I Remember You (Part 2)
In the winter of 1988, the school where all the teenagers lived was closed and half were reassigned to one city in Mexico and the other half to another. The Canadian, however, was sent by train to Canada to renew his visa. When he returned, he and I were among the only teenagers remaining in all three schools in Monterrey. I was thrilled and terrified. It meant when I saw him, which was much more often, I would be expected to interact and to speak. There were no more crowds of people our age in which to get lost.
By this time, I had become assimilated. I was in charge of the kitchen at the school where I lived, my parents and siblings had moved to Ciudad Juarez, and I was beginning to relax and enjoy the time that I was biding. Cooking and having responsibility suited me. I enjoyed baking and cleaning, sharing access to food with others, and rounding off the rough edges of this experience for people I’d come to care about, mostly children. Terrible, donated food had long been one of the weapons used to break new recruits, and I found endless pleasure in neutralizing that weapon. Everyone craved sugar, which was mostly forbidden, so I challenged myself to find ways to use it without provoking ire.
He, too, had changed. He seemed sad, and that sadness that further softened his eyes. He was still kind. If he were visiting for dinner, he would stay and help me clean the kitchen after everyone was gone. He’d lean over while we washed the dishes to tell me what a good meal I’d made, as though I’d made it only for him. When he spoke to me, he stood right in front of me and looked down into my eyes. His gentleness and generosity unnerved me. I ran into tables and knocked over dishes. I cleaned like mad out of embarrassment. I frequently found myself in the bathroom after he left crying over my nervousness and embarrassment. I thought of how I would do things differently the next time I saw him, but to no avail. Every time I heard his voice or saw his face, my heart raced and the cycle began anew.
When we met on weekend get-together days, I brought him muffins or cinnamon rolls I’d baked with contraband sugar. I would still shake when I gave it to him, but it began to feel more comfortable. We would go on hikes with a handful of others and he would tell me about an article he was reading. He told me he was reading The Fall of a Leader and how it seemed relevant. I felt the sadness he was trying to dress up as a lesson learned, and I wanted so much to hug him and whisper “I understand,” but I was terrified. I was terrified of openly expressing the love I felt for him, terrified of openly expressing any real emotion, and terrified of the emotion I was feeling in a world where my survival depended on hiding my real emotions.
And then everything changed.
It was an ordinary day the next summer. I don’t remember where I was, but I was out all day and got back to the school after dark. I was a sweaty, tired mess. My cheeks were red from too much sun. When I got in, I went straight up to the second floor girls’ dormitory to shower and change. And, unexpectedly, he was there. The surprise hit me hard. The usual heart racing and nervousness was compounded by the disarray in which I found the girls’ room and the kitchen. I’d been gone all day, but I felt responsible and embarrassed for the mess. I barely greeted him before I began picking up and cleaning furiously. I cleaned for a good hour before I found my one friend in the empty dorm and collapsed onto her bed, crying. I was bent over at the waist, my legs hanging off the side of her bed, my face buried in the comforter when I suddenly felt his hand on my back. I looked up with a tear-stained face to find her gone and him telling me everything was okay. I could get lost in him and his voice if the falling didn’t make it so hard to breathe.
I went to shower and returned when everyone was asleep. Except for him. He was lying on the bed two over from mine. How he got permission to sleep in our room eluded me, but I did not complain. Everyone was asleep, and whatever may have remained of a mess was hidden by the dark. When I got into bed, he spoke to me quietly from across the room, and I finally felt my heart slow. It felt like I’d always known him. When he made a comment about the heat and came to lie next to me under the window, I didn’t lose my breath as I usually would have. Instead, I pulled my sheets back and invited him in. He climbed in, put his arm around me and pulled me against him. I could feel his heart beating. He laid his head next to mine and we talked for more than an hour, as though we did it every night. I was 15 years old. He was 16.
I could feel his breath on my cheek. The large window next to my bed was open and the sounds of the night crept in. The school was on a mountain side that always provided a breeze and a huge sky. Tonight there were no clouds, and the sky was full of stars that lit up his face and underscored the way his top lip bent when he spoke, as though he was fighting back French. I leaned in for a moment and closed my eyes to take him in. He smelled exactly as Helen Keller had once described men, “alpine trees and lightening.” And that’s when he kissed me. I didn’t jump. My heart didn’t skip. Instead, I fell. I fell into him.
I kissed him back. I put my hands on his face, and I pressed my body against his. I ran my fingers in his hair, which was as soft as his voice. We lay side by side as he held me with his hand in the small of my back. All I saw was grey mist and stars, and I never saw more. We were spinning. With his other hand, he undid the buttons on the front of my nightgown. Instead of moving to stop him, I unbuttoned the bottom two for him. He pushed it off my shoulders and pulled me against him again. We could not be close enough. I could feel his heartbeat, the firmness of his skin, the softness of his lips, the urgency of his grip, the breeze from the window and the weightlessness all at once. He traced my arms and chest and stomach and legs with his fingers. He kissed everywhere his fingers had been. He slid down the bed and was gone for a moment that felt like forever before his hands pressed against my thighs and his tongue was against me. That was when I went from feeling like a teenager with my first love to feeling like a woman. These were the things adults did, and it was what the one I loved was doing to me. I tried to move away when it became too intense, but he held me. I felt as though I were shaking from the firmness of his hands and the softness of his tongue. I realized I was right when he kissed his way up my stomach and neck, laid his body on mine and whispered, “You’re shaking.” The weight of his body on mine and knowing what was next reignited the exhilaration I’d felt when he’d first kissed me. I wrapped myself around him and held his face to kiss him. He gazed at me and smiled with his eyes. He touched me with love with which I’d never been touched.
He leaned in and kissed me deeply, then lay down beside me and pulled me on top of him. I lay on top of him with my back against him. He held me tightly and kissed the back of my neck sending shivers down my back. He said something in my ear and then I exhaled. I was completely vulnerable and yet for the first time, completely at ease.
Afterwards, I fell asleep on his chest listening to his heartbeat. His arm was still around me when I woke. He had an early train to catch before anyone awoke and he was gone for months before I saw him again. Even when he returned, we never spoke of that night. It was secret and untouchable, a safe place my mind escaped to at the worst times of the following years. I never spoke of it to anyone, in fact, until now. When he recently chatted with me online from South America, he mentioned remembering my shyness and that I was never quite myself except at night. And, I knew, he remembered too.