Chapter 6

The Girl from the Playground

 February 2006

TICK. TOCK. TICKETY-TICKETY-TICK. TICK. TOCK. TOCK.

The family room was all but quiet, save for the clock in the corner that barely functioned. It had been a few days since I almost crashed in the church parking lot, and I should’ve been 300 miles away at college, but instead was back home to see my psychiatrist.

As the fickle clock crept from late night into early morning, the tone of a text message chimed in my pocket.

Who’s contacting me at such a peculiar hour?

My intrigue only deepened when I didn’t recognize the number.

The text simply read, “Nathan?”

I responded, affirming that the sender had reached a “Nathan.” Seconds later, I found out who had been texting me.

“It’s Joanna from Kilmer.”

Joanna from Kilmer? Wow! What a surprise…

 

*

Joanna from Kilmer.

Before my family moved to Zion as I was entering third grade, we lived in a Chicago suburb named Buffalo Grove. Back then, I was a student at Joyce Kilmer Elementary; back then, I was a Cougar.

The Cougar was the school mascot. Every morning, each student would recite the Cougar Pledge, a litany of admirable traits that every Kilmer kid was to strive to achieve: we would pledge to treat others with kindness and respect, to be cooperative and responsible, to use proper manners, to follow school rules, and to be the best Kilmer student that we could be. Our daily oath would conclude with all of us kids shouting, “Once a Cougar, always a Cougar!” Reflecting on the pledge, I found that last bit a little peculiar: my college mascot also happened to be a Cougar, so the proclamation of “once a Cougar, always a Cougar” held particularly true for me.

Joanna had also been a Kilmer Cougar. Though, we weren’t friends or even acquaintances as children. For all I know, it’s possible we never had any interaction: we weren’t in any of the same classes, and there really should be no way that we would remember each other.

But, back in the spring of 2005, I had found my old 2nd grade Kilmer yearbook, brushed the dust off, and started searching for recognizable names so I could track down other Cougars on the newest fad: social networking sites. I was discouraged at first, as most of the faces and names in the book weren’t ringing any bells for me. Except there was this one picture of a cute little girl, and even though I couldn’t put my finger on how, I knew I knew her. There were no specific memories of her, but I felt like I must’ve known her from somewhere. Something drew me to her. So, I searched for her online, found her, and messaged her.

Similarly, Joanna didn’t know how, but she recognized me, somehow, someway. We began corresponding, but our virtual relationship wouldn’t last long. I was getting ready to ship off for the summer to train to become a chaplain assistant in what was essentially a second iteration of boot camp, and Joanna was in a committed relationship with a guy. The contact ended there.

That is, until I got that text in the first few minutes of a frigid February morning.

 

*

“It’s Joanna from Kilmer. I was just lying in bed and I realized how important it is to keep in contact with people, because you never know.”

Over the next several days, we corresponded more and more through texts and continued playing “catch up.” At the time, the thought of a significant relationship was all-but-absent, considering we didn’t know each other and that we both were dealing with the aftermaths of break-ups.

But in that time, we learned to appreciate each other. We had recalled ancient memories of Kilmer that had been locked-up way in the back of our brain’s filing cabinets, from our fond memories of Mr. Ryan the gym teacher, to the solemn atmosphere of the school the morning after the Kilmer secretary died, to the “Jump Rope for Heart” fundraiser that took place on the school’s tennis courts. We also discovered that we grew up a few blocks from one another, and Joanna had even been neighbors with my aunt who lived just a few houses south of her.

The more we talked, we realized how many times there was a possibility that we had met as kids, and just didn’t remember it. In a matter of a couple weeks, late-night phone conversations between us two Cougars became a regular thing.

On one particular night, we talked not only all night but well into the morning of February 18th. After finishing our phone conversation at 4:00am (and stopping mainly because my phone battery was dying), a strange feeling came over me. But not just a feeling, though. It felt much more than that, much more… divine.

As if a flash of lightning hit the room, I felt a warm breath speaking to my soul.

“Nathan… Nathan, this is the one… this is who you will marry…”

Okay, Nathan, you’re getting a little too tired, I rationalized.

“This is who you will marry…” it repeated.

You’re just woozy. You’re experiencing an emotional high, and you probably should get some sleep.

“Let it be, Nathan… you will marry her…”

Okay, you’re going crazy. You are going crazy.

“You will marry her…”

I logically came to the illogical decision that God must be speaking to me. But as I considered this, I experienced something more than a voice: it was like I was inexplicably afforded a knowledge of the future, but a future that already happened. It felt as if I had already married this girl and now was thinking about the years we’d been together; though there were no specific memories, it was like I’d been with this girl for years.

Then came the phenomenal. Like a train heist gone bad, my broken heart derailed into a love-filled lagoon. Drowning in ecstasy, this ruptured heart flooded with unconditional adoration.

I love her. I love a girl I’ve never met. I love Joanna.

But then I realized my biggest obstacle: marriage takes two.

What about Joanna? No way she’s gonna be receptive to this. She’s not even religious! How would she react if I suddenly proclaimed my love for her, telling her that God said she would get married to some guy she hasn’t even met?

There was only one way to find out, so I did just that. I suddenly proclaimed my love for her, telling her that God said she would get married to some guy she hasn’t even met.

Joanna’s response?

“I know. I feel it too.”

She believed what I had been telling her, a miracle in its purest form.

But this exciting news didn’t come without responsibility, as the voice indicated next.

“Tell everyone… no matter what they might think of you…”

What?

“Tell everyone…”

What do you mean?

Silence.

Hello?

More silence.

What do you mean?

No response.

The still voice said to tell everyone. But what does “everyone” mean?

Regardless of who “everyone” entailed, I figured my parents had to be first on that list. Besides, after going through something like I just did, I knew I had to talk to them right away anyway. So, at 6:00am, I called home, assuming my parents would be up for work.

“Heh… hello?” answered my groggy father.

That’s when I realized it was Saturday; my parents would be sleeping in this morning.

“Oh, gosh. Sorry Dad, I forgot it was the weekend.”

“That’s okay,” he responded, fighting his desire to sleep, instead listening to what I had to say. “What’s up?”

“This is gonna be worth the early wake-up, Dad. Believe me. An emergency came up…”

“An emergency?” he seemed alarmed, as I undoubtedly elicited his memories from the last time I called him with an “emergency.”

“Yeah, but not a bad one. No, it’s great, Dad. Really! You won’t believe it.”

“Okay…” Now he was wide-awake.

“But I can’t tell you like this. I need to come home next weekend. You guys have to hear it in person.”

“Have you been taking medicine?”

“Dad, stop and listen to me. Everything’s fine, something so great just happened to me, the best thing that’s ever happened to me in my whole life.”

“Oh, so… uh, does it involve quitting school?”

“No, no,” I laughed. “But Dad?”

“Yes?”

“Can you make sure everyone in the house knows I’m coming home? Can you round everyone up and make sure they’ll be there when I get home? I need everyone to hear this.”

“Yeah, sure. I’ll prepare everyone and let them know that… uh… I guess you have news. Some… big news.”

 

*

That next weekend, I did end up going home, but not without first making a detour to Joyce Kilmer Elementary.

I sat on top of the playground slide, my hands more jittery than if I had downed a cup of joe but as numb as if the cup was made of ice. While I hugged myself to smother my shivering, I saw a head poke around the corner of the school.

All of a sudden, the biting cold was bearable.

My heart started beating almost as fast as I was sprinting down the slide. After nearly falling off the edge and onto the woodchips, I scrambled towards the girl, my legs wobbling with raw anxiety.

In the dark, the two of us were finally able to see each others’ faces, of which we shared matching bright grins.

She was more beautiful than she looked in pictures: her giddy smile was as striking as her shapely figure; her hair was straighter than a meticulous winemaker’s vineyard, a brilliant tint of sepia; her cheeks were an alluring shade of pomegranate, ridged with an adorable little dimple, to boot.

Our bright blue eyes met; looking at her was like watching a steamy waterfall cascading amidst a frozen tundra. Though there technically was a time and date, it felt as if time ceased to exist, the rest of the world stopping altogether to allow us one brief moment all to ourselves.

The night’s veil harbored us as we embraced, the brutal wind unable to tear down our spirits.

“It’s been too long…” I muttered to her.

“I know…” she replied.