by Richard Ballon
It is that delicate time, when bones are stretching and knees go knobby, the body all elbows and a boy’s heart is suddenly nesting in a body trying to be a man. This is fifteen, when the willow of my body leans toward other boys and men who smell of salt that summer on Hampton Beach.
Oh, I chisel out words with my foot on the beach, and Peace signs. I read graffiti of other boys, spray painted on the inside curl of the sea wall, and we all think we are as deep as the curl of our letters that match our running legs, when the waves lap, lap, lap, as the tongue of the tide lashes our legs.
I sneak one night, away from the trailer of women, where my Mom, sisters and cousins giggle and squawk over the fanleaf of fan magazines. I pause to watch the white lip of the surf. Colin is sitting on the sea wall, cross-legged, his goatee shadowing his chin. His long curls blow soft and fringed with the streetlight.
The sea acts more itself at night, he says and the meeting of our eyes is the handshake that seals our friendship and ushers me a summer later to a lake in Maine.
One night, his Aunt Liz and her boyfriend are beyond silly drunk in their trailer and we slip out, barefoot. My soles are pinched by tree roots, and we wear haloes of mosquitoes until the pfffssst of bug spray.
We launch the boat, Colin and I, onto the dark lake, and tumbling in I see the shadow of Colin’s arms like tree roots, snaking their stroke as he rows us out into the valley of water that looms beneath us. That stillness cracks with the creak of oar lock and the plip plop plip of the oars, easing the boat along until we drill a hole in the center with the drop plunge of anchor, waiting for the surface to mirror back the sky.
There, he murmurs, is Cassiopeia, and he points at the stars in the water, and I repeat the word like a litany. Cassiopeia. And here is Orion. The Pleiades. The names coat my tongue with the milk of their meaning, and after I learn them, he bids me look up, up, up at the darker lake in which the stars are really nesting.
The Big Dipper, The Drinking Gourd, the Shopping Cart, pour the night over me these, many years, many summers later, and shimmer with what I did not do that night, which was kiss the man whose eyes reflected my longing back at me.