He irritated me one time too many...
and I wasn’t having it. Especially not with so many snickering witnesses on the field, some were even sixth graders.
“Meet me at the bike racks after school and we’ll settle this” I challenged, with a snort, and looked down my nose at him, watching the other kids out of the side of my eyes.
It was tricky, because even then, he was taller than me. I had to raise my chin to look down my nose. Everyone around us on the field got quiet.
He hardly paused, but he might have blinked an extra time.
I flipped my hair and stormed off, feeling tough and feeling brave-ish, as the kids on the field started making noise again. I was smug. I was also kind of wobbly. I was shivering a little, which was weird in the warm, noon sun of late spring in Alberta. And that was it. Everyone knew a bike rack meeting after school meant a fight. Someone was going to get beat up and a girl had just issued the challenge. Sort of. I didn’t exactly say we were going to fight. I was careful about that. I didn’t exactly say a fight was going to happen. Exactly.
Robbie and I had been playing together since kindergarten and we were always at each other’s birthday parties. We were now in fourth grade. I had better handwriting, but he could draw almost anything. He loved cars and drew them, Model T’s and Mustangs, all the time. At his house, we almost always played with cars. Usually, though, we played at the playground between our houses. He had a shiny, silver crown on one of his side teeth that you could only see when he smiled really wide or laughed so hard his shoulders bounced up and down. I was kind of jealous of that silver tooth, but I wouldn’t ever tell him that. Robbie insisted he was born on February 29th which was ridiculous, as I knew well and good that his birthday was March 6. He also told me he was a Tasmanian Devil every time his birthday came up. I really wanted to prove him wrong and get him to admit he was making it up. He usually had a twinkle in his eye that told me he might be kidding, but I fought it like the lie it was.
The final bell rang and my stomach sank a little. I hoped he’d back out. There was no way he would hit me. No way in the world. I was pretty sure. We were practically best friends and everyone knew it. And he wouldn’t hurt a flea. By the time I got to the bike racks with my possè – feeling very tough – there was a crowd gathered which made me feel both big and bad and very, very small. News traveled fast at Dr. Gordon Higgins Elementary School. I could feel the attention on me and hear my name in the mutterings, but I pointedly ignored it. I pretended not to notice Shane and some of the bigger boys were there. I talked to my friends as though I didn't have a care in the world, until I noticed it become quiet. I waited just another second or two, and then turned.
Robbie was walking slowly to the racks, by himself, wearing his mustard yellow baseball shirt with brown trim and some number on the back. He was looking at the ground, his hands in his pockets, walking kind of close to the brick wall behind the gym. I couldn’t really remember why I was so offended and I felt bad all of a sudden. Robbie came up to me, dragged his foot in the dirt one last time, looked up and gave me a crooked, half-grin. I couldn’t help but smile and I felt like myself, again. The crowd hissed in the background.
“Let’s go to the park?” I asked him. He nodded, and he and I headed home.
We never talked about it again.
I never did apologize for putting him in such a weird position. I never did ask him how he felt about the incident. A couple of years ago, at his wife’s request, I sat to write the eulogy for his funeral service with a heavy heart and leaden hands. Only then, in my grief and at the invasion of this strange memory, did it dawn on me I didn’t give a second thought to the gathered crowd once he showed up. I’m grateful for whatever wisdom bigger than me had me not give a damn that the crowd might have been disappointed or might have harassed either one of us for not fighting. I issued the challenge in large part because of them, and they just didn’t matter, in the end. What mattered was me being friends with this friend, again, and so it was easy to walk away. I’m grateful he walked away with me and seemed to forgive me this single, awkward experiment in tough girl shenanigans. He could have worried about his reputation, or toughness score in the eyes of the other boys, but he just left with me.
As I bear witness to our younger selves, there in that place, I see I was braver than I am now. Clearer. Peer pressure meant nothing. I reach back to that younger self and that lifelong friend to orient myself when I behave absurdly or paint myself into a corner. I’m glad for that shiny, silver tooth that marks Robbie’s impish grin so clearly in my mind’s eye when I remember, no matter what I’ve gotten myself into, I have a way out if I’m brave enough and humble enough to take it.
And that's some good magic right there.