Sunday, April 11, 2010

"4:00pm Date"

by Marilyn Carlin

I call her my 4:00pm date.

It's the perfect relationship -- I'm walking my dog, she's kicking up dust on her way home from school, all shiny black pigtails of irony and scuffed Docs.

Always pigtails. Always Docs. Always that Barney-purple backpack stamped with the initials "JMR." That was as much of her name as I knew.

At first, we would just walk past each other, heads turned, eyes down, protecting our egos. But we couldn't help noticing each other -- I coughed; she sidestepped. Acknowledgments of each other's presence. Teenager speak.

After a few weeks, she started asking to pet Beauregard. Her voice was rasped, lower than the voice you'd think she would have. It fit. We got to talking about school. I started calling her Punky Brewster, you know, because of the pigtails. I mean, also because she had these giant gazoombas, for her size at least -- a lot of people don't know this, but that chick who played Punky's were so big she had to get them removed partially.

My sister Amy really liked Punky -- the real one I'm talking about, not JMR who I started calling Punky. I didn't mind watching it when I was growing up because I wanted to hang out with her; that's how it is when you're younger. Meanwhile, Punky/JMR started calling me "Mike," even though my name's not Mike. She said I looked like a "Mike."

If she were a dude I would punch her for aligning me with the name of the kid who stole my markers and my lunch money every day in elementary school, but it was okay because she was a chick, plus with her the name had a different feel. It got to the point where I would wait by the front door, leash in hand, head turned, until I saw her coming up the grass-lined suburban beige cement path. I timed it perfectly so that I wouldn't miss her. Miss our date.

The other day I saw her talking with a friend, waiting for the bus. She saw me and smiled and waved and her friend tapped her shoulder (too hard!) and squawked something about me and called her Jen. Jen. Jennifer. I needed to know if it was her real name.

* * *

So now it's 4:00pm, Bo's scratching at the door and the leash is in my hand. I don't see her so I wait. Five minutes. Ten. Twenty. Now Bo is lying down, whining, and my homework is remaining undone and I'm about to leave anyway when I catch a glimpse of shining dark pigtails and a flash of purple. She's here and everything makes sense. I clip Bo's leash on and push out the door.

I would run, but I don't want to seem to eager. Nobody likes an eager beaver. I catch up to her two houses down.

She waves, smiles, and throws a dazzlingly mundane: "Hey Mike, what's kickin'?"

The atmosphere is charged with hormonal goop.

"Hey Jen," I smile as she bends down to pet Bo, who is already nuzzling his nose into the denim at her knee.


"I thought we could try real names for once. Like, 'Hi, I'm Jake Harper, and you're Jen Something-or-Other--'"

"Jen isn't my name."

I stare down at the hand I've extended, in mock jest, ready to shake just like I'd been taught in the "Professionalism in the Workplace" seminar my mom had made me go to when I got my first job at Subway.

"But the initials on your backpack, you know, 'JMR?' It fits."

She stares at me, squinting at the sun. She suddenly looks very tiny, like she's going to break.

"JMR: 'Joseph Mitchell Ryan.'"

I mull it over -- I mean, I've heard of gender-androgyny but this is kind of ridiculous.

"Your name is Joseph?"

"He was my brother. He was killed. Car accident. It was three years ago. Some asshole driver plowed into the side of my mom's minivan going ninety-five in a thirty-five."

She stars crying. I don't know what to do. Punky Brewster never cried.

"We walked away with cuts and bruises. He died on impact."

She's inches away from me. I can smell her strawberry lip-gloss and shampoo and all I can think about is the awkwardness radiating off of me in big, Barney-colored waves. I put my hand on her shoulder.

We stand like that for a few seconds. I whisper an apology, knowing it changes nothing but hoping that it'll make everything better anyway. Like my "sorry," my words, will un-kill her brother and un-drunk the driver like a magic trick.

"I'll see you tomorrow?" I try.

She hedges: "Yeah, yeah, oh, definitely, yeah."

"Same time same place?"

She half-nods and walks away. My 4:00pm date, over.

"Hey, wait!" I call out. "If it's not Jen, what is your name?"

"Punky Brewster," she smirks, tossing a pigtail over her shoulder.

"Alright, Punky. Cool!" I yell, my attempt to save face failing.

Punky freaking Brewster. What have I gotten myself into?