Three tattered T-shirts, a red polo, and a couple longsleeves lay in a disorderly heap on the foot of Haley’s bed. She sat crosslegged with a plaid flannel shirt in her lap, probing the tears with her fingers and measuring the length of thread she needed to close them. She found brownish bloodstains bordering the jagged edges of the fabric and frowned.
“Do you mind if I scrub this one again?” she asked.
Sitting on a folding chair beside the bed with a math notebook in his lap, Aaron looked up. “Pardon?”
“There’s, uh, just some, well...” She held up the shirt for him to see.
“Oh. That won’t come out. Nobody will notice if you fold the edges in.”
She nodded unconvinced and began prepping her thread and needle. Just when she thought she had found and pinned all the tears, she discovered another rip in one of the sleeves.
She was happy to help Aaron mend his clothes, and she was glad he eventually accepted her offer to do so. But the task was proving more difficult than she imagined. As she located each tear and every stain in her friend’s well-worn shirts, she couldn’t help wondering what brutal violence and what object caused all the damage. She dreaded the thought of the injuries Aaron sustained beneath these tatters. Hopefully her work would restore some of his dignity.
Haley had convinced Aaron to come over with his spare shirts after his shift in Mr. Brooks’ store the day after they talked on the bleachers. Her mom was on a grocery errand, and Jessica was absorbed in a soap opera downstairs. Haley explained substitution equations and graphing hyperbolas while Aaron made nervous scribbles in his notebook. The spine of his math book was broken and several pages were torn or missing, but they made do until Aaron had a basic enough understanding of the concepts to begin computing on his own. Then Haley turned to shirt mending.
Lucky girl had a radio in her room. The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” softly set the tone for a laid-back afternoon. Both teenagers felt so relieved to relax.
Haley found another tear and sighed. “Why don’t we just get you some new shirts?”
Aaron shook his head, which had been bobbing to the music as he bent over his book. “Maybe when I’ve saved up enough.”
He wouldn’t accept charity from her. Fine. She would work with what they had.
“Did I tell you there was a visiting student in my english class?” asked Haley.
“Yeah, some kid from Las Vegas is on a trip with his mother and is taking part in a couple classes here. He’ll only be in town for a week though, thank goodness.”
“What, is he some kind of bully?”
“No, he’s just obnoxious to no end. He can’t be older than twelve, and he quotes statistics like a second language. Honestly, I think he’s just a show-off.”
“Twelve? Is he a genius or something?”
“Whatever you want to call it. He started telling me about the economic outcome of the Franco-Prussian War in painful detail, and I had to find an excuse to change seats. Can’t wait till he goes back home.”
“I’ll bet. Sounds like he would be a nightmare to work with.”
“Definitely.” Haley began tying the string at the end of her stitches. “Did anything interesting happen in your classes?”
“I learned about the climate in South Africa.”
Haley started darning another tear. There was something else, an elephant in the room actually, that she wanted to talk about. She wondered if Aaron was avoiding it as much as she was.
“So, um, Jimmy asked if we’re dating,” said Haley tentatively after a few awkward minutes.
“He saw us, didn’t he.”
“Yep. Along with half the team.”
“Ah, gee.” Aaron raised a page in front of his face and studied it closely.
Haley pulled her thread taut and took a deep breath. “I keep thinking about that kiss, Aaron. Did you know I’ve never kissed a boy before?”
He blushed deeply and pretended to be absorbed in his math homework. “I’ve... uh, never kissed a girl before.” One finger tugged at the collar of his tan sweatshirt.
“Jimmy also asked if we’ve... well, done it.”
“You mean...?” Aaron peered over his page.
“Yeah, I mean it.”
“As in, it?”
“I think the term he used was, ‘hitting a home run.’”
Aaron’s eyes could not get wider or his face more discolored.
Haley shrugged a little as if to deflect his stare. “Well, haven’t you heard the talk?”
“You know. The kids who nudge me in the hallway and ask how good you are. The kids who catcall or tease about us hooking up. Even the names they call us. It’s all over the school.”
Aaron looked on the verge of genuine mortification. “I didn’t know. I guess I don’t pay much attention.”
“Word spreads fast. There’s no privacy when you’re sitting in a tree.”
“What do you say to them?”
“I just said we were friends. Just friends. Some of them have started placing bets for how soon we... you know what.”
Aaron leaned back and sighed, letting his book and papers rest in his lap. “I had no idea that was going on. I hope they’re not bothering you.”
“Not really, but... well, it is getting harder to know what to say. I want to make them stop, whatever it takes.”
Aaron furrowed his brow at her. “What do you mean? You want to do it?”
“Well, I dunno.” Haley suddenly felt extremely awkward. “Every couple I know is doing it. Why, Sarah and Leonard talk about it everyday. It’s hard to keep telling everyone we haven’t done it yet.”
Aaron looked extraordinarily uncomfortable. “That’s just it. Everybody’s doing it with everybody. Where’s the respectful, long-term intimacy like my dad had with my mom before he died?” He paused, and Haley wondered for a second if he actually wanted an answer to that. But then he spoke again: “Sure, everybody’s doing it, but everybody’s breaking up just as quick. And when they do, they’ve already given up a part of themselves that they can never get back.”
“What, you think we’re gonna break up?”
“No, but I want our relationship to be special and pure. I’ll bet we’ll get to know each other better than Sarah and Leonard know each other.”
Haley smiled, knowing in her heart that he was right. Waiting was not only the moral but the logical thing to do.
Aaron seemed briefly lost in thought as he gazed grimly at the bed. “You know what I think of when I see the other kids getting lost in a pursuit of passion?” he asked quietly.
“I think of my stepfather. He doesn’t care who gets affected or hurt in the long run. He’s just out to please himself from one affair to the next. Maybe he never learned to control his urges as a teenager.”
Haley watched him closely. He looked genuinely upset.
Then Aaron looked up at her with a somewhat pleading expression. “I want our relationship to be different. I want to live like my father lived. Loving, honest, respectful. And patient.”
Haley felt a little ashamed and humbled. “Aaron,” she said, voice choking. “You must be something special.”
Aaron looked down and shook his head. “I just think you’re worth waiting for.”
Haley didn’t know what to say to that. She stared at him in amazement and delight. “Really?” she finally whispered.
“Yeah. And someday I want to marry you.”
Haley dropped what she was doing, shirt, needle, and all, and climbed off the bed. Aaron set his homework aside and stood in front of her.
Haley took both his hands in both of hers. “I want to marry you someday too. I want to promise myself to you now.”
They were only in high school. They both realized anything could change. But in that moment, all they saw was each other and the future they could have together if nothing got in their way.
“I have an idea.” Haley suddenly turned around and cut several lengths of string from the spools on her bed. She wound the strands together and tied them in a loop. “Can I have your finger?” Aaron lifted his hand, and Haley slipped the loop onto his finger.
Catching on, Aaron took some more string and did the same for Haley. Then they held hands again.
“Haley Brooks, I pledge my love and purity to you and hope to take you as my bride when the time is right.”
Haley’s grip tightened. “Aaron Hotchner, I pledge my love and purity to you, and I sure as daylight plan to take you as my husband when the chance comes.”
“You mean that?” Aaron smiled, leaning closer.
Haley laughed. “Yeah, I do.”
Aaron laughed his funny-sounding laugh as a new song came on. “You wanna dance?”
Haley gave him a look. "Let's have Jessica join us." She never would have wanted her sister to invade their fun before, but now it just seemed right to have another person in the room. Haley went to the door and called out, "Jessie! Get up here before you miss all the fun."
Jessica soon came running, and Haley led everybody in an improvised dance. Now this was Haley’s forte. When she wasn't coaching the other two, she held Aaron's hand and his shoulder and guided him in sweeping, buoyant swing steps. Aaron went along as well as he could and only misstepped a few times. It was a silly, platonic dance, like one performed by toddlers just happy to share their innocence. They twirled and swayed and laughed with the whole world around them forgotten.
“She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!” sang the Beatles over the radio. Though at first resistant, Haley didn’t mind their music now. Aaron was right—the band members themselves were off-the-walls weird, but they could sure could whip up a hotdoggin’ tune to dance to.
Though Aaron left shortly afterward, Haley could imagine they were still dancing. She never wanted to let go of her partner. What could possibly drive them apart?