My dad offered to take me out to buy a pack of smokes today.
It sort of took me by surprise. He said, “John. You’re a man now. And real men smoke.”
I responded with, “And real men get lung cancer dad. Thanks, but… No thanks.” His eyes got kind of sad, and he sighed, settled back into his beat-up lazy boy recliner, and went back to watching boxing on TV. I think he’s disappointed in me. I graduated early from high school, so I didn’t have to worry about the pressures from friends to go out to a casino or smoke out back behind the old church.
I smiled a little at that thought. Back there, standing on the cracked pavement underneath the eerie glow of a stained-glass window was where I had had my first kiss at the ripe young age of… Seventeen. In fact, it had been a year ago to this very day.
I had been crushing on Maggie for years. She was two years younger than me, but we had grown up together in this small town as next door neighbors. Her mom and my mom were best friends, and we had been playmates since before I could remember. She was gorgeous in my eyes, nothing like the other girls in this town. She had this beautifully long, curly brown hair. She always wore a ribbon in it. She said it made her feel pretty. Her eyes were this deep blue color, like the ocean I had seen once when I was a kid. She was always smiling and laughing, and we would share our secrets.
Maggie was a popular girl. She had plenty of boyfriends, and she never let a single one of them mistreat her. She said that there was, “no way in hell she was going to turn out like her mama did”. That’s why she never stayed in a relationship for long. She didn’t think anyone was ever good enough for her, and I always agreed. I especially thought I wasn’t good enough for her. That’s why I didn’t ask her out on dates, or to dances, but instead let her crawl up the sycamore tree to my bedroom window and sleep beside me when she had a rough night. Why I let her cry on my shoulder when another boy got a little too close and ripped a seam of her heart.
I think it must have been on one of these occasions that she managed to read the secret letters I had been writing to her, because for a long while she acted distant around me. Those months were the hardest of my life.
But as my birthday came closer, I found a letter taped to my window, asking me to meet her behind the old church on midnight, or the morning of my birthday. My hands were shaking as I read the letter, and I could hardly wait for that day.
So on March 18th, at 11:48 p.m., I walked out in the cool night the few blocks to the church, my heart thudding in my chest the entire way.
Maggie was waiting for me there.
She was wearing a white ribbon in her hair that night, and it stood out in the dark. She was wearing the summer dress my mother had sewn for her the year before, and it rustled in the wind around her. I came up to stand beside her, and smiled awkwardly.
“Hey.” I checked my watch. It was 11:59 p.m. I hastily shoved my hands into my jacket’s pockets so Maggie couldn’t see them shaking.
“Hey.” She smiled, stepped closer to me. She bit her lip, and looked down. She gently grasped my wrist, pulled my hand from my pocket to look at my watch. I could smell the strawberry shampoo in her hair. I leaned forward a little, forgetting how close we had come together. “Happy birthday,” she murmured, and looked up at me.
I won’t say we didn’t kiss a little (or a lot) more, but nothing else happened that night. Nothing else needed to happen. There was enough emotion and fulfilling magic that night with her soft lips against mine, my arms around her tiny waist, my lips on her neck, or her fingers running through my hair.
I’ll never forget it.
I’ll never forget it because the next day as my mom drove Maggie home to our place for dinner from the boutique they worked at, they were sideswiped by a truck, and neither of them made it home.
Part of me almost wants that pack of cigarettes now, but I know that Maggie wouldn’t like it. I’m sitting in that big ole sycamore tree, closing my eyes. I don’t want the responsibility of growing up, because it means leaving Maggie behind. I don’t want to grow up without her.
And if I wait, and sit here long enough… I know I’ll catch the scent of strawberries on the wind.