As the days turned into weeks and weeks to months, Joseph effortlessly slotted himself into my life, becoming one of the best things about it. When Alex and I would study at the library, he’d be there sitting in the chair across from me.
No matter what he was doing, whether it was when he absentmindedly tapped his finger in a 1-2-3 rhythm when he was deep in thought, wrinkled his nose when he was hungry, or when he’d be immersed in his camera reviewing shots he’d taken the week before, I was always stealing glances at him.
Sometimes I’d look up to find Joseph staring right back, and each time, his eyes were shimmering and wild with something unidentifiable. I’d tear my eyes away, battling with my heart to keep calm, only to hear a short chuckle coming from him knowing he’d provoked me with just a single look.
He also seemed to read me and understand me more thoroughly than anyone ever had. It was in the way he knew intuitively how to calm me. It was in the way he kneaded the muscles in my shoulders, tight after a long day at my desk. It was in the way he sensed when I was craving sweets and surprised me with cookies. I was quickly adapting to him and him to me.
I was getting ready to head out the door when my mom stopped me.
“Where are you going?” she asked, arching a brow.
“I’m going to the library with Alex and Joseph before school starts, remember?”
“Joseph, that’s the boy whose house you went to, correct?”
“I want to meet him.”
“W-what do you mean?? Why??"
I was utterly horrified.
“I’d like to know the company my child keeps,” she answered, folding her arms across her chest.
“Mom, Joseph is a good person. Like I told you before, he and Alex have been friends for over a decade. She wouldn’t have even let me near him if he were a person with bad intentions.”
“Huh. Well if you two think so highly of him, then surely it wouldn’t be a problem if I met him. What are his grades like? Have you met his parents? Are they good people? Did they go to school? In fact, I’d like to meet them too.”
I felt my patience dwindling and my head swelling. “Mom, I really should get going. Alex is waiting for me outside. May I please leave?”
“You may. But I’ll be calling Jenn down at the library to check in later.”
I sped out the front door and down the block where Joseph and Alex stood talking outside of his car. I bent over with my hands on my knees trying to catch my breath.
“Whoa, you okay?” Joseph asked.
“Yeah, I’m alright. It’s just... my mom being my mom. The usual. This time I was just much more eager to leave.”
“Then shall we be on our way?”
Joseph hopped into the front seat and I was heading for the back when Alex blocked the door with her body.
“What are you doing? Move it,” I muttered
“Get in front.”
"You get in the front. I wanna sit in the back.”
“Sienna, just get your ass in the seat.”
I didn’t dare argue any longer, not with that stubborn mule. Why she was so insistent on me sitting in the front escaped me, but I didn’t want this to seem like a bigger deal than it was. I slid into the passenger seat and buckled my seatbelt, shooting a glance at Joseph who was adjusting the mirrors. As I turned away, he caught my stare and gave me a small smile.
“Nice of you to join me,” he said.
A short drive later, we were at the library. Joseph cracked open a textbook and I took out my chem notebook to go over some lab notes.
“Oh, so we’re here to study study,” Alex said, with genuine surprise written over her face. Joseph and I shared a knowing look and laughed. “Well, alright.”
Reviewing the post-lab questions was easy. After completing that, I did some extra practice worksheets I snagged from the work bin earlier this week. Chemistry was not my favorite class, but it was a graduation requirement, so I had to suck it up. The first worksheet was on balancing chemical equations, easy. I was multiplying and rattling off elements like the ABCs. That was until thoughts of what my mom said earlier had resurfaced. She wanted to meet Joseph.
It may not have seemed like that big of a deal on the outside, but from having been on the inside, it certainly was. Every scenario my brain thought up ended with Joseph being judged and then scared off. I dealt with that enough myself.
My head suddenly felt ten pounds too heavy and fell against the cool wood of the table. I groaned in frustration, ready to rip out the strands of my hair one by one.
There had to be a way out of this.
I didn’t even notice anyone was calling me. When I finally lifted my head, I was hit with a wad of paper.
“Hey! Was that necessary?” I exclaimed. Joseph only seemed amused.
“Definitely. You were frowning and it’s my lifelong duty to make you smile.”
“Be still my heart.”
My sarcasm wasn’t lost on him. He laughed, leaning forward into my table space. “What’s wrong? I wanna help.”
His tone was earnest, so I caved just a little. “I’m kinda stressed,” I said, gesturing to the worksheets in front of me.
“Then take a break. Give it five minutes, you’re always studying.”
“Fine. 5 minutes. Entertain me, Mister Vasquez.”
“I have a story.”
“Let’s hear it. Time’s a-tickin’.” I tapped my imaginary watch.
“One time, my dad brought me with him to the shooting range for... fun. We have a pretty solid relationship but we never really did a lot of bonding activities.”
“Oh-ho-ho, I know where this is going and it’s my favorite story ever,” Alex said, disregarding her notes to listen in.
“Be quiet. Anyway, the only time I’ve ever even seen a gun was in the movies so I was stoked. Thought I’d finally get to live out my boyhood dreams of being a secret agent.”
“Well, you have the dashing good looks of one,” I commented.
In response I received a wink and giggled, a sound only Joseph had the power to evoke from me.
“I watched my dad gear up and take aim at the targets in the field, but I wasn’t ready for the sound of the gunfire up close.” He shrugged, averting his eyes. “Once he pulled the trigger, I pissed myself.”
“Do I have permission to laugh?” I asked, holding my breath.
“Go ahead. My endgame was to make you feel better... even if it was at my own expense.”
“Hahaha! Oh my gosh, Joseph. I’m sorry. I mean, you were a kid. Anyone would’ve had that reaction.”
Alex scoffed. “Yeah, a kid.”
I did a double take. “Were- were you not a kid when this happened? Was this recent?”
“Y’know, I don’t think it matters how old I was. You’re happy now, right?”
“Take out Alex and you’ve got yourself a judgement free zone. But yes, I’m happy,” I told him.
“Good, now back to work,” he said, jabbing his pencil in the direction of my worksheets. There was an easy smile on his lips.
“Oh, and can I borrow your vocab sheet for Klein?” he asked.
“Check the blue folder in my bag.”
“Got it. Also, first period starts in about 11 minutes so we should get going before we’re late. Do you mind if I hang onto it?”
“Not at all, I know the material pretty well. Give it back when you’re set.”
I had the chance to clear my head and focus on something other than my mom, once we arrived at school. Klein’s class was always a nice start to the day, and I was even happier knowing that I’d be working with the prom committee - the only club I willingly joined - at the end of the day.
With the event nearing soon, we had to kick things into high gear. Call me cheesy, but I’ve always dreamed about what my prom night would look like, from who I’d be waltzing around the floor with, to what sorts of decor would be hung up.
But being able to put some of my ideas out there and gather those of my peers, together we were on our way to organizing a night that the senior class would never forget. Although I wasn’t sure I’d be attending because my mom deemed school dances unproductive, I still wanted everyone else to have a magical time.
I twirled around, clipboard in hand, to meet Jasmine as she walked over to me. “Hey, what’s up?
“I was sifting through a box of decorations from last year and I found nothing but ratty streamers. They looked like they were used for children’s birthday parties over and over until they fell apart,” she finished with an exaggerated scrunch of her freckled button nose.
“Oh, that is not good.”
I deliberately paused, waiting to hear her brilliant new idea. During our meetings, the jingling of her charm bracelet became a constant sound as she always raised her hand, inputting on issues we’ve had or just offering innovative ideas. And right on cue, she had yet another.
“There are a few spools of this beautiful metallic rose silk fabric that are in pretty good condition. I was thinking we could use them and create new streamers or garlands or even decorate the tables with them. What do you think?”
Looking at her, I couldn’t help but smile. She was bouncing on the heels of her feet and her eyes sparkled with creativity when she spoke about the silk. It was as if she discovered a waterhole in a barren desert. Who was I to say no? Not to mention it was a fantastic idea. We didn’t even have to spend any extra money.
“Go nuts. If you’d like we can do all three. I just have to run through the checklist and check out the other boxes in storage, so go grab Khai and Michelle to help you out for now. I think they were at the vending machines.”
“Okay, awesome. Catch up later,” she said, skipping away.
Catering was being done by Gio’s, there’d be a musical performance by a local band, and decorations were in progress. “This is looking amazing!” I sang to myself, wiggling side to side.
“I’ve gotta agree with you, Mariposa. You’ve done an awesome job here.”
“Gosh, Joseph! Why must you keep doing that? What in Hades’ inferno are you doing here?!” I sighed, clutching the clipboard as if it would protect me.
He quirked a brow. “Hades’ inferno? That’s a new one, but uh- I’m on the committee now. Y’know, I wanted to contribute to the school climate,” he answered, shoving his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. I gave him a small smile.
“Well, this was the right way to go. Most people think after school clubs are boring and or ‘extra’,” I said, putting my hands up in air quotes. “Personally, I think you can learn a lot by becoming a part of your school community.”
“Yeah, for sure.”
“My mom is the one who pushed me to join clubs like foreign language or crew for school plays, but I got the chance to meet good people with a common goal: creating a better environment. Student council has to be my favorite club because I get to fight for the students to have a voice,” I said, clasping my hands together enthusiastically. “We can organize events like proms, pep rallies, and help plan field trips and college visits. High school doesn’t have to be something you dread. It’s all about what you put in.”
Joseph stared at me with a pensive look on his face. It made me wince. “That was a lot of talking, wasn’t it?”
“No, keep going. I like it when you get all excited about stuff. I think your pep is rubbing off on me.” And there it was, the smirk.
“Are you sure you aren’t just stalking me? I mean, I have been seeing a lot of you lately. More than usual.” I cocked my head to the side with a slow grin forming on my lips.
“Honestly? I might be. But I really do want to get involved as much as I can,” he said.
“Hm. Then I’ll put in a good word for you. As of right now, you’re on moving duty,” I said, clapping my hands together assertively.
“There are about four or five boxes of decorations in the storage room with your name on em. They need to be moved to the center of the stage.”
“Copy that, Sergeant Martinez.”
He winked at me on his way out. I shook my head, smiling, but it quickly morphed into a frown when I realized I still had to talk to him about my mom. If this didn’t go well, I might never see that wink again.