The summer of my first kiss, I played French horn in a rodeo band.
The annual Plainview rodeo was a big deal in our Texas Panhandle town whose claim to fame was a feedlot, country singer Jimmy Dean, and Wayland Baptist College. When Mr. T, our band director, got us band kids the late August gig, I signed up. The 12-person ensemble included my sort-of boyfriend Andrew, a clarinetist, my best friend Carol, who played flute and piccolo, and John, the group’s drummer. They had all graduated from high school that spring of ‘66 and were getting ready for college. I had another year to go. The rodeo would be the summer’s grand finale.
In late afternoon heat, we lugged our instruments across the arena’s parking lot, the boys yards ahead. Cicadas buzzed in cornfields across the road and dirt devils whirled past us, trailing the acrid sweetness of sun-baked manure. Sweat lifted the Cover Girl makeup from my upper lip.
“I saw Scott last night,” Carol whispered.
My horn case banged my pedal pusher-clad knees. “But you said you were through with him.”
Sweet Sixteen and never kissed, I was eager to learn about sex. Last winter, I’d been part of Miss Linda’s Girls Auxiliary meetings. A Miss Texas runner-up in 1960, Miss Linda taught us Southern Baptist girls Christian etiquette and beauty tips, like practicing our smiles in a hand-held mirror—open lips, white teeth, no gums. But this summer, I was discussing situational ethics every Sunday night in the basement of the Catholic Church with my smart new friends. I’d gone from chaste beauty queen preparation to moral relativism and still had no experience in the mechanics of love. I was in unknown territory.
Angelically pale and Twiggy thin, Carol clutched her flute and piccolo cases to her chest and put a finger to her lips. She had hinted two weeks ago that Scott was pushing to “go all the way,” but she’d resisted—or so she said. I wrapped a dark curl from my bubble bob behind an ear and waited for her answer. I didn’t want to miss a word. I would take any passion I could get, even if it was secondhand.
“I know, Jen, but he called, and—.”
“Come on, you two,” John yelled over his shoulder. “Mr. T wants to rehearse before the crowd arrives.”
Mr. T was ex-Army and insisted on prompt starts. Carol shrugged. So much for secondhand sex.
At the bandstand, Mr. T was arranging folding chairs and music stands. While I got out my horn and limbered up my fingers, a few others straggled in. Mr. T glared at the latecomers but they ignored him.
“I know it’s tight here,” he said. “They don’t usually have much more than a couple of guitars, fiddle and drums.”
Andrew smiled at me, holding that flat clarinet embrasure—lips closed, no teeth, no gums. He began playing fast scales, showing off. He’d taken a liking to me on a band trip in the spring when we’d won first place at the state competition. His solo had convinced the judges to give us high marks all around. On the bus ride back, we’d talked Plato vs. Aristotle, the ideal vs. the real. I was a sucker for his braininess, having preferred Poindexter to Ken in The Barbie Game in seventh grade.
Mr. T banged his music stand with his baton and passed out stapled music scores. “All right now. Turn to ‘Bronco.’”
We sight-read several short tunes: a fast-paced piece for horses coming out of the chute, a zippy barrel-ride ditty, and a brassy Brahma bull theme. We finished with a goofy piece for the clown, a cross between an organ grinder’s riff and a German oompah band. Andrew made his clarinet laugh, smiled at me—again no teeth, no gums—and said, “Till Eulenspiegel.”
Mr. T shook his head. “Let’s warm ‘em up with a real cowboy song, ‘Home on the Range.’”
When we finished, the stands were full and the crowd was singing, “And the skies are not cloudy all day.” I looked up into the deepening blue sky as a Mexican-red sun sank beyond the Texas border.
The rodeo announcer moved to the mike. “All rise for the National Anthem.” His voice echoed against the stands.
We had played “The Star Spangled Banner” at every football and basketball game over the past year, so we knew it by heart. We played with majestic solemnity and finished with a broad sound on “and the home of the brave.” John crashed the cymbals on the last chord, and Mr. T cut off the note with a flourish. The crowd cheered.
And so the night went. We sat quietly while the announcer recited the bona fides of each rider waiting for the gates to open, and we played the ditties during short rides and snippets of marches between competitions.
At intermission, while the announcer introduced the rodeo queen and town officials, Mr. T let us go to the snack bar. Andrew walked me to the soda stand and bought me a root beer. While I sipped, he talked about the work he was doing at the Lubbock Medical Center. When Carol came over and asked if we’d seen Scott, Andrew made a face and walked away.
“I just don’t know what to do,” Carol said, as I watched Andrew disappear into the crowd. Where was he going? Why wasn’t he staying with me?
I wanted to say, “Who cares?” and run after Andrew. Instead, knowing my role, I asked, “What do you mean?” and took a sip.
She yammered on about her on-again, off-again relationship with Scott while I stewed over Andrew’s departure. We wandered past a couple of guys in cowboy boots and hats.
“Howdy, girls,” one of them said. A broad toothy grin filled his young sunburned face. He tipped his straw hat. I concentrated on my drink.
“I see Scott. Catch you later,” Carol said and walked away.
I stood there stunned. She had just driven Andrew off and now she was abandoning me.
“What’s your name, little darlin’?”
I turned toward the smiling cowboy. His white teeth gleamed in the bright arena lights and his brown eyes flashed in the shadow of the beat-up hat. I could smell the soothing odor of saddle sweat—part horse, part leather, part perspiration.
“You one of those band kids? That was a real nice National Anthem. Made me proud.” He paused. “Ever ride a horse? I can take you ridin’ if you like.”
He shifted his stance, and his thigh muscles rippled under dirty jeans in that cutout space above his chaps. A faint fear wallowed in my gut, but I didn’t walk away. I wanted more of his scent. I’d been around horses before, but this was something new.
He smiled again, and the fear surged upward into my chest.
“I’ve got to get back,” I said and hurried away.
I climbed the steps to the bandstand and glanced back down the lane. The cowboy was still there. His hands framed his hips above the chaps; a big smile filled his face with bright teeth. He took off his hat and swooped low in a deep bow.
I maneuvered to my seat and tried to get Andrew’s attention, but he was practicing silently with his eyes closed, his fingers flying over the stops. John sat on his stool, slowly tapping the rim of his snare. He glanced from me to Andrew and back, then raised his eyebrows—never missing a beat in the rhythmic rim taps. I sat down and grabbed my horn. Carol hurried in, her face flushed. She busied herself with her music but wouldn’t look at me.
During the evening’s second half, cowboys raced against the clock to subdue the livestock—roping calves, tying hooves, and flying above bucking tonnage.
Mr. T pulled out passages from “Ride of the Valkyries” and “Night on Bald Mountain” for the dramatic competitions. We watched closely for his cutoffs and smiled into our mouthpieces at our cleverness. Once, he cut us off when a bull threw his rider and charged the rodeo clown’s barrel. The bull was lured out of the arena and the clown took a deep bow like the cowboy.
We closed the evening with “Stars and Stripes Forever,” Carol’s long delicate fingers dancing over the tiny piccolo in the final refrain.
“See you all tomorrow night,” Mr. T said, passing out five-dollar bills.
“Need a ride?” John asked Carol.
“No, thanks. I’m all set.” She didn’t look back as she headed to the parking lot. We all knew who was waiting for her there.
Andrew took me straight home, but we sat in front of my house for a while, listening to the radio. The breeze had died and the air hung still and heavy. Veiled by haze, the moon moved between the treetops. “Wild Thing” came on the radio and I tuned into the hard beat: “You make my heart sing. You make everyTHING GROOOovy.”
I was getting into the song when Andrew reached over and turned off the radio just like my mother did every time that song came on.
“I’ve been reading The Stranger by Camus.”
“What?” I said, annoyed the music had stopped. I wanted to hear, “I think I LUV you, but I want to KNO-OW for sure.”
“What if you could commit a crime and get away with it? Would you do it?”
The song’s strange flute solo ran through my head. I felt I was drowning in its hypnotic melody. I struggled to answer. “Well, no. But sometimes people slip up—like in crimes of passion. Still, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.” I was talking in circles. I shook my head and said, “I’m tired, Andrew.”
“Okay,” he said in his patient way and walked me to the door. “Same time tomorrow?”
“Sure.” I wanted him to kiss me, but he turned and walked back to his car. I carried my heavy horn inside.
That night, I lay awake thinking about the rodeo, the cowboy, and wild rides. I’d had my own wild ride a few years before on a friend’s horse. Something had spooked the horse and he’d bolted. Riding at breakneck speed toward a barbed wire fence, my hair flying in the wind, my heart pounding, I lay down flat on his back and clutched his mane. I could feel his blood pulsing in his neck and smell his sweat. He slowed as we approached the fence. When someone came to rescue me, I didn’t want to dismount. I wanted to ride again, wild in the wind.
Friday, thunderclouds stacked higher and higher while the sun baked the earth. Though it was hot, I wore blue jeans to get in the rodeo spirit. I rolled my pant legs above my Keds and tied a red bandana around my neck.
Andrew picked me up wearing his usual black slacks and white shirt.
“Hi, cowgirl,” he said. I was happy.
The “Ballad of the Green Beret” came on the radio, and Andrew made a face. “I’m not sure they know what they’re doing over there.”
“Of course, they do. They’re protecting us from communism,” I said, sounding like my dad. “Besides my cousin just went over there, and I think I should support him.” So much for “Hi, cowgirl.”
I stuck my hand out the car window to steer some cooler air toward my face, and we rode in sulky silence while “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” played on the radio. If only, I thought. At the fairgrounds, the day’s heat clung to us, and the cicadas buzzed even louder than the day before.
At intermission, Andrew stayed at the bandstand while Carol and I went with John to the snack bar. She soon deserted us.
“Going to find Scott,” John said, staring after her. “She should be more careful with that boy. He just wants to get into her pants.”
My neck got warm underneath my bandana. John and Scott worked together at the agricultural test station, where pest-resistant strains of corn hybrids were bred. I sucked hard on my soda straw and wondered what the guys talked about while they fertilized corn silk.
As if he’d read my mind, John shook his head and said, “We do so much pollinating during the day, he thinks he should continue at night. It may be the natural order of things, but dusting corn silk is different from spreading your own seed, and corn kernels aren’t babies—babies got to be fed and cared for.”
My ears burned. Oldest of six kids, John knew about babies.
“Yeah, but you can’t tell them that,” I said, trying to hide my embarrassment. I suspected he had a crush on Carol.
“Sorry. You’re right.” He left, looking like he’d swallowed a corn borer.
To get my mind off Carol and Scott and corn silk and baby kernels, I wandered over to the livestock pens. The big bulls snorted and pawed the ground, stirring up a rich, earthy smell. Cowboys hung on the railings, talking to their horses or taunting the bulls, their pointy boots poking through the wooden fence.
“Hey, band girl, look at you in those jeans. What’re you doin’ here?” The young cowboy strutted out from behind a railing.
“Taking a walk. I wanted to see the horses.”
“Well, come on with me, little girl. I’ll show you the finest horse in this here rodeo.”
“The finest horse? Why do you say that?”
“’Cause he is! You’ll see.”
That odd fear I’d felt the night before crept back into my gut, but I was tired of the same old routine so I followed him. We worked our way between cowhands, wranglers and riders. Finally, we came to a large pen. The cowboy stepped up onto a fence railing and leaned his elbows over the top. I joined him. Inside the pen, a sleek black horse with a white streak down his nose paced along the back railing.
“See, ain’t he a beauty?”
I watched the horse’s haunches ripple in the half-light from the arena overheads.
“Can I pet him?”
“Best not. He’s pretty skittish tonight. I’ll be riding him later, calf-ropin’. I want him to stay nervous. He’ll perform better wound up.”
The cowboy reached out a hand and made a soft “tsk, tsk, tsk” sound with his tongue and teeth. The horse stopped and looked at him.
“You raise him?”
“Naw, my daddy bought ’em off a ranch up in Montana. But I broke ’em. An ornery son-of-a-gun.” He turned to me and grinned. Tiny beads of moisture glistened on his upper lip.
I grinned back—lots of teeth, lots of gums. I was surprised when he put his free arm around me and pulled me under his hat. He pressed his soft full lips against my horn-player pout. I didn’t pull away. It was so different from my horn’s hard metal mouthpiece. His lips were like buttered biscuits, a little dry and crusty on the surface, soft and warm underneath, with a bit of salt on the edges. His breath tasted of Juicy Fruit. A leather-and-sweat tang lingered under the stained brim of his hat.
The horse snorted. Startled, I lost my footing and slipped on the fence railing. I clung to the top of the fence, sneakers reaching for the lower rung.
“Why, I think he’s jealous of you. Let’s get you down before you fall.” The cowboy jumped from the railing and helped me climb down, his hands resting on my waist, his breath warm against my neck.
I laughed to cover my nervousness. “I’ve got to go.”
The cowboy leaned back against the fence, smiled and lifted his hat. “Mighty good kiss,” he called after me, as I scurried away through the crowd.
I looked back to see him still standing next to the fence railing, grinning that big grin. I hurried through the pens, ducking between people to get back to the bandstand. I scrambled up the steps just in time for the second half’s opening set. John raised his eyebrows, Mr. T gave me a warning look, and even Carol frowned at me while she played. But Andrew seemed not to notice my hurried arrival—he played with studied concentration. Maybe he was still thinking about Vietnam. I could only think about the cowboy’s kiss as I placed my lips against the cold mouthpiece.
I watched every ride until I saw the cowboy on the black horse. He raced the calf down the arena and roped him with a snap. The horse kept the rope taut and stood at attention, throwing the calf to the ground. The cowboy wrapped its front and back hooves together in seconds and threw his hands into the air to signal his finish. Then he looked my way and grinned. I fiddled with the spit valve on my horn and felt heat move up my neck. For the rest of the evening, I concentrated on the music. We finished with “Happy Trails.”
As I packed up, I looked around for the cowboy but didn’t see him. Carol and I walked together to the parking lot, trailing far behind Andrew and John.
“Where’s Scott?” I said.
“I don’t know. We broke up tonight. He was pushing too hard.”
“You broke up? You just got back together.”
“It was just too much. Besides, I need to save myself for someone who appreciates me.” She picked up the pace and called out, “John, can I get a ride?”
On the way home, I sat close to Andrew, hoping he would kiss me and cancel out the cowboy kiss. The radio played “Satisfaction” while we rode in silence.
At the door, Andrew apologized for arguing with me over the war. “You must be worried about your cousin.”
“Yeah,” I said, not thinking about my cousin.
He hugged me, said good night, and walked back to his car. I wanted to run after him, but stood planted to the concrete porch.
That night, with thunder rumbling in the distance and a breeze stirring the sheers at the window, I lay awake remembering soft lips and earthy smells. Maybe I was turning into Aunt Darlene.
Aunt Darlene, my dad’s sister, had a friend who invited her to the rodeo at the state penitentiary in Huntsville. Huntsville had the biggest rodeo in Texas, and prison cowboys were some of the best riders in the West—they had nothing to lose and privileges to gain if they put on a good show. When Aunt Darlene asked us to join her, my mother was scandalized, but my dad decided that prison rodeo should be part of our Texas education.
Daddy even took an old bull horn to the rodeo—not one of those mechanical things, but a real ten-inch black-streaked curved bovine horn. Mother covered her face with a church fan every time he blew it, but we kids hooped and hollered with each blast.
During intermission, Daddy took us to get Cokes and corndogs. On the way back, we saw Aunt Darlene talking with some cowboys. Her thick shoulder-length black hair curled tightly along the collar of her open-necked white blouse. She stood with her hips cocked to one side, her long red fingernails tucked into the belt loops of her tight jeans. She opened her red-lined mouth wide and laughed at something one of the cowboys said. We were about to go over to say, “Hi,” when she leaned over a railing and kissed one of the cowboys—not a flirtatious peck, but a long, slow smack.
We giggled to see Aunt Darlene smooching over the fence, but Daddy hurried us along to our seats in the stands. “Come on now,” he said, “and don’t tell your ma.”
Rodeo kisses were secret.
Saturday morning dawned bright and crisp. A storm in the night had cleared away the heavy heat. That afternoon, I washed and rolled my hair and spent thirty minutes styling it. The air was so dry my hair flew about, full of static electricity. I borrowed my sister’s open-necked blouse and my mother’s western-tooled belt and silver buckle to go with my jeans. Instead of the bandana, I wore my heart pendant. I took extra care with my makeup and added black eyeliner, mascara and my mother’s red lipstick. I even practiced smiling the perfect smile—open lips, white teeth, no gums—and had to wipe lipstick off my teeth. Still, I was determined.
Andrew carried my horn to his car and opened the door for me. I slid in and across the seat. I snuggled close during the drive to the arena and hummed to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” on the radio. I put my hand on his leg and squeezed his elbow. He put his arm around me, and I smiled my practiced smile. He talked about the courses he wanted to take at Rice; I feigned interest.
When we arrived at the rodeo, John and Carol were already there and Carol was helping set up his drum set.
John shrugged and smiled. “Hey, kiddo, you look nice.”
I beamed, too many teeth and lots of gums—I couldn’t help it. The moon was full, the sky clear, and the night electric.
That evening, I did everything I could to cater to Andrew and not think about the cowboy. During intermission, we played the march, “Granada,” for presentation of the rodeo queen and her court.
With little time for the snack bar, everybody hung around the bandstand. Carol talked to John, and I stood by Andrew’s chair and played with his music, making small talk. But every now and then, I glanced at the crowds, searching for my cowboy.
When the officials announced the competition winners, my cowboy placed first in calf-roping. He held his belt buckle high in the air and grinned, turning around the arena to show his prize to the stands. He even faced the bandstand and bowed, and my heart jumped. I checked to see if Andrew had noticed, but he was wiping down his clarinet.
After the last trophy was awarded, we played “How the West Was Won” to close the night. Mr. T thanked us and gave us our last five bucks. Everyone took extra time to pack up—we would miss playing together, especially since most would be at college soon.
Carol invited everyone back to her house for a party, but my mind was elsewhere. I packed quickly and asked Andrew to take my horn to his car and wait for me in the parking lot. I told him I had seen some relatives in the crowd and wanted to see if I could find them. I knew I was being reckless, but I had to see the cowboy one more time.
I hurried to the other side of the arena where the cowboy’s horse had been the night before. I cut a wide path around big trucks backed up to the livestock pens, and almost tripped over the clown and his barrel while I searched for the familiar wide-brimmed hat. I zigzagged between trucks, railings and wranglers and heard grumbles from guys packing up gear and loading livestock: “What you doin’ ’round here?” “Watch your step, kid!”
I finally made it to the corral where the black horse had been, but it was gone. On the other side of the pen, I saw a familiar profile in a red pickup truck hitched to a single horse trailer. I raced along the railing, ran up to the truck, and banged on the door. “Wait!”
“Hey, girlie, what’re you doing here? You shouldn’t be back here. You could get run over.”
“I just wanted to congratulate you,” I said, out of breath and knowing it was a lame excuse.
He opened the truck door and jumped out of the cab. “Why, thank you.”
His horse snorted and the trailer rattled as the horse moved about nervously.
“Where you going now?”
“I’ve got to get this big guy home—we’ve got over an hour drive. Why?”
I didn’t know what to say. I just wanted to smell his scent and feel his warmth. I leaned into his shoulder, breathing deeply. He took me in his arms and kissed my forehead. He was so close I could feel his heartbeat. I turned my mouth up to his and kissed him hard on the lips. I pressed my breasts against his chest. I wanted to melt into his body. Heat started down low and spread upward. I felt weak, yet powerful at the same time.
“Whoa, that’s some congratulations,” he said.
He kissed me gently, a long slow kiss full of butter and honey and salt—and a touch of Juicy Fruit. I forgot where I was. I forgot who I was. He was kissing me and I was kissing him back, and that was all that mattered.
The cowboy ended the kiss and pulled away. I wanted to fling myself at him again. He put his hands on my shoulders, held me at arm’s length, and shook his head.
“You know we don’t belong together, right? You’re a smart band girl playing fancy songs, and I’m a dirty ranch kid. You go on back to your friends now. Go on.” He pushed me away like a calf being weaned by its mother.
He climbed in the truck and I stepped back. My arms hung limp at my sides.
“You kiss good, girl. Now, don’t you give yourself away to just anybody.”
He touched the brim of his hat and smiled. Then he started the engine, put the truck in gear, and pulled away. The horse trailer rattled past me and bounced out of the arena lights into the moonlit night.
Not wanting to see him go, I ran after it. “No, wait, come back!”
I reached the back of the trailer and whacked the rear door with my open fist. The horse snorted, stomped and neighed. The trailer picked up speed, and I stumbled against a rut and fell. The trailer drove on. I pounded the dirt and sobbed. My cowboy was gone.
“Get out of the way!” I heard behind me. I jumped up and stood to the side. Another truck and trailer rolled past. The rodeo was over.
I dusted myself off and smoothed my hair into place. Wandering back through empty pens and wranglers moving livestock into trailers, I licked my lips to taste the last of the kiss. When the salt from his lips was gone, I straightened up, wiped my lips with the back of my hand, and set out for the parking lot.
“Did you find your relatives?” Andrew said, leaning against his car.
“Yeah, we talked for a while. Thanks for waiting for me.” I couldn’t look at him. I hoped I didn’t look too dirty from my fall, hoped he wouldn’t sense the lie. I was astounded it had come so easily, but I cringed inside at the guilt.
In the car, I sat close to Andrew while he played with the radio. He skipped right over “Wild Thing” and settled on an easy listening station playing Roger Williams’ version of “Born Free”—one of my mother’s favorites.
When he missed the turn toward Carol’s, I said, “Aren’t we going to the party?”
“We will. I thought we should talk.”
My guilt deepened. Maybe I wasn’t such a good liar after all.
He turned into the Seventh Street Park and pulled up under a big live oak tree. He put his arm around me and looked me in the face.
“What’s going on, Jen?”
“I guess I don’t want the summer to end,” I lied. I stared out the windshield at the full moon to avoid looking into his eyes. I wasn’t going to confess. Rodeo kisses were secret.
I snuggled closer to him. With one finger, he turned my chin up to his. Finally, I thought.
The kiss was dry and flat. I waited for more.
I tilted my head up again and closed my eyes. “Moon River” came on the radio. Perfect. Another kiss came. I could feel his teeth behind his thin reedy lips. I opened my mouth slightly, thinking this would help. He continued grinding away with a closed mouth. He turned his body toward mine and pressed against me. I breathed in deeply, wanting to smell horses and leather and sweat. Instead, there was a faint soapy scent.
I allowed a few more kisses, trying not to think about their plainness, but after a while I got bored and pulled away.
I was sad for him and for myself. He was smart, talented, and kind. He would become a doctor or scientist or college professor. He would be a good man—a man who could take care of me and our children. Wasn’t that what life was about?
“I should go home,” I said. “It’s late and I have church tomorrow.”
Andrew frowned. “Okay.”
He started the car and put it in gear while I watched the bright spotlight moon. How could kisses be so important? When I had been Sweet Sixteen and never kissed, I had thought, maybe he’s the one. Now that I’d been kissed—even if only by Andrew and the cowboy—I knew I couldn’t abide a lifetime of weak kisses.
Whatever the consequences, I wanted to be a Wild Thing, to smell sweat, taste salt, and feel heartbeats. Like Aunt Darlene, I wanted rodeo kisses.
Born and bred a Texan, Pamela Akins now spends her winters in Sarasota, Florida, and summers in New London, Connecticut. Her professional career in publishing and marketing included running her own advertising agency for 30 years. Her work has been published in A Letter Among Friends, Emerald Coast Review, and “Best of” Writers in Paradise literary journal Sabal. She wrote and produced the Centennial History of the Rotary Club of New London, served on the John D. MacDonald Centennial Celebration, and is a Contributing Editor for the Florida Book Review (floridabookreview.net).