When I was twelve years old, I fell in love.
I was standing in a corner at our new church, near the table where they laid out donuts and coffee for everybody. I looked up, trying in my usual way not to make eye contact with anyone, and my eyes fell upon a creature unlike any I’d ever seen before.
He was striding across the far side of the room, with a donut in his hand that was wrapped in a paper napkin. He smiled easily, greeting somebody along the way. He wore smartly pressed khaki pants, a button down shirt, and a jacket that looked just like what a grown man would wear. He had a sort of Ivy League brown mop of hair, like Hugh Grant in the 90’s.
I would later notice that he had an unusually long torso and short legs, so that they just about met in the middle. Altogether, this only added to his oddly magnetic way of carrying himself—he had such ease and confidence, such an air of ‘I know how to spell facsimile’!
He bounced a little on his heel with every step; his walk was, in fact, inimitable and wholly charming.
I couldn’t stop watching him. I swallowed an entire donut, all except the hole, before I knew what had happened.
After that day, it became slowly clear to me from Sunday to Sunday that he could spell a lot more than ‘facsimile’. He could also answer every conceivable question that arose in the youth group Sunday School class, which I was old enough to get into just a few months later. The teachers would ask a question, wait, and turn to him expectantly; he would grimace his full, privately-educated lips and deliver an answer made out of four-syllable words.
Way to go, Henry! They would all say. The dudes nearby (all the teenage boys were ‘dudes’ to me except for him—ah! Who would ever presume to call him by such a crude term!) would slap him on the back and wait for him to say something else. They giggled. They shoved each other around.
Henry never giggled. He never shoved. He was a paragon of manly virtues.
I learned to keep a close eye on his whereabouts when we were at church. Wandering through the building, trying to look busy, I would take alternate routes in order to cross his path again—never to speak! Only to pretend I didn’t see him and walk on by.
In fact, Henry is the one who first taught me how to intensely pretend not to see somebody. (This is a skill I still utilize, in the lunch line at Subway, or when I meet an old coworker whose name I can’t remember.) For some reason that my young heart could not understand, I wanted him nearby, but I couldn’t begin to imagine what it would be like if the silence was broken. I was terrified that if we spoke—if he, for instance, made a comment about the lesson while we were both sitting in the Sunday school room waiting for others to show up, or if I, by some miracle, asked him what kind of extracurricular activities he was into—that he would notice I was in love with him.
Over the next year or so, our families struck up a kind of friendship. Our mothers seemed to get on well, and I delighted to see it happen—because it seemed to me that our marriage was more likely if the families were already acquainted. Henry being so very much older than myself (he was 15!), I wasn’t sure if they would ultimately approve, but I thought that a family alliance was sure to help the cause along.
One day, the worst/best happened.
My older sister, who was loud and outgoing, had managed to worm her way into a conversation with him more than once. How bold she was! I trembled to watch her. By some miracle, he always seemed to answer her questions most cordially—as if he was just another human individual and not Hermes himself walking among us.
On this particular day, she asked him a few questions, and when I accidentally walked past them a little too close, she turned towards me and called out, “Henry is going to be in a play.” He leaned his long-torsoed body back against the doorway and turned towards me as well, to the point that it was nearly impossible to pretend he was made of anything less than substantial material, visible to the naked eye.
I was caught. I was about to be forced into the admission that I was aware of the existence of a boy who had been in Sunday School with me for over a year. I almost said ‘Who?’ but my quick mind soon apprehended that he since he was standing right there, even a dummy should be able to infer that he was the Henry in question.
“Really?” I said, smiling. I looked at him politely, though perhaps a little intensely.
“Yeah” he said. He grimaced his fat lips in the usual way. This was fine, except that it was an angle I wasn’t used to—he was facing me, talking to me as I’d often seen him do with others—and it was almost overwhelming. THAT’S what his face looked like from the front? My knees almost audibly knocked together.
“Where?” I said.
“School,” he said, grimacing. He shook his flop of hair to the side then, exactly like Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral.
“Cool,” said I. Even my natural humility couldn’t hide it from me: I was doing a really great job here. He probably was wishing he could know more about me. He might have already noticed the blue skirt I had on (picked out, always, with him in mind); if not, he surely would in just a few more seconds of real-life-conversation.
Unfortunately—maybe before he could even notice the new skirt—he gave a little half smile and swaggered away from us. I stood there watching him go, and could feel my ankles itching with joy. He must have known who I was, to talk with me like that. Perhaps he even knew my name.
A few months after that, I’d started up a sort of friendship with his younger sister, who was all limbs and freckles and seemed to adore him. She also must have quickly picked up on the fact that I listened to her best when she talked about him, because she obliged me. She chattered incessantly about everything from his girlfriend to his room to the way he’d been recently grounded for something or other (Injustice! Thy name is Henry’s father!).
One time, probably six months after the conversation about the play, Henry wandered up to the two of us while we were talking. He must have overheard something, because came out with a grin and a “What is she telling you about me?”
“Nothing important,” I said. My diaphragm instantly sagged with the weight of this flirtatious move.
“Well, don’t believe all of it,” he said, and I think he gave her a head scratch or something else quite brotherly and adorable. My heart sang, and I felt certain that he would make a good father.
A few years afterwards, we changed churches and he went away to school, although I still got snatches of news from the family. The last time I saw him, I was a college student selling perfume in the mall and he and his sister came by.
His hair was still gorgeously brown and floppy, but I wondered, did he always grimace like that?
Also, I don’t remember his torso being quite so long in relation to his legs…?