I never could have imagined growing up somewhere besides Houma, Louisiana, a sleepy little town nestled in the bayous of southeast Louisiana. It was such a small town that there wasn’t even a McDonald’s. We had Southland Mall with its D.H. Holmes, but beyond our fence in the backyard were acres upon acres of fields with weeds six feet tall.
My mom stayed home with my brothers and me and often took us with her to run errands. We bounced around the back of her brown Mercury station wagon while we waited for the greasy-haired man to pump our gas and check the oil at the lone Amoco station. When he was through, he offered us a handful of Double Bubble gum. Individually wrapped pieces of sugary goodness that under ordinary circumstances were never allowed to pass our lips. I took my time untwisting the wax paper before popping a powdery piece into my mouth. I always saved the second one for later.
Because it was such a small town, everyone knew everything about everyone else. Bad news blew about like an angry wind, bringing little leaves with stories scrawled upon them.
One day a particularly devastating incident crushed us. Unfortunately it involved a quiet, brown-eyed boy named Kevin Culpepper who was in my first-grade class at school. He and his dad were out fishing when a storm rose up like a monster and raced across the sky, dropping darkness in its wake. Lightning struck Kevin’s father and he died instantly. Kevin, at the tender age of six, managed to maneuver the boat back to shore by himself and call for help. How he did that I’ll never know, and imagining the scene made my heart hurt for him.
When he returned to school a few weeks later, he was almost mute. I knew better than to say anything about it to him, especially since my mom had discussed it with me at length. I eyed him from afar and desperately wanted to give him a big hug. But I was too scared. And I had a crush on him.
One day at recess we were playing tetherball. It was hot outside, so we took a break and sat down on the cement-filled tire. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a tiny crumpled piece of paper, upon which I’d scribbled, “I love you, Kevin.” Shyly and with averted eyes I handed it to him, along with the other piece of Double Bubble I’d saved. His eyes scanned the words slowly. He pocketed the gum and leaned forward quickly, kissing me on the cheek before he galloped away.
I sat there, stunned. It took me a few minutes to realize that an incredible boy I liked had just pressed his soft lips to my cheek. And that this boy had one foot firmly planted in innocence with the other thrust painfully, suddenly, into manhood. Straddling two worlds, he was an enigma. I was in awe of him.
My whole world had shifted.