Sunday, May 6, 2018

A Dog's Heart

It’s amazing I’m able to get up. I’ve gotten so accustomed to hearing the alarm at 3:30, I jump up and try to turn it off before it wakes Gina up. I think I’ve made it, but after I stumble out of the room and shut the door to get dressed in the kitchen, I hear the door open behind me. She starts looking in the cupboards.

The hell are you doing?” I ask, not sure if she’s sleepwalking.

Do we have any snacks?” She asks the cupboards. I go back to making coffee and feel relieved she’s so genial when woken up in the middle of the night. I don’t think I’d take it so well.

I’m not taking it too well as it is. The first day of 5 hours of sleep is usually fine, but by the second day, it’s hard to come up from sleep and even after being awake all morning, I find myself driving around, delivering bread feeling like I’m slightly less substantial than the rest of the world. I’m awake, but I feel like I’m dreaming certain details. Those distant bird calls, this shoe on the sidewalk, the appalling stillness of everything, all these details seem to radiate from my tired mind and not from the organic order of things. There’s no way it’s this windless so close to the coast.

While the coffee steeps, I go out to the living room and take out the letter I started three weeks ago. I’ve written the whole thing between 3:30 and 4:00 just to see what that looks like. I read it over and find it, somewhat, disappointingly common. I add another few sentences and then I run out of paper. It’s 4 am anyway, time to get ready to go.

In the early morning, the streets are wet and still. The streetlights, placed at long intervals, peer down into wet puddles of light. The houses are closed up and sleeping. The only sound is my own ragged breath in my ears and the creak of the straining bicycle chain.

The bakers are already at work with the lights blazing and the music going. The bakery, at this hour, is the only building in town with any activity, besides, maybe a party, winding down somewhere. I automatically begin my tasks, completing the floury work without thought but with muscle memory. I shake out the mats, move the racks, open the door and begin bagging the bread that will go out for delivery.

Every job brings a difficult coworker. Someone who is harsh in their opinions and doesn’t get along well with the other workers. This job is no different. A few minutes later she walks in barely saying ‘hello’ to me. We bag the bread in silence until Rodger joins us. The three of us work out of night, into the morning. I, usually the least awake of the three, saying little, pausing long enough between baguettes to add a comment. But, I usually find myself trying to talk over the bread slicer, as the irritable coworker always seems to be just about to turn it on when I start speaking. Coincidence, I tell myself and mumble the rest of my comment to myself, deciding for the third time that morning, that I just won’t say anything at all.

Out on the rounds, things are better. The sky is the color and texture of deep blue construction paper, pocked and opaque. As I drive, I watch the permanent colors fade into pastels and clouds like cotton balls that have been used for removing bright nailpolish, the washed out color smeared across them.

I see an older, gray-faced dog being taken for a walk. He’s looking back fawning at his walker, like he’s asking permission just to keep walking. “I have the heart of a dog,” I hear myself saying to the empty car. I’m not sure why I’m saying it, but it makes a lot of sense. I have the same blundering qualities dogs have. I speak without thinking and I’m always pulling sorry dog faces, asking permission to keep walking. I want, perhaps too badly, to be liked by everyone. I think of my negative coworker and try to think of the right thing to say, but, really, despite our overlapping schedules, I’d rather just avoid her.

The morning looks good for gamboling around and despite the clouds and their pressure, I drive from store to store with the grin and the inane blandishments of a deliveryman. I talk to other workers about business and weather, a mutual sniffing, I guess, but, like any good dog, I enter into the negotiation of noses and butts with tail wagging.

I finish my deliveries early and ride home with a loaf of foccacia under my arm. At home, I turn in a long lazy circle, considering reading and eating before finally just deciding to lie down. It’s dimmer in the bedroom, so I go in, hoping the lack of light will make sleep less illusive. My eyes are filmy, my skin feels hot, I long to sleep, but it’s something I’m not able to find my way into when the sun’s up, no matter how cloudy the day. I lie there reading and then I hear a wild fluttering coming from somewhere inside the house. At first I dismiss the sound as something happening close to a vent on the roof. A pigeon scuffle next to the oven flue or something, but when the sound repeats, a minute later, I hear the desperation in it and know in my craven dog’s heart, that something is trapped somewhere.

I throw off the blankets and walk through the still, afternoon house. I strain my ears toward the vents and the seam of the wall and the ceiling, but there’s nothing. I try to lie back down, but it’s futile, no sooner have I picked up my book when the sound flutters to life again with a heartbreaking insistence. I throw my shirt on and go outside. I walk around the house, scanning the eaves and the little pvc pipes poking through the shingles. I can’t see anything, but I know there’s something beneath all of it.
I call my landlord, who lives next door with a ladder, a bunch of tools and more knowledge of the structure of this place than I have.

His phone rings so loud, I can hear it from where I’m standing in the yard. When he answers it, I feel like a kid calling across the yard on a walkie-talkie. I tell him there’s something caught somewhere in the house. I can hear it fluttering in the walls, or in the ceiling. I can’t tell which. He comes out from his own Saturday afternoon, wearing sweats and looking like he’s been taking it easy. He’s a nice guy. We talk a little while we look up at the roof of the house, squinting against the harsh, gray cloud-light and speculating where something could’ve gotten in. An eave, with grass growing out of it, presents itself as a likely point of ingress. He opens the ladder and goes up to take a look. I stand below, shielding my eyes and straining to see what’s going on.

Ah-ha,” the landlord exclaims from the roof and I look up in time to see a little egg come rolling down the shingles. “There’s yer nest,” he tells me. I look at the narrow gap and realize, if the bird’s in there, it’s in the wall and not coming out. As if in confirmation, the landlord announces he’s just going to seal the whole thing off so nothing else can get in. Of course, this way, nothing is going to be able to get out either. Other than knocking a hole in the wall, there doesn’t seem to be anything to do. The landlord wedges a few pieces of wood into the open seam and when he folds up his ladder, I go out to skateboard, hoping the fluttering in the wall will be over by the time I get back. I don’t relish the opportunity to listen to the death throes of something perishing in a dark and lonely place.

The cloudy, mild day is ideal for skating. I go through the school, trying to warm up, but continually slapping those clunky ollies with my nose coming up too high, the tail, not enough. The skate across town is nice, and the music in my headphones gives it purpose. It’s nice to be out and moving around. At the skatepark, an expanse of gray concrete on a gray day, I meet a kid named Peps and we talk about the obscurity of nicknames until he skates away to study for finals. I leave soon after, skate through another school and head home again.

I enter the house carefully, straining my ears to listen. The walls are silent and I hope that the bird just somehow found it’s way out. It’s easier that way. I’m in the kitchen writing when the fluttering starts up again. It’s in the wall just behind the stove. I try to ignore it, but it’s a plea and it’s also sporadic and annoying. I get up and stand by the stove to listen. Damn, it sound like it’s right behind it. I pull out the drawer at the bottom of the stove and, here’s a bunch of feathers. At first, I think somehow I’ve gained entry to the inside of the wall, but then I realize, it’s just where the wall meets the back of the stove. I look up, I look around where the oven meets the counter. There nowhere the feathers could’ve come from. This bird is behind the oven! It’s shocking but joyous revelation. I grab the door of the oven and start to pull, getting a grip the only place I can, but rather than bringing the stove away from the wall, the damn door, flies off the hinges sending me reeling back through the kitchen. I’m left holding the oven door, which, I already know, down in my dog’s heart, I will not be able to put back on.

It looks simple enough, but the springs won’t engage and the door won’t line up. I try a number of ways to get the door to line up, but it’s hard to do alone, shifting the heavy and awkward oven door around, trying to get it to line up with pins I can’t even see. Meanwhile, the bird is flapping away behind the stove. I give up and call the landlord again. When he answers, I start trying to explain, but the situation is so bizarre and there are so many thing to address, I give up and ask him if he can just come over and see. He agrees and I step outside to meet him, apologizing for the catastrophe he’s about to walk into. The drawer is pulled out of the stove, the door is off, there’s crumbs all over and the panicked, fluttering continues. I show him the feathers.

I know it sounds crazy, but I think it’s gotten behind the stove somehow.” I explain.

Yeah, you know, maybe it came in when you had the door open and started nesting.” He agrees, but both of us are standing there scratching our heads, not really able to believe what we’re saying. What the hell would a bird be doing behind the stove and how long could it have been back there before eliciting notice? There’s no way we wouldn’t have heard it until today.

We set to work pulling the stove away from the wall. Both of us are waiting for the bird to explode out in a flurry of feathers and behind-the-stove grime and dust, but nothing happens. We peer cautiously back. The fluttering starts up again.

It’s still trapped in something.” I say.

Sounds like it’s in the stove. It sounded like it was hitting something metal.” The landlord adds, shaking his head in disbelief. We start examining the back of the oven for any niches the bird could be in. There’s a panel held on with about 50 screws. Both of us are leery about taking that off, but the more we pry around, the more it looks like it’s going to be the only way. While we think, I get the vacuum to clean up the pile of feathers behind the stove while it’s pulled away from the wall. I switch it on and, instantly, something that looks like a dirt bird whirrs up the vacuum hose. I shut it off. The landlord says, “there’s your bird.”

It couldn’t be,” I respond, already taking the cover off the vacuum to get the bag out. “That pile of feathers has been sitting there immobile since we pulled the stove back. We both heard the bird flapping around. If it was in that pile of feathers, we would’ve seen it move. Right?I pull the bag out of the vacuum and feel around in the clotted dirt and carpet threads. My fingers grasp something solid, I pull it out, a little bird bone. I feel around, there’s more. “It was a bird,” I say. “But one that’s been dead awhile. There’s no way the one we just heard has already been reduced to bones.” I kneel down to inspect the area where the pile of feathers was and it becomes clear to me. Behind the feathers, is the bottom of an outlet which the stove plugs into. With the feathers removed, I can see there’s a small gap between the bottom of the outlet panel and the wall. The bird really is in the wall, and she’s not the first, there have been others and they all tried to get out this way. I turn on the vacuum and put it up to the gap, sure enough, a steam of birdbones and feathers spins out, down into the roaring vacuum hose. “Yeah, she’s in the wall after all,” I say.

We step back, considering this new situation and, as if in response, a small bird peaks her head out from under the panel and tries to wriggle out. The scene is so affecting. It’s the first time either of us has seen the bird. We both spontaneously start to cheer for the little bird. Yelling encouragements like ‘c’mon little guy!’ and ‘you can do it.’ But the gap is just a little too small, even with the stove pulled away. The landlord gets a screwdriver and removes the face of the outlet, but it doesn’t do anything to widen the gap and there’s an immobile metal box inside that’s bolted into the wall. We watch the little bird make a few more attempts to pull herself out of the wall. My landlord starts to talk about having to try to get her with the vacuum. I can tell he doesn’t want to do it, but can think of nothing else.

If only we could widen that gap a little,” I say. “She’s almost out. It wouldn’t take much.” The landlord steps out and returns in a moment with a crowbar. He bends the metal box a little, widening the gap and we both step back, expectantly. A minute goes by. Another. Our expectation is becomes breathless as the beak and the head emerge again. There’s a pause, as if the bird is considering this change and perhaps wonders at having not noticed earlier how easy it would be to get out of. She hops out and, in a moment, is standing dazed on the window ledge, after flying straight into the window. I go to collect her and she darts into the living room. Where she’s already hit another window. It’s under the couch that I finally get my hand around her. She’s so bewildered, she just lets me pick her up. Her tiny claws wrap around my finger, à la Snow White. I go outside and we regard each other, dustily, in the gray afternoon light. At first she moves very little. The landlord comes out to see. We watch her slowly comprehend that after a very long day between the walls of a house, she is outside again, under the open sky. Her head begins to tilt, her tailfeathers flicker, her claws tighten around my finger and, when the understanding comes rushing down upon her, she flies off. My dog’s heart leaps at the joy of this movement.

We go back in and it’s sweaty half hour of screwing with the oven door before it finally finds it’s niche again, a niche as small, distant and narrow at the gap in the wall, behind the stove, the bird had been seeking and so many others, less successfully, before her. Tomorrow, we’re going to caulk up the gap in the roof and the next day, I’ll get up at 3:30 again, reread my tired letter and crawl into work to watch the dogs and the birds and the whole extraordinary movement of life and gradually, I’ll begin to wake up.



Monday, April 16, 2018

Blood and Coffee

It was around last June. We were in Thailand, out riding our clunky bikes around in the evening, the only time it wasn’t too hot for outdoor activities, listening to the singing frogs who had found their way down, between the houses into the wet areas full of mosquito larvae and the kids out, kicking soccer balls barefoot in the street. A few days earlier, I’d complained about what it would be like if we were going to have a baby. I’d been saying I’d wanted one, but then, when it seemed it could be real, I’d started complaining. We were out then, too because we didn’t spend much time in the apartment when we didn’t have to. We were walking in this relatively quiet neighborhood. It had just gotten dark and I sat down on a corner where a set of stairs led up to a closed shutter and bitched the way that I do, soliloquizing, really. Gina listened to me for a while and then told me how awful it was for me to be so wishy-washy. How could she trust anything I said? I spent the rest of the night explaining I hadn’t really meant what I’d said and pointing out dirty stray dogs I thought would improve her mood. Now it was a few days later and we’d decided to pick up a test.
She’d been late once before, right after we’d arrived, but after worrying for a day or two about what childbirth in a provincial Thai hospital would look like, it turned out to be nothing and I went back to work with a clear conscience.
All the drug stores in Thailand have big signs out front that, in Thai script read: ya-ya. ‘Ya’ is the word for drug and, given the complicated nature of Thai orthography, it was one of the only words I was consistently capable of reading as we rode around town. We stopped into the ya-ya and bought a test. The first time, after we’d first arrived, I’d been nervous, but this time, I felt calmer, ready to accept the results, whatever they may be.
We rode back down our narrow street, between the women out talking to each other and the stray dogs happily scratching themselves and sniffing each other. I kicked off my rubber slippers at the door and walked across the tile which, despite the darkness, was still warm, like the well-trod area around a pool after a long sunny day. I stood in the bathroom door and watched the results come up. A giddiness came over me and like all giddiness, it felt awkward and superfluous, like a ballerina costume I suddenly found myself wearing. I was afraid of saying the wrong thing, so I kept repeating ‘wow,’ like a moron and I went over to the kitchen to pour out the last of the Fernet we’d found recently in Cambodia.
Gina was sitting on one of our small and uncomfortable pieces of furniture, holding the test strip like a mom holding a thermometer, trying to wave the mercury back down. I took a swallow of the Fernet and told her I was happy. Until I said it, I wasn’t sure I was. Even now, I don’t think I’d call it happiness, but I was definitely not unhappy. My voice kept doing that thing where it wanted to laugh and each thing I said sort of tripped out of my mouth with a chuckle. It would seemed irreverent, but, given our lack of preparation, residence out-of-country and all that, Gina didn’t mind. We knew that we were obviously in a difficult place, but that it would be an interesting place to try to find our way out from. I paced back and forth and sipped the Fernet, which was very bitter on its own. We discussed possible names for a while and, not being able to decide on anything, went to bed.
The first week was hard. We calculated the baby would be born in March. My contract ended in November, by then, Gina’d be five months pregnant. I had to give up on the idea of stopping in Armenia, and all those other places, on the way home. Then we started to talk about where we’d live and I had to admit that everything I had planned, considering the addition of a baby, was untenable. The prospect of moving back to that tiny town, so far from the city and living in baby obscurity was daunting. But I supposed that I had signed up for such a situation and tried to keep my complaints to myself, still, I’m a gregarious guy and everything I’m thinking eventually finds its way out to spoken expression and gradually I tried to convince Gina to at least make a stop on the way home in Europe—we could stay at some nice places. We wouldn’t even walk around much, besides, I argued, it would break up the trip. She began to budge, going so far as to even look up ‘babymoons’ on the internet, which apparently is when people travel before having a baby. And if that was an established thing to do, I started to think having a baby could actually fit into my lifestyle. We’d even seemed to have solved the issue of where we’d live.
Things were going well. I liked my classes at the university where I was teaching. I was busy, but the work was, for the most part, enjoyable. Gina and I had started taking Thai lessons to improve our ability to communicate and we’d finally found a place to walk around in the evening away from the constant whine of motorbike traffic. We began to settle into a routine. The new apartment became comfortable and embraced me with it’s familiarity before and after work. We got bikes and became slightly more mobile. Occasionally we talked about what it would be like when the baby came, but that was months, years away. It wasn’t anything to think too much about. In the meantime, what was important was finding decaf coffee. Since, I guess pregnant women shouldn’t drink the regular stuff.
One evening, after I had come back from working in Bangkok, there was a little bit of blood. The internet said not to be worried; it was normal. But I found myself feeling anxious. Although initially, I had been uneasy with the idea of having a baby around, I realized it was something I wasn’t capable of wrapping my head around. The more I tried to think about it, the less I had an understanding of what it would be like. I went through the whole paradox of contemplating my own uselessness as a dad before I had the chance to be one. A bunch of ‘impending’ and new dad blogs told me just to be a good person and to help change diapers which seemed obvious. I resolved just to wait and see what happened and, gradually, I came to like the idea and I started thinking about all the Halloweens I’d missed since I stopped going trick-or-treating in 1997. I gradually began to conflate the idea of ‘having a child’ with all the best parts of childhood I was going to experience again. Only, the anticipation wasn’t for myself, but for someone else who was going experience fireworks and birthday cake for the first time. I wanted to be fun and this made me feel looser than I had in years. But, now there was this blood and I didn’t like the look of it.
A few weeks earlier, I had been riding home from work, passing a Chinese cemetery with it’s customary headstones that rise from the ground in half-circles, sort of wrapping around a given grave’s visitor. The cemetery is picturesque for being one of the few green places along a long, sunbaked and dull road. Beyond the cemetery were acres of rubber plantations with their cooling shade and smaller, less busy roads. As the only green thing around, my eyes always hung onto the cemetery, resting on the familiar color before turning out to the rest of the hot, concrete ride home. I was riding along the shoulder of the road, looking over the large, lacquered gate when I noticed a woman, laying on her back, down by the reedy stream that passed between the cemetery and the road. She was lying on a blanket with her shirt pulled up over her pregnant belly. There was a man behind her, supporting her head. I looked away. I didn’t want to stare. It looked like she was in labor there at the edge of the reeds, in front of the cemetery. I only knew a few phrases of Thai and nothing of obstetrics. It seemed improbable that I could offer these people any help. I continued riding home, but the image of a woman giving birth in front of a cemetery stayed with me, though I tried not to think about it.
When the blood appeared, I realized how invested I had been in the idea of having a baby. The little heartbeat we had seen on the monitor, the vague outline on the ultrasound was our kid who would have some kind of nose and such and such eye color and would be vaguely familiar in an atavistic way. The kid would have a personality independent but dependent on ours and would say unscripted, spontaneous things. I liked the idea of having someone else around, just for the extra company. We went to bed feeling vaguely anxious, but by the next afternoon, sitting together on a hospital bed, watching the construction crew on the roof of the building next door, it was over. I filled the void trying to plan the trip we were now going to be able to take after leaving Thailand, but knowing what I could’ve had instead, it was hard to really throw myself into the task with the same intensity I was accustomed to. We didn’t talk much about it after the first day home, but from the sporadic tears, it was obvious we both still thought about it.
We left Thailand about 4 months later and sitting in a café somewhere on the trip back home, Vilnius, Tbilisi or Stockholm I looked at Gina over my coffee and told her I still thought about the baby sometimes and that I guessed it would always make me feel somewhat sad. We agreed that it would be alright to talk about it, since neither of us had really spoken about it since the day we’d come back from the hospital. We went back to our coffee and the blue gray window of shingled and cobbled Europe.
Back home, in the States, the scenario was much less dramatic. For a few days, Gina had been feeling tired and had a greater appetite than usual. We waited a few days then went and bought the test. On the lead that they had them at the dollar store, (it’s just a little strip that detects a hormone. The whole ‘applicator wand and the digital readout are unnecessary), I rode across town, but they only had drug test kits—and those, I couldn’t help but to wonder at the effectiveness of.
When Gina got off work, we went out to run a few errands. The first store didn’t have pregnancy tests, the second did, but they were in a glass case and, after waiting 20 minutes for someone to open it, I gave up and we crossed the parking lot to the pharmacy where we bought the least intricate one they had. I couldn’t help but to mention that the one we bought in Thailand was about a buck. It had been simple, but it certainly worked.
We were going to wait until the morning, when we thought the test most accurate, but the instructions said if you’d already missed your period, it didn’t matter when you took the test, it was going to be accurate. I stood in the doorway of the bathroom, unable to respectfully wait somewhere else for Gina to tell me what it said. When she finished, nothing was yet apparent. I crowded in closer, trying to discern some change in the little white boxes. Gina doesn’t like to be crowded, even by her boyfriend, so she put the plastic test on the floor and told me that it had to be level to work, the way a mom will tell a child they need to be quiet before something can happen. I took a step back and stared down into the floor. The two windows began to cloud with blue, not the solid, unmistakable lines I would’ve preferred, but with vague, wistful tracings, like a vein under pale skin. There was one a line in each box. I hadn’t consulted the box. I had assumed it would be obvious from looking at the thing, a plus or a minus. But, two lines, “what the hell did two lines signify?” I practically shouted. Gina was double-checking the box. “I means I’m pregnant.” She told me.
I’m 34 years old, still working a part-time, entry level job paying a couple of bucks over minimum wage. I’ve got a little saved up, but the rent is expensive. I’ve got a little Honda, which is the first car I’ve ever owned. I guess I’m more prepared for this than I’ve ever been before, but still woefully under-prepared. But I suppose the adage may be true that no one is ever really prepared for this sort of thing and it had to happen eventually, or else it probably wouldn’t have happened at all and the way I’ve come to see it, that would’ve been kinda dull.
At the onset of adulthood, I set out to experience as much as I could and, as a result, I’ve had some great and varied experiences and I feel like I can move on to the next kind of experience, one that I know nothing about. When it comes down to it, I’m tired of relating to everything through myself. I’d like to have another means of experiencing the world. I want to see if this is going to stir up some primal feelings which, otherwise may have gone untested, unfelt. I’ve never been able to obtain a clear answer from my friends with babies. I’ve seen their tired, hanging faces, but I’ve seen the sense of purpose they seem to carry; they seem less afraid somehow—of what I don’t know. Death, I guess, ensured as they are that their genetic material will be passed on. But, there’s more to it than that. When it comes down to it, I really just want to know what it’s like and there’s no other way to ever know. The kind of person I am, I’d spend the rest of my life wondering, no matter where I went or what else I did.
After the Strum und Drang of the first test, the second was easy. We didn’t really even talk about it much. We returned to whatever we’d been doing before, careful this time not to rush things,.


Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Last Day of Autumn

I went out with Angie for less than a month, probably more like a week and a half, but I packed a lifetime’s worth of aspirations into the brief period when she was my girlfriend.

Angie was the first girl I ever asked out and though the concept of ‘going out’ was still foreign to me, I knew after I met her that I had to take some kind of action to bring us closer together. I was becoming more shy around her and when my friends and I went over to jump on her trampoline, I could hardly look at her. My affection was beginning to feel like a vulnerability. I was afraid my friends would notice and rag on me. I was terrified Angie would notice and would be embarrassed by my clumsy affection. I started acting aloof to try to dull the results of my feelings. One moment, I’d be staring off into space, the next I’d be bounding around on the trampoline like a manic five year-old. Trying to act normal, but overdoing it. I always left Angie’s backyard with the feeling that I’d made myself look ridiculous. On the bike ride home, I’d think of her, try my best to reconstruct her face in the air before me and imagine what it would be like to talk honestly to that face. When I got home, I looked up her picture in last year’s yearbook. Her hair was permed and she looked a little younger, but, otherwise, she was the same. I was too nervous to even talk to this face from the past. I’d get out a few words, but in the end, I’d just stare and pretend we were talking.

One evening, among the large rocks in the median strip of the Four Forty Farms subdivision, I told Brendan what I’d been going through and, immediately, I felt better. With a great feeling for his role, he listened seriously in the dimming light, offering a supportive, single syllable response now and then. He seemed to understand, well before I did, that this signaled the beginning of something confounding and unchangeable for all of us, a desire that would play with us like a rip-tide, pulling us here and pushing us there, up against the shoals of isolation and out into the wave-slashed horizon, where, alone, we’d founder for a breath of air only to choke on another mouthful of windy brine. I talked and he nodded; both of us sighing occasionally like old men. He told me he’d try to help and thus, casual hints began to be dropped. When Angie complimented anything, Brendan would assure her, it was something that I also had a deep appreciation for. As a subject, I seemed to find my way into a lot more of the conversations she was having and throughout the badgering, I kept asking, when Brendan and I were alone, ‘what does she think?’ But Angie, like all girls her age, knew what was happening and was intentional vague on the subject of me. The best Brendan could tell me was she didn’t dislike me, which kept me hoping, but left me feeling like I still had to accomplish something, like I still had to prove myself worthy of her, which only led to greater feelings of inadequacy.

Being 11, I felt I was too limited in my abilities to win Angie over. I was a clown and once classes started, I was out on the playground, doing all kinds of goofy things, but for a small and usually disinterested audience. Angie and I were in different classes and the only time I saw her during the day was for the lunch period. Sleet Elementary had two lunch rooms, one for hot lunch, which was large, echoing and cafeteria-noisome and one for ‘cold’ lunch for the kids who brought there own lunch. This room, was low-ceilinged, narrow and exclusive. Something like 50% of students received free lunch and ate in the hot lunch room, others ate their discounted lunch there and, I guess, a few people paid full price for food that, no matter what it was billed as, always looked and smelled like something with too much sausage. The distinction between the two rooms was very clear, if you ate in one on your first day, you’d be eating there until you graduated. The lunchrooms were separated by a hallway and a kid accustomed to one would’ve felt totally out of place in the other. The aides in the cold lunch room used to threaten noisy kids with banishment, which, we all assumed, meant eating across the hall. It stunck like old ranch dressing in there and you had to yell to talk to someone sitting next to you, so loud was the squeak of shoes, the slamming of tables and the din of 100s of kids laughing, throwing milks at each other or pitching another mound of food into the already overflowing garbage. Which was always surrounded by large globules of food that hadn’t made it in, smeared into the tile and stamped with half-legible Nike logos.

The cold lunch room, being the only place I saw Angie every day, was the scene of our entire relationship. One day, after weeks of skulking around the periphery, I was shoved into the spotlight by my friends (by this time, I’d told Eric, too). As it was the first time any of us had attempted to ask anyone out, I think they were as excited as I was and were quite willing to goad me into it just to see how things transpired. They may have also just gotten tired of hearing me rhapsodize on Angie’s beauty and talent every time we got together.

I don’t recall how it happened, but suddenly I find myself sitting in front of Angie, my friends are next to me, her friends next to her, like two sides of a stalemated conflict, suing for peace. Angie and I, as the principal actors, are scarcely involved, everyone is talking, but making no reference to us, I guess this is to help the transition as, after a minute of this, everyone gets up, walks to the door where those big gray rubber trash cans on wheels are positioned and they stand there, together, boys and girls, pretending not to watch us, but obviously watching us. Sitting in front of her, I don’t know where to put my eyes. I look over to my friends. They give me big grins and thumbs up from the trashcan. I take a breath and focus on the foreground. I look at Angie, into her lucent fawn-brown eyes and my tongue immediately wraps around my uvula, the blood soars into my ears, my fingers tingle: I am not there. I am a voice coming from somewhere deep down inside myself. The sound that comes out is small but clear, the sounds shuffle into consonants and vowels, braid into phonemes and morphemes and scrunch up to raise the intonation, the indication of a question. All this feels automated and distant like cassette tape unspooling and creating sound. When I’m finished with the question, the lunchroom seems to hush. The blood is whirring through my temples, creating static in my ears; my pulse has gone down to my toes and to the ends of my teeth and is trying to find its way out.

Sure,” she says, smiling.

The consciousness that so recently crammed itself into a little ball in my stomach, has now expanded to something overflowing my meager body and pouring all over the lunchroom floor, the table and up the back wall. I am a movie theater-sized projection of myself, just as large, apparent and insubstantial. Her affirmation is retroactive. I have gotten everything I have ever wanted. The projector with me in the carousel is jerked away from the wall, my colossal and ghostly self expands to fill the entire room with luminescence. For a moment, I am incorporeal, a feeling, a light and then this plasma, like something smashed out of a star, pours back into my empty vessel of a body, somewhat incapacitated with the ether it has taken on.

Yeah?” I ask, still not sure which appendages are arms and which are legs, with no idea which to move first. Afraid to sabotage my own precarious balance.

Yeah!” She responds and I can see she’s even happy, like this was something she’d actually wanted to happen. An extra joy I could not have anticipated—that she actually liked me, too. Me. The goofiest kid on the trampoline that summer. Me. The one who was oddly silent with her but rambled incoherently and constantly with my friends. Me with the hair—generic brown—not quite long enough to not be a bowl cut, the too-soft cheeks, the buck teeth, the mole on my chin. But it was true and if it was true, I had been wrong in my self-assessment. I was no undesirable, no coward or slouch. In a moment, all the fears I had accumulated after joining society dropped away, having lost their purchase.

I went to recess buoyed and told my friends over and over how she’d said those two words. “Sure” and “yeah,” I held them up like Moses presenting the tablets to the Israelites, shouting ‘look what has been revealed to me!’

After our initial exchange in the cold lunchroom, Angie and I turned back to the security of our friends quickly, and out at recess, it soon seemed like it hadn’t happened but the proof was in the rarefied light of the playground and the slight tremor in my voice when I retold the story. I wanted to tromp across the mud-soft playground to go to Angie and ask her to repeat what she’d said, ask her to confirm that we were now ‘going-out’ but I knew that would be pushing it. I didn’t know what to do with myself standing there with my friends and when I wasn’t talking about the moment, I was replaying it in my mind. For the rest of the day, I could only see the autumnal shade of her eyes and her cheekbones. The contours of her face, like wind-sculpted snow.

It was on the bus home that day that I began to understand how unsure I was of my role. When you’re sitting on a school bus, looking ahead, the first thing your see when someone boards the bus is their face, as it ascends the stairs. Boarding the bus, I thought of how Angie would already be on, how she’d see my face rise over the seats. I couldn’t predict what her reaction would be. I tried to put on a mask of cool indifference, but I immediately felt myself becoming choked and clumsy. I came up the stairs and noticed her already sitting with one of her friends. I tried to smile at her, but even that seemed excessive. I walked past her, to the back seat, and started shoving and yelling at my friends. Showing off for the back of her head. The whole bus ride, she never turned around.

In the days that followed, the scene repeated itself. I never saw Angie alone. When I walked into the cold lunchroom or climbed onto the bus, she was always there already, sitting with one of her friends, deep in conversation, not looking up. I couldn’t bring myself to intrude; besides, I had no idea what to say to her. How could I interrupt to say, ‘uuh, hi, how’s it going?’ No, I couldn’t do something so obnoxious. So, I waited to find her alone, but, this being sixth grade, those moments were exceedingly rare.

At the end of each day I didn’t talk to Angie, I’d go home and torture myself with the idea that if I didn’t talk to her soon, she was going to break up with me. After all, who wants to go out with someone who never talks to you? What’s the point? After the revelation in the cold lunch room, I had assumed that things were going to change forever, not immediately go back to the way they’d always been. Here I was, hanging out with my friends during recess and on the bus, acting like a moron as if nothing had changed. It didn’t seem right. I sought some means of expressing myself. If I couldn’t work up the courage to butt-in on her conversation, then I’d have to find another way and, casting a look around my room, I found the answer, sitting on my bookshelf.

In 1995, the year I started sixth grade, the pog craze was at its peak. The cardboard circles with things like ‘poison’ and ‘eight-ball’ printed on them, aped what we’d been hearing about drugs just enough to be exciting while remaining totally innocuous. These small pieces of paper and foil had nothing inside, but the way they shone in someone’s palm was exciting. There was a bullshit game you could play with them, too, but most kids didn’t bother with the game, they just traded the things outright. Depending on how flashy they were they could be anywhere from 10 for a dollar to 50 cents a piece, but, as this was too cheap to make much money from, the manufacturers decided they needed a higher-priced item and created something called a ‘slammer,’ basically just a hunk of plastic with the same image you might find on a pog, but for five dollars rather than 50 cents. Like the pogs, the slammers had different pricing tiers. They could be as cheap as 2 bucks and as much as 10 for these brass ones that looked like a cross between a pilfered chess piece and a little pestle. I never much liked these, they were too heavy and unornamented. The slammers the sixth-graders at Sleet Elementary preferred offered much more by being of two different consistencies (hard plastic and soft rubber) and being perfumed depending on what color they were. I think the one I had was supposed to smell like blueberries. They even had grips for your fingers and they called them ‘Bigfoot’ slammers. So, even the name was cool (although what ‘feet’ had to do with a game so incredibly manual as pogs I never understood—I guess ‘Bighand’ just didn’t have the same ring.). As these things were five bucks a piece, only the really cool kids blew their money on them. The rest of us stopped at the pog cart in the mall and just stared covetously at them in their plastic case (they had to be unlocked for god’s sake) while rifling through the ‘10 for a dollar’ pog bin.

Like the rest of us, Angie had a pog collection. Over the summer, we had all been carrying around the plastic tubes, trying to find out if anyone knew what these cool new things were for. The boys traded them, but the girls were usually content to hold onto the ones they’d bought. Angie had a Bigfoot slammer which only increased her overall appeal. I remember one day we looked at it together. I had never held one and, as she passed it to me, our hands grazed. In an era that was predominated by the pog-craze our relationship stood, as if on a pillar of the slick, precarious cardboard circles. I figured that best way to show Angie I cared about her was, logically, to give her my pogs, not all of them, but only the best ones and from there I decided I could also give her my Bigfoot slammer, at the time, one of my most prized possessions, which made the gesture so much more affirming.

I’d never willingly given away something I liked so much before and the thought of it made me dizzy with excitement. If I couldn’t talk to Angie, I could give her presents. I could show my feelings by giving her my most treasured possessions. I could spend my allowance, not on me, but on her. There was something so incredibly adult about this, my mind reeled. This gift-giving would be almost better than talking, for it would be like we had passed the stage of pre-adolescent gossip and marched right up to the gates of adulthood through commerce. After all, I’d never bought anything for my friends. Even the gifts I gave them for their birthdays were bought by my mom. Buying things for each other was something I’d only seen adults doing. My parents always seemed to be going out to buy things, and not only for each other, they bought things they needed in common. I hoped ardently, wrapping the pogs and slammer in last year’s Christmas wrapping paper, that one day, I could buy Angie something that we could use in common.

The next day, on the bus to school, I got up and I nervously handed the package to Angie, saying something inane like ‘this is for you’ before returning to my seat. I tired to do it so no one would see, but, the way things work out in elementary school, everyone saw. No one teased me, they seemed to be adjusting their own expectations of ‘going out with someone’ based on what they saw Angie and I do, which, up to that point, could’ve been summed up by a single word: avoidance. Angie got off the bus before I did and if she’d opened my gift, I hadn’t noticed. I was too nervous to watch.

On the bus ride home that afternoon, she didn’t say anything and I sat in the back with my friends, constantly peeking over the seat at her, but unable to discern how she felt from the back of her head. The next day was equally uneventful. One of those intolerably gray autumn afternoons that make you feel like you’ve got a cold when you don’t. We were reading Tom Sawyer in class and during the silent sustained reading period—which most kids passed notes and whispered through, I tried to write a note to Angie, explaining how much I liked her, but the words wouldn’t come. I wrote her name tentatively on the paper, stared at it for a while and then, afraid someone would see, tore it up.

The next morning, the cold had set in and my feet had frozen while waiting for the bus. I took the seat in the back, right side, directly behind the heater. There was less leg room, but the heat poured directly over my frozen shoes and rose into my face when I put my head against the backrest in front of me. When we stopped at Angie’s stop, I looked up, trying not to make eye-contact. She got on before any of my friends and walked straight toward me. She never sat so far back on the bus and when she passed the invisible line, before the last three rows of seats, I immediately shoved over, looked at her and smiled.

Hi, Angie,” I choked. “How’s it going?”

Here,” she said, thrusting a white box to me on which she’d written in purple pen, ‘TO: Jon, FROM Angie”. There were no hearts or anything to indicate there was anything remotely personal inside the box. It could’ve been an ink cartridge (if they’d been around back then) or a small desk calendar or something equally innocuous, but it had our names on it, together.

Thanks,” I managed to get out before she got up and went back to her customary seat. When the gap opened, my friends poured in, all burning with curiosity to know what was in the box. I told them I wasn’t going to open it, yet, which greatly disappointed them and though they tried, they weren’t able to think of anything convincing to discuss the rest of the ride to school. Mostly we rode in silence, everyone still waking up and me continually reassuring myself by patting my backpack for the shape and weight of the white box.

I had planned to wait until I got home, but when the first break came around 10:15, my curiosity was beginning to weigh on my lungs. Just thinking about the white box—which was all I could think about—I felt lightheaded. During the break, I moved the box into my desk and slid the lid off. Inside, in a nest of white tissue paper, there was a star Christmas tree ornament that had a seam where it opened, separating two halves, one clear, the other blue on one side, silver on the other. Inside, were a bunch of Hershey’s Kisses, a candy I had never much liked, but now, I was unable to imagine a more thrilling candy. I turned the star over in my hands, making sure there was no note, examining the object for meaning like a student of semiotics. ‘Why a star?’ I wondered. ‘Was there a meaning in that? Are these colors significant?’ And the candy, with it’s smooth, feminine shape and provocative name, was overwhelming. Angie had given me a candy called ‘kisses’ which seemed, back then, an almost coquettish thing to do. I unwrapped one of the kisses, put it in my mouth and thought about what it would be like to kiss her, to get close to that beautiful face that made me so nervous, to actually connect with her. Such a pleasure was unimaginable and I contented myself with the waxy taste of the chocolate. At least, it had come from her.

That afternoon was the only time I ever said more than a few words to Angie, at least while we were ‘going out’.

None of my friends were on the bus. Jim was sick. Jeremy had band practice. Brendan got a ride. I sat on the bus preparing to reread Short and Shivery: 13 Tales to Chill your Bones, but I set the book on the seat and kept furtively looking at the star in my bag, turning it over, listening to the chocolates tumble around inside. Thinking about how many days I could make them last if I only ate one a day.

Without my friends, the back of the bus was empty and even the mid and front sections seemed less occupied than usual, which meant a faster bus ride as we’d be skipping stops. The bus drivers always seemed in a hurry anyway and on days with few riders, they drove with the obvious intent of breaking previous records.

Since so few kids were on the bus, I hadn’t been expecting Angie, but a few minutes before we left, she got on and took a seat by herself a few up from me and all the promise of my dreary, ghost-storied autumn bus ride was dashed. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to talk to her. If any of our friends had been on the bus, social code would’ve necessitated that we sit and talk with them. As we each normally had about three friends on the bus, the chances that all six were absent, seemed almost preternatural.

I knew I couldn’t miss the opportunity, but neither could I make myself move. I hadn’t ever spoken directly to Angie while alone apart from the time I’d asked her out and, even then, my friends had been waiting in the wings, smiling and giving me thumbs-up from the other side of the cold lunchroom. I sat there on the marbled vinyl seat of the bus, compulsively wiping my clammy palms on my pants, trying to work up the nerve to get up and walk to her row, where she sat in the middle of the seat (the open space being an invitation?) looking peaceably out the window. The bus pulled out of the parking lot and I knew I only had so much time, but when I tried to stand up, a sense of dread weighed me down. What if I’d misjudged her? What if she didn’t want to be bothered? What if I had a booger hanging out of my nose? I tried to look out the window, but the gray afternoon light spoiled the image like an overexposure. I was all white and translucent, full of trees and the narrow houses along High Street.

We turned onto Fourth and, at the first stop, I forced myself up, leaving my bag on my seat to not look too presumptuous. I stood at the apotheosis of awkwardness, 11 years old, bowl-cut and bright striped shirt on that made my face look long and my complexion drawn. “Hi, Angie; mind if I sit down?’ I ribbeted.

She smiled, a sort of half smile. “Sure,” she said and moved over to the window. She wasn’t annoyed, but she wasn’t excited either. I considered just thanking her for the star and getting back to my seat, but I was already sitting down, next to her, a place I’d so often fantasized about and we had the whole 8 or 9 stops before her stop, I couldn’t give up so easily. I thanked her for the star. She thanked me for the pogs and, with a deep breath, I attempted non-perfunctory conversation.

It was rocky at first. Angie kept looking out the window, which made it hard to focus. I stared at the back of the seat and tried to coax topics from it. I tried to talk about the previous summer and the afternoons on her trampoline, but, I knew this wouldn’t go anywhere: talk of the summer during the school year never amounts to much, even between good friends, there’s a gulf between the time periods that can’t be reconciled. It’s like coming back from vacation and trying to tell everyone at the office what the beaches look like in Jamaica or Hawaii. Even if they’ve been there, too, even if they’ve seen it, they’re not there now and there’s nothing much to do other than to affirm what’s being said and move on, which is what Angie did. I nervously found myself switching to the topic of school, exactly like an adult. Even before the question was out of my mouth ‘do you like your teacher?’ I knew my mistake. School was over for the day, and no respectable kid wants to talk about their teacher or their classes after that last bell has rung unless they’ve got a major grievance to air.

My teacher?” Angie asked, as if affirming that I was asking such an inane question. “She’s alright.” I got the answer I deserved and to cover my embarrassment, I laughed, like there was something funny about a teacher being ‘alright’. I almost made the mistake of trying to talk about my teacher, the first male teacher I’d ever had, who clearly didn’t like me and all my smart-ass comments, but I avoided the temptation of this easy transition and instead asked if she knew what was wrong with Jim. Was he sick? Why wasn’t he in school? Angie didn’t know, but I could tell from the way she sought possible explanations that she was more interested in this topic. I glanced around the empty seats and asked her various questions about each of the people who would normally be filling them. She smiled at each question and, after a while, turned away from her pale, tree-lined reflection in the window to face me.

We were so engaged in our conversation about who should go out with who, that neither of us realized it when we got to Angie’s stop. She had to jump up and sprint away just as the bus was starting to pull away. She tossed a ‘seeya’tomorrow!’ back to me as the bus driver, sighed, braked and yanked the door open. As she ran down the aisle, Angie’s backpack ricocheted off each bench seat. I tried to wave from the window, but she didn’t turn around and began to slowly walk home while the bus cranked gears and pulled away. I stayed in the seat we’d shared a moment, looking at the place she’d vacated before I got up and went back to my backpack, which looked like it’d been left there years ago. I couldn’t reconcile the way I felt now with the person who had left it there just twenty minutes earlier. I opened it up, found the star and resumed turning it over in my hands, looking for meaning in it’s blue plastic facets. When I got home, I contemplated going to sleep just to hold on to the memory of our conversation and not mar it with the return to the ordinary routines of dinner and tv, but, at home, these things couldn’t be avoided and I set the table, mixing up the order of the forks and the spoons without realizing it.

The next day, things were back to normal. I met my friends on the bus and Angie and I acted like each other didn’t exist. A few times, I looked up to see if she was looking back, but she was always facing ahead, small and inscrutable behind the bench seating, just the top of her dark, wavy hair visible.

That evening, at dinner, my mom announced that we’d go to Chicago for a day or two for the Thanksgiving holiday. Normally, I loved the train trip to Chicago, which we’d taken once before. None of my friends had such opportunities. When their parents went somewhere, which was rare, they stayed behind with aunts and uncles. I knew I was lucky to get to go places like Chicago. But this time, I wished my parents were like everyone else who never went anywhere. If I stayed home, it was possible Angie and I would bump into each other somewhere. A break, even one as short as the Thanksgiving holiday, felt magical. It wasn’t scheduled and everyone was out running errands and kids were all being left to wander around the malls while the shopping was done. You never knew who you were going to run into or where, but it was safe to say, in Chicago, I wasn’t going to run into anyone, especially not Angie. I took the news like a condemned prisoner, stoically. Probably not the reaction my parents had been hoping for, and crept up to my room to wish upon my plastic star.

The hardest part was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. My friends all declared that they were doing ‘nothing,’ an answer which was coming into vogue to use with friends, as well as parents. To answer ‘nothing’ made one seem opaque, almost mysterious. In sixth grade, it was difficult to have any secrets from anyone, so we held on to what we could. We stopped telling our friends that we’d be going to aunt Gertrude’s for Thanksgiving, because we could talk about it later if it came up. We didn’t want to overexpose ourselves by giving too much information—besides, aunt Gertrude, or the mention of family at all, was embarrassing. But, going to Chicago, was cool, or, at least, exceptional. You couldn’t pass it off as ‘nothing.’ It wasn’t ‘nothing’ material. When I told all my friends they congratulated me, which was embarrassing since I hadn’t done anything, but right after their congratulations, they turned back to the rest of the crowd, commiserating, already lamenting how dull their Thanksgivings were going to be. Sixth graders have an amazing talent for complaining, old enough to be sullen, but young enough to still be petulant. No event, no matter how insignificant, escapes their criticism. I, in my privileged position, was entirely left out of the conversation.

On the Thanksgiving train ride, I stared out the window, watching the gray monotony of southern Michigan slip by, thinking about Angie. There was no snow, though it had been cold enough to freeze and the forests and the meadows looked frozen and uninviting. Like something you’d want to hurry in from or burrow into. The only thing which looked inviting were the homes alight with Thanksgiving preparations. The dry oven heat was almost visible through the windows, a strange yellow-orange like the color of a sunset after a clear, cold day. The various cooking things on the stoves befogged the panes and intensified this color into dripping opacity. Each driveway was crowded with Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs, boxy and tired-looking after their cross-state or cross-town journeys, some still dribbling a sigh of exhaust. Not a single out-of-state plate was discernible and some houses had enough guests to resemble small used car lots. Cars were parked on the sidewalks, on the berm, some had even bottomed out in the front yard and looked like they were going to have to be pushed back out again. But, for now, they sat content, clinking in the way recently driven cars do when the weather is cold.

After Battle Creek, I got tired of watching the yards and the slender, leafless tress go by. I took out a comic book and pretended to read while I thought about Angie. The previous day, I’d exchanged a few sentences her on the bus. She, like everyone else that year, was doing ‘nothing’ for Thanksgiving, but when I told her I was going to Chicago she seemed genuinely excited, while my friends were inclined to exalt my position to make their own seem more pitiful, Angie only seemed happy for me, like her own Thanksgiving was going to be better because she knew someone who was going to Chicago. After talking with her, I resolved to remember all the details I could, so I’d have something lengthy to share with her when I got back. I wanted to make it like she’d been there, too and I thought if I remembered enough, maybe it would be like that. I stared at the panels of the comic and pretended Angie was in the seat next to me. I tried to imagine what we’d talk about, what I’d point out to her, what she’d be doing. Would she be reading? Listening to music? I decided that I’d be reading and that she’d be looking out the window, telling me what she saw, while I acted aloof, the way men did in movies when they were with their wives or girlfriends. I shuffled my comic and grunted, like she’d just cooed over someone’s Christmas lights.

What’d you say, dear?” My mom asked, looking up from her Better Homes and Gardens, which she had a subscription to, but never had the time to read. Her lipsticked cup of coffee sat in front of her, overly creamed, cold and sloshing.

Nothing.” I said.

My purpose came to me as we were pulling into Chicago’s Union Station, coasting through the yards that run through the Loop like a faultline. I’d find Angie the perfect gift. Nothing would allow me to share the trip with her like a souvenir. When I gave it to her, I could tell her how I’d been thinking of her and all the other little details of the day and, by the time I was done telling her, it’d be like we’d shared the experience. She may have thought she was home, eating Thanksgiving leftovers and watching Planes, Trains and Automobiles on TV, but, at the same time, she would be here with me in glamorous Chicago, the two of us, strolling along, hand-in-hand down Michigan Avenue.

The day after Thanksgiving, I found it. I had just enough money. In the Shedd Aquarium giftshop, was a statuette of a sea otter. Angie had once told me she liked sea otters and while they had seemed an esoteric ‘favorite animal’ to me, here was proof that they existed in the perfect gift. I selected the best -looking one from the shelf and, I watched as they wrapped it, imagining her opening it on the bus and, unable to hide her joy, falling on me in a zealous embrace. I’d act like a man and say something like ‘ok, ok, I’m glad you like it,’ feigning slight irritation, but smiling and happy. The entire train ride back was interspersed with checking to make sure they little otter was still there tissued and wrapped in its glossy white box. I looked at it and felt pleased by how easy it had been to assume this adult role of boyfriend and, despite my mom’s attempts to coddle me by offering me snacks and asking me if I wanted to take off my hat, I maintained my mature bearing until we got home.

It snowed Sunday morning. After all I had seen on the train. I felt isolated at home, back away from the road where I couldn’t even see the cars passing by, another anonymous box of a house, nestled in the surrounding winterscape. I had homework, but I knew I wouldn’t do it. The idea of opening my paper-swollen textbooks, after such an unusual weekend was too dull to contemplate and I spent the afternoon roaming around the house, trying to hide my boredom. Nothing brought down work on your head at my house like an open display of boredom. My angsty face betrayed me and I spent the afternoon vacuuming and doing dishes but as the light in the windows dimmed and the trees knocked together coldly in the wind, I felt none of the usual foreboding common to the end of a long weekend, rather, I began to feel something like a pleasant expectation of the next day and I decided, in the end, just to slog through as much of my homework as possible to make it easier on myself, so that my enjoyment of watching Angie open her otter statue would be unalloyed.

I sat down at my desk and pulled out my battered and glossy-paged textbooks. The math textbook had spheres on the cover and an answer key with the odd numbered questioned in the back of the book. I tried a few on my own, gave up and filled these in and guessed at the others. For my English homework, I wrote a bunch of incomplete sentences to answer the questions about a story I’d read part of. I continually sighed, got distracted and doodled in the books. When I was finished it was dark, I went downstairs and sank into the couch, waiting for the day to end, watching Simpsons reruns.

Monday morning, the snow was already melting into a swampy fog. I didn’t see the bus, until it’s yellow warning lights began to flash. I climbed the stairs and made for the middle seats where I knew Angie would sit. When everyone got on at the Four-Forty Fields subdivision stop, I nodded to them and muttered something when they asked me why I wasn’t sitting in the back. Angie was the last on the bus. I stood up as she walked down the aisle and gestured to my open seat, terrified for a moment that she wouldn’t see me or would ignore my invitation. She smiled a tired smile and sat down in the seat I’d vacated. She smelled like artificial apricot and new clothes, like a store in the mall. I felt overly presumptuous sitting next to her, but I forced myself down, into the seat. Immediately, I began fumbling with my bag.

Angie, uh, hi, so, uh, when I was in Chicago, I bought you something. It’s just like something I got for you, ‘cause, I was, um, thinking about you, you know when I was there.” I stammered, groping for my words like someone struggling to remember a foreign language grown rusty with time.

Aww you did?’ Angie smiled. “That’s so nice!”

Well, you know, it’s fine. I mean, I like getting you things. It makes me happy.” I really spilled it. Since I’d become the owner of emotions more complex than fear, hunger and fatigue, like my peers, I’d made a point of obscuring them and of treating them with the embarrassment they were due. Rarely, had I shared these emotions, even with my trusted friends and, now, here I was, telling someone who’s fidelity I had no assurance of, these frustratingly embarrassing things. Yet, somehow, there was relief in the telling. It unburdened me to tell Angie something slightly more profound. I felt like I’d been brave sharing my feelings with her and, after the words were out of my mouth, I was glad to have said them. She opened her otter and while it wasn’t like I imagined—there was no spontaneous embracing, or really even much excitement—I could tell she liked the statuette, but there was a certain hesitation when she opened it, like when someone gets you the thing you wanted, but it’s the wrong size or color. You feel obliged to thank them first, but it’s hard not to let the disappointment furrow your brow a little. As Angie looked at the otter, she had a smile on her face but the smallest line of concentration between her eyebrows, like a gayer Hamlet contemplating not Yorick’s skull but his cap and bells. She thanked me. I told her it was nothing and, unsure of what to do next, I got up and went to my friends who, by then, were all abuzz with questions.

The greatest difference between early relationships and those which come later in life is the lack of precipitous events. After a few relationships, both parties become better at intuiting changes in the other, almost to the point of absurdity. The slightest change in room temperature can bring down a whole stormcloud of questions. ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘Are you feeling alright?’ ‘Did I do something wrong?’ We are constantly checking-in, so desperately seeking to avoid the shock inherent to our first few attempts at dating. Because we can imagine nothing so horrible as the severance when a couple has completely different notions about where there relationship is. I have never been anywhere near as devastated by the end of a relationship as I was by my first one, for the end came at the height of my contentment, trampling my own thoughts of perpetual bliss. I didn’t realize how mightily I had constructed my castles in the sky until I had to fall from them.

The end came quickly and full-circle. All morning, the fog outside had intensified and, by 10, it had started to rain, a drizzle until it swelled with the fog and the sky reached a saturation point, clotted and fell. The glycerin of this cold, swollen rain streaked the windows and distorted the landscape into blurry lines of light and dark. Before lunch, indoor recess was announced. Everyone groaned. The terrible thing about indoor recess is that it didn’t permit a complete break with the institutional colors and textures of the school. It wasn’t a real recess when it was held between the chipped green lines of the gym floor and the greasy smell of the bleachers. Such a venue was really no different from being in class and, as such, it was like having lunch at your desk: a mockery of a break.

I’d sat down with my friends for lunch and had been eating the last of one of the thousands of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I ate for lunch from 1st to 6th grade when an emissary from the girls’ table approached. We all straightened and grew more weary-sounding in our conversations, but gave the girl no attention until she requested it—they would’ve done the same to us, it was standard procedure. The girl, who I think was named ‘Anne’ or ‘Jesse,’ wanted to talk to me. I stood up and followed her to the corner of the lunchroom where such conversations were had. Having no idea what was to follow, I came along pleasantly, excited that I had been singled out for some kind of news.

Jessie or Anne didn’t even wait until we’d reached the corner and stopped before telling me, far too matter-of-factly that I’d just been dumped. Angie was done going-out with me. As the news sank in, it was like two fat moray eels had just unfurled themselves inside my body. One had gone down while the other had gone up and now, their bodies, the color and texture of snot, wound through my guts, along my spine, dipping their tails into my brain and bowels. I looked across the room where Angie was sitting. She was talking to her friends with a smile like she hadn’t just sentenced me to a slow and painful death. Even across the cold lunchroom, I could tell there was not a flicker of contrition on her bright and smiling face. My mind couldn’t conceive of someone I had so much affection for having committed such a terrible act. The duality of her betrayal was so intense, it split me. I stumbled over a reply, a question, an answer and knew, before I’d finished speaking that anything I’d say would fall on deaf ears. Anyone would could laugh with her friends while I stood here devastated, full of twisting eels, couldn’t possibly care to hear my response. To her credit, Jesse or Anne tried to comfort me when the tears began to fall, but, before loosing complete control of my faculties, I managed to stumble out of the lunchroom. I made for the door outside before remembering the heavy, cold rain and turned back, tear-blinded now, to the gym, already awash with the muted sounds of squeaking shoes and echoing laughter. I opened the double doors and the bass came off the sounds, the treble turned way up. They clashed like symbols.

Someone was already bouncing a ball around, a jump rope slapped the waxed floor and a group of girls ran in a huddle from under a basketball hoop like a startled school of fish. I climbed to the parapet of the bleachers, trying to get as far away from the world as I could, but the thought continually broke over me, like a cold a seaweed-wound wave, that I’d been rejected, that I hadn’t been good enough. Whereas I’d loved, I’d achieved the greatest height of human emotion, my feelings hadn’t been reciprocated, not even a little bit. My love, had been in vain. I would’ve been better off loving a rock. It couldn’t return my feelings but it wouldn’t have been able to reject me either. If only rocks had startling fawn eyes, soft, full facial contours and unpredictability. But, it was precisely this unpredictability which had brought me to this awful place. I let the tears drip off my chin and each time I thought their stores were exhausted, they’d rush out again. Each memory had been a hope and each hope, crushed, warranted its own cry. I strung the sobs together, heedlessly, feeling alone and entirely unloved.

My friends gradually found me perched at the top of the bleachers like a gargoyle, tears streaming down my face like rain. To their credit, my friends stayed with me the entire recess period, doing what they could to ameliorate my profound unhappiness, but I could not be persuaded to laugh or even to leave off the subject of Angie. I only asked them again and again ‘why?’ I asked so many times, one of them finally climbed down to seek out the answer, which came back sounding so hackneyed and trivial, it made me start sobbing all over again. “She said you bought her too much stuff.”

I thought of the otter, which must’ve still been in her backpack if she hadn’t already thrown it away. I thought of the blue star ornament, filled with Kisses, the pogs, all these memories were useless now. They led up to and away from a non-event. They told no story. These things into which I’d invested more value than anything were now inert, like precious metals given over to rust. The void that had risen up to replace these feelings was so startling and vacuous, it was impossible to comprehend and I could only weep in recognition of its endless, undefined borders.

The rain crackled on the gym roof, my tears spattered on the worn hardwood of the bleachers and the kids in the gymnasium hell below screamed and laughed unaware that their joys could so quickly be transformed into torment as mine had been. When the bell rang, my friends brought me gently down to the gym floor, touching, again, the solid ground, I accepted the permanence of the situation and I blocked Angie, in any capacity, from my thoughts.

I recovered quickly and within a week, I was already interested in someone else. As terrible as the ordeal had been it had been the most intense thing that had ever happened to me. It wasn’t a shared experience. It wasn’t a great birthday present or a drop on a roller-coaster on a perfect summer afternoon. It was my experience alone. No one else could understand it as I had and, as such, it was the first thing I’d really owned, the first thing that really belonged to me and to me alone. Even the sorrow its dissolution had created was far more profound than anything I’d ever known and, somehow, I felt instinctively, that it was through such experiences that I would find my way to adulthood. Not the scripted adulthood I had imagined with Angie on the train, smiling and rustling newspapers, but the real thing. Only by opening myself to others and by making myself vulnerable was I able to grow from innocence to experience and I have Angie to thank for that.

After that day, we never really talked again. A few days later she was going out with another guy and though I pretended to hate him, the whole experience had left me too exhausted to really feel much of anything. Through junior high and high school, Angie gradually became someone I didn’t recognize. Only her eyes remained beautiful, her warm, lucent eyes, while the rest became someone else, an adult, a woman. Even as she changed, I found it incredible, that I could never be indifferent to her eyes, for the other differences which had sprung up around her, her eyes were still those which I had looked into, for the first time, as an eleven year-old and seen something amazing and never-before seen, something which confirmed all the great things I’d suspected about the world, but hadn’t yet discovered.

I saved Angie’s blue star ornament for reasons obscure even to myself. As I got older and removed the bright, childhood things from my room, the star stayed, sitting on a shelf, collecting dust, but reminding me, at once of life’s intemperance and startling beauty, too often, tied together in a tragic final act.
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