Wednesday, February 27, 2008

FIRST LOVE by Stephen A. Baker

Years later he would drive by in the Autumn, during the off-season, and the place was shuttered. He could see the rows of cabanas and the dark cracks in the side of the empty pool, and could hear the hissing of the leaves scuttling like crabs over the depth markers on the bottom. Years later, out of school, his friends and family moved away, without a nexus or even a reasonable-sounding excuse for passing through Claremont, he would rent a room and sit with a bottle of amber liquor and forge a deal with himself which, he knew, was in reality the renewal or extension of an older determination, a shuttering of the self that occurred in a particular moment in a particular place, sitting alone as he sat now on a giant rock in a place he ruefully thought of as his fortress of solitude, but which, like the shuttered pool, had lost all power of association or conjuration, just as it seemed that everything had been stripped of its meaning, that meaning no longer adhered, had lost the sticky stuff that glued it to persons and things and events and gave them color and depth and dimension. No thought could occur but that was not meant to be immediately discarded, no thesis could take root before being overpowered by its antithesis. The primitive magic of childhood was buried out somewhere behind this rock. He had lived in a multidimensional world of spirits, of haunted houses, of passages through thickets that led to worlds he knew not where, of reenactments of Pickett’s charge with Joey on the front lawn, of secret passageways and trap doors, of 22 kids conjured out of nowhere for Sunday afternoon football heroics, of people who knew him and whom he knew and who meant something to him. There were words for these things, like there were words for everything, but the fact remained that while he understood cognitively that this world was forever gone, he did not quite understand where it was now, if he seemed to be now in this same place, or why it was gone, if no one had willed it to go away. Most of all, he did not understand what was to replace it.

It was not much as love affairs go; it would not even meet a reasonable definition. Late Summer, sunburned neck, back of the car and feeling kind of drowsy, a ballgame on the radio and a breeze coming through the drivers side window, Dad’s side. Driving up to the pool they’d joined for the first time that year. Crunch of gravel under the tires on the access road. Some sort of exchange between his parents and some people who were either friends or verifying credentials, it wasn’t clear.

A girl from his school, whose name was Laura, was a guest at the pool that day. She was short, almost tiny-this was before the invention of petite, he thought with a smile-and almost perfectly round in all the places that you would expect. There was about her a sort of compact proportion of perfection, a slow sultriness to her walk, especially from behind, and a dreaminess, or rather a dreamy kind of baby-ness, which undulated in soft waves from her core being, and which filtered too through her lips that were full and always, it seemed, slightly moist, slightly parted, and through her tiny round breasts. Her nose was small and perfect and her black hair fell in bangs over her forehead. She spoke too like a baby, with an ever so slight sort of lisp, and in class, he remembered now, when she stood to recite, she would tilt her head ever so gently to one side or another, hands clasped behind her back, while speaking slowly and enunciating deliberately, but with a kind of lilt to her voice, gently shaking her head to emphasize a point.

She was a girl, in short, who was very self-possessed.

There was not, Robbie felt, a more beautiful being on Earth. And what the heavens might hold, he could only imagine.

When he first saw her in her two-piece bathing suit, and she smiled and spoke to him, directly to him, he knew what it meant to have his heart come undone. It was as if it had been wrapped in a big red ribbon and she had ever so gently pulled the end and a part of him had fallen away, a part he did perhaps not really like and so could do without anyway, the ugly or selfish part of him, he thought as he waved it goodbye slowly, slowly in his mind, it was like a dream he had one time where he was a leaf and floating and swaying down towards Earth, gently to rest under the shade of a tree, and yet there was another feeling too, a swelling both physical and spiritual, of his loins and of his pride in being a boy, a man, he thought, and what he felt too was a desire to protect her, to give her things she might want, to do for her things she might want done.

They walked slowly around the pool together, acknowledging the smiles of the other couples, for that quickly they were a couple and were received as such. Robbie could hear the whispers and giggles but he didn’t care, they walked slowly and talked about what, he didn’t remember now, only that their steps led them by mutual and unconscious agreement far from the madding crowd, past the snack bar and over to a winding path amongst the trees where, out of sight of curious eyes, he took her right hand in his left and they walked in a kind of exalted dream state that was beyond anything he had ever experienced. He remembered now that they had talked about baseball and she’d said that she didn’t care for it. Robbie didn’t understand how anyone could not like baseball but he didn’t want to have an argument about it and anyway, it only seemed to make her more mysterious and wonderful in his eyes. The air was fresh and sweet and he breathed deeply, from somewhere wafted the scent of a Labor Day barbecue, but then all of his senses seemed to have sharpened, colors were more vivid and the sounds of laughter and shouts of delight from the pool were aligned in melodic symphony with the singing birds and the sound of squirrels scurrying up the trees at their approach.

Years later he would not remember how many days they had shared in this way or whether it was a single day, any more than he would remember how many times he had pretended with his friends to be Civil War soldiers or football players.

Years later he would sit on the rock near where his childhood was buried and renew whatever secret vows, unknown even to himself, were burned into his brain by the hot rivulets that streamed down his face in violation of his will and shamed something within him, some feeling that had little to do with the humiliation that he did indeed feel, but which was secondary to the sense of having been tricked, of having been set up to fall by something or someone: no, not by her, he could not believe that, something or someone must have intervened, the counsel of a jealous friend, the misinterpretation of something he had said, a parent’s prohibition, and it was this, the lack of comprehension, being unable to trace cause and effect and so make right in his mind the loss to himself, this it was that tortured him in the aftermath, for left with nothing, was there anything more to consolation than understanding?

Ah, the particulars. End of Summer, start of the new school year, Laura at Our Lady of Lourdes in Claremont, Robbie at St. Michael’s. Robbie feeling proud in his new blue windbreaker with the St. Michaels’s logo. First week of school, half days, it’s Friday and they’ve agreed to meet at the corner by the church when Laura’s class lets out so he can carry her books home for her, he shakes his head and smiles in disbelief about it even now, he’s there at the agreed hour-was it 2:30?-and Laura’s a little late: no problem, he has heard that this is a characteristic of women, that they like to make you wait, he doesn’t have a problem with it. Fifteen minutes have passed, now twenty, twenty-five minutes and he’s wondering if there hasn’t been some misunderstanding, maybe school lets out later but no, kids have been streaming out of school and down the street in waves, in droves, and then finally, finally here she comes, walking rather quickly, he thinks, her head down, school books clasped across her breasts, but something is wrong. Robbie can feel it, she has reached him now and her eyes are red and the tears are streaming down her cheeks and she is sobbing or at any rate he cannot make out the words, all he can hear is, “I don’t really love you” and the words have the force of electric shock upon him. He is stunned, for these are words for which there is no reply, there is no cover, no face to save, no attitude of cool to adopt; although, years later, he does not remember whether he had tried to pull something from his limited repertoire, to feign indifference, to mask a welling anger. He wanted to talk, he tried to talk to her, he wanted to touch her but no, not if she did not love him, and she had just said so. She had turned away now and was walking, almost running, back toward the school, and as he watched her recede in the distance the first panicked thought descended that he might never see her again, might never talk to her again in his entire life, and that there was a sudden and horrid finality to this with nothing to ameliorate it, it was like a car crash and a kind of death that he was going to have to face alone. He stood stupidly for a long time at that corner, looking around for he knew not what, feeling betrayed and ridiculous, and already feigning, already pretending to be waiting for someone, he was looking at his watch and waiting for a friend, maybe it was Joey, maybe it was Finney, just in case someone asked what he was doing standing at the corner, for whom he was waiting, or who he thought he was. There was a briskness in the air and the sun was hidden by a cloud. He turned his collar up and began walking, slowly, finally, although he did not want to leave: he wanted to go back in time, even to ten minutes ago, for he needed to abstract himself from the situation, so better to ponder the possible reversibility of time, time machines or angels or some God who was watching, the same one who was in the church of Our Lady of Lourdes that he passed by now, should he stop to light a votive candle?...or perhaps another time; he could not think, much less pray, because he could not impede the assault of random images, emotions, and thoughts that bombarded him unmercifully as he turned up the boulevard resolutely now, hands shoved deep into his pockets and face turned into the wind. He needed to get off these streets but there was nowhere else he wanted to be either, he wanted to be someplace that was no place, he wanted to separate his soul, his self, from his body, and float without cares, but he trudged instead up the boulevard toward his house, toward the hidden rock behind his house where he could gather himself and piece together what had just occurred.

So that years later, vows renewed, as he drowned out the last cigarette in the rainwater trapped in one of the rock’s many crevices, when he stood to stretch his legs and begin the walk through a lingering mist back to the car, he was ready at last for the drive back home to Manhattan, past the courthouse where the final judgment of Divorce had officially been entered, ready for it all: another job, another girlfriend, another life.


FIRST LOVE earned an Honorable Mention in the 2007 Competition.

Stephen A. Baker was raised on the East Coast and graduated cum laude from Washington & Lee University in 1974 with a B.A. in philosophy. He has worked in the international reinsurance business both in New York and San Francisco, and subsequently pursued graduate studies in Spanish literature as well as translation and interpretation. Mr. Baker lives in Pleasant Hill, California and continues to work in insurance. He enjoys traveling, reading, and the company of his children. His writing career began in 2007. “First Love” is intended to form part of an anthology of stories about a group of friends growing up in the 1960’s.