The day I thought he might be “The One”, a.k.a., that one time I had a panic attack in the middle of Costco.

A few years ago, I came across an Engagement Announcement and Wedding Invitation that a family member of mine had gotten in the mail.   It had a nice, glossy picture of the happy couple:  he carrying her in his arms as though he were about to carry her over the threshold (as the tradition goes), and she with her arms wrapped around his neck, her feet playfully kicking the air.  Their smiles were bright.  “Celebrate with us!”  I looked briefly at the invitation and then tossed it aside with the rest of the mail and rolled my eyes.  “Idiots”.

At the time, I really held that opinion.  I really clung to the self-righteous truth that no young, naive couple had any clue what they were getting themselves into.  That if they were smart, they wouldn’t rush into marriage at 24, or at the very least, do it quietly so we don’t all have to watch the two of them walk blindly into an inevitable hurricane and expect us to clap and oooh and aaah and smile along with them.  At the time, I obviously had forgotten that my husband and I were also two young idiots not so long ago and that I myself had had a moment of “He’s The One!!” as my heart did flip flops.

I was 19 and had a dentist appointment to have a cavity filled.  Jon and I had already been together for about a year.  Still new enough that we were gooey about each other, but together long enough that I felt comfortable with him accompanying me to the dentist.   He said he wanted to go to Costco anyway to look at some new golf clubs, and since Costco was right next to my dentist, he’d come along.  So we hopped in his green truck and happily drove to Winooski, smiling and chattering along the way.

The problem was, that by the age of 19, I had somehow developed a very strong phobia to needles.  I’m not sure when that happened, but I do remember sitting on my mother’s lap at the age of 4 or 5, watching a nurse give me a shot in the thigh and becoming hysterical.  So much so, that apparently some pregnant nurse had been napping in another office and was jarred awake by my screams and came around the corner all groggy and waddling.  Henceforth, 15 years later, I apparently still had that phobia, but didn’t quite know the extent of it until this fateful day.

Once at the dentist’s office, I was called in and I immediately told them that I was feeling a bit nervous about the Novocaine needle and he suggested I have some Nitrous Oxide, which I happily took.  Sitting in the dentist’s chair, he placed the mask over my face and I started to breathe in.  Jon stood just above me, next to the chair teasing me and telling me to “take a deep breath and suck that stuff down!!”.  I started laughing, unsure if it was the laughing gas, or the fact that he always made me laugh no matter what we were doing.  Being the anxiety-ridden person I am, humor really is the only way to my heart.

After I was sufficiently sedated, Jon left, the dentist came in and he proceeded to give me a few shots of Novocaine with his absurdly giant needle, and then fill in my cavity.  (By the way, I have always brushed my teeth regularly.  I have what the dentist called “deep grooves” so no matter how well I brush, I’m prone to getting cavities, m’kay!?).  While I didn’t necessarily feel any pain during this whole process, I vividly remember the size of the needle, the feel of pressure in my mouth and one side of my face being numb.  I remember him sticking the needle into my gum and shaking it around and such.  I guess he really wanted to make sure it had gotten in there good.  I was high on laughing gas and one side of my face was completely numb.   I can’t remember if Jon had gotten to the point in our relationship where he told me he loved me (he took a long time to get there), but I couldn’t help but think he must have felt that way to voluntarily see me in such a condition.

After all was said and done, the dentist took off my bib and told me I was “all set”.  I gingerly hopped out of the dentist chair and went and retrieved Jon from the waiting room and on our way we went to Costco so he could look at some golf clubs.  Looking back, it is apparent that I still had some amount of Nitrous Oxide in my system to have been so happily bouncing along with a numb mouth and the recent memory of that hideous needle that had just been shoved into my face.  Maybe I had hoped that the needle phobia had somehow disappeared?

But it was at this point that things went terribly wrong.

Walking into Costco, I followed Jon who began weaving in and out of all of the aisles, dodging people with their big carts, looking up and down the shelves trying to find the sporting goods section.  By the time we had gotten half-way down the store, I began to feel very weird.  His figure began to swing and sway ahead of me.  I got clammy all of a sudden.  There was a fuzzy buzzing in my head and my heart started to race.  I tried to mentally talk myself out of this weirdness.  I tried to trick myself into believing that I was “fine” and to just ignore the fact that I felt like I was under water, but to no avail.   And that is when I tried to take a deep breath.  I tried to breathe in to calm myself, and suddenly felt like my breathing tube had almost completely closed.  It felt like all that was left was a tiny, itty-bitty opening allowing only an itty-bitty amount of air to get in.  No matter how big of a breathe I tried to take in, hardly any would get in at all…..and that’s when I started to freak.

“I CAN’T BREATHE”!!    “I CAN’T BREATHE”!!!

Jon had found some golf clubs, had received one out of the bag and was taking practice swings in the aisle when his hysterical 19-year-old girlfriend with a numb face began yelling, “I CAN’T BREATHE!!  I CAN’T BREATHE”!!!

I remember finding a partially exposed pallet and sitting myself down in case I fainted.  I remember Jon slowly putting the golf club back in the bag from which he gotten it and walking over to me.  I also remember a small group of Costco patrons forming around me, slowing down to stare at me, their purses dangling from their arms as they held on to their enormous carts.  One lady had a strong, Long Island accent.  She had short dark hair, was slightly chubby, maybe 50ish.  She and a few others were pausing, looking at each other, their hands to their mouths as I said again, “I CAN’T BREATHE” and wheezed and hyperventilated.

“Oh my gawd……she can’t breathe…..I’ll cawl an ambulance”.  The Long Island Lady started to push her cart toward Help, and that is when Jon came back into view.

“No, no don’t do that”.  He squatted down in front of me and put up his arm slowly at her, “No, I think she just needs to calm down a little “.  I remember him being so calm.  He didn’t seem fazed at all.  And he didn’t say I needed to calm down in a patronizing way either.  He wasn’t angry or annoyed.  He wasn’t rolling his eyes and making me feel anymore ridiculous than I already did.  He also didn’t get wrapped up in my hysterics, as Long Island Woman had so quickly done.  I remember him looking at me directly in the eyes and saying “let’s get you outside for some air and I’ll get the truck”.  Among all the swimming people and shelves and big Costco lights, it was his face that was very still in front of me.

As he put his arm around me and escorted me out of Costco, we made our way to the front of the store where I sad down again in the fresh air and waited for him to get the truck.  I don’t think I was hyperventilating at that point, but Long Island Lady and her purse had followed us out and stood near me while Jon got the truck and pulled up in front of us.  It was very nice of her to have followed us.   I remember him thanking her and getting me loaded up.  He reclined my seat, rolled down my window and drove us back home.

After I had calmed down considerably, I opened my eyes to take in the scenery.  I was lying on my left-side, facing Jon, the passenger seat reclined all the way back.  It was summer and the window was down and I could hear the air blowing through the window.  I could also hear the country music station that he always had on.  And I could see him, driving along, calm as a cucumber, occasionally looking down at me.

“How we doin?” he asked me at one point.  I think I nodded and apologized.  But what I remember most about that moment was thinking how he’d handled everything.  How he’d handled me.  He wasn’t angry.  He wasn’t joining in my hysterics.  He didn’t even get to buy any golf clubs for himself.   That was the very first time I thought to myself:   “I think this guy’s the one” and feeling happy and lucky and excited about it.

In just a couple of months, we will celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary and I keep thinking about this day.  And I keep thinking about myself a few years ago, rolling my eyes at the engaged couple.  How much my opinion has changed since then.  What I’ve learned.

I’ve learned how crucial that “We’re so in love” phase actually is.  Maybe even essential to a marriage.  That after 10 years of marriage, after kids, and bills and stress and the ups and downs of life, a couple can grow apart quite easily if they aren’t careful.  That things get hard and scary.  We’ve had a jam-packed 10 years of marriage full of good times, hard times, sleep-deprived times.  There were times where we said things we didn’t mean, did things we didn’t mean, times that were peaceful and happy, times where we were both hurt and not sure we’d make it, and other times that were downright ugly.

I’ve learned that it’s in those hard times where you look back to when you were young and in love.  I’ve learned that it’s that idiotic phase that might just keep you afloat.  If you could just dip your finger back into that for a bit and remember the taste of who you both were and how you both were together.  Those two lovebirds existed once and are more than likely still in there somewhere beneath the mortgage payments and the “I do more around here than you do” and the stress of raising kids together and holding down jobs.

I’ve learned that it’s actually those early days that can help get you back on track.  Remembering them and appreciating them and tapping into those two people when you can.  I think that’s the key really.

Or maybe not. …… Maybe the key is just to have more panic attacks in Costco?

 

40: The tween years of adulthood, minus the braces.

Sometimes, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror while cleaning the toilets, I catch a glimpse of someone who looks slightly startled at her reflection.  There are more grey hairs than I thought, there are faint little crow’s feet that I can see if I lean in real close.  I look tired most of the time.  I can remember bouncing out of bed at 6:00 and going for runs by 6:30 when I was single and in my twenties.  Now, when I get up in the morning, it takes me at least an hour and 2 cups of coffee to limber up.  I’m asleep by 9:00 at the latest.  Ask my friends.

I will be turning 41 in just a couple of months although, I’m not quite as upset as I was about turning 40.   Truth be told, I think I had been having a hard time with 40 for the past few years.  I may or may not have had an early mid-life crisis now that I look back.  I headed toward 40 digging in my heels, kicking and screaming Father Time dragging me by the wrists.  I tired to evade it at every turn.  I didn’t want to be “old”, but wanted to stay “young”.   I remember my own mother turning 36 and thinking she was old.  I remember she married for the second time at 40.  I was there.  I was in college.

A hundred and fifty years ago, 40 was ancient.  You were absolutely a grandmother by the age of 40, if you weren’t already dead.  You were over the hill.  You were worn out and washed up.

These days, 40 is so much different.  Life isn’t over at 40 like it was back then, but we’re not exactly Spring Chickens either.   We’re told “40 is the new 20”.  Is it really people?  Is that why I’m at the gym 4 times a week doing a thousand crunches?  Because I have absolutely no recollection of doing that in my 20’s.   If “40 is the new 20”, then how come when I have more than two or three glasses of wine in one sitting I feel like I have Swine Flu all the next day?  Because trust me, in my 20’s I imbibed way more than that and still made it to classes on time.

My 20’s were all about getting through school and making as many bad decisions as I could, as often as I could.    Check.

My 30’s were all about marriage, babies,completely losing my sense of Self and making all of the best decisions of my life.    Check.

But 40?  What the hell am I supposed to be doing at 40?  I am too old to go to the clubs anymore.  The college students would say “who is that old lady out there?   Why does she only come on 80’s night?   Why does she keep requesting Gloria Estefan?.  I’m also not having anymore babies, so that’s out.  My two boys are old enough now that I’m becoming less of an urgent or constant need for them, which feels good and lonesome at the same time.  Mostly good.

I feel a bit lost I suppose.  At almost-41-years-old, I’m feeling a bit un-moored, like a lot of my 11 and 12 year old clients must feel.  They’re not kids anymore, but they’re also not teenagers.  They’re in this weird in-between place where girls start getting hormonal and cranky and withdrawn and boys get these ridiculous peach fuzz/mustache combos that are embarrassing, but a sign of budding Manhood, so they wear them for far too long; they’re too old to play kids games anymore, but not quite old enough to have a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Essentially, I guess I feel like 40 is not in fact the new 20, it’s the new 12.  No clubs, no babies, but not yet time for Menopause………so what?

So, I bought myself a camera.  I real, honest-to-goodness camera.  I drove all the way to Best Buy one day, when I was angry at the world (in particular my husband), and told myself I wasn’t leaving that damn store without my own camera.  I told myself that I deserved it.  I had attempted to purchase myself a real camera twice during my 30’s, but was so overcome with guilt and shame at such an extravagant indulgence, that I immediately returned them the next day.  Both times.

But not this time.

I kept the camera.

Each day, after work, and after dinner has been served and eaten, I find myself grabbing my new camera, hanging the strap around my neck and venturing out to my backyard to explore.  It has given me a chance to look at my surroundings in so many different ways.  Before, my backyard was just my backyard, strewn with discarded toys and the occasional chicken strutting around.  But now, I step out onto the cool grass with my bare feet and feel so eager and excited about what I might find.

I look at things more closely.  I walk around my backyard more deliberately now, taking time to really look at things I took for granted.  I’ll look at the same things from different angles.  I’ll alter the focus so that different things are in focus at different times.

For instance, had I ever noticed how lonely the clothespin bag looks, hanging outside all alone, without any clothes?.

Or what about my Barred Rock Ginger?  She’s actually kind of pretty, even if she poops in the very water she drinks.

I’ve learned that when it’s 5:30 am and I’m on my back deck, alone having my coffee, that I much prefer the foggy mornings.

 

There is probably some existential symbolism in there somewhere about how, at 40, you start to look at your life differently, from different angles.  Maybe even relationships and people too.  That your age and wisdom has given you a new lens through which to see everything around you, and therefore a greater appreciation for it.   Sometimes I think I’m just bored and need something to occupy myself.  Who knows.  Maybe it’s both.

 

My older son asked me recently, “Why are you so into pictures lately mom?” (a bit of irritation in his voice, as he himself stands at the cusp of his own grumpy tween years) to which I replied, (my arms spread out wide for effect), “Because it’s all I have for a hobby right now!  It’s all I have that is just mine for nothing but enjoyment!  So please, let me have my pictures!!  And get over here and stand right here for me please because the sun is going to set soon!!!”–He looks overjoyed to be my subject.

I imagine a lot of other moms might be able to relate.  We spend our 20’s “finding ourselves”, spend our 30’s “losing ourselves” to our children and then comes 40 and we wonder what we’re supposed to do next?  Or maybe not.  Maybe other women have figured it out earlier than I have.

A friend of mine, who is decades older than I, posted on my Facebook Timeline last year for my 40th birthday, “Now the fun begins”.

I’m going to hold on to that one.  It gives me hope.  I trust that I’ll know what he means at some point.  Maybe my camera is helping me get there.  All I know is that at the moment, I just can’t stop taking pictures, so I’m thinking I probably shouldn’t.

 

 

We’ve all got our blankets about something.

“It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s the place in between that we fear….It’s like being between trapezes.  It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer.  There’s nothing to hold on to”.  –Marilyn Ferguson

 

Maya sat cross-legged across from me, on my proverbial “Therapist Couch”, and fiddled with the long, dark hairs on her leg.  “My cousin came over the other day and said, ‘Ew!  Why don’t you shave your legs?  That’s not very lady-like'”.

Shifting in my rocking chair, I stifled my contempt for her cousin and asked, “What did you say?”.

Maya shrugged her shoulders, “I just said, ‘Whatever.  I like it'”.  She ran the pads of her finger-tips up and down her shin.  She was 16 and looked more like a teenage boy than when I first met her.   I have watched Maya grow, incrementally, into the person she wants to be over the last year.  The changes she has made to her physical appearance, the questions she has asked, the decisions she has made.  I have had the honor of witnessing someone shed who they were told they were supposed to be, and slowly, (often painfully) begin to accept and become who they  have wanted to be.  Who they truly are.

But with each step forward in her accepting ourselves, there is always someone nearby who will not.

“But then”, Maya continued,”my cousin….she caught site of my boxers and said, ‘What the hell are you wearing boxers for?  You tryin’ to be a boy?'”.

I allowed myself the private, fleeting fantasy of me punching her cousin in the throat.    After my indulgence, I swiftly pushed the thought away and again shifted in my seat.  “It sounds like your cousin is a bit scared”.  Maya looked up at me, suspicious and confused.

“Of what?” she asked, “Me?”.

“Not you exactly.  But, maybe your courage to do what you want to do.   Your bravery to be who you want to be.  That’s scary to a lot of people because they’re too afraid to do it themselves”.

Maya and I had been meeting for just over a year.  She first came in with long, thick, hair down her back and a shy and quiet demeanor.  She had sought therapy because of her overwhelming anxiety.  Today, a year later, she wears her hair extremely short, often comes to my office on her skateboard or BMX bike, and fidgets on my couch.   She tells me about her classes and her family and her new skateboard tricks.  She also tells me about the how alone she feels.  And judged.  And scared.

Today, the more we talked, the more restless Maya became.  She would try to say something, but the words would stay lodged in her throat and she would give up and go quiet.  Or, she would contradict herself and then shake her head and say “never mind”.  She leaned forward on the couch and ran  shaky hands through her short hair, rocking back and forth a bit.  “I’m just.  I’m so confused.  I don’t know.  My mom says that I shouldn’t be worried about this stuff.  She makes comments about other people like me that I overhear.  Like my cousin”.

I didn’t know what to say.  I could have lectured her on how ignorant so many people are.  About how fearful they are and how it has nothing to do with her, but I didn’t.  I just sat there with her.  Sometimes it’s all you can do.

I noticed that Maya had stopped rocking and simply sat cross-legged on my ouch, her arms folded tightly across her chest and her head slightly bent down.  Her face had become red.  And her eyes were glistening.  I watched her avoid my gaze.  She seemed to be using all of her strength to hold something in.

“Figuring out who we are– growing into who we are truly supposed to be, can sometimes take a long time.  And sometimes it sucks to go through”.

On the heels of my comment, I watched her tears spill over the edges of her brown eyes.  Her shoulders lurched forward as she bent into herself and finally gave up trying to hold back the glacier that had been coming.  “But when will it stop?  When will I know?”.  And she cried.  And she covered her face with her hands and she cried, and my tiny room was filled with her exhausted voice.

“I think I know more about myself than I think I do”.

**********************************

A few months ago, my older son Silas and I were sitting in the truck outside of Bob’s Meat Market.  My husband and younger son had gone inside to get some things for grilling that night.   After a long week’s work, I’ll admit, I was surfing Facebook on my phone and zoning out when I heard my son from the backseat.

“Mom, is that a boy, or a girl?”.  I looked up from my phone, looked out the passenger-side window, and saw a person getting into their car just next to us, a paper bag full of things for grilling, just like we were.

“I don’t know honey.  I’m not sure”.  I looked back down at my phone.  Figuring out if someone was a man or woman is not high on my list of priorities.  I really don’t care as long as they are a decent human being.

Silas was silent for a few seconds, until he then explained to me, “I bet I know.  I bet that she was born a girl.  But then, I bet….I think maybe she was born a girl, but felt more like a boy on the inside.  I bet she felt more like a boy and so she wanted to start dressing more like a boy so that how she felt on the inside matched what she looked like”.

I again, looked up from my phone yet this time, much more engaged in what he was saying.  I smiled and touched the side of his face with my hand.   “I think you’re exactly right honey.  I’m so proud of you that you understand that”.  I had explained that reasoning to my boys on more than one occasion, but I honestly didn’t think they were really listening to me all that closely.  And then, just like that, just as if he and I had been talking about the weather, he asked the next question on his mind:

“What are asteroids made of?”.   We asked Siri, “What are asteroids made of?” and watched a YouTube video on it because really, what asteroids are made of is far more interesting.

 

linusLimnus

 

A short story for young girls about a boy named Jean-Guy (pronounced Jun-gee). He was french.

My favorite Karate Kid movie in the series was The Karate Kid Part II, where Daniel-san accompanies Mr. Miyagi to Okinawa to see his father who is “veddy sick.” While there, Daniel-san falls in love with the beautiful local girl named Kumiko who has long, gorgeous, flowing black hair (of course). After being taken hostage during her dance routine by the evil Chozen who was all, “You betrayed my honor,” Daniel-san has no choice but to fight him to the death. In true Karate Kid fashion, Daniel-san is able to dig deep and utilize a fancy move, winning him both the match and the girl.

But, my most favorite part of the Karate Kid II movie itself is when Kumiko invites Daniel-san to take part in the customary tea ceremony to signify that she had fallen in love with him. Unsure and nervous, Daniel-san loves and respects Kumiko so much he doesn’t want to mess up the special ceremony, turning the bowl nervously and looking to her for guidance. Finally, in the end, after she’s taken her cascading hair out of her bun and it falls all around her, he gently and lovingly kisses her from across the table, as romance is only romantic when the woman has long hair.

I would not have considered myself a romantic at the age of almost-ten, but boy oh boy, that scene sure did make me have butterflies, especially with Peter Cetera setting the tone in the background. I would go to bed and play “The Glory of Love” over and over, praying to God to send me someone like Daniel-san who would respect and honor me as much as he did Kumiko, and to declare his love for me.

But alas, God does indeed work in mysterious ways and chose, instead, to send over Jean-Guy.

It was the summer after the third grade and finally, my hair had grown out to an acceptable length; no one was calling me “Michael” or ditching me for candy bars anymore. I could put it up into a ponytail with the help of four or five barrettes (to reign in the shorter hairs), but it most certainly did not fall all around my shoulders when I took it out. Being summer time, my Swanton neighborhood was swarming with kids looking for fun. Mostly boys. So many boys. I had no choice but to constantly play sports all day long. It was the kind of neighborhood where kids would simply walk up and down the sidewalks or run across the street looking for each other. You knew who lived where, who had a decent backyard, whose parents were strict or not, and where everyone was (based on how many bicycles lay on the front lawn). I had a decent backyard that was surrounded by fence on all sides, and my parents were pretty laid back so we usually had a few bikes strewn around.

The boys who frequented my house the most were Travis, Tommy, Michael, Chris, and Eric. We would always start a game of soccer, baseball, hide-and-seek, tag, or dodgeball. I had everything we needed in the clubhouse that sat off of our garage, and we would play until dusk—until we could barely make out each other’s silhouettes running through the yard. In 1986, no one seemed worried about where their kids were, or getting West Nile Virus from mosquitoes, or getting poisoned by DEET in order to prevent West Nile Virus. Milling around my backyard trying to figure out teams, my little sister and her rat’s nest would sometimes come out and try to get in on the action. She would be giddy around all the boys, more interested in flirting with Michael or Chris than actually playing the game.

My mom and dad were always milling around the house on the weekends, raking or cleaning gutters, or vacuuming their cars. They weren’t really talking to each other today, but sometimes they did. Sometimes I would see them pass each other without so much as a glance, or I would come in from outside and feel their mutual silence meandering through the house—a stubborn silence. They would each talk to me or Erin, but not one another. Sometimes I’d hear them talking loudly and angrily inside, saying things like, “I’m just trying to make you happy!” or, “Nothing’s ever good enough!” and then they’d stop when I came in, and just not talk at all. I guess that was the best thing they could do when we were around. You can’t always pick and choose when to fight. So the tension was the same, just quieter, and I was glad to be busy outside.

Today, the game of choice was dodgeball, and Travis, Michael, and Eric were all here. They each made their way to my backyard from either next door or across the street, tossing their bikes to the grass as they jogged by my dad, hollering, ‘Hey Mr. Goodman’, or waving to my mom through the porch window. They didn’t see her slamming things around in there, or notice my father spend 45 minutes ferociously trying to fix the nozzle on the garden hose, but I did.

“Where’s Chris?” Michael asked, and Eric shrugged his shoulder.

“Not sure. I think he had to visit his aunt or something.”

Michael was the tallest of the three, with light hair, and he always had on an Adidas soccer shirt. Travis had a swath of thick, black hair, and was much shorter than Michael in addition to having one leg shorter than the other, which caused him to walk with a very slight limp. I thought it was kind of endearing. And Eric wore glasses and had auburn hair, but was still the most attractive of the three—maybe because he was the most polite and considerate to me. The three boys formed a small circle under our gigantic pine tree, assessing who was present and what should be our team formations. Sometimes, I felt less like one of the guys and more like the platform for which they could hang out. I was fine with either possibility.

I was on a team with Michael, so things were even—except when my sister would frolic over and sheepishly stare at the boys. Then we’d have to stop and tell her to get out of the way, although I noticed Eric would always lob the ball a lot less hard when she was around, which I thought was nice. After a good twenty minutes of us getting into our groove with the game, a kid from across the street came sauntering over. Jean-Guy. He wasn’t a regular at my house and didn’t really live in my neighborhood, but his grandmother did, and so we only ever really saw Jean-Guy when he was both visiting at his grandmother’s house and we were all home on the weekend.

A year or two older than me and most of my friends, Jean-Guy was around 12 or 13, which was a big difference in adolescence. He had an older brother, which made him privy to even more mature things, like cars and cigarettes and swear words. I saw him coming through the fence on the other side of my house (not the way everyone else came over), and I had a suspicious feeling that things would be a bit more interesting today. As his name suggests, he was a husky almost chubby kid, who seemed always to be clammy and perspiring, which was made worse considering we were in mid-July. He had a weird tooth in the front of his mouth that (only slightly) stuck out from all the others. He wore a gold chain around his neck that never moved because it seemed to always be stuck in his sweaty neck-crease.

“Hey,” he called to us from a few feet away. “Whatcha doin?”

Travis, the friendlier one of our bunch took the reins. “Dodge Ball. Wanna play?” He walked nearer to him, the ball resting on one of his hips. Jean-Guy was at least four or five inches taller than the other boys and eagerly took the ball from him.

“Yeah.”

Pointing to me and Travis, he declared, “You two can be on a team and I’ll be with Michael.” The dynamic had shifted quickly, with Jean-Guy calling the shots and the rest of us obeying. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. Travis jogged over to me and we immediately took our dodgeball stances, ready for anything.

For some unknown reason, Jean-Guy thought he was The Man. He had a conceited strut about him that I can only deduce he got from having an older brother around. We never actually met his older brother, but he talked about him a lot, and from the sounds of it, I’m glad he didn’t come around because he sounded scary. He was old enough to drive and get into fights, and Jean-Guy told us all about those things with great pride, so I guess it was Conceit by Association.

Mid-way through our now lackluster game of dodgeball, Jean-Guy the Stud whispered something to Michael, who looked visibly put out and came jogging over to Travis and me, ball in hand.

“Jean-Guy wants to know if you wanna be girlfriend-boyfriend,” he spit out quickly, probably hoping this intermission would soon be over. He rested the ball on his hip again and looked at me sideways, waiting. Standing there impatiently waiting for an answer so that we might more quickly resume playing, I felt pressured to answer. Throwing the ball up and catching it back in my hands I pondered for several seconds. Jean-Guy stood fifty feet away, legs spread, hands on his knees, staring in my direction, and waiting. Why did I feel like everyone was annoyed with me? I wasn’t the one who stopped the game to court another player!

Folding under the pressure to hurry up and make everyone happy, I replied, “Sure,” but felt annoyed with myself. I wasn’t even remotely interested in Jean-Guy, barely knew him and certainly didn’t find him attractive. I guess I also figured that our relationship would be like any other elementary school relationship I had been in: The boy sends his buddy over to ask me to be his girlfriend, I tell them yes, he goes back and tells him my answer, and then we don’t ever speak to each other again. The End. I think I mostly said yes because everybody seemed irritated with me and also so we could continue playing our game without any trouble. How had I become responsible for that?

But Jean-Guy had something else up his sleeve. Immediately upon entering into our covenant, Jean-Guy decided that I could no longer play dodge ball, but now had to be protected from the ball. He beckoned me—no, he ordered me—over to his side and explained that he would block all the shots himself, and I wouldn’t have to do a thing. I stood against the back of my garage while Eric, Michael, and Travis all took their positions midway through the backyard, ready to fire. In an instant, my role had shifted. Jean-Guy proceeded to wrap his sticky arms around me and deflect any and all balls that were aimed our way by the other boys. Standing stiff and oppressed in him, they took turns chucking the balls. Erin had somehow made her way back out to our game and was retrieving the deflected balls and throwing them back to Michael or Travis or Eric so they could pelt us again. My hero would block them with his arm, and then quickly place it back around me so as not to leave me unattended for even a minute. Or, he would deflect them with his foot, sticking it out just in time so it wouldn’t hurt me. Sometimes it was a close call, which worried me.

Having never been this physically close to a boy in my life, I could smell his dirty pubescent mid-July aroma, feel his clammy arms around me, and hear his breathing as he worked hard to protect his Delicate Little Flower from getting hurt. But most of all, I could feel his vainglory at playing the role of protector. It seemed as though this is what he thought a good boyfriend did: put his girlfriend in the role of invalid and himself in the role of protector. A mere twenty minutes ago I was in the game, hurling balls right at his stray tooth, but upon accepting this role of “girlfriend,” I was not only placed into the role of damsel in distress, but I was expected to play my role perfectly. The worst part was I tried to play it to the best of my abilities. I shrank from the oncoming ball, feigning fear. I winced as his hand narrowly intercepted it, and I stood perfectly still in his sweaty, clammy, chubby arms, while he reveled in his machismo, which I’m pretty sure began to make the other boys hurl the balls our way even harder. So really, he was making things worse.

I began to worry that maybe he had asthma, because all of the physical strain he was putting himself under was really making him start to wheeze, and I was beginning to lose faith in his ability to hold up his end of the bargain. What had I gotten myself into? I wanted to play, not stand here and be treated like some kind of tulip. Besides, I’m pretty sure I could have taken Jean-Guy if I’d really needed to.

Eventually, after yet another very close call that would have probably bruised my face, I could take it no more and pried myself from his grasp. I was tired of this charade. I didn’t need to be protected, so I didn’t know why I pretended that I did. I was doing a lot of things today and didn’t know why. I got back into the game and felt better, but Jean-Guy seemed miffed.

He decided that it would be fun for me and him to go into the clubhouse that was attached to our garage. He said he wanted to try a different kind of game, “kind of like dodge ball, but not really.” He told the other boys to stand near the window while we went inside.

My club house used to be a horse stable way back when, which was so much cooler than what it was used for now—holding things like the croquet set, the Shop-Vac, my dad’s golf clubs, the push mower, and all of the sports stuff we used when we played outside. Additionally, I had hung a handful of posters of Ralph Macchio that I had ripped out of the last few issues of Teen Beat. Like every other girl my age, I was in love with Daniel-san. No adolescent, boy or girl, was free from getting caught up in the romance of Daniel-san and Kumiko. Boys were in their bedrooms practicing their karate moves behind closed doors, and as for myself, I bought hand-held Asian fans and practiced dancing behind them in front of my full-length mirror. With Peter Cetera’s voice emanating from my boom box speakers, I was convinced I could be the American version of Kumiko if I could just catch the fan gracefully when I threw it up in the air. Unfortunately, it rarely happened.

Taking my hand, Jean-Guy led me into the tiny room with just one window. The other three boys were dangerously close to taking off and playing somewhere else, and loitered near the window throwing a ball up and down, weighing their options. What are we doing in here?” I asked, annoyed and wanting to get back outside. I started to make a move toward the door, but Jean-Guy blocked my path and pleaded with me.

“Just wait a minute.”

“No, let me out,” I said. He was being weird and I didn’t like it. I was trapped in my own club-house, shuffling my feet and trying to understand just what the hell we were doing in here. He moved me a little past the window so the boys were out of our view. I was not even ten yet, and was confused as to why he wanted to stay hidden from the other boys. Then all at once, he leaned forward, grabbed both my shoulders in his hands, and put his mouth on mine, trying to shove his tongue down my throat. I could feel it trying to pry my lips apart and I immediately felt like I wanted to vomit.

In an act of pure intuition and self-defense, I cocked my right arm, pulled my head back and punch him in the left cheek, my fist smacking against his flabby and sweaty skin as he fell backward into the corner of the clubhouse against Ralph Macchio, who was staring back at me with his hands clasped in prayer. I was scared, but also very furious. Jean-Guy let out a grunt, wheezed a bit, and had to catch himself against the wall, knocking over the croquet set in the process. Colored balls clanked to the ground, ambling in all directions while the wooden mallets knocked against one another under his weight. I stood there for a few seconds, watching him try to clamor back to his feet, but then quickly pushed open the door of the clubhouse and stormed back outside to where the other boys had gathered. They seemed to have no idea what just took place. I heard Jean-Guy come out a few seconds later, but didn’t pay any attention to what he was saying, as I quickly rounded up the boys and asked if they wanted to play soccer instead. I didn’t want them to leave.  I wanted to quickly forget what had just taken place.  I wanted things to go back the way they had been before Jean-Guy came and ruined it all.

.           At almost-ten-years-old, I’d had my first “relationship” that had lasted a whole 45 minutes. My most confusing and angering 45-minute relationship to date. Just because I was a girl didn’t mean I had to do what boys told me to. Sometimes being “nice” for someone else’s sake, or trying to make them happy and agreeing to do things you didn’t really want to do was the fastest way to misery, and the slowest way to self-respect. I learned that, for the most part, boys are decent enough and are much more interested in knocking your face off with a ball than trying to kiss it, but that once in a while there’s a bad weed. Most of all, I learned that it’s good to give someone the benefit of the doubt and to try to be cordial, but that when they’ve crossed a line with you, there is no room to worry about hurting their feelings or being “mean.” That, sometimes, a right hook is really the only way to get your point across.