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The Swenson Affair


Harry Buschman

In the masculine world of dog eat dog the urge to compete starts early, and as long as a spark is left in him, a man can't help trying to outdo the guy next to him. The competitive spirit is surely one of the big differences between man and beast. We play games as children and we fight to climb the corporate ladder as adults, stopping only to acknowledge applause. Nations wave flags and compete on a grand scale while each individual gets as far as he can with the little he has to work with.

That was the big difference in the friendship that existed between Ernie and me. We never competed with each other. There was none of the "My Dad's richer, smarter or stronger than your Dad" baloney. We both knew our Dads were poor, dumb and weak, so we never challenged each other for the honor of our father ... what was the point?

But in school we found ourselves challenged every day by kids who knew damn well they could run faster, throw further and fight better than we could. Let me tell you, after a few bloody noses you learn your limitations and you willingly accept the fact that you're not as good as the guy who hit you. A smile is your best umbrella. So when some thick-necked belligerent bully like Eddie Holberg stepped up to confront Ernie or me in the school yard with, "I can lick you with one hand tied behind my back," we readily agreed. On the other hand if "Four-eyes" Williams issued the same challenge either one of us would have kicked his ass.

But it's strange how a man's best laid plans can be thrown into a cocked hat by a woman. I mean you can get along on friendly terms with your neighbors, be reasonably successful in your chosen profession and greet each dawn with pleasurable anticipation until some golden haired snippet of a girl crosses your path, then everything that made sense before is suddenly in disarray.

Mrs. Irwin and her daughter moved out of the top floor. "Three months back in her rent," my mother told me -- "you'd think with all those men going in and out of there she'd have enough to pay her rent." It took a while to clean out her apartment, what with all with the bottles and having to repaint the bedroom. The new tenants were a Mr. & Mrs. Swenson with a preschool toddler and a daughter Birgit. The moment I saw Birgit I knew my search for a soul mate was over -- I found the perfect woman and I might just as well propose now and get it over with. I wanted to tell Ernie first of course, but I kept the news from my mother and father because when you're eleven, parents assume you're too young to accept the responsibilities of marriage. I didn't tell Birgit either -- time enough for that, it was enough for me to know that I made up my mind.

I pointed her out to Ernie one day in school as she minced down the hall all blond and bouncy and I could tell from the look on his face that trouble was about to brew.

"What do you think, Ernie?"

"She's terrific -- what makes you think she's your girl?" From that moment on Ernie and me were competitors, we didn't roll up our sleeves and pummel each other in the corridor, but both of us understood she was not to be shared and only one of us would be the lucky man.

It was show-off time. We'd wait until she was out on the stoop playing jacks or on the sidewalk playing potsy with her friends and we'd flash by on our skates or play stoop ball next door, each of us trying to outdo the other. We'd wrestle each other on the sidewalk ... keeping a close eye on her to see if she was watching. The other girls were fascinated but Birgit was aloof -- well, maybe more than aloof, without so much as a glance in our direction she would flounce inside.

We tried every trick in the book, I'd watch Ernie and he'd watch me. When Ernie did something like a 180 on his "push mobile," I'd do a 360. It wasn't easy -- neither of us were skillful, and our attention was always divided between the accomplishment of the exploit and its effect on Birgit. Her aloofness continued. I healed easier in those days than I do now, but I recall my scars and bruises prompted my mother to ask me if I'd been fighting again.

After two or three days of this, Ernie and I decided it would be better to regroup and figure out an alternate method of winning Birgit's hand. Apparently we had done nothing right ... her loathing for us increased daily. Perhaps if we cooperated instead of competed the two of us might do what one could not do. We joined hands (and pooled our pocket money) and bought her a bouquet from the flower stand at the subway entrance around the corner. We left it outside her apartment door with what we both thought was a clever note from Ernie and me -- it went something like this:

2 yy UR

2 yy UB


2 yy 4 US.

We thought it was clever and not too sentimental, and from all we learned, flowers and candy are the surest ways to a woman's heart -- but candy was a little out of our price range.

The Swenson family lived above me on the fifth floor. Their footsteps on the kitchen linoleum could be heard clearly in our apartment. I learned to recognize Mr. Swenson's slow elephantine gait and Mrs. Swenson sharp staccato heels, like small arms fire, as she beat a regular course from stove, to sink, to icebox and back again. The toddling Swenson's footsteps were halting and tentative ... punctuated by frequent thuds as he went down on all fours. Birgit's, although she seemed to spend very little time in the kitchen, reminded me of a frightened doe in a mossy forest glade, even though I had never been in a forest glade or seen a frightened doe.

On that particular evening with my homework in front of me, my ears were tuned as never before trying to visualize the effect of our bouquet on Birgit and her family as they sat down to dinner.

"What are you looking at the ceiling for," my mother asked me. With a sigh that came from the depths of my love starved soul, I could only reply ... "Tryin' to figure out these fractions Ma."

Our hopes were dashed the following morning when Ernie and I met in the hall. Our flowers and confession of love were stuffed in the vestibule trash barrel.

We were at a low ebb, and our feelings were matched by the sullen October sky. Each of us singly had done his best to win her affection and each of us came up short, and now it was apparent that our combined efforts had been equally ineffective. We scuffed off to school in high dudgeon.

As always we met at the school gate when classes were over. Our mood was testy -- not to each other, mind you, but to the world in general. Had either of us been challenged by Eddie Holberg that afternoon I think he might have had more than he could handle.

As we started off for home, who should we see in front of us but Birgit! -- and at her side carrying her books was "Four-eyes" Williams.

It was a crushing blow and it pushed us over the limit ... we quickened our steps and taunted him. I shouted, "Hey Four-eyes, do you take your glasses off to skip rope?" Ernie chimed in, "How about a fast game of Potsy, Four-eyes?" "Four-eyes" was having difficulty walking with his double load of books and his glasses had ridden down to the end of his nose -- all he could do is turn around and give us a sickly grin. Birgit however, spun around sharply on her heel, stamped her foot and with her beautiful blue eyes blazing said, "Will you two rowdies leave US alone!"

"Us! ...... US!!" she said! Ernie and I stopped in mid stride and a creeping feeling of mortification swept over the two of us. Little "Four-eyes!" He couldn't do push-ups, he couldn't chin himself ... he even wore long underwear in the winter, but he had ridden up like Sir Lancelot and carried Birgit away. I couldn't tell how Ernie felt, he was already walking back the other way.

1996 Harry Buschman

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