By Mikel Miller
He was getting ready to sell the big old house after his wife’s death, and cleaning out the walk-in closet.
The musty smell of boxes filled the room as he opened a grocery sack of school yearbooks and thumbed through one to his class page. The face of his first love stared back at him and flooded his mind with memories.
Something about her made him follow her around on school days like a puppy, and he always tried to sit next to her in their small town Sunday School class. At a church picnic in the sixth grade, she pulled a stick of gum out of her dress pocket to share with him. They held hands, savoring Juicy Fruit® and innocent love, until the Sunday School teacher intervened.
“Holding hands leads to pregnancy,” the teacher scolded. Maybe he flushed with embarrassment; she just giggled.“It takes more than that,” she told him after the teacher left.
Her beauty and breasts attracted attention early. Many boys longed for her by the time she was thirteen–some of them four and five years older–and some from nearby towns, or so he heard. Some girls gossiped that she went far beyond holding hands sometimes, flirting with danger.
Maybe she was going too far the Sunday afternoon after they helped fill Christmas bags with food for the needy. Her screams from the church basement jolted him, and he was the first one down the stairs. A classmate was astride her, his strength pinning her arms to the floor. The look in her eyes was all he needed. His punch to the side of the aggressor’s head was all it took, and she rewarded him with a long embrace and a short kiss. Heroism felt great and gave him hope. A couple of weeks later, he found the courage to follow up.
“Would you, uh, think about going to the eighth-grade Valentine party with me?”
“Sure,” she said, without hesitating. The feeling that swept over him was like walking on clouds, but he crashed to Earth when she rejected him the next day.
“My boyfriend’s the jealous type,” she said, explaining that he was seventeen and lived in a neighboring town, with a driver’s license and the use of his daddy’s ’56 Chevy. A childhood chum–with no driver’s license, no wheels, and tied down with farm chores–was expendable.
They remained good friends during high school, although not as close as before. On the five-day senior trip–another small town rite of passage–she surprised him by knocking on his hotel door one night while his three roommates were somewhere else before curfew.
“My room is crowded with the four of us,” she said. “I need to hang out for a little while.”
Her pale green Baby-Doll negligee left little to his imagination and her dark brown hair fell almost to her shoulders, framing her brown eyes, faultless nose, and full lips. Oh God, she looked good. They sat on the edge of the bed, talking about nothing. As her bare thigh brushed against his pajama leg, he tried to hide his erection, without success.
“You want to hear a dirty little song?” she asked, and then sang it to him without waiting for an answer:
“I’ll put on my pink panties,
They used to be my auntie’s,
And go out to rassle in the hay.
There’ll be a lot of bucking
And a lot of f—ing
In that good ol’fashioned way.”
Jumbled thoughts raced through his mind as they both laughed: WHAT WAS HAPPENING? Was she offering to have sex, or was she just joking around? She knew he was a virgin; she kidded him about it one time. He didn’t have a condom; he’d never bought one. How could he get one without leaving the hotel room? Maybe he could pull out in time as he heard other guys did. What if his roommates came back early and caught them? What if the whole senior class heard about it? What if…?
“Are you all right?” she asked, snapping him out of his daze “It’s okay if we just sit here and talk.”
After college he took a job in another state, married, and started a family. Years later, he and his wife ran into her in a mall back home while visiting his family for the Christmas holidays. He introduced them and chatted with her for a couple of minutes, trying to hide his feelings.
“You ever get married?” he finally asked. Her lips formed a small crooked smile, and she shook her head while glancing at her watch. “Gotta go now,” she said.
“You’re still in love with her, aren’t you?” his wife said. “I could see it in your eyes and hear it in your voice.”
The next Memorial Day weekend, she smashed her car into an Interstate overpass column while driving back from the Indianapolis 500 race with her friends. His mother sent a newspaper clipping with a picture of the crumpled car. They were drinking and speeding, the Highway Patrol said. Maybe she had one too many and couldn’t make the curve. All of them died on the spot.
Some folks back home say she never found real love. A few say maybe she loved a married man in a nearby town who wouldn’t leave his wife and kids. Probably nobody knows for sure.
Sunday School and sixth grade were a long time ago, and high school too. He still remembers that little song she sang to him—some things you never forget. Sometimes he still dreams about her. Now and then he thinks about what might have been.
During visits with his grandchildren, he takes them to the playground most days, seven-year-old grandson follows a neighbor girl around like a puppy. She leads him on chases as she dashes from the swings to the jungle gym, goes across the monkey bars and down the slide, and runs back to the swings. Other times they chase each other playing tag.
One day they plopped down on the bench beside him for a short break. He saw his wife in his grandson’s face and smiled with contentment.
“You two want some gum?” he asked, handing his grandson a piece to tear in half. They shared and chewed and smacked, and the girl raced away, eluding his grandson again.
He leaned back to watch them, remembering when.
*Mikel Miller is a member of the Ajijic Writers Group and co-founder of the Lincoln and Mexico Project to inform people about Abraham Lincoln’s support for Mexico.