There are moments that stick with you not because of how life changing they are, but because the later moments cast an illuminating light on them, revealing them to be moments of pure character. One such moment for me is the time I waited for days at recess in fourth grade for a girl to sit down and play checkers with me.
The day was as fair as my heart was young when it finally came time to say goodbye to the old, brick building I had known as Abby Kelly Foster Charter Public School. We had had an ice cream party that morning celebrating kids with perfect attendance, and naturally I was invited. Being a bad student as a concept didn’t really exist for me, and despite the ridiculously early time I had to wake up each morning as a nine-year-old, I trudged through the year without missing a single day. Someone else was supposed to be at the ice cream party too. Her name was Stephanie Smith. She was the same year as me but had only come to Abby Kelly that fall. With a bob cut, an oddly soothing voice that lacked the sharpness of immaturity, a smile that could cure any bodily ailment, and an openness that contrasted almost ironically with my reclusiveness, I was totally captivated from the moment we first crossed paths. Stephanie didn’t show up to the full-attendance ice cream party, but that was only a mild disappointment. The real challenge I faced that day wasn’t speaking to her, but rather asking her to sit down with me at recess and play me in a game of checkers, from which our love would blossom and we would date and kiss and get married.
Unfortunately for my ego, I had already waited for her on a wooden bench on the playground every day for the past week, without any significant progress. Scratch that. Without any progress. I watched her run with friends, laughing, all the while letting the feeling of melting wash over my chest. But today was different, I insisted. Today was the last day of school, so it was my absolute final chance to muster up the courage to ask her to play with me. A bold move considering I was barely even a blip on her radar.
I grew weary with anticipation in the hours between the ice cream party and the midday recess. My hands were sweating in the pockets of my uniform – khaki shorts – as I contemplated the moves I would make. Would I be red or black? Would I win or lose? What even are the official rules for checkers? Finally, as the first half of the day drew to a close, the teachers let the elementary schoolers – fourth graders were first – out for one last skirmish on the playground. I immediately went for my bench by the jungle gym. Sitting down, I inadvertently glanced at the monkey bars, which I could not complete despite my tiny weight. I looked away, suddenly conscious of my incompetence.
Here’s what I was going to say:
Me: Hey. (I was embarrassed to say people’s names)
Me: It’s the last day of school, and I was just wondering, since we haven’t really talked much, if you wanted to play checkers with me?
Her: Of course!
She sits down and we begin playing. She smiles a lot. I don’t smile back because I am convinced I have an ugly smile.
Me: So tell me a little about yourself.
Her: Well, – Insert life story –.
Me: Wow, that’s so cool.
Her: Yeah. How about you?
Me: I’m pretty normal. I like riding my bike and playing video games. I love math and my favorite movie is called Kung Pow: Enter the Fist. It’s really funny. I do Kung Fu.
Me: It’s whatever. I play the piano and my birthday is in September and I have two twin sisters. Yeah.
Her: That sounds really interesting!
Me: Do you want to be my girlfriend?
They hold hands and kiss. She stops running around with her friends and spends all her time with me, a fantasy that only confirms the possessive disposition men have toward women in relationships.
I was going over this conversation for the umpteenth time when I suddenly realized she was nowhere to be found. I checked all of her usual hangout spots with a sweep of my eyes, but I couldn’t find her anywhere. She probably wasn’t in school today. A wave of panic hit me before numbing into the sullen coldness of shock. Was that it? Had I missed my chance forever?
I waited and waited to be proven wrong, but with every passing second my fear was only further confirmed. Stephanie was gone. I hung my head and stroked the little cardboard box in the palm of my left hand. It was a tiny box of checkers, magnetic to stabilize the pieces, and it was looking about as small as I felt in that moment. I was so nervous that, like grabbing an elusive fish in a stream, I let the time slip right between my fingers. No amount of self-kicking would be able to put this one right.
I remember crying later that day at home, partly for what I would never have the chance to say, but mostly for what I did have the chance to say but never did. Years and years later, I felt that same kind of fear when I fell in love with another girl and came up against a ticking clock – a self-imposed timer to confess my feelings at the cast party of a show. Yeah, I never really said it. Again. But this time I was just a little bit closer. And we ended up dating for three years so I guess not all hope is lost, right?
My excursions to the bench that week in pursuit of love solidified me as a hopeless romantic. It reminds me of my soft-spoken, introverted, permissive nature despite all the faces I wear now as a friend, actor, brother, and sometimes therapist. But mostly, it teaches me about where I have room to grow. No matter who I am and what I believe, I need to more than anything be willing to take risks and let my heart ride out the tidal waves of adrenaline that life often incurs. I need to poke a little hole in the dam that I’ve constructed as a defense mechanism, allowing the river of emotion I hold in check the tiniest outlet from which to pour. And finally, I need to always be confident, knowing that no opportunity lasts forever, no blessing falls into your lap without you making an effort to seek it out. Everything is time sensitive.
It’s probably for the better that I didn’t get to know Stephanie very well. I didn’t have much to say to her, and my plan wasn’t by any means foolproof. Plus, early romances have an uncanny tendency to not work out in the end. But then again, I guess I’ll never know.