The Poet And The Girl
I walked out of my room to what sounded like a man giving birth. My dad was on the floor, arms extended, his gold St. Christopher necklace dangling from his neck as he dipped down for one last pushup. He pushed away from the floor, letting out one last Lamaze breath before collapsing and rolling to his side. A look of triumph spread across his stubbly face.
“Hey Tommy.” He gasped.
I’m named after Tom Glavine, the great pitcher for the Atlanta Braves and the MVP of the 1995 World Series. While my dad had passed down his deep set brown eyes, curly brown hair, and his crawling metabolism, his love of sports was lost in the mix.
“Mom at work?”
“Yeah.” His workout complete, he jumped into the couch with a thud. “And I’ve got an interview this afternoon.”
He was let go over a year ago when the Goodyear plant shut down. The severance was long gone and the last unemployment check had been cashed. Things were tense between them but I tried to remain neutral. I still had three years before college.
“She still mad?”
“We’re okay.” He said, turning up the volume on Sportscenter. I glanced at the fist sized hole in the wall. Yeah dad, we're just fine....
I ate a bowl of Cheerios and then stepped outside. It was still early, the sunshine angled across the house on the porch, golden and hopeful in its climb. I checked my phone,
Leigh was perched on the park swing with one hand clutching the chain and the other holding a book. Her hair fell onto her shoulders as she swayed, her feet dragging in the sand.
She held up a hand, her eyes scurrying across a page in Gone Girl before she shut the book with a thump.
“Okay, I’m never getting married.”
She stood up. She was a few inches taller than I was, with smooth caramel skin and unforgettable green eyes. Lately I had found it hard not to stare at her, and if pressed, I was unsure if I could explain what exactly it was that I felt. We had known each other since the fifth grade, and now, the summer before our eleventh, I cherished our friendship but admired her legs.
“One more month until I get my license.”
“And then I can hitch a ride to school?”
“If you’re lucky.” She nodded, bedazzling me with her gum-commercial smile. We walked towards the wall of trees, the grass along the pavement still drenched with the night’s moisture.
“So what’s up with you today, you look a little down.”
“My mom and dad are fighting over money. My dad can’t find work. By find I mean look and by can’t I mean won’t.”
We climbed down the narrow trail that clung to the hill, wrapping around the large oaks and sugar maples that lined the bluff. She led and I watched, jerking my head to attention whenever she spun around to ask me about a tv show or movie.
At the clearing, we stepped over the exposed tree roots--arm sized in width, like railings down to the rocks overlooking the vast landscape. We took our seats on the rock, staring out at the scene as a chickadee squeaked overhead. The mountains spanned the canvas of the sky, where before us the trestle stretched across the river, swallowed by the copious mounds of green on the ridge. It was our own private spot, although judging from the cigarette butts and trash left behind it wasn’t so private.
After a moment she turned to me. “Oh, I got that job, lifeguarding at the pool. I start training tomorrow.”
“You’re a lifeguard?”
“I took a class. I told you that.”
Images of her in a bathing suit assailed my thoughts, and then I began to worry she could see what I was seeing. “That’s right, you did.”
She rolled her eyes, laughing. I breathed. The morning was still but we were too young to enjoy the calm. We listened for a train. It was two weeks into summer break and our fifth visit to the trestle, a tradition I feared would be forgotten by her impending pool duties. We had narrowly missed one two nights ago, running down the trail as we heard the rhythmic wrenching of steel. We had jumped down to the cliff only to find the trestle clear and level over the setting sun, the jostling of the train cars vanishing into the trees.
“So what’s your dad going to do?
“I don’t know.”
“I can ask my stepdad if they have anything at the dealership if you want?”
I shrugged; a job would interfere with my dad’s baseball podcasts. Once a week, him and a buddy got together to discuss trending sports topics over beers. He researched like mad for these little broadcasts and had dreams of going viral. I had to give it to him, he didn’t lack passion.
“Hey, do you want to go to a movie tonight? Gatsby is at the dollar theatre.”
“Can’t tonight, I’m going to a party.”
I nodded, reminding myself that she had endless options, that I should enjoy these early summer mornings while they lasted. The job, the license, her fledgling beauty; our little meetings could never overcome such obstructions.
“But maybe this weekend.” She said, restoring my hope.
“Sure, no big deal.”
My dad was gone by the time mom clambered into the house that afternoon, hoisting two plastic bags of groceries on the counter.
“Hey sweetie, how was your day?”
I shrugged. She was still wearing her hairnet, required at her job in the deli at Kroger’s. I pointed to my head.
“Oh.” She unwrapped the net and tossed it in the trash.
“Hey mom, I’ll be able to get my learner’s permit this fall right?”
“We’ll see. Hopefully we’ll still have a car.”
I got along with both my parents, but naturally I was closer to my mom. My dad, for all his faults meant well, but I knew he was disappointed that I couldn’t throw a fastball or wasn’t on the football team. My mom read a few of my stories and had encouraged my writing, even bringing home composition books that smelled of ham.
Their constant bickering had escalated to fighting, and I couldn’t deal with it. I tried to imagine the two of them doing anything together without an argument. My dad had never been violent towards her or anything, but the walls in the apartment would certainly need therapy.
I thought about Leigh’s dad. A job would help, but I’m not sure it would fix things between them.
“Have you written anything lately?” My mom asked from across the table, a rotisserie chicken, fresh out of the bag sat between us.
“Uh, nothing really.”
She arched a brow, her lips twisting into the smile that made me squirm until she let me off the hook.
“Don’t forget about the writing group at the library, it starts tomorrow. Is that something you still want to do?”
I nodded, my mouth full of rice. My mother had a knack for finding anything free. If there was a free program, service, or subscription, she could find it. We once went four months with free cable in part to my mother’s maneuvering (see haggling) with the promotional department until my dad decided he wanted the NFL package—four easy installments of $59.95. Now we had an antenna.
Where my mom was constantly trying to find ways to save, my father found ways to spend. She worked, he played. I knew she had stayed with him for me, but how long would it last? I was 15.
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Mom faded fast after dinner. I loped back to the park, into the trails and back to the overlook. My writing nest. The sun dipped behind the mountains under creamy smudges of clouds. As the cicadas churned in trees I wrote what came to mind, or rather what never left my mind. She danced through my desires, her eyes flickering to life by the words of my pen. I spent my days bemused by her smile and my evenings filling my notebook with streaks of tormented scrawl. Between our mornings together, I dreamed of the next, when I would see her bare shoulders and finish memorizing each freckle. She was no longer my best friend, she was—
I spun around to find Leigh climbing down to the ledge, her long legs smooth and graceful in their descent.
“Hey, I uh…I thought you were going to that party?”
She wiped a strand of hair from her face. “Yeah, I wasn’t really in the mood for a party.
Her voice was different, lower. She looked down at my notebook. Words like angelic, stunning, sweet, were damaging enough, but in the middle of the page, in plain view, was the name Leigh.
Just moments ago I was a whirl of prose, unable to transcribe the flowing words from my hand to the page in time to stop the flooding in my head. Now she stood in front of me as though summoned by my pen, but the words failed me.
She leaned forward, tilting her head as her lips pressed against mine. Soft and warm, the shock of my first kiss turned to craving. I kissed her slowly, tasting a hint of cinnamon on her lips. Her hand touched my cheek, and I dropped my pad as my arms embraced what was described in its contents.
The sounds of nature dissipated, I heard only the swooshing of impulses. I felt warm breaths on my face. Time passed, seconds into minutes, we kissed as the churning grew louder. My mind became lost as I was eager and nervous; breathing drifts of flowery trails from her hair. The rushing continued, surging waves of powerful motion.
We jumped apart as the horn pierced the silence, ricocheting off of the cliff below. We turned to find a train passing across our trestle. Shifting under the weight, the bolts and rivets shook as steel and rail vibrated with each car. I watched her watch the train. Her face was alive with wonder as her eyes followed the motion. We stood in silence, our hands clasped together until the blinking light of the last car vanished into the trees, leaving us again in silence.
Her eyes fell to the ground where my composition book lay spilled open in the dirt and rock. My pages lay exposed and telling.
“What were you writing about?”
I smiled. A girl.”
We hiked up the trail as dusk set on the park where we sat close in the gazebo near the playground. A couple of cars sat in the parking lot, the music pulsing into the twilight air. I kissed her again before she pulled away, her eyes aglow with curiosity.
“Will you read it to me?”
I shook my head, beginning to blush. She put her hand on my arm.
She had forgone a night with popular kids to watch the train with me. I thought of those kids with employed fathers and mothers who didn’t wear hairnets to work. Soon her nights would be spent with tall kids with muscular arms, kids confident in their futures and plans. All I had to offer lay in the worn pages of my notebook. I took a breath and opened my wrinkled confession, spilling my secrets to the girl whose eyes made my heart stutter.
We traded secrets in the dark. Laughing and kissing until we arrived at the entrance of the park, near the historic homes with wrought iron fencing and trimmed lawns. Cars swished by as we walked under the streetlight, her sandals clicked on the sidewalk as she stopped in front of her house and turned to me.
“We finally saw our train.”
“Well, I’d better go, I’ve got swimming tomorrow. She ran a finger along my hand that was clutching my notebook. “Thank you for reading it to me, it was sweet.”
I shuffled, dumbstruck by her smile.
I started home, dizzy and weak from the night’s adventure. At my house, I found my dad watching a ball game with my mother fast asleep at his side. Maybe there was hope after all. I snuck back to my room and crashed on my bed, staring at the shadows on the ceiling as I tried to capture the words floating through the haze in my head. My face hurt from smiling. I was young and naïve and setting myself up for heartbreak. But I’d always have that summer night.