Fridays With Roy: A New Barry Gifford Story About A First Kiss
By Barry Gifford in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 20, 2015 6:38PM
Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and darn it if we aren't feeling a little sentimental. It's definitely that time of year when we cast our thoughts back to earlier times. Thus far in our "Fridays with Roy" series of stories from Barry Gifford, taken from a work in progress tentatively titled The Cuban Club, we've had dead bodies, creeps and other assorted shady characters. But this week's tale is on the gentler side of things. Do you remember your first kiss?
When Leni Haakonen was eight and nine years old she liked playing war or cowboys and Indians with Roy, who was the same age. She was a Swedish girl who lived with her mother in a tenement apartment on the corner of the block, two buildings down from where Roy lived with his mother. Her father had been killed in the war and Roy’s parents were divorced. There was a vacant lot next to the building Leni lived in where she and Roy often played. Leni was as tough as any boy Roy knew, including himself, and she was very pretty. Most of the time she wore her honey-brown hair in two long braids; she had gray-blue eyes and a small red birthmark on her left cheek, and for as long as Roy knew her Leni never wore a dress.
One afternoon in late August they were pretending to be soldiers, rolling in the dirt and weeds of the vacant lot, when Leni asked Roy to kiss her. She was lying on her back and her face was dusty and smudged.
“I’m going to be nine tomorrow,” Leni said to Roy, “and I’ve never kissed a boy. I want you to be the first.”
Roy had kissed girls before but he had not thought even once about kissing Leni. He hesitated and looked at her. She had a fierce expression on her face, the same as when the two of them wrestled.
“Kiss me, Roy. On the lips.”
There was mud on her mouth. Roy wiped it off with his right thumb and kissed her. Both of them kept their eyes open.
“My mother wanted me to only invite girls to my birthday party,” she said. “That’s why you didn’t get an invitation.”
The kiss had lasted two seconds. Leni rolled away from Roy and stood up. He stood up, too.
“Which girls did you invite?”
“None. It’s just going to be me and my mother and her sister, my Aunt Terry, and her daughter, my cousin Lucy. Lucy’s twelve. I don’t like her but my mother says she has to come because of Aunt Terry. I don’t like her, either. I’m getting a new winter coat, a white one with a red collar. I can save a piece of cake and give it to you the day after tomorrow. It’ll be a yellow cake with chocolate frosting.”
Leni and her mother moved away before she and Roy were ten. Seventeen years later, a few months after Roy’s first novel was published, he received the following letter in care of his publisher in New York. The name on the return address on the envelope was Mrs. Robert Mitchell.
Dear Roy, I hope you remember me. We used to play together when we were children and I lived in Chicago. My mother and I moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, when I was ten, or almost. Now I live in Detroit with my husband who is a dentist. I work as a receptionist in his office.
I bought your book and wanted to tell you. I have not read all of it because there are too many parts I do not really understand but I like the photograph of you on the back cover. You look like I thought you would.
Robert and I do not have children. I don’t want any but he does. My mother lives in Grand Rapids with her sister.
I probably should not tell you this in writing but I want to. Sometimes I can still feel your thumb on my lips when you wiped off the mud that time. It was on the day before my ninth birthday. I don’t expect you to remember.
If you ever come to Detroit look me up. On the book it says that you live in Paris, France, so I don’t really think I’ll see you here or ever. You probably get other letters like this.
Leni (Haakonen) Mitchell