First by Ryan Van Meter
From If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter ©2011. Reprinted by permission of Sarabande Books. All rights reserved.
This essay as it is reprinted here first appeared in The Gettysburg Review and Best American Essays 2009.
Ryan Van Meter’s “First” dramatizes a number of “firsts” through a five-year-old child’s eyes and senses: the boy’s first love, his first time proposing marriage, his first rift with his mother, his first understanding of gender roles and prohibitions, his first heartbreak. In a circumscribed temporal period, the time it takes their parents to drive him and the boy he loves home from a dinner out, and a circumscribed space, the interior of a station wagon, Van Meter tells a very large story.
Van Meter frequently manipulates time and retrospect in the other essays in his collection If You Knew Then What I Know Now. Here, a brief telescoping forward from the present-tense narrative makes the importance of this experience immediately apparent: “Ben is the first brown-eyed boy I will fall for but will not be the last.” Setting and sensory details become significant. The boys sit at the back of the station wagon, turned away from their parents in a private space “that feels like a secret, as though they are not even in the car with us.” The boys are under surveillance, however, and the car becomes quiet when they say “I love you,” and the narrator asks Ben to marry him. The car is “idling” at that moment, “waiting for a red light to be green.” The narrator has been gathering information about how women and men, girls and boys “should” act. “You shouldn’t have said that,” his mother says. The closing line, where the narrator looks back at what’s been left behind, speaks worlds about the situation he will find himself in for years to come. Ashamed, he no longer holds Ben’s hand, sweet and “sticky” from strawberry syrup. They have moved to opposite sides of the seat and look out the back window, their idyllic bond behind them. The adults, who look out the front, are driving the car and will determine what lies ahead. “We all just sit and wait and watch our own views of the road—the parents see what is ahead of us while the only thing I can look at is what we have just left behind.” —CRAFT
Ben and I are sitting side by side in the very back of his mother’s station wagon. We face glowing white headlights of cars following us, our sneakers pressed against the back hatch door. This is our joy—his and mine—to sit turned away from our moms and dads in this place that feels like a secret, as though they are not even in the car with us. They have just taken us out to dinner, and now we are driving home. Years from this evening, I won’t actually be sure that this boy sitting beside me is named Ben. But that doesn’t matter tonight. What I know for certain right now is that I love him, and I need to tell him this fact before we return to our separate houses, next door to each other. We are both five.
Ben is the first brown-eyed boy I will fall for but will not be the last. His hair is also brown and always needs scraping off his forehead, which he does about every five minutes. All his jeans have dark squares stuck over the knees where he has worn through the denim. His shoelaces are perpetually undone, and he has a magic way of tying them with a quick, weird loop that I study and try myself, but can never match. His fingernails are ragged because he rips them off with his teeth and spits out the pieces when our moms aren’t watching. Somebody always has to fix his shirt collars.
Our parents face the other direction, talking about something, and it is raining. My eyes trace the lines of water as they draw down the glass. Coiled beside my legs are the thick black and red cords of a pair of jumper cables. Ben’s T-ball bat is also back here, rolling around and clunking as the long car wends its way through town. Ben’s dad is driving, and my dad sits next to him, with our mothers in the back seat; I have recently observed that when mothers and fathers are in the car together, the dad always drives. My dad has also insisted on checking the score of the Cardinals game, so the radio is tuned to a staticky AM station, and the announcer’s rich voice buzzes out of the speakers up front.
The week before this particular night, I asked my mother, “Why do people get married?” I don’t recall the impulse behind my curiosity, but I will forever remember every word of her answer—she stated it simply after only a moment or two of thinking—because it seemed that important: “Two people get married when they love each other.”
I had that hunch. I am a kindergartener, but the summer just before this rainy night, I learned most of what I know about love from watching soap operas with my mother. She is a gym teacher and during her months off, she catches up on the shows she has watched since college. Every summer weekday, I couldn’t wait until they came on at two o’clock. My father didn’t think I should be watching them—boys should be outside, playing—but he was rarely home early enough to know the difference, and according to my mother, I was too young to really understand what was going on anyway.
What I enjoyed most about soap opera was how exciting and beautiful life was. Every lady was pretty and had wonderful hair, and all the men had dark eyes and big teeth and faces as strong as bricks, and every week, there was a wedding or a manhunt or a birth. The people had grand fights where they threw vases at walls and slammed doors and chased each other in cars. There were villains locking up the wonderfully haired heroines and suspending them in gold cages above enormous acid vats. And, of course, it was love that inspired every one of these stories and made life on the screen as thrilling as it was. That was what my mother would say from the sofa when I turned from my spot on the carpet in front of her and faced her, asking, “Why is he spying on that lady?”
“Because he loves her.”
In the car, Ben and I hold hands. There is something sticky on his fingers, probably the strawberry syrup from the ice cream sundaes we ate for dessert. We have never held hands before; I have simply reached for his in the dark and held him while he holds me. I want to see our hands on the rough floor, but they are only visible every block or so when the car passes beneath a streetlight, and then, for only a flash. Ben is my closest friend because he lives next door, we are the same age, and we both have little brothers who are babies. I wish he were in the same kindergarten class as me, but he goes to a different school—one where he has to wear a uniform all day and for which there is no school bus.
“I love you,” I say. We are idling, waiting for a red light to be green; a shining car has stopped right behind us, so Ben’s face is pale and brilliant.
“I love you too,” he says.
The car becomes quiet as the voice of the baseball game shrinks smaller and smaller.
“Will you marry me?” I ask him. His hand is still in mine; on the soap opera, you are supposed to have a ring, but I don’t have one.
He begins to nod, and suddenly my mother feels very close. I look over my shoulder, my eyes peeking over the back of the last row of seats that we are leaning against. She has turned around, facing me. Permed hair, laugh lines not laughing.
“What did you just say?” she asks.
“I asked Ben to marry me.”
The car starts moving forward again, and none of the parents are talking loud enough for us to hear them back here. I brace myself against the raised carpeted hump of the wheel well as Ben’s father turns left onto the street before the turn onto our street. Sitting beside my mom is Ben’s mother, who keeps staring forward, but I notice that one of her ears keeps swiveling back here, a little more each time. I am still facing my mother, who is still facing me, and for one last second, we look at each other without anything wrong between us.
“You shouldn’t have said that,” she says. “Boys don’t marry other boys. Only boys and girls get married to each other.”
She can’t see our hands, but Ben pulls his away. I close my fingers into a loose fist and rub my palm to feel, and keep feeling, how strange his skin has made mine.
“Okay?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say, but by accident my throat whispers the words.
She asks again. “Okay? Did you hear me?”
“Yes!” this time nearly shouting, and I wish we were already home so I could jump out and run to my bedroom. To be back here in the dark, private tail of the car suddenly feels wrong, so Ben and I each scoot off to our separate sides. “Yes,” I say again, almost normally, turning away to face the rainy window. I feel her turn too as the radio baseball voice comes back up out of the quiet. The car starts to dip as we head down the hill of our street; our house is at the bottom. No one speaks for the rest of the ride. We all just sit and wait and watch our own views of the road—the parents see what is ahead of us while the only thing I can look at is what we have just left behind.
RYAN VAN METER is the author of the essay collection, If You Knew Then What I Know Now (2011). His work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, The Normal School Magazine, Ninth Letter, and Fourth Genre, among others, and has been selected for anthologies including Best American Essays 2009. He lives in California and teaches at The University of San Francisco where he is an associate professor.