On my side, I’d stretched across one of the war memorials on the parade ground. When I’d arrived, the stone had been warm from the fall afternoon, but now it was dusk, and colder. My Walkman played something earnest, and I’d decided to go inside when I heard my name called. I slid my headphones off.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Are you posing?” he repeated.
I laughed at the ludicrousness of posing in my cross-country sweats and slid off the stone memorial. He was half the field away from me, and hurrying. I had time to notice that he wasn’t dressed like a bible salesman anymore. He wore red Converse, jeans, a letterman jacket for Monmouth Regional High School. What had he lettered in? I’d have to ask his brother, Mark, who rode the bus to middle school with me.
“Aren’t you cold?” He’d arrived at my side, and promptly threw an arm over my shoulder.
“A little,” I admitted.
He grabbed my Walkman and tried to see the tape inside. “What are you listening to? Please say it isn’t metal.”
His dark hair fell in his eyes now. That was new too. He was taller than the last time I’d seen him. Mark had told me his brother was in a band.
“It isn’t metal,” I said. He had a soccer pin on his jacket. I’d forgotten he played varsity soccer.
“What kind of music do you like?” he asked.
He still had his arm around me, and began to walk us back toward the officers’ housing. He talked about punk bands. Here, as the night fell, over tidy Army streets where the rest of the boys wore Megadeth and Metallica t-shirts.
“Do you know the Cure?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, “Just Like Heaven.”
“That’s right.” He smiled at me. “I’ll make you a tape. Everything good. But especially the Cure.”
When had he gotten so cute? We used to play manhunt in the summer. Hide-and-seek with teams. And when he brought his friends, they were always huge boys, football-player sized, but sweet. One of them went over all the cyclone fences face first like a Ranger.
We stood in the trees, talking. The night draped over us. Where had he come from? In the parade field on a school night? Where were all the other kids? I looked around. The lights in our quarters were on. I could see my mother setting the table. Late. I was late.
And then he kissed me. Leaned over, not touching me, except gently on the lips. I looked up and he assured me he’d make me a tape. “The Cure,” he said again. “You’ll love it.”
And then he was gone. And I felt conscious for the first time. Certain. A girl in middle school sweats, holding her Walkman with a discreet piece of electrical tape on the back where I’d cracked it. A girl in the trees, late for dinner.
He didn’t give me a tape until the next spring. He came out the back door of their quarters, said he was sorry it had taken ages, and gave me Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. The tape was too long for the album, and I had to fast forward the B side for twenty minutes. I took it to basketball camp with me that summer. Walked around the Rutgers campus with Robert Smith’s baleful love in my ears. It was like this. It was just like this. A terrible, beautiful mess. All our gorgeous hopes drowning and cheating and sobbing. The world imploding to a righteous bass guitar.
How had he known? How had he known that I needed that tape? That I needed a way out of the parade grounds, and the manicured lawns. The metalheads and the long runs that burned my lungs until I tasted blood. His Black Flag t-shirt like a passport. You little fucking punk. You gotta get out of here. You gotta get out!
He gave me a story. A mutilated love story of punk music and adolescence. Of a beautiful, surprising boy who handed a girl on the cusp of something a key to somewhere else. I listened to the Cure and heard exactly how to love that terrible way. To a thrumming bass guitar. To a wail of distress and misery and poetry and night crowding out that most intoxicating girl there at the edge of the sea. How I wanted her. How I wanted. How I’d sing for her. The child’s eyes uttered joy.