In the sweet introduction to Amy Benson’s “Sparkling-eyed Boy“, Editor Ted Conover playfully mused, ‘To the list of the three events that anthropologist say characterize human life around the globe–birth marriage, and death–I wonder if it isn’t time to add a fourth: first love.” And already I am exclaiming at how brilliant that idea was. 179 pages later, I’m not just nodding my head in vigorous affirmation; I am clench-fisted crying yes, yes, all first loves deserve documentation as heartstoppingly beautiful and honest as this. The Sparkling-eyed Boy is a book which presents itself as a memoir of a love grown-up and it is, in every sense and in each sentence. The charming nuances of childhood crushes, the unforgettable tremors of longing, the gut-wrenching regrets and the maddening what-could-have-beens—it’s all here.
I have never quite encountered a book as intense and intelligent such as this and that makes Amy Benson’s voice so special and set apart from an otherwise vague and faceless genre. It was exceptional as a memoir but it has also been many things to me from chapter to chapter. From a no-holds barred diary to a devoted ode, a fiery loveletter, a disquieting requiem, to a shameless journal of imagination and hesitation, a bible of sorts about the many dangers and delights of passion, a penultimate serenade to young love.
She writes: “Is this what I want from the sparkling-eyed boy, then? I want him to have triumphed where I failed. I want him to be an emblem of what won’t ever be possible: to be of the stars and not just a visitor to them. It was important, dangerous, fathomless, to stand over a crying teenage boy turning himself inside out on the sand. But I merely watched as if I were preserving the moment instead of living it. Time–the things we think it takes from us–allows us the dramas of our lives: Take a last look, take a last look. It’s going to be a long time. “
The book is labeled as a creative non-fiction work, and how can you not find that so intriguing? The fact that this author can love as beautifully as she writes still blow my mind. Throughout reading this book, I’ve been fighting the very strong urge to get online and google if the real identity of the sparkling-eyed boy has ever been disclosed, since his name was never mentioned even once. But you see, I learned that such passionate love can only be secret. I cannot imagine the tremendous feeling of being that sparkling-eyed boy, whoever he was, in case he’d ever get a hold of this book in his hands someday in his life. How glorious it must be to be the recipient of such a powerful loveletter.
I mean, seriously, how can your heart not break at this?
“I am afraid that people will see me as betraying my own kind: another story about a girl incomplete without a boy and his transformative love. But I hope that you understand: I don’t want your seed, your ring, your paycheck, your security. I don’t want to complain about work to you. I don’t want you to drive me when we go to the fish fry or throw your arm across my chest when you break for a deer. I don’t want you to surprise me with flowers or plan an anniversary cruise to Alaska. I don’t want to wake up next to you and tell you about that dream I had, ask you to scratch my back. I don’t want to become frustrated with your taste in music or grow my hair long because you’d like to hold it in your hands and lay one strand, two strands, three strands across the bridge of your nose at night. I don’t want ever to to have to imagine the end of your imagination, my imagination, or feel, like a switchblade through my brain, the hope that yours is not the last body I’d like to be under, over, under again. These things are fine in their own way—I mean that. But what I really want from you, and what you can expect from me, is to have my name scarred on your heart and yours on mine. So when we die, if they cut us open, they will know someone lived in us–me in you and you in me. Whatever that might mean.”
I love that she’s so vulnerable and so, so brave in getting all these emotions out in the open. And she does it so well, too. In many ways, she’s been successful in articulating that one unforgettable phase in our lives marking the threshold of innocence towards a world of hurt. She bids farewell to things so magnificently, that her secret desperation reaches out to me, yanks my heartstrings and whispers you’ve felt this pain too, didn’t you?
Here she writes about the embarrassing awkwardness of remembering the letters a younger version of herself has written for the sparkling-eyed boy in the past:
“But I don’t remember letters. Real words on pages, maybe dingy envelopes, misspelled words. The truth about the girl who wrote them, maybe about the boy who kept them. The part of me writing about the remnants of the sparkling-eyed boy and my own dumb, young self has been struck a walloping blow. No matter what, I think, we want a self that seems knowable at least to us, defensible. In moments like this, my self is a glass dropped I didn’t know I was carrying—startled and broken all at once; it is impossible to tell how the pieces should fit together or even if they were mine in the first place or just stray bits swept in. I viciously need to know what a younger me might have written to a younger him, and when and why. I want to start breathing again and demand that he place the letters in my palm; I want essentially, to say, Tell me about me, make me whole again. I need to know that the kind of truth memory offers turns us irreparable into liars and cheats and strangers to others or ourselves.”
This book, it is a clear and dauntless mirror.
It’s already been a year since I have read this memoir, and I knew upon finishing it that it is imperative to be given a review, a reaction. Its greatness demanded insights, and even resurrects the very memories from the pits of its readers’ hearts. It took a long time for me to come up with my own word to talk back to what this book has to say, and obviously, I am still fidgeting my way around my descriptions, because frankly, I concede that I will not do it justice. Yet, I could only be grateful again for such a reading experience. I am not sorry to be reminded of my own pain, if it’s done with so much grace and fearlessness. It is the kind of book that leaves you thinking, feeling, crying, cringing, falling deeper in love and growing, growing into a bigger, better, more beautiful person.
It is, from first page to last, about the sparkling-eyed boy, but I believe that ultimately, albeit in a very subtle way, this book is about each one of us who had a ‘sparkling-eyed boy’ once in our own lives, and the kids inside our adult shadows who never quite learn or maybe still refuses to forget and let go of the hand that first held us and made our hearts beat like never before in our lives.