The faded red shoebox is stashed away in a closet, and in it, the best and worst of my childhood.
Its contents, several stacks of 40-year-old envelopes, are what remain of my first true love, Kandi. Recently, I happened upon the box, and again felt the pang of loss that has defined this fragile girl from my youth.
Kandi and I met on a warm Greek morning in September 1973, on our school bus. At the time, we were U.S. transplants attending an American school in Athens. A foot taller, I was a garrulous 8th-grade athlete to her reserved 10th-grade scholar. Plopping down in the seat next to her, a lifelong friendship - and heartache - was born.
Our rapport began that first day. We learned of our mutual love of music, though her performing talent eclipsed mine in every way. We both loved literary classics, and Kandi enjoyed my poetry writing. Living in adjacent neighborhoods, we had ample opportunities to hang out and become good buddies.
Yet, it didn't end there.
I fell madly in love, but was terrified to bring up the subject. Not only did I fear rejection, but I didn't want to jeopardize our time together. Content with this arrangement, and knowing that despite her popularity Kandi wasn't dating anyone, I comforted myself with the relative lack of competition.
Entering high school the following year, I reveled in the possibility of spending more time around Kandi.
Several months later, my adolescent reverie caved in like a decaying hayloft in an Eric Sloane barn. After a routine physical, Kandi was found to be afflicted with Hodgkin's disease; her survival depended on an immediate return to the States for treatment.
The evening before she left, I stopped by her house to say good-bye. In the fading dusk Kandi and I sat on her porch and recounted some school events, and several movies we had seen together that past summer.
Yet like two fencers unwilling to thrust, our banter parried around her impending crucible. Finally, we succumbed to silence as the Attic darkness overtook us, two teenagers unable to grapple with hope and fear, staring everywhere but at each other.
For the next six months, long before anyone dreamed of the term "snail mail," Kandi and I corresponded several times a week. I would race home from soccer practice, checking the mailbox with a fervor that betrayed my thirst for an elixir of optimism.
I read and re-read Kandi's letters, memorizing every detail as if some punctuation mark might give me a glimpse into her soul. I carried them everywhere like treasured keepsakes, always in a pocket up against my heart. I spent days crafting and re-writing my return notes to bolster Kandi's faith, all while believing my love was well hidden.
That spring, Kandi went into remission.
I celebrated her survival as authoritative, and eternal. Kandi briefly returned to our school from stateside, and to a hero's welcome, only to leave several months later when her father was reassigned to another position. The few times we were able to spend together, however, were not the same - as if Kandi knew something I didn't.
Now I understand she did.
From our letters, Kandi learned the true extent of my love, something I never intended. It wasn't until much later, after life had pulled us apart, when I realized that eventually the Hodgkin's scourge would claim her.
Through the eerie parallels of college, marriage, parenthood and divorce we stayed in touch. Yet with distance and circumstance working against us, it was impossible to go back.
As cruel as it seems, the passage into maturity is an awakening to truths which confound youthful idealism. That doesn't necessarily mean we have to surrender to them, but we must come to grips with what's at stake. The summer I turned 15 and Kandi's life was momentarily saved, my passion barred me from understanding her grim prospects.
Almost four decades later, these moments are imbedded into my consciousness like a foundation in bedrock.
Every few years I stumble upon the red shoebox, and each time forgo reading the letters. Rather, seeing Kandi's familiar script on the envelopes, I hold them back up against my heart, and cry like I did the night I learned of her untimely death, in 1994.
Because my love for Kandi was unadulterated and never consummated, it remained the last slice of innocence I carried into adulthood. When she departed this world, that purity was gone forever.
Today, the letters are all I have left of her.
Long ago, e-mails and text messages stripped us of the chance to hold a heartbeat in our hands. But in those pages, Kandi's pulse continues to beat. And from that heart, she graced my love, as she did my every moment, with her empathy and her smile.
So someday, when I'm ready, I'll actually cross the envelopes' threshold and walk back into those sultry Mediterranean nights.
There, two teenagers sat in the shadows of open-air movie theaters. The boy whispered to the girl about absolutely nothing. She rested her head on his shoulder and listened intently, as if those words meant everything in the world.
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @TellyHalkias.