This is my latest piece for my creative non-fiction workshop. I’d love to know what you think!
As is the way with precious and perfect things, the best kiss I ever had exists only in my head. It’s not one of those perfectly choreographed, cinematic kisses with orchestral music swelling overhead or a furtive exchange made against the rough, unforgiving brick wall of a back alley. The person on the other end of my flawless lip lock isn’t fictional or famous. As far as I know, he’s never done anything laudable except manage to be a thoroughly decent person. I’d be hard pressed to find him today anywhere other than the pages of a yearbook tucked away in one of my parents’ upstairs closets.
His name was Steve Brown, and in 1993, he was my first exposure to the all the glorious potential of manhood. Unlike other males flush with more hormones than places to put them, Steve didn’t need to strut in our high school farmyard. He also didn’t seem interested in the clumsy flirting that many were practicing like some social form of Paso Doble. He was simpler than that, cleaner—like a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright made flesh. When you talked, he listened. When you were funny, he laughed. When you were upset, he packed up and travelled with you to whatever exotic emotional locale you wanted to visit. There was no artifice to him, no pretending to be who he wasn’t. At seventeen, he was more sure of himself than many of the forty-somethings I work with today.
Just like his name, he was nondescript—tall, but not noticeably so, with shoulders still stretching to find their full adult width. His hair was a shade of russet darker than your average strawberry blonde’s, and his hazel eyes were flecked with green and gold. He had managed to grow a fairly respectable moustache that made him the envy of many a fellow junior, but the only truly remarkable thing about him was the way he smelled—some musky combination of sun-warmed leather and lemon that came into the world with him rather than from a bottle. In my imagination, it was the scent of a lazy Saturday morning spent in bed, hair and sheets equally tousled. He was an unvarnished, raw form of sexuality I was years away from understanding, and one I’ve yet to find again.
For a litany of reasons I will never understand (and instead choose to call “divine appointment,”) Steve decided to ask me out on a date. It happened on one of those rare Florida afternoons where the sun kissed the ground rather than choosing to smite it and breezes from the Gulf elbowed their way inland, carrying the scents of the sea. I lay on my back in the freshly cut grass with my hair spread out like an amber fan, enjoying the kaleidoscopic painting the sun created on the inside of my eyelids when I felt him approach and place one foot on either side of my crossed legs. He stood atop me like the towering Colossus of Rhodes, the sun at his back, and for a moment, all I could do was savor the sight of him through eyes half-opened.
“May I?” he asked.
I nodded, and he slid down beside me in the grass as effortlessly as a swimmer entering a pool. “I have a question for you,” he said as he laced his fingers behind his head.
Even the way in which he asked was unassuming and without the usual pomp and circumstance we seem to require of such a question. There was no, “Would you do me the honor of…” or even “Baby, how about you and me…” It was simply, “I was thinking about dinner and a movie this Friday, and I’d like you to go with me. Would you?”
I started counting in my head the moment he arrived, and at the mention of the word “dinner,” I did my level best to keep my breathing even and to beat back the blush in my cheeks that threatened to betray me.
One watermelon, two watermelon, three watermelon, four watermelon…
I promised myself I’d count to twelve before I accepted.
I made it to seven.
He left the details of the evening up to me. He had no other plans besides picking me up at 6:00, so I was in charge of choosing a restaurant from the dozen or so Ocala had to offer as well as the film we’d see. Where we ate didn’t concern me. After all, I knew which forks to use, how to chew with my mouth closed, and generally how to eat a meal without embarrassing myself. The movie, however, was a different challenge. I wanted him to think of my choice—and by my choice, I mean me—as witty, intelligent, and altogether more mature than the average girl. So, and I know I’m dating myself here, I pulled out the newspaper and flipped open the section where the movie times for the weekend were printed, weighing out the possible interpretations of each choice.
Ernest Rides Again, Beethoven’s 2nd, and Addams Family Values quickly fell out of the running, as did Wayne’s World 2, Mrs. Doubtfire and several other films with the cinematic weight of meringue. I toyed around with the idea of asking him to take me to see The Piano for awhile but decided against it because I thought the sensuality might make me look easy. For two days, I weighed the merits of The Three Musketeers against those of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and found both wanting that esoteric air I wanted to project.
The Remains of the Day remained in the “maybe” pile the longest. After all, it was based on a Man Booker Prize-winning novel and was thoroughly and unapologetically British. Seriously, it had a dynamite one-two punch for making a great first impression. But I eventually discarded it because I didn’t want a film about unrequited love to be at the foundation of what could be our own romantic story. I thought it would be the silver screen equivalent of walking under a ladder while simultaneously breaking a mirror and crossing paths with a battalion of black cats.
After days of deliberations, Schindler’s List eventually won out. Hardly a feel-good romp, I know, but it had the gravitas I was looking for. In my mind, it made me appear worldly and empathetic. And it was in black and white, which showed I had an appreciation for the classics. That and it was just a skosh under three and a half hours, which was more than enough time for one of us to work up the courage to kiss the other.
However, when the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto began, any thought of romance was dashed against the sticky theater floor. Like Oskar Schindler, who watches the scene from a nearby hillside, Steve and I witnessed thousands of Jews being rounded up and sent to concentration camps or murdered outright in the street. Any tears I’d managed to hide up until that point spilled out over my cheeks, ruining the perfect face I’d painted on and had excused myself more than once that evening to maintain.
I held my breath as I watched the little girl in the red coat walk through the pandemonium of the scene, somehow untouched by blade or bullet. I’d read about this moment in textbooks, even seen the occasional reel-to-reel documentary in history classes, but there was something so profoundly shocking about the tiny figures dying on screen that made the moment more than history. The people down there had names and lives they’d meant to live, and they were being used for target practice, treated more cruelly than the dogs the Nazis sicced on them.
I suddenly didn’t care about how he’d perceive me, and my right hand blindly groped for Steve’s left in the dark. When they touched, I realized it was as warm and soft as I’d imagined and that his palm perfectly cupped mine. But there was no slow caressing of fingers, no seductive exploration of wrists or the cleavage of fingers. It was a Hansel and Gretel gesture, an attempt to reassure one another as we experienced the human drama of the Holocaust. And I can’t help but think he was as grateful for mine as I was for his. After all, we were teenagers and had barely begun to experience life on our own. The world was somehow smaller then without the Internet and the twenty-four-hour news cycle that now brings us face-to-face with the ugly corners of the globe. It was easier to remain ignorant or even to pretend evil happened somewhere, anywhere, else when 9/11 was still eight blissful years away.
By the end of the second hour, I let my head, heavy with thoughts, rest on Steve’s shoulder. It wasn’t the gesture of a lovesick, sighing girl but of one who was seeking support. He was a buoy in the dark—a warm and solid reminder that good things still existed somewhere. I could finally let his smell, the one I’d craved, fill my nostrils and permeate my skin, but it had become more a source of security than seduction. For the time I was lost in that gray world, exposed to a naked display of human hatred I couldn’t ignore, it anchored me until the end.
The local DJ’s late night chatter admirably filled the silence as we drove home, past houses with perfectly manicured Florida lawns and welcoming light in the windows. I looked at it all and felt somehow detached—as if the film was reality and life outside that theater was an unrealistic dream I was floating in.
He pulled into my driveway, threw it into park, and turned to look at me. I could tell he was struggling with the same feelings I was and searching for some way to express them. Finally, after a long moment of looking at each other in silence, he pressed his palm to my face and stroked my cheekbone with his thumb. There was nothing else for it.
I had a wonderful time. Thank you for a lovely evening. We should do this again soon.
All of them were banal phrases, poor codas for the evening’s events, and we left them unsaid. We also didn’t kiss, which is something I’m glad to say. The moment called for something more dignified and subdued than heavy petting. We were survivors, co-conspirators in a world we’d only begun to realize was hostile and were content to let the moment sit, like a roll of undeveloped film, in a forgotten keepsake box.
How about you, dear reader? Any childhood moment that is like this for you? Any time you’d kept to yourself but are willing to share? I’d love to read it!