My Hero

My hero rode in on fiery “steed,”

perfectly timed in my hour of need.

His welcoming smile offered relief.

This man became my personal chief.

He unsheathed his sword with knightly poise,

bowed deeply to the riotous noise

of my pounding heart and whispered gasp,

then quickly my two hands he did clasp.

“My darling love, to you I do bow

and offer all the law will allow.

If you agree to wed me some day,

on both my knees I will fall today.”

He swept me up and held me so tight,

then embraced throughout the starlit night.

When morn arrived with the rising sun,

I knew he was my awaited one.

For thirty-three years he’s loved me so.

We’re not done yet: there’s still room to grow.

My personal Valentine stands strong,

Together we will always belong.

Love

Isn’t love marvelous?

Isn’t love grand?

Isn’t love walking

hand in hand?

Holding each other

night time and day.

Listening carefully,

avoiding most fray.

Isn’t love special?

Isn’t love fine?

Isn’t love sharing

quality time?

Graciously giving

with nary a thought.

Remembering days

and gifts to be bought.

Isn’t love wonderful?

Isn’t love great?

Isn’t love stronger than

anger and hate?

Keeping no secrets.

Holding no ire.

Kissing and hugging.

Hearts on fire.

Isn’t love brilliant?

Isn’t love fair?

Isn’t love brighter

and lighter than air?

Come to me, darling.

Arms around me tight.

I’ll kiss your sweet lips

long into the night.

A Valentine’s Dilemma

Part Two:

Just as he remembered, there was an old leather trunk in the corner, covered with a layer of dust.  He lovingly rubbed his hand across the top.  He opened the lid, revealing Nightingale’s treasures.

On top was a red velvet shirt with a beaded yoke, a string of yellow flowers attached to a white vine, all hand sown by Nightingale herself.  Next was a tiny pair of beaded moccasins, so small that he couldn’t fit his whole hand inside.  He found a bandolier of china tubes interspersed with blue glass beads and a pair of white buckskin leggings with a fringed tunic.

“This was her weddin’ outfit,” he thought as he held them up to the light. “She sure looked pretty in these.”  He held the tunic to his nose and inhaled, then cradled it to his chest.  For many minutes Grandpa sat on his haunches, rocking with eyes closed, remembering the beautiful girl who stole his heart so many years ago.  “This won’t do,” he chastised himself as he placed the outfit back in the trunk.  He rummaged around some more until he found the item that he had had in mind.  After taking it out, he closed the trunk, locked the door, and went back down the ladder.

About the same time Stan came in, leading Sally by the halter.  “Guess what I saw up on the ridge?”

“A beaver?”

“No.  Guess again,” Stan said as he led Sally into her stall. 

“Little Bear?” Grandpa chuckled at the thought of the creature from lore being spotted at the top of the hill.

“You know better than that,” Stan said. “Give me a real guess.  Something that lives up there, but you seldom see any more.”  Stan pulled off the saddle and the blanket and hung them over a rail.  He picked up a soft cloth and wiped Sally’s damp sides until she glowed.

“You saw a porcupine.”

“That’s it!  How did you guess that?  I haven’t seen one up there since I was a little boy.” Stan brushed Sally, removing the matted hair from her mane and tail.

“Well,” Grandpa drawled, “I was thinking of a porcupine that crossed my path when I was about your age.”

“Another story, Grandpa?”

“Yep.  You keep workin’ and I’ll talk,” he said as he settled onto a three-legged stool just outside the stall.  “Years ago, shortly after I met Nightingale, I wanted to give her something that showed how special she was.  I had little money to spend, so I figured I’d make something.  Now your grandmother always dressed in her traditional clothes.  Somehow it felt right to her.  None of that modern stuff.

“So I rode up on that ridge, just like you did, thinking maybe I’d see a nice piece of wood for carving.  Instead I ran across a dead porcupine.  Looked fresh.  Maybe died of old age, as I didn’t see any wounds anywhere.  Anyway, I got the idea to pull off the quills and make something out of them.  The quills are hollow, you know, so it is easy to lace them together to make a necklace or breastplate.  Plus they can be died different colors by using berries, roots, or mosses. 

“Red was Nightingale’s favorite color, so after getting as many quills as I could, I searched around until I found some nice berries.  I took it all back home, boiled the berries in some hot water, making a nice thick juice.  Then I dropped in about half of the quills.  While they were cooking, I found some rawhide scraps and cut them into very thin strips. 

“Once everything was ready, I prayed to the gods to guide my work.  The Blackfoot believe that the quills have religious powers, so I was extra careful not to offend anyone.  I had some blue glass beads left over from a necklace I made her as a wedding gift, so I used them too.

“Every evening I came out here to the barn and worked while Nightingale took care of the mother.  My fingers were too big and clumsy to make anything real fine, so I concentrated on the larger pieces of quill and the beads with the biggest holes.  It took me nearly two weeks, but when I presented her with a sash for her waist, she smiled so big I thought her cheeks would split.

“So, here it is,” he said as he held it up for Stan to see. “I found it in her chest.”

“Grandpa, that’s beautiful!”

“The colors have faded a bit, but Rose might like it anyway.”

“She’ll love it.  But won’t her father think we’re engaged?”

“Maybe yes to both.  But if you notice, I made a design like antelopes.  Blackfoot warriors place a lot of significance in the antelope.    Because they run fast, the antelope escape capture more times than not.  Curly Bear will remember that and know that this gift isn’t meant to tie Rose to you.”

Stan reverently held the sash up to the light, then ran his fingers along the lines of quills and beads.  “This is perfect.  Rose doesn’t have a sash nearly this nice.”

“Well, let’s go inside.  It’s nigh on to dark.  Soon it will be bedtime.”

Stan closed Sally’s stall door, turned off the light, closed the big barn door, then walked with his grandfather back to the house.  “One question, Grandpa.”

“Sure.”

“If this was Grandmother’s, don’t you want to keep it?”

Grandpa stopped at the top step and turned to face the now dark front lawn. He turned his eyes up to the sky, sighed, and then said, “The materials that went to make that came from the earth.  Yes, it was a special gift.  A way for me to tell my wife that I loved her.  But it holds no power over my memories.  Keeping it in that trunk is of no use to anyone.  If’n you give it to Rose, every time she wears it, Nightingale will smile.  Nope. It’s yours to give.”

Stan laid his right hand on his grandfather’s shoulder. “I don’t know what to say, except thanks.  This will make the best Valentine’s Day gift.  All I need now is a box and red wrapping paper.”

Grandpa nodded. “I just might have some of that upstairs.” With that, he opened the door and led the way inside. “Why don’t you get some studying done while I gather what you need.”

Stan pulled his Government textbook out of his backpack and settled at the wooden desk his grandfather had recently made. The surface was smooth even though it was a bit uneven.

He loved the care that had gone into its construction. In fact, he even knew which tree his grandfather had used. Not too long ago, during a rare windstorm, a walnut tree had blown down. He had helped cut the tree into usable pieces that he had stacked under an overhang on the backside of the barn.

He opened to the chapter on socialism and was just starting to read when his grandfather reappeared, his arms full.

“I found ever’thin’ you need.”

            Stan smiled when he saw the red Christmas paper. Rose would laugh when she saw dancing Santas and skipping reindeer. “That’s perfect. Thanks.”

            “So,” Grandpa said as he got out his pipe. “Happy?”

            Stan nodded. “Once again you solved my dilemma.”

            Grandpa opened the front door and just before he stepped through, he said, “Valentine’s is about love. I’d do anything for you because I love you. You know that, right?”

            “That I do.” Stan moved the paper and ribbon off to the side of the desk. “So what can I get you for Valentine’s?”

            “Every day you gift me with your love.” Grandpa closed the screen door behind him. “That’s all I need.”

A Valentine’s Day Dilemma

Part One:

            Stan Ellis sat before his computer, furiously searching the Internet for a gift for his girlfriend, Rose.  He wanted to get her something for Valentine’s Day that said he cared about her, but nothing more.  After all, they were both seniors in high school headed for college in the fall.

            “That won’t do,” he thought as he looked at diamond necklaces.  “I don’t have that kind of money, and something like that spells L-O-V-E.”  He checked out watches, rings, hats, and various types clothing, but nothing seemed to fit what Stan thought were in Rose Tailfeather’s taste.

            Grandfather Ellis, looking on from the kitchen as he fixed dinner, smiled.  He remembered going through the same thing when he wanted to give his wife Nightingale a special gift on their anniversary.  He understood how hard it was to find just the right gift.

After putting the casserole in the oven to bake, he stepped into the living room. “Whatcha doing?”

            “Oh!  Grandpa, don’t sneak up on me like that, please.”

            “It’s good to know I can still sneak.  I thought these ol’ bones made enough racket to wake your long-dead uncles.”  Grandpa pulled his pipe from his shirt pocket, stuffed it with tobacco from a hand-tooled pouch hanging from a nearby shelf, tampered it down with his finger, lit it, then inhaled.  As he exhaled, he made perfect clouds of smoke rise toward the ceiling.  “I asked what you were doin’.”

            “Valentine’s Day is coming up and I want to get something special for Rose,” Stan said.

            “Go to Draper’s in town and pick up somethin’ there.  The old man carries a good variety of things to please a woman.” Grandpa settled into his old, worn recliner, put up the foot rest and got himself comfortable.

            After turning off the computer, Stan said, “You don’t understand.  Rose comes from a traditional Blackfoot family.  If I give her something too valuable, then her father will think I’m proposing.  If it’s not something Rose wants, then she will think I don’t care.  I’m stuck.”

            “Is Rose a nice girl?”

            “Of course.  You met her before the Winter Dance.  I brought her over, right?”

            “Is she the one that wore the old-fashioned buckskin dress with blue and white pony beads down the sleeves?”

            “That’s the one.  Rose is proud of her heritage and wears native regalia almost every day.  She’s in my Chemistry and English classes and her grades are always the highest,” Stan said as he fidgeted with his hands.

            “Doesn’t her family live outside of town on Little Creek Ranch?”

            “Yes.”

            “I remember her ol’ man, Curly Bear Tailfeather.  He believes the people’ll rise and take back the land.  He goes to Ghost Dances and parades about like he’s a medicine man. He’s kind of nuts, if’n you ast me,” Grandpa said, inhaling and puffing once more.  “You sure chose the wrong girl, Stan.”

            A look of shock swept over the young man’s face.  “Why do you say that?”

            “Because no matter what you do, you’re in trouble.  Curly Bear believes in all that ritual stuff.  Anything you give Rose is an engagement promise.”

            “That’s my problem, Grandpa.  Rose may come from a traditional family, but she has modern ideas.  She expects a boyfriend to remember her on Valentine’s Day. And not just with a cheap card, either.  She wants something in a box covered with bright red paper.”

            Just then the oven timer rang.  “Go check dinner, Stan, and I’ll think on it for a spell.”

            When Stan checked on the casserole, it wasn’t quite done. While it continued cooking, he put together a tossed green salad, set the table, and poured two tall glasses of ice water.  His grandfather had some diced potatoes in the frying skillet, so Stan turned on the heat, put in a little oil, onion, salt and pepper, and cooked them until the potatoes had a nice brown color and the onion slices were translucent.  After putting the potatoes in a serving bowl and placing them on the table, he pulled out the noodle casserole and centered it on the hot pads his grandfather had spread in the center of the table.

            “Dinner’s ready, Grandpa.  Come on in.”

            “Thanks, Stan.  I was so busy figurin’ I forgot about food.  I think I solved your problem,” he said as he walked into the kitchen and sat at the head of the table.  “Say the blessin’ for us.”

            They bowed their heads as the nuns at St. Matthew’s Episcopal had taught both.  “God, our Creator and Heavenly Father,” Stan intoned.  “Bless our meal and all the people who helped create it.  Watch over us as we go through our days.  We thank you for all the gifts you have given.  Amen.”

            “Amen,” echoed his grandfather.  “Pass the potatoes.  Got to eat ‘em afore they get cold.”

            As Stan ate he remembered Grandma Nightingale’s rules about chewing slowly and eating quietly in reverence to the animals and plants that gave their lives in order to sustain the people.  When he was finished, Stan said, “So, what idea did you get?”

            “Well, if you give Rose jewelry from a store, she might like it, but her father won’t.  He hates anything store bought and thinks old man Draper cheats the people.”

            “That’s what I was thinking.  Plus Rose might read engagement into it, and I don’t want that to happen.  We’re still too young.”

            “You can’t give her flowers, as Curly Bear’s anger would rise at destroying plants for no purpose.  That leaves clothing or food,” Grandpa said, leaning back in his chair and rubbing his full belly.

Stan got up, picked up the dirty dishes and carried them over to the counter.  He rinsed them off and then placed them in the dishwasher.  The leftover casserole went into a refrigerator container.  He dampened a paper towel and washed off the table, careful not to disturb his grandfather.

“I’ve got to take Sally out for a ride before it gets too dark,” Stan said.  “Want to walk out to the stable with me?”

“Sure,” Grandpa said.  “What I was thinkin’ was that what you could give Rose is out there anyway.”

Together they walked across the lush front lawn to the barn.  Stan pushed open the large door while his grandfather turned on the lights. 

Stan looked around and saw only hay, harnesses, bridles and horseshoes. “What’s out here that I could give Rose?”

“Nightingale’s trunk is up in the rafters.  If I recall correctly, there’s something in there that would make Rose smile and keep her father happy as well.  You go out for a ride while I climb up and get it.”

“Sure, Grandpa.  I’ll be back in an hour.” Stan saddled Sally and headed out toward the distant hills.

After his grandson left, Grandpa climbed up the ladder to the rafters.  He walked to the far side where there was a locked door.  Pulling out a ring of keys, he found a small, old-fashioned one that fit the hasp lock.  Once the door creaked open, he allowed his eyes a moment to adjust before stepping into the dark storage area. 

Just as he remembered, there was an old leather trunk in the corner, covered with a layer of dust.  He lovingly rubbed his hand across the top.  He opened the lid, revealing Nightingale’s treasures.

Mama’s Voice

Low and sweet Mama called, “Honey Bee,” and when Collette arrived, Mam wrapped her with a smile and glittering green eyes. “Can I have some cold water?”

“Of course, Mama. Want anything else?”

“We have any lemon bars? I’d love a piece.” Mama resumed rocking, eyes closed, mind most likely drifting somewhere in the past.

Collette nodded knowing that Mama was happy. It didn’t matter that names got mixed up. Collette didn’t bother asking anymore if Mama remembered who she was. Suzanne, Maria or Abigail. Or rare occasions when Mama’s eyes were wide open she knew Collette. Maybe today was one of them, but if pressed, Mama grew upset.

“I got your water,” Collette said as she placed the glass in Mama’s hands and a small paper plate with a tiny bite of lemon bar on a rickety wooden table next to Mama’s chair. Collette then sat in the empty rocker, the one Papa used way back when.

“This is nice,” Mama practically sang in that not-quite-southern twang of hers. “I love me some cold water when it’s hot like this.” She closed her eyes and resumed rocking, humming a church song that Collette barely remembered.

“Is that “The Old Wooden Cross”?”

“Nope. Rugged. It’s Rugged Cross. Much more meaning to it.” Mama began singing, “I love that old Cross, but then she stopped and tears filled her eyes. “Darn I forget the words.” Her knees started bouncing, a sure sign of distress. “I forget everything these days. Half the time I don’t even know your name.”

“Collette. I’m Collette, your surprise baby daughter.”

Mama stared at her as if she had no idea what she was talking about. “I didn’t have no surprise baby daughter.”

Collette patted her mama’s right knee, just enough to add comfort. “It’s alright. Not important. Have some lemon bar.” Collette put the plat in Mama’s hand. “Just a piece. No more right now.”

“I haven’t been to church in ages. Not since Matthew died. I just can’t bear walking the same places he walked.”

Mama said in that sweet, persuasive voice of hers, “Maybe it’s time you and I go. Sunday’s tomorrow. Preacher Davis will be leading the service. Oh, my, I love the way that man calls on the Lord.” She set the plate on the little table and leaning on her cane a little too much for Collette’s comfort, headed inside.

“Where you going?” Collette grabbed glass and plate. Can’t leave nothing outside unless ou want birds and raccoons and stray cats coming around.

Mama’s words floated over her shoulder as she turned to go down the hall. “Got to pick a dress for tomorrow. Folks haven’t seen me in a while. Want to make a good impression.”

Collette frowned. She didn’t want to go to that church any more than she wanted to go to the one at home. Matthew loved the Church of Christ chapel in downtown Chillicothe because he felt more comfortable with the merchant families that came to his five-and-dime store. Collette grew up in First Baptist in Sterling Crossings, the church her Mama still loved, but it was a thirty mile drive from home.

Collette pulled a whole chicken out of the refrigerator and washed it off in warm water. Using the butcher knife she cut it in pieces. Froze half. Rubbed the rest in a mesquite marinade. Zipped it up and put it in the fridge for cooking later. Next came shucking corn and peeling potatoes. She didn’t like potatoes, but Mama said it wasn’t a proper meal with spuds of some kind on the table. Tonight she’d bake them so she could control how much sour cream and butter landed on Mama’s half.

“I found me a dress,” Mama said. “Lookee here.”

It was an old yellow cotton dress that Mama last wore to the Fourth of July Picnic four years ago. It hung a bit loose, but the pride in Mama’s voice kept Collette’s mouth shut. “Pretty color. Perfect for summer.”

“Hm, hm. I know. Your daddy bought this for me on one of his trips out of town. I think it’s from North Dakota, but I’m not sure. Every time he went away he brought home something. Sometimes a bolt of cloth. Once he gave me a pretty necklace. When I asked where he got the money, he wrapped me in his arms so tight I could barely breathe.”

“Nice memory.” Collette lead Mama down the hall to change back into her every day clothes. “Lift your arms.” She pulled the dress over Mama’s head and hung it on the closet door.

“That’s what caused me to kick him out. Smelled perfume on him. A kind I never wore. Knew he was cheating. He didn’t deny it. Just picked up his traveling bag and left. When that door slammed shut I yelled to never come back. He didn’t.”

Collette brushed her mama’s hair. She had to be gentle as there wasn’t much left. Mama had what they call female pattern hair loss. She’d asked her hair dresser last time she’s had a trim. Paula, that was her name, said there wasn’t anything to do about it except keep it clean and use a soft brush.

“Why you using that soft thing?” Mama said.

“Paula said it’d be better on your scalp. Like a massage.” Finished, Collette pulled hairs from between the bristles and dropped them in a nearby garbage can. “Let’s get your clothes on so as to be ready for dinner.”

Mama started humming again, this time a song Collette knew and loved. She sang up high in her soprano voice while Mama hummed the alto line. “Amazing grace how sweet the sound…”

By the end of the song they’d returned to the porch, Mama in her rocker and Collette heading down the metal steps to pull the laundry off the line. She hated that Mama’s clothes hung out front for the world to see, but everybody in the Wagon Wheel Mobile Home Park did the same. At least Mama’s house wasn’t worse off than the others’. Joe Maxwell’s siding was peeling off and Pete Smith’s windows were covered with plastic to keep out insects, wind and rain.

Matthew had kept up the place, hosing down the outside and replacing any windows that cracked. He’d kept the appliances working and even when he was feeling sorry for something he’d said, installed two room air conditioners, one if the front room and one in Mama’s bedroom. He’d done all that even though it wasn’t his parent’s house and without Collette asking.

Mama was asleep when Collette finished folding and putting the laundry away. She got out the chicken and placed it on a plate for carrying outside. She fired up the gas barbeque she’d given Mama back when her mama still cooked. Thank goodness she’d brought a new tank or she would have had to cook if in the oven.

Her cooking skills were limited. Mam had tried to teach her, but Collette’s head was in books. She was always reading. Most of the time for school, but she’d read just about everything she could get out of the town library. Then she’d gone off to college where she’d shared an apartment with three girls she didn’t know. They rotated cooking duties so she checked out a Campbell’s Soup Cook Book because the recipes were simple.

Potatoes in the oven. Chicken cooking. “Dinner will be ready in about thirty minutes. You need anything?”

Thinking maybe her mama was asleep, Collette stepped as lightly as her two hundred pound body would let her. Mama’s floor creaked and groaned anyway.

At first glance, she thought Mama was asleep. She often slept ten or more hours a day. That’s why Collette had come home. Someone needed to be with Mama night and day and there was no one else to do it. No money to pay for help and even if there had been, Mama was too embarrassed about the condition of her house to let people inside.

Nobody with money lived out here, far from the center of town. It wasn’t on the wrong side of the tracks as no train came through, but it was the neighborhood that even the police didn’t like to enter. Not because of gangs, but because everything was so run down and dingy that it broke hearts to think that people actually lived there.

The tilt of Mama’s head wasn’t right. It leaned too far to the left at a crazy angle that made it appear as if someone’d snapped it. And her left arm hung limply over the chair’s arm, fingers too loose for comfort.

“Mama,” Collette said as she touched her mama’s shoulder. “You okay?”

She wasn’t and Collette knew it when she first saw her leaning like that. Mama had grace, even asleep. It didn’t matter how ragged the hem of her dress was, that dress was spotless and freshly ironed. A wide-brimmed fancy hat sat on that head everywhere she went, but her best ones only came out for church. She had ones with feathers, some with ribbons, a few with both. Mama knew which hat matched which dress and nobody ever changed her mind.

And when Mama walked about town with her head high and back straight as steel, people thought maybe she’d come from money. One of them debutante girls who’d fallen from grace.

Truth is, her family was dirt poor. Her daddy had been a tenant farmer who moved the family wherever he could find a bit of work. One time they lived in the barn with the horses. In summer it stank of moldy hay and manure. In winter their breath froze in midair.

The woman in the porch, this person leaning over the chair, was not her Mama. No pretty tune emanated from her lips, no humming “Precious Lord” in that sultry sound of hers.

Collette sat in her rocker and picked up her mother’s hand. She turned it over and rubbed the palm, over and over in gentle circles. “Mama, I guess your time has come. Too bad we’ll miss church tomorrow.”

Sobs broke loose, the loud racking kind that indicates a hurt so deep that it’s hard coming back. Just as in a movie, Collette felt a ray of sun warm her tear-streaked face. She looked up and noticed a flock of starlings high above, swirling in massive ever-changing streaks of black. They’d been Mama’s favorite birds because, as she’d said, “Them birds are like some people. They run in crazy circles, doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. Ain’t gonna happen.”

Mama’s voice was the sweetest thing Collette had ever heard. In times of trouble Mama sang to her soft, gentle songs of love and redemption, “Jesus Loves Me” a favorite of both of them. Collette closed her eyes and listened for the words:

Jesus loves me! He will stay,
Close beside me all the way;
He’s prepared a home for me,
And some day His face I’ll see

Even though Mama was gone to a better place, that home that Jesus has waiting for her, Collette would miss her Mama. No more late night bathroom runs. No more stories about the granddad she’d never known. No more cleaning this rickety home. No more humming in her precious Mama’s voice.

 

 

 

 

Learning Curve

She’d always heard that Catholic girls go wild when they enter college, but she didn’t believe it. That didn’t mean that Jessie wouldn’t wonder what would happen once her classes began in the fall. Would she adhere to the morals and values she’d had drilled into her head? Or would she date recklessly, use drugs and drink until sloppy drunk?

On her first day at Chabot College Jessie stepped on campus with her nerves a tingle. Everywhere she looked were couples walking hand-in-hand with serene looks on their faces, while others sat on benches, walls and lawns, with arms and legs entwined. A few leaned against trees with lips locked and bodies pressed firmly against one another.

Which would she be? A wanton hussy? A tender lover? A lonely spinster? All she knew and hoped was that someone, some nice young man would find her interesting. Years ago she had reconciled herself that, because she wasn’t pretty, not even comely, but a frumpy, old-lady-like ultra conservative spinster, she would be single for the rest of her life.

Jessie learned the names of her classmates. The easiest to know were the outspoken types who knew everything and wanted their voices to be the only ones heard. The most challenging were the silent, but giggly cheerleader-types with skinny bodies, lanky legs and long hair well past shoulders. There were some like Jessie, not many, with limp hair, blotchy complexions and puffy bodies, and they were the ones who always sat alone. She thought about joining them, but realized that even at her current age you were still defined by your friends. She was socially awkward, but didn’t want to hang out with her kind. She wanted to establish a new identity: that of a smart, datable woman.

Months passed. Despite using her mother-taught sewing skills she created more fashionable clothes, nothing changed in her social status. Day after day Jessie ate alone, walked alone, spent study hours alone in the library or in some quiet alcove. While her life was unaltered, that of her classmates changed. Pregnancies blossomed as winter neared. Were those the wanton hussies she’d heard about? Catholic girls gone wild?

Jessie wanted to feel what it was like to be held in a tight embrace, to be kissed tenderly, passionately, until her body responded in the way she’d read about in books. Maybe not to the point of losing her virginity, but it would be nice to come close.

Second semester a George Atwood sat next to her in Advanced Calculus. He was a good-looking guy, but not what you’d call handsome. Not built like a football player with broad shoulders, but more like a golfer. He smiled at her and said hi every class period.

One day he slipped her a note like kids did in high school. When Jessie opened hers she discovered a quiz which George must have copied from a magazine. He had listed a variety of activities and placed a box in front of each. She was supposed to check all those she liked and then return the note.

This was exciting! A man was interested in her!

Jessie checked off bowling, walking, reading, movies. She didn’t know what spelunking was and didn’t like going underwater, so diving and snorkeling were out. She didn’t want to swim because she was ashamed of her lumpy body. She did mark sports because she enjoyed playing soccer, baseball and had bowled for many years, and she loved watching almost any sport on television.

When George arrived the next day  Jessie slid the note to him, then waited to see his reaction. His face remained blank, his focus on the professor.

Jessie’s heart was broken before it ever had the chance to fall in love. She sat with downcast eyes, struggling to contain a fountain of tears. Sadness sat on her shoulders like a huge weight.

But after class, instead of rushing out like he usually did, George lingered. He smiled shyly as he rubbed one toe on the carpet. “Want to go on a date?”

Jessie smiled. “Yes.”

Without saying a word, George placed his hand on her back and led her outside the building. “Are you free Saturday?”

She nodded.

“What would you like to do? See a movie? Go bowling? Go for a ride? We could go to Garin Park and hike.”

“Garin Park would be nice,” she said. “I’ve never been there.”

“Great. Do you want me to pick you up or would you prefer to meet there?”

“I don’t have a car, so how about you pick me up? If you tell me what you like to eat, I’ll pack a picnic lunch.”

They exchanged information, then said goodbye. Jessie smiled all through the rest of the day. She smiled on the way home on the bus. But when she walked through the front door, her mother gave her a funny look and then the cross examination began.

“Why’s that smile on your face? What have you done?” her mother demanded.

“Nothing wrong,” Jessie said. “A nice guy asked me on a date. We’re going to Garin Park.” She wasn’t prepared for the snicker that erupted from her mother’s lips.

“You’ve got to be kidding. Any guy who dates you is only looking for one thing and you’d better not give it to him.”

Jessie’s cheeks burned. She knew what her mom was implying and there was no way she was doing that. She’d never been kissed, but she wasn’t so naïve as to not understand the implications of going further. “Nothing’s going to happen. It’s a picnic and a hike. That’s it.”

“I’d better meet him first,” her mother said.

“Don’t worry. He’s picking me up.”

The next two days Jessie worried about what to wear, what to fix for lunch, and what would happen when her parents met George. She’d seen movies where the parents were rude, embarrassing both the daughter and the date. She was sure her parents would be horrendous.

When Saturday arrived, she put on her best jeans and a royal blue Warriors sweatshirt. She brushed her shoulder-length hair a thousand times, convinced that when she was finished, it was smoother and shinier. Jessie fixed ham sandwiches with mayo, tomatoes, pickles, and a slice of Swiss cheese.  She put two cans of soda in a bag along with two chocolate chip cookies she’d made that morning.

Jessie stood by the window, hiding behind the sheer curtains that were supposed to keep prying eyes from spying inside. As the time grew nearer for George to arrive, beads of sweat popped out on her forehead. When ten o’clock arrived and he wasn’t there, Jessie sighed, believing she had been stood up. Just as she turned to go to her room and change into her sweats, a recently washed gray Hyundai Sonata parked in front of her house. George emerged with neatly combed hair, a Chabot College sweatshirt and clean black jeans.

He wasn’t handsome, but pleasant-looking. Jessie’s heart began beating rapidly and she found it hard to breath.

Just as George was reaching for the bell, Jessie opened the door with a smile on her face and then escorted him to the front room where her parent lay in wait. Neither responded to his polite greeting, instead they glowered as if he was evil incarnate.

“So,” her dad said, “why are you taking her on a date?”

George stammered a bit before responding, “Jessie’s nice and smart.”

“But she’s ugly,” her dad said as he shrugged his shoulders. “There’s only one thing a guy would want, and that’s not going to happen.  If you know what’s good for you, you’ll walk out and never come back.”

George grabbed Jessie’s hand tightly in his own. “I don’t think of Jessie that way. She’s a friend, someone I’d like to get to know better.” With that, he led her out of the house and into the car. “Wow, that was intense.”

“I’m sorry. I was afraid he would act like that, but I hoped not.”

“Listen,” George said as he drove down Mission Boulevard, “if you’re uncomfortable being with me, we can call this off. I’ll take you back home.”

“No,” she said as she brushed her hand against his arm. “I want to be with you. Really, I do.” She folded her hands primly in her lap and stared at her fingers. “I mean, I should tell you that I’ve never dated before.”

His smile was so perfect, so beautiful that Jessie knew she had made the right choice. “It’s going to be alright,” he said as he paid the fee at the toll booth. “We’re going to have a great time. As friends. Right?’

All went well. They found an empty picnic table right away. George ate everything, even praising the cookies when Jessie said she’d made them. They talked, shared stories, and discussed Calculus problems, which was a bit weird as Jessie’d never talked about schoolwork with a guy before.

“Let’s go for a walk,” George said after they’d stowed the bag in the trunk. “There’s a nice trail that encircles the park. If we’re lucky, we’ll see deer.”

The trail encircled a little pond where dragonflies hovered, their wings gossamer pastel colors. They wound their way into the hills, talking about the blue sky dotted with cumulus clouds and the possibility of rain. About the flowers that in bloom, typical for California. The giant moths and even a herd of cows grazing near an apple orchard.

The further away from the parking lot they got, the fewer people they saw. The branches of trees formed a canopy overhead, cooling the warming air and silencing sounds of insects. When no more people were about, when there were no sounds of laughter, kids playing or conversation, George led Jessie deep into a copse of trees. He leaned against a sturdy trunk and he pulled her to his chest. “I really like you,” he said as he brushed his hand over her hair. “You’re smart and kind and thoughtful.”

“Thanks,” she said as she felt her cheeks turn crimson. “I like you too.”

His breath tickled her neck as he gently kissed her, over and over.

Jessie had never felt loved, not from her parents who had ridiculed her for her whole life, calling her ugly, dumb, stupid, idiot, and many other terms that she preferred not to think about.  There had never been a boyfriend who held her tight and whispered in her ear. Never even a pet cat or dog to cuddle with on long, lonely nights.

George was the first and his words filled her insides, making her feel light as air.

When his lips met hers, she kissed him back. His lips weren’t squishy, but firm. Not too firm. His breath hinted of chocolate chip cookies, a bit sweet but also bitter. His arms enfolded her waist, pulling her into his chest.

She responded in kind, not sure if she was doing it right, but when George intensified the pressure of his lips, Jessie began to question the safety of her situation, nestled in this hidden cove.

She pushed back, trying to put some distance between them, but George pulled her tight against him. He ran his right hand up under her shirt, rubbing her back in circles that at first were soft and enticing, but soon became firm and painful.

“Stop,” she said as she took a step backward. “I don’t like this.”

George increased his grip around her waist until she was smashed against him, barely able to breathe. His hand undid her bra and then moved to her chest.

“Stop. I don’t want this.”

“Yes, you do,” he said. “You must have dreamt about this. I’m going to be your first. You’ll love it.” He bent over and kissed her breasts. His tongue made her insides warm, but at the same time she was repulsed. When his hands went under the waistband of her jeans and began rubbing back and forth, back and forth, she tried again to disengage.

“Stop,” she yelled. Salty tears streamed down her cheeks and along the edges of their compressed lips. Her sobs escaped despite the increased pressure he applied as she planted her hands on his chest and pushed.

A sound from the trail caught his attention and his grip relaxed so that Jessie could step far enough away to pull down her sweatshirt and run toward the parking lot. Tears coursed down her cheeks as she cursed herself for being so stupid as to think he liked her, really liked her for who she was, not what he could take from her.

George followed, whistling a merry tune. No matter how fast Jessie ran, she could hear him. She knew he was there, probably smirking at her stupidity. Her foolishness.

When Jessie reached the parking lot, she realized her mistake: she had no way home. She had no money, so couldn’t call her parents. She wouldn’t do that anyway as it would reinforce their belief in how undesirable she was. How they had told her over and over that no many would marry her, that men would only want her body, not her as a wife.

She ran past George’s car and toward the ranger booth, hoping someone would be inside to rescue her. But it was empty.

Her only choice was to walk down the long hill, but it was a street with no sidewalks, no way to get out of the way of passing cars. She headed that way, hoping that one of the  fast-moving vehicles would sense her plight and stop. None did. In a way, Jessie was relieved because one of those drivers might be as dangerous, if not more so, than George.

His car pulled alongside her and through the open widow, he said, “Get in. I’ll take you home.”

Jessie stepped off the road, backing into a barbed-wire fence.

He got out of the car and wrapped his arms around her waist. “I knew you liked me,” he said  He kissed her, fondled her, all while ignoring her mumbled cries to stop.

“Is there a problem?” a deep voice asked.

“No,” George said as he pulled away.

“Yes,” Jessie cried when she saw the park ranger. “Please, help me.”

“Sir, let the lady go.” The ranger glowered as he pulled Jessie aside. “Get in your car and drive away.”

“She’s got no way to get home. I’m her ride, so let her go.”

The ranger looked at Jessie. “Do you want to go with him?”

Jessie shook her head no. “But I’ll need help getting home.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll take care of that.”

Once George was long gone, the ranger led her back up the hill to the booth. He had her sit on a folding metal chair next to his desk. “Now,” he said, “did he hurt you?”

“No. I’m okay. A little shaken up, though.”

“Do you have money for a cab?”

She shook her head.

“Can someone pick you up?”

“My parents, but I don’t want them to know about this. Please, don’t call them.”

The ranger nodded as he picked up the phone and made a call. He had her stay inside the booth until the cab came. He handed the driver money, then wished Jessie a good rest of the day.

Jessie dreaded what was waiting for her at home. Her parents would laugh uproariously, making fun as they’d done as she was growing up. This time would be worse, though, because George has proven them right, that no man would want her except for her body.

“Well, what happened?” her mom asked when she came through the front door. “Why didn’t that guy bring you home? Who paid for the cab?”

“Nothing happened,” Jessie said as she headed to her bedroom, her mother trailing behind.

“You’re lying.”

Jessie turned on her mother, her face contorted with anger. “You always think the worst. You never see anything good about me. You don’t trust me to know right from wrong. In fact, I’ve never heard you say you love me.” She closed the door to block out her mother’s shouts.

Jessie knew she’d have to see George again since he was her table partner, so she dreaded returning to class on Monday. But when the professor began his lecture, no George had appeared. She sighed. It was over. No love, no boyfriend, nothing except her parents.

Saddened, but relieved, Jessie wrote down copious notes as she fought to keep tears from flooding her eyes. George was yet another example of her failure to find the love that she so desperately yearned for.

When the professor stopped to turn on the projector, Jessie looked about the room, hoping that no one had noticed her distress. Everyone in front of her sat facing forward. For that she was grateful. No one behind her looked her way. To her left pairs of students were conversing quietly.. To her right an average-looking young man winked at her, shrugged his shoulders and then turned away.

Jessie’s eyes couldn’t pull away from him. His hair stuck out in crazy angles. His t-shirt was faded and a bit loose. When the man looked at her a second time, she smiled.

He wrote something on a piece of paper and passed it across the table that separated them. It simply said, “Meet me after class.”

Jessie’s heart soared. Maybe this rumpled, faded guy with a sweet, crooked smile was the guy she’d been waiting her whole life for.