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Announcing 2012 Story Contest WINNERS


We’ve said it before, and we are saying it again: selecting winners is not easy!  And we recognize that someone else might have chosen differently, given the overall quality of this year’s stories.  But after reading (and re-reading) each of the forty-nine stories we originally chose as “possible winners,” we are comfortable with our choices.  In any event, we hope you enjoy reading all of the stories you find here.

And once again, we simply could not limit the prizes to only three.  We have added five Fourth Place winners, each receiving $25, and a Judge's Special Award category to honor two additional stories. Each of those will also receive $25. Seven Honorable Mention stories are also here for you to enjoy.

 

FIRST  PLACE

 

The Lesson

by Nancy Jacoby

One man from my past has a continuous presence in my heart. He was a high school love, and although teenage affections are oft dismissed as infatuation, this one has grown with me, and it carries a lesson I must never forget.

Two weeks before the start of my junior year, he entered my life without notice. A freshman on the cross country team, he arrived on the first day of our preseason practices. I was an experienced and accomplished runner, focused on getting the season under way. I still don’t know what brought us together, but it sparked a compelling friendship, and as summer turned to fall, we became nearly inseparable. In time I discovered that I found him quite handsome: I loved his dark eyes and bright smile, and he was inexplicably fragrant in a lovely way. We sought each other’s company throughout each school day and at practice, and I felt elated when I was with him. I began to bask in the daily anticipation of deepening our friendship, hoping that it would become much more. Too shy to reveal my feelings, I waited for some sign that he might be hoping too.

Late the following spring—our daily communion of friendship resuming during track and field—I casually mentioned that I had been too shy to ask him to accompany me to the prom. He smiled and said he would have been pleased to go. We admitted a romantic affection for each other then, and he became my boy. But this moment that should have marked the start of a waking dream instead touched off one of the most painful episodes of my life: I lacked the self-confidence to be his girl. Overnight, the friend who had easily made him laugh and confidently sought his closeness became the girlfriend who made fun of herself instead, desperate for reassurance and doubtful of his favoritism. I watched this metamorphosis as both participant and bystander, with all the power in the world to prevent the ensuing catastrophe, but no way to stop it at all.

We never formally said goodbye or broke up; “we” just faded into memory with the last summer of my childhood. By fall, I didn’t know where I stood, but it clearly wasn’t going to be by his side. He declined my invitation to the senior prom, and although we shared a brief and affectionate correspondence during my early college days, I never gained the confidence to ask whether we could try again.

I learned through the years that he married and had children, acknowledgments that spilled tears as fresh as any I’d cried during those summer days when I had felt him slipping away. These days, social networking has put him in my inbox more often than he’d ever been in my life as a lover. We’ve never talked about the past, but I still wonder what he felt during the brief time when our friendship was blossoming into love. I wonder whether his heart catches at all like mine does when he recalls our companionship. My special affection for him persists despite its bittersweet nostalgia. Our friendship was a cherished part of my young life, and when I finally understood as an adult what went wrong all those years ago, I wept for what could have been had I loved myself as much as I believe I loved him.

I have moved on as well, making the most of the lesson that heartache and longing imparted. But time has stood still for this flame that I carry, and I’m overwhelmed but never surprised by how hot it burns at times when his virtual path crosses mine or he takes my hand once again in my sleeping dreams. Somewhere on those practice fields and school grounds, the spirit of a young heart still asks whether she was worthy enough, whether he cared for her as she for him, and whether her most fervent wish was really coming true. And only now, with the wisdom of age and the soothing of time passed, can I whisper the answers she needed to hear then.

You were. He did. It was.


 
SECOND PLACE

 

Scott, Forever

by Claudia Mundell


I was sanctimonious at sixteen while reading Sayonara by James Michener, full of sharp criticism for a character loving two people at once. I thought he was just making excuses for opportune infidelity. I was to learn there are many kinds of love, and indeed, a person can love two people not only at once but for a lifetime.

We met at career days on a campus where several high schools converged. We had passed each other on the common; a smile from me captured his heart. I was equally fascinated by his height, dark hair, and friendly demeanor. We ended up getting acquainted over sack lunches and the romance was on.

He drove his ’65 red Mustang to my town every weekend for a few months. We had such a good time together, and my family liked and trusted him. He began to pressure me for a stronger relationship, but I was leery of tying myself down too soon. I wanted to date, play the field a bit, but I was not sure I wanted to lose him either.

The matter came to a head when he took me home to his brother’s engagement party. It was a Friday, and when I opted not to eat ham, his mother ungraciously pieced together that I was a Catholic. Forbidden fruit for her son! He took me home, willing to leave his family, join my church, do whatever it took to keep me. I was stunned and shocked, not knowing what to do next.

We continued to see each other on the sly, despite his mother’s ultimatum that I be dropped from his life. When he faced surgery for knees he’d ruined in high school sports, he made me promise to write him during his hospital stay. I did, but we now know his mother intercepted the letters, leaving us each to think the other was not communicating.

By the time we finally learned how our lives had been manipulated, it was too late. Each of us had new lives and new loves. We met secretly once to visit, were polite and civil, while we pieced together the fragments of our story. I turned to look back over my shoulder when I left; at the corner, he was doing the same. We walked away and returned to our new lives.

Ten years later, I was a stay-at-home mom with one child, a new pregnancy, and dealing with the recent death of my beloved grandmother. The coming winter was looking bleak on a rainy autumn day when the phone rang.

“Hi, how are ‘ya.”

A decade fell away when I heard and recognized that mellow voice. I slid down the wall and settled on the floor with weak knees.

“I heard about your grandmother. Gran was a swell old gal, and I know what she meant to you. You must be hurting.”

And so we chatted for nearly an hour. We updated each other on our marriages, children, how our lives were going. It was a proper and suitable catch-up between old friends, and it felt good. I hated to hang up, but I knew it was a friendship that couldn’t go further.

It was nearly another decade when my sister, living in his hometown, called to tell me he’d been divorced. How I knew this hurt him! He was a faithful person, dedicated to making his marriage work, no matter what. I wrangled with myself, but I knew what I had to do.

I placed the call, and his voice answered with such enormous sadness. Again, we chatted and caught up our stories. I supported him in his colossal pain. Finally, he admitted feeling suicidal, but my voice had lifted his spirits. He would move on.

Several years passed; I learned he was to have knee replacements. He died in surgery from heart complications, and a bright light was snuffed out. I’d always known he was “there.” Not hearing his voice for years at a time made no difference. Had any slight detail of our lives been different, we could have been together. He is no less distant, though, as he lingers in my heart even now.
 


THIRD PLACE

 


His Name Was Bill

by Willma Willis Gore

Bill was the new boy in town when high school opened in the fall of 1939. He was a senior. I was a sophomore. We both lived out of town. I rode the bus each day, but he was allowed to drive the family car to school.

The surprising beginning of our relationship came one day when he offered to drive me home. It was unheard of in our school for a senior even to speak to, much less “date,” a girl of “lower status.” Those occasional rides for me filled every school day with exciting anticipation--will he invite me again today? Dates with Bill were the most exciting events of my fifteen years.

Don’t depend on my assessment that Bill was a “catch.” Without doubt, he was the handsomest boy in school. He was tall with dark hair and fine facial features. I was the envy of all the other girls in Lone Pine High, freshman through senior, especially the latter. Not only his looks, but the fact that he drove a car and played the guitar made him the most exciting and desirable man ever to have arrived in our little town. Of course the high school population totaled only 100 students. We all knew each other. Most of us had been in elementary school together.

I was honor-bound to get home promptly after school to help with evening chores on our little dairy, but sometimes–pleading meetings of the Scholarship Society or orchestra practice for the next concert–I could delay arrival home for an hour. Those rides with Bill often took us on detours into the foothills of the beautiful High Sierra. What did we talk about on those drives? I have no memory of words exchanged. Sometimes we parked in view of the snow-capped mountains. After a hug and kiss, he’d get into the back seat with his guitar. What did he play and sing? The only tune I remember—and it brings both a laugh and tear at this time in my life—was “Froggy Went A Courting.”

Mid-May was the time for planning the Senior banquet and dance that would be held in late June. I was thrilled that Bill invited me. My pride and anticipation included offering to forgo my allowance for the rest of the year if Mother would let me buy a beautiful dress to wear. A lovely blue taffeta was displayed in the J. C. Penney window in town. I tried it on, a perfect fit, and convinced mother to let me put a five dollar deposit down to hold it. My anticipation of the event permeated my night dreams and daydreams.

Then disaster struck. When the Senior Class met to make its final plans, the majority ruled that no classmate below the junior level could be admitted to the senior prom.

Bill went through the graduation ceremony, but refused to attend the prom without me. On prom night he took me to the drug store for ice cream sodas. We made them last an hour. I lost the deposit on the dress but I no longer wanted it.

By the close of school that year, Bill’s father was transferred away from our little town at the foot of Mt. Whitney to Banning, California, more than 250 miles distant. Bill and I wrote to each other and he attended junior college in the new community before enlisting in the service—WW II. I was licensed to drive by my junior year and my parents allowed me to drive to Banning for overnight with his family and to bid my Bill goodbye. A year later, Bill lost his life at Guadalcanal.

Loving and being loved by Bill, and his loss to me and the world, gave me an early understanding that our fondest wishes do not always come true and prepared me for a number of life’s disappointments that I have managed to live through with relative equanimity. Who knows what our lives might have been, had he returned from the war?


FOURTH  PLACE  (five stories, in alphabetical order)

 


The Mirthful Sound Blast

by Anne Greenawalt

I'm reading JANE magazine while stretched out on his bed, shoes off, breaking the boarding-school rule of “four feet on the floor” while in an opposite-sex dorm room. There’s a short blub in the commentary section near the back of the magazine that discusses a new book for a Muslim audience on the appropriate ways to beat your wife.

“Look at this,” I say. He jumps out of his cross-legged position in the desk chair, hops across the room, and kneels on the floor beside his bed. He leans on the mattress with his elbows, and rests his chin on his hands.

I point at the short blurb about the book and ask, “Is it true that all Muslim men beat their wives?”

The melody that bursts up from his belly and out of his mouth is an indescribable mirthful sound-blast that resonates through the dorm and probably halfway across campus. I'm not sure why he’s laughing, but I join him, and so do several of his neighbors. This is the boy who will win “best laugh” in our senior class superlatives.

“Was that a dumb question?” This only reignites the sound-blast of mirth, as well as a few giggles down the hall.

When he recovers and can breathe normally, he says, “No, we don’t all beat our wives.”

He’s about a foot shorter than me. The words petite, dainty, and cute come to mind. The smile from his laughter lingers. Would he be capable of beating someone, I wonder?

I don’t know him very well yet, but during our junior and senior years of high school, I learn. During Ramadan he sings a little ditty in his choir-trained falsetto about not being able to touch me until the sun goes down. I watch him on taco night, sopping up the meat and cheese with pieces of bread sans silverware. He asks me not to eat bacon if I expect him to kiss me later.

I take him to the pool and teach him how to swim freestyle. I put a hand under his belly to keep him afloat. He tells me there aren’t many pools in the desert, where he’s from. He watches my basketball and softball games. I teach him about the bases and home runs, and he says he thinks he’d like to know more about that game.

We go to Al’s in town and eat cheese pizza, sometimes half with mushrooms, and fried cheese sticks and peaches ‘n’ cream ice cream. He likes to play “Brown-Eyed Girl” on the jukebox and smile at me.

After the first day of our senior year, September 11, 2001, the school administration advises him not to go into town alone. It’s not safe. Not anymore. It doesn’t make sense to me. I and my white, middle-American friends didn’t need protection after the Unabomber did his thing, or the Columbine boys did theirs.

Despite it all, he is the same boy throughout senior year – young, smiling, cheerful. Gentle. Full of laughter. Love. Hugs. Lip-bumping, as we sometimes call it. He is my first and lasting impression of Muslim men.

He writes me a poem and gives it to me at graduation. In the footnote it says, “Just bear it if it has no tone, tempo, or logic.”

We don’t talk about it, but we know that after graduation, it is over; we will no longer be a couple, the kind that strolls around campus, holding hands and singing a duet of the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” We will go to college in different states and then he will go back to Pakistan, a place I will never go but will think about often.

Every night of our senior year, he calls me a few minutes before our dorm-room phones shut off at 10 pm. “I miss you,” I say. And he tells me to think about him before I fall asleep. “And maybe,” he says, “we can rendezvous in our dreams.”


 
Puppy Love 101

by Janet Sheppard Kelleher

 True love stories never have endings –Richard Bach

He turned sixty this summer. I called him on his birthday, and he regaled me with stories of his California life, so different from mine in South Carolina.

Glenn was my first love and I his. Neither knowing what to do, each wanting desperately to do it. Neither knowing how to kiss, each wanting to, yet scared, afraid of making the initial move then asking, “What now?”

Like best friends, we shared many firsts, so when we broke up I couldn’t eliminate him from my life altogether. I needed to be able to reminisce with Glenn about high school: bowling, karate, biology field trips, the day my daddy died.

Once he flew here with his children. I met them at the bowling lanes with my brood, who had heard stories about Glenn from Day One. Being in our old haunt felt comfortable, as natural as intertwining one’s own fingers.

He visited just after my breast cancer surgery, as my mom lay dying. Although Glenn couldn’t do anything to change our circumstances, his being with us, his caring, made it all right somehow.

We met last at his father’s graveside. I held Glenn’s hand, as he had mine, when my daddy was buried.

He sent me a dozen roses on my wedding day, my fortieth birthday, and my mom’s death day. I cannot help but feel a caring love for a man with his sensibilities.

I don’t know if I have the harder job or the easier one, living in the town where we created memories. Each day I’ve ridden by Brookland-Cayce High School I see him carrying my books to his ‘68 Chevelle. At Park Triangle Lanes I recall the kisses we collected as rewards for bowling a turkey. Every time I drive past his parents’ house I remember when we heard his dog, Chuck, break wind as we kissed on the sofa; then Chuck bolted from the room.

Visiting my deceased relatives at Elmwood Cemetery, I see Glenn and myself necking beneath the big oak tree, which has doubled in size. Slurping down a pineapple Be-Bop under the magnolia beside Ed’s Drive-Thru, I recall his chocolate shake doing a back flip off the glove box door, landing upside down in my lap when his ‘64 VW Bug jolted into traffic.

Whether watching 2001 Maniacs on Halloween night at Hall’s Drive-In, buying cherry ices from the 7-Eleven after school, or vacationing at Isle of Palms with his family, the memories remain rich and sweet and priceless.

Glenn wrote in my freshman yearbook, “Many times you’ve given me that great inspiring smile of yours that’s helped so much. Your warm embrace, your gentle kiss; such luxuries of our love.” Some memories are so grand they’re like beholding a rainbow or a starry night or a moonlit lake.

My senior yearbook reads, “If we ever get separated physically, mentally or spiritually, remember you have all my love with you. It’ll never change. With a love to outlast eternity, Glenn.”  It’s mushy, but decades have proven it’s truth, and truth can be sentimental.

Yes, I still call my old sweetheart. Even after being friends for three-quarters of our lives, I need to remind him what a blessing he was and still is to me. I need to thank him for sharing the kinder, gentler world in which we blossomed, for our songs that recall tender emotions, for the love and respect which will outlive us.

My husband of thirty-five years remains confident he’s the abiding love of my life, the one I have lived for, the one I would die for, and the only toad I kissed that turned into a handsome prince. What Irish knows, too, is that I learned how to love him better, because of Puppy Love 101 with Glenn.

When we broke up over forty years ago, I wrote, I’ll stop loving you, but I”ll never stop loving the days that I loved you.” Naivety. The truth is I couldn’t stop loving him after all. Glenn and I have lived long enough to prove that true love never dies.

 
An Honest Love

by Marlo Riche

I was seventeen, and he was perfect. Isn't that always the case? Full of more than my fair share of angst and of the mindset that I was invincible, infallible, and 100% misunderstood, I strapped up my martyr's boots and charged forward. Ah, the teen years!

My friends and I would meet before school, in front of a long rock wall near campus.We would share a single cigarette, discuss our very important lives in a very important manner, and mentally prepare for the day. I would scan for Ryan. I'm pretty sure angels sang every time he appeared, but my memory isn't what it once was. He was the tall, perfectly shaggy philosopher; the uniquely creative hipster; the pale Adonis with dredlocks. He leaned in when he spoke and made you want to hear every word he said. He was always too cool to be stressed about anything, and his personality drew crowds.

I'd spent a good year building him up in my mind, securing him, unfairly, in that flawless realm of Perfect. My friend, Michelle, understandably sick of my droning, told him how I felt. I was destroyed. My life would change forever. If he rejected me, I would probably never fully recover. If he asked me out, there was no way I could be good enough for him. I teetered there, on the edge of a Shakespearean tragedy.

The next day, he pulled me aside at the rock wall. We talked, just the two of us, about whatever crossed our minds. Each morning, we picked up where we left off and just let the conversation flow. We went out and talked about our writing, our passions, the imaginary lives we were sure we would lead. Too bad there aren't a lot of want ads requesting philosophical poets. I admired his carefree approach to life. He faced intense situations with a stillness; he used reason and optimism to work out problems. We dated for about six months, and they were beautifully simple.

I had an absolutely wonderful family that always encouraged me and made me feel loved every second of every day. That being said, I allowed emotion and drama to control me during my teen years, and my self-esteem was wretched. I was a chunky, shy, bookworm honor student. I had bullies, but I was the most cruel to myself. One day, Ryan changed my life very deeply. He broke up with me. He gave a good pitch and surprisingly didn't break or bruise any of my very fragile feelings. I asked if he regretted going out with me. His response has never left me. He said that he never lived in regret. Anything he experienced, he valued and loved, because each of those experiences work together to make him what he is and what he will be. He valued himself enough to know that his choices are relevant and necessary stones in the statue that will be his life. He told me I was beautiful, that my passion and expression were unlike anything he'd seen before, and that someday I would be able to recognize that beauty in myself. Hippie sentiments, to be sure, but, as it turns out, also genuine and life-altering.

I don't know what became of Ryan. I have no desire to find him on Facebook and find out, either. I'm happily married now to a wonderful man I can't imagine being without. Maybe he cut his hair, went to law school, and smiles at a white picket fence while holding his 2.5 kids. I like to think he travels the world, sharing his mind and his art. To this day, when I hear the name Ryan, I conjure up his face, and I smile. He was the first person to sweep me off my feet, hold me tightly in his arms, set me down gently, and walk away. He taught me so much in those short six months. I learned that dreds smell really bad. No, seriously, they do. I also learned to respect myself, to live without regret, and that, while I don't control how anyone else treats me, I control how I treat myself.


 
Period

by A.R. Williams


The fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary defines the word “dark” as: Having a complexion that is not fair, and lacking or having little light. The first definition summed up how I felt about my own dark skin. It was unfair. Why am I the darkest person in my family, amongst my friends, in my whole school? How many times—when a light is shut off—must I fake a laugh when someone asks me to smile so that they can see me?

By my early teenage years the second definition all but encompassed my feelings of self-worth. I had no light in me, the spark of personality I had as a small child was blown out and extinguished by society’s unfair perception that light was better, light equaled handsomeness, and I should sit there and be ignored. I was shy, fat and dark—a round silent dot—a period at the end of the sentence.

Though I knew who you were, we had never spoken before. So I was shocked, when, at the end of Spanish class, you and your friend approached me. You stood there patiently, as your friend bombarded me with questions: Do you have a girlfriend? Do you think my friend is pretty?

I mumbled answers and rushed out. Suaveness was not for periods. Suaveness was for light-skinned guys who had plenty of practice speaking to the opposite sex. You told me later you thought I didn’t like you but that wasn’t true. You were interested in a young man who, when a girl told him she thought he was cute, he sucked his teeth in annoyance, not because he was showing off as this young lady thought, but because he thought she was making fun of him, this silent black period. Who are you to say he’s handsome, something he knows he’s not? How dare you say the opposite of what he thought of himself?

I couldn’t sleep the night you approached me. What if you were interested in me? No, wait, I can’t allow myself the possibility. But, hold on, maybe I could. I decided to talk to you the next day. Your hair was in a single ponytail, you wore glasses like me, and your eyes swam behind the lenses, a pool of beauty. Oh please let this be true. Please, don’t let her see me as a period. You didn’t. We became boyfriend and girlfriend that day, April 5th, your thirteenth birthday, three days after mine.

We hung out in the hallway, getting second glances from our peers, even some of teachers. We snuck to the staircase where teachers were least likely to find us and we kissed, a mouthful of sugar, cotton candy sweet, as I feel your hair and I learn that it is good to be silent here, it’s ok to be the period here, where nothing but our desire does the talking.

I’m changing, confidence growing. New friends are appearing, I’m talking and the period is erased.  I’m the words preceding the period, I’m verbalizing, dancing in meaning, singing with revelations, shouting that I have a personality, I am a human being and I am alive! You tell me that your friends envy us, that they wish they had a boyfriend like me. I smile in amazement. “But I have you,” you say and I grab you and kiss your cheek as you scream in delight.

Two years we were together, till the end of ninth grade and high school loomed. We were both ready to move on, but I was still hurt when I broke up with you over the phone and you rushed to agreement, as if you were hoping and expecting this call to come.

I found your profile on Facebook. Reaching out to you briefly crossed my mind. Dialogue, but I decided against it. You mean so much more to me than an obligatory electronic message. You showed me I’m more than a period. A period signifies closure, an end to a statement. You freed me.


 
Jim

by Nancy Wick


The lab is in the basement of Missouri University’s Agriculture Building, a place I, an aspiring journalist, would never ordinarily go. So I’m nervous as I stand there next to a bench lined with bottles and beakers. It’s the spring of 1967 and I’m a 19-year-old sophomore starting a part time job I’m not sure I can do. Then Jim walks up, a welcoming smile on his face.

He’s shorter than I am by at least two inches; that’s the first thing I notice. At 5’8” I am primed to notice height, convinced there’s a rule that in romantic couples, the man must be taller. But I admire Jim’s warm brown eyes and curly hair as he explains that he is Dr. Brown’s graduate assistant, working on his master’s degree. I calculate that he must be 24, which seems very old to me.

My job is extracting RNA from mimosa seedlings, which turns out to be easier than it sounds. Jim and I establish an easy camaraderie as we share the small space, talking and laughing at our wildly different interests. When summer comes I work fulltime and my boyfriend Dan departs for a job in Illinois. Jim’s girlfriend Carolyn lives in St. Louis, so Jim and I are on our own in Columbia. We spend time together, “just as friends,” we say.

Then one night we go to the drive-in. We drink beer. We laugh at the stupid movie. Jim’s arm creeps around me. I lay my head on his shoulder. It isn’t long before we turn to each other and kiss.

“Damn you,” I say. He knows what I mean. We have crossed a line now—no longer just friends.

“It’s not all my fault,” he says with a smile, and kisses me again. He is so tender. There is a sweet vulnerability in him that I am not prepared for with my scant experience of men — which consists of one high school boyfriend before Dan.

There are many times together after that, as summer gives way to another academic year. I say goodbye to Dan, but Jim does not say goodbye to Carolyn. He tells her about me, even introduces us. He shuttles back and forth between us, unable to make up his mind. My mind is made up, however. I am in love, in an adult way, for the very first time. I am not just attracted to Jim; I love the person he is. I believe when I look at him that I can see through to his heart, and that it is a good heart. He is a person I can trust.

So more than a year after our meeting, we finally make love. It is my first experience of sex, and Jim handles me tenderly and with respect. His look and his touch make me feel that he has seen my heart too. But we have only one time together. The intimacy has made him realize that he is not being fair to either Carolyn or me. He knows he must decide, and he goes where logic leads him, which is to Carolyn. What they have—based on more common interests—will stand the test of everyday life better than what he has with me.

I am heartbroken, but I am astonished to find that after a few months apart heals the pain, I still love Jim. I am not angry and I don’t feel rejected. Underneath our romantic attraction there has always been mutual respect and caring. For my 21st birthday Jim sends me a book of poetry. Inside he writes, “I miss seeing you, talking to you and sharing so many things with you.” I miss it too.

And so we become friends again. But it’s 1969 and Jim is drafted. He marries Carolyn before shipping off to Vietnam, while I finish my studies and graduate. As time passes Jim and I are widely separated by geography. We don’t stay in close contact, but each of us always knows where the other is. My first lover was, and is, my dear friend. His gift to me was to show me that love can endure when romance dies.


 
JUDGE’S SPECIAL AWARD

...for stories that did not quite meet the contest criteria for being about a“sweetheart,” but which did have a special charm. Each is a beautiful expression of a heart connection.


The Fox and the Rose

by Suzanne Adam

His smooth, olive hands bore no ring. His appearance gave no clue as to his age or job. Exchanging smiles and “Buenas tardes,” we settled back for the long flight over the jungles and mountains of Central America.

We introduced ourselves. I told him I’d been visiting the barrio in Colombia where I’d served as a Peace Corps volunteer and was now headed to Mexico to travel with a friend. He was Alfonso, he said, from Ecuador.

“But I’m called “Tata Poncho” by the Indian villagers where I work in Mexico.”

Hmmm. “What do you do there?”

“I’m an anthropologist...and a Jesuit priest.”

Oblivious to the passing landscape below, we became absorbed in conversation like two people on our own planet. Sometime later, he pointed out the stars in the darkness outside. I leaned across him to get a glimpse.

“They remind me of the story The Little Prince,” he said.

I admitted that I hadn’t read it.

“It’s a wonderful tale,” Alfonso said. He told me of the Little Prince’s visits to the different planets, lingering over his encounter with the fox who explains how the Little Prince can tame him little by little by moving closer to the fox each day. The fox then reminds the Little Prince that, once he has domesticated something, like his rose at home, he will always be responsible for it. When it is time to part, the Little Prince, noting the fox’s sadness, asks what good it has done him to be tamed. The fox replies that whenever he looks at the wheat fields, he’ll remember the color of the Little Prince’s hair.

The pilot’s voice interrupted our conversation, announcing our arrival in Mexico City. I remembered the friend waiting for me at the airport and wished him away. In the terminal, Alfonso and I embraced, wishing each other well. He gave me his card with an address. I’ve forgotten our parting words.

Music was everywhere in Mexico, on buses, in shops and on the streets. Spanish singer Raphael’s soulful voice haunted me, singing “Hablemos de Amor.” I convinced my traveling companion to visit the village where Tata Poncho worked, hoping to see him again, but the news was disappointing. He had not yet returned from Mexico City.

Unpacking, back in California, I came across Alfonso’s card and wrote him a note. So sorry to have missed you. I bought an album of Raphael’s love songs. One day a thin brown package with Mexican postage arrived. I pulled off the paper to find a Spanish copy of The Little Prince. Inside Alfonso wrote: “To Susanita from your fox who will always be responsible for his rose.” ‘Always’ was underlined. “I hope we’ll meet again someday. Alfonso.1970.”

 

Sometimes, I take the book from the shelf, its paper cover now tattered and faded, read his words and recall the man who’ll always be my fox.

Would he know my hair has grayed and that I’m a grandmother now?


 
The Kiss

 by Karen Roberts Gardner


The giddy infatuation of my first crush consumed me when I was nine years old. David was blonde-haired and blue-eyed and kind of shy, just like me. And he was nice to me, unlike the other boys who showed they “liked me” by socking me in the upper arm as hard as they could. David never did that.

He lived not far from me, just across West Wisconsin Avenue and somewhere behind Milwaukee County General Hospital where the trees hid his house from view. In the summer of 1968, when I was about to start 5th grade, I spent hours exploring the three sizeable duck ponds which graced the grounds of the old yellow brick hospital. I would tell my mom I was going to fish for minnows, but what I really was fishing for was a certain boy named David.

The day I finally ran into him at the ponds, I pretended to be surprised. We tossed stones in the water, looked for frogs in the cattails, and walked barefoot back and forth across my favorite concrete waterfall, being careful not to slip on the wet moss. Eventually we climbed onto a low tree branch to rest. Even with his sweat-drenched bangs plastered against his forehead, he was the cutest boy I’d ever seen.

The conversation had stopped before he quietly asked, “Can I kiss you?”

I bashfully shook my head. “I don’t think we better. We’re too young.”

He shrugged, and soon we both went home.

Later that afternoon I went down to my basement, alone with a Steno notebook. I wrote, “I am so stupid” again and again, line after line and page after page. I wrote those words until there was a deep indentation in my finger from the pen. What an idiot! How could I have thrown away my only opportunity to kiss the boy of my dreams?

Two years later, in junior high school now, we would smile at one another when we passed in the halls. I longed to be his girlfriend, and I could see longing for me in his deep blue eyes. But our shyness persisted.

In the summer of ’72, at my first boy-girl party, we played spin the bottle in someone’s basement to see who would go into the closet with whom and kiss. David was the only one I wanted to kiss, as I wanted desperately to make up for that missed opportunity three summers before. But he wasn’t there!

There were other boys, though, and I played the game. And while I’ll never forget how it felt to kiss a boy for the first time while intoxicated by Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” on the record player, I honestly don’t remember who he was. There in the dark, he was David.

Rumors must have spread, because the next thing I knew David was walking down the halls holding the hand of a cheerleader. I was devastated.

My family moved to California in 1973, when I was 14. The following summer, I lied about my age to get a job at a car wash and worked full-time to save up for a plane ticket back to Milwaukee. I bought that ticket in the winter of ’74.

A friend threw a big party for me. David was there, cuter than ever! And six years later, I still longed for his kiss.

It was getting late, and I’d been waiting for a chance to be alone with him all night. We ended up outside on the sidewalk, where I couldn’t stop shivering, even in my down ski jacket.

“Do you remember that summer,” I asked, looking up at him, “when you wanted to kiss me and I told you we were too young?”

He smiled. “Yeah, I remember.”

“Well, we’re not too young now.”

My shivering stopped when he wrapped his arms around me. The kiss was long and deep and wet and wonderful, and I don’t know how long we stood there – I just know it wasn’t long enough.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

We said goodbye, and I never saw David again. But I will never forget that kiss.


 
HONORABLE MENTION  (Seven Stories, in alphabetical order)

 


The Beautiful Drop-out

by Katherine Ernst


He was driving me home. He pulled over the car in a cornfield and told me to get out. I was slightly terrified, yet exhilarated. What was happening? He demanded that I get in the driver’s seat and take the wheel.

I was 14, and this was amazing.

He was everything my mother told me to avoid. He was 4 years older, a high school dropout, and less than a year before he’d been released from a children’s home for at-risk boys. He had a job, but no future plans. To me he was mesmerizing. He took me out to dinner, he bought me flowers, and more than anything, he told me that everything was going to be okay.

My mom had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer, and even though my grandmother had beaten the disease at the exact same age, I was worried about her and about my future.

With him, I saw my first concert, I had my first co-ed sleepover, and I felt for the first time what it would be like to be an adult.

My mom didn’t have the energy to put a stop to what should have been the biggest train wreck of my life, but I’m so glad she didn’t.

Joey taught me how a woman should be treated. He always insisted on opening car doors. He paid for every date. He insisted that I never drink, never smoke, and God forbid if I had ever tried any drugs.

We both gave each other what we needed. I provided the stability that he had never felt, and he gave me the father figure I’d never had.

Two years later my mother was in recovery, but she had lost her job due to her illness. We had to move across the country to California—the only place she could find a job. She acceded to him moving along with us. She knew that by this point, two years into our relationship, if she tried to break us up, it would only bring us closer together.

Luckily for her, our relationship was never meant to last. By the time I turned 16 I was starting to think about college, and he was ready to settle down and have a family. I wanted to go to prom. He was considering china patterns. We never really fought all that much, but he was sick for home, and I was sick to see what else was out there. Eventually he moved back to Pennsylvania.

But I could never forget him. Within two years, I was barely graduated from high school and he was already married. I’d visit Pennsylvania periodically, but for a long time he didn’t want to see me. I’ll never forget the day that I sought him out supposedly to tell him what had happened to the television he tried to ship home, but really to see how he was doing. His new wife didn’t want us to talk, and I spent about an hour sobbing in the car before I could compose myself enough to drive back to my grandparents’.

I’ll never forget what he did for me. My father had been a compulsive gambler who never seemed to even consider my well-being. Joey taught me never to settle for second best. Joey loved that I was smart and always tried hard in school. He loved that I was strong and never let anyone tell me how I should think. He loved everything about me, and made me realize that other people should too.

If someday my own daughter decided to date a high school dropout, I would be terrified. I would think that she was throwing away her life. But you know what? Joey gave me mine. Now I have a husband who loves me–no, worships me, and I worship him. I never would have had any of this without my beautiful high school dropout.


Feathers of Spring

by Rebecca R. Kovar


He rolled in like the first hint of spring, stormy and raw but so full of potential I could almost taste the earth waking up. If there was any awkwardness about him, as he insists there was, I did not see it. The barest hint of light kept him from being a shadow in the alcove. Stray strands of sunshine lit the edges of his hair to a burnished gold.

Whispers overheard kept me riveted, where I might otherwise have moved on. Rebel. Rakehell. Wild. A bit more interesting than the average boy, those descriptors, whether I gave them credence or not. Curiosity leads me down odd paths. Sometimes, I’ve come to the end of those and not liked what I found. I knew a little then–not much, not enough–which made me contemplate not following my eyes for once.

And then she pushed me, that mutual friend looking out for my safety.“Stay away from him. He’s dangerous.”

It had, of course, the opposite effect. I looked at him and was caught. He’s got a core of iron, like a planet, though he didn’t know it then and doesn’t believe it now. Either folks are drawn to him or find they can’t abide being too close. I was pulled in, sure as if I was his moon. He made me feel bright and new. I suppose everyone feels that way about their first true love.

He handed it to me, the bright light of summer on his skin and hair, in his smile and eyes. Oh, those eyes. I lost myself in them. Folly, I know, but I didn’t then. He tied feathers to our braids and gave me books of the sort that opened my eyes, and fed my insatiable desire to learn. I don’t know what it was I gave him–except myself.

The trouble with spring is that it can’t last. It hides itself in the green of summer, but when the leaves are set to turn, it has to go. And so did he. I knew it before he even spoke. The little world we explored wasn’t enough for him. He needed bigger skies, harder places to bend him to them. He’d thought the ocean sang to him, once, but where there is coastline, there are too many people, too many cars, too many things to separate him from what he needed to be. No, he required plains and mountains and the cry of things wilder than I.

Foolish children, we thought love was something you could hold onto. Came to find out it only stretches so far. Time, distance, changing seasons–all that pulling, until the thread of love was so thin you could cut yourself with it. Oh, how we tried to stay tethered! Words by the thousands passed between us, written in moments of quiet contemplation, frantic loneliness, desperate hunger.

When we came face to face again, we found we were strangers. Still in love, but the meaning had changed. The frenzied kisses born of too much time alone couldn’t hold the truth at bay. We didn’t have the words to explain what we no longer had. We parted, still pretending, still dreaming of ways we might come together in time.

In the end, he broke my heart. And I let him. I’d taken too much of his steel into myself to do anything else but rail, never once considering that he’d broken his own heart, too. I didn’t know then that he’d made me stronger.

I marched off to the war that is growing up and never looked back to that girl I’d been. Somewhere in the fight to survive, I lost her entirely. I don’t regret what I became, the things I did. If my first love had never done anything but give me a taste for adventure and the willingness to take risks, I would still be grateful to him. Without that, I’d not have taken the chance on another young man–years later–who courted me with letters and dreams of the world, yet remains by my side to this day. Without my old love to blaze that trail, I would not have ended up as happy as I am.


 
Dancing the Asyik

by Chris Malcomb


On the night we met, Ling introduced me to the Asyik, a Malaysian court dance invented to entertain a queen who’d lost her favorite bird. On the dusty wooden floor of the bunbum, a tree house in the Tamen Negara, she tucked her legs beneath her torso, floated her palm towards the cobwebbed ceiling, and opened her slender fingers like the petals of a dahlia. “Asyik means ‘beloved,’” she said, tracing a circle back to her lap, her eyes never leaving her palm.

I was in Malaysia on spring break from teaching in Korea. Ling was a Chinese-Malay vet student from Kuala Lumpur. At twenty-one, she was a year younger, yet she possessed a cool, mysterious worldliness that I lacked. Our attraction was immediately palpable. We talked until dawn that first night, then spent the next two days exploring the jungle together, a sweet courtship involving Malaysian folk games, impromptu Bahasa Melayu lessons, and hours spent lounging in the shallows of the Tembeling River.

Despite our growing closeness, Ling frequently insisted that she wasn’t actually real, but rather a “spirit,” a temporary delusion of my own making. Our first kiss convinced me otherwise, but on the bus to Kuala Lumpur, as she slept on my shoulder, I watched several dark-skinned, barefoot children twirling under banana trees in a monsoon downpour and realized that she might be right. I was a stranger to everything in this land, and would leave it all behind when my “break” ended. Did any of it actually exist?

Yet we continued, two innocents ignoring the chasm of culture and time and geography as we careened down the thrilling path towards love. In the capital, we held hands in the Botanical Gardens, the Butterfly Park, and numerous hidden alleyways crammed with colorful umbrellas. We ate nasi lemak and teh terik and spent sweltering afternoons cooling off in the breezy hallways of the Craft Market. With each new embrace, our bodies clung a bit longer, and after a week Ling agreed to stay overnight in my hostel. But barriers remained. Clothes stayed on and we never discussed the future.

One day, we visited Batu Caves, a series of vast caverns converted into a Hindu temple. We strolled along the smooth concrete floors for a while before resting near a four-armed statue of Lord Vishnu, where an old woman in a purple sari was kneeling to offer a bundle of white carnations. I lifted my camera, snapped a shot of the woman, and turned the lens towards Ling.

“No,” she said, extending her hand.

This didn’t surprise me. She’d resisted photographs since we’d met, and my pursuit of a memento had only managed to produce ghostly images of her evasiveness.

I shifted around her outstretched hand. She twisted her chin down into her shoulder. I moved again. She lunged forward and grabbed my wrist. “Stop!” she said. Alarmed by her intensity, I lowered the camera and turned back towards the statue, heart pounding.

We sat in awkward silence for a moment as the old woman recited quiet prayers to Lord Vishnu. Then Ling reached into her bag and tossed a small envelope into my lap. Inside was a small photograph. She was on a stage, wearing embroidered silk, a bejeweled headdress, and jangling gold bracelets. She was crouched on her knees, eyes cast downward, the dark waterfall of her hair flowing straight to the floor. I had never witnessed such beauty, and in that moment my heart, incomprehensibly, felt fully open and fully broken. The old woman finished her prayers and stood up as warm tears welled in my eyes.

I left Kuala Lumpur two days later. Ling and I exchanged some letters and vaguely explored the possibility of reuniting. Yet I never returned to Malaysia. I don’t know why. Perhaps her evasiveness–her “spirit” nature–worried me. Or maybe I was frightened by my own desire, the confusing yet consuming nature of first love. It took time, but the memories eventually faded and I moved on. For years, however, I carried around that photograph, periodically tracing the lines of Ling’s delicate body with my fingertip, forever regretting my lost opportunity to see her dance the Asyik.


 
Once Again

by Molly O'Connor nee Carson (nickname Kit)


Wearing a print dress and the only hat in the crowd, an elderly lady sat alone and apart. I was attending a friend’s wedding, a country affair in a casual setting. “I’m a friend of the groom’s mother,” she offered when I asked, and she had traveled some distance from a town I knew. “Oh,” I blurted out, “my first love was from your home town.” Of course she asked his name. Unexpectedly, this lovely octogenarian announced she was his mother’s best friend. We chatted, and I sent my best wishes to his mother and moved on.

Several months later, I was sitting in the kitchen with my two adult daughters when the phone rang.

“Kit?”

“My goodness–a voice from my past!” He always had a way of saying my name that caused nerves to zing along my hairline and down my spine. They did again. “I’m in town. I’d love to see you.” More conversation revealed that his mother mentioned where I was. All I could absorb was that after thirty-three years I was going to see my first love again.

My girls pumped me with questions, eager to learn about a secret part of me, well, never secret; but just not discussed. I delved into my photo box to find his picture–he stood in the water at the beach where we met. He was the lifeguard, I was the playground supervisor. At first I rejected his attention–he was too perfect, bronzed, tall, blonde and too sure of himself. I liked intellectual. It turned out he was that too. I was smitten. I told my girls we’d planned to marry–but for various reasons hadn’t.

Two days later, blushing at the memory of a muscular fair-haired Nordic boy who’d been my sole reason for breathing for nearly three years, I was seventeen all over again. The hall mirror told me otherwise; grey threads wandering through my dulled black hair joined wrinkles around my eyes.  I pulled the slackened skin up from my chin and let it drop back. I’d aged, but not too terribly. Nodding at my image, I assured myself I was acceptable. He was no longer the same young man–the years had surely aged him too. How had he fared?

The doorbell rang; my heart leapt. I fussed with my skirt, put a smile on my face and opened the door to a familiar face, older but the same with a stylish goatee added. Over dinner we caught up with each other’s lives, learned about families and careers. By the time the evening drew to a close we both knew the passion of old was alive again. The next few days were spent visiting galleries, taking in plays and just walking together. We laughed, held hands, and let love take its course. The years apart disappeared and we fell into a rhythm that was both familiar and new at the same time. We felt the pull of love drawing us together.

I showed him my city. He invited me to his. His life there was as different from mine as possible. We had traveled different paths, had become different people influenced by the direction our lives had taken. Yet, we both still felt the pull of intense physical and emotional attraction and wanted to find if there was any way to continue. Months went by when I traveled west and he traveled east. They were delicious months. We shared each other with our family and friends, talked, cuddled and explored.

As our relationship grew, so did our knowledge of each other. We hashed over the reason we had broken apart when we were young to find that the cause was still a major factor. We couldn’t resolve it then and couldn’t resolve it again. We parted friends and vowed to care about each other for the rest of our lives.

 
Today, twenty years later, I look back on this precious interval in my life, aware of what an unexpected gift it was. I reflect on how life evolves as we grow older but nothing really changes. I will always love him, my first love–we just couldn’t grow old together.

 

The Ex Husband

by Cari Oleskewicz


My life went to pieces over the summer. I lost a cherished cousin my own age to a suicide, broke up with a person I loved madly and obsessively, wound up nearly bankrupt because of that former flame, moved in with my sister and found out that my mother has Stage IV lung cancer. There were several months filled with anxiety, stress, loneliness and total despair. The person who was there for me the most was my ex-husband. No one was more surprised about that than me.

Our divorce was similar to our marriage–void of passion, drama or emotion. We worked with one lawyer, settled quickly on matters of custody, visitation and child support and sold the house that we both liked but never loved. He moved on with his life, I moved on with mine and we remained friendly in order to co-parent our darling little girl. I rarely thought about him.

I rarely thought about him until everything got up-ended for me, and I needed quick help but did not know how to ask for it. He seemed to intuit what I needed, though. When we received my mother’s test results, which were worse than we expected, he was the first person I picked up the phone to call. It seemed strange to me that I was wanting and willing to lean on this person who I discarded so easily five years ago. Also bizarre, I thought then, was his willingness to step up. He paid child support earlier than usual, bought our daughter shoes and school supplies so I would not have to worry about it and picked her up from school when I had to rush out of state to see my mother. He has reached out to my entire family to offer his help and his prayers. He sent flowers to my grieving aunt after the suicide.

He has a girlfriend who spoils my daughter. While I sat with my mother after her first round of chemotherapy, I received a text from her. My daughter had been playing dress-up with her daughter, and she sent me the picture of two giggling girls – seven going on seventeen, and they looked happy and well cared for. It made me smile during days when grins were rare.

Our love story is not romantic. Instead, it is practical and respectful. It is the story of two good people who came together briefly but are on different paths. It is the story of people who do love each other even if we are not together. I am grateful that we did fall in love once. I am grateful that we have a funny, bright and warm daughter. I am grateful that we still care for each other, and I am pleased that his new relationship is healthy and strong, because that means my daughter’s family is growing.

I am still struggling on a daily basis, working to get over Mr. Wrong and trying to balance my time and my resources so I can care for my mother and my daughter. Knowing that my ex-husband, who is more than just an ex-husband, is ready to catch my fall shows me that God does put people into our lives for very specific reasons. He is a kind, decent and compassionate person. I am blessed to be his ex-wife, and I hope I can return the favor for him one day.


 
The Arithmetic of Love

by Patricia Olson


In the arithmetic of love, one plus one equals everything,
and two minus one equals nothing.”  –Mignon McLaughlin

Our eyes lock together and I feel the heat of your love warming me on this cold fall day. At least I imagine this is so. Imagination is the only tool I have to bring you close to me again.

I imagined I saw you this morning at church. You shook everyone’s hand in greeting, smiled your crooked smile, and handed them a bulletin. You were wearing your gray suit, red print tie, and the baby feet lapel pin to show others you stood against abortion.

Then I imagined you beside me singing hymns, your voice clear and strong. During the message you opened your black leather bound King James Bible with its grey duct-taped edges. I saw you nodding your head in agreement with a point in the message. You even said, “Amen” a couple of times. I nudged you with my leg once to wake you up.

After church, you milled around talking to the other men. When it was time to go, our eyes met across the room in silent communication, and we both made our way to the door.

Later in the afternoon, I pictured you at my mom’s house. I heard you ask, “Are you going to have a cup of coffee?” You wanted her to have one so she would offer you a cup too. I saw you slouching on her sofa, your legs stretched out as you worked the crossword puzzle she saved for you from her newspaper. After awhile, you sprawled out on the carpet in her living room and took a nap.

I stopped at the cemetery today. But I didn’t see you there. I saw a block of marble with our names and some dates. I walked across blades of grass covering the soil that covers the concrete vault that holds the body you left behind. Fourteen years your dementia haunted us, and if that wasn’t insult enough, Lou Gehrig’s disease eventually consumed your muscles and took you from us.

I didn’t feel you there in the soil, in the grass, in the air, in the block of marble. But when I slid into the driver’s seat, I felt you again. I felt you riding next to me asking, “Are we going to move down here? I can get a job here.” As usual, I tried to ignore your question, because it has been years since you were able to hold down a job. You didn’t seem to expect an answer anyway as you snapped picture after picture of trees along the roadside.

I felt you walking beside me in the sunshine and cool breeze this afternoon. I had a hard time keeping pace with your long stride. You reached out and clasped my hand. I didn’t pull mine away this time. I stopped caring if people see us. Public displays of affection don’t bother me like they used to.

I saw you yesterday in the faces of our children and grandchildren. And as I gazed at their faces, I imagined you were there with us. I saw you smile. I saw you laugh. I saw you get excited during a game of Pictionary. I saw you laughing until tears streamed down your face.

Tonight as I climb into bed, I will try to imagine I can feel you roll over from your left side onto your back. You will slide your right arm around me and I will cradle my head on your shoulder, my right arm resting across your chest, my right leg on your thigh, our feet rubbing together as we snuggle and talk about our children and grandchildren, our church, our mothers, and the world that is spiraling out of control, and the faith we have in God, who knit our hearts together thirty-six years ago. You are so entwined around my heart; I can’t break free even now, four and a half years later.

Thank you for the memories, dear.


 
Twisted Love

by Cynthia J. Patton


We met during law school orientation. Before classes started, we’d had our first date. Ten months later, he mentioned a wedding in his hometown. He’d see his former girlfriend, who he might still love. Might, he emphasized. He wasn’t sure.

His ex-girlfriend was Miss Iowa.

I’d grown up in suburban California believing a girl could either be smart or pretty—and I was clearly smart. Many found me intimidating. Pretty girls are never intimidating. Of course he’d choose her.

I was devastated.

The boyfriend flew to Des Moines, and I went to a bar with a mutual friend. I cried on his shoulder and into my margarita. I tossed back four tequila shooters. I wish I’d suffered the indignity of passing out. Instead I slept with the friend and woke filled with such loathing I didn’t know how I’d survive. The friend shrugged, pleased with himself.

I returned home and scrubbed my skin raw in the shower. I threw out the clothes I’d worn. I ate vegetables I hated. Nothing helped. I drank a pot of coffee and stayed up all night, hung over, crying, twisted with guilt. I’d totally forgotten Miss Iowa. Even worse, I’d forgotten how badly I’d been hurt.

The next day I drove to the airport to pick up the boyfriend. He bounded off the plane, his face rapturous. I turned my head when he tried to kiss me. His lips found my ear. “I’m an idiot,” he said. “You’re the one I love. She’s not even pretty, not compared to you.”

He rattled on about the wedding and his college friends. I stalled the car twice in the parking lot. I could have pretended that one night hadn’t happened, but I couldn’t. Not while I sat next to him so filled up with love.

I’d barely maneuvered the car onto the freeway when I burst into tears. I should have pulled over but I didn’t, grateful to have an excuse not to look at him while I blurted what I’d done. I still wonder if what I did was honorable or cruel.

He took it well, was gracious even. I marvel at that now. We went back to his place and drank a bottle of dandelion wine he’d brought me to prove it existed. Years later I saw a similar bottle and cried, remembering the taste—achingly sweet.

We both acted as if nothing had changed.

But over time love became a tangled, thorny affair. For two years he plowed through rows of nameless women—unscrupulously pursued, yet scrupulously confessed. Longing for the time before our transgressions, I labored to excuse his actions. He accepted a job with a firm in Seattle, and I remained in California. The separation came as a relief.

Eventually I married and lost touch with the boyfriend. But I couldn’t lose the guilt. My shame was a tumor alongside my heart.

 

Years later a friend asked, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?"

I didn’t have to think. She stared at me, puzzled, as I whispered the story. “That’s it?”

When I nodded, she laughed.

Shock rippled across my skin. Didn’t she understand? I’d betrayed the man I loved.

I told more friends, and while they didn’t laugh, they didn’t think I’d cheated either. Some faulted the boyfriend, some the mutual friend. Everyone wondered why I blamed myself.

I couldn’t reconcile their views with the story in my head. I turned it over and over, water polishing stone. The boyfriend had given me a gift when I blurted my confession: he’d shown me forgiveness. In turn, I forgave him. It hadn’t occurred to me to forgive myself.

As I freed the secret, my guilt lessened, easing its suffocating grip. With each telling the story became softer, more compassionate. The boyfriend feared commitment. Maybe I did too. We handled things poorly. We were young.

I still regret that I hurt the boyfriend. I regret we didn’t have the words to heal our wounds. I regret I held my silence far too long. But mostly I regret that I didn’t love myself enough to believe that he’d choose me.

Today I can say what he always knew: I’m an attractive, intelligent woman worthy of love.

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