I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I’m working on a novel. Progress is slow, but I’m still committed to it, enthusiastic about it, and finding time to work on it. It’s a science fiction novel because it’s set in a future earth occupied by aliens, but I hope it’s received as a novel about friends, family, love, and transformation. I’m not sure I would call it a young adult novel, but the protagonist is a girl on the brink of high school graduation. Her future seems written out in front of her until a seemingly random encounter with a young man begins to unravel the predictable fabric of her plans.
From time to time, I’ve wondered if I can pull off a romance between these two characters that is believable and genuine, fragile yet inescapable. It seems like a fine line between what I want to achieve and something that makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit. I don’t read romance fiction, but somehow this idea came to me, and I really want to tell this story, kissing and all. It nagged at me that this might be a stumbling block. It’s not something I can pull out of an outline, and I’m not about to interview a bunch of teenage girls on the subject. That would officially make me a creepy old man. Then I remembered a summer from a long time ago and was surprised at how vivid some of the memories remained.
When I was 16, I went on a canoe trip through interconnected lakes in the Adirondack Mountains. It started at a camp, not so different from the 4-H camp I attended when just a sprout. Being that most of the canoe trippers were older teens, we were separated from the bulk of the other campers. We were to stay the night and leave early the next morning for a few days of paddling between lakes and nights camping along shore. The older campers, Counselors-In-Training, were allowed into an area we had claimed, playing pool and talking with us before dinner. That was where I met Kathy (not her real name).
Kathy’s smile was the first thing I noticed, because it was pointed at me a good deal of the time, before I figured out that she wanted me to come talk to her. This was all new territory for me. Her long hair was curled, and her bangs were piled high with mousse in front of a banana clip. She wore acid-wash blue jeans with a wide, white pleather belt that hung from her hips and served no function, other than to be shiny. Her dark brown eyes half closed when she laughed at whatever her friend was saying to her. Then she would look over toward me and smile.
I felt uncharacteristically brave at that point, as I checked to make sure my feathered hair was in place. Pretty girls normally left my spine feeling squishy and my throat full of tangled yarn, but I was only going to be there for one night before I left. Certainly I could suffer a little embarrassment for that long if I were wrong about her intentions. I didn’t know any of those people and would never see them again after that week.
Kathy turned out to be very sweet and fun to talk to. Before I knew it, we had run out of time. The dinner bell rang, younger campers filed into the dining hall. Kathy had to go do Counselor-In-Training things. I ate with my small group of outsiders, taking some abuse for being so shy around Kathy. I didn’t have any excuses besides not knowing anything about girls, but I wasn’t about to confess that.
The canoe trip was a tremendous amount of fun, complete with thunder storms huddled in a lean-to, bear noises that turned out to be a raccoon, the ever-present smell of Skin So Soft (mosquito repellent extraordinaire), and much more that was actually fun. By the end, I was tired and ready to head home with stories to tell my family.
Back at the camp, we helped stow the gear from the trip and then had a couple of hours to kill before parents started to arrive. To my surprise, Kathy turned up and spent most of it with me. She looked even prettier than I remembered from 5 days before, practically a lifetime ago from my teenage point of view. Suddenly I wasn’t ready to go home quite yet. Everyone from my canoeing group seemed to be watching us like hawks. I felt very self-conscious. More, I felt this heaviness in the air between us, and it was just anticipation that my poor, inexperienced self hadn’t recognized.
A honk drew my attention to a line of cars. My father waved over the top of the car. I’m sure he was eager to get going, since I remembered how long the drive had taken. I shouldered my backpack and asked Kathy to walk with me to the car. It wasn’t until I climbed in and closed the door that I realized I had truly run out of time. I lunged through the open window and kissed her. My first kiss, Kathy of the Adirondacks. With my eyes closed and our lips locked, I could still see her face as though she was watching me kiss someone else, smiling, eyes beaming.
My dad cleared his throat, reminding me that I had lost all track of time. No telling how much had passed from the moment the kiss began until it ended, but it was apparently too long for my dad’s taste. Dad pulled the car toward the exit. I gave Kathy a final wave as we turned out onto the road and then craned my neck to watch her until she disappeared behind a hill.
All of that nervousness, excitement, awkwardness, and joy should find its place in my book. If I start to worry about how I’m portraying my characters as they fumble through their romance, I’ll look back on those hours at camp and find some detail that will fall into place straight from that experience. Love is not for the faint of heart, but sometimes the faint of heart find courage when they need it.