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      That rite of passage led through a ribbon of streets I knew pretty well, straight east a mile from our large, brick house by the tall, wrought-iron street light on the quiet corner of Waterman and Williams. It led down Waterman and across Big Bend Boulevard in the direction of the city of St. Louis. Parkview Place, where Leah's family lived, close the to Washington University campus, bordered on the city.
My parents had gone out on that cold Saturday evening and I was alone with my crippled grandmother, who lived with us. I showered at 7 in eager, nervous expectancy. Looking in the mirror while drying my hair, I noticed the fuzz that had lately been growing on my face. Decisively, if sneakily, I reached for my father's razor and the shaving cream. The bathroom suddenly seemed bathed in soft angel glow.
     I emerged a few minutes later, toilet paper bits covering two small wounds I had opened in the blood-ritual of my first shave.
      "You tried to shave?" my grandmother asked as I presented myself to her, dressed in my best sweater and my winter coat.
     "Yes, 'Maw," I shyly admitted. A rare look of love and wisdom came into her eyes. I felt closer to her than I had since sitting on her bed as a small child, discussing "the poor Chinese" and other world problems.
      "You're going to see Leah?" she asked. She still looked happy for me, but I felt embarassed, and wondered if it had been wise to have told my parents where I was going.

     Once out the door in the cold, purple-sky winter night, though, I was leaving all that had happened in my life so far back in the mythic, golden-lighted house behind me. Every room in that house bore the ghosts of my actions, words, and thoughts. I'd been just five when we'd moved there.
      In front of me, once I left the lighted sphere of the corner streetlight, there were only the purple sky, the black winter shadows of trees, some light snow dusting the ground, and the silent hulks of homes and dark cars. Pulling up the hood of my parka, I braved that ribbon of road—the road, perhaps, beyond boyhood.  
      My thoughts, accompanying me, whirled like the snow—thoughts of anticipation, still alloyed with a bit of anxiety. The Unknown stretched ahead like the dark night I was cutting through with every step.

     I crossed Big Bend, not going to Williams' Drugstore this time. No, I was going past everywhere I'd gone before. Leaving behind the lions atop the stone pillars that guarded the entrance to Ames Place, I quickly covered the several blocks of that neighborhood. A grassy back path led me into Parkview Place, with its carriage houses and the park in the median of its gated, private streets.
      Across the park I could see Leah's house, bright porch beacon illumining white brick, bright red shutters, and door. Only one home, amid the row of stately, sleeping structures, fit Leah's description. Could the light be burning for me and for me alone, I wondered with a touch of pride?.
      I rang the bell. A moment later, I heard sounds behind the oaken door and pulled on the handle of the glass storm door. After a moment of typical door-opening fumbling and air pressure resistance, Leah stood before me smiling, wearing a white sweatshirt and a dark, plaid skirt.
      I stepped up the stone step from the porch to the living room, wondering what to say first . As I walked into the room, a great cry of many voices suddenly broke the silence of the room, pouring into my ears, vibrating my whole body. A hundred people seemed to leap out of woodwork, jump from behind chairs, fly from landings and chandaliers and kitchen.
      "Surprise!" they all shouted. "Surprise"!
      Faces of everyone I knew seemed to be approaching me from all directions—my friends from my club and their girl friends, my friends from journalism class, my friends from the football team. How had Leah found out my birthday was next week? No one had ever given me a surprise party before!. It was like being welcomed in heaven!      
      People stood around me, talking and laughing. After some time, greetings began to simmer down. The crowd slowly melted away. Music came on. People went back to their conversations, their eating. Couples on the couches began making out.

      Finally, Leah alone stood beside me. She took my hand and led me over to a small sofa in front of the fireplace. She gave me a little push in the belly so that I'd sit down. Then, joining me on the sofa, she proceeded to give me a pert little kiss on my left cheek, and another one on my right.
      Leah straightened up and sat beside me, smiling. I took her strongly in my arms and pressed my lips, eyes closed, fully and deeply into hers, into the lips and soul of this dear girl who had led me single-handedly to myself.

July 27, 2002


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