April. Sunday night. Riding over to the park in the back of KT's pickup truck, my waist-length, freshly-washed hair blows all around my head. When we reach the park, I comb through it with my fingers, removing stray gnats that got caught during the ride. I stop when I see you, though. I didn't expect you to be here and my heart rate accelerates uncomfortably. I look away before you see that I am here, and I feign indifference to your presence. I excel at this, having years of practice, from the time we were in grade school together, until now, the middle of high school.
I help to unpack the picnic the group has brought, and you sit a little way down the tables from me. Your best friend starts the conversation. CB and I have always been at ease around each other, but he is your confederate, more now than ever, and my responses are terse. I have already endured too much teasing because of you, and in my teenage angst, I'm certain that you are more than willing to join in the humiliation though, you've never been anything but kind to me up until now. CB's queries continue, and finally you toss in a question, something I know that's been on your mind. I have a habit of turning up in unexpected places, including basketball games at high schools I don't attend. I answer your question, ignore your look of surprise, and begin a conversation with one of my friends.
After the meal, as the sun begins to set, a spontaneous game of keep away begins, the game that we always played as a group in PE, back in junior high. I help to pack up plates and food, but I am called over to join in. You are on the opposite team, and I think this will help me to maintain distance from you. You are so beautiful in the fading evening light, easy and graceful, a natural athlete, tall and slim, your satin hair brushing your shoulders.
I kick off my sandals and the damp grass is cool beneath my feet as I run across the play area. The breeze picks up and I shiver a little when I stop near the small forested hill, the only area on the playing field that isn't covered by a member of my team. I fail to notice that you have jogged along the perimeter of the hill to join me until you touch me.
"I'm here to cover you," you say cheerfully, waving your hand in front of me, though the ball and both our teams are at the opposite end of the field, seemingly miles away. I feel the heat from your body and the soft cotton of your old shirt against my arm as your hand closes around my waist, and you pull me closer. You smell of clean laundry. Your hair brushes my cheekbone and I am reminded of the most disturbing dream I've had in my young life where we were working on a project together and I reached out to brush your hair, that glorious fall of chestnut and mahogany, back from your face. I was mostly disturbed by how much I wanted to touch you. Now, your breath is warm against my ear as you whisper, "But really, I just wanted to put my arms around you."
You are taller than I am now.
For a moment, I feel my body turn to liquid, flowing into the curves of yours. Were I anyone but who I am, the moment would have ended differently, but the truth is that I am terrified. I want to believe you so badly that I can't for a moment conceive that this is even happening. I am 16 and all I can think about is how much I want you to kiss me, and how I can't bear what seems to be the inevitable ridicule if you do, and so, I pull away and run toward my team without a backward glance, without a word.
It will be years before I realize you were telling me the truth and by then, we have both moved on to different lives. I also realize that I was more careless of your feelings in that moment than you ever were of mine.
What began months ago as an occasional cup of coffee together at break has turned into regular Friday evenings at the Irish pub. We do not call this a date, because it isn't. You and your wife are in the midst of a divorce, and I've just come off a bad break up. So we take turns standing a round of Guinness and we find comfort in talking about our common interests. I have a little crush on you that feels very safe and I like your courtly attention and we have wonderful conversations, and companionable evenings without pressure. You are my friend.
I met you the day I started working at this job, and was surprised when a few months later you transferred into my department. I was assigned to train you, "all business," you always joked, despite your attempts to get under my skin. You liked teasing me, and later confessed it was because you loved it when I gave you "the death stare." You have beautiful eyes and thick dark hair, and slender long-fingered hands that distract me: I tend to watch your hands as you work, rather than watch what you are putting up on the screen, and it's gotten me into trouble more than once when you've concocted some bizarre entry, usually, I suspect, to test my concentration.
Our evenings are wholly innocent you assure me, your feelings toward me friendly, fraternal even, though I never asked you about your intentions, have been content to just enjoy the time we spend together. It never occurs to me to question why someone with fraternal feelings would find such a frequent need to run a finger down my spine or play with my hair. I am a literalist. If you tell me that you are just my friend, I will believe you. Sure, I find you terribly attractive, and it would be so easy to fall for you completely, but I don't want a man on the rebound, and after my last relationship, I haven't reached a point where I really want another. Occasionally, I wonder what it would be like to take our friendship to another level, and when I speak of you to my friends, they say that I am smitten, but truly, I rather like this limbo. And so it goes until the fateful Friday that I tell you I am leaving to start graduate school in another state.
"No!" you cry, and I'm startled by the vehemence of your reaction. Because I thought you'd be happy for me. But no, instead you ask, "What am I going to do without you?"
I am completely at a loss. We talk about how I came to the decision to leave rather than to attend the local program, and after a little, you shake yourself as if you've come to a decision.
"You aren't leaving," you say.
"But I've already accepted the offer," I tell you. "I gave notice at work today. My last day is in July."
It is time to leave, but you say, "No, we need to talk. Let's walk."
And so, we head away from the bright lights of the main drag and into a quiet residential neighborhood, filled with small, tidy houses, neat gardens, lighted windows reflecting the lives of those within. The late spring evening is soft and I smell pink jasmine on the air. As we walk, you clutch my hand, fingers entwined with mine. You often poke at me, tickle me, but this is intimate contact.
"I can't believe you're leaving," you say, alternately disbelieving and accusatory. "You can't leave. When were you going to tell me?"
"I'm telling you now," I reply, confused. "I am telling you as soon as I knew myself."
You spin around and grab me by the shoulders, shaking me to emphasize each word that comes out:
"I want you. I could love you."
I stare at you, speechless at this admission after so many nights of you telling me that your feelings for me are friendly or fraternal. Your frantic distress tells me more than your words a new story. The violence of your actions is a little frightening, and even more alarming is how responsive I find I am to what you are saying, how much I've wanted to hear it, though I kept denying it.
"But you said..." I started to say.
"I was lying," you answer before I can even finish.
I am in your arms, and then I am falling. You are pulling me down onto the grass, the lawn of a perfect stranger, and upside down, I see an elderly woman at the window of her kitchen, apparently washing dishes, blessedly unaware of the couple in her yard, obscured by the dark. I don't know whether to laugh or cry at the absurdity that is my life at this moment, until your mouth covers mine and there is Guinness and the sweetness that is you.
I can only wonder if this is the taste of a wish fulfilled.
The atmosphere is festive, but chaotic, with lots of impaired and flailing people about. From across the room, I see you frown and when I look again, you have made your way to the side where I am, though you are not in close proximity. I have long schooled myself in not interpreting others' behavior in relationship to myself but the look on your face speaks volumes. You don't like what you see and you are worried. There is not much I can do to reassure you that I'm ok, so I smile and shrug a little. You look unconvinced.
I am very much accustomed to looking out for myself, and I can be a bit belligerent about it. Despite myself, I am touched by your concern and the novel sense that someone wants to protect me.
The day is long and I am in an ecstasy of terror and excitement and exhaustion. I dislike being the center of attention and today I am front and center. But I signed up for this and I cannot turn my back on what I've started.
Even if you were really the one who started it.
As with such days, lights and color and noise merge into an enormous blur with tiny discrete moments: your eyes when you saw me, the pleasure of all the others present, the necessity of clamping down on my impatience when one more person feels the need to touch me.
The moments bring you close to me and take you away again. We are planets in an awkward orbit, strange attractors, our trajectory a sort of dance, unchoreographed, and yet known to the two of us.
Your proximity takes my breath away. Nothing else matters, just that you are in the room with me.
There is more to the story and it comes out later, in the weeks after, when I see the photographs. There is the usual, all very stagey and set up.
But one takes my breath away.
In the photo, you are looking at me, and the emotion in your face makes my heart hurt. The camera has captured something so intensely private and vulnerable that it almost feels wrong to look. But I do look because for the first time in my life, I realize that I am responsible for this, that by virtue of my continued presence, I am responsible for what is written on your face, and that as a result, I am responsible for taking care of your heart. The weight of this is huge and daunting, but I am willing to run with it, I am willing to be mindful of what you feel, to protect that precious expression, to accept that you feel something profound for me.
And when you open your arms, will I go there willingly? It has taken me years to get here.
But I will.
Oh, yes, I will.
Go listen to some good music: "Everlong" from the album The Colour and the Shape by Foo Fighters.