My recollection of just how old I was isn’t good but I recall the feeling like it was yesterday. I was at my Aunt & Uncle’s house in the Sandhills. They were getting ready to move to Missouri, away from the farm and their ranch. I was sad they were going to move farther away from us than they already were. Their daughters were easily my favorite cousins among the many I had to choose from. When your dad is the oldest of eight and his siblings have large families, it’s a small horde. But Candy and Robyn were the ones my sister and I got along with the best.

As we grew up we took turns visiting each other. It usually took a bit to warm up to each other again but we always had a great time. Sometimes Candy and I would pal around or maybe it would be Robyn and me but the connection was always there and ran deep. We were close but not really by design, we just seemed to fit. It’s tough to pinpoint why or how it happened but I know when all that began to change.

As I said the four of us were always tight. So much so that partly because of space and partly because we liked each other so much, we were allowed to sleep in the same room, in fact in the same bed with each other. This was really no big deal, we were in grade school, we were within 2-3 years of each other’s age and I was the only boy so that was never given a thought. Until the night that I kissed my cousin.

Now, this wasn’t scandalous so don’t get the wrong impression. We did it on a dare and if my memory serves me right I really didn’t want to do it but our sisters were both older and I’m sure there was some goading involved. Once we pecked each other on the lips we got back into bed, there was some teasing from the other bed where our sisters were and we fell asleep. The uncomfortable part came in the morning.

I’m fairly certain it was my cousin’s sister who spilled the beans and even though both of us said it was no big deal I think my Aunt didn’t quite see it that way. I think there might have been a bit of a lecture, more to my cousin than me, and it was dropped. Until the next time I visited that was: when they were gathering the cows to sell and getting packed to move.

I was relegated to the living room. I realized as I lay on the couch, away from my sister and two cousins, that change, like time, was an undeniable force. I laid there in the dark, cut off from my cousins (I didn’t really care about my sister) and listened to the cows moo in the darkness. I knew that tomorrow morning, before the sun was up, they would be unceremoniously loaded onto a truck and hauled to auction. The lucky ones would be bought by ranchers to raise calves. The other ones unfortunately would be headed to slaughter, never to return.

I didn’t understand all of it but I knew that my relationship with the opposite sex had crossed a threshold. The way things had been was as gone as those cows. I had no idea the convoluted twists and turns I would navigate in the future when it came to women. If I had I think I might very well have been terrified. I just knew something had changed and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.

What I was certain of on that couch was I wished I hadn’t been stupid enough to kiss my cousin. I realized I knocked over the first in a line of dominos that would continue to fall for the rest of my life. It was a bell that would continue to ring as long as I had breath. I would feel that same feeling many in the years that followed looking back on something that had happened with a girl or a woman. I would continue to ask the question, “How it was I could be so dumb?”

It’s not particularly encouraging that I continue to make these mistakes as I crest a half century of time here on this earth. Or maybe it is, because despite my failures I’m still out there making mistakes. I haven’t become so careful that I’ve stopped doing anything. I’m still the unwitting victim it seems to the slow grind of time and my ever present lack of understanding of how this whole man/woman thing works.

These days cows don’t keep me awake but I still contemplate the end of things and the beginning of others. I sit up at night on the couch in front of the TV. or stare at the ceiling and try to figure it all out. Luckily, or unluckily, the Lord continues to keep daybreak coming for me although I’m no closer to an answer. I haven’t worn out my welcome and yet I’m still just as clueless as to how to proceed as I was back then.

Each day is a new and unfathomable mystery and I’m just winging it to get through. Small changes happen and I’m glad for that. Who knows how large those small changes will loom 20 or 30 years down the road? They’ve grown a little less noticeable over the years. Or maybe I’ve just learned how to roll with and accept them.

If there’s one thing life has taught me it’s that you can’t go back. As much as I’d like to take that kiss back and remain just another kid and not have that boy/girl line drawn down the center for just a little longer it can’t be. I would like to think that had we not been stupid and not been dared our friendship could have remained just the way it was. When my cousin left for Missouri that wedge wouldn’t have been in the gap along with the mileage between us. It didn’t happen that way though. So just like the cows that are by now long gone, those days are no more. They’re a memory of what once was.

What’s left isn’t broken, it’s not tragic, it’s not scandalous, heck it’s not really even all that interesting unless you’ve been through it and come through to the other side. You learn that everything evolves with and because of time. Nothing touched by people or time stays the same. We make our own future and create our own vision. And sometimes when we look back we can recognize something pivotal: a kiss in the dark or cows mooing at night.