Before I turned ten, my memories are streaked and watery and sepia-toned, like photographs that have faded with time and too much sunlight. I remember only snatches of things, as if they are calliope music from far away or the discordant tones of the ice-cream truck that fade in and out as you scramble for money. Before fifth grade, I hardly remember anything because my mind was still forming, still full of amniotic fluid and the trauma of being born. I recall Bobby Goldsboro and the sound of his song “Honey” which made me cry, but beyond that there is just mama and schooling and the church where an enormous crucifix hung, a vague recollection of fish in a tank, my first glimpse of the ocean, and the smell of damp-hot summers when all was washed to blue and green.
And then time, hypnotist-like, snapped its fingers and I came awake.
There were fields of grass and hay and wildflowers that reached up to my waist as I walked through them, swishing behind me as I went. There were bugs that flew skyward when I squatted down to urinate because the house wasn’t done being built yet and the red-clay dirt was my only recourse. There was my father, always working, swinging a hammer or a paintbrush or supervising the pouring of concrete, sweating and yelling and building his version of the American Dream so we could all live in and worship it. He worked for an oil company by day and spent his evenings on the 160 acres, breathing deep the sounds of coyotes and crickets and cicadas. I wondered if he ever slept.
There were siblings, two ahead and two behind, and me sandwiched in the middle. We were a curious tribe of misfits, trying hard to fit in but hopelessly artistic; a mix of writers and artists and musicians and all feeling out of place in our skins. Mostly feral, especially in the summer, we would roam the wilds of Oklahoma and come home with ticks in our hair and dirt on our hands, sunburnt and sweaty. When we weren’t exploring we were working as my father’s laborers on his feverish vision: one Christmas Eve was spent on the roof-ridge of the garage, handing him shingles as the snowflakes drifted down from a navy-black sky and our breath froze in our lungs.
Childhood was hard work, this much I remember. And adolescence was no easier. When I first noticed men, it was with something of a shock, like cold water to the face. I realized that I was captivated by them, fascinated by the hair that came out of their faces, the veins in their arms, the deep timbre of their voices. Big men, small men, dark men, light men—it didn’t matter what variety they were—if they contained the requisite amount of testosterone, I noticed them. I was never in doubt of my sexual leanings; they veered hard right and stayed solidly in the heterosexual court from an early age.
My first boyfriend was freckled, with hair the color of weathered barn siding and eyes grey as the sea. We were in ninth grade, and our romance began when he called me one night after flirting with me for several weeks during science class. The phone never rang for me in the evenings unless it was my best friend Sarah calling to ask what I was going to wear the next day at school, but on this particular November night, it was for me, my mother said. Then, in a slightly hushed tone, she added it’s a boy. My heart stopped beating entirely and then, in the next moment, began to hammer.
I moved to the kitchen in a daze and picked up the receiver. The voice on the other end contained a smile and a wink, a mischievous tone that lodged in my heart and took wild root, and I was breathless with joy and longing. We talked (a lot of nothing and at the same time everything) and went on our first date to the Twin Cinema to see The Toy, starring Richard Pryor. I sat and laughed at the comical situation portrayed on the screen, but all the while the heat and nearness of him saturated my being and made me flushed, every cell thrumming. He took my hand and pulled me into a kiss—my first ever. He tasted pleasant and faintly metallic, and I disappeared completely into the abyss of first love.
When my father’s oil-fueled job moved us to Europe, my would-be lover wrote me once, a long and rambling missive punctuated by all-caps assertions that we were destined for one another and that, someday, we would be TOGETHER FOREVER. I never heard from him after that, learning belatedly from my best friend that he, too, had moved away. I had no idea how to find him, and my broken heart healed with ugly, weeping scars.
I had a couple of boyfriends after that, including one that was serious enough to plan marriage and baby names, but I believed that the feel of first love could never be captured again and thus settled for less and less. I told myself it was fine, that heart palpitations and trembling kisses were overrated, and that safe, lukewarm affection was a satisfactory substitution for messy, reckless passion. I found myself almost believing it, too.
Until I met him.
When he came strolling up to me on the cobblestone streets of Stavanger, Norway, it was the swagger that I noticed first. His stride was full of life and energy and an athletic grace that carried him forward until he was before me, him smiling, me squinting into his radiance. Introductions were made, but I don’t remember any of the rest of the conversation, so captivated was I by his eyes, the color of new leaves in springtime, and the flash of his crooked smile directed my way. Dark waves curled against his neck, and I fantasized pressing my lips just there, below his ear, where the skin was warm and smooth.
We were friends first, but just barely. Our “platonic” letters are full of innuendo and thinly-veiled romance; he would write to me PS’s composed entirely of Tolkien’s runic alphabet, which I was helpless to decipher but told myself were declarations of love. For a year and a half we managed to stay in neutral, until one star-lit night when we looked long and hard at one another, gave up, and kissed. I was consumed. My heart opened like a rose, blooming in my chest with dramatic swiftness, scars stretching to accommodate this new sensation, pain releasing to the sky.
It’s been over thirty years since that day, and yet my heart still leaps in my chest when I hear his voice on the phone, or feel the touch of his broad, warm hand on my skin. His eyes are still green, his smile still lopsided and endearing, his stride still thrilling. He claims that he fell for me hard that first day as I fluttered my eyelashes at him and laughed at all his jokes, and that he is still falling, little by little, day by day. We are the lucky ones, the ones who grab and don’t let go, the ones who fight and struggle but come back together in the end, who press into one another and find, in the end, home.