Billy was my first boyfriend. We were children of a certain New York suburb with pink-brick shops, green parks, and a charm that persevered into the '90s, even as Manhattan's steely influence reached northward along the Hudson, shuttering the local video store and razor-sharpening a culture of competition, success. It was a town that saw the world as its oyster.
I was Billy's girlfriend for a few months in sixth grade, in the final dusk-colored days before online chatting and mobile phones. I still remember the seven digits of his home number, calling and saying, "Hi, is Billy there, please?"
He had freckles and a bowl-cut of black hair, which was often covered with a Yankees cap. I was dishwater blonde, with an awkward, pre-teen body and a reluctant smile. I'd just become aware of the baby fat I hadn't shed -- that I, in fact, wouldn't shed until college. But when he saw me, sitting on a chorus room riser, he told a friend, "That girl is beautiful."
Most of our courtship took place at the public library, in an alcove of unopened books with pages and words that had long since settled for starting at one another in the dark. We met there every day after school. We were too young for stolen kisses; our adoration was lustless. We only talked, laughed, squirmed at the thrilling proximity of our bodies.
It was springtime. We were surrounded with harbingers of summer. The stream was unthawed and running with cellophane-thin water. Our walks to the library smelled like athletic grass and school bus diesel. Our magic hour was between 5:00 pm and 6:00 pm, when Billy and I held hands on the outdoor curb, waiting for my mother's Volvo to turn the corner. Evening meant it was time to go home.
Billy was a budding athlete, already devoted to baseball. I went to his games, loving the way he looked for me, from beneath the visor of his batting helmet, while walking up to the plate.
On May 5th, his birthday, we went on our first date; a viewing of the Jurassic Park sequel at the multiplex. When I arrived, I saw that he was wearing a new blue polo. He bought my ticket and a shareable order of popcorn. In the darkened theater, amidst disemboweled dinosaurs and blood, he leaned over and whispered: "Has anyone ever told you how beautiful you are?"
All these years later, it remains one of the best dates I've been on.
The safe space Billy and I created together, and for each other, served as insulation against the creeping onslaught of adolescence. Boys were starting to shed the odor of young men; hormones soured their breath and strangled their vocal cords. Girls were spending more time frowning in front of the gym mirror. Billy was a comfort to me. But our relationship still existed within middle school's Darwinian food chain, vulnerable to its volatility.
On the night of the sixth grade social, the gym was a wild suburban ecosystem; dim lighting, pulsing music, clusters of flared jeans. Billy and I circled each other in an artless sort of mating ritual, both nervous we might have to dance. Neither of us responded to rhythm yet. A friend shoved me into him to break the ice. I was mortified, but Billy smiled. We spent most of our time leaning together against the padded walls, smelling clay and chalk and watching the herds.
It was after we said goodnight that it happened. While heading outside, I saw Billy, already in the parking lot, talking with a group of boys. They were boys who scared me; they'd recently developed swaggers and foul mouths and a meanness I couldn't name or understand. And their leader was mocking me. As Billy pursed his lips and stared at cement, the boy contorted his voice and body as he listed all the reasons why Billy shouldn't be with me. "She's so quiet and weird. This is what she looks like when she walks down the hall. She's lame. She's not hot."
As I watched this wretched version of myself come to life -- in his eyes, his movements -- I realized that I was destined to navigate adolescence without the "cool" shield -- the indefinable quality that protects against teendom's fickle politics. For years following that moment, even after we all grew into ourselves and out of such nonsense, I would feel the residual grip of my failure to have been "cool" when it mattered most. I wondered how those other 12-year-olds beat such impossible odds, commanding approval and admiration when they were never more necessary and never again in such short supply.
As I stood there, aching, Billy looked at the boy and said, "Well, none of that matters, because she's really nice."
His devotion to me withstood adolescent condemnation, one of the cruelest barriers to love there is. He continued to adore me as my hips expanded and curved, and as the world began to feel too small and too big. He adored me as I came closer to that age where we keep losing reasons to adore ourselves.
This is why, years later -- after high school, college, careers -- I still talked about Billy. He never slipped through the cracks, a casualty of time and memory. While sipping happy hour cocktails with girlfriends, I'd discuss my middle school boyfriend. "He was important," I'd say. "It was such a sweet thing. It was special."
"And where is he now?" they'd ask.
But all I knew of him, I knew through the proverbial grapevine or social media bullet points. He continued to play baseball at his mid-Atlantic liberal arts college, he enrolled at Columbia Business School, he was engaged to his college sweetheart. I saw him two or three times over the years, at home or at reunions. But my thoughts never lingered on the man he'd become -- they were devoted to the boy he'd once been.
Until he died.
He was found in a frozen Boston stairwell on the morning of March 24, 2013. It was an accident, all the more tragic for its senselessness, its refusal to let anyone wring a lesson from it. He was there with friends -- the same friends from our little suburb, whose heads surrounded his and mine in the yearbooks.
In the days that followed, I watched numbly as Facebook paid tribute to a man I couldn't claim to know very well. I was usually white-knuckling my phone, fielding texts from people I hadn't spoken to in a long time, asking me if I knew anything, asking if it was true.
Yes, he's gone, I said.
On the day of his funeral, I pulled my sixth grade yearbook from the shelf and opened it to the page where, 16 years earlier, while hunched in our library nook, Billy had penned:
The past two months have been the highlight of the year for me. I had such a good time at the movies. I probably won't be able to stop thinking of you this summer. Don't forget to give me your address at camp so that I can write you. What will you do there? I mean, what kind of camp is it? Thanks again for coming to my baseball game. Have a good summer and don't forget me (ha, ha).
My heart was so heavy I felt nauseas. And then guilty, as I struggled to intellectualize my grief. I felt I had no right to it, with so many people mourning a far more immediate loss. Billy's death left no ripple in my routine, no void in my call log, no ghost in my recent photographs. His loved ones were honoring all 27 years of his life, and I was revering him as he was in the spring of 1997.
But, perhaps, that is a vital tribute to a life -- the worship of someone in a certain time, in a certain place. It validates that as Billy lived, he shed his skin and left prints. Within him, as within a nesting doll, there were several ever-shrinking layers, each deserving of its own memorial for the things it saw and did; the lives it touched.
Now that he was dead, I realized how much I wanted him to be alive. How, even if we never again crossed paths, it had enriched my existence just to know that he was out there, somewhere, all grown up, carrying the same memories with him. Memories I now carry alone.
But carry, I do. I carry us as we were on a late spring afternoon, filling a few hours with the ineffably beautiful things that transpire between children who are practicing how to be in love -- learning how do it for later, in the future, when evening no longer means that it's time to go home.
Click here to learn about The Billy Mac Fund, which provides annual college scholarships to deserving students.