Into the Arms of Love
BY KATHERINE GAZELLA
The moment is sweet but hardly intimate. In the middle seat, Mike's 9-year-old brother, D.J., and his friend Andrew cackle loudly and spray each other with imaginary machine guns. You can always count on a kid brother to destroy a romantic moment.
Mike's dad is behind the wheel, good-naturedly performing his duties as chauffeur. He is driving the couple to Steak 'n Shake in Clearwater, where Mike and Jessica will sip milk shakes and Mike will steal strips of chicken from Jessica's plate and Jessica will gently stab Mike's hand with a fork. The last time they were there, they caught Mike's dad standing outside the restaurant, spying on them through the windows.
Let him look. Jessica Replogle, 14, and Mike Sharkey, 13, are in love, and they don't care who sees it -- which is a good thing, because they are hardly ever alone. Theirs is a roller-rink-and-Gummi-bear romance. They talk on the phone for hours. He's slender and athletic, so naturally she calls him Chubby. They celebrate an anniversary every month. In classes at Safety Harbor Middle School, he writes her notes that begin, "Hey, Beautiful." She wears a charm necklace, a gift from him. "Taken," says the charm. (Should they ever break up, Mike jokes, he'll give her another charm: "Available.")
Jessica and Mike love being together and being in love.
On this day in the minivan, they have been going out -- dating each other exclusively -- for precisely four months and nine days, a fact Jessica has at her exquisitely decorated fingertips. It is an endurance record for each of them.
How many people can say that about their relationships?
But like any romance between eighth graders, this one is fragile and probably fleeting. Perfect things often are. When we began working on this article, we met an eighth-grade girl from New Tampa who said oh, yes, she and her boyfriend would just love to tell us their story. But when we called to set up the interview, she made an excuse and backed out. Her mother later explained why. Ten minutes before we talked to her, the boy dumped her.
Mike has no such plans; he's smitten. Still, if we want to understand where love begins, we need to watch Mike and Jessica now, in this pristine moment.
At last the van arrives at Steak 'n Shake. When it stops, Mike bolts out so he can open the restaurant door for Jessica, an act of chivalry she has come to expect from him. Their love is one of the sweetest and most uncomplicated they will ever know.