The Reeducation of Jimmy Neutron
Jimmy stood hesitantly outside the Vortex's pink house. He and Carl left the candy bar to try to talk some sense into Sheen but neither of them had been able to find him. Jimmy had waited in the lab until he saw Cindy's car return and he had been debating for the last fifteen minutes whether or not he should go inside. After the awkwardness of the Candy Bar incident, it was imperative that they talk about their relationship and his lack of knowledge of her personal life. He knocked twice, praying that Mrs. Vortex wasn't home. No one answered. What was the proper protocol in this situation? He knew that Cindy was home; could he just go inside?
I hate to burst in and find her asleep or something…but desperate times call for desperate measures. He braced himself and opened the door. No one was in the living room so he walked slowly up the hallway. He tentatively stepped into the room at the end of the hall which turned out to be the kitchen.
Sitting at the table was Cindy, who was about to take a bite of a very large hamburger. She noticed he was there and a look of panic spread over her face.
"Please don't tell Libby".
He smiled, not at her panic over eating meat but at the marked change in her appearance. She had changed out of the short dress thing and had put on a pair of green shorts and a black tee shirt. Her hair was thrown up in a messy bun and the majority of her makeup had been removed. There were still some black smudges around her eyes, but for the most part she looked like herself again.
"I don't normally stuff myself like this, but she has practically starved me today!"
"I would have been fine if we could have had something with protein like sushi or hummus, but there is NO WAY I can survive on just a salad for six hours".
"There is just no logical reason to-"
She looked shocked that he shouted so forcefully. "What?"
He hesitated. He actually hadn't planned what he wanted to say, he just wanted her to stop talking about food when they were in the middle of a crisis. "You changed clothes," he mumbled.
She raised one eyebrow, "Yeah… I wanted to be more comfortable… and I wanted to avoid the possibility of my mom coming home early and interrogating me".
"What do you mean?"
"Well…they weren't exactly cheap," she fiddled with the hem of her shirt, "andddd I kind of used my emergency money to pay for them. I know that sounds terrible, but Libby can be very persuasive and I fully intend to pay for them with my salary or return them!" She shot him a veiled glance, "Why? Are you disappointed or something?"
He wanted to laugh, "Quite the opposite actually". She looked confused. "Cindy, stuff like that just isn't…you!"
"I mean…I don't know," he rubbed the back of his neck, "you're just…" he couldn't think of a way to express what he meant. "I don't know Cindy, and maybe that's the problem: I don't know what's you. I don't know your favorite color or food or even what you want to do after high school! I've known you for years and after two months of dating I can't even say what color your room is!"
The look on her face was one of confusion and slight amusement. "Where is this coming from?"
"Don't you think it's a problem that we don't know anything about each other besides basic educational preferences?"
"Basic preferences huh? Like: your favorite color is blue, you like to eat mashed potatoes with bacon when you're upset, and your dream is to own NASA".
He stared at the blond girl with the ghost of a smile on her face. "How do you know all that?"
"I pay attention, Neutron. At least a little more than you do".
"So I'm back to Neutron now?"
"If you're going to keep acting like an idiot, yeah!" He was about to protest, when he noticed she couldn't control herself and started laughing.
"And what, may I ask, is so funny about this pandemic?"
"It's not a pandemic Neutron, it's something easily fixable. Where is this even coming from?"
"Well…" he debated telling her the complete truth, but decided that not telling people important information was what had gotten Sheen into trouble in the first place. He delved into the sordid tale about the quiz, but left out the part about the girl magazine. He told her how Sheen actually knew a lot of things about Libby and how he Jimmy actually was rather…lacking in that department.
"Well, there's only one solution then, isn't there?" She wadded the hamburger wrapper into a ball and threw it into the trashcan.
A feeling of dread came over Jimmy. "Get out your notepad Neutron, class is in session. My name is professor Vortex: I hate mimes, the patriarchy, and mushrooms".
(Thirty minutes – or an hour, he really hadn't been paying attention to the time – later)
They sat at the kitchen counter, sipping black tea (which Jimmy found disgusting, but Cindy apparently loved it, so he sucked it up), talking about… well, everything.
"Chick-flicks make me want to barf. And I really resent the term 'chick'".
"All cats hate me. I don't know what it is, but I am definitely a dog person".
"Yes, my room is still pink but I don't know if I would call that my favorite color"
"What is your favorite color?"
She let out a sigh. "I don't know. That's like asking me what's my favorite book".
"So I guess I shouldn't ask that?"
"Not if you want a quick answer. You can try to guess though".
"I wouldn't even begin to know," before she had a chance to say something sarcastic, he quickly responded, "but I would say your dream job is…"
"You want to be a detective?"
"No! I… I don't know what I want to do". She picked at her thumbnail, "I know with college looming so close I should have some inkling…but I just don't. I've never actually been able to sit down and think about what career I would like."
This gave Jimmy pause. I had never seen Cindy unsure of herself…at least when her mother wasn't around. "Well, what do you like to do?"
She looked up at him, "A lot of things that I either can't make a career out of or would never be allowed to pursue."
"Well, you always have the scientific option", he smiled playfully, "there's always a place for you at the Neutron laboratories."
She snorted a bitter laugh, "As much as I would love to be your Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, I don't think that's the life for me. Thanks for offering to let me live in your shadow forever, though."
"But I wasn't-"
"Listen Jimmy, I have to deal with the clothes I need to return. You're welcome to help as long as your hands are clean."
They walked up the stairs and entered a room that at first glance looked like the inside of a cake. "Yeah, it's still pink."
She chuckled a little before sitting down on the frilly bedcover. "I don't think I'm allowed redecorate. I only get to be an adult when it's convenient for my mom."
"Then you'd better not let her see those clothes."
"Yeah, what do you have against these? I think the green is nice."
"It's not the green, it's the everything else. You're not… I don't know; they're too...cheap."
"Then you should see the receipt-," suddenly his meaning dawned on her. "Oh. Oh, I see. Libby wears things like this all the time, but I suppose I shouldn't."
He hadn't considered that. "I suppose that I 'm just too darn classy and smart to wear these clothes." Her tone revealed that this wasn't a good thing.
"Listen here Jimmy Neutron, I will wear what I want when I want wherever I want, and that does not stop me from being brilliant and talented! Or anyone else from being equally so just because they dress differently."
He winced. "I didn't say-"
"Oh you said plenty. So do you think Libby looks cheap?"
"No! I'm just, I don't know, I'm used to seeing her in this stuff. You never get that dolled up. I just shocked me."
Her face was expressionless. "I'm not a cube: there are more than six sides to me."
They looked at each other for a minute before he broke the silence. "Wow, you are good at math."
She did her best not to laugh, but failed. "You're such a dork. Now help me fold these."
"Ay ay captain."
Before she could respond, the phone rang. Cindy froze in a panic before turning and running towards the door.
He could hear the gentle thumps of her feet hitting the steps as he wandered around the room. The childhood collection of dolls and toys had been replaced with two large bookshelves, a variety of electronic devices, and a case with metal things. He walked over to the case and realized that it was filled with trophies and pictures. He leaned close and saw the vast collection of awards: essay medals, dog show ribbons, poetry awards, framed landscape paintings with a ribbon attached to each, a few math competition trophies, three years of debate team certificates, and many martial arts awards. The case must have been custom-built because the largest karate trophy was probably three feet tall, and the shelves were cut away to allow it to rise to the top. The sheer volume of gilded metal plaques for excellence seemed incredible for one person. He rose on his toes to glimpse the top shelf to see what else lie hidden in Cindy's awards collection and caught his breath. The shelf was filled with a variety of trophies, ribbons, and other prizes, but unlike the other shelves, each award had a newspaper clipping taped to it. It took him just a minute to realize that each accolade was for second place…and each article was about him winning first. Some occasionally mentioned the other winners, and one even had a picture of the participants, but there was no doubt that this row was only here to remind her of her permanent role as second-best. Each article might as well have been titled "As Cindy could never do."
The saddest part was he didn't remember most of these competitions. Some of the more important wins had earned a spot on his wall, and he was sure his mom had put some on their mantle for a few weeks before being exiled to a box in the attic. He hadn't given them a second thought after winning. Cindy had eight years of academic awards staring at her while she slept, constantly reminding her not to stray.
He could hear her starting to come up the stairs and hurried away from the shelf towards the desk. The white bureau was piled with papers and writing utensils. The looming presence of an oversized calendar sat above the desk, next to an Ada Lovelace poster and a framed picture of Cindy and Libby in Halloween costumes. He pretended to read what was written on the wall when Cindy came up next to him.
"Telemarketer. I was worried it was- never mind, where were we?"
"Um. You were yelling at me because I tried to criticize your fashion choices."
"Ah yes: don't ever do that. Ever."
"Duly noted. I didn't mean to offend you…or Libby or anyone. I just missed you looking like you."
"I don't think I looked very much like me when I was competing in that beauty pageant. You didn't seem to mind then."
This much was true, and he hadn't even thought about it. "Ok, maybe you didn't. But then you still had your usual spark and spunk. Today it was like someone had subdued you."
She let out a heavy sigh. "I had a lot on my mind today. The-" suddenly an alarm went off. "Oh no!"
"The five-minute warning! My mother is on her way home. I need to change and straighten up the house and-"
"Cindy the house is impeccable. What could you possibly need to clean?"
Her eyes widened. "And You! You cannot be here when she returns, especially not in my room".
"I figured that much. Do you want to talk tonight?"
She seemed lost in thought for a moment. "What if you came to dinner here? It's stir-fry night."
"Would that really be, you know, safe?"
"Mother allegedly wants to get to know you better, what better way than that?"
"Considering our last dinner together was such a rousing success?"
"Hey! No one got an eye-socket full of mashed potatoes and the two of us are still alive. I chalk that up as a victory."
He chuckled, "Alright. Text me when it's safe to reappearance."
"Will do. Try not to do anything fooling in the meanwhile, like weaponize kittens, or turn your mom into a robot."
"Well, there go my evening plans."
The knock that signaled Jimmy's arrival came at a welcomed time. He had left her house with just enough time for her to change out of her tee shirt and into a colorful blouse, brush her hair, and wash the make-up remnants.
Her mother had begrudgingly allowed there to be a guest for dinner, so now the moment of truth had come. Her father went to open the door (her mother was too busy scowling at the table, her arms crossed). If she purses her lips anymore, her face will implode.
Jimmy came into the kitchen, nervously following Mr. Vortex. "Good evening everyone…Cindy." She smiled while drizzling sesame oil.
He walked over to the stove and looked at the amalgamation of meat and vegetables in the pan.
"Ah, a wok."
Cindy caught his eye, "Yup, the preferred vessel for stir fry."
"Yup. Invented during the Han Dynasty-"
"Originating in the Guangdong Province in China."
"Originally used during military marches as helmets, so soldiers could use them in camp to make dinner."
She turned to stare at him, "Is that true?"
"I don't know." They both laughed.
Her mother groaned. "If you too are finished with this little trivia contest, some one us would like to eat".
Cindy rolled her eyes. Any other time she would quiz me on dinner logistics herself. She spooned a portion onto each plate and carried them over to the table.
The tension was palpable at the Vortex dinner table tonight.
"Well, dig in." He ate a few bites before wondering what he would do about starting a conversation, the silence was deafening.
"So, Jimmy," Mr. Vortex put down his fork, "I hear you're a real whiz at inventing things."
He chuckled, "You could say that. I've kind of been in a dry spell for a while though."
"Do you have any other hobbies?"
"Well…" he pondered that for a moment. Did he do anything besides study and nearly electrocute Sheen? "I've been known to enjoy…" he glanced at the morning paper in the recycle bin, "Sudoku puzzles?"
"Really? You know I always look at those, but never put the pen to the page." He smiled at his daughter. "Cindy and I do the crossword together, don't we pumpkin?"
"Yes, which is why you are so frequently late to work," Mrs. Vortex sneered.
"Oh come now Sasha, you said the puzzles were good for brain development."
"Yes, when she was twelve". She turned to Cindy, "And you, why are you wearing that? I swear, you have a closet full of expensive clothes yet you constantly dress like a ragamuffin."
"Aunt Susie gave me this shirt!"
"SO-" he was determined to avoid fights tonight, "Mrs. Vortex…um… can you recommend a good tuxedo rental place? I need to be looking soon."
She looked, considering him for a second "Ah yes, the high school prom. That should prove to be an interesting evening for you two, especially considering your track record."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, am I mistaken in my memory of you being asked to leave the sixth grade Spring Fling because Cynthia dumped the punch bowl on your head during a heated argument?"
"I assure you ma'am, we can be perfectly civil when we want to".
The two maintained eye contact for a minute. "Oh, I have no doubt of that, Jimmy."
The rest of the meal went relatively smoothly, if not quietly.
Cindy and Jimmy ate silently, avoiding her mother's shrewd glances.
The moment everyone was finished with desert (mangoes with sticky rice), Mrs. Vortex promptly stood up and said, "Well, I have work emails to answer. Cindy, be sure to load the dishwasher properly. Jimmy, you know the way out".
Mr. V took the dishes from Cindy's hands. "Why don't you walk him out, sweetie? I'll take care of this."
She smiled in thanks and walk to the door with Jimmy.
"Well, that was more awkward than I anticipated."
"Who would have though she'd remember the Spring Fling? Even I had forgotten that, and I have an eidetic memory."
Cindy leaned against his car. "Maybe this was a bad idea. She seems to dislike you even more now."
"No, she was just in a bad mood".
"Yeah well, she's always in a bad mood".
She looked down dejectedly. Jimmy noticed and swept her up in an embrace.
"Come on now, the Cindy Iknow doesn't give upthat easily".
"It's been a long day. I don't have much willpower left after my defeat at the treadmill, near-starvation, and the drama with Li-"
He knew she was going to say Libby and Sheen. They were in a tough spot, theoretically on opposite sides of the argument, but he had to stay neutral.
"It's hard seeing your best friend that upset".
"Tell me about it".
"If we could just get them to talk to each other I'm fairly sure they could work things out".
Cindy shook her head, "It's unlikely to happen though: Libby plans on giving him the cold shoulder for some time. I don't really blame her though".
Jimmy's head shot up. "So you think she was within her liberties to rip Sheen's heart out?"
"Only because he started it. He said he liked his stupid Ultra Lord crap more than his girlfriend." Anger crept into her voice.
"That's just the way Sheen is; if you take everything he says seriously then you're in for a rough time."
She stood up to glare eye-to-eye with him, "That is such malarkey: you can't just say 'oh, that's just the way he is' and excuse all his terrible actions. And pardon me for assuming something as trivial as a four year relationship didn't warrant his taking something seriously for once!"
It had been years since they had argued with this much venom. Jimmy really didn't want to start a shouting match so soon after trying to convince her mother that they were a suitable couple, but something within him urged him on. "He never said it was trivial; he's been depressed for days because of this and Libby doesn't even have the decency to let him explain-"
"Explain what exactly? Why he said a piece of overpriced plastic means more to him than she does?"
"No!" He shouted. So much for "perfectly civil."
"That he- I don't know. What does she want: a sonnet declaring his affection? Sheen's no poet and I doubt she'd be happy with any attempt on his part".
"You don't know that. And don't yell at me! It's not my fault your stupid friend can't express how he really feels!"
Then it hit him: the perfect way to fix all of this and end his invention dry spell.
All anger left him as he exclaimed, "That's it! Cindy, you're brilliant"
Cindy looked confused. "Of course I am. What do you mean?"
"I know how to solve everyone's problem!"
She crossed her arms, "Well that would be a first".
He ignored her comment. "Bring Libby to the lab at my signal tomorrow evening"
He turned to kiss her then ran across the street; "I'll work all night if I have to!"
She put a hand to her cheek. "Well, that's one way to end an argument".
Jimmy dashed into the lab and greeted a sleeping Goddard. A grin spread across his face; this was the feeling he had been waiting months to feel again. He got to his lab desk and pulled out a plank piece of drafting paper as the wheels turned in his head. At last.