Whenever anyone asks me a question that requires me to pick a particular song / book / film, my mind always goes blank. When I first saw this prompt, I tried to think of a song, any song, to see if it triggered any memories, and I couldn’t. I went to my shelf of CDs (yes, I still have CDs!) and tried picking some out at random but the ones I got also produced blanks. Now, a few days later, I remember a song that will always have a particular association with it.
It was June 1985, I was 13. We were living in Damascus. It was the last day of school and I was going to the end of year “graduation” dance at the American International Community School I went to. I was gawky. I wore white sandals with white socks to the dance. I had braces and no notion of what it meant to be cool or graceful. But I did have a boyfriend, my first. Willem – my best friend’s younger brother. We’d gotten together, after my friend acted as go-between, about a week or so before the dance. But being the kind of kids we were – geeky, bookish, shy and awkward, we’d spent most of our time together being geeky, bookish, shy and awkward and had not, much to my friend’s dismay, even come close to a first kiss. The physical contact we’d had was limited to a few slow dances – you know, the kind where you dance so far apart, you could fit another person in the gap between us. There was a lot of looking at the floor and after the music stopped, an almost immediate withdrawal, as if our parents had caught us doing something naughty. But that all changed the night of the dance.
It started as most of our school dances did – boys and girls not really mingling, lights and music blaring, chaperones on watch. But then something changed. I can’t remember why, but there was a very distinct moment when it felt as if we’d been left to our own devices. The room went dark and they started playing slow songs. When the first few chords of Purple Rain started, Willem asked me to dance. I don’t know if it was because it was dark or because it suddenly felt as if we were alone or because he’d been under his sister’s instructions, but this time, there was no space between us. I can remember those minutes so well, the way the room looked and felt, the way his arms felt around me, the warmth between us, the frantic beating of his heart and mine. During that song, we had our first kiss, the very first kiss either of us had ever had. It wasn’t what I expected, I’d never heard of a French kiss and had no idea what to do with his tongue in my mouth, but it was warm and soft and sweet and because they played the full 8 minute plus version of the song, it was long and lingering and it seemed like we melted into each other.
We got better at the kissing. Over the next 10 days or so that we had left together, we went to a lot of parties. We were teased by our friends for being the sweetest, most “stuck together” couple in school. It was even better because it was all so innocent. We were just two kids who really liked each other. There was no malice, no jealousy, and despite the shyness, no fear. There was also no pressure. Except, that is, for mortality and transience and everything coming to an end and life being completely out of our control.
At the end of those 3 or so weeks we had together, his family went away on vacation and mine got ready to pack up and move on. My father was being transferred again, this time to Israel.
While Willem was away on vacation with his family, I remember trying to pick out a card to send him, from a hotel gift shop. It was one of the few places you could find things like greetings cards in Damascus at that time. I couldn’t find one in English, but there was one in French. It was blue and had a cartoony white rabbit on it and inside was written Je T’aime. I blushed at my boldness, it felt so utterly serious and daring for me to give such a card to a boy. I didn’t know if I meant it or not and yet, I didn’t want to leave without saying something. So I sent it to him.
We didn’t see each other over the summer but my Dad had to go back to Damascus briefly before school started so I arranged to meet Willem at a hotel pool. I wasn’t sure if he’d still care anything for me and a big part of me had already become detached. I was already in that all too familiar place of limbo-numbness. But when he saw me, he gave me a present. My first from a boy. It was a tiny silver heart, with a leaf over the top and the “evil eye” in the middle. In the Middle East it is considered a charm to ward off evil and bad luck. I remember receiving it with little emotion. I didn’t know what it was supposed to mean and even if it meant something, I didn’t know what I could possibly do with it since we would probably never see each other again.
At the time, I didn’t consciously perceive this and I certainly didn’t allow myself to feel anything about it, but looking back on it now, I remember my reaction was one of painfully absent emotion, perhaps a bit like a rabbit in the headlights. Willem wasn’t detached though. His face, when he gave it to me, was lit up, full of warmth. It didn’t seem to matter to him that we weren’t going to see each other again. It was probably the purest expression of simply, wholly giving, with no agenda, no expectation of anything in return, that I can remember being on the receiving end of and it makes my heart ache for the girl that I was then, not knowing what to do with such a beautiful gift, except put it away in a box.
I’ve been given jewellery since, but it’s not something I’m fond of. I never wear any jewellery, I just don’t like the feeling of having anything around my wrist or my neck or even on my fingers. And it’s never really taken my fancy. I’ll go wild for a good book or a beautiful poem but pearls or diamonds do nothing for me.
Recently though, while reading Hemingway’s Across The River and Into The Trees, I came across a scene between the two main characters where they talked about how neither of them were showy people who cared to dress up or have things like jewels to draw attention to themselves but they wanted to give one another something solid, something solid and beautiful that, when touched or seen, would give the other happiness, because it would remind them of each other and how much they were loved. I suppose this is the real reason behind gifts of jewellery, or any gift really, and yet it struck me as if I’d never known this. So much of this seems to be lost in gift-giving these days I think, but that scene made me remember Willem’s silver heart. Suddenly it seemed very important that I find it, see it, hold it in my hand again.
I knew where it was, in a small wooden box packed away in a cardboard box, behind some other cardboard boxes somewhere up in the attic room. But I dug it out. I shifted a chest of drawers, opened boxes, unearthed memories, forgotten books, letters, half-filled notebooks, photos. And finally, the small wooden box. Willem’s heart was still there. And when I found it, I was overwhelmed by emotion. As if all the emotion I couldn’t feel then had finally found its voice. Willem and I never saw each other again but the 13 year old girl inside me could finally receive her gift, wholly and simply given, still present and powerful after all these years.