NEVER TOO LATE

NEVER TOO LATE

From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul IV

Never Too Late

Last night, as I was searching for some paperwork, I came across a box I hadn’t seen for a long time. There it was, at the bottom of a trunk I’d filled with old clothes, books and other junk: my treasured box of letters. Inside were letters from my brother, Remi, written to me when he was six and I was seven, doing a two-month stint for bad behavior at Camp Villa Maria in Wisconsin. Also inside were funny letters from my favorite aunt, Shirlee, written long before she discovered all those fatal lumps in her neck. There were some hysterically sappy love letters from old boyfriends and a bulky, prolific pile of correspondence with my best friend from grade school, Mary Ellen, whose family moved to Arizona when she was in fourth grade, and with whom I long ago lost all contact. At the bottom of the box were a few toys from childhood and this letter . . . from Scott Athens to my sister, Lisa.

Suddenly, looking at that letter I was transported back in time. I remembered a warm, spring day in April, coming home from high school and opening up the giant, tin mailbox that had been dented by a cherry bomb attack the night before. As I looked through the piles of mail—mostly bills for my mom and dad—an envelope fell to the ground—it was that letter from Scott to Lisa.

Scott was my first love. He lived in Leland, Michigan, where our family summered every year, and from the minute I spied him bagging groceries at the Merc, a local grocery store, I was madly in love with him.

Shortly after discovering my dream man at the Merc, I ran into him again at a fishing class my dad had forced my brother and me to take at the dilapidated and aged Town Yacht Club. Scott was there to help old Mr. Peterson teach the class. Mr. Peterson’s face looked like a badly used, leathery sock-puppet with a long, brown More cigarette that he never ashed hanging from his flaccid lips. As that oily, sock-puppet mouth slapped open and shut, his long brown cigarette stuck like a permanent, cancerous growth off to the side of his lower lip as he tiredly mumbled out knotting techniques and bait tips.

Mr. Peterson doled out his fishing knowledge while sitting plopped on the floor of a small, battered dinghy. With his freaky cigarette and special thermos drink always nearby, his lectures would begin: “All right, now listen up kids. This is how you can remember to tie a good fishing knot.” A swig from the thermos and then, with shaking hands, he picked up his fishing line to demonstrate.

“Now, the rabbit goes around the tree twice, then down into the hole it goes, back up the other side, around the tree. . . .” His presentation went unnoticed as we kept our eyes riveted to the impossibly long ash that clung to the remains of his slow-burning More. All the while Scott stood behind the dingy, passing me furtive glances and beautiful, kind smiles whenever I caught him looking my way.

Eventually, we were marched to the end of the short yacht house pier. All eight of the bored fishing-school prisoners stood shoulder to shoulder, our fishing poles in hand, waiting for Mr. Peterson’s command to cast. At last the rubbery lips in the land-locked dinghy shouted out the order, and in one collective, spasmodic motion, we jerked back our poles and yanked our scarily whizzing barbed lures behind us while we kept our eager eyes focused on the imagined landing hundreds of yards out.

Two made it into the water five feet ahead; one dug into the wood pier. Four lines got crossed and snarled in the air above our heads, and one dug itself cruelly into my arm. I was in agony—until Scott rushed to my side. From that moment, all pain was forgotten. Scott carefully removed the rusty lure from my arm with needle-nose pliers that Mr. Peterson had clumsily tossed our way along with a comforting, “Aw, it’s nothin’.” Then Scott pulled off his T-shirt and wrapped it around my bleeding arm.

“Wow! That looked like it hurt!” Scott said, holding my hand as he guided me away from the screaming gang on the dock, leading me to the yacht club stairs and the shanty structure above the beach. I honestly didn’t know what he was talking about. I just smiled back at him, transfixed by his lanky, half-naked, manly presence so close to mine. His thin, brown hair fell in front of big blue eyes that looked at me with compassion.

“Hey, you’re Lisa Dunham’s sister, right?” he asked with a sweet, nervous smile.

“Yes!” I said, blissfully unconscious in my transparent, pink love bubble. He knows who I am! I thought, and then with my heart slamming into my chest I looked into his eyes and said in my mind, I love you!

“Yeah, I kind of have a big crush on her,” Scott gushed. His excited confession hurt worse than any rusty hook could have.

“Ohh . . .” I managed to say, my heart leaking out of my mouth and dribbling down my punched-in face.

“Do you think you could tell her I like her?” Scott suddenly whispered and then, inconceivably, he blushed.

My arm began to throb. I felt weak, like my knees had suddenly disappeared and the air around me had gone thin. “Sure . . .” I was sacked and ambushed. Stunned, I heard myself agreeing to give Lisa’s phone number to Scott. I watched with glassy eyes as he wrote it down on a Merc receipt he pulled from his pants pocket.

Then I watched as the same hands of fate that seemed to have brought Scott to me, handed him over to my older sister. And there she was suddenly, sitting in the sporty, green Jeep in the yacht club parking lot, with her blond hair flickering around her tanned and pretty face and music blasting on the radio. Scott spotted her, too, and practically groaned. Using my injury as his foot in the door he practically carried me over to the car. I don’t remember any of their conversation. I sat slumped in the seat next to Lisa, the sad, witless conduit to the start of their summer romance.

For three long months I sat in the shadows, watching their sunny courtship. Finally, the merciful day came when my dad said, “It’s time to say good-bye to Lake Leelanau.” We packed up all our clothes into large, brown plastic garbage bags and shoved them into the green station wagon with wood paneling, along with two dogs, a parakeet, my mom and dad, my three sisters and brother, and myself. My misery was over—we were finally headed back home to Illinois. As the station wagon passed down the drive and by the lake, my dad sang out a short, melancholy farewell, “Good-bye Lake Leelanau, Land of Delight!” We pulled out of the drive and onto M-22.

“I wish I had told Scott that I loved him,” my sister unexpectedly sighed to me as we sped through the small town of Leland and past the Merc. I was floored. I thought they had been telling each other that all summer long!

“You mean you never told him?!” I said, trying to mask my excitement and welling hope with concern for her love life.

“No. I was afraid to! He never said it to me!” She moaned. I was absolutely ecstatic.

“Now he’ll go away to college and think I don’t care about him and meet some other girl.” She cried to the car window—it cared more about her problem than I did.

“I’m sure that won’t happen,” I said, as I prayed to God it would. Lisa shrugged her sad shoulders and stuck her chin in her hand, still staring miserably out the window. Then, suddenly whipping around to me, she whispered excitedly, “I’m going to write him and tell him I love him!” With this genius plan, Lisa immediately forgot her sorrows, and I immediately remembered mine.

Oddly enough, all winter long I never heard or saw any correspondence between Lisa and Scott. Eventually, as the snow melted and spring sogged it’s way into the world, I had pretty much forgotten my secret, burning first love. Down by the mailbox that afternoon I was looking for a letter from Mary Ellen when the envelope fell to the ground, landing on top of the charred cherry bomb remains. I picked up Scott’s letter and quietly slipped it into my folder to read later.

What was I thinking!? I was crazed. Later that night, hiding in my closet I carefully opened the letter. “I MISS YOU LOTS!” Jumped up from the page in giant, capital letters. Then a paragraph about how much he missed her and finally, he wrote: “To answer your question, YES! I LOVE YOU!” The “I love you” was capitalized, exclamation pointed and underlined four times.

My absurd dream of winning Scott back for myself was gone, and I was now left holding an opened letter that belonged to Lisa. Briefly I thought of blaming my younger sister, Holly, but I knew Lisa wouldn’t buy it. Holly was her biggest fan and would never have done anything to anger her idol. No, Holly was out of the question. Frantically I searched my mind for a plausible scapegoat or way to make the letter look a little less opened. I could do neither. I ever-so-briefly thought of confessing to Lisa, but a vision of her fist slamming into my back, forcing my kidney’s out through my mouth, put an end to that. Better, I thought in a mad panic, to never, EVER show it to her. In any case, Lisa was at the dizzying height of her Farrah Fawcett look-alike years—she had admirers galore. “She’ll never miss one sappy letter from Scott Athens,” I rationalized as I hid the crime in the small, brown trunk my Grandpa had made for me when I was six.

There it stayed, eventually forgotten, as was Scott by Lisa—though not without her heart having been badly broken when she never got an “I love you” letter back from him. Eventually, I forgot about my shameful secret, too. And so, Scott’s letter lay forgotten yet preserved, waiting and waiting with the Girl Scout knife, the rabbitfur dog pen holder, and the plastic French dolls and other letters, all locked up in the old, brown trunk.

As I opened the envelope once again and reread Scott’s awkward love letter, I remembered all of this, but most importantly, I remembered the shame I felt at having stolen Lisa’s first “I love you” away from her. Even though all turned out fine for Lisa back then, and even though I know she would have immediately broken up with Scott that next summer when she saw the horrible Orphan Annie perm he got, it still didn’t make it better. The only thing to do was to come clean and send Lisa the letter, even though several years had passed, and hope she would laugh, forgive and forget. After all, she will at least get her first “I love you” back.

Linnea Gits-Dunham

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