I balanced a blackboard on my shoulder in line with three other female cast members of “Our Miss Brooks”. Our assignment was to carry a chalk board from a second floor English classroom onto our first floor middle school stage in preparation for that night’s dress rehearsal. My eyelids were lined with thick black pencil-- the kohl corners stuck out beyond the edges of my brown glasses. A silk Chinese gown minced my steps. The blackboard pulled heavily on my shoulder.
I worried about tearing my Shangri-La costume before Opening night, so I flipped my arm positions. I used my left hand to brace the unsteady chalk board while my right arm made a giant L shape to try to save my blue silk sleeve.
It was in this awkward pose, with both hands busy with work and my shy cheek shoved against green slate, that I received my first kiss.
I don’t know whose bright idea it was for the four skinny armed seventh grade girls to carry the chalk board while the two Captains of the Boys Track team held open doors and hollered unhelpful instructions, yet that was the situation that presented itself. Amy, Molly S, Bonnie and I held grimly onto the chalk board, while Ryan and Troy critiqued our efforts. The conversation quickly changed from which girl wasn’t holding her end up evenly to which girl could be deemed worth of a kiss.
“That Abby is so tiny, she’s too short to kiss!” said Troy as he helpfully pointed out that my short stature and wimpy arm muscles made it virtually impossible to lift my end of the chalk board down the narrow auditorium steps.
“Look at her, she’s turning red. You’re so little Abby, I bet you’ve never been kissed. Have you, Abby? Has anyone ever stooped to kiss you?”
I shoved my face against my section of the chalk board in a futile attempt to hide my blushing cheeks. “Just ignore that boy, “ I thought. “Just ignore him!” The status of which girls had made it past first base and which girls had “lost their cherry’ was a maddeningly popular topic among middle school boys in public school.
“I’d kiss Abby” Ryan said.
If it was possible to dissolve completely into a blackboard, I wished hard for that super power. Ryan was open to kissing me? Ryan? The male lead in the middle school play? The head celloist in Jones Junior High Orchestra?
Ryan was a year older than me and from a different academic cluster. I first met him as the lead in our Winter Class Play. Since that first rehearsal, I saw him everywhere. As the Boys Track Team Captain. A soloist in the School Choir. Somehow the harsh ranking of acting talent from the casting list filtered down into my head. I was only Dolores, a character with a measly seven and half lines. Ryan was the lead. If there was any dating relationships that came out of the middle school play, “going together” as we quaintly coined the term, I assumed it was between people with equal acting parts. As a result, I hadn’t said more than four words to Ryan during four months of rehearsals.
‘You wouldn’t!” Troy through down the dare.
“Yes, I would!” Ryan replied.
“Do it right now! So I can see it.”
Ryan walked over a few steps and kissed me on the cheek. I had my eyes clenched so tightly that my cheek felt like a hard squash ball.
The next day, I gleefully yanked my best friend Shannon into the girl’s bathroom in order to share my new secret. “I got kissed for the first time last night!” Once the few details were shared, Shannon lost some of her original wonder
“You were holding a chalk board and he just walked up and kissed you? In front of everyone?” Shannon said. “That doesn’t sound very good.” Shannon was first violinist in our school Orchestra and spoke with the voice of authority: “That doesn’t sound like Ryan.”
“Well the point isn’t that the exact circumstances that my first kiss happened were less than ideal,” I said defensively. “The point is that now we know he likes me. And I got kissed. None of our other friends can say that.”
I remember Shannon looked sort of wearily at me. I stopped meeting her gaze and started focusing on the smeary pink tiles behind her head. “Our bathroom is certainly dirty” I thought distractedly. The girls bathroom smelled of stale cigarette smoke, rotten bananas, and strong disinfectant.
“This wasn’t the setting I’d imagined for sharing the good news of my first kiss,” I thought. Shannon and I had been friends forever. Since we were babies in third grade we imagined our first kiss would happen and how we’d feel afterwards. A bathroom never figured into our romantic notions. “This conversation about Ryan would be so much better beneath the cherry trees outside. To bad it’s raining today.” Yes that was the reason I felt all weird inside. The setting of the dirty pink girl’s bathroom. “This wasn’t the setting I imaged sharing my first kiss.” I thought.
When I reimagine the chalkboard kiss scene in the present day, Mother Mary is with me. She cloaks my head in her mystical blue veil. “Stay away from my daughter!” she says sternly when the boy’s teasing begin. No one would dare steal an unkind, unchaste kiss from a holy daughter with Mary around. No one would sully a writer’s memory with a green chalk board, a mincing silk costume, a stinky bathroom or a crowd of witnesses.
She was there beside me at the time of my first kiss, but I didn’t know her yet. I didn’t know that I was a Catholic. I knew her son Jesus in a vague “we go to Methodist Church an hour a week” sort of way. I didn’t haven prayer on a moment-by-moment basis back then. So I didn’t pray after that kiss. I didn’t ask for help or guidance. Instead, I focused on being happy that someone thought I was kissable despite by horn-rimmed glasses and shy cheeks. I hoped I could have a coveted eighth grade boyfriend, especially one who was smart, ran track and played the cello.
At the cast party five days later, Ryan motioned for me to sit on his lap when we ran out of chairs at the cast party. I sat with my knees primly posed together and crossed my ankles. One hand rested in my lap. Yet, I didn’t know where to put my other hand. I worried it would be too forward if I rested it on his shoulders or accidentally touched his back. So I sat for twenty minutes with my arm ridged at a 45-degree angle, my hand curled in a fist. I didn’t want to look like I was hugging him. I didn’t want to assume anything before he spoke of dating me.
Ryan asked me to “go with him” that night. He kissed me again. Track practice started. I was a hurdler and I was awful. I had a persistent anxiety that I would slam my kneecap into a hurdle, so I would over jump the hurdle by a good three inches. That mistake added seconds to my time. After forty minutes of my frustrated coach yelling “Lower Abby, lower,” our extra events practice would end.
I wait for Ryan to finish relay hand-off practice with freshly bruised shins and sore feet. My boyfriend, the Track Captain ran the anchor leg for the 4 x 800 relay. Then he’d walk me home.
We lived in completely opposite directions. Ryan lived a mile Northeast of our middle school and I lived a mile south. Yet he’d always start me off on my walk home. As the weeks past, we start taking crazier and crazier routes home in order to spend more time together. Each day I measured the distance he walked out of his way with pleasure. One day he walked all the way to his front door. “You added an extra two miles to my commute home,” he said with a laugh. I felt like I’d finally ribboned in a great race.
Only a few weeks after this great event, I heard a school rumor that he actually liked a fellow eighth grade artist named Kit, who happened to be my next door neighbor. Kitt was a loner in our sunny suburban middle school. She wore black berets and talked insatiably about running away to drama school in NYC.
“Do you like Kit? Would you rather be dating her?” I asked one day, with my useless clarinet case banging against a shaking leg.
“Don’t be silly, Abby. We’re fine. Besides, Kit would never date me. She’s into high school boys.” That wasn’t the reassuring message I’d hoped to hear. I cried all during my private clarinet lesson that afternoon, which made my reed all wet and squeaky.
“This is useless,” my clarinet teacher rolled her eyes in disgust at my sentimental middle school behavior and sent me home early. I didn’t tell my surprised Mother why I was leaving early.
Yet that night, I asked God in my own quiet way. I curled up in tears under the reassuring presence of my desk. On nights that I couldn’t sleep, I’d pull my pillow and bedspread under my study desk and listen to the reassuring lisp of the air conditioning vent.
That night I dreamed about sailing. My favorite summer activity each July was to sail my grandfather’s rainbow Sunfish out to the sandy Isthmus on Crooked Lake. Alone with the wind was my favorite time to think. In my dream that night, I’d made it all across the lake to Graham Point. There was a huge party on the beach and all of my favorite friends were roasting marshmallows on a bonfire. “You made it!” they called. I stood on tiptoe looking through the crowd of happy greeters, but Ryan couldn’t be found. “He isn’t here” I said.
I woke up crying. I knew that that dream meant. By July, Ryan and I wouldn’t be dating anymore.
“It’s just a dream,” I told myself. “The whole thing doesn’t make any sense. Ryan doesn’t live anywhere near Crooked Lake. Why would I expect to see him after a Sunfish race?”
Yet I knew the truth in my heart. I was used to “seeing things” in my dreams.
Ryan and I kept dating months after the ruined clarinet lesson. Yet I knew it was only a manner of time. One sunny June day I ran into him at the middle school swimming pool. I was so happy to see him. He was playing catch with some boys in the shallow end. I was heading to the snack bar to buy some treats for my baby brother. He waved at me and jumped out of the pool. I felt so grand standing there in my slick Speedo swimsuit with a pink whale towel wrapped confidentially around my waist.
“I’m going into high school now, “Ryan told me all wet & shiny in the summer sun. ‘It’s nothing personal. I just can’t date an eighth grader when I’m in ninth grade. I’ll catch up with you this time next year.” I remember focusing on his perfectly formed runners feet. It hurt so much to see something so beautiful that I couldn’t touch.
“I’ll get him back next year. I just have to wait a while” I told myself and I threw myself into activities during the next school year. I tried out for Show Choir and Musical Theater. I joined service clubs and finally got perfect scores on my Spanish Exams. I dated several nice guys. One guy named Andy brought me carnations on Valentines Day and talked to me about his science fair project of hydroaquadric tomatoes. He got his Mom to drive us to “The Fly.” I dumped him after he quit the Track team. “We never see each other anymore,” I said. Everything I did had a tiny check mark beside it. I was still “Ryan’s girl” at heart.
Two weeks before I was supposed to enter ninth grade at the coveted Upper Arlington High School, we moved 300 miles away. Even thought we returned to Columbus often to visit family, I never had the courage to call Ryan. I made some vague hints to mutual friends, yet I never found out where he attended college.
Yet four years after our pool side break-up, one of the first things I thought when I decided to try out for the Smith College Debate Team was "maybe I'll see Ryan again." For years I would show up at random East Coast Colleges with hope. Yale, Princeton, Bowdon, Swarthmore. I kept expecting to run into Ryan on a foreign campus as I walked jauntily to a debate round with my pretty shoes and tidy scarves. “Oh, fancy seeing you again. I didn’t know you went to school here!” I practiced in front of lonely college dorm mirrors with my best actress inflection.
Yet I never saw Ryan again. Despite years of prayer, God never gave me the chance to win him back.
My grandmother Jean married the first boy she kissed. She and my Grandfather George remained happily married for fifty-seven years. Grandma Virginia married a neighbor boy who walked her to their first grade class. She and Grandpa Bob made it to year sixty-three. I married at age 26 to kiss number twenty. The world says it’s better my way. Yet I have to think that Jesus prefers my grandmothers' pace.
If I had it to do over again the ending would be the same. I'd still choose to never meet up with Ryan on a college campus filled with vivid fall colors. Yet my beginning would be totally different.
In my imagination, I would hold onto that chalk board and pray to dear Mother Mary to hide myself in the purity of her heart. I'd ask her to prevent my first kiss from happening at all. I ask her to let me save my first real kiss for Jon.