her. I never pursued Sonia because I was convinced I was out of her league, but also—and mainly—because I had no idea how to undertake pursuit of a girl. Later, when I had the rudiments of the chase down, it never occurred to me to take on the daunting challenge of trying them out on Sonia.

I had no idea why Sonia had not opted to go on to Girls’ High, even though she was a straight-A student. Whatever the reason, she had remained behind to complete ninth grade in junior high when most of the rest of our crowd left to attend Central and Girls’. I had not seen her since. I had thought of her a lot all the way through ninth grade, and I had almost called her a few times, but I had chickened out. Since I left junior high for Central, I had had no contact with her, nor even heard her name, until I saw her that July morning in 1962.

*

When I spotted her, she was moving in slow motion as the source of all light through a sea of students. That sea was a blur of faces and body types, a washed-out background for her luminant brilliance. I experienced the sight of her as a revelation of biblical proportions. That momentary image remains complete in my memory, a full-blown painting on the core of my soul. I did not get anything like the zap I got from my first look—and every frisson I experience from a look back at that first look—into Glenda Greenwald’s eyes. Rather, when I draw up that memory of Sonia to admire yet again, as I have done numberless times since, I see the hyper-detailed image of a goddess created by an angel for my eyes only.

If I had thought about it, I would have watched her pass. But, uncharacteristically, I acted on utter impulse. I left my classmates in the middle of a sentence and darted through the passing crowd to catch up with her.

“Sonia,” I called when I was close enough to be heard.

She turned at the sound of her name and saw me right away. A perfect smile spread over her entire face. The full light of the sun turned sunnier before my eyes.

“Marty! Hel-lo!”

When she recognized me right off—and smiled—my heart was filled with joy.

By sheer luck, she was on her way to the very same advanced algebra class to which I had been assigned. I walked with her and, when we arrived, I sat down next to her. My two Central classmates were in the same class, but, when they moved to join me, I shook my head in time. They were cool; they sat elsewhere.

The first day was easy. One of the great things about going to Central was the leg up it gave us when we were with students from other schools. I had already had most of what the math teacher announced we were going to learn, during the first half of eleventh grade. Hell, the summer teacher had been my teacher at Central for the first half of advanced algebra! I hadn’t understood much then, but I had passed the course.

There was a break between classes, so I walked Sonia outside into the sweltering humidity and asked—confidently, I thought—if she would meet me afterward. She agreed without an instant’s hesitation. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but she seemed relieved that I had asked!

I have no idea what went on in history class. All I could focus my attention on was Sonia.

I took her to lunch at a diner on Broad Street and, right off, while I had my courage up, I invited her out for that Saturday. She readily agreed, which I considered to be just simply unbelievable. While attending junior high, I never dared to ask her out because, from the start, I had heard she only dated high-school boys who drove.

Oops. I didn’t have a car. I had a two-month-old junior driver’s license, but no car. And I couldn’t use my parents’ car. I was going to start working at Jay Sachs’s commercial studio downtown, learning product photography, when the regular school year started—to save for my own car—but there wasn’t a prayer of getting to use my father’s car at all that summer. He was a self-employed accountant and thus worked weird hours. It was impossible to plan around his schedule in advance.

I admitted my predicament to Sonia, but she just smiled and suggested that she pick me up in the car her stepfather had given to her for her sixteenth birthday. My ego was a little frazzled, so I insisted on taking public transportation to her house in Center City and then going on in her car. She laughed and readily agreed to that face-saving gesture.

Was I dreaming? Was I making headway with the same unattainable Sonia Ruschinsky in whose orbit I had diffidently revolved throughout two years of junior high? It fleetingly occurred to me that I had never before even risked asking her out. What could I possibly have been so terrified of?

I saw Sonia every day for the rest of that week, in class and after school. I was not an especially good math student, which is why I had taken the advanced algebra course. If I was going to fail, I wanted it to happen at the start of my two-summer race to the finish line. Frankly, if it hadn’t been for the leg up I had from the fortuitous de facto review of the prior semester’s work, I felt I wouldn’t have been able to keep up. As it was, I found myself leaning on Sonia’s authentic genius for math to make clear what had been obscure—or completely opaque—until then. She patiently tutored me over lunch every day. I bought and she tutored.

It took me until Thursday to discover that Sonia was carrying only one course that summer, and that she was just hanging around every day for an hour and a half, waiting for me to get out of history class. Amazing!

Before class on Friday, I suggested that we go to my house after school. I had the obvious, pro forma lecherous hopes, but the invitation was based on reality. I was running out of money for lunch. I was so comfortable with her by then that I flat out admitted I was broke, and she was so agreeable that she agreed to come home with me. I don’t think I mentioned that the house would be empty.

As usual, she met me after class, and then we set out for my house, which was ten or twelve blocks from the high school. On the way, Sonia slipped her hand into mine. It was the first physical contact we had had outside of dancing at my bar mitzvah. I am certain that she initiated the event, but I am also certain that doing so was very much on my mind just as it occurred. Whatever it resulted from, and now that it was happening, gently holding hands with Sonia Ruschinsky felt like just about the culmination of all my life’s ambitions and aspirations.

We both knew well enough to unclasp hands and lean a little outboard when we hit 13th Street, which was the borderline to the heart of my immediate neighborhood. It was 1962, too soon for the sexual revolution to have leaped from the pages of Playboy. There was a certain deference to be paid to decorum, at least with respect to—and for—the high population of little old maiden ladies, widows, and stay-at-home wives who habitually enjoyed a summer’s midday respite on the breezy, tree-shaded porches of the row houses that marched up every block. It was scary enough just entering the fortress of my block with a girl-stranger, and no less so for our eventual disappearance into a house the biddies knew to be adult-free during the work day.

As we turned up my block, I came far enough back from dreamland to notice that someone was sitting on my porch. That wasn’t right. Both of my parents worked and my brother was away at camp. I had the house to myself during the day, and no one ever visited me.