I Remember You (Part 1)
These new Facebook features are such a double-edged sword. I cannot remain completely anonymous anymore. But then, neither can he. A friend of mine friended a friend of his Monday night, and I saw it in my live feed. With not much else to do, I had a look. After 21 years of occasionally wondering what had become of him, there he was, six children, two wives, four languages and a lifetime in South America later.
Of course, he would have done well. He had so much to give. A bug light on a Louisiana night when it came to love. I wonder, though, if he had any thought of me, what he’d given me, how long it lasted. How he carved his name with a whisper deeply in a compartment of my heart on my last innocent night, and how my chest throbbed as I struggled to breathe when he touched me.
Would he be surprised to know that, in the midst of the horror we grew up in, my memories of him were untouched, untarnished, sacred? I’d known first love, trembled on a sweltering Mexican summer night. No matter what was taken from me later, that part of me could not be because I’d already willingly given it to him.
It was 1987 and my parents had moved our family to Monterrey, Mexico. We lived in a school up in the foothills overlooking the city. Besides the constant breeze that broke up the thick heat at night, there was nothing about this new life I liked. “A girl doesn’t need more than a seventh grade education to do God’s work,” they told me when they took me out of traditional school in the U.S. I had fought them every step of the way to Monterrey until my skinny body gave out. Maybe it was the lack of food or the strangeness of the smells or the uncertainty about what each day brought. There was nothing on which I could anchor myself, nothing to quell my insecurity.
I was 14 with half braces because they’d stopped taking me to the orthodontist but never quite gotten around to having them completely removed. My hair style was half grown out because cutting my hair was now forbidden. My clothes hung on me like bags. My sweaters were too hot for the climate, but I was too modest to just wear my undershirts without a bra. Bras were considered “unnecessary,” and the few hand-me-downs I’d had before had disappeared. Most days, I either bore the heat of wearing a sweater while I was out distributing literature for donations or, if I were assigned to work at the school, I might wear only my t-shirt while no one was around. But I always had a sweater close by should any male come along, as they often did.
I was the eldest child at this school. Months passed without me seeing anyone my age besides the 12 year old girl and 12 year old boy, who spoke little English, with whom I lived. The girl and I bonded over our attempts to steal cookies from the sacks of donated food before everything with sugar was thrown out. The 12 year old boy, though, vacillated between acting as though I was his promised, yet unwilling, future wife, and acting as though I was repulsive. Most days, he managed both. I think now he may have been trying to impress me with his bragging of how many weeks he’d gone eating grass in preparation for when “it,” “the Apocalypse,” “the Great Tribulation” finally happened.
Everything from my past life was gone: football games, cheerleading try-outs, sleepovers, notes at school we folded like origami, best friends, Madonna, Michael J. Fox movies. The most familiar thing I happened across were New Kids On The Block posters and music at the open air market we sometimes visited. I liked Joe. I’d thought had things not made this turn in my life, I may have met someone like him, at school or a game. I may have fallen in love, made out in his car, picked out a prom dress to match his tie.
But I had stopped fighting at that point. I hadn’t tried to run away in nearly a year. I didn’t dig precious keepsakes of my life out of the garbage any longer when they were “purged.” I didn’t order school books anymore and study at night in secret so I could keep up when I made it back to school in the U.S. The U.S. was hours away by car, those I knew even farther, and I was surrounded by the giant mote of a language I didn’t speak. Besides, the still fresh scar on my right leg always reminded me that even an attempt was out of the question. When I was slapped across the face or threatened with worse, I didn’t glare back anymore. I didn’t hold my head up and taunt them with my eyes. I buried who I was deep, and I didn’t talk about it lest someone catch on. To those around me, I’d finally been broken. There wasn’t any use in pretending otherwise. To myself, I was hibernating. There would come a time to live again, but this was not that time.
This was my world when he entered it.
It was a weekend get-together at a park called Estanzuela. Everyone from the three area schools were there, including the school where all the teenagers lived. I was amazed to see others my age, to see how they moved in unison as if they were all parts of one organism, a hive of bees with individually assigned duties, and to watch how a few seemed to lead. I would learn that two girls and two boys were bellwethers. “They followed closely behind the shepherd, so a bell was hung around their neck so that others would know to follow their lead,” was the analogy. Even without the explanation, it was obvious. They were the first to suggest a hike or a game, the last to eat, the first to clean up. They led the singing, sang the loudest, and everything they talked about seemed dire and important. They were mini-adults, charismatic, good-looking, fascinating and frightening. I found nearly everything about my new world repulsive, except for these four. They were compelling.
The two girls were pretty, one American with curly blond hair, freckles and a body like the Venus de Milo, the other Mexican with a heart shaped face and cat eyes who frequently bit her bottom lip. They talked in whispers about the proliferation of gossip and the problems of the grapevine. They sounded like youth counselors who needed some self-improvement topic to discuss as though it were the biggest problem facing today’s generation. They didn’t want to be impolite, so they chose acne instead of STDs. They played badminton well enough to be competitive while discussing the importance of not becoming overly competitive. I noticed that they both put on feminine airs, kicking up one heel when bending over to pick up the birdie here, tucking the chin and only looking up through their bangs to make their eyes look bigger there. It seemed like they’d discovered what popular girls and southern women had been doing for years, and then added their own Christian slant. It wasn’t just gullible males biting. What they were selling was like lemonade on a hot summer day. They had crafted a bit of individuality in an environment of conformity, but it was an individuality that threatened no core values and, therefore, ultimately conformed.
The boys could not have been more different. One was an American with dark hair and a wide smile who played the guitar nearly as well as he dropped witty, sarcastic comments. The other was a soft spoken French Canadian with sandy brown hair and clear brown eyes that drooped slightly on the sides and made him look earnest, pleading, and a little tired. The American was tall and loud, funny, good-looking – and he knew it. If it were not for the fact that his father ran the school, he likely would have landed in some sort of alpha male trouble sooner or later. I soon learned that everyone in his school liked him. He was the one all the girls wanted, including the two female bellwethers, and all the boys wanted to be like. Had I not been told this more than once and witnessed it firsthand, however, I would have never guessed. I found nothing about the American attractive and avoided him even more than I did the other three. Then there was the Canadian, whom I also avoided, but not because I found him unpleasant. He was kind and quiet, the kind of person that you didn’t hear coming and didn’t know was there until he touched your side and whispered in your ear, asking if you’d seen the dustpan. Unlike the other three, I never heard him tell any of the forty or so other teenagers what they should be doing, saying, or not saying. I remember him offering to help a mother of no particular status carry her belongings from the van, and being struck that his offer was unseen and for no one else’s benefit. He left such an impression on me that six months passed before I had the courage to speak to him.
(To be continued…)