Imagine Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in the surf or Westley and Buttercup perched high above a soft, cloudy sunrise and you might just have the most perfect kiss. You are holding your lover’s chin cupped in your hands. As you look into their eyes time and space seem to eclipse into a burning hot singularity. From the corner of your eye you can see the flutter of butterflies slow and the wind gently caresses your head tenderly nudging you closer. A quick slip of your tongue across your lips to wet them. You can begin to feel the warmth of their skin and breath as you draw even closer, and the sweet smell of yearning envelops your senses. A soft tilt of the head. Your eyes close, but not completely. You want to savor the sight of passion. Your lips touch…. and, yeah, my first kiss was nothing like that!
That I had a first kiss is an amazing fact in its own right. My social skills when it came to interacting with others involved not wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day just so I’d get pinched. The other problem was that I’d spent the last five years in class with the same girls year in and year out that the thought of kissing any one of them was about as repulsive as kissing your sister. But, by 1983, new girls were being introduced into our little social sphere. There was Renee and Trista and Julie and Niki.
Niki came to Foothill Christian in 1981 (third grade), but she was in the other class. So, for all intents and purposes, she was living in Outer Mongolia. As fate would have it, she was seated behind me for the entirety of the fourth grade (’82-’83). Her sandy blonde hair ended in little ringlets and curls. Her thin lips always turned up in a smirk belying a mischievousness that I would soon learn about . She’d wear skirts with knee-high socks and a pair of black, leather girl’s loafers. Given the chance, she would have dawned “jelly” but that was strictly verboten at Foothill Christian–as was any semblance of the New Romantic look, Madonna, or punk. It was preppy or nothing.
There I was, sporting my popped collar and Levi jeans, carrying my gigantic, red Rubbermaid lunch box–the one where every aspect of your lunch could be compartmentalized into smaller Rubbermaid containers–and overstuffed blue winter coat trying to get Niki to recognize me. Strike one. Anyone gets noticed carrying a red Rubbermaid lunchbox. And not for good reasons. To make matters worse, the powers that be decided that this year, all fourth graders would be tested to see if they were too smart. Of course, my parents had me tested, and I would spend the fourth grade in a tiny–me and Inger–reading group segregated from the rest of the class sitting in front of a reading box. It looked like a light box an artist might use to transfer an image, but instead of a glass screen, there were velum pages on a roll illuminated from behind and a dial on the side that could increase the speed of the rollers. Let’s single out the nerds. Strike two.
In our cloistered world, a new girl was like throwing blood into shark infested waters. Every boy immediately set upon Renee and Trista and Julie and Niki as though we’d not seen a living, breathing girl before. But Renee and Trista were only with us for one year and by the summer of ’83 they’d disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. That left Julie and Niki, and I figured I stood about as good a chance with them as Grenada had fighting the U.S. Strike Three.
I don’t recall who said anything to whom. As all playground romances, it was probably initiated by friends of Niki who talked to my friends and so on.
“Did you know Niki thinks Bryan is cute?” Tina said at lunch.
“Really? He said the same thing.” Craig replied.
And then the it happened. We were an item. Dating as only fourth graders could do. We’d sit next to each other at lunch. She’d push me down stairs. I’d shove her into the sandbox. True love. We’d play tag at recess and, of course, I only chased her and all her friends made sure that I couldn’t get near her. And then the gossipy little mites asked the one question that would shake my world. “Have you kissed her yet?”
Uh. Kissed? “Sorry, I don’t speak your language.” And I ran away like I had piss running down my legs.
By the summer after fourth grade, Niki and I had held hands, sat next to each during Friday chapel, and played countless games of tag. We talked about horses even though the only thing that I knew about them was that they were big and that Jack In the Box supposedly put them in their hamburgers two years earlier. Niki loved horses. She had one in a paddock beside her house. She wanted to ride horses all day, but her parents dragged her to school. She taught me about grooming and bathing and saddling. All skills that I have put to about as good of use as trigonometry. I told her my stories. I drew pictures for her. And when I was standing in my corner I’d think about her beautiful sandy blonde hair and her soft eyes and her sneaky smile. But that kiss lingered over us like the threat of a playground tattle-tale.
We saw each other quite a bit over the summer; her brother James and I became friends and I’d spent the night often. Niki’s house was up San Dimas Canyon. I’d been up that road every Christmas I could remember each winter on the family trip to the Sturrock Christmas tree farm. I’d wander the acres of Monterrey pines looking for the perfect tree to plant in our living room. I even remember driving past Niki’s house. A two story house, it was twice the size of mine and it was set back from the road behind a lush yard of green grass and live oaks. The paddock was to the south of the house. That my first kiss would happen so close to another site of fond memories is one of those things you just chalk up to cosmic coincidence. Nothing is left of the house or the Sturrock farm. In its place is a golf course and Puddingstone Diversion 32-016 Dam.
Niki’s birthday party would be in her backyard. She invited nearly half the girls in our grade. And me. Those odds played perfectly into my social skill set. Tease the girls. Runaway. Get them to chase you. Attention on me.
It was a cool afternoon when my mother dropped me off at Niki’s house. I had a sleeping bag with me; I was going to be spending the night with James, and my present for Niki. All the girls were in the backyard around the pool, and I found James inside watching TV. Per household rules, I wasn’t allowed upstairs–I never saw Niki’s bedroom, or James’ for that matter–so we stayed downstairs and played games. When we finally got the nerve, we went outside with the girls and the game was on.
“Niki and Bryan sitting in a tree…”
“Come here, hug her,” one of the Jennifers said tugging on my arm.
“Kiss her. Kiss her.”
Of course I wanted to but I had no idea what to do. If I had an ounce of charisma I might have walked up to Niki, put my hand on the back of her head, drew her near, and say: “Kiss me.” But I didn’t. So. I ran. I ran around the house with James in tow and the girls following squealing and giggling like ten-year-old girls do. Then, what started as a game of chase to get me to kiss Niki became a challenge to catch me and toss me in the pool. Oh well. At least they were still chasing me. After about ten minutes, the girls finally cornered me and wrestled me toward the pool. Fully dressed, feigning a struggle, I was tossed in. A triumphant roar echoed through the canyon as I bobbed in my shorts and t-shirt staring up at Niki and wishing I had just gone through with the kiss.
Like a cat coming in from the rain, I dragged my soaking wet corpse from the water. Niki stood nearby with a towel her mother had given her. The girls were scolded: “We don’t do that to our guests,” Niki’s mother said. I went inside, changed into some of James’ clothes, and joined the party outside just as Niki was about to open presents. I have no idea what I got her; my mother probably picked something out with me standing beside her in the girl’s aisle of Gemco. We played games, ate cake, and played chase again. This time, the girls were chasing Niki. Jackee was sitting on me and the Jennifers held my arms against the plastic lawn chair. They were going to get us to kiss one way or another.
And that’s how it happened. Three or four girls tugging and pulling Niki toward me while I was being held captive by two others. It was a quick peck on the lips. We were both flushed red with embarrassment and the other girls started singing “Niki and Bryan sitting in a tree…” once more. I had kissed her. And at that moment it was the most amazing thing that had ever happened to me.
Niki and I were in different classes again for the fifth grade and our worlds drifted apart. She moved to Northern California after the fifth grade and we never spoke to each other again. Every once in a while, when feeling nostalgic, I pull out my old fifth grade yearbook and read what Niki wrote:
Have a great summer!
Your [sic] nice! Good luck in
6th grade. I still think your [sic] cute!
Read more stories from the ’83 series here