If a teacher didn’t give us assigned seats, it didn’t matter: Students sat in pretty much the same place day after day. In English, Nicole sat kitty-corner behind me to my left; in chemistry, we were in the same row, separated only by her best friend, Beth. But this alignment sometimes shifted as sophomore year wore on into spring: I remember Nikki occasionally taking an empty seat next to me in English, and not only when Ms. S. cast us as the lovers in our staged reading of The Scarlet Letter (Did she know something we didn’t?!). And in chemistry, Beth sometimes took to sitting at the desk where her friend usually sat, forcing Nikki, who often walked into that class a few minutes late, to sit next to me.
Sophomore year passed innocently enough, though it was hard to ignore the growing attraction. And it was hard for others to ignore as well, including the teachers. (Why does each new generation of students assume that teachers are oblivious?) Nikki and I had begun passing notes in chemistry class, with Beth a willing conduit. They weren’t love notes, per se; they might have been goofy little comments on classmates, or maybe thinly disguised challenges prodding the other to up the ante on our flirting. More than once, Mr. B. intercepted one of these notebook-paper missives and read it aloud to the class, resulting in much snickering and two very red faces.
The school year ended without me having mustered the nerve to ask Nikki on a date. And I might not have seen her before September but for one chance encounter at the General Electric Athletic Association, where both of our families belonged. One day in late June I met my friend Doug there for a friendly tennis match and was quite surprised to see Nikki hitting balls with a friend on the next court. For the rest of the allotted hour and a half we were back in class, casting each other hesitant smiles and now and then losing focus on the subject at hand.
Off the courts, we nervously exchanged small talk like “I didn’t know you played tennis” or “I didn’t know your parents worked at GE.” After a wan “Well, see ya,” I asked Doug if he wanted me to sign us up for another court in a couple of days. I could not forsee the sequence of events that happened next.
When I arrived two days later to meet Doug, once again, there was Nikki on the next court. “Wow, what a coincidence,” I thought, wondering what the odds were that we’d end up on adjacent courts two times in a row. As I attempted to concentrate on my game with Doug, trying in vain not to catch Nikki’s furtive glances, it suddenly occurred to me, what if it wasn’t a coincidence? Might she have deliberately signed up to play tennis at 10:30 on Thursday for no other reason than I was going to be there?
We made small talk again, though it started to get bigger; we found out where each other lived, and I learned that she had a boyfriend, though she dropped several hints that she was getting bored with him. No, I didn’t have a girlfriend (couldn’t she see how shy I was?). This time, I decided not to sign up for a court immediately; sometime later I snuck back and saw the she was down for Court 2 the following Tuesday morning. And so I signed up for Court 3.
After Tuesday’s tennis, Nikki told me she had broken up with her boyfriend—and now things were really heating up. I should have asked her out right then and there, but I needed one last ink-and-paper piece of proof.
That morning her mother was waiting to pick her up, so after smiles and goodbyes, I headed immediately to the tennis shed to sign up for Court 2 Thursday. I watched her mother pull the car away, and I was sure that Nikki saw me enter the shed.
I arrived a little early on Thursday, eager to confirm that Nikki was still playing our little sign-up-sheet game. And then I felt completely helpless when I saw in the book that on Court 1 was another club member I recognized, while Court 3 had been filled in with a weird name I didn’t recognize at all. How could this have happened?
I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach as I smacked balls back at Doug with more than my usual vigor. I glanced at Court 1; sure enough, that game was under way. But no one had shown up for Court 3. With little hope, I kept blasting away with Doug while watching the other court out of the corner of my eye. I must have looked away; when I looked back, Nikki and her friend were on the court. I later realized that Nikki had phoned in the court reservation, and the person who took her name completely botched it.
For the rest of that summer, we had movie dates and bike rides, and sometimes one of my parents would drop me off at her house to spend a Sunday. What began as two or three phone calls a week turned into nearly every night once school resumed. Since I had to call either from the wall phone in the kitchen or the desk phone in my parents’ bedroom, privacy wasn’t guaranteed, but fortunately, my parents usually spent the better part of the evening downstairs. I still remember sitting in my mother’s basket-weave chair, dialing Nikki on the rotary phone, hoping she was home and was allowed to talk, and trying to shoo my mother away when she came into the room looking for something.
We stayed together for our remaining two high-school years, and, predictably, drifted apart during college. There were a few more chapters in the book of our teenage romance, but I still get a special laugh out of how we began our relationship with a game of cat-and-mouse on the tennis-court sign-up sheet.