A beginning

I remember her brown eyes, bright and impish when, in school, she was singing softly over books she should have been reading. I remember the look on her dark, pretty face, half guilty, half devil-may-care.

Her name was Jill, and we were fellow sophomores in high school. She always sat near me, and whenever our eyes met she would smile at me. I was extremely shy, bookish, and innocent about girls. I didn't know that this sitting near me and smiling at me meant she liked me. A boy's heart lives, for a time, in ignorance.

It was she, not I, who took the first risk. She called me after school and asked if I would like to go with her one night to a dance, sponsored by her girls' club, at a big hotel downtown. For a few moments I couldn't speak. Finally I said, ''I can't dance.'' She answered, ''I'll teach you.''

Every day after classes we met in an empty room for dancing lessons. She brought her portable record player and records and the brave willingness of her feet, and I brought embarrassment, mistakes, determination.

At first, when I took her hand and put my arm around her waist, I held her so far away from me it looked as if I were trying to defend myself. Up until then I'd never held anyone; I'd been held, by a mother, a father, a grandmother. It was frightening to hold someone, especially a girl. It was like becoming a king while you were still a boy, being given power before you had wisdom. Little by little I shortened the distance between us, and we moved from slow dances to fast, from stiff to loose.

And then there we were one night, out on the crowded dance floor of the big hotel, ready for the real thing. I don't know what happened to me the moment the band started to play. It was like an attack of stage fright. I forgot everything she'd taught me. I couldn't even move. I just stood there, my mouth frozen in a ludicrous grin. Then suddenly I went to the other extreme. I swept her into my arms with romantic bravado and commenced to do a dance that we'd never practiced and furthermore that nobody else was doing. It was of all things a tango I'd seen in an old movie - so many suave steps this way, spin about, so many suave steps that way. People were getting bumped on all sides, and there were cries to have us removed from the floor. Finally, we were.

I took her home the way I'd brought her, on the bus. In silence we sat. I stared at my shoes, as if at villains that had plotted against me. Only once I found the courage to glance at her, sideways. She smiled at me with a sweet warmth in her eyes, as if to say all beginnings were hard. There was no embarrassment, no blame, not even gentle reproach. When we got to her house she invited me in for a cup of hot chocolate. I made an excuse, and hurried off.

That night I relived my tango in such mortification I covered my head with the pillow. What further proof did I need that I had absolutely no future with girls, and that the only decent thing I could do was disappear back into my books?

And so I did, burying my nose in the old, unaired books of the library. Jill continued to sit near me in class, and her smile remained intact and undaunted. This was her way of encouraging me, of saying that in her eyes I wasn't hopeless , I wasn't a failure after one try, so why should I be in my own? Yet, I was. Encouragement is wasted on a boy who has discovered how much harder it's going to be to get through life than through a book.

One day, Jill came into the library just as I was kissing a book I'd finished , to thank it for its help. The ribbons in her bouncing hair, which always seemed to fly like an escort of bluebirds, suddenly stopped. A melancholy wafted from her face to mine, as if she was accepting some kind of loss. Here was a boy who was ready to kiss a book but not a girl. After that she sat farther away from me, her smile went, and there was a sadness in her eyes.

Weeks, months, years passed. We graduated and went to different colleges. I heard that she got married, and I felt strangely forlorn, as if I'd cared for her more than I'd known. I was like one who wakes with a start from a doze over a beloved book and feels that something is missing in his life.

One evening a year or so into our 20s it happened that we met outside a church where a mutual friend had just gotten married. Clouds hung low in a rainy sky, like big wet sheets strung along a clothesline and dripping.

An umbrella I didn't have, but, tucked under my arm, as always, a book. Smiling wistfully, Jill said, ''Ah David, even here. You and your books. It's a wonder you're not all mossy.'' Then, leaning up and kissing me on the cheek, she whispered, ''Be happy.''

I watched her as she walked away. I knew I would never see her again. For a moment, I almost called her name. Then she was gone.

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