I meet Kiersten
("That's with an 'i'. An 'i' and an 'e'.") at a sleepaway summer camp for talented youth
. She and a group of her cooler-than-me friends are playing poker
, so I turn on what charm
I have at age 14 and walk across the room, prepared for a blaze of glory
"Hi, I'm Zach and I'm a blackjack dealer at Caesar's Palace. Mind if I get in on a hand before I have to fly back out to Nevada?" I am laying it on brilliantly thick.
"You know," she shoots back, "this is poker, not blackjack. If you were really a dealer, you'd know that."
My opportunity in sight, I sit down. "Actually, cheating at cards is a widely applicable skill. I'm sure I'll manage."
And so it begins. Actually, "and so it begins" is the perfect phrase, allowing me to gloss over how we end up involved, which is something that I'm unclear on to this date. The next scene that I recall places me in the lounge outside her dorm, surrounded by her friends. This is the second summer of Blink 182, but we've taken their CD out for the first time in three hours, to facilitate listening to compiled Disney hits.
"Kiss de girl... because you know you're gonna: miss de girl," croons Laura #2 in her absolute best Sebastian impression. Her friends have been making a sincere effort to get us to kiss (which, needless to say, we haven't), and this is the latest clever scheme.
We're sitting on the couch, holding hands as awkwardly as possible. I think I have my hand around her shoulder, a wholly new experience that I'm absorbing in a way which is, I hope, at least competent. Every minute or so we shuffle into new positions. A few of her friends are sitting with their own conquests: Laura #1 and McKay, Mariel and Dave, Yojud and her Alex. The single girls hover around uncomfortably, particularly Kiersten's roommate, who is rather unattractive and has a broken leg. She mostly stays in her room, but she tries to be cheery around us.
It's exceedingly hot at Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and I have an enduring vision of drowning in sweat to the sound of whatever the damn romantic song was in Snow White. I speak nothing of this.
"You look so uncomfortable!" Kiersten says. "Are you OK?"
"Yeah, sorry." I don't say anything reasonable like "I'm new at this" or "I don't know what the hell to do." I shift uncomfortably, and I can't help but notice that Kiersten's rather older-looking, for some reason; I can't put my finger on it. She's tall, about my height, with frizzy-wavy blond hair and glasses.
"Hey, Zach. How old are you, anyway?"
"Me?" Choke. "I'm sixteen."
"Really? I'm only 14." Oh, sh--.
A few hours later, everyone else has wandered off to the dance. We stay in the lounge, a few hundred feet from the action. Music filters in from the balcony doors. This is the point where we actually get to know each other; I'm much more comfortable without all the people.
"Where are you from?"
"New Jersey. You?"
"Massachusetts. What's your father's name? What does he do?"
"Marc. He's a doctor."
"My parents are in advertising."
For the next two weeks, we will drill each other on these irrelevant bits of information. ("Who's my father?" "John, right?") For now, though, we go out to the balcony for some music and some air. We keep talking on the teenager standards: music, school, drivers' licenses. Finally, she blurts out:
"Are you going to kiss me or what?"
I stammer, searching for something to say. It eludes me, so I lean across the tiny balcony and just do it. I don't think it was what I expected; I feel her glasses against my eyelids. I spend more time panicking than enjoying it, and we move out to an almost platonic hug.
"Kiss me on the cheek or something," Kiersten says, pulling me out of my worries. And so I do. Through the window, I see Kiersten's roommate hobbling out of the lounge. We walk down to the party below, where I lose her completely in the crowd and give up, dancing complacently by myself.