But I couldn't bear to admit it to anyone else. Certainly not to Jan. What if she laughed at me? What if she turned up her nose in scorn? I would certainly deserve it. The fear of humiliation -- of being unmasked -- paralyzed any brief impulse I might have had to declare my adoration.
What followed were two painful years of secret love. It would not be true to say unrequited love. For within the ebb and flow of grade school social life, there were at least a couple of periods of "Jan likes Peter." But although Peter liked Jan -- indeed yearned for her with a powerful and all consuming passion -- I was too petrified to ever let on.
At roller skating nights at Skate-a-rama, Jan had all the boys on a string. Robert, Gus, Danny and god knows how many others followed her around Sometimes she would skate around the rink, holding hands with one of them. Sometimes she would skate with a boy on each side. Sometimes she would skate at the center of a whole chain of boys. It never occurred to me that Jan was just the kind of girl who liked to be the focus of all that male attention. I simply thought she was the most wonderful girl alive, and all the other boys could see that too.
The most difficult part of the evening was when the manager of Skate-a-rama would announce over the rink's scratchy public address system, "The next skate is a moonlight skate, for couples only." During moonlight skates, the lights would go down and someone -- often it was Robert -- would hold Jan's hand in the intoxicating whirl of the mirror ball and color wheels, while Bobby Vinton sang "Mr. Lonely" or Engelbert Humperdinck sang "The Last Waltz." Sometimes he would hold her with one arm around her back or sometimes face to face like the silhouette couples painted on the walls of Skate-a-rama. I dreamed of being there with her like that -- just Peter and Jan, alone in a universe of swirling lights and sentimental music. But I ran from every opportunity. When Jan told someone to tell someone else to tell me that she wanted to skate with me, I would shake my head and laugh. When she came up behind me and took my hand, I would rip it from her grasp and skate away at full speed, not looking back, my heart pounding.
I don't know why I ran. Maybe I thought I would be admitting defeat -- a throwback to the cootie era. Maybe I already had reason to distrust the fidelity of the female heart. Maybe the vibrant potency of these new emotions was overpowering me. Perhaps I knew I wasn't ready to handle the terrible forces already unlocking within me. The subsequent years of my adolescence might have been very different if I had taken the plunge. But I didn't. Instead, I worshipped Jan from afar -- running away when she came too close, stalking her as she moved away.
Sometimes I literally stalked her, following a block or two behind, out of sight, as she walked to her grandmother's house where she sometimes went after school. I repeated her name over and over in my head. Jan, Jan, Jan. Or Janelle. I sang the Beatles song "Michelle" to myself, transposing her name -- "Janelle, ma belle." I memorized her parents' station wagon and my heart raced when I saw it coming up the street. I thrilled to the sound of her slight drawl in class. I stared at her in our class portrait ( I was too afraid to ask her for a picture) and marveled at the beauty of her small frame, her deep brown eyes, her shining auburn bangs, her full lips, her dimples. Perhaps it's only a trick of my memory, but I feel that, even in fourth grade, Jan was already blossoming into a beautiful young woman.
In my constant state of denial, I continued to tease the parade of "loverboys" who became the periodic object of Jan's affections. Once, that turned around to bite me. Jan had just come off a few days of liking Danny Sloan. Danny liked Jan as much as the rest of us, but he was bolder than most. When he learned that Jan liked him, he said, "I like Jan and I don't care who knows it." How I envied him! But according to the rumor mill, Jan's interest had strayed from Danny and was turning (gulp) to me.
At lunch time, Jan was sitting at her desk, twisting the stem of her apple and reciting the alphabet.
"A, B, C, D, E, F, G...." As you probably know, grade school folklore said that the letter the stem pulled out on was the initial of your true love. This stem was tougher than most and Jan continued to turn. "...H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O...P..." Jan gave a little tug on the stem but it wouldn't budge. "...Q, R...S..." Again she pulled. And this time, out it came.
Terrified, I immediately devised a scheme to deflect attention from myself and get in a dig at Danny as well. I laughed, and pointed at Jan's apple triumphantly.
"S...for Shuler..." My throat stopped as I realized what I'd done. "I mean Sloan! I mean Sloan!" In an instant my dearest desire and deepest fear had slipped out for all to see. I'm sure Freud was somewhere laughing.
There were moments of flirtation that made my heart throb in my throat. During a field trip to the University's archeology museum, Jan followed me around the glass cases, her brown eyes shining with impishness and glee. When I tried to move away, she would come up beside me and stand on one of my always untied shoelaces. When I retreated to another part of the room and retied my sneaker, she crept up behind and untied it again. This dance repeated several times, up and down the aisles, past broken pots, ancient coins and sleeping mummies. I went home that day in a swoon.
But I never let on, and Jan's attentions soon drifted elsewhere. Before I knew it, the school year was over.
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