Every summer as I sat in the stuffy church classroom, I could hear the birds outside and see the green branches of trees beckoning to me through the window. There was so much I wanted to be doing out there. But I was stuck indoors, doing Organized Crafts (which are projects with specific instructions and precise outcomes that allow for zero imagination.) I hated craft time and showed it by my lack of effort or frugality with glue. There was also a Bible lesson, which I daydreamed through; Music, that was slightly more bearable than Sunday school because someone played a guitar; and Snack Time (bars and Kool-Aid)—the one thing that made the experience tolerable.
I slumped into VBS the summer after third grade, fully expecting a repeat of every year past. My teacher seemed nice enough—she was a grown-up college girl named Anita Albertson. She was pretty and smiled at each of us as we came in. I sat down and looked around at the other students—the same kids who had just finished third grade with me. And then I noticed him: A new boy. I sat up straighter in my chair.
The new boy had a shock of orange hair, a sprinkling of freckles, and long, strawberry blond eyelashes. I was immediately smitten. Anita introduced him to us as Rodney Gordon. I did nothing all morning but stare at Rodney Gordon—all through singing, crafts, Bible lesson and snack time. I had never, in all my nine years, seen anything as adorable as this red-haired boy.
At noon we took our sack lunches outside to eat on the lawn and long cement steps of Pelican Lake Lutheran Church. I managed to find a spot next to Rodney and began unpacking my lunch. Normally I would have tried to locate Judy Ness to try and swap my Bologna on Wonder Bread for her Cheez Whiz on Homemade Bread, but I was not interested in lunch today. I starting talking with Rodney and found him to be as charming as he was cute. We played together during recess, sat together for the afternoon session, and were inseparable the rest of the week.
All week, I was the model VBS student. I sang loudly, but not too loudly, at music time. I was conservative with glue and followed instructions at craft time. I raised my hand to answer questions during the Bible lesson. I didn’t shove to get to the head of the line for snacks. I wanted to impress Rodney. Apparently, it worked, because every morning when I arrived, Rodney was waiting for me. He saved me a seat in class and a spot beside him at lunch. Rodney was not my first crush, but he was the first boy who liked me back. The week flew by with lightning speed.
On Friday, I left the house with a heavy heart. I didn’t want the week to end. Rodney lived in the country and went to a different school and I knew I wouldn’t see him again. I dragged my feet along the curb and listened to the music and narration that I often made up in my head—a sort of movie script that commonly accompanied my moments of reflection:
Dawn trudged toward the tall-spired church and sighed. [Cue violin music] She knew she was in love with the Red-Haired Boy and today would be the last time they would be together. “Ah, love! How it made the heart ache,” she thought with deepest sadness.
I got to the church early and hung around outside with the others as we waited for the pastor to unlock the doors. I sat with some of the girls from my class and talk turned immediately to me and Rodney and our Relationship.
“You LIKE him, don’t you!” one of them giggled.
“Yeah? So?” I retorted, acting bolder than I felt.
“You know what we should do,” another added with mounting enthusiasm. “We should play ‘Wedding!’ You can be the bride and Rodney can be the groom!”
Before I could answer, Rodney’s car pulled alongside us and he got out and joined the group. The girls posed the same suggestion to him and he grinned.
“Okay,” he said, smiling shyly at me.
Okay? He wants to marry me? I was flattered beyond words. This beautiful boy liked ME and wanted to MARRY me. This was a dream come true!
I heard more violins in my head.
The morning passed in a blur. Even if I wanted to back out now it was too late. The Wedding Planners had set the wheels in motion and were running with the idea while keeping up the façade that they were actually participating in VBS. Never was a wedding thrown together with such speed!
Right after lunch, we met in the white bandstand in the middle of the park across the street. The bandstand was a large gazebo with benches all around the inside and I had never seen a band play in it before. Kids used it to play in and teenagers had filled the inside walls with interesting (often puzzling) graffiti. Today, a wedding would take place here.
The groom wore a plaid, short-sleeved shirt tucked into Wrangler jeans. The bride wore a pink tank top, matching shorts, and flip-flops.
Someone provided me with a wilting bouquet of dandelions. They gave Rodney a plastic ring from a gumball machine. Rodney held my skinny hand in his bigger, sweaty one. I was aware of how sticky my fingers were, and brown from the flowers. Tracy, the tallest boy in our class, was chosen to be the minister. He did a clumsy, abbreviated version of wedding vows and we repeated after him, giggling nervously. Then he said, “You may kiss the bride.”
I blushed as Rodney leaned over and brushed his lips against my hot cheek. The congregation cheered. The wedding was over. Most of the kids dispersed then, to enjoy what was left of the noon hour. Rodney and I sat on the edge of the bandstand wall, feeling awkward after a whole week of comfortable friendship, wondering what to do next:
What do you do after you get married? Climb a tree? Swing? Play catch?
Just then some older girls—much older, maybe sixth graders—approached us having heard they missed a major event.
“Kiss her again,” they told Rodney. Rodney, the little Romeo, was all game, but I hesitated.
“Come on, we’ll give you a dime,” the girls coaxed. And so he did. I took my hand and wiped the kiss off, frowning suspiciously at the girls.
“Now, you kiss him,” they wheedled, promising ever increasing denominations of money.
I looked at Rodney’s bright blue eyes, smiling encouragingly at me, and hesitantly pecked his salty, freckled cheek. The onlookers were delighted and the crowd around the bandstand began to grow and get rowdier.
“Again, again!” the spectators shouted.
I felt dizzy. Rodney was beaming, clearly enjoying the attention from the audience and the affection of his bride. I looked at the gathering throng and felt a stab of self-consciousness:
They aren’t laughing with you…they’re laughing AT you!
Just then the church bells rang, signaling the end of recess. I pulled my hand out of Rodney’s and made a mad dash for the classroom, tossing the plastic ring in the grass as I went. I sat all afternoon with my head in my arms on the table in front of me. I avoided Rodney’s gaze and attempts to smile at me. I didn’t raise my hand during the lesson. I didn’t care if the Israelites ever made it to Canaan. I didn’t eat the afternoon snack. I felt like everyone in the class was mocking me, laughing at me, and I couldn’t bear to be made fun of. The air in the room was so thick I could barely breathe around the growing lump in my throat.
As soon as the bell rang at 3 o’clock, I was out the door and down the steps, sprinting for home. I did not stop for my finished crafts, neat and perfect with just the right amount of glue. I did not go into my house. I headed straight for my own backyard, behind the garage, into the row of elderly lilac bushes where I had previously carved out a cave-like fort for myself. Safely inside, away from prying eyes, I hugged my knees to my chest, buried my face in my arms and sobbed. How could a day start with so much promise…and end like this?
I heard a noise and looked up. It was my dog, Fritz, crawling toward me through the bushes on his belly. I drew him close and buried my face against his wire-haired head. He sat there, indulgently allowing himself to be drenched in snot and tears, turning only to lick the flowing stream off my sweaty face. I cried until there were no more tears, then crawled back out to face the real world.
I knew I’d never see the money those older girls had promised and I felt angry with them. I had to find Renee before she told Mom what had happened. Life with a broken heart was hard: It would be months before I liked another boy.