Fake Pigtails, Authentic Smile

Seventeen years have passed and I don’t even remember why we fought. We were at the 1994 Joey Waters Soccer Clinic summer camp in Puyallup, Washington, celebrating our shared interest in soccer. We were both on select teams. Kristin Reitz was ten, I was eleven; we both left angry – she threw my Collector’s Edition Shamu water bottle off the top of Spark’s Stadium, and I punched her in the stomach for the transgression. A few short months later, she didn’t come back to school.

Kristin’s older sisters and brother were friends with my older sisters and they had all sung or played in my mom and dad’s choirs and bands at Bellarmine Prep., my eventual high school. Because my parents needed to be in Tacoma very early and Mrs. Reitz was a stay-at-home mother, and the Reitz’ lived near our elementary school, my parents would drop me off at the Reitz’ house and Kristin and I would ride with her mother to school each morning.

“Don’t put in too much water,” Kristin said one morning, the school year before that summer – the year I met Kristin.

“Is this too much?” I asked.

“No, stop there. Maybe drain a little. Yeah, now put it in the microwave.” Kristin punched in 5 minutes on the microwave timer.

“Whoa, 5 minutes? The package says like 1-2.”

“It’s awesome, just watch.” Kristin jumped up on the countertop and stared intently into the glass window of the microwave. I joined her.

I looked at her as much as I looked at the oatmeal heating in the microwave. Her golden hair fell in loose curls over her shoulders, in stark contrast to the red sweatshirt we wore that was one of the uniform options of our private elementary, All Saints School, or ASS as we liked to abbreviate it. Below the sweatshirts, we each wore blue corduroys. Her face was bright with anticipation, confidence and excitement, the edge of her smile crooked with deviousness. Only minutes ago, I had arrived at Kristin’s house and both of us were still sleepy, our skin pale and eyes half open. It struck me how quickly Kristin could wake up, just from the intrigue of microwaving oatmeal. Her smile was contagious, and despite my confusion, I smiled too. Around her, it was impossible to resist smiling.

My breakfast began to bubble. Slowly a convex shape began to rise out of the center of the bowl. We passed the 2 minute mark and I began to imagine all the horrible scenarios my parents had warned me about when learning to use a microwave – can oatmeal burn? Could the flames get out of the microwave? I had no idea. By the look on her face, I suspected Kristin had an answer to those questions.

POOM. Oatmeal coated the window of the microwave. The sudden sound made me jump and backpedal from the countertop. Kristin was laughing so hard, she fell off the counter, and then I was laughing too.

 ***

Over that school year, Kristin and I became inseparable. After school, we’d go to baseball practice, or else we’d return to the Reitz household where I would await my parents, and Kristin and I would play soccer in the racquetball court built into their house. Sometimes, we’d play near the creek in their backyard, or walk down the street to the park, or sit in the living room and do our homework and practice our saxophones. We were both in the elementary school band and my dad’s afterschool Parochial Jazz Band. We both played Alto Saxophone, I was first chair, she was second chair and would sit next to me – we often shared a music stand. She was in the Girl Scouts, I was in the Boy Scouts – sometimes we’d work on our badges together.

In the months following that summer camp, Kristin was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Her parents immediately began treatment and Kristin was a rare sight at school. Kristin was in the hospital for a few weeks, so my mornings were spent with her older brother Norm, instead. Norm was as much a fan of oatmeal experiments as Kristin, he often boasted that he taught her everything she knows, but they were never quite the same without her. After a few weeks, Kristin came back, but now she wore a hat with fake pigtails dangling out the back. She was always exhausted but always smiling. Slowly, we resumed our regular schedule. I arrived in the morning, we ate and woke up together, and her mother drove us to school.

“Why does Kristin get to wear a hat?” Mike asked one day in class.

“It’s a special circumstance,” Mrs. Gilsdorf responded.

“What’s up with her hair?” he continued.

This time, Mrs. Gilsdorf only gave him a stare that clearly meant this topic was off-limits.

  ***

One of the gifts from my parents during Christmas 1994 was a large Ken Griffey, Jr. rookie poster and a rare Griffey card. While Kristin visited once, we looked up the value of several of my baseball cards in that year’s Beckett Price Guide. The rare card my parents had bought me was worth over $50 already, easily the most valuable card in my collection. Kristin suggested I keep it carefully, so we walked up to the collector’s store and bought a hard-plastic card holder and carefully screwed the plastic cover into place, entombing the card. We spent the rest of the night imagining what we would do if we had the most valuable card in the Beckett – a Mickey Mantle rookie card, worth over $10,000 in mint condition in 1994. Our fantasies didn’t stop at such a low number, however. I remember reading that in 2001, one of those sold for $275,000.

In late spring, my mom got a call from Mrs. Reitz that she was going to accompany Kristin back to the hospital. My mom began driving me to school in the morning and in the afternoon I would stay in the cafeteria with the afterschool care program. Kristin was completely absent during this time. Eventually, we got word that she was back at home and I asked Mrs. Reitz if I could hang out with Kristin. She said that it would be fine if I came over, but that Kristin would need to stay indoors. I told her I understood and went over that afternoon.

Kristin had the same hat on with fake pigtails. Her eyelids sagged and there were circles under her eyes. Her skin was ashen and her body moved with a jerky frailty. I smiled and greeted her, approaching for our customary hug. She smiled, but only half of her face moved. The other half had been disabled by the progression of her tumor. For a moment, she stood back and searched my face for a reaction, but finally seeing my best friend after so long I felt nothing but the same warmth radiating from her. Her smile widened and she closed the distance and embraced me. Caught in the spell, my smile widened too.

We talked a lot about the future that night. I told her that I would sell some of my baseball cards and start a business so I could be a millionaire by 25, and then I would retire early and travel the world. She told me that she wanted to be a professional soccer player. I told her that I wanted tickets to her first game in the World Cup and she promised I would have them. We laid plans for our birthdays, which fell during the same week in late August – we would go to the batting cages downtown and knock some balls over the nets. It was difficult to return home that night – it felt like we had so much to catch up on, and so much more left to say to each other. I never apologized for the fight we’d had, but I think she knew I was sorry.

Kristin didn’t return to school after that. I wasn’t allowed to see her anymore. She was frequently between the hospital and home, but never available. After a couple weeks the tumor took its final toll on her. She passed away on June 10th.

Her parents asked our jazz band to play at the funeral. We played from the choir loft at All Saints and left an empty seat for Kristin in the 2nd Alto position beside me.

When I returned home, I lay silently on my bed and stared at the obituary in the newspaper:

She attended All Saints Catholic School, was a member of the F.C. Royals Soccer Club and the Girl Scouts; she loved playing the piano, saxophone and singing. Other sports she was active in were swimming, baseball and basketball. Kristin strove to be the best in whatever she did and touched many lives in her lifetime. She was a source of light and energy for everyone that she was with and influenced everybody with her love, faith, hope and positive attitude. Her determination to excel at whatever she chose to do gave her a wonderful outlook on life and it showed in her face and radiant smile.

The words couldn’t more perfectly summarize my feelings for her. Accompanying the obituary was a small photo of Kristin bearing that same radiant smile and I was compelled to smile back. I cut the picture out of the obituary tacked it to the wall of my room above my dresser, between an Adidas soccer poster and the Griffey rookie poster.

The Christmas after Kristin’s passing, my parents gave me a signed Ken Griffey, Jr. baseball – one of the five that he had knocked into the stands during the Seattle Mariners’ dramatic victory over the Yankees in the 1995 post-season. It came with a Certificate of Authenticity and a stand to hold the ball and a baseball card. I carefully placed the ball in the stand and adjusted it so the signature faced forward, then reached under my bed to retrieve a card for the cardholder sticking out of the base of the stand. I flipped to the middle, where I kept my more valuable cards, and pulled the plastic-entombed Griffey card out of the sleeve where Kristin and I had last left it. I slid the card into the cardholder over the baseball’s certificate and placed the stand on top of my dresser, underneath the Griffey Rookie poster.

I stepped back to take in the scene – a Griffey signed ball, with a Griffey card, under a Griffey rookie poster… next to Kristin’s obituary.

I stood and crossed my bedroom, reached to the top of my dresser and pulled down the ball stand. Carefully, I slid the baseball card out of the holder and replaced it with the photo of Kristin, the Certificate of Authenticity in the background. The baseball card went back in its sleeve and under the bed. Kristin’s photo and the ball stand went on top of my dresser so her smile could light the room. It’s been seventeen years and her radiance has not dulled, and I still can’t help but return the smile whenever I see her looking down at me from the dresser.