When I was 15, I had nowhere to live. My mother and sister were in Caracas, my father and oldest brother, Cesar, in New York City, and my brother, Rafael, attending college in the Boston area. My family was in a state of flux, torn between two countries—pulled by my parents’ dream of returning to live in Venezuela, versus the reality that we children were firmly entrenched in our American lives. So, my mother had taken my sister and me to Caracas, with the assumption that the others would soon join us. After a few months, though, I became homesick and returned to New York. Only our house had been sold, and I no longer had a place to live, one that was near my high school.
Which is how I came to move into Mrs. Levine’s modest and orderly, split-level house, located on a less appealing side of town, near the Howard Johnson’s hotel. (The one where singer and actress Connie Francis had once been sexually assaulted at knifepoint. But that came later.)
Mrs. Levine was an elegant, middle-aged widow with two grown children. Both lived elsewhere, which left Mrs. Levine with an empty nest and a dachshund named Bruno. She had recently gone back to work to support herself. She had also decided to take in a boarder.
So I moved in, paying $50 a month for a furnished room, complete with a small black and white TV set. Mrs. Levine and I had an arrangement. Which meant I was supposed to stay out of her hair. I had kitchen privileges as well as use of the washer/dryer, but most of the time I stayed in my room, especially if Mrs. Levine was around.
I took a bus to get to school, as it was now too far to ride my bike. I also would walk several blocks to do my own grocery shopping. Since I lived so far from my friends, and all my family was elsewhere, weekends tended to be lonely. With no one to talk to, the house was pretty quiet. To pass the time, I took long walks, and sometimes I took Bruno along. Mrs. Levine worked all day and came home late, so her dog rarely got out, unless I took him. But she didn’t know about this, on account I was afraid she’d get mad since it wasn’t part of our arrangement.
One Friday, while Mrs. Levine was still at work, her son, Richie, returned from college for a weekend visit. Richie was lanky, smart and charming, with a broad smile beaming from ear to ear. He arrived with a boisterous bang, filling his mother’s home with laughter, and scattering the contents of his duffel bag—textbooks and dirty laundry—all over the living room. In high school, Richie had been friends with my brother, Rafael, and he remembered me as Rafael’s kid sister. So he invited me to hang out with him in the kitchen while he prepared chocolate-chip pancakes for an afternoon snack. He joked and teased me, which absolutely thrilled me and, for the first time since I’d moved in, I felt at home. I found myself becoming smitten with this college boy, who made me forget where I was and how I was supposed to stay out of his mother’s way. I didn’t even notice when Mrs. Levine arrived.
She was thrilled to see Richie and surprised, no doubt, to see me in the kitchen with her son. And I was surprised when she invited me to join them for dinner. Readily, I accepted, and all night long the three of us chatted happily. I’d never seen Mrs. Levine so upbeat and relaxed.
From that day on, our arrangement changed. I confessed to Mrs. Levine that I was walking her dog. She seemed grateful. Then, we started walking Bruno together. On Sundays, she would make dinner for the two of us, and let me watch TV on the color console in the den, instead of in my room. One day, Mrs. Levine invited me to attend a party with her in the Hamptons. After that, we had other outings together, to the museum and a few concerts and once, we even went to the racetrack.
Richie came back for a visit on two more occasions, which was amazing fun. My crush on him persisted. But even when he wasn’t there, it was ok. More than ok. For Mrs. Levine and I had become good friends.
I stayed with Mrs. Levine for the rest of the school year and when I moved out, I promised to stay in touch, but never did. My parents decided to stay in the U.S. and bought a new home on the same street we had lived on, just a block from our old one. There we stayed for many years.
Gradually, the time I spent with Mrs. Levine became little more than a brief chapter in my life, neatly tucked away into the crevasses of my memory. Yet, I still think of her and the friendship we shared. And when I do, my mind can’t help but drift to Richie, the cute college boy who brought us together and stole my heart.