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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Somehow it was decided that Scott, Chad, and me were going to kiss Beth, Kristy, and Tasha. Beth was the tomboy with short dark hair. Kristy was the one with dimples and feathered hair. Tasha was short and freckled with red hair to match. It was the last day of school. The last day of 5th grade. The last recess at Eastgate Elementary School.
I woke up with butterflies in my stomach that morning, knowing that I would return home as something new—maybe not a man or even a young man, but perhaps some kind of romantic superhero with a cape and a cool bike. I walked to school as usual: down a hill, up a hill, across a field, and ushered across two streets by crossing guards wearing orange vests and carrying flags that said STOP on them. These crossing guards were old like my grandparents and always so chipper in the morning, as if they had lived all of their years thinking that the ultimate goal in life was to stand in the middle of a street blocking traffic for children going to school. On the last days of school, they were always a little melancholy though. They hugged some of the kids and gave out Nutter Butters and other kinds of cookies. One of them was the Uncle of my friend Scott and he said to me, “Give your knuckles a rest and have an Oreo.” I was a compulsive knuckle biter when I was a kid and that morning I was really going crazy on them. The skin around them was always puffy and raw like I’d been boxing a cheese grater.
I can’t really remember anything we did that morning. What do 5th graders do on the last day of school? Eat cookies and take a nap? I think we did have some cake or write on each other’s t-shirts or maybe played 45s on the record player.
Did I see Scott or Chad talking to the girls without me? Did I see them trying to be nice instead of punching them on their shoulders? Were they making a plan? What was happening? Did the girls actually like them? Were we all going to kiss each other or did we still have to figure out who went with whom? I think I liked Tasha the best, though I couldn’t figure out exactly why—she looked like Raggedy Ann and I hated Raggedy Ann. Is it even fair of me to speculate some thirty years later why I wanted to push my dry lips against her cherry lipsmackered lips? If pressed for an answer now, I guess I would say that I liked Tasha because she looked like she needed protection. I didn’t know this at the time though. Heck—I didn’t know anything. I hadn’t practiced kissing at all. My parents didn’t kiss in front of me and I wouldn’t see kissing on TV for another two years, when Arthur Fonzarelli would invade our television screen. He filled our living room with the lustful menace of an Italian in a leather jacket, picking up high school girls.
While I’m at it, let me do some hindsight on the other two girls. Kristy was nice and bubbly and probably made a good high school class president. But in 5th grade she was too fully-formed, like a miniature adult, and that seemed weird. Beth was slender and wore sleeveless t-shirts that showed off her little muscles. She was really cute and a total goofball and probably turned out to be a really hip lesbian. But I can’t say anything for certain about what these girls’ futures held, because I can’t find them on Facebook now.
So a plan was hatched and Scott and Chad huddled with me before the bell and filled me in. We could kiss them if we found them. We had to sit in the cafeteria and give them a ten-minute head start, like it was hide and seek. We opened our sack lunches or our Captain America lunchboxes or whatever we were packing and we swapped food and nibbled on whatever was in there that wouldn’t make us throw up later. Scott was a good-looking kid, as in he combed his hair and kept it neat and he wore button-up shirts. Chad was a class clown and an olive-skinned fire hydrant of a boy. He charmed everyone with his “aw, shucks” demeanor.
I’m not sure how to describe me. I guess at that age I was probably peaking in my popularity. I was pretty imaginative and helpful with schoolwork, but besides that I mainly obsessed over two things: football and Bigfoot. I had planned for a long time, with my older brother Matt, to go on a hunt for Bigfoot when we would someday be allowed to drive. And the thing about football was: I was really good at catching anything thrown my way.
I feel funny admitting this, but one of my most vivid childhood memories was one time catching the winning touchdown at the end of a recess game in 5th grade. I ran a crossing pattern to the middle of the field, paused a second, and then sprinted straight up the field behind my defender. Our quarterback, probably Scott with his perfect hair, chucked a beautiful spiral. I reached my arms out ahead of me, never breaking stride, and watched the ball land perfectly in my hands, like a beautiful brown baby dropped by a careful stork. The school bell rang as I crossed the goal line. I spiked the ball as I released a victorious yawp. The catch was talked about for days, maybe even weeks.
I started to shake a little bit as the three of us choked down whatever we could of our lunch in silence. All the other kids in the cafeteria were running around talking about summer and exchanging phone numbers. Their spastic bodies slanting closer and closer to the exits, to freedom. But me, Scott, and Chad were stoic and tense, like soldiers about to march into battle. I started to doubt myself. Were my lips ready for this? Where do I put my hands? Catching a football and kissing a girl were two totally different things.
The ten minutes were up. We went outside to look for the girls. The playground was like an upside-down U-shape around the school. The girls had split up, so we had a lot of ground to cover. We reluctantly split up too.
The first one I spotted was Tasha. She was standing by the basketball hoops. I wondered if she went there on purpose, knowing that I played basketball sometimes. There were a couple of uncoordinated kids playing there, throwing up wobbly shots and dribbling off their shoes. Tasha didn’t move when she saw me, though part of me wished she would. I wanted her to run like a scared deer so I could pretend to be a jaguar bringing her down, like a scene from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. But another part of me wanted to turn and pretend I didn’t see her. I didn’t really want Tasha to be the very first one. I hoped I would catch Beth and/or Kristy first, to “warm up” I guess you’d say, in case I was doing it wrong. I wanted to be as good as I could be by the time Tasha and I finally touched lips. But that plan was thrown out of whack now. Tasha actually started walking toward me and our eyes locked. My brain didn’t know what to do but my body ran over to her, legs rubbery and heart swelling with whatever it is a heart swells with when it’s panicking—blood? Air? Bees? A bunch of those flaming pinwheel things you nail to your tree on 4th of July?
I froze in front of her, arms to my side, face lowering to hers, our eyes open wide, and…peck. I felt a weird relief that it wasn’t anything more than that. It was so fast and light, you couldn’t even call it a smooch. Part of me wanted to do it again and another part of me wanted to say “thanks” and run as far away as possible. I heard the basketball playing kids say, “Oh, they kissed!” and then I heard Chad run up behind me. “Go get Kristy,” he said. “She’s right over there.” I wondered if he had seen me kiss Tasha and I was embarrassed. I looked at Tasha and felt a pang of sadness that she was just going to stand there and let us kiss her. “Seeya,” I said, and started walking away. I saw Kristy, pretending to hide in the weird tire structure thing on the playground. It was like someone glued together thirty huge truck tires in the shape of a jungle gym. I heard Chad say to Tasha, “Are you ready?” like he was going to give her a shot or something. I couldn’t help but turn around and see the two of them pressing their lips together for a full five seconds. I almost wanted to go separate them, but I just ran to Kristy instead. I felt my eyes stinging as I ran, like I was going to cry and then I heard Kristy laughing inside the tire tunnel. I slowed down, wiped my eyes, and then peeked into Kristy’s hiding place. She laughed and for some reason, I howled like a wolf and got on my knees. I crawled through the tunnel, getting closer to her. She was sitting on her legs and scooting back with a smile on her face. I got to her and leaned in for the kiss and we bonked heads. “Ow,” she said, and then I kissed her pouting lips. “Sorry,” I said. But it felt nice so I kissed her again. She laughed and said, “Don’t tell Scott where I am.”
I crawled back out of the tires and looked around to see where the others were. I heard Kristy howl quietly in the tires, testing out the sound in there, and then she laughed again. I wanted to go back in and kiss her some more.
I saw Chad across the schoolyard, going back into the school. I guessed he had completed the mission, but he was kind of slumped over for some reason.
I walked around to the other side of the building, where kids played four-square and tetherball. Scott was pounding a tetherball around a pole like he had all the time in the world. He was out of breath. “How’d you do?” he managed to ask me.
“I’m looking for Beth,” I said, all business.
“She got sick,” he said.
“Really?” I said.
“No, she’s out there,” and he pointed to a circle of girls in the grass where we usually played football.
I saw her out there, wearing a hat and another girl’s backpack, like she was in disguise. I gulped and started walking slowly in her direction. “Watch out,” Scott called out to me. “She’s fast!”
The other girls in the circle started to make a collective “ooooooh” sound, like they were saying, “Here comes another sucker.” There were eight other girls sitting with Beth, though it felt like eighty. They started making kissy smoochy sounds and then Beth whipped off the backpack and hat and bolted out to the middle of the field. I ran after her like a Defensive Back chasing down a Wide Receiver.
“You gotta tackle me,” she said, and when I was close enough I went for her legs. She was wearing shorts and I saw her smooth legs, knobby knees, and pink Adidas leap into the air and avoid my swiping arm. I’d never seen a girl do anything so athletic before. I instantly stored a note in my brain to pick her on my football team the next time she was at the park. When I got back up, I had grass stains on my jeans and I was a little mad and embarrassed. She slowed down and actually moved closer to me as if she were giving me a chance. I saw Scott walking up to us like he was going to help me catch her but I waved him off. When she turned around, I bolted to her and wrapped my arms around her before she had a chance to leap away again. I did, for a moment, feel like a jaguar clamping down on a startled deer. We landed in the grass and she said, “Okay, okay, you got me.” Then she reached up with her hands, grabbed me by the ears, and kissed me so hard that it hurt my teeth. The gang of girls in the grass started screaming and laughing. Finally a teacher came over and asked what was going on. Beth said we were wrestling and then the recess bell rang.
On the walk home, Chad and Scott caught up to me and we talked shyly about what happened. It was almost like we didn’t want to talk about it. We went into the little Nob Hill Market like we usually did after school, and bought candy bars and Lemonheads. Chad unwrapped his Three Musketeers bar, put it up to his lips, and said, “Kristy was like this.” He moved the candy bar in his mouth like he was brushing his teeth with it. I laughed a little but then felt like I was going to be sick. “That’s stupid,” said Scott. We walked for another ten minutes, slowly eating the candy that was instantly making us sick. And then, as if no time had passed at all, Scott said, “Nobody kisses like that. But you’ll learn.”
It was officially summer vacation now. I hardly left my neighborhood all summer. I played football in our yard and in our neighbors’ yards. I slept outside and talked about Bigfoot with my brother. I listened to the radio more and started to buy records. There were a lot of songs about kissing and girls. I acted like I understood them.
Kevin Sampsell is the author of the memoir, A Common Pornography (2010 Harper Perennial), and the short story collection, Creamy Bullets (Chiasmus) and the editor of the anthology, Portland Noir (Akashic). Sampsell is the publisher of the micropress, Future Tense Books, which he started in 1990. He has worked at Powell’s Books as an events coordinator and the head of the small press section for fifteen years. His essays have appeared recently in Salon, The Faster Times, Jewcy, and The Good Men Project. His fiction has been published in McSweeney’s, Nerve, Hobart, and in several anthologies. His novel, This is Between Us, will publish with Tin House Books in November. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and son.