I was nine years old. I was precocious (mentally, emotional, sexually...particularly for a boy). I remember marveling at such statuary as the Venus de Milo and the paintings of Reubens. While I was powerfully drawn to the bodies of those women, my taste in large breasts and buttocks didn't seem to cross over. Nevertheless, I was hanging out in the art section of the library earlier than most guys my age.
I know that a young male's attraction to women is insatiable, and perfectly logical, given our stage entrance (so to speak). But it seems most young men begin this fascination later -- usually around twelve or thirteen years old; and, it seems, there is a certain amount of embarrassment and avoidance that accompanies our first experiences with the erotic. I joke that Cupid used me for target practice while I was in diapers. I'm not bragging, definitely, but I'm not ashamed of my preferences, either. This is definitely not an apology.
And it's important to know this -- my attraction to females and to art-work depicting them in various seductive poses and state of dress (or undress -- but please, keep in mind that this is me at age nine) wasn't limited to statues or paintings. And I don't mean that I was a peeping Tom. A woman should be given the opportunity to choose sharing her secrets, or not, as she prefers.
Now, consider a statue of mythological lovers (I had noticed it as part of a display in front of a marble statuary and headstone showroom on Speer Blvd. many, many years ago). I though about this image often. I never missed an opportunity to see it whenever we (my family and I) would happen to be in that part of Denver. I learned later (years?) that the statue depicted Apollo embracing Daphne.
I marveled at, revered, hungered for the graceful, gentle but powerful manner in which the naked woman and naked man were embracing each other. It was a model for some as yet forbidden knowledge, and it pulled at some part of me that was now beginning to awaken. They were flawless and innocent, and the grandeur and audacity of their pose touched me, literally; I could feel that embrace across the distance of time and space once I had seen it. It formed forever my view of desire and my approach to a sexual relationship with women.
I repeat, I was nine years old during the following experience, and even by that age I'd fallen in love with two girls my age (not at the same time -- at least then I was faithful). I'd also fallen in love with my third grade teacher, who must have been fresh from college, probably twenty two or three years old. Her skin, I imagined (if I could have touched more than the back of her hand or forearm by "accident") would have been smoother than the texture of a brand new Wilson's first baseman's glove.
There was also a girl my age living next door -- a pretty blond. She was certainly as attractive to me as my first girlfriend, Tammy (in first grade) had been, and my summer Bible-school sweetheart, Darla.
But Diana, my neighbor, and I were spit and punch buddies. We played tackle football with the neighborhood group. She was a tomboy that wrestled, no holds barred (with a few bloody noses to prove it ) much to the disapproval of her mother, the first "stage mother" I 'd met, though I didn't know what that meant, or why she held those tearful audiences with us after some rough and tumble play ended with a potential scar on Diana's delicate face. Of course, on reflection, I certainly do, and it seems barbarian of me that I might ever have left such a scar, however small.
Still, we jumped together from trees into freshly raked piles of leaves, raced together downhill on "sleds" made of rolled up cardboard sheets we'd torn from appliance boxes. We played baseball on the same neighborhood team. And she was, simply, my best friend from well before kindergarten (when I first moved into the neighborhood) until fifth grade, when my family moved, and I never saw her again, except in photographs. She later bloomed into a beautiful young woman, whose face I recognized, but only through the impish glint in her bright blue eyes.
On a summer afternoon that became one of those inviolate places in the heart -- it was July...I remember the smell of burnt powder, and the sound of fading bottle-rockets and Black Cat firecrackers. I was sitting on the hatch of what had been a coal-bin chute when my family had first moved to this neighborhood. By that time the furnace had been converted to gas, but many houses in the neighborhood still had the hatches and bins where the coal trucks used to back up and stock-pile the fuel for the older heating systems.
I was watching a patch of dirt where I had learned from friends that an "ant-lion" lived. At least that's what my friends and I called the curious insect, or arachnid life-form that burrowed a tiny nest just below the surface of the ground, leaving a funnel-shaped entrance. I wouldn't put another insect in harm's way (or I couldn't find one), but I waited for otherwise undistracted prey to wander by, to fall into that tiny trap.
I waited in watchful silence. My younger brother was gone somewhere, perhaps playing with his friends; my mother was immersed in some arcane project. The stillness in the shade of the north side of the house was cool, and a sleepy, dreamlike feeling was reinforced by the whispering of maple leaves above me. Diana's yard was just on the other side of a fence behind me. It was her family's tree that lulled and quieted my afternoon meditation on this microverse.
I heard a whispering sound. At first it was so much like leaves in the wind that I leaned further toward a drowsy sleep. Then, there was a quick, almost harsh -- "Ssssst!"
I opened my eyes and looked in the direction of the sound. I saw the coal-chute door of Diana's house opened slightly. Back in the shadow of the bin itself I saw Diana's face. Then I saw her hand emerge, pale and delicate, a small metaphor for Diana herself. The hand was waving to me, and I heard her again, calling...me? "Sssst!"
I pointed to myself, stupidly...who else could she have been signaling? I was the only person visible or within audible distance. She was calling me, from her coal-bin, but on the whole...the only odd thing was her attitude of secrecy. I could almost feel it across the fence. There was a sense of danger in her voice, and a sense that she knew she would get into trouble if anyone else saw her talking to me. I quickly nodded, to indicate that I'd heard her, and that I knew I should be quiet as well. Again, she motioned for me to come closer.
I started to stand, but she motioned down with her hand. I was supposed to play Indian stalker...so I hunkered down and began my best imitation of what I though an Apache hunter would do while moving closer to what now struck me as a...quest?.... somehow it was a venture into the unknown. I found a place in the fence that she and I had whittled away near the bottom of a handful of daisies. There was just enough space for me to crawl under, but I had to crush the flowers to one side. I wasn't thrilled about that -- if my mother noticed, I was in trouble.
The musty smell of earth lifted with my pushing and shoving (as Apache-like as possible, of course) through the flowers, their roots, the other surrounding plants. I imagined myself on the prairie (okay, I knew the Apache weren't exactly prairie tribes), but that was my image of myself and my surroundings. Diana again went "Sssst!" louder....more urgent. Her hand signal was taking on a frantic quality I found somehow funny and enticing at once. Enticing? Yes...I felt that in her urgency. I was nine years old, and I felt enticement in that motion, in her quick, sharp breath as she whispered -- "C'mon...if my mother catches us, she'll kill us!"
* * * * *
That line had a distinctly ominous sound to it. Of course, everyone used it, but somehow...it sounded a little too real. I hesitated, half-way between the yards. The danger now seemed very real...but the enticement was real, and more powerful. As I pulled myself closer to the opening of the chute, my entire body now in Diana's yard, I noticed another face in the bar of darkness there. It was another girl, with Diana's size and shape of face. The difference was that this girl's hair seemed jet-black. It formed curls around her cheeks and covered her ears, unlike Diana's, shorter, and a bright blond I could see clearly in the darkness. The other girl's hair seemed to disappear back into shadows. I could see a little more of the coal-bin.
"C'mon!" the other girl said. I looked into her eyes. I had never seen a look like that from a girl. Her eyes had a shiny quality to them. I might have said a brightness, in spite of the fact that they were dark eyes, unlike Diana's sky-blue. But it wasn't the color...it was that brightness...a look of anticipation. My heart began to hammer. I swallowed, hard. I was crawling across a short space of lawn between our neighbor's fence and their house. I could feel Diana's mother's eyes suddenly moving across my back...they would look like beacons, only red.
I turned to face the inevitable punishment that would await me. Diana's mother wasn't there. I shivered, but the sensation was not only okay, it fed the enticement. Without saying another word, and without any more hesitation, I pulled myself to the door, then slid over the edge of the foundation, into the bin.
There wasn't any light in the small space I could see. The walls were more or less visible as my eyes adjusted, but it pretty much looked like the same area in our basement. Except that there was another wall here. It cut off the bin (which had been cleaned very well, I now noticed as I looked down toward the floor...and it had been cemented...ours was still packed dirt) from a hall-way that led from the bottom of the stairs (which was in the rear of the house) to the bin itself -- in the front, near the porch, where I'd been convinced I'd been caught by Diana's mother. The wall, which I now saw wasn't really a wall, moved slightly in a breeze Diana's friend made as she walked in front of me and lay down on a cot. The wall was a sheet...not a white sheet, but one printed in what were appearing more and more as bright and multi-colored shapes, like a flag made with flowers.
Diana was looking out the chute door, then she quietly lowered it. She was standing on a folding chair, and I noticed, my eyes now having fully adjusted to the light, that she was wearing a white dance costume. I recognized it because she had danced at school one night; it was something her stage-mother wanted her to do, and I know Diana liked the attention. She was very pretty when she wore it, but I laughed the first time she wore it to show me...an act that was basically unlike me, even though I knew it hurt her feelings. When I tried to say I was sorry later she punched me in the nose. I remembered that dress...that costume. But there was something different about it.
I tried very hard to see what was different. As I was thinking, I turned and looked at the other girl. "That's Lilith," said Diana. "She dances, too."
I had been thinking of Diana dancing when I'd noticed the costume. She really was very good, and very beautiful onstage -- I guess I was angry when I had laughed, because she had something I didn't at the time -- a focus and a desire to accomplish something...to finish something. And she had a willingness to share, though neither of us knew what that was, quite yet.
Lilith was wearing an identical costume, and I suddenly realized who she was -- she was in the same dance class as Diana, and had been part of the same presentation. She was a friend's sister. Well...a sort of friend. I noticed the same thing about her costume. Something was different.
I whispered, "Aren't those dresses, or whatever they are...aren't those your costumes from that dance thing?"
Lilith giggled. The sound went through me like an arrow. My heart was racing again. I had no idea what was happening, except that I liked it.
Diana stepped gracefully from the chair to a very small table next to her, then to the floor. What was different about the dresses....the costumes? "Mmm...hmmm..." said Diana, in her small, delicate voice. "These are our costumes..." then she began to giggle, Lilith joining her, both with their hands across their mouths to muffle the sound.
"Yeah, but there's something different..."
This time they almost broke into laughter, but Diana moved across the small space, behind me, and pushed a small pillow against Lilith's face. There was a sound upstairs.
This time my heart felt like it had become my entire chest. I realized I was about to cough...do something...too young for heart attack...nine years old? Diana and Lilith looked stricken. They looked sick for a minute. I thought our parents would find us all on the coal-bin floor, dead of fright.
The sound was Diana's mother walking from one room to another. We all followed the movement with our eyes, as though we could see her solid figure through the floor, moving deliberately and confidently (she was a full-bodied woman, and I had noticed that, before), and athletic in her manner. In those days she would have been considered "butch," most likely, but most people found her "demanding," that was the only word I heard used to describe her, in that sense.
The sound stopped in what I guessed was Diana's parents' bedroom. There was another sound...a kind of rush and a section of the floor creaked once...then quiet followed.
Diana whispered, a little louder, a little bolder, especially considering how terrified we (I, at least ) had just been. "She's taking a nap." There was a profound sense of relief in her voice that was infectious. I felt better, less...well, terrified.
We all looked at one another. Lilith's eyes had taken on that sheen of...waiting, but impatient. Diana was standing behind me again. Now I could feel her there, as if she were radiating heat I'd just realized. For some reason I wanted to turn, and started to. Her hands took my shoulders and she whispered directly into my ear this time -- "We want to do a special dance for you."
She pushed me toward the cot where Lilith was sitting. Lilith stood, her body and mine brushing against one another -- a sensation I imagined like electricity seemed to swarm between us for a moment. I realized why the dresses looked so different.
* * * * *
When I had seen the dresses, the flowing dresses I remembered were accompanied by a distance rustling sound, created by layers of some other materials beneath the dresses themselves. It was this material that also made the dresses stand out. I guess they were the "undergarments," what made the costumes so much...bigger...fuller...whatever.
Lilith wasn't wearing any undergarments. When I brushed against her, I could feel her skin through the filmy material that made up the outer part of their dress-costumes. I glanced at Diana -- in the dim light of the coal bin, which had become light enough now to see fairly well...after all, the space was limited; we were never more than three or four feet away from each other -- she wasn't wearing the undergarments either.
What was I feeling? I had never experienced anything like this, though my mind focused again on that statue of Apollo and Daphne, and the sensation was pleasant, though it would be several more years yet before I knew anything about it.
Diana said -- "Sit down, we need the room to dance."
I reacted like a marionette whose strings have been cut. I didn't just sit down. I collapsed on the cot.
Diana and Lilith looked a little uncomfortable suddenly. They both looked up in the direction of Diana's mother's bedroom, as if literally seeing that she was still there. Apparently they decided she was.
Then the dance began. It was limited by the space in the bin. They couldn't make the turns and leaps I had seen them do before. It quickly became a dance of intimacy, directed at me, which was something Diana had implied already. The dance was for me.
Even in that small space, they were graceful. Yes, they were my age, and perhaps their movements would have been awkward and laughable to an older person. For me, it was (and later became) a model, like the statue, for dance itself...for the element of dance that transcends the physical...for the physical elements that make that transcendence possible...for the appreciation and celebration of the body itself.
Within moments after the dance began, I was not a child hiding in a coal-bin...I was part of something I didn't understand, though I had never experienced these feelings before and couldn't name them...still can't, to be honest...only through this clumsy medium of words.
Then Lilith did something that literally froze me to the spot where I was sitting. She untied a small bow at the top of her dress, still dancing in her tiny steps to some unheard music. She began to unbutton the dress. I heard myself inhale quickly, and now my heart was expanding again...I was aware of its beating, but no longer out of fear. I saw her glance at Diana, who nodded, and began to do the same. My breathing deepened and quickened...my heart felt bigger than my body.
In the limited light of the bin, I saw their bodies...flawless, thin, without the curves and rolls of flesh that made up a woman's body. They were beautiful, and this was a moment outside of time. I had never seen a girl's body in my life. I marveled at the differences in our anatomy, and yes...I was excited. But their dance was the focus. They each swept past me, leaning toward me, pulling their dresses out, like wings, as they passed. They shared their bodies without shame or embarrassment, and moved back away, concluding the dance by embracing one another, then turning outward to me...reaching for me.
Without thinking, I took their hands and joined them. We moved with what seemed like the grace of clouds...I was no longer thinking at all...I was indeed in a moment outside of time, and all the restrictions of the sometimes alien adult world. If I felt anything, it was a kind of joy I had never experienced before in my young life. We were birds freed from gravity, soaring in the flawless sky of some other dimension.
I was aware at moments that their bodies were brushing against me, reminding me only that their were two girls who had opened themselves to me as only a child is able. We didn't speak. Nobody giggled, nobody looked away when our eyes met, as they did. We looked at each other in a sweet silence I still am unable to explain, except that we were all perfect, and innocent, and there was no time.
The floor joists just above us creaked.
We dropped each others' hands. We were back in the world again. The sense of being free was forgotten in a sudden panic.
Diana had that stricken look again, but this time I could see she was frozen in panic. Lilith, though, still had that bright-eyed look...she was looking at me, not locked inside herself, as Diana seemed to be at the moment. The look we exchanged was...mutual...it's the only way I can say it.
But the panic began to creep in. We looked away from each other and up at the floor. The joists creaked again. We could hear Diana's mother approaching...that is, we all knew she was walking toward the door that led to the cellar. I took Diana's arms and shook her slightly -- "I'm going out. I'll be quiet," I said. I amazed myself at my relatively calm manner. My heart was consuming me again, but not in a pleasant manner at all.
Diana nodded in a mechanical manner that was a little spooky. I couldn't help that. I looked at Lilith. She nodded to me. Then she leaned forward, and taking my shoulders, she kissed me lightly on the lips. I had been kissed before (I really was precocious, remember), but I forgot everything at that second our lips touched. Something told me I'd been missing things.
I could hear her mother opening the door and moved the chair Diana had used earlier to boost myself out of the chute. I was clumsy though, in my haste, and in my altered state of mind. The chair tipped over with a small, metallic clunk. The voice spoke from the head of the stairs as the door opened -- "Diana, Lilith, have you been taking a nap like you were supposed to?" There was a metallic sound in that voice, too. Diana's mother would be the last person on earth I would want to encounter after any infraction of the rules of life. I'd always pictured her as capable of taking on Joe Louis, even using his line against him -- "You can run, but you can't hide." The very words that were going through my head at that split second.
Diana was still silent. I felt badly for her, but I wasn't about to open my mouth. Lilith motioned me toward the chute opening. She said -- "It's okay, Mrs. Lee, we just woke up and I knocked over a chair."
Diana still wasn't moving. I was genuinely worried about her? Had she gone crazy, like my aunt, who one day stopped speaking or moving, and now lay in bed, being fed by nurses like a baby? Was that going to happen to Diana?
I couldn't help her. I knew Diana's mother was going to kill me anyway (well...not exactly, but close enough...like a hand-grenade), she'd be talking to my mother in a matter of minutes, and...things would never be the same. I glanced at Lilith and tilted my head toward the door. She was frightened, as well, but she definitely had not gone catatonic.
By then I had the chair back, had climbed up and was opening the chute door. The voice spoke again. "Why are you playing with the chute door?" There was a suspicion in that voice I either imagined or actually heard...no matter. I stopped for a second. Lilith now began to motion me toward the chute frantically. I swallowed hard, pushed open the door and rolled out.
I retraced my movements back to my yard, knowing the Apache would be proud. I was quiet, but I was moving. I managed to pull myself through the fence opening, waiting any second for the chute door to open again, and hear Mrs. Lee's voice crying for my blood.
Then what? Sit there stupidly, waiting for just that to happen? No...that wouldn't do, at all. I heard voices inside my house -- my brother had returned from wherever, and was talking to my mother. Wouldn't she be happy to hear the details of the last...minutes...hours....? I realized I had no idea how long I'd been over there. Well...the sun was still out. It seemed to be in more or less a similar position in the sky, though I was convinced I'd been in Diana's house for a very long time.
I went in, hoping, praying that the conversation between my brother and mother was engaging enough to keep their attention from me. It must have been. They were in the kitchen, in an animated discussion about something, and only looked at me...though my brother's look seemed a little odd, as though he were trying to read my mind.
I went into my room which, coincidentally, had a north window that looked out over the Lee's coal-chute. I heard voices from their bin. Diana's mother had the volume turned up a bit, which did not sound good at all. Then silence. Then smaller voices -- Diana's and/or Lilith's, though I couldn't tell which. Then, more silence. I waited for a very long time there at the window, to hear more voices. There were none.
A little while later, Diana and Lilith were out in the back yard, setting up a croquet game. Whatever had taken place between Diana and her mother was apparently smoothed over. Or there was never a problem at all, just my own fear creating a script which had not been performed. I watched them set up the game and play for awhile. They were certainly special people to me, now, and I found all of their movements fascinating. At one point Diana looked toward my window, but if she saw me, she gave no notice. I saw them talking for a few minutes, then Lilith looked toward my window. She smiled and waved.
I stayed by the window, watching as it grew darker. I didn't move until Diana and Lilith had gone inside. Maybe it was my imagination, but as Lilith went into the house, I thought she turned and put her hands to her lips in a motion that meant -- "Here's a final kiss...we know this will never happen again, but we did escape the world for a little while, didn't we?"
Whether or not she did, I nodded, because I knew we all understood.
There are places which children can go, where adults cannot follow. There are thoughts they can share which no adult can understand. There are moments that stand outside of time, and they continue to live with us...in some small place they may survive the shocks of adolescence and later...unless we bury them. I preferred to keep that place alive.
That isn't always easy. The other day I read about another drive-by shooting in which a twelve year old killed an infant in a nearby car. A shot gone astray. I tried to imagine what the boy's life meant to him, what the infant he'd killed meant to him. I couldn't. I felt part of me beginning to die with the random acts of violence that now had become almost commonplace. But I held on, somehow, to my memories of that dance.
The marble statue is gone. I haven't seen Diana or Lilith since before my first marriage. Outside, the world seems a little colder and more cruel...and I am afraid sometimes -- that the cold and cruelty will win, will forever erase, from all our hearts, the capacity for sharing ourselves. But I look outside again....I see children across the street.
A young boy and two girls...dancing outside of time.
back to the Short Story Page.Beyond the Gates of Eden, 3 November 1996