Waiting for a Kiss
Copyright Richard Schwartz 1993

Over the summer, Paul Winters had died suddenly, right in the middle of the county fair. Paul had been an abundantly healthy fourteen year old boy, and the cause of his death was still a mystery, two months after the event. Some witnesses said that his schoolmate, Caroline Harris, had just kissed him; others said that she had just been preparing to do so. In any case, the sudden appearance of death had been so incongruous with the surrounding activities, so out of sync with the general stream of events, that a few people still regarded the death as supernatural.

Paul and Caroline had been standing in the sun, next to the spinning ferris wheel. Beyond them, the brilliant green fields, the yellow and blue banners waving in the wind, the bustling Sunday crowd, the rising Helium balloons-everything festive had stretched all the way out to the horizon. Paul had been handsome, statuesque, developed well beyond his years. Caroline was the town beauty. They had kissed-or had been about to kiss-and then he had simply collapsed.

Flecks of yellow and violet peppered the open field which surrounded and isolated the Winters' house. The adjacent pond, visible through the living room window, sparkled gently. The late afternoon sunlight, tinged red, slanted through the giant window, casting shadows of faces and furniture on the mahogany walls.

Friends and neighbors were gathered in the Winters' living room this autumn afternoon, two months after Paul's death. They came, not for the first time, to tell stories about Paul and to remember him. People felt that the perspective given by the passage of time would help them organize an impossible sequence of events into a comprehensible narrative.

John Winters, Paul's father, was a living illustration of what Paul would have become. A giant of a man, he dwarfed his worn leather chair. At forty-eight, his hair and moustache were still black. Many years past his prime, he still looked like the athlete he had been, still arm wrestled men half his age, still played baseball on the weekends.

Mr. Winters finished his coffee, put down his mug, and broached the subject. ``Paul was as healthy as a bear. He was the picture of health-almost stronger than his old man, and just fourteen. At the rate he was going, he would have been the best ball player this town's ever produced.''

The men in the room-neighbors, friends, cousins-all nodded in agreement. Paul had blossomed into an amazing physical specimen, a superior copy of his father. Sluggish and chubby at ten, he had grown into his oversized body by twelve, and fairly bristled with energy. By thirteen he had gone beyond that: Paul had revealed himself as a brilliantly talented athlete. Everything about his movement had been effortless and precise and poetic. All of them had something to say. Ben Davis, Paul's friend and football teammate, said that Paul was the best quarterback he'd ever seen. He said that Paul could pick a target unerringly from an impossible blur of motion. Alvin Johnson, coach of the high school baseball team, claimed that the boy could see the stitches on the baseball when it was pitched.

``It was the little things.'' Paul's older brother Scott mused, ``Paul noticed the fine things that nobody else cared about. Sometimes he would tell me which way the basketball was spinning when he made a shot. He would say `that one was spinning over to the left' or `that one was going end over end'. I never knew why he cared about those kinds of things, but I guess that was part of his ability.

``It wasn't just sports either. I remember one time we were playing pinball, and he said `You know, the pinball doesn't go around straight. It goes around just so.' I remember how he swept his arm around, in a very slight arc. Then he squinted his eyes and thought about it for a few minutes-a long time, really. `No, its more like this', he finally said. He swept his arm out again, in exactly the same way. I couldn't see any difference at all. He was getting more and more like that-especially over the summer.''

``I'll never forget what he did the day before he died,'' Mr. Winters said, ``I'd never seen a display like that before in my life. It just went beyond the credible. It was Saturday and I was coming home from work. Paul practically tackled me as I got out of the pickup. Didn't even give me a chance to get in the door.

``It happened right there, right in front of the tool shed,'' Mr. Winters said, pointing through the living room window. ``Paul was grinning from ear to ear. He made me pitch to him, full speed. Not to him, but about four feet to the side. As soon as I let go of the ball, he took a flying leap. He hit that ball on the fly-literally. I mean, it looked like he was just flying through the air.''

Suddenly enthusiastic, John Winters leapt out of his chair, ran into the other room, and returned with a baseball bat. ``Like this,'' he said, nearly shouting. Guests backed away. He looked as though he was about to take a swing.

His wife Catherine preempted him, rushing over to take the bat away. ``Well, anyway,'' he said in a more subdued voice, ``Paul made me get the basket of balls from the garage. Had me pitch to him over and over again-three feet to the left, two feet over his head, six feet up and to the right. He plastered it every time. Ten, maybe fifteen in a row.''

Bill Chester, the next-door neighbor, interrupted, ``I remember John running across the field, shouting `Look what my boy can do! Look what my boy can do!'. He was just glowing with pride. So, I shut off the lawn mower and came over to see the show. Paul did these leaping hits, over and over. It was the damndest thing I'd ever seen in my life.''

``Well, what I remember is that look on his face,'' the baseball coach added. ``I came over ten minutes after John called me on the phone. I remember how the three of us-Bill and John and I-kept knocking on the door, cheering for him to come out and repeat the performance. He finally came out, but he just ran off, right past us.''

The baseball coach looked over at Paul's father and shook his head. ``John, I'd seen your boy almost every day for a year. I'd always thought he was a bit high strung, but I'd never seen him behave that way before. Something sure must have been bothering him. He looked like he'd just seen-''

``Oh, you bet something was bothering him,'' Paul's Aunt Susan cut in. ``I was in the kitchen, mixing batter. All the sudden, Paul burst through the front door. He slipped right past me and ran through the house. `Where's Mom?' he kept shouting. Well, Catherine was just gone a half hour, to pick up some last minute things at the market. We were going to spend the evening baking for the fair-but, of course, we spent the whole night looking for Paul.

``Anyhow, once he saw she was gone, he came over and started shaking me. I thought the boy was going to pull my arms off. He had a wild look in his eye, like a spooked horse. He started telling me a bunch of nonsense. He said something about jelly. Yes, that was it. He said `Aunt Sue, I feel like I'm walking through jelly, and it keeps getting harder.' I said `What jelly?', and he said again that he was walking through jelly. I told him to play outside, I had some baking to do. I was really busy, and we were rushed for time. Well, Paul just stuck around, trying to get my attention.

``He said everything was moving in slow motion-'' Paul's aunt stopped herself for a moment, trying to remember something. ``No, wait,'' she continued, ``not moving in slow motion, but stuck in slow motion. He said that Bill and his Dad were stuck in slow motion, that the dog was stuck in slow motion, that the fan was stuck in slow motion. One thing after the other. He said that his hearing-

``Oh, I can't remember all of what he said, but I'll never forget that voice. It was full of fear, and going a mile a minute. I didn't think people could talk that fast. On top of that, the three men were pounding on the door. Above all the ruckus, I could barely hear the boy, let alone understand him.

``Finally, Paul turned around and flung open the door. Next thing I know John walks in the house, scratching his head. Says Paul took off running down the road.''

Catherine Winters was the essence of motion and energy. Like her son Paul, she was both quick and graceful. She was impatient, sharp, sometimes snappy. She finished sentences for people. Friends described her as a living blur, a tangle of black hair flying around a pale face.

Mrs. Winters finally paused, behind her husband's chair, and told her version of the story. ``Paul had been acting funny all week-happy though. It was a happiness that just built and built, all week long. When I got back from the market I was surprised to hear that he had been so upset. Just a few hours before, he had been practically ecstatic.

``I didn't think that he had been having a good summer. He seemed restless, bored. He'd suddenly get interested in something strange, like the egg beater or the fan, and then he'd lose interest just as fast. He kept complaining that the days were dragging on. At least twenty times that summer I'd heard him ask `Mom, do you think that the summer will ever be over?'

``It was something else, too-something in his impatience that struck me as out of character. He couldn't keep to a subject. He'd start saying one thing, and then say another, right in mid-sentence, like he'd already finished with the topic. It was getting so I couldn't follow him at all. And he was fidgety all the time. He let his eyes wander all over the room when he was talking to you.

``Things changed after that strange conversation we had Sunday morning, a week before the fair. I remember it: He was pacing around the kitchen table, tearing up a paper napkin. Every once in a while he'd stop pacing and stare out the window. I was cooking breakfast in the kitchen, and I heard him call out `Mom, what would it be like if you could see a bumble-bee flap its wings?' I told him I didn't really know, but it might be like a bird flapping its wings, except a smaller creature.

``He walked into the kitchen and said `That's not what I mean. I mean, what if you could see a bumble-bee flap its wings and see a bullet flying through the air and see water droplets as they fell down from the shower? I mean all of it. What would it be like if you could see that way?' I told him he ought to ask his science teacher when he got back to school in the fall, or maybe the librarian. I didn't have much of an idea what he was driving at. He stopped talking abruptly, as if something occured to him all of the sudden. When I came out with his breakfast he was just sitting there, rapt in thought.

``After that Sunday, he came in every day with new claims, each one sillier than the previous one. Monday night he came in, beaming with pride, and announced, `Guess what, mom, I can make the cars on the road go by more slowly-in my mind of course. They aren't really slowing down. It's hard to do, and it only lasts a second, but I can make it look that way.'

``Next it was people walking down the road. Then the dog running for his ball. Then the sprinklers. All week long he came in and told me that he could make this slower, and that slower. All in his mind, of course. Friday, he said that bumble-bees aren't nearly as good fliers as we think. They look a little drunk as they hover around the flowers, he told me. I figured he was just amusing himself-too much free time on his hands and a strange sense of humor.

``On Saturday afternoon, a bit before the baseball stunt, he practically dragged me out of the house. The boy was out of his mind with excitement. I'd never seen him like that before. It was like a combination of ecstasy and wonder. He pulled me over to the swampy part of the pond, and pointed to a swarm of gnats. He said `What do you see when you look at the bugs, Mom?' He must have said the whole sentence in less than a second. It was just like Susan said. He sounded like an auctioneer.

``I told him it looked like the whole swamp was filled with flying poppy seeds. Then he launched into a description of what he saw when he looked at the bugs. I had to tell him over and over to speak more slowly, just so I could catch the words. He said that there were nine large clumps of gnats, thirty-seven medium-sized clumps, and over two hundred small clumps. The clumps were like gears, he said, linked together in a moving and changing clock. He explained how the clumps exchanged size and motion, in layers of gnats peeling off in a spiral pattern.

``He talked about twine, and about shuffling cards, and about marbles rolling into each other. All of this had to do with the gnats somehow. He rambled on and on-sounded like a cross between a college professor and a lunatic. At one point he was so enthusiastic he grabbed me by the shoulders and squeezed me until I told him it hurt. Holding my shoulders, he said to me: `The clumps are like spiders!' After fifteen minutes of this sort of thing, I lost patience and walked back into the house.''

Catherine burst into tears. ``See, Susan was coming over to help with the baking, and I had a lot of things to do,'' she struggled to say, ``I thought the whole thing was some kind of joke. If I'd known there was really a problem, I could have-''

John Winters turned around in his chair and put his hand over his wife's hand. ``You had no way of knowing, Catherine,'' he interrupted. ``Absolutely no way. None of us had any way of knowing. It sure wouldn't have been the first time Paul played a joke on the family. We've been over this before. Nobody had any way of knowing.''

The afternoon sun had dipped below the hills, and people sat quietly in the semi-darkness. Caroline Harris, the last person to see Paul alive, sat by the open fireplace. She had waist length blond hair. Her irises had an uncanny color-yellow-green flames tapering out into a deep sky-blue. Her beauty intimidated people, and had an isolating effect. Her classmates, boys and girls alike, considered her almost unapproachable, and admired her from afar. Even here, on this occasion, she drew furtive, embarrassed glances from the men in the room.

Caroline cleared her throat, and broke the silence. ``That Sunday I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. I turned around and Paul was standing in front of me. It was more like he was kneeling-he was so tall. It seemed like his face was only about an inch from mine, but it must have been farther, of course. He looked like he hadn't slept in a week. When he started talking, he didn't sound anything like a person-more like a robot or something.

``I knew him from history class. He sat a few seats behind me. I guess I didn't really know him; I'd hardly even talked to him before. Of course I'd heard all about him. Everyone at school knew he was the star athlete. I even remember reading about him in the town paper once-but I never really-I mean, before that day I-''

Caroline blushed. She looked over at Paul's father. He nodded, telling her to continue. ``He asked me, please, to listen to what he had to say. He made me promise not to walk away from him, even if what he said was nonsense. His voice was so strange, so inhuman. At first I thought it was some kind of a prank. Maybe his friends had put him up to it. But he seemed so serious.

``Then he started to recite a poem or something. At least I thought it was a poem. I wasn't sure if he got it from a book, or made it up. It all came out so slowly and evenly-I remember it, word for word.'' Caroline closed her eyes in recollection. Everyone in the room had heard the story before, even word for word, but still they listened in complete and bewildered silence.

``He said: 'For you, time is like water rushing through a hose. For me, time is like honey squeezing through a pinhole. The moments of my life line up on a stretching cord. The events of my future stretch out of reach, one at a time'

``Then he asked me to kiss him. Just like that. Same crazy voice. His face was right in front of mine. I could see his eyelashes, he was so close. I was confused and flattered at the same time. It was all so unexpected. Like I said, I'd barely known him. But everything seemed so important to him. I figured there was no harm-it was just, you know-''

She let her voice trail off. When she finished speaking, she was trembling. It took some time for others in the room to convince her, again, that she had done nothing wrong, that she was not to blame.

Others told stories, some pedestrian and some remarkable. Some people understood more by the time they left and some people did not, but most felt somewhat better. At last, only the immediate family remained. Paul's grandfather, a man nearing the end of his life, sat in the corner of the room. Silent all evening, he spoke the last words of the night.

``I wonder what his life was like-from his perspective. He sees a living snapshot-a frozen ferris wheel, a frozen roller coaster, balloons suspended in mid-air, a motionless crowd. In the middle of this snapshot, he sees the young lady. Maybe it takes him a month to recite the poem-then a year to ask for a kiss.''

His gaze narrowed into a hard squint before he continued, ``I'm not too old to understand these matters, and I'm old enough to say it with authority: Caroline Harris has the kind of beauty only seen in this town a handful of times in living memory. Frozen like a statue, he sees her slowly advancing face, her slowly parting lips. Is this enough for a lifetime, or not? Was he bored or fascinated, tortured or thrilled, cursed or blessed? I suppose its impossible to say, but how do you feel waiting for a kiss?''