Our house was dominated by girls. Six out of the nine of us were girls. And I was born right smack between two brothers.
Caren and Cami would spend hours laughing and giggling and referring to inside jokes. They shared the same clothes and went to the same events together. They had the same friends and knew which boy the other was currently crushing on. There were no secrets between the two of them.
But if I wanted someone to hang with I had to play sports because that’s what the brothers did. I fell right in line behind Clayton. He had a few years on me and he breathed to play ball.
Scrounging up neighborhood kids to play basketball on the back patio was a specialty of his. At first we didn’t have a basketball hoop. But he had baskets to shoot so he rigged up a plastic white bucket nailed to a board to the siding of the house. Eventually someone donated a worn rim to the cause. They kept a ladder and hammer on hand to halt the game and rehang the rim each time they were too rough. The sound of the ball hitting the back of the house and boys yelling taunts was a common thing.
Basketball wasn’t Clayton’s only love. Sometimes he’d haul gear down to the fields at the grade school for hours of baseball. Or a game of whiffle ball in the backyard would do too. He even invented his own game called volley-yard. It was played with a volleyball and a tree branch extending over the width of the yard served as the net. He was ingenious and used anything at his disposal to play.
Clayton often let me tag along. He never got cranky with me for being smaller and slower than everyone else. He needed the extra body.
So it wasn’t until I got into PE with kids my own age that I discovered I was pretty good at athletic things. I could climb the rope clear to the top, pull on the cord to the bell, and make the gymnasium ring with my triumph. I wore my rope burns on the tops of my feet with pride.
When we played dodgeball I could catch the nerf balls lobbed in my direction. And I delivered my own lethal throws, pelting my intended targets. Few things were more satisfying than watching one of the bigger boys turn to dodge my throw and hearing the smack of the ball as it hit him square in the back.
“You’re out!” I’d declare with delight.
In the springtime when the rain cleared just enough to allow the track to dry up, our PE teacher marched us past the playground and down the grassy hill to the track. The sand on the track was coarse and crunched under dozens of kid-sized tennis shoes.
Mrs. Mathews had a perpetual whistle around her neck. She gave it a quick tweet, the signal for silence.
“You’re going to find a partner, you’re going to start here at this line and then race to me at the end of the track. Any questions?”
A hand grabbed mine. “Be my partner?” Stacy’s grip suggested she had no intention of letting go. Stacy was one of those blonde-haired beauties. But she lived two doors down from me so I could forgive her for that.
She was so painfully shy that the first time she came to my house to play her mom accompanied her as far as the driveway. We played in the part of the yard that looked directly into a portion of her own backyard where her mom watched and waved on occasion.
But there were simply too many of us. The chaos that seemed cheerful and comfortable to me was too overwhelming for this only child. With a red face she bolted from the yard in tears. It took time and practice, but eventually she got brave enough to venture into the house. If anyone in my family addressed her, her face turned pink, but she could respond with a one or two-word answer.
So Stacy didn’t need to squeeze my hand so tightly as we stood there on the track. Of course I’d partner up with her. She was my best friend.
The pair of kids in front of us lined up and were soon speeding down the track. At last it was our turn. We lined up and I found myself twitching in anticipation for the sound of the whistle. At the tweet I sprang into action and sprinted as fast as I could down the stretch of track. Sand kicked up behind me and stung the backs of my legs, urging me to pump them harder.
When I crossed the finish line I grinned and turned to my friend. She wasn’t there. She was still several paces behind me working her way down the track.
That was the last time Stacy ever asked me to be her partner in races.
When you play sports with older brothers and their friends you don’t expect to be very good at what you’re doing. But among my own peers I was good. Not just decent. I was competitive. I won and I liked it.
At the end of the class period Mrs. Mathews made a final offer. “If there are any girls who want to race any of the boys line up and you can all race together.”
I was one of only a few girls who lined up. The whistle blew. Not only did I beat each girl, but one by one I picked off the boys.
All except one.
James was easily the fastest. By a lot. After one race where I never saw anything but the backside of his retreating figure, he turned to me and offered his hand.
I took it only because convention required it.
“Nice race,” he said, running a hand through his red hair.
Oh how I hated him in that moment. How could any human being’s legs move so fast?
Year after year this scenario played out. Same school, same PE teacher, and same races, first by pairs, then collectively. And each time it ended the same way. I could never catch that flaming red hair.
James lived a couple of blocks away from me and it wasn’t uncommon for him to show up for a pick-up game of basketball or whiffle ball.
One day he was hanging around looking for something to do. My older brothers were nowhere to be found so Stacy and I invited him to play with us in a game of house. This was a foreign concept for him as he only had brothers. He unwittingly agreed.
But we had a dilemma. Here we were, two girls and only one boy. Stacy and I had a minor struggle over who got to have the husband. I reasoned that it was my house. She argued that if I’d track down my little brother then he could be my husband. I told her that was stupid.
Stacy and I were not afraid to fight with each other under normal circumstances. But we had a guest. So we didn’t let things get too far out of hand. She finally reasoned that she never got to play games like this at home and I caved. I was a middle child of a million kids. It’s what middle children do. But that didn’t mean I had to be happy about it.
I watched as Stacy ordered James around. To have a husband would be glorious!
The idea occurred to me while she told him the dishes needed to be done. It was bold and my heart raced. But the more I watched, the more certain I was I’d do it.
I was going to kiss James.
Stacy was called to go home early. The game ended and James and I stood around awkwardly. I was too consumed with my plan to kiss him that I had nothing to say. He lingered for a moment and decided he’d leave too.
“I’ll walk you out,” I offered. I was struggling to find the right moment.
On the porch he gave a little wave. “See ya.”
“Wait.” I leaned in and pecked him on the cheek. Then I rushed into the house, slamming the door without watching for his reaction. What if I’d been a bad kisser?
I peeked into the dining room to make sure nobody had seen the kiss from the windows that overlooked the porch. Through the curtains I saw his figure still standing in place on the porch.
What are you doing? Go home you fool!
Someone could see him at any minute.
My heart raced. I’d never kissed anyone I wasn’t related to. We had rules against dating until we were 16. So how did kissing fall into that? It wasn’t technically dating. But I was pretty sure dates were supposed to happen before kisses.
I peeked through the window again and he was finally gone.
I told no one. Not Stacy, not my sisters and definitely not my brothers. When I saw James again at school I ignored him. I didn’t want to talk about it or acknowledge it in any sort of way.
Time passed and I thought I was in the clear. I thought we’d reached an unspoken agreement. But James had other ideas.
It was second grade and we were sitting around the same table in the middle of class doing some busy work.
He piped up. “Someone at this table kissed me last year.”
I froze. Was he trying to embarrass me? Why would he bring that up now? It was ancient history.
The other kids looked around the table with great curiosity. I felt sick. This was not something I wanted to make public knowledge. I stared hard at the paper in my hands that I worked at with a pair of scissors, blocking my face.
“Crystal?” I heard a girlish voice ask. “Was it Crystal?” The glee was hard to mistake.
I lowered my work just enough to stare them all in the eye. I would probably go to hell for the lie I was about to tell. But an eternity of burning in torment was preferable to admitting the truth.
I shook my head. “Uh, no.”
My word against his. And good Mormon girls don’t tell lies.
So on the track James continued to beat me. He put such great effort into crushing me soundly, his chest thrown out and neck straining, that part of me started to wonder. He was the youngest of three boys and no stranger to competition. It wasn’t a stretch that each victory for him might be satisfying revenge for my denial that I’d ever kissed him.