There was a set of bleachers outside the gym of Washington High School that overlooked the tracks. People sat on the silver aluminum seats to watch track meets, eat their lunches of grilled cheese sandwiches and tater tots, and take their class pictures.
I sat in these bleachers the very first day of my freshmen year P.E. class. I remember that day very clearly, because Coach Olen had spent most of the class calling out our names and making sure that we were seated in alphabetical order by last name so he could go through us one by one and scribble down each of our previous experiences in sports.
I remember also, because I was sitting next to Tyler Moore.
Tyler was a scrawny boy who had raised his hand eagerly when his name was called right after mine and talked to me enthusiastically as Coach Olen went down the line of students.
"Emma Mercer, right?" He stuck out his hand with a big smile on his face. We were about the same size, and when we shook hands, I realized that our hands were about the same size too. "I'm Tyler Moore."
I had just moved to this town, and the transition from growing up in Brooklyn to living in a small town in California was quite overwhelming. P.E. was my first period of my first day of school in this new town, and Tyler was the first person to talk to me.
He was friendly and cheerful, and when Coach Olen came and asked him what sports he might have played in the past, he quickly tacked off an impressive list.
"Well, Coach," Tyler began, "I play basketball, tennis, baseball, and I swim. But soccer is my favorite for sure."
Coach Olen paused to give him a look. I could tell that he was incredulous, given both Tyler's scrawny size and the fact that most of the students before him had said either that they played one sport or none at all. I myself had given the answer that I go running sometimes, which was true, but I certainly didn't spend a long time doing it and I certainly didn't enjoy it.
But Coach Olen was a good P.E. teacher. And as a good P.E. teacher, his look of incredulousness quickly faded, and he gave Tyler a gruff nod, a "Thank you, son," and a quick scribble in his notepad of all the sports that Tyler had listed.
As the class soon found out in the following two weeks, however, Tyler wasn't kidding about his experiences with sports.
We started with basketball, which I had especially dreaded.
Tyler, however, was easily the best in the class. He was small, but he was extremely fast. His movements were a blur as he dribbled the ball across the court. Dribble, dribble, pass, catch, dribble, dribble, duck, shoot, and score. He was also quite a team player. Despite the fact that he was easily the best player on the team, he always passed to his teammates and told them countless "good job's" and "nice try's" after each game and each attempt at a shot.
Coach Olen liked him immediately. When it came to baseball, flag football, tennis, soccer, and volleyball, Tyler always stood out, both for his obvious skill as well as his positive attitude.
Tyler easily made the Varsity Soccer team as a freshman, and played on the basketball team and ran track as well.
In P.E. class, for each sport, Coach Olen would select a few students as team captains and make them pick their teammates one by one. It was a dreadful process for those who weren't good at sports, because they would be sitting on those silver bleachers till most of their teammates got called, and they'd be the ones left that no one wanted and had to take on as last picks.
I wasn't good at sports. I wasn't too bad, but on a good day, I was mediocre at best. But I always got picked first.
Tyler was always a team captain, and for his first picks, be it tennis, soccer, or volleyball, he would look at me when it was his first turn to pick and say the words "Emma Mercer" with the same enthusiasm and eagerness as he did when he first met me.
At first I simply thought he hadn't realized that I wasn't awesome at sports, to put it lightly. I thought he would realize this after basketball was done with and I had dropped more passes than caught, but Tyler picked me first for tennis as well.
Consistently, without fail, Tyler would call out my name.
Inevitably, the rumors started.
"Tyler Moore definitely likes you," Amy Pruitt whispered to me during fourth period English one day. "Everyone says so."
Amy had become one of my closest friends during that first semester of freshmen year, but I wished that she was a billion miles away at that moment. The instant that those words came out of her mouth, my face flamed red.
"Shut up, Amy," I whispered, but not quietly enough.
My English teacher, Mrs. Wainwright, was in the middle of lecturing To Kill a Mockingbird at that moment, and she turned towards me immediately.
"Perhaps there is something Emma would like to share with us that is more important than what I am saying?" Mrs. Wainwright asked.
I shook my head furiously, but that didn't save me from having to stay an extra ten minutes after class to hear her lecture about the importance of paying attention in class.
After that day I thought about Tyler constantly, although if I have to be honest with myself, I thought about him quite often before that too.
I had had crushes on boys before, and I recognized that I had one now. It was impossible not to, if I look back on it now. Tyler smiled a lot, always talked to me eagerly when we sat next to each other during roll call in P.E. class, and always picked me first for teams. As a fourteen year old girl, I never stood a fighting chance.
The difference about this crush, however, was that everyone in the school seemed to have a comment about it. Not about me, because I knew that I could hide my feelings quite well, but I couldn't even begin to count how many times people poked me in the hallways and remarked on how cute it was that Tyler picked me first and always tried to talk to me when he saw me.
It was all true. I could always count on him to make me look like the most wanted athlete in P.E. class, and he often stopped by my locker to chat with me when he saw me.
It was all true, but I tried my best to ignore what people said, because, despite the fact that everyone was remarking on how Tyler must like me, Tyler himself was never more than friendly.
Every time he called out my name when picking teams, however, I thought to myself that he must know what people are whispering in the hallways. But if he did, he never let on.
Everyone in the school liked Tyler. A lot of girls certainly did, because despite the fact that he was scrawny, he had a lot of charm, a huge smile that always seemed to be there, and an uncanny knack for sports.
It wasn't until the last day of school freshmen year that I realized that the rumors weren't just rumors.
I was sitting with Amy and our friend Brianna Daniels on the bleachers and signing each others' yearbooks when I noticed Tyler with his group of friends out of the corner of my eye.
David Mitchell was nudging him and looking my way in a totally non subtle manner.
"Go on, dude," David was saying, and I could just catch his words. "You said you'd do it before the year was over, and today's the last day of classes."
I could see Tyler looking my way, but his glances were so brief before turning away that I could barely be sure that they even happened.
Finally, his friends broke through to him, and I could see Tyler walking towards me, fiddling his yearbook as he made his way over towards the bleachers where we were sitting. He looked extremely nervous, but I felt even more nervous. My heart was pounding against my ribcage, and the pen I was holding as I was signing Amy's yearbook was actually shaking in my hand.
Tyler stopped in front of me, and I could feel Amy and Brianna grow rapt with attention, their eyes trained on the two of us.
"Um, hi Emma," he said, and I could barely lift my head enough to look him in the eye. If there was anybody in the world feeling more nervous and awkward than him at that moment, it would definitely be me.
He looked at Brianna and Amy. "Um, I was wondering if I could talk to you. Alone."
"We're leaving!" Amy practically jumped to her feet and dragged Brianna off before I could even process Tyler's words. Talk about an enthusiastic friend.
Tyler blinked at my friends' rapid departure, but he quickly turned back to me.
"So, uh," he began, and I could sense every pair of eyes on the field trained on us. I think even Coach Olen was looking our way, probably extremely amused. "So, I've really, um, really enjoyed sitting next to you in P.E. class this year."
I had never seen Tyler so nervous. It surprised me that this usually goofy and friendly kid who was so apt on the courts was clearing his throat and fighting to hold eye contact with me right now.
I knew what was coming, at least, I hoped I knew. And I was excited, but I was also, extremely, extremely, nervous. Man, my mother definitely was not kidding when she gave me a pep talk about how being fourteen meant that people were often going through one of the most awkward stages of their lives.
Looking back at Tyler, I tried to smile and hoped that it came out right. Seemingly encouraged by this, he opened his mouth.
"SoIlikeyou," he said, super fast. He cleared his throat again. "What I mean is, I really like you, Emma, and I was wondering if you, um, if you wanted to be my girlfriend?"
I had to swallow three times before I could find my voice.
"Okay," I said.
He looked at me, as if quite unsure of what I had just said.
"Okay?" he asked.
"Do you…do you like me too?"
I couldn't find my voice to answer that one, so I just nodded.
Tyler's face completely changed. He lost that nervousness and smiled immediately, that same goofy, friendly, and ridiculously happy smile that he had given me on the first day of P.E. class.
"Okay," he told me.
I couldn't help it. My face had a silly grin on it as well.
That summer, we started hanging out together. A lot of the times, it was just with our mutual friends to the mall or to see a movie, but sometimes, we would go get frozen yogurt together or go rent a movie and watch it at one of our houses.
I had dinner with his family, and he had dinner with mine.
Our families were very different. Tyler lived with his mother, sister, and grandmother. He was the youngest and the only boy in that family, and they all adored him. Rather than bask in the attention, however, Tyler had developed a tremendous respect and a protective attitude towards his family.
My family, on the other hand, was much more the typical nuclear family. My father was an accountant, and my mother was a bakery shop owner, and we had a nanny name Janet to take care of my baby sister Evangeline, who had just turned four.
They all loved him. Even Janet, who only met him on several occasions, and Evangeline, who still had her chubby baby cheeks, adored Tyler. He won my dad over mostly by bringing me home at least 15 minutes before my 9:00 pm curfew whenever we hung out.
I was also crazy about him.
Tyler was the first boy I had ever "dated." I didn't really know what dating meant or what having a boyfriend meant, but I like him tremendously.
We first held hands on the bleachers while watching a softball game that Tyler's sister Danielle was coaching over the summer. After the game, when we both cheered after Danielle's team had won, he leaned over and gave me a quick peck on the cheeks. It was incredible how such a simple thing made me so happy.
From first kiss to first fight, Tyler was quickly becoming one of the most important people in my life.
I remember one afternoon during our sophomore year when I had gone over to Tyler's house to do our Algebra homework, Danielle passed through the dining room and smiled at the two of us sitting together. She was then a senior at Washington who had just been accepted to UC Berkeley, and she stopped to smile at us.
"You guys are so cute," she laughed as she gave Tyler a quick pinch on the cheek.
"Augh, Danielle!" he made a swipe at her with his hand but she dodged it easily and left the living room.
Tyler's face reddened, but he still turned to me to give me an explanation.
"She's always so annoying," he said, but the redness on his cheeks didn't fade.
I just smiled at him and gave him a peck on the cheek.
We went back to doing our algebra for a few minutes before he turned to me again.
"Hey Emma," he said.
I turned to look at him, "What's up?"
"Well, I," Tyler began, and I could tell that he was nervous, which he hadn't really been since those first few months when we began dating.
"Hmm?" I turned towards him so my body was facing him.
"Well, I know we're only fifteen, but I mean, you know it when you know it, you know?" he said. At my raised eyebrows, he said, "I love you, Emma Mercer."
Then, he gave an extremely silly smile that showed all his teeth to diffuse the situation. I knew that he was making the face to give me an out. I could simply laugh at his face and pass the moment off, but I had felt like I could've told him months ago.
"I love you too, Tyler Moore."
And it didn't matter that we were just fifteen. It didn't matter that my practical minded mother probably thought what we had was just puppy love. Maybe it was. But even so, the only person who knew whether or not I was really in love was me.
And I knew.
Towards the end of sophomore year, Tyler had a growth spurt. All of a sudden, this scrawny boy who was about the same size as me shot up by a foot and grew more muscular from all the sports that he was playing and all the food that he was eating.
Tyler became very attractive, and he was extremely popular.
I could see the way other girls at the school turned to look when he walked by. I could tell that on game days, when Tyler would walk down the hallway with his varsity jacket decked out with all its letters that these girls would turn to each other and whisper about him.
At the beginning of junior year, I exploded at Amy the third time she told me she had seen another girl flirt with Tyler.
I immediately regretted it and apologized, but I hated how jealous I felt. I was the one who he sought out after each of his games, and I was the one he kissed after school, but I couldn't help it. And it didn't help that Tyler was so friendly with everyone around him.
There was one girl in particular. Her name was Lindsay Miller, and she was gorgeous. Way more gorgeous than I was, anyways. She went to all of Tyler's games because her brother Brian was Tyler's best friend, and she was always talking to him.
I didn't like it one bit, but I would never say anything, afraid to come off as some psychotic girlfriend that Tyler would want to shrug off for someone not as crazy.
Then one afternoon, after sixth period when Tyler would usually wait for me by my locker so we could walk to the bus together, I couldn't find him.
I walked around school for about fifteen minutes as people milled out, but it wasn't until I was close to the locker rooms next to the bleachers that I saw the back of Tyler's varsity jacket and heard Lindsay Miller's voice.
I was about to call his name when I heard what Lindsay was saying.
"…why don't you just break it off?" she asked. "Goodness knows you can do a lot better."
I quickly retreated behind the corner, out of sight. My back was to the lockers, and I bit my lip, made surprisingly fragile by the words of a girl I wasn't friends with and did not really care for.
Tyler's next words, however, were said in a tone that I had never heard before. He sounded like he was trying his hardest to control his temper so that his voice could still come out clear and even.
"Emma Mercer," he began, "Emma Mercer is the best girl I could ever hope for, and there is no one in the world that I would ever pick over her. Ever."
I bit my lip and smiled. I never told Tyler that I had heard that conversation, and he never brought it up to me either. He only caught up with me later by the bus stop and apologized for having been caught up in a conversation after school and not noticing the time.
Lindsay Miller backed off after that day. The other girls in my school might not have, but after that day, I didn't really care.
Despite everything though, our separation was inevitable.
Tyler graduated valedictorian of my school senior year. He was class President junior and senior year, homecoming king, and MVP of his soccer and basketball teams. He was definitely the golden boy of our school and our town, and Yale University swooped him up.
He had accepted a spot at Yale, where he was going to play on the soccer team and study mathematics. I was going to UC San Diego to study biology, which, while I was extremely happy about it, was a whole 3000 miles away from New Haven, Connecticut.
We didn't talk about the future that much. I think we were both trying to avoid it, although Tyler would sometimes make vague plans for things we would do together in a year or even in two years, but neither of us would talk too much into it.
One evening, in mid-May of our senior year, Tyler had to run extra laps at night as a punishment for Coach Olen, who coached the soccer team. The previous day, he had asked me to prom. He had done it by bringing me to the soccer field, where he and his teammates stood in a line and proceeded to strip off their shorts one by one until their boxers spelled out a full sentence that asked me to go to prom with him.
I had said yes, and Coach Olen, who although found it amusing and secretly seemed to harbor a soft spot for the two of us, deemed the exposure indecent and punished Tyler by making him run extra laps every day for the next two weeks.
I was sitting on the bleachers when Tyler finished up his laps and ran up to me.
"Hey, listen," I began, handing him his towel so he could wipe his face.
"Uh, oh," Tyler smiled at me, and when I didn't smile back, his face immediately became somber. "What's up, Emma?"
"Look, you're going to Yale next year, and I'll be here in California," I said, not able to look at him as I tried to get my words out. "So I understand if you know, you just want to be friends."
My voice had faded as I talked, so that even though I didn't choke on the sentence as I thought I might, the word "friends" was barely audible when it came out in a whisper.
There was a long, heavy silence, and then Tyler spoke.
"Do you want to just be friends?"
I couldn't look at him, and I could detect nothing from the intonation in his voice.
"Look, I…I don't know."
Tyler was licking his lips, I saw from the corner of his eyes. I could also see that his brows were drawn in a frown. He seemed to be thinking carefully before getting his next words out, because it took a while before he spoke again.
"I don't," he said, then looked down for a brief moment before he could talk again. "I don't just want to be friends."
"I know, I don't either!" I was on the verge of crying at this point. "But let's be realistic, Tyler. We're going to be so far away from each other. It's not going to be the same at all. And you're going to meet some cute girl at Yale who's better than me…" I couldn't continue. My voice was cracking.
"Emma, there is nobody better!" he spoke and grabbed my hand tightly. With my free hand, I was furiously wiping away tears. "I'm not going to meet anybody better because nobody can even compare."
"You say that now, but how many high school couples actually make it? One percent?" I asked, "Look if you're going to come back Thanksgiving break and tell me there's some girl you like at Yale, I'd rather we end things now—
"And what if you come back Thanksgiving break and tell me there's some boy at UCSD who you fell head over heels for?" Tyler demanded, and he sounded truly angry. "I can't take that either! But there is no one I have ever wanted to be with but you since I met you in P.E. class that first Tuesday of freshman year. Do you have so little faith in us?"
I couldn't say anything. My head was bent down, and there were silent tears streaming down my face. At my silence, Tyler spoke again, but this time, his voice was softer, and more vulnerable.
"Do you want to break up with me?"
Surprised, I looked up at him, and his face was pained as he looked back at me.
I shook my head furiously.
"Of course not!" I told him, "I was just afraid you might." And here, a fresh wave a tears came out again.
He put his arm around me and hugged in until I was wrapped tightly in his arms.
"Emma Mercer," he whispered into my hair. "I'd never want that."
He went to Yale, and I went to UCSD.
It wasn't easy, especially the first semester. College itself was a whole different experience, and adjusting to a whole different kind of relationship in that atmosphere was extremely difficult.
There were a lot of fights and a lot of tears. I'd fly to New Haven to see him, and he'd fly to San Diego to see me. We did the best we could, but sometimes even the visits would turn into bitter arguments. The jealousy I hadn't felt since junior year of high school came up again, and I saw a jealous side in Tyler toward my guy friends at UCSD that I was definitely not used to.
Despite everything though, it got easier as the semesters went on. We scheduled visits and Skype dates. I cheered for him at his soccer games when I went to visit and cheered in front of my computer at broadcasts when I couldn't. He came and tested me on biology before exams and took me to watch romantic comedies when I gave in to my weakness for them.
Through the autumns, the winters, and the springs, we made it.
And through it all, I was just as crazy about him as I was when I was fourteen.
Tyler was right. We couldn't have just given up that May during our senior year of high school. Maybe ninety-nine percent of high school couples don't make it when they go to different colleges, but we were both determined to be the one percent that did.
Senior year of college, perhaps, was the best year for us because of two separate pieces of information that each of us received.
My research professor at UCSD was going to London to conduct research for a year, and he wanted to take me with him.
Tyler had won a scholarship that would allow him to pursue graduate studies in London for the next couple of years.
We were going to be in the same place, at least for a year. After that year, no one could really say, but it didn't really matter, because no matter where we were, I no longer doubted that it would work out.
That June, after we had both graduated and come back home, we were sitting by those old bleachers at Washington High one evening when Tyler nudged me and smiled in a teasing manner.
"Told you I was right," he told me. "Told you it would all work out."
I smiled back at him, thinking back to high school.
"Do you remember," I asked him, "that we met on these bleachers?"
"Of course, in Coach Olen's class."
"You were sitting next to me."
"We were wearing hideous gym clothes."
"You were very talkative."
"You were very pretty."
I smiled and suddenly felt slightly shy. There was brief silence, and then Tyler spoke again.
"We first held hands on these bleachers."
"Our first kiss was here also."
"You sat here when I asked you to prom. Man, Coach Olen was so angry."
I laughed, and then sobered up. "We also had that fight our senior year here."
"And now we're here again."
I smiled. "And now we're here again."
"There's also one more thing."
I looked at Tyler, curious. "What thing?" I asked.
Instead of saying something, he stood up, then knelt down on one knee.
I could barely breathe as I began to comprehend the situation, and Tyler was speaking.
"Emma Mercer, will you marry me?"
And there was no doubt in my mind what I would say.