My first kiss lived in a house on Carbonate Street with stucco walls and a low iron fence. The place has since burned down, but whenever I walk past the spot where it stood, I think of him. I wouldn’t recognize him now, of course, but I remember his name. You should always remember the name of the first and last person you’ve kissed, my mother said.
Actually, Mom never said that. She didn’t talk to me about boys or sex or even love, but I heard that somewhere, the first and last. All the rest you can forget.
My summers of unmonitored sugar intake, of cracked tennis courts and bubblegum slushies, were spent roaming the streets of a small town in the interior of British Columbia with my only friends, Kate and Susanne. No one wanted us. We were the wrong age for everything. We couldn’t legally work. Or drive. Attaining a tan was our sole ambition in June and maintaining it our only responsibility until September, when we’d go back to school. We were consigned to the streets, where we drifted, bored and leaderless, in search of what we called ‘fun.’ Everything was determined by that word. Guys, this is so fun. This is so not fun.
The pursuit of fun was instinctual, like the migration of monarch butterflies, from Canada to a forest in Mexico. An endangered phenomenon, David Attenborough called them. How did the monarchs know where to go? How did they know when they had arrived?
On warm evenings, we’d break into the public swimming pool in Gyro Park. If you go to Gyro right now, you’ll find a bunch of kids skinny-dipping, and they would be us, suspended in time, the same teenage rumps climbing the fence and receding into the trees whenever Mr. Andrews’s flashlight appeared.
One night we got caught. Mr. Andrews herded a group of us into the gazebo to lecture us on criminal records. We stood in our damp clothes, wet-haired, denying everything.
“You can’t be a criminal until you’re eighteen,” the boy beside me said quietly.
“Really?” I asked, as he put his arm around me.
“It’s the Law.”
Mr. Andrews released us with a warning. He knew our parents. We’d be fined thirty dollars each if he found us here again.
“He doesn’t know me,” said the boy, his arm still draped over my shoulders. His name was Will. Kate said she’d heard of him. His cousin Kyle was in our chemistry class.
“I don’t go to school,” said Will. We gazed at him admiringly. We’d never met anyone our age who didn’t go to school.
Will and his friends joined us and we continued south together, like the monarchs, finding security in numbers. We stopped at the 7-11 to buy Fuzzy Peaches and Twizzlers, which allowed me to get a better look at Will. He was thin in the effortless way that only adolescent boys and supermodels can be. His black hair slid over his eyes, causing my aorta to cancel all blood circulation to my head.
He suggested we stop by his place to pick up some tobacco. I’d noticed the house on Carbonate before because of all the plastic angels that dangled from trees in the yard and the crucifix that lit up at odd times of the day and night. It was his aunt’s place, he said as we followed him inside. The kitchen smelled of cooking oil and seated at the table were four young kids. The girls already had pierced ears. They looked up at us with a collective face, as if observing their own future, when they’d be allowed to roam around after dark, through parks and fenced-off swimming pools. Will murmured something to them and we left with his aunt’s tobacco pouch. Not knowing what else to do, we headed back towards the park. It called to us, like the dark forests of Michoacán. Come hither.
“I don’t know if we should…” said Susanne.
“You’re no fun,” I told her. Since No Fun was the worst possible thing to be, Susanne followed.
We stopped at the look-out. Beneath us lay silver rooftops, the helms of boats and lighted windows on the west shore of Kootenay Lake. There’d once been gold in the lake. Kate said that basically all the buildings downtown had once been brothels, including her Dad’s office. We were the descendants of gold miners and hookers.
“Not me.” Will looked up from the cigarette he was rolling. His grandfather was a member of the Sinixt Nation, he said, but they didn’t exist anymore. Not according to the government of Canada.
He threw a rock off the look-out and I held my breath until it hit the pavement below. The other boys joined him, flinging rocks off the dark drop. We listened in silence for the thud. Someone passed me a cigarette and I inhaled, feeling the smoke encase my brain. Life was rushing towards me at a great speed. I could feel Will beside me, the dense heat of his body through his denim shirt. You exist, I said, or tried to say, but by then he was kissing me. I’d been kissed before but not on the mouth. This was official. His tongue wasn’t squirmy like I expected. The hair on his upper lip bore traces of peach sugar.
One of the falling rocks hit a parked car and set off an alarm. We bolted into the trees but once we made it to the road we knew we were safe. We kept behind the others, stopping every few steps to repeat the kiss that with every repetition became more urgent.
We spent the night in Kate’s basement. Her parents were away and had left her all kinds of microwavable snacks, which we ate quickly, without bothering to heat them up. By this time everyone had paired up, even Susanne, who’d been complaining that she was always left with the stubby ones. Scarcity and the discovery of a beer crate lifted her spirits and lowered her standards.
That night we became scholars of the kiss, allowing it to harden and hurt, to linger, fatten, starve, to take over our hands. In the corner of the room, the TV flickered. No one was pretending to watch it anymore. Semi-naked women moved across the screen and I thought about how much more beautiful he was than them.
The next morning people started drifting off.
“I’ll see you at school,” I told Will, momentarily forgetting that he didn’t go to school.
I saw him a few weeks later, passing Gyro, eyes absorbed by his cap. We frowned across the street at each other. He didn’t stop. Neither did I. But I continued to walk by his place on my way to school, that little house so full of people, though I never saw anyone in the yard. I wondered if I had gone too far, or not far enough. What was the right amount?
After the fire, the place on Carbonate was fenced off. Miraculously, the yard decorations survived. The angels still hung from the trees, slightly blackened but their rosy cheeks and noses still intact. The newspaper said it was a cooking accident and that no one was injured. Builders came and leveled the house and the next summer a new, almost identical house went up in its spot, but the family did not return.
“They didn’t have insurance,” Kate explained.
“Where did they go?”
“To the place where people without insurance go.”
Kate knew about these things because her Dad was a lawyer. I didn’t usually question her, but I’d heard something in our social studies class about the Land Act, and I remembered it now, narrated by David Attenborough’s smooth British accent, as all the most important things in my life were. It was about how land treaties were never finalized in BC. How Kootenay Valley and the Arrow Lakes still belonged to the people who had lived there long before the gold rush and the fur rush. So, didn’t it seem wrong that the family on Carbonate Street couldn’t return to their house when the land underneath its foundations was rightfully theirs? When I asked Kate about this she said: that was before the rules of property applied.
At first, the developers had a hard time finding tenants for the new house. People didn’t trust land that would allow a home to burst into flames like that, so effortlessly, and without warning. Eventually a young couple from Vancouver bought the house. They pulled down the iron fencing and cleared the front yard, raking up the decades of buried cigarette butts. They replaced the crucifix with a set of glass wind chimes and turned the backyard into a vegetable garden.
On warm days, their young daughter can be seen out in the grass, playing between the lettuce and squash, oblivious to history and circumstance, to anything that came before her.