Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Gift of Grace

On the first truly beautiful day of May, a Wednesday, Melissa Burnett and Jimmy Stanski walked home together after school.

She’d been watching him for months now, ever since he had taken the seat across the aisle from her in English class. She knew who he was of course, and where he lived; her own kid sister hung out with his kid sister. He was one of the ‘serious’ students, not much for sports or extracurricular activities but willing to help others with questions about class or homework. She found herself watching him surreptitiously. Sometimes he smiled. That smile did something extraordinary to his face. Melissa couldn’t explain what it was, not even to herself. She fell in love with his smile.

She tried to draw his attention in little ways, hoping he’d notice her and perhaps speak to her. Often she’d smile at him. Once he smiled back and she turned all fluttery inside. She watched him walk away without being able to say a word.

A group of students, about half a dozen, got into the habit of walking home together after school. Melissa was one of them. Occasionally Jimmy tagged along. But this Wednesday there was no group. When she saw Jimmy take off on his own, she impulsively called out to him.

“Jimmy! Wait for me!”

He turned and waited, watching her as she fumbled with her backpack and the sweater she didn’t need now the day had turned warmer. It felt strange to be alone with him. She didn’t know what to say so she babbled about school and people. Anything to avoid a long silence she knew would be too uncomfortable. If ever he said a few words, she didn’t notice but just kept on with her chatter. When her mind finally stopped feeding words to her mouth she paused, stood still as she felt a slight blush creep over her face.

“I’m sorry. You must think I’m silly, just carrying on like that.”

He had turned toward her and she looked up into his face. He was smiling that smile and his eyes seemed to laugh.

“No, I love watching you talk. You get so animated, so intense.”

She began to walk away, not knowing how to take his remark. You don’t watch someone talk; you listen to them, don’t you? Was he making fun of her? That blush that had started earlier began to deepen again. He caught up to walk beside her, seemed to know what she was thinking.

“I’m serious. I love the way your face moves, your hands and arms. Wait. Let me get us a Coke or something at the corner store. We can stop in the park and you can talk to me some more. Or is it warm enough for an ice cream bar? That is, if you don’t have to hurry home or anything.”

Momentarily flabbergasted, she squeaked out “ice cream,” and he loped off to the nearby variety store. As she waited she wondered how this had happened, how a boy who didn’t seem to know she existed was suddenly paying attention to her. What had she been doing wrong? Maybe it was just this being alone with him.

He came back with two Creamsicles and handed one to her. “Come,” he said and turned down the street to the nearby entrance to the park that covered more than a whole city block. A small shiver ran up her spine at the sound of command in his voice. He didn’t look back as she followed him. From this vantage point she watched his body in motion beneath his clothes: not swaggering and self-assured like a jock preening, not hunched and folded around himself like an insecure geek. He walked as if he were comfortable in his skin.

At the gate he waited for her to catch up. “There’s a picnic table in the shade of those old maples in the corner. You can’t see it from here; the place is quiet and sheltered.” He grinned at her, then suddenly became serious. “You don’t have to be home at a specific time, do you? We have enough time for our ice cream, don’t we?”

Her voice seemed unable to form proper sounds. She croaked something and nodded her head. He smiled that smile again and took her by the elbow to guide her down the path. “Come,” he said again.

Her mind was a blank. Her universe consisted of her body and his body, with the center being the point where his hand touched her elbow. I’ll never wash it again, was the thought that crossed her mind and that was just as hastily discarded as too immature. Still, the sense of something awesome lingered. Somehow she found herself sitting across a picnic table from him, watching his smile twist as his tongue swiped out over the Creamsicle and then reform in the silence around them. The only sounds she could hear were the trill of a small bird in a nearby bush and the pounding of her own pulse in her ears.

She was afraid she was expected to say something and had nothing to say.
Was she supposed to ask him about his interests, his family, his plans, his hopes for the future, his thoughts on marriage and children? Oh my god, she thought, I’m losing it. If I open my mouth again I’ll make a complete ass of myself. She bent to hide her blushing face and wrapped her mouth around the ice cream bar.

His voice insinuated itself into her awareness. She glanced at him quickly. His face was serious but he wasn’t looking directly at her, almost as if he were just as uneasy being here with her. She tried to pay attention to what he was saying.

He knew a bit about her through their sisters. He deliberately chose a seat near her in English. He watched her in the halls. He loved the blue of her eyes, how it twinkled when she laughed. She made him feel a little shy, intimidated by her poise.

She felt a deep, regretful, space open up within her. Both of them, it seems, had similar feelings; each was unable to approach the other. If it hadn’t been for Jimmy walking away from school alone today, her leaving at the same time, and her inexplicable courage to call out to him, would they have gone on like that? Instinctively she shifted her Creamsicle to her left hand, reached out her right over the table to him. He took it in his.

This new togetherness, as Melissa thought of it, seemed as familiar as if they had been together for years. Still, it was so unfamiliar. She wondered what she was supposed to do, what words she was supposed to say. “Jimmy,” she began, then looked into his face, unable to continue. Nor did he say a word.

She wondered if she should make a move to kiss him.

She would have to slide off the long seat, walk around the table, and approach him from behind. Or sit down on the seat on his side and slide toward him. Then hold his face and turn it toward hers. It sounded and felt so complicated.

The finished Creamsicle sticks lay irrelevant on the table. Suddenly she let go of his hand and turned around with her back to him. She didn’t know if he was watching her closely, but she was aware she was blushing furiously. Her quick fingers unbuttoned her shirt. With less fumbling than she expected, she unfastened her bra, removed it from under her shirt, and set it aside as if she had practiced the procedure a hundred times. The unexpected fresh air made her nipples stand out. Before she lost her nerve she turned back toward him.

Her open shirt displayed her defenseless chest with its small firm breasts and the hard little nipples. “Jimmy,” she said again and looked into his face. His eyes were focused on what she displayed. The fear that he would laugh at her passed. She took a deep breath and held it.

“Ah, Melissa,” he murmured. “You are so beautiful.”

She watched as his hands reached out to her. She flinched, believing he was going to grab her breasts but he touched her face, one hand on either side, and looked deep into her eyes. “Melissa,” he said again with a tone of wonderment in his voice.

Suddenly she felt panicked, breathless. She stumbled and almost fell getting to her feet as she slid away from the picnic table. Without thought she ran toward the park’s entrance as she attempted to button her shirt. She raced homeward as if a pack of dogs were on her heels. She threw herself on her bed in her room and let herself go, to cleanse herself with tears and deep sobs.

What kind of feelings were these? She felt shame but not really ashamed. She feared she might have done wrong but couldn’t believe she had. Was this attraction love? It didn’t meet the requirements, yet it felt so right. She sobbed into her pillow, unaware of the passage of time.

Much later, she was disturbed by an insistent knocking on her bedroom door. She heard her mother call her name softly. Grabbing for tissues to soothe her sniffles, she invited her in.

“Are you OK, love?” her mother asked. “Jimmy Stanski said you rushed away in a terrible hurry and forgot your backpack, so he stopped and dropped it off. And this.” She held out the bra Melissa had also forgotten in the park.

“Oh, Mom!” Melissa threw her arms around her mother’s neck and the sobbing began again, louder this time. Mrs Burnett held her daughter and consoled her.

“Oh, Mom.” Melissa squeezed her mother tight, spoke into her neck. “How do you know when you’re in love? Really and truly in love?”

There was a long silence. “I think it’s different for every one, dear. And it’s never easy.” Her mother stiffened in Melissa’s tight grasp. “Honey, did you and Jimmy?”

“No! But what if we want to? What if I want to?” She fought to restrain the sobs and tears.

“Melissa.” She turned her daughter’s face toward her. “I trust you, dear. But let’s make an appointment with the doctor. The two of us. And when you feel up to it this evening, we’ll talk.”

They held each other very tight. Mother and daughter. One flesh and, perhaps, one spirit.

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