Susan was the girl next door

IT COMES to me every year about the first of May - Susan's birthday. I've been hitchhiking across country, studying for exams, finishing my first book, preparing for my ordination. No matter what I'm doing, it catches up to me and says suddenly, quietly, ``May 7 is Susan's birthday.'' Susan was the girl next door until I was 12. We had a thing going. It couldn't be called romantic, it was more a bond of rivalry. Susan was six months older than I and, for a while, as good a baseball player as any boy for several blocks. That counted for a lot, because in our neighborhood, baseball was near to a religious experience. Growing up in southern California three blocks from a park, we had a 10-month season. In the spring and fall we were limited to weekends and some afternoons because of school. But in the summer we played six hours a day, six days a week. We were pros.

Susan was good all right. On days when there weren't enough kids for a real game, I'd find someone to play home run derby either at the park or in my backyard. Very few could challenge me at this, and no one ever beat me in my own yard. No one but Susan, that is. A petulant loser is an unpleasant, surprisingly easy thing to be. She gave me plenty of practice.

The story got around that her mom had played semi-pro with men in Canada. It was the only way we could explain Susan's ability to hit, throw, and run with the best of us. It somehow made it easier for us to swallow, giving her a mystique and absolving us of guilt. But in spite of her talent, maybe because of it, Susan was usually relegated to the much less important street games in our cul-de-sac, making only occasional appearances at the park. The park games drew kids from several neighborhoods, neighborhoods (we were certain) unused to and unappreciative of girl ball-players, especially good ones. This was before the days of women's lib and coeducational Little League. We weren't exactly models of liberated thought.

But Susan did OK. She made her mark. Bruises often did the trick when reason went unheeded. I know, I had plenty. She had her own, too. Every once in a while the other boys would tease her about being a tomboy or about the way she looked. It made her mad. But if I joined in the teasing, she went home crying. It was a violation of the rules - we were supposed to stand up for each other. I had enough sense to be ashamed and would follow her home to apologize. Contrite and attentive, I'd wait, fearing revenge, knowing I deserved it. Sometimes it came, but ultimately things would be OK again.

We were a good team even if we were almost never on the same side. We liked it. We liked each other. Our rivalry gave us a way to be with each other that we could accept and understand and feel safe with.

Susan moved away when I was 12. I saw her again a couple of years later when her family came to visit on a Sunday. She was this young woman, thin and pretty, who I'd never met before. She was wearing one of those miniskirt suits with a floral print that all the girls were wearing then. It was no contest. She knocked me out.

I had nothing to say. Where was my adversary to shield my affection? This girl was too openly attractive, I was too blatantly vulnerable. She had made a quantum leap and I was still a baseball player. She knew it, I knew it, she liked it. After all those years of not being boy enough to be invited to the park, who could blame her?

I haven't seen her in 20 years. It has been nearly that long since I've heard any news about her through the grapevine of my parents' Christmas card list. But every year she comes to visit for a few days. Unexpected, uninvited, but unvaryingly regular and unabashedly welcome, she comes. And then as abruptly, on May 8, she's gone - without notice, without goodbye, without even the memory of having been here - until next year, about the first of May.

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