The graduation ceremony was noisy, stuffy, and generally not the type of environment anyone would want to be in. I watched as Ji-Hun and Wyatt go up for valedictorian and salutatorian. Ji-Hun’s parents were there, and his sister who’d graduated two years ago was there too. She was standing by the podium with a camera. I sat through the prize giving ceremony with my parents after that. My father got up whenever Wyatt was called, and he did complain about having to get up too much which made my mother and sisters laugh. Xander just sat on his seat and concentrated on his phone, not doing anything apart from that.
I took off the gigantic graduation gown immediately I got my certificate, and got to my seat, feeling instant relief. It had felt like a heater in there.
“Is it over yet?” Xander muttered beside me. He sounded exhausted, and like was pleading for me to say yes. I didn’t blame him, we’d been sitting here for hours. And now Wyatt was talking on stage. I doubt I’d even be here if my parents didn’t want to come and see Wyatt take gifts and give a speech. Wyatt was going out of state for college. He’d be doing medical science in the same college as his boyfriend, who’d be doing computer engineering. I wasn’t sure what Aiyana was going off to study, but it was probably English or classical literature — maybe both, from what I’ve heard her talk about with Wyatt. They’d taken their exams earlier in the year ahead of most people in our year so they already had their results.
A round of applause swept through the crowd when Wyatt was done with his speech, and he was soon replaced with the principal. My parents didn’t sit through the talk. My mother motioned for us to get up. My sisters and Xander headed for the car, while I walked side by side with my parents after they gave him a hug, and let him leave. We headed for the art studio since my mum and dad wanted to have a chat with my art teachers. They didn’t attend the ceremony since they had to help with the planning and decorations for prom night that was in two days.
When we got to the door of the art room I could already hear the voices of some students. I rose a brow in confusion when my mother opened the door to reveal a crowd of senior students in their graduation gowns crowded by the design table with Mr. Steve. The person that stood out most was a girl I recognized as the social coordinator for the student council who was now holding a clipboard and moving from table to table.
“It’s quite bust here,” my mum said as we walked in. My father hummed in agreement as they wandered to the walls filled with artworks. I could catch my mum’s smile as she traced the thick dried oil paint strokes of one of the pieces I’d done roughly a year ago. May parents soon started talking to each other, probably forgetting that they were here to talk to my teachers.
As I stood by the door and waited for my parents, I started to wonder what Wyatt and the rest were up to. I remembered that he was going to lunch with Ji-Hun and his parents. Also, I noticed Felix somewhere in the crowd. He’d come in casual clothing, and about a few minutes towards the end of Wyatt’s talk — probably straight from his college that closed for the holidays the day before. The whole graduation ceremony must be unofficially over now, seeing as more people in gowns were slipping into the art room, and that I could hear people and the sound of their shoes trending through the hallway from behind the door.
“Caleb. I didn’t notice you, how long have you been here?” I blinked, looking away from the crowd of students by the design table to find Mr. Dave walking towards me. He was wearing an overall that was covered in printing paint, and he was smiling although I could catch the tired look in his eyes.
“A while?” I shrugged, watching as he chuckled at my reply. I took my gaze away from him and directed it to my parents who’d wandered away from the wall with the oil painting, and were now looking at the acrylic works on another wall.
“My parents are here,” I added, turning to watch Mr. Dave’s eyes widen in shock. He didn’t say anything, just headed straight for them in a beeline. I smiled a bit, understanding his shock. They were well-known artists, but they barely visited my school. I’m not even sure my father has been here at all.
I turned away when I noticed that he’d started talking to them. My gaze moved to the design tables that were presently packed. I saw Mr. Steve, but I didn’t spot Toby in the crowd so I looked around the room and I found him standing by the printer. I bit my bottom lip, arguing with myself internally before I decided it was okay to approach him.
“Hey,” he said as he looked up before I made it to him. His smile was wide, but he had the same tired look as the two other teachers. I smiled back, repeating the greeting he’d thrown my way.
“So, you’ve graduated?” he said with a small chuckle, as he took his eyes away from me to look at the printer when it made a noise. “I’m printing schedules in case you’re wondering. How are you?”
“I’m doing fine,” I said just loud enough for him to hear. It bothered me that I became so meek and mouse like around him, how was I supposed to get him to see how I felt if I was silent? I put my hands in my pockets, watching as he nodded at my answer.
“Are you going for prom?”
“No,” I answered — maybe a little bit too quickly. Toby paused, looking towards me with a small frown on his face. His thick brows creased.
“Why not? It’s the last time you’ll be around your year mates,” he said, turning back to the printer that was still coughing out printed sheets. I ran a hand through my brown hair, wondering if he was just being oblivious, or whether he sincerely couldn’t think of why I wouldn’t go. I wasn’t a people person, and I barely knew anyone in my year — why would I go to a party crowded with them?
“Are you excited to help out during summer?” he asked; as if trying to keep the conversation alive.
“I am,” I answered, moving to rest on my weight on the large printer. I watched Toby look through the printed sheets before he headed towards his desk to put them away. I stood there, before deciding to walk over to his table.
“Am I bothering you?” I asked when he didn’t say anything to me and just typed into his laptop. I watched as his brown eyes moved from his screen to me with a surprised look.
“No. I’m sorry, I just wanted to get this done,” he said, smiling a little. “You can sit here,” he said, tapping the chair that was always by his desk briefly. I took the seat and continued to watch him work. After a while, he closed his laptop and got up from his seat. I continued to watch him, wondering what he was doing but blinked in surprise when he motioned for me to follow him.
I got up, doing just that. We walked out of the art room, and I tried to guess where he was leading me to, then I recognized the door of the art storage room when he stopped right in front of it. It was a medium-sized room stocked with supplies. He unlocked the door, walking in, and I followed him right into the room that smelled strongly of paint, chalk, and adhesives.
“You’re going to be coming here often, so you better get used to the smell,” he laughed, and I realized that I’d been scrunching my nose at the smell. I felt my face warm up in embarrassment as he laughed. I stood by the small window as he wandered to a corner, opening a cardboard box and started taking out packs of poster color from it. As I watched him sort and count supplies I eventually looked away to check my phone to see if my parents were done talking to Mr. Dave.
“What are you doing?” I heard Toby ask. I looked up, looking away immediately when I noticed he’d taken his dress shirt off and was not going through a stack of dusty drawing boards. I wondered where his shirt was when I spotted it sitting in the cardboard box he’d been searching a while ago.
“Nothing,” I said almost defensively. “I was just checking if my parents were done talking to Mr. Dave.”
“Oh,” I heard him say, making me look towards him, but I turned away again when I felt my face warm up like before. I wasn’t sure why I was acting like this — flustered. It was just his chest, and shoulders — and abs.
What is wrong with you? I scolded myself in my mind as I heard movements in the background. After a while, I willed myself to look towards him. He was still moving things in boxes and looking through boards – still very much shirtless. I’d given up on controlling my warm face and just watched him go about his business. Toby wasn’t too tall — six feet at best, and he had a good build, lean and tan.
“Are you okay?” I heard him say, making me blink and look away in embarrassment.
“I’m sorry,” I said immediately after, embarrassed.
“Sorry for what?” I could hear him walk over, the sound of his shoes trend on the floorboards with every footstep. I took a breath and closed my eyes when I felt his hands take a hold of my shoulders, and I almost shrunk into myself when I felt his face against mine.
“I told you to try and stop being nervous around me,” I heard him say as my heart tugged against my chest.
“I know how you feel, trust me. I don’t hate you — maybe you hate me? I don’t know, but you’re going to thank me one day for not taking advantage of your feelings. I won’t do that — even though you might think you want me to now.” His words were drawn out and slow. Like we wanted me to take them one by one and fully understand what he was saying. We stood there for a while, with him holding on to my shoulders as my heart raced. He eventually let go, giving me a small tired smile before returning to the pile of drawing boards at the corner.
He was soon started moving the supplies he’d collected into two smaller boxes and put his white shirt back on.
“Could you give me a hand?” he asked me as if nothing had happened just a few minutes ago. I nodded anyway, playing along, heading over to help him in the dress shirt and trousers I’d worn under the graduation gown. I took a box, and he took the other, and we left the storage room. By the time we got back to the art room, the senior students had left, and it was just my parents talking to Mr. Steve and Mr. Dave.
“You must be Toby,” my mum said with a smile as I walked in with him. Toby nodded towards here, dropping the box he’d been holding by his desk, and I did the same with the box I was holding.
“Yes,” he said, vocalizing his answer as he headed to sit on a donkey bench that was by my parents and the two other art teachers.
I watched them dissolve into a conversation, and I felt out of place just standing there so I decided to leave for the car. The graduation ceremony had officially ended now, so there were just a few cars in the parking lot, my parents’ family car being one of them. I headed for it, climbing into the back seat with Candice and Xander who were typing on their phones. Ava was up front in the center.
Wyatt had already left with Ji-Hun’s family, and would probably come back home later in the evening.
We stayed in the car in silence, the only sound being that of our phone keyboards. Our parents came back soon after, and we were soon heading back home.
“I like that Toby person, Caleb,” I heard my mum say from the front as my dad made a turn. “He seems like a nice person, really handsome too.”
I’m not sure why my face warmed up at the last sentence, but it did. It also took my mind back to the time I spent in the storage room with him, really doing nothing but observing. Then I just had to remember what he’d said to me. I was obvious he knew how I felt, but was pretending like nothing happened to do me a favor?
I kind of blanked out and looked out the window of the car to look at the passing scenery instead. A mild drizzle had started, staining the glass with dots of water droplets. A small tired smile found its way to my lips when I realized that there was just a week till I was going to be with Toby, in a sense? He could completely ignore me, or I could stop being meek and engage him with actions and not just words.
“You’ll thank me for not taking advantage of your feelings in the future.”
I could hear his voice in my head, but I really didn’t want to take it as it was. He wouldn’t be taking advantage of me. I was eighteen, as well as being a graduate. Framing me as a child didn’t have any ground now. I was going to try again, but not by being overly direct this time, but by engaging with him and getting to know him better, and him getting to know me. My socializing skills were probably rolling in their graves now, but I didn’t care.
I just wanted to try.