I saw that phrase again: “He wouldn’t say boo to a goose.” It gets to me every time when I read it in some book, and thank God I don’t hear it in common speech. The sound of it rings ominous in my head; makes me dizzy and emotional. The following might seem funny, but I’ll ask the reader to contain themself. If I hear of anyone laughing I may well go and punch someone. There was a time when I was very much in love with, and even engaged to, a goose. And I’m still pretty sore about it.

It was when I was little. Like soooo little. My mom used to take me to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento and deposit me near the big pond while she did whatever with her friends. These days no doubt this would constitute a serious felony. Not only could I have been kidnapped, I could have easily drowned. The water has a steep and slippery cement ring around it; even the birds with their clever little talons had to flap their wings to climb out. A kid could slip into that black-green water and disappear until they bloated.

I don’t remember there being any other children, only birds, and I suspect this is because, even in the madness of the ’80s, even with the people driven to wear wool-lined denim jackets and ponytails with full-face beards, no one was crazy enough to leave their three or four-year-old tottering at water’s edge in the company of throngs of feral ducks, geese, pigeons, and seagulls. The best explanation I can give, because I know my mama loved me, is that she has always been possessed of a great faith in both my fortitude and my wits. Besides, in my family we know there is precious little magic where things are safe.

Whether I should have been or not, there I was. I stood in the breeze, hopeful, my hair still half butterscotch, half caramel, with a sprinkling of cinnamon freckles floating on my café au lait cheeks. I was precious, but fragile. At three I was a good reader and a deep thinker, but I was still too uncoordinated to play sports or defend my life. When the birds started coming for me I didn’t panic about what I couldn’t do. I tried to think of what I could.

The problem was I didn’t know how to fight standing up. At that age I had developed a combat method highly specialized for my needs. When faced with aggression I would fling myself onto my back and propel my body shrimp-style, spinning tight circles and kicking out at my foes. As an adult I would relearn this technique in my jiujitsu class at Sac State, and it’s a useful tool in a well-rounded arsenal. But against birds, lots of them, and so close to the water, it would’ve been wholly ineffective. I couldn’t run. Not only was I too slow, the birds were mostly coming from the grass. I could barely see through them enough to tell my mom was gone.

My situation was grave. The birds were all around me, demanding food, shoving, nipping rudely at my bottom, yelling. The largest ganders honking threats inches from my face. I tried to make peace, but it was no use. My fat little fingers were too tempting to the beasts and my confusion brought out the worst in them.

Just when it seemed all was truly lost, when it seemed I had no choice but the water, one goose, a white one who was quite fierce, began squalling louder than the others and biting and beating them with her wings. She established a defensible perimeter, then led me to safety while guarding my flank.

After I caught my breath and my adrenaline started to ebb I was able to take stock of my rescuer. We stood face to face (I think I might’ve been crying), and she was smiling at me, the most beautiful person I’d ever seen. Everything about her was so perfect and pretty. I loved her tail; it totally wagged, and I couldn’t get enough of the way her eyes were almost under her nose when she looked up. She got bashful with my staring into them and turned her head to her left and down, favoring me with a look both wise and adorable. I don’t know how long we played together. It all became a joyful blur.

Eventually my mom came back and said something to the effect of, “There you are! And look at you, you’ve got a girlfriend. And how do you do?”

She put her head down and whispered, “Fine, ma’am. Thank you.”

“Well, say goodbye, Johnny. We gotta get home.”

I went wild, screaming and begging to stay, and my goose argued with my mom too, albeit politely, but in the end after she promised I could come back soon, I gave my goose a hug and was led away. I was humiliated at my powerlessness in the face of the fascism of adults, and my heart was broken under the weight of my shame, but when I looked over my shoulder, she was grinning at me and I knew she understood.

True to her word, my mom did bring me back there many times, and my goose would always come running up to greet me. I wanted to bring her things, but my mom wisely suggested that would make all the mean ones come back, and besides those birds ate very well. My goose never seemed disappointed that I only brought myself.

It became accepted in my family that I would marry my goose. Up till then I hadn’t really thought about marriage, but it seemed like the natural next step and I was delighted. I told her what everyone was saying and she seemed to accept it in the same spirit I had. At home though, it became sort of a joke. My grandparents, brother and sister, even my mom would laugh about it, and I failed to appreciate the source of their mirth. My love wasn’t funny, and my plan to marry my goose was a solemn and honorable thing. I was often disappointed by my family’s immaturity.

One day it was winter and the geese were gone. I stood bundled up against the cold and resolute. I would wait for her. Even then, as a young man, I knew true love was only for the faithful and brave. I comforted myself planning the days we would spend when she returned to me.

In the spring my mom was finally persuaded to take me back to find her. This was a lot to ask, because that winter we had to move a few times. We were in Woodland, or some damn place, with an awful Dodge Dart and no money for extra trips. Somehow, like always, my mom found a way to make it happen.

I was stronger then, by the way, and proud. I was four years old, the smallest and youngest kindergartener by a lot, but well-spoken and a prodigy at baseball and a game we called simply “guns.” I was lean and limber, a climber of formidable trees, swimmer of creeks and levees, hunter of alligator lizards and gopher snakes. I was a man’s man, strong, with my heart on my sleeve, ready to lead my bride into a bright and wonderful future.

But I searched the park and couldn’t find her. It was terrible. I began to fear the worst. Panicked, I circumscribed the pond again and again. I had never needed to learn her name before, so I was obliged to make as much noise as possible and harass every bunch of geese I could find in a very large park, counting on the process of elimination if nothing else.

Finally, with my mom insisting we go home, I spotted her in the middle of the pond. With a gander! I called her, still oblivious, thinking she must’ve just not seen me, but she only hung her head and honked softly. It began to dawn on me that maybe I’d been cuckolded, but I didn’t want to jump to conclusions so I pleaded with her until, at last, she started to swim my way.

But that rat bastard honked at her. And she stopped and honked back at him. He swam up to her and put his filthy beak under her wing. And she giggled! She looked up at me and honked mournfully. He gave me the very same “sorry pardner” look I’ve found myself giving to disappointed rivals over the years.

I was in such a fury by then that I said a lot of things I regret. I don’t remember all of it. A lot of “Buttface!” and some “Chickenshit sonofabitch!” Possibly even some ethnic slurs. I was just about that age.

And they just turned and swam away together.

My mom saw the whole thing and she assured me my ex-goose was a tramp and I was better off without her, but I was inconsolable. I’ve returned year after year, long after she must’ve grown old and died, but I never saw her again. I’ve since had my heart broken more than a few times, always, I’m told, by humans. But first love is the worst and it sticks with you. I still think of her when a new love brings me pain. And I think of pain at the slightest mention of a goose.