I entered my English classroom, my eyes already trained in the direction to my desk. I felt a light tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see Joshua’s smiling face in front of me. He pointed at my head. “I like your hair like this.”
I smiled and self-consciously reached up to touch my hair. “Thanks.” Joshua headed to his seat. I headed to mine, feeling a little better about taking my weave out the previous Sunday. It wasn’t that I didn’t like my natural hair, but I got so used to wearing weaves that I kinda found comfort in them. I had gone through a struggle trying to figure out what to do with my thick Type 4 hair. Luckily, that morning, I saved myself with some inspiration. I managed to slick my hair back and form a nice, puffy, low ponytail. Surprisingly, it turned out okay.
As I took my seat, my friends were already talking. And of course, they had seen everything. Mariah, who sat behind me, leaned forward. “Did Joshua just tell you that he likes your hair?”
I nodded casually. “Mm-hm.”
“Oooo,” Abby and Preena said, from their seats nearby, full of giggles.
I rolled my eyes. Mariah threw her braids over her shoulder and glared at our two friends. “Guys, chill. It’s just a compliment.” I smiled at her. She had some sense and she was right. I had known Joshua since elementary school. He had a little thing for me back in the day, but we were never more than just friends. Just because we had gotten a little closer this year, in the ninth grade, didn’t mean that anything was gonna change. Right? *
Lunch rolled around, and as I finished eating half my meal, someone popped up next to me at the lunch table I shared with my friends. It was Josh. I stared at him. “Uh, hey Carmen.” He scratched his head. “When you’re done eating, I was wondering if you wanted to go on a school exploring adventure.”
I smiled. School exploring adventure. Only he said fun things like that. I nodded. “Yeah.” I looked around for his wing man. “Is Nick coming?” They did everything together.
Josh shook his head. “Naw. He’s doing basketball.” How come you’re not in the gym watching him? I wanted to ask, but he said, “You wanna meet at my locker when you finish your lunch?”
I nodded. “Yeah, okay.”
He glanced at Mariah and said, “Uh, did you want to come too?” Ah, good old Joshua. He was trying to be polite but I could tell it wasn’t really an open invitation.
Mariah caught on and was smart about it. She shook her head. “Aw, no, no. Thanks.” She looked at our friends. “I’ll stay here with them.”
Josh nodded. “Okay.” He touched my shoulder. “I’ll see you in a few at my locker.”
I nodded too. “Yep.” My friends watched him leave before they started in on me with questions. I stayed blunt with my answers and casually closed up my container, which held half of my uneaten ham sandwich. I wrapped all my things up and got up. “Well, I’m out. I’ll see you guys later.”
Like usual, when I left the lunch table first, I hugged Mariah and said later to the others. I made a quick stop to one of the bathrooms. I checked myself in the mirror. My hair was still nice and slick, my face was clean, and you couldn’t see the outline of my underwear through my yoga pants. I was good. I went up to the third floor where my locker was. Coincidentally, Joshua’s locker was in the same hallway as mine. And when I made it upstairs, he was at his locker, like he said he would be.
As I got my lock open, I could see him heading my way. I started to take my books out for my next class. Josh stood by the locker next to mine. “Hey.”
I glanced at his smiling face. “Hey,” I said softly. “You don’t mind if we stop by science class first?”
Josh held up his arms and I noticed he had his books in his hands. “Already thought of that.”
I smiled. Of course. I kept forgetting how precisely organized Josh was for a guy. Seconds later, I got my locker closed and walked to science class with him. We put our things down in front of the closed classroom door and walked around. All I had in my hand was my phone. We walked around the school, not really seeming to have a fixed destination. Our convo wasn’t fixed either. We just talked. About nothing serious or in particular. Finally, I said, “So, was this the little adventure you had in mind?”
Josh’s eyes widened like he remembered something. “Oh, right." His voice got serious. “Come on. There’s this little spot me and Nick found while snooping around the school. We found a lot, but I like this one better.”
Trusting Josh for some reason, I followed him down to the basement, where the caf was. We headed the opposite way, just walking straight down to a dead end where a few classes were placed. But for the most part, it was one of those ghost areas in the school where there was barely any activity. Josh led me through a door. A door that I mostly only saw teachers use. We were standing next to a staircase and a couple feet away from an exit. “Up here,” Josh said quietly, holding a finger to his lips.
We went up the stairs slowly and carefully. After a second flight of stairs, we were at the top of a small rectangular area, standing in front of double doors. Music was coming from the other side of the double doors. Classical music. There was a single chair by the doors and a mini stool. I looked at Josh. “This-” I tried to keep my voice low. “This is the auditorium? One of the exits?”
He nodded. “Play practice.”
Aah. That explained the music. Kinda reminded me of Shakespeare’s time or something. “Are they doing Shakespeare or something this year?” I asked Josh.
Josh shook his head. “I don’t think so. But knowing Mrs. Rufer, it’s probably close to something as classy.” I rolled my eyes. Mrs. Rufer was a tough woman and teacher. I felt bad for the kids who had to deal with her during play. It was close to the end of the school year and I knew she’d be extra hard on the play participants to get the spectacle perfect before summer exams.
Josh slid down to the floor, his back supported by a wall. He stretched his legs out alongside the double doors. I stared. He tapped the little space next to him. By the stairs. I was extremely picky when it came to sitting anywhere BUT, a chair. But, I tried to cooperate at this moment. Not that I was trying to impress/please Josh or anything... I carefully sat down next to him. My arm was pressed up on his and our legs touched. Not purposely. If I decided to move away a little, I’d risk falling down the stairs. Not. An option. Wait... Why did Josh ask me to sit here, knowing I’d be this close to him? I looked at him, noticing the silence between us, except for the music coming from the auditorium. If we weren’t friends, this would’ve kinda been romantic. And most likely a little awkward, like now. “So...” Josh said.
Luckily, we found something to talk about and the awkwardness flew away, out of the air like it had never been there. We talked about basic things, but it was nice. Then the convo turned to Josh asking, “Have you had your first kiss yet?”
It was so sudden, but I answered casually. “Uh, yeah. When I was younger.”
“How old? Do you remember who?”
Ugh, I didn’t wanna get into this. My life story was way too complicated. I shrugged. “Um, nah. I was pretty young.” I tried to dismiss it. “But I mean, I don’t really count it anyway.”
“Why not? Tell me about it.”
I shook my head hesitantly. “No, I don’t really like to talk about my past.”
Josh’s face got concerned. “Why? Were you forced?”
Nahh. It was completely consensual, but totally wrong since I had only been six and it was a French kiss with a girl. I really didn’t need Josh judging me on that. I tried to find a way out. “No, not at all. I just don’t like sharing these things. And like I said, it doesn’t count to me. So,” I went for a different approach. “What about yours? You’ve had your first kiss?”
He nodded. “Yeah, I have.” Not surprising. He was a good-looking guy.
I was curious though. “When?”
Why was he being so vague? “Who?” But I actually had an idea who.
I knew it! “Really?” Josh had been obsessed with Sharron since Elementary! It caused so much drama back then and into high school. But now Sharron was at another school doing ninth grade.
Josh nodded, getting all shy. Rare much? He wasn’t shy at all. I bet he still liked her! I got him to tell me the full story of the kiss, and then he told me about another girl he kissed that same year in seventh grade. Other than those two, he hadn’t had any other make out sessions up till now. Ninth grade. I wasn’t sure if he was gonna get some anytime soon since his most recent crush - popular, pretty, talented - Liliana, had been openly rejecting his advances for a while. And he had still been openly pursuing her since the previous year. I didn’t get what was with Josh’s over-one-year long crushes and obsession on specific girls.
Our convo switched routes and ended up becoming more personal because of one question Josh asked me: “Do you have a dad?”
I unexpectedly chuckled at how odd the question was. “Uh, yeah.”
Josh smiled sheepishly. “I mean, of course you have a dad or else you wouldn’t be here. But like, a dad that you see and everything.”
I smiled. I knew that was what he meant, I just liked seeing him nervous. “Uh...” I shook my head. “No, not really. The last time I saw him I was in grade four, when he came to Montréal to visit some family.”
“He came to visit? From where?”
Josh nodded. “That’s where you’re from, right?”
I nodded too. “Yup. Left when I was almost six.”
“So, you haven’t seen or spoken to your dad since grade four?”
I shook my head. “Nope. After the visit, we spoke on the phone a few times that year, but,” I shrugged. “That was about it.”
“Wow.” Joshua kept his light gray eyes fixated on me as though he were waiting for a reaction from me. What? Did he want me to cry? Then he’d be waiting a really long time. This type of stuff didn’t affect me.
I shifted the attention and spotlight on him. “What about you?” I gently nudged his arm. “You have a dad that you live with and talk to?”
Now, Joshua lowered his eyes. “Uh, no.” He swallowed. “I haven’t seen him since I was six.” Damn. “He said he was going out to the grocery store but he never came back.” My eyes widened. Oh my gosh! How messed up! I stared at Josh. I could see from his body language how affected he still was by this. And who could blame him? I didn’t know what to say. But he saved me from stressing about it and kept talking. “He left my mom to take care of four young boys.”
I shook my head. “Man, that’s so tough. So, it’s just been your mom watching you and your brothers all by herself?”
Josh shook his head, his eyes still down. “No. She got taken away from us a while after our dad left. She was put into a mental hospital and has been there since. It’s not that she’s ever hurt us in any way or anything, but she’s mentally unfit to be a mother or live in this world normally. I’m not really sure what she has but people just told me mental problems.”
I couldn’t believe this. He didn’t have either of his parents? “So, you haven’t seen any of your parents in years?”
“Well, no. I get to visit my mom at the hospital she’s in.”
Oh. “How is that?”
Josh shrugged. “It’s nice, I guess.” He shook his head. “When I see her, she seems so fragile. It just pisses me off that someone like my dad would abuse her.”
What? “He abused her?”
“Yeah.” The anger in Josh’s voice was apparent. “Physically, emotionally and verbally.” He balled up his fists. “That’s what gets me the most.”
A sudden memory popped up in my head. We were in grade three, taking the bus in the morning. We got to Joshua’s house to pick him and his brothers up. One of his brothers didn’t wanna go to school. Their mother, Mrs. Hardy, came out of the house and told him to get on the bus. He wouldn’t listen. She spent a while chasing him around in a circle. It didn’t work. She was overweight and her son was too fast. She finally told the bus driver to just leave. People on the bus thought it was funny. Joshua had been red with embarrassment.
Thinking of this, I felt terrible for Josh and his situation. I leaned against him. “I’m so sorry,” I said softly.
I felt his arms relax and his fists unballed. “It’s not your fault,” he mumbled softly.
I tilted my head up at him. “How come you always manage to be so happy and bubbly in school?”
He shrugged. “I can’t walk around being depressed.”
Hm, true I guess. “You ever told anyone?”
“Nah. Just Nick, and now you. I don’t like putting my problems out on other people.”
I smiled. “With me, you don’t have to worry about that type of stuff. You can always talk to me, okay?”
Josh looked at me. His gray eyes were soft. He smiled. “Okay.”
I cleared my throat. “So... who’s watching you if your mom isn’t?”
“My mom’s brother, and sister-in-law. My uncle.”
“Oh, so you live with your cousins also?”
Josh nodded. “Yup. Five cousins. All boys.”
My eyes widened. “Including you and your brothers, so... nine boys?”
Josh started to nod but stopped. “Well, eight cause my older brother’s at University in Miami. He’s staying with our aunt.”
“Mm.” I nodded. “The house must still be so crowded though.”
“Gosh, you have no idea. My younger brothers are so annoying, always leaving their stuff everywhere. And since all my cousins are older they think they’re the head of the house.”
“Ugh, annoying I bet.”
“Totally is. But there’s some good times so it evens out.”
I smiled. “That’s good. As long as you’re happy.”
Josh shrugged. “Yeah. I guess.” We sat in silence for a little bit, then he said, “I wanna ask you a question but... I don’t know.”
My eyes opened up with curiosity. “What is it?”
“I don’t know how you’ll react.”
“Don’t leave me hangin’. Tell me. You can trust me.”
“I just- uh...” He scratched his head. “I wanted to know if I could be your first kiss?”
The question hung in the air awkwardly. No way. He wasn’t saying this. “Are you serious?” Based on the nervous look on his face there was no doubt.
“Yeah,” he said.
No no no. He was just in the moment. “What about Liliana?”
“What about her?”
“You like her, don’t you? Since last year.”
“Carmen, haven’t you felt the chemistry between me and you the past couple of weeks? The past month or so? Our friends see it too. I like you.”
Uh... “I like you too.”
“Carm, I’m kinda crushing on you.”
I, uh... “I’m kinda crushing on you too.” Carmen, what the hell! Why did you say that? Is that even how you feel? Do you know what you’re feeling?
Joshua’s eyes lit up. “”Really?”
I nodded. “Is this- is this why you brought me up here?”
Josh nodded. “Kinda. To see for sure if we had something. And, it seems like we do.” A loud sound rang out, jolting me back to reality. The warning bell. Five minutes left before class started. I looked around. I now realized that the music from the auditorium had stopped. How long ago had it stopped? I hadn’t noticed. Josh had really jumbled my mind. I looked at him. “So, how about that kiss?” he asked.
I brought my legs up, ready to get up. “We have to get to class.”
“Don’t worry ’bout that.”
What? I got up. “”We’re gonna be late.”
Josh slowly got up too. “It’s fine. Ms. Banji’s usually chill about that anyway.”
I stared at him. The boy who always insisted on getting to class five minutes early, no less. He had never been late to one class. But now he was saying it didn’t matter. Was he out of his mind or something? I shook my head. “Josh, what are you...” I didn’t even know what to say.
He stepped closer to me. His gray eyes sparkled with sincerity. “So, tell me... can I be your first kiss?”
“I...” I stepped back. Shit. How was I supposed to get out of a situation like this? It was a sweet situation, but not right for someone as awkward as myself. I was sure another girl would perfectly fit a scenario like this. I chuckled nervously and decided to come up with a spontaneous answer, which was what I was best at doing. “Josh, I honestly think it’s best not to force things. You know? Especially in a friendship like ours. If a kiss is meant to come, it will come. It’s gotta be natural.” I smiled. “You get what I’m saying?”
Josh seemed a little disappointed, but he smiled. “Yeah.” He let out a little sigh. I observed him. He grinned. “You didn’t say no though. So there is a possibility.”
I had to laugh. “Oh my gosh!” He saw the bright side of everything. This guy was great. A warm feeling went over me. “We’re good?”
I felt the same warm feeling radiate from Josh. “Of course.” He stretched his arms out. “Do I get a hug?”
“Of course.” I closed the gap between us and felt his arms wrap around me tightly, but also gentle enough.
“Mmm,” he murmured. “Your height is just so perfect for hugs. You literally fit into my arms so perfectly.”
I giggled. Well, thanks God for giving me short parents to bless me with the height of 5′2, below the women’s average height. After a while of hearing Josh’s heart beat against my ear, I took the position to end the hug. “We gotta go,” I mumbled into his chest.
He groaned. “Alright.” He surprised me by kissing me on the forehead as we ended the hug.
Caught off guard, like an oblivious bimbo, I said, “Thanks.” Thanks? Lord, help me. I followed Josh down the stairs, hurrying my pace so we could actually try to get to class on time. My heart was beating in a weird way from all the events that had just happened.
Once we made it to class though - a millisecond after the bell rang - I felt like I was back in the normal world and I automatically went back to my normal state. Everybody was up and talking. Ms. Banji was at her desk, organizing some papers. The desks weren’t scattered around the class in pairs like they usually were. They were grouped with other desks. I counted four groups. We were a big class, so that meant seven or more in each group. Having retrieved my books from the floor, I looked around for an empty desk to sit at.