The smell of corn dogs and funnel cakes coated the air and Bob Seger’s “Main Street” played on the staticky speakers when he spotted me standing in line for the Tilt-a-Whirl. A wave. He wore a purple button-down and jeans. And that smile. Always that smile.
I smiled and waved back, sure he could hear my thudding heart, even from his seat on the ride already in motion.
“Is that him?” Carrie, my cousin, elbowed me.
“Yep. So hands-off,” I said, trying to make my smile look less cheesy. “Anyway, I’m pretty sure that’s his girlfriend.”
“So what?” Carrie said.
I watched his Tilt-a-Whirl car until I got dizzy and turned my attention to the next ride possibility. The Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster looked fun. Another elbow to the hip (Carrie’s shorter than me) brought me to attention. Jonathan was walking toward me.
And the girlfriend was with him. They reached us just as we were climbing the steps to the ride. “Hey, Lena! Don’t puke!” he joked.
So he knew about last year’s Scrambler incident. Motion sickness sucks. “No corn dogs tonight!” I yelled back. Carrie and I jumped into the first car, sat down and latched the safety bar. I turned to see Jonathan and the girlfriend walking away.
I sighed. “Dang, he looks good in purple.”
“He is cute,” Carrie said.
Just as the Tilt-a-Whirl started its spinning, Jonathan looked back at me and grinned. My breath caught. I thought I might puke then, and it had nothing to do with the ride.
We officially met freshman year of junior college: I played softball, and he played baseball.
In the first week of September 1990, as I sat with some softball and volleyball players in the gym waiting for advisor assignments, I heard “Jonathan Brock” over the PA system.
I turned and saw him scrambling over teammates, and walking to the desk at the front of the gym. “Oh my god. Finally, someone I recognize, and it’s HIM!” I inwardly yelled. I knew who he was. His high school team beat mine in the finals of The Daily Record winter hoops tournament our senior year – he lit us up with three-pointers and was tourney MVP. He was hot that night, and, clearly, still was.
He talked to the dean, and I tried not to stare. I played it cool as I watched him walk out the door to the registration area. “I can’t believe Jonathan Brock is here, at this school, with me. What are the odds? He looks even better now. How is that poss–”
“Lena. Lena,” my roommate’s whisper broke into my thoughts, “they just called your name.” Oh, shoot! I felt my face get hot as I stood and crossed the gym. Definitely not cool.
I found my advisor, Mr. Edgar, in the student union, where computers had been set up at small tables so we could choose our classes. I picked English Comp, Spanish and Health for first-quarter then headed for the bookstore. When I saw the guys already in line, I didn’t think twice.
“Won any 3-point contests lately?” I asked as I slid behind Jonathan, and David, a baseball player I knew from a rival high school.
Jonathan raised an eyebrow and looked confused. “Hey, I’m Lena. From Lake City,” I laughed. “You pretty much beat us by yourself in the Daily Record finals. You’ve got nice form.”
“I mean your shooting form. Not, uh, well, not that your form is not good. Oh, you know what I mean.” Flustered, I threw David a look that said “shut up” as the bookstore line moved forward.
Jonathan laughed. “Thanks. I’m Jonathan. From North Pine. You play ball, too?”
“Yep, softball. I catch mostly and pitch some. But I can play anywhere.”
“I’m here for baseball. I pitch and play a little infield. I’ll have to check out your form behind the plate. Maybe you can catch me sometime.”
“Yeah, maybe I can.” Oh, yeah, I would like to catch him.
The line moved quickly and I bought my textbooks, a couple of notebooks and a T-shirt with the school logo. I walked out of the union and met Lucy back at the gym. She was from Maddox and here on a volleyball scholarship.
“Who are they?” she asked, pulling her long dark hair into a ponytail.
“Just some baseball players from near my hometown,” I said, as we headed outside. “We’ve been talking about who’s school is better at sports.”
“Mine is,” David said, catching up to us as we pushed open the glass double doors.
“Don’t listen to him,” Jonathan said as he stepped off the curb behind us. “My school is the biggest and the best.”
“Well, I’ve heard bigger isn’t always better,” Lucy said. I giggled, and we high-fived.
“Man, you walked right into that one,” David told Jonathan. “Made it too easy.”
“See y’all at the Destiny,” I said when I reached my old red Honda. The Destiny was our “dorm” – a motel that the owner rented out to the school. Most out-of-town athletes lived there under the watchful eye of the baseball coach, Don Belue, and his wife, Brenda. Coach Belue enforced curfew and was our go-to if anything went wrong with our rooms. He could be a hard-ass as a coach, but he generally seemed OK.
“OK, meet you there,” Lucy called back as she headed to her black Dodge hatchback.
“Later,” David said.
I climbed in, cranked the engine and had just buckled my seat belt when Jonathan knocked on the window. I rolled it down and he rested his forearm on the doorframe. Huh. His eyes looked like a melted Hershey’s Special Dark.
“We’re playing cards around back later if y’all want to come.”
“Sure. What do you play?” I asked.
“Tunk, Poker, Spades, Hearts.” On the last word I swear he leaned in the window slightly.
“You’ll have to teach me Hearts,” I told him. “I don’t know how to play that one.”
“It’ll be easy,” he said.
That’s what worries me, I thought. “Ok, see you in a little while,” I said.
“Number 23.” He turned and walked to his silver RX7.
I put my Prelude into first gear and pulled out of the parking lot. “Can’t Stop” played and I danced like an idiot as I drove to the dorm.
“What did he say?” Lucy rushed over after we parked in front of our room at the Destiny.
“He said we should come around later and play cards with them.”
“Oh, cool. But it sure looked like he said more than that all leaned into your window.” She wiggled her eyebrows.
“Did you notice his eyes are the color of melted chocolate? Yum.”
“Oh lord. No, I didn’t get that close. Lena, you are in for it.”
“I know. I know,” I sighed. “I’ll chill out and try not to act like a goofy schoolgirl.”
Lucy shook her head to agree as she rummaged through the mini fridge. “I’m hungry. You want a Hot Pocket?”
“Sure, throw one in the microwave for me, too.”
We added Doritos and Mountain Dews to complete our lunch menu. “So what do you think about Chatham so far?” I asked. Last night was our first night at school and we stayed up all night quizzing each other on high school, boyfriends (her: 3 previous, none now; me: none ever), sports, future plans, likes, dislikes. Neither of us were morning people and this was the first time we’d been away from home.
“Seems like some pretty decent people here at least,” Lucy said. “I like my advisor and I think we’ll have a good volleyball team. And the guys are cute.”
“You’re right about that last part,” I nodded. “We don’t start softball workouts for another week, but I need to start running before then. I’m not sure about the classes: Two are with my advisor, Comp I and Spanish, but he seems cool at least.”
“Buttering up that advisor quick!” Lucy teased as she licked nacho cheese powder off her fingers.
I nearly spit out my Mountain Dew. “Haha. Nope. Those weren’t my first choices. I got Comp I, but I wanted Western Civ and Biology instead of Spanish and Health. Oh well. A credit’s a credit.”
I got up and pulled the curtain closed on the window, switched on the stereo and found the local Top 40 station, a little noise to drown out the A/C unit so we could take a nap. I flopped down on the bed and soon the soothing sound of Luther Vandross’ “Here and Now” lulled us to sleep.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
My heart skittered. I jumped off the bed, knocked over my Hot Pocket leftovers and nearly took out the TV. Lucy rolled over and sat up in her bed. The digital alarm clock read 5:47 p.m.
I peeked out the curtain and saw two boys at our door. I ran my fingers through my hair, wiped my eyes and yanked the door open just as a yawn escaped my mouth.
“Wake up, sleepyheads! The Welcoming Committee has arrived. I’m Rich.”
“Yeah, yeah, David,” I interrupted. “I already know who you are. What’s up?”
“Obviously not y’all,” he said. “Get up and come around back. We’re all hanging out back there.”
“Any particular room or do we just follow the crowd?” Lucy asked from her nest of blankets.
“You’ll find us,” Rich said. “Just come to the open door.”
“OK. See you in a few,” I said. I closed the door, cleaned up the lunch mess and headed to the mirror and sink. I was NOT going around back and maybe running into Jonathan, or anyone, without brushing my teeth and hair and putting on some lipgloss. Lucy had no issues—she always looked good—except for getting the Doritos powder off her face and the taste out of her mouth.
Ten minutes later, we locked No. 20 and walked to the back of the dorm. People were everywhere. We passed two rooms then saw David poke his head out of one at the far end of the building.
“Ah, the sleeping beauties made it,” he kidded when we reached him. “Y’all clean up nice.”
“Is he always this charming?” I asked Rich, as he sat in the floor playing Nintendo football.
“Yep. All the time. He’s a real prince among us frogs,” he answered.
We step into a room like ours: at the front is the door and a picture window covered with a brown, plastic-lined, room-darkening drape; on the floor is green mottled shag carpet worn down by years of motel visitors; and at the back, on the left, is a long shelf with a clothes rod underneath, in the middle a wall mirror over a sink, and to the right, a bathroom.
The only difference was the furniture selection. Lucy and I had a full bed, a twin bed, a chest, a dresser, a stereo, a TV and a chair. The guys’ room had two twin beds, two chests, a small square dining table, four chairs and a TV with a Nintendo system. “Friends in Low Places” blared on a boombox on top of one of the chests.
“And I toasted you, said honey, we may be through, but you’ll never hear me complaaaaain
‘Cause I got friends in low places”
Lucy and I sat down at the table just as several other guys hustled in, Jonathan among them, rambling about “someone laying down the law.” I couldn’t make out the conversation: I was focused on Jonathan. He’d changed out of his jeans and red polo into gray gym shorts and a green North Pine T-shirt.
He saw me watching, and before I could look away, he plopped down in the chair with me. “Ready to play Hearts?” he nudged me with his shoulder.
“I hope you’re a patient teacher,” I said. “It might take a while for me to get it.”
A second later Coach Belue burst into the room. “Curfew is in effect so have these girls out of here by then!” he boomed. “Hi, ladies,” he said to Lucy and me, with a wink. “I’ll be back to check!” After deciding they weren’t up for a card game, the other guys left, leaving Jonathan, me, Lucy and David at the table.
“He’s going to be a lot of fun,” Rich said, still in the floor manhandling the video game controller.
“All bark, no bite,” Lucy said. “But we’ll be out of here by curfew at 11. I’m not getting in trouble the day before classes start. My folks would kill me.”
“Mine, too.” Plus, I’ve never been a rule breaker.
“OK, forget curfew. We’ve got plenty of time; it’s only 6:10. Deal the cards, Jonathan,” David said.
“Rich, we need another player,” Jonathan said. He tossed the card box at him. “Lena doesn’t know how to play Hearts, so I’m going to show her.”
Rich paused his game and crawled into the chair next to Jonathan and across from Lucy. “Fine. I’m losing to the computer anyway.”
I propped my elbows on the table, waiting for my cards. As Jonathan dealt to Lucy, he leaned into me and I felt his breath on my neck. My skin tingled.
After a quick lesson in Hearts, David tossed the two of clubs onto the table to get the hand started. Rich followed with a five of diamonds.
“No, not that one,” Jonathan said as he turned his body toward me. “Play the club.” His knee brushed mine and all I could think was “Thank god I shaved my legs!”
I hoped he didn’t see the goosebumps on my arms as I tossed the seven of clubs on the pile. “Why again?”
“Because you can’t lead with your heart until hearts have been broken,” he said.
“That sounds like the lyrics to a country song,” I said.
Lucy laughed, and David sang: “You can’t leeeeeead with your heaaaaart until heaaaaarts have been brokeeeeen.” He sounded like the bass singer from The Oak Ridge Boys, only not good.
“How do hearts get broken again?” I said, smothering a giggle.
“David led with a club and you have a club, so you have to play it. If you couldn’t follow the suit, then you could play a heart,” Jonathan explained. “Then hearts would be broken.”
“Ohhhh. OK, I’ve got it.”
A few hands later, and it was Jonathan’s turn to deal again.
“Y’all have a phone? Fancy!” Lucy said, turning to me. “Remember that, Lena. When we need grocery money from our folks, we’ll come back here and call them to send more.”
Rich got up and answered the phone hiding behind the boombox. “Hello. Yeah, he’s here. Hold on. Jonathan, it’s some girl.” Rich set the receiver on top on the stereo.
Jonathan fumbled the cards as Lucy and I exchanged “of course he has a girlfriend” smirks. And Garth sang:
“Same old story, that everybody knows,
It’s one heart holdin’ on, One letting go …”