By JAMES GROB
"I love you."
It was the first time I'd ever heard those words.
Well, that's not entirely true. No doubt I'd heard those words thousands of times from my parents and grandparents, possibly some other family members.
But that's family, it's different. That's Mom and Dad. Your parents are required, on executive order from God Almighty, to love you. They have to, whether they want to or not. If they don't, God sends them straight to hell. It's right there in the Bible and the Constitution.
So I should say it was the first time I'd ever heard those words spoken to me by someone who doesn't have to say them. It was the first time someone had freely chosen to say those words to me, without coercion from God and the laws of nature.
"I love you."
How do you answer that?
How do you answer that, when you're 16?
It's not easy to know what to do when it's the first time you're in a relationship that has lasted more than a few weeks. Hell, when you don't have a driver's license, it's not easy to have a relationship last more than a few weeks.
My relationship with Sheryl started homecoming week, our sophomore year at Oelwein High School. A mutual friend, Monica, had told me Sheryl was looking for a homecoming date, and that if I were to ask her, she probably wouldn't refuse.
I liked those odds.
How to do it? I had no idea, but brilliant ladies' man that I was, I impulsively decided to yell it at her across the hall between classes, surrounded by about 45 other classmates.
"Hey Sheryl, you wanna go to homecoming with me?"
A blush. A second of being pissed off at me for putting her on the spot. A smile.
"OK. I'll call you tonight."
It would not be the last time I embarrassed the hell out of her. A high school romance had begun, and it would last three years, into college, before it would come to an end.
It was a difficult start. I lived in the budding metropolis of 1980s Oelwein, Iowa. A proud, blue-collar town with absolutely none of the jobs it never used to almost have. Oelwein, as it was then, had been practically destroyed by the farm crisis, manufacturing layoffs, meat-packing layoffs, the railroads dying, and an overall unpleasant disposition and poor attitude by the locals.
It had pizza, though. The first, second, and third best pizza in the world. And somehow, it had two jewelry stores that thrived, which leads me to think that one or two of those dirt-poor farmers weren't as dirt-poor as they pretended to be, and were sitting on some bags of very special seed.
Sheryl was from the greater suburb of Hazleton, three full miles to the south. A kind and earnest village, where most of the people meant little harm.
And neither of us was old enough to drive yet. Which meant we had to rely on her friends getting dates with my friends or my friends getting dates with her friends so we could double up-- just as long as one of them could drive. That really sucked. Because sometimes the friends dating the other friends weren't the kinds of friends you wanted to drive around with.
But we liked each other, quite a bit, and talked on the phone way too much, and laughed. We met at ball games and dances, we ate Oelwein pizza together. She gave me a sweater for Christmas. I gave her a necklace. I let her wear my football jersey. She wore it. That's pretty damn cool, in 10th grade.
She graciously never minded being the only girl hanging out with my entire group of male friends, even though each of us -- to a man -- was splendidly and hilariously stupid, the way only teenage boys can be.
And I got to know her, this person, this Sheryl. This girl who liked me, somehow. This prankster, who loved to laugh. She could talk a million miles per hour, about a million different things, and my head would spin. Her vast spectrum of interests included, at times, marine biology and Stephen King novels and David Bowie's haircut, sometimes all in the same sentence.
She had bad knees, and surgeries on them, and she sometimes needed taken care of, though she didn't like needing that. She had gentle hands, a gentle soul -- so vulnerable, yet so afraid to put herself in a position where she could be seen as vulnerable. She sometimes covered pain and fear with a smile, other times with a stern, firm jaw.
And yet, sometimes I would see this look in her eyes, this ornery look, that told me she knew she had me. And she knew that I knew she had me, and there was nothing I could do about it.
She was the smartest person I had ever known, and I'm not sure I've met anyone smarter since.
And so there we were, Sheryl and I, on our first actual car date. After six months of either hoofing it or depending on dickheads to drive, I finally had a driver's license, and a car.
And it wasn't just any car. It was the family truckster, pulled straight from Chevy Chase's Vacation movie, a 1980s Olds-Mo-Buick station wagon that every unpleasantly disposed dumb ass in Oelwein laughed at.
But to hell with them. It was a mother-scratching CAR, damn it! And what the dumb asses never knew was not only could that car hold 17 people comfortably, it could hide 24 single 12-ounce cans of Milwaukee's Best in 24 different individual hiding spots.
And for two high school sophomores who had been dating without a car for six months, the family truckster might as well have been Prince's purple stretch limo.
I do not remember what we did on that date. But we were free, two souls as free as we had ever been. I do remember that at the end of the night, as I pulled into her driveway, the radio station, Rock 108, was playing The Alan Parsons Project. The song was called "Don't Answer Me," and it was a good song, not a great one, but an excellent relief from that stupid Huey Lewis song they'd been playing over and over again all night.
"If you believe in the power of magic, I can change your mind ... ," said the lyrics.
And I remembered to put the car in park for the goodnight kiss. And the kiss lingered. And stopped. Deep breaths. Pounding hearts.
And she whispered into my ear.
"I love you."
My breathing stopped.
"Don't answer me, don't break the silence ..., " said the lyrics.
And I felt my entire face get soft, like sweet dough on my skull. The feeling in my chest, in my stomach -- this ache, this unbelievable, unforgettable ache. Electric blood through my veins, warming me all over like jets of air from a furnace vent.
Did she just say that? Someone loves me? What do I do?
And I saw that ornery look in her eyes, like she knew she had me. Her face in a red blush, her smile wide and open.
"Don't answer me, stay on your island, don't let me in ... ," said the lyrics.
And in the split of a second, those eyes changed -- though the blush and the smile stayed -- the eyes flickered from ornery to heartbreakingly vulnerable. And I knew what I had to say, not because I knew she needed to hear it, but because I knew it was the truth. I loved someone, for the first time, I really loved someone.
"I love you, too," I said.
And the world did not change. There was no bolt of lightning, no angels playing harps, no fireworks. There were two kids, who at that moment absolutely loved each other. Bright enough love to shine for three years, with a soft bulb left in the memory banks for 30 more.
How it ended isn't important. It ended because it was bound to end, as most high school relationships are. Kids become adults, and adults want different things than kids do. And the big, wide world is full of different things.
Those three years will always be a part of me.
And I always kind of thought that when Sheryl and I were about 67, we'd sit down together for a couple hours and talk and laugh about those stupid teenage days, and we'd remind each other of all the things we'd forgotten, and we'd brag about our kids and our grandkids, and we'd even maybe cry a little bit, because life was almost always fun way back when, and it almost always isn't anymore.
But we'll never do that, because she took her own life earlier this week.
I don't know what happened exactly, and don't really want to. I imagine, at the end, there must have been a lot of pain inside of her, a lot of trouble in her heart. I sometimes caught a glimpse of that in her eyes, when we were 16.
I'd never forgotten her, but I hadn't talked to her in almost 20 years.
Why didn't I? Maybe I should have. Would it have changed anything?
I know, probably not. When you're talking about that kind of pain and that kind of trouble, a kind word from an old boyfriend probably wouldn't have made a difference.
But at least we could have had one more kind word.
"Run away and hide from everyone," said the lyrics. "Can you change the things we've said and done?"
Even though we were the only people in the car, and there was no way anyone else could have possibly heard what we were saying, she still whispered it into my ear.
"I love you."
And I loved her.