The storage closet crouched beneath the back stairs in my grandparents’ house. Servants no longer wearied their way up the creaky risers and, with infrequent passersby, it sat all but forgotten. Grandfather, his words spoken low and full of foreboding, cautioned my brothers and me, as small children, not to play in the closet. He would lower his eyebrows and lean in with a menacing whisper when he spoke of the room.
“We keep the family ghosts locked up in there,” he warned. “God knows what will happen if they ever get out!” Fearing him as much as the unknown dangers behind the closed door, we chose the spacious sunlit gardens instead. The room was shunned, passed by until the door became merely a part of the landscape of the long, aging passageway.
The house and all its secrets were willed, in their time, to my parents. The warnings did not pass down the generations, but there was no need. My brothers and I grew older and our attention extended far beyond the borders of our familiar home. Whatever lay within its bowels rested undisturbed for a long time.
For my fourteenth birthday, my parents entrusted me with the downstairs rooms to hold my first unchaperoned party. It wasn’t long before the dancing and eating and laughter turned to the more fundamental interest of adolescents. It was time for the kissing games to begin. The boys scribbled their names on scraps of cardboard torn from discarded pizza boxes and tossed them into an empty chip bowl. As the host, I took first turn digging through the greasy scraps to draw a name; and then, with a fanfare of giggles and cheers, our friends escorted my seven-minute mate and me into the forbidden hold of the long forgotten closet. Cheating the makeshift blindfold, I looked back long enough to catch the smirk and swagger as the boy followed me in with poorly feigned protest. The sly grin cut short as the door slammed shut behind us, and the rusted bolt capitulated with a half-hearted sigh before sliding into place. A wedge of light insinuated itself under the door and danced up the folds of the boy’s jeans, coming to rest on the faux pearl buttons of his cowboy shirt. These tiny beacons called me to him and I halted my backward retreat into the depths. I was unsure whether he saw, or merely sensed, my grasp at the light cord that had brushed my shoulder on the way in. “Don’t!” he commanded from the shadows, and my hand dropped to my side.
In the stilted, muted air, I realized where I stood. Unnamed fears quickened my heart and froze my feet in place. My cheeks flushed unbidden and unseen. Molting furs doused with stale perfumes mingled with the raunch of ancient cigars. I hoped the fur that brushed my arm had graced my grandmother’s shoulders long ago instead of cloaking a current inhabitant.
Curiosity about our surroundings took hold. Feeling my way around the crowded closet, I met canoe paddles and hockey sticks, baseball bats and what I hopefully took as a feather boa. I disgorged choking plumes that had covered the flotsam of my elders’ lives. I began to marvel at this treasure store that held the warmth and games and vanities and addictions of my relatives. In the dark of the closet, I began to see them as they must have lived. They had obviously tasted well of life at my age and far beyond. I smiled in the dark, thinking of those staid old people I knew playing sports, dancing and moving from the innocence of their youth to who they were now.
All this exploration must have taken less than a minute. I realized that if I held still, I could hear the time being ticked off by the bounding pulse of the young boy’s heart. Within the bottled stench of unoiled leather and damp wool there arose a new smell, fresh and pungent, layered on the old. There is no amount of cheap cologne or soap that can mask the hormonal sweat of an anxious teenage boy. I no longer shuddered at the thought of spiders’ webs or ghosts, but was less convinced that my partner had made his own exploration past the fear of the unknown. Or perhaps I was the muse for the quickening pulse? Somehow emboldened by this thought of his vulnerability, I raised up on my toes, tilted my chin and closed my eyes from the last distraction of light. I no longer stood as prisoner to the dust and mold, nor to the silk-lined sentries facing me from the walls in silent judgment, blind witnesses to the adolescent antics of their new charges.
The houndstooth and gabardine and mothy wools that stood so long forgotten would again go unnoticed, and now, unfeared. No longer would I fear a first kiss, or even the mockery if I got it wrong. For after all, this was just an old, neglected closet, and he was just a boy. And all I had to fear would be regret if I missed the chance to live a bit more daringly. I owed it to those people who had saved the measures of their early lives. With that kiss, I added my own seven minutes of youthful exploration to my family closet.