Crush at first sight. I saw you before I saw anyone else. I was new. You had your crowd. I could see that you were out of my league from the beginning but it didn’t stop me from dreaming. It just so happened that you were exactly my type. Brown, scruffy, long hair; lanky body, and eyes I could drown in. I have no idea how long it took you to notice me. Later, when we finally parted for good, well I’m not sure that you knew who I was anymore.
I built a fragile keepsake box just below the surface. It was tucked away so that no one could see how I really felt. The first thing to go into that box was your face. Although it’s been 25 years since I first laid eyes on you, I can still see your face, broken into fragments though it may be.
Your eyelashes. I was brave once and told you how much I loved your eyelashes. You didn’t take the compliment well. You thought I was comparing you to a girl.
I’m sure I didn’t stop staring at you initially. I hadn’t developed my poker face back then. My good friend Jane, you know her, she saw it and she wanted to help. She was like my love-life broker. “Leave it to me” she would have said. So she spoke to you, I was so envious of her courage, and you spoke to her, and then it was decided. We were ‘going out’. I’d never had a boyfriend before. I’d never been kissed. I was excited about rectifying this. But you didn’t really like it when I asked for your phone number in front of your friends. It embarrassed you. I thought I was the shy one! You were embarrassed again when I called you on that first night. I think your sister must have teased you as she passed the phone over. My mistake again I suppose. I thought you were experienced. I thought your family would be used to it.
Do you remember our first date (our only date)? I tucked that memory away into the box. It was so awkward. Dates to Highpoint were the thing to do. And the kissing. So many girls and boys were kissing in Year 7. I couldn’t wait to pass that milestone. It was a bit disappointing when you showed up with Heath. Not really a date when you have a mate and I’m on my own. Anyway, I wasn’t going to complain. I still couldn’t believe that you would want to go out with me. I had to be so brave that day, making conversation with you, the uber-cool of our class. I can’t remember what we watched. I know that I was hoping you would swallow your fear and hold my hand, or maybe even kiss me in the dark. It didn’t happen though. I don’t think you actually touched me.
As hard as I tried to fit in with you and your friends, we were from two different social spheres and the awkwardness got to you. I spoke to Jane about my fears. “Fear not!” she would have said and promised to go and suss it out. Again, I was so jealous of her freedom to speak with you. She exchanged more words with you than I did! She returned as I was changing into my sports uniform. I giggled excitedly and asked her what you’d said. She told me that we should talk somewhere else.
So that was it. We were breaking up. It was you and not me. That’s what you told her. Ahhh, teenagers and their clichés!
I couldn’t get over you. You were so beautiful to look at. You were so funny to listen to. Sometimes I sat with your group. A mixture of boys and girls. And still, you and I never actually spoke to one another. Even though my feelings were unrequited, I enjoyed having a distraction. It saved me from the mundane routine of school, to daydream about you as we practised our French, Maths, Science, whatever!
A couple of years later and I was still fantasising about you. Our class was going on a two week Murray River adventure. We were divided into groups. Inevitably there was the ‘cool’ group and then there was my group. We went off on our separate journeys only to meet up again halfway through the trip. The stories that your group shared, about the things you had all been up to, well they were wild! We were having one combined night together before we set off once again on our different paths. “This is your chance!” Jane would have said as she vowed to speak to you once again on my behalf. Upon her return, she had some exciting news. She had managed to negotiate a ‘hook up’ between you and me. It was a crazy idea. Two people who never spoke, yet we were going to go off into the bush together. I didn’t care how bizarre it was though, I’d do anything to be with you.
We met at a secret place, as arranged by you and Jane, and headed off into the darkness. I was nervous. Of course I was! I’m sure you were too. You took my hand (how sweet) and we walked until we were sure we were out of eye and ear shot. You said something romantic like “Should we get this over with then?” I wasn’t going to argue but I certainly didn’t want it ‘over with’ as you put it. I was hoping that this was the new beginning of something. Despite our inability to talk to each other, the kiss was electrical. A current ran between us that could never form any words. I don’t know if you’d call it one kiss. It was a kissing session I suppose. We rolled around in the grass for some time until friends decided our time was up and came looking for us. You went straight back to awkward and so did I. That was it. We’d given it another shot and we’d failed. We weren’t meant to be.
That year you and Jane finally admitted that you had feelings for each other. Naturally, Jane was worried. She knew how I felt about you and she’d been such a good friend. But I couldn’t deny her this opportunity. I think I always knew that it was her. Watching you two was frustrating and magical. You were only 14 or 15 at the time but you were like soulmates. Your connection with Jane was superior to anything anyone else in our year level had experienced.
Jane’s relationship with you meant that she was drifting away from me. It was nobody’s fault. It was just what happened. We still spent some time together in Home Economics class. You would sneak past the window so that only I and Jane would see you and she’d tell me giggly secrets about how beautiful you were. I already knew, of course.
You and Jane were serious. You were still as tight as could be the following year. I don’t know how long you were actually together but it was a record for our age, I’m sure. The September holidays had just begun. Perhaps it was the first day, even. I called a friend. We had plans that week and I wanted to confirm them.
“Have you heard about Michael?” she said.
I was probably imagining, even wishing that you and Jane had broken up. That would certainly be big gossip.
I remember being very composed for such atrocious news. I asked for the specifics and she explained. She told me that you had been drinking with your older brother. That you had been car surfing (I could only guess what that was) and that you had fallen off and hit your head. You hadn’t died instantly. Apparently your brother and his friends had tucked you into bed, thinking that you were drunk. But you didn’t wake up.
After speaking to her. I thought calmly. What should I do? Poor Jane! A good friend would call. I know I didn’t think this through because if I had, I definitely would have chickened out. So I called Jane and her mother kindly put her on the phone. She spoke to me in her sweet, loving voice. As soon as I heard her, my calm crumbled. I was sobbing as she told me about the argument you’d had with her the night before, but that you’d called her later to apologise and tell her that you loved her. It didn’t seem right that I was inconsolable and she was keeping it together. Then it began to rain. The roar on the roof was deafening.
“He’s crying for me!” she exclaimed and left me alone on the line.
Your memorial was surreal. There’s another cliché for you! Jane was sitting silently wearing one of your oversized black hoodies. Everyone was eerily quiet and sat like a chain around the edge of the chapel. I felt strange and uncomfortable. No one was talking. I saw that there were photos and other memorabilia placed at the front centre of the room. I couldn’t stand the silence. I also felt like an imposter. Who was I, to have grieving rights for a boy who didn’t know I was there? I crept up to the photos to have a look. At that moment, the box I’d been building- it shattered.
You were 16 when you died. Now I am 38. I think about you a lot, Michael. I’d like to tell your parents, your brother and sister, and Jane. I’d like to tell them that you are not forgotten. That broken keepsake box still lives with me, as I am sure it does with many others.
As he passed his ID card over, their hands touched for a fraction of a second. She registered the perspiration on his palms and held back the urge to immediately pump the hand sanitiser.
“You will need to cloak your backpack,” she said with authority.
The beige bag was passed over the pristine white counter.
“Please tie your hair back. I can provide you with an elastic if you need one.” He didn’t.
“You will need to clean your hands. Did you bring your own gloves?” He shook his head and she sighed audibly. There was a coffee stain on his grubby shirt and this worried her.
He followed her every instruction and eventually, grudgingly, she unlocked the door to The Rare Book Room.
“Medieval manuscripts are located over here. You have two hours as per your appointment card.” She lingered awkwardly. He looked up expectantly and she reluctantly departed, closing the door as she did.
At five o’clock it was time for him to leave. She felt a weight lift as she handed back his card and bag, observing the removal of his gloves with approval. As soon as he left she scurried back to the room. Her pulse quickened as she turned the key and pushed open the ornate door. All was in order. There were no books out of place, the room looked untouched. She returned to the main area and began stacking books in a conspicuous manner, lingering near the remaining visitors. They soon got the idea and began to pack up.
Finally the place was hers. She switched off the main lights, computers and electronic sensors, relishing the anonymity. It was just her and the books. She could feel their words and letters. It was as if they hummed into the silence of the empty building. She withdrew her cotton white gloves and fabric envelope that she had sewn herself. The key to The Rare Book Room was still in her pocket and she entered once more. She walked over to where he had been. She knew which book he had wanted and she hated the idea of his hands, even with the gloves, touching the fine manuscript. She found the text, a delicate hand-painted book on papyrus. Her breathing deepened as she touched its spine and a shiver ran up her own. Then with a deft movement, the book was enclosed within the cotton envelope and within her brown leather satchel.
Back at her home she began preparations. First taking a luxurious shower and then dressing in her grey mulberry-silk pyjamas. Her bed was already meticulously made; 1000 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets with an array of silver grey cushions. This time she didn’t put on the cotton gloves. Carefully removing the manuscript from the envelope, she fingered the soft, fragile pages with her naked hands. Laying the text on the pillow next to hers, she dimmed the lights, breathed in the exotic scent and closed her eyes.