She first caught my eye at a touch football carnival in Brisbane I attended over two days, representing my school. We were singing along to Eminem’s song My Name Is, from his Slim Shady LP, on the bus as we approached the sports field adjacent caravan park where we’d be sharing cabins. Caught my eye, I say, because she was looking away while, from the back of the bus, I looked up from my book and her image forever crystallized in my mind: open-mouthed, white teeth, smiling eyes, a generous speckling of freckles and sun-bleached brown hair. I was briefly shocked, as she was far from my normal, nerdy taste in young women and, anyway, I was still too young in my early teens to know exactly what the stirring in my heart and loins meant, exactly. I quickly resumed reading and pretending to sing.
I was passed the ball near the try line, feigned a step to the left, then leapt to the right through the gap and placed the ball over the line mid-flight for an unlikely try. While walking back to the centre of the field, all but oblivious to open-palmed blows of congratulations on my back from my teammates, I saw her again. A jock from another school leant against a light-pole, chatting her up. “Tune dog!” some members of my team yelled to him, using vernacular specific to youth of that time.
“Why don’t you tune up a girl from your own school!?”
I remained silent, walking; bouncing the ball from hand-to-hand. Eyes only for her. Eyes that noticed from even that distance the way her blue eyes flashed in the afternoon sunlight; the way her long hair hung over her right shoulder and on her chest; the way her bent right leg moved slowly backward and forward as she nervously defended against his advances. She looked in my direction. I threw the ball carelessly back to my opposition (whom we’d be beaten by, despite my best efforts), and smiled. She looked back at him, and I continued with the rest of the game.
Even at 14 I cringed inwardly at the clichéd nature of playing spin the bottle. But at least it gave me the chance to fit in without engaging in too much conversation, while also offering the chance to kiss her without revealing my feelings. She was there, muscular shaved legs crossed directly opposite me in the circle of eight, as a matter of fact. While my peers spun and kissed and spun and kissed I’d throw glances at her, hoping for another chance to direct a smile her way. She never looked my way – too absorbed in the excitement and titillation and small amount of cheap bourbon someone had smuggled in at the risk of a random teacher’s cabin inspection. Then it was my turn. I was sure she was looking at me then, but I was too focused on the plastic Coke bottle, and mulling over the physics of getting it to land where I wished without it seeming too obvious. I overcompensated and – with a tremendous flick! – the plastic spun under the intense gaze of the circle. It spun and spun and spun for what seemed like minutes; starting as a blur, then a discernable rotation, then it slowed and we all alternated between looking down at it and up at who we thought it might land on. Then it stopped – two people to her left on a winger named Matt. Everyone groaned, me most loudly, and a girl next to me crawled in to the centre of the circle to retrieve it for her turn.
Between our two matches the next day I sat in the bus overlooking the field, listening to Moby’s Play album on my Sony CD Walkman. Casually, I looked around at the action: teams battling it out, groups of girls laughing in huddled groups, boys running around passing footballs or tackling each other, and teachers roaming the grounds like unarmed, ineffectual prison guards. She was sitting just outside the bus’s open door, talking to two of her close friends. Then she got to her feet, looked at me and smiled just long enough for me to awkwardly show some teeth in return. Before she turned and walked toward the playing fields. Her friends turned to look at me, but I ignored them and followed, with my eyes, her journey – straight to Tom, our best player. I could see nothing of her but dull golden hair spread over her shoulders and long legs descending into pink jogging shoes. Tom on the other hand smiled and laughed as he talked to her, with his hands sometimes jammed in his pockets and other times playfully shoving her (to her apparent delight, as her head tipped back in inaudible laughter). “Tune dog!” rang out the familiar, playful rebuke from a group of my nearby teammates in Tom’s direction. He gestured rudely to them and continued “tuning” her, presently playing with her hair and saying God knows what. I seethed inwardly, turned up Moby and picked up a book in order to escape the grotesque display.
I wasn’t hungry, but walked toward the field’s kiosk anyway because I’d noticed her heading in that direction. She’d just moved away and was leaning against a wall lazily lifting hot chips into her mouth in a dreamlike state, as I approached. “Hi,” I said, in a stroke of pure genius.
She snapped out of her apparent reverie and looked at me with a chip suspended between her fingers and lips, as if simply shocked or perhaps searching for recognition of me. Then after bringing the chip back down replied with: “Hi.” And a smile.
“So,” I looked away, unable to cope with the magnificence of her revealed teeth. “How are the girls going?”
She looked confused.
“I mean, um, in the competition?”
“Oh,” she said, laughing. “Great. We’re undefeated and just have the final to play. But I haven’t scored one try.”
“That sucks. But, hey, great that you’re in the final. We got knocked out in the qualifier.”
“Yeah, I know,” she shrugged. “But hey, I saw that try you scored. Nice work.”
“Thanks!” I said, too loudly, beaming. Then the dreaded awkward silence. She popped a chip in her mouth and looked away over the field while chewing as absent-mindedly as when I found her. “Um,” I began, and she looked back at me with a blank expression, “I was wondering.”
Her expression didn’t change.
“Would you like to see a movie with me sometime?”
The most subtle wince at the corner of her mouth was enough to foretell her response, which to her credit she gave me with a direct and sympathetic gaze: “Oh, ah, sorry. I’m going out with Tom.”