Chapter 12: Unbalanced
Limping out the door, I tightened the strap of my backpack tighter around my shoulder, grimacing. The weather was surprisingly good: clear blue skies, not a hint of a gray cloud in sight, and the sun glinting its way through the leaves of the nearby trees. Alas, it was still a mundane Monday morning, one that I was in no mood to face, much less survive.
“Nina, how many times have I told you to not sleep so late?” Mom asked as I passed by her in the kitchen. She sat at the island clutching a large mug of coffee and wearing a champagne colored shirt with a long emerald skirt. Effortlessly beautiful without even having to put in effort. I, on the other hand, had simply threw on a gray T-shirt that was clean (I think) and a pair of black track shorts. “Were you watching that show again?”
“I was finishing up a History assignment and an essay,” I yawned, opening the refrigerator to pour myself a glass of good old OJ.
“I thought you did your homework with Harrison the other day?” she asked, frowning at me and putting down her mug of coffee on a coaster.
“Hm?” I asked, not exactly in a proper state of mind to be answering questions this early in the day. Mom walked on over, handing me a glass in the cupboard. I sent her a grateful glance, tipping the rim of the jug towards the cup.
“The other day? You were gone for hours, Nina.”
My memory clicked: the other day I had not been studying. The other day I had been at a fancy hotel attending a fancy luncheon for a fancy beauty pageant that I fancily happened to be in. Everything about my life should have been seemingly glamorous, yet here I stood: in the oldest set of clothes that I had owned since middle school, two sizes too small for me but still holding a sense of comfort and nostalgia.
“We were doing homework, but for our Science classes. I was helping him with chemistry and then afterwards, I barely had time to finish my Biology lab work,” I explained, stifling another yawn. Mom sighed, shaking her head.
“I just don’t want to see you looking so exhausted, honey.”
“Gee, thanks,” I darkly mumbled, glaring at the orange juice. Then I saw it: the flash of a sparkle on her wrist. On closer inspection, it was a bracelet with a single dainty flower charm hanging from it. “What’s that?”
“Oh, this?” she asked, and suddenly our roles were easily switched; she had become the mouse and I the cat. “An old thing.”
“An old thing?” I repeated, looking at her and raising my eyebrows. If she thought I was sleep deprived enough to fall into stupidity, she was dead wrong. “An old thing from who?”
Before she could answer, the doorbell rang, which was the strangest thing because it was only seven thirty in the morning. Deliveries in our cul-de-sac never arrived this early, and certainly no one had ordered food. Mom walked away at a rather fast pace, probably relieved that she had been saved by the clutches of my interrogation. I chugged down the rest of my orange juice, swiping my mouth with the back of my hand.
“Nina!” she called out from the hallway. Bewildered, I walked sluggishly towards the door. I hadn’t remembered ordering anything, item wise or food wise. What I saw standing on our door mat made me wide awake. A person, that person unexpectedly being Parker Deangelis. Mom was standing at the door, a hand placed on her hip staring pointedly at me. I gulped. “This gentleman says that he is your friend?”
“Parker,” I weakly said, positive that my face was currently one hundred degrees. I cleared my throat, turning to her with the most innocent expression I could manage. “Mom, this is my friend Parker. Parker… this is my mom.”
“Pleasure to finally meet you, Mrs. Gregory. I have heard wonderful things,” he said, which we all knew was a bunch of BS since I had never truly talked to anyone about my mom except for Harrison. Anyone else was a lucky exception.
“Finally? How long have you two been friends?” Mom asked, taking his hand in hers to shake it.
“A little over a week,” Parker dutifully answered, and my eyes bulged at him. He instead smiled sweetly at my mother, who clearly was quite lost. She turned to me, expecting answers.
“He’s joking,” I weakly answered. “Parker is-”
“Her senior buddy,” he cut in.
“Senior buddy? You’re a senior?” she asked, now more intrigued than ever.
“Yes ma’am. I’m her senior buddy, so I show her the ropes, the usual: get good grades, don’t cut classes, don’t do drugs.”
There was a long, painful silence before my mom blinked. “Comforting,” she breathed, forcing a smile.
“This week we’ve been assigned to walk our little buddies to school,” he explained. “It’s mandatory. If I don’t do this, I’ll lose my position as secretary. Very crucial to my extra curricular activities.”
The amount of bull that Parker was spewing out of his mouth at seven thirty in the morning was making my head spin. I didn’t know whether I should be impressed or concerned. The irony out of this whole conversation was that a) Parker was not a part of any type of academic extra curricular; b) Parker in no way could be secretary because he took horrible notes, adding onto the fact that he didn’t even take notes, period; and c) right behind Parker, walking up our pathway, was none other than Harrison. I felt my head tilt back in, then whip around to look at the clock set on our mantel in the livingroom. It was ticking. It was showing the correct time. So, I wasn’t still dreaming or dead. This was all really happening.
“Harrison,” Mom laughed, shooting me a dubious, amused look. “Nice to see Nina has so many visitors this morning.”
Harrison was smiling in return until his eyes landed on Parker, who had slowly turned around. There was such an obvious contrast between them: Harrison was built in a gentle, strong way wearing a white T-shirt and jeans with his black hair in a mop on his head, while Parker had the kind of build with broad shoulders, not to mention he was taller. The tension between them, also, was undeniable. I took a deep breath.
“Harrison, what are you doing here?” I asked.
He still had a steel stare on Parker while he answered, “To help you walk to school and carry your books.” He narrowed his eyes at Parker. “What are you doing here?”
“He’s her senior buddy,” Mom answered, folding her arms.
Harrison opened his mouth to protest, but I cut in, letting out a loud laugh. “Mom, I’ll see you at the shop after school. Harrison, you can walk with me and my senior buddy here. Bye, Mom!”
Without uttering a single word, she closed the door on us, sure to contemplate what had just unraveled over her large mug of coffee. I still hadn’t forgotten about the new bracelet on her wrist that was supposedly an “old thing,” but now I had bigger fish to fry. I whipped around to shoot Parker a bewildered look.
“Okay, what are you really doing here?” I asked.
“I’ve been wondering the same thing,” Harrison protectively added. I shot him an odd look before returning my attention back to Parker, who grinned, stretching his arms.
“Richel told me to walk you to school and prep you for the upcoming catwalk show this Friday,” he said, already five steps ahead of Harrison and I. We looked at one another in disbelief before catching up to him.
“What catwalk show?” I asked.
“Didn’t you receive the itinerary?” I shook my head and he sighed. “I’m just the messenger, so I’m not exactly sure of all the details. But from what I know, this week is the pageant.”
“This week?” I screeched, stopping in place. Two birds on a nearby branch flew away.
“This week,” Parker confirmed, nodding his head and stuffing his hands into his dark denim jacket. “Also, Richel wanted me to tell you that you need to drink water at every waking second.”
“Where is Richel?” Harrison scoffed, shooting me a he-is-crazy look.
“She’s at our dad’s right now,” he quietly answered. Harrison opened his mouth to press for more, but I lightly elbowed him in the ribs, shaking my head. If Richel was at her dad’s, maybe she was finding out the real situation. Either that, or they were just spending quality time together because he missed his only daughter. Unless he already had another woman and another daughter, a brand new family.
Wouldn’t know anything about that.
Harrison pulled my wrist back just as I was about to cross the street, my crutch nearly getting hit by a car and the driver honking their horn as they made a sharp, loud turn. I gasped, and Parker instantly placed a hand on my shoulder. The boys both looked at one another, and I felt this uncomfortable tugging inside my chest. I shook both my arms free of their grips, and they relaxed.
“I’ll make sure to text her that I’m drinking lots of water, and I’ll check my email later during brunch. Done deal?” I asked right as we were passing the school gate, the American flag on the pole waving in the light breeze. Parker strummed his fingers along the gate, the metal making tinkling noises like wind chimes. He smiled at me.
“Done deal,” he said, clapping me on the shoulder before saluting Harrison and I and walking in the other direction altogether. Harrison watched him leave with a look of incredulity.
“Where in the hell is he going?” he snorted. “Not that I actually care.”
“Most likely ditching class,” I mumbled, watching Parker kick a rock along the sidewalk. But something told me that he wasn’t ditching purely because he could. Something told me he was thinking about his dad, and he was stuck in the middle of one giant secret, of one giant lie.
Wouldn’t know anything about that, either.
“I don’t understand why you like that guy so much,” he scoffed, and we entered the school parking lot. Students were filing their way along school grounds, and I could already hear the slamming of metal lockers and the footsteps of students roaming around, enjoying spare time until the bell rung.
“I never said I did,” I replied, wrinkling my nose at him. “You're the one who randomly showed up at my doorstep earlier.”
“And he didn’t do the same?” Harrison shot back, turning to the left into the East Wing, since he knew that was where my locker was. “Besides, I was just trying to do a good deed and be a good friend.”
“Nice to know I’m a charity case,” I mumbled, reaching my locker and spinning the dial with a fury. I wasn’t just angry, I was annoyed. Every single move that Harrison was making made me feel hot and cold.
He sighed, leaning his shoulder against the locker beside mine. “That’s not what I meant.” When I still didn’t say a word, he poked my stomach. “Hey.”
“Don’t do that,” I snapped, finally getting my locker door to open and reaching inside to rummage through the contents. Maybe I could hit him with my History notebook, or perhaps my English composition notebook. Choices, choices. “Why aren’t you with Leslie?”
He grew quiet, and I slowly turned to him. He was looking at the ground, then lifting his eyes to meet mine. I felt my cheeks turning hot. “We got into an argument over the weekend.”
“An argument? Why?” I mumbled.
He scratched the back of his head. “You know how you used me as your alibi to attend the luncheon over the weekend?” I nodded. “Well, Leslie wanted me to go dress shopping with her that day for the spring formal, but I told her I couldn’t because I might risk your mom seeing me and it might blow the whole-”
“Wait,” I said, holding up a hand. “You told her that my mom doesn’t know I’m in the beauty pageant?”
He blinked. “Yeah.”
I smacked a palm against my forehead, groaning in frustration. “Harrison,” I said through gritted teeth, “she is going to blackmail me.”
“She is not going to blackmail you, Nina. You’re overreacting.”
“She is! She will! She hates me.”
“She doesn’t hate y-”
“Then why did she get mad?” I cut in, and he grew silent. I sighed, running my fingers through my hair. “Did you tell her anything else?”
“No,” he replied. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking and I shouldn’t have told her. I’ll talk to her.”
“Okay, thanks,” I mumbled, but the heaviness swelling up inside my chest didn’t seem to go away, regardless of Harrison’s reassurance. It wasn’t that I thought Leslie was evil; people aren’t evil so much as angry. But I had thought Harrison would have the brains to at least take into consideration the fact that if I didn’t tell my own mother about the beauty pageant, then he shouldn’t have told his girlfriend about it. The number of people who were aware I was in the beauty pageant was small for a reason.
There was a sudden burst of shrieking to our left, nearby a water fountain. My shoulders jumped in surprise, and Harrison and I both turned to watch yet another spring formal ask unraveling. A girl with curly blonde hair was holding a single pink balloon with the word “formal?” spelled out in Post-It notes on the exterior. As if on cue, a boy exited the locker room, wearing a lacrosse uniform and clutching his lacrosse stick. He came to a halt, eyebrows raised, mouth opened wide. I could almost see the cranks in his brain working, taking everything in: the balloon, the question being asked, the girl. It was easy to see the dots connecting, and then he grinned, laughing and nodding his head. This followed with a hug and a grand applause from the lacrosse team that had left the locker room at around the same time the boy did. Whistles and cheers echoed and soon it was like a ripple effect, the entire hallway feeling obliged to join in on the clapping and cheering.
My face was burning. Another yes, another high school hope checked off the list. For that girl, she had gotten the one thing she’d been anticipating: acceptance. I turned to Harrison, who was already looking at me.
“Have you found a date to the formal?” he quietly asked, and I felt like I had been slapped in the face. I knew he wasn’t a mind reader, but could he really be that oblivious? Could a person really shut out that many signs? I would have told him that I was in love with him if it weren’t for the bell that suddenly rang, a warning that I should clearly hold my tongue and frustration.
So instead of confessing, I snapped, “Have you seen anyone constructing a giant ask in the hallways for me? I don’t think so.” I slammed my locker door shut, the bang startling him, and stalked off to first period before he could ask me another infuriating question that might make me punch him.
“People only believe what they want to see,” Mr. Chovin stated at the front of the classroom. English was easily one of my most boring classes, and I found myself dozing off, my eyelids fluttering closed only to drastically pop open again in attempt to stay awake. “The protagonist in this story chooses to see that the man she loves isn’t cruel, although everyone else in the town sees that he is. Why is that?”
The class half stretched and half blinked. Everyone was dead, if not physically then mentally. For some of us (me), it was emotionally, as well. I was beginning to feel the weight of the responsibilities I had suddenly taken on, almost like Superwoman. The pressures of the upcoming beauty pageant were starting to get to me, and I couldn’t stop creating scenarios in my head of me falling on my butt as I walked across the stage, or worse, galloping along the catwalk in order to get my time over and done with. Why couldn’t I be normal, and not have nerves of any sort?
“Miss Gregory,” Mr. Chovin suddenly said. Why must teachers always call out the people who truly don’t give a damn? Why couldn’t he choose Emma Howard, who sat at the very front of the room, hand poised perfectly straight in the air?
“Hm?” I asked, blinking and sitting straight up, removing my chin from the palm of my hand.
“Tell us, why do the townsfolk in the short story believe the man is cruel yet his lover can only see the good in him?”
“Um,” I mumbled, and I could feel the pairs and pairs of eyes on me stacking on top of one another. I swallowed. “I’m not sure.”
“You must have some idea,” he replied, and now it seemed that everyone was wide awake and waiting for me to answer. The silence was practically interminable, and I could tell Mr. Chovin was starting to wish he hadn’t called on me but on Emma instead, who now sat deflated and disappointed in her seat.
“She’s blinded,” I slowly said, choosing my words carefully, like picking out a blister from the skin of your thumb.
“By…?” he replied, leaning back expectantly on the heels of his feet.
“She’s blinded by her love for him,” I answered promptly, finding this answer coming to mind quicker than I thought it would, almost as if the words themselves had already been floating along the roof of my mouth.
“Ah, love,” Mr. Chovin sighed, and you could just tell that everyone twitched in their seats, especially the girls. Spring formal was drifting in the air, and the boys in the room were secretly hoping to be asked. “Love is the main problem in this story.”
“I thought the main problem was the fact that the guy killed someone,” a boy called out from the back, and the entire class chuckled and snickered. Mr. Chovin shook his head, smiling.
“That’s the obvious problem that the author has written merely to keep the story running,” he explained, taking a small sip from the cup on his desk. “But the real problem, a problem that often runs deep in most stories, is love. The lack of it, an overwhelming amount of it- it’s always unbalanced in every single tale you can think of.”
“Why is that?” someone asked, and it wasn’t until a couple seconds later that I realized the voice belonged to me. Loud and clear, every word enunciated.
If Mr. Chovin was surprised by my sudden interest, considering I had stayed silent and still since the beginning of the semester months ago, he didn’t show it. “Love is a concept that has never truly been grasped or understood. Authors often write about love in hopes of figuring it out, or because they’re simply intrigued by it. Love can go on and on.”
“Then why is it never balanced?” I asked, now sitting on my hands. I felt myself frowning, finding this particular lesson hitting a little too close to home.
“For that exact reason,” he said, and the imaginary bubbles with question marks floating above everyone’s heads, mine included, was virtually visible. “Because love is this never ending string of unknown; people can’t get enough. Especially when it comes to first love. Tell me, what do people get a kick out of when girls ask boys to the spring formal and vice versa?”
There was a silence, and then:
“A wish come true.”
The answers kept coming one after another, almost as if Mr. Chovin’s question was like a gun and the answers he was receiving came bullet after bullet after bullet. His eyes turned to me.
“Love,” I added. “To be loved by someone you love.”
“Good answer, Miss Gregory,” he said, and then the bell rang, signaling the jump start to getting to second period. Everyone got up from their seats and walked out in a daze, the girls with glossy eyes and the boys with red ears. I slowly walked up to his desk as he was shuffling through papers in a file folder.
“Mr. Chovin?” I asked.
“Yes?” he answered, looking up at me. I took note of the wedding ring on his left hand and was so tempted to ask him how he conquered the hardships of high school romance and first love and reached the final step that only the lucky seemed to reach: marriage. But it seemed too ridiculous, and I wasn’t feeling that disoriented or even brave.
“Does love in fictional stories always stay unbalanced? Like the woman in the story, does she ever realize that the man she loves is a murderer and has done horrible things to townsfolk?”
He shut the file folder, grimacing. “Unfortunately, the story is a short story, so the author leaves a hanging implication that she never does.” I felt my shoulders fall, but then Mr. Chovin said something that felt more important than any other lesson he had been trying to teach all year. “But sometimes, in the best stories, the timing is right and the characters can get together because the story wouldn’t be a story without the both of them.”
I simply nodded, unsure what exactly to say in return to something like that. It shook me to the core, what he said, but in a good way. In a way that made me step back and examine myself and my life and, more specifically, my feelings for Harrison.
I was heading out the door when Mr. Chovin called out my name. I turned back around, the soles of my sneakers squeaking against the floor. “Yes?”
“It was nice to see you participating in class today and speaking up. I’ve been waiting for that,” he chuckled, and I grinned at him. Maybe Mr. Chovin wasn’t such a boring teacher after all.
For the rest of the day, I walked around school trying to imagine my life without Harrison by my side. A life without punches and windows being climbed into; writing on fogged up breath; late night movies spent watched on the couch of the living room; walking through the halls and having him throw an arm around me, dangling just on my neck and shoulders. And to be frank... it wasn’t much of a story to me. Not with him cut out of it.