Story & Characters © 2018 Lewis Smith. All Rights Reserved.
Just off Diamond Lake in Southport, there's an amusement park, a rusty pile of metal near the shore. The park is closed now, being remodelled over the winter, but a friend of mine on the construction crew let me in. I strolled around for a bit, lost in memory. On the shore, the fine white sand seemed to want to suck my Reeboks down into it as the gentle breeze rippled thorough my clothes. Here I had my first date with Michelle Lee eight years ago. Here I went through perhaps the most gruelling night of my life, and the most satisfying.
On that balmy night in June, back in the summer of 1988, I was feeling giddy. School was out, and I had a date. Such a rare occurrence tended to bring that giddiness out in me. I wasn't attractive. I was a pudgy, greasy-haired, acne-riddled adolescent. In other words, just like all the rest. Needless to say, I didn't get many dates. I still don’t, but that’s another story.
But I had one tonight, with Michelle. No one got very many dates with Michelle. No one even asked her, as I recall. I had been the first person she had met at our junior high. I had just started the eighth grade and she and I were in the same homeroom. She seemed kind of shy, she kept looking at me kind of weird. Only later did I learn that she wanted my help with her locker. From there, she and I had gotten pretty close very quick. I had been there when someone stood her up at a school dance, back when that was a real social danger. We were both outsiders, but for different reasons.
I wasn’t entirely serious when I asked her out. Never in a million years did I think she would say yes. But I was as stubborn and I was loyal, and I kept the date, not expecting much.
But there she stood, in contempt of my expectations. She had evidently grabbed whatever was relatively clean to wear, and looked as though she had only recently gotten out of bed. Her black hair was played with and further tangled in the soft breeze. She wore a nondescript aqua shirt, and the briefest, tightest pair of cutoffs I had ever seen outside of my adolescent fantasies. Despite the hellish heat, I was too self-conscious to show my legs, so I sweat it out in jeans. We were no one's idea of the tux and tails crowd, but that was fine. To ourselves and everyone else we were rebels.
"You look great," I told her. In retrospect, this seemed an utterly asinine thing to say, but I was having difficulty thinking of anything that felt right. I could feel my tongue tying and my IQ dropping. What do you say in these situations? I wondered to myself. It wasn’t the first or last time I have had that particular thought.
"I don't think so," Michelle replied. She was actually more self-deprecating than I was. Which was no mean feat, considering my own level of negativity. That was the other reason we got along so well. Misery loves company. "I only woke up a little while ago."
I knew only a little about her life, but what I knew was a doozy. Her life was a fairly lonely one; a military brat, she had been moved from place to place, and where she was now wasn't happy. Her father was a frustrated writer on his off-hours who sometimes took his alcohol-fogged frustrations out on her. She hadn’t given me any details, but I knew it was bad because I once saw a line of bruises on the inside of her thighs. I never asked her where she got them, but I had an idea.
My home life was hell too, and that was another reason we related so well. Not a day went by that summer where my own parents didn’t read me the riot act about something. I could certainly relate to the idea of fiendish adults preying on the dreams of us kids. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t attracted to her. But I was afraid to make the first move.
"I didn't think you'd make it," I said.
"Don't you trust me?"
"No," I said honestly. The issue of trust was a running joke with us. Neither of us thought that it was worth the risk. The pain of trust abused had taught us it was a bad idea, no matter what you thought of the person.
"Good," she smiled. "You're learning."
We walked the gaudy midway. Even now I can remember the weird smell of the air, the sweetness of cotton candy befouled by diesel fumes from the rides. Music too loud for any human being to enjoy blared from most of the rides. The bass from the huge speakers rattled inside me, batting my innards around like a blade of grass in a hurricane. I tried to let the atmosphere take me away, but it didn't work. All I could think about was the nearness of her. And that thought was causing me to sweat profusely.
At the center of the park, then and now, was a huge Ferris wheel, stretching across the sky like a rotating rainbow. As long as I had been going to this park, I had been afraid of it. I liked rides that sent me to heights just fine, just as long as the experience was over quickly. This was a ride for people who liked heights for sustained periods, or who were otherwise occupied at the time. It was, in short, a makeout ride. And being as afraid of women as I was of heights, I was terrified.
"Hey," Michelle said. "Let's ride that."
To my absolute horror, she was pointing at the Ferris Wheel. I began to sweat so rapidly I felt like a sponge being wrung out. . But I wasn't about to show her my fear. I was tough, I was a man. I was only slightly delusional. I could handle this.
"Okay." I said dryly. All reason had flown from my life.
The car we entered was a hideous blue plastic tub that lurched gently underfoot and creaked in a way I did not like. My stomach does flip-flops even thinking about it now. I kept reminding myself that I couldn't lose face, that I had to keep it together. I
clung to this particular macho bullshit as long as I could because it kept my mind off my fear.
We entered the car, Michelle dragging me along. A white plastic bench protruded from either side of the car. Michelle got in the car with a graceful ease I could only envy. For one minute as the cars were loaded below us we would lurch forward and up, then stop abruptly, causing the car to wobble even more. Then it happened again, and again. I regretted the Big Mac I'd had before coming here as it fought its way up my oesophagus. Michelle leaned out to look at the lake, in the process giving me a look at the one part of her that could only magnify my nervous condition. My eyes unconsciously traced up from her ankles to the edge of her cutoffs, I couldn’t help myself. It has a million names, but none do it any real justice. As scared as I was, my mind was taking in every detail, and feeling only a little guilty as I did so.
I noticed the slow curve of her waist, and how well-contoured her hips were. She had legs most models would kill for. Her back curved like it had all the time in the world. And I never remember her exercising once in all the time I had known her.
Like a fool, all I could do was think of how beautiful she was, how ugly I felt next to her. And for the millionth time, I wondered why she hung out with me. She could have any man she wanted. Did she want me? If so, why?
Could she read my mind? I wondered silently. Does she know what she's doing to me? Does she know how badly I want to pull her close, to touch her hair? How badly I want to make it all right for her?
"Isn't it great up here?" Michelle said, gazing out at the water. I could see the faraway look in her eyes. They were the eyes of a dreamer. "From this height, everything looks peaceful, huh?"
"I guess," I muttered weakly. I wanted to jump out. I wanted to reach out and put my hand on her shoulder. I wanted her to know she was driving me insane. I was afraid of her, of her father, of my parents, of the Ferris Wheel, of heights, of life itself. I felt trapped.
"A beautiful night," she said. The finality with which she said it immediately felt wrong. "Too bad it'll be one of my last here."
"What do you mean?" I asked, shaken from my reverie.
"My dad's been transferred. Again," she said with the weary tones of someone who had been through this dozens of times. "His C.O. found out that he didn't have coffee in his Thermos. We leave in about a month. I think it’s Hawaii this time."
"I’m sorry," I said. My chances were slipping through my fingers like fine white sand.
"It’s not your fault," she said. The undercurrent of anger in her voice told me whose fault it was.
She looked me in the eye with a flinty stare. I couldn't say anything, I was in the middle of a profound inner crisis. And being caught in her gaze like a deer in headlights didn’t help any. So I let the matter drop.
She looked away again. Before I realized it, my hand was halfway away from my side, heading for her back. I jerked it back as quickly as I could.
Michelle turned and looked at me again. Evidently, I wasn't fast enough. "Are you all right?" She asked. I noticed that the flinty light commonly seen in her brown eyes was gone, replaced by a light I would almost describe as warm.
"Y-yeah," I lied. I must have been pale as hell. I had sweat so much I felt like I had taken a shower with my clothes on. I felt weak. I was no longer in control of the situation.
"Scared of this, aren't you?" Michelle asked, almost patronizingly. I saw it when we got on. That's part of the reason I wanted you to come up here with me. I want to know if you trust me. It’s a little extreme maybe, but I wanted to be sure."
"Because I trust you. I can't say that about anyone else. You're the only person I know who seems to care about me, really. You’re the only one I can feel comfortable with."
"And you're the one who tells me not to trust people," I replied coolly.
"I know," she said. She bit her bottom lip. "But I want things to be, I dunno, different with us." Michelle said deliberately. This was a quick change even for me. My hopes took flight. Maybe. . . "I want us to be good friends. To hell with my moving. You're too much like me to keep at a distance."
Few things on this planet can cause more pain than the word "friend," especially if you feel deeper than "friend" about the person who said it. I turned away abruptly, as if slapped. I looked out at the crowds and the light on the midway and I hated it. I silently cursed her, this ride, and this blue car, which only scant seconds ago seemed like a floating bridge of dreams.
I felt my eyes well up. Damn it, I thought. It isn’t fair! I was so close! I let the thought trail off while simultaneously trying to keep from crying.
After the ride, we walked the length of the midway again, in silence once more. There's a park at the edge of the lake, quiet and further away from the midway. It wasn’t uncommon for the parents to drop their kids off at the midway and then go to the park to relax, read, or do whatever adults do when we don’t see them. It also wasn't uncommon to see lovers littering the benches, sand, and grass. As committed to my misery as I was, the last thing I wanted to see that night was a happy couple.
Trying to find a relatively private spot was difficult, but somehow we did. I can still remember how soft and fine the sand was and how bright everything seemed, even in the dark.
We sat on the sand, surrounded by people who were safe and secure in each other's arms. I was pretty sure that none of them were feeling what I was feeling. They were lucky. They didn’t get in situations like this. They knew what to say and do. The stars were coming out all above us, but because of the midway, only the brightest ones reached us. The midway’s insistent lights pulsed behind us. The music had congealed into an amorphous thrum.
"Michelle," I began. "Did you mean what you said? Do you trust me?" Neurotics like me are always asking for confirmations like that, I suppose. And as my ex-wives can attest, it grows annoying very quickly. But at that moment, everything seemed like a dream, and I wanted a pinch of reality, to make sure it was real.
"Yes," she said softly.
"I dunno," I said. "I have a hard time thinking of myself as a trustworthy person. Or as much of a friend."
"You are to me," she said. She took my damp hand in hers. I swallowed my tongue. "I can't explain it. I just have a connection with you, something that I don't have with anyone else. That’s why I’m gonna hate leaving. I wish I could take you."
I wish I could go, I thought. I’d send myself through the mail in a box if I could be like this with you.
I was evidently having an out-of-body experience about this time, because when I next became aware of her, she was a lot closer to me. I could feel her pulse. It was steady compared to mine. I put my arm around her. To my surprise, she didn't pull away.
She rested her head against my shoulder, but she wasn't asleep. One of her hands was propping her up. The other rested on my chest, above my heart. Slowly, my tension bled away. The turmoil in my mind was coalescing into...something. I look back on it now, and I think that’s what is meant when alcoholics have a "moment of clarity." There was only one thing to do, one way I could go, and damn the consequences.
So I did the only thing I could do. Well, except run for the hills. She looked away for a second, and then we looked at each other. I lifted her chin up, so that she could look at me. A million thoughts raced through my head, but I'll be damned if I can remember any of them now. Our faces moved closer. She closed her eyes.
As we kissed, everything went soft-focus, like in one of those incredibly silly romance novels that men know more about than the women they're intended for. You know, "As she kissed him, she felt every nerve in her body come alive,"-- or something like that. It lasted a minute, but in my memory, it goes on forever.
That moment is one of the few in my life I could describe as perfect. I have turned it over so often in my mind that it’s shiny and worn from use. Our relationship, for what it was worth, lasted a week. By that I mean, we kept denying that something was happening to us, but we always ended up kissing. We were falling in love whether we wanted to or not. We were slowly breaking through one another's defenses, and the more I was with her, the more I wanted to be with her. I didn't understand what made me so special to her, I still don't, but I learned to simply accept it. It was nice to be around someone who didn't need you to know everything.
Then she had to move. Our last rendezvous ended with both of us in tears. Whether they were tears of love for what we had or tears of frustration for a missed opportunity, I'll never know.
She wrote me a couple of letters from Hawaii. I still have them. I could feel in her words that she was pulling away from her feelings. Pulling away from me. With nothing to lose, I wrote her and told her what I should have before she left.
I told her that I loved her. That was the last letter I sent her. It was never answered. The silence was deafening. That day I began burying her and her memory in my heart.
Life moved on for me, as it probably did for her. I marched on to college, became a teacher, and made a living as a writer. In the process, I was also married twice, both of which ended acrimoniously. I guess I just wasn’t made for love after all.
And now I sit here on that same bit of sand, trying to recapture the spirit of that summer night. The park's being remodelled and they'll be paving most of it over soon for more convenient parking. This spot, which is priceless to me, will soon be claimed by asphalt. Southport's a big money town now, it started about the time they got a Wal-Mart. Now it’s a commercial paradise, and has no place for dreamers. But I remember that night, the lights, the dream, the feelings I felt, and Michelle. And I will remember that kiss forever.