Three Kisses, One Past


"So where'd you go to elementary school?" I asked. "I went to Third Avenue, I'd have thought you would too if you lived on Malvern."

Christine looked surprised. "You mean you really don't --" Her voice broke off then when her uncle appeared in the doorway. Though they'd only been apart for a few minutes, she greeted him with an arm around his back and a peck on the cheek. "Uncle Eric, meet Jack! He's Elaine's son, and he grew up just a few blocks from me."

"Hello, Jack," he said, and we shook hands. "Thanks for a lovely afternoon."

"It was mostly my mom's work," I said. "But you're very welcome."

"So are you and Christine catching up on the old neighborhood?" he asked.

"Well, I don't think either of us misses it much," I said.

"He's got that right, Uncle Eric," Christine said. "Getting out was the best thing that ever happened to me!"

"To me too," Eric said, apparently to me. "Used to break my heart seeing the mess my sister got into and not being able to help her own daughter avoid the same problems. We're all very proud of Chris for overcoming all she has."

"No one calls me Chris anymore, you know that!" she announced.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Jack, I meant Christine. It certainly sounds more grown up. I guess I'm still just getting used to that, though, she was always such a rough and tumble tomboy before, if you can believe that."

"No kidding," I said, looking Christine up and down in her very feminine attire, while she blushed and smiled. "I wouldn't have guessed that. But I also wouldn't have guessed she was from my neighborhood."

"Oh, we get that a lot," Eric said. "Every now and then we have to go into the city for this or that, and when people she or her mother used to know hear her name, you can just see the reaction. 'Christine Moller?! Well I used to know a Chris Moller, but you're obviously not her,' and they never know it is her."

Chris Moller. All at once I felt like I'd been punched in the gut, and I knew I had to get out of the dining room instantaneously. I didn't want to look at Christine right then -- that was the last thing I wanted. But of course I couldn't help it, so I saw her own look of panic and embarrassment as we were both aware of the missing piece of the puzzle all of a sudden. Uncle Eric was no doubt completely oblivious to what he had just revealed, so I didn't want to be rude with him. As soon as I was sure I could speak in an even tone of voice, I said, "Excuse me, I just remembered something I need to get out of my suitcase upstairs." I waited just long enough for Eric to say okay before I bolted for the stairs.

Although the room was one big inarticulate cacophony to me in that awful moment, I was pretty sure I heard Christine call out, "Jack, wait!" as I made my retreat through the mingling guests. But I didn't wait. I raced up the stairs, taking them two at a time, and shut myself in the nondescript guestroom that Mom had set aside as my bedroom before anyone could see the tears of rage that just might have erupted at any moment right then. Then it was time for a very deep breath.

No one had seen me cry in a long time, not since seventh grade to be exact. But the last time it had happened, the most indelible memory was one voice that would always stand out as predicting my tears -- "Watch him start crying, now!" -- and that voice belonged to Chris Moller. Across the years, and all the success Mom and I had had in moving up in the world, there were some nasty memories that never faded away. They just sat there in my memory, a constant nagging reminder that no matter how successful I was, on some level I would always be a loser from the slums. And that particular taunt from Chris was among the most enduring.

At this point, I have to go off on another tangent from the Thanksgiving dinner. There are some things I haven't told you yet about life back on Pelham Street. I told you about the nursery, and how it turned into a nice study room as I got older, and about getting into my beloved private school out in the suburbs for high school. But I haven't told you much about what came in between, and I must do so now if you are to understand what comes next.

Remember how I said the nursery was a haven for me, how it shielded me from the harsh realities of where Mom and I lived? Well, that memory stuck with me long after I was too old to have anything to do with a nursery of any sort. Even into junior high, when I was too old for any of the few toys that were still kicking around in our apartment, the sweet memory of my long happy days in the nursery was a godsend. The room itself was still there, of course, and by then it was filled with books for the most part. I'd fallen in love with books, probably around the fourth grade, and spent countless hours hiding out from the world -- and from Mom when she was struggling with her own homework -- reading about anything that could make my mind fly away from Pelham Street. When I needed a break from reading, just a look around the room and the way it had looked so full of toys when I was younger was a welcome breath of the joy of my earliest memories. Recalling how happy those days had been kept me sane and gave me a nice quiet place to do my homework, and an incentive to do it so life could once again be that happy someday.

The reason why that room was of so much importance to me? You've probably already guessed it: school was hell in those days. Bullying was rampant, and quiet and shy boys like myself were at the bottom of the food chain, or at least close. It didn't matter that we were poor, since everybody else was poor too, but a shy bookworm with an overworked mother and no father didn't stand a chance in the halls of Third Avenue School! I won't bore you or depress you with the details; suffice to say I had few friends and many enemies, and plenty of recesses ended with me in tears for one reason or another. Merciless teasing, getting punched or kicked when the teacher wasn't looking, being reprimanded by the teacher for crying again without her ever wondering get the idea! So the beloved room back home was always a welcome refuge when I finally got home -- and it wasn't unusual to get beaten up on the way home either!

It all reached a low point one rainy day in sixth grade when I'd finally had enough and hit a bully back. That was the day I learned that bullies always know to strike when the teacher isn't looking. I hadn't thought of that in the heat of the moment, so I'd been caught and screamed at by a teacher -- right in front of all the boys who had just gotten away with beating the shit out of me. I hadn't heard the end of it all day, of course. And after yet another round of picking my coat and gloves up off the closet floor where they'd been tossed and having to take a roundabout route back to Pelham Street and keep an eye out for the boys and making a run for it back up the block when I saw any of them and even the girls taunting me about what a wimp I was, locking myself in the safety of the nursery was cold comfort indeed. As I looked around the room at my beloved books and the few toys I still bothered with, the cheerful memories of it all were the last straw. I shut myself in the closet and wished I could disappear, and imagined myself crying in the nursery with a gun to my head and Mom pleading with me to put it down.

I don't know how long that went on before I fell asleep right there in the closet. I do remember I didn't feel a whole lot better when I woke up shortly before Mom got home. But I sat down at my desk and forced myself to get started on my math homework, and eventually I forced the morbid images from my mind.

That, my friend is why I've blocked out so many memories of those years, and it's also why I can't block them all out!

And among the ruffians -- girls and boys alike -- who made those years so unhappy, Chris Moller was high on the list. Nearly always clad in raggedy jeans and work boots and a gray ski jacket back then -- the exact opposite of the beautiful young woman I had failed to recognize -- she was just as tough as any of the boys and just as quick to smack a nerd like me when the mood struck her. And she did. If she found out I got an A on a test she'd flunked? Whap! If I said my mother voted for Clinton? Smack! The one and only time I caught her team out in kickball? Bam! One time she even followed me into the boys' room and kicked me into the wall, laughing as she did. For years I did my best to stay out of her path, but I rarely succeeded, for there were only so many places to hide. That didn't really set her apart from anyone else at our school, to be fair -- but no one else from our school charmed her way into my mother's good graces years later!

As I stood alone in my bedroom now, taking deep breaths and working to get my emotions under control, two horrible memories roared through my mind and wouldn't go away no matter how I tried. One was the day in sixth grade when I had, for once, managed to find a bit of privacy for myself during recess in the woods behind the school. I can't recall if this was before or after that day I hit rock-bottom in my closet, but it doesn't really matter. Far from the violent football game that always held sway among the other boys, I was perched on a snowy log, reading my latest library book and enjoying the peace, when I heard someone else coming through the woods. I didn't look up, hoping perhaps ignoring a bully would work for a change. As usual, it didn't. As the steps drew closer, Chris' harsh voice ripped through the air with her usual tormenting ring. "Jack! What are you doing all alone out here?"

"Reading," I mumbled, not looking up.

"You're always reading!" she yelled. "You need a break. How about a snowball fight?" And I felt a harsh plop against my book that pushed it into my face, and melting snow dripping from my hair.

I finally looked up. "Cut it out!" I said -- even worse than ignoring her, of course, for she knew she'd gotten under my skin again, and she scooped up another handful of snow and whitewashed me. I slammed my book shut to prevent it from getting any wetter, but that only trapped some snow on the pages I'd been on -- it would never be the same, and I figured I'd be lucky if the library didn't make my mother pay for it. In a panic, I stood up and looked around for something to throw back at her, only then I remembered what happened to any boy who ever hit a girl. That would have made my life even more miserable.

I turned to run, but she was blocking my only way back to the playground. "Where you going?" she teased, pushing me back onto my log, which I tripped over and fell backwards, dropping my book in the snow. "Don't you want to play, Jack?" She leapt on top of me at that point, and leaned down and kissed me on the mouth, to the delight of several of our classmates who were by then lining up on the edge of the woods to watch the altercation. "Now you're my boy, Jack!" Chris sing-songed as she stood up and sauntered back to the playground, the others cheering her on.

That's all you need to know about the first kiss, I think. After that, Chris actually became a bit friendlier with me -- perhaps she felt she'd won some victory there in the woods and that was good enough -- and on into seventh grade, I almost considered her a friend. I couldn't very well forget what she'd done, but in those days even an ex-bully was better than nothing for a friend. So we were on halfway-decent terms for a while. Until the day of the second horrible memory, which was the one that really wouldn't leave me alone now.

That incident was about halfway through seventh grade, when Mom was already talking about sending me to the private school if I kept my grades up. So I had hope that I'd be out of this hell soon by then. That had made a lot of things easier for me, but not everything. I don't remember much of anything else about the day that gave me the most humiliating moment of my life -- what else does one need to remember about a day like that? I don't even recall exactly what had come before during lunch period that day. What I do recall is that it was at the tail end of the period, when the vice principal, Mr. Jordan, had called for quiet. When that happened, everybody knew to shut up. Getting Mr. Jordan angry at you was the dumbest thing you could do, for reasons I am about to illustrate. Not wanting to rock the boat, for I really was a good kid, I had my books stacked in front of me on the table and was waiting for the call to stand up and file back to class. My stack of books made for an easy target for the jerk sitting next to me -- I can't even recall his name -- and in a split-second while Mr. Jordan had his back turned for some reason, the kid whipped around and yanked out my math book from the bottom of the pile. All the others promptly toppled over and spilled everywhere, the noise echoing throughout the silent cafeteria.

I knew better than to do anything but clean up my books, of course, and so I did. Mr. Jordan heard the noise and saw me leaning under the table to retrieve a couple of my books, and when I sat up again he was glaring at me. "Jack!" he called out, and pointed at the ledger by the cafeteria door, meaning I had to come up and put my name down for detention.

"Me?" I asked, dumbfounded -- surely he'd seen I hadn't done anything wrong.

"Mm-hmm," he grumbled.

And I made a serious mistake. I asked why.

"WHY?!" he screeched in a voice loud enough to wake the dead. "BECAUSE YOU'RE PLAYING AROUND UNDER THE TABLE, THAT'S WHY! I'LL GIVE YOU WHY!"

There was no point in my arguing anything then, of course, so I got up and marched up to the detention list. Every other kid in the cafeteria -- including the one who had knocked over my books and knew perfectly well that I was innocent -- was glaring at me every step of the way. Out of the muffled snickers and gloats, I heard Chris loud and clear as I walked by her table: "Watch him start crying, now!"

And of course, I did cry. So much for ever thinking we were friends! At least it was the last time anyone ever had seen me cry: from that day to this, no one had ever gotten my goat like that again. Even my mother never saw the tears of joy a year later when I learned I'd been accepted at the private school and could leave Pelham Street behind, at least during the day. No, I cried alone in the nursery on that day. I've actually come to think of that day as my last in the nursery, even though I continued to study in that room for four more years. My miserable childhood was over on that lovely day!

Now, most of my wounds from those days had long since healed. But one does not forget a humiliating moment like that, or a moment when you discover a friend isn't really a friend at all. So of course an incident that combined the two was never to be forgotten completely. And it hadn't been, despite the success I had enjoyed in putting those horrible days behind me. And of all the little monsters I'd had to share my childhood with, which one ended up living right next door?!

I was still sorting all this out in my mind and trying to get control of my emotions when I heard a knock on the door. "Jack?"

It was Christine. Not Chris, but Christine. Her voice had changed just as much as her appearance had, with her raspy local accent gone in favor of a neutral and much more gentle-sounding lilt.

"Jack? I'm sorry. About everything. Please let me in, Jack." I'm not sure why, but I did let her in. There she stood in the doorway, with a contrite look on her face (which was suddenly completely recognizable in spite of all the changes, now that I knew who she was), and a glass of red wine in each hand. She handed me one of them. "I told Uncle Eric everything, about what a pig I used to be to you, and he distracted your mother so I could pour these for us."

I took the wine and stood aside. "Thank you," I managed to say in my still-shaky voice. "Does your uncle always let you drink wine?" If I recalled correctly, she was a year older than me (thanks to staying back in first grade), so still a year too young to drink.

"As long as he's there to supervise me," she said. "This is an exception of course. Jack, my uncle knows all about what a little punk I used to be. He had a lot to do with my getting cleaned up, actually. So I didn't have to do a lot of explaining about why you ran off. I just said, 'I need to apologize to him for some things,' and he understood. And he told me some wine would be a nice touch. He knows your mom, after all." I was sitting on the bed by then, not sure if I wanted her to join me there or not. In any event, she didn't, not right away. She stood just inside the now-closed door, and began pacing slowly. "Jack, I don't even know where to begin apologizing. First, I didn't realize at first that you didn't know it was me. I thought maybe your mother had told you about me, actually, because she tells me about you all the time. I think she might even be trying to play matchmaker for us." She grinned at that, and I saw all too clearly that Christine thought that might not be a bad idea.

"She did tell me about you," I admitted. "But she doesn't know we knew each other before."

"It took me a while to put the pieces together too," Christine said. "It first occurred to me that it might be you when I heard your mom mention her last name for the first time, but then I thought if she's divorced, it's probably her maiden name and her son has his father's name."

"My mom never married that scumbag," I said. "I'd have taken her last name if she hadn't given it to me in the first place, but she did."

"Good for you! Anyway, I was wondering if it might be you, and then when Uncle Eric and I came in today, I knew it was. I mean, you've grown up and you've cleaned up a lot too, but I'd know that face anywhere, Jack."

"I'm sorry I couldn't say the same for you," I said.

"Oh, no, I understand!" Christine assured me. "I doubt anyone we knew back then would recognize me. I mean, you remember Heather and Dara? I'm still friends with them, so they know me of course, but every now and then I'm downtown shopping with Uncle Eric and someone from our class passes by, and you can tell they have no idea who I am."

"It is quite a transformation," I admitted.

"Don't I know it!" Christine chuckled, looking down at herself as she continued pacing the floor, the wine sloshing in her glass but never spilling. "I can still remember the whispers at school when I had to dress up for something, you'd always hear the other girls saying, 'I can't believe Christine's wearing a skirt!' Nowadays, I get that reaction if I'm not wearing one. Heather and Dara tease me about it all the time, actually. They're still a couple of tomboys like we all were back then, especially Dara. But they're great. They've grown up a lot too, you know."

"So what happened?" By now I was more curious than angry.

Christine stopped her pacing for a moment and turned to look out the window. "You don't remember because you were already off to your private school, but...freshman year in high school, my mom was off on some kind of bender for about a week. I don't even know what she was up to. In any case, she wasn't around and I found some of her pills that she liked, and I brought a few to school. Me and a couple of other girls from the soccer team, we took them just before lunch, and they knocked us out. We were still rolling around on the girls' room floor when the cops showed up. My friends got off with a warning, but since I was the one who brought the pills in and I was already a troublemaker, I got expelled. And they wouldn't let my mom take me back, since it was her stash I'd dipped into. She still hasn't really gotten her act together, by the way, that's one reason why I still live with Uncle Eric."

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