This story, like any other, is about a girl. All my stories are. It’s not that I have a one-track mind, or that I’m so desperate that I can’t think about anything but girls. Nothing like that. No, this story, and all others, are about girls for one very important reason. That’s what the audience likes to hear.
One very bright and sunny spring day, I was wandering home from school. I say wandering because I had decided, for the first time of many, that heading straight home was altogether boring. I saw the same buildings, the same cars, the same people, the same rocks. I wanted to see something new. So I wandered.
In my hometown, it’s easy to wander. In small towns it always is. Backyards are rarely off-limits, and when they are, it becomes a challenge to sneak through, anyway. Front yards are just as passable, and if you cross the right yards, you just might find a tree worth climbing. Wandering, however, is not just a rambling and a shuffling in any old direction you choose. Oh, no. There’s a science to it. If you ever catch yourself heading in the direction of home for too long, you have to immediately change directions. Sometimes this can put you in a bit of a pickle, what with thorn bushes, fences, and the occasional guard dog. But once you’ve decided to wander, you’ve got to stick to your guns. You can’t change your mind just because of an obstacle.
On this particular day, I was wandering exceptionally well. I’d managed to cross an enormous mud puddle and only got my sneaker a little wet. My hand was muddy, but that’s what jeans are for. Mother would probably have something to say about me coming home late, anyway, so I didn’t care too much about the jeans.
I was about half-way home and still had at least 15 minutes of wandering left when I stumbled through a backyard that had changed abruptly since my last wandering through it. The house had once belonged to an old woman, but I heard rumors at church that she’d died and the house was for sale. Whispering old ladies loved to talk about other old ladies. I never usually paid them much attention, but I’d pick up the pieces here and there. The backyard was full of wonders I’d never seen there before. There was a brand new swing set and an old tricycle. There was even the beginnings of a new sandbox.
Now, normally I’m not one for playing with toys. I’ve been the man of the house ever since dad went away, and men don’t have time to play. But the sight of those toys still filled me with awe. I heard a screen door open and I quickly hid in the bushes at the edge of the backyard. I heard a woman’s voice from inside the house say, “Don’t get too dirty. We have company coming tonight.”
“Okay, mom,” came the reply. My heart sank in my chest. It was a girl. I realized then that I would not be coming over to play here. Girls and boys don’t play together, so men and girls certainly don’t play together.
She came around the corner of the house and plopped herself down into one of the swings. She was wearing a pink dress. I know you’d like a better description, but that is the best I can give you, as boys don’t usually pay much attention to girls’ dresses. Men pay even less.
She sat on the swing and looked pretty sad. A strange tingle went down the base of my spine and she quickly looked up at the bushes where I was hiding. No, not at the bushes. Directly at me. Somehow she could see exactly where I was. More than that, she could feel it.
“You can come out, now. I know you’re there,” she said, and turned her head away from the bushes. She sat that way for several seconds and I knew that she would stay that way until I stepped out of the bushes myself.
So I did.
Slowly I walked toward her and when I was about three arm-lengths away, I stopped. Three arm-lengths is the safe distance to avoid cooties from girls. Jimmy taught me that. Jimmy was my best friend before I became a man. We’re still friends, but men and boys don’t play together. Men don’t play at all.
“I’m Kira,” said the girl. “What’s your name?”
I’d never heard the name Kira before.
“John,” I replied. I’d heard the name John a lot.
The girl didn’t say anything. She just sat there on her swing.
“You have mud on your jeans,” she said. I looked down at the mud on my jeans and for the first time felt as though jeans weren’t meant to be dirty. I didn’t know what to say. “Would you like to push me?” she asked.
Boys don’t play with girls. Men don’t play at all. But men push girls in swings all the time. That’s not playing. That’s helping. Men help.
“Sure,” I said.
I started pushing her, softly at first, but slowly picking up speed. She didn’t say anything, but she closed her eyes and smiled as the wind blew her curly, blond hair back. When I started to push her really fast, she began to giggle.
“Higher, John!” she cried out. I pushed as hard as I can. I pushed harder than I’d ever pushed before.
When I thought she couldn’t go any higher, she suddenly jumped out of the swing. The smile that had crept across my face as I was pushing her quickly vanished as I watched her soar through the air. I’d never seen anyone jump out of a swing at that height before. It was dangerous.
She landed on the ground and crumpled into a ball. She didn’t move.
She still didn’t move.
I ran to her side and knelt by her and shook her shoulder. “Kira! Kira, are you okay?” I asked, frantically. She rolled over and looked at me with one eye, the other squeezed tightly shut. She was grinning.
“That was fun,” she said. I felt a grin break out across my face, my fear forgotten now that I knew she was alright. “You should come over and play again tomorrow.”
She got up, brushed herself off and ran inside. The swing was still swaying from being pushed so hard. I turned to it and stopped its movement. Men don’t play at all. But boys do play with girls. Maybe I could still be a boy sometimes.
I ran all the way home, without wandering. From that day on, whenever I could wander, I always made sure to wander into that backyard.