There were plenty of girls in 5th grade who had begun to sprout breasts. Rumors of breasts, really, slight bumps you had to strain to see. There was no such mystery with Tanya Olsen, however. All us boys regarded her as something of a freak of nature, well on her way to double Ds. She was, naturally, the object of widespread affection.
She was cute otherwise, if in a quirky way. Stringy, feathered, brown hair with bangs brushing her blue-gray eyes. She was taller than I, my eyes staring directly at her thin, but not uninviting lips. An adorable constellation of freckles splashed across her nose.
I began to court her in the stealthy manner of ten-year-olds, whispered inquiries to her confidants, brief glances across the playground. Scattered replies came by way of the usual channels, taunts from the boys, coquettish asides from the girls, enough to water the seeds of hope. We talked in short bursts, averting our gazes, all shy smiles and vaguely murmured plans. Through the pipe line, I learned one Friday that she wanted to go steady, for me to ask her the question.
"Will you go with me?"
So simple, so nebulous and dorky, but I asked her full of fear. She smiled and put me off.
"Are you going to the rink tonight?"
"I'll tell you then."
I soared. The delay didn't affect me. The skating rink--Roller King--was the center of our social universe. It was a natural place to cement our union, this ritual of kids playing grown-up. The lights were always low, prime real estate to steal a kiss, to seal our timeless romance.
The clock stopped all afternoon. Through dinner, my anticipation held me rapt. I could think of nothing other than the first couple's skate, my hands on her hips, maybe sliding to the small of her back, maybe even lower.
I was leaning against the oddly carpeted walls of the rink when I saw her walk through the door, saw her regally passing through the assembled masses, slow-motion and perfectly lit. This will be a night I remember forever. I went to her straight-away, grinning too wide, unable to temper my expectations. I will argue to this day that, at that precise moment, nothing was amiss. All was progressing perfectly as planned. My gooey daydreams on the precipice of reality.
Until she saw Woody.
Eric Woods was a friend of mine from another school. We'd been soccer teammates for two years and he was our unquestioned leader. Bigger than most, platinum blonde hair topping his bronzed frame, he was the quintessential California Boy. His family was wealthy, his parents attractive, their genes infused into his raw-boned athleticism. He was insanely popular, of course, but not arrogant. Like many kids with all the breaks, he exuded confidence, but needed more attention. His looks set him apart, raised him up. He had to occasionally be assured of his standing.
Tanya fell for Woody at first sight. He and I were talking when she came up. I was so enraptured with her standing there, I didn't notice the looks. I didn't notice her body language. I figured she was there for me. Why wouldn't she be?
Clues kept dropping on me as the night wore on. When it came time for the slow dance, I couldn't locate her. I found her orbiting Woody more than once. Still, I refused to believe it. I ignored the gnawing, distant but certain, and plunged ahead. Until the lights came on. As we gathered our shoes, I sought her out. I stood over her as she stared at the ground, apparently finding the burnt orange carpet the most interesting thing in history. She never looked up when she delivered the blow.
"I like your friend, Eric."
I held my water on the ride home. My father dropped off my friends, not seeming to notice my silence, oblivious to the cannonball in my chest. Its weight was drowning me, making it difficult to breathe, to conceive of how I could face another minute so absorbed was I in this rejection.
The tears came as soon as we walked through our front door, burst forth like a tsunami, both dangerous and unrelenting.
"What happened?" my Dad said.
I blubbered the whole story, hitting every sour note, as he looked on impassively. When I reached the tragic conclusion, he put his hand on my head and said,
"Women are like buses, son. If you miss one, another comes along shortly."
I stared at him with barely disguised fury. "What kind of fucking reply is that?" But he didn't see it. He turned and strode down the hall, muttering a "Goodnight."
My Dad and I have had a checkered relationship. Less the anger I felt that night than a certain ambivalence. From both of us, because I am, after all, my father's son. Everybody likes my Dad. My friends always called him "Jovial Ed." He is immensely likable, works hard to be such.
It's easy to be happy and likable when you don't attach significance to events. When you refrain from delving deeply into yourself, into issues which affect those around you. As in the tale above, my Dad was always available for a quick quip, a one-off, but never for actual guidance. Never for in-depth appraisal. It's not him.
It took me most of my life to come to grips with that fact. Took me decades to forgive this flaw--correction: what I PERCEIVED to be a flaw. As children, boys rely on their fathers to teach them how to be men, for mothers to teach them how to love, to nurture. Though I never suffered from an absent father, not in the physical sense, I felt like I missed a lot of important lessons, arrows I would later need in my quiver as I navigated adulthood. I blamed him for the hard manner in which I learned to grow up, making mistakes I felt could have been avoided with more training.
The distance between my father and I has closed. I recognize my role in the gulf that separated us. It is, in fact, the very trait I always despised in him that I began to see in myself. It's almost a kind of sleep-walking, being preoccupied with so many issues--or even something as mundane as a baseball game or a magazine article or an online poker tournament--that you're numbed to the events and people around you, their needs, their need of YOU. To help, to make an effort, to push yourself off your escapism, to be intuitive. And most of all, to listen. To hear not just the words but the meaning, not just the story but the sub-text.
You appreciate your parents more when you become one yourself. I have fond memories of my Dad, who never refused a request to hit me some flies and grounders. He was always in the stands at my games. I'll never forget sprinting off the field after scoring a goal in the State Cup Final, jumping into his arms and having him lift me into the sky, pride pouring from his face. I'm happy to elevate those times, instead of the ones where I found him lacking. I've stopped looking to see if he's acquired those traits I so desired in him, accepted the fact they'll never appear. Nor do I find fault in that any longer. People will disappoint you if you expect them to be perfect. They'll reward you if you embrace the things about them which you love.
At long last, I've found much to love in my father. The best of which is the love AJ has for his grandad. It's in his eyes. In his smile. In his quiet sobbing at leaving grandpa's house a couple weeks back. Now, as a man myself, THAT is all I ever need from my father, to add to my son's life.
Which is far more than I would have ever gotten out of Tanya Olsen.