I was fifteen. When I think back on it now I need to remind myself that I was an actual child, sleeping at night in my pink bedroom, writing in a secret journal with a lock on it, teddy bears arranged on my bed. And what the heck, I have to ask myself, could a fifteen-year-old child know about love? I know the answer now, and it is this: depending on how you look at it, either nothing or everything. And anyone who has loved with the blinding purity of youth knows that those are almost the same thing.
It is summer, still school holidays, and we are in camp with our youth group. We have been sleeping in tents, playing volleyball, standing in queues with our plates for great servings of mushy spaghetti and chocolate instant pudding. We play silly games, sing songs and listen to talks. It is the nineties; we have no phones and we have left our Walkmans and Bon Jovi tapes at home. There is a war happening half the world away in Iraq – someone has a radio and we sit around listening to live updates, thinking that we should care more than we do. But we are kids and it is the summer holidays. Life is on hold. We are with our friends all day, no parents or teachers or annoying younger siblings, just a small group of leaders responsible for us. Our leaders are nothing like parents. They are young, mostly students. Some are married, some have jobs, some are strict but most are not. They play Billy Joel songs on their guitars and teach us card games and tell us dumb jokes as we lie on mattresses under the stars.
He is one of them. He has blonde curls and a wiry body, and blue eyes that make me blush when he smiles at me. He loves poetry and music and the jokes he tells are so bad they are hilarious. He is ten years older than I am. I do the maths in my head, over and over, because of course I know his birthday. It isn’t even quite ten years, I tell myself. When I turn eighteen he will be twenty-seven and a half. That isn’t so old, is it? Too old? For now, yes, but not always. People grow up. I will grow up. And when I do I will still love him. There is no doubt of that in my mind at all. I watch him from a distance, absorbing, admiring, staring probably. My friends notice and tease me. I blush and cover my head with my sleeping bag.
Somehow, he has singled me out. He gives me hugs. Where’s my morning hug, he asks, as my gang of sleepy-eyed friends and I turn up for breakfast. I step into his arms, hold him tight, and step back full of something new, something grown-up. Over cornflakes, over guitar chords, over a volleyball net, I meet his eyes, so startlingly blue, and he smiles at me. It is new, this being noticed. None of the boys my age ever, ever smile at me like that. I might as well be invisible to them. I don’t know if he knows it, but when he smiles at me he grows me. I am a child, but there is inside me a tiny furled-up seedling of a woman waiting to bloom.
We are walking to the waterfall pool one afternoon, towels around our waists, our flip-flops too thin on our feet over the rough path through the forest. The trees are tall, the light green and dappled. He catches up to me and my friends and begins to talk to me. And before I know what has happened my friends are gone and we are alone, balancing on stones over the stream. And he is holding my hand, leading me across the water, and when we reach the other side he doesn’t let go.
There are moments in my life, many I suppose, that are something like that moment was — moments that I have turned over in my mind so many times that I wonder sometimes if I have not altered them with remembering. It is beautiful, and strange, and terrifying. It is a vindication, in a way. I have not, after all, imagined that there is something. There is something! I am not so innocent that I do not know that it is all stupidly impossible. I know that this is not what it could be if he were one of the sixteen-year-old guys back at camp, downing liters of cooldrink and making fart jokes. I know. But here we are; he is holding my hand, and that seedling is unfurling, reaching upwards for sun and warmth and light.
I hold up our hands and shyly, I ask him. I ask him what it means. And although he answers me, I think he would probably rather have said nothing. If I had not asked, I imagine he would have let go at some point, thrown a few smiles my way, and we would have parted inconsequentially. I would have stared up at the stars that night and wondered if I had imagined it. But I ask, and he must answer.
I don’t know, he says. It means... that you are a lovely girl. But you are so young. Maybe, in a few years. He says it tenderly, as if it makes him a little sad. He is not apologetic. He is not passionate. Only affectionate. And he lets go.
We walk on. The path is narrow and he walks ahead, silent now. We reach the pool and he strips off his shirt, swimming strongly to the other side where a waterfall crashes down into the amber-colored water. I feel strangely numb, unable to process what has happened. I take off my shorts, suddenly shy, suddenly acutely aware that there is no one here but us. I swim a little, in the shallows, but he climbs up onto the rocks beneath the falls and stands there, bent over, water pounding onto his back. We say little on the way back. I am happy, I think. I am overwhelmed, I am sad, I am confused. I wish I was older, but at the same time, I am happy to be me, the me whose hand was held for a moment, in the green forest light. The me who, to those blue eyes, is beautiful.
I tell no one. I hold it all inside, unable to put into words what it all means. There are still hugs, there are still compliments, but I am still fifteen and there is still the long expanse of those years between us. The rosy glow around him fades a little and I suspect, for the first time, that although he is wonderful he hasn’t been entirely wise. Later, at home, I write a poem, and it helps to admit that I think he might have stepped out of line. Months pass, I see him sometimes and I hear he is moving away, overseas. A longing grows in me, for what exactly, I have no idea at all. He is leaving and I am sad about the future that will not happen. I feel stupidly young, but I know I love him, and if he goes away – when I am finally an adult, he will be gone. There is another conversation, a subtle confession of possible feelings, another mention of the barrier of my youth. It thrills me so hard I can’t eat for days. It changes nothing; I am still a schoolgirl and he is still a grown man. Later, I realize people must have noticed something, my doe eyes, perhaps. Maybe someone overheard incriminating words or picked up a rumor and called him out. He had to say something. He had to tell me where I stood, to manage my expectations, but by the end of it, all he has done is fan a flame.
I want to grow up so badly, but life fills up with more than memories of absent men. And when I do, when years have passed, I find that my treasure has faded. Childhood can gild iron; it can turn a cottage into a palace, a stick into a sword, a pauper into a prince. I am an adult when I travel overseas and I can see him again. He stands on a station platform, hands in his pockets, waiting for me in the cold, and as I step off the train and he holds out his arms for a hug I feel no longing, only a different love, the remains of a love that feel more like sadness than anything else. He is smaller, paler, tired lines of pain around his eyes. There are apologies over tea and scones, the good old wisdom of hindsight, and forgiveness feels unnecessary. There is grey at his temples, and the ten years, I realize, are still a vast distance between us.
Later, the train takes me away again, and something tells me that it is the end; I won’t see him again. I lean back on the seat as I travel away, hurtling towards the rest of my life, and even now there is a pang of loss. To leave him behind is to lose one person to whom I am something a little more than ordinary. I close my eyes against the burning behind them, cradling a memory of green light, dappled on our joined hands.