A River’s Current

There are some things about a small town, or a small community, that perhaps would have been understood by nearly everyone on earth 200 years ago, when nearly everyone on earth lived in small, well-knit communities. One of those things is the bond that can form between people who see each other nearly every day of their lives while growing up.

There is, so far as I know, no English word for that bond.  Maybe “cohort” comes closest, but even cohort doesn’t quite capture it.  For one thing, you can be in a cohort with folks you have never met in your life.  On the other hand, the bond without a name involves people who know each other intimately — without necessarily sharing a true intimacy.

My bond with Terry was like that.

Terry and her folks were newcomers who moved into my small town when I was in fifth grade.  She and I sat next to each other in school because seating was assigned according to the alphabet and her last name came close to mine.  On her first or second day as the new kid, I overheard Terry laugh at one of my jokes.  With that, I began paying attention to her.

I can recall many ways our lives entwined as we grew up.  Besides attending school together, we now and then found ourselves on the same side of some issue — such as on the same side in the universal high school debate between those two Cosmic Principles: Jocks and Nerds.  Or, when I wrote a comedy in middle school, she performed in it, making it a success.

Terry’s first boyfriend was my best friend of the time.  And my first girlfriend was Terry’s best friend of the time.  In the darkness of her basement, she made out with my best friend, while in the same darkness I made out with her best friend.  In the quaint way of middle schoolers, the four of us kept our first tentative sexual explorations in step.  When Terry and Mark tried their first French kiss, Kathy and I tried our first French kiss.  When Terry and Mark went from sitting next to each other to stretching out on the floor together, Kathy and I stretched out on the floor together.

Yet, Terry and I were not really close.  We did not share secrets.  We did no work nor projects together.  We did not swap gifts, nor make promises to each other, nor very often seek each other out.  She was always around, and she felt like a member of my family — but a member of my family that I was not close to.

After graduation, she went to one university and I went to another.  We did not see each other again for two years.  Then the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I was home from university.  One evening Terry called and invited me to visit her.  That was how it began.

I went to visit her the same evening she called.  We met a little after sunset at her house and, not wanting to hang around inside, we walked halfway down the grassy hill behind her house, and sat there to talk and watch the stars.  The dew was already forming in the grass.  Terry was a radical vegetarian feminist that summer.  I was a mystic.

After we’d caught up, she stretched out on the grass on her belly, and soon thereafter, I began gently rubbing and caressing her back.  She didn’t rebuff me.  Terry was a pretty woman, and she had a beautiful, petite figure.  It was the first time I’d ever touched her like that, and it excited me.

“I had a crush on you in fifth grade”, she said.

“Me too”, I confessed.

After a while she said, “It was because you made me laugh.”

“You remember!”

“Yes.” She said.

About then, her mother came to the back door to tell us we’d woken her up.  I didn’t think we’d been talking that loud, but Terry explained her mother was a light sleeper, and very sensitive to noise.  In whispers we decided to go for a drive.

A while later we were parked in the country.   We’d taken off our clothes, and I’d given Terry oral sex — the first time I’d done that for anyone.  So, now we were just talking with each other on a night when there wasn’t much of a moon.

It’s strange to look back on your past to see how much or how little you understood at the time.

Terry and I were still learning the basics of sex — and really, we didn’t know much about it —  but we spoke idealistically to each other that night about how sex could be just for fun and needn’t mean a thing and only fascists thought it always meant something — spoke to each other as if we were tired, old hands at sex.  We knew we didn’t love each other.  Not in any romantic way.

But then there was that bond.  The one that doesn’t have a name.

It should have been obvious to us.  Yet, we could no more see how entwined we were, and what that meant, than a fish can see the whole of the ocean it swims in.  If you had asked us what we were to each other that night, we would have told you, “friends”.  But it wasn’t really friendship that bonded us.  It was all those connections between us.

The summer was eventful.  She told me about feminism.  I told her about mysticism.  We compared notes on music.  We laughed a lot.  Discussed politics.  Went canoeing.  Took a road trip.  Watched a laser light show.  Even managed to get into a car accident together.  And towards summer’s end, we had intercourse for the first and last time.

The inevitable intercourse happened a week or two after Terry got out of the hospital following the car accident.  We were talking besides her swimming pool when the conversation lulled and there seemed nothing else to say that night but to mention I was horny and to ask her for sex.  “OK”, she said in much the same spirit.  I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely interested or just sticking to her principles of being a free spirit.

At that point, however, there was no swimming against it.

It could have been romantic: The moon was full and its light flowed like milk across Terry’s skin.  Her body was compact and beautiful.  When I smelled her hair, I recognized the smell of the earth mother for the first time in my life.  We were already connected in so many ways, and we were comfortable with each other.  And, of course, we were both young and hot for sex.  So, we had sex, and it was… it was technically correct — for we did everything we knew how to do, and we did it well, graciously, and with consideration for each other.  There was nothing bad about it, in fact.  It was even satisfying.  But it was passionless and uninspiring.

I really didn’t know what to make of it at the time.  Nowadays, I suppose the ways in which our lives were entwined, the connections between us — I suppose they had taken on their own logic, had imposed their own imperatives on us, like a river’s current.  What we did that night, we did almost — but not quite — as if it were fated for us.  The sex was simply an acknowledgment, or perhaps a confirmation, of what we meant to each other.

It might have been different if we’d been friends.  Or second cousins.  Or lovers.  But instead we were only that bond that has no name.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with those kinds of bonds.  Neither Terry nor I got hurt and we actually had some fun together — both while growing up together, and during that last summer.

It’s true that kind of bond has a tendency to confuse people: You think someone is your friend — or at least closer to you than they are — when in fact you only have that peculiar bond with each other.  But that’s not the fault of the bond itself.

We went our separate ways late in the summer.

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2 thoughts on “A River’s Current

  1. Oh Lord! Oh Lord! It would seem that you never grew up in small town America.

    A cauldron of intrigue and vicious gossip, incest and sin and hidden pools of evil.

    There might be the possibility of relief in a Hutterite community but you would be constantly surrounded by the dictums of your community’s religion and belief system.

    Plainness. Humility. Enforced by the constant scrutiny of your fellows, lest you fall away. No scholarship and book learning beyond the very basics. Too much temptation.

    Hard work. I’ve never been to a Hutterite church service but by necessity and the worship of humble virtue, it must be boring. No brilliant bursts of music, no instrumental accompaniment, the discordant singing of a dun group, but very likely robust in its tone and loudness.

    No brilliant sermons informed by scholarship. The same simple lessons over and over.

    But, it is a form of happiness. Belonging to a group. Taken care of by the group.

    No psychological exploring, no mysteries, no discovery.

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