Connor

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8 - Tuesday

Jake and I went to the video store after school.

I saw that guy again. The one from the hospital gift shop, with the silver hair and the crooked nose. He was standing outside the video store. Well, outside the sandwich shop beside the video store. He watched me, watched us, as we crossed the parking lot. As we entered the store, Jake stared him down.

“Problem old man?” he asked.

Jake was like that, though. He didn’t care what people thought about him. The guy didn’t say anything. He just stood there, watching us, a paper drink cup from the sandwich shop in his hand. A bit of mayo on the corner of his lips.

I half expected him to follow us inside the video store, but he didn’t. And he was gone by the time we came out.

The way he just stared at us, the glazed-over, faraway look in his eyes, he almost looked retarded. Or, sorry. Mentally handicapped. There was just some form of recognition missing in his blank expression. Like he couldn’t understand…couldn’t comprehend all that he was seeing. I don’t know. Maybe he wasn’t retarded. Maybe he was a tourist.

Inside, we moved straight for the Comedy section. Jake was looking for some ninja movie with this actor, Chris Farley. He said he hadn’t seen it in a long time.

“That’s why he died, ya know,” he told me. “The ninja curse.”

“What?”

“Yeah. There’s some by-law somewhere that says all ninjas should have black hair. It’s written in some ancient scroll or something. Farley was blond, contracted the ninja curse.”

“He died because of drugs,” I said.

“The only way to get rid of the curse is to reach a state of euphoria, which real ninjas obtain through meditation. Because he wasn’t a real ninja he tried to reach euphoria with drugs. But he took too many. ’Cause he’s fat. Fat people don’t know when to stop. That’s why they’re fat in the first place. They just keep eating.”

I became very embarrassed and looked around to make sure there weren’t any fat people nearby. That’s when I saw her. Alicia Roman.

I swear every drop of water in the ocean began to pour from my arm pits. I didn’t want Jake to see. I moved closer to the counter, away from where Alicia stood.

“Let’s just get The Lost Boys again.”

“Something I never could stomach about Santa Carla,” Jake said. His eyes caught mine. “All the damn vampires.”

He laughed. I smiled. He picked up on it.

“You feeling okay? You sick all of a sudden?”

“My stomach,” I said. It felt like it was falling into my shoes. I wanted to throw up from nerves. Behind Jake, Alicia walked along the back wall, scanning the new releases. She turned toward me. I looked away.

Jake turned, saw the wall. “That’s what it is,” he said quietly.

My throat went dry to the point I couldn’t talk, and my chest felt tight. I thought I might have a seizure, whatever that felt like. My hand started shaking and for a moment, I envisioned falling to the floor and foaming at the mouth.

“C’mon, Conman.”

Maybe it was a panic attack. I was white as a ghost. My head felt light. I was going to pass out.

“Go talk to her.”

I couldn’t. No way. How in the…what did he mean, talk? I could barely even stutter.

And yet the next thing I knew, I was standing beside her. Next to her. He would’ve drug me if I hadn’t gone. Still, he pushed me. I stumbled over to her, almost hit the wall, almost knocked every box on the shelf over on top of me. She’d notice me then. I certainly didn’t want her to find out how much of a clumsy, love-sick, stupid dork I was before she found out how much of one I wasn’t. I wanted her to think of me as sexy and cool, debonair, confident and strong. I kept to myself, for the most part. I wanted her to see my quietness, how Audrey said – she said it made me seem mysterious. I wanted to be mysterious, not dark – unless that’s what Alicia liked – the strong, silent type. I wanted to be a dream for her…the way she’d become my fantasy.

But before I was ready, I was next to her. Close to her. Smelling her. I could almost taste her, lotion and shampoo, like a tropical fruit, warm like the dawn, crazy and free. She was gorgeous, and when I thought about speaking, I nearly threw up on her. Instead, I pretended to look at the movies on the shelf next to her. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, prayed for the moment to pass.

Then I heard my name.

“Connor?”

For a second, I thought I was on the floor, thought I’d passed out. I thought Jake was mocking me, towering over me in my failure, but I was still standing. I could feel the earth beneath my feet, not my back. And the voice wasn’t Jake’s, not unless he talked in a friendly falsetto. Well, no. Deeper than that, but definitely female. My eyes were still closed.

“Connor Woodson? From fourth hour?”

She was speaking to me. I didn’t have to be psychic to know for sure. I didn’t have to open my eyes. But I did. It may have been easier if I hadn’t, but I did. I didn’t want to be weird. Or rude. I didn’t want to freak her out. So I opened my eyes and looked at her. I was startled. She was beautiful…absolutely. Her gray eyes stared at me. She was so close. I hadn’t expected her to be looking at me. Not directly. I guess I expected her to be staring at the wall, talking to me like two spies when they think someone might be watching them.

“Y-yeah. Yeah. Mr. Anson’s class.” Maybe I smiled. Maybe I lost control of every body function and peed all over the front of me. I tried to play it off cool. “Alicia Roman, right?” She nodded. “Yeah. I’ve seen you around.” Oh my god…was I actually doing it? Or did I just think I was? She’ll walk away in a second, the whole scenario only in my head. In reality, I was only staring wide-eyed, deer-in-headlights kind of look, drooling down my chin. Jake’d laugh. I’d never live it down.

But she kept talking to me. “Yeah.” She paused, almost nervous. “I’ve seen you, too.” She gave a weird, nervous smile. I was nervous. The movies on the shelf were nervous. I was sweating buckets. “How about that journal assignment?” she asked.

I told her I loved it. Not her, the assignment.

“What are you writing about?”

I didn’t say her. “Just daily stuff.”

“Yeah, me, too.” She paused, looked around, focused for a minute on something up by the register. “I…need to get going.”

Relief, sorrow. “Oh,” I said. Then I noticed the box in her hand. “You found a movie, huh?”

She glanced down at the cover, held it up. “Yeah. Have you seen it?”

I hadn’t. It was some independent film. Probably subtitled. Looked French. Didn’t have much interest in it.

She nodded. As she walked away, she turned a little. “Are…you going to the party this weekend?”

I wasn’t thinking at all. I told her I was.

She smiled faintly. “Maybe I’ll see you there.”

Then she was gone. Just like that.

Jake was at my side. “Damn, Conman.”

I stood there, staring blankly, an empty video box in my hand.

“You been ten rounds with the champ?”

I had rings of sweat under my arms, down my back. It looked like someone threw water on me.

“You look like a really out of shape person just got done jogging.”

I could smell myself.

“Well, on the bright side,” he said. “You survived.” He sounded triumphant. I was relieved. I felt just like that…a survivor. Not a champion. I was just a coward who endured. I weathered it. I don’t know. I told Jake about it.

“So you have to go now,” he said. “To the party.”

The one I didn’t really want to go to. The one at Chris Gregor’s.

The movie we ended up getting was one I’d already seen, and I was glad for it. Because none of it registered. We were in Jake’s living room. His dad was working late, and we had a pizza between us on the sofa, plastic bottles of pop. I ate, I drank, and I thought about Alicia.

How could I not? I’d talked to her. I was riding some kind of a high. News channels would later report the newly breaking development in the Woodson-Roman campaign. They would speculate what those – what? – five minutes of conversation would mean to our future. Late night talk show hosts would talk about us in their opening monologues, would do a segment to see what our children would look like by blending parts of our faces together. It would be the first time Alicia ever looked less than perfect.

Before the movie was over, Jake fell asleep.

When I arrived home, my parents were already in bed. The house was dark and quiet. It was raining, and I lay on my bed and listened to the rain against my window. I flipped through my journal for a bit, considered writing something, but I didn’t. I didn’t write a scene, just thought of one, just replayed a memory in my head like an old movie.

I thought about freshman year. Thought about Alicia. The football game that Jake and I went to. It was our first in high school. Junior Varsity.

It had been raining a lot, more than any other time I could remember.

The night was cold, and the wooden bleachers were damp from the constant rain, though it had stopped for the moment. The smell of freshly cut grass and wet earth hung in the air, mixed with hot buttered popcorn and hot dogs. We’d dressed for the weather in layers of clothes -- sweatshirts and long-johns – slick jackets that repelled water, rather than absorbing it. We climbed the bleacher stairs, stopped midway to scan for empty seats in a vast sea of spirited faces, most of them reddened by the numbing wind. We found a spot near the top.

“The first quarter’s almost over,” I said as we sat. “Your mom takes too long to get ready.”

“She is a woman,” Jake admitted. He slid off his jacket. “And what’s with your dad? ‘Freshman shouldn’t go to football games alone’?”

“I don’t know. I think Mom said he was mugged at one of these games when he was our age.”

Jake tried to say something else, but the crowd around us had begun to drone like a swarm of bees as something happened on the field.

The Grant quarterback, Eric Prince, narrowly evaded a sack. He was scanning for an open receiver when one of the Holy Mary linemen broke across the line, drove straight toward him, dove at his legs. Eric hurdled the lineman.

As two more rushed on his right, Prince sprinted off in the other direction, rounding up to clear the line of scrimmage. He tucked the football into the cradle of his arm, gaining speed as he ran, soon passing the thirty yard-line.

We watched because it was too loud to do anything else.

Half the crowd was on their feet, some cheering, waving arms in the air, and the subtle droning surged in volume and crashed over us like the angry tide.

Above it all, the announcer’s voice carried out through the old speakers in heated, exaggerated frenzy, rattling off like an auctioneer: “Prince with the quarterback sneak, crossing the thirty, the twenty-five. Holy Mary linemen Chuck Loveless has broken away from the line and is hot on the quarterback’s tracks.”

I glanced at Jake. He took a bite of his hot dog and shrugged at me. We were probably the only people in the stands still sitting. We couldn’t see anything that was happening on the field.

“Prince crosses the ten,” the announcer bellowed. “And...Oh! Loveless tackles the quarterback. Wait! What’s this? Long picks up the ball from a lateral, running now with the ball and in the open. An incredible move! He crosses the five, and nobody’s around him, he’s...yes! TOUCHDOWN!!”

The crowd sent up cheers like fireworks.

Jake stood, and I sat for a minute before realizing I felt stupid being the only one sitting, and stood, too. Jake turned to me in the midst of the storm and yelled, “So where are the cheerleaders? I thought you said Audrey...?” But his voice was drowned out as the noise swelled louder.

Audrey was a cheerleader, and we came to see her. We hadn’t gone to the other games. We weren’t dating anymore, at this point, and I felt guilty for never having seen her cheer while we dated. Still, we were trying to be friends, trying not to let it be awkward, and I agreed to come watch her.

Before the crowd could sit, a line of girls with straggly pom-poms came running out, single-filed. They lined up in front of the crowd and took their places. A black girl in pig-tails led the cheer, the girls sounding out like robots. Audrey was three places away, her long brown hair pulled back into a pony-tail, and her face held the same, fake smile as the others.

“There she is,” I said, pointing for Jake.

“Where?”

“Second from the end? You see her?” He didn’t say anything. His mouth was unhinged, hanging open.

“You okay?” I asked.

“She’s jumping,” he managed, unblinking. “This is the happiest moment of my life.”

“Dude, you’re scaring me, ’cause you’re prob’ly serious.”

I ignored him, watched the black girl, who seemed to be the captain. Who took meticulous care in how smoothly she moved. She’s a natural, I thought. Some girls were naturals. At least when it came to cheerleading. Some, like Audrey, the smile looked painted on, almost fake. Her movements seemed a bit stiff, compared to the others, as if she were going along with the routine simply because it was the thing to do. Girls like Audrey lacked the conviction in her actions. The black girl moved and smiled and shouted like she were made to do just that. The look on her face was sheer joy, as if cheering was the most important thing she could be doing.

I remembered thinking how funny it was, the distinction between Audrey and the captain. The captain would probably go on to cheer in college, maybe even try out for the pros. Maybe one day, on the Superbowl, I’d see her, still acting like she had the most important and rewarding job. Or maybe not. Maybe she wouldn’t make cheerleader for the NFL and she’d count her life a waste. Maybe after that, she’d reevaluate her life and ambitions. Maybe she would turn to dance, maybe she would turn to booze. Maybe nothing else would matter for her after that. She’d go home with a guy in a sports bar because he played college football and wasn’t good enough for the NFL either. They both washed out, and their common failures would create enough of a spark. She’d get knocked up, have a kid. They’d get married out of obligation and he would eventually start to hit her, because he was never good enough to be quarterback. She’d develop an addiction to pills to numb the pain.

That’s what I thought about as I watched her. Before the third cheer was over, before the excited, high-kicks began, I’d given the girl a pill addiction. She didn’t deserve that. She had so much joy for what she did.

We sat then. I was so lost in my thoughts and feeling sad for the baby she’d end up having that I didn’t even remember sitting down. Eventually, I looked over the other girls, gauged their smiles, the fluidity of their movements. Tried to determine if their passion would lead to pill addictions.

That’s when I noticed the blonde girl on the other end. Her hair was tied in ribbons that matched her red and black uniform and hovered slightly above her shoulders. She seemed to jump higher than the others, smiled bigger, yelled louder. She shined the brightest.

Jake must’ve noticed who I was looking at. He said, “Dude, do you know who that is?”

“No. Do you?”

“Of course, I do. She’s in my gym class.”

“So...who is she? Where did she come from?”

“Her name’s Alicia Roman, lover boy. I think she went to Ken’s middle school.”

“What’s she like?”

“She’s alright, I guess. Audrey talks to her.”

“Audrey’s in that class, too?”

“Dude, Audrey’s in like five of my classes.”

“Do you think she’s getting suspicious?”

“Nah,” Jake dismissed the thought. “But I’m lucky I’ve got friends in the counseling office that can slip me someone’s schedule for a small fee.”

I smiled, shook my head. “Isn’t that against the rules?”

Jake shrugged. “So’s speeding, but people do it. Anyway, that Alicia chick...you don’t have a chance. She’s with Dick Less.”

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