CW: Harsh language including homophobic slurs
I was eight years old the first time I kissed Winnifred. We were in one of those covered tubes on the playground, the hard plastic rife with static electricity. It was warm, and mostly dark, the sun muted through the bright orange of the tube.
And it just seemed like the right thing to do. Winnifred was going by a different name at the time, and she seemed to all the world a strange, shy little boy. I could sense something different about her, though. Even under the layers of confusion and repression, there was a faint glow from within that few could detect.
I don’t remember exactly what led to it. A dare, maybe. All of a sudden, though, I was pressing my lips to hers. Our glasses clinked together, and then the world seemed to stand still for a moment. I don’t know exactly how long it was, but I remember shame burning my face as I pulled away, and then evaporating when I saw her smile.
The next time we saw each other we talked around it, sinking into our old routine. We talked about race cars and cartoons and whatever other bullshit we liked at the time. It was easier not to acknowledge what had happened, what it meant to us. I was glad we didn’t discuss it, because often when I recalled it, lying in bed at night, I became consumed by an unbearable anxiety that I was gay, and that acknowledging that it had happened would make me gay.
Stupid, I know, but we were kids. Anyway, the weeks rolled on afterwards, and nothing else really came of it for a while. Sometimes I almost felt I had dreamt it, but every so often I would see that wide smile of hers and I would remember.
I moved away when I was twelve, and in the era before computers it was difficult to keep in touch. It was admirable how much we were able to talk on the phone in those days, even as the years went by and we grew apart.
I remember her burgeoning anger, the sense that something was deeply wrong with the world that came out when she would start ranting. I didn’t share it, exactly, and I knew as a teenager that things were unjust, in some ways, but I just didn’t feel that agitation the same way as her. I guess it makes sense why Winnifred felt that way, why she struggled with certain things.
I remember one of those times that she was ranting, raving about some shit she saw or read and how it affected her, and I was just hit by a flash of irritation, maybe fifteen years old, tired and cranky.
I sarcastically said that I didn’t know what she meant, that I wasn’t like her. I wasn’t a jock or anything, but it had never been difficult in the same way for me as her. I didn’t struggle with pool parties, with locker rooms, with having my photograph taken. I wanted to distance myself from her, from that difficulty.
And I remember how she paused, after I snapped at her. And that pause stretched out between us, radiating along the telephone lines, and it felt like our whole relationship was riding on that pause.
And then she spoke to me, voice low, near a whisper.
“Do you remember when we kissed?”
It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, the way she said it. It made me feel different, like some spell of silence had been shattered, like I could no longer ignore something I had tried to for a long time.
I was too shocked to lie, or to play it off. Even as a little teenage dirtbag I knew, somehow, how important this was to her, and how important she was to me.
“Yes.” I replied. The fear, suddenly, hitting me that my mother was listening in on the line.
And I could hear her smile over the telephone. It made me feel strange, like I didn’t know what I wanted.
“I think you might be kind of like me, after all.” And she hung up. And she left me all alone with nothing but my questions and my strange, strange desire for a girl who hadn’t materialized yet, with my frustration and confusion and too little insight.
And we didn’t talk for a while after that.
The next time I saw Winnifred was college. Well, for me it was college. She was doing something else.
I remember how strange it was to see her at that party, a beer bottle in her hands, hoops in her ears, leaning against the wall. I literally did a double take as I walked by, recognizing her, sort of, needing another look.
I looked very much the same at twenty-one as I had as a teenager, maybe taller, slightly less acne, maybe more of a sense of style. Winnifred looked very different, though.
There were still obvious traces of that punk rock sensibility, in the piercings, the dyed hair, the take-no-shit look on her face. Everything else was different. She was dressed slutty, perfect for the stupid fucking frat party, shirt small to bare her pale midriff. The skirt was short, with fishnets down her legs.
She looked good. I don’t know how far along she was on hormones but it was early, she didn’t have the curves that would come later, but she definitely looked good.
She wasn’t smiling, then, but I still couldn’t help but think of that smile from when we were eight years old. I remember sidling up like it was no big deal and projecting a cool confidence that I did not feel at all.
Winnifred looked up at me and then away.
“Hey.” I ventured. I remembered the last time we’d spoken. I didn’t know how to address it.
“Hey.” She said back. We stood there for a moment, me getting my bearings, taking a drink.
“It’s good to see you.” I said.
“You too.” She replied.
There was a beat of silence, the gears turning in my head.
“I’m sorry we haven’t talked in a while.” I said.
“Me too.” Another pause. “I missed you.”
Somehow my hand found hers. I remember the hope in her eyes when we looked at each other, the question hanging on the air.
I kissed her. It wasn’t like when we were eight this time. There was this heat between us, this long-awaited sense of significance to it. Her lips were soft and her skin was smooth under my hands and I pinned her to the wall and we didn’t stop for a long time.
The rush of cool night air after the warm, crowded party was a welcome respite. Winnifred brought me back to her place, not far, a shithole, but we didn’t give a fuck at the time. All we needed was each other. I wasn’t questioning if it made me gay or not, for the moment. I just wanted her.
There wasn’t much conversation that night. We had a different outlet. We were grown enough to know what we wanted from each other, but not wise enough yet to try and figure out where it was going. It was perfect.
The morning after was more difficult. I wasn’t over my feelings for her, my confusion, the way that the early morning sunshine glinted off the faint stubble that had grown in the night. I was hungover and struggling with what this meant for me, whether I could bear the shame of others finding out what we’d done.
We were in the cold light of day, now. I didn’t want to be a faggot.
I tried to steal away, knocked something over, saw her stirring.
When Winnifred awoke, I couldn’t bear the recognition in her eyes. She knew I was a coward. I stammered some excuse to her. I broke her heart.
And then I left.
The next time we ran into each other I was married. It had been a long time. I still thought of her, even as the years rolled by, thinking of that night we’d shared. And of how I left her. I didn’t tell anyone about it. My wife didn’t know.
I loved my wife, but we were in a bit of a rough patch. And then I saw Winnifred again, shopping at the same store as me.
She looked so different. No longer fresh from the difficulty of adolescent masculinity, not as young, but with decades of womanhood enfolding her like she was made for it.
Which I suppose she was. Anyway.
I didn’t know where to start. I felt vastly less cool than I had at that party, trying to get in her eye line, trying to still my pounding heart.
It was her turn to do the double take. I met her eyes, acted surprised, saw a faint glimmer of something behind the polite smile.
We tried to catch up in that surface level way you do when you’re at the grocery store, surrounded by strangers. You know, how you been, what do you do for a living, and so on.
In an awkward silence after the casual catch up, desperation seized me. Somehow, I heard myself apologize.
“You know, I don’t feel good about how I left things.” I said. “I wish we’d talked more, at least.”
She smiled again, in the same way she always had. She was here decades later, in another life, and still I felt the static electricity like we were back in the playground. It’s stupid, I know, but if she’d asked me to, right then, I would have gone with her.
I would have chosen her over the woman back at home, the one I’d had arguments and difficulties with, the one with whom the daily grind had become so difficult, the one that I’d pledged my love to.
Part of me is grateful Winnifred didn’t ask that of me.
“Water under the bridge.” She said, “Though I appreciate you saying so.”
I don’t know if she knew how invested I was in that conversation. All I know is that she patted me on the shoulder and left me once more.
The next time we met was when I sought her out. Freshly divorced, free from the drudgery of the failing marriage, undergoing something like a midlife crisis, I came to her home.
I had looked her up and found her, not far from where we’d met last. The last few years had done their best to beat the hopeless romantic from me, but under it all I still felt the golden glimmer of that night we’d had.
So I took a shot. I walked up to Winnifred’s door and I knocked on it and I stood there waiting with flowers in my hand.
I was committed to the cliche, you see. I almost wanted it to be raining, just so we could have that movie moment.
Another woman opened the door.
Face lined, light brown skin, curly natural hair. Wearing a dress and a cardigan, pretty in a very down-to-earth way. She looked perplexed to find me there.
“Can I help you?” She asked.
“Um, well, maybe.” I replied, “Is Winnifred there?”
The woman at the door seemed to size me up in an instant. Amusement bloomed in her brown eyes. Pity, too.
“Hun, there’s someone at the door for you!” She yelled into the house.
I felt like a complete fucking idiot, like a character from a rom com who had taken his wild leap of faith and landed hard on the concrete in the real world. In the real world, what I’d done wasn’t cute or sweet. In fact, it was somewhat concerning.
She was nice about it, at least. I tried to play it off like it was no big deal, but I was holding flowers at her doorstep so I had kind of lost that battle from the jump.
She invited me in to catch up, and sheer awkwardness stopped me from doing so. We talked and it was extremely bittersweet but she humored me and I gave her the flowers.
She gave me her phone number. That was something. She said she’d be interested in being friends. I nodded dumbly, kicking myself. And then I left.
I drove home to my empty house and felt the last bit of hope drain out of me on the way home.
The best part of that last meeting, which was one of the more embarrassing moments of my life, was that we actually did kind of keep in touch.
We’re older now. She’s still beautiful, but we don’t really have the same heat we did back then. I’m sure she knows how I feel about her, that she has me waiting in the wings for her if things don’t work out with her wife.
I tried dating for a while, but it didn’t agree with me. As stupid as it sounds, I kept thinking about Winnifred’s smile.
There’s been some light flirting. I’m sure she doesn’t mean much by it.
Still, I would like to give it a try. After all these years, it would mean a lot to me.
But I made the last move, and it went pretty badly. Now the ball’s in her court.
I hope we get our shot together. Someday.