“My head keeps spinning,
I go to sleep and keep grinning,
If this is just the beginning,
My life’s gonna be beautiful.
I’ve sunshine enough to spread,
It’s like the fella said,
Tell me quick,
Ain’t love like a kick in the head?”
Lyrics to Dean Martin’s Ain’t That a Kick in the Head
They say love comes when you least expect it. Like an unanticipated visitor seeking refuge in the warmth of your hearth. Or, a spray of lilacs hidden beneath a winter’s snowfall. In an instant, a cloud of darkness can give way to bright, sparkling love, moonlit promises, and a treasure trove of memories.
But, sometimes in the blush of youth, we confuse lust for love. And, sometimes we never know real love at all. And, as in my case, there are times love opens its arms and we walk away for reasons that later we cannot comprehend.
Like the refrain goes, love’s like a kick in the head. Perplexing and illogical, it’s safe to say, we never learn about love from the mistakes of others. Which is why, the song and dance of love is one that is repeated often, throughout the course of history.
Or, as Sonny and Cher would say, “And the beat goes on.”
Meeting Jake was unexpected. Gregariously handsome, he had all the right lines, which he’d flick at you in rapid procession so that when you fell, you fell hard. Still, if Jake was unexpected, falling for a mere underclassman like James was even more so. James had a soft, youthful quality about him, which is why it was so easy for me to scoff at the thought that there might be anything between us. Too young to consider dating, he seemed more like one of the kids I’d babysit for on the weekends.
Yet, with each passing day, James impressed me with his intelligence, crackerjack wit, and genuine compassion. Unlike Jake, he didn’t have a come-on line. He never tried to be sexy or prove anything he wasn’t. He was just James, a boy who was exactly as he appeared.
In the days that followed my breakup with Jake, James remained his usual self. In other words, James was as attentive as ever. He’d greet me with his usual ray-of-sunshine smile, copy down the homework assignment for me if I skipped out on class—which I did on two occasions—walked with me to my next class, without even asking if it was alright with me, and generally gazed at me when he thought I wasn’t looking. But, I was.
James was always there. Reliable. And, while I appreciated the little things he did to lift my spirits, my mind had been dizzily racing elsewhere. I’d needed something—a spark, a change. I wanted to be reckless and wild, and not the sweet little girl most assumed I was.
But, until the moment that James drew me out of study hall, willing me to give him a chance, it had never occurred to me that the change I needed, the high I craved, might be found in him. That night, I thought about our conversation behind the school—how he looked and how exhilarating it felt to be touched by him. How he held my hand so assuredly, as if it was something he did all the time. And how the recollection now electrified me. I got little sleep that night, playing our encounter over and over in my head.
The following morning, I knew what I had to do. I was going to take the next step, I thought excitedly, as I pumped my legs, riding my bike to school. James wanted me to give him a chance, and that’s exactly what I planned to do, eager was I to discover what he was made of, and what it’d be like to spend time with him outside of school. It was do or die, and put your money where your mouth is, and I was more than ready.
Okay, maybe cautiously ready. After all, there was still the matter of the age difference. What if my friends were to learn about this date I was planning with a sophomore? Would they laugh and make me the butt of their jokes?
As I made my way past Waldbaum’s supermarket, through the parking lot, bypassing the local library, I found myself feeling unsteady. What was I thinking? I was willing, wasn’t I, to give him a chance? Suddenly, I was uncertain. As I eased my bike onto the school grounds, I found my second thoughts were turning into third and fourth ones. I was caving.
I can do this, I told myself.
No, I can’t. No way, no how.
I walked down the hall toward Geometry. The second bell, marking the start of class, had yet to ring, but Mrs. C was already writing on the chalkboard the problems we’d be working on that morning. James and Sam were there, too.
James’ face lit up when he saw me, and I felt my cheeks burn. I can do this I said to myself as I took my seat in front of them, and turned around to face them.
James must’ve also been thinking about our rendezvous the day before, for he asked, with a mischievous grin, “So, did you end up making it to your last period okay?”
I nodded. The words I’d been planning to say stuck in my throat. I can do this. I can invite him on an outing for Saturday. Piece of cake, if only I’d stop backpedaling.
“What are you talking about? Why wouldn’t she make it to her class?” Sam interjected.
“No reason. Just asking,” James quickly replied, realizing he’d nearly spilled the beans.
I’m crazy to invite him anywhere. People would definitely talk if we went out. If I’m seen alone with him, away from school, they’ll wonder. Unless, unless…a thought came to me. No one would say anything about three friends hanging out. Three, not two.
Practically choking on my words, I began to sputter, only to be interrupted by James, who lowered his voice and spoke directly to me. “Hey, any interest in going on a bike ride with me tomorrow? I was thinking we could head out to Eisenhower Park.”
Yikes. His invitation, while pleasing, caught me off guard. I can’t do this. Not without Sam.
Nervously, I brought Sam into the conversation. “Great idea! What do you think, Sam? Can you make it?”
James was puzzled by this turn of events. Clearly the invitation was for me alone. He said, “I think Sam has plans with his folks.” He paused, then added, “Am I right, Sam?”
Sam didn’t take the hint. “Um, not really. I can make it. What time?”
A flood of relief came over me. I’d be seeing James but, in case we ran into anyone, it would be obvious it wasn’t a date. There was no way I could be seen dating a sophomore, plain and simple.
Still, to make doubly sure we wouldn’t be seen together, I said, “Actually, how about I meet you both there? Is 1 o’clock okay?”
“Sounds good,” said Sam. A sullen James looked away.
“James?” I said wistfully.
He seemed deep in thought. I knew he wanted it to be just the two of us, and was starting to feel bad about my decision to include Sam.
Say something, James. Tell me you can’t wait to see me, anyway. Tell me you’re as excited as I am. Tell me you understand. It’s better this way, don’t you see? We’re friends, the three of us. Friends, that’s all, James—James? Why can’t you say something?
Sam pressed him. “What’s wrong with you?” The second bell rang, signaling the start of class.
James finally looked up and sighed, “Sure, 1 o’clock is fine. We’ll meet at the park.”
Only I could see the flash of confusion in his eyes that seemed to be asking me, ‘What are you afraid of?’
Everything. Falling for you. Being with you.
I was afraid of myself.
But, frankly, I hadn’t a clue.
(To be continued.)
Missed an installment? Catch up by visiting the page, Lightning in a Jar: High School Years.