A small bottle of perfume on my dresser had fallen over and leaked, leaving a heavy stain of scent on the wood. Cleaning it yesterday, I thought of Terrance, my first suitor.
Terrance was a boy in my neighborhood. In kindergarten he had a thing for me, but he wasn’t on the list of boys I liked, so I didn’t welcome his advances, entertaining though they were. He chased me around his backyard, lips ready, begging for a kiss. I screeched and giggled as I ran from him, not wanting his kiss in large part because I didn’t like the freckle on his cheek, which I can still envision not far from his puckered lips.
Terrance was persistent and tried wooing me with gifts. At five, he couldn’t buy me things, but he gave me a small bottle of perfume he’d taken from his grandmother. It was about an inch square with a simple gold top and held just a few drops of liquid. Despite the source of the gift, I accepted it, and it became one of my treasures. I liked the size of the thing and the cold feel of the glass in my hand. When I unscrewed the top, the paper liner inside the cover stuck to the bottle’s rim; I liked the sensation of pulling it off against the slight resistance of suction.
Mostly, though, I liked the scent, which remained in the bottle for years. I kept it in my treasure box under my bed, until the scent finally dissipated.
My neighborhood was a crib for baby boomers, and the 13 kids there in my grade were like a family. Besides being on the bus and at school with each other, six of us—including Terrance—attended and carpooled to Hebrew school together twice a week, stuffed into one of our mother’s cars. Terrance was the clown there, singing a song he’d made up using all our Hebrew names, accompanying himself with his famous underarm-farts. He was too silly to be of romantic interest to me, but I always liked him, and we were good friends.
In sixth grade, though, boys and girls saw each other in a new way. The town’s annual carnival at the end of the school year was an opportunity to go on something that resembled a date. Although I wanted to be asked by another boy, Terrance asked me. I was surprised. We were such good friends, and there never seemed to be romantic chemistry between us. But his invitation made me wonder if he had pined for me since kindergarten.
Nothing became of it. In junior high, he and I became even better friends. We smoked cigarettes and met up nightly to walk our dogs and sneak a smoke. While on these walks, a neighbor with a giant sheep dog named Waldo would pass by, and we began to refer to a drag on a cigarette as a Waldo. It was just one of the little jokes and rituals we shared; another was our opening exchange on the telephone:
(That could be reversed if I called him.)
When Terrance asked me to our senior prom, I assumed we were going as friends, but when I made a comment about it, his face fell. I still don’t get that. Many of Terrance’s friends started to suspect after college that he swung the other way. There had been a story that he was seeing a much older woman, so I was quasi-convinced he wasn’t gay. If he was, he wasn’t telling.
But the answer was revealed for him in 1996, when he was admitted to the hospital for the last time with complications from AIDS. So closeted was he that none of his straight friends or family knew that he was sick until he was dying.
In his final days, I was in a hospital across town tending to my son who was experiencing complications from a liver transplant. I was devastated to hear that my old friend was suffering—blind and nearly comatose. I called the nurses’ station on his floor and spoke to his nurse. He wasn’t in any shape for the phone and probably wouldn’t even comprehend the message I was relaying, but, hoarse with tears, I told his nurse to remind him about the walks with our dogs, and about Waldo, and to tell him I loved him.
I miss him. I wish I still had his misbegotten perfume bottle and even a hint of its scent.
Even though he’s gone and no one who knew him doesn’t now know he was gay and I like to think he would have realized there was no shame in it had he lived, I felt I had to change his name to respect what was apparently his wish in life.