We were crossing into Florida when I realized that this girl might want to kiss me. I was sixteen and only a little more clueless about romance than I am at thirty-seven while writing this.
A few weeks before, my friend had come up to me and said, "I think she likes you, dude. She thinks you're smart." My teenage Cyrano followed with, "She's awesome, dude, think about it."
A little later, I went with the group to the American classic film Private Parts starring Howard Stern. The girl had sat next to me, our hands almost touching but not, then maybe they did. My memory fails me here, but I have no doubt I was a complete chicken and did not make the first move.
Then came the night in early March. Spring break, 1997. A bunch of boys had convinced their parents that it would be educational for them to get a room in Panama City, Florida and spend the week there unchaperoned. One of those boys was my Cyrano and his girlfriend at the time missed him like crazy.
While driving around with another friend doing little than burning gas at nine at night, we got a call. My friend answered his bag phone (cell phone's used to come in bags). It was the girlfriend proposing a road trip.
I have no context as to why I agreed. It was dumb, a six hour drive, twelve hours round trip. Everything could have gone wrong. Had I been able to look into my future, I would see dozens of nights like these in New Orleans or week-long road trips across the country. All I knew was that I used the bag phone to call my parents and ask if I could stay with my friend for the night.
"Stay with my friend." Context is everything. We were together all night, technically, just not at his house. If my mother ever reads this, I hope she forgives me.
We were on the road by ten, just an hour after the call. The ride down there was full of loud laughter and fast conversation. I remember getting everyone involved in a weird conversation about whether twins have the same fingerprints. No Google back then, so we just went over it for a while in the way you do when you are young and thoughts like that seem big.
The car sped through college towns, down Bloody 98. The highway between Hattiesburg, Mississippi and Mobile, Alabama got this nickname on nights like the one I am talking about, where a carload of kids drove too fast. We passed without incident and it was just after Mobile when I saw the girl looking at me as we talked and realizing she might want to kiss me.
The thought had crossed my mind before. I was sixteen, not stupid or lacking imagination. But there is something about a thought when dreaming and a thought when actual. The ephemeral becomes concrete when a pretty girl smiles at you and your stomach drops because, holy shit, there's more here.
May that stomach drop feeling never go away.
Through the Florida panhandle, still down Highway 98 in the black night, the Gulf of Mexico somewhere to our right. "What was the name of the hotel?" someone asked. "Holloway House," Cyrano's girlfriend answered.
We found the place at five in the morning, just as the first glow of light began in the sky. Thinking back, I am not sure how this was possible. No internet to guide us, rudimentary cell phones as communication. Just hormones and youth and being up all night guided us to the right place.
The guys in the hotel room were passed out, drunk and just wasted from days on the beach. We woke them up, bouncing with our energy. I was delirious as hell, this all night adventure taking a toll.
I also do not remember who said, "Let's watch the sunrise from the beach." I just know we made our way out there, a small bunch of us. I know the girl and I split off, walked a little ways toward some pylons.
I know she stood on a little mound of sand, and we kissed as the sun rose. I know she smelled of Gap Dream, she felt right in my arms, she smiled when I shook a little and she asked why. It was perfect and beautiful to see the sun rise over the gulf and only remember her smile.
After, we walked back to the car, me grinning like an idiot. We had Waffle House and drove back. Twelve hours of driving for maybe an hour of hanging out. Cyrano and his girlfriend had contact, but I remember nothing but the sunrise and the kiss and the girl.
The times in your life that matter are the ones you do not plan. The reactions you make when you cannot think, cannot do anything but do. Those reactions show you who you are and the fallout is your life.
May your reactions lead you to joy and happiness, to friends and laughter, to first kisses on the beach at sunrise.