The end of May brought a new reason to hope. On that Monday morning I looked up at the blue sky and closed my eyes as the sun’s rays found my face. A slight breeze ran though my hair. I felt pumped up after my early morning work-out with my dad. I stood at the bottom of my front steps and took a few deep breaths. The school year was almost over and soon the dangerous mile journey to and from Roosevelt High would come to an end. I had definitely become more skilled at avoiding and dealing with the bullies. Things were still far from perfect but since starting therapy, they felt more bearable.
I didn’t cower in the presence of the bullies, I stood up for myself. Mostly, I had become a ghost. I had plotted a new route to and from school that avoided them. I knew every road, path, hallway, stairway, bathroom – all the places where I could possibly run into them and I steered clear of those areas. I changed for gym in the janitor’s closet and stayed away from the boy’s locker room altogether. I ate lunch and spent recess in Mr. Chipchaw’s art studio. And unless absolutely necessary, I avoided my locker.
After strapping on my helmet, I started cruising to school on my long board. The nice thing about owning a surf shop was that I had access to lots of toys. Surf boards, paddle boards, snowboards, and skateboards of all kinds. My dad recently brought home an Arbor Zeppelin carving board to demo. It was a flexible board and I easily jumped the sidewalk to ride along the narrow street, dodging in and out of parked cars, something my mom would have freaked over if she saw me. I came to an intersection and briefly paused, looking each way. To my left, a group of kids were heading to school, walking parallel with me. No one that thankfully posed a threat.
I sped up and at the next intersection turned left, then a quick right. I needed to steer clear of one section where a couple of ninth-grade bullies would most likely be walking. They had twice tried to surprise me with a sneak attack by waiting and jumping out from behind a car, but I had the advantage of speed with my long board. Today, I timed it right and all was clear. My ride felt almost like magic, it went so smoothly.
Once I arrived at school, I zoomed passed the main entrance and rode around to the back of the main building. I strolled through the delivery door for food services and cut through part of the kitchen and finally the cafeteria. None of the staff bothered me. Sometimes they even tossed me an apple. Mr. Chipchaw had put them on alert. Then I climbed an infrequently used back stairwell and finally headed toward the art studio. Mr. Chipchaw was always standing outside his door, ready to greet me. He stored my lunch, skateboard and helmet for me, and then I was off to homeroom for attendance and morning announcements.
At lunch time I returned to Mr. Chipchaw’s art room. There I found Chippy in rare form, standing on top of his desk, engaged in some strange comedy routine that most of the kids ignored, but I loved. He turned abruptly to face me, clicked his heels and saluted. I responded with a two-finger salute and half a smile. My lunch was waiting for me at my regular table. Someone else was sitting at my table too.
She was the most beautiful girl that I had ever laid eyes on. I stopped in my tracks and stood gaping at her. I swallowed hard and looked up at Mr. Chipchaw who had just climbed down from his desk. He walked over to me.
“Jonah, this is Simone. Simone, this is Jonah.”
The girl looked up from her book, smiled and nodded at me. I did the same.
“Simone’s family just moved here from New York. Her school back east is already done for the year. She will be starting here at the end of August and wanted to spend some time checking things out.”
Mr. Chipchaw put a hand on my shoulder and continued. “The principal asked that you be Simone’s chaperone for the next few weeks. She’s just going to shadow you while you go to your regular classes. You don’t need to do anything different.”
“Oh, ah…okay, sure. No problem,” I stammered.
“Good.” And he walked toward his desk but turned back to wink at me.
I took my regular seat which was across from Simone. I reached for my lunch and smiled politely, awkwardly busying myself with my food. Then I peeled opened a yogurt and started to stir it, trying to think of something to say.
She spoke first. “So, what’s the deal, students come here for lunch to work on their art projects?”
I took a quick spoonful of raspberry yogurt and nodded. “Yeah, that’s right. Mr. Chipchaw will let anyone spend lunch and recess here if they want.”
“He’s ah…” she started, lowering her voice, “unique.” She motioned with her head toward Mr. Chipchaw.
I smiled. “Yeah, that’s Chippy. He’s a really good guy though. Probably my favorite teacher actually.” I tried to act cool. I stirred my yogurt a few more times.
“If you say so,” she responded, rolling her eyes a little. “When I was waiting in the main office this morning to meet the principal, he walked by the window and was carrying what looked like a blow torch. He was also wearing these strange looking goggles and a weird smock. And his hair was sticking out everywhere, like he combed it with a firecracker.”
I burst out laughing and some of my yogurt shot out of my mouth and landed on her book. I immediately slapped my hand over my mouth.
“Gross!” Simone exclaimed, laughing.
“I’m sorry,” I said quickly. “I’ll get a napkin.” I started to get up.
“Don’t worry,” she said, still laughing and pulled a tissue out of her book bag.
Seeing she had a sense of humor, I added to her Chipchaw caricature.
I cleared my throat. “He also likes to wear those shoe covers, you know those cloth things you slip over your shoes, so you don’t get a new floor dirty?”
Simone nodded and smiled, twirling a long black braid between her fingers.
“Anyway, he puts them on and literally skates the hallways. He’ll bend over and swing his arms like a speed skater, cruising all over the school corridors.”
Simone laughed and I joined her. We both then stole a look over at Mr. Chipchaw who was completely engrossed in assembling a Lego Rebel T-47 Snowspeeder. A true Star Wars classic.
Simone noticed my interest in what Mr. Chipchaw was building. “My younger brother built that same snowspeeder. He’s obsessed. From The Empire Strikes Back, right?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” I changed my focus back to Simone, impressed that she recognized the iconic airspeeder.
“So, what are you working on?” She asked me, reaching down to the floor to get her own lunch pack. She opened it and pulled out a sandwich.
I must have looked confused.
“Your art project,” she explained. “What are you working on?”
“Oh. Um, well, I’ve been doing a colored pencil drawing. It’s in the cubby over there.”
“Cool. Can I see it?” She then took a big bite out of her sandwich.
“Sure.” I got up and grabbed my sketch. I spread it out on the table using four paper weights. Simone stood up and walked around to my side of the table to check out my work.
“It’s San Miguel Island,” I explained to her. “One of the Santa Barbara Channel Islands. And those are, well, they’re supposed to be a mother blue whale and her calf. And these are harbor seals. About a thousand of them breed on the island every year.”
She nodded, taking another bite of her sandwich. As she carefully studied my drawing, I admired her smooth dark brown skin. She leaned in closer to me and I caught the scent of vanilla and coconut coming from her hair. Long black braids framed her pretty face. She wore cool city clothes, not Santa Barbara surf wear. Her petite body reminded me of a gymnast. And then she suddenly looked at me and revealed beautiful straight white teeth. “This is really good!” she exclaimed.
“You think so?” I replied, somewhat startled by her enthusiastic praise.
“Oh yeah. I like it a lot. I like the shading…and the colors. Have you been to this island?”
We both returned to our seats. “Yeah, a few times. It’s about a four-hour boat ride, but it’s totally worth the trip. I was hoping to go this coming weekend with my dad, but there’s a storm off the coast that will make the channel really rough. So we probably can’t go, it’ll be too dangerous.”
“Oh right, I heard some boys in the hallway talking about some pretty big surf. Sounds like some major waves coming this way.”
“Ya, probably the beginning of next week.”
She took another bite of her sandwich then asked, “Do you surf?”
“Yeah, I do. A lot. My dad owns a surf shop and runs a surf camp. He taught me.”
Simone eyed me suspiciously and I knew immediately that she was skeptical of my claim given my size. Everyone assumed I was too small to be good at anything, I was so tired of it. But I didn’t let this get me down, I still wanted to keep the conversation going and impress her.
“I don’t suppose you surf?” I asked.
She made a face and said, “You think a Brooklyn girl can’t ride?”
“Ah…I just figured…”
And then before I could finish, we were interrupted as Mr. Chipchaw turned on some music and accidentally blared it. He scrambled to turn it down.
“Sorry kids. Sorry. Hey, let’s take out the earbuds everyone and listen to some quality music. It’s just a Beatles tune, it won’t kill you.”
There were a few groans from the other kids.
“Come on guys, it’s not every day we get to hear music without profanity. Or, that isn’t degrading to women. Or, celebrating violence.”
Simone giggled a little and then looked back at me. “So, you think I’m a kook?”
Her use of “kook” caught me off guard. Growing up around a surf shop and surfers, I knew surfing lingo and was surprised to hear a city girl use a surfer term which is negative for a novice.
“No, I’m…I’m just surprised…you being from the city…”
“You ever hear of Montauk? Ditch Plains?” she asked, smugly.
“You mean those little ripples off Long Island?” I countered.
She stuck her tongue out at me and then said, “I went to surf camp there. Three summers.”
“I’m kidding. That’s cool.”
“Do you ever eat in the cafeteria…and go out for recess?”
Her question immediately made me uncomfortable and I realized that although I was thrilled to be escorting this beautiful girl around school, I couldn’t very well run the alternate routes I’d been using to avoid the bullies. I would have to get around like a normal student. A panicky feeling washed over me and I could feel the sweat starting in my pits then trickling down my sides.
“Sure, sometimes…but lately I’ve been working on this drawing.”
“Do you play any sports?” she asked next.
“Ah, yeah. I play sports. I’m not actually on the school teams…this year…but I still play on my own.”
“Cool, what do you play?” she continued and pulled an apple out of her bag.
“Um…soccer, and basketball. Baseball. How about you?”
“I play tennis. My mom makes me take lessons. But I love basketball. I played on the JV school team back in Brooklyn. I really like to sing too.”
“Oh, that’s cool. I’m in the chorus. Well, every freshman has to take either chorus or band. But it’s kind of fun actually.”
Simone chewed for a few seconds and then said, “I saw a flyer in the hallway by the main office. For an audition for a final spring concert?”
“Oh…right. Yeah, everyone has to be in the concerts, it counts as a test grade. And there are some solo parts that students can audition for.”
Simone’s eyes brightened. “Really? I’d love to audition…but maybe they wouldn’t let me…since I don’t really start school here until August.”
“Well, I have chorus tomorrow and we can ask the teacher, Mrs. Ramirez. I bet she would let you audition, since this will be your school now.”
“You think so? I don’t know. Are the kids here really good?”
“Some of them. The ones that do the school musical. They take voice lessons and do all those county competitions.”
“Yeah, I did some of that in Brooklyn. It was really competitive. I get nervous though.”
I tried to think of something reassuring to say. “I’m sure you’ll do great.”
Our conversation moved along until the end of the lunch period when Simone went to use the girls’ bathroom. Mr. Chipchaw approached me to see how it was going. He told me that it looked like I had made a good first impression. I tried to be positive but was becoming more freaked out over the fact that this amazing girl would soon find out I had no friends and was being bullied, and would think I was a loser.
Thankfully the rest of the day went smoothly and there were no encounters with any of the bullies. But I sensed that Simone was curious about the fact that no other kids talked to me. No one said hello to me in the hallways or acknowledged me before or after class. And I didn’t dare introduce Simone to any of my classmates.
Then as we were walking toward the main entrance after classes, Simone surprised me.
“So…are you new here too?”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“Well, I thought maybe you just moved here too. You don’t seem to know many students.”
She was on to me. I started to feel nauseous but tried to think quickly.
“Oh…um, so there are like three different middle schools that all feed into this high school. There are a lot of kids I don’t know…yet…”
She nodded. “But you’ve been here all year, right?”
I didn’t really answer her. “Hang on.” And I rushed over to a nearby water fountain and took a long drink. She followed me and leaned against the wall.
“You’re really shy, aren’t you?”
I just kind of shrugged and mumbled, “A little, I guess.”
I tried to change the subject and asked her what she thought about the classes. And then we reached the lobby to the main entrance. I spied Brian Pullman out front with his gang. He hadn’t noticed me yet. I stopped before the door and turned to Simone. “So, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Okay, sure, where should I meet you? Your locker? Or homeroom?”
“Oh, right. Um, well, maybe homeroom. It’s just down here.” I felt relieved to be able to turn around and walk in the opposite direction. Simone turned and quickly caught up. I could see that Jesse Williams was approaching and for a second, I felt a twinge of hope. I almost opened my mouth to actually say hi to Jesse and to introduce Simone, but it was obvious that Jesse wanted no part of it because he quickly looked at me and then put his head down and looked at his cell phone. He walked past me as if I was invisible. My face burned at the snub and I quickened my pace, hoping Simone would fall a step behind and not see my embarrassment.
I cleared my throat and then said without looking at her, “Here’s my homeroom. Room 107.”
“Okay, cool. I’ll see you here at 8:00 tomorrow. Are you taking the bus home or do you walk?”
“I’m a walker. I rode my skateboard today. It’s in Mr. Chipchaw’s room. I should go back up there and get it.”
“I’ll come with you,” she said cheerfully.
This surprised me. “You don’t have to, I don’t want to hold you up.”
“It’s fine, I’m a walker too.”
It turned out that Simone only lived a few streets over from me. We walked the direct route to my house and I sweated like crazy, worried we would run into the bullies.
“This is me, right here. But I can walk you to your house if you aren’t sure of the way.”
“That’s okay, I know where I’m going. Do you have a lot of homework?”
“Not really, just some Spanish vocabulary and a Geometry worksheet.” Was she possibly looking to hang out with me? I didn’t dare hope.
“Well, if you don’t have a lot of homework, can you ride bikes into town? Get an ice cream or something? Maybe show me around?” She asked playfully, twirling her hair and flashing me her dazzling smile.
“Sure, that sounds great,” I said, trying not to sound too excited.
“Cool. I live on Arrowhead Drive. Number twelve. Come by in an hour.”
“Okay, see you in an hour.”
I watched her walk for a bit and then raced inside and called out to my mom. She was getting ready to teach a yoga class and packing up her stuff.
“My J-man, come give me hug. How was school?"
She hugged me like she hadn't seen me in a month. I knew she worried about me every minute of every day.
"Okay, Mum, you're really squishing me."
"Sorry, honey. So school went okay? Listen, I’m headed out to teach a class. It’s a stand-up paddle class, do you want to come?”
“No, I can’t. School was good. There's a new girl. And I’m going to bike into town. I mean, may I bike into town? This new girl, Simone, she's…I’m her…she's shadowing me. And she asked me to show her around. She lives on Arrowhead. I don’t have a lot of homework, can I go?” I talked a mile a minute.
“Oh! You want to bike into town with...Simone? Of course! That’s wonderful Jonah!” And she pulled me in again for another big hug. There were a lot of hugs since my parents found out about the bullying.
She started to head out the door and then turned around. “Do you need any money?”
“No, I’m good.”
“Okay. Well please be careful biking. Keep your helmet on. And bring your phone. And be home by 5:30 because Aunt Nancy is coming to my class and then having dinner with us.”
“I will, don’t worry.”
“Okay, honey. I love you, have fun,” she smiled. I could tell she was really happy for me.
Simone lived in a nice house that was much bigger than mine. As I rode up to the front, I saw her and a younger boy by the front steps, pumping up a bicycle tire. They seemed to be arguing. Then she looked up and saw me and waved. I waved and then leaned my bike against the fence and went inside the gate. She wheeled her bike toward me.
The boy followed Simone on a skateboard and caught up to us.
“This is my younger brother, Marcus.”
“Hey.” I said.
“You go to high school?” he asked, looking me up and down.
Simone shook her head. “Just ignore him.”
I tried to smile.
Then she turned back to the house and called out, “Mom! Mom, I’m going!”
She started to walk back toward the front door while Marcus stood there, eyeing me suspiciously.
A woman finally came to the front door. She was talking on a cell phone and held some papers in her hand.
“Mom, I’m biking to town with Jonah.”
Her mother nodded and waved, still talking on her cell.
“Let’s go. You can meet her later. She’s in the middle of work.”
“No problem. Later Marcus,” I said, trying to be friendly.
And we were off. We pedaled down State Street and I showed her Santa Barbara’s shops and restaurants, the movie theatre, Stearn’s Wharf, and the skateboard park. Then we biked to my dad’s surf shop and I introduced Simone. My dad had just finished up with a customer.
“Hey J, who’s your friend?”
“Dad, this is Simone. She just moved here from New York. I’m showing her around.”
“Welcome, Simone. It’s nice to meet you.” And he shook her hand.
“You too. I really like your shop.”
“Thank you. We run a surf camp too, if you have any interest. Jonah’s pretty good, if you ever want to….”
I cut him off. “Okay, Dad, we’re going to get some ice cream.”
“Got it.” And he winked at me. “See you at home. Hope to see you again Simone.”
And I hustled Simone out of there before my dad said anything embarrassing.
Later, when we got back to Simone’s house, she hopped off her bike and removed her helmet. I stood straddling my bike and waited for a minute. She opened the gate and wheeled her bike inside, leaning it against the fence and hanging her helmet on the handlebars. Then she walked back outside the gate over to me. “Hey, Jonah, I need to ask you something.”
My heart sank as I prepared myself for a question like, “Why don’t you have any friends at school?” I swallowed hard and waited.
“It’s more of a favor.” She added.
This came as a relief and I stood up straighter, feeling less nervous. “Sure, what’s up?”
She smiled shyly and looked down. “Well, you’re in the chorus, so I’m thinking you probably have a good idea about the competition for this audition. I don’t want to embarrass myself, being new and everything…so I was wondering if you would hear me sing. And let me know if you think I’m good enough to audition. If the music teacher lets me, that is.”
“Oh!” I answered, relieved.
“My mom already joined a church here and I’m in the choir. I’ve only sang with them one Sunday, but it’s just like my church back in New York. They said I could do a solo this Sunday…I was hoping you would come hear me.”
I hesitated. Surprised that she would trust me to judge her voice. She barely knew me. But I realized she didn’t know anyone else. And this was obviously important to her.
She must have thought my hesitation meant that I wasn’t into helping her so she quickly blurted out, “You don’t have to, it’s a dumb idea. Forget about it.”
“No, it’s totally cool. Yes, I’ll come hear you sing. I’m sure my parents won’t mind.”
“Really? Wow, thank you so much!” She threw her arms around me and hugged me. It surprised me but I didn’t want to make her feel awkward so I hugged her back. It was really nice actually. When she pulled away, she was smiling and her eyes were bright. She said, “My first friend in a new town.”
I couldn’t help but smile back. It was a big smile and felt natural, I didn’t have to fake it. I hadn’t felt happy in a really long time and I noticed an unfamiliar warmth building in my chest. The tingly feeling extended to my fingertips and toes and then finally settled into my stomach. I felt relaxed but also nervous and excited. Maybe this was my first crush, I wasn’t exactly sure, but for the moment I felt comforted. A reassuring feeling that I actually mattered to someone.
Simone stepped back and then pulled her cell phone from her sweatshirt pocket.
“Okay, I just need to get your number.”
“Oh, okay. It’s 805-221-9439.”
“Got it.” She called my number on her cell phone. “Is my call coming through?”
I pulled out my phone and looked. “Yup.” And then added her to my contacts.
“Cool. That was fun. And your family’s shop is awesome. I would love to surf with you sometime.”
“Yeah, definitely.” I said, trying to hide my feelings of pure joy.
“Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow.” And she turned and started to walk up to her front door.
“Okay, later.” I watched her for a second and then put on my helmet and started for home.
Mom and Aunt Nancy were making dinner while my dad was chilling on our deck. No one embarrassed me with questions about my afternoon with Simone, but everyone was in a good mood. We ate tacos and drank lemonade on the patio, and then I did my homework.
I read in bed and started to nod off when I heard my phone ping. I groggily got up and shuffled over to my desk. The only people I ever got messages from these days were my parents. I was surprised to see a text from Simone. A simple message that read, “Thanks for today,” and an emoji with some colorful hearts. My own heart immediately raced and the same warm and tingly feeling from this afternoon returned. I sent her back a smiley face with hearts and some musical notes. I powered off my phone and crawled back into bed. I drifted off into a deep and peaceful sleep. And the nightmare stayed away.