Skin

“What we have loved
Others will love.”

Wordsworth

My first kisses of a romantic nature transpired in the fourth grade near the backstop at North Star Elementary with LaRae, a spritely blonde girl who, at nineteen, graced the cover of several important fashion magazines and, at twenty five, revealed years of abuse at the hands of her uncle and entered rehab.  She never returned to modeling.  The backstop swelled above us like a chain-link cape; a short fence encased the baseball diamond, and a larger fence surrounded the two acres set aside for recreation. At the backstop, at the center of concentric fences, we played a game LaRae designed.  She told me to close my eyes, and then she kissed me.  I wasn’t allowed to look at her.  I had to keep my hands in my pockets.  Every time I attempted to touch her, she reprimanded me and withheld a kiss until I stuffed my hands back in my pockets.  The game lasted twenty minutes before we heard the recess bell.  We had to run so we wouldn’t be tardy.  The next day, I asked her if she wanted to sneak down the hill to the baseball diamond.  I wanted her to touch me again.  Hanging upside down from her knees on the jungle-gym, she feigned ignorance and swayed, her hands nearly touching the gravel.

In fifth grade, Emmy Lou, the neighborhood tomboy I played tag and hide-and-seek with in the evenings, talked me into the closet in her brother’s room.  We had only a small amount of space between us.  One inch taller than I, she had brown hair turned blond by the pool’s chlorine.  She did not want to kiss.  She wanted me to touch her, and she wanted to touch me.

“First,” she said, “we have to take off our pants.”  She pulled down her shorts and the white panties with little red roses on them.

I stood frozen.

“I’ll help you.”  She was smiling.  The belt on my shorts confounded her for a minute, but she was persistent, and eventually my pants were off and my underwear pulled to my ankles.

“Now, you can touch mine first.”  She placed my hand on her hairless pudenda.  The skin felt rubbery.  I retracted my fingers quickly.  My breathing felt heavy.  I could smell the popsicles we had recently eaten on Emmy Lou’s breath. Small slats of light streamed into the darkness.    Her hair, in pig-tails, bobbed in and out of the light.  “Now I get to touch yours.”  She stretched forward with her index finger and made brief contact with the tip of my penis, which was erect and painful.  The small world of the closet swirled around me, shirts and pants and toys and shoes jumbling together.  My wrist tingled where she had grabbed me to pull me into the closet.

“Do you want to touch my boob?”  She lifted her shirt to reveal two nipples flat as my own, but surrounded in white because of the swimsuit she’d worn all summer.

“I better go,” I said.

“Oh, no, don’t,” she said, taking hold of my shoulders.

I opened the closet door, surprising her three older brothers who had been outside watching.  Even the hemophiliac brother who always wore a helmet and knee pads started laughing.  Emmy Lou was giggling, too, but then she became angry.  “You guys are mean!”  She ran out of the room.

I grabbed my pants and began running, too, but I tripped over my underwear.  I pulled them up while scooting through the hallway and hesitated only long enough in my trek home to pull on my pants.  I lived four alleys east, and I had the advantage of a small head start.  I pivoted behind the Buicks and Beetles parked in symmetrical rows, cloistered beneath aluminum carports, waiting until the brothers passed between buildings before I sprinted to my next cover.   The brothers whooped as they whacked the hedgerows with their sneakers and rattled trashcans, removing and replacing lids as they checked each cubby.  They were going to beat me for hurting their sister.  “Pervert!”  They yelled.  “We’ll catch you!”  The ill brother rode his bike, a Schwinn with a banana seat, and I could hear the ace-of-spades cracking in the spokes of his rear tire as he pedaled in fits and starts, stopping often to catch his breath.  I calculated the success of my escape in the receding sound of his bike.

My mother had a conversation on the phone with Emmy Lou’s mother that night—after  my brother told her the story, she stayed near the phone long enough to take the call—and I was no longer welcomed in Emmy Lou’s home.  When I tried to talk with Emmy Lou at the pool, the brothers wouldn’t let me near her.  One brother blocked my path to his sister while the other tried to look menacing.  She seemed oblivious to their interference, but they were determined.  I hoped she would storm the blockade and swim to me, tell me she wanted to see me again and that everything was okay, but Marco Polo and Sharks and Minnows and talking with her friends under the pool umbrellas provided sufficient distraction.  Even at school, she and I rarely bumped into each other.  Before the beginning of eighth grade, her family moved to Kansas.  The most striking memory of my final moments with Emmy Lou remain her brother with helmet and knee pads pursuing me through the alleys of the Park North Townhomes on an old bicycle, barely able to maintain his balance.

The next summer, I spent most of my days at the pool with Tammy and her younger, less attractive sister, Patti.  Tammy, who combed her hair straight so the sun-streaked brown strands fell to her shoulders, was pretty in exotic ways.  She painted her toenails and cultivated a disdain for me (because I was clearly infatuated with her) that I found intoxicating.  Patti was pudgy and funny, and I wasn’t interested in her at all, but she was always around when we swam or played tag or enjoyed intimate exchanges in their parents’ living room with the blinds drawn.

The three of us played games like knock-knock kiss-kiss—a version of duck-duck-goose that incorporated our lips and tongues.  Most often, we preferred truth-or-dare, and because none of us had lived much of a life or accumulated any substantial truths, we dared each other to kiss, to reveal our tan lines, or to hold each other for uncomfortably long amounts of time.

By the end of the summer, we were accustomed to kissing and had grown somewhat jaded about revealing our body parts.  Then, Patti upped the ante by daring her sister to perform a nude cartwheel.  Tammy didn’t hesitate:  she was wearing only her one-piece swimsuit (the result of earlier dares), and she pulled the straps off her shoulder and rolled the suit down her body as if she were in her room alone, changing to go out and play.  Her small, incipient breasts radiated white against the deep tan of her stomach and chest.  Her body, like an exotic animal patterned for camouflage, sported three or four competing tan lines.

She raised her hands above her head like a gymnast, struck a pose she must have learned in an acrobatics class, and cart-wheeled once with her face to me before turning and cart-wheeling back to her original spot facing away.  She curtsied to the crowd as if applause rained from the stands and sat to put her swimsuit back on.  I felt as if I had witnessed a butterfly emerge from a cocoon, fold its wings, and crawl back inside.

“Your turn,” she said to Patti without looking at her.

“I’m not doing it,” Patti said.  She hesitated for a moment, sitting cross-legged near the couch, and then unfolded and ran out the front door.  The burst of light from her exit ricocheted like a camera flash.

“Your turn, I guess,” said Tammy, pulling the last strap on her shoulder.  She placed a pillow in her lap and slumped forward on to it.

“Ok.”  After standing and turning my back to her, I stripped.  I wasn’t afraid, exactly, but without Patti in the room, the act seemed more dangerous.  Tammy shifted her posture, and I knew the curtain had risen.  I smiled and performed two halting cart-wheels but with much less élan and without any ending flourish.  My body was nearly invisible in the shaded room; only the white strip of my groin and butt glowed.  I must have looked split in half, a hyphen looking for two words.   Tammy didn’t seem especially interested.  Perhaps she saw only the white smudge of sex and none of the tanned arms or legs.  Perhaps she preferred the feeling of her own body naked and moving through space, being watched, to watching someone else.

Tammy fiddled with a purse she had found on the floor.  I waited for her to talk, expecting her to direct me.  She set the purse down and sighed.  I dressed, and we sat facing each other, a pillow on each lap. I didn’t feel awkward; I felt awake

“Do you want to kiss?”  Tammy might have been asking if I wanted a peanut butter sandwich. “Do I have to dare you?”

“No, you don’t have to dare me,” I said. She leaned over the pillow and kissed me, lips closed and hands on her own hips.

Sixth grade and the beginning of the school year ended our games—we were in math and music and geography class during the times her parents were out of the house.  Tammy and I also stopped seeing each other much in the hallways or at recess; she had other friends.  As snow and short, darker days crept toward us, the tan lines faded, and by the new year I was a solid white.

My first serious kiss, the kind that carries with the tingle touch of some consequence, didn’t happen until my first year of Junior High in the darkly lit back quarter of Skate City’s polished rink.  Both my hands were around Dana’s hips; she encircled my neck with hers as I skated backward.   The disco ball splashed points of light, Lionel Ritchie crooned persuasively, and I swelled with the confidence of a young man graceful on eight wheels—eight rented wheels.  Dana and I had been friends for several years; her brother and I played Dungeons and Dragons together.  That friendship fell apart when he met Tonya and they started saying they were going to Skate City, but never seemed to make it past the parking lot.

During our courtship, Dana and I had teased each other about kissing.  We were boyfriend and girlfriend now, and kissing was part of the calculus of the relationship.  She was gentle about my reluctance but also frustrated.  We were scheduled to enjoy the seventh grade dance at my school in a few weeks—we attended different schools—and by then we would need to demonstrate to all our friends the seriousness of our love.  I had saved my money for a dinner, and my mom promised to take us to the restaurant and the dance and then to leave us un-chaperoned.  I needed to kiss Dana before the big dance.

Dana was nearly six inches taller than I, and her interests were changing:  the shimmering of Staying Alive had lost appeal, and she gravitated toward activities other couples pursued outside the rink under the stars.    I felt the kinetic energy of Dana’s body when she drew close to me.  She wanted me to kiss her.  I worried she would move away from me if I didn’t kiss her.  I thought she might kiss me before I had a chance to lean into her lips. I hoped to prove I was a man of action, someone who took charge.  Lionel Ritchie was already down to his third lady; the lights would come up soon, and the younger kids would sprint back onto the floor and begin their childish games of tag.  The opportunity to step up to manly passion was about to pass me by.  Her eyes were on me, glinting to the light of the disco ball.

As we circled the rink, the bliss of my hands wresting on Dana’s hips threatened to unmoor me.  We swayed side to side, our feet in rhythm.  The lights flashed.  Every neuron in my body  attempted to free itself from its electron.  Lionel Ritchie’s voice reached the closing, gentle note, and his “You…” echoed.  I imagined the DJ’s hand reaching for the light switch.  I inflated myself with confidence.

At the risk of toppling us, I pulled her closer.  As we neared our fourth turn about the oval, I reached forward with my eyes closed.  Dana was not prepared for my sudden assault.  She was flipping her hair when my lips caressed the side of her face and ear.

“Oh!”  She said.

The propane fueling my hot air balloon suddenly expired.  The fireproof nomex of my confidence deflated.  The lights came on.  The kids rushed the floor.  Other couples kissed and parted, skating with hands held, which was permitted for a few minutes.

Dana did not let go of me.  She placed her head on my shoulder, nuzzled my ear.

“If at first you don’t succeed,” she said.  I could feel the smile against my neck.  “Try again.”

The pock-faced teenager wearing a striped shirt who served as a referee tooted his whistle and asked me to skate forward.  He raced past.  Indeed, I thought.  Skate forward.

Near the end of junior high, after Dana had blossomed into a cheerleader who dated the quarterback and I still weighed less than one-hundred pounds, I hung around with a group of friends who were all very smart and who liked to get together in the corners of our parents’ basements.  The three girls—Kaye, Pam, and Molly—had arrived from a different Elementary school, but we were all in the Gifted and Talented program at Pecos Junior High.  My friend Pat and I were the two other members of the club, and we joked privately about how much we enjoyed the ratio.  All the girls were aware of their bodies; they had begun to mature, but I was still very much a boy.  We kissed, French-kissed, did push-ups over each other, and occasionally touched each other through our clothes.  Mostly, we giggled about the absurd positions into which we could contort two or three people, including bridges, leg-locks, and straddles.  Pam was the prettiest and already had breasts; Kaye was flat-chested—but beautiful with bobbed, dark hair and the young muscles of a cross-country runner; Molly was tall with a long flourish of red hair and an outspoken, loud personality.

One night, Molly and I attended a party, and she and the others played a trick on me:  blindfolded, I was asked to point out parts of Molly’s body without touching them.  She stood tall and quiet in front of me, smiling, the freckles across the bridge of her nose sparkling like glitter.  Fifteen party-goers pressed tight around us.  The room fell into darkness.  “Point to her ears.  Good.  Point to her toes.  Good.”  After a few moments, I was directed to locate her stomach, and when I moved my hand toward where her belly should be, she wrapped her very wet mouth around my index finger while Kaye said, “that’s not her stomach!”  I took off the blindfold while Molly held my finger in her mouth; I could feel her tongue, hard, move lightly.  She had dropped to her knees.  Everyone laughed at my embarrassment, and after a moment, Molly stood up, beaming, and released me.  She turned to the others and shared the laugh.  I had to disguise my arousal.  She spent the remainder of the evening talking with one of Pat’s friends visiting from another high school.  When she left, she didn’t seek me out to say good night.

On a gray and cool autumn day, Molly asked if I would walk with her after school.  I waited for her at the entrance.  Across the parking lot, the open ground of the track and football field’s grass appeared thatched, brown and dry.  Certain spots, worn to dirt, strung together like Morse code for several blocks until they disappeared in a field of weeds that abutted the backyard fences of a subdivision.  I thought about Molly and about kissing her during our games when the kissing didn’t matter.  Perhaps we could be different now, together, without our other friends to watch us and without being told how and why and where to touch each other.  I thought I might try to kiss her and ask if she would like to do something without the others.

When she emerged from the heavy doors of the school, Molly took my hand and led me to the amphitheater on the east side of the school.  She seemed determined, and her hand felt warm and confident.  We walked down a path lined with yucca, cactus, and other flowering succulents.  The gravel crunched, and sparrows darted between the two lines of trees bordering a swamp where cattails loomed in small regiments, a brown army mustering for battle, about to burst. The horizon opened before us.  A handful of low clouds tumbled east, and I felt I could sweep my hand in a grand gesture and say, “See!  All of this is only for us!”

Sitting on the stone rise of the second level, facing the stage, Molly told me a story about a man she had met at a party a year earlier. He got her drunk with a few mouthfuls of whisky (“very nasty and hot in my throat”) and took her to the tool shed behind the house where she was staying with relatives.  She no longer held my hand, but she chased my eyes with hers.

“He put his hands on my shoulders,” she said.  She tried to stare into my eyes, but I was having difficulty looking at her.  A strange intensity pushed her words as they stumbled and raced.  “He put a hand behind my neck and tilted my head back.  He put his tongue in my mouth and moved it around.”

I imagined her arms dangling, lifeless, by her sides.  I imagined him wearing a mechanic’s blue jump suit and having oil on his hands.  He must have been a brute.

“I could feel his, you know, his penis on my leg—through his pants.  He was rubbing on me while he was kissing me.”  I thought she might pause or cringe or share her feelings of disgust, but, she continued to rush forward.  “I felt dizzy but also kind of empty, kind of paralyzed.  I didn’t like what was happening, but I didn’t’ say anything.  He was touching my breasts and my stomach.  He tried to put his hand down my pants.  My belt must have been too tight because he gave up.  And then he started moving up and down on my leg, and he squeezed me.  His body tensed.   I thought he had been shot.  He shuddered a little. Then, there was a wet spot on the front of his pants.”

She placed her hand on my hand.  I wanted to pull away but didn’t.  “He looked me in the eyes.  I saw him for the first time.  The whisky must have been wearing off.  He works for my dad.  I’ve babysat for his daughter.  He is a lawyer.”  She paused.  “Are you okay?”

I couldn’t think of anything to say.  I felt sickened, but I didn’t know why.  I performed a quick survey of the amphitheatre:  we were alone, the steps crowned behind us like cuts in a quarry, and only grassy fields and the small stage spread at our feet, running for miles before any fence or building stopped them.  I didn’t want to be sitting in the amphitheatre with Molly, not now while electricity gathered in her:  I could see small sparks of light jumping off her skin.  She seemed dangerous.

“I was nearly raped.”  She stared at me, leaned forward.  I felt her hand tighten on mine.  “I had to tell someone.  You’re the only one, the only one I can tell.”

“Molly—”

She stared in my eyes.  For the first time, I noticed how a rim of brown circumscribed the shocking green of her iris.  She had beautiful eyes.  She released my hand.  “You don’t have to say anything.”

I turned toward the stage, but I could feel her eyes still searching me, expecting me to respond.  A cat emerged from the weeds on the south side and leaped, tail up, onto the manicured grass just north of the stone platform.  Until that moment, we had been alone, and the entire world had seemed quiet.  The black tabby was quite proud and strutted in the open; she did not notice us.  In an elm near the marsh, a raven cawed in an effort to startle the cat, and she cowered before she dropped into the weeds and disappeared.

Molly looked at her feet, smiled, and bumped her shoulder against mine.  I could feel the pull of her body, the desire in her like gravity.  She wanted to place her hand on mine, wanted me to kiss her.  Something in her had broken.  She thought I could fix her. We smiled, but I couldn’t look in her eyes; I couldn’t move closer.  I didn’t want to touch her; I didn’t want her to touch me.

*   *   *

Kyle Torke is currently the Reading, Rhetoric, and First Year Programs Specialist at Colorado College.  He publishes in every major genre, and his screenplays have won awards.  Major publications include four books, two of poetry and one each of fiction and nonfiction.  World Audience Publishers released “Tanning Season,” a collection of fiction, in 2010, and “Sunshine Falls,” nonfiction, is scheduled for release in 2012.

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