He is the lingering taste of melting popsicles on hot summer days. He is catching as many fireflies as we could in a jar. He is the clubhouse we all pitched in to build that one lazy Fall. He is flying down that huge hill in our neighborhood on a spray painted bike with no brakes. That’s why he will always be perfect.
I remember growing up alongside him and seeing him as nothing more than the scrawny boy up the street that loved baseball. During the summers all of the kids in my neighborhood would get together and we became this unstoppable pack. We stalked the ice cream van, created crazy imaginative games about spies, rode our bikes everywhere, snuck into neighbor’s pools, and explored the woods in our backyards that felt like the Amazon to us then. They are moments that I never thought I would look back on with such warmth, but I hold tight to them now realizing that I was one of the lucky ones. As old and cool as we thought we were, we got to indulge in a childhood of running around outside where bikes were cool, imaginations were celebrated, and conversations never ran out. And we also got to learn about love. Because one of those summers I began to realize how my heart skipped a beat when I saw that gold bike with no brakes fly down the hill to get to my house. I remember anticipating him tackling me during a game of flag football. I looked forward to the scary stories we told with all our friends huddled in the clubhouse because I knew it meant I could squeeze in beside him. He would smile at me and I was pulled to it. I liked feeling that I put the smile there. I liked feeling like he was mine. And for awhile there, he was.
There were those first kisses that are physically awkward but thoroughly exciting. You wonder and wonder and then it happens. The lips smash together, his nose exhales too harshly on you, but you drink in the entire moment. And you fantasize about when it will happen again. And you spend the rest of the summers chasing each other, recording mix tapes for the other one’s Walkman, he buys you your Screwball ice cream with the gum in the bottom, and in the privacy of the clubhouse you built you continue to explore this whole kissing thing while imagining your wedding that will have plenty of purple flowers. This was the perfection of my youth, where his face dots every i.
The inevitable happens. We grow up. Summer fades and the next time school lets out we’re spending our freedom with friends from school; no longer young enough to prowl the neighborhood on our bikes or play silly games out back in the woods that no longer hold their mystique. I’m wearing make up now, going to the movies with my girlfriends, and worried about boys at school. He’s getting even taller, making his own friends at school, and only cutting eyes at me every once in a while. But I wonder when he does. I wonder what he’s thinking and if he remember just like I do.
We continue to grow and soon we’re in high school. He’s still just up the street from me, but somehow our worlds don’t touch anymore.We’re not those kids anymore because now we drive, date, and deal with bigger questions and problems than back then in that clubhouse. He’s taller and beginning to fill in those looks and I’m evolving into a girl that definitely doesn’t have to stuff her bra anymore. Then something happens. Our worlds collide because we get a class together and it’s there again. The quick glances. The questioning looks. We’re put into the same group. Simple conversations turn into loaded questions wondering who it was that stopped talking to whom. Trying to retrace our steps and get back to those days wondering how we got here, how we got to be older kids who could walk past each other and barely say hello. We smile and point fingers and it’s all still there. That boy’s smile that made my heart jump still shone back at me. With him, I felt like that same girl again. I felt better knowing she was still there. She was still there even if I wasn’t racing down hills with no brakes anymore.
Homecoming came and he didn’t ask me. I went with friends and had an amazing time of dancing without worry and laughing to the point of choking on the cheap punch. I saw him. He watched me as I danced, shooting me a nod with that smile. On Monday he told me he wished he’d asked me to go with him. And that was just it. That’s what our relationship would be. The simple perfection of our youth, and then having to watch it fade away into strangers that wished they could ask for it back.
Then my family moved. It was abrupt and I didn’t even get a chance to tell him, but as I sat in the empty living room of my childhood home I heard a knock at the door. It was him. He’d heard. He came to say goodbye. On the same front porch we had drank Kool-aid on eternal summer days, built tiny pathetic snowmen during that winter day they actually canceled school, and on the same front steps that he kissed me like he would always be the one to kiss me. It was on that front porch that an older boy said goodbye to me. I choked back everything we never got to be and what felt like wasted time we never got to take hold of. I walked back into my empty house feeling all of the questions crash over me. All of the what ifs driving away with him.
I sit seven years after that goodbye and I can’t help but smile at all of it. Because I get to keep it. I’m so grateful for what it was, and to drink in the simplicity of what it stayed. That’s the beauty of love at that point in our lives. There aren’t mortgages, car payments, debt or anything monumental that can touch you. It’s just you. It’s just summer. It’s just keeping out of your parent’s sight long enough to swim in the creek out back or steal a bottle of your dad’s beer to share.
I moved to Florida and met another boy. He walked into this new to me classroom–no shared memories or childhood stories to bind us–and he stole my breath. The sun bright behind him, creating shadows I wanted to explore. He moved to his desk, glancing back with a curious look at me. Wondering about me as much as I was suddenly wondering about him.
Because sometimes it happens just like that.
A new, desperate love started. This crazy, deeper more involved sort of love that wasn’t as simple, wasn’t cast in a nostalgic light, but through its complications we carved something out of stone. We met in a frenzied crush and became best friends and he’s in the other room waiting for me to come to bed.
There’s something to those first boys. The kind that go around the entire neighborhood for a second time on Halloween to collect candy for you after your friends bail on your plans. The boys that watch you grow up. The boys that tell us that we’ll always be their first love, and you still know they meant it.
I’ll always have that last night of summer when we sat in the back of my dad’s truck spilling our guts. I’ll have those lazy kisses on the neighbor’s trampoline. I’ll have those first feelings of butterflies in my stomach from him smiling at me after doing a cannonball into that pool we snuck into.
He’s the firefly in a jar on the shelf of my memories.