When I was twelve and a half, I fell in love with Mike P. It didn’t matter that we never really spoke. It didn’t matter that he communicated mostly through fake-out jabs to my chin. It didn’t matter that he didn’t go to my school. I saw him in karate class twice a week, and that was enough for love.
I filled journal after journal recounting his every word (there weren’t many), his every jab to the chin, and his every smile that lifted just the one corner of his mouth.
He was not my only writing subject. I recorded the minutiae of my day alongside my Big Dreams and Important Plans, because only when I had committed my life to paper, did it seem real.
I filled an entire journal with the long, strange car trip through Wyoming with Anne and David, my pen barely slowing as I took furtive glances out the window at the landscape, trying to describe everything I saw before it slipped off down the road behind us.
I needed to capture every experience, because once it happened, it was gone, and I would forget it had ever existed at all. I knew that if I didn’t write, I would forget more than I would remember, and this probability of loss filled me with purpose.
And so, with fevered desperation I chronicled the small dramas of my life, starting with the first of many moments I was determined never to forget: the tragic episode in the sweaty gym in upstate New York when I was twelve and a half.
Starting with Mike P’s middle finger.
I remember the regional karate tournament of 1992 with poignant nausea—the stress of competition, the heavy smell of sweat, the half-empty bleachers in the university gym. This was the scene of our first sparring matches. It was the year we athletes began trying to hurt each other. Kevin was kicked in the throat, JR was punched in the stomach, and Mike was thrown to the floor. He landed on his hand.
I had never seen Mike cry.
But he got back up and he shoved his hand into his uniform, and finished his match with one arm.
He lost, of course, and retreated to the top of the bleachers, where he cradled his hand against his chest and waited to go home.
I sat on a folding chair below the bleachers. The match was over, and the crowds had moved away. It was late afternoon. The floor was littered with band-aids, mouth-guards, and athletic tape. I sat there not looking at Mike, and wondered if he noticed me sitting nearby in silent sympathy.
Even at twelve and a half, I possessed enough self-awareness to know that I looked a little stupid. But I sat there anyway, alone in the folding chair, surrounded by trash, feeling tragic.
This seemed the ideal time to show Mike how much I loved him. He was wounded. He was vulnerable, and I could be the one to comfort him. Then he would fall in love with me.
I couldn’t tell if he was looking at me. I imagined he was.
Before I could change my mind, I stood up and headed for the bleachers.
I remember my ascent with perfect clarity. The steps were just far enough apart to make the climb awkward for my short, tired legs.
Lunge, step. Lunge, step. He was gazing out over the gym, looking wounded and pathetic and lost.
Lunge, step, and I was there. I sat down next to him with an ungraceful thud. I was out of breath, and not from the climb.
He looked at me, and I wondered why I was there.
’Sup, he said.
Hi, I said. How’s your finger?
He held out his hand, and his finger was swollen and purple.
I’m sorry, I said.
We sat there side-by-side, without looking at each other, for the full space of one minute, and I was glad I had come.
I hope you feel better, I blurted.
I got to my feet again.
See ya, he said, as I began my lunging descent.
Now that I had so boldly professed my love, I wondered whether everything would be different next time we saw each other. I was shaking when I reached the gym floor.
And that was it.
That was the moment in the sweaty gym in upstate New York when I was twelve and a half that started it all. I began to write on the long drive home, and I haven’t stopped since.
I imagine Mike has forgotten that moment—and me.
But something about that moment made me a writer.
Really? You might be asking. You really cared that much about some boy’s middle finger? Yes! Yes, I did. When we’re twelve and a half, everything seems so painfully, humiliatingly important.
We can’t keep up that intensely for long.
Now my earnest little self makes me cringe, and I am relieved that I can let the small dramas pass me by.
But I’m a little sad, too. It is true that we forget more than we remember. It is true that each moment lived is gone for good, and takes its intensity with it. Sometimes when looking back at the Big Moments of our life, we can’t remember why we cared.
We just know they were important.