By Dan Skinner
I recall the first time I saw you. We’d moved into the upstairs flat on the quiet brick street in the south of the city. I’d been afraid to move; I’d grown accustomed to my old home, the farm fields where I could hide within myself under the wide open skies and rolling flat lands. There I felt safe with my secrets; there I felt secure that my oddness was unseen. With the move I thought for certain I’d be forced deeper into myself to protect myself. And then I saw you… from the window of my bedroom, in my new home in a strange city.
I was fourteen, body rapidly changing as it does for a boy who has entered his teens. I’d had my growth spurt and stood with its awkwardness at five foot nine inches. It brought the newness of hair in places where it’d never been; hormones that would alter the innocence of my daydreams, and the realization that what attracted me was clearly not the same as what I’d been taught should. Other boys my age unabashedly discussed their interest in girls. I had no such interest, and no clue why, but I always thought it’d be something I’d outgrow and eventually I’d fit in. That was when I saw you…from my window, and what I’d thought was merely a temporary condition became a conviction. I knew I was in love with you from that very moment and that nothing in heaven or on earth would undo that in me.
The summer sun was high in a cloudless sky that day. It was hot and humid. We had no air conditioning back then so I’d seated myself in front of the small rotating fan letting it pull the breeze through the window to cool the room. I was lost in my fearful thoughts of being in a different place and wondering what it would be like; what the new school would be like, and how I could move unnoticed in those spaces… That’s when I heard laughter. It was deep but boyish and filled with the sound of something I hadn’t known – freedom.
Across the sunburned lawn of the backyard, over the tar roof of a wood garage I saw a flash of golden flesh dashing under the rainbow spray of a sprinkler. There were two others with you running and playing in the cool spin of water, but in truth, I only remember you -vividly. The sight of you nearly stopped my heart. I had to force air into my lungs to keep breathing, and I felt paralyzed by my gaze upon you.
I often wondered what magical spell it was you had that had captured me that day. How does something human transmute into something with so much mystical power? Such perfection: the blond head of unkempt wet curls, a body maturing with its first contour of muscle, but it was your smile that connected you to me through the distance – even though you’d no clue I was there watching. It was, indeed magic. And it was, in fact, a spell.
For that summer I worshiped you from afar. My window was a seat in your theater and I watched each performance with a spellbound fascination. I lived in shadows and you ran in sunlight. I sighed hearing your laughter. I sat silent while you played. But like any good audience it was enough for me to live vicariously through you. Because of you I dreamed new dreams. My heart outgrew childhood longings. I felt the desires of an adult.
The classroom in our grade school was small. A distance of less than six feet separated me from you, only two desks, but it felt like a canyon because of your winsome charm, the ease with which you interacted with everyone in contrast to my silent, bashful nature. I learned your name as our eighth grade teacher called out all of ours – first, middle and last. You were Harry Evan Appleton. From the very first day I heard it, it became a seven note song I sang to myself.
Oh my, but your skin was like satin – the color of honey. In the afternoon light reflecting from the blond wood of your desk I could see the first spray of whiskers feather from your chin. Your cheeks had the full blush of roses. The color matched your lips, the top much fuller than the lower that gave them a pouting look except when you smiled. Your head was covered with brown spirals dipped in gold. I studied you like you were another course along with math and history. If you saw me I was in your periphery, still a mute audience. If by chance I caught one of your smiles my entire day was fueled by its warmth.
Love’s young flower came with its errant thorns: jealousy and envy. I watched you give your attention to others, the easy smile, the appreciative nod, and felt the pangs of being an outcast even though it was of my own making. How I longed to be in your circle of friends, sad and frustrated that I couldn’t put myself there. I envied you for being all the things I wasn’t.
From my refuge, a fortress of books, I watched what real life was like through you. You danced through it making it seem like the scenery was there for your performance. You always led the dance.
Early spring, near the end of our grade school days, I hid deep in the crowd of our fellow pupils as was my custom while the teacher chose the captains for a Dodge-ball game. You were the first name she called, as usual, because everyone favored you, including her. I slowly continued my withdrawal to the back of the crowd knowing my name would not be called. I’d become accustomed to being invisible.
To hear my name said first, to hear it uttered in your deep voice, was like a lightning strike to the center of my soul. Disbelieving, I turned, seeing the shocked eyes of those around me, and the path opening between them directly to you. I don’t know what thrilled me more: that you had called my name, or that you’d actually known it. In all that year we’d never spoken. I was as common as a corner shadow and just as perfectly unnoticeable.
What made you call on me was a mystery. But you made me feel suddenly connected to a world I’d only watched from the outside. You made me feel like I had a presence; that I was real. You’d said my name; you patted my back like a comrade, a friend as I joined your team. For all the doubt I still had in myself I did my best that day because you let me in and I wanted to belong. I smiled, I shouted; I reveled in this small space beneath the freshly greened trees, the smell of budding flowers and the newness of kinship. Afterwards, even though our team lost, you hugged each one of us, and when your arms enveloped me, when you said, “Well done,” in my ear… I was dizzy. I walked home that day like a man walking in the clouds, blinded by the sun and glowing inside. My heart sang that day. My runaway emotions composed the tune. The boy who’d lacked words wrote poetry in his soul… that’s what happens when a lonely space is filled with hope. I no longer merely existed. When you saw me… I was.
I believe Love is ageless and it exists within each of us like a treasure chest where someone else holds the key – when it is opened, the wonderment of riches spill out.
For the last few days of the school year I hesitated to look in your direction. You’d taken possession of me. Every evening I’d sit at my bedroom window shielded by the darkness, staring into your yard, to the windows of your home hoping to catch a glimpse of you. If, for a moment, I caught the crossing of a shadow against the pale light of a curtain, my heart raced. My hand futilely tried to cage its tempest. When my head found the pillow I carried you into my dreams where the world was different; where it didn’t matter if love was of another origin. In that wonderful world I could hold your hand, feel the delicate touch of your fingers as they intertwined with mine. Love made two paths into one in that guiltless universe. And even though when I awakened I knew that it’d been a dream… that your dreams were perhaps different than mine, I held those moments dear to me for what they were… that treasure.
I’d have been petrified if you’d known how you’d taken me over. No matter if caught or by confession the obsessive power of love can be humbling.
Our graduation picnic trip to the Chain of Rocks Amusement Park came on a day of blistering heat presaging summer. I sat alone at the back of the yellow school bus for the hour ride, watching as you and the others engaged yourself with “Row, row” songs and games of Charades for the entire journey. How I admired the way you fit in with them, all of them.
I can close my eyes and still see you in the bright lemon-colored pullover and blue jean shorts. Your hair was long in need of a cut, curls dangling from under the press of a tight red baseball cap. You were in perpetual motion talking with the circle that had surrounded your seat. Every once in a while your eyes would catch me sitting quietly by myself. I’d blush and turn away pretending to look at the scenery passing by the window, chastising myself for my shyness.
The dash from the bus to the grounds of the amusement park once we’d arrived had been like a tumultuous wave that left me behind. I lost you and the others in the crowd beyond the gates. While everyone ran to Tilt-O-Whirls and Ferris Wheels, I wandered the grounds trying to catch sight of the only thing there that mattered to me. I rode rides in solitude listening to the enjoyment of others. I bought my Sno-Cone and ate it in the shade of the arcade crowded with those playing games to win prizes to remind themselves of the day. Everywhere I looked were the signs of friendship and bonding. In the midst of all the fun being had, I couldn’t have felt more alone, and the only thing that made it bearable was that I knew you were there.
The afternoon grew hotter as it waned. It’d had been hours since I’d seen you and the heat had exasperated my desire to walk in its withering gasp. There’s nothing that can inspire despair more than staring at smiling faces. A sorrow had crept into me with the realization that I’d spent the day alone and joyless while you and your friends had disappeared into it with happy noises. I retreated into myself not wanting to be seen and desperately needing to find someplace cool to, at least, relieve my physical suffering. My eyes found the perfect place to disappear for a while. It was a ride called the Time Tunnel. A slow indoor ride designed, of course, for those younger but used by those older for its ”romantic” seclusion. I was neither of those but it was only a few hours before the bus would return us home and my heart craved the darkness where eyes near tears couldn’t be seen by others.
I expected nothing from this ride the others expected: the thrills of things jumping from the dark to scare you; the titillation of being with someone in the secretive blackness. To me it was a place simply to disappear.
Each car seated two. They floated in a bed of not-too-deep water – like a boat moored to a chain that would pull each slowly through. When one was released into the tunnel, the next would not follow for a least half a minute so as to not spoil the “surprises”. The cars ahead of me had already filled and I took the last, by myself. If I wanted to cry I could do it in peace. That was what I thought.
But there was change in the wind that day. I’d have heard it clearly had I been listening. Someone yelling, “Hurry Harry, you’ll miss it!” I’d been staring at my hands; my thoughts had drifted to the hours I had left to endure before I could return home bearing the heavy anchor inside me.
There was a bump and a thump to the side of my car; an attendant yelling, “One more,” before lifting the bar that had been lowered to my legs. My privacy was going to be intruded upon even in this last act to retreat.
It was the next voice I heard that froze me in place. “Heya,” you said as you dropped into the seat next to me and the bar was lowered again locking us in place together. Your face was flushed but bright with that smile you seemed to own alone. Your curls lay flat with sweat against your forehead beneath your cap and your brown eyes had those white crinkles that come from a day spent laughing. Our eyes met; yours in greeting and mine in shock, and in those first few seconds I couldn’t have marveled more at how beautiful you were. It was a beauty that could wound me, I thought.
I don’t remember if I spoke a word in return. Your bare leg had brushed against mine. It felt as hot as the sunshine that bore down on us that day. You asked, “Have you been having fun?” I managed a nod that betrayed the truth. But it also was astonishing that as you sat next to me, when you spoke and when your leg touched mine, all the things that had been draped by gloom quite simply disappeared.
There was a sudden rush of blood through me. All the dreams I’d had stampeded through my head with my racing heart. The gods of fortune had granted me a rare fortuitous moment.
You waved and yelled at your friends at the front as they disappeared into the tunnel, but all I was aware of was how you’d not moved your leg from where it pressed against mine, and how I wanted it to stay there forever.
It was peculiar for me to discover that no matter how many dreams in which I’d conjured a moment like this one, the nearness that let me feel your warmth, savor the scents you carried from the day, that I found myself paralyzed by it in reality. For you these minutes were no more significant than many others. You couldn’t sense how you had reshaped my entire day like a gift bestowed by magic. I was no longer in my seat. I was in a dream.
Tongue-tied by your presence I sat stiffly, silently as our car was gently tugged into the cool darkness of the tunnel. I was vaguely aware of the whoops and hollers of your friends ahead and the jokes you shouted in return about their courage. A thousand other thoughts were charging through my mind. You would have laughed knowing how in those minutes I could envision an entire lifetime with you.
So there in the amusement park ride called the Time Tunnel I had an epiphany. Love was not just the need to “be with someone physically”. It was the desire to travel through time with someone’ to make the long journey of life not as one but as two. To share the ride, much like we were.
I barely saw the staged tableaus: the paper mache dinosaurs, the Neanderthals posed to fight them – the painted murals of the Centurions of Rome in battle stances. Things bumped and jumped and I’m sure I had no reaction because of the vignettes that played in my own imagination where you’d become the center of the tale.
The absurdity with which it happened speaks about how Life can throw its opportunities at us. From the darkness it can leap out at you like a mannequin dressed as a Mummy, arms outstretched with its canned shriek. And even with all your appearance of strength, you jumped. Your arms wrapped me so suddenly I had no time to react.
In a matter of a second your hand had found my shoulder in a protective grip and you sheltered my body with yours as if the harm was real. Your heart beat against my chest like a warrior’s drum. The heat of you felt like it was melting me. Our eyes locked, your tan face seeming shocked and incapable of motion. Our lips were less than an inch from disclosing my secret to you. But you had your secret as well. Eyes confess what the tongue won’t betray. Perhaps it had come to you in that very instant. You held me as if I’d never be released; your breath feeding my own, our gazes never blinking. But every surprise carries its element of indecision and though I knew you wanted to kiss me… you slowly withdrew and we finished the ride in silence. When the waning sunlight of the day found us again we stepped away from each other. We exchanged a look that mirrored the weight of significance. We both knew what had just happened. It’s said that it is occasions like this when history unveils itself. It leaves an indelible marker on your mind and heart.
I wandered away into the park, my feet without aim. The maze I walked was in my mind. I cursed myself for not having the bravery to kiss you when I knew you would have yielded. Our time had dwindled down to mere minutes until we’d board the bus on our way back home to normal lives, where there would be no surprises leaping from the dark; no second chance.
I had no prizes to carry home to remember the day that marked the end of childhood for us all. There was nothing for me to have as a keepsake of a memory of what might have been. In my pocket I had two remaining quarters and wanted something to serve as a bookmark for this event. That’s when I saw the old photo booth hidden in a quiet corner of the arcade, the home of the dime pinball machines. The tired and amusement-sated crowd had dwindled to nothing here. Everyone was preparing for their departure.
I slipped inside and pulled the curtain trying to muster the emotions to smile. I wanted the four photos it would take to remind me of a kiss that had almost happened; when luck teased me. I sat quietly contemplating the things my heart felt, and dropped the coin in the slot ready to put on my bravest smile.
Your approach had such stealth there was no sound to warn me. There was hesitancy in the way the curtain drew back; a decision not easily made. But there you stood, framed in the chain of electric bulbs glowing from the door of the arcade. You appeared like someone sleepwalking and arriving somewhere you didn’t understand. I saw your heart beating wildly beneath your yellow shirt. You stared at me, your mouth challenged for either a smile or words. When both failed, your body seemed urged into the booth by compulsion. You pulled the curtain as you sat next to me taking my hands in yours. They were warm. They trembled. I could smell the cotton candy still on your breath as gravity with its inevitability pulled us together. And you kissed me.
It is moments like this that teach us Time has its mysteries. We have felt it make hours feels like days, days feel like hours and mystify us by making a moment feel like an eternity. I became lost in the kiss, in you and the sensation of a dream meeting reality.
Neither of us heard the snap of the camera or the flash of light as the photo booth did its duty preserving our moment in four black and white photos. My first kiss. Our first kiss.
That was forty –five years ago and not many folks I know have such a bookmark to remind them of when love began. We’ve kept it in our photo album all this time, pulling it out for every anniversary. It’s been a long journey with many lessons learned. Love has its challenges but we’ve survived them all. In our twenties we saved for the house we’d buy in our thirties and make our home. We saved in our thirties to travel in our forties. And we saw the world together. Little by little the lives we lived in secret became a life we could live out loud. And even though we’d always worn each others ring as a promise, we had to wait for the day the world would catch up with us to call it a marriage.
So, Dearest Harry, you have been the windows to my walls; I couldn’t hide in the shadow because of your light, and even though our golden heads have grayed, my feelings have never changed. You are still the elegant boy running in the rainbow spray. You are for me what the initials of your name portend: H.E.A. My Happily Ever After. You are the love of my life from beginning to end, and with heart filled with joy and on bent knee, I can finally ask: “Will you marry me?”
If you’d like to read more of my work you can find it here: https://www.amazon.com/Dan-Skinner/e/B00J22KFSE/ref=dp_byline_cont_ebooks_1