Madeline came towards with her hands out. “Could you smell my hands?” she said.
I sniffed her fingers. “They smell nice,” I said.
“That’s good,” she said. She raised her left hand. “I just wiped my bum with this one and there was no soap in the toilet.
“They really smell fine,” I said haltingly.
“Why are you being all coy?” she said. “Don’t boys do that all the time.”
“Not in my experience,” I said, even more haltingly.
“Well, you’re weird.” She hugged my upper arm. “Maybe they do, and they just don’t tell you.”
Madeline was my first real girlfriend. By this I mean that instead of being no more than an outline drawing in my memory, I can fill in some of her blank spaces with light and shade, and at certain points even add color. For instance, she never laughed when I was trying to be funny, but always laughed when I was trying to be serious, which I somehow found comforting.
More significantly, by remembering her, I remember more about myself.
We went out together for a few weeks just before I turned fourteen. I never went to her house. We always met up, and said goodbye, at the same corner, about a quarter of a mile from where she lived.
Madeline came to my house though, one evening when my parents were out at a dinner party.
I let myself in the usual way when my parents were out. I climbed in through the tiny casement window of the downstairs bathroom, then ran round to the front door to let her in. I would definitely have joked that it wasn’t really my house, but just some random house I’d broken into.
She wouldn’t have laughed.
I’d have taken her to the kitchen, and made her a cup of instant coffee, then to the dining room, which had a big window overlooking the back garden. I would have told her about the time I’d put a lamb bone in the middle of the lawn, and watched as more than 40 species of bird had come to peck at it. I’d have listed the birds from the biggest––rooks and magpies, all the way down to the smallest––wrens and firecrests. I would have pointed out that wrens seem to like eating lamb, and she would have laughed.
Next we went upstairs to my bedroom. I would have shown her my Jimi Hendrix poster, my Easy Rider poster, and my Ten Years After poster. I would have told her I wanted a Fender Stratocaster like the one in the Hendrix poster, and a Harley Davidson, like the ones in the Easy Rider poster, and then I would have revealed my innermost self: my record collection.
I showed her my singles: Witchita Lineman, Breaking Down the Walls of a Heartache, and Hey Jude. Then I showed her my albums: Rubber Sole, Led Zeppelin 2, and Axis Bold as Love. I opened my parents’ ancient record player with the intention fo playing ‘Little Wing’ from Axis Bold as Love, but she said, “These are all by men. Don’t you have any records by women?”
I told her my brother had something by Laura Nyro in his room, but I didn’t want to go and look for it, besides, Maddy had finished her coffee, and it was time to go.
I walked her back to our corner, and said goodbye. A week or so later she broke up with me, and I descended into the deepest, darkest Icelandic volcano of my childhood.
Some time later, Madeline realized she was gay. I would have become one of those footnotes: “I tried to be straight, but it just felt wrong…”
When I got home after that evening my parents were still out, and I let myself in with my key. I’d had a key all along. I just thought it’d look cool to break in to my own home.
I went through my records. I was sure I had something by a woman. Then I found it. An album called ‘Ode to John Law’ by a Scottish band named Stone the Crows. They had a lead singer named, Maggie Bell. Would it have made a difference if I’d found it when Madeline was there? Probably not. Madeline was most likely thinking of Carole King, or Judi Collins, or Joni Mitchell. If I’d had just one record by one of those singer songwriters––and I’d listened to the words––I’d have understood a little about a female point of view.
In 1970 Madeline was probably terrified of her own desires, and just wanted a boyfriend to understand and comfort her.
I’m afraid I fell hopelessly short of the mark.