He was the one who broke her first bicycle. It had been her favorite. Not the prissy little girl kind, bubble gum pink with frilly streamers spilling out the handles. No, hers was a real bike, the kind that made little boys drool. Bright red, shiny, with baseball cards in the spokes, making that vrooommmmm sound when she pedaled hard. Her bike had been the best on her street.
But then he'd broken it.
It had been on purpose, too. She was sure of it. And even fifteen years later she found it hard to forgive him.
She supposed her resentment wasn't merely about the bike, although it did factor in pretty largely. What it really boiled down to was his constant presence. For him, it started out as a little boy's crush. And when you were young, the only way to let a little girl know you liked her—especially a little girl as tom-boyish as she had been—was to torment her. Hence, the broken bicycle. (And if she'd asked him, he would've even admitted to his guilt. Not that she ever did).
But gradually, the teasing transformed into this annoying form of doting admiration. And he'd done the worst thing possible (at least in a tomboy's mind). He'd treated her like a girl.
Now that was unforgivable.
She remembered the first time he'd acted concerned. It was when they were racing across their backyards on one bright day of their eighth summer (they lived next door to each other, you see).
"Last one to my back porch has to give up their half of the popsicle!" she'd yelled. She'd always loved issuing challenges, especially since she always won them. What she didn't know up until that point was that he'd been letting her win, holding back that little bit at the last moment. For him, her happiness was worth a little scratch on his ego. And the wager that day, both halves of the double popsicle they usually split in the afternoon, was guaranteed to please her.
"On your mark…get set…" she'd set off on her sprint at the same time she'd yelled "GO!" He didn't mind that she'd cheated. She often did, and if he'd tried his hardest, he still would have beaten her. But he never did, always keeping half a step behind her.
On that day, however, things happened differently. When she went to jump over the stepping stone path that divided their two yards, she miscalculated her step and took a hard spill. Her elbow banged roughly against the corner of a stone and pain shot up her arm in a throbbing wave. Instinctively, she clutched her injured limb, trying not to cry. Tomboys didn't cry. Still, she couldn't help the whimpers that squirmed in her throat like the worms she used to eat.
"Riss?" he'd asked, "You okay?"
She couldn't trust her voice not to wobble when she spoke, so she didn't say anything.
Kneeling down, he grabbed her injured arm. "Here, let me see it." He rotated her arm gently until he saw the gash that was gently oozing blood. Bits of earth and grass dirtied the wound. "We should clean this up."
Wordlessly, she let him hold her hand and take her back to his house. He led her to the laundry room, where the first aid kit was stored. It didn't matter that they were only eight and that it was still okay for mommies to take care of cuts and scrapes. He wanted to take care of her. So he'd climbed up onto the counter to get the kit out of the high cabinet. And he'd taken out the alcohol wipes his mom always used, blowing on the wound after he'd cleaned it to ward off the sting. He'd put a band-aid on the broken skin, with Neosporin, just like he knew he was supposed to. And then…he'd done what his mom always did. He bent and kissed her elbow. "To make it feel better," he'd said.
She'd been fine up until that point. But when he'd kissed her elbow, even then, she'd felt a little tingle in her tummy. And she'd liked it. But she wasn't supposed to. Boys were boys and girls were girls and boys weren't supposed to kiss girls' elbows. That was in steep violation of the tomboy code. And it'd bothered her that her tingly tummy had betrayed her. So she'd yanked her arm away and glared at him. "Gross!"
His face went pale, and then turned twenty shades of red. His embarrassment at her disgust made him hunt for a way to turn the tables. "Well at least I wasn't the stupid one who tripped!"
"Oh yeah?" she'd retorted, eager for the fight. It was something she was used to. And it made her forget all about silly tingles in her stomach. "Well at least I don't lose to a girl all the time." It didn't matter that she'd just put herself in the G-I-R-L category. Her words were meant to injure his pride, and for that she'd made an exception.
"Well that's because I let you win. Duh!" his words had been spoken with such confidence that she'd abruptly known he wasn't lying. She was shocked to find that his admission hurt. When had the tables turned? When had he gotten in control of the argument? And since when had he been going easy on her? She didn't know, and that had made her so much more frustrated that she'd kicked him in the shin and run home.
She'd never really forgiven him for that either.
In any case, after that day his doting had become more apparent to her. She knew to look for it. He was always treating her special, except for when it came to their backyard races where he'd already been found out for going easy on her. She was saddened to find that he didn't hold back in those races ever again… saddened mainly because she never won another race after that day.
But other than that one exception, his doting continued and increased until it reached its first peak on the day of her thirteenth birthday. It was the very beginning of eighth grade, and as everyone knows, middle school is not exactly the high time of one's life. Especially if one was awkwardly tall, flat-chested, and brace-faced. She was prime meat for picking on, and Heather Jones made no birthday exceptions when it came to teasing. In fact, she increased it tenfold. You see, Heather was the perfect height, actually had boobs, and her braces had come off over the summer. She was practically Britney Spears (who was all the hype in middle school. Don't deny). Heather was also jealous of 'Riss (not that this was common knowledge). You see, 'Riss had one thing that Heather didn't—him (not that she was aware that she had him…she preferred to be oblivious).
But on her thirteenth birthday, Heather upped the ante in her cattiness. She completely humiliated her on the bus in front of everyone. And nobody even stood up for her. He would've, except he was at cross country tryouts and thus was not present in his usual role as body guard. Heather had teased her to tears, and the fact that she'd cried in front of everybody added salt to her wound. By this point she'd outgrown her tomboy phase, but that didn't mean she was okay to cry in front of people. Tears were still weak, no matter what people said.
And this was how he'd found her, two hours later when he'd gotten back home from tryouts. She sat on her front porch, eyes puffy, with an occasional tear overflowing from her watery lids. He wordlessly sat down next to her, ignoring the fact that she hadn't acknowledged his presence. He knew how she worked, and he knew that it hurt her pride to be seen crying. But he also knew that it was her thirteenth birthday, and he couldn't just let that pass without any notice. So, he decided to take her mind off of whatever it was that was bothering her. He'd find out what that was later, and he'd fix it—not that he'd let her know this. She never knowingly accepted his help. But she did accept it, and that's what counted.
However, his choice of distraction, although perfect, was not entirely unselfish. Because even at the age of thirteen he was aware of one thing: he was hopelessly in love with her, had always been, and probably always would be. Even in her gawky, awkward stage, he thought she looked beautiful—beautiful in the simple way that flower bulbs are beautiful. Not beautiful in the obvious way of bright colors and perfect shapes, but beautiful because he knew what lay inside, and he knew that when she truly bloomed…
He couldn't wait.
And so he didn't. He turned to her, cupping her cheek and catching a stray tear on his thumb. And then he kissed her, gently on the lips, in plain sight on her front porch. Again, her stomach tingled warmly. She didn't pull away until he did, only a few seconds later.
He smiled at her and stood, "Happy Birthday, Riss."
She wordlessly stood too…
And then she kicked him in the shin.
The smile on his face dropped, "Jeez, Riss!" He hopped on one leg, clutching his pulsing limb.
She shrugged, "For old time's sake," and retreated into her house.
For seconds after, he stared at the door in disbelief. And then he shook his head as a smile slowly made its way onto his face.
…oh yes, that bulb was gonna bloom nicely after all.
That wasn't the last kiss he sprung on her spontaneously, nor was it the last time he got kicked in the shin for it. He didn't really mind, though. For he knew it was just her way of saying she loved him too. And to be honest, if she didn't react the way she did, well. She just wouldn't be his Riss, would she?
He'd said that to her once. She remembered. His Riss. She'd pretended to be scorching mad and ignored the flutter tickling her chest. "I don't believe in being the property of a man!" she'd said in this uber-feministic way, although she didn't care a lick for feminism. It just suited her purposes in that moment. Not that it mattered, anyways, because he'd just kissed her anyway—followed by a swift kick to the shin, of course.
She didn't exactly remember when she stopped kicking him in the shin at every kiss. But somewhere in the later years of high school, she just forgot. Probably because his kisses became so distracting...and probably because she was too busy kissing him back. Their relationship sprung up out of nowhere—well, it did in her mind anyways. He knew he'd been courting her since that day in the laundry room, when his lips grazed her bandaged elbow. Yes, it had been love.
But now a few years into college, on separate campuses, nearly ready to graduate into the next phases in their lives, their quirky dynamic was going stronger than ever. He'd show up randomly in her apartment (to which she'd given him a key without hesitation), giving her odd gifts like flower bulbs and plastic Easter eggs and chocolate Wonderballs. She'd always ask him in reference to his gifts, "And what do we have here?"
And he'd respond, "Why, it's my tribute to you, of course." He'd then give her this heart-melting smile and wrap his arms around her. "You're my prize in the center."
She'd narrow her eyes jokingly, "You calling me ugly on the outside?"
And then he'd clear his throat loudly and not meet her glance.
"Jerk!" she'd yell and he'd kiss her before she had the chance to retort. That was the way they were. They'd banter in good fun, because that's how it'd always been. They'd fight, they'd kiss, and fight some more, and kiss some more.
And then one day a year down the road he'd showed up at the apartment, all peaky and pale. She'd immediately been concerned.
"What's wrong?" If anything he got paler, and a cold sweat broke out on his brow.
"Are you ill?" she rushed towards him and put her hand on his forehead.
"No, no. I'm fine, really."
It was then that she noticed what he was standing in front of.
It was a bike, a bright red one, shiny and new, with classic baseball cards in the spokes. She knew they'd make that vrooommmmm sound if she pedaled hard. It was her old bike, the one he'd broken…just bigger. And she loved it.
"I just wanted to say, Happy 5 years, 2 months and 3 days anniversary." He gave her a gentle kiss on the mouth after wheeling the bike in front of her. She stared at the bike as a warm feeling blossomed within.
"God, I love you," she said, tears immediately filling her eyes. It was by no means the first time she'd said the words. But they seemed to gain meaning each and every time they were spoken.
"I love you too," he said with a sweet grin.
She giggled lightly, "If I had known we were celebrating I would have—"
"Nonsense," he interrupted her, still looking rather pale, if she was to be honest with herself. "It's actually not our only anniversary." She looked at him perplexed. "On this day, 16 years ago, I did something dreadful." His voice was filled with exaggeration.
Okay, he'd lost her. "You...did?"
"Yes! And you haven't let me live it down since!"
"I..what?" She felt his head again, for good measure. But he ducked away.
"I'm not sick!" he laughed. "But I'm finally going to admit to something you've been holding against me for years." He paused for dramatic effect. "I broke your bike on this day 16 years ago...on purpose. And I'm here to bribe your forgiveness with this new bike." His face was serious, although his eyes laughed.
"Ha! I knew it! I knew it, I knew it, I knew it!" she danced in place, pointing at him victoriously.
But while she was wrapped in her dance, he reached behind him and grabbed a small square box. He tossed it to her, and despite her dancing, she managed to catch it without fumbling. Then she froze.
"Yup. For when you fall of course." His grin was smug and she frowned at him childishly.
And then, he snatched the box from her hand.
"Look, they've even got Smurfs on them!" He opened the box, reaching inside to pull a bandage out. But when his hand left the box, it wasn't a band-aid that he was holding.
"Oh my gosh," she whispered under her breath as she caught site of the ring in his hand.
She repeated herself as he lowered himself to one knee and met her eyes, "Riss, I've loved you since my lips touched that wrinkly skin on your left elbow. And every time I see that little scar there, I'm reminded of all the reasons we're meant to be together. We fit. It's as simple as that, and in my heart, I know I could be happy with none other than you. So, tell me. Will you marry me?"
"Of course! Yes!" she half-whispered as he slipped the ring onto her finger. She pulled him to a stand and jumped into his arms. "God, yes!" They erupted into laughter as he spun her around, finally setting her on her feet and kissing her soundly. When they parted, she started into his eyes for several moments, thinking lovingly of the man she was to marry…
…and then she kicked him hard in the shin.
"For old time's sake."