There was a lot of snow that year. It started early in the season and fell in slippery globs that stuck. Bits of Lake Michigan that had not been convinced completely they could no longer make things wet. At the roadside it attracted dirt and turned into newsprint rainbows, all shades of yellow to brown, brown to black. It squirted from beneath car tires in great waves of grimy slush and left a dark puddle at the bottom of every footprint.
In storms the snow crowded the sound out of the air. It was quiet as a library a block away from Joe Orr road during rush hour. At night the snow captured light, reflecting streetlamps and grocery store signs so all of Chicago Heights was bathed in a cataclysm of muddy hues that came from everywhere at once.
It had just turned November, and so the snow still had the personality of Christmas to be, a friend that would provide days off from school. It would be months until it took on the wrath of the vengeful lake shore effect meterology that would keep us away from short-sleeved springtime. Fall was on and winter was coming. We were ready for sleep-in holidays. Sparking lights and snowball fights. Glazed turkey and warm apple cider.
That fall I was hanging out with Mike Hennel. He'd been fooling around with holography in his basement and winning science fairs the way some kids smack homers in sandlot baseball. I'd seen a laser at the Museum of Science and Industry and I was a moth to it, anxious to get closer to the liquid light I was sure pointed straight toward the future and new everything. Mike had invented a couple interesting laser devices. He showed me how to transmit sound over a light beam, and how he'd made a red three-D picture of a tiny rocket statue that hovered in space like the ghost of some demonic technology.
Now the truth was I'd have given up the lasers for women if I could have figured out how to get one interested in me. But it was no use. I was worse than a wallflower at the school dances. I was a no-show and in those days mothers worried when their sons didn't have girlfriends or go to dances. The prospect of courtship was about as terrifying as open heart surgery without anesthesia. We figured that sooner or later something would happen girl-wise, perhaps we'd haphazardly knock the eye out of one in a hallway with a slide rule or trip over one in a park, and that's how a conversation would get started that would eventually lead to marriage and kids and station wagons.
Moms know better, though, and she got Mike signed up for the homecoming parade float construction and he did the same for me, and before I realized what was going on Mike's mom was dropping off the two of us in the front yard of a single-story ranch with an opened garage door.
They hadn't shoveled their driveway, these people hosting the float, so we followed the line of footprints, stepping with our sneakers into the footholes our predecessors had made in the drifts, our feet becoming promptly wet as the inch of water at the bottom of each footprint seeped into the canvas.
We sloshed into the garage nearly unnoticed, and because the activity absorbed us like raindrops into an ocean, Mike's mom drove away, presumably happy she'd done her part to inject her boy and me into the high school social agenda, completely unaware that the social circle we'd just stepped into was likely to pretend we didn't exist and lock us in the garage when they left like a pair of rusty pliers.
I made a cursory circuit of the action. Kids were stapling construction paper and chicken wire to a wooden form someone had built over a rusting '69 Buick Skylark. A few of the guys acknowledged me, but most of the girls came by and said hi, and went back to stapling and painting and shoving the boys with their hips, making them misplace staples and smear paint in odd places.
Inside the house, the parents had put out a variety of soft drinks and snacks. Some of the kids hung around the snack table talking. I got a hello out of one or two of them. Found Ed Herbst from my English Lit class, and we talked about nothing for a couple minutes. Then I went back into the garage, found one of the girls who seemed to be directing things by virtue of living in that house, and got her to give me something to do. The something was making "flowers" out of squares of crepe paper and pushing them in the spaces between the chicken wire and the wooden frame on the Buick Skylark.
I occupied myself doing that nearly silently for long enough that it got dark outside and the frigid air on the garage floor made my wet feet first hurt, then go numb. And I didn't know where Mike had gone nor did I care. I just kept looking out the garage door toward the street for Mike's family car, hoping it would come get me out of this festive social arrangement and back to the lasers and holograms.
Holograms were on my mind when a pair of gloved hands appeared beside mine and popped a few paper flowers behind the chicken wire close to where I was putting mine.
The hands were attached to arms which were attached to a girl named Cathy for whom, at various points in my hormonal development, I'd been stricken with passion like the gasps of a drowning man for his last breath of dry air. I'm sure someone somewhere knows why in some youth the first stirring of sexual desire comes upon one as fear, and in some, brilliant irresistable charisma that makes it possible for even ugly men to attract dates. Those feelings woke upon my seeing her, and I found myself unable to speak, frozen in terror, fighing myself inside--one side of wanting to force words from my lungs, the other absolutely certain the first syllable would doom me to banishment from the human gene pool.
Some girls understand, and she did. She coaxed the voice out of me like a skilled trainer brings a wild horse to the saddle. I don't remember what we talked about, only that her face was like summer under the pudgy weave of the hat she'd knit herself. A pink scarf her mom had made. Her first attempt at a sweater, did I like it? She twirled once and I nodded I liked it and tried to inhale all the air molecules that spun from her.
Didn't I think her new apres-ski boots were great?
I thought her whole wardrobe was positively the stuff of a Paris runway. I was sure touching a single strand of cotton from her underwear could make a blind man see and resurrect roadkill.
She talked, and I answered, mostly, unable to figure out how to interject anything interrogative, how to bring up something that would enable me to say more than one sentence in an exchange, wondering where the horrible stutter came from I'd never had before.
Then she took me by the hand and tugged, letting go when I couldn't unglue my feet from the gravitation pull of the garage floor. She took a few steps and looked back, and somehow I followed, my almost frozen Converse All Stars squishing like sponges that contained my surely dead feet.
I followed her to the side of the house where there were some trees. The afternoon sky had turned from battleship gray to dark wrought iron and snow began to fall in big flakes.
"You can catch them on your tongue, like Charlie Brown," she said, and tried. I did too, immediately feeling ridiculous. So I stopped and saw she was watching me.
"Kind of silly," I said, or something like it when she put her hands on my shoulders, closed her eyes, and drew herself toward me. Her lips only inches from mine she sighed a small cloud that touched my face and disappeared.
Love at first sight is the feeling of distinct familarity--that the person who is the object of your love is someone you've known forever. That there could be no alternative to adoration because it had been set in the clockwork of the universe when God made the planets.
And I thought, at that moment, with beautiful Cathy pulling herself toward me, an embrace that would bring our hearts to mere inches separated only by bone and flesh and a few layers of wool and various cotton products, her lips parted, waiting for my kiss in the silence and the light of the snow all around us--I believed in flying horses and three wishes I'd be granted.
I wished to be at that moment in the snow forever. I have been inside winter since.
A car horn sounded. I walked toward it. Cathy was already in the house.
Inside the car, Mike's mom shot me a wry smile from the driver's seat and Mike said, "You kissed her."
"I did not," I said.
"Don't lie. We saw you. Mom saw you first."
His mother smiled again and negotiated the deepening precipitation. Then she shook her head silently while staring at the road.
"You kissed her," Mike said again. And then he did what most teenaged boys do when one confirms a sexual conquest. He slugged me in the shoulder as hard as he could.
It hurt. I couldn't complain. I couldn't get my eyes off his Mom, who started to say something to me, then didn't.
"I didn't kiss her," I said as I got out of the car. I thanked Mrs. Hennel for the ride and said, "I didn't," to her as if begging innocence of a murder. As if I believed she thought I could have possibly done it. As if my meaning to live had disappeared like the clouds of one's breath.
She was trying not to laugh when I closed the door.
A month later we moved away from Illinois. I never saw Mike or Cathy again.
Last night my middle daughter came to me with a book in hand.
"I found you," she said, and plopped my sophomore year book on the kitchen table in front of me. She pointed at the black-and-white of a kid with long curly hair, a plaid jacket, thick wire-rimmed glasses and a woolen tie.
I told her, "Yep. I was as old as you are now. We dressed different then."
"No kidding. Look at this. These clothes are ridiculous."
I said, "Well, fashions were different in those days, and also, I went to a Catholic school so we had a dress code," and I realized that the things she was doing now would change her life forever. She'd reached that stage where memories would stick in her mind and glue her to slivers of time that would hold her.
I flipped over a couple pages to where I knew Cathy's picture would be. I'd spent days staring at it as a young man. I hadn't seen it it years. My memory hadn't faded. The picture of her in my mind was as true as the one on the paper in front of me. I still feel like I know her.
"Here, put this back where you got it," I said to my daughter, handing her the book like something that smelled bad and needed to be removed.
I wondered how things might have been different. Had something happened between me and Cathy, my daughters would never be here. Maybe I'd never have had the jobs I did. Never went to Antarctica. Never travelled the world or learned high-tech. Never worked on computers or skied Aspen or climbed the Grand Canyon.
All these years later that winter of '78 is still inside me. Her breath. Her heartbeat. The sound of her sigh. The way the snow lit her and turned her into a fairy tale goddess.
Two inches that might as well have been farther than the stars.