Green grass, black asphalt, playground and picnic tables. Overcast, but not rainy. Trees line walkways, surround the park, make the air hold still and smell fresh. I’m walking on wood chips, toward a picnic table, where she’s sitting, she’s looking at me, she’s waving for me to sit by her.
Jeri Ryan was my first love. If you’re wondering whether I mean that Jeri Ryan, actress most famous for playing a PG-rated sexy cyborg in the 90s, or if you’re asking why, oh why, did I spend two chapters of a directionless story laboring on about how I’ve never been in love, just to pull this gimmick: allow me to answer, yes, it’s that Jeri Ryan.
My hair? My shirt? My shorts? Too late now, don’t check, she’ll notice. I sit down, I smile, she smiles. I reach into my single-strap backpack — the one I begged my mom to buy and, with it’s swooping shape and black band slung diagonally across my torso, looks every bit as cool as I think it does — to pull out a brown paper bag. Sandwich, veggies, granola bar my mom insists counts as dessert. We eat lunch. I make her laugh. I watch her smile. I smile. I’m sure we’re flirting.
The young brain, marinating in a prepubescent cocktail of hormones, has little defense against adult curves in a skin-tight space suit. Suffice that Jeri Ryan is the first time I ever remember using the word, “whoa”. It’s important you know this, because names are important, and if I’m going to give real people fake names, then those fake names are going to have real meaning. Jeri is the first girl I ever loved, and you never forget your first love, even if you don’t believe love actually counts before you’re old enough to call a doctor’s office by yourself.
We’ve run out of lunch, and now we’re walking, and we’ve already spent nearly the whole field trip together. Jeri could be with her friends right now, but she wants to spend time with me. I don’t know if I should hold her hand. I shouldn’t. Mom wouldn’t like that. She keeps smiling at me. She keeps laughing. That smile is driving me crazy. Can I kiss her? No way. Next year.
I remember two other childhood crushes, two other girls before Jeri, and those only in blurry flashes. I met Zoe in first grade — a curly blond, freckle-faced Shirley Temple type. I wouldn’t even get that reference until years later, but it’s stuck with me since, in every cartoon caricature of a bouncing, precocious little girl. I remember her wide grin and generous top set of teeth. She had a little gap between the front two and she giggled like she knew something you didn’t.
Road is clear again, so I pedal faster to pull my bike up next to hers. We’re only halfway to her house, and I’m afraid if I don’t keep the momentum from today’s field trip it may not last. I talk through heavy breaths. I’m asking good questions. She’s opening up. I’m fascinated by every word. I share too. She’s asking questions now, and I tell her everything I can think of. She likes when I talk. Not everyone does.
I used to play with Zoe on the jungle gym at recess, a big dome of metal poles set in interlocking triangles; that and the chain-link net suspended between big logs. Both looked to my childhood eyes like spider webs, perfect for a kid actively hoping to be bitten by a radioactive arachnid. We spent all first grade together, Zoe and me, and also our friend Dawn, who had a round face framed in dark hair and took piano lessons from my mother. Actually, our parents were good friends, and consequently Dawn and I had been playmates even before what my memory serves. I never told Zoe that I liked her, and Dawn never told me.
In the second grade my Mom suggested I should play with the other boys, and even though she didn’t mean it that way I thought I had done something wrong. I never again spent another recess with Dawn or Zoe. I still don’t know what happened to Zoe after that, but Dawn stayed in the peripheries of my life for years, from elementary through high school. The friendship never recovered. The first few years I didn’t have the social skills to talk to her about any of it, to try to mend things. After that I was a coward. Twenty years later, and only after a quiet and teary confession of the time she spent in festering hatred for me, would I know the damage. I’m still a coward.
Last day of school. Parking lot full of kids and parents. I talk with my friends about summer, about next year, when we’ll be sixth graders and run the place. Our voices get louder with each excited sentence. I see Jeri and walk over to her. Her dad is waiting by his black car. 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 I love her — no! — I like her? — no! — I’ll miss her? Yes, that’s it. I need to tell her.
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 Pokemon cards with me, and would trash talk 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 I think later I would remember that she had a voice like Joan Jett but I’m certain I made that up. I wanted to kiss her which was embarrassing, so instead I insulted her, and then she insulted me right back and that only made it worse. And then… there’s nothing. I just never saw her again. I think her parents moved.
“So hey, Jeri, um,” I wipe my hands on my jeans. “I… I guess I’ll see you next year?”
“Yeah I guess.” 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, my face muscles aren’t responding.
“No way! Yeah! Awesome!” Please say something intelligent. And bring it down an octave. “Totally. Have fun on your trip.” Say it. Say it and walk away. “And hey, um. I’ll, um,” hard swallow, my mouth is too dry. “I’ll miss you.”
It was the right thing to say. Her lips break into the biggest smile yet. She hugs me, then walks away toward her dad’s outstretched hand. She turns and waves and I wave back and realize I’m also still smiling. Next year will be the best ever. I walk over to my mother, standing by the minivan talking to some other mother. I step up and through the sliding side door, and my Dad in the driver’s seat asks me something like did I have a good year. Mom gets in, the car rolls out of the pickup zone, and I’m twisting in my seatbelt to look out the back windshield, in case I can get one last glance at Jeri as we drive away. All I see is her dad’s black car driving the opposite direction, 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. This can’t be good. “I got transferred to a new school. We’re moving.”
To an eleven year-old, moving schools is like moving planets. After that day I didn’t see Jeri for another four years, and by then I had moved on to the biggest mistake of my teenage life: Jeri was my first love; Allison was my last.
(Ch 4 to come, like, eventually)