Sunday, February 24, 1980.
The short, hardwood staff weaved a gentle path through the still air of the Camden flat. It continued in a series of rhythmic, sweeping arcs and thrusts — its motion steady, yet fluid. Then the staff came to a sudden halt, as if it had struck an unseen target.
The lad at the other end of the staff opened his eyes, very satisfied with his performance of the jō suburi. His small frame stood tall on the vinyl practice mat in the middle of the spacious living room. He cannot help but swell with youthful pride. He had only been instructed in the use of the jō (short staff) for a few months, yet the lad quickly became proficient enough to be allowed to practice the basic motions at home as part of his regular fitness routine.
The lad exhaled a long breath and closed his eyes to repeat the routine, when he heard a sharp buzz blare from the intercom.
The young man tensed slightly with confusion. His parents were out of the country on business. And he was not expecting company. In fact, he had planned to meet a friend at the library later that evening.
The talking feature of the intercom had never worked, so the lad stepped out of the flat and into a pair of sandals by the welcome mat, then glided down the stairwell to open the main entrance door.
The lad was pleasantly surprised to discover the arrival to be Danielle, the friend that he planned to later meet. The very comely lass of 16 years quickly stepped inside the open doorway, looking very relieved to be in the overheated air of the foyer. The lass’ long wool coat, thick oversized sweater, and corduroy pants apparently did not offer much protection against the bitter cold Camden afternoon.
Just as the door closed, the lass’s canvas tote bag dropped from her bare left hand to the marble floor with a soft thud as she immediately shed her coat and draped it over her left arm. She turned to face the lad.
“Hi, Xummy,” she began, her British accent thick as honey. “I know we were supposed to meet at the library later, but I just needed to get away from the house and… my mother, y’know?” She pushed a few errant strands of her curly bleached-blond hair from her forehead with her free hand, her glittering sea-green eyes never leaving his face. “So I thought I’d pick you up for our ‘study date’.”
The lad inwardly winced at the young woman’s use of the word “date,” but that did not diminish his knowing smile as he glanced at her tote bag. “And you needed a place to change,” he continued.
“And I needed a place to change,” she confirmed laughingly as she picked up the bag. “You know me so well…” Her voice trailed off as she looked at the lad’s gi and hakama intently. “I see you are doing your Ice… Eye…”
“Aikido,” the lad finished, smiling slightly. Most of the other students in his fifth form class would generally, and thus erroneously, refer to his martial art as “Karate”. The lass seemed to be the only one to make the effort to know the actual name.
“Right. Eye-kiddo,” she attempted. (The lad felt it was close enough.) “Should I come back later…?”
“Oh, no… no. Please…” the lad quickly said, gesturing the young woman toward the stairwell.
Her apologetic eyes seemed to flicker with relief as she sighed. “Thanks, Xummy. My mother was supposed to go shopping, but changed her mind. And I don’t want to change in the library toilet.”
“Of course,” the lad assured her as the pair started to ascend the stairwell toward his parent’s flat. “No trouble at all.”
The beautiful lass smiled warmly. “I’m so lucky to have a friend like you.”
The lad returned the smile. The feeling was mutual. The two had become such good friends — and so quickly — after that memorable school day last October. The lad was not quite sure how; it just… happened. Their first meeting came from the lass’ need to better understand Shakespeare in order to keep pace with their literature class, and she had seen how the lad demonstrated his firm handle of the subject matter in the classroom discussion. However, in their first study session in the library later that day, the pair had learned more about each other than about the writings of the Bard.
Perhaps the reason that they seemed to immediately… click… was the fact that they saw each other in a way that was different than how other students had viewed them (which was essentially the typical teenage stereotypes of “bookworm” and “tart”). They actually saw each other as people who realized that neither of them seemed to truly fit in with any of the traditional social circles of their school.
Of course, the lad’s intentions toward Danielle immediately fell under suspicion by her disciplinarian parents, particularly her mother, when they had found out about that initial study session. They had every right to be suspicious, for the lass had lied to them about the length of time she had spent studying with the lad — as an alibi for a supper she secretly had with another boy afterward. The lass did confess to the lad in their first library meeting that her parents had forbidden their daughter from dating because they believed she was “much too young” to be doing so. While they had both felt that the restriction was quite excessive, the lad had liked to believe that the parents were intent on protecting their daughter, and that their hearts were in the right place.
And yet, in an uncharacteristic act of dishonesty (the reason for which the lad could not fully explain at the time), the lad corroborated the lass’ tale to her mother, who demanded to meet him immediately after school dismissal the following day. While the mother did not approve of her daughter spending time alone with a boy, she did agree that his tutoring can be helpful. So the mother would accompany the pair on their subsequent study sessions. After a few weeks, the lad’s characteristic courtesy and earnest desire to help her daughter with schoolwork eventually led the mother to trust them to study in the library on their own.
The lad knew that the lass’ mother would feel very differently about trusting them if she knew her daughter was currently standing in her stocking feet within the lad’s home without a chaperone. The lass had admitted on numerous occasions how much she had envied the lad’s seemingly independent lifestyle. This was actually borne out of family tradition (he had learned, as both of his parents did, how to cook for both himself and the family since the age of ten), as well as necessity, given that his parents’ work schedules and business travel required him to fend for himself much of the time.
The lad also knew that Danielle’s mother would feel very differently about trusting them if she knew that their study session today was really a front for the lass’ plans to have a “secret rendezvous” with… Derek, he believed his name was. Derek was a nineteen-year-old that worked at one of the small pubs near their school. Derek was also the latest of four boyfriends that the lass had been covertly dating since the second study session after her mother stopped supervising them.
Of course, the lass would not have been able to manage all of these secret affairs without the lad providing an alibi. Again, the lad was not fully sure why he would bluff to the lass’ parents about what their daughter does under the pretense of their lengthy study sessions. Perhaps to the lad’s youthful mind, the lass’ parents appeared to be unreasonably strict regarding her social life. It had seemed that the few times they had permitted her to be out of her home were only related to school and studying.
In fact, not every lie was covering a clandestine tryst with a secret boyfriend. On a few occasions the lad and lass would spend their “study time” together at a local eatery, or at the cineplex, or on long walks through a harsh British winter (with much of the warmth coming from their conversation… and her laughter).
For the most part, the lad agreed to cover for the lass’ dating, and their time spent cultivating their friendship, on the condition that they do go to the library and spend some time actually studying. That way the lad would not be technically lying when asked about their study sessions. He knew that a lie of omission was still a lie, but he at least justified these slight bouts of deceit (at least to himself) by having his actions encourage his friend to spend more time on her schoolwork. Plus, the lass’ marks were improving — which greatly pleased her parents and essentially sealed their approval of their unchaperoned study sessions.
The lad remembered the joy that flickered in Danielle’s eyes a few weeks ago when she received a perfect score on her literature exam (the first she ever had). To reward and celebrate her achievement, the lad treated her to an after-school fish-and-chips at a nearby pub. The pub’s owner happened to be a friend of the lad’s father, so he had no qualms about allowing the underage lad and his plus-one to come in on their own to have a meal. It was during this repast that their server — Derek — caught the lass’ eye, and she had obviously caught his...
…And later today they would have their third date, for which the lass was readying herself in the privacy of the lad’s bedroom. While the lass did not share any details of her last two encounters, the enthusiasm she expressed to the lad implied that her relationship with Derek was progressing well.
The lad stepped back onto the practice mat. He drew a pained breath as he glanced down the hallway that led to the room where the lass was changing. He felt a touch of envy… and also felt a little ashamed for doing so. He knew for certain that, although their relationship was platonic, he and the lass had never known another person more intimately than they had known each other. But recently, he started to hope that their burgeoning friendship would evolve into something… more.
The lad shook his head, as if that would somehow help hurl those thoughts out of his mind. He picked up the jō he left on the floor by the practice mat, and placed his body in hanmi to resume the suburi. But while his stance was correct, the staff seemed to feel… different in his hands than it did before. His first choku tsuki felt a little clumsy, and the second attempt at the strike was completely out of alignment. Not wanting to engrain an improper technique into his form, the lad discarded the jō and instead decided to finish his workout with ashi-sabaki undo.
As the lad’s father would say, “When the hands do not work, work your feet.”
The basic footwork exercises of Aikido were second nature to the lad. Each step, slide and pivot was made with fluid, yet mechanical precision. They were also mostly driven by muscle memory as the lad’s mind drifted toward thoughts of the young woman who was in his bedroom taking off her…
His brow furrowed. Enough of that, he chided himself. He closed his eyes and mentally recited the names of each ashi-sabaki step he performed in an attempt to quell his hormonal thoughts. Tenkai… Tankan… Irimi-tenkan… Okuri-ashi tenshin... Ayumi-ashi tenshin…
It took a few dozen iterations, but the ashi-sabaki finally started to lull his anxious mind…
The lad’s exercise and meditation was interrupted by a slight feminine giggle. He opened his eyes to see Danielle standing before him. Blinking with slight embarrassment, his eyes instinctively performed a rapid sweep up and down the lass’s body… just enough to take in her appearance.
She was wearing an outfit her mother would most definitely never approve: a tight black halter top with a plunging neckline and a very short form-fitting denim skirt over a pair of sheer black stockings (that the lad vainly hoped would keep her warm in the frigid outdoor air).
While the lad did admire the lass’ shapely figure (he had both 16 years of age and male hormones, after all), he only gave it the briefest regard. His gaze tended to linger on what he liked to see on his friend the most: the sly glint of sea-green in her eyes, and her smile.
And he still liked to see those eyes and that smile even though they were currently covered with too much makeup (the lad thought that any amount of makeup was “too much”). He had once asked the lass why she wore it, trying to hint that she did not need it, and she told him that she found the act of putting on makeup to be “fun.” It made her “feel like an actress preparing for an important role.” The lad then wanted to know whether the lass felt that she had to act as someone else while dating, and why she could not simply be the lovely person she already was. These would be two of many questions the lad would regret not asking her…
On the practice mat, the lad noticed the lass was staring at him. Her face appeared a bit critical. “What is it?” he asked.
“Your eye-key… ah… footstep thing. You make it look so… graceful.” The green in her eyes was more pronounced now, almost glittering. “Hard to believe this is the awkward boy I usually see shuffling about to class…”
The lad smiled slightly and shrugged. “Well, I’ve been performing Aikido for years,” he began, stressing the name of the martial art. “Practice long enough and it becomes a part of you.” The lad said this very matter-of-factly, with no sense of self-aggrandizement whatsoever.
“Ah.” The lass smiled with acknowledgement and glanced around the living room, eying the small radio on a corner table. “Well, if you’re done, is it okay if I put on some music while I wait for you to change?”
The lad nodded, and watched the lass’s smooth slender hand snap on the device and work the tuner from the original news talk programming through intense waves of static until she found a popular music station that suited her fancy. The opening notes and lyrics of “Babe” performed by Styx started to fill the room.
The young woman cooed. “Ooh, I love this song!” She was immediately at the lad’s side tugging at his arm. “Dance with me… please?”
The lad swallowed… hard. “I… uh… do not know how…” he stammered.
The lass giggled again. “You kiddin’? With all your fancy ice-kiddo footwork, slow dancin’ should be dead simple. Here…” She took the lad’s right hand and guided it to rest on her left hip, and chuckled softly as the lad quickly moved it up to her waist. With a gentle nod and a puckish grin she gripped his left hand tightly. “I’ll lead.”
And she did. The lad’s first stumbling steps quickly started to find a gentle circular rhythm as his comely companion slowly steered him around the practice mat. For a brief moment, the lad’s eyes locked with hers, and he knew in his heart that he would be willing to follow this woman… anywhere.
Dennis DeYoung’s vocals continued to profess feelings for a true love that had to be left behind, and then moved to the chorus, which echoed some of the lad’s thoughts toward the lass who was leaning, almost snuggling, closer against him.
You know it's you, babe
Whenever I get weary/And I've had enough
Feel like giving up
You know it's you, babe
Giving me the courage/And the strength I need
Please believe that it's true
Babe, I love you
The words seemed to hang in the air as the electric guitar and synthesizers commenced an instrumental solo.
It was then that the lad started to feel Danielle’s head gently settle on his left shoulder — a familiar weight that reminded him of the three somber occasions whereby the lad had comforted the young woman as she softly sobbed over a painful break-up from a boyfriend. But then the lad felt the mass of the lass’s full breasts as they suddenly pressed closer against his pounding chest. There was both a rush of warmth and a cold tingle in his stomach as the young woman’s hands slid behind his back and clutched him tightly.
“Dan?” The lad was concerned. He could feel her body trembling. “What’s wr…?”
“Shh,” she whispered, without moving her head. “Just hold me, Xum. Please.”
You know it's you, babe
The lad wrapped his arms around the lass as they continued to sway so very slowly across the vinyl mat.
Giving me the courage/And the strength I need
His steps felt much steadier now, and he boldly pulled her even closer in their embrace.
Please believe that it's true
He wanted nothing more but to keep practicing this slow dance until her touch and her warmth would become very much a part of him…
Babe I love you.
The music started to slowly fade, and the pair were startled by the harsh chimes that brusquely signaled the radio station news and traffic report. Reluctantly, the lad released his dance partner as she removed her hands and had taken a few slow steps back. She kept her head down, gazing at the mat lying beneath them. The lad thought he heard a slight sniffle as she was taking in a breath.
“Dan…?” the lad began. His voice was still tinged with concern as he saw her hand move to her eyes as she turned toward the living room window.
With her free hand the lass waved away the question. “I’m okay. I just…” she started to say softly, cutting herself off to draw another long breath. She exhaled it in a strong audible sigh. “Whooo, boy!” she suddenly exclaimed. “You are a better dancer than you think, Xummy.” She turned back to the lad, flashing a cheerful grin. “You’ll sweep some lucky girl off her feet someday. Just you wait and see.”
The lad’s eyes searched her face intently… and helplessly. He desperately wanted to know what was bothering her just then, and how he could help. Also, selfishly, he hoped to find some sign that she may had been dodging the very thought that was on his mind: that this inexplicable connection the two of them shared since the moment they first met may be more than just friendship. But he was not… could not… be sure she felt the same way.
He also lacked the courage to make an attempt to find out.
“Um… Xummy?” the young woman began slowly. “You better go change if we are going to get some studying done, yeah?”
The lad found his voice. “Ah… right. Yes…” The lad’s face returned a smile, but there was a note of sadness to it. He had missed his chance. “We do have a bit to go through before you run off with Derek this evening.”
The lad saw the lass’s warm smile widen at the name of “noted boyfriend number four”, and his heart cracked a little more. “I’ll just be ten minutes…” he added after a long pause. He started down the hallway toward his bedroom.
The lad would actually take a little longer, for he had discovered that, while he hardly broke a sweat during his 30 minutes of Aikido routines, he was perspiring profusely under his gi during the not-even-two-minute slow dance. So he quickly showered before dressing in a white button shirt and denim pants. In five minutes, he would don a thick pullover sweater and gather his books and notes in a knapsack. Then he would help the lass with her coat and carry her tote bag and his knapsack as they made their way to the train station and eventually to the library, stopping for a hot Cornish pasty at their favourite bakery on the way. Then they would have a lengthy study session, followed by a longer, effervescent discourse on a number of personal and trivial subjects — including one in which the lass would give the lad a smile that he would treasure forever. Eventually, Derek would arrive and she would depart with a muted goodbye… and the lad would watch the couple walk away arm-in-arm until they were out of his sight. Then he would gather his belongings and make his way home to cook supper. And of course, he would prepare himself to lie if… when… the lass’ mother asks him about how the study session went — for he realized that he had fallen in love with the lass, and would thus do anything for her… including enabling her to be with another.
But the rest of this day would start in five minutes. Right now, the lad, still in his room, silently flung himself over on his back on his bed, exasperated.
Why didn’t I say anything?
He stared at the ceiling, completely unaware that a few short weeks later he would look back upon this selfsame moment: As he lay in grief on that selfsame bed — thinking about how the selfsame halter top and skirt of Danielle’s, folded neatly amid black lace in a spare knapsack in the corner, would never be returned to their owner — he would ask himself that selfsame question.
Why was I such a coward?