It was a gamble. Worth a try. He tried to appreciate it on those terms. I should feel good about this, he thought. But I don’t. They don’t care about how hard you try. Only whether you succeed.
Never bring your backpack to class, and never come without a binder. Or prepare to suffer the consequences.
Even more embarassing, he had to deal with the possibility of them interpreting his failure as a “rookie mistake” instead of a calculated risk he took with full knowledge of what he was doing. If he had succeeded, he would have appeared to them as more confident, more mature, more in control. Even moreso considering that no one talks about the binder laws, as he and John called them:
Law 1. Binders appropriately obscure a stubborn erection, when necessary, faciliting the bipedal travel of teenage boys during inopportune times.
Law 2. Bookbags store binders, making them unavailable for the purpose outlined in Law 1. When one carries a bookbag, there is no reason to carry a binder by hand, unless said bookbag is already stuffed full of other paraphernelia.
Law 3. One may reasonably assume that a teenage male with a full bookbag is a nerd overly-concerned with academic performance, studying and related activities, until proven otherwise. Jocks must carry their sports gear in a dedicated brand-name team bag.
Law 4. The assumption outlined in Law 3 provides optimal cover and alibi for activities and associated paraphernelia that exist outside the scope of institutional approval. Overacheivers make the best dealers.
Law 5. One may reasonably assume that a teenage male with binder in hand and empty bookbag on back is battling, or has recently battled, a stubborn erection.
Bookbags and binders, he thought. And he chose to come to class with neither. A ballsy move.
He mouthed her name silently to himself. Hélène. Even her name sounded soft and warm. He daydreamed about her during class. He couldn’t help it. He tried to concentrate on the French lesson. But she sat in front of him. Distracting him. Her smell was intoxicating.
Sometimes his daydreams got a little intense. His boner, like his concentration, was looking for a raison d’etre. Embarrassed and awkward, he shifted in his seat to hide his excitement.
Madame asked the class a question: D’ou venez vous?
Hélène wore little more than flip flops, short shorts and a halter top in the hot spring days before summer break. Sitting in front of him, he could see her entire bare back. Her light brown hair was pulled back in a pony tail, the nape of her neck hidden only by the delicate tie top of her half-shirt. He could see the gentle curve of her bare shoulder blades, hinting inward toward the trace of her spine down her bare figure right before it disappeared into her shorts. His eyes rested on the string bow-tied across the bare of her mid-back. He followed its line outward, where it attached to the front of the half-shirt. The only half in existence. Not half enough — he could see the edge of her small, round breasts.
Another uncomfortable surge in his crotch. Damn it. He wanted to touch her so badly. He wanted to undo the bow-tie, let the shirt slip from her slight figure and pull her naked body tight against his skin.
Stéphane? The French teacher asked. He snapped back to attention. Pouvez-vous reponder?
Oui, Madame. Nous sommes des Etats-Unis.
Bien. Merci, Stéphane. Her praise lacked enthusiasm.
Ce n’est rien, Madame. Another formality. The French teacher smiled at him, sweetly, while the wheels turned in her head. One of her star students, Stéphane (as he was known in French class) always put in the extra conversational touch. She could see his attention was elsewhere. She wished he would spend less time and energy where he wasn’t wanted, and made a note to challenge him more next year, on a couple of fronts.
Stéphane turned his thoughts back to the present dilemma. The one sitting in front of him and throbbing between his legs. Moments like this provided psychological seed for his introduction to Marxian dialectics three years from now. A cold chill ran down his back. It’s not right, he thought. Ask her, something in him said. The assholes don’t ask. You’re not an asshole. Instead of trying to sort through his mixed feelings, he just ignored them altogether and focused on his behavior. His behavior didn’t confuse or embarass him nearly as much.
Hélène. She smiled at him awkwardly in the hallway outside of class. It was a forced smile, almost like a sneer. She was trying to be nice, but not trying very hard.
It’s not that he wasn’t handsome. He was very handsome — to everyone but himself. He felt awkward in his skin. And he was short — shorter than her, at least. He had calculated the number of apparent couples at school throughout the year. He ended his last tally at 73. Of them, the boy was the shorter in only two. Clearly, most girls preferred their men to be taller. How frustrating.
How frustrating, because he had so much more to offer. He was smart. He would be class valedictorian in two years’ time, with honors, advanced placement and college prep classes included. But sometimes such strengths are liabilities. They alienate. Writing came effortless to him. Spelling. Grammar. Math. Music. Physics. Everything. It was just…easier for him than it was for most. And as a result, it was alienating.
He remembered being pulled out of class in grade school so that he could be tutored privately in the school’s Talented and Gifted (TAG) program.
He remembered when he wanted out of the private tutoring. He told his parents why. He just wanted to be back with his classmates. He didn’t want to have to explain where he disappeared to for hours with that strange lady, and why. The acronym didn’t help — he hated the implicit insult. His parents were concerned that the tutor had molested him. She had not, and he insisted as much. Thankfully, they believed him and didn’t press the issue any further.
Walking down the hall away from French class, he shuddered at the thought of her wrinkled hands grazing his prepubescent crotch. Thoughts like these were nowhere to be found when he needed them. Too many people assume you have an erection if you don’t immediately bounce out of your seat when the bell rings. The rest were the french nerds who thought you actually wanted to stay and talk about french, in french, which doesn’t help your image. Between a rock and a hard place — frustration of a different sort.
He remembered when more students joined the TAG program. We really think you should give it another try, his parents said. For a moment, he thought about playing the molestation card. No…that would end badly for everyone. He acquiesced. He was still different. Not necessarily always better at everything. But really good at everything. If someone did something better than him, he reverse-engineered their thought process.
Most his real friends were trouble makers. The kids who had problems with authority. They knew how to get more out of a moment than anyone else. And they knew how to fight. How to move. Everyone else seemed awkward. A lot of them seemed like robots. Or zombies. Sit here. Answer this. One of them, having grown up, later remarked to him: You must have been so bored in school. The rest of us struggled. Everything just looked so easy when you did it. Her voice had a frustrated edge to it, still, all those years later. He could only imagine the anger she had felt toward him back then.
He was articulate and analytical. He could barely count on his fingers and toes the number of times an instructor or family member told him he should be (or would become) a lawyer.
He served as an editor of the school newspaper. In a year’s time, he had worked intensively with other dedicated editors and a talented and passionate journalism teacher to revive the paper from its near-death state as a glorified monthly extension of the year book into a serious source of investigative community news. Hélène worked on the year book team. Hmm.
He was on varsity soccer. Not quite the same level of protonationalistic prestige-cum-school spirit as football. He was a musician. Guitar. Classical. Jazz. He composed his own music. It was actually good. People left their listening experience pleasantly surprised.
And it wasn’t any one of these things that alienated him. It was all of them. Together. He wasn’t a nerd. He wasn’t a jock. He wasn’t a band geek. He was all these things, and the others resented him for it. So he only talked soccer in the locker room. He only talked music in the band room, with the other music geeks. And so on, he learned to survive by compartmentalizing. By helping his single serving friends forget that there was more. They didn’t want to know. So be it.
He had good friends, friends who knew more about him than the rest, who respected him. Whom he respected. They spent long hours at the beach, building large bonfires, bonding and talking into the night. Getting into trouble. Getting out of trouble. Frontier justice.
Being smart had its perks. His friends got help from him on homework, and he got to fraternize with the older students. Especially the girls.
Next fall, Stéphane walked through the door to French class moments before the bell rang. Fashionably late is fashionably safe. Plus, you don’t have to choose where to sit. Everyone else has already done that for you. He didn’t like having to make such choices.
He scanned the room. His eyes fell on Hélène. She was wearing the same outfit he had fantasized about all summer. And the seat next to her was empty. He would be sitting next to her all year. Working with her. On French lessons.
He approached the desk. Hey, he said. How are you doing? Hélène looked at him, forced a smile that veered slightly into the territory of a sneer, and looked away again. He sat down and sighed, disappointed. One day at a time.
He was so focused on Hélène that he didn’t notice Nicole noticing him as he walked through the door. He was too smart for Hélène. But he wasn’t too smart for Nicole. He was too short for Hélène, but not for Nicole — she thought he was cute. And she liked soccer. She was athletic, too, but didn’t play sports formally. She liked him. It was her senior year, and she walked through the hallways, mostly ignored. She was a drama nerd. She wore ornate makeup, spoke articulately, dressed with smart dignity, sat with good posture, studied hard, and, of recent, dreamed of Stéphane.
He had interviewed her for an article in the newspaper. He was nice. He was articulate. As an aspiring actress and playwright, she appreciated his way with words. And he seemed…different. She liked that, too. She knew how it felt. And she felt something for him. A connection, all the more frustrating that he seemed pre-occupied with Airhead Hélène up front. Airhead Hélène, who clearly didn’t want to give him the time of day. His relationship with Hélène was like a stopped clock. Yet he kept coming back for more. Like a little lost puppy dog.
Just then, Robby sat down beside her. Stéphane’s age, easily as smart, but not quite as appealing, unfortunately. He liked video games more than music and sports. She sighed…one more year. One day at a time.
He’s more than puppy dog, though. At once satisfied and a little upset with her analysis, Nicole’s attention turned toward the front as Madame started class. Madame, for her part, noticed her error of judgment immediately, and made a quick change in her seating chart for next class.
Bienvenue, class! Comment s’est passée votre vacances? Nicole? The class turned to Nicole. Her answer flowed effortlessly. Back and forth, with Madame. Question, response. They were having an actual conversation, in French. The rectums of half the class snapped shut with alternating intimidation or jealousy. Madame, playing the role of matchmaker, turned her attention toward Stéphane next.
Et vous, Stéphane? Qu’est-ce que s’est passée en ta vacance? Nicole looked at Stéphane. She was waiting for his response. He felt challenged. He liked that. J’ai voyagé en Belgique, Madame. That got everyone’s attention, Madame included. Vraiment?
Oui, j’avais visité mon ami. C’etais chouette. J’ai vu le pays.
Que fait-il, ton ami?
Il étudie a l’université. And so on, through a short conversation. Stéphane’s French wasn’t bad before, and the trip clearly had helped his conversation. The entire French class now hated both Stéphane and Nicole, together. Madame turned to the remaining students and had simpler, slower conversations with them. She was always patient, warm and helpful, which calmed their nerves and relieved their fear of being held to the same standard. Meanwhile, Stéphane glanced back at Nicole, who was still looking at him. Challenge accepted.
She hated crying. It made her feel like such a baby. She blotted her eyes in the mirror and examined the bruising. Mostly just shaken up, good. One cheek a little red. She wouldn’t have to go home, at least.
Intent on concocting a suitable disguise for all her injuries (physical and otherwise), the tears stopped. Her self-pity disappeared in these brief moments of self-care, and she was no longer a victim. This was a technical problem, now. More importantly, it was a technical problem with which she had considerable experience and expertise.
It’s mostly what you think about yourself, she thought. The redness and swelling look and feel more obvious to you than anyone else.
Satisfied with her conclusion, she carefully reapplied her makeup and redid her ponytail. See what happens when you cry? she said rhetorically. It messes up your face. He didn’t mess up her face. She did, by her reaction. She has control over that.
She looked herself over once more to make sure she looked presentable before she rejoined her girls. She couldn’t risk the gossip.
Stéphane walked by as she closed the locker door. Their eyes met, and he raised his brows in recognition and quietly mouthed a, “hey.” She forced a smile at him — he was nice enough but she wasn’t in the mood. It didn’t feel convincing, and for a moment she felt bad about that. At least he wasn’t an aggressive asshole. Like other guys…like another guy. She realized she didn’t even know Stéphane’s name outside of french class. No duh, she thought. It’s not like he’s a friend.
Friends. She put on her game face, and practiced what she would say in her head, and how she would say it, and how she would move. Her body, facial muscles. Everything needed to be convincing. Unlike that smile she kept giving…Stéphane. Why? She thought. Maybe I should learn his real name. That might be nice, for both of us.
No time for that, now. The group was up ahead. One of them saw her and waved her over excitedly. Eager to put her thoughts behind her and go on autopilot for a while, her step quickened into a hop, and she smiled. Convincingly. She became Hélène again.
They locked eyes as he passed, and he mouthed his subtle “hey” to her, mostly with raised eyebrows and a half-nod in recognition.
You know, she’s a better actor than you think, Nicole said. She dangled her question out in front of him like bait on a hook. She had been watching the entire thing. She knew acting when she saw it. More importantly, she knew good acting when she saw it, and all the prep work that goes into the process. Her ability to put food in her mouth and a roof over her head would depend upon it in a few years’ time. Her heart was pounding. She didn’t get this nervous on stage. Just be yourself, she thought.
What? He stopped in his tracks and turned around. He wasn’t prepared for a conversation. In english. About that. About her. What are you saying?
She walked a tight-rope line, wanting to give him an honest response without any unnecessary offense. Honesty can be gentle. Courage can be sexy. You care about her, don’t you? she asked.
He looked at his friend. I’ll catch up, he said. The friend raised his head and brows in the half-nod that said, “ok, man, see you later.” Snubbed, walked off. Bro code. Professional courtesy. Whatever the fuck they called it, she thought.
You look amused, he said, catching her off guard. He thought she was checking his friend out. I could set you two up, he offered. He’s a good guy, and single.
Ok, now this was slightly offensive. Patronizing. She let the edge slide off her voice before her voice slid out across her tongue and lips. No, I wasn’t…I just think it’s kinda funny, she said.
What’s funny? he asked suspiciously.
Oh, the looks you two give each-other. They both appreciated the ambiguous relevance of that statement (You two. Which two?).
So, you’re watching us? he said, trying to squeeze some sort of admission out of her.
Don’t flatter yourself. There’s a lot of drama in the halls, she said. Just because you’re a part of it doesn’t mean you’re special.
Special? To whom? he asked, letting the edge flow freely from his own voice.
Ok, that caught her off guard a little bit. Even the “whom.” Passive object. He might have done that on purpose, but she gave him the opening. Admitting her mistake to herself, she recovered. I don’t know…to whom do you want to be special?
He started feeling a little defensive. He could respond to her question with another question and they could undercut one-another all day long. Ok, Nicole, what’s the point you’re getting at? Her name rang in her head like a bell.
His impatience began to subvert his own nervousness as he wondered why he left John wandering the halls alone for the precious few moments between class they had to hang out.
Do you even know what’s going on with her? she asked, letting her own edge flow freely enough to strongly imply a “you jerk” at the end of her question.
He appreciated her seriousness. He could work with that. No, I don’t think so… he said.
She appreciated his honesty. She could work with that. I can tell you what I know, if you’re interested…
He paused for a moment. Sure, he said. What did you have in mind? He was interested — hook, line and sinker. Reel him in.
We’ve got class.
Sort of, he interjected. She was interested in all that implied. More time for that, later.
Ok, I’m going to class. Are you busy after school today?
Yeah, practice almost every day this week, then music lessons. Busy, being both teacher and student. How about Wednesday?
Can’t, dress rehearsal. Weekend? Sometimes reeling in the catch isn’t as simple as it seems.
I’m free this Sunday, all day. Breakfast? He was dangling his own line of sorts in front of her. She understood, and agreed. Wednesday evening. Sunday breakfast. Religion. Not just any religion — suburban Christianity. Most importantly, the lack thereof. Most of the good students had some sort of evangelical fervor, their driving force to excel. Most of the non-religious students didn’t much care about the system or their place in it. They overcorrected — their rejection of the system and its dogmatic adherents was too complete, too dogmatic in itself. Not that the compulsory system was perfect. By definition, it doesn’t have to be, so it won’t be. But still, there are plenty of opportunities, if you look for them. No atheists in foxholes or on the honor roll. Right…Wrong. No permanent allies, no permanent enemies. Saul Alinsky would have much to teach him, years later. And just as much to affirm.
Sure, that works for me, she said. She uncapped a pen, grabbed his hand, and wrote her number. She looked up as she finished. I need to get to class, she said. Call me so we can figure out the details.
They continued on their separate ways, for now, to class. Sort of. Their thoughts were too crossed, too entangled to do their physical separation much justice.
He liked his space and privacy. He despised people who trespassed. In 8th grade, someone had given Tiffany his home phone. She called him. He gave her a terse dismissal. In gym class dodgeball, she tossed him more ammunition than even she intended. Once, she even did it from the opposite team, out of habit. It embarrassed everyone. They blamed him. Why was it his fault? He hated pandering. He couldn’t stand it in others, because he hadn’t overcome it in himself.
In grade school, Gavin knocked on his door asking if he wanted to hang out. He told the intruder he was busy, and Gavin walked away, dejected. Another Nicole had shown up on his doorstep a summer ago, driven by her older sister. They had never met, although the younger sister insisted otherwise. The older sister seemed just as confused as him, but accommodated nonetheless. An awkward encounter, he felt some sort of obligation to let it run its course, though with a clear sense of discomfort. Violation leads to rejection. And now, this New Nicole had no idea how thin the line was that she had just walked. The narrow precision of her approach prevented her from feeling a similar fate. He would call her. Willingly.
Well, it was worth a shot, at any rate, she thought as she walked to class. Can’t say I didn’t try. She felt good about that.
She put down the phone, her eyes intently focused on a distant thought. Brunch it is. Something about follow-up phone calls that always heightens the nervousness. No matter…just another opportunity to practice. Phone interviews. Performance under pressure.
He put down the phone. Why was he so nervous? It’s not like this is a date. Wait, is this supposed to be a date?
He looked at her over his cup of hot chocolate, not knowing what to think. She thought it was endearing — most of the guys she met tried to act more mature by ordering coffee. He downed that belgian waffle pretty fast, too. He clearly has an unabashed sweet tooth. Not trying to hide inner latent immaturity. At least, not through food.
He leaned back in his chair, dangerously close to the tipping point. All these years, and he still hasn’t learned his lesson. So why is it that you’re telling me all this? he asked. Definitely not a date, he thought. Their conversation started out congenial. A neutral meeting on neutral ground. Wait to be seated. Are you ready to order? All very conventional. Not the focus of their meeting. When the food went in, more interesting things started to come out.
Do you care about her? she asked.
I don’t know… he was at a loss for words at this point. Talk about complicated. No wonder why so many other teenagers didn’t get anything accomplished. How could anyone get anything accomplished while wandering aimlessly in a maze made up of emotional angst, existential crisis and relational distress?
She leaned forward and said, Let me make this a bit easier for you. How much time do you spend thinking about her? A question she had already asked herself and grappled with, although bringing it up again still hurt a little. She didn’t know whether she wanted him to notice her wincing internally, which means she probably didn’t do much to cover it up.
He really was desperate and lost, though, and didn’t notice anymore than he took her prodding defensively as a patronizing threat. A lot, I guess, he said. I think about her a lot. So I guess I think I care about her. At least, I want to care about her. Who I think she is…underneath that facade.
Yeah, she thought. That pretty, pretty facade. Shove it, Nicole, stay focused. No time for sarcastic self-pity. Do you know who she really is? she asked him.
Ok, she was a little disappointed by that response, and threw it back at him. Why should I know? I see basically the same things you see. Lots of defenses.
We all have defenses.
What are yours? they asked each-other, together. In unison. The conversation had started to feel like a tennis match. The convergence of their thought threw off the rhythm of the game and left them stranded at the net, exhausted, face to face and unsure of what came next. The image shook them both.
I need some time to think about this, he said with slightly widened eyes.
Ok, she said. Check, please. Thank you. Discussion about a reasonable tip. See you in class? Yeah…
Back home, back in their respective rooms, tumbling onto the bed. Apart, but in unison, still. What a day, they thought, energetic and indefatiguable teenage minds swirling with new information, new avenues of exploration. Connected to indefatiguable teenage bodies, with indefatiguable teenage needs. Hungry again. More food. They reluctantly got out of bed and headed toward the kitchen in search of their quarry.
Tuesday in class, Stéphane showed up a little late, as usual. It was his compromise for high academic performance, to make him more accessible to his peers. As if he were saying, See? I’m not an uptight know-it-all douchebag.
I hope he doesn’t think this makes him easier to get along with, she thought. It just makes him seem like more of a know-it-all. Worse, one who can approach the issue of learning so casually as to make it seem effortless. Does he even know how much he rubs everyone’s faces in the mud?
En retard, Stéphane. Madame was none-too-pleased.
Desolé, Madame. He headed for his seat.
Stéphane? He stopped. Oui, Madame?
Votre place en classe a changé. She used the formal conjugation…his original apology was informal…casual…he was in trouble.
Ou est-ce que vous me voulez m’asseoir, Madame? he said, overcorrecting for his previous mistake. Madame appreciated it, though — he even remembered both objective pronouns.
Asseyez-vous à côté de Nicole, s’il vous plait. Madame smiled her sweet smile, enjoying her job at every level for the moment. His heart skipped a beat. He looked back at Nicole. She looked back at him. Hélène looked up at him, similarly surprised. She sighed. Fucking great, she thought. So much for getting his help. By “help” she meant “copying his homework” and maybe some of his tests.
Mais oui, Madame. But of course. His favorite phrase, he pounced habitually on opportunities to speak it. Madame found his consistency amusing, although this particular opportunity gave him little if any consolation considering the circumstances surrounding it. A transition, one of frustration to pure awkwardness.
Stéphane broke eye contact with Nicole and avoided it for the duration of his walk back to their shared workspace. He sat down and slouched into his seat. She shifted uncomfortably and slouched into her seat as she leaned a little away from him. No eye contact. Awkward.
Pleased with herself, Madame began the day’s lesson. First, some conversation. Qu’est-ce que s’est passé pendant le weekend? Oh, what a question. They should have expected it. Why didn’t they anticipate that question?
Stéphane went first. Rather, Madame called on Stéphane first. Rather, she picked on him first. He stumbled through, uncharacteristically terse, and left his encounter with Nicole out of it as a matter of professional courtesy.
Nicole noted the conspicuous absence of their encounter and didn’t know whether to feel thankful or snubbed. Either way, it left her little choice but to return the favor. Professional courtesy.
No one except Madame, Robby and Marcy noticed either Stéphane or Nicole struggle with the question. So unlike them. Instead, the other students felt a sense of relief and accomplishment as their conversational performance seemed exceptionally high that day, not understanding that the standard by which they judged themselves had dropped a few notches.
Marcy chalked it up to the change in the seating arrangement. She usually enjoyed listening to Nicole’s and Stéphane’s conversations with Madame. Hopefully they’ll get back on track, soon. She wondered how she might say that in french. Back on track…hmmm.
Robby didn’t care what caused the stumble in performance. It made him look good. With a little help, maybe it could become a trend. He made a note to rub it in Stéphane’s face later. In french, of course, for extra effect. What’s the matter, Stéphane? he thought. You seem to have lost your words. Can I help you find them? He wondered how he might say all that in french…perdre. aider. trouver.
Stéphane and Nicole avoided eye contact for the duration of the class, even during the partner exercises. Professional courtesy. He passed her a note toward the end of the class, when no one was looking. It glared up at her conspicuously from its place on her desk. She took it and sat up a little in her seat. He watched her open it, slowly.
The handwritten english on the page stood in stark contrast to their immersion in french for the past two hours. “Meet again? This Sunday?”
She folded the note in half, then wrote something in response. She folded the note in half again and slid it back over to Stéphane. It’s Schrödinger’s Cat all over again, he thought, and swallowed a small lump in his throat. He took it and sat up a little in his seat. Nicole watched him open it, slowly, and read it.
The bell rang. Neither Stéphane nor Nicole could bounce out of their respective seats soon enough. Stéphane was able to do so with relative ease, basking in the physical and social simplicity that not having a stubborn, rock-hard erection at the end of class bestowed upon him. Not that he was any less excited. It was just…a different sort of excitement. In the chest, like a pressure, of sorts. Out the doorway, into the hall, and in separate directions to their separate lockers. Not quite the privacy and solace of a bedroom, but it would have to do.
Madame had watched the passing of the note, but didn’t bother to say anything. She doubted that the note posed any threat to their french studies or to her as their teacher, whatever it said. She had a general idea, anyway, and smiled to herself.
Do you like coffee? she asked.
No, not really. I don’t do well on caffeine, he said.
Chocolate has caffeine, she suggested.
Very little. More prominently, it has theobromine, which is much more gentle of a stimulant. Why do you ask?
Oh, just wondering. She decided to let some of her guard down. After all, he called the second meeting, not her. Most guys I hang out with don’t order hot chocolate.
So? Why are you comparing me to “most guys?”
It’s just an observation.
Just an observation, he thought. Bullshit. He had used that line plenty enough himself to know that it’s never “just an observation” when you say it. Ok, he said.
So, what’s this about? she said.
Justin. The word hung in the air between them. The word, referencing the name. The name, referencing the person. The person, referencing the relationships. The relationships, referencing the threats.
What about him? she said, half-rhetorically. I told you everything I know.
I know, I don’t doubt it.
It was her turn to speak, but she let her continued silence speak on her behalf.
He took the cue. I think we’ve gotta do something, he said.
About what? It is what it is. If she wanted to leave him, she’d leave him.
You don’t think it’s wrong that he —
Of course it’s wrong, she cut him off. Do you think you can treat her better than he does?
This time, he let his silence do the talking for him.
She apologized, sort of. Listen, what’s your motivation, here? Do you think you’re going to swoop in, save the day and live happily ever after with the girl of your fantasies?
No, it’s not that simple. I —
It’s never that simple. But that is your intent? Do you deserve her more than he does? The situation isn’t fair. I get that.
More silence. Finaly, he spoke. Fair for whom? he said cheekily, hoping the self-deprecation would break some of the tension. For all the distress he caused others, he didn’t like lingering social tension. He would later learn of the importance of liminal consciousness from the anthropologist ER Sorensen, via Christian de Quincey and his pioneering work on radical ontologies, epistemologies and methodologies. For now, it was just a feeling. Like his general disregard for authority.
Exactly, she said, a bit calmer. She could work with this, and repeated his words: Fair, for whom?
Their food came, and none too soon. They inhaled the sweet serendipitous smell of its perfect timing before breathing out a shared sigh of relief from the strain of conversation. She had ordered the same thing as last time — a veggie omelette. Wait, was she a vegetarian? He didn’t even know that. I wonder if the sausage on my plate offends her, he thought. He had ordered something different. Too many possibilities. Assuming relatively consistent quality standards, ordering the same thing every time would result in missed opportunity to try something new.
She looked at his plate. Something different, sort of. French toast. Another sweet breakfast. He really likes the carbs. She wondered how much variation really exists in his diet. Waffles for breakfast, french toast for lunch. A snack of crouton salad with a side of kvass before a bread pudding supper. Maybe he’d switch it up on occasion with a PB&J.
He glanced at her while she ate and wondered what she was thinking. She looked up from her meal and caught his gaze. He looked down again, but not too quickly, and took another bite. He just didn’t want it to seem like he was staring. He looked up again. She was still looking at him.
I need some time to think about this, she said, letting her tongue, lips and body dance in the playful intent of the phrase.
He nodded. Mais, oui, madamoiselle, he said, trying not to feel too narcissistic about all the self-references.
Robby was disappointed to learn that Stéphane’s momentary lapse in french performance was, in fact, momentary, and not the beginning of a glorious trend signifying Robby’s rise to power as the dominant male french student. All the more disappointing in that he had completely worked out and memorized the insult he had planned to deliver in french. He never got the opportunity to use it. How frustrating. He told Stéphane so at lunch. It’s a good thing they were friends. It made venting a little easier, n’importe quelle langue.
Stéphane chuckled a little, still lost in thought and a bit despondent. Yeah, well, tell me about it, he said. Very little has been going as expected in my life as of late. Not really true — he was still playing varsity soccer, still teaching and playing and composing music, still excelling academically. But he wasn’t thinking about these things — they did not seem to be dominant points on the topographic map of his mind.
Oh, I’m sorry, Robby said, mustering all the false pity he could find. Has the daily reality you experience become slightly less than perfect as of late?
Yeah, ok, I get it. He pushed Robby away playfully. He missed John. They took completely separate class loads, and lunch gave them their only time to hang out and catch up, ignoring the hectic minutes in the hallways between classes and hookie during school assemblies. He even missed the times when they didn’t think they had anything to talk about and simply ate their lunches in silence. Now they didn’t even have lunch together.
He looked up with perfect timing and caught Nicole walking by. Robby was too busy talking with Nathan and Paul to notice. Nicole made eye contact and a quick, very subtle movement of her head. Follow. We need to talk. Nathan noticed, but didn’t know what to make of it and filed it away for later.
She’d have been proud — he didn’t break character, even though his despondency had melted away the moment she made her subtle gesture. Precious lunchtime minutes slipping by since she passed. If he got up, then the rest would follow, and he’d be stuck with them, attached to his body like benign tumors, wandering the halls together and wasting time discussing and analyzing various episodes of The Simpsons and Family Guy in a boring state of neverending entertainment media-induced purgatory. The only fate worse than that, according to lunchtime lore, was the fate of eating alone. The last person of the last lunchtime pair with no particular place to be will often cling to that companionship with the cold, icy grip of death itself.
Fortunately for guys, there are few cases where going to the bathroom is a group activity, no matter how awkard it makes things for those left behind. He excused himself from the group appropriately and went looking for her.
She was in the theatre room. Obvious guess, and a good choice. Dark, and lots of places to talk undisturbed without risk of being shushed by an overbearing librarian or discovered by wayfaring friends.
Do you know what I had to do to get away from those guys? he said.
Number one or number two? she looked at him and smiled. He laughed and sat down next to her.
Convince me. Tell me why we should do something, she said firmly. Yes, this was it — the moment he was waiting for.
Because we know something is wrong, and no one else is doing anything.
Ok, that’s a good reason for someone to do something. Why you? Why me? Why us? Us. That word lingered in his mind, for some reason. Who is Us?
He pulled back to his second line of defense. Because if everyone who knows about it acts and thinks the same as we do, then no one will do anything. Everyone will do nothing, and things will continue as they are.
That’s a good reason for one of us to act, but —
He caught the pattern and cut to the chase. Because whatever we end up doing, if we do it together, it’s likely to turn out better than if one of us does it alone, he said. Planning and execution.
She stopped her line of interrogation. That’s an interesting choice of words, she said.
Listen, this scares the crap out of me. The dude is huge, he’s like twice my size.
What are you thinking about doing?
I don’t know…something…effective.
Ok, that’s a good start. Something effective. How good are you with a slingshot, Davy?
Listen, I’m trying to be serious right now.
Me, too. So you want to bring down Goliath?
Do you? he asked.
Not particularly something she could add to her resume, was her first thought — a thought too embarrassing to admit out loud. She didn’t want him to know how much time she spent thinking about her resume. Job skills. Project planning and execution. Direction, even. Sparse scripting and lots of ad libbing. Sure, she said. I think we can make it work, depending on what we mean by “bring down.”
I agree, he said. So…what now? Do we shake on it or something? That question insulted her a little. She let it slide.
I think it’s good that people don’t see us together at school, she said…I mean, if we’re going to do something about the situation. We need to remain inconspicuous, like we aren’t spending a large part of our lives planning something.
He felt a little disappointed by that, but understood. He nodded, chewing over his conflicting feelings on the matter. Makes sense, he said.
Bien! she said. Alors, a tout a l’heure, ce weekend?
Yeah, sounds good. He got up, and offered his hand out to her. Ok, see you later, he said as she rose to her feet on her own accord. He turned and walked away. She watched.
Hey, she said.
He turned around. Yeah?
This is good, she smiled. It’s going to be good. Her heart pounded in her chest and her mind burned with ideas. She wanted to kiss him.
Yeah. He walked away with a pounding heart and mind afire with ideas. He felt close to her, almost as if he wanted to kiss her or hug her, but didn’t think it was appropriate. Or perhaps he was just too afraid.
He couldn’t define it at that point, but years later he would recognize that the pounding in his chest and the burning in his head screamed to him of love. His current definition of love was too narrow as of yet to be of any use to him as he sorted through the whirlpool of emotions sweeping through and saturating his person. So he focused on behavior, instead.
It took two weeks of plans and strategies to get to this point. What a whirlwind, he thought, looking up from the document at her.
They fought bitterly over whether Hélène should know anything, whether she could know anything. Would it help or hurt the rest of the plans? Would it help or hurt her? Them?
She made the more practical argument. As long as she stays with him, she remains a potential liability. Tell her and jeopardize her safety, our safety, and the integrity of the plans. She simply must not participate. Nicole was emphatic about that.
She deserves to know, he countered. Nobody deserves to be kept in the dark.
Fine, tell her, she said. And that’s all that will happen…big talk from a small guy that she’ll either report as a threat or shrug off and dismiss. She’ll hate you or dismiss you. And then nothing will happen.
She could help, he said. Lure him —
What is this, Mission Impossible? She let the sarcastic barb hang in the air between them for a second before continuing. It makes things unnecessarily complicated. She’s an outsider. She was not a part of this process. She has done nothing but choose to stay with him and get by.
You don’t know that, he snapped, slight edge in his voice.
She hates overstepping. No, she hates the moment after she realizes she just overstepped. So uncomfortable. Get it over with, she thought. Ok, fair, she conceded. The silence pounded the air between them. They had grown accustomed to sessions of frantic brainstorm and thorough discussion. Two enthusiastic and agile analytical young minds set toward an interesting task. Problem solving. Identifying parameters, liabilities, threats, contingencies, and adjust plans accordingly.
She broke the silence first. If you think she’s already done something effective, then why are we still here having this conversation?
He didn’t have an answer to that question, other than the one implicit in the question itself. He didn’t want to have an answer. Too complicated. Things were already getting too complicated.
Alright, he said.
Excuse me? she asked.
Alright, he repeated.
Alright, what? She insisted that he explain himself in no uncertain terms. Assessing her motives, she found them based on part ethical business and part entertainment value. Any doubt, any space for uncertainty between them spelled danger. They had discussed that. Mostly, she just wanted him to admit it out loud.
He sighed. It makes sense. We go forward without her.
What makes sense? she probed, cracks starting to appear in the edifice of her stoic interrogation. He caught on, made an indignant sound at her and gently pushed her away. She was smiling.
She hadn’t been this happy in years. Always so focused on her art. Her studies. Her profession…her future. Getting away. From here. And just as she began to reach escape velocity, something pulled at her, slowed her down and made her question her trajectory. I’m doing this for Hélène, not myself, she thought. A lie on both accounts.
He saw the transition on her face as her smile faded. The moment came and went so fast he wondered more about whether it had actually happened than why it had happened.
She got upright again. We’ve got work to do.
Research. Surveillance. Supplies.
Right. Let’s get on it.
Justin woke up with a start, head throbbing, confused. What the fuck. Cold. It took him a moment to realize he was in a bathroom stall. Another moment to realize he was completely naked.
What the fuck? he said aloud. The door to the bathroom opened. Girls. In the bathroom. They chatted. One of them went into the stall adjacent to him. He could hear the sound of her peeing.
They were talking about makeup, boys, classes. He noticed writing on the stall door in front of him. Fresh…made with a big fat indelible marker. In the girls’ bathroom. His vision was too blurry. His head hurt.
One of the girls interrupted their previous conversation, “What the hell is all this?” He refocused on the activity outside his stall. His head throbbed with every small movement.
“I don’t know. Looks crazy to me.” The speaker talked to the girl in the stall next to him. “Sarah, did you see this?”
“Guys, I had to pee!” the voice next to him responded. Toilet paper. Wipe. Flush. Pants back up. Door open, “See wha — oh, wow. There’s a lot of it!” She giggled.
“Yeah,” another one said teasingly. “You really did have to go!”
A perfect bathroom visit. Their trip to the rest room ended with more gossip than they had entered with. They left, excited. Something to talk about. That wasn’t school.
What time is it? he thought. His head throbbed. Several moments of silence passed. He tentatively opened the stall door and immediately shut it again as the bathroom doors burst open to welcome another small group of spectators. They went through the same reaction the first group of girls went through. Do you see this? Confirmation. What’s it about? Dunno. Weird. Giggling. Let’s go tell the others.
His eyes finally focused back on the writing on the stall door in front of him. Leave her alone, Justin, it said. If you don’t stop now, this is only the beginning, it said. Here is your out, it said. The “out” was a phone number, written in lipstick. Everything else was indelible.
Cold panic gripped his body. He shivered. His head throbbed. He grabbed it hard and tight and fought back tears. Don’t be a pussy, he thought. You’ve been through worse. Haven’t you? He didn’t know. He wanted to scream at the top of his lungs, but was too afraid to do so, trapped in a space infinitely smaller than the stall around him, inside his head. The panic seized him tighter. His heart pounded. His skin pumped out cold sweat.
He peaked out…more writing on the mirror. All over it. In bright lipstick. People would talk.
That day, the bathroom became a theme park for the student body. He stood on the toilet, cramped and shivering. Hiding. Trapped.
He would never know who it was, and even if he got a look, he wouldn’t remember. Too many intervening circumstances. Check. Into the girls’ bathroom. Check. Naked. Check. Before school. Check. He’d be trapped there all day. Maybe longer. Having to look in the mirror of accusations scribbled all over the stall. Explain them away to others. Check.
They had no compunction about the nature of the activity. No prints. No evidence left behind. Matching lipstick? Never. Like two ghosts floating by, they disappeared back into the mundacity of student life. They forgot what they knew so that they could play the part their peers would ask them to play. Like actors planted in the audience.
His body ached and shivered as it grew cold and numb in the cramped confines of the stall. As the hours passed by, more people came in to see the mysterious graffiti. More guys, too. In the girls bathroom. He recognized some of the voices. Laughing at the situation. At him. He felt betrayed. Friends? Fuckers. He put his head down on his chin. And noticed a ballpoint pen on the floor, next to the toilet. With a little piece of paper wrapped around it.
He reached down to pick up the pen. The muscles and joints in his back and shoulders and neck ached. The throbbing in his head was starting to subside, thankfully. After so many hours…hours? Minutes? He lost track of time. No windows in the bathroom, no clock. Just the sounds of people coming and going.
The piece of paper was a note, taped to the pen. He opend it up. “You might want to write down that phone number,” it said. Printer paper. No handwriting. So cold. He looked up at the phone number on the stall door and shivered. At least he was thinking clearly.
School closes, he thought. Everyone goes home. It gets dark. I’ll just wait and sneak out then. Easier said than done. Observing the world’s reactions to the mysterious writing on the bathroom mirror outside his stall made time slow to a crawl. He wrote the number down on his hand, threw the piece of paper in the toilet and rubbed out the lipstick with his fist.
Eventually, a teacher wandered in. Some of them used the student bathrooms, out of desperation or out of an attempt to relate with their students. “Oooh,” she stopped mid-stride, in front of the stall, making disapproving clicking sounds with her tongue. She continued on to the stall next to him, emptied her bladder, washed her hands in the sink, and left.
A little bit later, a janitor arrived with cleaning materials to ensure that no one else would ever read what was written on the wall. Except for the photos posted to Facebook.
The janitor noticed the stall door shut. Hey, he said, is there someone in there? I need everyone out of the bathroom, I’m going to be cleaning. Hello? Hello?
He didn’t know what to do. His heart pounded. A random thought entered his head. What day is today? How long had he been out? Did he have practice after school? Fuck it, he didn’t care.
The janitor left and returned a short time later with the assistant principle. Yeah, the middle stall, the janitor said as they entered.
She approached the stall and tapped on the door lightly with her knuckles. You okay in there? God, he thought, swallowing the lump in his throat.
Hey, who is it in there? I need to know your name. He couldn’t bring himself to do it, though, still holding out hope for his earlier plan to escape unnoticed after dark. Still trapped in that small place, as it shrunk into ever-smaller proportions.
Listen, she said. You don’t sound good. I’m going to open the stall to check on you, OK? She stepped back. His entire body went cold and numb and his heart jumped in his chest.
The janitor opened the latch from the outside, and stepped back as the door crept open on its own volition.
They both glanced inside. Oh. Hmmm, the assistant principle said, more perplexed than surprised.
He got home, hid in his room and cried. Why was he crying? Fucking pussy, stop crying, he told himself. He was scared. No, not scared. He doesn’t get scared. Anger. Angery. Fuckers. He hit his wall. Put holes in it. He opened his fist and looked at the number from the stall on his bloody, throbbing hand. The characters were starting to bleed and blur. They would be unreadable soon.
The wheels in his mind spun faster. He couldn’t remember anything from slightly before the attack. Who the fuck. Someone who knows. That bitch, who is she spouting off to? He could find out. He would find out. He has enough money, he can make them pay. He’ll be back on top again, soon. In every way that counts. Time to call their bluff. Fuckers. They don’t control me. He spat on his hand and rubbed the phone number into oblivion.
A quiet knock. His mom at the door, Honey, Hélène is here to see you. She pushed open the door slowly and stepped back.
Hélène walked cautiously through the door, into his room. It’s a place she’d been in more than a few times. Familiar, though not comfortable. Hey, she said.
Hey, Hélène. His mom shut the door and walked away. She didn’t want to know. She couldn’t stand to know. Not again…she walked down the hall, holding back tears. Downstairs. Just keep walking. It’s not going to stop, she thought. Clear your head. Focus. Her husband would be home soon, the house is a mess and dinner still isn’t ready. Unacceptable.
How are you holding up? Hélène asked, and moved toward his side to hug him. He slipped out of her grasp, grabbed her throat with one hand and pressed her against his bed in one smooth motion. Her eyes were wide with fear, and her face began to turn red as his tightening grip cut off the flow of blood returning from her head to her heart.
I’m fine, you little bitch, he spat quietly in her ear. What do you mean, “holding up?” What the fuck do you know? Did you come here to insult me? Huh? He slammed her into the bed with each question, like a chiropractor making an adjustment on a patient. Smooth, quiet, precise. He wasn’t expecting a response yet, anyway.
His grip around her neck tightened for a moment, to emphasize his next questions. She had stopped struggling months ago. He was too big, too strong. Who the fuck are you talking to? His grip loosened enough for her to respond. She had to walk a narrow tightrope between defiance and ignorance. He would punish anything that seemed defiant, and he wouldn’t believe ignorance for a second, even if it was true. This is no time to panic, she thought. Stay calm. Tell him the truth he needs to hear.
I never say anything, she wheezed quietly underneath the crushing pressure of his grip.
The right answer. Lucky guess, he thought. And you never will, he said. Right?
She nodded. He gave her throat one more good squeeze, for emphasis, and let her go. She rolled over and coughed and gagged as he looked down at her with stoic contempt.
Try not to get spit on my bed, he nagged. She rolled onto her side, catching her breath. Annoyed and impatient, he pulled her off the bed and onto the floor. He sat on the bed and looked down at her, sitting crumpled on the floor in front of him, and a sense of peace washed over him. Back on track.
He stood up and dragged her to her feet with him, taking her into an all-encompassing embrace, his chin to her head, her cheek to his chest. I love you, he said, as he gave her a firm but gentle squeeze in his embrace. For emphasis. He’d seen it work for his mom. Why would it be any different for her?
Things returned to normal pretty quickly for the school. Within a few weeks, the mysterious bathroom graffiti was a minor fading mystery in the back of most students’ minds, minus three. Stéphane had taken to carrying his binder in his near-empty bookbag. Madame made note of the change, as his bookbag was usually full, if and when he had it.
The bell rang, and the students rushed the door to the hallway. Stéphane, Nicole, attendez-vous s’il vous-plait, Madame said over the din of exodus. As if she were asking. She wasn’t. They stopped in their tracks, waiting for the rest of the students to leave. With the class clear, she continued. Do either of you know what happened with Hélène? In English. I haven’t seen or heard from her.
Nicole and Stéphane tried not to look at each-other as cold chills ran down their spines. Why was she asking them? Why now? What did she think happened?
Desolé, Madame, he said calmly with a playful glint in his eye. He was turning the tables on her, using one of her favorite teaching techniques. Charming. Je ne la comprends pas, cette question en anglais. Peut-etre pourriez-vous poser la question en francais?
It gave Nicole an excuse to look at him, trying to hide her astonishment. He’s a better actor than I gave him credit for, she thought.
Merci, Stéphane, Madame said tactfully. It was flattering to her as a passionate and dedicated teacher, and confusing enough that it took her a moment to find her bearings again. She continued with a more frank tone in her voice, I haven’t heard from her and just want to know if either of you knew anything about why she hasn’t been in class. I know you aren’t friends, but you’re the closest to her of anyone else in this class, I think.
I haven’t heard anything from her, Nicole said. In English, out of respect for the gravity Madame brought to the conversation. I hope she’s ok.
It was the honest truth. Not the whole truth, but a complete, honest response to Madame’s question, so-framed. After they left, Madame took some time to appreciate that neither Stéphane nor Nicole had mentioned legal professions in their career aspirations. Their talents will be better-utilized elsewhere. It was a comforting thought, at least.
That night, Hélène picked up a phone and dialed a number she had never called before. She found it on a card duct-taped onto her bookbag, the day after…everything else had happened. A person picked up on the other end and identified themselves. Hello, she said into the receiver as she tried to keep it together. I think I need some help. And she sobbed.