At first, I didn't even see it coming. I was all ready to start up
where we left off in the spring. But for some reason I couldn't interest
Gus and Robert in the old games. One day on the playground I realized
why. A new girl was running up the steps of the slide. Robert
and Gus were running up after her. She reached the top and got ready
to slide down. Just before her escape she looked back to see they
were still following and flashed a coy and knowing smile.
So that was it. Chris was out and Jan was in. But the rules had changed. Jan was no cootie queen. There was still teasing. And chasing. But unlike Chris, Jan seemed to like it. Sometimes it was Jan who teased and chased.
But I still didn't get it. Jan was a threat. Even more of a threat than Chris. Why couldn't Gus and Robert see that. Before I knew it, Jan was saying she "liked" Robert. And Robert was "liking" her right back. Gus "liked" her too. I felt my world spinning out of control.
I have a memory of standing out on the playground one day -- a semi-circle of boys standing around me. I'm pointing my finger at Robert and laughing with scorn. Jan is standing near by, scowling. I don't remember now how the whole thing escalated to that point -- or why. I just remember being at the eye of this hurricane, laughing spitefully, uncontrollably, seized in an orgy of ridicule. "Jan loves Robert! Robert loves Jan! Loverboy! Loverboy! Ha, Ha, Ha-Ha, Ha!" The recess bell finally rang and the chants subsided. As we lined up on the sidewalk in front of the school to file back in, Jan said one word to me--"DUMMY!"
Robert, for his part, seemed to just stand by quietly and take it that day. Maybe he understood what I was feeling -- that everything familiar was slipping from my grasp and being replaced by something new, exciting and dangerous. Maybe he knew he was seeing the last death rattles of our childhood. Maybe he felt guilty for betraying me, for being the first to pass through the door. Maybe he thought I had gone mad and he was too shocked to do anything. Whatever he was thinking, he seemed to forgive me right away as if nothing had ever happened. Neither of us ever mentioned the incident again.
What followed was a period of uneasy truce. I still didn't understand what was going on, but I stopped fighting it. I still hated girls. But it was now a hollow religion. I was marking time until the Epiphany.
The scene of the crime.
My family was in the
habit of going to the Saturday night programs at the University.
There was a mixture of travelogues, musical concerts and the occasional
Disney feature. It always seemed an idiosyncratic pastime since none
of my friend's parents went.
Folding chairs were set up in the Johnson Gym for the events. Since the polished wooden floor was flat, it was usually hard for kids to see over the grown-up's heads. My parents always sat to one side of the auditorium so I could sit on the floor against the wall, away from the seats, where it was easier to see. I would sit, eating a mixture of raisins, nuts and chocolate chips out of a plastic bag and listen to Don Cooper or Stan Midgely talk about their latest Swiss ski trip.
On this particular night, the house lights went up at intermission and I stood to see what I could see. I wasn't prepared for what I did see. There in the crowd was Jan. She was just a few feet away and had already seen me. She flashed her trademark smile and drawled, "Hi Peter." In an instant, I was had. It seemed so strange to see her here. I never saw anybody I knew at these things. And now here was Jan talking to me like a normal person. Suddenly I was confused. My throat got tight and I couldn't talk. My heart started racing and my face got all hot. Finally I squeezed one word out of my constricted throat--"hello." It was my first love poem.
With that, I succumbed. For the rest of the evening, Johnson Gym was a shimmering and magical place. All I could think of was Jan, Jan, Jan! I marveled as I sat alone in the darkness against the cool, tile wall that she was so close on this night, seeing the same scenes, breathing the same air. I put my palm against the smooth wooden floor where Jan's lovely feet had stepped. I raised my hand to my cheek and felt the tingle of her nearness. I wanted to spread out on the floor where she had walked, drunk with her lingering presence.
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