Mike Zwicker, covered in golf-course grime from his summer job, stood under the eaves of the New Smyrna Beach rec center chatting with me, making no move to commandeer his ornery little brother, Steve, into the car.
Warm rain bucketed down beside us, misting my skin, but I hardly noticed. Instead, I balanced on one foot, my arms draped over my crutches, basking in Mike’s grin.
“So, why haven’t you called me to go out?” he said.
“What?” My brain raced back through our junior year searching for something that wasn’t there. “You’re crazy. You never asked me to call you.”
Still grinning, he said, “Doesn’t matter. You wouldn’t go out with me anyway.”
The next day I sent a note home for Mike with his brother: 88232 We’ll see. Think you’re gonna win, huh? Steve nearly burst a blood vessel in his 12-year-old brain trying to break the “secret code.” Though he finally figured the numbers were a phone number, that was as far as he got.
Saturday night I stood on one foot in line for forty-five minutes that felt like five at the Bellaire Plaza movie theatre beside Mike, bantering and laughing at his golf course tales. In less than an hour I went from intrigued to mad crush. We saw each other nearly every day for the next month while he easily bested my junior high boyfriend in besotted-ness and driving something besides a bike.
When one of the school jocks called my house a shack, Mike—more bone than muscle—socked the guy in the face!
In July, Dr. Tessler sliced open my ankle and extracted last summer’s pin at Fish Memorial Hospital.
Mike sat in the waiting room during the operation with Mom on his lunch break and came back after work.
Our friend, Debbie George’s father—whom Mike was close to—had a serious heart attack the same day. Mike stayed the night at the hospital with the George family and went straight to work in the morning. The guy hid a golden heart under his crooked grin.
He went to mass every Sunday. He dreamed of joining the police force. He came along on my family’s picnic to Blue Springs. He took me home to meet his folks.
Mike was the only guy Mom ever invited to dinner. My stepfather—whose opinions formed the white noise of my life—said Mike wasn’t as good looking as another guy I’d gone out with. But if he made me happy and spent his money on me, he couldn’t be all bad. Sometimes I wondered if my family liked him more than I did.
Mike didn’t drink, smoke weed, in fact do anything on Jackie Herold’s list of don’ts. Her approval arrived in a letter from Baltimore where she was spending the summer visiting her father and his side of the family.
As the summer wound down, despite Mike’s perfect boyfriend status, my interest flagged. I was not, would never be the perfect girlfriend for him. August Seventh was the day I got my cast off, the day I cast off Mike.
“Oh man, I’ve been looking forward to taking you to Disney World all summer. Just go with me—no strings.”
I felt so rotten for not returning his feelings that I agreed.
Saturday morning dawned muggy and bright. Inside my head, thunder caps butted each other—Catholic guilt over hurting Mike rammed into two-year-old me, stomping my foot and whining, “But I don’t like him anymore!” We’d gone out for six weeks—which computed to six years in the dog-years of my daddy-damaged heart. Wasn’t that enough?
An hour later—walking, after hobbling on crutches all summer—I followed Mike through the turnstiles as the World woke. Mickey smiled, his face a masterpiece of flowers fanned out in front of us. A tiny quiver of anticipation flashed through the kid in me before it smacked into the dead-end of us.
We headed for Space Mountain. I hated roller coasters, but this was one small thing I could do for Mike. We whisked through the short line onto the ride.
Mike ushered me to the seat like a princess—like he always did. Why couldn’t I suck it up and like this guy? I’d crazy liked him Week 1, enjoyed him a lot Week 2, until our ball of twine unwound to an empty cardboard core I had to throw away. But Mike didn’t deserve to be thrown away.
Guilt and goading to be done with today glanced off the insides of my skull as I gritted my teeth and sealed my eyes shut.
We twirled and dropped and spiraled into black oblivion.
An eternity later, the world stopped. Saturday morning white blinded my pupils. Ragged lightning bolts of pain ricocheted between my temples.
My head throbbed through the rest of Tommorrowland and the day stretched out like an odyssey I should never have signed up for. I wanted to go home. Now. Not after ghosts apparitioned into our car in the Haunted Mansion. Not after we climbed into the magic of the Swiss Family Robison’s Treehouse. I didn’t want to sit in the dark listening to the Country Bears Jamboree while Mike pined to hold my hand. And I pined for solitude.
I glanced at the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea submarine, remembering the day I’d looked up and realized I was only a few feet under water—not so different from the disillusion I felt the day I calculated the depth of my relationship with Mike.
We stood outside It’s a Small World and the snow cone syrup of the music swirled around my pounding head.
Mike looked at me, defeat etched on his face. “You want me to take you home?”
I nodded, sick that he’d wasted so much money and a piece of his heart on me.
The day before I found out I’d be teaching second grade Catechism at Sacred Heart Church during my senior year. I’d phoned the rectory to volunteer one day last semester—launching myself at the church to find my purpose—then forgot about it. Now, I hoped the role would pull double duty and pay my penance for ditching Mike.
We saw each other at school. He was warm, friendly, unfailingly kind. The nice guy who finished last. Even my husband asked, “Why’d you break up with him? He was a great boyfriend.”
I didn’t point out the obvious conclusion to his statement.
I saw Mike last at the Class of ‘76’s ten-year reunion. He was married and his ginger hair had gone white to match his character. I didn’t have the guts to ask, but I hoped his wife had fallen in love with his cheeky grin and the heart inside. He deserved no less.
After Mike, I returned to traipsing after cocky guys who splattered sparks like Dad did. I was used to picking embers out of seared flesh. In a warped way, the sting felt right.
I still shake my head, mystified, at how my heart found home in Jim—another guy of character and kindness, confident without being cocky. His sparks ignite rather than singe and I am safe.