RYAN HAS NEVER HAD a girlfriend. Not because he is against the idea, but because it has never actually occurred to him. He is 7.
When Ryan's father tells him about Katie, a girl who will also be at the weekend getaway, Ryan starts bouncing around as if hit with an electric charge. Maybe it's just that there will be a kid the same age there. He gets so sick of being the only kid around when he and his dad do stuff.
Or maybe it's that Katie is reported to like a lot of the same things Ryan likes. Maybe it's the words his father says, the words that Ryan will not be able to get out of his ears: "They say she has 311 Pokemon cards."
Ryan has never met anyone with 311 Pokemon cards. He himself has 204. He gathers all of his and puts them in a box, so that he can show them to the girl named Katie.
The place is filled with grown-ups when he arrives, old friends drinking beer. Ryan wanders around, saying, "Where's Katie?" until someone points to the family room. He charges in there, hoping it's true.
He sees her there curled up on a couch with her mother, watching "Rug-rats." She has long brown hair and big green eyes. "I'm Ryan!" he announces.
She looks at him. She says something Ryan has never heard before. She says: "I have pneumonia."
Ryan has never met anyone with pneumonia before. There is no denying it any longer. This girl is special.
He says, "Do you want to see my Pokemon cards?" She stands up, takes him away to compare collections. She does not brag about the fact that she has more cards than he does, which you have to admit is a class act.
A half-hour goes by. Ryan and Katie return to the family room, where many of the grown-ups have gathered. "He asked me to be his girlfriend!" Katie announces.
"I have a crush on her!" Ryan says.
"I had two boyfriends before," Katie says. "But they were annoying. Not like Ryan. He is the best boyfriend I have ever had."
Neither Katie nor Ryan can understand why the grown-ups are laughing. They don't understand that sweethearts don't just come out and say these things. Love isn't like this. Love is something that happens in code. Love is a complicated game of pretending not to love, not to care, so that the other one will have no choice but to love and care. At least this is how it works when you're . . . mature.
"Mom?" Katie says. "Can I sleep with Ryan tonight?"
"Yeah, I want to sleep with her," Ryan says.
Neither Katie nor Ryan can understand why the grown-ups are laughing. Nor can Katie and Ryan understand why in the world pneumonia should have something to do with where they sleep, as Katie's mother maintains.
Eventually, Katie gets into her Barbie nightgown and Ryan gets into his Superman pajamas, and Katie is put to bed with extra pillows under her head. Ryan falls asleep in his father's arms, and when he awakes in the morning, Katie is there with a bowl of Cocoa Puffs, which she has poured just for him.
More and more, Ryan thinks a girlfriend is an extremely good thing to have.
They spend the day comparing Pokemon cards. It feels as if they could do this forever. Katie gives Ryan a Psyduck card, and not just because she has six of them. She gives it to him because Psyduck is her very favorite Pokemon character.
When it is time to go, Ryan asks if someone can please show him a map, so he can see how far away Katie lives. His father tells him it's a few hundred miles. Ryan feels like throwing up. Katie says, "How about e-mail?" Katie has all the good ideas. Katie's mom and Ryan's dad agree to set up accounts for the kids.
On the drive home, Ryan holds his Psyduck card. He flips it over. He places it next to his cheek. As soon as he walks in the door, he turns on his dad's computer. For his screen name he chooses Psyduck plus a few of Katie's favorite numbers, and KRKRKR for a password, as many K's next to as many R's as he can fit. In his message he says, "Dear Katie, Hi it's me. What's up? I was just wondering (what was up.) I miss you. Love, Ryan."
He awaits her response. He waits an hour. By the second hour, he is sitting at the computer in tears. "What happened?" he wails to his dad. He wonders if she forgot about him, if any of it was really true. The answer could mean everything. This is love at ground zero. This is a trial run for a heart that will one day occupy a man. A heart, like any, whose first purpose is to matter.
"You've got mail," the computer says. And there she is. "Dear Ryan," she writes. "I just got home. I miss you. I am so glad I am your girlfriend. Love, Katie."
Ryan is so happy he can hardly type the words back. "I got your message!" he writes. "It was a great message. It's the only message I ever got, so it is and always will be my favorite."
Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.