I recently attended my fifty-year high school reunion. I don’t like such occasions for many reasons, but Laurie K and David C both pals since junior high, insisted I go. Admittedly, I wanted to see a couple folks and catch up, though I’ve always felt if you were really interested, it wasn’t necessary to wait for a reunion to connect.
One of the people I wanted to see was Steve C, my boyfriend from ninth grade. He was a beautiful, sweet souled guy when we were fourteen and he remains the same today. We had recently lost a mutual friend, Steve H, and spent time discussing his life and death that night. Steve C’s face was the first I searched for in the crowd of bald heads and grey hairs filling the event’s large room.
At our age, there have been losses. In my case, more men than women I’ve known have left this earth. And the most significant of those I’d met in my pre-teen and teenager years.
Davis died at sixty-four from complications of Parkinson disease. Steve H passed away from dementia related health issues. John died in his mid-twenties in a small plane crash after kicking heroin and starting a new healthy life in Alaska. When one is approaching seventy, there have been casualties, and those casualties are of the heart.
Several people I’ve met as an adult have also passed away prematurely (at this point, everything feels premature) but the impact is not the same as losing someone from my youth. John and Steve and Davis – they were with me in the trenches of that painful, exhilarating, formative time between twelve and eighteen.
John was my first kiss. We were born one day apart and looked a bit like brother and sister; both freckled, blue eyed kids, though he was quite handsome, even at twelve, and I was the plain version. John was the loner everyone wanted to be with. He chose girlfriends I’m sure his mother decried. Unsuccessful and uninspired academically, he was bright and quick. A drummer by the age of thirteen, John continued the music path into his twenties and became part of a world was untenably unhealthy for him. John was the one with a smile for everyone despite a world-weary wisdom that even at fifteen he wore with grace. He knew more, experienced more and was weighted by more inner demons, for whatever reason. I am supremely glad that John was the one at the other side of the bottle when it spun at our first make-out party in seventh grade. He smiled ironically outside the door of the party room as we exited, others waiting their turn in the next room. Standing face to face, both embarrassed but tenderly willing, John smiled ironically, said, “Well – “ and gave me a light, respectful kiss. It was perfect.
Steve H wasn’t a boyfriend but the closest thing to a brother I ever had. I met him when I was thirteen. He was the one who told me I was a sweater person, not a blouse person, and he is still right. The day I got my braces off, Steve was the only one who noticed. He was charismatic and clever and remembered, decades later, what had happened to everyone in our group of friends – all the social missteps, the meaningful moments, the glories.
Steve H told me what guys were worthy of my consideration until we were twenty. He coached me on social cues and was always seemed happy to see me – I’d never known that kind of welcome. The most impactful experience I had with Steve was when he taught me to harmonize with him to “Apple Blossom Time”, he at the keyboard, me by his side on the hard piano bench in my parent’s home. It my introduction to the joy of creative alliance – despite the eye rolling of our social peers as we practiced together, not caring about being perceived as ‘cool’ or right, reveling in the blending of voices. There was something about the two of us, emerging into our selfhoods in the sixties, singing the old fashioned lyrics – such a purity of intention. Then, when we were seventeen, Steve, always my conscience and guide, introduced me to Davis, my first love.
Davis was the lucky fellow to receive the gift of my virginity in the woods by his family’s summer home. He was blond, blue eyed and so smart I often went home after a date to look up words he spoke with ease. Davis introduced me to the thrill of the stomach flip when he came into sight and the spectacular sensation of awakening sexuality. It’s still impossible for me to believe he was beset with the horrible indignities of the same disease that claimed my father in his eighties – Davis barely sixty. How could such a humbling end beset the young man, so glorious, who opened my heart at seventeen?
Those boys helped form my psyche. There were others that contributed negatively or in different, complicated ways, but their deaths are, or will be, no loss. I won’t celebrate necessarily, because that would be bad karma, but I won’t grieve the way I do for the pals from my youth.
Women friends have been my glue – fodder for my emotional and psychological sustenance. The friendships I had and have with women have been the core of my development as a human being. Women helped me find my place in the world. As blessed as I am with a husband who is my dearest friend, if I didn’t have those female friends in my life, my spirit would have faltered and withered.
Yet, there’s something about those boys who became men that is distinctly contributory to the person I am. Like Steve C, healthy and happy in his life, or those I have lost, their impact is indelible. It’s as if, when I was maturing, there was a certain compartment in my heart open for a limited period of time. Those young men found the key to their designated door, stepped inside and settled in, a significant ‘click’ as they nestled in. Even now, I can feel the presence of John within me, his generous, gentle self at thirteen. And Davis – no one forgets a first love. Steve H was the most integral contributor because he made me believe, when I needed it most, that I was a worthy person. It was the harmony, the counseling, and the fact that a well-liked, dynamic boy had chosen me as a friend. What an amazing gift to receive when I was fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen years old.
‘Old boyfriends’. It sounds so pedestrian, but, really, the phrase has, for me, upon occasion, the same poignant weight as “first child”. Not on a day-to-day basis, of course, but when, for whatever reason, I recall the thrilling sensation of first holding hands with Steve C. Or, when I choose a sweater over a blouse for the thousandth time. And, on rainy mornings when life’s gifts unexpectedly surround me like a beloved melody.
Like “Apple Blossom Time”.