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Announcing 2014 Story Contest WINNERS

Thanks to all who submitted stories for our 2014 Contest. We found it interesting that, this year, we had a larger than usual number of stories written by men.  We also received many stories remembering connections from a very young age–Kindergarten to sixth grade.  And even though these relationships may not have been with "sweethearts," in the true sense of the word, it is clear that they often had a profound effect on the person’s life.

Because many of the stories were so good, it was almost impossible to choose one over another. So, once again, we simply could not limit the prizes to only three. We have added four Fourth Place winners, each receiving $25. Five Honorable Mention stories are also here for you to enjoy.

FIRST PLACE 

Regret

by Tom Bentley 

In high school, I was stunned by a new girl, Joyce, a strikingly lovely creature. She had lustrously long, thick blond hair and an impishly open face. I couldn't approach her directly: I memorized her schedule and when possible, would station myself in the school passageways and gaze with longing as she passed by. This went on for months until I found out that she was a Jesus Freak, attending the after-hours Christian meetings on campus.

Doing the devil's work, I infiltrated, and finally initiated some clumsy conversation. More conversations ensued. It seemed a miracle to look at her, much less speak, yet we exchanged ideas and laughter, and I felt the warmth of her growing friendship.

Our first "date" was biking to a park to play Frisbee. A revelation: Joyce's willowy limbs belied her sinewy strength—she could fling a Frisbee a marvelous distance, and would madly dash, long legs wheeling to catch one in extended flight. Better yet, she would laugh with mad abandon at the disc's carry, whether she'd thrown it or caught it. She was splendidly uninhibited and natural, a sweet soul. I was in love.

I knew her first as a beautiful athlete, then discovered that she was a fine photographer, a lover of literature, a friend to animals, an early environmentalist. My love deepened; she constantly amazed me with her fresh outlook, her unselfconscious grace, her humor. We were together for almost two years before I betrayed her with an earlier girlfriend. When I confessed, she was so shocked: "I don't know you." I had fallen so far, for a cheap act that baffled her in its incongruity. She took me back, but there was distance between us. Tenuously together, we went to different colleges, separated by several hundred miles. We wrote and saw each other on long weekends, but when I got the inevitable "Dear Tom" letter, I wasn't that surprised. I remember a line from the letter: She said she had felt for the longest time that I was merely "floating on the surface," a sham of sorts, a person without depth. That tossed-off remark pierced me like an arrow.

We still saw each other occasionally over the ensuing years, uncomfortable friends, me with an unyielding longing, her somewhat removed. She had a college boyfriend for a couple of years. Later, she took up with an adventurer with whom she deeply connected. They decided to go on a photographic venture down an obscure river in Columbia. They disappeared, and were never found, despite repeated visits there by both sets of parents.

I was living in Seattle when a mutual friend sent me a newspaper clipping of her disappearance. The friend was someone I would eagerly grill when I saw her: "How's Joyce? Is she still with that guy? Does she seem happy?" Though I'd been in a few relationships since our breakup, Joyce was still the woman I loved. I never felt that reflecting on our relationship was an ignorant obsession; I felt her to be my soul mate, and that I'd asininely squandered something precious.

Katherine Mansfield said, "Regret is an appalling waste of energy; you can't build on it, it's only good for wallowing in." So true, yet when the wallowing is in the memory of your one true love, the waste is as appealing as it is appalling.

More time passed, and it seemed clear that she wouldn't be found—she was gone. I felt an almost-hallucinatory loss. Joyce didn't get a chance to see 30, never had a chance to sift the sands of her time, never to consider whether she'd done well or poorly—if it's even possible to know. My memories of her, some of them yet crystal-clear, are a part of her short legacy. I deeply regretted not having said goodbye to her, but I have this: the last time I saw her, when we parted, she gave me a long, warm hug and a deep look of love. That will never be enough, but I'm grateful for it.

I've heard it said that nostalgia actually means pain from an old wound; I ache for what was lost, and for what never was. 

SECOND PLACE

 

Between Planes

by Jackie Davis Martin 

When I spotted the man leaning against the wall in the Las Vegas airport, I let my suitcase sink to the carpet. I’d been trying to carry it by its handle. The pull bar remained lodged, the wheels not turning either. I’d take a few steps, arched to one side to compensate, then have to catch my breath.

The man was leaning against the wall near Gate 12; my connection was Gate 32, but I had wandered a bit, heaving and stopping with the ridiculous suitcase. I’d hoped to haul it to the slot machines, which at least offered some entertainment in a place where you were forced to eat or wander around. I could never read with the constant announcements; my life became suspended between planes.

The man looked like Frank. That was it. I pretended to go through my handbag, the suitcase at my feet, to peek surreptitiously at the man, to linger near him. His hair was Frank’s dirty blond color, thickly brushed straight back to scoop around his ears. I remembered smoothing back that hair, using both hands, exposing his face to my own. The man’s head was tilted toward a cell phone where something made him laugh and shift his position.

I was almost knocked over by a couple rushing through, wheeling all their apparatus at high speed. "Excuse me! Excuse me!" I dragged my suitcase off to one side, unwilling to give up Frank.

It was his stance, too, that made my breathing go heavy. I recalled a time, months—a year?-- after Frank broke up with me, when I and the man who was now my husband drove through the city, and I thought I saw Frank standing at the cross walk, waiting for the light. The bones in my legs had seemed to dissolve, even sitting in the passenger seat, and my head had spun the way it had when I’d stood on my hands as a kid, legs against the wall, and then straightened up. The violent physical reaction shocked me. And maybe it hadn’t been Frank at all.

I circled the concourse again, stopping and starting with the heavy suitcase, back to Gate 12. I needed another view, something to confirm why the man reminded me of Frank, another reason to be within the perimeter of the man that did.

He was wearing beige linen trousers; the paleness of the color, the fullness, was sexy. He wore sandals—those masculine brown European ones with no socks--and his shirt was a floral print, short-sleeved. That was it—he looked like the summer Frank, the way Frank had dressed when we stayed at his little beach house. His bed had been under a small window that I’d made curtains for, green checked, where we could see the sand, a piece of the bay.

"Excuse me!" God, I had blocked the aisle again, caught up in the sensation of revisiting a former self in love with Frank. For a borrowed moment I had resumed that agile self I’d been then, not dying my hair, game for the sailboat, running on the sand with Frank, with his tan and his dirty blond hair. Always his, until he’d called it off.

Standing in the carpeted aisle of the concourse, I took in the floral shirt, the trousered legs, one sandal crossed over the other as the man leaned against the wall. I walked a few steps toward him, toward Frank, leaving the suitcase where it was.

The man glanced up to check the flight monitor across the walkway, glanced up and over me.

It wasn’t Frank, of course. He merely resembled someone I’d loved thirty years before. Thirty. I was old now, and Frank would be far older, wherever he was—ten years beyond me then. I backed up, stricken, and bumped into the lump of my luggage. I’d have to drag it to the gate. My flight was scheduled to leave soon, and my husband would be waiting at its end.

I sank into a chair to wait, and pictured our reunion, my going home to my husband. Maybe by then I could shake the feeling that I’d just had a silent and secret affair.

THIRD PLACE 

Moving Day

by Jeremy Moyes

I open the apartment door at the knock, and invite her in.  She looks the same, perhaps the lines around her hazel eyes are deeper than I remember, but it has been some time since I saw her last.  My mind fills with long-forgotten moments as if her presence is a key to a room in my memory that only she can open.  I offer to take her coat but she refuses, brushing purposefully past me and into the small living room.  I watch her place the divorce papers on the table.

"Want the fifty cent tour?" I ask, knowing her answer before it comes with a shake of her head.  This, for her, is all business.  "Tea, then?" I ask, more easily this time, and I am rewarded with the trace of a smile.

"Yes, that would be nice. Thank you." So distant for two people who have spent so many years so closely entwined. 

I hurry into the tiny galley of a kitchen, thankful for the temporary separation, reappearing after several minutes with a tray of cups and saucers. She is sitting in the easy chair, not on the couch.  I pass her a cup.    

"Did you read it?" she asks, pointing to the papers.

"No, not really," I say flatly. "I’m sure it’s just fine."  She nods, as if she has anticipated my response.  There are no assets to speak of, except for the meager proceeds from the sale of the house. We divided up everything else months ago. No children require child support, no alimony payments as she was always the more successful one.  A simple, clean break.

"I’ve met someone," she says calmly, between sips of tea still too hot to drink.

"Oh," I manage, my heart plunging so fast that I suddenly feel light-headed.  I reach for the arm of the couch to steady myself and manage to sit down before my legs give out.  She is looking down, pretending not to notice.

"He’s in the car, so I can’t stay long," she continues, more sympathetically.  "If you sign the papers, I’ll be on my way."

"Is it serious?" I ask, wondering if I am shouting above the sudden buzzing in my ears.  I hear her "yes" – quiet and assured.  The room has suddenly become very warm.  I want to ask about him.  I want to know why she has chosen a stranger when she still has me, has us.  She produces a pen and my hands shake as I grasp it.  I sign the pages marked conveniently by yellow arrows.  It is done.  So many years neatly dispatched by a few strokes of a pen.

I look up to see tears silently descending that familiar face, her hazel eyes now ringed with red.  She takes a handkerchief and tries to repair the damage, although we both know it’s irreparable.  We have known for some time.

Suddenly she stands and gathers up the papers. 

"I have to be going," she says. 

FOURTH PLACE (Four stories, alphabetical by author)

Unlocking Love

by Kesia Alexandra 

In high school my best friend and I had a theory about the teenage romances that bloomed around us. Never having boyfriends ourselves, we accused others of dating "out of convenience". These couples, we believed, formed only because it was easy. One of the driving forces behind this was the insecurity of black girls in a predominantly white school, and a paragraph about that could be inserted. But the other probably more relevant force was that we believed love had to be fought for or earned in order to be real. We romanticized our lack of dates by minimizing the experiences of those around us. Sure, none of these teenage couples blossomed into long lasting relationships or marriages, but our peers were learning about themselves, or at least being given the opportunity to do so. They were not "dating out of convenience" but rather dating people who were available (emotionally, physically). The lack of struggle didn't make the flings less real or meaningful.

I was thinking about this theory last month when I ended my first relationship. It’s important to say that at the beginning of the relationship I felt loved. He was seven years older than me so there was a type of admiration there. This was when I commuted to my university: he would pick me up from South Station, we’d get coffee from Dunkin' Donuts and make love before my classes. Because it was in a way I had never felt before, I was sure I could never be loved by anyone else. This was it. Finally, I had a boyfriend.

A much shorter time into the relationship than I’m willing to admit, he was sentenced to a four year prison stint for a crime he said he did not commit. I believed him and, to be fair, his innocence was not a total impossibility. But that’s a different story. In accordance with the high-school theory, I just knew this was my test: if I fought for this relationship everything would work out. I would have earned love.

And so I wielded my sword for months which slowly added up to a year: paying for phone calls and being driven up to the prison by his father for visits. Anyone who knows me is aware of my obsession with personal freedom so it is difficult to explain how he handcuffed me so swiftly from behind bars, incarcerating me with him. I still can’t quite explain how I allowed myself to be locked away, relying on snapshot memories and a promised future as signs of eventual emancipation. What I can speak on is how relying too heavily on the past and the future caused me to feel caged in by depression and anxiety. I began to wonder if, maybe, I was doing love wrong.

A couple months ago, I was in conversation with some women (at a writing workshop, no less) and I made a comment about how I prefer to date older men because younger men tend to not have the same ambitions or interests as me. One woman replied, "as you mature you’ll find that it’s not so much about them as it is about yourself."

At the time, I couldn’t quite figure out what she meant but now I understand. I had romanticized certain things like older men and "fighting for love" and I had romanticized myself into a corner. It’s only now that I realize what her point had been, that the specifics of the other person, the "types", the preferences, are only a reflection of myself and where I am in life, not concrete things that hold a lot of weight on someone’s personality or maturity.

Within a month of this conversation (along with similar influences the universe threw my way) I cut off the relationship with that first boyfriend completely. I finally realized I held the key to my cell. I can’t be so condescending as to call that first love a stage—there was genuine care there, it was not an act. But it was not real love. It was not love that set me free. For that, I had to look to myself.

The Day of the Letter

by Eleanor Freeman

I had had crushes on boys before. I guess my first crush was Michael J. Fox when I went to see Teen Wolf at the movies. But my first love was Matt. A boy from school who pestered me to go out with him from the age of 14. I wasn't interested at the time, though, typical of the shallow attitudes of my young age. So keen to not be judged negatively by others, I was embarrassed to consider being seen out and about with him. Although he was a good friend and came to my house regularly to hang out with me and my best friend, I didn't 'fancy' him. I didn't like his clothes and over-sized trainers. I didn't like his music taste, that was so different from others at school and I didn't like where he lived, which was considered an 'undesirable' area of town locally. I never admitted this to him, thankfully, always telling him that I just felt too much for him as a friend to go out with him.

Then a year later, I guess he got tired of trying and his visits to my house almost stopped overnight. Isn't it funny how the heart works? Seeing him with other friends...other girls... and his apparent indifference to me. Of course...I wanted him then. Badly! The reasons for me not wanting to be with him before felt so silly to me then, and I felt ashamed. I realized his individuality and friendship were what I wanted most of all.

"Talk to him!" my best friend had urged time and again as I sat in my bedroom and cried daily.

"It's too late now," I would blubber, "he's moved on."

A year or so passed, and my feelings for him had grown and grown. It was one unseasonably sunny autumn day when I had arrived back from school to find an envelope addressed to me on the doormat. The familiar and distinctive handwriting leapt out at me and I excitedly picked it up and ripped open the envelope. It was a very early Christmas card and folded letter inside from Matt.

He wrote:

"Surprise! Sorry its kinda early, but Merry Christmas anyway." He signed it "Matt," and wrote next to it "remember me?"

The letter inside told me how much he missed me and our friendship and he apologized for his part in the ending of it. He suggested in the letter that I "probably hated his guts," and that he "wouldn't blame me if I never wanted to speak to him again."

Never speak to him again?!

I don't think I've ever dialed a number so fast. Within the hour he was standing on my doorstep and I fell into his arms. We talked for hours and we couldn't stop hugging one another. Even my family were excited to welcome him back.

Within a day we were 'girlfriend and boyfriend' and I never felt so proud. The relationship didn't last long. We were so young, but for the next 2 years we were 'on again, off again' and at the age of 17, he was my 'first'. The way it had to be.

At the age now of 39, with a husband and 10 year old child, and with Matt now long gone; that day when he came back into my life still stands out as one of the happiest I have had. The day of 'the letter'. To love someone so much and carry it around for so long in secret agony, to then find out that that person feels exactly the same is and was a quite immense feeling.

Kindergarten Sweethearts Forever

by Annie Rachele Lanzillotto

He was always better at jump rope and hopscotch than me,

and I was better at basketball and stickball.

I walked down 8th Avenue past 15th Street. Two guys walked by me. One guy yelled, "Annie?" in a Bronx accent, with thick "nn's" and a long "eee" almost like "aaay." No one said my name like that anymore. This voice called me from my deep past. In this man's face, his boyhood features were instantly updated. It was Johnny Denaro, my Kindergarten sweetheart. We jumped into each other's arms and spun around. It had been a dozen years since I last saw him. Now that we were in each other's arms again, we would never let go. 8th Avenue pedestrians streamed around us. He was my heart's destiny, the Italian boy around the corner I was fated to love forever. Our childhood houses were two backyards and one fence away from one another. We had hopped that fence to each other for years.

The first day of Kindergarten, as soon as I heard him laugh, all my nervousness flew away. He laughed louder than anyone in the room. Through the years, when I was sick, he brought my schoolbooks over. He'd call me on the phone and go over the math. We played hitchhiker. He pedaled the exercise bike and I stood to the side with my thumb up. He said, "Hey, where ya goin?" And I said, "Gimme a ride, I'm heading West." I got on the back of the bike and held him tight. He stood up as he pedaled and I sat on the seat, holding his waist as his hips moved from side to side. I marveled at how his hips moved. Our hearts beat fast and we got sweaty. Then we'd switch and I'd be the biker and Johnny the hitchhiker. I'd try to move my hips like he did, but I couldn't really do it. We sat on the floor with my victrola and played the forty-five of The Partridge Family's "I Think I Love You." We already had our song.

One day on his way out we lingered at the top of my stoop. He asked, "What boy do you like in class?"

"Guess."

He went through all the boys' names one by one, to which I replied, 'no, no, no, no,' until it was down to only two names, including his.

"Keep guessing."

"There isn't any body else," he said. He had a big smile on as he backed down the stoop.

"Yes there is. You're leaving someone out. Think."

"Who?"

"Think."

He backed away smiling.

We both knew we loved each other.

There on 8th Avenue, I held his warm hands and looked into his deep brown eyes. We parted, and walked in opposite directions, promising to talk at once. As I walked away, it struck me, Johnny Denaro is gay. The jump rope, the hopscotch, the ebullient laugh. Of course he's gay. All the princes in all the storybooks are gay. We're both gay. He's gay. I'm gay. We're in Chelsea. We're all gay. Our destiny felt even stronger now but in an opposite way than I had imagined as a young girl. The magnetic polar fields both had flipped. Johnny and I had a double repellent field. Our bodies would never push together. This was the antithesis of my childhood idea of "us." One part of me was relieved. Another part was gravely disappointed. Was the stationary bike all we would ever have, a stationary love that would never go anywhere? I felt a deep loss, and it felt impossible to explain it to myself or anyone.

I sat down and wrote him a postcard saying, "Shall we march together at gay pride? Hold a sign: "Catholic School Kindergarten Sweethearts Turned Queer."

He telephoned and asked, "Are you coming out for me, or for you?"

"For both of us."

He laughed his louder than anyone in the room, Johnny Denaro laugh. And we marched on Washington, me carrying him on my shoulders, and have stayed the closest of friends ever since.

King of the Class

by Bonnie McCune

His two front teeth shone silver in the sun. They weren’t blinding; rather, they had a soft glow. I couldn’t pull my eyes from them.

He earned this mark of courage after a sledding accident in which he’d knocked out his original pair, the archetypical white variety. The distinction only added more stature to his sixth grade renown.

His name was Royce. He was class president, always chosen by the teachers to be team captain during phys ed, the recipient of the most Valentines during the exchange.

As for me, I was short, plump, and a year younger than my classmates. Furthermore, I was late maturing. I knew diddle-dee about gender differences except boys seemed to be larger, stronger and more proficient in sports than girls. I even lacked interest in swooning over male film and singing stars, preferring to spend my spare time with a book. If I had any friend who was a boy, Chester, son of a professor, was my choice, with red hair, freckles, glasses.

Still something drew me to Royce. I admired him from afar, as if I were starving, and he, a chocolate sundae. The new silver teeth became the cherry on top.

I didn’t realize I was falling in like. My glance swerved toward him during class, his opinion carried weight in each discussion, and his reports about student council highlighted my week.

Then came the sixth grade party, held at an amusement park. The herd of youth stampeded down walkways, hooting and hollering around the Tilt-a-Whirl and the Ferris Wheel. I felt torn between the euphoria of freedom and the paralyzing fear of the carnival rides.

I didn’t enjoy being scared. Horror movies were horrible, and any attraction more violent than the carousel was to be avoided. I had no difficulty seeing myself rocketing out of a rollercoaster and hanging by the neck from the scaffolding.

My classmates showed none of my hesitation. They willingly threw themselves into seats that spun, twirled, and lifted them hundreds of feet in the air. They whooped with excitement as their heads snapped back from the ride’s force. I longed for my friends’ euphoria.

As I checked out the scene, I noticed the line for the bumper cars extended half-way through the park. Riders actually had some control over the small vehicles—steering, speed, collisions. Some lucky girls rode in the same cars as their boyfriends. I chose the risk.

My turn came and I lowered myself into the car. Zzzzzzzz, the power went on, and off I went. Here and there, round and round. Whump! Another driver ran into me. Whump, whump, whump. Three more in rapid succession. I wanted to hide under the seat, but that action might prove fatal. I sat up straight and steered as best I could, ricocheting off walls. After an eternity, the power switched off and the ride ended. I staggered to the exit.

There stood Royce. "Wanna go on the bumper cars with me?" Tempted beyond reason, I stared at him. I could sit beside Royce in the seat of honor. Then I turned toward the terrifying bumper cars and shuddered.

"No, thanks." I scurried off to the merry-go-round.

School ended, and my family moved far away. I never saw Royce or his silver teeth again. At my new junior high, wrapped in a newcomer’s cloak of invisibility, I was an interloper. As I walked alone from class to class, clutching my notebooks to my still-flat chest, or unrolling my brown lunch sack in isolation, I remembered Royce’s offer and felt a surge of pride. I’ve often wished I’d overcome my fear and ridden with him, wondering if we could have become more than friends.

But thanks to him, I learned two things on that spring day. First, a boy (and not just any boy, but ROYCE!) could favor me. Although I wouldn’t achieve a similar opportunity for years, I’d taken a step into womanhood.

My second lesson was more difficult to recognize. To get a shot at love, I have to take a risk. I applied the knowledge through my single life, making mistakes, but reaping rewards, too. Ultimately, my experience with Royce gave me my greatest joy—my husband and two children. Who says young love always ends badly?

HONORABLE MENTION (Five stories, in alphabetical order)

An Invisible Thread

by Anna Catarina Gragert

Last night, I dreamed about him again. His piercing blue eyes gleamed beneath brown hair, which–now that I think about it–always seemed jet-black.

This was not the first, second, third, or even tenth time that I have dreamed about him. I cannot count on my fingers or toes the number of times that my subconscious has prodded my dreams with his image.

I can remember the first time that we met. As cheesy as it sounds, it feels like it was yesterday.

We were both in the same third grade class. Our class was walking to the library for our "reading time." Our teacher had arranged us in two straight lines and we were paired together. It was the first time that I had truly noticed him all year.

He was wearing baggy jeans, a long-sleeved shirt that featured the Muppet that plays the drums on it, and a black leather wristband with spikes on it. I, myself, was wearing various shades of pink and ballet flats, but I thought that we matched perfectly.

Our two-line parade had stopped in the middle of the hallway to let multiple groups of kindergarteners pass by. I looked over at him and told a joke about the sudden pause in our daily routine. He laughed so hard that his blue eyes disappeared. We spent the next five minutes talking and, even though I could not put my feelings into words, I knew that I was hooked.

Fast forward four years later and we’re in middle school. We haven’t spoken in a few years, but there was always a weird connection between us. It felt like there was an invisible thread tying us together. I’ve always wondered if he could feel it too.

During recess, our two cliques would always become one and, once again, we were paired together. But, instead of our teacher being the one to play matchmaker, this time it happened organically. We always found each other among the crowd.

We talked a lot and he made me laugh while everyone else jumped rope or chucked basketballs from great distances. I could feel butterfly wings caressing the inside of my abdomen. Despite these young lovey-dovey feelings, I was terrified.

Unbeknownst to me, I was suffering with both an anxiety disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder at the time. This lethal combination of mental ailments prevented me from living my life, from venturing outside of my comfort zone. What, to many, seemed like the blossoming of a young love affair, seemed to me to be a traumatic jump, just like everything else in my life. I could not control my brain, which meant that I could not love myself and, thus, I could not love someone else no matter how many stomach butterflies encouraged me otherwise.

One day, in mid-Spring, Steven asked me to be his girlfriend. My heart filled with happiness like a balloon does with helium. All of a sudden, before I could enjoy the feelings of elation, the balloon popped and reality interfered. I knew that I was going to turn him down before the words even left my mouth. I knew that I was going to break his heart. But, little did he know, I was going to break my heart as well. I was going to break my heart to match my seemingly broken brain.

Steven and I stopped being friends. We never spoke again until the day of our high school graduation.

After I made my speech as the Salutatorian of my high school class and returned to my designated seat, he was the first one to say to me, "Anna, you did great."

Even after years of silence, Steven knew exactly what I needed to hear as the thread between us, once again, tugged at my heart knowingly.

Crushed by My First Crush

by Mal King

story not published, at author’s request

Love Can Be Crazy

by Carl Megill

I had known Gail all of my life since her parents and my parents were long time friends. Everyone on both sides of our families believed that someday Gail and I would get together. So, after I got out of the Air Force, we started dating. But, it wasn't long before, what everyone else failed to realize, the obvious difference between Gail and I could not be ignored. I was Protestant and she was...crazy.

I don’t mean "showing up at the Senior Prom in a clown suit with an M-16 crazy." But she would argue with me about everything. It was unbearable. I knew I only had two choices; breaking up, or homicide. And, since no one has ever dialed nine-one-one for breaking up, that’s the path I chose.

But fate played a cruel joke on us. While I was away, trying to find my calling, my older brother, Steve, and Gail’s older sister, Linda, started dating, fell in love and got engaged. We were both asked to be in the wedding party. During the five months leading up to the wedding, Gail and I were thrown into social situations where we managed to say very little to each other and make eye contact even less.

Then came the day of the wedding and I remembered how everyone smiled when those two little words were spoken at the end of the ceremony–"open bar."

Everyone was aware of the problems Gail and I had in the past, so when the band played a slow song, I decided to do something about it. I got up, walked slowly to Gail’s table, stretched out my hand and said, "Would you like to dance?" She said, "Yes" which surprised me, since I expected a knee to the groin.

The crowd applauded as we danced. As the evening wore on, we had a few more drinks and a few more dances. Apparently, all was forgiven.

After the ceremony, the entire wedding party was heading to this bar in Asbury Park, where some of us had been hanging out. It was just a hole in the wall, but they had some awesome local live bands.

Since I had caught a ride to the reception with someone, Gail said she would drive. You have to remember, this was the 1970’s and DUI, back then, was a birth control method for a dyslexic.

When Gail and I arrived, everyone else was already there. They all looked so out of place in this dingy bar with the guys in their beige tuxedos with gold piping trim. Ah, the 70’s, so colorful; and the gals in their purple velvet gowns.

After, Gail drove me to her house. That’s when she asked me to come in. I figured she’d make us coffee, sober up a little and then drive me home.

Instead, we were no sooner in her house, when she gave me a kiss that melted the gold piping on my tux. I began thinking how much I like women who like liquor.

Suddenly, she had a change of heart and asked me to leave. Okay, it was mid-February, the coldest night of the year, four degrees outside and I was dressed in a neon tuxedo. As I made my way through the frigid streets of Long Branch that night, the words of my dear sweet dad went through my mind – "Women, can’t live with ‘em. End of thought."

There was just something about Gail and I when we were together; an unexplained sexual tension. As the years rolled by, we’d always flirt with each other, in hopes that given the right circumstances, something would happen. Over the last forty years, it would have been nice to find out, but whenever she was married, I wasn't and whenever I was married, she wasn't. I’d like to think we were victims of un-synchronized passion.

Smartening Up

by Julie Struck 

On the first day of my sophomore year in high school, I note the alternating admiring or aversive looks from the girls and the way I am now studiously ignored by once interested boys – and know everyone knows I am sleeping with my boyfriend. This sense of being suddenly owned feels both agreeable, and unsettling. But since I have no idea what it means to belong to myself I simply submit to it the same way I submit to having sex, even though our couplings seem cold, even cruel.

But after he graduates the following spring, his allure begins dimming. In reference to the post-high school world he, and everything he does, seems slightly ridiculous. Instead of applying to colleges he conjures up a series of harebrained moneymaking schemes, including designing crossword puzzles. When that interest pales, he involves me in the experimental making of gigantic, burbling casks of ultimately undrinkable dandelion wine. Then he semi-seriously considers becoming a court reporter. But by the end of his first adult summer he is driving a taxi, and we begin fighting. Frequently.

One day I tearfully tell him I have had it, and he taunts back: Hah, just see if anyone else wants you!

And, interestingly enough, an opportunity presents itself.

While reluctantly walking to church for Saturday night Mass, I hear a slightly inebriated HEY from the inside of a car that slows, then idles at my pace.

I stop, stoop until I can see a familiar yet formerly inaccessible guy saying with a slur You wanna go out? followed by one of his charming grins. And I startle myself by hollering back Sure!, never believing he will follow through.

We have spent the last year subtly acknowledging each other in packed hallways during passing periods, even while attached at the hip to someone else. His extra appendage is the head cheerleader, who to my smug satisfaction has a shadowy mustache on her upper lip. Our eyes would also miraculously meet in the chaotic cafeteria, where he sat with his long arm wrapped around the back of her chair, giving me a small, temporary thrill.

So my first comment on our first date is what happened to her?

We decided to date others, since I am going off to college

, he casually replies while pulling into the parking lot of what looks like a racetrack teeming with zooming steel armatures of miniature race cars. This–all of this–is completely unfamiliar territory, but I manage to navigate it. I even startle him by skidding to a stop just short of running him over with my go-cart.

By the end of our second date he kisses me in his car and I encourage him to go further, assuming he has the same drives and desires as my soon to be ex-boyfriend. But he doesn’t, and it worries me. So on date number three I do whatever is necessary to ensure we wind up screwing on a thin blanket in a dark field not far from his house. Yet he enters me hesitantly, moves with me bemusedly, as if my urgency confuses him, as if sex hardly matters and that if I said stop at any point in the procedure he would and it would not diminish his feelings for me one iota. This is bewildering. So is my shame at giving out so easily.

Shortly before he leaves for a nearby university, instead of whisking me someplace private for a goodbye grope he takes my hand and walks me towards the Catholic school I once attended and the attached church from which I will no doubt be married someday, hopefully to him. But just before we reach it he turns me to face him and says you know you are way too smart for what is happening to you.

And I focus on the cracked sidewalk at our feet so he can’t see the effect of these amazing words. But I hear him.

That fall, and with astonishingly little effort, my academic performance improves for the first time since fifth grade. I also refuse to see the old boyfriend any more.

Dear J.

by Mare Wakefield

Dear J.,

It’s been a really long time. I hope you can forgive the intrusion into your life. I had to write when they told me about your motorcycle accident, and how you almost died. You almost died.

And I’ve thought of you often, every time we’re in Holland I think you might see a poster, come to a show. And that never did happen. Still I always assumed I would see you again, cause I find that I still have some things to say. Dear J.

I want to thank you cause you probably saved my life when I was 15 and I ran away to Mexico. And you helped me and you held me and we danced in the streets singing Chris DeBurgh, "Lady in Red."

And I’m sorry that I lied. I was reckless and selfish–caught in my own needs. I just couldn’t see things from other points of view. And I’ve heard of a study in which scientists determined that the brain’s frontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until age 25. Maybe that explains it but it doesn’t excuse it and I know that. It doesn’t excuse it. I was reckless and selfish.

But I still think of Mexico, and the fairytale we shared. There was magic in the air. And where’d so many years all go? I just couldn’t tell you but I still do remember dancing like fools to "Lady in Red."

And the last conversation I recall having was in 1995. I had just finished college. You said, "Come back to Holland. Come back to Holland, because right now there’s a door open between us. Please come, even if you just come to close it." But I never came and then you stopped calling and I moved again and we lost touch. And I can’t recognize you in all these now photos–32 facial fractures and reconstructive surgeries. And I can’t even imagine that. You almost died.

But I know how strong you are–a spirit capable of chasing down and tackling purse thieves in the middle of the Mexican night. And so I wasn’t totally surprised to see you with your new leg, standing on top of a mountain.

They say you’re married now, with your own little boy and I’m so glad to hear it. I always knew that you’d make a great father. And I’m married too. We live in Nashville, Tennessee. And we have a happy life. It’s a very happy life. And I don’t want to intrude, I know I’ve got no right. I just want to say thank you and once again sorry. I was so inconsiderate right to the end. And one more thing. There’s one more thing.

I, I really loved you then. I may not have shown it very well, but you were always in my heart. And though it was a lifetime ago–and I know what you mean about it feeling like somebody else’s life, I feel that way too. But I remember Mexico, jumping out hotel windows and sneaking across borders of Central American countries. And I will never do these things again. I will never do these things again. I will never live that way again. I will never be that free again. I will never love that way again. I will never breathe that deep again. I will never do these things again.

I find myself stalling the end of this letter, cause it feels like we’re talking and then when it’s over it’ll be like another goodbye. I regret one last time that I never came over, never saw you again. We never got true closure though I know we’ve both moved on.

I guess some doors eventually close on their own.

But you should know that if we never speak again, you are still a part of my life and I had this dream about you. We were holding each other and crying. I dreamed this right before your accident. And when I went back to my dream journal I found another dream that I had totally forgotten about. And in that other dream, I’d lost my own leg…in a motorcycle accident.

My Dear Unbeloved

by anonymous author

I am not sure exactly what I saw in him. He was a scrawny little boy with mysterious brown eyes and messy Goth hair. He did not talk. He did not laugh. He did not show emotions. He just sat in his usual seat in the back of the class with the same blank face he wore the day before, glaring at the members of our class, particularly me. But, hey, it was just 8th grade. Everyone was a strange then.

We had literature together, and one of our assignments required us to write a story and have it peer-reviewed by at least one student in the class. I was going to use that as an excuse to talk to him, but he beat me to it, emailing me a picture book, saying it was for my eyes only.

The story was entitled, "Unbeloved," an obvious rip-off from Toni Morrison. The story began with a young boy with black hair, brown eyes, and pale skin. I immediately knew it was him. Eventually, this young boy meets a girl, with "skin made of chocolate" and "eyes carved out of bronze." I asked him who the girl was. He told me to guess.

The girl had a dream about the boy. He was in a white Sedan with his mother and late father, who was depicted as a ghost. The father was screaming to the boy and his mother; he was trying to get them to stop the car, but they did not hear him.

The white sedan waited patiently under a blinking red light, slowly accelerating as it turned a sudden green. When, from out of the sky, a car crashed down upon it. The white Sedan was now black. It had hit a pole, turning it upside down. It looked totaled, and within seconds it was on fire. The last scene of the book was a traditional "The End!" with the exclamation point being a bottle. In fact, for some reason, bottles were everywhere in the scene, angrily sketched out bottles. I asked him why they where there. He told me that one day I would understand.

I did not like the story, to be honest. It was too depressing, but, then again, what else would I have expected? I asked him where he learned to write so well. He said it was just a gift. I told him I loved it. After a while, I told him I was tired and that I would see him tomorrow. He did not respond.

I cuddled underneath the covers, thinking about this boy’s story. Why had he written it? What was the meaning? With each question, my eyes grew heavier, and in no time, I was in a deep sleep. But, at the same time, my vision was slowly coming into focus. I was no longer in my bed. I was lying helplessly on the cold, rigged patterns of a street. There was so much glass; it was scattered all around the street. The once charcoal black highway was now a depressing crimson red. The atmosphere smelled like car smoke and gasoline. I looked around seeing three cars flipped over and another car completely totaled. I felt the heat of a roaring fire trail along the left side of my body, leaving half of my body to freeze and the other half to burn. As I observed the scene, a paramedic rushed out in front of me and towards a severely injured victim. I looked in horror as the coroner shook his head at a dead victim and pulled out a body bag. The paramedics were pulling this boy, my new friend, into the bag. I woke up in tears.

Needless to say, we received the news of his death that morning. They said it was due to a drunk driver.

That was my first and, without a doubt, most important love experience. I still wonder about my first love, especially now as I prepare to graduate. I wonder if we would have graduated together, gone to college together, and stayed in touch, or if it was just another middle school crush.

Rest in peace, A.S., you will always be my dearly unbeloved.

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