It was just before 4 am, and the house was quiet except for my brother snoring on the bunk above me. I hadn’t slept well, but I don’t tend to sleep well when the world is coming to an end. (Why bother?) I looked at the clock again and maybe the hands had moved backward… I knew what I had to do, even as I dreaded doing it. There was no choice, and my heart rattled and I was sure it would wake everyone in the house.
I rolled out of bed, grabbed the old red sweatpants with the white stripe I’d left where I could find them in the dark. Blood rushed in my ears and for a moment I thought I’d pass out. Maybe that would be better, except someone might find me in my clothes and wonder what I’d been up to.
I’d oiled the window’s glides again the night before to make sure it would open silently. Gently undid the latch, and lifted. The air still smelled like summer, even if tomorrow (today!) was the first day of school. I wasn’t ready for ninth grade. At least, I wasn’t ready to face it without her.
We’d met after my debut performance in the middle school production of Oliver. I was a 13 year-old Bill Sykes – if not the terror of London then certainly of our tiny stage. I’d grown my hair long, as I figured old Bill might have done, and I didn’t wash it for a week before the performance. My inspired take on the character was to shout all of my lines, raging and spitting at my fellow actors and at the audience.
On opening night I experienced a double shock that would color much of my subsequent experience. The first surprise came when I re-entered the stage for my bow, fresh with some fake blood I’d smeared on my temple to show the audience exactly how I’d perished during the play. Stepping out from the curtains and into blinding light, I was unprepared for the erupting sound of cheers and boos from the crowd. Those, and also… the sound of girls shrieking? It was a sound I’d heard when I saw a documentary about the Beatles on PBS. For me? I remember thinking right then: This is one of life’s highlights, and there won’t be many better than this one. So far, so true.
Afterward I was in the dressing room – actually, the band rehearsal room – hiding behind the tympani as I changed my clothes. The air was riotous with teenage boy sounds – shouting, laughing, farting and all that. Ted Burger, the real star of the show and my imagined rival, came in and yelled: “BORD! Someone out here wants to meet you, and I think you’re going to like her…”
Whoa. It was the ultimate summons from Ted, who was in a league beyond the rest of us. He’d been dating a ninth grader all month and it was rumored he’d gotten to third base. (I didn’t really know what the bases represented, but third was something we aspired to.) He had a weird grin that seemed at once mocking and impressed. I was so taken aback by his invitation, I went through the door without realizing I’d left my pants on the drums.
Even thirty years later, I remember the scene and how it felt. Sparkling eyes so brown I couldn’t tell where the pupils ended and irises began. Dark, curly hair. Sweater-encased breasts that made me suddenly aware of what all the fuss was about. Braces, shiny lips smiling. I smelled vanilla. My awareness narrowed and it seemed there was nobody else in the hall except the two of us; I had a difficult time hearing Ted’s voice, which might have been coming from the next room: “Chris Bord, this is Kym Morgan. She enjoyed the show.”
Show? What show? I gradually became aware that someone was laughing. Everything returned in a rush and I became aware of something else: AUTHORITY.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING OUT HERE WITH NO PANTS ON? WHY ARE THESE PEOPLE BACKSTAGE? GET OUT OF HERE!”
I was saved from needing a response by a loud wet raspberry sound followed by new peals of hilarity. A bare bottom was thrust from the boys’ changing room, with two words crudely smudged across the pale skin: BITE ME. This distracted the teacher long enough for me to grab Kym’s hand and pull her out of the hall, into the wings of the now dark theater. As the doors closed behind us I could hear Mrs. Bourdage yelling at Ass Man (probably Jim Root, resident joker), “YOU THINK I’VE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THAT BEFORE? I’M A MARRIED WOMAN, BUDDY, AND LET ME TELL YOU I’VE SEEN BETTER THAN WHAT YOU’RE SHOWING…”
Silence where we were, in a moment outside of time. Leftover heat and sweat in the dusty curtains. Vanilla. I would love the theater forever.
Hands clasped together, nothing spoken for a long time. I was in new territory, and figured maybe this was Heaven.
Fast forward seven months. In that time, I’d expanded my knowledge of so many things… Love, kissing, breakups and reconciliations, the politics and strategies of dating, the mechanical difficulties of underwire bras. I’d loved and hurt more than I’d thought possible, and everything had ended on the final night of summer, our last moment together. Her family was moving to Connecticut, impossibly far away, and we’d never see each other again. I’d known it was coming since the beginning of summer, but summers last forever when you’re young. Now everything was over.
I lifted one leg out through my bedroom window and held the sill with both hands. I shifted my weight and pulled my other leg through, lowered myself until I was hanging from the window edge, and I found the edge of the porch roof with my right foot. It was harder to get back in than it was to get out, because I needed to jump a short distance back to the window edge, and use upper body strength to pull myself back into the room. There were a few black scuffs under the window where my feet had dragged in the past, scrambling to get my body high enough to regain leverage. Once I’d even dropped onto the lilac bush below, snapping several branches and scraping myself in the process. My parents had noticed none of the evidence, as far as I could tell.
From the roof it was a short drop to the wooden railing below, then the ground and I was home free for a while. The danger was in leaving and again upon returning – once gone, the time was mine without immediate consequence regardless of whether my absence was discovered in the meantime.
I jogged a bit to make sure I wouldn’t be late. Part of me knew it was pointless – there wasn’t anything to be late for, and I was foolish to expect otherwise. The air was cool and damp with the promise of autumn, and there was a thin mist hanging a few feet above the ground. Streetlights cast amber light and created hazy pools through which I ran.
On that first night, Kym and I had attended the cast party together. She didn’t mention that I had no pants on, even when I’d had to leave her side to retrieve them from the band room. On my way back out I looked in the mirror and saw long, greasy hair over a face covered in smeared makeup, and eyes that burned with a passion I’d never seen before. I didn’t recognize this new version of myself.
At the party, Kym and I were inseparable. I wasn’t interested in food or music or anything else except her face, her eyes, and her hands in mine. Our first kiss was technically my second kiss ever, but it was my first real one. I’d had a girlfriend who’d broken up with me because I’d been afraid to kiss her. Despite three weeks of scheming the best she’d gotten from me was a quick, desperate brush of lips as we said good night on her front steps, and we were finished the next day. My issue wasn’t with the concept of kissing; I simply had no idea what to do once the kiss started.
That night, Kym took care of everything for both of us. We were sitting on those institutional school chairs, the ones that weigh 50 pounds and can survive a three-story drop from a biology classroom window, and I turned to say something inconsequential. She was close and she pulled my face into hers. Open mouths connected. Juicyfruit. I hadn’t tasted it before, and when I smell it now I experience a momentary out-of-body sensation. I felt her tongue on mine, and again the rest of the world faded away; the difference this time was the electricity. We stayed locked together for a minute or maybe an hour, and just when I began to wonder about breathing,
I broke the connection, and as I did I saw Ted double over in laughter. Mrs. Bourdage stood immediately behind us, and when Kym and I leaned back to look at her, she edged her hip between us and slid our chairs apart. I liked Mrs. Bourdage, but I’d never been reprimanded in school before. Now I’d been in her sights twice in the same evening, which didn’t bode well for the rest of my year in her science class.
“MR. BORD. MISS MORGAN. I DON’T WANT TO HAVE TO ASK YOU TO LEAVE, BUT PLEASE BE AWARE THAT THERE ARE YOUNG PEOPLE PRESENT. COME TO THINK OF IT, YOU BOTH STILL QUALIFY AS YOUNG PEOPLE. LET’S ENGAGE IN SOME MORE CONSTRUCTIVE PURSUIT, SHALL WE? THE ART OF CONVERSATION, PERHAPS?”
Ted: “BORD! You’re out of control!” I’d been prepared for some level of humiliation but Ted’s reaction signaled the rest of our group to not only approve, but to express awe at my exploits.
“That was cool.”
“DEFINITELY one for the books.”
“Can I be next?”
Kym whispered in my ear, “You’re a great kisser. How’s that for the art of conversation?”
She was out of my league. Her crowd was cool; I wasn’t, notwithstanding Ted’s recent acceptance of me. For some reason, she adored me. Gratefulness drove me to unprecedented lengths to earn her love. I wrote endless letters, filled with poems and songs. I spent hours creating mix tapes. I baked for her, and I washed her father’s car.
She taught me about music. (By default, I’d been an Adult Contemporary fan my entire life – my parents didn’t listen to anything else, and it never occurred to me there were options. The first LP record I’d purchased had been Barry Manilow’s Even Now.) She taught me how to attend parties. She used two of those occasions to break up with me, demonstrating something else I’d never considered: the safety of crowds when negotiating troublesome relationship issues. On other occasions she patched things up again – no big deal for her but terrible, invasive surgery on my heart.
Kym also taught me how to sneak out of the house. On weekdays during that summer she’d had to babysit her brother, so our daytimes were curtailed. Instead, two or three times a week we’d meet at 4:30 am, halfway between our houses. So far, I’d never been caught, although she hinted that her parents knew what she was doing, and I wondered if mine did, too.
At 4:28 am on the first day of school, as I reached the street we’d met on so many times before, I slowed to a walk. I called out to her in my mind, trying anything. She’d said we couldn’t meet, because everyone in her house was going to be up early, packing. Our goodbye the night before had been awful – the worst ever, because something other than her whim would now separate us completely. I was ready for the long distance relationship – anything to keep the embers burning. I’d bought postage stamps the previous day, and a stack of cards from the Hallmark store. I was as ready as I could be, but I couldn’t let her go.
“PLEASE meet me tomorrow morning. We can do it earlier.”
“I can’t. Kiss me goodbye.”
We’d kissed. It was the hundredth time and the first. I put everything I had into that moment, and then I cried the entire trip home on my bike. In front of my house I misjudged the curb and I flew over the handlebars, landing in a heap on my front lawn.
One last time. One last morning. It was impossible she’d be there, but I needed to be. No way I was going to spend the rest of my life wondering what might have happened –
In the distance, through the mist, a shadow. As my pulse raced, the shadow materialized into a figure, still too far away and too dark to see clearly. Even so, every part of me knew it had to be her. Afraid to break the spell, I didn’t run. We met as we always did, at the same time and at the same spot. I’d never believed in magic until that moment.
For Kym, RIP. Jan 25, 1968 – Jan 25, 2010