If you needed reminding, Sunday is Valentine’s Day. And Lake Effect essayist Joanne Nelson uses the occasion to think about her Milwaukee girlhood and loves gone by.
Billy and I were high school seniors when we dated. He went to St. Thomas More, the Catholic boys’ school, just a few miles from St. Mary’s Academy, the girls’ school I attended. There was plenty of mingling. Since St. Mary’s started earlier, the boys dropped off their girlfriends or sisters and then stayed to flirt until the bell rang and we girls crossed under the “Knowledge and Virtue United” inscribed gates and into our school day.
We went to homecoming—at his school of course—his cousin driving as Billy didn’t have his license yet. I remember sitting on his lap in the brightly lit social hall, grey and blue bunting floating from the ceiling, glasses of soda scattered on the tables, friends surrounding us, the vision of myself leaning away from Billy to whisper with a friend, and the feel of his arms tight around my waist. Billy, as best I recall, was a true love, but he certainly wasn’t the first boy I ever kissed. My first real kiss—a French kiss—happened after a different Thomas More dance, the first dance of freshman year.
It was dark, 1976, the band had finished for the night. I’d been dancing with a boy I’d only just met. Now he walked me down the hall past the lockers and tables piled with coats until we stood on the school steps, anonymous in the dark, boys and girls streaming past us. I turned to say goodbye before running to meet my ride. He bobbed toward me. I realized he wanted more than a friendly hug, that what I’d dreamt of and read about in Cosmopolitan was about to happen.
His face came towards me, his mouth wide open, his teeth clanked against mine and we kissed. French kissed. I’d fantasized about this kiss for years, although usually picturing it as a more delicate experience. In truth, I found the whole confusion of lips and teeth and tongues disconcerting. I worried about my nose and what to do with my neck, which hurt, as I hadn’t arranged the angle correctly and didn’t want to interrupt my new friend to rearrange. Anyway, all too soon, I had to break our embrace and run down the school steps to my best friend’s sister’s impatient car now beeping its horn.
I no longer recall the boy’s name, or even his facial features above his nose. Only his open mouth, those straight bright teeth, and that tongue—which may have been somewhat larger and heavier than average—remain.
I doubt we talked or dated anymore after that night. I do remember the drive home, the teasing from my friend and her sister. I didn’t mind, wrapped in my cloak of sensual pleasure— unsure the kiss was categorically enjoyable, but definitely wanting it to happen again. I felt I’d passed some important milestone, and could stand outside the school gates in the morning a little wiser. Secret knowledge in my eyes as I watched boys drive up to flirt with the older girls before first bell.
Billy from senior year had messy blond hair and an overbite. He was tall and the sleeves of his blazers landed right above his wrist bones in a very sweet way. We mostly fooled around in front of his mother’s Milwaukee bungalow in my mother’s Chevy Impala after I drove him home from our Young Christian Life meetings. I’d glide to the curb, put the car in park, and we’d make out. The light above the porch leading to his front door a welcoming beacon shadowing our faces, until it began to flicker on and off, more and more rapidly the longer we tried to ignore it.
I imagined Billy’s mom’s worries floating through her living room window, past the azaleas asleep in the front yard, and into my car with its undependable heater, sporadically revving engine, and tinny AM radio. Her presence, like the unseen guest at every meal, hovering between us as we whispered and kissed.
One sad night when Billy embraced me, his right hand stayed on the armrest. I could see it there, the arm bent with tension, pulling him away from me and towards the house, and I knew what he’d tell me before school the next morning. I knew even before he said, eyes lowered, that he had to get in early for homework. It was a long drive home through the south side streets, trying to convince myself I’d misjudged the situation. Of course I hadn’t. He broke up with me and our paths didn’t cross again.
I think about Billy sometimes. And am disappointed and relieved to find out he’s apparently not traceable through Facebook or Google. I’m left wondering if anyone ever looks for me. Maybe even that forgotten boy on the steps of Thomas More. The boy left waiting for his parents’ car to pull alongside the curb, one more in an endless stream of vehicles picking up kids from the dance and taking them home again.
Joanne Nelson, an educator and writer living in Hartland, Wisconsin, enjoys developing and leading community writing programs. She is the nonfiction editor for a literary journal, The Tishman Review.