Richard Bettis was the only black boy in my 3rd grade class and the entire school. Why his family moved to the rural farming community of picket fences and red dairy barns that populated my town, I’ll never know. But there he was, the class comedian dressed stylishly in ill-fitting clothes, torn sneakers, smiling a daredevil grin.
This was not a time of political correctness. Likewise, although we were a Connecticut farming community we weren’t hicks. Richard wasn’t treated with discrimination. In our 3rd grade way we revered him, so different from the rest of us. Everyone wanted to be his friend. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He was mysterious. I longed to touch his hair, floating above his scalp like soft brillo. I couldn’t begin to figure out why it never seemed to move, nor did it occur to me that this thought could be construed as anything but wonder. His friend, Jay McCollum, was my friend too. Jay introduced me to Richard and while I secretly admired him, daydreamed about him, watched him furtively from afar, I never dreamed I’d ever have the chance to be close to him.
It was the river next to my house that brought us together. The water gurgled under the bridge, over rocks made for sure feet in canvas sneakers with crayfish lurking underneath. Boys like such creatures, and since I had 3 brothers so did I. Boys like Jay and Richard also had freedom to roam, and on one Saturday, somehow, they ended up in my yard inviting me to search the river bottom for crustacean wonders. In my pink gingham shorts and matching sleeveless button down shirt with the Peter Pan collar, I accompanied them under the bridge. It never occurred to me there was an ulterior motive nor that Richard returned my nervous desire for connection. It was Jay who boldly asked me, while sloshing barefoot next to the cool underside of the bridge, if I’d ever been kissed.
“No, I have not,” I replied. We all laughed nervously. I remember how damp the air was on my bare arms, how aware I was of the darkened underbelly of the bridge, how Richard’s eyes were as black as his skin.
“You wanna?” Richard asked. My ponytail, one very long curl that began at the top of my head and bounced down past my shoulders, the pride of my mother’s hairdressing skills, shook as I moved my head side to side. Deliberately, I responded, “No, I do not.”
Richard stepped closer to me. “Yeah, you do.” In his best bad boy style, he grabbed my arms and pushed me up against the wall. I wasn’t afraid and stared right back at him into those mesmerizing eyes without flinching. “Do, too,” he repeated. “Do, too.” He pushed me back into the cement bridge and the grit braised my left shoulder. I turned to see the mark it left and he placed his hand over it, while at the same time muckling onto me. His lips felt foreign, soft and very full, and I kissed him back because, as he said, I wanted this curious moment. As lightly as possible I touched the top of his afro, unlike anything I’d ever seen or felt before. I remember thinking, “Stop moving your head around!” Without any fear I went with the flow, a rough first kiss from a rough boy who had no business being in my boring white life.
In that moment Richard became a delicious secret, my first kiss with Jay as voyeur. “Told ya!” Richard preened in his best bad boy fashion before heading to the rocks and our original intention. I smiled broadly, he grinned and we locked eyes. I remember the river was cold, the rocks slippery and we caught a pail full of crayfish. There was no more talk of kissing. We had fun. And I’d satisfied my tactile urge to touch his hair.
Today little girls are warned that this kind of behavior is inappropriate, which, of course, it is. But these were different times, and back then this subject wasn’t on a 3rd-grader’s mind. I had friends who were boys and girls. We all played in the river. It was rural life at its best. We were classmates and neighbors. I wasn’t afraid.
Once I was a teenager, I had more to fear from the college guy who unceremoniously took my virginity while Raquel Welch looked down from her One Million Years B.C. poster on the wall. Not long afterward he dumped me, worried that I was underage and could ruin his life. At least Richard celebrated an unspoken desire to innocently experience my first kiss with the new boy in school. I never found out if I was also his first kiss, but given his level of expertise and delight I’m thinking probably not.
Years later I would find him again, embodied in another black man who became the love of my life and then broke my heart for all the best wrong reasons. And now I know for certain that Richard’s first kiss and its unfulfilled promise will haunt me with the singular memory of awakening to desire.