Staring At Corners

mediumThere wasn’t much in my room that wasn’t blue. The walls were a soft shade of sky blue. The carpet had, at one time, been a deep, plush shag of royal blue, but had deformed into a matted, dreadlocks looking pathetic attempt at a shade of blue. There were spots in the carpet that were nearly as smooth as the concrete in the garage. My window curtains were blue. The duvet was blue. And then there was the fish tank which made the entire room ripple as though I was living in some dank undersea universe. It was my universe. I told stories to the walls, created fantastic world with my toys and populated them with the only friends I knew–the ones living in my head. I spent a great deal of my time in that little sanctuary, often just sitting indian-style on my bed in dead silence, staring at the fish lazily swimming in their tank as though they were moving in jello.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that the room color wasn’t an accident. It was that way when my parents purchased the house. And then they left it that way. Sure, I liked the color blue. But an entire room, floor to ceiling? No, it was their way of subduing me as though my room was the “calm room” in the psychiatric ward.

And I had spent a great deal of time in that room, and most of it because I was in trouble. Most of my trouble came from school. Attending a private Christian school had a myriad of drawbacks, but the biggest one was that your peer group was extremely limited. I had been in the same class with Caroline and Heidi since pre-school. My people meeting skills had peaked by the first grade and by the third grade my social sphere had been firmly established. This made making friends in the neighborhood difficult and once Adam and Billy moved, there really wasn’t anyone to play with. So, I retreated to my silent room; my opalescent world where I was keeper and king.

Samson_and_Delilah_by_RubensThe other issue with being in such a small social sphere was that our reputations had been established and perpetuated by the teachers in the school. I was constantly getting in trouble. Talking when I wasn’t supposed to. Not in line straight enough. Forgetting Bible verses–a sin tantamount to cannibalism in my school. When we forgot our verses, we had to rewrite Exodus 20:12 some twenty times. “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your GOD has given you.” Nothing like an implied threat! Honor your father–GOD–by memorizing verses or he’ll smite you from earth. By ’83 we were no longer learning simple verses; we had the joy of learning entire chapters. I didn’t want to recite “The Lord is my shephard…” or “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows….” I got it. God loves me and he died for my sins. I figured that one out sometime in the first grade. I’d sang enough songs to beat that fact into my head. I wanted to read about the things that Delilah was doing with Sampson. I wanted to see the face of Mr. Swift–our hipster, before hipster was a thing, teacher–when child after child walked up to him and said: “Now Samson went to Gaza and saw a harlot there, and went in to her.” Then had to answer the question that everyone would have: “What does it mean that he went in to her?”

Other than my spending time reading chapters of the Bible I wasn’t supposed to be and rewriting the Fifth Commandment when I should have been learning math, my reputation had been firmly established as a child that needed punishment in those rebellious years called Kindergarten.

the_paddles_infinite_stingOne day, while playing with Hot Wheel cars beside the green corrugated metal shed where the church school bus was stored, I got my foot caught between the bottom of a chain link fence and the asphalt. Of course I was screaming and crying. What five-year-old wouldn’t be as the sharp points at the bottom of the fence cut into their ankle? But I was also crying because we weren’t supposed to be playing on the side of the bus shed. I knew I would be in trouble and that scared me. I’d seen second graders get paddled and I knew it would be my turn. You’d think that that trauma would have sufficed, but, no, I had to be made an example of. In class, Mrs. Gaston–the daughter of the pastor of our school’s church–made sure to give me a good swing of her yardstick in front of all my classmates. From that day, I was a bad student. If Mrs. Gaston says your are bad, you stay that way until you leave Foothill Christian. When you are ten and that’s your reputation with the teachers, you might as well live up to it. Who could imagine with so many tropes of doom, I’d find a malicious portent in Getting Foot Stuck Under Fence? So, I read about harlots and daughters who were thought to be harlots and, of course, boobies. Thank God for the Song of Solomon. Had I been more astute, I’d have memorized every line from the Song of Solomon and used them to woo women. Unfortunately, social skills was one part of the curriculum lacking in my school.

My bad boy reputation firmly established, I was in constant trouble both at school and at home. If I had to serve detention after school, I would then be punished twice the detention time at home because I had to make my mother wait for me. And then when I’d question where a homemaker had to go, what could possibly demand her immediate attention at home, I was certain to my second swatting of the day. But therein lie the problem: How do you punish a kid with no social skills and spends all his time sitting quietly on his bed indian-style? “Go to your room!” wasn’t so much a threat as a privilage. “Don’t play with any toys!” was about as firm a threat as a yapping chihuahua. I’d shuffle off to my room and sit quietly staring at nothing, memorizing the distorted and faded colors of blue on the floor. Eventually, my father, probably out of desperation and a reluctance to admit defeat, realized that just sending me to my room was not a punishment. So, I started standing in the corner opposite my bedroom door. I’d stand there, staring at the corner, lost in my mind.

There I stood. Nose into the wall like so many other children before me. Standing like a silent sentinel in honor of Nemesis. I’d think about Niki. I’d tell myself stories where I wasn’t standing in the corner. I’d watch the darkness in my mind stretch into a tiny corner and feel myself falling away from it as though I was being ripped from a vacuum; heads of people I knew would shrink into ridiculously tiny bobbles atop their shoulders. I would tell myself the story of Lot and his daughters. And then I’d ask myself why something as lurid as that would be in the Bible. I’d stand for hours. I never made a sound. And, once, I fell asleep standing in my corner.

If Getting Foot Stuck Under Fence was an ominous portent, there was also a little wrinkle of wonder to it. Without it, I wouldn’t have found my corner and there I would never have ventured into the world of my imagination where all these stories come from now. So, I suppose I should thank Mrs. Gaston… but really. No. Seriously? Who paddles a five-year-old?

Read more stories from the ’83 series here

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But They’re a Christian Band–Part Two

stryper-togehterasonesoldiersundercommandConvincing mom to go to Maranatha was as easy as convincing an old woman in Kansas that God needed her to give money to a televangelist. She was always reading Bible study books and she was good for needing more than she could finish in a month. While she meandered the self-help section, I browsed the cassettes looking for something that I knew wouldn’t be there. I flipped through the plastic cases of familiar names like Petra and Stryper and the REZ band. My parents had bought everyone of their cassettes for my birthday, Christmas, and Easter. I could count on a cassette with the Maranatha price tag half-way peeled on any of these holidays.

“Did you find what you were looking for?” my mother asked with a handful of study guides for Corinthians and Ephesians and tucked between were books on raising a Christian Boy in A Secular World and When They Don’t Honor Their Parents. Mom figured since God had made me, the manual had to be out there somewhere.

“Not really.”

“Do you have any of these?” She was looking down at the collection of REZ tapes. I wanted to say I have two of each! You’ve bought them for my birthday and Easter this year. Instead, I just nodded.

“Well, there’s always Christmas.”

Of course there was. One more Petra tape and I was going to pull a Fountain of Billy myself. I wanted to Rock. Not be rocked to sleep with another rendition of “The Coloring Song”. I’ve never heard anyone take such an inspiring message and turn it into a song that would lull shepherds to sleep.

“I was looking for U2.” There. I had fired my initial shot. Mother looked at me quizzically. I knew that she and the other mothers spoke in their little Bible study groups about things like the Anti-Christ/Devil’s Children and the Culture Club, and how they were poisoning the minds of America. To be honest, I thought Boy George was as absurd as my parents did, but that didn’t stop me from singing “Karma, Karma, Karma, Karma Chameleon” all day. Each time I did, I’d lose my radio for a week, but it was worth it just to see the frightened reaction on my parents face. If I had the balls, I’d have stolen some of my sister’s makeup and painted myself to look like him, too. I’d have strawberry stained lips and I’d paint my eyes to look like the eye of Ra and I borrow a rainbow of felt and fabric from mom’s sewing kit and make my hair look like a clown threw up on me. I didn’t only because I was afraid I’d be sent to some dark rehab for future homosexuals. By the quirk in her look, U2 hadn’t made it into their specter of fear.

“They’re a new Christian band,” I said sheepishly.

Mom shrugged. “Did you look in the U’s?”

Yep. She really said that.

“They don’t have them.”

“Let’s ask at the counter.”

Oooh. Not what I had planned for. I was just hoping that I’d be able to move into the second phase of my plan smoothly. Once it was firmly established that Maranatha didn’t have everything Christian they’d have to take me to the West Covina Mall where there was a Tower Records. I’d seen the place many times. It was a giant brick and red tile building with red and white metal awnings over the floor to ceiling windows in the parking lot of the mall. The windows had posters of Madonna and David Bowie and Adam Ant. And that was why I was never allowed to go inside. Damn you awkward gender-bending music trends!

Mom had thrown an unforeseen twist to my plot. I knew that the clerk would look through her shipping records and announce that, no, there was no such thing as U2. If Maranatha didn’t have it, then it wasn’t Christian. That would be the end of that.

Before we could get to the counter, I found a young lady wearing a soft peach/pastel shirt and blue jeans, her hair bunched atop her head in a pile of curls and feathering. Her Maranatha badge said her name was Clare. “Do you have U2?”

She looked dumbfounded and I could tell she was lost. Here’s what she probably heard: “Do you have you, too?” If I let this moment go on too long, the spellbinding silence would lull my mom into anxiety and she’d lose it. She rationalize that I’d broken the poor girl’s brain asking about a band that was clearly not a Christian band. “They’re a new Christian band,” I blurted.

“Oh,” she said pleasantly. “Did you look under ‘U’?”

No matter how hard I tried to scrub it off, the I’m-A-Complete-Idiot tattoo on my forehead wouldn’t come off. “Not there.”

“Maybe you can come back next week. We get more tapes then.”

“Okay,” I replied. “Can we come back next week?” I asked as I turned to my mother. I hoped this question would settle it and she wouldn’t bring it up to the manager behind the counter. “We’ll see.”

As the cashier handed my mother her change I thought I’d made it out free and clear. She didn’t say anything to the young girl other than a polite “God bless.” She always said that to people. But then the stubby, portly manager with thinning brown hair, a face that showed the torment of acne filled high school years, and a light blue and white Hawaiian flower print shirt walked up behind the cashier and asked, “Did you find everything you needed?” Uh. No. Wasn’t going to find it here in the first place. This was all a ruse. Please don’t ruin it.

“My son wanted a cassette by U2.”

I swear, if he asks if I looked under “u” I was going to hit someone.

Instead, he looked at his clipboard, flipped some pages, scowled, and replied, “We don’t have them. Maybe you should try Tower Records.”

Holy shit! Some middle-aged, balding, Magnum-wannabe managing a Christian bookstore suggested we go to Tower? I probably should have dropped to my knees on the spot and prayed a long prayer of forgiveness and repentance.

“No,” my mother said softly. “My son says they’re a Christian band.”

The man looked at me for a moment. He saw right through me and through my hollow lie. “They have a small selection of Christian music and they can get Christian bands from Europe that we cannot.”

Okay. Prayer wasn’t enough. I probably should run off to some monastery, shave my head,  take a vow of silence, and live the austere life! I could see it now. Me walking around a cloister in a brown robe with a rough hemp rope for a belt, shaved head, chanting, humming, and reading all the dirty pages of the Bible over and over again. It’s a shame they no longer made illuminated manuscripts. I’d have had a blast drawing some of those pictures. A regular Biblical Penthouse forum.

My mother and I didn’t say a word until we pulled into the driveway of our blue trimmed  white house. I opened the door and slid out the backseat of the “banana boat”–a overtly derisive term used for my mother’s yellow 1977 Dodge Aspen wagon. I was always embarrassed going to school in a Chiquita fruit. I followed my mother in silence. In the dining room, she set down her new collection of books on the table just as silently as she walked. She had a weird way of being deadly silent. I’d be in my room looking at the TV Guide, reading all the shows I’d never see including the late-night HBO ones and then there she’d be standing in my door. I swear she had a sixth sense when it came to my soul and its temptations.

“So can we?” I asked meekly.

“Can we what?”

“Tower records?”

She pursed her lips. I had as good of a chance getting my mom to go shopping with me in the Red Light district in Amsterdam than I had of getting her into Tower. At least there, you knew for certain the girls were girls. But that wasn’t my hope. No, if fate was playing on my team–and it was after Mr. Magnum Christian guy–then my sister would take me.

“We’ll talk with your father when he gets home.”

And, just like that, I was back to recording on my two year old Memorex cassette. It was getting so bad you could barely hear the underlying recordings as I recorded new songs over the past. U2 would have to go into the dusty, neglected hope chest of my youth along with becoming a professional BMX racer, a big rig truck driver, hearing AC/DC for the first time, and living in a household that had cable television.

The topic of U2 and Tower Records never came up at dinner. Father, in his usual dour, stern voice, asked how school was, why my math test scores were low, and if I finished my homework for next week. I nodded. Anything more invited too many questions. After dinner, I finished my chores of clearing the table and cleaning the dishes. I was about to retreat to my room when dad came up to me and said, “You need to go to Tower Records?”

I’d heard about The Exorcist from kids at school whose parents were less fastidious about their faith. I knew that the girl in the movie was possessed; Satanic possession was something my parents feared would, or maybe had, happen to me. I’d heard the older kids quoting “What an excellent day for an exorcism” whenever something strange happened at school, or one of the teachers decided that it was paddling time. At our school, the administration exorcised the demons from us not with holy water or scripture but with a solid ping-pong paddle. I had my fair share of turns leaning over the principal’s desk counting to three or five or the dreaded seven.

I looked up at my father, the austere man who’s love I knew I had, but had to decipher through This-Is-Going-To-Hurt-Me-More-Than-You moments, and wondered if I needed a priest.

“You wanted a cassette.”

I blinked blankly. It was that slow blink you might have as you drove by a car accident as they were pulling the bodies from the wreckage.

“Do you want to go or not?”

Oh. There he was. Stern and to the point. Glad to have you back.

Like most of the time I spent with my father, we drove the twenty five minutes to the West Covina mall in a silence that you’d hear in funeral homes or the Antarctic.

The actual Tower Records in West Covina, no long since closed.

The actual Tower Records in West Covina, now long since closed.

The inside of Tower was everything I imagined and then so much more. There were posters of bands that I had never heard of–New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen, Violent Femmes, Ultravox–and some familiar names as well. Men At Work blared over the speakers. There were punks with leather jackets emblazoned with “The Ramones” on the back. There were guys wearing frilled white shirts that looked like something from a vintage 40’s era pirate movie and girls wearing all black from hair, to eye makeup to lips to clothes. There were preppy kids and nerdy kids and just plain teenagers. It was an entirely different world to me, but it was the normal world. I was the one who lived in a void.

My dad’s drill sergeant face became more stoic than Lincoln’s on a rock in South Dakota. His mind was trying to grasp the unholiness of the situation, but it was like trying to capture smoke with your fingers. There was no way he’d be able to absorb the entirety of the place and I knew that I’d have to be quick about things or we’d be out the door faster than a Jehovah’s Witness was kicked off my front porch.

And there was another problem. U2 was supposed to be a Christian band. I knew that was total bullshit. Their albums would be found in the rock section. The problem being, dad would follow me there and stop me dead in my tracks. Mr. Magnum guy from Maranatha Books couldn’t help me now. I rushed over to the UVW section of the rock music hoping that my furtive darting, like a squirrel on a street not knowing which way to go as the car came to hit him, would help me elude my father.

Not Mr.-I-Was-A-Green-Beret guy. He had me as though he was a hound and I was the fox. He parked his massive body behind me as I pulled “War” from the rack. “This isn’t Christian music,” he said.

“Maybe they misfiled it.” Yeah. Like that was going to work.

My father took one look at the record cover with the young boy, hands behind his head, a little cut on his lip, all in black and white, with “U2/WAR” in blood red and said: “Nope.” He turned, and I knew that as a dutiful foot soldier, I was expected to follow quickstep.

On our way out of what must have seemed to my father to be one of the three portals to hell–the other two being Hollywood itself and Las Vegas–my father paused by the “new release” rack. I tried to follow his eyes across the rack. There were the usual sinners: A little girl in a white dress playing peeping tom (Violent Femmes); A building exploding as viewed through a sniper’s scope (Def Leppard); An orange haired, bondage masked Annie Lennox; A pentagram and title “Shout At The Devil”. At least Madonna looked somewhat decent. Then my eyes caught Juice Newton’s latest album. God no. If he picked up that pastel cacophony of wretchedness I’d be shamed for all time.

What he reached for instead was “Built For Speed”. I could see a twinkle in his eyes. He looked back in time through that cover. Maybe he saw himself in those Rockabilly outfits and slicked back hair standing in front of two amazing hot rods. In that moment, I realized that my father was a person, too. That there were memories and hopes and dreams behind that icy veneer.

And that’s how I ended up walking into my bedroom with my first ever record. I played that album almost raw. I still have it, along with hundreds of others that I have since collected. Oh, I did end up with “War”, on cassette, for my birthday. It was a gift from my sister.

Read Part One here

Read more stories from the ’83 series here

But They’re a Christian Band–Part One

erin_gray0248(1)It was already a hot day and it wasn’t even nine in the morning. The heat shimmered off the black asphalt like a steady rain falling upwards. I was walking two houses up the street to Adam and Billy’s. Adam was my age and Billy was his younger brother; we’d been friends since kindergarten. Above me, past the sagging eucalyptus trees and overgrown shrubbery, trucks ground through their gears as they made their way up the 210 freeway along the slopes of South Hills. I loved going over to Adam and Billy’s house for two reasons: Rock music and their stepmom. She drove a burgundy MG convertible and she looked exactly like Erin Gray from Battlestar Galactica. Yeah. She was hot. She’d take us to the beach in that convertible and we’d be the kings of the road. And she’d let us go into Adam’s room and blare the music and we’d dance and sing and act like little rock savages. We’d play air guitar to “Eye of the Tiger” and “Abracadabra” and “Don’t You Want Me”. Our favorite song to play pretend band to was Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘N Roll”. It became my little anthem. And whenever Michael Sembello’s “Maniac” came on the radio, we’d be joined by Adam’s stepmom who would belt out her voice as though she was calling us into war. I’d pick up Billy’s wooden tennis racket, Adam would jump onto his chair with two pencils substituting for drum sticks and we’d play our own little private concert. To say that Adam’s house was a sacrosanct temple of music doesn’t do it justice; I watched MTv’s launch at his house. I was confused by Boy George there. I watched Madonna and got turned on there. While my house only had free channels and the gospel networks, Adam had cable! I had convinced my parents to let me sleep over at his house that fateful August night in ’81 and together we watched The Buggles change how we listened to music. After a few weeks of Rod Stewart videos we tired of MTv and went back to AM radio and our rock gods.

1982-84 were good years for music. The Police. Duran Duran. Michael Jackson. Prince. But in my good Christian naivete I had no idea what it was that I was reciting despite the clear connotations: “I feel the magic in your caress/I feel magic when I touch your dress/Silk and Satin; leather and lace/Black panties with an angel’s face”. Uh, yeah. Nope didn’t get it! And this from a kid who’d read all the naughty stuff in the Bible. Though it doesn’t help that the Bible is rather cryptic with its messages with its “goes in to her” stuff. [Extra points for anyone who can name the song quoted above! No looking up on the internet either.] To be honest, I was beginning to get things figured out and by ’84 I would be pretending to not have a clue just so my sister and her friends could get a laugh.

It might sound callouss, but I would head over to Adam’s just to listen to music. We were friends though, and did the things friends did. When the older boys on the street dared us to a game of “rat tail” we’d be there for each other, until the boys caught us. Rat tail was just that–We’d all have towels rolled up and soaked wet. The older boys would hide inside one of the houses and Adam and I would have to come in and try to find them. The older kids would jump out from their hiding places and start snapping their wet towels against our bare legs and arms and once cornered Adam would abandon me to the tortures of those rat tails or vice versa. We were good friends! But we shared a love of music. There really wasn’t music in my house. Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts” was tempting fate. My sister tried to bring in Purple Rain and the tape was destroyed twice–she dared to buy another copy–when my parents heard “Darling Nikki”. It didn’t help her cause any that my sister’s name is Nicole.

So, there I was wandering up the street ready to immerse myself in everything holy about rock ‘n roll. Adam and Billy were standing outside on their driveway. They’d just waved good-bye to their dad and were standing idly in the morning heat. Like usual, we stood around debating what to do: Ride bikes? Ride our skateboards down Concord Lane? Ask the older boys to go to 7-Eleven? Listen to music? Then Billy stopped mid-sentence and gurgled a burp. Adam and I laughed, but Billy didn’t look good. Billy looked around as though a wild spirit had just flown through him and he was trying to find it. Adam and I paused. When Billy looked skyward, we both looked too wondering what it was that he was looking for or at. Then we heard the gurgle again. Only this time it was accompanied not with a burp but with a steady flow of breakfast. There was Billy standing on his driveway, eyes to the sky, vomiting like a fountain in Vegas. It went on for what seemed like minutes. Billy puking to the sky with chunks of bacon and eggs and milk and toast raining down on his shoulders and the pavement with a faint splattering sound almost like the sound of leaves rustling in the wind. The longer he puked, the paler his face went until he finished and his face matched the white of his eyes. After we’d finished laughing what Adam would later call “The Fountain of Billy”, Adam took Billy inside. That was the end of my day with them. If Billy couldn’t play, neither could Adam. I went home.

Martin-f_Panasonic_RQ2108

The creator of so many mixed tapes in the early 80s

I had two ways of listening to music: A Panasonic slimline cassette player or my record player/stereo. The only redeeming value that my Panasonic had was that I could record my favorite songs off the radio. I’d sit next to the speakers and hold up that old cassette player, careful to not make too many movements because the microphone would pick up all the cracks and knocks of the plastic case. It wasn’t worth listening to music on since it’s one speaker sounded about as decent as a conversation between two tin cups tied with a string. But I would record all my favorites off the radio.

The stereo was a hand-me-down. As were most of the things, expensive things, that I had in my life. My first bike was a lime green–that late ’70s green, like peas meet Andy Warhol–girls bike with a two foot long beige banana seat and glittery tassels that hung from the opalescent, green handle grips. It had been my sister’s and she’d long since outgrown it. My first car was my dad’s old, old business car that he bought off the company, but that’s getting ahead of myself.

The case was fake wood and the AM/FM dial often stuck in the higher numbers. The opaque green lid wasn’t hinged so if I was playing a record, it was just better to leave it off otherwise I’d make the needle jump. The speakers were massive, yet they only produced a tinny, static noise if I turned the volume anywhere past five. And that was okay, because if my parents knew what I was listening to, I’d have gotten in trouble. My mother forbid me from watching such subversive shows like Sesame Street–she’d never let me learn my numbers from a vampire!

At school there was a sixth grader named Chad who wore a simple black pin with “U2” in white on the collar of his shirt. I had no idea what a U2 was, and thought it just was a cool way of saying “you, too?” In March I’d heard them for the first time. “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. I had to have their album. I’d talked to Chad and he told me they were a Christian band. I knew he was full of shit, but, hey, a band singing about Sunday I could play this off on my parents. I recorded the song off the radio with my little Panasonic but you could hear my mom in the background clanking dishes in the kitchen as she made dinner. Kind of took the edge off the protest song.

Walking home from Adam and Billy’s, I decided that I would screw up the nerve and get my parents to take me to the music store and buy War. I had an elaborate lie crafted.

“Sunday Bloody Sunday” was a song about Christ fighting for our sins; “New Year’s Day” was about His resurrection and how it made a new day for us Christians. The album title was a bit complicated so I had hoped to navigate around that one, but if it came up, I’d say something about it being a “war” against Satan.

When I say music store, what I mean is a Christian Bookstore on Arrow Highway. It was next door to Southeast Construction Products and their bright red sign that looked a 2-D image of an arrow’s fletchings. It was a strange place. The fence bounding Arrow Highway was made of beige brick columns with pearl white statuary atop them and chain link fencing between. I always imagined the place as some ’70s drug induced shrine to Italian stereotypical lawn decor or a Roman gladiator pit. The latter seemed more appropriate since Maranatha Christian Books was next door.

Read Part Two Here

Read more stories from the ’83 series here

First Kiss

burt_lancaster_and_deborah_kerrImagine 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:

Yo Bryan,

Have a great summer!

Your [sic] nice! Good luck in

6th grade. I still think your [sic] cute!

From Niki

 

Read more stories from the ’83 series here