It was the walk up the stairs I seem to remember most. Simply thinking about it always sets my heart to thumping. I find myself, mostly late at night, but too, at the oddest and occasionally in the most public of situations, succumbing to the daydream and reliving vividly everything about each step, from the creak of that one loose board to how her hair looked in the afternoon light and the way her dress moved as I followed, watching her from behind. It was one of the most singular events in my life, so alive, so indelible, imbued upon me with a level of immediacy and intensity, I’m sure, something akin to the scale of awareness and anticipation a condemned man must experience, when he takes that last, long walk.
Her name was Cynthia, but I almost always called her Cynth. We were neighbors. Neither one of our homes was very much by today’s standards. We lived in one of those lower middle class neighborhoods, which seem to sprout amongst the cracks and fringes of every big city. Except for the occasional pink, plastic flamingo displayed in the small plots of lawn out front, or perhaps a slightly different color of paint on the shutters or door, it was virtually impossible to tell one house from any other, row after row after row.
That day, I’d found her out on her porch. Summers here were always so hot, and come about late July a heavy boredom always set in. Our neighborhood was always quiet, even more so now as lots of families were away on vacation, at the beach, the mountains, anywhere they could find a cool breeze or breath of fresh air. For those who remained, the hours stretched out interminably to where it seemed one could easily count from one to ten between each tick of the second hand. Ironically, during these dog days even the neighborhood animals seemed to have fallen prey to the monotonous languor, and it became rare to hear a dog bark, or for that matter, to see a car drive by and momentarily disturb the heavy hush hanging over the streets. The very stillness of the air and the emptiness of the haze lingering in the sky were all just elements of the doldrums of summer.
I’d come outside and noticed her right off. She was wearing one of those summery, cotton dresses. I can still recall, for a fact, it had a pattern of little, blue flowers sprinkled across a light, yellow fabric. Cynthia Marshall, two and a half years older than me, and an effortless beauty with soft brown hair and lips so rich, so sweetly pink, when she smiled those bright, green eyes of hers just seemed to melt my heart and snatch my poor breath away.
We’d known each other forever; you can’t live fifteen feet from someone else’s driveway all of your life and not get to know them. When I was little, Cynth used to trick–or–treat with my older brother and me, the two of them holding my hands between them as we ran from door to door. Our families would sometimes share Easter egg hunts between our houses and bar–b–ques on the Fourth of July. She’d always been sweet to me, but in a big sisterly way. Yet, she’d been the one, through the luck of a spin, to endow me with my first real kiss, when we both found ourselves playing a game of spin the bottle during a neighborhood birthday party. Even before that unforgettable afternoon, when that empty Nehi bottle spun our way, she had been the featured highlight in every fantasy of mine ever since I could remember.
But most things change as we grow older; and she’d become one of the girls who ran with the big kids long before I ever did. I came to know about her, more than I knew her. I remember lying in bed, in the room I shared with my brother, Mark, and listening awestruck to stories about Cynthia ringing people’s doorbells and running away, or teaming up with other kids to cause feuds between the cranky old ladies at the end of the block by switching around or stealing their prized ceramic garden gnomes and molded cement figurines. She was rare for such a beauty, because she was fun, maybe even what some people might call a little rambunctious. I never remember having seen her out on the street when she wasn’t either running or skipping, her long pony tail flying as she passed. And as she began to mature, she was one of those girls who just suddenly blossomed. By the time she was in her middle teens, there wasn’t a boy I knew who didn’t hope she’d turn a smile his way. Yet, along with her budding physical charms, she was one of those girls possessed of a rare nature, which complements a sincere sweetness and an ease of confidence about herself. And later, when she was a senior in high school, and I was just a gangly freshman, there wasn’t a person I knew who didn’t think she was someone entirely special. Unfortunately, for all the rest of us waiting breathlessly in the wings, her boyfriend, a guy who owned a car and was a sophomore in college, was the one who was lucky enough to be the apple of her eye.
But that afternoon, that became our own. It will always stand out so freshly in my mind. The frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel won’t endure as long or shine as clearly in time as does the clarity of this memory. I remember being bored, so bored I wandered outside, as that in itself was something to do. Seeing her out on her porch, I let the screen door slam a little too loudly and was rewarded when she sat up and looked my way. Sitting down on my porch railing I waved, and she waved back. Crossing my feet at the ankles, I hitched my thumbs in the pockets of my shorts, nowhere to go and nothing to do.
“Hey!” She called out, making another quick wave, beckoning over her shoulder with her hand. “Jimmy! Jimbo! Come on over!”
No sooner had I stepped up on her porch than she halted her swinging on the porch glider and scooted over, patting a spot for me to take a seat. “How’ve you been doing there, Jimbo?” Her voice was as warm and friendly as if we’d spoken only yesterday. “Haven’t seen much of you this summer.”
“I haven’t seen you either,” I came back. There simply was no feeling uneasy around her. With some friends you haven’t seen much of, it sometimes takes a bit to get the awkwardness out of the way and get back on track. But there was something just so easy about everything with Cynth, so amiable, so sincere, totally at ease and completely disarming. “Where’s your boyfriend, Cynth? I haven’t seen him around much either.”
She kicked out, setting the swing going in an easy arc. “He went with his folks to the mountains. They’re going to be gone ’til Labor Day.” Even her acting out an exaggerated childish pout couldn’t fall flat. “He left me here to wilt while he goes plays chess with his dad and fishes for bass with his brothers. More likely though, he’s just lying around like a big lout drinking beer all night and sleeping most the day.”
“Sounds like the life,” I replied.
“Yeah.” That little half smile of hers was distant and wistful, and her eyes looked so far away. “I miss him.”
We sat like that for quite awhile, maybe an hour, maybe more. Who knows? Time didn’t mean a thing on such a sleepy summer’s day. I hadn’t really even said ten words to her in months, only “Hi” now and then in passing. But like old times, we fell back into ourselves, and before long we were remembering the old stories and recalling kids we used to know and things we used to do, just kicking back and chatting, again the best of friends. After a bit she went inside and got us some lemonade. We talked and sipped at our straws, laughing, as she could always make anyone laugh. And when my lemonade was gone I sat back, sucking on the ice cubes and just listening to her ramble about nothing of any importance, which was exactly what I was in the mood to hear.
“How’s that brother of yours doing?” She asked out of the blue. “Does Mark still have that same cutie girlfriend?” She spiraled a hand above her head. “The one with all that hair?”
I wasn’t really focusing on anything, just looking off across the street, but seeing her little pantomime got me to laugh again. “Yeah, I think so,” I grinned. “Last I heard of, anyway. You know, he’s going to be graduating from college next semester.” She gave a quick whistle, her lips forming a note of genuine surprise. For some reason my eyes were spellbound by the shape of those lips.
“Where’d time get off to?” She asked after she’d let the whistle trail off. “Seems like forever since I last saw him, Christmas I think it was.” She hitched her feet up under her dress, cross–legged, planting her hands down in the center of the spread of her dress and letting me swing the swing. “I’m glad next fall I’ll be transferring to a college that’s reasonably close. I’ll be able to get home weekends and holidays. I get real lonely so quickly being away from everybody. I guess I’m just a hometown girl at heart. Mark though, who knows where that guy will end up.”
“He’s just a ramblin’ kind of guy,” I came back, feeling good about getting a laugh out of her.
“I forget,” she asked. “What’s he studying?”
“Photography,” I answered, “just like my dad did. When he graduates the plan is he’s supposed to work at my dad’s portrait studio for a while. But he really wants to get in with an agency, in New York or LA and do some advertising photography and maybe even some freelance or artistic stuff. He’s been shooting weddings to make a little extra cash.” I raised my eyebrows and leaned in close to confide to her in a whisper. “He even did a boudoir shoot a couple of months ago.”
“Boudoir?” Right off, her eyes lit up, and she leaned into me nudging me with her shoulder. “Isn’t that,” she started slowly, “isn’t that where women pay to have pictures taken of themselves in sexy lingerie or bathing suits … like for their husbands or boyfriends?”
She was so close, almost nose–to–nose; and the way she looked at me. It was as if the air around us had gone suddenly still and the heat had grown up around us. She was staring right into me, and I could see she was thinking of something. In a bit of panic I couldn’t believe I had let that slip. I wondered what I could possibly have been thinking to have been so stupid as to have blurted that out. Mark, I’m sure didn’t want it getting around. Even though it was 1965, and Playboy had been around for quite a while, some of our local Neanderthals could still get pretty up in arms about that kind of thing. Mark had told me about it when he was home over Memorial Day. I hadn’t seen the pictures, but I knew he’d had to borrow my dad’s private darkroom to develop the negatives and make the prints, as he probably would have gotten arrested had he tried taking the shots to a regular lab.
Suddenly Cynthia leaned back and planted her feet, stopping the swing. She slapped her hands down on her legs and stared back at me with that Cynth wildness in her grin. “You still shoot photos, too, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “I just got a new 35mm Ricoh for my eighteenth birthday last month. It’s got a 28mm wide angle lens, f1.4, and my dad even got me a 100mm to go with the stock 50mm.” I was always proud of any opportunity to talk about my cameras. I scooted around a bit to better face her. “It’s got a flash, too! My dad’s been helping me get the knack of it; flash is tough though. But you need it if you want to get an indoor shot just right. Of course, my dad he knows it all. He’s got a full set of background lights with filters and gels, and he uses a system of umbrella strobes he’s got synched to his large format Hassleblad.”
She locked a hand down on my knee. “You’ve got film and stuff, too, right?”
“Sure, color and black and white.” Her hand on my knee made me suddenly conscious of how close we truly were. Maybe it was the air had changed, but we seemed very alone together out on that porch. And up close, like this, I became aware I could smell her too. There wasn’t any particular scent or flowery fragrance to her, just fresh, a breath of Cynth, clean and sweet.
She took her hand back and swiveled a bit more to face me straight on. She started to say something, but didn’t. Maybe it was the heat, but her cheeks looked hot and flushed.
When she didn’t say anything I asked, “What?”
She pursed her lips and shook her head.
“Come on, Cynth,” I pressed. “It’s me, Jimbo. What were you going to say?” I recall thinking she’d probably come up with one of her infamous gags or jokes to play on someone.
“I don’t know.” She pulled her feet out from under her skirt and let her legs swing down, twining her ankles and locking her knees. “I just kind of had a goofy idea.” She shrugged and cocked her head, looking awkward for the first time I could ever remember. “You know me.”
“Yeah, I know you,” I came back. I must have been crazy because another wild admission came flying out of my mouth. “You’re the one who gave me my first kiss.”
Her mouth fell open, for but a moment, then the most wonderful smile came across her, and she laughed. “You remember that?”
I fell back in the glider trying to show her I was devastated. “Remember! Remember?” I stammered. “Are you kidding? Does a Texan remember the Alamo?”
Those emerald eyes of hers were positively afire. “I had no idea, Jimbo. I’m flattered.” She pressed a hand lightly to her breast, as though stunned. “Was that really your first kiss?”
I nodded. It was my turn to lock my knees and twine my ankles.
“Well, well, Jimbo. I’m sure it wasn’t your last.”
Now I really was embarrassed. It seemed there was nothing I wanted to look at right now more than my sneakers.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said, obviously sensing my discomfort. “You’ve gotten to be quite a handsome guy. Wait ’til you’re a senior this coming semester, then everything will change.” She again put her hand on my knee. “You’re gonna be a real lady killer, mark my words. You’ve got everything it takes. You’re good looking.” She noticed my chagrin and gave me a playful little shove. “You are! Don’t sell yourself short, Jimbo. But most of all you’re a good guy, and let me tell you,” she locked her eyes on me, “that’s something. That, coupled with that bod of yours, what else could a girl want?”
I looked up at her. I couldn’t tell which made her seem to shine more, that she so honestly appeared to care or the candidness of the sincerity which rang in her voice.
“Hey!” She suddenly clapped her hands. “I’m going to ask you to do me a favor, a big, big favor.”
Right then I would have run across a busy freeway blindfolded had she had asked me to. “Anything,” I came back. “You name it.”
“I’d like to send my boyfriend, Peter, a picture of me, not any old snapshot, but something nice, professional looking. You know, remind him what he’s missing when he’s gutting some fish instead of giving me a kiss. Do you think you could help me out?”
I sat up. “Now?”
“Sure. I mean, if you’re not doing anything. I want to send something to shake that boy up.”
I remember hardly even hearing the last of what she said. I was already thinking about where, indoors or outdoors, flash or no flash, wide angle lens or long focal length, sharp depth of field or soft focus.
“Hey, hey!” She jiggled my knee. “What do you say?”
I jumped up and flew off the porch. I was already across her driveway when I yelled back “Don’t go anywhere, I’m getting my camera!” In a heartbeat I was back, camera bag slung over one arm and tripod in hand.
Standing with one foot on the stoop, I panted breathlessly. “Where do you want to do it?” Right off I knew how stupid that sounded.
It’s a shame I didn’t have the camera already set up because the charmed way in which she smiled back at me from where she sat on the glider was priceless. Her elbows on her knees she spread her hands. “Hey, you’re the photographer; you tell me.” She got to her feet, striking a pose without even thinking about it by just stretching out an arm to lean against the roof support. “I’m all yours, Jimbo.”
“I’m all yours!” The words rang in my head. Ten thousand ideas sprung into my bedeviled mind all at once. But thankfully, I had a clarity of moment. “Hold it right there!” I blurted out, fumbling and dropping the tripod as I unslung my bag. “Just hold it. Don’t move. Don’t move!”
My fingers were trembling so wildly the lens cap flipped away like a wild shot in a game of tiddlywinks. Where it went I didn’t even give a damn. I kept looking back up at her as I frantically tried to get the camera set on the tripod. When the camera was mounted, I fumbled around for my light meter, convinced that if a fugitive wanted to never be found all he had to do was find a way to hide out in a damn camera bag, and he’d be able to completely disappear. I finally found the thing and ran back up the steps waving it about as if I could possibly remember what I was doing. The whole time Cynth kept that pose, just relaxing into it, and her amused expression at my fluster and confusion was just about as perfect as it could be.
“Okay!” I yelled. “All set.” I jumped back down and carefully set the shutter speed and f–stop. Walking around behind the camera I looked in the viewfinder, amazed at the picture I saw, then came back to myself and adjusted the angle to get her framed just right. I wasn’t about to cut off this girl’s head. Gripping the shutter’s cable release, with my thumb poised, I thought about telling her to say: “Cheese.” But on quick second thought decided I didn’t want to do anything to upset the perfection of an almost classic Mona Lisa quality smile. “Be still,” I called out, then counted: “One, two, three!” I pressed. Nothing!
“Did you get it?” She asked. “I didn’t hear a click.”
I looked down, bewildered. Everything was right: shutter speed, 30; f–stop set at 5.6; film speed indicator on 100. Then it hit me when I saw the frame count; I’d forgotten to advance the damn film. “Hang on! Hang on!” I cried out. Advancing the lever with my thumb, I then had to reset the framing in the viewfinder, and felt a wave of relief when I pressed the button and heard the shutter’s click.
Cynthia had heard it too, as she pulled away from the post, standing and stretching with her arms up and her hands out. She winked at me. “I guess like a kiss, the first one’s always the toughest.”
“Do you want to take some more?” I fired back.
She dropped her arms. “Got more film?”
“Half a roll.”
She stepped down and came walking over. There was something so feminine about how she looked in that dress, how she appeared to cross her knees with an easy, lilting step when she walked. The way her hair, it looked auburn in the sun, seemed to frame the lines of her neck and shoulders, and how the two buttons left undone at the top of the dress just allowed a hint at the fullness of her breasts concealed below. For the first time, too, I noticed I was now taller than she was, quite a revelation.
She reached out and tousled my hair. “You just tell me what you want me to do.”
In the next hour I began to learn the unique thrill any photographer must enjoy when presented with a beautiful and willing model. Little by little, I started to loosen up and apply what I knew. I did one shot using my long focal length, 100mm lens. Moving back at a distance I had Cynthia stand next of one of the Mulberry trees, which ran down the city sidewalk in front of every house. Compressing the depth of field so that an entire block’s worth of trees appeared only inches apart, I had her peek around the side of the closest trunk, kicking up one foot and stretching out her skirt while her hair fell away to the side. I took another shot with her sitting on the hood of a car and another up in a tree. It was so much fun, even a bit of a thrill to have her so willingly comply and follow my every command.
But then, I had a revelation. I told her to lie down in Mrs. Wilbun’s flowerbed and face the camera. Doing just as I asked, she spread her elbows on the grass, propping up her chin in her palms. I came in for a close up, lowering the tripod and changing to my wide–angle 28mm. Lying as she was, the tops of her breasts were framed demurely below her hands, adding a spice of sensuality to an otherwise picture postcard pose. Kneeling in front of her, maybe I lingered too long taking in the view, because she momentarily broke the pose to look down, having followed my eyes. My ears caught fire when she saw what I was seeing. But to my surprise she didn’t get angry at all. Instead, she sat up and gave me that wild, door–ringers smile I’d heard about, cocked her head in a “what the hell” salute, and reached down and popped one more button loose. Then she lay back down, moving so her breasts were pressed out by her weight against the ground and said, “How ’bout this? Is this a little more of what you were looking for?”