With a rip and a crunch, I crumpled yet another faulty draft of the note I planned to deliver to the girl of my dreams. I didn’t like the way I had written the capital S in her name. Just before, I’d done one that nearly suited me, but after scrutinizing down to every last punctuation mark, I’d trashed it because of a haphazard loop in the L in Love at the end.
The other notes – all sixteen of them – bore similar faults of style. Content wasn’t the issue. I knew quite firmly what it was that I wanted to tell her. It was how my message was presented, the impression I conveyed through the slants and curls of my handwriting, that gave me such a migraine.
I shifted in my bedroom armchair, blinking in the spring-verdant rays of late-afternoon sunlight that slanted through the open blinds of the window beside me. What in the name of God am I doing? I thought. The way I’m carrying on about this, you’d think she was the most gorgeous and sweet thing on the face of the earth.
And she is, to me. She really is. The wildwood of her eyes. The smile that never failed to pass another to my lips. The voice that resonated in me like the ring of a dulcet bell for hours after I heard it, the laugh so pleasurable to my heart, the wit with which she could put anyone down yet have them coming back for more – I had never in my eighteen years loved anyone the same as I loved Sara.
We were graduating in a few days, Sara and I. So were five hundred and sixty-odd others from the Harrison High School class of 2010. The two of us had gone through school together since the sixth grade but had never properly met before the first day of spring semester, when our schedule changed for one irrevocably final time and we found ourselves sitting beside each other in the small advanced placement literature class.
I took to her at once. Most people did. The self-sufficient way she ambled into the classroom hit me in a place I hadn’t been struck before, though at first, blinded by convention, I didn’t consider her in a romantic sense. She wasn’t unattractive by any rational standard but a wide-tipped nose and an absent bust line denied her entry to the category of conventional prettiness.
My notions of beauty had, to that point, led me to nothing but emotional paralysis – a fear of romantic rejection that kept me unwillingly stuck behind a line marked “Do Not Cross” every time I thought of taking my affections past the gate of mere friendliness. It was all the fault of Lee Esther Shaddix.
Lee Esther, a year older than me, was the incarnation of southern class and charm at our high school, which – despite being located just to the northwest of Atlanta, the Capital of the South – was mostly peopled with transplants from the North and Midwest who marveled over anyone remotely hospitable.
With big doe-brown eyes and barely five feet to her name, Lee Esther was far too childlike to be thought of as pretty; she was cute, like a puppy or a kitten – and it got her what she wanted, whether she used it on purpose or not. Most of the girls at our school tried to keep up with the Kardashians or whoever else happened to be in the limelight at the time. Not Lee Esther. Her knit sweaters, neat white collars, and knotted-pearl necklaces were delightfully out-of-place, a reminder of simpler times, of nicer folks.
I treated Lee Esther like a royal from the start, and as the months progressed I felt I’d made an impact on her. At the student council Christmas party she was at my side from the time I walked in ‘til the time I walked out. Come January of junior year I did what I expected was the chivalrous thing to do: I asked her to prom. I knew she’d accept, and she did, with a lot of fussy squeals and hugs. But my gallantry came bolting back to me on a black horse of the apocalypse when she called me that evening and said she had talked it over with her mother, but since it was her senior year and her last chance at prom, she wanted to go with her senior friends and I was not invited along for the ride.
“I just want you to know, though, I still have a lot of respect for you,” she cooed on the other end of the line. “It means the world to me, and I’m not just saying that.”
I was shocked into silence. Stone-faced, though I felt like she had hit me square in the stomach with a Louisville Slugger. I slid the receiver back into its base without further comment, and from that moment forward Lee Esther had no place in my existence. At student council meetings or functions I acted as if she were not even in the room, and once, at a study session, I made quite a show of my snubbery, talking animatedly to someone else, right over her head, while she stood between us: a ghost to me.
Upset and emotionally ruined as I already was, prom night only crushed to dust what little self-confidence I still possessed. I was sitting at an empty table with my Oxfords off downing a glass of punch when Lee Esther’s group entered the ballroom. She stood at the front of the assemblage, hanging on the arm of a gawky senior I called Mr. Cool Breeze due to his puzzlingly inflated view of his own toothy self that could only have stemmed from his parents’ bank account. Lee Esther shone, jewel-sparkling, as if the night were the most breathtaking of her life. She’d told me friends – but the plural had been made singular. The punch threatened to return to my glass.
I was still recovering.
A year! I thought, jarring myself back into my bedroom and to the letter in my lap. Over a year. And I’m still too scarred from it to even mention it to Sara, what I think of her. I tossed the balled-up letter to the wastebasket against the opposite wall, but it bounced off the rim, landing at the foot of the basket with several others that had missed.
Nice representation of my life.
I turned to the desk beside my chair, opened the top drawer, and withdrew a more elegant pen with a smoother tip. I figured my letter might look nicer with this one, instead of the bargain-rack Bic I’d nearly drained on the others. With great caution I pressed the pen on the notepad, and the words began to form once again in my fluid, antique penmanship.
Dear Sara, the first line read. The date. Now, the date, in the top right corner. May 17, 2010. Skip a line below the first. By the time you finish reading this letter, you’ll either want to hug me or shoot me, and I wouldn’t be surprised it if were the latter. New paragraph. Everything I wrote in your birthday card I still believe, but in actuality, my feelings for you run much deeper. I have spent –
I didn’t mean to write I have. I wanted this printed exchange to resemble one of our many real-life conversations. I wanted to use I’ve. I tore the piece of paper from the pad, crumpled it like all the others, and threw it across to the trashcan. This one missed, too.
I leaned back in my chair, sputtering at my inability to compose even a simple love note. I, who had received perfect scores on last year’s advanced placement English exam, could not do this simple task, and the next day – the last day of class for the seniors – would be my last chance to somehow let Sara Sanders know just how much I adored her.
There will never be another like her! Cold desperation rained across my nerves. I’d even privately selected a song for the way I felt, something I hadn’t done with Lee Esther: a dated Nashville Sound instrumental called “Last Date” by session pianist Floyd Cramer. Sara liked raspy, wailing art jazz, alternative music of all styles. She would have laughed at my choice, said I was cute – but to me it was far beyond any usual our-song. Whenever I clicked it on my iPod or, at my grandparents’ house, set the needle in the groove, the melody carried me and my thoughts of Sara to some dim, smoky wood-paneled saloon deep in my spirit, where I held her close to me and we slow-danced long into the night.
I tried. But when I put the pen tip to the next sheet of the thinning notepad, I could not write anything more.
What to do, now? My face contorted in reflection, in torment.
Well, hell. I might as well tell her in person.
Painful as it probably would be, insurmountable as it seemed to me at the moment. It was my only option of settling things with Sara, seeing as I couldn’t put together words enough on paper to do it. I’d just say the words to her, out loud, and pray to God I didn’t botch those.
* * *
No sooner had I bubbled the last answer on the final exam than a heavy feeling overcame the pit of my stomach, as if someone had dropped a small bag of lead weights into it. Sara was already finished with her test. She mindlessly tapped and twirled a Ticonderoga on the side of her head. Her thoughts, I could tell, were already basking in coastal sunshine. The other students had also departed for more pleasurable regions in their minds. There remained only one more person to finish: Jennie Mack, who sat diagonally across the center aisle from me and never failed to turn in a test mere seconds before the bell rang. I wished for telepathy, to remote-control Jennie’s pencil. I wanted to cram her tongue back into her crooked, vacuous mouth.
A glance at the clock further unsettled me. At least twenty-five minutes remained before the end of the period, before freedom finally set in. Nor did it help to look at the blank cement-block wall before me. It only reminded me of the complication ahead. If I closed my eyes, I saw Lee Esther swimming before me, smirking, Mr. Cool Breeze showing off his incisors beside her. If I opened them, I saw Sara, to my right, immersed in fantasies of every possible assortment save for ones of me, and I saw Jennie across the aisle, her stupid expressions of thought giving me cruelly intense thoughts of my own. There was no escape from negative emotion. No relief, until I finally got out what I had to say.
I drifted to the day two months before when I first realized I had fallen for her. We sat in a small group, on the floor in the corner to my left: me, Sara, my friend James, and her friend Rebecca. We were supposed to be discussing Othello, but we weren’t; we chatted as we always did about little things, life occurrences of slight importance. It was a Monday. prom had been two days prior. We were discussing the event, which I had not attended. The memory of the previous one still sent my blood pressure rising.
Sara wanted to know why I hadn’t gone.
“I had a bad experience last year,” I said.
“Oh really?” She wanted to know more, in a quietly demanding way.
“A girl sort of did me wrong. I guess I just haven’t gotten over it. Afraid to ask again, I guess.”
I guess, I guess. I wished for more eloquence with the spoken word.
Her expression softened. “Oh, Philly,” she sighed. “You could have gone with me.”
I blushed and chuckled, thanking her.
Somewhere the conversation turned to preference of bodily adornments. Sara and Rebecca wanted tattoos, small ones on their ankle or shoulder. They wanted multiple ear piercings. James and I wanted neither.
“I’m not all that fond of tattoos,” I said after she described the image of an elephant she wanted somewhere on her skin.
She looked down at her feet, nearly bare in discount store flip-flops, and flexed them with an odd sensuality. “You don’t think I’d look good with one?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Are tattoos a turn-off to you?”
“Well.” I stumbled. But I prided myself on my truthfulness. “To be honest, they are.”
Sara paused for a moment. There was silence in the room, though it wasn’t related to our discussion. When someone – probably Jennie Mack, I thought – started another buzz of talk, Sara spoke again. What she asked me, in that silky-sweet voice, skewed my world forever.
“Philly, what turns you on?”
Those five words – simple words – had impressed upon me that she might be interested. And suddenly I knew I was interested. I didn’t know what force behind the words drove me into mental hysterics – all I knew was that the genuine affection I had fostered for Sara since the first day of the semester had matured into a feeling far greater.
I had yet to answer Sara’s question, at least to her face. To other guys I knew, it would have been a purely sexual come-on, but it wasn’t simple biology that drew me to Sara. Despite a claimed fondness for tattoos and piercings she wasn’t the unruly type of girl my grandmother called a “rounder.” Quite the opposite. It was the wholesomeness and originality of her soul that attracted me; that, in her words, turned me on. Her uniqueness. Her. And when the idiot across the aisle finished taking the test, I would finally be able to tell her so.
I tuned back into the present, and at once my heartbeat slammed into rapid new pulsations. Jennie was turning in her test at Miss Tinsley’s desk, and a soft, uneven murmur of discussion floated about the room. I looked back up at the clock. Seven minutes left.
I gulped and shivered. Someone was adding more weights to my midsection. Nausea washed up and down my abdomen. Sara was standing, talking and laughing with Rebecca and another classmate.
Six-and-a-half minutes. She was still talking.
Six-and-a-quarter. She turned from her friends and slid open her phone, her fingers tapping steadily on the keys.
Like some strange cosmic ray I shot into the desk beside her. My brightness belied any inner turmoil, I hoped. Sara’s eyes shifted to the corners of their lids, but she did not face me straight-on.
“Sara,” I said. “There’s something I want to tell you before we leave, and you’re probably going to want to shoot me when I tell you this, but – do you remember that one particular question you asked me a couple of months back? The day after prom weekend?”
I tapped my fingers on the desktop, edgy clicks.
“We’d been talking about tattoos,” I said.
She stared down at the floor, lost in thought and just-sent text for a passing moment. Then she cracked a slight, awkward grin. “Yeah?”
“The answer is you. I just thought you ought to know.”
“And on the blog, too,” I said, thinking of our last class assignment, to post advice for incoming freshmen. “About not being afraid to tell people you love them. The girl I love and thought I couldn’t tell…well…she…”
“Philip,” she said. I was Philly no longer. “It means the world to me, and I’m not just saying that.”
Wait. I had heard this before, in a previous nightmare. The walls of the room seemed to crumble around me – What could I say next – What was in that letter?
“I – I know I probably couldn’t even begin to compare with any of the guys you’re used to, but…”
“No, no, that’s not it.” The carpet weave must have been museum-quality. “And thanks for all your help with calculus this year.”
Calculus? We had only discussed a mutual hatred for the subject!
“I didn’t help you at all with calculus,” I said.
“Yeah, you did.”
Calculus! It sounded like some censored swear word. She was avoiding her side. Putting off the dismissal.
I was right to have feared the moment. I felt like a criminal entering a guilty plea. Sara, like the victim, kept staring at the carpet. There was no kiss, no hug. No wood-paneled barroom, no song, nothing. Not even a handshake. And, as if the whole tender moment were just a parody of an old movie scene, just before the bell rang and we parted, she said, “We’ll always have Facebook.”
That was the last thing I ever heard her say to me except “goodbye.”
Once I was outside in the parking lot – once I had bid farewell to the others and fought my way down the hall, patting backs and hugging teachers – once I was alone I closed my eyes for a second, expecting to feel the crying pulse of a broken heart. There was none. Only deadness. The pain would come later, but for now, it was numb.
I opened to the daylight again. The air was warming, the sky turning into late-spring blue from the morning’s gray. Somewhere in with the adagio of the bugs, I heard the slip-notes and choir of our song – chords from a time long past, reverberating among the trees as near and as vibrant and as tender as they had played the first time I heard it and thought of Sara and me, together.
Philip Brock, a native and resident of suburban Atlanta, holds a B.A. in American history & culture from Kennesaw State University. Only after an elective course in southern literature taught by David King did he realize that English was his true academic love; by that time it was too late to change his major. He studied creative writing at KSU under Linda Niemann, Jenny Sadre-Orafai, and Beth Giddens. This is his first published piece.