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I’ve been thinking about our phantom Valentines — not actual lovers who passed on to someone else or passed away, but the ones who thrilled us secretly, who we loved and never told, maybe never even touched, the ones whose lives we passed through briefly and who passed through ours, leaving us breathless.
It’s no accident that the term for this kind of love is ‘crush,’ the way it so often ends, but not always.
The summer after 7th grade, my secret love was Bob Goodman, my friend Beth’s older brother. Bob was a senior at the same high school as my brother, and went steady with a sturdy basketball player named Pam. Everyone knew they would marry as soon as they graduated high school. They already acted like an old married couple, eating together and attending a pack of kids like pros, but Pam had a job this summer and was well outside our daily ritual.
The pack of kids were the Goodman children, a station wagon full of them, all sandy-haired with aquamarine eyes, ranging in age from the baby who stayed at home with their mother, to Bob, the oldest, who drove the others to the VFW pool out on the highway every day. Most days I stood waiting at the cyclone fence, feet burning on the concrete, when the Goodmans pulled up in Bob’s rusted pink station wagon. The doors flew open and a jumble of kids spilled out in all directions, like ants from a collapsed anthill.
Bob emerged golden and compact with mahogany nipples and a faded Hawaiian-print swimsuit that drooped below his navel and hung down to his knees. His legs were fuzzy and sun-dyed.
Beth and I practiced new dives — swan dive, jackknife, flip —did water ballet, touched the drain in the deep end, and swam lengths of the pool underwater, holding our breath the whole way. Bob hung out in the shallow end with the little Goodmans, throwing them in the air, flipping them backward, letting them crawl up his torso like monkeys. When Beth and I were tired of showing off, we swam to Bob and he flipped us. We paddled back for more and I clung to his back, smelling his sweet coconut skin.
Forty-five years later, out in the middle distance, I can still feel the sun on my face.
Some days the Goodmans took me to their house for lunch — a big old rundown house with slumping porches and ragged trees, overgrown shrubs and a yard full of toys. Cats rubbed our ankles as we crossed the front porch and the little kids burst inside. The Goodman’s mother was soft and curvy with wavy hair, a baby slung on one hip and a black telephone receiver in the other. In the kitchen, loaves of Sunbeam bread lay open on the cabinet with tubs of peanut butter, bowls of sweaty apples, ripe bananas and unwashed dishes. We ate fast, kids running in and out of the warm summer kitchen. Bob kissed his mother and wiped off sticky cheeks and mouths. Beth showed me her room — a rat’s nest in the attic with a basketball goal over the door and an open window with no screen.
Dark pictures of saints and one of Mary and Jesus — the mother muscular, her pale grownup son draped across her enormous lap — hung on the living room wall. The Goodmans were Catholics, the first I had ever known. We were Baptists and our house was neat and clean, our mother timid, our brother distant and remote. I loved the Goodman’s messy house where it seemed life spiraled in the fecund air. I wondered: Was being Catholic what made Bob so nice to his mother, to his little brothers and sisters, to Beth who sometimes told him he sucked? To me? Was being Catholic what made Bob Goodman glow with goodness?
After lunch, the little Goodmans stayed home for a nap with their mother and the baby, and Bob drove the rest of us back to the VFW where we spent the afternoon paddling lazily around the pool. Bob threw out his arms and floated, his head arched backward just like the picture of Jesus in his mother’s arms. I loved him more than Paul Newman, more than the Beatles, more than Pam did, I was sure. I held my breath and swam right under him, back and forth in the shadowy cool depths until finally, lungs aching, I came up for air, breaking through the water’s smooth surface to the brilliant world above.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.