You’re the first boy I’ve ever kissed,” she said to me.
It was a few days before the new year, and Jamie and I were standing at the Iron Steamer Pier in Pine Knoll Shores. To get there, we’d had to cross the bridge that spans the Intracoastal Waterway and drive a little way down the island. Nowadays the place has some of the most expensive beachfront property in the entire state, but back then it was mainly sand dunes nestled against the Maritime National Forest.
“I figured I might have been,” I said.
“Why?” she asked innocently. “Did I do it wrong?” She didn’t look like she’d be too upset if I’d said yes, but it wouldn’t have been the truth.
“You’re a great kisser,” I said, giving her hand a squeeze.
She nodded and turned toward the ocean, her eyes getting that far-off look again. She’d been doing that a lot lately. I let it go on for a while before the silence sort of got to me.
“Are you okay, Jamie?” I finally asked.
Instead of answering, she changed the subject.
“Have you ever been in love?” she asked me.
I ran my hand through my hair and gave her one of those looks. “You mean before now?”
I said it like James Dean would have, the way Eric had told me to say it if a girl ever asked me that question. Eric was pretty slick with girls.
“I’m serious, Landon,” she said, tossing me a sidelong glance.
I guess Jamie had seen those movies, too. With Jamie, I’d come to realize, I always seemed to be going from high to low and back to high again in less time than it takes to swat a mosquito. I wasn’t quite sure if I liked that part of our relationship yet, though to be honest, it kept me on my toes. I was still feeling off balance as I thought about her question.
“Actually, I have,” I said finally.
Her eyes were still fixed on the ocean. I think she thought I was talking about Angela, but looking back, I’d realized that what I’d felt for Angela was totally different from what I was feeling right now.
“How did you know it was love?” she asked me.
I watched the breeze gently moving her hair, and I knew that it was no time to pretend I was something that I actually wasn’t.
“Well,” I said seriously, “you know it’s love when all you want to do is spend time with the other person, and you sort of know that the other person feels the same way.”
Jamie thought about my answer before smiling faintly.
“I see,” she said softly. I waited for her to add something else, but she didn’t, and I came to another sudden realization.
Jamie may not have been all that experienced with boys, but to tell you the truth, she was playing me like a harp.
During the next two days, for instance, she wore her hair in a bun again.
On New Year’s Eve I took Jamie out to dinner. It was the very first real date she’d ever been on, and we went to a small waterfront restaurant in Morehead City, a place called Flauvin’s. Flauvin’s was the kind of restaurant with tablecloths and candles and five different pieces of silverware per setting. The waiters wore black and white, like butlers, and when you looked out the giant windows that completely lined the wall, you could watch moonlight reflecting off the slowly moving water.
There was a pianist and a singer, too, not every night or even every weekend, but on holidays when they thought the place would be full. I had to make reservations, and the first time I called they said they were filled, but I had my mom call them, and the next thing you knew, something had opened up. I guess the owner needed a favor from my father or something, or maybe he just didn’t want to make him angry, knowing that my grandfather was still alive and all.
It was actually my mom’s idea to take Jamie out someplace special. A couple of days before, on one of those days Jamie was wearing her hair in a bun, I talked to my mom about the things I was going through.
“She’s all I think about, Mom,” I confessed. “I mean, I know she likes me, but I don’t know if she feels the same way that I do.”
“Does she mean that much to you?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said quietly.
“Well, what have you tried so far?”
“What do you mean?”
My mom smiled. “I mean that young girls, even Jamie, like to be made to feel special.”
I thought about that for a moment, a little confused. Wasn’t that what I was trying to do?
“Well, I’ve been going to her house every day to visit,” I said.
My mom put her hand on my knee. Even though she wasn’t a great homemaker and sometimes stuck it to me, like I said earlier, she really was a sweet lady.
“Going to her house is a nice thing to do, but it’s not the most romantic thing there is. You should do something that will really let her know how you feel about her.”
My mom suggested buying some perfume, and though I knew that Jamie would probably be happy to receive it, it didn’t sound right to me. For one thing, since Hegbert didn’t allow her to wear makeup—with the single exception being the Christmas play—I was sure she couldn’t wear perfume. I told my mom as much, and that was when she’d suggested taking her out to dinner.
“I don’t have any money left,” I said to her dejectedly. Though my family was wealthy and gave me an allowance, they never gave me more if I ran through it too quickly. “It builds responsibility,” my father said, explaining it once.
“What happened to your money in the bank?”
I sighed, and my mom sat in silence while I explained what I had done. When I finished, a look of quiet satisfaction crossed her face, as if she, too, knew I was finally growing up.
“Let me worry about that,” she said softly. “You just find out if she’d like to go and if Reverend Sullivan will allow it. If she can, we’ll find a way to make it happen. I promise.”
The following day I went to the church. I knew that Hegbert would be in his office. I hadn’t asked Jamie yet because I figured she would need his permission, and for some reason I wanted to be the one who asked. I guess it had to do with the fact that Hegbert hadn’t exactly been welcoming me with open arms when I visited. Whenever he’d see me coming up the walkway—like Jamie, he had a sixth sense about it—he’d peek out the curtains, then quickly pull his head back behind them, thinking that I hadn’t seen him. When I knocked, it would take a long time for him to answer the door, as if he had to come from the kitchen. He’d look at me for a long moment, then sigh deeply and shake his head before finally saying hello.
His door was partially open, and I saw him sitting behind his desk, spectacles propped on his nose. He was looking over some papers—they looked almost financial—and I figured he was trying to figure out the church budget for the following year. Even ministers had bills to pay.
I knocked at the door, and he looked up with interest, as if he expected another member of the congregation, then furrowed his brow when he saw that it was me.
“Hello, Reverend Sullivan,” I said politely. “Do you have a moment?”
He looked even more tired than usual, and I assumed he wasn’t feeling well.
“Hello, Landon,” he said wearily.
I’d dressed sharply for the occasion, by the way, with a jacket and tie. “May I come in?”
He nodded slightly, and I entered the office. He motioned for me to sit in the chair across from his desk.
“What can I do for you?” he asked.
I adjusted myself nervously in the chair. “Well, sir, I wanted to ask you something.”
He stared at me, studying me before he finally spoke. “Does it have to do with Jamie?” he asked.
I took a deep breath.
“Yes, sir. I wanted to ask if it would be all right with you if I took her to dinner on New Year’s Eve.”
He sighed. “Is that all?” he said.
“Yes, sir,” I said. “I’ll bring her home any time you’d need me to.”
He took off his spectacles and wiped them with his handkerchief before putting them back on. I could tell he was taking a moment to think about it.
“Will your parents be joining you?” he asked.
“Then I don’t think that will be possible. But thank you for asking my permission first.” He looked down at the papers, making it clear it was time for me to leave. I stood from my chair and started toward the door. As I was about to go, I faced him again.
He looked up, surprised I was still there. “I’m sorry for those things I used to do when I was younger, and I’m sorry that I didn’t always treat Jamie the way she should have been treated. But from now on, things will change. I promise you that.”
He seemed to look right through me. It wasn’t enough.
“I love her,” I said finally, and when I said it, his attention focused on me again.
“I know you do,” he answered sadly, “but I don’t want to see her hurt.” Even though I must have been imagining it, I thought I saw his eyes begin to water.
“I wouldn’t do that to her,” I said.
He turned from me and looked out the window, watching as the winter sun tried to force its way through the clouds. It was a gray day, cold and bitter.
“Have her home by ten,” he finally said, as though he knew he’d made the wrong decision.
I smiled and wanted to thank him, though I didn’t. I could tell that he wanted to be alone. When I glanced over my shoulder on my way out the door, I was puzzled to see his face in his hands.
I asked Jamie an hour later. The first thing she said was that she didn’t think she could go, but I told her that I’d already spoken to her father. She seemed surprised, and I think it had an effect on how she viewed me after that. The one thing I didn’t tell her was that it looked almost as though Hegbert had been crying as I’d made my way out the door. Not only didn’t I understand it completely, I didn’t want her to worry. That night, though, after talking to my mom again, she provided me with a possible explanation, and to be honest, it made perfect sense to me. Hegbert must have come to the realization that his daughter was growing up and that he was slowly losing her to me. In a way, I hoped that was true.
I picked her up right on schedule. Though I hadn’t asked her to wear her hair down, she’d done it for me. Silently we drove over the bridge, down the waterfront to the restaurant. When we got to the hostess stand, the owner himself appeared and walked us to our table. It was one of the better ones in the place.
It was crowded by the time we arrived, and all around us people were enjoying themselves. On New Year’s people dressed fashionably, and we were the only two teenagers in the place. I didn’t think we looked too out of place, though.
Jamie had never been to Flauvin’s before, and it took her just a few minutes to take it all in. She seemed nervously happy, and I knew right away that my mom had made the right suggestion.
“This is wonderful,” she said to me. “Thank you for asking me.”
“My pleasure,” I said sincerely.
“Have you been here before?”
“A few times. My mother and father like to come here sometimes when my father comes home from Washington.”
She looked out the window and stared at a boat that was passing by the restaurant, its lights blazing. For a moment she seemed lost in wonder. “It’s beautiful here,” she said.
“So are you,” I answered.
Jamie blushed. “You don’t mean that.”
“Yes,” I said quietly, “I do.”
We held hands while we waited for dinner, and Jamie and I talked about some of the things that had happened in the past few months. She laughed when we talked about the homecoming dance, and I finally admitted the reason I’d asked her in the first place. She was a good sport about it—she sort of laughed it off cheerfully—and I knew that she’d already figured it out on her own.
“Would you want to take me again?” she teased.
Dinner was delicious—we both ordered the sea bass and salads, and when the waiter finally removed our plates, the music started up. We had an hour left before I had to take her home, and I offered her my hand.
At first we were the only ones on the floor, everyone watching us as we glided around the floor. I think they all knew how we were feeling about each other, and it reminded them of when they were young, too. I could see them smiling wistfully at us. The lights were dim, and when the singer began a slow melody, I held her close to me with my eyes closed, wondering if anything in my life had ever been this perfect and knowing at the same time that it hadn’t.
I was in love, and the feeling was even more wonderful than I ever imagined it could be.
After New Year’s we spent the next week and a half together, doing the things that young couples did back then, though from time to time she seemed tired and listless. We spent time down by the Neuse River, tossing stones in the water, watching the ripples while we talked, or we went to the beach near Fort Macon. Even though it was winter, the ocean the color of iron, it was something that both of us enjoyed doing. After an hour or so Jamie would ask me to take her home, and we’d hold hands in the car. Sometimes, it seemed, she would almost nod off before we even got home, while other times she would keep up a stream of chatter all the way back so that I could barely get a word in edgewise.
Of course, spending time with Jamie also meant doing the things she enjoyed as well. Though I wouldn’t go to her Bible study class—I didn’t want to look like an idiot in front of her—we did visit the orphanage twice more, and each time we went there, I felt more at home. Once, though, we’d had to leave early, because she was running a slight fever. Even to my untrained eyes, it was clear that her face was flushed.
We kissed again, too, though not every time we were together, and I didn’t even think of trying to make it to second base. There wasn’t any need to. There was something nice when I kissed her, something gentle and right, and that was enough for me. The more I did it, the more I realized that Jamie had been misunderstood her entire life, not only by me, but by everyone.
Jamie wasn’t simply the minister’s daughter, someone who read the Bible and did her best to help others. Jamie was also a seventeen-year-old girl with the same hopes and doubts that I had. At least, that’s what I assumed, until she finally told me.
I’ll never forget that day because of how quiet she had been, and I had the funny feeling all day long that something important was on her mind.
I was walking her home from Cecil’s Diner on the Saturday before school started up again, a day blustery with a fierce, biting wind. A nor’easter had been blowing in since the previous morning, and while we walked, we’d had to stand close to each other to stay warm. Jamie had her arm looped through mine, and we were walking slowly, even more slowly than usual, and I could tell she wasn’t feeling well again. She hadn’t really wanted to go with me because of the weather, but I’d asked her because of my friends. It was time, I remember thinking, that they finally knew about us. The only problem, as fate would have it, was that no one else was at Cecil’s Diner. As with many coastal communities, things were quiet on the waterfront in the middle of winter.
She was quiet as we walked, and I knew that she was thinking of a way to tell me something. I didn’t expect her to start the conversation as she did.
“People think I’m strange, don’t they,” she finally said, breaking the silence.
“Who do you mean?” I asked, even though I knew the answer.
“People at school.”
“No, they don’t,” I lied.
I kissed her cheek as I squeezed her arm a little tighter to me. She winced, and I could tell that I’d hurt her somehow.
“Are you okay?” I asked, concerned.
“I’m fine,” she said, regaining her composure and keeping the subject on track. “Will you do me a favor, though?”
“Anything,” I said.
“Will you promise to tell me the truth from now on? I mean always?”
“Sure,” I said.
She stopped me suddenly and looked right at me. “Are you lying to me right now?”
“No,” I said defensively, wondering where this was going. “I promise that from now on, I’ll always tell you the truth.”
Somehow, when I said it, I knew that I’d come to regret it.
We started walking again. As we moved down the street, I glanced at her hand, which was looped through mine, and I saw a large bruise just below her ring finger. I had no idea where it had come from, since it hadn’t been there the day before. For a second I thought it might have been caused by me, but then I realized that I hadn’t even touched her there.
“People think I’m strange, don’t they?” she asked again.
My breath was coming out in little puffs.
“Yes,” I finally answered. It hurt me to say it.
“Why?” She looked almost despondent.
I thought about it. “People have different reasons,” I said vaguely, doing my best not to go any further.
“But why, exactly? Is it because of my father? Or is it because I try to be nice to people?”
I didn’t want anything to do with this.
“I suppose,” was all I could say. I felt a little queasy.
Jamie seemed disheartened, and we walked a little farther in silence.
“Do you think I’m strange, too?” she asked me.
The way she said it made me ache more than I thought it would. We were almost at her house before I stopped her and held her close to me. I kissed her, and when we pulled apart, she looked down at the ground.
I put my finger beneath her chin, lifting her head up and making her look at me again. “You’re a wonderful person, Jamie. You’re beautiful, you’re kind, you’re gentle . . . you’re everything that I’d like to be. If people don’t like you, or they think you’re strange, then that’s their problem.”
In the grayish glow of a cold winter day, I could see her lower lip begin to tremble. Mine was doing the same thing, and I suddenly realized that my heart was speeding up as well. I looked in her eyes, smiling with all the feeling I could muster, knowing that I couldn’t keep the words inside any longer.
“I love you, Jamie,” I said to her. “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.”
It was the first time I’d ever said the words to another person besides a member of my immediate family. When I’d imagined saying it to someone else, I’d somehow thought it would be hard, but it wasn’t. I’d never been more sure of anything.
As soon as I said the words, though, Jamie bowed her head and started to cry, leaning her body into mine. I wrapped my arms around her, wondering what was wrong. She was thin, and I realized for the first time that my arms went all the way around her. She’d lost weight, even in the last week and a half, and I remembered that she’d barely touched her food earlier. She kept crying into my chest for what seemed like a long time. I wasn’t sure what to think, or even if she felt the same way I did. Even so, I didn’t regret the words. The truth is always the truth, and I’d just promised her that I would never lie again.
“Please don’t say that,” she said to me. “Please . . .”
“But I do,” I said, thinking she didn’t believe me.
She began to cry even harder. “I’m sorry,” she whispered to me through her ragged sobs. “I’m so, so sorry. . . .”
My throat suddenly went dry.
“Why’re you sorry?” I asked, suddenly desperate to understand what was bothering her. “Is it because of my friends and what they’ll say? I don’t care anymore—I really don’t.” I was reaching for anything, confused and, yes—scared.
It took another long moment for her to stop crying, and in time she looked up at me. She kissed me gently, almost like the breath of a passerby on a city street, then ran her finger over my cheek.
“You can’t be in love with me, Landon,” she said through red and swollen eyes. “We can be friends, we can see each other . . . but you can’t love me.”
“Why not?” I shouted hoarsely, not understanding any of this.
“Because,” she finally said softly, “I’m very sick, Landon.”
The concept was so absolutely foreign that I couldn’t comprehend what she was trying to say.
“So what? You’ll take a few days . . .”
A sad smile crossed her face, and I knew right then what she was trying to tell me. Her eyes never left mine as she finally said the words that numbed my soul.
“I’m dying, Landon.”