Thursday, November 02, 2006

Three little words

When I was growing up, both of my parents worked full-time, which meant that until I was 11 or so, I went to some kind of day care after school. I was fine to be home alone for a few hours by age nine, but I would get bored, so when I was in the fifth grade, my dad found an after school program for me at the downtown YMCA in Knoxville. I only remember three kids from the program: Kathy, John and Brian, John's little brother. I also remember the counselor--he was a bearded, gruff man who didn't seem suited for his job. We all liked him a lot and he treated us like little adults and didn't monitor our behavior very closely.We used all the facilities at the Y, which meant we swam and did some rudimentary gymnastics. We also went on a few field trips to Tyson's park and took at least one illicit and very short ride on our counselor's motorcycle.

When I arrived on the scene, all the other kids had been coming to the program for a while--at least long enough that their relationships were already established. In particular, John and Kathy were a couple. The problem was, as soon as John and I met, we fell for each other. I didn't do anything about it. He had a girlfriend and he was younger than me. I was in the fifth grade and he was only in the third grade.

Kathy knew what was going on and she was not pleased with either of us. I felt bad about the whole thing. John wanted to hold my hand, but I wouldn't let him, because of Kathy. We saw each other every day, but not for very long, so our time was precious, and Kathy was always there. One day, Kathy pulled me aside and said, "I know you didn't mean for this to happen so it's ok. I'm not angry. I know you like John a lot and you couldn't help it. We can all be friends." That let us come out in the open and we were able to hold hands, at least when the counselor wasn't looking, though I'm sure he knew very well what was going on. We took this all very seriously and I remember how it felt: very serious.

The first time we kissed was at Tyson's park, which contained some lovely, complicated play structures. We sat, cross-legged on the ground in a hidden enclosed space, looking into each other's eyes. John said, "You're beautiful." I didn't know how to respond. I didn't really believe him. I blushed. He leaned forward and kissed me on the lips. We heard the counselor calling and we ran to the van that would take us back to the Y.

John wanted me to tell him I loved him. I couldn’t say it. We had swimming lessons and John and I were alone for a moment in our "class" room after everyone else went to the locker room. He said, "I love you." I was silent. He asked, "Can you say it?" I stood there in the dark, the lights turned before we left the room. He walked to the door and I stood by the wall, my mouth open, but without words. I whispered, "I love you" but I don't know if he heard me. I didn't know it would be so hard to say.

Once, later, my dad took me to John's house for what I think we would now call a "play-date." I don't think our parents knew that we were boyfriend-girlfriend. The little brother hung around for most of the day. But we had a few minutes alone in John's room. He said, "You're my main girlfriend."

I said, "Really. You have other girlfriends."

John said, "A couple, but you’re my main girlfriend."

"You don't have any other girlfriends. I'm your only girlfriend."

"No…I mean…"

"Well, you're my main boyfriend then."

It's funny how early we start to play these games. First, I felt hurt, then bemused. Because it was John and me and neither of us was interested in anyone else. We couldn't be.

At the end of that year, I was moving to DC and we were both very said. Even so, there was no talk of writing or otherwise staying in touch. He wrote me a note in my autograph book that said, "I love you, I will miss you." I still have that note.

I stayed in touch with my best friend Carla for several years after moving and she passed some messages and at least one letter along to John (they ended up attending the same school the year after I moved). But that was it. I never saw him or talked to him again. That memory does make me a little sad. What was he, two years younger? Three? Meaningless now. I wonder if that kind of attraction lasts. If I saw him again, would I recognize him? Would I still feel the same pull?

The last time I wrote about a grade-school boyfriend, someone asked if I would want to find out what happened to him. My answer was no. If you asked that about John, the answer is easy and different. The first time I was on my own back in Knoxville--it was during grad school and I was there for a regatta--I looked up John's name in the phone book. I wasn't sure if it was him, since he was a "junior" and I didn't call. Almost, but I didn't. Maybe I should have.

Grateful for: knowing the value of those words.

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