By Brian Abbey
I was watching One Hundred and One Dalmatians on our wooden box television in 1983 when Cruella De Vil caught my nine-year-old eye. She burst into Roger and Anita’s Regent’s Park home and I felt an inner tingle like the first time I saw He-Man’s Castle Grayskull on the shelf in the local toy store.
She was fancy, confident, mysterious, and scary, but scary in a way I liked. And yeah, I was a strange boy who grew into an odd man inexorably drawn to women who love me but also openly share their desire to kill me. It happens. After years of near-death love affairs, I’m now questioning what led a buck-toothed kid from Texas to ship himself with a woman immortalized in song as ‘a spider waiting for the kill,’ and how Cruella became the template for the women I crushed on the most.
What is love for a nine-year-old boy obsessed with Star Wars, He-Man, and G.I. Joe? I’d only known that tingly feeling for one other woman, Cindy. In 1983, Cindy was a high school cheerleader living three houses down from us. She always smiled and said “Hello, Brian” any time she saw me and I always replied, “Hey Cindy!” I tried to mute my excitement and sound aloof and cool like Han Solo when he called Leia your worship, but the squeak in my pre-pubescent voice gave the game away every time. She knew I loved her and she thought it was cute, giggling when I shouted out her name.
I told my mom Cindy was the most beautiful girl in the world and she scoffed at me with a caustic chuckle, saying I was definitely my father’s son. Maybe mom didn’t see Cindy’s allure, but one fateful summer evening I saw most of it.
I was walking home around twilight when I passed Cindy’s house. I looked over and saw her through her bedroom window. She hadn’t yet closed the blinds. She was wearing her cheerleading uniform… then suddenly she wasn’t. I froze, staring at Cindy in her bra and panties, smitten like the first time He-Man saw the lovely Teela and felt his Power Sword glow. When Cindy turned toward the window, I panicked and sprinted to my house. I knew I’d seen beyond the acceptable constraints of my young eyes, despite having often looked at ladies in their underwear when I nonchalantly thumbed through the women’s section of my mom’s Sears catalog. And most everyone in the neighborhood had seen Cindy in her bikini when she’d wash her white Camaro in her driveway. However, even a nine-year-old boy knows boobies in a bra are different from boobies in a bikini. I never made eye contact with Cindy again without a deep blush filling my cheeks, which only seemed to delight her more. To this day, my pulse skips whenever I see a white Camaro.
My Cindy crush makes sense in the scantily clad, cheerleader-next-door kind of way. But why did I fall for Cruella?
For starters, she’s the most glamorous woman animation ever gave a boy. Cruella’s brilliant smile, pouty red lips, and dramatic eyebrows were enough to make my tender heart burst through my Darth Vader t-shirt. And her cheekbones! I wanted to kiss them or maybe rest a Hershey’s Kiss on top of them. I don’t know! My middle-aged brain gets confused looking back at my infatuation with my cartoon boo, but I know I loved her and I know loved chocolate. Either way, those cheekbones were getting a kiss.
I couldn’t get my head around her hair at the time — the shock of white set against an equally stark black. It was elegant but messy. I wanted to run my fingers through it. Seeing it now, in its shoulder-length, punk rock glory, there’s a careless fringe that suggests a post-coital coif. I didn’t know sex hair was a thing at the time, but now I do. She’s a bit vampy, yet to me, she looked like a movie star, even in bed with curlers in her hair.
This makes me wonder — was seeing Cruella casually reading in bed part of the attraction? Was she the earliest sign of my burgeoning and clumsy sexuality? She’s fetching in the sultry dress hugging her lithe figure as she purrs vitriol in her posh accent, but that boudoir scene did a number on me. She was my Walt Disney version of Mrs. Robinson and I was her Texas hick Benjamin Braddock pining for her as she lounged in bed smoking long cigarettes in her furry robe with curlers in her hair. Mrs. De Vil, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?
I carried a torch for an animated diva who I thought was hot AF in my own young, buck-toothed way. But, Cruella is problematic. Of course, there’s the most obvious issue — she’s a smoker. I don’t think I could have been with a smoker in 1984. I’d had two girlfriends by the time I met Cruella. Julie Harris, who kissed me in the first grade, and Sarah C.
Sarah C., at the time, couldn’t decide whether me or Ryan Jenkins would be her beau. Ryan and I had a foot race to sort out our torrid love triangle and I won. Sarah C. quickly suggested the best two out of three, yet I won again. Sometimes when you’re weird, your body compensates in other ways, and mine went for the ability to make a quick escape.
However, neither Julie nor the mildly displeased Sarah C. smoked. And although I was fleet of foot, I had asthma and Cruella is a chain smoker. Could we have witty banter if I were constantly taking pulls from my inhaler? Imagine Cruella gazing at me over her newspaper at breakfast, blowing a sexy smoke ring in my direction as I gag and wheeze. There she is, all Gloria Swanson-like with her elegant cigarette holder, and I’m blue-faced, choking back tears in my love-swollen eyes. Breathless is hot. Asphyxiation is not. I certainly couldn’t ask her to quit. Love means never having to say you’re sorry for smoking.
Fixating on Cruella’s nicotine habit seems odd when she has other glaring flaws, such as her horrendous driving. She nearly forced a truck off the road in the movie before plowing her roadster into a snowbank. She threw the transmission into reverse and carried on as if this was what driving was supposed to look like.
I didn’t like roller coasters as a kid. I dreaded the day I was tall enough to ride The Shockwave at Six Flags. When my parents forced me to ride it with them, I threw up in line. Twice. Don’t ask about the actual ride. Just know afterward I shamefully abandoned my Batman underwear in the trashcan of a nearby men’s room.
Cruella would be the designated driver on all our dates because even in the ’80s, Texas frowned on nine-year-olds behind the wheel. Imagine me in the passenger seat next to my love, trying to look cool while desperately needing to blow chunks out the window as she drives into oncoming traffic. And I don’t think Cruella is a woman who fancies taking the tube or a black cab. She wants to drive. How can I summon the confidence to woo such a powerful woman when I always have to bring along a change of underpants?
Despite my concerns about her driving, I practiced writing her name as Cruella Abbey in my third-grade notebook. But let’s be honest: Were we to marry, Cruella wouldn’t take my surname. I’d be known today as Brian De Vil, which is actually cool. Cruella is uncompromising and a touch overbearing. She might come home to our love nest after a long day of Cruella-ing, and find a couple of stray He-Man action figures in the study. In a rage, she’d call me a messy imbecile and my gentle heart would shatter against her unkind words. I’d then mope about our mansion. Does my self-pity elicit tenderness from my supercilious sweetheart? Nope. She’s not the nurturing type.
Our biggest obstacle as a couple is our age gap. Look, the heart wants what the heart wants. The question is whether my mom would have allowed me to have what my heart wanted.
Imagine: Cruella pulls into the driveway and parks her roadster next to my mom’s Ford F-150. Mom peers out the window while I’m in the bathroom trying to tame the cowlick that haunts my early years. Cruella rings the bell and my mom answers. Cruella doesn’t stand outside waiting for an invite. She pushes her sylphlike frame past my mom’s mommyish frame and into our living room where I’m standing in my blue blazer and khaki trousers with an unrepentant swoop of hair atop my head and some of my mom’s roses in my chubby hand. I introduce the two of them, “Mom, this is Cruella, my girlfriend,” cringing with uncertainty as to whether I broke out the g-word too soon and then, “Cruella, this is mommy.”
A bloated silence fills the room as the two women size each other up. Cruella refuses to feign niceties with my mom, who happens to be wearing her best mom jeans. Cruella nods before breaking out a cigarette. Mom tells her she’s not allowed to smoke inside and Cruella lights up, blowing a green smoke ring across the room.
Cruella looks at me. “Ready?”
My mom shrieks in disbelief: “Brian Abbey, are those my roses?!?”
Cruella sensually turns and saunters toward the door and asks, “Are you coming, dahhling?”
Mom yanks the rose from my hand screaming, “You are not leaving with that she-devil! You’re grounded!”
Before I can move, Cruella grabs me by the lapel of my blazer and carries me under her arm to the car like I’m a parcel she’s retrieved from the post office. Were I twelve instead of nine, the sheer dominance of this act might have sparked a neophyte boner.
We drive off like a bat out of hell and my mom calls the police to report my abduction. There’s a wild car chase through my redneck town while I lean out the window, vomiting repeatedly. I turn and assure a disinterested Cruella I’m fine before realizing with horror I’ve forgotten my change of underwear.
This is the best scenario for which I could have hoped for in 1983.
Cruella is the unapologetic bad girl of my single-digit years. She was my first crush and first crushes never go away. They merely sink into a part of our consciousness we refuse to address outside of therapy, revealing themselves on occasion in the swipe-right dating of our adulthood. Cruella carried on in the Emo and Goth women who owned cute cats named after tragic artists, peppering my love life. She can even be seen in the nearly-evil grin of the woman I love now.
My biggest takeaway? Childish infatuations serve as evidence that, before we burden them with adult stipulations, romance knows no bounds, transcending reality and crossing from cosmopolitan London to the plains of West Texas. Two very different people, one of whom might not quite meet the definition of actual person and the other clearly a minor, can find an amorous spark despite their differences.
And I still love the unapologetic bad girls. A dalmatian never changes its spots.
Brian Abbey is a writer based in Romania whose work has appeared in Vice, Salon, Down in the Dirt, Public House, Points in Case, Drunken Pen and various humor sites. His other stuff can be found at brianabbeywriter.com