When I tell people about Laura, people ask me when I realized she was gay. Especially people I met in college who were gay, who were going through all this pain of coming out, having to tell people, having their parents freak out, like what happened at Laura’s house when she told them. It wasn’t like that. We were friends so long, and when were young when we met on the bus to school. That was back when the boys just sat with the boys and they stayed a couple rows of seats away from where the girls were sitting, not like later when people would shout at each other back and forth, teach each other brutally because really you were each getting interested in each other, and the boys would have actually liked to have gone and sat by the girls and the girls by the boys but they felt awkward, weren’t sure of themselves, didn’t trust the others. It was like half fascination half repulsion.
But Laura and I had been sitting together on the bus for years. We were best friends, inseparable as farm kids could get, with all the work we had to do at home. That was when we were still farming here. On summer days when there wasn’t so much work and we could sneak off somewhere on our bikes, maybe go down by Lake Vermillion. There’s that copse there, the cottonwoods along the point in the lake, the one place where there’s many trees. Sometimes we’d meet there with Chris and his brother, and Ben would come with me. Laura never brought her brother, even then. Maybe a couple other friends and we’d play Custer and Sitting Bull, or capture the flag, or just hide from each other. But Laura and I went there alone, too, and sit in the shade and talk. I remember her making comments, not a lot but every once in awhile. Maybe we’d be talking about being grown up and she’d say imagined having a wife. The first time she said that I wasn’t shocked, so I must have had a feeling. I said, “You can’t have a wife. I don’t think two women can get married.” But I didn’t think anything weird about her. Probably any other girl in the world, I’d have said she was crazy. I asked her if she had a wife how she would have kids, and she laughed at me and said it wasn’t like a plan that she had thought out. It was just sort of like a dream.
I remember that time. I know it wasn’t the only time we talked like that. So I just always knew that about her. And maybe nobody else did, except Chris, because she and I did everything together. As soon as there were things like dances at the school, we were always going together. Her family was pretty strict and sometimes I wonder why they always let us go out. We would sit together for lunch at school, and when I got old enough to drive we went out. I remember kissing her for the first time. We had been out there for a long time, talking, and when we were getting back on our bikes to go home I leaned over and kissed her. I think I had been thinking about it for a long time. Probably, knowing me. People think I’m so confident because I’ve always had a girlfriend, really these amazing girlfriends, but except for Laura they all came to me. I’m really shy, I think, at least about women. Anyway, I leaned over and kissed her — I must have kissed her before that on the cheek, because this one was definitely on the mouth. I wasn’t sure what she’d do so it was really more of a peck, and she said, “Finn, I’m not chicken feed.” That was the kind of thing she would say. And we so did it again, longer.
I know some of our classmates were having sex and stuff way before we did, more likely going out and getting drunk and then stuff happening, usually that wasn’t so good. I was very lucky. Maybe because her parents were so strict — because of her mother, they went to that strict Lutheran church down south of here, the pretty one just off the north-south highway. People stop and take pictures of that thing in the summer, because it’s that classic prairie church, all white wood with a pointy tower on it. They don’t realize how harsh the stuff is they preach inside. Her dad doesn’t go any more. I think it was her mom that made them go. I knew a few kids from that church and they pretty much didn’t talk to anybody but the other kids that went there, like it was a club. So that’s why I’ve wondered why they let us be together so much. Weekend nights we might drive my dad’s old truck down by the lake. I knew that little dirt track and the place by the trees to park where the cops never came and bothered us. Still, it took us years before we finally, you know, went all the way. And that whole time we’d talk about girls — we’d both be talking about which girl was cute, which was nicest, mostly like the way Chris and I would talk about them, except Chris and I might get more into the details of what we might like to do with them physically, if we had the chance. And it was stupid. Laura and I had been making out for years then, learning all kinds of things, learning all the stuff you can learn without going all the way, because she wasn’t comfortable. Maybe she wasn’t comfortable because she was gay, but it seemed to have more to do with the idea they were drilling into her at that little country church that she was going to get sucked straight down to hell if she let me fuck her.
God, that was so frustrating at the time, but in the end we really did learn a lot of beautiful things with each other, things I’ve never had with anyone else. I knew every inch of her body, every curve, all the places where the skin was softest, every scar or line, every hair, every place that would make her sigh. Other guys, even in college, were just kinda slamming it in and feeling great about it, like you’d bagged a deer while you were getting a little happy. It was like an education that I got without meaning to. Without even having had the patience to get it. I’d never have spent so long trying to learn all the ways I could make her feel good without using my prick. I could say it came in handy when I started dating other women, especially Kate, but it’s also so particular. It’s like what I learned with Laura I had to learn all over again with the next woman I dated. And I didn’t really spend that much time. And even though Kate and I have been together a few years now and we know each other really well, looking back on it, I never spent the same kind of time getting to know her, either.
I’m talking about all this like I’m an old man and my life is over. I have the wrong people on my brain today. I always think about Laura on Valentine’s Day, I think because when I was growing up, learning what love is about, I learned it with Laura. And then I was so excited to get into work today, just happy to see everyone. And it was almost mid-afternoon before I realized I hadn’t sent anything to Kate, hadn’t called her since Monday night. Oops. I’ve been trying to call her the last couple of hours and she hasn’t answered. And then I wondered, I haven’t been paying much attention, what if she’s on a date. Would she do that? I don’t know. And the weird thing is, after the thought had sunk in a little, I wasn’t that bugged about it. And I almost got to, I hope she’s not alone. Because nobody likes to be alone on Valentine’s Day. I mean, I don’t care, but I’ve had a lot more good love in my life than most people, I think.
I never celebrated Valentine’s Day. In high school, when I was shy and awkward, it was just a way to remind yourself how shitty things were, how isolated you were from any relationship with any other human being. To remind you that at least so far, your life was shit. I never forgot that. Even in college when I was dating, when I was happy, I wouldn’t go out on Valentine’s Day. Ha, I could be such a bitch sometimes. Erik and I never did anything for Valentine’s Day either. There were a few times where he’d say something like, “Sarah, it’s just going out for a nice dinner, not a big deal.” But I’d say, “There are a lot of people out there who are getting reminded how lonely they are today — let’s have them over for dinner.” And that’s what we did. But at least I’m not thinking about all the great Valentine’s Days I’ve had and how crappy it is that I’m coming up on fifty years old and I’ll never have one of those sweet, romantic days ever again in my life.
When Leah was little, Valentine’s Day was such a pain. You had to get cards for every kid in the class. I guess that was good, no kid left out. But all this stuff to buy, and then you have to decorate a box to put them in. Especially when I was juggling a bunch of part-time work because Erik wasn’t working and there was no time, I’d think, You know, if we have to go to so much trouble to make sure no kid gets her feelings hurt, why don’t we just forget this altogether? Leah didn’t care about the cards. She just wanted the candy that came with them. They don’t that organized thing now that she’s older, but she’s still making some cards, I think. She won’t let me see them, she was locked in her room last night working on something and I assume that’s what it is. I don’t know if they’re for her friends, the girls, or if she’s sending something to a boy. God, she’s only twelve, are we starting this already? Her body is already changing. I hear stories about how girls are having their periods earlier, going through puberty earlier. I am so not ready for her to be a teenage girl.
My kids were excited this morning to open the valentines they put in each other’s boxes yesterday. They had to bring their valentines and boxes early and then we delivered the valentines one person at a time after lunch when we were having quiet time. Everyone has to bring a valentine for everyone else, and it’s so nice at this age they don’t mind bringing a card to someone who maybe they don’t really like or who hasn’t been nice to them. They don’t think like that, don’t write people off the way we learn to do. It’s nice to see that.
But all that got upstaged by excitement about Megan Tollefson, a little girl who’s in my class. She’s been my project student this year and last. Sometimes not dressed quite right, sometimes doesn’t have her lunch. Misses a lot of school, like yesterday when we were doing our valentine delivery. Her mother’s only made one conference in two years. I don’t think her dad is around. The bus came across her near her stop, wandering around in the road. She didn’t have a coat on. Fortunately it was warmer today, almost up to freezing — we’re supposed to get some snow. The bus driver got her in and I guess sat her up by him near the heater and she was upset because I guess she woke up and nobody was around. I didn’t get to talk to her much. I got a call from the office and they said just a little bit about what happened. We stopped what we were doing and the kids did a quick art project. There was already a pile of cards for her from yesterday, and so we all worked quickly on a box for her to put them in. I scrounged around in the supply closet and found a box and cut a slit in it and the kids took bits of scrap paper and other things, ribbons and stick-ons, and made a box for her. The kids were getting distracted because there were two police cars in the drive and they wanted to know what was going on. I said just pay attention to your cards. We were all done and back to reading by the time they brought Megan down. Her eyes were red from crying but she was trying hard to be brave and act like nothing had happened. Of course the kids had been buzzing about the bus finding her and now as I helped her to her chair they were staring at her, probably making the connection from Megan coming in late with the police car. So I said, Let’s open our boxes now, and we did. That seemed to help.
In the early afternoon someone came and took her back to the office and that’s the last we saw of her today. I heard that they had gone back to her house. It’s the old Nygard farmhouse that no one has lived in for a long time. Nygard’s have been leasing that land for twenty years. I guess they decided to rent out the house while they could. They got there and the doors were open and it was freezing inside and just a mess everywhere, garbage and dirty dishes around, blankets and old clothes strewn around. I guess the power was off and there was no gas in the tank. It sickens me to think they just left her there, but maybe there’s a story. There’s always a story that’s different than what you’d guess.