From the first day we met, she seemed to have the power to knock me right out of the saddle.
I’d like to say I made a great impression when I met Janette Burhold, but that would be a lie. I had just turned ten, and for my coming of age, my older brother Dan and his friends took me horseback riding. Dan even let me put on my own saddle for the first time.
“Don’t cinch the saddle up too tight,” said Dan. “It might bother the horse.”
“Okay, thanks,” I said. Dan and his friends all began to snicker. I didn’t know what was funny so I just smiled back.
We trotted out of our drive and started down the lane of our small Canadian town. There was a new girl, about my age, living in the house on the end of our road. I’d seen her in church the week before, and there she was waving to us as we rode up. We all waved back.
Well, to be honest, I didn’t wave. I was too petrified of girls to move, but I thought the impressive sight of me atop our black mare would set her heart to fluttering.
“Nice horses,” she called out. I grinned back, gaining confidence. “Where are you going?” she asked.
“We’re just riding up to the old barn,” said Dan, pointing up the hill.
“Wish I knew how to ride,” she said. “My mom said we might get a horse.”
I was going to say something at that moment. Something profound and impressive. But instead, my world collapsed around me. I shifted my weight a little and my horse let out a great breath. Before I knew what was happening, the saddle and me had slipped underneath the horse. I was still in the saddle, but I was upside down.
Dan and his friends were wailing with laughter. Even the new girl was laughing. I was humiliated.
“Shut up,” I said as I let go and tumbled to the ground.
“Didn’t you cinch your saddle up tight?” asked the girl. “Even I know you’re supposed to do that.”
That’s how I met Janette Burhold.
Over the next few years I gradually overcame my fear of girls, but never my fear of Janette. I saw her every school day, and every Sunday. But on those rare occasions I’d finally get enough courage to say something to her, I’d end up doing something really embarrassing before I got my first word out.
One time I sat down next to her in the cafeteria, and before starting in on my carefully rehearsed, spontaneous conversation, I opened a can of soda that exploded. It sprayed my head making my hair stand straight up all afternoon. Another time I walked into school determined to break the ice with Janette. Of course, after I’d been told I had a line of toothpaste drool down the front of my green T-shirt, I lost my nerve. By about 14, I gave up the idea of ever talking to Janette.
When we turned 16, Janette went to work after school in the only cafe in our small town. On my way home after wrestling practice each day, I would walk slowly by the cafe hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Dan told me I was crazy not to ask Janette out. Everyone at school knew I had a crush on her. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to do anything about it.
In Sunday School I was taught to have self-confidence. Unfortunately I couldn’t convince my tongue or my sweat glands to believe that. When I saw Janette, all I could think was how skinny I was, why my face wouldn’t clear up, or why my voice sounded like the noise a saxophone makes when you blow it wrong.
And then, Woody McCrae moved to town and I knew all hope was lost. He was tall, athletic, good looking, rich, and he even had his own pickup. Janette and her friends stood in the halls and giggled in admiration as he walked by.
To the female population of my high school, Woody was Aristotle, Hercules, and Steve Martin rolled into one. He’d pepper his conversations with phrases like “Cold out, ain’t it?” and any girl around him would laugh and grin like she’d just discovered teeth.
On a Tuesday night in December, Dan and I were doing homework upstairs. After a short chuckle, Dan looked up from basic algebra.
“What?” I asked.
“Guess who’s been giving Janette a ride home from the cafe every night?”
“What do I care?” I said, as nonchalantly as possible.
He shrugged and turned back to his book.
“Woody McCrae,” said Dan.
My heart stopped. I pictured Janette riding in Woody’s yellow truck. They’d probably be married by the weekend.
“You waited too long,” said Dan, grinning. “Woody got to her first.”
“You don’t get to a girl like Janette,” I said back.
“Well, you didn’t.”
“What I mean is, just because he’s taken her home a few times doesn’t mean they’re going out … does it?”
Dan shook his head. “I’d still ask her out if I were you,” he said. “You’ve got nothing to lose. Plus, if you don’t you’ll regret it.”
“You don’t just ask a girl like Janette out,” I said. “It’s not that easy.”
Dan sat on the edge of his bed. “Look, chucklehead. You’re just going to walk the girl home, maybe ask her to a movie. You’re not going to get married. It’s just for fun. You’ve got a lot to talk about—you’re both Church members, you’re both in the same grade at school. And if you run out of stuff to say just talk about me. I’m a great conversation topic.”
What Dan said actually made sense. I’d worried about dating Janette for years ahead of time, and then, when I could date her, I was petrified. Dating wasn’t supposed to be stressful; it was supposed to be fun.
“So, how would you do it?” I asked. “How would you ask her out? I can’t compete with Woody’s vehicle … or his looks.”
“I don’t know,” said Dan. “But I wouldn’t look at everything that was wrong with the situation. I’d look at everything that was right. I’d think about what I have to offer and not what I didn’t have.”
After wrestling practice the next afternoon, I passed the cafe again. I walked back and forth a dozen times before getting the nerve to walk in. Finally I took a deep breath, made sure my shirt was tucked in, and walked through the door. I took a seat at the counter and when Janette said hi and asked what I needed, I mumbled that I wanted a chocolate milk shake. I looked around at the few people in the cafe and was sure they were all watching me.
“Kinda cold out there for a milk shake,” Janette said. She was wiping off the counter in front of me. I looked out the window at the falling snow.
“Oh, I like the cold,” I said, instantly regretting it. Why hadn’t I said something really cool? Then I looked into her green eyes, and she smiled and went off to make the shake. I took her smile as encouragement. The other customers were still watching me. I couldn’t get comfortable with them in there. I wished they would leave.
A minute or so later, Janette placed the shake on the counter and left the bill.
“Thanks,” I said, trying a deep voice and instantly regretting that too.
Janette turned back to me. “Are you okay, Andrew? You’re acting kind of weird.”
“Whatdoyoumean?” I blurted out.
“No, no, no. Iwannaknowwhatyoumeant.” I couldn’t slow down. I was on a runaway train to embarrassment.
“I don’t know,” Janette said. “I shouldn’t say anything. I mean, even though we’ve known each other for years, we’ve never really talked. So I guess I don’t know if something’s wrong.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” I said, as slowly as my mouth would let me. “Nothing’s wrong.”
“Okay,” she said, smiling. She turned to leave.
“There is something right, though.”
Janette was looking at me with the sweetest expression on her face. The world was a good place, and I was going to make it even better.
“I came in today to ask if you would …”
And then the door opened and a bolt of lightning flashed. In an instant, my brave notions were burned to a crisp. It was Woody McCrae. Janette looked up and smiled even brighter.
Woody nodded at her and slid onto the seat beside me. Then they both looked at me.
“Go on, Andrew,” said Janette. “What were you going to say?”
This was all like the kind of dream you have where you walk into class late and realize you’re wearing Spiderman pajamas.
“Andrew?” she said.
I had to do it. Dan was right. It wasn’t the end of the world if she said no or yes. I had to do it.
“Janette, I’d like to know if I could give you a ride home tonight?”
Woody looked at me really mean—his face was tensed up so tight we could have used his forehead as a bicycle rack.
“Okay,” said Janette, with just enough enthusiasm. “I get off at 6:30.”
I mumbled that I’d be back, dropped two dollars on the counter, and left. I looked back as I walked down the snow-covered road. Woody McCrae was watching me and he didn’t look happy.
At half past six, Janette was standing on the cafe’s front step. It was cold, and she was breathing out small puffs of warm air as I walked up. I could feel my heart beating in my throat.
“Hi, Andrew. Where’s your car?” she asked.
“I need you to close your eyes,” I said. She shrugged and closed them.
From around the corner of the building I dragged my Rosewood Glider. It was a long, wooden sled, as old as me, with room enough for two. There were foot-high railings all around, and a heavy metal steering bar at the front. On the side I had bolted the broken end of a hockey stick so if I ever lost control I could pull back on it and drag the sled to a stop.
I told Janette to step up and I helped her in the Glider. Then I put one of my dad’s big parkas around her shoulders.
“I thought we could take the scenic way,” I said.
She opened her eyes and took it all in for a moment. “You’re going to pull me home?” she asked. She didn’t seem too happy.
“No, just to the corner. It’s downhill most of the way from there, and the road is covered in snow.”
She didn’t say anything; just sat there looking kind of stunned for a long time. My newfound confidence was slipping away with every silent second. I could already hear them at school. They’d probably be talking about this for months. “Hey, Andrew, where’s your sled? In the shop?”
But I couldn’t just stand there with Janette in the sled. I took a breath and began pulling her to the corner. Ahead of us, the sun was shooting long red ribbons across the darkening sky. We had about 30 minutes of light, more than enough to glide home. That’s if my plan actually worked, and we didn’t crash, or break a ski, or encounter any one of a number of other catastrophes.
Why wasn’t she saying anything?
At the top I swallowed hard, scanned the descent for oncoming cars, sat myself in the front of the sled, checked behind me, and then pushed us off. My life was over anyway.
The glider moved slowly at first, rumbling over a half-exposed patch of pavement. But then we hit powder and began an effortless glide through the new snow. Suddenly we were going fast—faster than I had planned. Snow began to sting my eyes. We passed the Wimmer place and took a stomach-jarring dip in the road. I heard a shout from behind me and turned around.
“You watch the road,” called out Janette.
She was laughing! I turned around just in time to see us heading toward a ditch. I tried to correct our track but the sled fishtailed one way, then another before finally landing in a snow pile.
Janette’s face and hair were covered in snow. She opened her mouth, which was full of snow too. I figured all was lost.
“I’m sorry,” I said, pathetically.
“You should be!” she said, wiping off her face. “Why didn’t we ever do this before?” She pulled at my coat collar and dumped a handful of snow down my back.
“Now,” she said, getting to her feet and brushing the snow off, “I bet we can get another run in before dark. This time, keep your eyes on the road.”
She started pulling the sled up the hill. “If you keep to the middle and quit sightseeing, I bet we can get all the way to your house.”
Janette pushed us off this time, and the slide and the wind took our white breath in clouds from our mouths. We were both laughing! And that’s when I began to realize that it wasn’t so tough after all. Not the glide on the snow-covered road, but being with Janette—talking, laughing, being myself.
We slid down the hill, racing faster and faster into the coming night. And for a while, all my fears were suspended.