Magnolia [June 7, 2004]
We both boarded the train at Dupont Circle. He was holding the magnolia blossom with indifference. Yet, almost unconsciously, he wouldn’t let the delicate petals touch any surface lest they bruise. I assumed it must have been from a date or a boyfriend. The sweet, slightly citrus-y scent filled the car, bringing with it memories of childhood, memories that I’ve treated with indifference, memories that could bruise, memories of the first boy I loved.
My family moved to a county seat in the western North Carolina mountains, in the summer of 1976. I was six years old. Our house, the Methodist parsonage, was directly across the street from the elementary school. The backyard sloped steeply downward, leveled out briefly, then dropped off into a creek. Many a wild winter sled ride down that hill ended with a cold dunking. The front yard was tamer, a small flat lawn, dotted with a few trees – redbud, pin oak, tulip poplar. In the corner stood a tall magnolia tree, with its low sturdy branches perfect for climbing. With brown husky seedpods making perfect grenades and bright red seeds as laser bullets, the tree was our spaceship, our hideout, our super-secret special place. Among the branches, we created dreams and lived adventures.
I can not remember how or when we met. I did not know him, and then one day I did. Matthew. Thin. Dirty blond hair. Bright blue, inquisitive eyes. We were the same age, comrades in arms. He lived with his mother, stepfather, and baby stepsister in a funky house that was known by his neighbors as “The Boat.” We spent more time at my house though, probably because it was so close to our school. We were in cub scouts together. He saw the original Star Wars at least six times and had practically every Star Wars toy known. He didn’t have a magnolia tree in his yard though.
1977. The day before Christmas vacation, the owner of the movie theater in town invited all the students in the elementary school to a free movie. K-2 went first. Then, 3-5. I was in second grade. Unfortunately, a few days before, I had taken an ill-advised leap off our front porch into the shrubbery. A visit to the emergency room and an x-ray later, the doctor said I had sprained my ankle. I couldn’t walk. I was going to miss school, miss the free movie, and miss my class Christmas party. My father called my teacher (who went to our church). She said it would be OK for him to bring me to the movie and then to the party afterwards. By the time we got to the theater, there were no seats left. Matthew and I had to share. Squeezed in together, we watched “Pinocchio in Space” (1964). A scary surprise later, we were hugging in fear …
1978. We sat beside each other in 3rd grade; at least until Mrs. Martin came to her senses and separated us for talking too much. Matthew was amazingly imaginative and could draw anything you asked. Most of his drawings were of space ships and astronauts and Star Wars. On some weekends, Matthew would sleep over. We would play upstairs until bedtime, often falling asleep in the same sleeping bag and waking up tangled and naked in each other’s arms the next morning.
After the summer of 1978, we went into different 4th grade classes. We didn’t see each other as much and began to drift apart. My family moved in 1979. We wrote every now and then, but soon lost touch. My mother heard that he had been held back in 5th grade, that teachers were calling him “slow.” As I look back, I wonder if he was mildly autistic. I’ll never know. Last I heard, he struggled through 5th grade and, then, moved with his family to Kentucky.
At the time, I had no idea what it meant to be gay or straight. I think I loved Matthew as much as an eight-year-old is capable of loving. Sometimes, when something triggers my memory, I find myself thinking about him, wondering what he’s like grown up, if he loved me then, if he thinks of me now.
Like a magnolia blossom, he had a distinctive smell, hard to describe, hard to believe I still remember it. But I do. Like he was here yesterday, and it still lingers, right at the tip of my nose.