Suzy Nobless’s dad was a famous shoe designer. We were in the seventh grade, when she and her little brother and her mom and her dad moved into Sabrina Epperly’s old house by Pine lake. The lake radiated tranquil beauty, but at that end, the muck and mud left a kid wondering, what is in this foot sucking ooze anyway? Soft. Too soft. The deep slime held pointy sticks and sharp rocks, which laid in wait, under the brown slime, ready to jab a kid’s instep or scrape an ankle. When we were bored enough to venture in, we imagined we were walking in the all the excrement pouring from pipes from quaint old houses, plumbed before codes disallowed such things, so for us: muck = poop.
That particular sunny day, Suzy and her new boyfriend Steve Storey and I decided to walk home from school. We went to Pine Lake Middle School, and when the last bell rang, we decided it was too nice to ride the stuffy old, yellow school bus home, with its blowing diesel, grinding gears and old lunch smells. I had just met Suzy, but I knew Steve when he and his family moved to Pine Lake the year before. We had been in Mr. Valenta’s sixth-grade class together. He’d always been so understanding when I’d shared my boy trouble with him, explaining how I’d been roped into saying I’d go steady with David Hassinger, you know how Doug is, I had told Steve. Steve had nodded, like he knew just what I meant.
“You want to stop at Sadler’s for ice cream sandwiches?” Steve asked, shifting his back pack on his shoulders.
“I spent the last of my money at the school store,” Suzy replied, glancing quickly over at Steve, smiling sweet and coy, like some Southern belle.
“Yeah, me too,” I added.
“That’s okay, my treat today,” Steve smiled at Suzy. So we got our ice cream and Steve sprung for Suzy’s favorite gum, some bright green apple-flavored stuff that blew the biggest bubbles ever. Suzy slapped my arm, signaling me to what how big she could blow.
“That’s the biggest one I’ve ever seen,” Steve shook his head in amazement, like he himself was blown away, just like the gum.
“Stunning,” I said looking from Suzy to Steve. So we teased and meandered, and we playfully shoved and laughed our way down the two lane road, that wound its way around the lake. The sun was warm for April and fruit trees bloomed. Each twist in the road brought a new smell and we got quiet for a short while, ebbing and flowing, in and out of ease and awkwardness, as kids on the verge, do. Just before the road wound sharply to the left, a grouping of alders stood with roots soaked in mud and decaying leaves. We breathed in the sweet, earthy odor as we passed.
“I kind of like that smell,” I said absently, sleepy from the ice cream.
“Me too,” Steve nodded. “I don’t know why. It’s kind of a rot and dirt smell… kind of good in my nose.”
“Ewe. You guys are gross,” Suzy let out as she looked into the stand of trees. Steve and I shrugged. We continued past the Hamm’s house, both my dad’s friend Jerry and his brother Bob lived down that drive. I’d met Bob’s daughter Karen, when she invited me over to play when we were in Kindergarten. Karen had yelled at me to come in when I knocked on the front door that day. There was a lot of barking, big barking behind the door, but I opened it as directed anyway. A gigantic pointy-eared Doberman jumped and landed his paws on my shoulders and her cat attached itself to my thigh, before she could get to the door. I looked down their driveway, as I walked with Steve and Suzy, and I wondered how Karen was. She never seemed like a girl who’d be happy any day soon.
Steve looked at Suzy as we neared her house. He often looked like he had something up his sleeve, so I ignored his sideways glances at Suzy, and she seemed genuinely oblivious to all his in-drawn breaths, where he looked like he ready to say something then thought better of it.
We came to a rock. Steve simply plopped himself right down on it.
“I need a kiss,” he declared smiling at Suzy. Her eyes widened and her face reddened, and she didn’t say anything for a moment.
“I don’t know how,” she finally breathed, then looked to me for help. I just shrugged. “Show me how Kathy.” Right then it was time for my eyes to go wide and my face to redden. I shook my head.
“Eh…” I stammered. I had kissed a boy before, but it hadn’t gotten good reviews. Kurt Holtzingner had run into my face outside my parent’s bathroom in the summer following the sixth grade. He had looked perturbed and he instructed me to open my mouth when kissing. Humiliated I obeyed and we tried another kiss. He went home and never called me again, though I was relieved because he wasn’t even nice, I also felt inadequate in the way twelve year-olds sometimes do. After that I practiced with my friend Sabrina and on the bathroom mirror at home, so I’d be ready for my next kiss.
So, that day I looked at Suzy, with her pleading eyes. I knew I wasn’t any sort of expert, but I also didn’t want to look lame.
“He’s your boyfriend Suze.”
“I won’t be mad, I promise.” I let out a big breath. I know I’m going to regret this, I thought.
“Well,” I start, “you make sure he’s looking at you, that he’s paying attention. You don’t want to waste your kisses on some dope who can’t even look you in the eye.”
“Yeah. Okay.” We both look at Steve, who’s just smiling and waiting. What’s next? I pondered.
“Well, you move closer to him,” I stepped closer to Steve, making both he and I redden. Suzy nodded. I looked at my scuffed keds and knew I had to keep going.
“Well, you just kinda kiss,” I stammered, then continued, “You know? Right?” I was aware of Steve now, but not looking at him anymore. I thought he was kind of cute, especially since he’d gotten taller than me. I’d hoped, for a while, maybe he thought I was kind of cool too.
“So, just kiss him already, Kathy,” she blurted, then paused. “I’ll watch. You guys teach me, yeah?” she rattled off in rapid succession. I ventured a glance over at Steve, who was smiling. Then he shrugged all neutral, like guys do whether they’re twelve or forty. I swear its part of the male DNA to know when to be quiet, a sort of self-preserving mechanism or something. Good ole Steve, Mr. Switzerland over there, just sat on a rock with two girls, grinning and waiting.
Then we heard an older male voice boom into the cooling air of early spring.
“Suzy, come in for dinner,” the voice called. She shrugged her apology and off she jaunted down her driveway, waving without even looking back.
“Wait,” Steve called, seeing his grasp on the moment, slipping away like a wiggling, slick fish.
“Um,” Suzy turned and smiled, “see you guys tomorrow… in geometry,” then added, “Bye.” Steve rose and we walked to the end of Suzy’s driveway. I turned and he pointed the way to my house.
“I’ll walk you home,” he said. “That’s what any gentleman would do, right? …and I’ll even pay attention,” he added wryly. We glanced briefly at each other and walked through the blueberry bog, jumping across puddles in the trail, teetering across an old, thick, slick board which spanned the trickle that emptied into the lake. Quietly we made our way down the road in the fading light and in short order arrived at the end my driveway.
We talked about nothing I can remember. It started to get dark. He swung his hand towards me, but fell short of a touch.
“Good night, see you Monday,” and off he went.
“Night,” I smiled and turned and ambled down the zip of green, flanked by gray gravel. I hopped up the concrete steps of our house. I looked out into the air, across the Szuba’s yard, and through a stand of trees and blackberry bushes, and just caught the last glance of Steve moving from foot to foot as he found his way down the road, back to his house.
“See you Monday,” I shrugged and smiled.
A toast, Beauties, to learning to kiss. To kissing it all. To kissing boys. To kissing girls. To kissing children and puppies. To kissing ardently, both love and life.