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First Boyfriend

First Boyfriend

First Boyfriend

by Jean Hey

I run with a pack of older boys from our neighborhood, the only girl. I’m 10 and I tear about barefooted and bare-headed in the thick heat of our South African town, tough as the kikuyu grass that stains my shorts.

Robert is the oldest at 14. His strawberry blonde hair sticks up in a cowlick and sun glints off water droplets on his tanned chest. We spend hours divebombing and taunting one another in the new pool that my mother installed after my father died to keep me at home. Sometimes Robert dunks me and instead of crying I pounce on Nils, who is almost as young as me. He has a thin, freckled face and a hollow cough. My mother says his parents fled Germany to escape the Nazis. I hold him under water until he claws my skin.

After swimming we amble to the sweet shop at the top of the hill. Sometimes Robert doesn’t buy anything but asks for a piece of my KitKat. He smiles at me as he bites into the chocolate, and that smile is worth ten KitKats.

I am 11 when Robert invents a game called Rudies, just for him and me. He tells me to follow him to the bottom of the garden and we lie on the bumpy ground. He takes off his shorts and asks me to take off mine, and lies on top of me. When he writhes it doesn’t hurt, but the ground is hard and the rotting leaves smell like sweaty socks. I don’t like it, but what I do like, is that sometimes he kisses me. His lips taste of chlorine, and it is a real kiss. I think it means that we are boyfriend and girlfriend.

Another girl moves into the neighborhood. She has long dark hair and wears dresses, and she never comes to swim or play. Nils says Robert has a crush on her, but Robert says she’s stuck up and he’s not interested in a girlfriend. When we’re alone, I ask if I’m his girlfriend, because of the kisses. He looks surprised, and laughs. “I’m just practicing on you,” he says.

Five of us are going to the sweet shop when Nils takes me aside. “Robert says he doesn’t have to buy sweets because he can eat yours.”

The words sting like the flick of a wet towel. I know, instantly, that they are true. All that Robert has done with me and to me is simply because he could.

At the shop I pick up a Crunchie — a bar of delicious honeycomb covered in thick chocolate – and hand over my coins. Robert waits outside.

The rule is we don’t eat our sweets until we get back to our garden. Once there, we form a loose circle and I peel back the gold wrapping from my Crunchie, revealing its luscious dark coating.

Robert stands next to me and holds out his hand, waiting for me to break him off a piece.

I shake my head and take a bite. Something hard is forming in my chest. “You should’ve bought your own if you wanted one,” I say.

The other boys are quiet. I stare at the ground and chew. Usually I savor each bite, but today I barely taste anything. My eyes water with the effort to stay unmoved as Robert talks. He says I’m being spiteful and greedy. Then he says that if he wanted to, he could grab the bar from me. Then he says he doesn’t want my Crunchie anyway, that the thought of putting his mouth where mine has been disgusts him. Soon after I am aware that he has drifted away. I look up and see him stroll off, laughing with one of the other boys. I know this is the end of Robert and me.

I go back to my Crunchie. I have about an inch left and I eat it slowly, stretching what would normally be two bites into four. The fusion of honey and chocolate fill my mouth. It is the most delicious thing I have ever tasted.

Jean Hey’s essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Plain Dealer, The Chicago Tribune, Solstice Magazine, The MacGuffin and Arrowsmith Journal. She holds a dual-genre MFA in fiction and nonfiction from Bennington College where she was awarded the Sven Birkerts Nonfiction Prize. Originally from South Africa, she recently completed a collection of essays about immigration and race. Find out more here.