I’m sitting on the big wooden bench swing on the covered front porch of our house in Merrittville. I just finished walking home from my last day of high school. I am an adult now. Educated. Even though I won’t turn eighteen for two more weeks, everybody that I have seen since the end of our graduation ceremony has looked at me with different eyes. There goes Charlie Brandt. He’s an adult now. At least, that’s how it feels.
I felt pretty good about myself when I handed that goofy flat hat to Mom and Dad and returned my gown at the window in the back of the school cafeteria. Several of my friends said that they were going to hang out at the lake and invited me to come, and that’s what I wanted to do; what I still might do, really. I don’t know. I feel a little down now, and maybe I don’t want to be with people. Or maybe that’s exactly what I should do. Like I said, I don’t know.
When I walked away from my FORMER school I think that I might have been walking on an inch or two of air. I stopped in the Qwik Mart and bought a pack of cigarettes. Mr. Morris knew that I was not quite yet eighteen, but he also knew that I was a graduate and so he sold them to me. Officer Czylenski, the deputy who patrols this part of town during the midweek, grew up half a block from my house and knows my family. He won’t care either.
I smoked one of the cigarettes as I walked down the street and decided to take a different route home. Well, no route really. I just walked, feeling my freedom. I walked past the junior high school that I had attended four years earlier, and then turned and walked towards the elementary school where I began this educational journey, and that’s when I walked past Heidi’s house.
Heidi was my first love, if you can call what an eleven year old kid in the sixth grade feels for a girl love. That’s what I called it then, and I still think to this day that it might have been. I have had two girlfriends since Heidi and I were together, and I hardly think about them at all. I still think about Heidi though. I wonder how she is doing.
Heidi was a very pretty girl and all of the guys tried to capture her attention and, if they were lucky, her heart. I was awkward and shy, and it never occurred to me that I too could enter that sweepstakes. I had an interest in the German language however and Heidi, who’s mother was German, grew up in a house where German and English were both spoken equally. First we shared our mutual interest in language at school, and then I was invited to her house, and before long I found myself wanting to be with Heidi as much as I could. To my surprise, she told me that she felt the same about me.
As I sit on the swing I think about Heidi. Eating rich German food at her house, our first kiss while walking through a canyon on the way to the store for her mother. Our first clumsy dance at the recreation center one Friday night. I can still smell the bread, feel my hand on her waist, taste that kiss. Yes, I’m pretty sure that I loved Heidi. Maybe it wasn’t the way Lancelot loved Guinevere, Romeo loved Juliet, or Mr. Darcy loved Miss Elizabeth Bennett, but it’s the way Charlie loved Heidi. Still does, maybe.
It didn’t last though. Heidi’s father had a lot of problems. I don’t know much about it. He came home from the war not quite right. People said – – -, well, people said a lot of stuff. I don’t know what is true. What I know is that he went crazy one day and killed Heidi’s mother and then himself too. Heidi saw it all. She was taken in by her only living relation in the area; a woman who had more than her own share of issues. Heidi moved away and I rarely saw her again, and never talked with her at all.
Today, years later, her house still stands vacant. Heidi’s relative inherited the place and I don’t think she ever tried to sell it. Nobody would have bought it anyway. I don’t walk by that house much because I don’t usually have business in that direction. I don’t even know why I walked there today. It is literally falling apart, little by little. I was shocked to see the windows broken, blackberries growing up through cracks in the foundation and gutters dangling from the eaves of the roof. I don’t know if you could restore that house now even if you wanted to.
Sitting here I think of the wreck that is Heidi’s house and I wonder if her life is a wreck as well. I wouldn’t blame her if it is. The few times I have seen her, she looks like an Auschwitz surviver; gaunt, with bowl-cut hair, and no smile. No sign of warmth at all. I wonder what her life is like. I wonder if she ever laughs. I wonder if she ever thinks of me.
I reach for the pack of cigarettes again but I don’t pull one out and light it. I don’t really like to smoke; I just wanted to stretch my adult wings today. I’ll throw these things away when I go inside. In two weeks I’ll be eighteen. I will join the Army like my dad did, and I will go to war like my dad did. He got Germany and I’ll get Vietnam. Some say that he got the best of that deal, but I don’t think that it matters much who shoots you or blows you up.
I don’t know if I will ever see Heidi again. Heck, Wally Mather was buried last month. He caught it at Dak To in Vietnam, and I’ll probably go there too, so I don’t know if I will ever see any of this again. If I come back though, I will once again love my parents, this big house, this swing and the neighborhood that I see stretching out before me. I really do love my life, and I still remember Heidi – the Heidi who I knew in the sixth and seventh grades – with a special fondness. I hope that she finds happiness, although by all accounts that seems to be a slim hope indeed. I hope that life gives her a good turn. I hope my heart will quit hurting when I think about Heidi. I’m never walking by that stinking house again.