She held out her hand to me.
My tears went away. I stopped wondering why those other girls were so mean to me and instead wanted to know why this one was so nice.
I wouldn’t get answers just by staring up at her, so I placed my hands in hers, and she helped me up.
“My name is Meena,” she said. She didn’t ask for mine, but she waited just the same. We were young, and this was the way you were supposed to start a conversation with someone new.
“My name is Cindy,” I said.
“I like your hair.”
“And your eyes.”
“I like yours, too.”
“Would you like to sit with me?”
Meena was still holding my hand as she led me over to the bench in the middle of the playground.
I looked around. Most of the other kids were chasing after a ball. The boys didn’t like that I ran faster than them, and the girls weren’t too happy about it either. Susie was the meanest. She was the one who cornered me first and said I must be a boy. She taking a break from running right now, but as she stood by the swings, I could see her staring at me with mean eyes.
I was glad when Meena sat us down with our backs to the swings.
“I saw what they did to you,” Meena said. “Are you okay?”
“They hurt my feelings,” I said back with childish honesty.
“I don’t get why some kids are so mean.”
“At least you’re nice.”
“Thank you. Mom told me that the only way to beat meanness is with kindness.”
“Your mom sounds smart.”
“She is. She could be a doctor or a professor or something, but we had to move when my dad got a new job.”
“You’re new? I have always seen you in class.”
“We moved before the year started. I don’t know anyone.”
We sat there in silence for a bit. A worm crawled in the mulch near my shoe. I wondered what it would be like to be a worm. I was too big though. I’d probably be a snake instead.
Turns out I was right. I am much more of a snake than a worm. I wish I could say I grew up into a better person. I have a long memory and hold grudges. I’ve done plenty of things that I regret.
My ex-husband can speak to that.
So can many of my friends.
“Will you be my friend?” Meena asked. She didn’t know at the time what she was getting herself into.
I didn’t either.
This would hardly be the last time she pulled me up from a bad situation.
Meena smiled. It was a big grin that revealed the joy inside her heart.
Nothing I’ve done since has made someone smile quite like that.
“If we’re going to be friends now, I should know your last name,” Meena said.
“Cindy Jo. I like your name.”
“My first name is actually Meenalakshmi.”
“I haven’t told anyone. I mean the teacher knows, but that’s because she has to.”
“Can you say it again?”
“Yeah. I don’t know anyone with a name as nice as yours. Definitely not mine. Cindy is boring. Jo is even worse.”
“I like Cindy Jo.”
It takes me a few moments to build up the nerve to speak the words I was about to say next.
“Thank you for being my friend.”
Meena smiled again. I was the same age as her, and even I thought her teeth were adorable.
What I said next took me even longer.
“You’re my first one.”
It was clear she didn’t know how to respond. She closed her mouth, and I could see her thoughts churning. But I had no idea what she was thinking about what I just said.
“I had a friend, before we moved,” Meena said. “But you’re my first one here.”
“Do you think you will move again?” I asked, suddenly afraid.
“I hope not. Moving is hard.
“I hope no one has been mean to you like they’ve been to me.”
“Not really. They mostly ignore me.”
“You are pretty quiet.”
Meena looked down at her feet. The glow in her eyes had dimmed.
“I don’t mean that in a bad way!” I said.
“It’s true. I’m very shy.”
“But you came up to me today. That was brave.”
“You seemed nice. I didn’t like what they did to you.”
The kids in the playground were talking to leave. We received a few looks as they walked by. Susie, again, was the one who had to say something.
“Are you two going to kiss?” she asked, both teasingly and disgusted.
I was then that I realized Meena and I were still holding hands.
I leapt up from the bench. “Ew, no!”
Susie made a face and kept walking.
Meena looked sad, but she perked up when I said, “Come, walk with me.”
“I hope we can do this again tomorrow,” she said.
I didn’t want to see what Susie would say the next day, but Meena had turned a bad recess into my favorite one yet.
“I would like that,” I said, happy.
Looking back, I’ve never been so in love.
These thoughts are circling in my head as Meena walks me through that same playground over thirty years later.
“Would you like to sit with me?” Meena asks.
“Okay,” I say. I’m not surprised to see that Meena remembers how we met, but it still feels special to come back.
We’re holding hands as she sits me down on that same bench.
Then she reaches into her handbag and pulls out a small box.
“Will you be my wife?” she asks, revealing a ring.
I choke. Tears instantly fill my eyes, but I’m too prideful to let them fall.
“Sure,” I manage to get out before feeling moisture on sliding down my cheeks.
Meena gives me a moment to get myself together. Then she says, “I like Cindy Jo.”
I loved her then, and now I love her even more.