#10: HOW TO KISS: a short lesson [short story]


Every once in a great while I dip back into my own archives to take a look at things I wrote long ago. Lately I've been longing to try writing again - some of you follow me at Chapter1-Take1 where I blog about movies based on books; I do that because I'm fascinated by the transformation of fiction to film but that's not the type of writing I'm talking about. I'd like to dig deeper, possibly make you feel something. Anyway, I just discovered this old story, which isn't really fiction and doesn't have the necessary elements of a real piece of fiction at all. It's thinly veiled memoir, some of which appeared in my Beach Music piece published in the LA Times Sunday magazine. With a tad of creative embellishment. I posted it back in 2005, long enough ago that reposting is acceptable. My big discovery about this old piece is that I'm glad I wrote it if only for the pleasure I personally take in revisiting that time and place in my life. My version of a photo album which I'm notoriously bad at keeping up. Maybe one or two of you will enjoy it as well. 


#10, Avenida Ponce de Leon, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Kisses as Deep as the Ocean 

Liz had arrived in January along with her parents, her brother and younger sister. They were all as white as the Canadian winter they'd left. The trees in Niagara Falls had been bathed in ice, everything was white, even the sky, as if blue had flown south for the winter.

They flew south too, into the blue. When the stewardess flung open the cabin door they'd been the first down the stairway onto the airport's tarmac. The sudden shock of steamy air fogged her glasses.
“It's like a hot house.” She'd taken her glasses off, letting the perfume and warmth wash over her face. Beyond the airports chain link fence, palm trees beckoned from their turquoise background. She wanted to drown herself in a sea of blue.
“It smells funny” Nancy complained.
Her father explained. "You're in the tropics. It's the humidity. Wait till you see El Yunque. The air is so heavy it rains all the time."
EI Yunque, he told them, was a small mountain in the rain forest, out near Luquillo Beach where giant ferns trembled with water, sending streams rushing down their leaves to form miniature waterfalls. Wild orchids bloomed and bloomed, mocking the gardeners that labeled them difficult. He could hardly wait to show them.
Their father had been transferred to the island to set up a new Bronslow Brothers. There were Bronslow Brothers Jewelry and Fine Gift Shops in all the major cities of the world. San Juan was their newest venture and he'd gone to the island a month before the rest of the family, scouting out a place to live, looking into schools.

"Well I think it stinks. This whole place is stinky."

Nancy was ten and furious at being made to leave all her friends behind. They had a club, the love club she called it, a group of fifth graders who traded crushes like baseball cards. She was its MVP, boasting Sandy, Glenn and Brian all loved her best.

"God Nancy. You are so retarded!" Their brother, David, bopped her on the head with the sweet spot of his tennis racket.


Liz could feel her bones loosening. She imagined herself running on the beach like they did in those vacation commercials; her legs gone long and brown, her tiny post pubescent breasts swelling as if nourished by some magical island nectar.

The apartment their father found was in a high rise on the Avenida Ponce de Leon, the main street through the business district. The area was called Santurce and was a mostly middle class neighborhood across the causeway from the Condado where the tourists stayed.
She thought it was very sophisticated to live in a building that had not only a swimming pool but also a supermarket, dry cleaners and a cafe on the ground floor. Sometimes on hot nights, her parents would leave the three kids upstairs and go down for a beer at one of the outdoor tables. To escape the chill of the air-conditioned apartment Liz would stand outside on the tiny 17th floor balcony and with the warm air pushing softly at her face she would count the lights of the causeway stretching across the blue black of the lagoon like beacons lighting the way. To the left was Old San Juan with its narrow streets of blue cobblestone. That was where the men whistled and called out "Hey, hey Blondie. Hey Pretty mama" and walked too close when they passed by. Off to the right was the Condado, the music from the hotels and clubs that lined the strip drifting across the balmy night sky. She could just make out the Caribe Hilton where the mother of her best friend Linda worked nights at the Casino. Liz had seen her leaving for the Hilton with her poofed up black hair and camera round her neck, in one of the shiny strapless evening gowns that she wore to work.

Linda never called her mother Mom or Mommy or even Mother; she called her Patti to her face and the Vampire Queen behind her back because she slept most of the day,  one reason Liz loved sleeping over at Linda's. They could stay up as late as they wanted and Patti was never around. Unlike Liz's mom who was always around offering them sandwiches and other annoyingly helpful things. Liz was shocked the first time she slept over when Patti slipped out in the morning wearing a beige chenille dressing gown, looking for some Bayer aspirin. Her face was beige and bumpy like her robe, her eyes blank and bare as if someone had stripped off her eyebrows and lashes in the night. Liz had been slightly horrified.

"Is she sick?" she whispered to Linda when Patti disappeared back into her black draped bedroom.
"Nah. That's just how she looks without her makeup on."

Liz and Linda both went to St. Theresa's, a small private English-speaking school where the total number of kids from kindergarten to twelfth grade was less than 200. The chapel served as the school auditorium, the walled courtyard with its fountain, doubled as the kid's playground. Linda had befriended her right from the start so Liz got to hang out with the popular crowd. Linda was beautiful, everybody said so. Even Linda's own little brother which Liz thought was borderline creepy.


"Her name means beautiful in Spanish you know," he bragged to Liz one day. "All the guys in school are in love with her."


"That's neat" Liz said but took his comment as a warning she shouldn't expect any guys to be coming her way. Personally, Liz thought Linda was really attractive but that her nose was a little big. In the meantime she pondered telling little Ricky just how creepy shaving his own sister's legs was. But she didn't.


Admittedly, Liz was jealous of Linda's hair which was thick and golden brown. Every day Linda tied a wide black grosgrain ribbon around it, bowing it at the top and even on the hottest days it swung perfectly just past her shoulders like she was the next Breck girl. Liz's own hair was thin and lifeless and without a little help from Sun-In, definitely on the mousy side.


Sometimes after school or on the weekends the girls would wander down the beach front in the Condado, cruising the tourist boys, weaving in and out of the fancy hotels as if they owned them.

"Que paso Fernando?""What's up Julio?" They hung out with the pool boys and compared their tans to the boys burnished bodies. The boys showed off their surfer's knobs, balls of bone that built up under the skin on the knees, ankles and shoulders from wiping out and being bashed by their boards or crashing against the rocks. Real macho battle scars. They snickered conspiratorially at the touristas turning pink as they lay on the white lounges in the sun, flipping on cue like a bunch of seals every time Julio commanded "TIME!" over the loudspeakers. He was supposed to announce it every fifteen minutes but if he liked the song or he was busy with the girls he'd let it go until he felt like it.

They met Gina through Tommy because both Tommy and Gina went to Hallfield's, a fancy schmancy prep school in the Condado. Gina was apparently muy rico, with a home right on the boulevard across from the beach. Running into Gina was the best because she'd take them over to the ritzy private beach club her family belonged to.

"Coka, por favor" they'd call out, settling little bottoms onto rush covered stools under the big thatched umbrella topping the clubs' outdoor bar. Their feet dangled naked except for the sandals Gina made for them, nothing but little slips of colored string wrapped around the ankle and draped around the big toe, decorated with a trio of colored felt daisies, mini versions of the ones you saw on hippie vans and VW's. Their toe nails were enameled with Max Factor's California Orange, their lips slicked in Yardley's Frosty Peach. Anyone would say those girls must think they're really something, the truth is they didn't know how young and beautiful they really were.
It was Gina who told Liz that Tommy had a crush on her. Tommy, who was actually a member of the Hobie surf team! 
"You might have to make the first move though," Gina told Liz. "He's so shy."
Linda had laughed. "Liz make the first move? That I have to see."

On Saturdays, when the girls wanted something quieter and less touristy than the Condado they'd go to the beach at Isla Verde. Mostly it was small wood-frame beach houses and apartment buildings and a smattering of beach front homes like the one Tommy lived in, down the beach from the El Rey Hotel. The girls had a spot staked out down close to the water, in front of the beach shack where you could rent out surf boards and umbrellas and buy the other stuff people needed at the beach - suntan lotion, beach mats, sodapop, things like that. The guy who worked in the shack was a surfer named Emilio. Linda said he lived there too, right there in that tiny one room shack. Emilio was swarthy-skinned with hair blonded by the sun and unless he'd had too many beers he spoke English practically like an American. He said he'd lived in New York for a while. In Newark actually, which Liz knew was really New Jersey but she didn't say anything.


The first time they met, he invited them in to smoke some Mary-Jane. Nobody Liz knew called marijuana MaryJane but she figured that's what he meant and anyway no matter what it was called Liz didn't want to smoke it. Still, when Emilio opened the side door and Linda went in, Liz went in right behind her. Inside the air was dead and it was very dark. Little specks of dust danced in the wisps of light that leaked in through the wooden slats. They sat on a mattress on the floor while he took a coconut off the shelf. Inside the coconut there was a little baggy of marijuana and a package of rolling papers. Liz concentrated on the pictures taped to the wooden walls while Emilio rolled the joint. As her eyes grew accustomed to the dark she saw the photos were snapshots of Emilio with other surfers, lots of girls in bikinis, magazine pictures torn out from Surfer magazine.

"Is that you?" she pointed to one of the magazine photos.
The caption read "CATCHING A RIDE AT RINCON." Emilio squinted at the picture. "Oh yeah, that's me. Shit. That was some messed up day. That's a long time ago, man." 
Emilio took a hit and tried to pass the joint to Liz. She shook her head and Linda took it.
"What happened?" Linda asked, her breath sounding like a hiss. "Did you wipe out?"
"Wipe out? Man I was blown away." He ran his finger along a scarred ridge from his shoulder down across his right chest. "You don't want to know. You'd never go into the sea again. Be too freaked out at the thought of messing up that pretty face."
When Linda and Emilio finished the joint, he put his arms around both girls and pulled them to him. Liz could feel the narrow scar line etched across the smooth skin of his bare chest.
He kissed them both on the cheeks.
"Beat it chicas. I've got work to do."
The girls went back to their mats.
"He doesn't really live there?" Liz whispered, sneaking a peak back. Emilio waved.
"Does too."
"Man!"
"Man."

The following weekend the girls were sitting in their usual spot when Tommy came by, casually carrying his surfboard. 

"Hey ladies." Liz looked up from her Tiger Beat as he stuck his board in the sand by her feet. "I was going to try out my new board. Would you mind watching my stuff?" He took off his watch and tossed it on Liz's beach mat. 
Liz smiled, pleased to do him a favor. It gave her something to say. "Of course!" 
"Far out!" Linda nodded. "It's that new shorty style. Ricky's been bugging my mom for one of those. Mind if I try it out too?"
"Sure, that'd be cool. Liz, how about you? You surf? You wanna try?"
"I haven't tried it yet but I'd love to!"
"After me, Lizzie. Virgins last. Come on Tommy. The waves won't wait forever."  
And off they ran, Tommy carrying his board up over his head, chasing Linda into the water. It seemed like Liz had been sitting on her beach mat watching them in the waves forever. She pretended to read her magazine as Linda slipped off the board for the zillionth time.

"Hey Blondie" Emilio squatted in the sand beside her, shielding his eyes as he looked out at the water. "Care to join me? Your friends look a little bit busy today. "

Tommy pretended to struggle as he pulled Linda back up. They were both laughing like it was the world's funniest thing.
Liz shoved her Tiger Beat in her beach bag and followed Emilio to the shack.
"Mi casa, su casa" he smiled indicating the mattress.
Liz sat on the mattress edge, tucking her legs beside her in as ladylike a position as possible. Emilio leaned back against the wall and took a joint out of the inside pocket of his faded jams.
"It's very comfortable back here" he said, patting the pillow next to him.
"That's okay. I'm fine here." She was already sorry she'd come. He must be at least twenty. Maybe twenty five.
"I suppose I should not bother offering you a beer?" He scooted forward until he was right beside her. The hair on his arm tickled at her elbow. She could smell his Canoe mixed with Coppertone and sweat. Everyone was wearing Canoe that summer, especially the high school boys. But Emilio was not a high school boy. Not at all. His bare chest was smooth and hairless, like a high school boy's but strong and muscled and brown. His faded baggies, slung down on his hips, revealed a thin line of creamy white skin above the waistband.
She was deeply shocked at her own sudden and unexpected desire to slip her finger into the waistband and pull him to her. "No" she blushed "No beer for me. Thanks. "
She heard him light the joint and inhale it deeply. The sharp ssss of sucked in breath struck her as though he'd placed his hand between her thighs.
"Is that Gina?" she asked changing the unspoken subject as she inched her legs tightly together.
The picture was a snapshot of Emilio in a tuxedo alongside a pretty, dark-haired girl in a long white dress. He had his arm loosely around her waist where she was wearing a corsage of white orchids.
"Si. You know Gina? She's my cousin." He took the picture down so Liz could see it better.
"That's from her debutante ball. Over there, the woman on the chair, that's her duenna. The one with the angry face."
"Duenna? What's a duenna?"
"Like a chaperone. "
"Seriously?"
"Seriously. In our country all the socialite type girls have a duenna. If you're from a good family you can't go anywhere without one."
"Wow. Restrictive."
"Yes." He squinted at her. "I suppose you would say so."
Emilio stood to pin the picture back up. "They're still in the water, your friends." He nodded out the window in the direction of the water. He let the wooden window covering drop down into place closing off the counter and the room from view and making the small space even darker.
"Don't worry. I won't miss any business. This summer all the touristas are using only baby oil and iodine. They make it themselves." He shrugged. "They all get burned. They don't care. " He shrugged his shoulders again.
"Que sera" Liz said, shrugging her shoulders back. "Whatever will be will be" She actually sang it. She sang when she was nervous.
"Dinah Shore. I know that song." Emilio cupped her face in his hand. "The futures not ours to see" he sang. "Que sera, sera. What will be will be."
Liz could not believe he was singing that goofy song back to her. She shook her head softly, freeing her face from his grip. "Actually Doris Day. My mother used to sing that to me when I was a little girl"
"When you were a little girl. And now? Now you're a big girl, yes?"
Oh boy she thought. This was it. He was squatting in front of her, he'd planted himself between her legs somehow, his face peering in close to hers. So close she could feel his breath, warm and beery smelling, as it brushed her upper lip.
"So Gina's your cousin, huh? Linda and I go over to the beach club with her sometimes. She's really cool."
"And you, are you cool?" He tucked a strand of stray hair back behind her ear.
"I don't think-" She didn't know what she thought, she was simply stalling but it didn't work and he leaned in and closed the inch between them with a kiss. She kept her lips pressed together but his, warm and wet, were guiding them open. Not hurriedly, not urgently but softly, the way you'd unclench a small child's hand holding fast to some precious treasure or piece of forbidden candy.
A moment later at the touch of his fingers to her breast beneath her t-shirt, she reeled back.
"No?" He looked surprised.
"No!" She wondered how she could have given him such a wrong idea. "No!”
"Okay, okay. Calmaté" He held his hands up in mock surrender. "No problema man. Anyway I like to kiss. Just kissing is cool, yes?"
She looked at him from under her hair.
"Look ma, no hands" he promised, crossing them behind his back.
She had to laugh. He kissed her again, this time she kept her mouth open.
"Hey!" he whispered in her ear. "Don't you even know how to kiss?"
She was so embarrassed she wanted to run away. But where. Back to the beach blanket to watch Linda and Tommy frolicking in the surf? She didn't think so.
"I guess I never kissed anybody before like that."
"Oh pobrecito, it's okay, it's okay. You just need a good teacher, that's all."
He started kissing her ear, whispering all the while. "It's like being in the sea. You know, surrounded by blue? All that water easing over your body, warm and gentle." 
His lips made their way to her mouth, his tongue pushing softly past her lips. 
"Soft now. Feel the liquid caressing you?" 
He kissed her again, deeply, and she  thought her heart might just explode.
"And sometimes there is a wave, it's like this very big wave and it's coming, a big one crashing down on you and you can't fight it, you have to go with it."
Oh, God, she thought, please stop talking. She could feel her whole body reaching out to him, her own mouth finding his, stopping his words with a kiss of her own. 
"Ride it" he said pulling back from the kiss, and she was mortified at the sound of her own breath, short and softly gasping.  
"How do you say, you go with the flow. Be careful though with a big kiss like that those little thingas of yours are going to perk right up and say, me too, me too."
He ran his hands down across her shoulder and brushed her breasts right through her shirt. She felt a stab between her legs.
"Ah! See what I tell you? You watch it now, blondie. Be careful where you go.” 
He took her roughly by the shoulders and held her away from him, a sneer darkening his face.
 “And you better stay out of boy's houses. What did you think? I wanted to show you pictures of my surfer buddies? C'mon blondie. You gotta grow up cuz if some other guy invites you to his house, he won't be looking for just kisses. He says he wants to dance, to listen to music, do homework together. Man, it's all the same. It's just to get into those sweet little pants. Okay? That's for real. You got lucky with me today cuz I like to kiss. But you watch out; you don't want the boys to call you a tease, eh.”

He rifled Liz's hair like she was Gidget and he was the Big Kahuna. But where was Moon Doggy? Out giving Linda surfing lessons?
She felt Emilio watching her ass as she walked back to the blanket where Tommy and Linda sat waiting.
"Hey Blondie" Emilio called out when she reached the blanket.
She turned and he tossed her a bottle of Coppertone. "Don’t get burned"
Liz plopped down on the blanket and stuck the bottle in her bag.
"Hey." Tommy threw some sand at her feet.
"Hey."
"You want me to put some of that on you? Your shoulders look a little pink. "
She thought of Emilio's hands on her skin. 
"I guess. Yeah, okay."
And just like that, one little thing, and he was hers again. If she wanted him.
Except that her family moved a month later. Her parents said they couldn't take the island fever anymore. Being confined to Puerto Rico's two hundred square miles was just too restrictive so they were going back to the mainland. Maybe San Francisco. Maybe L.A.
L.A. Liz thought. At least people surfed in L.A.
She cried all the way to Miami the day they left. She wasn’t sure if it was worse that Tommy and Linda came to the airport to see her off.
“I wish you could be there for the championships,” Tommy told her. “You know I’m paddling for the Hobie team.”
The world semi-final surfing championship was going to be held in Puerto Rico and where would she be? Gone.
“Me too” she said through her tears. “I know you’re going to win.”
“Don’t cry, Liz.” Linda told her. “I’ll take a ton of pictures and write and tell you all about it.”
Liz had to laugh. “I know you will, Linda. I know you will.”

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