Saturday morning. I am sitting in the window of the Farmhouse Café in Dimmitt, Texas. It’s September, the month of your birthday.
I press my hands around my coffee cup. It’s warm and comforting. I think of you and a feeling of warmth and sadness fills my chest. We grew up in this little farming community in the fifties. I still come here because of family.
I drove by your house this morning. Paint peeling, grass and weeds fill what used to be a perfect yard with all kinds of flowers. There was one tree in the yard we called our Tarzan tree. You tied a rope to a branch and we would swing down to the ground. It was dead.
Our moms would get so mad at us because we were forever climbing and crawling through something and getting dirty. Your mom thought I was not very “lady like”. My mom thought you were not a good influence on me.
Do you remember our first kiss?
Indian summer in the Texas Panhandle had its own special feeling. Then again, maybe any place would have been special to a twelve year old with no worries except to discover the next outdoor adventure. The summer of 1951 was memorable because we had a new neighbor and they had a son named Leon.
You were thirteen and a year ahead of me in school so I felt very grown-up to have an older boy as my friend. We saw each other almost every day. We rode our bicycles, climbed trees, chased the farm animals, ate and talked. I liked going to your house because you had a basketball hoop and a horse named Sage.
We would make up elaborate fantasies about living on huge cattle ranches or traveling to faraway places. If we didn’t finish our story the first day we would start again the next day. Sometimes these great epics would take as long as a week.
The boyfriend/girlfriend thing had not entered the picture, and at times I wondered if you saw me as a girl. I looked like a flat body with toothpicks for legs. We both weighed about ninety pounds soaking wet and we were the same height. Your little body was solid muscle and you could run like the wind, lift most anything and you ate enough to fill a good size adult. Your favorite food was anything with catsup on it. You put it on your ice cream once just to hear me scream.
I know the boy/girl thing worried my mother because she insisted on knowing exactly where we were and she made sure my shorts were never too tight. She almost made us stop our daily visits after an incident we both thought was innocent kids’ play.
You and your mom came to our house one morning before I was out of bed. You came running into my bedroom and pounced on me while I was under the covers and in my nightshirt. You started tickling me and of course that started a free-for-all because I loved wrestling with you. Our delighted shrieks brought our moms running in a panic.
We endured their finger pointing, foot stomping lecture about proper behavior without much thought until your mother suggested it would be a good idea if we didn’t spend so much time together. We spent the rest of the day trying not to think about how that would feel. We agreed our parents were very immature in their mistrust of us.
During the summer there was a catfish fry every Saturday night. This Saturday night was the last one before school started. You and I agreed that no matter what happened after this weekend we would find a way to see each other.
When the big night arrived you suggested we climb the tree in your front yard and stay there until it was time to eat.
The Texas sky was filled with millions of extra stars and the full moon was so big it looked like you could reach out and touch it. I stared at the sky until my dad rang the big triangle to call us to eat. When I reached for the Tarzan rope to swing down, you caught my hand. You made me promise that when the traditional hide-and-seek game started I would meet you in the barn. I barely had time to say yes before our mothers started yelling for us to hurry up.
I ate my catfish and French fries as fast as I could and thought about not eating a piece of pecan pie. I realized this was not a good idea because my mother was watching me and would know something was up. I always ate pecan pie if it was dessert. It seemed everything was in slow motion. I wanted to scream and throw the pie at my mother. Finally, your dad started talking to her. I made a great basketball shot when I threw the pie along with my fork and plate into the trash can and ran.
I headed for our favorite hiding spot the barn loft. It was a relief to find the barn empty except for the animals. I scrambled up the old ladder, arranged the hay and stretched out on my back to look at the night sky. I had just gotten settled when I heard Sage stirring in her stall. I held my breath until I heard you whisper my name.
In a second you were beside me in the hay and we were trying not to giggle at our victory in escaping our parents. We stretched out on the hay, our shoulders touching. I could hear you breathing. The warmth of the night, the moon and the smell of the hay and animals made my heart pound. What was going on with my body? You leaned up on your elbow and rolled so I could see your eyes in the moonlight. You smiled that little mischievous Leon smile. In a matter of seconds a rush of disjoined thoughts went through my head. Some of them were so silly I almost laughed.
We were both brass players in the marching band. You played the trumpet, and I played the baritone. The jokes about brass player’s lips feeling like Coke bottle holes because of the muscle buildup stuck in my head. The vision of two ridged coke bottles kissing each other was not my idea of a first romantic kiss. Years later, we would laugh and tell that story at class reunions. We never told the real story because it belonged to us.
You were gentle. Your breath was sweet and your eyes had a look I had not seen before. My body was burning and I felt fearful and excited. We melted into each other. We stayed in this embrace as long as we dared, both not knowing what to do next. The sound of my mother calling broke the spell.
We didn’t speak as we descended the ladder to the barn floor, brushed the hay off each other and ran for the house. I jumped in the car and waved to you as we drove away. On the way home, I tried to make sense of what had changed our relationship forever. There had been a three-month buildup for that kiss and if I try, I can still recreate it in an instant if I smell hay, see a full moon, eat catfish, French-fries, or pecan pie.
It turned out we didn’t see much of each other after that summer.
The last letter I received from you was unexpected. After three failed marriages, you wrote to say we really should have married because we knew the real meaning of friendship. If only you had known I felt the same. You said you never forgot that special summer.
After the tears of memories stopped, I sat down to answer your letter. I penned a few benign words to paper before my emotions sent me to bed. I tried several times to answer your letter. I finally gave up and put it in my keepsake box along with a picture of you racing through the pasture riding bareback on Sage. Both hands were high above your head. You were waving at me and laughing.
A few months later, I learned from a mutual friend you were critically ill. I made immediate plans to return to Texas to see you. The night before I was to board my flight, I received a phone call telling me not to make the trip. You had passed away.
Whenever I miss you, I take out the picture of you riding Sage, and while having a cup of coffee and a piece of pecan pie, read your letter again and tell you I will always love you.
By Charlotte McElroy