A Kiss at Fifteen

 

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Wayne Michael DeHart    (July, 1996)

Nancy was her name. Not a good omen. His eighth-grade girlfriend had been a Nancy and she had broken his heart, her head turned by the quintessential older man – a 16-year-old with his own car.

But at 16 he knew instinctively this Nancy was different. She was a younger woman (15) from the poorest of families and lived in “that” neighborhood. It seemed like she had just a few outfits for school, including a couple of white blouses that had yellowed and a black skirt that was adorned with lint and loose threads. In the language of the late 1960’s, she might have been labeled as “slow” (years later, “intellectually challenged” would be deemed the more politically-correct descriptor).

Few other kids associated with her and none laid claim to her friendship – or wanted to. She often dawdled idly after the last bell and consequently missed her school bus home, thus having to walk the couple of miles to the outskirts of town in solitude. She was never seen at school events, and was never missed.

He had seen her around school and wondered why she was always alone, appearing melancholy and deep in thought. The factory town had its share of underprivileged kids, many of whom hung together and shared the dual struggles of schoolwork and trying to fit in. Among the loners, however, none traveled as much in a world of their own as this enigmatic girl with the striking black hair and upturned nose.

He found her enchanting, though he could not say just why, and he became intrigued by her detached air of quiet defiance and self-reliance. He wanted to approach her, to talk to her, maybe sit with her at lunch or something. When he mentioned his interest to his friends, he became the target of biting verbal barbs and jabs, the kind of banter that male juveniles deem requisite when responding to confessed revelations of sincerity and sentiment.

They made one point clear and unmistakable: Stay away. “Everyone” knew this girl was always alone for a reason – she was, in the jargon of the day,  a “skag” – a catchall, undefined term that simply meant she was deemed undesirable, unattractive, unacceptable, unsociable and unfit to be seen with. They said he could do better than, well, a skag.

 (Skag – Not to the manor born. Earthy. Plain. Ultra-shy. Standoffish. Doesn’t fit in, won’t fit in, can’t fit in.  Odd. Quirky. Rumored  to be reckless, dangerous, dishonest and dark. Liar. Not too bright. A vacant stare. Unsmiling. Rough around the edges. Doesn’t read, won’t read or can’t read. Loner. Lonely. A dog. Can’t trust her. Bad family. Not a nice girl. Was supposedly seen late one night with the black leather-jacket guys behind the dairy bar. A mindless monster, a heartless harlot, a soulless slut, a trashy tramp, etc.)

Skag – a scattershot term for a girl he had become smitten with from afar.  Well, skag or not, whatever it meant, he had grown weary of  listening to his friends’ warnings, and became more determined than ever to get to know her.

And get to know her he did. He had expected aloofness but discovered a warm acceptance. Right from the start, she dropped her guard and removed her mask, captivating him with her childlike innocence, her unpretentious charm, her rich sense of humor and her dazzling dark eyes.

He himself was mature beyond his years yet he knew he remained a step or two behind her.  She was strong from a lifetime of being shunned and teased and had protected herself with an ass-kicking air of independence that she compromised when they would talk for hours on their long walks home together. (She now missed the bus on purpose, knowing he would walk her home each day, carrying her books, always walking between her and the street as he had been taught, protecting her from errant traffic  – a noble, yet subtle, display of gallantry that did not go unnoticed.)

As the weeks went by, the young couple achieved a delicate balance of friendship, trust and physical attraction – a balance nurtured by a mutual respect that was rare for those of so few years.

He had recently read “The Once and Future King” for a book report, his selection inspired by a pleasant memory of seeing “Camelot” at the movies the year before. He had been captured by the spirited simplicity of Richard Harris’ fervent King Arthur and the seductive strains of Vanessa Redgrave’s alluring songs. He had cursed the intrusion of Lancelot, the betrayal of Guinevere and the naivete’ of Arthur as the king’s  dream and vision unraveled before his eyes. For some vague reason, he took it personally and thereafter preferred to remember only the first half of the story and abandon the rest.

In quiet moments of solitude, he would envision the town as his Kingdom, the mysterious Nancy as his Queen, and every other guy in the school as lurking Lancelots. He wanted the “happily ever after” ending from the title song.  It was a great dream and he rode it hard. His years were few and imagination serves none so proudly as the young.

Despite many opportunities, he had not once acted on his impulsive desires to kiss the girl, perhaps out of fear that bells wouldn’t ring, that sparks wouldn’t fly, that the earth wouldn’t move. For him, or for her, or for both. He understood that, in one brief, unshining moment, the magic of his Camelot could be reduced to the sordid sorcery of Oz.

Sorcery? Nancy knew little, perhaps nothing,  of Camelot, but surely would have rejected his imagery of the Land of Oz. To her, it was a wonderful place of endearing munchkins, yellow brick roads and the glittering splendor of the Emerald City. Home to Glinda the Good and wishes granted and happy endings. Though she had seen the classic movie, she had not read the books and was not aware of the blissful absence of poverty and ignorance and sickness and sadness in Baum’s evolving Oz.

The unassuming young girl was content to imagine herself as Dorothy, with true friends and real happiness – hailed as heroine by the masses, simple folk like herself. Simply put, when she was Dorothy, she was not Nancy. But it was Nancy that had captured the boy’s heart. And it was Nancy that had to deal with life’s uncertainties and burdens.

Acceptance, for example.

Football games at their high school were as much social events as athletic contests. Until the cold weather of November arrived in New Hampshire, most were played on Friday nights. With their team a perennial also-ran, students spent more time socializing and couple-watching on those most significant of date nights. It was still early in the school year, and new “pairings” were great gossip material for the following week.

It was Friday, October 11, 1968 – the night before traditional Columbus Day – and there was discovery in the air. Right before kick-off  came one of those moments that are forever etched into the memories of those present, there to be summoned forth from time to time to restore that balancing force in our lives called perspective.

Nancy had reluctantly agreed to go the game with him, their “coming out” as a couple and her first ever school function. She liked him, and wondered aloud if they should have just gone to a movie, where he would not get teased for being with her. He told her not to worry, that he could brush aside whatever might be said to him, and that no one would bother her.  She felt reassured and off they went.

They had been seen together almost daily in the cafeteria and sometimes on those long after-school walks to her house, but few really thought she was anything more than a curiosity to him.  And certainly he would never actually take her out, like on a date or something. But look …

There they stood, hand-in-hand, looking up into the stands for the least congested section of the bleachers, hoping to go unnoticed and subtly get to a seat while everyone was watching the field as the players started to line up. Then came the shout, cold and cruel, reverberating above the murmur of the crowd.

“SKAG!”

The word had no sooner pierced the heart of the young girl when it was followed by more shouts, more voices, in unison – “skag, skag, skag”. It was his “friends” and he hurt for her.

That resilient strength, that cloak of armor she had relied upon to keep her safe from hate and hurt and humiliation wavered in the October wind as everything went quiet and it felt like everyone there was staring at them, and not the field.

She turned to him, tears welling in those dark eyes that owned his soul, and he squeezed her hand tight. He froze, sure she was going to break free and run, the now-ended shouts still echoing loudly in her head, ripping through her like buckshot, her spirit bleeding in retreat.

He was wrong.

Ass-kicking independence dies hard in the young as well as the old. She pulled him close and fought off the tears. In a defining moment of courage and character, of determination and defiance, she turned and smiled in the direction of her tormentors. Then she pulled him in even closer and kissed him. It was showtime and he responded like she knew he would. It was a kaleidoscope kiss of blues and golds, of starbursts and rainbows. Each felt the pounding of the other’s heart and savored the sweetness and innocence of first love.

At first surprised, than seemingly delighted, many of those watching broke into spontaneous applause, then turned their attention back to the field, to the players, to the cold October wind that enveloped them.

The football team did win the game, but theirs was not the most important victory that night. It was the conquest of a love that proved at once sacred and spiritual – a love that was romantic yet believable, worldly yet virtuous , misunderstood but deserved. A love that was real and yet mythical, capturing all that was good in Camelot and Oz. It matters not that those fabled realms were flawed; only that their imagination, their inspiration, their vision and their promise are perpetuated and preserved.

By those who teach.
By those who learn.
By those who lead.
By those who follow.
By you …
and by me.

For his King Arthur.
For her Dorothy.
For youth.
For love.
For … ever.

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The real Nancy – at 15. Hope your life has been all that you wanted it to be, and more. Thank you for The Kiss, and the memories. The Patrick Swayze line, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner”, could have been written about you. You wowed me to the stars, you were sweet yet strong, and you won the night.