THE RAT-A-TAT-TAT OF MY TYPEWRITER WAS AS SOOTHING AS WAVES CRASHING ON THE BEACH. Every keystroke meant another letter, word, or sentence on the page. Every whoosh of the rollers meant another layer added to what I called The Leaning Tower of Paper. Hey, it‘s a working title. My ideas flowed so fast I should‘ve had a radar gun on me. I was in, what athletes like to call, The Zone.
It was in early January 1987 when I realized that it was my destiny to be a writer. I was good at it, I liked doing it, and when I wasn’t writing, I found myself thinking about it. Taking hold of your destiny when you‘re six months shy of your sixteenth birthday is no easy task. For one thing, you have school five days a week with homework assignments every night. If you play a sport, belong in a club, or play an instrument, then that takes up more of your time. When you finally do get home, your Mom and Dad hand you a long list of chores. It‘s not like when you‘re an adult and you have way more time to fulfill your destiny. It‘s way harder when you‘re a teenager.
The rain fell like Niagara Falls outside. Jacob worried that at any minute the giant window would shatter and send shards all over his room. The leaves on the giant oak tree in his yard that hadn‘t fallen in the downpour blew away in the howling wind. His unlucky neighbors caught in the rainstorm scurried for shelter. Their makeshift umbrellas of magazines and newspapers dissolved away in their hands. Jacob‘s ears perked up as thunder echoed in the distance.
Jacob imagined Lindsay‘s car pulling up to her darkened driveway. He would grab his coat and step outside. He‘d hurdle the chain-link fence surrounding his yard. Lindsay would be there waiting for him, flashing that brilliant smile of hers that he knew so well. He imagined walking up to her, standing face to face, with each of them feeling the heat of each other‘s breath…
Of course, that was when my phone rang and I dropped out of The Zone. Normally, I would have pulled the phone out of the wall. But after a quick glance at the clock, I picked up the receiver before the first ring even finished. “Right on time,“ I said.
“How‘d you know it was me?“ Ally asked.
“Because you are nothing if not punctual.“
“Am I that predictable?“
“I prefer to say reliable,“ I said. “It makes you sound more put together.“
Ally and I talked on the phone every night at the same time since she left for vacation. Our, I guess I‘d call it a relationship, had moved along great. Better than great. We weren‘t having those awkward pauses and silences like other people did. We talked like we always did: about the Lakers, about neither of us being ready to go back to school, and about life.
She cleared her throat. “How‘s the book coming along?“
I banged my elbow against the typewriter and the “Z“ key popped off. “Hold on,“ I said as I grabbed the Super Glue. “I‘m listening, I swear.“
“You sound busy,“ she said.
I held the phone with my shoulder and tried not to glue it there. “No, no. Tell me about your vacation. How‘s the weather? Did you go skiing?“
“Cold,“ she said. “And no, I‘m not up for it.“
“Why? Did you break your leg or something?“ I laughed. When she was silent on her end, I tossed the glue down. “Oh God, did you break your leg or something?“
Ally let out a soft chuckle. “No, I‘m packing for home.“
“Cutting the trip short?“
“My dad has some things to do here and Vince wanted to get a little more skiing in,“ she said. “It‘ll just be me.“
A drop of sweat fell onto my glasses. “So, you‘re coming home...by yourself?“
I cleared my throat. “Um...when?“
“Wednesday,“ she said.
I dug through my hamper for my best dress shirt and saw the giant smear of mustard across the front. “I can pick you up at the airport. I mean, if you want.“
“I couldn‘t ask you to do that,“ she said. “I can just catch the bus home or take a taxi...“
“Ally,” I said. “I’d be happy to help. Don’t worry about it.” I scrambled for a blank sheet that I wasn‘t going to turn into a paper airplane. “What time is your flight?“
“TWA. Flight 1789.“
“Got it,“ I underlined the flight info and circled it twice. “Why are you coming home so early? I mean, I‘m happy you are, but I was curious.“
It was silent on her end. “I want to see you.”
A church choir belted out the “Hallelujah“ chorus in my head. “You do?“
“Yes,“ she said.
“Wow,“ I said. I strummed my fingers on the typewriter as my mind raced with images of Ally in a slinky red dress. “I...I guess I‘ll see you soon.“ I winced as I heard the crack in my voice.
The line crackled and hummed. “Nothing,“ she said. “I‘ll see you Wednesday.“
“See you then,“ I said. We said our goodbyes and hung up. I felt my heartbeat thumping in my ears. Did I actually hear what I heard?
“She actually said that?“ Josh asked. “Alyson Paige McCartney actually told you, Brandon Jo-Jo Delacruz...“
“That‘s not my middle name,“ I interrupted.
“‘I want to see you,’“ he said. “She used those exact words.“
“Yes,“ I said as I tried not to have the biggest smile on my face. But in my head, I was bouncing up and down like a pogo stick.
Josh smiled. “You realize what this means, don‘t you? You need to step it up.”
“Totally step it up,“ Robbie said.
I took off my hat and scratched my head. “Step up what?“
“My God, do you brush your hair with a fork?“ Robbie asked.
I quickly put my hat back on. “Is it really that bad?”
He bridged his fingers and held them in front of his face. “Brandon, you‘re a six and a half or a seven on your best day. But Ally‘s tall, gorgeous, athletic, and has that half-Filipino, half-white complexion. She‘s like, a ten. You are way, way out of your league here. If you want to be with an angel, you gotta learn how to fly.“
“Hold on a second. If I‘m a seven...“
“Six and a half,“ he said as he stared at my head. “Remind me to give you my hairdresser’s business card later.”
“If I‘m a seven, then what are you?“
“Hey! I‘m not saying that I‘m perfect! I‘m like an eight...and a half.“
“Out of what?“ I asked. “A hundred?“
Josh put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “You know you and Ally are my best friends in the world, right? I‘m pulling for you two crazy kids. So believe me when I say this: if you want this to be the best night of your life, do not, under any circumstances, be yourself.“
“Excuse me?“ I asked.
“He‘s right,“ Robbie said.
“You have to be an even better version of yourself,“ Josh said. “A version that Ally‘s never seen. You want her to think of you as a man and not the kid from down the block. You gotta look the part, sound the part, and hell, you gotta smell the part!“
“Get a bottle of Polo Cologne. Or Drakkar. And for God‘s sake, no Old Spice,“ Robbie said as he flapped his tie at me. “You should come by my store. Our coats are 25% off. With my 20% discount, that‘s like 45%!“
“I see that math tutor you got has done wonders for you,“ I said.
“Look, B,“ Josh said. “We‘re not asking you to change everything.“
“Just the things that matter,“ Robbie said. “Your hair, clothes, and personality.“
Clearly, their idea of a pep talk was tossing a drowning man an anchor. But I guess wearing a sweatshirt with coffee stains doesn’t make the best of impressions. “Fine,“ I said. “What do you idiots have in mind?“
“First, we call for reinforcements,“ Josh said.
Amy Bautista looked me up and down with all the scrutiny of a drill sergeant during inspection. If there was a loose thread on the coat, out it went. If the shirt seams were too wide, she nixed it. Pleats on pants, a big no-no. An itch on my neck grew into a colony of ants swarming all around me. And the buzz of the mall shoppers outside the store wasn‘t exactly helping matters. “Can I please change now?“ I pleaded.
She put a finger to her lips. “Let‘s see the blue coat and the red tie. I want to see the combination of colors against his skin tone.“
“The navy blue one with the wider shoulders is better,“ Robbie said.
“I don‘t like the fabric on that one. It‘s too slippery looking. He‘ll look like a seal.“
He bit his lip. “Let me see what we‘ve got in the back.“
“See?“ Josh whispered. “Reinforcements.“
“I‘m pretty sure she can hear you,“ I said.
“Yes she can,“ Amy said. “Now shut up and let me think.”
“I love it when she gets bossy,” Josh said.
I dug my fingers under my collar to free my neck. “I can’t believe that I agreed to this.”
“Stop whining,“ she said.
“Can I at least see what I look like?“
“Did anyone stop Picasso until he was done painting?“
“So I‘m a Picasso now?“
“Keep it up and I’ll make you look like one,“ she said. Amy yanked on my clothes like I was made of Silly Putty. “Hold still and think about something else. What’s new with you?”
“Well, I started writing a book,“ I said between grunts of agony.
“What‘s it about?“
“It‘s about...ow...a guy and a girl and...that hurts!“
“I had no idea you were such a romantic,“ she said. “Now, stop being such a wuss.“
Robbie returned with what looked like a hundred ties draped on his arm. “Hey Ames, you work with Cheryl San Antonio, don‘t you?“
Amy surveyed the collection and chose a few. “She‘s on register duty right now. Why?“
Robbie dumped all the ties onto Josh‘s unsuspecting arms. “I’ll be back,“ he said as he left us in his Drakkar scented wake.
“I should‘ve told him that Cheryl‘s totally into Tommy Dydasco before he left,“ Amy smiled.
“You do realize that my 20% discount walked out the door, right?“ I asked.
She fixed my collar. “My friend Joaquin is working today. You‘ll get your discount.“
I turned around to see a nattily attired Joaquin wave at us from behind the front counter. “Is there anyone that you don‘t know?“ I asked.
“In San Diego? Probably not,” she said.
Josh presented the ties to her like he was making an offering to the gods. “The ties, milady.“
I grabbed the price tag on my sleeve. “Is that already with the extra 25% off?” I gulped.
Amy picked out a few ties. “So, you nervous?“
“Yeah! I‘ll have to break into my piggy bank to pay for all this stuff.“
“Not that,“ she said. Amy tugged on the knot on my tie. “Come on, Brandon. I know why you‘re here.“
I looked away. “What are you talking about?“
“Buying new clothes. Getting a whole new look. This is about you and Ally McCartney, isn‘t it?“
Every hair on the back of my neck stood at attention. “Oh God, who told you?“
“It‘s not exactly a secret you know. Everybody knows that you‘ve had a crush on her since like, forever,“ Amy said. “And she‘s with Roman Rodriguez too. My God, that‘s gotta be tough! Especially with you guys being such good friends and all.“
I guess Amy didn’t know that Ally and I had kissed before she left for vacation. I bit down on my tongue so hard, I thought I drew blood.
“There are other girls out there, you know,“ she said. “I know a girl who would be perfect for you! She‘s in my Social Studies class. She has these cute little freckles on her cheeks.“
“It‘s okay,“ I said. “I‘m fine.“
“I know how hard it was for me when I had such a thing for Damian Sandoval. I can‘t tell you how much time I wasted crushing on that guy.“
“It‘s not like that,“ I said. “I‘m not just crushing on Ally.“
Amy cocked an eyebrow up like a Bond villain. “What do you mean by that?“
Oh crap. When it came to gossip, Amy Bautista sniffed it out better than a pack of bloodhounds on a hunt. “Nothing,“ I said as took a step backward.
She crept closer to me. “Why did you say it like that? Why did you say that you‘re ‘not just crushing‘ on Ally?“
I banged into the mirror behind me and thought I heard a loud crack.
“There‘s something you‘re not telling me,“ she said as she pinned me against the glass. A menacing grin crawled across her lips. “I can see it in your eyes.“
I heard Josh clear his throat. Amy and I turned to see him with his arms folded across his chest. “Do you two need some time alone? Because there‘s a Motel 6 down the street.“
“Something‘s going on with Brandon and Ally but he won‘t say what,“ Amy said.
“Oh, you mean the hot and heavy make-out session he had with Ally?” Josh asked. “It was like something out of 9 1/2 Weeks!“
Amy gasped. “WHAT?“
I buried my face in my hands. I knew I should have just looked through Dad’s closet for a coat...
“Was I not supposed to tell anyone?“ Josh asked.
“Oh my God!“ she said. “This is bigger than the story about Mr. Kaye and Ms. White in the janitor‘s closet! This is huge!“
Josh held up a finger. “Um, the who and the what now?”
“It all makes so much sense now!“ Amy said as she ran toward me. Her eyes were as big as saucers. “You‘re in love with Ally!“
My mouth felt drier than three days in the desert. “Um...what?“
“Everyone knows this,“ Josh scoffed. “How did you not?“
“I knew that he liked her,“ Amy said. “I didn‘t know that he was in love with her! I mean, I‘ve always had my suspicions. Even after their fight at the Winter Formal.”
“I always knew,“ Josh said.
Amy smacked Josh on the shoulder. “And you didn‘t tell me?“
“Because it‘s so obvious!“ Josh said.
“Wait a minute,“ I said. “I‘m not...“
“Yes you are! You don‘t know that you know,“ Amy said as she marched up to me and got within an inch of my nose. “Are you going to tell her?“
“Tell her what?“
She threw her hands in the air. “Ugh! Guys will happily crack their skulls playing football, but can’t tell a girl how they feel about her! What is wrong with you?”
“Okay,“ I said. “Just for arguments sake, let‘s say that I‘m...“
“In love with her. Say it and you‘ll feel a lot better.” She grabbed my shoulders and spun me to face the mirror.
I looked like I‘d stepped out of the Chess King catalog. Pressed navy blue coat. Perfectly knotted red tie. Flawlessly creased pants. There was no doubting Amy‘s magic. “Wow,“ I said.
“Ally doesn‘t stand a chance when you show up looking like this,” Amy said.
I stood at the mirror with the new me. Amy had somehow transformed me from dud to stud, but the earthquake in my stomach hadn‘t subsided. “Ames? What should I say to her?“
She patted me on the chest. “Tell her how you feel in here. You can hire a skywriter or write her a song. It doesn‘t matter. Do it in a way that she‘ll know that it‘s from you.”
The rumble worked its way up to my chest until I couldn‘t tell if it was my heartbeat or not. “What if she doesn‘t feel the same way about me?“ I asked.
“It won‘t come to that.“
“But what if it does?“
Amy gave me a weak smile. “I guess you’ll cross that bridge when you come to it. But you’ll be okay.”
The rumble in my chest subsided for the moment. “Thanks,“ I said.
“You‘re welcome,“ she said as she kissed me on the cheek. “Think you‘d spring for a skywriter?“
“I spent all my money on the suit,” I said.
Robbie sauntered back into the store and made a beeline toward us. “Way to go Ames! Cheryl totally has a thing for Tommy Dydasco!“
Amy feigned surprise. “She does? I didn‘t know.“
“She had her eyes on him the whole time,“ he said. “I mean, come on. The guy buys his suits at JCPenney’s.”
“Better luck next time,” she said.
Robbie smiled a wolfish grin. “Actually, I‘m picking up Jennie Guthrie right after her shift.“
“Jennie Guthrie?“ she said. “As in, my shift manager?“
“Yup. I‘m taking her to the movies,“ he said. “You should see her! She‘s got these massive...“
Amy eyes burned a hole through Robbie‘s head. “You are incorrigible.“
“I know, I feel terrible,“ he said with a click of his tongue. Robbie turned his attention toward me and inspected every fiber of my suit. “Not bad, Brandon. I‘d bump you up to a nice solid seven. But tell me, do you even own a comb?”
Amy was right. I had to tell Ally. Painters paint. Singers sing. Writers write. What better way was there for me to express myself than to give Ally a copy of my book? Granted, it wasn‘t close to being a completed piece of work, but then again, neither were we. It was a perfect thing to do.
I ran a hand along my shorn sides and caressed the prickly hairs where my sideburns used to be. I brushed away a few stray hairs that fell on my desk and started to type. But I had trouble finding The Zone. Balled up sheets of paper filled my overflowing wastebasket. Sometimes what I wrote didn‘t feel romantic enough. Other times I thought I was gushing. And one time I tossed it because I plagiarized lyrics from a Whitney Houston song.
I looked over at my lucky Red Sox hat and was about to put it on, but I tossed it on my bed. There was no way I was going to get my hair as good as it was. I heard Robbie‘s voice in my head after we went to his hairstylist: “You might be a solid eight now. Don‘t screw it up. And don‘t wrinkle the suit.“
I grabbed my tie to practice tying a knot and nearly hung myself in the process. I inspected my suit for any trace of lint and nabbed whatever I found with a ball of tape. The butterflies in my stomach felt more like an angry flock of seagulls. I flopped down onto my seat and started to type to distract myself. But the more my abdomen churned, the more (and better) I wrote.
Jacob stared out into the lingering fog. There was something almost romantic about it. He looked up at the beam of light coming down from the street lamp across the way. It was as if the night was telling Jacob that the storm had passed and it was safe to come out. The porch light at Lindsay‘s house glimmered to life and he knew that she was home.
He grabbed his coat and stepped outside his door into the cold air. The stars in the sky twinkled above him. He opened his gate and walked toward Lindsay‘s house, fighting the urge to run.
He wiped his sweaty palms on the front of his jeans and pressed down on the doorbell. As he waited for the door to open, a million thoughts raced through his head. He thought about what he might say when he saw her and what she might say in response. The door swung open and there stood Lindsay with a giant smile on her face that he couldn‘t help but mirror.
“Hi,“ Jacob said.
“Hi,“ Lindsay said as she leaned back on the doorframe.
“I‘m glad that you‘re back,“ he said as he put his arm on the screen door.
Lindsay tossed her hair to the side. “Me too,“ she said. “I was feeling homesick.“
Jacob leaned forward. “You got a minute?“ He extended his hand out toward her and Lindsay grabbed it without hesitating. He led her to the middle of her yard and stood to face her, holding both of her hands. He looked up at the now cloudless sky and the twinkling stars. He looked back down at Lindsay and saw those stars reflecting in her eyes. Her eyes met his and Jacob realized that this was even better than his dream. Lindsay was here right in front of him; warm and soft to the touch. He smiled as all the fretting and worry he had was all for nothing. The words he‘d been searching for had been inside him the whole time. All he needed was the moment. And the moment had arrived…
There was a knock on the door and before I could answer, Mom opened it. “You got a haircut,“ she said.
“Yeah,“ I said. “I figured it was time.“
She nodded at my suit hanging on the closet door. “Is that new?“
“Yeah,“ I said. “Robbie let me use his employee discount at Chess King and it was on sale. I used some of my savings.”
“It‘s a good color for you,” she said.
“Amy helped me pick it out.“
“She has great taste.“ Mom walked over and rubbed her fingers on the material. “Brandon, you‘re picking up Ally at the airport tonight, right?“
“In a little while. Why?“
“Why don‘t you bring her here for dinner? With all the traveling she‘ll be doing today, I think she‘d appreciate a home cooked meal.“
I heard a vault door slam shut in my heard. I had to nip this in the bud. “I don‘t know, she might be tired, you know? From the flight, I mean.“
“You might be right,“ she said. “She might want to get home and rest.“
She raised an eyebrow. “Of course, you wouldn‘t have any reason to get all dressed up then, would you?“
Hold on. Did Mom know what I was thinking? Did she know that I knew what she was thinking? Ew!
“You can take her wherever you guys want to go later. But bring her here for dinner first.“ Mom brushed the edges of my suit with her hand. “It would be nice to have her over. It‘s been such a long time. We haven‘t had her over since...well, it‘s been a while.“
Something told me that my mother wasn‘t going to let me leave this room unless I agreed. “Okay,“ I sighed.
She took my tie and wrapped it around her neck. A minute later, she slipped the perfect knot off her neck and placed it on the hanger. “Don‘t fiddle with the knot and it won‘t come undone,” she said. She gave me a smile and shut the door behind her.
My shoes echoed off the walls of the stuffy and crowded airport terminal. Instead of dress shoes, I apparently had a pair of rubber duckies on my feet. I‘m pretty sure a few babies stopped crying and stared at me as I walked by.
As I passed the herds of weary travelers, I thought about the advice Amy gave to me. I didn‘t want to rehearse what to say because it would sound...well, rehearsed. But if I didn‘t rehearse, I‘d never remember what it was I wanted to say to her. By the time I got to the arrivals board, I was so nervous my suit looked like I had walked through a car wash. Steam vented out from under my collar and my forehead melted into my eyebrows. I fiddled with my tie to cool off, but tugged on it too hard. The immaculate knot fell apart in my hands like a paper umbrella in a downpour.
“Crap,“ I muttered. “How does it go? The fox chases the rabbit once around the tree or is it the rabbit chases the fox twice around the hole first?”
“The fox chases the rabbit once around the tree first,“ Ally said. She had on a grey University of Colorado sweatshirt and tight blue jeans cuffed at the bottom. Her hair was up in a clean ponytail and she had a touch of pink lip gloss.
“How long have you been standing there?“ I asked.
“Long enough to see if you can remember the whole song,“ she said. “My flight came in early.“
After a few attempts to tie the tie, I dropped my hands to my sides and let the tangled mess stay around my neck. “This isn‘t exactly how I had this planned.“
She took a few steps toward me. “You look great. I like the suit. And the haircut.“
“Thanks,“ I said as I shuffled my feet. “Amy helped me pick it out. And Robbie took me to his hairstylist. And Josh helped too, although all he did was get some ties...”
“Come here,“ she said. She leaned in and embraced me.
I wrapped my arms around her and squeezed. She felt like a warm blanket on a winter morning. “Hi,“ I said.
“I missed you.“
“I missed you too,“ she said as she nuzzled against my shoulder.
We stayed in that clinch for a few moments until I finally let go. I reached down to pick up her suitcase and my arm came out of the socket. “Did you bring the Rocky Mountains with you?”
“Sorry,“ she winced. “My lola froze five pounds of menudo and caldareta for me.“
“It’s fine,“ I said as I grabbed the handle. I got it high enough for an ant to get under it.
“Um, Brandon? It has wheels,“ she said. She took hold of the top handle and pulled it behind her. “See?“
I felt like a moron, but I couldn‘t help but smile. Our hands grazed past the other‘s over and over again as we maneuvered through the crowds. I glanced at her every chance that I could when I didn‘t think she was looking. Should I grab her hand? Should I rest my arm across her shoulders? Should I pick her up Superman-style and leap over everything in a single bound?
Ally looked up at me with a furrowed brow. “Do you hear something squeaking?”
I fiddled with the radio in search of anything that wasn‘t a commercial. “Sorry, I‘ve been meaning to get a tape deck.” Ally leaned her head against the glass. I thought she might‘ve been asleep. “You okay?“
“Sorry,“ she said as she rubbed her eyes. “I guess I spaced out for a second.“
“A little,“ she said. “Thanks again for picking me up.“
“Of course,“ I said. “And sorry about my mom. She insisted you come over. Madeline Delacruz is very hard to say no to.”
“I love your mom! And I am hungry.” She shifted in her seat and picked up the binder from the floor. “Is this your book?“
“Part of it, yeah.“
Ally ran a finger around the binder edges. The opening pages snapped in her fingers. “Can I read it?“
“Sure,“ I said. “But it‘s not finished. Take it easy and don‘t go all Ms. Duval on me.“ I turned to say say more, but Ally‘s head was already down in the book. Every now and then, I heard the crisp turn of a page. I shut off the radio and we cruised in silence the rest of the way home.
The jarring thud as I pulled up into my driveway must‘ve surprised her. “Are we here already?“
I nodded and motioned my head toward the front door. “Last chance to make a break for it. There‘s a cheeseburger with your name on it in Coronado.“
“I’m sure whatever your mom made will be better,“ she said as she closed the binder shut.
We were about three feet from the front door when it swung open. “Ally!“ Mom said. “It‘s so good to see you again!“
“Hi Mrs. Delacruz!“
“Anak, you call me ‘Auntie‘ okay? There‘s no need for the formalities,“ Mom said as she gave her a big hug.
“What is that about anyway?“ I asked. “How come everybody I know is either my Uncle or Auntie?“
“It‘s a Filipino term of endearment,“ she said to me. “Besides, Ally is like family to us.“
“Thank you,“ Ally said. “That is so nice of you.“
“You must be starving,“ Mom said as she led Ally inside. As I stepped through the door, she put a hand on my shoulder. “What happened to your tie?“
“Well, there was this fox that chased this rabbit and they both lost to a rubber duck,“ I said.
Mom started to speak but I guess she thought better of it and shut the door behind me.
The walk to Ally‘s house after dinner was nothing like a typical San Diego winter. The frigid air cut through my coat and sent shivers up and down my arms. Frost coated every car window we passed. I tried to draw on Mr. Russell‘s car window, but couldn‘t dig a fingernail through the ice.
Ally wrapped her arms around the binder against her chest. “Your family is so funny.“
“Oh yeah,“ I said as I dragged her suitcase behind me. “My sides hurt.“
“Did you really wear that Elvis jumpsuit for a week?“
“I was seven!“ I said. “I can‘t say it was my proudest moment.“
We stopped right in front of Mrs. Rodriguez‘s yard and marveled at her gigantic maple tree. It was a perfect place to play during those hot summers. The dense foliage blocked out the sun and kept us cool. Ally and I spent hours climbing it when we were kids. “Remember how we used to see who could hang the longest?“ Ally asked.
“Yes and you always won,“ I said. I reached up and grabbed one of the thicker branches. “Wanna try now?“
“Your feet are touching the ground.“
“So that‘s a ‘no‘ then?“ I asked.
She smiled and crunched through the leaves. “So,“ she said. “How about those Lakers? Think Magic will be MVP?“
“He‘s a total lock. Unless Larry Bird gets it again.“
“God, he‘s already won three in a row!“ she said as we both shivered at the thought. “What about Michael Jordan?“
“Nah,“ I said. “Not till he wins a ring.“
We didn‘t say much the rest of the way. I reached out for her hand about a thousand times on the walk to her house, but pulled away every time. I thought we‘d accidentally not-accidentally graze each other‘s finger or something, but it didn‘t happen.
Her security porch light flickered to life as we stepped into her yard. It was time to tell her. I’d wasted enough time. I stepped in front of her and looked her in the eyes. “Ally, I want to say something...”
“Brandon, wait. I have to tell you something too...“
“Please, let me go first. If I don‘t do this now, I‘ll chicken out and I‘ll never get through with it.“
I took a deep breath. “Ally, I love you. I‘ve been in love with you for the longest time, but I never had the guts to tell you until now. You are one of my best friends and we‘ve always told each other everything. And I want us to keep telling each other everything. I want you to tell me how Coach Morris gets you to work on your jump shot. I want to learn how to make your chocolate chip cookie recipe with you and devour them afterward. I want you to know I‘ve always secretly wanted my mom to make me another Elvis jumpsuit for Halloween. And that‘s something I‘ve actually never told anyone. But I figured that if there was someone that I should tell, I would tell the girl that I‘m in love with.“
I exhaled for the first time all day. Ally was still as a statue. She pressed the binder against her chest, her knuckles were white. The longer we stood there, the colder the air felt. I buttoned up my coat and turned up the collar to cover my wind stung ears. “Brandon,“ she said. “All those things you said...“
“Too much?“ I said. “I‘m sorry. It‘s been building up since...“
“No, it‘s not that,“ she said as she cleared her throat. “It was great. You are great.“
“Okay. That‘s...great,“ I said. I reached for her hand, but she kept a tight grip on the binder.
She walked a few paces away from me and then turned back around. “You mean so much to me. You know that, don‘t you?“
“Ally, what‘s going on?“
“Promise me that nothing will change between us no matter what happens.“
Her voice quivered. “Promise me. Okay?“
A cold pit in my stomach grew like twisted ivy festering up a wall. It was an all too familiar feeling. “Oh my God. You‘re doing it again, aren‘t you?“
She reached for me. “Brandon, I...“
My gut twisted and I doubled over. “Twice. I let this happen to me twice.“
“Let me explain...“
“Please don‘t yell.“
I almost laughed. “Why? Do you want me to do a dance instead? Would that be better?“
“Brandon, please,“ she said. She picked at the edges of the binder. “It‘s complicated.“
“Complicated? How is this complicated? You‘re the one taking Physics! That’s complicated!“ I paced so hard, I dug a trench through her yard.
“I tried to tell you a thousand times,“ she said. “But I couldn‘t find a good time.“
“Ally, I just told you that I love you! Any time before that would have been perfect!“ I wanted to dig this trench to the center of the earth. “What about our kiss? Do you remember it?“
She nodded. “It‘s all I thought about when I was away.“
“It was great. More than great.“ She looked down at the ground. “But we shouldn‘t have. It was a mistake.“
My nails burrowed into my palms. “Oh, so I‘m a mistake now?“
“Not you, what we did! It was an accident.“
“An accident?“ I snapped. “Did you trip and fall on my lips?“
“No! That’s not...”
I made a beeline toward her. “This is about him, isn‘t it? This is about you and Captain America.“
“Are you calling Roman, ‘Captain America?’”
“You’re lucky I’m not calling him something else,” I said.
She rolled her eyes. “Well, that’s mature.”
I directed a finger at her. “This is all about you feeling guilty about what happened.”
“Of course it is!” Ally said. “If you were him and things were reversed, how would you feel?“
“I don‘t care how he feels!“
“But I care,“ she said. “I have to.“
“You have to?“ The frosty air around me was now a raging firestorm. “So that‘s it? You don‘t want to hurt him, but me, I‘m some stupid mistake you‘d rather forget about!“
“Stop yelling at me!“ Ally said. “This is hard for me too!“
“Do you love me?“ I asked.
“You heard me,“ I said. But a big part of me didn‘t want to hear her response, because I already knew the answer. I felt my body begin to crumple into itself, but I wasn‘t going to let it. Not now.
She looked up at the sky and then fixed her gaze back on me. Her eyes welled up with tears. “I don‘t know.“
My arms flayed out to my sides. “You don‘t know? What do you mean you don‘t know?“
“I told you, it‘s complicated!“
“THEN ENLIGHTEN ME!“ My voice echoed down the empty street. A dog barked in the distance. I kept my eyes on Ally‘s face for any kind of response. I needed something that would give me some kind of idea of what she was thinking. But all I got was a blank stare that went past the back of my head. I jerked the tie off my neck and turned away.
“Brandon, where are you going?“
“Don‘t go,“ she said as she grabbed my hand. It was the first time all night our hands touched. But it wasn‘t her hand anymore. It belonged to a stranger that I didn‘t want to know. I yanked the binder out of her hands and flung it down the street. It screeched across the asphalt and it burst open with a crash that reverberated down the block. The pages scattered all over the street. A hurricane-like gale blew the debris further into the shadows.
Even in the dim light, I saw the flush in Ally‘s cheeks. Her watery eyes stared daggers into mine. I threw my shoulders back and stared back at her with daggers of my own. We stood for a moment that became an eternity. She grabbed her suitcase and dragged it across the lawn, never once breaking eye contact with me. She slammed her front door shut behind her. The glow of the porch light disappeared in a flash.
I opened up my coat and let the cold cut through me. The numbing wind stung my cheeks and ears. I turned away from her house and started the long march back home under the dark and moonless sky.