Copyright 2000 Elana White
|When I was a child, my mother would send me to visit my grandmother for
three weeks every summer. She thought it good for me to be away from
the city, when the humidity made breathing feel like you had a hot wet
washcloth over your face.
Galen's Corners was a tiny town with cracked sidewalks and oak trees
that hung over the streets like old men stooping to chat. You could smell
the age of the place. It seeped out of sun-warm soil and from under loose
bricks and from the very air, but it smelled good. Like the yellowed
doilies in my grandmother's cedar chest. The cedar chest that I sat on
so often through my girlhood while my grandmother folded laundry and told
At Jessup's Confectionary old Mr. Jessup filled tiny paper bags with
treats from glass globes while my friends and I watched and waited with our
nickels, our lips twitching and our small dirty fingers clutching the
edge of the counter. With our loot stuffed between the bibs of our overalls
and our bare chests, boys and girls alike, we would run back to the shaded
veranda at the front of Joanie's house, lean back against the cool
brick wall and pour our sweets into the wells of our laps.
Our chatter was of games and our voices held the lilt that comes from
barefoot runs in dewy grass and tents made of blankets over tree
branches. We scratched mosquito bites and wiggled our dusty toes and smiled
licorice smiles at old men who shambled by in their fedoras and seersucker
Roger was a boy who lived across the street with his parents and his
two much-older brothers. He was always to be found on Joanie's veranda,
where he could keep an eye on his sick mother through her kitchen window
without having to be cooped up with her. He was a little older than Joanie and
I, but we didn't mind having him around. He taught us how to play gin
rummy and didn't laugh at us when we brought out our Barbie Dolls. The old
men passing used to tip their hats at him, and he would nod solemnly back,
sharing a secret that only men knew.
Roger and Joanie were my summers, as much as the heat and the bugs and
the sunshine that turned us brown and sometimes red so Joanie and I could
peel translucent petals of skin from each other's shoulders. Joanie was my
best friend, even though we might not see each other for months on end
sometimes, and never wrote. And Roger was just always there. Like all
people are always there to a child.
Summers passed and my grandmother stopped insisting that I be in the
house when the streetlights came on. The veranda was still our haven but now
we sat up on the rail, Joanie and I, our newly-sprouted legs, downy and
soft, rubbing paint flecks into the bed of lilies of the valley below. We
would curl our toes and breathe deeply of the humid night air while Roger
leaned back in the peeling press-back chair and shot spit-balls at the moths
that thronged around the single bare lightbulb by the door. He would pretend
to ignore us while we swatted at no-seeums and giggled at the old men who
now smiled at Joanie and I as they passed by on their evening
When I was 14, Roger became the first boy I ever kissed. It happened
between Joanie's house and my grandmother's, in the alley where the
rain never reached the dust, and old bicycles and broken chairs rotted. It
was that summer that the yearning began pulling me outside to sit on my
grandmother's front step very late at night. Something almost frightening
was beginning to flourish inside me and it seemed that only the night air
soothed it. And the thought that maybe Roger would come outside and see
me there. I didn't know what I would have said or done if he had, but I
sat and waited.
Joanie didn't come outside much that summer. Her mother was in
hospital, dying of some disease Joanie would not or could not name, and Joanie
was needed inside with her father and her little sisters and brothers.
Sometimes I heard Joanie's father shouting her name and the only answer
I ever heard her give was the banging of knives and forks on the dishes
she seemed to be washing day and night. It felt strange, not having her
there to share the darkness with. Her laughter had always made it seem so
The following year Joanie's mother was dead and Joanie's family moved
away to the next town, but it might as well have been overseas for all I saw
of her. We tried to write to one another for a while, but it never was
that way between us and after a few months we understood that and stopped
trying. Roger was still there though. And I still went to visit my
grandmother every summer.
After that first kiss, Roger and I seemed afraid of each other,
somehow. But he always came outside to sit with me on my grandmother's front
step when he saw me there. For a dozen years we shared that step. The sound
of his screen door scrinching open and slamming shut as he came out to
join me was all I wanted to hear once dusk fell and all the little children had
been called in to their baths and beds.
We drank Cokes and fanned away the heat and shared all the small
stories of our lives. Roger began dating and I became his confidante, listening to
his problems, dispensing advice. I was dating too. Boys from my school in
the city. But I never told Roger much about them. When I was with Roger I
didn't seem to want to think about my other life. All that mattered was
the darkness and the sound of Roger's voice and the faint heat that came
off of his shoulder, so close to mine.
It wasn't until I had gone away to college and missed my summer visit
to Galen's Corners for the first time that I realized how much Roger meant
to me. Hot nights in the city weren't soft and sweet like they were when
Roger shared them with me. But slowly I forgot. I worked and studied and
graduated with honors and when my chance came to move to the coast to
work I took it and forgot about Galen's Corners. Forgot about Roger and
peeling paint on the veranda and the soft smiles of old men walking.
When I was 25 my grandmother died and I was called back for her
funeral. I arrived in the Corners stupid from fatigue and grief, my body thrumming
with tension. My mother was helpless and I spent the next two days
all the arrangements that needed to be made, phoning all the old aunties,
telling over and over and over how my grandmother had gone peacefully,
yes, it was a good death, she's with her Maker now. The funeral is tomorrow
at eleven. Yes, thank you, you're very kind.
I cried more and harder than I knew I could. She had gone and I hadn't
said goodbye and I hadn't even seen her in a year. All I could think of was
how soft the skin on the backs of her hands was, and how white her hair and
how she had never ever been cross with me. And now the cedar chest was mine
and all I wanted was to sit on it and watch my Nana fold towels and make
tight balls of my grandfather's socks.
Roger came to the funeral. He had grown well and he looked strong and
healthy. He came to me and didn't mumble any of the mindless awkward
things people say to mourners. He just took me in his arms and held me for a
long moment, quietly, and suddenly I knew it was okay that my grandmother
had died. It was the way of life. I took Roger's hand and held him beside
me through the rest of the funeral and didn't let go until it was time for
me to take my mother back to Nana's house to begin shutting it down.
That night, my mother sleeping soundly from a glass of wine and too
much crying, I went out to sit on the front step. There was no moon. The
street was silent and only the slightest breeze stirred the blades of grass
that grew up between the cracks in the sidewalk. Such a tired old town, I
was thinking. Nothing had the gleam of newness on it. Everything was faded,
sun-bleached. Even the people. Except Roger.
Roger had looked like a shiny new penny among a collection of vintage
coins. His cheeks had glowed with vigor and his eyes had shone, his blue,
When I heard that sound, the screen door opening and banging shut, my
belly flooded with electricity. Across the street, Roger hopped down the
three steps from his mother's porch to the sidewalk and, hands in pockets,
sauntered toward me like the last eight years had never happened. He
told me hello from his mother and I almost expected him to hand me a soda
and nudge me boisterously with his shoulder as he sat down. But he didn't.
He didn't even sit. What he did was to hold out his hand and help me to my
feet. He kept holding my hand as he walked me next door, to Joanie's
old house, and up the worn wooden steps to the old veranda.
I hesitated. He laughed at me and told me it was his house now. His
veranda. And he offered me the same old press-back chair that he had
sat in all those years ago. He sat at my feet and smiled up at me as I looked
around and felt the goosebumps cover me from all the memories that
swept in. The bricks had been sand-blasted and the veranda painted. But it
was the same colour, and the same boards and even the same little hole in
the corner near the door into which we used to try to toss pebbles in
It felt so good and very soon we were talking and talking and the eight
years didn't matter any more because it was 4am and Roger was stroking
the back of my calf with his hand as I struggled to tell him about my job.
But I didn't care about my job then. I cared about Roger's hand, and
Roger's eyes as soft as childhood summers, and Roger's knee that
touched mine with 20 years of friendship and 12 years of shy yearning.
He took my hand and pulled me down to sit cross-legged on the floor
beside him. His arm around me, his cheek rubbing at the warmth on the top of
my head. The boards still felt warm, as if the daytime sun was stored
there and we lay down upon them and felt the sun in our bodies and the heat
rising between us. That first kiss in the alley repeated in our lips
and we shook like children again as we ventured beyond childish things into
the nighttime world of grownups organizing funerals and comforting one
another with the sweetest things we had to give. We shared our childhood and
now we shared our bodies. We shared our grief and our joy. We shared another
first kiss and it became the kiss that started our lives all over again.
© 2000 Elana White
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