“Dude, you like Weezer?”
Those were the first words Jackson Crowder ever spoke to me. I was sitting in the front row of Mrs. Nero’s twelfth-grade homeroom, on the first day of my senior year at Rome High School, and Jackson took the seat next to me. The cool kids sat in back. We were both front-row sort of kids.
I glanced at my Weezer T-shirt then back at Jackson and said, “No, not really.”
This was my first day at Rome, and I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to be back in Texas, with my friends. But Mom moved us here in July, without even consulting me, so in the spirit of petty teenage retribution, I decided not to make friends at my new school. I’d be mysterious and depressed. A miserable loner. My plan was to sulk through senior year until I graduated in May and moved off to college and got on with my life. So, on day one, I wore the T-shirt of a band I figured no one in this backwoods school had heard of yet, in hopes they’d leave me alone. But five minutes in, this guy was asking if I liked Weezer and totally ignoring the go-to-hell vibe I was trying and apparently failing to emit.
“Oh,” Jackson said, pointing at my T-shirt. “I just thought … since you were wearing that shirt and all … that maybe you …”
His voice trailed off, and I looked at him. Jackson was tall but skinny. He weighed less than me, and I was a featherweight. His full face was mostly nose with a dash of mouth and black eyes, and he had a DIY haircut, shaved on the sides, unmanageable brown waves on top.
“I mean, yeah, I like them all right,” I said, because he looked hurt, and I was shitty at being a miserable loner.
“Me too,” he said with the eagerness of a Labrador puppy. “Do you have the “Undone” single? Julia, my sister, works for the college radio station in Jacksonville, and she gave me copy back in the summer. She gets me all the new stuff before it even comes out.”
“A friend in Texas made me a copy,” I said.
“Awesome. “Mykel & Carli” is my favorite B-side,” Jackson said then added, “Hey, they’re coming to Birmingham next month. It’s on a Thursday night, but maybe we could still go. I bet my sister would drive.”
It was hard to imagine a world, even in the multiverse where all possible worlds supposedly exist, where my mother would let me go to Birmingham with Jackson Crowder and his sister to see Weezer on a school night. But Jackson’s optimism was contagious, so I said, “Yeah, maybe.”
“Sweet,” Jackson said. “So, do you like “Buddy Holly” or “Say It Ain’t So” better? My sister thinks—”
“Good morning, class,” Mrs. Nero said, walking into the room and kicking off the school year, and while she stood at her desk, shuffling through papers, Jackson continued in a whisper, “My sister thinks “Say It Ain’t So” is better than half the songs on the White Album, and she loves The Beat—”
“Marcus Brinks,” Mrs. Nero said, and I looked up to see her scanning the room. “Is there a Marcus James Brinks here?” I raised my hand and she said, “There you are. Welcome to Rome, Marcus. Why don’t you stand up and introduce yourself to the class?”
New kids want, more than anything else, to blend in. To merge slowly into the fabric of a school until people forget we weren’t there all along. I wanted to tell Mrs. Nero this, but causing a scene would have been counterproductive, so I half-stood and said, “I’m Marcus Brinks,” but before I could sit, Mrs. Nero said, “And will you please tell everyone where you are from, Marcus?”
Again, I half-stood and said, “We moved here from Texas,” then added, “League City, it’s near Houston,” in case Mrs. Nero demanded specifics.
“Class,” Mrs. Nero said, “please say hello to Marcus.”
The class mumbled, “Hello, Marcus,” in uninspired unison, and Mrs. Nero added, “I do hope you will all try to make Marcus feel at home in Rome. Jackson, you two seem to have hit it off already; would you be a dear and show Marcus around today?”
Jackson said he would, and he did.
~ ~ ~
At our lockers after homeroom, Jackson and I compared schedules. We had five of our seven classes together. “I’ve got gym when you have study hall,” I said, “and when I have sociology—”
A literal giant passed by us, elbowing Jackson headfirst into his own locker. I wanted to run, but my fight-or-flight response malfunctioned, and I stood there, staring.
“What are you looking at?” the man-child asked me.
I was looking at the quarterback of the football team. How did I know this? Well, quarterbacks just have a look, don’t they? This guy was tall, six-foot-four at least, with a head one size too big for his body. Good looking guy too, which typically isn’t the sort of thing straight guys admit about each other, but this dude, I think we all realized, if we looked like him, getting dates would not be a problem. Also, the front of his T-shirt said, “ROME QB," which might have tipped me off.
“Nothing,” I said, averting my eyes.
“Good,” the living Ken doll said, “’cause I don’t like your face.” Then he shoved Jackson in the back again before walking away.
“Deacon Cassburn,” Jackson said after the quarterback was out of earshot. “He plays quarterback.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I figured.”
We walked on to our first class of the day, precalculus, and after we took our seats, I said, “Your schedule says, when I have sociology, you have football. There’s a class here called football?”
“It’s just gym,” Jackson said, “but for football players.”
“Okay,” I said, “but why are you in it?”
“I’m on the football team,” Jackson said, almost embarrassed about it.
I didn’t laugh because I’d already hurt his feelings once that morning, but Jackson looked less like a football player than the Sharks and Jets looked like gang members.
“I am,” Jackson said, reading the doubt on my face. “Everyone here plays football. I mean, everyone. It’s kind of a big deal.”
“I moved here from Texas. I know when football is a big deal.”
Jackson shrugged and said, “I’m telling you, man, it’s a big deal. It’s probably too late; we’ve already gone through two-a-days and all, but Coach P might still let you join the team. You’ll have to get a haircut, but—”
“I’m not joining the football team,” I said, louder than I meant to, and some people stared.
My dad all but forced me to play football in seventh grade because he’d mistaken my admiration of Houston Oilers’ quarterback Warren Moon as a desire to put on shoulder pads and crash into other thirteen-year-olds. Those two months were, without question, the worst of my childhood, and this from someone who spent half his freshman year wearing orthodontic headgear to school. I played linebacker because, like most linebackers, I too was a carbon-based life form, but our similarities ended there, and I spent most of that fall sulking and begging to quit. Dad wouldn’t let me, but halfway through the season, my mom, who could be cool sometimes, took me to lunch and said, “When we get home, we’ll tell your father we’ve been to the doctor and you have a heart condition, and if you play football again, you could die.” I had to quit soccer too, which I did enjoy, but it was a small price to pay.
“Oh shit. I’m sorry, man,” Jackson said, after I told him my heart condition story. Well, the part about me having a heart condition, not the part about it being imaginary. “Are you okay? Are you going to … I mean … you’re not going to …”
“I’m not going to die,” I said to Jackson. “I can’t play sports, that’s all.”
“Oh, good,” Jackson said, as more of the football team drifted into class. They wore all manner of Rome Football T-shirts, since it was way too hot to break out their letterman’s jackets, and as the classroom filled, I realized I was the only able-bodied male in the room not on the team. I felt like a draft dodger.
Mr. Titus, the precalculus teacher, entered the room as the bell sounded, and he switched on an ancient window air conditioner that rumbled to life and pumped arctic air exclusively on the student sitting next to it, leaving the rest of us to sweat and struggle to hear as, over the course of the next hour, he worked through dozens of football-related word problems on his whiteboard.
“What do people around here do for fun?” I asked Jackson in the hall after class.
“Like, on weekends?”
I shrugged and Jackson said, “Well, everyone will be at the first game on Friday. We’re playing Helvetii Hills. You should go.”
“Maybe,” I said, “but I don’t know anyone to sit—”
A gangly blond-headed kid spitting Snoop Dogg lyrics whacked Jackson across the back of his knees with one of his forearm crutches, knocking him into me, and me to the ground, and as I stood up, I thought it didn’t bode well, socially speaking, that my only friend in Rome was bullied by both jocks and disabled kids alike. But Jackson, laughing and pointing toward the guy who’d just flogged him, said, “Marcus Brinks, meet Silas Carver.”
“’Sup, Brinks,” Silas said, setting a precedent of almost everyone in Rome ignoring my given name.
“Hey,” I said, not sure about the logistics of shaking his hand, but Silas shifted his weight and raised his hand, and when I hesitated, he rolled his eyes and explained, “I’ve got Becker’s. It’s not contagious.”
I shook his hand and asked, “You’ve got what?”
“Becker muscular dystrophy,” Silas said.
“It’s an STD only virgins can get,” Jackson added, and Silas whipped him across the shins with his left crutch.
“Shit, that really hurt,” Jackson said, rubbing his legs.
Silas smiled at me and said, “My muscles are deteriorating, so I’ve got to pick on him while I can.”
“Yeah, well,” Jackson said, still rubbing his shins, “Brinks doesn’t have anyone to sit with at the game Friday, so he’s sitting with you.”
Silas looked me over, sighed, and said, “Fine, but you’ve got to make my concession stand runs.”
“Deal,” Jackson said, and Silas half-heartedly swung a crutch in his direction then laughed when Jackson nearly tripped jumping out of the way.
“I’m out,” Silas said, grabbing both crutches with his hands. “Welcome to Rome, Brinks.”
“Silas is a good guy,” Jackson told me on the way to our next class. “He’s listened to nothing but Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg for the last year, so he calls me bitch way more than I’m comfortable with, but he’s a good guy.” We took our front-row seats in Mr. Galba’s world history class, and Jackson said, “You’ll have fun with him at the game. I’ve seen him scream at the refs so much he passed out.”
My memory of what happened next is certainly faulty. I had a garage band back in Texas, and I’d just asked Jackson if he played guitar, when the lights dimmed. This was possible, if not likely—Rome High School was built sometime between world wars, so the lights dimmed all the time. But then a spotlight lit the doorway, and everything in the room, the students, the walls, the blackboard, the pencil sharpener, inhaled in anticipation. A second lasted a thousand years, and at long last, through smoke and falling confetti, she entered the room.
Her short blonde hair fell in lazy curls from her pretty head, and she wore an open plaid shirt that failed to hide the curves below her tight Weezer T-shirt. No dress code in human history allowed for shorts as short as hers, but her long tan legs strode across the room, confident no teacher would dare send her home. The goddess took no notice of me as she passed, ignoring my prayers for her to come sit next to me, and after she made her way to a desk in the back, I looked at Jackson, who’d been watching me with amusement.
“Becca Walsh,” he said.
“Becca Walsh,” I repeated and glanced back at her but this time looked directly into her electric blue eyes and quickly spun back around.
“Yeah, Becca Walsh,” Jackson said, nodding toward Deacon Cassburn, who’d just entered the room. “Now watch this.” I watched Deacon swagger across the room with a confidence known only to high school quarterbacks then turn down the last row and take the seat in front of Becca Walsh but not before kissing the top of her head—a gesture she acknowledged with a quick wink that would kill a lesser man.
I looked back at Jackson and said, “Shit.”
Jackson laughed. “Shit indeed. Welcome to Rome, Brinks.”