My point here is I don’t know if I’ve ever been in love, but we have to start deeper than that. I don’t know if I’ve ever been understood. I don’t know if I’ve met anyone with the eye to watch past my words. And I don’t know if I’m capable of knowing such a person if I met them.
Green, even-cut grass sprawls under white clouds with no threat of rain. I leave the playground and walk to the picnic tables. Trees line walkways, surround the park, make the air hold still and smell fresh. Wood chips crunch beneath my feet.
I spent the first five years I remember clearly on Anna. Before her, in the first grade, I remember only a face, and a place, and the name Mackenzie, and a feeling. Before I knew it as a lesson, when I could only feel and act, I learned the shame of young affection.
In class we learned the term “oasis”. This feels like an oasis. The trees protect this place. I feel the life of it. When the rain falls here, it does not just wet the dust. Anna sits at the table with her lunch from a tin box. I sit next to her with my brown paper bag.
Mackenzie had a wide grin with a generous top set of teeth, and a little gap set between the front two. The rest of her, my memory seems to have filled in to look like Shirley Temple’s curly blond and freckled face, bouncing and precocious. But that smile I know belonged to her, that and how she giggled like she always knew something I didn’t.
We talk and I learn I can make her laugh. She smiles dimples into her cheeks. Her dark hair is tied up in a ponytail. She likes talking with me. Not everyone does. I take reluctant bites of the sandwich my mother made me. I swallow the bologna and cheese with difficulty. My mouth is dry. I dig with my nail into the brown rubbery covering over the table’s grated surface. I wish I could hold her hand.
I remember the jungle gym at recess with Mackenzie. I remember we climbed on the big dome, made of interlocking metal poles. We could slip our tiny bodies between the poles and find another world inside the dome. Those days were me, Mackenzie, and our best friend Michelle, who had a round face framed in short brown hair and took piano lessons from my mother.
We ride our bicycles home and I think I should tell her. We talk between grunts and breaths, pedaling uphill. The wind blows warm at our backs from across the sagebrush fields. Our shadows stretch out beside us and ride along. We reach her house, at the end of the street at the top of the hill. I call goodbye, she turns, she smiles. I kick off the curb and keep her smile in my eyes all the way home, gliding downhill, fast, faster, my long shadow keeping pace .
In the second grade my Mom said I should play with the other boys at recess. I felt guilty and embarrassed, and stupid but unsure what I had gotten wrong. I stopped going to the jungle gym. My last memory of Mackenzie remains her gap-tooth smile, and the world beneath the dome. Michelle still came for piano lessons and I found ways to avoid those times too. I ran, and learned to stop seeing the shame stretched out beside me, keeping pace.
It is the last day of school in the fifth grade and I know I need to tell her. The parking lot is full of kids and parents. I hear my friends talk about summer and next year. I hear their voices get louder with each sentence, but I stop hearing their words. I see Anna and walk over to her. She sees me and stops and waits. Over her shoulder I see her dad waiting by his black car. He is wearing sunglasses and has a thick mustache. She tells me she’ll be gone all summer. I keep a straight face, I tell her I’m excited for her. My stomach tightens, my hands sweat. I need to tell her. No, I can’t. I need to say something.
There was one other girl, those first few years of school. She rode my bus but I don’t even remember her name. She played cards with me, on the bus seat in the space between us, and she would talk trash and tease me and no other girl was like that. I don’t remember much else, just the cards, and the teasing, and her sandy blond hair, and the smell of her parents’ cigarettes on her jacket, and my memory seems to have filled in that she had a voice like Joan Jett. I wanted to kiss her and that’s the first time I ever wanted that. Instead I insulted her, and then she insulted me right back. And then there’s nothing. I think her parents moved.
“Anna,” I wipe my hands on my jeans. “I’ll see you next year?”
“Yeah, next year.” She pauses, my heart beats in my throat and ears. She looks up at me. “But I’ll actually be back before the summer’s over! Maybe we could… do… something.” I smile. I can’t stop smiling, I know no other way to respond. “Well, my dad’s waiting,” she motions over her shoulder, but doesn’t move.
“Great!” My voice cracks. “Totally. Have fun on your trip.” Say it. Say it and walk away. “And Anna,” I swallow hard, my mouth is dry. “Anna I lo–” I can’t say it. “I’ll miss you.”
It was the right thing to say. Her lips break and her cheeks crease into deep dimples. She hugs me, then walks away toward her dad’s outstretched hand. She turns and waves and I wave back and realize I’m still smiling. I turn and keep her smile and her wave in my eyes while I walk back over to my mother. She is standing by our red minivan talking to other parents. I step up and through the sliding side door. My dad, in the driver’s seat, asks if I had a good year. Mom gets in and Dad shifts the car into drive, out the lot and onto the road. I’m twisting in my seatbelt to look out the back windshield, in case I can get one last glance at Anna as we drive away. I see the taillights of the black car shrinking. Then my dad takes a deep breath.
“Clark, your Mom and I wanted to talk to you privately because this will affect you the most.” I turn back around. “I got transferred. We’re moving.”