I couldn’t stand liking someone in middle school. At least, in the like-like sense, if you know what I mean. It was stupid. She’d hole up in my thoughts when I wasn’t with her, and I’d be head-palmingly awkward whenever I tried this “flirting” people talked about. I wasn’t weird or anything. I swear. I’d picked up the passing fads of playing hackey-sack and wearing Nike sneakers and everything else Sanborn Regional cared about just fine. I was one of the smartest and most athletic kids, so by all logical standards, I had it made.
In the middle of seventh grade, the poor girl trapped in my mind was Katie Newell. I have no idea why I ever noticed her. We’d gone to the same school for three years and she’d never so much as blipped on my radar. But suddenly, it wouldn’t stop pinging. I’m talking non-stop, wherever I was, invading my dreams, day and night. I’d find my head snapping around on the path, thinking I’d seen a swish of her blonde hair from the corner of my eye when it was just the fraying strings of a Bruins ski hat. Whenever someone said “Katie,” my attention would laser in on the conversation before the person had finished the “ie.” In the crowded middle school halls, she was the only clear thing I could see.
There was nothing that special about this in and of itself – Sarah had kidnapped my thoughts earlier that year, and Julia the winter before that. But this was different. Thanks to my friends, it couldn’t be the same. I could no longer bury my thoughts beneath baseball practice. Or homework. Or TV. Or anything else, for that matter.
At the time, Katie had been a brilliant choice for us. She was athletic, had the sense of humor of a 12 year-old boy, and didn’t have many friends of the girl variety to intimidate us. To put it plainly, she was kind of a tomboy. And the perfect candidate to break my friend group’s gender segregation.
But not anymore. Now, to me at least, she was very much a girl. And I didn’t know what to do.
One Thursday evening in late March, my group’s parents caved to a relentless onslaught of pleading and permitted us to venture out of the house on a school night. Thrilled and shocked at our happenstance freedom, we chose to celebrate at the Kingston House of Pizza, a local pizza-pasta-sub shop that had a reputation for terrific ravioli and for drowning its slices in sauce. For once, though, food took a backseat. If we were going to be sitting around a booth for an hour, I had better be next to her. Making awkward small talk from a distance was so much harder.
This wasn’t something I could leave to chance. After weeks of observing and experimenting, I had nearly perfected my strategy for keeping closer to her than the other five guys in our group. I reassessed The Plan on the car ride over, imagining every possible deviation from the script. I took a few deep breaths before I shuffled in front to grab the door. I held it from the inside, just long enough to let Katie pass the threshold. In she walked. I let go of the door. Get back in the lead. John had told me the girls like boys who lead. So I led.
We reached the booth, and I hesitated. I feigned looking over to the back corner of the place long enough to allow a Chuck, Brendan, and Will to fill in one side of the booth. Clockwork. I smirked and squeezed along the other side to the window, turning as I sat to watch her climb in next to me. She hadn’t moved; instead, she’d followed my gaze to the corner.
“Hey, look, an arcade!” Oh no.
It wasn’t really an arcade. Any self-respecting arcade-goer would know as much. It looked like someone had shoved two phone booths out of the way in the back corner of the shop and had never remembered to come back for them. They both had bases and tops painted identical shades of a fading, ugly yellow, the kind that had probably never looked good to begin with. A trim of regular Christmas bulbs let off a dull glow through the layers of dust that had settled along the surfaces of the machines. A cherry red joystick, a round, yellow button, and two insert-quarter slots were the only interruptions to the ugly circus-themed designs that decorated the bases. Behind the smudged glass, a three-pronged claw dangled above each empty chasm in the corner of the pits, which led down to a plastic flap on the front.
Behind the smudged glass, the Where’s Waldo? scene displayed stuffed versions of Barney, an elephant, purple dinosaurs (not Barney), a leprechaun, Mario and a mushroom next to him, a fairy princess in a sparkling pink tutu, a football player in a nondescript jersey, three dogs, none of them golden retrievers (the best breed of dog), two cats, a monkey, two pigs and at least five teddy bears, two of which looked a lot like Pooh, all huddled together in one massive pig pile.
“Ooh, that giraffe is cool!” Katie exclaimed as our group, which often flocked behind the girl’s lead, gathered around the machine on the left.
There was also a giraffe. It didn’t come as much of a shock to any of us that Katie first spied the half-buried animal in a far corner, since we all knew about her trip to Africa last summer. We all laughed as Brendan pulled two quarters out of his pocket and slipped them into the slots. It had been awhile, but I knew how impossible such games were – no birthday party-goer had ever been known to actually win a prize.
Sure enough, when Brendan moved over Mario and pressed the yellow button, the crane lowered and poked its arms into the sides of his torso, but pulled him up barely a fraction of an inch before Mario fell out of its grasp. We moaned in unison.
“Really thought you had it there, man.”
“These things are impossible.”
“C’mon dude, you should’ve gone for the leprechaun, he’s right on top!”
He grinned along with the rest of us, taking it pretty well.
“Yeah, whatever. I should have just tried to get the giraffe for you, Katie.”
Alarms went off everywhere. Sirens blared. My heart rushed. Of course. This is what I had to do. The giraffe. I had to win the giraffe. If I could win her the giraffe, she would like me far more than anyone else. She’d know how I felt. It was a sure shot. Just get the giraffe.
The group had turned and gone back to the booth, still laughing at Brendan’s failure. I remained frozen for another couple of moments before jamming my hand into my pocket. Please let me have two quarters. I had three. Hands shaking, I managed to shove two of my own coins into the machine. The claw came alive, as it had before, and I threw my weight behind the joystick. In under five seconds, it hovered daintily over the giraffe’s body. I took my hands off the joystick and wiped the sweat off on my shirt. You only have one chance or you’ll mess it all up.
A sharp pain rushed through my finger…I had to be sure…This has to work.
As the claw lowered, so did my hopes. People didn’t win at these games. I knew that. The designers made them for losers, like me. I saw the empty-handed claw rise back up, clenched together to show everyone that I had tried to get something and failed. She probably wouldn’t be able to look at me after this – why would she, when I had proven myself so unworthy. Any chance of us sitting together again, gone. Any hope of us talking and laughing together, history. Any dreams of us going and watching a movie together over at Cinemagic with the new stadium seats and sharing a Cherry Coke with two straws and a popcorn, with extra butter of course, as she munched on Skittles and I told her to shush and watch the movie but she kept talking over it and I eventually kissed her to get her to stop – forget it. I wanted to make her happy so that she would want to make me happy, but how could I make her happy if that stupid crane relaxed its grip and dropped nothing into the chasm.
There was a light thump in front of me. I reached through the flap and pulled out the giraffe, whose coat shone far brighter than it had behind the glass.
“Nice job,” Katie said.
Whoa. I hadn’t zoned out completely. I had watched the claw sink the entire way to the pit of toys and clamp to the body of the giraffe. I had watched it rise back up ever so slowly, and had waited for it to slip out and crash back down to its lifelong brethren. I had watched it glide across the top of the machine, gently swaying along the way. I had watched it reach the corner, freeze for a moment, and then let the giraffe free-fall from the Heavens.
I turned back to her. I hadn’t heard her come to watch me. My chest swelled. Goosebumps spread like wildfire.
“Here you go! I got it for you!”
She looked confused. Why does she looked confused. Why. Why. No. “Why would I take it?” She cried. “You won it, it’s yours!” She left the arcade again, hopping back into the booth next to John and Brendan.
Even as I held the prize in my hand, I knew I had lost. I dropped my eyes to look at it. Its dusty neck sagged to one side. I didn’t know what to do with it. I hate giraffes.