toothpick bridges


Picture it…Bakersfield, California, circa early 1990s, which is best known for this big ugly thing:


…and these bigger ugly things:


…and, unfortunately, this:


For me, though, Bakersfield was all about my friends. I moved there when I was 12, and after a few drama-filled fits and starts, settled into a great group of friends that my Mom trusted (which translated into no curfew for me as long as I called home–whee!).

One of whom was Ben.

Oh, Ben. Oh, dear. There’s so much more to the backstory to Ben, but for now I’ll confine my Flashback Friday narrative jaunt to senior year.

I had decided to take Physics. I don’t know what on the great green earth had made me decide to do this, except that maybe I was trying to pad my transcript on the off-chance that I would apply to a UC school. I am not a science person. Now, lest all of you science people freak out at me and say that there is no such thing, I will pointedly tell you that I am, in fact, evidence that you are wrong. With the possible exception of the summer school Biology class between my freshman and sophomore year that I loved (bring on the fetal pig to dissect! and, yes, that summer has a Ben story too), I have hated every single science class I have ever taken. They’re hard. They make my brain hurt.

And Physics just took the cake. I didn’t understand it. Now, to be honest, if I had studied at all and tried and gotten help, I probably could have been aceing that class. When I apply myself, I am smart.

But I was way more interested, at that point, in boys and friends and doing whatever I wanted rather than doing my homework.

So I was getting a C in that class. And I was NOT happy about it. I knew my Mom would not be happy about it. She wasn’t a grade freak, but she expected me to do my best. C is not my level best–and she would have called me on it.

Ben was in my class too. At this point, we had been good friends for almost four years. We were in the same seminary class, he was periodically in love with my best friend…and I was totally head over heels for him…completely unrequited and completely on the down low. Or so I attempted.

So when Mr. Rappleye, our Physics teacher, gave us the option of constructing a toothpick bridge that would hold a bunch of weight (somehow this was a Physics project, although I didn’t understand how at the time…do you see my problem?) for a heaping pile of extra credit points that I desperately needed (and that basically-average student Ben could use too), it seemed only natural that we would work on that joker together.

I remember very little about working on the actual project except that it was more difficult than I thought it would be, required too much glue and frustration, and eventually held up against more weight than I thought it would. YAY us.

The reason I remember very little? Winter Formal was coming up and my best friend was going with her current squeeze, James–who I later fell head over heels for. (Gosh, we were an incestuous little 90210-like group.) We had decided that I should go with Ben so that we could all go together. Kim, the BF, had sort of tested the waters with him in orchestra about whether or not he even wanted to go. He seemed to be good with it, good even with going with me, which I was honestly shocked and excited about.

So, we had a plan. I was supposed to basically ask him that night when he came over to work on the project. I was supposed to play it cool and not freak him out but just bring it up as a friend thing, so that we could all go together. The boy did not date. He pined, he crushed, he remained totally inside himself.

It was going to be a challenge, but I was up for it. Did I mention that I was IN LOVE with him? And he saw me as just a friend? Oy. I was just a little bit stressed. And excited.
And gosh if the whole night wasn’t one big lead-in to that big topic. I don’t remember how I got to it, but I brought it up. I was not going to be stopped. So close…so very close. Paraphrased, this is about how the conversation went, perhaps with some dramatic license. Please note where all of the action is in the conversation:

Me: “So…Kim and James are going to Winter Formal. It sounds like it will be fun.”

Ben: “Hmm. Uh-huh.”

Me: “It’s our senior year, so it’s the last Formal before we graduate.”

Ben: “Hmm. Uh-huh.”

Me: “Do you want to go?”

Ben (finally seeming to pay attention): “To the Formal?”

Me: “Yeah.”

Ben: “Yeah, I guess.”

Me: “Me, too. It would be way fun to hang out with Kim and James and do the whole thing.”

Ben: “Really?”

Me (at this point wanting to stab him through the eye with a very dull toothpick for his obtuseness): “Yeah. I think it could be cool.”

Understatement of the century. I was already planning the whole thing–the dress, the flowers, the whole nine–followed quickly by our Hallmark-style romance, my faithfulness on his mission, our quick engagement, our wedding, and the seven children we would have who would all have his…verbal skills. I was 16. Cut me a break, okay?

Ben: “Oh. Yeah. Well….do you want to go?”

Me: “With you?”

Ben: “Uh, yeah.”

Me: “Sure. Why not?”

Cue flowers, swelling music, and little blue cartoon birds braiding my hair. I thought I had successfully manipulated the coup of the century–The Boy Who Doesn’t Date is MY DATE!

Imagine my surprise when he is proudly announcing to everyone the very next day that HE asked ME. As if it was his freaking idea. As if I hadn’t completely orchestrated the entire conversation. As if, at one point, I didn’t think I had actually asked him out!

Bah. The things women do to get what they want.

The Formal turned out fun–just like I thought it would–and although it wasn’t the romantic liason or ignition that I had hoped it might be, I was glad to be there. It is a memory that I will never forget. Ben is married now to an adorable blonde and I haven’t talked to him in YEARS.

But he’ll always be the guy who made me associate toothpicks with dreams coming true, and for that I’ll always be grateful. That and the B that I managed to pull off in Physics class.

Even if he did take credit for my brilliant machinations.

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