Love Letters on Wing

WHEN I was 9, I wore my hair in two long braids and curled my bangs every night on one pink foam roller. When I look at pictures from that year, I can't help thinking I look like I'm balancing a roll of sausage on my forehead.

My fourth-grade teacher Miss Kordic read stories aloud every day. We'd bunch together in a small corner that she set up as a library. Shoulder to shoulder, limbs woven under and over each other, we listened to stories of badgers, salmon, and native Americans. Polliwogs and fish matured in aquariums set up around the room. It was not beyond Miss Kordic to stop everything and encourage us to look out the window at the swallows swooping in the air like kites in a heavy wind.

Her boyfriend would occasionally come to the door of our classroom to bring her lunch or perhaps just to say hello. I was as fascinated by this relationship as I was by the fact that salmon always returned home to spawn. The color change in her cheeks when she heard that knock on the door was as interesting as what happened to the body of a fish when it began to molt.

This was the year I received my first love letter. It came in the form of a paper airplane sailing onto my desk. I unfolded the careful creases and looked for a note, but found only a drawing of a sleek aircraft. Ruler-straight lines defined the body. No eraser smudge or fingerprints stained the paper; it was obviously from someone with clean hands, a rare commodity in a fourth-grade classroom.

At recess, I studied the familiar faces of my classmates. After all, the note could be from anyone. I eliminated most of my friends, boys and girls, who I knew to be more interested in bicycles than airplanes. "I know who sent it," said my friend Lynn, "that new kid, the boy who sits in the back row." She tipped her head back in the general direction of the coat hooks. "You know, I think his name is Simpson or Simon or something like that." She told me she saw him fly the note off.

For the rest of the year almost daily, carefully crafted flying machines, intricate in design, landed on the small runway of my desk. As far as I remember, Miss Kordic never found out, though she might have been observing this phenomenon as one of the mysteries of human behavior.

Someone told me once that in the beginning of any new relationship, a lot of the communication is nonverbal. You couldn't get any more nonverbal than Simon. I don't remember him speaking one word to me or anyone else. And I became strangely tongue-tied when we brushed by each other on the way to recess. I couldn't even squeak out "excuse me" when I bumped into him at the drinking fountain.

We spent the remainder of fourth grade that way; me blushing when I passed him in the room, and he launching planes and looking the other direction when I caught his eye. I learned a lot about romance that year.

I had no expectations. It seemed to be enough that someone cared about me in a special way. At the end of the year, when Simon moved, I didn't feel particularly sad. I don't remember wishing he would say something, and I can't recall him saying goodbye.

When other people recount their "first love" stories, complete with "he said" or "she said" and then "I said," I think of the boy with curly hair and a bunch of freckles splattered across his nose. I think how nice it was to have a friend who didn't expect me to be anything other than a fourth-grade girl with a sausage roll on her forehead. And I was content to receive just who he was; a boy who loved to draw, who was nice to people and didn't say much.

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