Quick reminder: I change the names sometimes. You know, for reasons.
It was my junior year of high school. In about a year, a group of college students would invite me to hang out with them and I would finally start to feel as if I truly fit in somewhere with people worth fitting in with. But that was in the future and currently unknowable in my French class.
Not many of us were taking a third year of French, so we met with a second year class. The second and third year students sat on opposite sides of the room facing each other. I partially paid little attention in class because I just didn’t pay much attention in French. Mostly, though, it was because seated directly across from me was a girl named Ember.
Ember burned. Her personality was white hot and she was one of those girls that don’t usually exist outside of 80s high school movies. The first time i ever heard her voice was in the lobby of the old Capri movie theater when she uttered the words, “You can’t rape the willing.” It’s the kind of fiery statement that leaves an impression on a young and, um, impressionable mind. She spoke those words when we were in seventh grade. A large group of us, recently returned from a class trip to Washington, D.C., walked out after our movie and saw her standing there. I had on a ridiculous hat I had bought in D.C. that looked cool on anyone who wore it (it did not look cool on me). Ember wore a denim miniskirt, heels, fishnet stockings, and a black top finished off with a denim jacket replete with multiple buttons. My seventh grade self thought, wow! (My adult self is positively horrified at a seventh grader dressed so and my father self has added it to the list of Things My Daughter is Not Allowed to Wear. She had all of our attention. All the boys were leering and the girls were annoyed. One of them remarked, “Does she want to get raped?” That’s when Ember looked right at me and said . . . well, we covered that already.
Later we wound up in high school together, where, thankfully, she toned down her wardrobe quite a bit. We even grew somewhat close and went out a few times. We were both sort of outsiders for different reasons. We were also both very different than anyone around suspected. She was nothing like I imagined after our first encounter. When we were away from others, Ember was quiet, introspective, and possessing of a sweet demeanor that was more a comfortable warming glow than a three alarm fire. She was a joy to be around and I was often more honest around her. When people were around though, the act started. We both knew the parts we played and we played them well. Too well. It was always strange to see her act so cold when I knew how warm she really was.
This brings us back to that day in French class.A couple of guys sitting next to me passed a note back and forth between themselves and occasionally got it over to Ember. She added something and then sent it back. They laughed as they read whatever they wrote. She alternatively smiled and sneered. I watched as the note went from one boy and to the next before crashing on Ember’s desk. She hunched her shoulders a bit, but set her jaw, wrote something, and sent it back yet again. I found myself thinking oddly of playing Four Square.
Of course, the only place I ever played Four Square growing up was at church camp, which definitely did not mean that the game never turned vicious. Many times there would be two good players who dominate the three and four squares. If they decided to eliminate a player, they’s just keep bouncing the ball back and forth. When this started, you just hoped you weren’t the one in the crosshairs because soon the bouncing became a set up for one of them and ended in a violent spike to send you to the back of the line (which we always got right back in). Your only hope was a special rule we had due to a poorly placed roof support. There was a pole helping to supposedly hold up the roof that touched the outside boundary of the Four Square court right between the one and two squares. Whenever the ball hit the pole, even a completely un-returnable spike, any player had the right to call, “Pole!” and the entire play would be started again. It wasn’t exactly a do-over, but you did get to try again, hopefully with a better outcome.
I decided that the guys were in squares three and four and trying to get Ember out in two. She he’d her own though and always managed to bounce the note right back to one of them. Play was coming more quickly though and some other students (but thankfully not the teacher) noticed and stared watching the note bounce back and forth. Only three knew its contents, but we were all invested in the game.
Suddenly, Ember pulled an unexpected move and, instead of parrying back to the three or four square, she bounced the note to the one square. Disconcertingly, I occupied the one square. I stared at the note, at my name on the note. My name, in Ember’s handwriting. I opened it and read. You could’t call what she wrote mean, but you could’t exactly call it nice either. Now I was in the game. I didn’t add to the note, but I did get to read it. I became the one who took the note across the room to hand to Ember. I was on the guys’ team. I was accepted. During one of my trips over, Ember whispered in my ear, “You know, I never thought you’d be one of the . . .” Suffice it to say she used a word often coupled with “opinions,” especially in regards to the quantity of each everyone possesses.
Rebuked by her words, I kept on playing. Then, in a moment, the game shifted. She wrote something to me you could call unkind. I decided to completely get in the game. The game? Well, it heated up. The note burned between us. If only it had stayed between just Ember and me, just the two of us. If it had, the fire may not have gotten out of hand. Sadly, our game had fully turned to three against one with the other two guys setting me up to try and spike the ball. Every time I tried, Ember grinned wickedly and returned the note.
Then, the perfect set up. One of the other guys drew a little doodle on the note and gently lobbed it over to me. I took one look, then slammed down hard by adding a caption. The note landed on Ember’s desk.
She read it and looked up at me. The room slipped away. It was just the two of us. Her eyes held neither anger nor hate. There was only the blazing star fire of disappointment and pain. She didn’t yell. She didn’t curse. She pushed the note to the floor and seared that moment into my memory as she stared. My spike could not be returned.
“Pole!” I groaned, but I could’t take it back. In that moment, I couldn’t stand fitting in and had no idea of why I tried to. I wanted her to square her shoulders, get back in line and keep the note going, but the game was played. It could never be undone.
The world rushed back as one of the others clapped me on the back, hard. “Now that was funny!” he said. I did not laugh. I couldn’t figure out why I so badly wanted to “fit in” a moment before. Even now, I wish I could claim that I was a kid and that kids don’t understand how hurtful the things they do can be. I wish I could claim youth lacks the experience to realize a small careless spark becomes all-engulfing, impossible to control fire. I can’t though. Event then, I knew all too well how quickly childish games can turn cruel because I was often on the other side. I will never allow myself to forget the day I set the flame.