Just before my 15’th birthday, my father attended a weekend business meeting at a small college in Utica, NY, and the whole family came along for a weekend road trip.
Hung up on a girl I had met in school, before I had left for Utica, she and I argued. Words were spoken. Angers flared. Drawing from the reaches of my vocabulary, I told her she was “an obnoxious, self-centered, egotistical, dirty, little, two-faced slime ball.” And over the weekend, I grew sorry for lashing out at her, and I wrote a long letter not only apologizing but also telling her all about our trip.
The last day in Utica, I walked down the hallway of the dorm where we had been staying, and I happened to glance in one of the open doors. Inside, a pretty, young Latina with long, thick hair, was packing her things into a suitcase. I did not know her, but her youthful beauty stabbed into my innards. She looked up at me, and I stared for a moment, transfixed, before I quickly turned away and continued on, still reeling and amazed. That moment will forever be frozen in my memory.
We all piled into the car and drove about a half hour to someone’s house—I didn’t know whose at the time—where we would eat and sleep over until the following day.
Then I saw her again, the girl from the dormitory. She was there, at the same house.
As it turned out, the people we were staying with had a son, Dylan, about my age. And the girl, little Carmelita Ortiz, turned out to be only 11½, three and a half years younger than I. But she had already been turning into a beautiful woman. Moreover, she was sweet and outgoing, and she made a boy feel he could talk to her.
The three of us entertained ourselves throughout the afternoon, walking around the yard, talking, whatever we did. At one point, we started talking about 25-cent words, and I reveled in my ability to rattle off 4- and 5-syllable tongue-twisters and to use them in actual sentences.
I enjoyed spending time with Lita. Dylan was cool, too, but my emotions were in full swing, and pretty little Lita Ortiz captured the lion’s share of my attention. What I felt was not sexual. And I’m not even sure it was romantic, because I knew she was way too young for me at the time. Even so, I felt a distinct urge to be with her, talk to her, listen to her, an excitement when she was near, a loss when she was distant.
I told my new friends about the girl from school, an abbreviated version of the story. I also showed Lita the letter I had been writing. But through an unfortunate accident, involving Lita, my letter was destroyed.
I was livid with Lita, and I railed at her, that she also was “an obnoxious, self-centered, egotistical, dirty, little, two-faced slime ball.”
While I stayed over at Dylan’s that night, he asked me whether I liked Lita, and I told him, “a little.” But I really meant “a lot, a whole big lot.” He told me how he and Lita wrote to each other. So he and I exchanged addresses so that we could keep in touch, and he also gave me Lita’s address, so that I could apologize to her. That was the first of numerous apologies, as we became long-term pen pals.
A long-distance relationship though it was, she was really a friend. In my letters, I shared with her the details of my life, especially the boring ones. And she was always sweet enough to write back, no matter how boring I had been in my previous letter.
So unlike me, Lita was outgoing and full of spirit, while I was quiet and withdrawn. She was a natural people person, eager and full of enthusiasm, effortlessly fostering new friendships. Meanwhile, I thought in concepts and facts, introspective, sensitive, deep. She was Phineas to my Ferb.
In her letters, she told me that Dylan had revealed that I liked her “a little.” I didn’t hold it against either of them. She said that if I had known her longer, I probably wouldn’t have called her a slime ball. And she said that she missed me.
I missed her, too. I enjoyed writing to her, but not only from friendship, also from affection, the kind a boy would feel towards a girl, and maybe even the kind of affection a brother would have for a sister. But regardless of how else I felt, I always had a crush on Lita, and would always have a crush on her. All us boys, we all had a crush on Lita Ortiz.
Another business meeting: that autumn, we attended the national convention. So did Lita and her family, and she and I hung out together at the hotel where we both were staying. Each moment in her presence was joy and satisfaction; each moment leaving her, longing and sadness.
Growing up in a household filled with boys, I didn’t know what it was like to have a sister. I didn’t know how to feel toward a sister. Since then, I’ve gained two daughters and four sisters-in-law, and I’ve realized that Lita probably thought of me as a brother. But while there were times that I felt very much a fraternal bond to her, what I felt went beyond that. I desired attention and affection, to spend time with her, to talk to her, just to be near her and to know she cared about me. And this desire stemmed not only from friendship but also from romantic longing.
As convention weekend drew to a close, I felt an acute need to tell her, straight out, how I felt. We took a long walk down the hall of the 14’th floor and back again. She patiently waited for me to unload what was on my mind, but I couldn’t form the words. I didn’t even know what words to use.
Oh that I could go back and put words in my own mouth! I would tell her how special she was to me, how much I enjoyed spending time with her. I would tell her that I had never before met a girl who made me feel as welcomed and comfortable as she had or had been a better friend to me than she had that weekend. I would tell her how much I valued her friendship, but that even though I also had a crush on her, I realized that we were in different places, and it would never change how much I loved her or how much I valued her company, no matter where our lives led us.
Instead, I eventually let it slip, awkward and unseemly, that I liked her. She was clearly upset. And when her siblings and cousins got wind of what I had said, they taunted her about it. From that point on, she wanted nothing to do with me. She wanted some space.
I wrote to her and told her I was sorry for the misunderstanding, that I thought of her as a friend and a friend only, and that I had been wrong. As usual, she accepted my apology, and she apologized herself for overreacting, and we began writing again.
None of this was Lita’s fault, of course. She did nothing wrong. She never deceived me or wronged me, nor did she ever lead me on. I simply had an unshakable crush on Lita Ortiz. It was my own bad timing, one of those “sometimes life sucks” moments. We were in two different places. I simply wanted more from the relationship than she was able to give.
As the years went on, we wrote less and less frequently. Even so, to the very end, I always opened my letters to her with “Dearest Lita,” and I meant it.
Lita has always occupied a special place in my heart. Now, it’s the same place my sisters-in-law also occupy, because they’re part of my family, and my family is the most important thing in my life. It’s something I can’t explain logically. I was overjoyed when I was able to reconnect with her after 22 years, as spunky and as beautiful as ever, just recently married and all smiles. And it all made me smile, too.
P.S. This story is adapted from Love through the Eyes of an Idiot, my romantic memoir.