We’re under the jungle gym when she says, “I wanna see who’s the best kisser.” In my humble opinion the afternoon has just gone from bad to worse.
“Yeah, right,” Joe says.
“No, seriously,” she says.
Craig doesn’t say anything.
There’s a bar that connects the four legs of the jungle gym, forming a little shaded room of sorts, a ceiling of wood, a floor of sand. Each of us taking up a side of the room, leaning against the bar, facing in towards each other.
Michelle crosses her leg, one foot bouncing in the air. I dig my feet into the sand beneath us. My stomach sinks. Stop this ride, I want to get off.
The playground is empty, school ended hours ago. The restless week before summer. Soon we will no longer be fifth graders. There will be a bigger school a mile away, where it is rumored we will be assaulted daily by eighth graders. The sun is falling lower in the sky, light streams between the wooden support beams, setting Joe’s blue eyes aglow. I watch him smiling. I watch him watching her.
“I don’t know about that,” he says, then looks at me. “Mike, what do you think?”
“What?” I ask.
“Well, you’re going out with her.”
Michelle glances at me. “Yeah, well, he hasn’t kissed me yet.”
“You haven’t kissed her?”
I don’t say anything. The sudden shift in our geometry has left me a little stunned. Allegiances are shifting and I’ve fallen behind.
“He’s shy,” she says, as if it were an affliction. She leans her head back, her blonde hair brushing the top of her shoulders. Her glasses catch the light and I can’t see her eyes. Michelle John. It’s true, I’ve held her hand and that’s it. I’m more enamored with the idea of “going together” than the actual practice. I like the note passing, the whispering, the relentless prodding by friends. But alone with Michelle, in the backseat of the bus, I am conspicuously devoid of any urge to touch her. And while a certain shyness may be attractive, I’m beginning to realize that a girl like Michelle needs more.
She tugs her halter-top up and I watch the other boys watch her. And that’s the problem. Instead of watching her, I watch them.
She folds one long brown leg over the other. “Well?”
Craig’s freckled skin is flushed red. He wears jeans and Docksiders. He has more money than the rest of us. I’ve been on his father’s boat on Lake Superior, leaning over the side, watching the deep green water rushing beneath us. Craig’s eyes remind me of that water. “It’s over 70 feet deep right here,” his Dad had said that afternoon. Or was it 700? I had imagined how dark it would be down there, what kinds of things could slide up to you.
“If Mike doesn’t care, I don’t care,” he says. He’s struggling valiantly to appear as calm as Joe.
Michelle turns to me. “Do you?”
“Do you care?” she asks. Her words are clipped, business-like. Her frankness unsettles me.
“Um. I guess not. No.”
“Good,” she says, standing up. “I’ll kiss Craig first.” His eyes widen as she walks over and sits at his side, balancing on the bar. She turns to him but then stops. She takes her glasses off. “Here, hold these,” she says, leaning over to me. I don’t say anything, I just take her glasses. She places a hand on each of Craig’s shoulders, then leans towards him, and just like that they kiss. I watch them. No, I watch Craig. There is no tenderness, in fact they plunge their tongues in each other’s mouths, and the intensity shocks me. I feel as though everyone has suddenly grown up, and I’ve been left behind. Their eyes are closed tight. It lasts three seconds. They pull apart and without taking a breath she says “He sucks too much.” Which makes us all laugh. Craig makes a feeble effort to protest, but events have reached a momentum of their own, there is no stopping now.
She hops up and crosses to Joe, sits at his side. Joe Welecski, my best friend since last year. He lives in a low, shoddy house across the highway from the golf course. Joe has the entire basement to himself. One summer night last year he showed me how to light bottle rockets on the hill behind his house. Joe, who make us hamburgers with ketchup and mayo when I stay over. Joe, who still wears red pajamas with feet. Michelle’s going to kiss Joe.
They close their eyes and lock lips in an equally fervid collision. I watch Joe’s pale, wide face press up against hers. Their kiss lasts five seconds, and when they break apart she says “He’s good,” which again makes us laugh. Joe smiles a little, and I envy him the comfort with which he wears his body, sitting there, solid and sure.
Michelle crosses to me, sits at my side. My blush has drained to pale. Craig and Joe watch from their sides of the square. She sits close, and when she lays her hands on my shoulder I push down on the panic boiling up. I don’t know how to kiss and even if I did, I wouldn’t want to kiss Michelle John.
“Wait, stop,” Joe says. I turn towards him, grateful for any interruption. He’s looking past us, and when I turn I see a car pull up to the curb on the edge of the playground.
“Shit, that’s my father,” Michelle says, standing up. “I gotta go.” She takes her glasses from me and without a word ducks out. The three of us watch her half-run across the grass. She opens the passenger door and slips inside without looking back.
I turn back to the others. Joe pulls a comb from his back pocket and runs it through his feathered hair. “Don’t worry, Beaker,” he says. Beaker’s my nickname, because I have bird legs. “Next year we’ll get you a girlfriend, and we’ll have campfires over in the woods. We’ll bring blankets.”
That sounds awful, I want to say. Instead I watch him comb his hair. It’s a white comb, same color as mine. In fact we are both combing our hair in the boy’s bathroom later that week when he tells me that he’s going out with Michelle. I’m too pissed to reply. I leave him there. After school, when I get home I lie face-down on my bed, crying into the comforter. My mother comes in and rubs my back.
“Michelle….broke up with me…” I sob, “…to go out with Joe.” I’m a pitiful wreck.
“That was the day,” she tells me, years later, “that I knew. I knew you were gay.”
“Why?” I’ll ask.
“You were more upset about Joe than you were about Michelle.”
I don’t know how she figured that out, from one tear-stained sentence. But she was my mother, and mothers always know.