Boy Friends

He carried the burden of his crime for 55 years. Then he did a search on Facebook and found me.

“Are you the Katy that used to live on Ransdell Avenue?” he messaged me. I recognized his name. He was the red-headed boy who moved into our Louisville neighborhood one summer when I was about ten, and soon became a steady part of our group.

There were Severe and Tommy and Charlie and me. I was the only girl, which didn’t bother anybody except the adults. Our mailman opined — to my horror — that if all my friends were boys, then, by reason of deduction, that made them my boyfriends. My grandmother smocked me dresses and gave me dolls and urged my mother to find me some little girl friends. And my sister, ten years my senior, couldn’t understand why I had a flock of boys hanging around me but she couldn’t get a date.

Bill segued uneasily into our little ménage of neighborhood urchins. I say ‘uneasily’ because any new kid inevitably disrupts the dynamic of an established set of friends. Indeed, he landed among us like an alien. He’d moved to our street from out of town and so from a school we’d never heard of. He was taller and a year older and he had that head of wild red hair. His father was a professor at the University of Louisville, so that meant he himself must be smart, didn’t it? We all thought so.

A network of alleys crisscross many of Louisville’s old neighborhoods, including the Highlands where we all lived. These were originally used for the delivery of goods and services — and servants — to the well-to-do homeowners whose houses fronted on the tree-lined avenues of Old Louisville. To us these alleys were a network of bike paths that channeled us all over town. Our gang would meet early most summer mornings and ride all day, caroming down one back byway after another, our tires pop-popping on the bricks as we raced along. It was a ritual of our lives. But before long it was just Bill and me meeting for long bike rides across town, leaving Charlie, Severe and Tommy to wonder why.

This must have been hardest on Charlie. Before Bill came to our neighborhood, I spent long hours on the basketball court with him. Charlie was my next-door neighbor and oldest friend. He’d been kind to me when we moved to Louisville in the middle of my first grade year, taking chivalrous pride in introducing me to my new teacher and classmates. I rode to school every day — every day — with Charlie. It was he who told me about sex and to him I actually uttered the words, “Maybe your parents do but my parents DON’T!”

But most of all, it was Charlie who taught me the game of basketball. It was he who showed me how to dribble and shoot; how to cut in and lay up; how to shoot hook shots and foul shots; how to guard and rebound; and, crucial to successful life among hoops fans in Kentucky, he schooled me in the rivalry between the University of Louisville Cardinals and the University of Kentucky Wildcats. When we weren’t on our bikes, we were on the court, spending hours practicing, playing H-O-R-S-E or pretending we were playing for U of L’s Peck Hickman. And, of course, there were pickup games, including Severe and Tommy and any other kids who happened by, and now Bill too.

That’s when I ditched Charlie. No, it was not so deliberate or heartless as that. I merely turned my attention from Charlie to Bill on the basketball court. Here was this new kid. He was fast and quick-footed. He played well, and challenged me. Was I trying to impress him or was I just unrepentantly competitive? All I remember is that I badly wanted to beat him.

Although I would never have admitted it, I had a crush, my first real crush, on this boy. Because I was still very much vested in my tomboy status, I did not understand why being around him agitated me so and why, at the same time, I couldn’t get enough of his company. Or why Charlie and Tommy and Severe floated like ghosts on the periphery of my consciousness, their voices muted by the highly charged static in my head that was Bill’s name. They seemed to be flailing at me to get my attention but all I could think hear or feel was the pull of this strange boy’s magnetism.

Over the years, memories of that summer dimmed. I had no idea what happened to him after that. As I said, I was vested in my tomboy-dom when I was ten. If I’d had to say, I’d have said Bill just vanished. Poof. He just wasn’t there anymore.

The old group re-formed like the concentric circles on a pond disturbed briefly by a random rock. We held on until the end of elementary school, I guess. Eventually, Severe moved out of town with his family, never to be heard from again. Tommy went on to Catholic high school, a philosophical parting of the ways. Charlie and I lasted as long as his father drove the two of us to school. The last I heard, after he graduated from high school, he too vanished but to valet school in Switzerland. Or at least, that was the rumor. If there even is such a thing as valet school.

As for Bill, it was 55 years before I gave him another thought.

“Is this the Katy that used to live on Ransdell Avenue?”

I couldn’t help but smile. Hey, it’s that red-headed kid. Haven’t thought of him in eons! That childhood summer rose before me, colored by time and roseate memory. Well, I’ll be darned, I thought. Small world. Thank you, Facebook.

“Sure is,” I messaged back. Then came the shocker.

“Good to have found you. Ever since that summer, I’ve wanted to apologize for what I did to you. I’m just so ashamed.”

What he did to me? Really? What did he do to me?

“Rest easy, Bill,” I replied. “I have no memory of anything having happened.” I let it go at that at first. But curiosity got the best of me. Awhile later I messaged him back.

“I don’t want to stir up bad memories but, if you don’t mind, I’d be really interested to know what it is you did.” By then I was more than interested. I was dying to know. Here was this blast from the past and a mystery to boot.

His reply was instantaneous. “I punched you in the face. And you ran off home, hurt. Not so much from the punch, I think, as from the shock. I don’t think I ever saw you again.”

This confession jarred memories. Vague memories. Not of the assault. But of the location: Charlie’s basketball court. What he’d done decades ago had haunted him ever since, nagged at his conscience. A whole lifetime nurturing this nugget of regret. And I, the victim, only remembered a red-headed boy who came and went one summer when I was ten.

There are many reason to find fault with social media, beginning with the countless opportunities for abuse and annoyance. On so many occasions, though, Facebook has served me as an unexpected conduit to the past, especially the phoenix-like resurrection of old boyfriends who just wanted to reconnect in Facebook’s casual ‘like’ it or not fashion. The first time it happened, I thought This is weird. But I’m older now and more sanguine. These guys were a part of my life, helped direct the person I became, in however major or minor a way. But here was something different. Here was an example of how Facebook made it possible for a man to right a wrong, seek forgiveness and vanquish a lifelong regret.

It bothered me for Bill that I did not remember being punched because it clearly was a nettle he’d worn in his sock for half a century. It seemed equally disconcerting that indeed the only thing I actually recalled about him was the color of his hair and that I liked him. A lot. Then it dawned on me. I had the explanation for why Bill couldn’t let go of this childhood transgression and, as the recipient of that contravention, why I had no memory of it at all. I messaged him one last time.

“Bill, there is nothing to forgive. One thing that is pretty clear to me is that you were not the sort of boy to go around punching girls in the face. If you really did that, the only thing I can conclude is that I provoked you. That’s got to be it.”

That made sense to me. I must have been asking for it. Why else would a nice boy lose control like that and then let his conscience rule? Why else would a nice girl, who didn’t know how to recognize the signals from her heart, want to remember what she’d done to so enrage the boy she was crazy about? It must have seemed to me at the time like my just reward. I didn’t want to remember what I’d done; Bill couldn’t let go of what he’d done. He allowed shame to cement memory; I allowed shame to swallow it whole.

And the crazy thing is, after all those years, this Facebook exchange brought home what never crossed my mind as a child. The crush thing went both ways. It wasn’t just me. He must have liked me too. Otherwise, why care so much and carry it for so long?

Bill and I remain Facebook friends but I never hear from him anymore. He said his peace and found some peace in the doing. For me, it was another kind of reckoning: not only was Bill a boy and a friend, he was also, quite likely, my first boyfriend after all. I just didn’t know it at the time.

The first in a series of memoirs, to become a book by the same name, believing as I do that the people one has loved and lost ( or discarded) are, nonetheless, instrumental in forming the person we become.

Kiss in time

The last lynching of a black man in the United States took place in 1964. But there were many other travesties perpetrated on American blacks in the mid-part of the last century to make it clear that racism was very much alive in this country. Emmett Till was murdered for purportedly whistling at a white woman in 1955. He was fourteen. The slaughter of four little black girls in a Birmingham, AL church happened in 1963. The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s saw a surge in the activities of the Klu Klux Klan, not a diminishment.

When Robert Alderson kissed me in 1967 he handed me his life. I was seventeen, he was about seventy-five. It was not a predatory kiss. He took my shoulders in his hands, drew me to him and kissed me passionately, tongue and all, but he never otherwise touched me. I believe he was as surprised by his action as I was. He had to have known the risk he’d taken in that rash, impulsive gesture.  I did not. Not then.

Robert came to work for my family when I was about twelve. He was retired from the Louisville and Nashville Railroad and looking to pick up some extra cash doing yard work. He was unskilled and, I’m pretty sure, all but illiterate, so he was prepared as he’d probably been all his life to do whatever came his way that would bring in a little spare change. He was well recommend to my father and was soon an adored fixture in our family. Hard working and kind-hearted, Robert ended up doing more for us than just work alongside my father around the yard. He bartended at my sister’s wedding (and looked the other way when I, at thirteen, stole a bottle of champagne and proceeded to get rip-snorting’ drunk). He looked after the house when we were out of town. He kept an eye on me and reminded me often that he knew what I’d been up to and so I’d better return to the straight and narrow, pronto.

Robert, time would teach me, had no choice but to let me steal the champagne and to turn a blind eye when I stayed out all night with a boy. I was the white daughter of his white benefactor. He knew the rules and if I complained about him, even if the stories were lies to cover my own bad behavior, it could cost him his job. Or worse.

And my father was his benefactor. When the L&N tried to renege on Robert’s railroad pension because he was making money working for us — albeit only pocket money — my father went to bat for him, taking on the railroad and defending, successfully, Robert’s right to his retirement benefits.

Time would also teach me what history books could not when I was just a teenager — how slavery wasn’t something that ended with the Emancipation Proclamation, that Reconstruction only provided different constructs for racism and discrimination, that having the right to vote didn’t mean you were welcome at the polls, that Jim Crow wasn’t a Native American but a decades’ long campaign to denigrate and dehumanize America’s black citizens.

Until this week, I’ve never told a soul about Robert kissing me. Not because I was ashamed. I never was ashamed. Shocked in the moment, yes, but never ashamed. On some level, I knew what he’d done wasn’t ‘right’. But I also knew what I’ve always known: Robert loved me and I loved him. In that pure way that sometimes can overwhelm you with its need for expression. I was about to leave for college and he did what was in his heart, paying no heed to the red light in his mind.

It may have been the most courageous act of his life and certainly was the most dangerous, to put himself at the mercy of a white girl in a society that needed no excuse, no excuse at all, to put him away. Some might think, What a terrible burden for Belle to bear! But it wasn’t. It was just a secret, and a sweet one at that.

— Belle Songer