4
min

A Soft Smile

Image of Paul Ruth

Paul Ruth

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I was twelve and eyeing the first girl I ever loved from the sway of a schoolyard swing set. She was a the girl that wore dresses and looked good in them, never letting them hold her back from playing with the boys. I saw her mother once. She was from a calm family, full of life and joy, as so it seemed. The first time I saw Madelyn with her mother was after school just two week prior. I was getting on the school bus, as I always did, and Madelyn was being picked up with her mother standing outside of the car. Her mother had an expected smile even though this was the first time I saw her. Madelyn smiled back the same smile she had when she would be dropped off for school. As the car pulled ahead of the busses, I wished they would both look back. Madelyn had turned, but it was only to adjust her seatbelt, never intending to catch my gaze.
The swing set was lonely with only two other kids swinging and three more girls gossiping toward one tri-poled end of the structure. I allowed myself to sway, imagining that the wind was moving me, but it was only my heart. Twelve is not an age to know what to do with a fluttering heart. The emotion would freeze my attention every lunch and then for the period the grade would spend outside, not as interested in the term recess as we used to be. Sure I had friends, but not ones at such an age that would have come and asked why I wasn't playing basketball. We would sit together to eat lunch, but I would often go my own way to be alone or play two hand touch football, which I was better at than basketball.
Madelyn, on the other hand, was with the cool kids. The popular girls and the boys that somehow knew they were more attractive to the girls at that age than the other boys like me. I was bigger than them, faster than them, and had better test scores than them, but they always had a way to make it feel like somehow they were better than all the things that mattered. It was all a wash a few years later. They peaked too soon I guess, but maybe it made the difference to the rest of us going about our days running, jumping past each other and eyeing the students around us as we sped through multiplication tables. The crowd Madelyn hung around with didn't like competition. The rest of us, for the most part, did. As long as we found something that we could champion, we would be ok. Yet for those lunches, the boys that sat within the cool kids, and by association the sought after girls, were winning every day. They almost always seemed to have the same classes together too.
That day on the swing set I was staring more than usual. It was the blue dress and the brimmed hat she would put on when outside like at recess. Madelyn, not surprisingly, was talking with Mikey who went by Mike when in gym class and by the male teachers. He made a face at me to say he knew I was looking in their direction. He didn't like it. He must have felt I was looking at him since he started to shake his head, to my guess randomly to cause confusion in the conversation with Madelyn. I could tell that she was fascinated with him, or so I thought from that distance. She turned in my direction with Mikey nodding in my direction. I looked away pretending to find the mulch under the swing set fun to kick around while my heart swayed. By the time I looked up, she was walking with wise steps full of confidence and determination.
I didn't know what to do. I again pretended and this time it was the clouds rolling down to the horizon.
"What are you doing?" She was standing in front of me. I didn't have to look down, I just knew it.
"You ever wonder how clouds look to other people, like on the other side of the city or something?"
"I would guess it would like clouds, silly."
"Well yeah, but that's not what I mean. You know like when people look at the moon and wonder about someone else looking at the same moon and what they are thinking and all of that?" I looked down. She was smiling the starting school smile so I didn't have to wait till the end of the day.
"You look at things differently don't you?"
"I guess so." I looked back up to the clouds.
"I liked your story." I looked down again, amazed. We all had to write Halloween stories and then share them in front of the class. Mine was about graveyards and never ending zombies rising from the earth. It received a good reaction. The teacher liked it and some of the girls cringed at the close of it. Madelyn, come to think of it, was one of the first to applaud. Of course it was the first person I looked to when I finished reading.
"Thank you."
"It was really good, like a real story that someone might read."
"Thanks."
She waited for my building confidence to make eye contact. "Were you looking at us just now?"
I froze, "I, oh, um, ahhh, I guess I was. I was really looking at you."
"That's kind of creepy."
"Sorry, it wasn't like that. I mean, I didn't mean to creep you out or nothing. It was kind of like the clouds. I was wondering if others saw what I saw."
"Explain that to me again?"
I wanted to desperately explain everything, but it wouldn't happen. She moved to sit down in the swing next to me and then started to swing side to side making the chains sequel. I did the same and the seats tapped each other just enough to make her giggle and me chuckle. We looked forward. I cannot attest to what she saw, but I saw Mikey playing with John. John was the boy that not only was picked last in gym class, which often Mikey was one of the captains, he was the one that all the other kids made faces when the realized he was on their team. Mikey was tossing a football up over John's head. It was John's football. He had brought it that morning to show off at recess because it was a nice pro style ball that we were getting big enough to toss around without struggling. Mikey toyed with him, at least that is what I saw.
I strode from the swing at a quickening pace in a direct line to Mikey. My fist clenched to the contain the anger and people parted knowing enough to stay out of the way of a man on a mission. I wanted to run when I saw him toss the ball again and John struggling to reach for it. I saw the anguish and pain it caused John while trying to jump in his orthotic shoes of which everyone was aware.
In stride I knocked Mikey to the asphalt with one punch to the face. I stood over Mikey and the ball took an awkward football bounce and rolled away. I looked at John and he looked at me stunned. I slowly walked to the ball as all the other kids watched my next move. I handed the ball to John who tucked under his arm for protection the way his father must have tough him.
Before I knew it, I was grabbed by the arm by a lunch lady and led away, being too big at this point to be dragged. I looked back at the swing set and Madelyn was weeping, softly smiling different than I had seen before.

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