She was hanging stuffed animals above the Ring Toss, and he wandered fast to lend a hand.
She was tall and blonde, with high, rose-rounded cheekbones.
He was thin and awkward, with unkempt hair falling down upon clogged pores.
The strand ran thick with locals that day, and the Young Rascals blared from speakers all along the pier. It was still early enough in April that you could hear the crack and whoosh of rides being tested; could feel the westward spray of rapids as pontoons splashed around and down the midway flume.
The two of them spent that afternoon gaining a feel for each other – she passing notes from a counter at the Ring Toss, he cracking wise from a can game across the way. When at last their shift was done, he mentioned he’d be back in May … once school was out, and the lease kicked in on a two-bedroom off Magnolia.
By the end of the first week in May, she had offered him her number, in part because she sensed he might never summon the initiative to ask for it himself. He promised her he’d call during the week, despite the fact he had no phone – nor pocket change – to speak of.
He held out until Tuesday, made the call from a corner payphone on East Glenwood.
She was not at home, her younger sister explained. She had gone for a mid-day bike ride along the promenade, which was exactly where he found her a short while later, idling high atop the ramp at Boardwalk and Magnolia.
The two of them wandered west to his apartment, neither one acknowledging he or she had set out looking for the other. They talked for three long hours that day, ignoring the shadows as they stretched – and then faded – from one side of the kitchen to another. They talked their way through dinner and then dusk. And when at last it came time for her to leave, he walked her home along Atlantic – a clumsy maelstrom of adrenaline and fear.
A few feet from her door, he admitted feeling nervous, asked if it would be OK to see her again the following night.
On that second night he kissed her … kissed her several times, in fact. Kissed her straight through a storm and back again, in a tiny kitchen with no power. He took specific note of sensory details, like the smell of glistening apples from her hair; the vibrant shock of Coke and spearmint on her tongue.
He walked her home again that night, to a charming one-floor beach house on 19th.
In the days and weeks that followed, he would return there several times, very often after midnight, once her father had fallen asleep. She would wait for him out on the porch, where the two of them would remain until past dawn, delving deep and true into the sins of teenage past. He would explain the years of grinding tension spent pushing back against his father, as well as the constant insecurities that had plagued him ever since. She would explain the years of grinding tension spent pushing back against her mother; how she had always admired her father for taking the high road throughout their divorce.
In her, he saw vague hope of settling long in that small town. In him, she saw the prospect for escape.
Some mornings, he would appear outside her bedroom window, urging her to wander off and watch the sun come up; chestnut skies accented by the swoop and call of seagulls overhead.
It was during one of these early morning moments – moments when Eden hung just out of reach – that it dawned on him things might never be this way again; that although their feelings might grow stronger; their desire for each other more fervent … it would never, ever be this way again. Matters would never spiral out so gracefully, unfurling like a silkworm banner in still breeze.
Everything that came after this would inevitably pale in comparison, he imagined … weighted down by the cruel benefit of experience and the constant, churning, unmistakable clash of wills.
No, sir. It would never be this way again. That much he could assure you.
All of which is why he fell so listless and tense when she asked for him to meet her by a sandalwood gazebo one humid summer evening. He feared their fleeting time together might have already run its course. He feared he might have pushed her into waters she had no business treading. He feared he was no good for her … that his utter lack of diplomacy had doomed the whole thing prior.
He feared the way his heart might wrench every time he saw her wander by.
Only he had nothing to fear … at least not on that evening. She assured him of this, even as she waved the hair back from his face, held his trembling hand in hers. When at last the tension passed, she told him that she loved him … perhaps because she feared he might never summon the initiative to say those words himself.
He had never heard anyone say those words to him before … at least not in such a way that he could talk himself into believing it. Over the years there had been parents, priests and relatives who would toss that sentiment round like bitter gravy … and then, of course, there had been that girlfriend back in high school, who only seemed to say it in return … but he had never, ever encountered anyone who had said it so convincingly.
In fact, it was almost enough to make him forget she was only 15 years of age … a reality which is – in retrospect – just as odd for him to write as it must be for you to read.
Regardless, the threat of ill consequence had no worthwhile bearing.
As far as the two people sitting in that gazebo were concerned, love was infinity … shining.
Everything else was little more than white noise and confetti.
(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB)