Twenty-Three Years Was Long Enough
When I was a fourteen-year-old nerd with braces and a school uniform one size too large over my skinny ass, my mother enrolled me in English classes. I was dropped off at an institute every weekday. It was a large old house that had been repurposed and turned into a bunch of classrooms. People of all ages attended the British institute. But since the time slot picked for me was right after school, there were some students my age who wore uniforms just like me. Except her. She went home to change.
Our classroom had a dozen older students and us: Two skinny Catholic school students, an Argentinian rebel in a black jacket who always seemed to skip class, and her. I was a tall, brown dork with the most boring school uniform: gray pants and a white short sleeve shirt that couldn’t be bothered to be improved with a tie, and she was a fifteen-year-old bombshell in a mini skirt, long tight socks, a crop top over her unmistakable chest and a string purse always hanging from her shoulders. Her belly always showed, even in winter, underneath a thin cardigan. Sometimes she wore heels. She was pale, like the unattainable and scary, like a woman who has far outgrown silly games despite her chubby baby face. She was covered in makeup, and sometimes I could see her panties. She dyed her hair, wore makeup, and had boobs that caused the kind of stares from older men no teenager should have to deal with. But she did it anyway. She was far from perfect; truth be told, even at that early age, I could tell I had nothing in common with a girl who dressed like a woman and knew about mascaras and how to walk with dignity and carry the weight of her crate, all while making it colorful and, in retrospect, authentically her. She was slender, white as milk, and so far out of my league. If she wanted to date any of us, the only one who stood a chance was the blond Argentinian in the leather jacket at best, perhaps. He smoked cigarettes, and for some reason, he talked to me. He considered me his friend, which was all so odd to me. We also had nothing in common. The only one I found non-treating was the tall, skinny girl with broomstick hair that dressed like me: a school uniform a size too big, in her case, a long plaid green skirt and a white blouse so transparent I could see her uneventful white brassiere. She wore glasses.
I was a clown. Outspoken, curious, restless, and chatty. I befriended even the cute teachers of university age who sometimes had to send me back to my seat. Whenever they were not giving me extra credit for erasing the whiteboard or rearranging English verbs in their correct tenses for the rest of the class of office workers, one or two housewives, and people who smelled of hopes that some English would save them. Basic level four, that was the grade I got in. That’s the level we all started with. And month after month, we passed the exam and moved on to a new teacher, a new class, some new classmates, and us. I was always afraid she would not make it. I didn’t want to have to focus on the lesson—it was too slow, tedious, or perhaps I was too smart—and miss the chance to glance at her cleavage across the room or, like a hurried squirrel, take a peek at her woman eyes. I would avert her gaze though she never looked my way despite the handstands against the wall, the juggling, or the fact that I was a perfect gentleman and never ever let her catch me staring at her impossible-to-miss giant breasts. I must have been very clever or talented at multi-tasking because I always passed the exam with a high score. She must have been a good study despite the layers of powder, pastel crop tops, and dangerous miniskirts because she passed too. We became friends.
Truth be told, I was friends with the nerdy girl with the broomstick black long hair. She just happened to be our age, and maybe they were friends. I don’t know why I didn’t think we could be friends. Besides feeling intimidated, we just had no useful conversations. I preferred hanging out with the nerdy girl or the Argentinian teen model. He had rock and roll ideas and stories of adventures, and while I didn’t care for cigarettes and I was afraid he would catch me listening to the Russian pop songs I had on my walkman, I liked to be seen with him, and he didn’t mind being seen with me.
Maybe half a year passed—at least one season—one that would have made any other girl cover the belly button piercing of her flat stomach with a few more layers, but not her. I had to travel to an international sports event that month, which meant missing the exam and unavoidably being left behind. I never had expectations of any of that to last, nor did I think about it too much. I had my own thing going. My life was full of stuff to do, and I wasn’t thinking about women or girls just yet. But I came to class one day. The skinny schoolgirl in her usual transparent blouse was already on her seat, looking to talk to me. Those were the days of passing notes, drawing sketches, writing in stylized chubby letters, trying to make sense of our feelings with love declarations and promises, and searching for a sense of belonging with new friends to share them with. I took my seat next to her. As usual, the Argentinian was late, and she sat across the room with her pink lips and eyelashes barely casting a shadow on the freckles of her face. The skinny schoolgirl had a confession to make. She said so herself. Oh, boy. Here it comes. She knows this is my last month. She is going to declare her love for me. How would I turn her down? I will have to find a way not to laugh but also to protect her feelings. I didn’t know how to do any of that. I could just be a dick. I was a teenage boy, after all, but for some reason, that friendship had turned into something that mattered to me. I would forget the hot piece of teenage ass sitting across from us in a minute, but I would not forget the girl with the silly glasses who was friendly to me for half a year, maybe more. “I have to confess something,” she said. “But first, I have to ask. Do you like her?” She said, signaling at the teenager with the perfect woman’s nails, biting her pencil, crosslegged calmly across the room. Here we go. She is playing it safe. She wants to gauge my reaction. Test the waters. She can’t come out and just say it. She needs to know where I stand. But what a stupid question that was. Who wouldn’t like the one woman who stood out among the rest? She even had an uncommon name; the name of a princess or a doll. Or a striper. She was excused because she was a foreigner, from some Central American country or something. That could explain her multicolored usual assemble and the few layers of tropical clothing she wore in an otherwise post-colonial gray world of our boring Lima full of people like me wearing gray and feeling dull under the threat of rain that never happened. “Do you like her?” she insisted. That was her question. I must have turned all seventeen colors of age. I was too young for that. Too embarrassed. And honestly, I didn’t like-her-like-her. I was a horny romantic, but I was no fool. I had no chance with her. At least not when I was a kid. “Tell me!” she kept pressing. “Do you like her?”
“No, not really,” I wanted to say. “I like the chubby cheeks, the boobs, and absolutely everything underneath the layers, the makeup, and the hair, but she is way too much for me. I wear braces. Look at my nose. I might be okay for you, but I can also see your bra—like, all of the time— and nothing is going on there yet.” That’s what I wanted to say. But instead, I deflected and got nervous and awkward as shit. “I don’t know, I don’t know.” She is gauging my reaction. Her it comes, she is going to try to kiss me or something. I had only been kissed once, and it was while playing spin the bottle, and it had happened two years ago. I was a complete virgin on absolutely everything. I hadn’t even held a girl’s hand before. I don’t want her to kiss me. I don’t want to break her heart. “So, do you like her?” she insisted.
“No, of course not!” I finally said. I don’t know how much of that was a lie or the truth.
Why is she not turning red, and why is she inspecting me so closely and without a drop of modesty or embarrassment? She was about to declare her love for me. This is crazy. “Well,” she said. Here it comes. “Well, she likes you.”
I looked at the foreign girl, sitting at her desk across the room, pretending to do her homework or whatever, bitting her pencil, utterly indifferent to me as she had always been. Polite but distant, defiant of the stares, and traveling in her own little bubble where she could feel safe from the mean gray world of men, who, unlike me, would try to have her. I was admiring at a distance. Like a gentleman.
“What? That makes no sense. How could she like me?” Oh, I see. This is a prank. I was about to call her out. “I thought you were my friend,” I almost accused her. “This is not funny.” What if I had said yes. Oh, the embarrasement. They would have laughed in my face. Was the leathered blond on it too? Maybe they were on it together. The bombshell teen would jump in the Argentinian’s motorcycle, and they would take my nerdy friend with them for good measure laughing their way out because I was not worthy of anyone’s interest, of course. What kind of shitty friends did I have?
“Listen, she told me she likes you and can’t stop thinking about you. In fact, she asked me to check in with you. Do you really not like her?”
I shook my head. I must have looked down at my drawings, praying for the class to start, begging for another bird to fly through the window and crash into the classroom floor again, confused, embarrassed, and not knowing what do say or do.
“Of course I do,” I said, forgetting this might still be a mean prank. Also, kind of lying. I was never clear about how I truly felt about that. Maybe I have always had two hearts. Or two heads, as they said.
“Well, you need to do something,” my friend who, out of her own free will, had turned into my confidant and, apparently now, a matchmaker. “You need to propose to her.” That’s how the words she said felt. In Spanish, we had a way to call out our intention to establish a romantic relationship, that proverbial question that’s supposed to start it all: Do you want to be my girlfriend? The way it was called in Spanish, at least in Peru, resembles, to me, more of an animal matting description, like when ducks are copulating, than an act of chivalry or vulnerability. It’s like stepping on the female duck. “Tienes que caerle.” You must fall on her, to fall on top of her, more accurately. It doesn’t translate well. It could very well be my convoluted mind. It may allude to falling in love instead. I don’t know. But while the teenage woman sat with her pale legs crossed delicately one over the other across from us, I was urged to fall on top of her pronto. “You must ask her to be your girlfriend!” Definitely, before I fall one level behind, and we are no longer classmates again. “It has to happen next weekend, and it can’t happen here,” my skinny friend said.
I didn’t know why. Suddenly, I had to profess a love I didn’t quite feel for a woman way out of my league, and I had to do it avoiding the ridicule my friend promised wouldn’t happen. I don’t think she actually promised it. I don’t think she cared much to begin with about the romantic infatuation of a girl with big boobs who seemed to get everything she wanted and a nerdy kid caught in her sight.
But for some strange reason, maybe the skinny girl felt compassionate, and, now that her friend wanted me, she wanted to protect me. “It will be all right,” I imagine she said. Maybe she didn’t give a rat’s ass, but that’s how I felt it: Like she would protect me. I was a little disappointed she didn’t have a crush on me, but suddenly I had bigger problems now. First, I had to find a way to spend time with the gorgeous teen outside the institute, and second, I had to profess my newfound love to her, I thought. I had only spun the bottle twice before.
As luck would have it, that weekend, she would be at the mall with her friend, our friend, but my family was going to the country club to celebrate my sister’s birthday, and I couldn’t be excused. To top it off, my sister’s girlfriends were going too. I would share a bungalow with ten girls with pajamas, boobs, and bikinis for an entire weekend. A forced sleepover in which no one could kick me out. I even knew some of their names. It was going to be my time to shine. But that weekend was my only chance. Not to mention, I was promised it was a sure thing, though I still suspected it was all an elaborate prank.
What’s a romantic boy to do? What do horny men have done before? I had to use religion, of course.
The Convivio was taking place that weekend. I told my mother I needed to attend. It was the yearly gathering of a weird-ass Catholic sect, which is a story of its own. They were religious freaks kin on recruiting children and teens into their holy legions of god-fearing weirdos. Turns out my best friend at the time had been sucked into their religious nonsense, and they had made him president or host or some weird shit role to keep him engaged. I used my offer of support as an excuse to stay behind in the city and skip my sister’s birthday party full of sinful teenage girls. Only their god could know what would have happened had I gone with them. Probably nothing. My mother accepted and dropped me off at the top of a mountain where the school taken hostage by these religious freaks was set up to be the holy grounds of their rendezvous. To my surprise, I had a good time. It was like a fair, but instead of games, they had groups of people singing praise to their lord. There were talks about all the same nonsense I grew up with. Bible stuff and pretending to be good for the eyes of an imaginary being, while behind closed doors, they were all wishing to get into each others’ pants. It felt like home, except with better haircuts and girls in skirts and white tank tops. Anyway, I didn’t last long. I watched my friend give an awkward speech in front of hundreds of kids, who, perhaps like me, wondered what the hell they were doing up there too. Except, I had a mission. I had a girl to kiss, and I had to convince myself I loved her or whatever. What are fourteen-year-old boyfriends supposed to do? I waved goodbye to my timid friend playing the leader of a bunch of sycophants and began descending down the school’s parking lot at the top of that rocky hill, gathering the mental strength for the long walk back to the city, powered by my imagination and her rosy cheeks. While I have not been a follower of organized religion, I believe some version of god has always had my back. An hour into my hike, a van full of nuns, also leaving the weird-ass party early, spotted me on the sidewalk, and to the romantic hitchhiker, they decided to help. Everybody roots for love. I hitched a ride with them, sitting in the front with the mother superior and the lovely nuns who agreed I had to return to the city pronto. I told them the story. They may have been nuns, but nobody can resist the dreams of a boy and his pursuit of love. The awws in their eyes, the good wishes in their Christian hearts. It was all there. Perhaps there were one or two faces that craved some of that passion, some of that spirit that would do whatever it took, even if it was walking four hours down a mountain to meet a girl, that feeling that no matter what you believe in or who you are, it just fills up the heart. Maybe that’s what hope is all about. We prayed together inside the van, and they prayed for my sick mom too. I told them a bunch of stories, unsure which one would stick. The truth had been enough. I didn’t have to lie to them to hitch a ride. I covered all my basis, just in case. As I said, a version of god has always been on my side.
My palms were sweating. My heart was coming out of my chest. My body was entering the mall. My little Nokia 3360 vibrated. A black and green text message worth thirty cents each, by the way, was telling me they were nearby. They were waiting for me. “Hurry! Her dad is picking us up soon!” It was dark. I had taken too long, hiking, crossing streets, charming nuns, and running red lights; freaking odyssey I went through. Our mutual friend was placing us together in the same window of opportunity in which I could ask her that simple question every boy that age dreads and dreams all at once. I found them. Our friend left to give us some space. Let the awkwardness commence.
She didn’t say much. Her miniskirt covered her legs, her purse hung from the side, her top was tight, and perhaps what I confused with aloofness, a bit of arrogance maybe, what I would have called disinterest back then, and what made me feel small, was just the same level of shyness I felt. We walked together back and forth through the edge of a dark parking lot. The stores were already closed. I stalled. I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know how to ask. I didn’t know what to ask. I didn’t know how I would be able to be the man she confused me for. I was so full of doubt. But I wouldn’t let myself feel small. My window was ending. So, quite violently, if memory serves well, I took a deep breath. I turned to the side, and without warning or time for hesitation, I smacked my lips against hers and hoped for the best. To my surprise, she kissed me back. I had her arms around me. I was kissing her. She was kissing me. Tongues came in. It took me a minute to remember how to do it, not that there was much to go on from. I had only been mouth raided by my school classmate’s younger sisters once or twice in yet another country club a few years back. But she knew how to kiss. She had to have experience. We cornered ourselves against the dark wall. She had the body of a woman, and her thin lips were letting me do all the talking. We kissed and kissed, and we kissed and continued kissing for a long time without breaks or pauses. I didn’t know how to stop. Even if I did, I didn’t want to. Not because it felt nice but because I didn’t know what to say afterward. The embarrassment was too much. My lips began to hurt. I bet hers did too. Maybe she was getting tired of standing on her toes with a tall skinny dude sucking at her mouth. I didn’t know what to think. Except I knew, as a matter of fact, deep in my heart, that was the moment I fell in love with her for the first time. She wasn’t rushing me. She wasn’t demanding anything from me. She didn’t bitch or complain. She was the first version of what I learned how to be authentic no matter what. While she seemed to always get what she wanted, I never saw her demand anything from anybody. Maybe she was just as romantic as me. Maybe all those colors, nail polish, and lipsticks were the cover of a tender soul, a shy and observant mind, and someone who, despite her exterior, like me, cared way too fucking much. I held her tighter but not tight enough that I would make her goods pop. I had never felt boobs on my chest before. I must have blacked out. Things blurred. The lights didn’t return until I heard a loud bang beside us. Distracted, watching the show, a pervert slammed himself against a public phone. That broke the ice. In my arms, she laughed. I laughed. Up to that point, that was by far the best kiss of my life. It was also the longest for a long, long time after that. We laughed, and I don’t remember much more after that except that I was numb and possibly intoxicated. I remember walking next to her and resting my head on her shoulder in an awkward way. It’s a memory that has hunted me for years. I’ve always had terrible bodily control, except in one particular setting.
She had to go. They had to go. In fact, she must have said so. She wasn’t smiling, and she looked uncomfortable, to this day, a mystery to me. Maybe I fucked it up. If that was the extent of our relationship, that would have sucked. I was all in now. She couldn’t take it away. Maybe our friend would return to tell me what to do: “Ask her!” Or maybe I did it on my own: “Do you want to be my girlfriend?” I had practiced. If I pulled it off correctly, it must have sounded so uncomfortable. I don’t have a memory of asking her or her saying yes, but she did. And suddenly, I was the youngest of my friends with a girlfriend. My first girlfriend. And she was hot. Way before I knew teenage boys, like men, classified women by their looks. I was just glad she liked me. I was a fucking romantic. Nobody ever saw her or believed me, of course. It didn’t matter one bit to me. We dated for a month or two.
We didn’t last long because, well, I was still me. I was still a kid with braces monkeying around, unaware of what to do with a girl like that. I learned to buy flowers. I would get her a single red rose every time I came to see her in the lobby of her building—I wasn’t allowed inside. Embarrassing as that was, I wanted her to feel what I felt, perhaps. My palms sweated a lot on those days. I began to wear a fanny pack around my waist to hug her and kiss her without the embarrassment of my excitement pressing against her legs like her boobs pressed against my chest. I was a child. She was already a woman. We went to the movies, and I placed my arm around her back, and she took it like a champ, despite two uncomfortable hours with my sleep arm between her and the backseat. She pulled the armrest up like a pro at dating and teenage romance and making out at the movies, which, like in the movies, I tried, and it was awesome. I was a gentleman, though. She wrote our names on liquid paper in the park. I met her dad. I met her mom. They both were scary and sized me up and down, showing no sign of welcome or warmth, which made me wonder what kind of guys she had dated before and with what time. We were so young. I was a sweet kid, and they were prison guards. At most, I would jump out of the hallway of the English institute to scare her, write her letters, and I probably got too greedy and smeared my saliva on her makeup-covered face one too many times until she, out of the blue, told me to beat it. Not like that, no. She was kind. Cold, but kind about it. I’m sure I made a big statement. Maybe I talked about eternal pain—or love—or something like that. With her body pushed against the red rails of the plaza in front of the building where she lived and my boyish ideals on the floor, my heart broke. Also, for the first time. I didn’t let her see it, I don’t think, but I remember I cried a lot afterward. I went from not thinking about her at all to being infatuated to an introductory version of what love could feel like over just one weekend—with Christian shenanigans in between—and while I enjoyed that cloud for an extra month or so afterward, the heartbreak that followed lasted a year after that. It was either a foreshadowing of who I would become or, very likely, the cause. I am a romantic with a tendency to the melancholic now. I used to play sad songs on repeat and cry myself to sleep. I wrote nasty letters that friends meant to protect me, perhaps exposed me instead. I don’t know. Eventually, I moved on.
Despite all of this, I never considered her to be my first love. My first love happened two or three years later. My real love happened many more years after that. And my best love happened yet several more years after that. I’ve experienced love in several of its forms, even the divine, that version of god that’s always within me. Miraculously, that skinny girl with a broomstick head and ugly glasses and I remained friends. She became my best friend, and for the better part of two decades, she knew everything about me. I told her everything: my love struggles mostly, and year after year when I was sure she finally had enough, she persevered and remained my friend. She even grew into her looks, filled up that bra, got married, and subsequently divorced. Nothing romantic happened between us, except perhaps that time she stuck my fingers into her mouth while we were in the bed of her room full of dolphins and right before I ran away. She will deny it, of course, but that happened. She was a good friend, and had it not been because she was also a good friend of hers, I would have never heard from my first girlfriend again. For better or worse, our mutual friend kept us connected. It took a long time, of course. I didn’t pay attention to her life story but occasionally received some updates from our friend. She moved back to her home country, got married, had a kid, got divorced, had another kid. I’m not the kind of person who wishes ill on others, but she was the first to break my heart, and I didn’t care to keep her around. But destiny insisted. I grew up. I got a hell of a lot of experiences. I moved too. I lived abroad, and for reasons I can’t quite comprehend, she kept tabs on me, on my story. She became an unlikely beacon of my past. While we only spent a month or two together as children and a few classes for half a year or so, as it turns out, my romantic relationships hold the key to who I am. Turned out she knew all about me through my friend, her best friend forever and ever. It came to a point when I basically gave my friend tacit permission to divulge my life to her. Not that objecting would have changed anything. It was a breach in some ways, and in retrospect, I can see how it caused me to filter myself with the friend I previously had not filtered myself with, censure myself. But I chose to see it so that instead of losing a best friend, I gained one more.
We finally saw each other through chance when she had an overlay in Miami. I invited her to my apartment, wondering what that would mean. It had been sixteen years. She wasn’t the same sexy teenager who stopped traffic almost as well as she stopped time, the one who had the entire street gluing their eyes to her stride: bus drivers, grandmas, and peeping toms hitting themselves against public phones. She was a mother. She was still cute, in a different kind of way. She didn’t have the eye grabbers she had as a kid, and I didn’t have any resentment left. But she did have a friend. Her co-worker, who she flew with, came to the apartment too, and for hours I entertained them. Her friend refused to sleep, and eventually, I gave up and went to bed. I left the door open just in case, but she didn’t take the bait. She claims I was not direct enough. No friends were doing her bidding, no flowers, no questions, just a few hours between flights and flirting with the idea for the first time that we were now adults and adults play different games and are supposed to control their feelings a bit better. I passed out, and she bitched about it for a few more years. I laughed. She complained I didn’t make a move. I insisted I stayed firm. It was her turn to make a move. “She missed her chance,” I must have told our mutual friend.
Several more years went by. Due to that fortuitous encounter, we exchange numbers, perhaps. Maybe I already had it, not sure. Point is, we talked with some frequency. Not a lot. I was on and off in a relationship. While we had never coincided in Peru, we’ve talked about it. Realistically, we never made an effort to make it happen. Until a few years ago when we did. The three of us were finally together for the first time since the year 2000. When Limp Bizkit was on the radio, and Arjona had yet to sing about his problemas. I asked her out, though admittedly, I shouldn’t have. I had a girlfriend, and things were finally turning serious. Because of my lifestyle, perhaps, we had never formalized our relationship, but I wanted to, and while I had promised myself never to cheat on her, I was in another country suddenly getting drinks at a dive bar with my very first girlfriend, almost twenty years later. We walked to the streets we used to walk. We talked a lot. She told me about her life, her heartbreaks, and the challenges of life. So many things made sense that night, and an old memory returned, but it was different: It had lived a plentiful life. They were so wildly different from each other, and while I hold almost no ties to my past, I often yearn to relieve my greatest adventures. We kissed right at the same spot when she broke up with me so many years ago. I didn’t tell her, and I don’t know if she remembered, but she was no longer the same teenager, the same bubbly girl. She was a different woman with different experiences. She was no longer intimidating. She was a friend. She had been in my life for so long; we shared a deep bond no matter what. That night while she was naked on my bed, I realized I couldn’t cheat on my girlfriend, or on her, for that matter. I swallowed the disappointment on her face. I walked her to the door in the morning, and I made peace with the fact that to be a good man, all that matters most sometimes involves letting go. I swallowed a bit of my pride and did the right thing, even when no one was watching.
She supported my work over the years. She bought my books even though getting them to her country was expensive. I never understood why she cared. It’s not like we talked often, or substantially. I must be a good writer. Ever the joker, we shared comments here and there, mostly good wishes, but I’ve always lived my life, and she lived hers elsewhere. I learned to care for her in different ways. All various iterations of the romantic kid I was are still there, because some things never change, while others do: I replaced infatuation with a surprisingly mature affection. And that’s that.
Except, several more years went by. I wasn’t planning on finding myself single ever again, and I bet neither did she, but it happened. She had invited me over to her country several times, and several times I promised I would go. But I was always busy, involved, or had an excuse. Her birthday was coming. Perhaps the one date besides my own birthday that I had never forgotten. She must have been joking when she sent me a birthday party invitation. Or maybe she meant it, but she very well knew I wouldn’t be able to make it. Except, this time, a part of me just wanted to celebrate her. I haven’t been around much for anybody—and as strange as that is for me, to be there for her, for a change, excited me. I will always have work and excuses to produce, but life is now. So I booked a flight to her tropical country, and to her surprise, within days, there I was.
She insisted on picking me up from the airport that night. Her apartment walls were covered in pictures of people, friends, family, and memories of love and the kind of togetherness I failed to achieve in my life. Everything was in its place, cared for in a way that didn’t require much observation to notice she was, and perhaps had always been, the kind of woman who cares deeply. We talked for hours on the couch. With her kids sound asleep, the youngest bunkered down in her mom’s bedroom, she had learned to be more direct. I am still appreciative of the flow of life, leaving doors open and such. She was ready now. Was I stalling again? Her daughter’s tiny pink room full of more baby pictures, dolls, and a twin bed that fits no grown-up was the only option. Twenty-three years we had waited. What is one more night? Ever the joker, I insisted I didn’t want to traumatize her kids. But she had a point. They sleep like rocks, and we are not doing anything wrong. It didn’t feel wrong at all. And that’s the thing, nothing with her ever did.
After so long, as faith would have it, our first time was sweeter and more loving than it would have ever been under any other context. Twenty-three years wasn’t long enough. It was just enough. It was sweet. It was deep. It still has me thinking about it. It was all kinds of stuff I had never felt for her before, even when she is one of the women I have thought about most. It was caring. It was loving. It was mature. Except for the early morning jump, when the heightened senses of a dedicated mother made her leap out of her daughter’s tiny bed and right over my butt-naked sleepy body to stop the door from opening and prevent her child from seeing the strange hairy man inside her pink room, on her bed, and under her sheets, sharing the room (she never uses, by the way) with her naked mom who deserves the world and at the very least, a moment of happiness while the critters sleep. She might be too young to understand that now, perhaps. But one day, she will. And who knows, maybe she will still have to work that out in therapy when she is our age. Who hasn’t? Maybe she will grow up to mirror her mom, her strength that withstood the eyes, the men and women, the judgments, the changes, and the absence, with a smile on her face and joy on her soul, brave enough to dare to exteriorize it, despite adversity, something I still have trouble with. Maybe one day she will also see the woman who still hangs pictures of loved ones on her walls, like the scrapping books of our childhood, and who has my books all around her home. Maybe one day she will grow up to be just like her: From a child who seemed to have everything but didn’t to a woman who fights and lives with tenderness and grace. She is impossible not to admire. It took me this long to get to know her. Just as awkward as our whole story has been, twenty-three years was long enough, and not a day more. I followed one long-lasting dream and maybe discovered a different form of love. I saw into her soul and found her more beautiful than ever before. Maybe it was not a prank, after all.