Poor guy looks like an eighth grader himself. He’s no taller than Michael Cummings, my lab partner. He has dark, curly hair like Nicky Napolitano, Lizzie’s partner. Mr. McGee told us the first day that this is his first teaching assignment, and it shows. When things get rowdy, his face turns scarlet. That’s usually when Lizzie and I get sent to Mr. Tarantino’s office. Last period, all we want to do is fool around before it’s time to go home or time for detention. I think detention is harder on Mr. Tarantino than Lizzie and I because he has purple bags under his eyes, and Lizzie and I enjoy our extra hour together.
Towards the beginning of the year, I walk to Lizzie’s house after school. We take the tree-lined street that starts at Nustead’s, where we buy a bag of red Twizzlers to share.
Lizzie points up ahead and breaks into a run. “Hey, Mr. McGee!”
I see our teacher raking the front yard of a small bungalow. His mouth opens, “Hi, girls,” but he keeps on raking.
Lizzie opens our bag of red licorice. “Wanna piece?”
He rakes his pile towards the back yard. “No thanks.”
By the time I catch up, I know two things, Lizzie has a teacher crush, and Mr. McGee wants us to go away.
We wave good-bye, but Lizzie talks about how cute Mr. McGee is, even in his coke bottle glasses, until we cross Union St. by Homestyle Pizza.
As the year progresses, whenever we walk home to Lizzie’s house, we have to go by Mr. McGee’s. We never see him at home again, but at Christmas there is a wreath on the door with a plaid ribbon. I tell Lizzie he must have a wife. At Easter a quilted bunny, replaces the wreath. I tell Lizzie he must have kids. But Lizzy’s infatuation is unaltered by facts.
In the late spring our gym teacher, Mrs. Fraser, begins a unit on tennis. Thirty girls in dingy white gym suits line up on either side of a series of nets. Mrs. Fraser demonstrates the serve by gently tossing a ball overhead and smashing it with more power than you’d expect from a chunky, middle-aged woman in a navy A-line skirt and a white cardigan. She quickly explains the screwy scoring system which starts with love, jumps immediately to fifteen, then thirty, forty and finally game after winning only four points. She steps to the sidelines, blows her whistle, and chaos begins. Balls fly. Legs run. Knees lunge. Rackets flail. Backhands miss. Balls collect at the edge of the court like clutches of frantically laid eggs. It’s a riot!
On Saturday, I ride to Lizzie’s with my racket over my handle bars and a clear plastic cylinder of brand new balls in my basket. Together we ride to the Van Antwerp courts. Tennis is even more fun when you don’t have to wear a whiffy uniform with arm holes already starched with sweat. It’s much more relaxed without Mrs. Fraser harping on rules and out of bounds. Lizzy and I lob back and forth, our only goal, to chase the balls as little as possible.
The sun beats down, and Lizzy has an idea. We park our bikes at the back door of the auditorium, and she takes out her library card. My head tilts puzzled.
She looks over her shoulder. “Watch this.”
With a simple swipe of the card between the door and the door frame, we are inside Van Antwerp’s cool, dim auditorium all by ourselves. We fumble for the footlights and leap to the stage. Lizzie takes stage right; I take stage left, rackets at the ready.
Lizzie yells, “Love!” and smashes a serve in my direction.
I return the ball, and it sweeps by Lizzie into the side drapes.
“Love!” I serve and we volley, volley, volley. In our own light. The audience dark. Bounce, swat, bounce until all our velvety balls have vanished into hidden nests of cords, curtains, and AV equipment.
As Lizzie turns out the lights, I lift my chin, “Just imagine, if we had unlimited balls, we could serve all afternoon into the balcony.”
On Monday we are building models of the ecological transition of a field to a climax forest. Mr. McGee has learned to tolerate noisy, independent work, and roams the room conferring with students on their projects.
Lizzie rounds my side of the tables and whispers in my ear, “Michael wants to take you on a double date with me and Nicky to Stewart’s Ice Cream after school.”
I drop the green pipe-cleaner hemlock I am carefully crafting. After almost a whole year of not paying attention together, I realize I kind of like Michael too. Lizzie slips back to her side of the lab table and my gaze takes in Michael’s streaky blonde hair. His hazel eyes ask again, and I nod. Lizzie laughs. All faces turn our way, and Mr. McGee guffaws with the rest of the class. Is nothing sacred?
After running to our lockers, Lizzie and I meet Michael and Nicky on the tennis courts. We stroll through the soccer fields, and Michael takes my hand as we cross busy Balltown Road. Nicky holds the door for Lizzie and I to enter Stewart’s refrigerated air.
Michael pulls out a scrolled metal chair for me to be seated. “What’s your favorite flavor?”
I look up. “Strawberry.”
He looks down. “Me too!”
“What kind of cone do you want—waffle or sugar?”
“Me too!” He turns on his heel and joins Nicky at the counter, ordering two chocolates.
I take a bite of my ice cream from the top, and then lick around the circumference. Michael smiles, following the same method to avoid drips into the paper napkin wrapped around the point of the cone.
I pause to avoid brain freeze. “Thanks, this is really good.”
“Glad you like it.”
That’s pretty much it for conversation until we cross back over to the Van Antwerp side of Balltown and round the building to the late bus.
“Bye.” I wave stepping into school bus number twenty-two.
“See you in science!” He races to bus number four.
My first date. Sweet, innocent, the way things ought to be. Nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing to get in trouble for. Safe, secure, simple. A remarkable interlude from a pattern of amusement that always required being out of bounds, not playing by the rules. I married a man who looks a lot like Michael Cummings. Love, fifteen, thirty, forty, game!