I kissed Ellen McKendrick on an old wooden bench behind her fathers garage. I put my arms around her and took our breath away. We were a little dizzy when we pulled apart, but we tried again. I dove in and nature took hold. Her lips opened and dove deeper at the invitation. Ellen squealed and pushed me away.
What was that? Ellen wiped her lips, shock and confusion red behind her freckles.
A kiss, I said.
You put your She couldnt say it.
You didnt like it?
Ellen started to shake her head and stopped. She looked up at me through the soft sun-struck brown fringe of her bangs and leaned closer. Her eyelids fluttered down and her arms slipped up around my neck. Slowly her lips opened and I tried again. We tumbled into the abyss together.
My father stared back into frozen time. You never forget your first kiss, he said 20 years too late.
Mom counted the seconds between 3:30 and 4:00. Sit on the porch. Go outside. Anything, she said.
Four years she waited for me to leave the nest during day time. Thirty days stood between mother and shopping, hair appointments, and ladies clubs. If my birthday were November instead of December Id already be in school. But those thirty days between the November cutoff and my birthday in December meant my mother must wait another year before she could play cards, drink martinis, and shop with her friends, another year to wait to enjoy the life she gave up when I came along.
My mother would appeal to the principal so she could be free of me during the day.
My friends talked about school. Recess and lunch sounded great, but the rest of it was torture. Fractions and sums and coloring. I knew how to read so I didnt need school. I had decided to wait until I was ready. Twenty-two was a good age to start school, not four.
I missed my friends, but I could wait. My mother couldnt.
Two weeks before the start of school, I put on my Sunday school suit and got in the car.
Behave yourself. Say please and thank you.
Dont pull at your collar. She slapped my hand as I pulled at the tie.
Its too tight.
I put my hands on my lap. There was no reasoning with her. I would just have to choke to death. Shed be sorry when I was dead. I fidgeted on the hot plastic seat covers.
Sit still. I listened the second time. She used her dont you dare voice. A back handed slap would follow. I winced inside as the plastic burned the backs of my legs. Yeah, shed be sorry when I was dead.
Read clear and loud. Im sure Mrs. Wallace will ask you about math. Write the numbers neatly. Dont count on your fingers. She harangued me until we pulled up in front of the school. The school was a few blocks from our house, but that day we went by way of Timbuktu.
Mother fussed with my tie and raked her nails through my hair. She brushed my pants and spit on a Kleenex. How do you get so dirty? We walked the last mile of freedom and through the big glass doors into the echoing hallway of the school. Down the hallway and around the corner a sign read "Principals Office." My life was over and I hadnt even lived.
Mrs. Corso. How do you do? The woman checked the watch pinned to the mountain of her breasts. Right on time. You must be Mark.
Yes. Mother beamed.
I stared openmouthed as my hand disappeared in hers. Very nice, she said. What a handsome little man.
My mother glared down at me and nodded. I forgot something. What was it? Oh, yeah. Thank you, I said, forcing the words past the stone in my throat.
I was pushed forward after Mrs. Wallaces blue clad back into a small room. I knew about this place. This was where the paddle lived, the one that whistled and cracked the air just before it hit your naked bottom. I looked around hoping, and almost afraid, to see it hanging on the wall like a bloodstained trophy. It wasnt there. There were pictures and framed papers with writing and gold starburst designs behind glass, but no paddle. It was hidden, probably laying in wait for the next victim to drop his pants and bend before its power. I couldnt breathe. I fingered my collar. A sharp stare from my mother and my hands fell to my sides.
My mother described a genius that could read and write and figure long lists of numbers. He knew the days of the week and the months and could recite some poetry. He could count past 100. He was a prodigy. I didnt care. The paddle lurked behind the desk or in a hidden drawer waiting to spring out at me.
Mark, my mother demanded.
Im sure this is all a little confusing for him.
Hes fine. Spell 'book'.
I spelled it slowly and clearly.
Mrs. Wallace bore down on me with an orange-yellow paper book in her hand. Read this, Mark.
I opened the book. See Dick. See Jane. See Dick run. See Jane run. See Dick and Jane Dick and Jane and Spot walked and talked and ran and jumped. It was boring, nothing like my books at home.
My mother smiled.
Next, I neatly added and subtracted numbers, writing them carefully with a pencil as thick as my fathers cigars. I counted from ninety to one hundred twenty. I recited a poem, but not a really good one. My mother didnt know I knew about the girl from Nantucket.
He is very advanced for his age, Mrs. Wallace agreed.
Youll take him?
Whats one month? No sense making him wait a whole year just because his birthday is thirty days beyond an arbitrary cutoff date. She bent toward me. Come here, young man.
I walked slowly forward as if mounting the gallows. Mrs. Wallace bent down and my face disappeared between her hands. Such a smart young man.
Sweat beaded the little hairs above her thick, red, wet, overripe lips. Her eyes sparkled. The skin around her eyes and mouth puckered and deepened. The slick sweet smell of funeral flowers closed in on me.
Youll do just fine, she said, her lips writhing as they clamped down on me. When I gasped something warm and wet slid over my teeth and darted along my tongue. I pushed at her, but she was too strong for me. I struggled to breathe and sucked her deeper. Then she was gone. I stumbled backward. He may start after Labor Day.
Fists clenched at my side, I resisted the urge to wipe my mouth. My mother nodded, smiled, and answered Mrs. Wallace politely as she herded me through the door. Hell be here.
I kept walking until I reached the hall. Freedom lay beyond the big orange and glass doors. My mothers heels rapped across the white and black streaked tile as she and Mrs. Wallace talked behind me. I was swift and quiet. Throwing my thin shoulders again the door, I forged ahead under a sky of brass. I gulped the hot, damp air, wiping my mouth with my sleeve.
I wanted to run, but didnt dare. Mrs. Wallace might notice and attack again. No, I thought Id better walk slowly to the car. Never run from a predator. Mother unlocked the doors and I crawled onto the searing plastic covered seat. The engine growled to life and we drove away. The school vanished slowly behind us. I scrubbed my mouth with my sleeve while mother chattered about school supplies and new clothes and the terms of my tenure under Mrs. Wallaces watchful eye and trembling lips. I could almost hear the gears whirring in her mind as my mother planned outings and lunches and drinks once I was out of the way. But the memory of Mrs. Wallaces kiss lingered on. I couldnt get the taste of that first kiss out of my mouth for what seemed like forever.
The memories of youth are hard wired. My first kiss will be one of the last things intact when senility takes me down the weedy garden path. Girls will come and go, but Mrs. Wallaces hot wet probing and the overpowering cloud of sweet decay will over shadow their fumbling attempts. No sweet furtive embrace or the feel of soft skin and hesitant glances will comfort me. No old wooden bench behind the garage away from prying eyes and disapproving parents will ever dance in my mind's eye as the rest of the world fades in a watery haze.
My father whispered Ellen McKendricks name as he died, as if she waited for him. Her soft young lips welcomed him as he breathed his last.
Principal Wallace waits for me.