Phillip loved Judith. Not liked, but loved. Even in the third grade, when such feelings weren’t supposed to stir in boys. He loved her dark brown hair, with its pageboy cut and bangs, the way it moved when she shook her head. He loved her brown eyes that sparkled under the fluorescent lights of the classroom, the brown freckles strewn across her nose and cheeks, and most of all her smile when she looked at him.
And she loved him the same—for his sandy colored hair and blue eyes, the clever way he moved and carried himself. Like a ballplayer, she thought, like someone who could protect you. And the way he laughed, always happy; nothing too serious for him. But most of all, the way he paid attention to her, defying the “boys don’t like girls” rule. She felt special when Phillip was near. Their classmates were curious about these feelings. The boys asked Phillip, Have you kissed her? Is her cheek soft? We’ve heard girls’ faces are very soft. Girls teased Judith, Do you love him? Will you marry him? How many children will you have?
But Nora also loved Judith. Nora was Judith’s best friend, at least among the girls, so she was jealous—quick to guard her relationship with Judith.
Whenever Phillip approached Judith on the playground—at recess or during lunch —Nora flew at him like a mother hen protecting her favorite chick. Armed with her white majorette boots, which she wore every day for she had no other shoes, Nora would stomp at Phillip’s feet. But Phillip was quicker and more nimble than Nora. He would dance away from her and laugh, all the while maneuvering closer to Judith. And Judith would laugh too. But Nora would frown and sometimes cry, feeling she had failed to protect the natural order that should bind Judith to her. Boys are evil; she knew this. They inevitably grow into men, like the man who had failed her mother, and left her family alone in a shabby house.
During the summers Judith and Phillip phoned one another daily. Both sets of parents thought at first that the relationship was cute, then quaint, then somewhat worrisome, being so premature. Judith’s parents in particular thought so. But neither set of parents ever shared Nora’s view of the romance. After all, both Judith and Phillip were sensible children and both got good grades, unlike Nora. They were popular with their classmates, too, also unlike Nora.
By fifth grade, Phillip sometimes rode the city bus to visit Judith, whose home was beyond walking range. When he did, Judith’s mother would make a special lunch for them—peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with chicken noodle soup and milk to drink; for their health, she said. Then the precocious little couple would sit on the front porch, in a swing, talking and swinging. They talked about school and teachers, the feared ones and the favorite ones. Even during the summer they talked about school subjects, arithmetic and geography. Where is Thailand exactly and what is it like there? they wondered. They talked about other boys and other girls they knew, including Nora, whom they often pitied. What’s more, they talked about their futures. Phillip wanted to be a policeman. Of course, he would serve in the Army first, or perhaps the Navy; he liked boats. Judith wanted to become a nurse. She liked their white uniforms with their white winged caps and the idea of caring for people who were hurt or ill.
By sixth grade things were changing. Their bodies felt different but not their feelings for one another. By then Phillip noticed the dimples in Judith’s knees; they became objects of fascination for him.
Now, however, the couple was not unique in liking the opposite sex. Other boys buzzed around Judith, for she was prettier than ever. But she was faithful to Phillip, who by now was a safety patrol. She was so proud of him for this. Each morning he was on duty, in all weather. When Judith got off the school bus, there he was, holding a bamboo pole with a red flag tied to it. Bravely, he’d step into the traffic, raise his hand, and present his flag to stop the cars. If any car came too close to the crossing lane, he’d make it back up, using vigorous hand gestures and a ferocious glare. Only when the cars were properly stopped did he wave the waiting children across the street. When Judith crossed, she would smile at him and pat the silver badge on his white bandolier. In winter she’d remove her wool glove before she touched it, just as she did at church with her white dress gloves before she daubed the aqua sancta. Other girls, even Nora, would do the same, as a joke; but none before Judith had touched the badge; they always let her go first. And when Judith sang and danced on the school’s talent night assembly, Phillip rose even before her parents to lead the applause. Afterward, they were famous for each other.
In seventh grade they went to a different school, junior high. Phillip walked to school; Judith still rode the same school bus, just farther. Because they were no longer in the same homeroom, they’d meet at lunch time and after eating would walk the school grounds—around the school’s long horseshoe drive or just around and around the building itself. More often than not, they held hands during their walks. To guide Judith through the traffic in the school’s hallways when they changed classes, Phillip put his arm around her waist. Judith took his gesture to be both protective and romantic.
Occasionally, Nora would follow them on their walks, grousing as she went, forcing herself into their conversations when she could, asking about their other friends, for she no longer shared classes with either of them. She was separated from them now, permanently, by grade point averages and achievement test scores.
One day in eighth grade, when Judith came to the lunch table, she was crying.
“What is it?” Phillip asked. “What’s wrong?”
“Last night my parents told me . . .” She was choking on her words. “Told me we are moving. To another state, far away.”
“But why?” Phillip rose from his seat and bent over her shoulder as she sat down. Then he knelt beside her with his knee on the cafeteria’s hard tile floor and his arm around her shoulders. The other students nearby stopped eating to stare at them.
“A better job, my father said. He’s afraid he’ll soon lose the job he has now. We’ll leave by the end of the month!” Tears streamed over her freckles; she clutched the handkerchief Phillip offered and pressed it to her eyes. He slumped into the chair beside her, his head in his hands, dumbfounded.
“We’ll run away then!” he declared suddenly. “This can’t happen to us. We won’t let it.”
“But how would we live? We’re too young to have jobs of our own. No, Phillip, I thought about it all night. About how I would tell you and be brave, but I couldn’t.” She was sobbing now. “I know I have to leave you.”
A teacher came by to ask what on earth was going on, then told them to stop making a scene, so they left the cafeteria without eating. They walked in the hallway, holding hands. Calmer now, Judith returned Phillip’s handkerchief.
As they walked, vague promises flew between them, like frightened birds: I’ll write every day, I’ll call, I’ll visit. Some distance behind them Nora was walking too, listening and smiling.