No French Kisses
I had my first real date at the age of eleven and a half. I remember not being able to sleep the night before, a trouble normally reserved only for the night before school started again after a long and happy summer vacation. But the night before my first real date, I was more restless than ever, checking my book bag again and again, making sure that I had the five dollars that would buy me my slice of pizza, my slice of middle school heaven.
His name was John McGrath,* and my pack of girlfriends had cornered him on the playground during recess the week before and began the negotiations that would make him my official boyfriend. The terms of our agreement seemed clear enough. He accepted the proposal to date me because I was well versed in the Yankees’ infield and because I showed exceptional skill at routine kickball games during gym class. I was not entirely bad looking, I was a tomboy, and I had not yet started to wear a bra (a fact that was readily observable, given the practical transparency of our thin, white uniform shirts)—these three things seemed to play to my favor. Not being particularly pretty, not being particularly endowed, and not being particularly a girl seemed to make me agreeable to John McGrath. I must have seemed less scary than most of the other girls in our class, who were stuffing their bras and stealing makeup from their older sisters to share with each other in the bathroom at lunchtime.
The bargain John McGrath struck with my friends was straightforward—he would be my boyfriend as long as I didn’t expect to hold hands with him on a regular basis. We would not talk on the phone. And we would never French kiss.
I was fine with his terms. Actually, I was elated. In my small-town Catholic school, there were only thirty kids in my class, the same thirty kids who had been there since the first day of kindergarten and the same thirty who would graduate eighth grade having gone through the best and worst parts of puberty together. There were only seven boys in our class of thirty. Seven. And by the fourth grade, girls had gotten pretty cutthroat to secure a boyfriend. Collecting and trading stickers was suddenly unpopular—collecting and trading boyfriends became the rage.
Our friends arranged for us to go on our first date the day school recessed for Easter break. On the days before Christmas and Easter breaks and on certain holy days of obligation, grades K–8 would pack into the church for an agonizing hour-long Mass before school let out at noon, the rare and wonderful half day. Since fifth grade, my parents had always let me walk to the pizza parlor down the street with my girlfriends for lunch on half days. They gave me five dollars and promised to punish me if I did not let the crossing guard help me across the small town’s busiest intersection. We always had such adventures on those half days! We crossed the street several times over—first to the pizza parlor, then across to the ice-cream shop, and then to the drug store for whatever candy we could afford with the change from our five-dollar outing. We marched happily from one side of Main Street to the other and back again, the sheer thrill of disregarding the crosswalk pulsating through our veins. We would sit on the benches outside the drug store, giggling with what felt like freedom, honest-to-God independence. We shook with laughter from the high of too much sugar and no one to scold us. We talked about boys, about Tim Johnson and John McGrath, about how we wanted to French kiss them (even though none of us had ever even been kissed on the cheek).
I was surprised that John McGrath agreed to come with us to the pizza parlor after Mass that day. Having already publicly stated that we were in a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship, our being in the same space, outside of school, made the trip an official date. Of course, he had agreed to come only if his two best friends could be there, a fact that delighted my girlfriends and kept them up at night from nervousness, imagining that they could date his friends and we could all get married together. We talked about how we wanted our wedding dresses to look and where we wanted to honeymoon. Nothing was happier to imagine.
When the big day finally arrived, I woke up extra early to get ready. I carefully put my hair up in my lucky yellow scrunchie. I wore my newest pair of uniform navy knee socks, the pair that looked the best. And I wore my favorite white uniform shirt, the one that was the softest, a hand-me-down from my sister, that had seen at least six years of constant washes. I doused myself with the grass-scented perfume I bought at the Gap, and went to school knowing that it would be the single most important day of my life.
John McGrath did not look at me once during first period pre-algebra. He did not look at me during second period science, or third period history class. Only as we lined up at the front of the classroom to march into church did he smile at me, faintly. “I’m really looking forward to our date today!” I said too eagerly. He nodded once, and our teacher at the front of the line shot me a look that warned me not to talk again.
I sat impatiently in Mass for what felt like eternity, desperate throughout the homily for my world to officially start at noon. When we were finally set free, I waited on the playground for John to meet me so we could walk to the pizza parlor together. I wondered if he would offer to carry my books, like I’d seen in the old movies that my grandparents made me watch when I visited them. I rolled down my knee socks, exposing knees that were scabbed from soccer practice and a little fuzzy, having never been shaved. Rolling down my knee socks signified that I was done with school for the day, ready for adventure, ready for anything. My girlfriends were there with me, their socks clustered clumsily around their ankles as well. We were all wearing our lucky scrunchies. We were all wearing lip-gloss.
Our date was going smoothly enough. We spent the whole hour talking only to our own friends, and never to each other. Occasionally, I’d glance at him and he’d glance back. I felt positive that he was as in love with me as I was with him. We had a connection so powerful that we didn’t even have to communicate it, or communicate with each other—at all. When the boys finished their pizza, we told them about our tradition of crossing the street and getting ice cream, an idea they seemed to like.
John told me that he had run out of money, that he had only brought three dollars for pizza, that he couldn’t afford any ice cream. I remember that, that he used the word “afford,” a word that sounded incredibly adult and important; I thought that it added to the legitimacy and maturity of our date. I told him that I would pay for his ice cream, since I still had two dollars to spare. He shrugged. “Are you sure that you don’t want any ice cream?” It was clear that I would only be able to buy one.
“No, I’m totally full,” I lied. I loved ice cream. But I loved John McGrath more.
“Okay then.” He ordered a chocolate cone with sprinkles, and I handed the cashier my two dollars. As I watched John enjoy the chocolate licks, one by one, I felt like I was sacrificing for the one I loved, going without so he could be happy. It was an idea that was incredibly familiar to a kid in Catholic school—perfect love was always tied to perfect sacrifice. As he worked his way down the cone, I felt a strange sense of satisfaction. I was like Jesus Christ. I was like the Giving Tree.
The boys weren’t done eating their ice cream when they decided it was time to leave. They were going to John’s house to play basketball all afternoon. They simply could not stay a moment longer. John got up to go with them, but lingered a moment, chocolate stains from ice cream at the corners of his smile.
“I’ve got to go now,” he told me.
“I know,” I said. It seemed like the right thing to say.
“I’ll see you at school,” he told me.
“Okay,” I said. “Have a good Easter.”
He turned and took five steps away. And then he turned back to face me. Maybe it was because he felt obliged since I bought him ice cream, or maybe it was because his friends were egging him on, or maybe (as I thought then) it was because he really was in love with me with his whole heart—he walked up to me and kissed me quickly on the lips, no French kissing as per our agreement. He took off in a run, and his friends followed him.
My girlfriends crowded around me screaming and jumping up and down. “He kissed you! He kissed you!”
“I know! I know!”
“Well?” They waited for my response.
“He tasted like chocolate,” I told them. And of course, he had tasted that way, needed to taste that way, to keep with the fantasy of it all, the innocent dreaminess of a first date and a first kiss, the strange perfection of crumpled navy knee socks and the high-pitched giggles of the girls who wore them.
I watched the boys run away, their light blue shirts untucked from their navy khakis, and faintly heard them tease John for the kiss he’d just given me. “You’re gonna marry him!” my girlfriends cooed and swooned. And I nodded in agreement with them, because (as I thought then) I certainly would.
The thing about Catholic school, about growing up Catholic, is that it prioritizes the sacred, the ceremonious, the ability to create something holy out of otherwise profane time. What we are taught as easily as biology, as matter-of-factly as mathematics, is a sense of wonder, that there is a transcendent and overarching God at play, that love is what propels the universe. Every single memory I have of growing up in Catholic school is permeated with this strange and special love-wonder, a quality powerful enough to sanctify even the most unextraordinary first kisses, the most unenviable heartaches and hardships.
* names changed to protect the pre-pubescent
Reprinted with the permission of the Liturgical Press.
Sarah Keller contributed to Spirituality 101: The Indispensable Guide to Keeping—or Finding—Your Spiritual Life on Campus (Skylight Paths, 2004) and graduated from Harvard Divinity School with her Master of Theological Studies in 2008. She graduated from The College of the Holy Cross in 2006, and is a writer/editor for SourceAid LLC.