At Play in the Fields of the Boys

Part of my crush was on his name: Kevin Leisure.

More than that, it was his hair, which was longer and messier than any other boy’s. The outside of his head made it clear he had more important things on the inside of his head. I wasn’t the only girl to notice.

“They’re so lucky to have a love like that,” I said to my best friend as we walked home after school. We passed the line of buses headed down the hill to the apartment buildings attached to the army base we called home in Darmstadt, Germany. Kevin’s older brother Todd and his girlfriend stood entwined, saying their goodbyes before boarding their separate buses, their books stacked on the sidewalk next to their feet in two ankle-height towers.

What I meant was, one day that would be me and Kevin embracing by the buses.

In sixth grade, Kevin had more playground cred than the other boys because he had Todd, and Todd had a girlfriend. They kissed goodbye for as long as it took us middle-school kids to board the buses. It was hard not to stare. Kissing was like Burger King for a kid living in Germany in the 1970s: something out of reach but that I longed for because magazines and TV made it look wonderous.

Kevin was on my brother’s baseball team. At that age and on that army base, we were organized around organized sports. There wasn’t much access for girls, but I wasn’t an athlete anyway. I enjoyed unorganized ball games in the grass field in front of our apartment building that looked identical to all the other apartment buildings around the base. But more than ball games, I enjoyed reading about the kinds of teenagers who kissed in front of school buses in books like My Darling, My Hamburger by Paul Zindel and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume, or the darker and more mysterious ones I found in my teenage aunts’ shared bedroom, like Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway. Her tale of prostitution scared me slightly, but I also knew my reading it made me a much more worldly sixth grader than my peers.

Each week with my allowance, I would walk on my own to the bookstore on base and buy a popsicle and a book. If I had babysitting money, I could also get an Archie Comics Digest. The day I bought Forever by Judy Blume, I skipped the popsicle. Too childish. I took the book home and closed my bedroom door. I had to finish it in time for the coming book report, to show the kids in class how mature I was.

On the day of the report, I strode to the front of the class. I blushed a little as I described the teen couple in the novel fumbling toward sex. I nervously pulled the zipper on my sweatshirt up and down as I described the way the boy named a certain part of his anatomy Ralph. I could tell by the laughter I was a hit. I walked confidently back to my seat. After I sat the girl in front of me turned around and whispered that my fly was down.

I worked after that to reverse my nerd status. I volunteered to be batgirl for the Darmstadt Pirates, the team Kevin and my brother were on. That didn’t mean Kevin and I spoke. It meant I got to look at him as I ran by the dugout to retrieve thrown bats. This was a good first step toward true love.

One day, as the field was thinning after a game I approached the dugout with a stray bat. Kevin emerged from the shade underneath. His hair curled up around the edges of his cap.

“Isn’t that right, Lori?” he said.

My stomach jumped. Conversation was not part of our arrangement. Yet.

Red dust from the field covered the bottom of his white and yellow uniform pants. My brother stood behind him in the dugout. I tried to make out his face. If he’d told Kevin about my feelings, I would make him sorry. I conveyed this with my glare.

“Isn’t what right?” I asked. I channeled Tatum O’Neal from The Bad News Bears as I squinted in the bright sun and dust from the field. Around us car doors slammed and boys yelled “bye” to one another. I’d never made a plan for actual interaction. I’d only planned for kissing in front of the school bus. I hoped the question wasn’t about the game. I hadn’t really watched. There was a lot going on at the snack stand: chips, candy, green-apple bubble gum you could smell from across the field.

“You’re my girlfriend, right?” Kevin said.

I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly, but no way would I ask him to repeat it. I continued walking. I continued throwing a Tatum O’Neal glare at my brother. The bat in my hand vibrated. My whole body vibrated.

“Yeah,” I said. This is it, I thought. I’m about to become a teenager. I watched Kevin, waiting for his joyous response. Would he run over and kiss me? Would he walk over and grab my hand so everyone still hanging around the field would see we’re a couple? He smiled and nodded, then walked away.

At dinner I was still puzzled. I asked my brother if he’d talked about me with Kevin. He said no. He said he was as puzzled as I was.

“Do you think he’s my boyfriend now?” I asked.

“I guess,” he said.

The next morning I walked to school with my best friend. Our matching flared jeans swung around our matching sneakers. We wanted to look the same. We both had long straight hair. My bangs formed a crooked line above my eyebrows. Her bangs parted slightly and framed the top of her face like curtains. She didn’t have brothers, which I envied. My brothers lived in a world more foreign than our German surroundings. They liked to tease me. They laughed when they made me angry. They read books about football players instead of teenage girls.

“Are you sure?” my friend asked when I told her about my new status as Kevin’s girlfriend.

I nodded.

“I wouldn’t tell too many people. Yet. Just in case,” she said.

At lunch when the middle school went outside for recess, Kevin ran around with the other boys. He didn’t speak to me. I watched for a sign. Just before the bell, I blurted out our secret.

“Kevin and I are going out,” I said to a girl standing near me. I knew she liked Kevin too. I might not have participated in the organized ball games, but I knew the middle-school power game. I’d read enough Judy Blume to know a relationship was worth major points.

“No, you’re not,” she said.

She repeated it to someone else, who repeated it to someone else. They all had the same response. Regret ate away at my pride. Maybe eighteen hours was too soon for us to go public with our love.

The sixth graders lined up by the entrance to school, waiting for our teacher Mr. Agassiz to collect us. With his thick curly hair and mustache, Mr. Agassiz was a close second for my affection. But our different heights meant we couldn’t kiss in front of school buses for many, many years.

The boys couldn’t stand in line. They shoved and mocked one another, all of it hilarious to them. One of the popular girls, a girl I didn’t know well but who knew Kevin well, stepped out of line and approached Kevin.

“Are you going out with Lori?” she asked him.

The air stilled. The shoving boys stilled. Kevin’s eyes met mine. I thought I saw the start of a smile.

“No,” he said.

I heard laughter but avoided looking at any faces. It was like the laughter of my brothers or the laughter during my book report. It didn’t include me. It targeted me. I felt like Harriet the Spy after she’s outed, like if I could explain the situation my classmates would see their reaction was wrong.

I wasn’t wrong. He’d said it.

I pretended to smile.

I approached him after school. I steered him away from the other kids and the smell of bus exhaust. I offered him a chance to reconfess his love.

“Why’d you say yesterday we were a couple,” I asked. I bit my lips to keep them still.

“It was just a joke,” he said. A brother kind of joke, I thought. I wanted to shove him. I could claim it was a joke. I walked home alone.

The next day I had to babysit for our downstairs neighbors. My best friend came with me. After I put the little girls to bed we sat on the overstuffed couch in the family’s living room. Paul Anka’s “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” played on the radio. I put my head in her lap. I cried and she combed my hair with her fingers. I was closer to understanding the song’s lyrics. I was closer to being a teen.

Lori Barrett is a writer and editor in Chicago. She has an MFA from Chatham University's low-residency program. Her writing has appeared in Salon, The Wall Street Journal, Paper Darts, Brooklyn Quarterly, and Entropy. She is an assistant fiction editor for Pithead Chapel and she volunteers as a writing tutor at her local public high school.