Her Eyes Were Looking for Me

 

By Don Reuker

 

She was my best friend. We did everything together and we were often side by side with sweaty palms together and fingers interlaced. She built something positive in me, and at that time, if I could choose to be with her, I would.

We were both Army kids. Our fathers were soldiers stationed in West Germany standing at the ready to fight the Soviets. The family’s job was to support the dad and if allowed, go where he goes. We all bought the Cold War narrative about countering the Communist threat. Containment of the murderous hoard was the first priority. Our brave dads faced down the wily Reds across the Fulda Gap keeping them in the Worker’s Paradise of East Germany where they belonged.

I first met her at the base bowling alley. Her father, the colonel, brought her in to sign up for the Saturday morning summer league. All of those brave dad bowling coaches became unnaturally stiff and ridged as the colonel escorted his daughter to the registration table. Cigarettes were crushed out and morning beers were slid out of sight. The normal hustle and crashing of pins slowed and many of us were shushed into silence. I just knew that she’d be assigned to my team. Because we were already short one kid—ugh, not a girl.

Of course, just as I thought, the league director brought her and the colonel over to my lane. We were introduced and the colonel looked over my motley teammates and then spoke directly to me. “I won’t be able to pick her up after she’s done bowling. Will you walk her home after you finish up?” I was an Army kid. I knew an order when I heard one. He was really saying, you will walk her home after you finish up. I also knew how to speak to officers. There was only one answer.

“Yes, sir.”

I liked her right away in spite of myself. Confidence seemed to waft off of her and she wasn’t daunted by failure. She rolled three gutter balls in a row before she managed to knock down her first pin and then hooted about it. She was free to express herself in a way that I wasn’t. She was having fun while she learned to bowl. She cheered for her new teammates right away and she was loud. Leaving pins standing embarrassed me but she didn’t seem to mind at all. 

For the rest of the morning I was unexpectedly drawn to her. Every time I had the chance I sat right next to her on those hard smooth fiberglass seats and notice the sweet scent of her perfume in the air. I didn’t know that girls smelled good.

While walking her home, I learned that we were neighbors more or less, separated by fewer than two hundred yards. She lived on what was called Colonel’s Row which was a tree lined street with two story homes, driveways and large yards. If you didn’t know any better this could be a section of most any suburban bedroom community in the States. This street followed a long curve that partly encircled my neighborhood of rather drab three story apartment buildings that housed captains and majors with a smattering of warrant officers like my dad. Her next-door neighbors were other colonels, with lots of battalion and a few brigade commanders. The officers on her street were the commanders of the junior officers housed in the apartment building of my neighborhood. The adults of my community were rarely guests on Colonel’s Row but the adults of hers were never guests in mine. On the other hand, I was over at her house a lot.

I got to know her well that summer. She read books like All Things Bright and Beautiful and Watership Down. She took piano lessons and played The Entertainer all the time. She was from Michigan and liked President Ford and baseball. 

She taught me how to dance. We practiced the polka and the jitterbug. Counterbalancing on the swing moves was a fun trick to learn. She was full of instructions: “Look in my eyes. Don’t be shy, put your hand in the middle of my back and hold on—tight. Don’t be afraid to touch me, I don’t have cooties.”

School started in mid-August and that meant football for me and cheerleading for her. She was the captain of the Junior Varsity cheerleaders and I was on the JV football team. Her enthusiastic encouragement for the team and for me was always in her voice. I could often hear her from the sidelines while I was in the game. Often hearing her while I was in the game is somewhat misleading, because I wasn’t in the game that much. But, the smell of sweat and bruised grass, the feeling of cool fall air on my face, and the sound of her voice in my ears made football so great.  For a teenaged boy, it’s a good thing to know that the cheerleader is cheering for you.

She earned great grades and unlike me, she always did her homework. And she was really good at math. She invited me to the library to improve my dismal grades. I sat there at the heavy wooden table hunched over an equation with my head in my hands trying to work out the value of X. Algebra was mystery and magic to me, but it came very easily to her. She knew mathematical incantations I didn’t know. I was unable to see the next step, but she always could. This mirrored our budding romance, but that was equally unrecognizable to me at the time. I sat back in frustration and looked away at the rows of books placed neatly on the shelf and ask, “How do you know that the next step is to multiply by negative one?” I wasn’t too bright back then. But she seemed to believe in me, that I could get it, and she gently explained the steps, her pale blue eyes darting from mine back to the page, and even in math she led me through the steps. I didn’t know it before that, but I preferred the company of smart girls.

Our high school sponsored a full day tour bus trip to the see the Bavarian Alps in spring. She selected a window seat for us on the right-hand side of the bus near the back. I thought I was so lucky to enjoy the ride in her company. Her fair, slightly freckled face and wavy strawberry blond hair were in the foreground and European fields and farms, factories and freeways, passed by over her shoulders in the background.  Then, she asked me the most surprising question. “Wouldn’t you like to kiss me?” I was enchanted, clearly she knew non-math charms too. She always knew the next step.

This was a moment for playing it cool. But my heart pounded in my chest and my ears began to burn and felt hot. For once, I had already given this prospect a great deal of prior consideration and had a little plan in place for such an opportunity.

You’ll look her right in the eyes and softly cup her right cheek with your left hand. Next you’ve got to say something smooth, like—I’d really like to kiss you. Of course, she’ll nod her agreement and you’ll lean in most of the way to her pink lips and close your eyes. Your hand on her cheek will tell you if she shies or leans in the rest of the way. And then the two of you’ll share the gentlest and most tender first kiss ever.

That was the plan, but she had taken the initiative and I was caught unready. I mumbled some general agreement with her proposal. Slowly and cautiously I commenced execution of my choreographed plan. I moved my hand toward that freckled cheek and said, “Why, yes, yes I would.” It seemed like a nice reply. She closed her eyes, tilted her head and parted her lips slightly. Another curve, I was fond of French Fries and French Toast, but their kissing method was a mystery. I forged ahead anyway. I leaned toward her just as the bus followed the mountain road sharply to the left.  Our faces smashed together and our heads clonked. How we laughed, I could not be embarrassed in her company. We got around to that first kiss later. It was a delightful day. I thought the Alps were nice, too.

That was a good year for me. But I should have known that it couldn’t last. 

Late in May as we walked home from the last day of school she casually mentioned that she had some news. Her father had received orders to attend the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. While her parents were planning to stay in Germany for most of the summer, she already had a plane ticket for the States. She was headed for Michigan and her grandmother’s house north of Detroit for the summer. She told me about her cousins, and the Lions, and the rooky, Fidrych, who she hoped to see, and something and something else…I had stopped listening. I looked away, embarrassed by the tear welling in my eye. I blinked it away. She didn’t notice and prattled on happily about her prospects for the summer.

This young girl, whom I liked quite a lot, was going to move back to the States, and my very comfortable and secure life was about to be upended. My entire cluster of friends was going to be leaving Germany within the next several weeks. That was just life as we all knew it. The dad gets a new duty assignment every second or third year and off you go. 

“Moving back to the States.” This little phrase is clear enough in its meaning to non-military families. We’re going to return to our home country. Some would say that they were moving back to the World. Friends and families being constantly and systematically ripped away was part of our shared lifelong cycle of moving again and again. All of this moving is like a betrayal, just as you find a home and feel at ease it was time to move again. The Army, the government, the soldier-dad, perhaps the Soviets, had forced yet another move to a foreign place, and some of my friends resented it deeply. And while we lived in a fully American enclave, smack dab in the middle of Germany, there was for many, an urgent, even palpable need to go home. To go back to the States—to get back to the World. But not me. I didn’t feel a strong connection to any singular place back in the States. Germany was my ideal home. And I liked it a lot.

But she was moving back to the States. It was mid-June and she was leaving the next day. Her folks had made it clear that she was to be in the house by early evening and our goodbye was nearly over. She seemed like she always seemed, calm and confident, but I was falling apart. We hugged and kissed and whimpered. But I did most of the whimpering.

In our last moments together, she withdrew a tiny perfume bottle from her pocket and sprayed me with it up and down. I didn’t step away or resist. Leaving her scent on my body was her final flirtation. She gave me the nearly empty bottle and I stuck it deep into my pocket. The time had come and she was overdue at home. She asked that I not accompany her to the doorstep as I usually did, and I obeyed. I stood under the drooping limbs of a tall tree next to a gate in the chain link fence that separated her neighborhood from mine. I watched her walk away, cross Colonel’s Row and disappear behind the door to her house. She didn’t look back. I stood stone still in the deepening shadow of that tree as twilight turned to darkness. Alone, I tarried in that familiar scent as it lingered and wafted around me in the cool evening air.

 

My heart was breaking and I wept. Teenage angst, the torments of a boy’s tender feelings for a girl, or intense infatuation; are these the makings of a broken heart? Perhaps, but if it wasn’t broken, it was surely cracked and dented.

Slowly, I stumbled toward my building and trudged up the three flights of stairs to our apartment. When I arrived, I didn’t chat with my family, I just sulked off to my bedroom. As I undressed and flung clothing into the corner, I found the small bottle in my pocket. I used the tiny remainder of the perfume and sprayed the last of it on a page in a photo album that I kept.  The page held an 8x10 glossy black and white photo safely behind a sheet of clear plastic. The image was of my girlfriend, the cheerleader on the sidelines of a football field during one of our games from earlier that year. Her face is in profile and is turned toward the field. She has an expression of excitement, and I always believed that her eyes were looking for me.

 I hid the album in the bottom drawer of my dresser. For the next several days I fought the urge to throw it away. I had come to understand some of the meaning of betrayal in the way many of my peers knew it. It’s painful to have friends pulled away.  In my hurt, that album stood as something real to act out against. I wanted to attack the army, but they were too well armed. I wanted to throw rocks at the government, but I didn’t know where to find it. Somehow, I wanted to punch my dad right in the face, but he was too tough to fight. Doing anything against the Soviet Union might start World War III, therefore, that was out of the question. So, I kept the album and brooded with a powerful feeling of having been betrayed by someone.

From time to time, Army Brats like us might cross paths, but it was more likely that we’d never meet again. Nothing in my power could change it. I was in the slow process of recovering from the blow to my adolescent ego. Just beginning to hold my head up, I was mostly ready to forge bravely ahead and reengage in my now diminished life in Germany.

Mom told me to clean up my room, which was, in fact, a perpetual dump. But it needed to be done and I needed something to occupy my time, so I got to work. I changed the sheets on my bed, dusted the dresser that stood next to the door and arranged the various knickknacks and mementos that were displayed around the room. All the while I avoided the bottom dresser drawer with the album and all the reminders of her hidden away with it. While I had rejected the thought of throwing it away, that was not the time to pick at a fresh wound.

I turned my eyes to the pile of laundry in the corner and began to sort the items to prepare them for the wash. I pulled out stiff stinky socks, jeans and sweaty t-shirts, and neatly separated them. It was a good task, necessary and simple. Light and dark things were separated and set to one side and jeans and t-shirts were placed in another stack. At that moment it was just me and my laundry. I was OKAY. I was getting the job done, no problems, I was productive. I thought things might get better. And then it happened.

 

My fingers found the forgotten perfumed shirt and I pulled it from the pile with a snap.  Instantly, her scent seemed to fill the room and she was there. I was bowled over by the power of it. She was there within the bouquet. The sound of her voice, her confident and encouraging smile, the color of her hair, the happy moments we spent together, math and football, and field trips; they all flooded over me in an uncontrollable cascade of raw emotion and memory. And in the midst of it all, the thing that set those memories in motion was that perfume, its alluring fragrance was just hanging in the air, and it mocked me.

 

It seemed to say, you will never see her again.

 

Falling over onto the wooden planked floor with a heavy thud, I wrapped myself into a ball and hugged that shirt to my chest as if it was her. In that moment I understood, she was part of the betrayal, she had a home in Michigan and she left me without even a look back. But I was incapable of being angry with her. Quietly sobbing, I gulped down air but I couldn’t catch a breath. My face and shirt were wet with my tears and my throat was on fire. Slowly rocking on the floor, I eventually found some small shred of self-control and dignity. I must have been a pitiful sight, alone, crying on the floor. Even now as I type and remember, my face is hot and red. But, thankfully, time slips forward into the future and I eventually stopped pining for a lost love.

 

Decades have passed since then and this bright girl is fixed in my mind as part of a pleasant memory of an ideal place that I once called home. The time for considering an old wound waited for much later. It came when I happened upon that photo album in a musty box of my old stuff that was stored in a corner of the basement.  Its brown plastic cover seemed to call to me and I opened it. Slowly, I turned the pages and savored the certificates, photos and cards that I had not studied for many years. And then it happened again.

 

The sweet smell of her perfume was still there all these years later and it drifted up from the page where her eyes were still looking for me. I didn’t cry or wish for another chance. But I did gasp at the intensity of the feelings and memories that washed over me as that still familiar fragrance flooded my senses. There is no more sorrow in her memory. I don’t know where she is, but I hope she’s happy and well.

 

Because I am.