Mark McHugh | James Brown
At first, she was on the swing. A golden summer evening in late June, the descending sun glowing behind white puffs of clouds. I sat on the swing next to her and we talked, the normal get-to-know-each-other stuff. She liked biology, science, math. I liked English, writing, reading. We both loved basketball. She was engaging and easy to talk to and down to earth. Not to mention beautiful. Wavy blonde hair, tall, perhaps a little awkward in her bodily movements, but a face as smooth as silk, gently shaped, with light, tender blue eyes. This summer will be fun, we both said. We’d be working together. A nice start, I suppose.
Next, she was planted to a middle school classroom desk, tutoring a 13-year old boy with earrings and a coarsened face in algebra. I was across the room, tutoring a 14-year old football star who might as well have been taking a nap — God knows he wasn’t going to understand the stuff I was teaching him. That was okay, though, because I was more interested in peeking across the room at Amanda, anyway. She didn’t catch me staring, did she?
Soon, we were spending lunch breaks together. I felt a little stupid with my peanut butter and jelly sandwich and banana every day, but eventually we got so comfortable with each other that none of the petty stuff mattered. We loved teasing each other. I’d crack a dirty joke about how she loved pickles so much (she ate them every day) and she’d retaliate by saying that the pickles she ate were bigger than my pickle. Stupid stuff like that. We shared an affinity for stupid humor, I guess.
At some point, we got dinner together. Panera Bread. I ordered a chicken salad sandwich, she got tuna salad. I offered to pay, hoping she would let me, but she insisted on the contrary. We sat and ate and somewhat nervously picked at our food. But conversation with Amanda was rhythmic. She talked about her lesbian roommate, I said I thought my roommate might be gay; I talked about my annoyingly religious parents, she said her dad was a former priest. She’d giggle, I’d smirk, she’d blush, I’d laugh; our quirks fit seamlessly. We discovered that the common ground between us was boundless. So much so, in fact, that we often joked about being brother and sister. Secretly, though, I resented that joke.
Before I knew it we were in her kitchen, standing awkwardly against the wall as her father read the local newspaper and her mother did dishes and other household chores. It was quiet and warm and the sun glared in through the windows behind the kitchen table. Her father teased me, saying things like who writes for a living these days and if you ever get rich off writing a book, you’re more than welcome to marry my daughter. He was friendly and engaging and acted like we were best buddies. I could have talked to him for hours. Her mother was a little more reserved, offering a jovial smile every now and then and making an occasional generous remark. She started making cookies and I took comfort in the homey scent of cookie dough that permeated the room. Occasionally I snuck a peek at Amanda, her prettiness like some sort of softness that seemed to wilt the hardness inside of me every time I looked at her. It occurred to me abruptly while standing in her kitchen that I thought I was in love.
That summer the days seemed to blend in and roll together like one long uniform string. Daytime turned to dusk and dusk turned to nighttime but nothing really ended and nothing really began; it was as if time suspended itself in the mild New England heat and I seemed to submerge myself in it somehow, getting lost in the structureless sequence of events, sort of forgetting to think amidst a drunken daze of emotions.
Every memory is punctuated by Amanda. She’s everywhere. Sitting at one of the dirty old wooden tables at Dairy Queen eating ice cream, shooing away mosquitos as she laughs at the chocolate dripping slowly down my chin. At work in the dense classroom with troubled children, the strain of a dull shift eased by the sight of her from across the room. Sitting in my basement watching T.V., poking fun at the dumb MTV shows, then popping in a movie and watching it late into the night, both of our eyes beginning to droop, both of us sinking low into the cushion and by accident or maybe on purpose she lays her head on my shoulder and closes her eyes and I think how I hope she falls asleep so that we can lay like this for a long time. Nervous rides home when I would drop her off at night, pleading myself to kiss her, to just do it for Pete’s sake, my gut tightening uncontrollably, and then watching her drag herself out of the car as if to buy me more time to man up and then hearing that miserable thump of the passenger’s side door closing and knowing that I blew it again.
But undoubtedly the most tangible, the most vivid memory, is the afternoon before I was returning to college. In a couple of weeks, she would be doing the same. But this was it. I drove us to Dairy Queen, our favorite ice cream place. We tried to talk like normal but everything seemed to be tainted by an overhanging foreignness of something strange, a sense of decline, like the gradual slowing of a roller-coaster you wished would never end. It was terribly humid that day, the sky a smoggy blue, the sun blazing unpleasantly through the dense haze. I remember thinking, I have to do it. Nothing to lose this time. But we finished our ice cream too quickly. I was imploring myself to do something as I drove down the street to her house. And as I put the car in park in her driveway, my heart ripped through my chest. In a flash of thoughtlessness I reached over and placed my hand on the back of her head and pulled her close to me and closed my eyes and was finally about to kiss her when she jolted her head back in objection. The word sorry was on my lips but I fell mute in that moment. We sat there staring at each other like two oblivious dogs who have never met, our eyes as big as strawberries, our bodies painfully still. And then she left, hasting out the door and into her yellow-painted house.