20 April 2016
The Matter of a Secret Kiss
Not to disappoint the reader, but this is not the story of my first love. There will be no lengthy descriptions of sexual freedom expressed, no hot-and-bothered groping sessions with adolescent me as main protagonist. If you ask for an account of my first love, I have only this to say: I have high hopes for this event that still lies in the future.
Therefore, I have decided to entertain you with a different kind of account. It’s not the story of my first kiss, that clumsily fumbling moment of exploration that my co-conspirator enjoyed much more than I did. It’s the story of a defining day in my life, shared by a young person I will never forget, though I’m quite sure the impact I had on her life was negligible.
It was my defining day, not hers although she played an important part in it. You may say that she already played an important part in my everyday life before she even acknowledged my existence. So important, in fact, that my best friend Gretchen commented on it one day.
“You have a total crush on that girl, don’t you?” Gretchen let herself fall onto my bed. She was bored of staring out the window, waiting for the moment next door’s Camille Foster would come home from school. A pastime I hadn’t yet tired of and wouldn’t for some time to come.
“I just want you to see her. You always complain about how Tena thinks she’s Tyra Banks, or someone, but isn’t that good looking. Now, Camille is, she’s gorgeous.”
“Total crush, as I said,” Gretchen countered.
“I do not have a crush on her. I just want you to see her. I…,” but I fell silent when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye which had still been on the lookout over next door’s driveway. And there she was. I had missed her friend’s car dropping her off, but I didn’t miss Camille walking up the driveway. And I stared.
At that moment, denying that I did indeed have a crush on her became a mute point. I could feel the flush in my cheeks, the smile that broke onto my lips. Then I noticed Gretchen coming to stand beside me. She must have noticed my staring.
“Mh-hm,” was all I could utter.
“Pretty,” I scoffed. To me, she was more beautiful than all the models in all the magazines. She was tall, without towering. She was self-possessed without any sign of arrogance. She seemed to care about her looks but in a cool, negligent way, like she wasn’t aware of her beauty at all. She was just perfect, why couldn’t Gretchen admit it?
“She isn’t a knock-out. I doubt Bran would give her the time of day if he knew her.” Gretchen went back to the bed and sat down, crossing her legs primly.
Bran – her favorite topic. My least favorite topic. Brandon Garfield and I were kind of dating, though those days I always found an excuse to not go any place where we would be alone and where he would start kissing and groping me. I wasn’t into it. He was. We didn’t really have anything in common, but high school etiquette insisted I have a boyfriend. I felt stupid about giving into those rules, but not stupid enough to stop pretending. I thought it was part of the game, the game where you pretended to want what everybody else wanted.
Gretchen had a crush on Bran, but he liked me. It was complicated because I had to pretend not to know about her crush, even though she’d talked about him for most of last year. It was stupid, really. Another stupid thing to do.
And then there was Camille and my crush on her. On that day, with Gretchen looking at me I admitted for the first time that it was indeed a crush. Girls look at girls all the time, usually in censure or comparison, sometimes in admiration. But the kind of staring exercise I engaged in on a daily basis was different. Might as well call it what it was: a big, fat crush. But then, I couldn’t imagine how anyone could not crush on Camille Foster – she was perfect.
Gretchen didn’t think so, though, and I felt disappointed in her. We’d always shared our crushes, at least until we were about 15, then her crushes got decidedly real in both our lives. I can’t even say if I had liked any boys since then. Certainly not in the way I was drawn to my next door neighbor.
When I say next door neighbor you imagine two identical suburban homes sitting side-by-side, probably with my bedroom window looking into hers. Well, don’t let your lively imagination fool you. While suburban, the Foster house stood across the street and much grander than our three bedroom home. I had always looked at that house and wondered at the kind of architect who had decided that the side street would be the barrier between the wealthy and the middle class-y. The houses further down from ours looked like ours, but the ones going toward town were bigger, beginning with the one the Fosters had moved into only two months prior.
This barrier was visible in the houses, the cars our parents drove, the front lawns, even the lawn mowers. And it was possibly the reason Camille had never looked at me while I never stopped looking at her. You’re looking toward better, not worse, and we had never shared a gaze, never a word. My dad waved at her dad when he happened to drive by their house when Mr. Foster was out, that was all the contact between our families. Fathers waving. But the side street separating us was too wide for more.
Until that fateful day, my defining day, when I was standing in line to pay for an assortment of snacks at the residential Wal-Mart. I hadn’t even noticed Camille at first with the couple fussing over their groceries in front of me. But as she was turning sideways toward the cashier, my heart did that weird stumbling thing and I knew. I was about to stare as she turned toward me, looking directly at me with a slightly embarrassed smile.
“You don’t happen to have an extra dollar on you, do you?”
At that moment, several things became wonderfully clear: she knew who I was; she had seen me before I’d seen her, and she knew I was there. My heart did a little happy dance as my brain tried to catch up with her request. Money. I reached for my wallet and opened it. Without even thinking whether I would be able to pay for my own purchases, I pulled out a dollar and handed it to her. She smiled, I grew three inches.
And then she was gone. She left without as much as a backward glance toward her savior from certain public humiliation – or at least from having to leave a candy bar behind. And I waited patiently for the couple in front of me to store all their bags in their shopping cart, pay, leave.
I left the store still contemplating what had happened, still wondering if we would talk again. I didn’t care about the money, though I desperately wanted her to return it, just because then she would talk to me. How pathetic I was. But crushing makes you pathetic. It can also stop your brain from working as happened a few moments after I left the mart.
“Lollipop?” Camille was leaning against an outside wall, her arm outstretched to offer me the candy.
“Huh?” It was more from the overall shock of having her talk to me than in question of her offer. I wasn’t sure what was happening in my life at that moment, because it looked like a situation I might have made up in my mind. A precious situation where I finally got to know my crush and so, of course, my brain stalled. It never had in one of my fantasies, meaning that on some level at least I knew this was real.
“I thought you might want a lollipop as compensation for saving my life in there? No? Yes?”
“Yes!” My brain had decided, my voice burst forth.
Camille grinned. “I’m Camille, by the way. I never got your name. You live across the street from us, right?”
I took the lolly from her, trying to be nonchalant about it but felt really dorky. It was cherry, my favorite. “Well, it’s more like next door, but… yeah. I’m Shauna, hi.” I put out my hand.
Camille looked at it bemusedly but then took it, shook it formally and let go again. “So, Shauna,” she said, linking our arms and pulling me to a walk away from the store. “What’s with the serious snack-attack in your bag? You trying to get over a boy, or something? I saw a lot of chocolate.”
I blushed. “No, I… ehm, I… study-session.”
“Oh, something important? Can’t be exam time at your school yet, can it?”
It wasn’t. I just wanted to get an assignment for my English class underway, because I wanted an A+ as per usual. But I wasn’t going to blurt that out. Camille was attending a private school, so there were probably a lot of nerds in her school and I didn’t want her to think I was one too – even if I was just a tiny bit nerdy.
“No, nothing important.”
“Cool, then you’ll come with me, yeah? You can show me the hip spots the local cool cats hang.”
I was laughing at that. Cool cats, seriously?
“What did I say?” Camille was smiling and my heart skipped a beat.
“Nothing, but I wouldn’t really know any cool… people. I’m not that cool.”
“Well, you just borrowed someone you don’t even know a dollar. In my book, that’s cool. You’ll get it back, of course. We can go back to my place and I can give it to you right now.”
“It’s okay, it’s only a dollar. We could go to the mall,” I suggested.
“The mall? Is that where your friends hang?”
I shrugged non-committally. Some of my classmates would probably hang out there, yes, but they weren’t really my friends. They had cars and steady boyfriends.
“I have another idea. You game?”
I nodded and she dragged me along. I felt the heat of her skin where it touched mine, I felt the silent joy of being the person she wanted to spend time with. The day had just gone from ordinary to perfect, even though the clouds hung low in the late September heat. There was going to be a rainstorm, you could smell it, but for now, the weather merely threatened.
We took the bus downtown. She told me about her car being in the shop for a paint job since some “complete asshat” had keyed the driver’s side. That was obviously why she was taking rides with friends from school now. I sympathized even though I didn’t even own a car. My parents believed that I should be the one paying for something like a car, that it would make me a better person if I learned the value of things right along. I wasn’t too bummed about it. School wasn’t that far away and I had a bike. It only sucked in winter, but then it sucked big time.
We talked about school a little, she didn’t seem ambitious but had her favorite subjects. Topics turned to everything under the sun. Since we didn’t know each other, every topic brought revelations. She was different from what I’d imagined she’d be, but that was better because it kept reminding me that this was real. We got off the bus in a part of town I’d never been to. This was no big surprise since I didn’t go to town all that much unless it was with my parents or a special outing. I didn’t just board the bus and took the 30-minute trip and the fact that my parents didn’t know where I was right now, made me a little uneasy.
“Over there!” Camille pointed at a shop called “Toner” which had guitars hanging from strings in the window. They formed a melody, Camille told me. The first few chords of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
“How do you know the place? I thought you just moved here?”
“Nah, we just moved from the city to the suburbs. I got into some trouble in my old neighborhood so it seemed a good time to move. Also, mom got a promotion and they could finally afford to send me to that snobby private school.”
“But you do have friends there, don’t you?” I asked as we entered the shop.
“I’m not a social pariah, Shaun, I get along all right. Just don’t like those uniforms and the high-and-mighty attitude of some of the faculty. The kids’re okay, mostly. ’Course there’s always some guys wanting you to put out, but I bet that’s no different from your school, is it?”
I shook my head and felt my face flush up to the top of my ears.
“Gotcha! You got a boyfriend then, don’t you?”
I was aware that I had dodged the question once before and couldn’t really think of a way to do it again. “I’m going out with someone. Sometimes. I don’t know, I think maybe we’re over. I’m not giving him the time of day.”
“If it doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t feel right. Don’t feel bad about it. Boys are pushovers at that age. It’s a boy, right? Not a teacher?” Camille winked at me.
I blushed even more, although Brandon wasn’t a teacher. Of course, he wasn’t, the idea just struck me as completely inappropriate and ridiculous.
“No, Brandon’s a boy… a guy. He’s my age.”
“Brandon. Do white people still call their kids that?” Camille shook her head. She was going about the shop, looking at guitars. There was quite an assortment of instruments on display, but guitars dominated one wall. I went over to a keyboard, looked at some drums. I wasn’t musical, but my parents had paid for piano lessons for some years and I knew my way around sheet music.
“Hey, Shaun! What do you think?”
I turned and saw her holding an acoustic guitar. It suited her, I could tell from the way my skin started to prickle with sweat. Camille only needed an instrument like that to make her even sexier.
I nodded. “Looks good,” I croaked.
“Yo, Cammi. Don’t break it, ’kay!” The guy who’d come from the back of the store addressed her. He was wearing dreads and seemed to know Camille well. He walked over to her and they hugged awkwardly over the instrument she was still holding. “You like?”
“She’s a beauty. But 375 seems a little steep, don’t you think? It’s second hand, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, like you couldn’t afford it. Heard your parents got loaded up some.”
“They won’t just spring for a guitar they don’t think I need. And I’m not in the money, as you know.”
He laughed kind of high-pitched. “Some things never change.”
“Laugh it up, Rufus. I could give you 250. How about it?”
Rufus shook his dreads. “You know I only work here. I can’t just give my friends a 125 dollar discount, you know that. I can talk to Marcus, but I doubt he’ll go that low. 350, perhaps, but never 250.”
Camille sighed and handed the instrument to him. “Talk to him. And don’t tell him it’s me or he’ll say 400.”
Rufus laughed again and shook a finger at Camille. Then he noticed me. “She with you?”
“That’s Shauna, my neighbor.”
Rufus nodded at me. “Hey, what’s up?” He whispered something to Camille which sounded like “What happened with Sara?”
Camille shook her head at him, a sure sign that she didn’t want to talk about it, or didn’t want to talk about it in front of me. I pretended not to notice and played some notes on a keyboard.
“You play?” Camille came over to me.
“A little. I had piano lessons for a while.”
“We could form a band,” Camille said and laughed.
I felt my innards twitch in delight at the idea, even though I had hated playing and hadn’t played in two years. I looked at Camille, but I didn’t think she was being serious. She took my arm and we left the shop, just strolling down the street.
We ended up at the Riverfront. The smell of the looming storm intensified near water, the clouds still threatening. I already saw us seeking shelter under some awning, but so far not a drop of rain had fallen. I love this kind of weather, the air electrified with the possibility of thunder, the pulse in my neck fluttering. But maybe that last one wasn’t because of the weather but the company.
Camille made it a point to link our arms like we were long-time friends. Could she possibly know what it did to me? She caught me looking at her more than once, but always smiled when she did. I blushed, yes, but didn’t look away. There was something going on between us, but it could have been the fantasy-part I had so far only dreamed about. The thing you read about in books, guessed at in movies via long, lingering looks. Did this kind of thing even have a place in the real world? Had we adopted it from media? Was it important?
Oh, but it was so important. At that moment, it was the most important question in my life: is this real? Did she feel the connection too? We stopped by the water, staring at it lost in thoughts. Her other hand found its way onto my arm, her thumb caressing my flesh. I got goosebumps and heart palpitations. How was she doing this? And was she aware that she was? My thoughts evaporated as I turned to look at her. She was more beautiful up close than should be legal.
“Don’t you love this place? I mean, if you can think about it without the people in it, without the hoards of tourists. Just… the city, the river, the air.” She sighed and it seemed to cut her in half. I felt the rip, but then she laughed self-consciously. “I’m being silly.”
“No. It’s a great place to live,” I said quickly, but my answer was inadequate. It couldn’t touch at the raw truth of her words, nor the sorrow of her sigh. She felt more than I did. The year that separated us in life might as well have been ten, fifteen. She was completely out of my league. And now I felt that sorrow. I looked back at the river.
“When I think of leaving for college in two years, I always think of this. The sight of the river. It’s what I’ll miss most,” I said after a while.
I felt Camille’s eyes on me then, and for the first time that day, it seemed completely normal. Like she’d looked at me often in our lives like I didn’t get sweaty and fidgety when she did it. “It has a strong pull. Have you thought about which colleges you’d like to go to?”
“My dad wants me to go to his alma mater, University of Kentucky, if you can believe it.”
Camille giggled. “My dad went to the University of Michigan, but he’d never suggest I’d go there.”
“Yeah, my mom thinks it’s ridiculous, too. Of course, she went to Smith.”
“An all-girls college? I guess there are worse things.”
I shrugged. I’ve never really considered going to a women’s college, though with my relationship to Brandon as it was, my crush on Camille, maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea. Not, that going to a women’s college decided your life in that way, my mom was mostly happily married to my dad, but still… or maybe not. It was too confusing to think about this now. It was still two years. Maybe I could somehow make my dream come true and go to Stanford. Maybe I could get a scholarship. Maybe I could grow wings and fly away.
“Where do you wanna go?” I asked.
“I’ve set my eyes on Columbia or NYU. I wanna go to New York.”
“Wow.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say. The idea of her leaving deepened my sorrow. I just wanted to hold onto her and concentrated on the point where her thumb still caressed my skin. It was comforting.
“Yeah, but it’s tough competition. I don’t know, maybe I’ll stay here. I’m gonna miss this place.”
And for some reason, I took it to mean she’d miss me.
We were on the bus back when it started to rain, fat drops hit the windows all around us. There weren’t many people on the bus, all of them sitting in front while we sat in the far back. Camille sat on the seat in front of me, her long legs stretched out, her back against the window. She was looking at me.
“I hope you’re not sorry you missed your study session?”
I had to laugh. “No, I’m good. There’s still time.”
Her smile was sly and, oh, so sexy. It made my pulse flutter.
“Look at this mess,” she said, pointing outside. “All you can do in this weather is curl up on the couch with some coffee and a book. Nasty.”
I knew what that meant: our day together was over. I was yearning for a repeat, of course, but wasn’t sure I should ask her. She was older and she had been in charge all day, dragging me into stores and down sidewalks. We had behaved like tourists, like little girls, like bullies, but all in good fun. I’d taken my lead from her and now I felt like floating in thin air because we were going to part. It was silly, but I already felt anchorless.
“You could come over,” I suggested, my voice uncharacteristically low almost hoarse.
“Sorry, but on weekends my parents insist we eat at least one meal together. I was lucky we caught this bus or I would have been late. My mom always makes a big deal of it, you know.”
“Oh, okay. I just thought…”
“Hey, Shaun, you okay there? I mean, it was just, you know, fun.”
I nodded, but there were tears threatening behind my eyes. It was so silly. And then I looked at Camille, cool, collected Camille who was more beautiful than any human being had a right to be. Without thinking, I leaned forward, almost jumping out of my seat, and put my lips to hers. Just like that.
Thinking about it later, on the way home, in my room at night, all weekend, so many days after, my mind conjured this perfect memory. As if there had been no doubt, as if this kiss was perfect and our story ended with it, started with it too. The first kiss of a couple in a movie, in a song, in a book. Truth be told, though, I completely overreached, my teeth touching her lips. And she pulled away just a little. But then she pushed forward, showing me what a kiss can feel like.
I still get goosebumps just thinking about it. She was gentle and insistent, just a really good kisser while I fumbled. But she taught me. Her lips, her tongue, the time she took to completely engage. And then she leaned back. I fell back into my seat, watching her. She had her eyes closed, for a moment she looked almost blissful then a frown creased the skin between her eyes. She opened them, pinning me with their chocolaty intensity.
“I have a girlfriend, you know.”
Did I feel crushed? You bet. But it wasn’t such a big surprise. She was gorgeous, she was 17 and simply gorgeous. Of course, she had a girlfriend. Of course, I wasn’t it. And we would never do this again, now that I completely smothered her with my unwanted (or almost unwanted) affections. I felt the loss, but I also felt that I had been given a gift. The gift of my first meaningful kiss.
So many things fell into place that night, so many things were being left unsaid, but somehow cleared up for me. I didn’t like boys. Boys didn’t make me feel like Camille made me feel. Boys were nothing to me but friends and relatives. I could go on living from now on, never kissing a boy again and it would be all right. I breathed easier (at least until I thought about coming out), I was going to be all right.
This is not the story of my first love, dear reader. Camille and I weren’t meant to be. We would wave at each other from our respective driveways, we would sometimes engage in idle conversation. I saw her over Christmas when I was visiting my parents and she hers (she’d gone to the University of Michigan after all). She’s still gorgeous, she’s still impulsive and fun, but she’s also not for me. I met her partner, Denize, tall, broad-shouldered and handsome. Now, that’s a good match!
Me, I’m still looking. Yes, I date, but I kind of enjoy holing up in the library half the night with my research more than an awkward conversation with a woman I hardly know.
Love. I don’t feel old enough to embark on that adventure. I don’t have that much to give. And I feel that later is a better time. You will think me foolish, dear reader, but we all need to take our own time. I’m 21, I’ve got a whole world of love ahead of me. If I could just read one more book before that, write one more poem, or take one more walk down the Riverfront, alone, just breathing. I’ll find my love, or I’ll be found by her. And that will make for an epic love story, one you may even one day read about.