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The Cloud of Mystery~
And they call it puppy love
Oh, I guess they’ll never know
How a young heart feels
And why I love her so
Oh, I guess they’ll never know
How a young heart feels
And why I love her so
In 1972 I wanted to be just like Donny Osmond. He was this very good-looking, popular, well-dressed young celebrity the girls screamed for. Connie really liked him, too. That made me very jealous, of course. Being but ten years old, I couldn’t understand or cope with such a strong emotion as jealousy. To that point I’d never really felt anything even remotely like it before. Here was this really pretty girl who didn’t seem to mind talking to me (unlike every other girl in my class, pretty or not); that fact by itself inspired all sorts of protectiveness inside me. The green monster reared its ugly head from the virgin depths of my childhood soul and roared; it roared louder still when Connie announced her undying love for Michael Jackson as well, who could not only sing well—really well—but could dance lights out, too. I took it personally: it was war between me and Donny and Michael for this pretty girl’s affection—and there was no way I could win.
Or maybe there was. After all, Donny and Michael were thousands of miles away, and were each surrounded by truckloads of fawning, sighing, screaming girls. I was right here, by Connie’s side. And while I had no illusions I was anywhere near as good-looking or interesting as Donny Osmond or Michael Jackson, I did for some reason merit her undivided attention almost every day of our fourth-grade year.
How I first got there, by her side, is a total mystery. I’m not saying I don’t remember: forty-five years ago I couldn’t have told you how it happened, either. The cloud of mystery surrounding our coming together has both plagued and pleased me in the vast span of time following: plagued for the obvious reason of wanting to recall everything about her and our short time together; pleased because, even today, as the brittle and cynical rationality of adulthood has made steady forays into my spirit, that mystery remains an untouchable one, a mystery that has by its very nature rejuvenated and renewed my soul. I cannot grow up with it present, as it will be with me the rest of my days. The brittleness and cynicism cannot claim me whole. The war was lost nearly five decades ago.
Adults downplay young love because ... well, for many reasons, some of which I’ll touch on here. “Puppy love” they call it just before smiling in an Isn’t it sweet? manner to their same-aged friends while the young smitten ones looks on, not understanding. As I did. As I’m sure Connie did. When you’re but ten years old, adults thoroughly elude you: their behavior, their mannerisms, their flighty, unpredictable, sometimes terrifying extremes.
“Puppy love.” I was directed by the many adults in my life at the time to minimize my feelings because, after all, I was only ten years old and ten-year-old boys couldn’t possibly have a clue as to what real love is. I was warned many times and in many ways: Don’t take it so seriously, Shawn, violating everything I felt inside at the time. Everything I feel now. Nothing’s changed. They were wrong; I was, and still am, right.
In the decades following I have learned that very few adults themselves know what genuine love is, for it requires the truest, most steadfast, most daring courage possible in this universe—and they don’t have it. Knowing this, it becomes trivially obvious why young love is minimized with the label “puppy love,” and why all love worthy of being called such is, ultimately, fled from.
She wore a brown long coat with a belt she’d cinch up during blustery autumn or winter days. The coat came with deep pockets, one to a side, into which she’d stuff her mittened hands. On her head was a cute red ski cap with fluffy white button; she’d pull the cap down over her ears and give me a playful smile and I’d totally forget that I was immersed in biting cold and swirling snow. For Connie’s smile was the brightest, the most endearing one I’d ever seen.
“Where do you want to go?” she asked brightly as we met one frozen day just outside her homeroom door. I’d hurried there to catch her, afraid if I didn’t she’d troop off with friends, as she did on rare occasion. But here she was, waiting for me. She caught me gaping at her and smiled even more sweetly. “Well?”
“Want to go on the swings?” I suggested meekly, hoping it would meet with her approval. But she shook her head.
“Nah,” she said, “it’s too cold. Let’s just walk around.”
And so we walked around the playground, kids flying all around us, yelling and screaming and laughing, Connie with her long brown coat on and her mittened hands stuffed warmly into the side pockets, me sporting my inadequate down coat and my freckled nose bright red from the chill.
My nose was an embarrassment. In any temperature less than 50 degrees it’d get red and stay that way for hours. Not my cheeks, not my forehead, not even my chin. Those would stay a perfectly normal whitish-pink, suitable for kissing. But my nose? Classic Irish drunk.
“You’re at least partially Irish,” Mom told me after one particularly frigid day. “The proof is right ... here.” She playfully poked my nose.
My adoption papers made very little mention of my heritage. I’d take the occasional look at them: “SCOTCH-IRISH” was the only information available. There wasn’t more to go on. Many years later, after meeting my birth mother, I received almost no additional information.
“I don’t know,” she snarled, which she often did. “I think my side is mainly English. I don’t know what your father was. I never asked him.”
She never asked him because (as it came reluctantly to light) I was the result of her one-night stand with him, and they didn’t get around to sharing family backgrounds. From her general description of him—tall, with blonde hair and blue eyes—I’d go more for the Teutonic end of the gene pool. But who knows? It’s certain I never will: my birth mother remembered nothing beyond his name—Bob Meyers—and (of course) his physical attributes.
Bob Meyers, my biological father, doesn’t even know I’m alive.
Was one of dear ol’ Dad’s attributes “Irish drunk nose”? Did his nose get all red and silly the night he and my mother conceived me that night up
in the spring of 1961? I asked. Boulder Canyon
“What a silly question,” she said, grimacing. “Why would I remember a thing like that?”
She never told me if she herself ever suffered from “Irish drunk nose.”
It’s those recess walks I remember most about Connie. It was the closeness of her. She’d not walk far away, but would meander happily right next to me, her shoulder occasionally brushing my arm. She smiled a lot. It was a full smile, offered without evasion or intent to manipulate, but nonetheless struck with a deep sadness, which only endeared her to me more. She was human, that sadness told me; were I unable to detect anything but pure angelic joy inside her she’d have been unapproachable and unreachable. But there was something behind her brown eyes that brought her spirit low enough that I could reach up to it in fellowship and love, which I did.
“Let’s sit,” she suggested, and we made our way to a low brick wall which enclosed a large square sandbox full of playing kids. Mom’s etiquette lessons kicked in then: Never sit until the lady has been seated. So I’d wait until Connie was comfortably seated before taking my place next to her. I gave her plenty of room to move around: there was at least a good foot of space between us.
Connie scooched closer, until our thighs barely touched. She always did this. She never looked at me as she did so, but out, innocently, at the other kids playing and running around.
What was I to make of this—I, a ten-year-old boy? Something was awakening inside me, and I felt confused and elated. I wanted to hold her hand. I wanted to kiss her.
Holding hands? Kissing? I’d never wanted to do such things with a girl before. Girls were grody. Girls were uck. Girls were good for things like taking a half-inflated basketball minding its own business in the tall, unmown grass in our back yard and launching it full force in a surprise attack upon my younger sister, who was riding far too gleefully around on her new Schwinn bike with sparkly-pink banana seat. As I recall, my aim was glorious: the basketball slammed into her shoulder, spilling her sideways off the bike into an area of the yard rife with land mines. That’s what you did with girls.
Holding hands? Kissing? I had no idea how to go about doing either. Surely one didn’t just reach out and grab that enticing mittened hand as it rested serenely on her thigh, surely! There had to be some elaborate grown-up ritual to go with it. And kissing—it was so far beyond my comprehension as to how to go about getting that going that puckering up seemed no less complex than launching an Apollo rocket to the moon! Surely there were procedures to be followed, checks to be done:
“Kisser 1, this is
is Kisser 1.”
“Kisser 1, check your coolant systems. They a ‘go’?”
“Coolant systems are reading ‘strained,’
“Roger that, Kisser 1. We’re showing the same. Primary independent puckering manifolds?”
“We’re reading ‘frozen,’ Kisser 1.”
Attempting to override vocal programming—it keeps blathering total gibberish.
I’m now manually maneuvering the left quintuple grip assemblage closer to hers
“Coolant system reading ‘critical,’ Kisser 1. The wind and snow don’t seem to be helping—”
“Attempting a bypass of the automatic tactical forehead/eyebrow circuitry,
Houston. Can’t seem to get
the viewer cover units to blink—”
“Kisser 1, your oxygen intake units have completed red-shifted. And we believe the mucous storage tanks are leaking! ABORT
REPEAT, ABORT MISSION!”
“She’s looking at me strangely,
“Oh, the humanity!”
“My God, I see ... stars.”
I never did kiss Connie. Nor did I ever hold her hand. It would be a gross understatement to say I thought often about doing both. It wasn’t because they sounded “cool” to do, or because my few male friends kept challenging me to do both, which they did, but because I desperately, achingly wanted to be closer to her, to show her how I felt. Her cheeks were like brown porcelain, her hands too. Her lips ... I had no language for them, and wouldn’t for many years after. I dreamed about her lips—the way she’d bite the lower one while she thought of something to say, the way she’d lick them after eating something sweet, the way they pulled back when she smiled: the remarkable way they didn’t seem to thin as she did so, but remained full and reddish-pink and pure. One time, while talking about the new plush puppy she’d gotten for Christmas, she pretended the little guy was in her arms and she cuddled them in and shook back and forth and lavished the nonexistent—and incredibly lucky—canine with all sorts of kisses.
Houston, we’re on fire!
Repeat: WE’RE ON FIRE!”
Holding hands? Kissing? The desire to do both was amplified hugely by Connie’s mesmerizing brown eyes.
Many beautiful girls and women have since crossed my life path, some truly stunning to behold. Women with eyes like sapphires, others like emeralds, others still with eyes like deepest night, coal-black and mysterious. It was impossible for me through the long years following that magical fourth-grade year not to compare them all to the brown beauties that occasionally locked my gaze like an electromagnet as we sat there on that wall, or when I got on the bus in the morning and saw her sitting there, smiling in my direction, the seat next to hers open (as it always was), or when we came together after another day at the school’s entrance, where we would run and hop on the bus and find a seat together. Her eyes were so alive and expressive that I didn’t need to ask her permission to be by her side: the permission was obvious and complete within them, and offered without apology or shame. It came with a smile simple as morning sunshine, and as quiet.
Looking back, I recall entire conversations I had with Connie, but ones where we shared no words. Conversations that seemed to take place outside time, so that the days passed indistinctly one from another, the honey-golden sky of morning and the perfumed blues and whites of mid-day and the sumptuous purples of dusk quickened, formless, into familiar and welcome stages by which we could immerse ourselves and our unspoken love, while the audiences passed by, convinced it wasn’t real, or oblivious to us, forgettable bit players that we were to them.
To this day, whenever I pull out Connie’s photo and look at it, at her eyes, I am transported instantly back in time. I can smell the sweet tinge of diesel fumes from the school bus we sat in mornings and afternoons; I can feel the slick vinyl of its olive-green seats and its engine rumbling expectantly beneath me; I can smell winter on her brown coat and I can feel the tight heat in my cheeks as she smiled at me. I can smell the pink pencil erasers in the bright homeroom; I can hear the other children in the gym during lunch, which doubled as the cafeteria; I can feel the thrill of seeing her name on the list taped to the wall of the classroom opposite mine. These are the gifts Connie gave me, anchored forever in her young eyes, the incessant corruptions of time and adult experience unable to grasp them and claim them for their own.
We had ten months together; that was all we would get. Unspoken volumes, gestures answered, smiles returned, footsteps echoed: somehow the dash of time that granted us company together also granted me light and sound and smell and taste and touch.... But they were granted so purely, so innocently, that there was no way to fully take hold of any of them, as though they weren’t offered to my physical being, but to my spirit, to my soul. It was there and only there that they could be appreciated in the season of their fullness: the gross and grubbing matter that contained my essence could never comprehend, let alone appreciate to the degree that they deserved, light that illuminated light, sound to grace sound, smell to spice smell, taste to savor taste, touch that glanced touch:
Eternity was manifest in the light of day, and something infinite behind everything appeared: which talked of my expectation and moved my desire.
Connie would meander into my shoulder, innocent as the snowflakes that drifted down on us, and something inside me ached for that touch as though my very being depended on it, which, as the decades since have shown time and time again, it did.
Too Distant For Pain
Too Distant For Pain