Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Kissing Mr. Roarke


Along with sunshine and the reggae beat of UB40 coming from a friend's boom box by the lake at my Michigan boarding school, late spring in 1985 brings another memory: the first "real" kiss. I was fifteen years old, school would dismiss for the summer in a few short weeks, and when I came back in September, I'd be another couple weeks shy of turning sixteen. Sweet sixteen and . . . never been kissed? I remember feeling ambivalent. On the one hand, I didn't much care. On the other, I knew that I was supposed to care, so it began to bother me. And springtime conspires to create young love. And there was this one guy who seemed kind of interesting, a little different—though it's hard to remember now exactly what it was that struck me as unusual. Maybe it was the way he dressed. He was tall and slim, and clothes draped nicely on him. He had very blond hair, and the brightness of it was emphasized by his choice of wearing mostly white. He wore linen, I think; he wore long pants and nice shoes and I think he had a jacket to go with it. One never saw him in jeans or shorts. I don't remember a skinny tie, but it's possible; it would have fit the picture. He was in the music department of our arts-intensive school, played the saxophone. That was another draw. Who can deny that a saxophone is cool? I'm not sure what he saw in me: short, dark, dressed in god knows what, we didn't look like much of a match. Opposites attract? Back to the wardrobe for a moment. Because of the long, lean, formal whites, he was referred to as "Mr. Roarke." I'm not sure if anyone ever directed this at him directly. It was not mean-spirited to my knowledge—or anyway, it was just too accurate to be offensive. People of a certain age will get the reference immediately: Mr. Roarke, the suave host of Fantasy Island, played by Ricardo Montalban, was also known for his white suit, black tie, and elegant manner. On this popular television show, Roarke was the director of a mysterious island located in some uncharted area of the Pacific, where people could come to play out their life's fantasies (and where they often discovered that what they thought they wanted wasn't worth the price). I can still hear the opening of each show: "I am Mr. Roarke, your host. Welcome to Fantasy Island." And of course there was Roarke's midget sidekick, Tattoo, played by HervĂ© Villechaize. Tattoo would announce the imminent arrival of guests by shouting "The plane! The plane!" from the top of a tower. With his accent, it sounded like bad Franglais: "Ze plane!" I used to watch the show with my mom, and we'd be holding our sides laughing in anticipation as Tattoo made his way up that tower. That and the way he said, "What's her fantasy, boss?" cracked us up. But I digress. This is not relevant to a first kiss—or is it? Maybe the allusion, its humor, and the way it called up my mother all worked together to tamp down teen romance. Except that I'm pretty sure I only learned of the nickname after my "host" and I had gone our separate ways. The romance, such as it was (or wasn't), didn't last long. Mercifully, it was unaccompanied by any drama: we both knew things were not working out, and really it was because of the kissing. And the fact that there was nothing beyond kissing. The first kiss—my first "real" one (you know, open mouth)—was nothing like I expected. I remember one evening after dinner, after hanging out down by the lake and then making our way back toward the main part of campus. We stopped at the school's open-air amphitheater. He sat in a red metal folding seat and pulled me onto his lap, facing him. And then we kissed. I remember thinking that his mouth was like the lake: wet, warm, home to a tongue that felt like muscly marine life. I can't say I was taken with the experience, though I did my best not to show it. Poor guy. I disappointed him I know, with my late-bloomer's lack of passion, but he was nice about it, at least publicly (who knows what he told other guys in their dormitory at night). As for me, my mission—not to say my fantasy—had been fulfilled. I was kissed, not yet sixteen, and by a kindly teenage Roarke. We would act a little embarrassed around each other for a couple weeks, then summer would come; we could both escape the "island" that was school, hop our respective planes, and lift off with the knowledge that life was somehow different, even if things hadn't quite worked out like we thought they would.

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