an essay from the archives…
I am sixteen. I am a Catholic Air Force brat transplanted to the suburb of Alta Sierra. My parents have warned me that nearby Nevada City is a town full of dangerous artists and homosexuals.
I write for the high school paper, and start staring at the editor. He’s a senior. His name is Wendell. Wire rimmed glasses, crazy curly black hair, disheveled, absent-minded. Surely a future professor. One day he tells me where he lives. Downtown Nevada City. Pretty much by himself he says, his mother checks in twice a week or so. He works at a restaurant and eats there.
Soon, I am in love. I sneak away from high school dances to his waiting car, a dilapidated Chevy Vega that starts almost half the time. I stare and stare into his brown eyes and, unlike any boy I’ve ever met, there is something there besides a drooly kind of lust staring back at me.
He brings me to Nevada City. We walk around town, and he says hi to almost everyone. Silently I try to identify dangerous artists and homosexuals, but am wise enough not to ask for his help. He points out the local bar that he says, in its apathy, will actually serve him a beer even though he’s 17. We walk up to his house on East Broad. It’s just like the college pads I’ll come to know in a year or two. Rock posters, splotches of paint on the floor, records and books everywhere.
It is there that he teaches me. About Donovan, Dylan, The Byrds, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie. Peter, Paul, and Mary, he says, are not worth listening to–didn’t do much more than bad covers of Dylan songs, he says. I write it all down in my mind, these dangerous new names–already decades into folk and rock history. I’ve never heard of them. Years later I spout off his truths in college, and am shocked that people disagree with me.
He teaches me about poetry. Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Ginsberg. I’d never heard of beatniks. It was years later before I realized the significance of Wendell so often dressing in black.
Soon it is spring, and this boy has fused with my every waking thought. I start to dress in sandals and flowing sundresses I buy in thrift stores. My parents watch with stone faces, waiting for me to cross a line they’ve drawn for me but none of us has mentioned. My brother keeps repeating the name “Wendell” in a fake whiny voice while he motions with a limp wrist. Every day I am farther from them until one day they cannot reach me.
Wendell drives me to the river, something I’ve heard of but never gone to. Like downtown Nevada City, my parents have categorized it as dangerous.
We lie in the spring sunshine, for a while watching his best friend Danny act stupid on the rocks. Danny rock hops out of sight eventually, and we lie all the way back onto the huge rock beneath the bridge. I rest my head in the curve of Wendell’s bicep and shoulder. It is the first time I’ve found that nesting position , but I recognize it right away as a place I belong.
I think there, eyes closed, for a long time. About Donovan, Ginsberg, dangerous men and dangerous towns. I smell in the spring air something I won’t define for years. I smell myself growing.
“Are you asleep?” Wendell asks, and I am so close to sleep I don’t answer, although I hear. He waits a moment, then tilts his head up so that his mouth is right next to my ear. When I still don’t answer he takes a breath, and says as softly as possible: “I love you.” He kisses my head just above my ear, and rests his head again on the warm granite.
I feel the adrenaline, my heart rate. So this is it, I think. This is life. I breathe deeply, let the spring sun lull me to sleep.