Dawn knew things I didn’t, like how to blow a bubble inside of a bubble and that the school bus would let a student the driver didn’t know ride home with another student without a note from parents.
She had arrived in town at a semester break the previous winter and was just six months older but one grade ahead. Dawn lived at Northgate Apartments on the Ole Miss campus with her father, a graduate student. He had a short beard and wore sandals.
Dawn was petite, with wavy, short blonde hair she tucked behind her ears. Her lips shined with fresh layers of lip potion she kept handy in a tiny purse and rolled on like a nervous habit.
I had seen her on the playground at Oxford Elementary that spring semester after she arrived during the one recess period we shared with the grade above, but Dawn ran mostly with boys and never with boys in the grade below.
I deemed her mature and mysterious and kept a close watch.
“I heard she’s from Cleveland,” a friend said, and we imagined a big city in Ohio where 12-year-old girls were made differently than ours in Oxford.
In the summer we swam at the Ole Miss pool, open to children of students and faculty members. My father was on the faculty, so I got in, and hers was a student, so she got in.
Dawn jumped gracefully from the high dive, flashed smiles, splished and splashed, and slathered on lip potion. I followed her every move.
By July, we talked at the pool most every day. By early August, she talked with animated hands, sometimes touching mine, and her glossy lips swooned in close enough when making a dramatic point that I could smell her lip potion.
“I love grilled cheese,” she said one afternoon. “My favorite food.”
So we left the university pool and walked to the old student union on the Ole Miss campus in swimsuits and t-shirts and purchased a grilled cheese sandwich, each paying a couple of quarters, and each getting a half.
By the time late August rolled around the Ole Miss pool was closing and elementary school was starting back. I looked for her on the playground the first day of classes but my stomach sunk when I learned the sixth grade had its own recess and fifth graders combined with fourth graders.
Everything seemed better hours later when my telephone rang early that evening.
“Come over,” Dawn pleaded, presenting a plan.
I should ride her bus to Northgate Apartments on campus, and we could hang out together for a while, and then I could walk home. The plan seemed perfectly reasonable to me and I managed a story to get out of the carpool that day and ride the bus to campus with Dawn.
We got off at Northgate Apartments with a few other children of adult Ole Miss students and walked with them to the new Student Union that had just opened on the Ole Miss campus for a snack. We drank Coca Cola’s and ate French fries slathered in ketchup. We walked upstairs to the arcade where students smoking cigarettes played arcade games like Circus and Tank 8.
Dawn was less than five feet tall and slender, but the hip hugger flair bottom jeans she wore over sandals had a sweeping presence.
“Let’s go to my house and listen to music,” she said.
She was 12 and I was still 11. My cheeks blushed at the invitation. I had never been closer to a girl than that grilled cheese moment in the summer, but I accepted nonetheless.
Nobody was home at her Northgate apartment and it was hot from the afternoon sun buildup. I sat on the couch and she opened the window since there wasn’t air conditioning. A cool early September breeze fluttered in and Dawn opened the lid to a record player.
“What’s your favorite music?” she asked.
“Rock’n Me by Steve Miller is good,” I said.
“That’s not bad,” Dawn said, tucking hair behind ears and smacking her glossed lips. “But I like Kiss. Do you like Kiss?”
“I don’t really know,” I said. “I have heard Beth. That’s a good song.”
My friends and I listened to WSUH, the AM pop station, and purchased hit singles. Kiss wore face makeup and played harder rock on album-oriented FM stations.
“I just love Kiss,” she said, sashaying her flair bottoms across the floor. “I want platform shoes.”
Dawn pulled Kiss’ Destroyer album from a sleeve and put in on the turntable. The song Detroit Rock City began to rumble from the tiny box speaker.
Dawn sat by me on the couch, scooting in close.
“Don’t you just love Kiss?” she said, her eyes rolling dreamily.
Dawn looked at me and I looked back at her potion-slathered lips, wondering if she wanted me to kiss them. My palms dripped sweat.
I looked out the window and thought about my parents, who didn’t know where I was, and about my 25-minute walk home to University Avenue.
“It’s getting late,” I said. “I need to go.”
Dawn got up and lifted the needle on the record player, even though Detroit Rock City was just half over, turning the turntable off.
“Bye,” I said, scurrying out the door.
We didn’t talk for a while. Different grades. Separate recesses. And when I passed Dawn in the school hallways my cheeks blushed, uncomfortable with my clumsy summer moment.
She gave me a handwritten note near the end of the semester folded up in the size of a little football, telling me her father had finished school. They were moving back home, to the town in Mississippi (not Ohio) from where they had come.
I never saw Dawn after that. But that Christmas I was shopping with some gift money and purchased Kiss’ Destroyer album, listening to Detroit Rock City and the rest of the songs all the way through, and over and over again.