It was ’93 or ’94 and her name had the type of alliteration you usually hear in the names of superhero girlfriends. But I was no hero and she wasn’t my girlfriend. Not really.
I had met her at my old college campus student center. She was working in the office and was the one I had to see to get into the swimming pool. I somehow managed to use the facilities there for a few years after graduation. Blond and always wearing a cross necklace, she was borderline stoic with just enough warmth radiating that I was able to find the nerve to chat her up a bit, eventually even ask her out.
Our first real date was July 4th. I joined her and a friend at the top of a hill named Love Circle. There we had, along with about a hundred other people, a perfect view of the city fireworks show. We sat on the grass and watched giant luminous flowers bloom in the summer sky. Around us, children laughed and pointed up. Adults and teenagers held hands and leaned on each other, smiling at the flashes overhead. All of our eyes had taken on that absent stare that comes with being mesmerized by shiny, pretty things.
After the fireworks, her friend left us to ourselves and we drove out to Opryland Hotel. We walked through the conservatory, among the plants, fountains and benches assembled like the space-bound dome forest in Silent Running. But the ecological fate of humankind was the last thing on my mind as I walked next to quite possibly the strongest crush I had in a long time, maybe ever. I can’t remember if I held her hand, but I know I wanted to.
When we grew tired of the air conditioned woodland with sidewalks, we found a large median rock in front of the hotel where we could sit and talk.
“Tell me something I don’t know.” Her request was random and unexpected. I looked down; I looked up at the parking lot. I let out a couple of “hmms” and “uhs.” The warm night air blew against our cheeks as she waited for my answer. I could think of absolutely nothing.
As we sat cross-legged on that boulder and I struggled to come up with some special, secret knowledge that might change her world, midnight passed and the day became July 5th. Our Independence Date would soon end with no epiphanies or revelations, no lyrical tapestry or poetic words.
Then there was the kiss. It happened in the parking lot of my alma mater, after I had been swimming. For some reason she went out to my car with me. There was no romantic setting, no movie moment. I had towel hair and was leaning on my open car door. I don’t know why, but the moment felt right and it just happened.
My crush had become something more. At some point, it occurred to me that this one was different. I didn’t even think about sex when I thought of her. While that might seem like a strange thing to declare, it’s a pretty significant flag to a young man in his twenties. There was definitely something there that was more, that was different than I had felt before.
July unfolded with the slow, deliberate rhythm of a tropical Tennessee summer. Even the soundtrack of the season seemed to mirror the steamy asphalt and wet, thick air with songs like Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” in heavy rotation on the radio. It had become a huge hit a couple years earlier because of its placement in the David Lynch film, Wild at Heart. Since then, I heard it at least once a day, usually two or three times. I would come to associate the song with that time, with her.
I didn’t see her much the next few weeks. We talked on the phone. She was at the student center when I went swimming. But we didn’t really go out again.
Then I invited her to come see a band I played with at the time. She showed up with a girlfriend. After our set, while I was packing up my gear, she and her friend came to the stage to give their regards. My spirits were high from the post-show adrenaline and I leaned down to kiss her. She responded by offering a cheek.
That night, I knew it was over. It had never really started. I would find out that she had an ex-boyfriend who was a racecar driver. They were in a custody battle over a dog. I think she went back to him. I was hurt; my crush had been strong.
But our time together was a series of perfect moments, as fleeting as it might have been. One memorable night of disarming and bonding honesty. The first “yes” when I took the leap and asked her out. The car door kiss. All scenes in a short story framed by my anticipation of what could have been, but never at risk of being tarnished by a reality that is often cold and without passion or empathy. The memory is finite and pristine.
I still think of her every July 5th. Sometimes “Wicked Game” evokes the memories, but not as much these days. When I do become nostalgic, it’s for more than the specific scenes and emotions. It’s also for a brief moment in a young man’s life, when he’s at the verge of full throttle adulthood, that he’s able to once again – at least one last time – feel that a summer kiss is enough.
“Wicked Game” written by Chris Isaak; arranged and performed by Viktoriya Yermolyeva.