THEY MADE THEIR way out of the main block, crossing the crowded yard outside and into the school cafeteria, where they found a quiet, unoccupied table at the corner.
The hall was a beehive, with a regular influx of students, while others were exiting the place. Alan and Julie chatted freely, shared a joke or two over some freshly baked snacks and a bottle of soda each.
Afterwards, for the last few minutes of the period, they sat back on a long, red bench beneath a tree, cooling off and enjoying the warm weather, being all too aware of the occasional prying glances in their direction from many of the students walking by. There were many of such benches around the school compound where students usually lounged in, mostly after school hours and during free periods as well.
Wearing dark blue, denim pants, brown and white sneakers and a white LA Galaxy T-shirt, Alan had a relaxed mien about him; his legs outstretched and arms spread out on the head frame of the bench. Julie was still in her yellow jersey and sneakers, but rather than her mini play skirt, she’d taken a moment to head back to her room and put on green pants and a hat to keep the sun from her eyes. She looked adorable and Alan found himself staring a couple of times.
It was a breezy day and the shade provided by the overhanging branches was quite welcoming.
“So how are you preparing?” Julie asked quietly.
He looked at her, askance. “For?”
“For the finals?”
Alan paused. Then he grinned indifferently, shrugging. “There’s only little a boy can do, J,” he answered, calling by her fond alias. “But considering the circumstances, I’m giving it my best shot.”
She looked at him. “As always?”
“You bet.” Then he paused uncertainly and started twiddling his fingers. His attention shifted momentarily to a couple of junior girls skipping rope beneath one of the trees, and to a car just pulling up in the parking lot of the principal’s office.
Noticing the cloud that seemed to have settled over his countenance suddenly, Julie said, “What’s eating you?”
He sighed. “Home trouble, as always.”
Alan hesitated, stared at her. “They’re not getting along so good, Julie.”
She paused, thinking of what to say. Finally: “Too bad. I’m sorry, Al.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“But it’s not your fault that your parents aren’t getting along, Alan,” she stated quietly. “Do cheer up.”
“I know. But still it’s killing me, J,” he said in despair. “I feel so awful about it when they nag and tear at each other.”
Julie paused again. “Maybe you should try speaking with them, Al.”
He scoffed, grinned slyly. “They won’t listen, Julie.”
“But they might. I always speak to my parents when they have an argument,” she insisted. “They listen.”
“Then you’re lucky,” Alan muttered quietly, unimpressed.
“You can speak with your Mom, at least, can’t you?”
Alan shook his head warily. “I’ve tried, Julie. Didn’t work. Nothing seems to be working with my parents anymore.”
“Is it that bad?”
He nodded. “My dad’s business isn’t doing so well, and now he thinks my mom’s cheating on him with her boss at work.”
Julie paused and looked at him. “Is she?”
“Is your mom seeing someone else?”
Alan stared at her, mildly perplexed. Then he snorted quietly. Feeling uneasy and uncomfortable with what Julie was suggesting, he said, “No, of course not. I mean, I’m not sure that she would be seeing anyone, J. Anyway, how the hell am I supposed to know that?”
“But if your dad believes that she’s seeing someone,” Julie continued, pursuing the line of thought, “maybe he has enough reason to think so.”
Alan looked at her uneasily. “My dad drinks a lot, J,” he told her. “Maybe he was just trying to get at her, you know, by saying nasty things about her.”
“Are you certain that’s the case?” she raised an eyebrow.
Alan turned away, seeming upset now. “Look, Mom isn’t seeing anyone so let’s not even talk about it, OK?”
He paused. “No need to apologize, Julie. I’m not upset with you. I’m just...upset with them, that’s all.”
He began to twiddle his knuckles again.
“So what’s going to happen now?” she asked, after a while. “Do you think they’re likely to get a divorce?”
Alan sighed, closed his eyes for a moment and nodded. “Yeah, J; I think so. Mom has threatened a number of times that she would leave him one day, says the only thing that’s keeping her so far is us; my siblings and me,” he told her grimly. “But I think she’s made up her mind this time. I don’t think she can stand him much longer.”
Julie clenched her lips and looked at him with empathy. “What’re you going to do?” she asked him quietly.
“Nothing. What could I possibly do?”
“What about Tim and Rachel?” she asked.
He shrugged. ”Wha’d’you expect? No one’s happy at home.”
“I’m sorry, Alan,” she said, looking at him.
“Yeah, me too.” Then he looked at her, brightened up and said, “Let’s not get into a sour mood on account of my family troubles. So tell me, what was it you wanted to say?”
Julie stared uncertainly, seeming not to follow.
“Back at the gym, remember?” he prompted her. “You said we had to talk.”
She eyed him quietly, said nothing.
“What’s it?” he persisted.
She sighed. “It’s not important. Never mind.”
“If it’s getting you agitated, of course it’s important,” continued Alan. “What is it? I might be able to help.”
Julie paused again, gasped quietly. “I shouldn’t be discussing it with you, Alan.”
“Come on, J; you know you can discuss anything with me. We’re friends, right?”
“So say it,” he nudged her gently.
Again, Julie paused, weighing her options. Then she said, “It’s about Kamil,” she said, subdued. “We’re breaking up.”
Alan paused and looked at her. “Why? What happened?” he asked, taken aback.
“He’s going off to college out of town soon, and doesn’t think we can keep up a long distance relationship,” she said.
“But that’s not right,” he said sincerely. “If you love someone, it doesn’t matter where they are or where you are. You’ll always find a way to be together.”
Julie Sandarton smiled, looked at him coyly. “That sounds so poetic, Al.”
“It’s the truth.”
She sighed. “Yes, but Kamil doesn’t think that’s how it works.”
Alan stared out into the open yard, wondering what else to say or what she was thinking about just then. She seemed quite distressed that her love life was nose-diving and, quite interestingly, Alan realized that he felt genuinely sorry for her.
They were quiet for a long while, each feeling awkward and lost in thoughts of private concern.