The Justinian Age
I get assigned a seat next to *NSYNC lookalike babe magnet local hottie Justin Brinkman. I’ve thought he was cute since freshman year, but it’s halfway through sophomore year and he’s Out of My League. He’d gotten busted for cheating, passing notes, talking in class, and general prankery so many times that our math teacher couldn’t take it anymore and yelled, “Sit next to that quiet, unassumingly plain, tired-looking girl! She’ll teach YOU a thing or two about proper in-class behavior!”
So the class laughs as he swaggers over to the desk beside me. Then he stretches, leans back, and kicks his feet up. The teacher resumes his poor attempt at teaching.
I’m scribbling doodles and song lyric snippets in my notebook, not paying attention as usual, when The Hottest Guy in School whispers,
My cheeks set ablaze. Sweat collects instantly on the back of my neck. Is he talking to me?
“Hey, what’re you writin’ there?” He sits upright and leans over.
He’ll realize half the lyrics I’ve written are too creepy and dark for human consumption, and the other half are about him! Panic!!
I slam my hand down on the page, covering the intimacies with my clammy palm and smearing ink.
“It’s nothing,” I garble.
He snorts. “Obviously not. Lemme see.” He hooks the clip on his pen’s cap through the spiral binding of my notebook and tugs. It shoots out from under my hand and slides easily onto his desk.
I freeze, struggling to swallow. If I wrestle with him over it, it’ll make a scene and turn whatever I’ve written into an even bigger deal than it already is. Better to just cover my eyes and wait for the verdict.
His eyes rove the page, then flip forwards and backwards for more. His eyebrows knit together in concentration. He bites his lower lip. At last, he tosses the notebook back to me.
“Those are good,” he says, then meets my eyes. They’re not judgmental. They’re kind and...dare I say it, sympathetic? He smiles.
I tentatively smile back.
And that was the beginning of our relationship.
The brief six months that followed are hypercolor in my memory. It was a magical, sparkling time of witty banter, conversations written in the margins of our notebooks during class, being asked to the end-of-year underclassmen dance and feeling high saying yes. The theme was “Hoedown” - not unfitting for our dying farm community - and he looked darling in a red plaid flannel, dark jeans, thrift-store cowboy boots, and a costume shop ten gallon hat. He was the most attractive young man I’d ever seen, and I had him.
I never thought I was pretty ’til we dated. As soon as we showed up together at the hoedown, the attention and gossip surrounding us felt like the paparazzi to me. This is what celebrity feels like, I though. All of a sudden, boys - attractive boys - were talking to me. Justin’s friends circled us and joked with me like we’d been friends all our lives. The pretty girls - Melissa Hanson most particularly - glowered from their shadowy gym corners. Meanwhile I was at the half court line, dancing dorkily with the boy every girl wanted. I was envied. I was literally shaking with nerves from all the attention. But his vibrant blue eyes and halcyon smile drew me in so I felt protected. He was my shield from their judgments. If he wanted me, I was untouchable.
We laughed like hyenas during the Macarena, Mambo Number Five, Tubthumping, and Baby Got Back. We Roger Rabbit’d and Cabbage Patch’d, MC Hammer’d and Carlton’d, Running Man’d and Funky Chicken’d. When Achy Break Heart came on (as it inevitably did at the overhyped, much-advertised hoedown), we line-danced the Achy Breaky. When “Amazed” by Lonestar came on, we slow-danced. I leaned in close. His smell was intoxicating. My body shook from longing to kiss him.
We were dripping by the time we left the humid gym. He’d just turned sixteen a few weeks earlier, so he drove us to Dairy Queen, which had just opened for the season. Then we took our Blizzards to the playground and sat on the swings, talking through mouthfuls of melted ice cream. We talked about books and poetry, the unlikely things that united us. We talked about football, too - reminiscing over middle school flag football, explaining why I quit before the freshman year season started, talking about his potentialities of being the starting quarterback come fall and getting a scholarship to play at IU. Then he asked me to be his girlfriend, and I said yes. When he dropped me off at home, I floated up the stairs to our second-story apartment. I felt like Cinderella, only I didn’t have to run away.
It was the happiest time of my life.
He gave me his varsity jacket, and his class ring (which we all got sophomore year, except for me, because money went to groceries and not luxuries), and I got to sit at the Cool Kid Table, and we held hands while rollerblading at the rink on Friday nights, and we went to the movie theater all the time to see Titanic! (which made us both cry), Men in Black (which he hated but I loved), Austin Powers (which he loved but I hated), and I Know What You Did Last Summer (which we both hated).
School let out for the summer. I turned sixteen and got a job hostessing and busing at a pizza joint. I spent all moments before and after work swimming in his in-ground pool, put-put golfing with him at the country club he belonged to, doing backflips on his trampoline, and pretending I enjoyed Beverly Hills 90210 (which we watched a lot of, at his behest). We sat across from each other at restaurants and quietly wrote or read poetry. Sometimes we shared, and sometimes we didn’t. He paid for everything with a credit card his dad gave him. I could tell by his poetry that was all his dad gave him.