Matt St. Amand
It was the summer before high school, and I talked to her on a dare.
I was at the park on the last day of June, playing basketball with my friends on the blacktop court. After my friend, Darryl, won the game—sinking a fifteen-footer over two other defenders—we retreated into the shade, where we left our water bottles. As I downed my blue Gatorade, Darryl nodded in the direction of the playground equipment. A girl was over there pushing two little kids on the swings. He dared me to go ask her name.
“If she’s all snaggle-toothed,” I said, “I’ll say you want a date.”
“Go to hell.”
Being thirteen, I didn’t know enough to be shy around girls. I took the dare. Looking at her long brown hair, I tried guessing her name: Jenny, Lisa, Karen. She wore a white tank top and faded blue cutoffs, and stood with her back to me. Her legs were long and smooth and tanned.
I stopped about five feet behind her.
“Hey, how’re you doing?” I said, suddenly nervous, and unsure why.
She didn’t answer. Didn’t even turn—just kept pushing the kids on the swings: a boy who looked about five years old and a little girl, with long dark hair, whom I guessed was about three or four.
“Are you new around here?” I said, a little louder.
The guys were probably laughing their asses off watching me.
The kids on the swings looked in my direction, and the girl turned a moment later, seeming startled to see me. I don’t know how long I looked at her, but for a couple of seconds that’s all I could do. She was beautiful. Brown hair and hazel eyes; piercingly pretty—the kind of pretty that makes your eyes focus hard and your windpipe sort of close.
“Hi,” I wheezed, suddenly needing to clear my throat.
“My name’s Wendell,” I said.
“I’m Hadley Graham.”
“You new around here?”
“Down from Guelph babysitting my cousins.”
The way she looked at me was odd. Like she was concentrating on me. The way she talked was different, too. Like her words were dull around the edges.
“Are you deaf?” I said.
Hadley nodded. “I had encephalitis when I was five. When I got better I couldn’t hear anymore.”
I never heard the word encephalitis before.
She smiled. “It’s OK, though. I know what you’re saying as long as I can see your lips. So, you better mean what you say to me.”
I didn’t go back to my friends that afternoon.
* * *
Hadley’s aunt lived on Cyprus Avenue, a fifteen-minute ride from my house. Hearing the kids’ voices around the back, I walked my bike to the rear gate. There was Hadley on the wide wooden porch, watching her cousins, Jamie and Sarah, splashing in a plastic swimming pool. I startled Hadley, approaching the porch.
“Why did your aunt move from Guelph?”
“She divorced in May,” Hadley said.
At one point she went inside to pour us some iced tea. I remained on the porch, marveling at how long her cousins played in that pool. A few minutes later, Hadley returned with our drinks, and a notebook under her arm.
“Can I tell you something?” she asked.
“I like to write,” she said. “Poems.” She looked at me, watching for my reaction, I guess. “Would you like to see some?”
She handed me the spiral notebook. There was a sunrise on the cover.
On the first page, written in big letters:
After that page:
Poem About Being Bored
I wish I was doing something fun.
A single poem appeared on each page.
Poem While Standing in the Rain Waiting for the Bus
I wish I was somewhere warm & dry.
On the next page:
Poem for a Broken Heart
On the next page:
Poem About Things That Scare Me
On the next page:
Poem About Things That I Like
Being by myself.
I read the whole book.
Being thirteen, I never knew anybody who wrote anything, let alone a whole book of poems. Hadley watched me, waiting for my reaction. I told her what I thought: “These are the best poems I’ve ever read.”
“Better than anything I read at school. These make sense.”
She hugged me.
* * *
One night we rode out to the lake. It had rained earlier and the air was hazy and cool by evening. Reflection of the streetlights shone on the wet roads. A three-quarter moon searched for a way through the clouds.
Riding along Old County Road, toward the lake, listening to the song of the crickets, the wet hum of our tires on the pavement, I wondered if Hadley could remember what it was like to hear. I figured she might and thought about describing the sound of the crickets, how big the sound was—then realized she wouldn’t see my lips in the dark. Thought to tell her later, but the moment had already passed.
Somehow that got me thinking about her poems, delighting in the fact that she would share them with me—feeling a spark of envy that she could write out how she was feeling. After reading the poems I realized I never said anything to anyone outside of saying hello or telling a friend to go to hell. Even with Hadley, I did most of the listening. Yet I had this aching, bursting feeling in my gut, a sense that there was something I wanted to tell her.
I looked at Hadley. She pedaled evenly, watching the road; her hair swept back, waving behind her.
“Hadley,” I said.
She didn’t turn.
“I know you’re leaving at the end of summer.” My throat was tight and I was suddenly nervous. “I’ll miss you bad when you go.”
The words hung there amid the sound of the crickets and the hum of the bike tires. Hadley pedaled and watched the road.
When we approached the lake, I wondered if any older kids were already there. There was nothing worse than riding all that way to find a couple of cars parked at the tree line, and finding the beach full of high school kids, drinking beer, making out; a portable stereo usually on a picnic table blaring the Top 40 radio station. Nights they were there, we’d continue down the road to a narrow clearing where people launched their fishing boats. It wasn’t near as good as the beach, but better than just riding home.
My worries were for nothing: the beach was empty except for the slanted picnic tables, and the barbecue with a dented oil drum beside it.
The air was full of night sounds: the song of the crickets, the lilting call of a loon, squirrels and raccoons running through the bush; the flutter of wings. The air was heavy with the raw, damp odor of the trees and bush and sand and water; the beach was flat and unmarked like new-fallen snow.
It was dark, and though my eyes adjusted to it I figured Hadley couldn’t see my lips. I wondered how we’d talk, and decided it didn’t matter. We left our bikes by some trees, and I slung her beach bag—she packed it with towels and two blankets—over my shoulder and took her hand.
Although the older kids went out there for skinny-dipping, I had no plans of doing that with Hadley. But watching her pull off her t-shirt and step out of her cut-offs, seeing her clad in that bathing suit, sure gave me a stir. I cared about her in so many ways I couldn’t even keep track of—but seeing her in that one-piece bathing suit made me want to kiss her all over.
The lake was warm. The moon found a split in the clouds, and reflected across the water in a brilliant, narrow track. It was strange night-swimming with Hadley. Whenever I went with my friends the lake was filled with whooping and hollering and laughing. But she and I were quiet, though the silence was not empty. We swam to a raft anchored thirty or forty yards from shore. The moon hung balanced between the receding clouds; the air cool on my ears and cheeks; and the soft regular lapping sounds of our movements in the water. The night sounds mingled into one constant hum.
I climbed on the raft first—a wooden platform covered with artificial turf atop a dozen oil drums fastened together—and helped Hadley out of the water. We sat on the edge, breathing deep, shivering; looking at the lights dotting the tree line across the lake.
My chest and back and arms felt taut in the chill air. Hadley glimmered like a mermaid in the moonlight. And I thought, Kiss her.
Glanced at Hadley. She sat in lovely silence.
I couldn’t. Couldn’t bring myself to move.
“Hadley,” I said. She didn’t turn. My pulse thrummed. “I want to kiss you.”
Put a hand on her shoulder. She turned. All I could do was look at her; my heart was pounding so hard.
—and pushed me off the raft.
Heard her call, “Race you back!”
She dove into the water.
I caught her ten yards from shore. Grabbed her ankle. She shrieked, startled, laughing. Pulled her back and plunged ahead. Hadley lunged on my back. We tumbled beneath the water and as we broke the surface, gasping and laughing, Hadley slid into my arms and pressed her lips to mine.
A strange, wonderful feeling shot through me, tracing the length of my back, exploding warm in my cheeks and ears. I had kissed girls before, but this was different. Never wanted it so much. Kissing her lips, cheeks, eyes, forehead, chin; stealing glances of her smooth, placid face; long dark eyelashes, wet hair swept back. Held her close, felt the curve of her hips, ass, legs; the swell of her breasts against my chest.
Finally she opened her eyes, smiling: surprised, expectant. And somehow I was thinking about her poems, wishing I had something to share with her. Felt something stirring, words rising. She could probably have read my lips being that close, but I didn’t know how to say what needed saying. I kissed her instead.
When we got out of the water, we headed into the shadows of the surrounding trees, to towel off and put on dry clothes. I wished everything wasn’t so wet because I would have built a fire. But we did without. Hadley spread a blanket on the sand, folding it so the damp wouldn’t soak through. I sat down. She sat between my legs, facing the water. Wrapped the second blanket over my shoulders and my arms around Hadley.
And it was good. Quiet and peaceful. I kissed the top of Hadley’s head. She squeezed my arm. Then, without really thinking about it, I started singing. I never did anything like that before; my friends would have thought I was crazy, but it seemed natural enough. Sang something I heard as a kid. My father loved soul music, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, and Jackie Wilson. My favorite song was “Ray of Sunshine” by Malcolm Brooks:
I’ve got a girl
Who loves me all the time.
I’ve got a lover
Who knows that she’s mine.
I never sang to anybody before and it felt strange. Felt good.
Hadley turned to look at me. With her back against me she probably felt the rumble of the words in my chest. I kissed her cheek and turned her face away.
My girl’s sweet and
My girl’s fine.
She fills my heart like
A ray of sunshine.
When I finished singing I kissed Hadley. She squeezed my arm.
Then I listened to the night sounds, looked on the lake: the raft resting motionless, tree line surrounding the lake like a dark, uneven wall. The clouds bright against the night sky. The moon slid behind their gauzy veil.
“Hadley,” I said. “I love you.”
She squeezed my arm.
* * *
The day came when Hadley had to leave. I woke that morning, forgetting that Hadley was going home. Rolling over, rubbing my eyes, the realization stabbed into me. Gone. By mid-afternoon she would be gone back to Guelph. Leaned up on one elbow, reached over and pushed the curtain back from my window. Gone. Looking at the empty street below, the sunlight slanting through the trees, I felt it in my bones. Gone. We talked about her leaving; after exchanging addresses there wasn’t much else to say.
“Why can’t you live with your aunt?” I had said, “and go to my school—”
“My family and friends are expecting me back.”
Looked at my clock: nearly nine o’clock. I got up, put on my clothes, and went out to my bike. The air was cool and sodden for the moment, but the temperature would probably climb into in the high eighties by midday. Coasting down the driveway, I thought, This is the last time I’ll ride to Hadley’s aunt’s. There would be no other nights with her at the lake. With every thrust of my legs, pedaling my bike, pieces of our summer lit in my mind, taking the form of Hadley’s poems:
Poem About Walking in the Park with Hadley
I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Poem About Night Swimming with Hadley
I wish we never had to come back.
Poem for Hadley
When I got to Aunt Maeve’s, Jamie answered the door.
Through the hallway, I saw Hadley’s aunt at the stove cooking breakfast, an apron tied around her plump waist.
“Have you eaten yet?” Aunt Maeve said.
Hadley came down the hall.
“I hope you don’t mind—” I began.
Hadley held me. Her face warm against my chest. When she let go I saw her eyes were wide and worried and reddening. “I know,” I said.
She nodded. Then led me into the kitchen.
“Not a good day, is it?” Aunt Maeve said.
“Not a good day,” I said.
* * *
A half-full suitcase lay open on the bed in Hadley’s room. I sat next to it, watching Hadley gather clothes, fold them, and fill the suitcase. I glanced at the clock on the nightstand next to the bed: a few minutes after ten. Less than four hours. A terrible urgency took hold of me; so long as Hadley was in this house something could be done, a way found to make her stay.
We’ll call her folks, I thought. Call them and explain that I, that Aunt Maeve, her cousins need her to stay.
If it were that easy Aunt Maeve would have made that call.
By quarter to eleven Hadley finished packing. Sat next to me; reached over and gripped my hand. Tears stood in her eyes. Rested her head on my shoulder. I put my arm around her. And she cried.
“I don’t want to leave,” she said.
“I don’t want you to,” I said even though she wasn’t looking at me. Again, that torrent of words beat in my chest, pressed against the back of my eyes. Everything I felt for Hadley gathering inside me. Gone.
She rose from the bed, unzipped a duffel bag sitting next to the door. Turned to me with her book of poems. She opened it to an empty page at the back.
“Write something,” she said, handing me the book and a pen.
“Anything,” she said. “Something for me to read on the train.”
Gripping the pen, I looked at the empty page.
“I’ll take this downstairs.” She went out with the duffel bag.
I printed at the top of the page.
Thought for a moment:
I am glad that I met you. I had a lot of fun going to the park with you and your cousins.
No! No! No! That wasn’t it!
Thought to cross it out, but didn’t want to mess up Hadley’s book.
I tried again:
I am going to miss you a lot. I will think about the night we went to the lake when I am at school and bored. I hope you think about me when you get back home and maybe tell your friends about the fun we had.
Read it over and felt sick. Come on, I thought, say it.
My mind thronged with images and words and emotions, but nothing coherent came to the surface. Soon Hadley came back into the room. “Did you write something?”
I signed the message and closed the book. “Tried to,” I said.
“Aunt Maeve made iced tea,” she said. “We can sit on the front porch.”
I carried Hadley’s suitcase downstairs.
“You go outside,” she said. “I’ll bring out the iced tea.”
I sat on the top step, looking at the neighborhood, hearing the sounds of traffic; a lawn mower droning, a radio playing nearby. There was a whole city around me that didn’t care Hadley was leaving.
Hadley came out with the iced tea.
“I’m scared about something,” she said.
“You’re going to be around girls at school . . .” She trailed off. “Girls you can take to movies, go to dances with, go to concerts. . .”
I touched her chin, made sure she was looking at me. “You think I’d prefer other girls just because they can hear?”
“Jesus, Hadley, no,” I said. “What do I want with any other girls? Screw the dances and concerts, I want to be with you.”
“I don’t even really know how to dance.”
“I went to a few last year, but I’m no expert.” I took Hadley’s hand. Went to the center of the porch. Put my arms around her and started humming, moving my feet, turning. Hadley moved with me. My mind cast itself back to the soul songs that once played on my father’s radio: a Malcolm Brooks song, “Star in the Night”:
The moon journeys alone
Searching for a place to lays its head.
And I look to the stars
Thinking of you alone in our bed.
My voice was no louder than a whisper, but something about the words, the memory of the song made it seem like I was singing full-voice; singing so Hadley could hear my meaning.
When things are going wrong
And nothing’s feeling right
You are the star
That guides me through the night.
Hadley held me close; felt her breathing on my neck. The thought that came to me at the lake, came once more: if time is ever going to end it could end right now and I sure wouldn’t argue.
* * *
Two o’clock came.
Against all my wishing the taxi soon pulled in front of the house; the sounds of the neighborhood died away; there was only my breathing, blood pounding, the creak of the stair as Hadley rose from the porch.
“Guess I got to go,” she said. I took her bags to the sidewalk.
The taxi driver opened the trunk. I placed the bags in. “Help her with them at the station. They’re heavy.”
“Sure thing,” the driver said.
I turned to Hadley. She was brave; even managed a little smile.
“I’ll miss you,” she said.
She embraced me. “Don’t forget me.” Then she got into the taxi. She waved through the window as the driver pulled away. I waved back. Gone. The taxi turned at the corner and the sounds of the neighborhood asserted themselves again. Gone. I turned to get my bike and looked up at the house. The front door opened, Aunt Maeve stepped on the porch. “Would you like to come inside?”
I gripped my bike’s handlebars. “Thanks,” I said. “Thanks, but I . . .” and the words melted away.
I pedaled up the sidewalk.
When the tears came, I didn’t stop, didn’t care, continuing through the city, to Old County Road, to the lake; the beach crowded with parents and kids. Rode to the end of the road, to the break in the tree line where people launched fishing boats. There I sat, catching my breath, wiping my eyes.
* * *
School started a few days later.
My friends avoided me, annoyed that I had spent most of the summer with Hadley—I didn’t care, I didn’t feel like being with anybody. The only relief was finding a letter from Hadley when I got home from school. The letter was brief, ending with a poem.
Poem From a Long Ways Away
I miss you.
After reading it half a dozen times, I sat down to write Hadley. There were a number of false starts, tearing sheet after sheet from my tablet of paper, never getting it right, never saying what I wanted to say. I wrote about missing her, how my first day of high school had gone—but it all read like rambling. When I finished I had the grim sense that I missed getting at my point. Put the letter away, planning to rewrite it later.
As the routine of my days blurred into weeks, I saw my friends more often: walking to school, eating lunch in the cafeteria, after school. In October my friend Darryl and I made the freshman basketball team. And Hadley’s letters arrived every few weeks, written in her round, girlish hand on small sheets of stationery with rainbows slanting over the top corner.
I tried writing back, but the frustration of writing around my point only got worse—felt it every time I picked up a pen. So many evenings I wrote long gushing letters, saying how I loved her, missed her, thought about her all the time, but re-reading them I found they said little, read almost like crazed fan letters. So I shoved them into my desk drawer, planning to rewrite them later.
One evening in mid-November I came home from a basketball game to find a letter from Hadley. It read, in part:
I think about our summer all the time. Did it mean more to me than it did to you? I cried when I read what you wrote in my book. You made it sound like we were just pals. Now you won’t even write. . .
She ended the letter in her usual way.
Poem for Wendell
I wish I knew what your voice sounded like when you sang to me.
Considered gathering up my half-finished letters, mailing them, proving I had not forgotten her.
I sat in my bedroom, stinging. What had I done? Nothing—that was Hadley’s point. Wondered how things would be if I answered her letters. Hadley would be in Guelph and I would be here, missing her. Something more than writing had to be done.
I gathered up her letters and my numerous attempts, shoving them into my pockets. It was getting darker early by mid-November. Although my legs were stiff and sore from basketball practice, I rode my bike through the evening-dim avenues toward Old County Road.
It was full dark when I reached the lake. Leaned my bike against a tree, and walked to the tree line. It was difficult searching in the dark—cursing myself for not bringing a flashlight—but I finally found what I needed: a rock. Went to the picnic table, took Hadley’s letters from my pocket; cursed myself again for not planning better before riding all the way out to the lake—I had no string. I wasn’t sidetracked for long, wrapping Hadley’s letters around that hand-sized rock, with my half-finished letters, tying them with the laces from my shoes. And humming a Malcolm Brooks song, I approached the shore, and flung the letter-wrapped stone into the lake.