Driving home tonight I was transported to a far off memory. Madonna’s ‘Take a Bow’ played on the radio, and I remembered a forgotten summer and a wooden cross necklace splashed with white paint …
When I crossed the swinging bridge with my suitcase, I spotted him sitting alone at the top of a small cliff, blond hair falling over his pale face while he wrote in a leather-bound journal. It was my first day at the Tennessee Outreach Project, a Habitat for Humanity-type church camp, and I was in love.
I walked to the bottom of that rock, shielded my eyes from the sun like Kathryn Hepburn might have, and declared, “Since you’ve found the best writing spot, I guess I’ll take second best.” How could he resist charm like that, right? A watery smile slipped onto his mouth then off again, and he kept writing.
The second day I sat at his dinner table, next to his little sister, and she told me his name was Ryan. The third day, I stared at him quite a lot while wearing the sexiest church camp jeans and T-shirt I had packed. If one felt moved to, he could find the faintest outline of my white brassiere through my white cotton shirt. The fourth day I sat next to him during the canteen praise session while the sun set over the Smokey Mountains. When the singing and prayers were over and everyone crawled up from their place on the wooden floor back to standing, I asked him, “What do you write in your journal?”
He looked at me, his startled eyes the color of faded Levi’s, and I knew that he was seeing me for the first time. “Uh, poetry, mainly.”
I shook my head. “I love poetry,” I lied.
“Oh, really? Who do you like?” He walked with me out the door. The balmy night enveloped us.
“Anne Sexton, mainly,” I said in truth.
“What’s your name?” he asked. I told him. “I’m Ryan,” he said, holding out his hand. I suddenly saw how bony he was, almost thinner than me, which was a deal-breaker in those days.
The next morning I sprung from my bunk bed, bounced out the screen door, and into the bathroom where I had to wedge myself between four other girls in front of the only mirror. “What’s your rush?” one girl asked, while another one teased, “She’s primping for Ry-an!” Ryan’s little sister stood in the doorway.
“He’s got a girlfriend,” she said, just like that. “He’s been writing to her everyday in the pages he rips from his journal so there’s no changing his mind.”
Crush. So that’s why they call it that.
On the last night, while everyone else packed their suitcases and said their goodbyes to shiny-faced friends, I walked out into the darkness with my college-ruled, paperback notebook to sit at the center of the swinging bridge and be with God. I wrote with my pencil a few lines before the bridge began to shake. Looking up, I saw Ryan carefully placing one hand on the ropes and then another, no notebook in hand. He wore sandals that clasped around his ankles, another deal-breaker for me.
“Looks like you found the best writing spot,” he said, “so I guess I’ll have to take the second best.” He sat down beside me, folding his legs beneath him.
“The sky is amazing out here, isn’t it?” I said. “You can see billions of stars forever and ever.”
“You can,” he said. “There’s Orion right there.” His fingers traced the belt along the stars. “Do you see it?” he asked.
I looked at his face, then up again at God’s vast universe tucked into the valley of the Tennessee mountains.
“Yeah, I do.”
His eyes met mine. “It was good to meet you,” he said.
I took a breath and sighed. “It was good to meet you.”
He reached for my journal. “May I write my address on one of the pages?” he asked. “You’re in the group from Indiana, right?” Secret Twenty-Eight, Revealed. I nodded. “I might be riding my motorcycle through there in late summer. Write to me with your return address and maybe I’ll come see you.” The pencil made a soft scribbling squeakiness as he wrote. I think he was from West Virginia.
Then he took off the cross from around his neck and put it around mine. “You should have this,” he said. “I accidentally dropped it in paint during one of the projects this week. We were repainting an elderly lady’s house while her husband lay dying inside.” He lifted the cross from my chest and looked at the stain of white. “I kind of like it, though.”
I watched it teeter between his rough fingers. “I kind of like it, too.” He stood up. “Bye, Ryan,” I said. He smiled before turning, and the bridge began to swing and swing.
I held the wooden cross to my lips and looked up at the sky. “That was a promise,” I whispered to my God, “wasn’t it?” I waited for a silent answer. All of the millions of stars twinkled. “Well I’m going to hold you to it,” I said.
I never wrote to Ryan in West Virginia. I knew he wasn’t the promise but the messenger. Someone, somewhere was waiting for me even though he did not even know I existed. But I did. And he did. And I knew one day I would find true love. Some boys give promise rings. I got a promise cross.
Tonight, when I came through the door, I rushed to my jewelry box and there it was. Of course, I never forget a promise even after it’s been kept.