You pick up a magenta lipstick and raise it to your mouth. There's that usual tension in your muscles as you pucker: for some reason, it dawns to you that this patch of face paint just won't draw any benefit for tonight. It's not like he'll kiss you anyway.
So you throw earphones around your neck instead. Dirty white, quite short and taped at some places: a perfect description of how you perceive yourself to be. ‘Music is our common interest, right?’ you silently ask the brown-haired girl in the mirror.
‘Of course!’ she replies in your fantasy.
Sighing, you grab a pair of dark jeans and behold the fashion line of useless clothing inside your wardrobe. Half of it is dominated by white cotton blouses and purple checkered skirts, while the other half presents the few shirts and shorts that you only allow yourself to wear on special occasions.
And since you chose those jeans tonight, there must’ve been no special occasion, right?
Wrong. Because tonight is your school’s annual musicfest, and you’re going to spend the entire after-hours with your best male friend.
A tiny smile plays about your lips. He didn’t know you’d saved up for the fifty-dollar ticket just to see him at the show. He thought you were holed up at your house again, indulging yourself in mushy romance fluff that no girl would ever dare venture into. Since you were known to be that withdrawn wallflower who couldn’t stand crowds, he’d never expect you at such a place. Perfect time to give him a surprise.
You decide on a dark blue cropped top with the words DON’T HATE, DON’T RAPE printed with silver sequins. Shining in the streetlight, it was the universal warning against nighttime female stalkers. If only your mom had told you that her last flight was delayed somewhere in the Pacific, she could have sent enough allowance to let you ride a taxi…just for tonight. Alas, you’re stuck on squeezing expenses into last month’s leftovers.
But regardless of that, you were still able to scrape a few bucks off your previous budgets.
So you walk. You ignore the quiet stillness of your small-town neighborhood and step in beat to a fast-paced, melodic groove. The melancholy of the past week vanishes from your heart, replaced by the scent of anticipation that sparkles ahead of you like a path to the heavens. You skip along this path, humming along to the vocals of the song. The grayness of the night, the orange-y hues of the streetlights; they all seem to constitute your short-lived happiness for time being.
After two and a quarter songs, you reach your school’s gated compound. You flash your ID at the new security guards hired just for the event. They open the gymnasium’s main door by just a crack―large enough for you to slip through.
For a moment you just stand there and take in everything.
Your school had always been one of the top-performing private educational institutions in the state. Coming from a nondescript, average matriarchal family of the lower working class, this privilege had always been one of your greatest motivations to excel whenever possible. So every time the school hosts a statewide event that draws visitors from around the country―well, their preparations always took your breath away.
The musicfest had been part of month-long, end-of-school-year festival displaying the students’ best works and competing them against other state schools. It had been the culture to have the students of Preville East High manage the competitions; the teachers only gave the money, the discipline, and the signatories.
Your batch of juniors is scheduled to hold the acadfest in the following week. The previous ones had been the dramafest for the sophomores and sportsfest for the freshmen.
For now, you begin Stage 1: Initial Enjoyment.
You wander around the booths presenting various wares, ranging from headphones to laptop speakers to full-fledged sound systems, all at bargain prices. Navigating through late-night crowds, you haggle with some vendors while looking for your favorite musician’s latest album. You see some of your classmates being their usual unproductive-but-still-extremely-talented selves at the arcade center. Some backseat gamers wave at you (being the Mary Sues that they are); you wave back and leave before anyone can make another gesture. You also pass by some instruments for sale: drum sets, guitars, violins and oboes. All throughout your travel, concert lights and bass-dropping EDM flood your senses.
At every stall you stop, you keep a consistent pattern of looking around and over your shoulder, and this often distracts you from soundly asking for product assurances from the stall-owners. In the end, though, you find yourself holding a plastic tumbler of dark chocolate milkshake, watching from the bleachers a visiting student band perform covers on the stage.
You’re taking a bench break only two hours after you entered the place, and your financial resources are already completely depleted.
You inhale a few deep breaths to calm your racing heart. You had expected to see him at one of the classics record stores, but you were either too focused on getting a good bargain, or his presence was just really that invisible. Adding to your inconvenience was the considerable increase in the crowd volume.
At least the luscious ice-cold drink in your hand comforts you and your sanity. So you take another sip.
The female soul singer begins another song, this time a slow, melodramatic rhythm that she harmonizes with one of the guitarists. Your gaze is then drawn toward the bleachers behind the instruments booth, at the groups of local kids who seemed too bored with the school’s every activity.
Your body suddenly tenses up like a cat eyeing its prey. You’ve finally found him. He was playing along with a loose circle of classmates around a spinning glass bottle, letting them put their arms around his shoulders, laughing along inside jokes, surrendering to dares. He seemed to be...enjoying himself a lot.
Suddenly, the musicfest suddenly loses its entire appeal.
You stare at the back of his head. How embarrassing would it be: for you, his unpopular best friend, to suddenly appear out of nowhere, and be able to engage only HIM in conversation?
For the nth time, you regret being contented with introversion.
Someone has landed a dare. He distances himself and performs an exaggeratedly sexy macarena, and the group hollers in glee. Some hoot and thump their fists in the air.
Little by little, your idea of a little surprise for him slowly shatters to bits.
You slowly descend the bleacher stairs. Surely they were considerate enough not to let someone like you feel out of place, weren’t they? Besides, you belonged to the same homeroom with nearly all of them…and your class had never been full of academic snobs.
Only that…they each basically kept to their own friendship clique.
But still! Last week’s sportsfest had united your batch as the Mavericks. You fought bravely for that small-town second place Best Pep Squad, and you were one of those have-nots who had no other choice but to join such squad. Why would they shun you out after what you contributed to the batch pride?
With that in mind, you urge your body to approach them. He wouldn't allow it if anyone cast you out, would he?
You’re almost only thirty feet away from their group.
Then the speakers suddenly blare to announce the start of another band's concert, and they beckon each other until they are all out of sight.
You bite your lip to make the tears stop.
That unwelcome feeling of loneliness rushes back to you all over again. That feeling when the person you can’t live without, can live without you…well, you despised every living second of it.
Something heavy collides with your chest. Whatever what had been there snaps into halves, thirds, quarters, and fifths, until there is nothing left but broken shards of "that ideal night". The fragments drop into an endless abyss. The world shakes; it seems like the vibrations are coming from your wet palms. A heartbeat begins to race from somewhere near. It quickens until is nothing but a thumping, irregular bass, and the wetness in your eyes reaches an ultimatum.
Those two words, addressed to his ghost, tumbles out of your lips in an extremely undignified manner.
You could almost imagine it float through the air like smoke and whisper in his ear. For some reason, the mere mind illusion causes the muscles of your cheek to harden.
You slowly come to realize that your stagnant position in the crowd is becoming even more undignified by the second.
Turning to the straw cord that marked the end of the concessionaires' booths, you plant a foot on the ground and expend the rest of your invested energy into twirling over the line. You had just expected too much from the night. With the plan being a huge flop, you leave the booth area with your heart heavier than ever.
Checking the phone clock, it showed 10:13pm.
You've been here for barely three-and-a-half hours.
Next to the exit door, a short line of dismal-looking food stalls had been crudely erected with tent frames and tarpaulin. A number of short-on-allowance kids are lingering and queuing up, some already holding carton-box containers and plastic cups with straws, huddling in groups that make leaving even more difficult. You throw away the empty tumbler and begin to brave the crowd, occasionally acknowledging familiar faces with a nod or a tiny eyebrow-raise.
Outside, the warmer midnight air causes the air conditioner’s chill to maintain on the tip of your nose. You clutch the paper bag of musicfest goodies to your chest.
Summer had already started appearing throughout the town’s meager population, in the form of twenty-degree freezing classrooms, skimpier shorts and skirts and strappier clothing pieces that do little to conceal the deep and dark valleys underneath. The sight of your intellect-loving, debate-enthusiast classmates in such ensembles makes you want to throw your entire education away, or trade it for a nifty set of headphones and a soundproof recording booth―with you at the mixer, of course.
For now, you quietly endure your scotch-taped earphones as you walk back home. At least they had one of the good kinds of bass amplification.
Some kids has already given up on their “ideal nights” as well. You stride past two youngsters, each sporting eye bags large enough to swallow the earth. The road traffic somehow increased too. Every now and then you glance at the adult stranger faces in the driver’s seat, and compare the depths of their worry lines to the others. For some reason, this petty little game amuses you.
Then you’re struck with that feeling of sadness again. This was a pathetic game, really; though by social standard, it could have been more fun if it was shared with at least someone.
But you have friends. One of them was your batch’s Mary Sue: the elementary salutatorian, the principal’s pet, and everybody’s best friend. Her name is Catherine Imogen and you went to the same kindergarten. You have always been inspired by the strict responsibility measures that she voluntarily imposes upon herself, yet she always complimented your sharp tongue and witty sensibility. Cathy had the brains, you had the words.
The only problem is … you’re both confined to speaking out against your own sins.
That’s when he came along. Running for valedictorian this year is the socially-astute, tech-savvy, fraternal Eric Preminger, which just so happened to be the one you’re falling head-over-heels for.
And for some reason he was goody-goody with Cath, his sole academic competitor. Eric had shared their same enthusiasm for passionate debates and leadership traits, causing him to be often assigned to several ad hoc school projects with her.
To be crushing on the only guy who ever looked at you for reasons beyond groupwork, the only guy who was entertained enough to bother retaliating your impractical societal musings… just how romantically hopeless are you?
It could have been better if there were at least two or three of the possible candidates, just for the sake of option.
But given the type of personality you have, you’re apparently only suited for one particular person.
Cathy has always been the workaholic. She keeps to her status quo by carefully classifying her friendship circles, making sure that every aspect of her life functioned well, if not by some high, self-proclaimed standard. She even constantly brushes off your side observations about her two-faced personality.
Eric, on the other hand, treats the entire school system as a battleground. He would often rant to you the complexities of “extra-curricular work” that the school admin often assigned to Cath and himself: to represent the school in so-and-so competition or seminar, to participate in the Government, moderate this club… the list was long enough to make anyone’s head spin.
Recalling a memory, he once said that he was getting fed up with Cath and her ‘over-obedience’.
Then again, Cath had been forced to pull on late-nighters in preparation for next week’s acadfest. As the previous salutatorian, you guess it couldn’t be helped. That was why she wasn’t able to join you tonight.
But still, Eric is unconvinced.
The loneliness of your quiet strides helps to clear off the musicfest’s ringing bass. You sigh and blink away the spots in your eyes, feeling grateful for at least knowing that there will be friends who will shed true tears at your grave. Other than your mother, of course.
Nevertheless, the sense of anticipation that drove you earlier tugs lightly at the corners of your heart.
The night is still young. You suddenly want to chat with Cath again, procrastinating away while you tell her all about the musicfest. You want to try out the new pirated music-making software you just bought. You want to play that RPG game you began over the holidays, or otherwise learn the national anthem on your guitar. You want to fix up a sound system. You want another cold tumbler of that dark chocolate milkshake, preferably with a little more of the caffeine jolt. You want―
A rough hand suddenly grabs your shoulder. The momentum catches you off-balance; the earbuds pop out of your ears as the new stranger holds it down. You nearly trip over your feet if not for the person grabbing your sleeve.
Surprisingly, you have no trouble in recognizing that gelled spiky hair anywhere.
“Eric! Hi! Since when were you here?”
The hammering in your chest immediately turns into a frenzy of irregular pulses. You wish he wasn’t standing five inches too close to your face; close enough for you to make out the beads of perspiration forming on his nose.
“Did you actually run after me?”
The question suddenly slips from the tip of your tongue. He stares at you intensely, sea-blue irises meeting grass-green orbs.
“Do I look like I just did? I was calling for you before you even rounded the corner! You should really stop wearing those earphones too much; you’re getting even deafer than you already are.”
He was calling for you. The sentence imprints itself onto your somersaulting heart, but you carefully arrange your expression to mirror that of nonchalance.
“Riiight. Say it again when you’ve done the same, you vile hypocrite, and I’ll be the judge of that.”
A smile plays about his lips. You return the grin, but he drops his gaze and suddenly speaks more seriously.
“Look, I’m sorry I didn’t get to join you back at the musicfest,” he begins. “Nick’s troupe got the best of me when they swung by the dorm and picked him up. I didn’t really trust him with that kind of company, but I couldn’t leave him off for the night again, could I?”
He continues before you can open your mouth.
“I actually saw you at the refreshments stand and fought the urge to join you instead. But you know Nick and his cohorts―”
“Do you think I’m leaving this early just because of you?”
You know where this conversation is going. You don’t want this to end up as a night of mushy apologies, so you interrupt with the first retort that comes into your mind. After all, petty quarrels had always been the basis of your relationship with him.
So you scoff. And to think you thought you were the assuming moron.
He narrows his eyes, completely different from the expression he had just a few seconds earlier. You’re not used to this type of reaction.
His childish answer causes your grin to spread, until it reaches out to his features like an excellent pun coming to realization. A tiny muscle pulls at the edge of his mouth. You punch him lightly in the arm.
Seeing a conversational stagnancy looming, you quickly breach into another topic by adjusting your body position.
“Well I’m here now, is there anything I can do for you?”
There is a pause. You could almost see the well-oiled gears of his head, carefully choosing phrases without any implied meanings. Seeing such sights, you begin to wonder whether he was as nervous as you are whenever you were around each other. The mere thought of it sets off a firework in your heart.
After a long moment, he finally forms his words.
“D-do you wanna go back to the musicfest with me?”
The short sentence rings in your ears. You involuntarily take a small step back, just to ease the surge of warmth that had rushed up your cheeks. You gawk at him.
After a while you put on the I’m-too-tired-to-deal-with-your-crap look that contrasts well with his hopeful expression.
In your fantasy, you are already screaming YES! YES! TAKE ME AWAY! TAKE ME TO YOUR RAINBOW CASTLES AND I’LL―
But for the sake of decency, you suppress your emotions for now.
“I’m already on my way home,” you answer instead. “The musicfest was fun, but I think I’ll take my leave tonight.”
“…let me walk with you, then.”
Immediately, alarm bells begin resounding in your head. The xenophobia that had triggered your introversion sends dozens of possibilities flying about your mindsight. You know you had a personal curfew that you had imposed upon yourself, and your mom had always told you to never let strangers know where you live.
But then… Eric was a friend. Surely that was an exception?
It was. You firmly believe it to be.
“Is there a particular reason why you’re insisting to accompany me?”
Your pervasive question catches him off-guard. He stares at you blankly, raises an eyebrow... and lets out a clear laugh that resounds throughout the empty street.
“Don’t get any ideas, Lorelei. It’s just to make it up for ignoring. Shall we?” he asks, gesturing for you to move forward.
And you do. To keep awkwardness at bay, you engage him into another discussion.
“Hey. Why do you think they start the musicfest so late in the afternoon?”
“You tell me. It’s been like this for every year, right?”
“Yeah. But compared to…you know, the sportsfest and the dramafest weeks, only the musicfest’s opening ceremonies are scheduled at an hour no earlier than three.”
“Uh-huh. Nice of you to notice that…”
“Is there a problem?”
“Not really. But I guess it’s a good observation…like, there’s this discrimination between the events―unfairness, I mean. Wrong term.”
“I have a theory.”
“You know the adults’ stereotype about the youth of today that generalizes us as being worse than their generation… Like when we’re being compared to how we do nothing but party and procrastinate and stay high, all the time?”
“Well, I think the musicfest was a complete manifestation of that.”
“Huh? What makes it different from the sports and dramafest, then?”
“Nothing much. But then again…see how it’s scheduled so late at night. What depressing scumbag would want us sleepless for a straight week?”
You pause for a few seconds to let him sink it in. He crosses his arms thoughtfully, and you only begin to notice that he wasn’t wearing his usual button-up and jeans. Instead he had chosen a close-fitting green shirt that exposed the lankiness of his elbows, and cargo shorts that were half a size too big for his body. Your gaze drops to both of your feet, and you notice that he was wearing the purple anklet you gave him for his birthday.
The butterflies in your stomach go into a frenzy.
“I think I see what you mean…when you say that the entire musicfest was a stereotype by itself. Adding to the cons pile would be the too-lax security of some commuting kids after the event…imagine if I hadn’t caught up with you earlier!”
He doesn’t miss a beat as you suddenly turn a corner.
“The thing is, well, we did have objectives for the event, right? Promoting a culture of healthy media … something like that, if I remember correctly?”
The statement echoes a memory in your brain. Yes, you’ve seen a similar slogan plastered throughout the campus for quite a few days now.
“Correct. But… judging from what I saw when I arrived, there wasn’t really much healthy media to promote.”
A lie. You’re already prattling to carry the conversation over, because you’ve just realized that you’re only a few blocks away from your home. But you don’t want to spend a single second of silence with him.
“Eh? What do you mean?”
Eric suddenly looks at you incredulously, and you curse under your breath. Okay, so that was not a well-crafted lie.
“Didn’t you notice? Most of the stalls there looked like they’ve been… oh I don’t know, plucked out of nowhere? I mean, the school’s selection for concessionaires seemed pretty random to me.”
“Yeah, but they were all related to music―”
“Eric, come on. Even I managed to get away with a good bargain from a software pirate shop. Tell me, where is the healthy media there?”
He briefly considers it. Then he nods, eyebrows full of concern.
“Well, they should’ve at least inspected the stalls before they operated…”
Just in time, you are already at your house. It was a red-roofed bungalow with overgrown gray walls and dirty, cracked windows, as well as an unkempt front yard whose weeds had completely covered the walk. If the kids here had been bullies, you would have been labelled as ‘Lorelei Death-roe, the Wicked Witch of Preville East’.
But thanks to headphones, academic efforts, retaliation, and a lifetime’s worth of ignorance, you’ve managed to survive high school with only a temporary bruise on your shoulder blade.
“I guess I’ll see you at school, then.”
Eric turns and sizes you up. You stare into his sea-blue eyes; the eyes that saw the world in the same way you did, the eyes that saw injustice in the most common of places, the eyes that noticed the you underneath your pretenses. You seemingly notice him tilting his head by a millimeter.
The alarm bells ring out in your head again. Without another thought, you turn to your bag and pull out your house keys.
“See ya, Eric. Been nice chatting with you!”
You leave him on the sidewalk and make quite a business of inserting the key into the doorknob. The shadows of the trees make it even more difficult.
You are strongly aware of his presence behind your back, but you know there’s nothing you can do to make him leave until he sees you safe inside your house. Part of you is grateful for such security, but for now your heart is thumping wildly against your chest. Why were your hands so jittery?
After a long while, the door finally swings open.
“Goodnight, Lorelei,” you hear him say.
You look down at the sidewalk, at him. Indeed, he hasn’t moved from the position you left him in. You reach in and switch on the outdoor lights.
Looks like somebody’s going to end up with insomnia tonight.