Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Discovering Love

I distinctly remember the very first time I thought like a grownup.  It was only for the briefest flash, a wondrous, terrifying, ecstatic moment of clarity and insight.  Even now, I'm not completely sure I could call it "thinking like a grownup," but maybe it would be better described as the first truly clear thought I ever had.  I had never had a more lucid thought in my life, and not many as indelibly stamped on my memory as that one.

I was ten years old, in the summer between third and fourth grade.  This isn't an age you associate with maturity of any sort, but then again Judy Blume made a perennial bestseller of this particular time of life with Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.  I first read it in fourth grade and thought it was very believable, rather over the top with her description of Fudge and his shenanigans, but Fudge's older brother's viewpoint rang true.  Young, immature?  Sure.  But Peter Warren Hatcher (funny, the details that stick with you) was capable of insight, of discernment.

So.  Ten years old, rising into fourth grade.  Both my parents worked full-time, and still do.  At this young age, I spent my summers in the YMCA summer day camp program, which meant swimming every day, field trips, all manner of outdoor games.  It was fantastic.  The first hour or so of every day was pretty much free play, talking to friends and that sort of thing.  On my very first day, I was talking to one kid, getting to know people, when suddenly I felt a big weight on my back.

"I'm so glad to see you!"  To this day I'm not certain what her name was but I think it was Monica.  Even if it wasn't I'm going to say it was, because I've always been a little taken with that name.

Let me back up a bit.  In second grade I had gone to a school in Alexandria, VA.  But during the summer of that year, we had moved to a different city, different school district.  All new kids.  Just down the road, a thirty-minute ride on a bicycle but worlds apart when you're in second or third grade.  Monica had been one of my playmates in second grade, bright and cheery.  Sometimes we sat together at lunch.  Third grade, new lunchroom, new friends.  No Monica.

But now third grade is over and I'm going to the local YMCA for the summer, and the school districts aren't an issue at the Y.  I'm talking to other kids and learning names, when whump a weight lands on my back, a thrilled voice calls my name, and two arms wrap around my neck.

The arms turned loose and I turned around.  Boom, there she was.  My friend from second grade, smiling all over her face.  I called her name in delight, ecstatic to meet someone I already knew, overjoyed it was someone I really liked.  And right here is where I stepped outside of my tender ten years.

I stepped forward and embraced her like an old friend returned from a long trip, like we had known each other for decades.  Monica fell into my arms and hugged me back.

This isn't what you expect from ten-year-olds.  I certainly wouldn't expect it from any ten-year-olds I know now or even then.  And in this briefest moment of intimacy, I heard some small portion of my brain thinking, very clearly, "So this is what love feels like."

Not the carrier wave of love of parents for their children, that background hum that you don't learn to hear until you're older and wiser, no.   This was the first crash of the cymbals I had ever heard, the first time I felt an emotional response for a peer not in reaction to something they had done, but simply for who they were.  It was a galvanizing moment.  In the brief contact I understood that this embrace, as little as it was for two young kids on a playground, was what hugging people was all about.  So instead of the arms-over-shoulders of pals on the playground - which no one ever did to me - or the mismatched of little kid me and great big Grampa, this was someone my size, who just wanted to be in the same space where I was for a moment.  Cheek-to-cheek, like a dance with only one step and no music needed.  She had freckles.  Funny, the details that stick with you.

We turned each other loose.  Had she hugged me one moment longer, I might have melted.  She smiled at me with a brilliance like the sunrise.  "I'm so glad to see you!" she said again.

"Me, too!"  And being ten years old, I bopped her on the arm.  She bounced a playground ball off my head.  We ran off to play foursquare, and that was the extent of our relationship.  We were, after all, playmates.  Kids.  After that summer ended, I never saw her again.

As years went by and I floundered about on the capricious seas of teenage lust, young romance and the strange alchemy of communicating in close relationships, I never had that close contact.  There were good times and not so good times, but no crash of cymbals.  No melting.

Then I started to set relationships aside.  They tended to lose their fire, a brief flash of intensity followed by gradual cooling to indifference.  Why put all the effort into knowing this girl or that girl when I just didn't care about what she was thinking?  And she clearly didn't care much about me.  Is it really a break-up when neither party bothers to call the other anymore?

When I met Sweetie, she tried to sell me a tractor.  I turned it down and offered to take her to lunch.  More lunches followed, then dinners.  We went hiking.  We went biking.  We both enjoyed shopping, even when coming back from trips with empty hands.  We both cared about what the other was thinking.  We both had an irrational love for books.

One day after I had been seeing Sweetie for a few months, I flew home to spend Christmas vacation with my parents.  As glad as I was to be home in familiar surroundings, it was the first time I had ever been home and not really felt "at home."  I likened it, at the time, to the feeling you get when you arrive at your destination only to realize some of your luggage has gone somewhere else, without you.  So as much as I enjoyed Christmas and Mom and Dad and visiting old friends who were also in town, I was also looking forward to flying back.

I flew back.  Sweetie wasn't there to meet me at the gate.  I looked around for her but couldn't see her.  There were a lot of people around and we hadn't thought to agree on a place to meet.

I went down to the baggage claim, and as I was watching for my duffel, a big weight hit me in the back, a delighted voice in my ear.  "I'm so glad to see you!"  I turned around to look at her.

She smiled at me with a brilliance like the sunrise.  She stepped forward to be in the same space where I was for a moment, the quintessential meeting of lovers at the airport, dropped luggage and moist eyes and arms wrapped around each other.  Her hair smelled faintly of peaches - funny, the details that stick with you.  And this time, I did melt.  We have melted together, irrevocably intermixed.  I could no more live without her than I could unscrew my arm, or stopper up the chambers of my heart.  Every time she looks into my eyes, the cymbals crash.

This is what love feels like.

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