Looking back, she was my first love. She had the strength of character and the courage of her convictions to endure any hardship life could throw her way. On my second day as a firefighter, my captain ordered me to accompany him across the street to the local gas station on a call about “a cat stuck in a tree.” I did as I was told, donned my gear, and walked to the tree to ponder how I could climb it without scaring the small feline to higher elevations or encouraging it to confront my face with its claws. These are the decisions for officers, not rookie firefighters.
Fortunately, Kelly decided for both of us. I learned later that she ran the register at the station and had exited it with a small can of cat food. Dumbfounded and instantly gobsmacked, I watched this vision open the can, set it on the ground, and encourage the cat toward a better option than starvation in a tree. While I looked both bewildered and confused, she reached into my shirt pocket to relieve me of a single visible dollar to offset the cost of her merriment. The captain picked up the cat and I picked up the opportunity to frequent this gas station on a regular basis.
Both Kelly and I departed back to respective sides of the street without breaking eye contact in the process. I saw Kelly walk gracefully toward the front door. Kelly saw me walk into traffic and nearly get killed. The drivers demonstrated their hostility with various finger deployments. Kelly demonstrated her interest in me by flashing the “call me” sign.
Whether I got hit by a car or not, I was mentally crippled for the rest of my shift.
By the 5 p.m. change of shift, I ran across the street (looking this time) to find her waiting with her aunt. Both women worked the station and I introduced myself to both accordingly. Tia Rosa (Aunt Rosa) introduced me to Kelly. My blushing was far worse than hers at this time. To assist the two, I carried their packages for them on the brief two-block trek to Tia Rosa’s casa. Kelly never spoke a single word. I didn’t care if she ever did. She was the daughter of Carmine Rodriguez and Stanley Robinson. She had the beautiful features of her mother and the fortitude of her father. Born in Chihuahua City, Mexico, and one of ten children, Kelly did not have the good fortune of an easy life. Her aunt explained that older daughters frequently have to go to work, thus necessitating a stay in the U.S. Kelly would be eighteen soon (I learned in just two days, so I had to find a perfect present).
Within minutes, the three of us arrived at Rosa’s and I, ever the gentleman, did everything I could to get invited in so as to extend my time with Kelly. While Kelly did lure me with her eyes to do so, Rosa discouraged my feeble attempt with a polite smile, a brief “thank you,” and a quick closure of the front door.
I was smitten.
With each day at the firehouse, I invented reasons to contact Kelly at the gas station.
When not on duty, I invented reasons to be at the gas station.
In two days, I managed to acquire Rosa’s permission to accompany Kelly to lunch. Once we turned the corner, out of sight of prying eyes, I reached for her hand. She reciprocated. Bolstered by newfound confidence, I suddenly felt invincible. Kelly gave that empathic reassurance that made me want to be with her forever.
I was in love.
At lunch, we ordered but did not eat. In one hour, I memorized every curve of her face, that special color of brown in her eyes only she possessed, and the fragrance of her perfume (to be purchased later). I also gave Kelly, her first, “Happy 18th Birthday” birthday gift. It was a small locket on a silver chain without any photos in it. I told her this is the gift that keeps on giving. By accepting it, we would have to go on other dates and find someone to take the perfect picture of us for the locket.
I meant every word.
We were still holding hands on the table.
She leaned over (I thought she was going to kiss me) to whisper in my ear. She could have said anything but chose to say nothing. Instead, she blew a small amount of breath across my ear. It gave me chills and highly visible goosebumps.
And then one of those shivers you get from being sweaty and walking into a room with a fully functional air conditioner.
I was putty in Kelly’s hands.
It was her birthday, but I received the present.
I walked her back to work and said my goodbyes to Kelly and Rosa. Out of politeness (as I found out later), Rosa interrogated Kelly about her lateness and the locket. Kelly’s look answered all Rosa’s inquiries.
From Rosa, that is when I knew Kelly was in love with me.
Within a week, I began to wonder. I keep meeting Kelly, but Kelly never speaks. I have never heard her utter a single word. Rosa speaks of her conversations with her niece, so I know she can speak, but why not with me?
Resolved the next day to find out, I brought two dozen flowers to Rosa’s home at 9 a.m. (their day off). The white carnations were for Aunt Rosa, the red roses were for Kelly. Even though both bouquets remained at room temperature, they each had sufficient heat to melt both hearts upon contact.
And Aunt Rosa invited me in for breakfast.
And then coffee.
And then lunch.
During that time, Rosa wanted to know everything about me.
Not my favorite color or where I grew up.
No, she wanted to know my financial information, type of car, future as a firefighter, and all the pertinent information any prospective candidate for her niece’s hand in marriage should be able to proudly disclose.
Compared to entering a burning building, Rosa was far more serious and demanding. The fire never had a chance in this duel.
So, I told Rosa everything she wanted to know.
Then she told me the one thing I wanted to know.
Rosa called Kelly back from the kitchen and asked Kelly to sit where Rosa sat. I reached for Kelly’s hands but found only trepidation instead and a small amount of fear. Rosa’s look to Kelly indicated this moment was a longtime coming. I encouraged Kelly to tell me something, anything. The awkward silence was becoming unbearable.
Kelly took a deep breath and spoke.
Kelly, my beautiful Kelly, the eighteen year old who carried herself as any mature woman could, would tell me she was in love with me.
She told me this in a high-pitched, shrieking, unstable, nasal voice.
It was difficult to listen to or endure.
I was shocked, to say the least, but well trained enough not to show any adverse response.
Still holding her hands, I leaned over, as if to kiss her. Instead, I gently blew across her ear, giving her shivers down her spine. Now she was on the receiving end. She turned red and I whispered to Kelly, “I love you even more.”
With that, Kelly smiled and gave me a hug. Rosa coughed loudly enough to get our attention and took our picture together using her old Polaroid camera. In two minutes, and a handy pair of scissors, Kelly and I cut out the picture of us for her locket.
I move fast, and it was only a matter of time before I would propose.
I still had not even kissed her yet.
But I move fast. It would only be a matter of time.
Within two weeks, I urged Kelly to go clothes shopping with me. She adored Mariah Carey and her first album, “Vision of Love.” How Kelly found an advance copy she never told me. Why she wanted that black dress and heels on the front cover, she didn’t have to.
Needless to say, in three hours, we returned to Rosa’s with Kelly’s purchases and the inevitable wait for her to model that dress.
Rosa asked me in the meantime to carry a few boxes from the basement to kitchen.
I made it halfway down the stairs when I heard Kelly.
She was at the top of the stairs more beautiful than I could imagine. I froze and could not move. Or think. Or breathe.
She descended the stairs in her first pair of heels. And it showed.
In three steps, Kelly tripped and fell right to me.
I didn’t catch her.
She caught me and held on for dear life.
I used both hands to grip the rails to prevent both of us from falling.
Now, for the first time, we were face to face.
I leaned forward as she leaned forward.
I kissed Kelly for the first time.
I kissed Kelly the way she wanted to be kissed.
Her hold on me solidified and did not ease even when Rosa came running.
I was determined not to permit Rosa to break this moment.
Rosa understood and left us alone only to return with that Polaroid camera to take pictures of us.
She only had enough film remaining for two pictures. Kelly kept one for herself. I kept one for myself. I still have mine to this day. I hope Kelly still has hers.
As the weeks of the summer of 1989 passed, Kelly became more and more a frequent visitor to the firehouse. I gave her a key to my apartment located across the side street from the firehouse. In a month, the gas station changed ownership and Rosa lost her job. She found another one in another state and that meant I had to move quickly.
I asked Kelly to move in with me and plan our future together.
Kelly agreed and Rosa agreed.
To celebrate, the three of us went to one of the summer festivals and found a vendor that fashioned braided rings from gum wrappers. I purchased two of them. I placed Kelly’s on her ring finger, she placed mine on my ring finger. Rosa witnessed it all. While not yet official, Kelly was to take a new title that day.
Each day I was at the firehouse, Kelly would hand carry what few boxes of her belongings and set up house in my apartment. Each night, she would visit me and kiss me goodnight before returning to Rosa’s to help her pack.
One night, just before a torrential rain, Kelly arrived at the firehouse and found all of us watching an interview with Fran Drescher, the actress in the show, “The Nanny.” While it would not debut for another three years, Miss Drescher had perfected the most nasally voice any of us had ever heard.
The interview was hysterically funny; only to us firefighters, not to Kelly.
When I turned to see her see me laughing, she turned to run out of the firehouse, into the rain. I chased her as far as the door.
Station #1 received a confirmed fire alarm involving two structures.
I had to answer that call.
I screamed to Kelly, but she could not hear me over the thunder.
I put her out of my mind to be a firefighter that night.
I should have been a husband instead.
Two days later, I returned to the firehouse and with permission, left to find Kelly.
It was pouring worse than ever.
I ran to my apartment first.
The door was unlocked and when I entered, I found nothing of Kelly’s remaining.
In those two days, she packed her belongings and left nothing.
Except that braided gum wrapper ring.
It sat on my table, alone as I was, waiting forever for someone who seized every opportunity but the only one that counted.
I had to get to Rosa’s.
I ran the few blocks through the rain only to find that Rosa had departed during my last fire call. The note on her door said so.
I knew I had lost Kelly forever.