It was my fifth grade art class, and we were wrapped up in the mysteries of papier-mâché. I was hopelessly inept; my creation looked like half-chewed food. From a row back, a dark-haired girl stepped away from her perfect work to try to help me.
Her name was Velvet.
She had long-hair and freckles, and deep brown eyes, and as she took hold of one my hands to show me how to do what we were supposed to be doing, something changed inside me. It was a pre-adolescent something, but – something, nonetheless.
At that age, relationships are both very simple and very complicated. Simple, in that, you don’t actually have to talk to each other or interact much. Complicated, in that, you aren’t quite sure when someone qualifies as your girlfriend or boyfriend as opposed to your friend.
But I think she became my girlfriend.
She was in my class, yet we rarely spoke: maybe three times a week. She also sang in chorus, and we were preparing for the year-end concert. She sang in the special “select group” of the best singers, and I used to watch them practice in awe.
They sounded wonderful to my ten-year old ears.
We were preparing for the year-end concert because fifth grade was almost over. I had my first girlfriend, and I had maybe four weeks to enjoy it.
Then, out of the blue, one day, with maybe two weeks left, she told me her family was moving. We lived in an Air Force town, so almost everyone moved every three years. She was leaving right after the school year ended.
The last time I would see her would be the end of school program.
As part of our year end concert / program, I had a speaking part, dressed as an old-time politician stumping for presidential candidate Benjamin Harrison. I was to wear a fake beard and a stovepipe hat.
My mom helped me construct the stovepipe hat out of two pieces of black posterboard we cut, rolled, and stapled together. I did my bit in the program for Benjamin Harrison; I liked to think it was his first term and not his failed re-election bid.
Velvet sang “Kentucky Babe” with the select singers, and I still remember it to this day.
After the show, we stood there awkwardly, our four parents also standing right there. She was admiring my stovepipe hat; I wanted to give it to her as a going away present. My mom said no.
So, we said our clumsy goodbyes, and she left.
I was really angry at my mom in the car; I argued with her. She said I would want to keep that hat to remember this day by.
Four years later, I am in ninth grade, and one of my female friends brings me a letter in an unfamiliar girl’s handwriting.
It was from Velvet.
She sent a copy of her school photo. She looked beautiful; and, by this point, adolescence had indeed hit me.
She had just moved (again), they were now in Alabama, only about three hours away.
She might as well have been across country.
I went home, and sat down at the desk my father had built for my brother’s and my room. Behind me, high up on a shelf, lay that stovepipe hat. I tried to think of what I should say to her.
I wasn’t sure sending a photo of me would have the same effect on her that hers had on me. I looked like I’d had a twelve-round prize fight with puberty and lost.
I snuck into my sister’s room and borrowed (stole) her Polaroid camera. I took a picture of the hat, and then put the camera back where my sister had tried unsuccessfully to hide it.
I wrote a three paragraph note about school and friends we both knew who still lived in Florida. I also wrote “Remember this?” on back of the photo. I spent some time practicing my signature on a spare piece of paper before signing it.
I then “borrowed” an envelope and stamp from my mom, and rode my bicycle down to the post office to mail my response.
It was three months later before I heard from her. It came straight to the house.
This time, the photo she sent was her in her cheerleader uniform.
She mentioned that Debbie (our mutual friend) had said I had gotten really good on the piano since fifth grade. (In fact, I started lessons three days after the last time I had seen Velvet.) She asked if I still sang in chorus.
She also told me she had a boyfriend now, and his name was Ted. He was on the football team.
Many, many years later, I’m a grown man with a family (my first marriage) and my parents are leaving that old house to move to Arizona.
My mom brings out the stovepipe hat, which had been on that same shelf all these years.
“I remember us making this,” she says. “You were mad at me because I wouldn’t let you give it to a girl.”
“Velvet,” I said. “Velvet was her name.”
“You remember? Are you still mad?” my mom said, laughing.
“No,” I said. “I’m not sure that relationship was ever destined for great things.”
“I also found this under the hat,” she said, holding up an old piece of papier-mâché. “What is this?”
“That… is some old tissue paper. You know tissues: new ones grow, but the old ones are always there, under the surface.”
“What?” my mom said.
“Nothing,” I laughed, carrying more of my old junk out to the car.
For Nano Poblano this year, I’m trying a prose post a day instead of my usual work in poetry. Thanks for reading. – S.B.