Kissing Billie Draper

by Richard Wagamese

I fell in love when I was seven. I mean really and truly in love. It was the kind of rapturous love that changes the lighting in your world and makes everything sharper, clearer, like it never existed in quite that way before or ever will again. Some people call it ‘puppy love’ to make light of it, but I’ve come to know enough of dogs in my time to know that puppies love truly and unconditionally. And it’s true for human puppies too.Her name was Wilhemina Draper and everyone called her Billie.

Billie Draper was the most popular kid in our class. She had brownish-blonde hair cut in a bob and big blue eyes that sparkled when she laughed which was all tinkly and musical. I was awed by her. She could outrun everyone and she learned how to skin-the-cat on the monkey bars before any of the boys would even try it. She fished and even baited her own hook and when she smiled at me in class one day that was all it took.

See, I was the Indian kid from up the block. I was a foster kid and that made me different. All the kids in my class had real parents and real families and they all lived in real neighborhoods like the families in the books we read in school, Dick and Jane and Bobbsey twins kind of lives. My life was far from that. I existed on the fringes of both my neighborhood and my foster family.

Not that they treated me badly. Rather, I don’t recall a harsh thing being said or done to me there, even though in the early 1960s northern Ontario was hardly a comfortable place to be Indian. Instead, there was always the feeling of being different. I wore it like clothing. I understood, even then, that familial love transforms you, makes you bigger somehow, elevates you and when I was seven I craved that raising up.

When Billy Draper smiled at me that day I felt like I belonged, like I fit. It was like that smile erased everything. Up until then, school was all about being the only Indian kid and the teasing and name calling and schoolboy fights that went with it. With that one smile all the clouds in the heavens parted.

The day I kissed Billy Draper was a magical day. I don’t remember when it became important for me to do that, only that it did and that I was consumed with planning. In my mind I saw that first kiss as being as triumphant and glorious as the big screen kisses I’d seen, a Lombado-Gable kind of intertwining or a Spencerr Tracy-Katherine Hepburn meltdown.

She lived at the bottom of a steep hill. My house sat at the top of that hill and I could see her pedal her bike around the neighborhood below. One day I pedaled my bike down that hill as fast as I could. When the pavement leveled out I slowed it some and when I reached her house I faked a crash to the sidewalk. She saw me fall. I’d counted on that and when she bent over to check on me I reached up and pulled her into the wettest and sloppiest kiss ever given. She screamed and ran back into her house and I was left dazed and happy on the sidewalk staring up at a sky suddenly blue.

The story of that kiss spread like wild fire and I was the class hero for about a week. Every boy wanted to kiss Billie Draper and any degree of difference I felt was washed away by the story of that wet embrace.

Well, I was adopted out of that neighborhood a year or so later, and I never saw Billy Draper again. But I never forgot that kiss or the smile that drove me to it. It’s all I was looking for. Back then what I needed most was for someone to tell me that it was all going to be okay, that I was okay. What I needed most was to step out and become visible, to know that I counted, that I belonged.

I’m the second generation of residential school abuses. I was in that foster home because my parents went to residential school and never developed parenting skills and couldn’t offer the nurturing and protection that I needed. I was in that foster home because someone had fractured the bonds that tied me to tradition and culture and language and spirituality. So I became one of the lost ones, one of the disappeared ones, vanished into the vortex of fostercare and adoption.

We talk a lot about healing the wounds of residential schools today. The government pays out large sums of money to the survivors and there are programs for them to discuss their pain and anguish. But there’s other generations besides the ones that experienced the trauma first hand. There’s people like me who had to endure a life of being different, of separation, of cultural displacement and we need to take care of them too.

Because somewhere out there, right now, is an Indian kid like I was, wandering around someone else’s Bobbsey twin neighborhood wondering why they’re there and who they are. Somewhere out there, today, is an Indian kid looking for the one smile that will make the clouds go away – and they’re our responsibility, all of us.

Not everything can be assuaged with a kiss born of young love or infatuation. For me, at seven, the idea of reaching out and pulling a shining girl into a kiss was the idea of pulling myself into being, into qualifying, into becoming visible. No one should have to do that. No one Indian or not, should be left to wonder who they are, why they’re here or where they belong.

Puppies love with their whole being. Our goals should be to emulate that.

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