I had never been attracted to girls before I met her---or to anyone, really.The first time I noticed a boy was in third grade. I sat next to him in homeroom, and I liked the way he smelled like fresh laundry and the way his little brown curls fell into his eyes whenever he moved in his seat. Everyone teased me about him and told me I had a crush, and so I supposed that I did. But then summer break came and I ceased to think of him. The next person I even remotely noticed was my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Lyle, and I think that wasn’t attraction so much as it was admiration---though I was too young to realize this nuance at the time. I just remember thinking I liked his beard and the way he waved his long, graceful fingers--which were attached to the prettiest hands I’d ever seen on a man---over the chalkboard while he taught us math. I used to go into his classroom for lunch a lot because I didn’t have many friends back then. Mr. Lyle never shooed me off or made me feel like I was in the way. He let me sit in my favorite seat by the window and play games on my phone until the bell rang and I had to go to my next class. Sometimes he would eat at his desk and share his desert with me. Brownies, mostly. His wife liked to bake. In between bites of moist, chocolate goodness, we would talk. I felt like he was the only grown up who cared about what was going on in my life. This was around the time Dad left us. Mom and I just relocated from Dayton, Ohio to Briarsburgh, Pennsylvania, and she was always working to make ends meet. Most of the time there was nobody at home but me and our pitbull, Rigby---and he wasn’t exactly chatty company.
After I left sixth grade, I still saw Mr. Lyle around. He would smile at me when we passed each other in the hallways and he made it clear that I was always welcome to eat lunch in his classroom. But by seventh and eighth grade, I had finally made some friends, and so I ate lunch with them instead. But I never thought of Mr. Lyle without feeling a subsequent rush of warmth in my stomach, like I had just drunk a comforting mouthful of tea.
I’m lucky that my junior high years were pretty uneventful. I left it behind with good memories. I was nervous to go to the local Catholic high school, St. Perpetua, because I’d seen enough teen dramas to know (or at least I thought I knew) that high school was a sex-drenched zoo where people battled for dominance. Luckily, I apparently wasn’t really a threat to anyone and so I was generally left alone, though the cheerleaders occasionally gave me a hard time. I think it was because they didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t impressed by their acrobatic skills and bleached highlights. But for the most part, I managed to fly under the radar. I was barely recognizable even to the school chaplain, Father Gerry Yontz---which was no small feat, since Father Gerry was in the habit of befriending “loner” kids and trying to bring them to Jesus. To escape his beady gaze meant you were either a lost cause or so totally unremarkable you might as well be furniture. I was okay with either option.
In freshman year, I made friends with a nerdy kid in biology named Owen. He had a mop of unruly, curly blond hair that was so thick you could stick pencils in it and they wouldn’t fall out. I did this to him all the time, just to annoy him. Owen never stayed mad, though. That was why I liked him. His frowns were like clouds passing over the sun; it only took a few seconds for the grin to come back. His smile was infectious despite the fact that his teeth were a trainwreck; they fell over and against each other like too many passengers crammed into a car. He ended up getting braces in junior year. He wore them well.
Owen was my only friend until sophomore year. That was when I met her.
On the first day of Chemistry 101, Mrs. Wells announced that she was dividing us into groups of three and that we were going to keep those study groups throughout the semester. I felt my stomach dip with anxiety. I hated group projects. Mostly because I always got stuck with people who weren’t all that concerned about maintaining a decent GPA because their rich parents could send them to college regardless of what they got into here. As an only child of a single parent, I didn’t have that luxury. That meant I usually ended up carrying the whole workload.I leaned forward in my seat and listened tensely to the groupings.
“Claudia Francis, Martha Thomas, Simon Orchid.”
Desks shuffled and chairs scraped across the floor as people rearranged themselves to sit with their group members. Owen was sitting a couple of seats in front of me. He twisted around and gave me a nervous look. I returned it.
“Geraldine Morrund, Claire Terrill, Donald Dare.”
My foot tapped nervously against the floor.
“Teresa Martínez ---” I tensed at the sound of my name --- “Owen Masters, Anna Connell.”
Owen’s face split into a huge grin. I flashed him a thumbs up, delighted. Then I looked around curiously for our third partner. It was only after Owen had gotten up and thrown himself into the seat next to me that I saw a girl slowly making her way across the room. Owen turned towards her.
“Hi,” he said as she slid into the desk next to him.
She gave us a smile that made me feel warm all over. “Hey. I’m Anna. I guess we’ll be working together.”
“I’ll try not to blow either of you up in lab,” Owen said. “But I can’t promise anything.”
Anna laughed and settled into her seat, leaning her elbows on the desk. The air stirred with a pleasant scent. I couldn’t tell if it came from her hair or her skin, but it smelled like oranges and vanilla. My heart gave a strange shiver in my chest. Confused and in desperate need of an excuse to not look at her for a second, I rifled around in my desk under the pretext of needing a pen.
“You’re Owen, right? I think we’re in PE together,” she was saying.
“Are we? I spend most of PE falling on my face.”
“That’s a lie. You run really fast. I saw you beat Frank Boyle yesterday on the track.”
“Lucky break. Frank was still hungover from his sweet sixteen.”
She laughed again and then I felt her gaze turn towards me. I was still rustling around in my desk like a jackass.
“Tessa, right? I don’t think we’ve ever been in a class together.”
I shook my head.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, then.”
“You too.” I finally forced myself to look at her. I saw eucalyptus eyes with lashes that were so long they tangled together at the ends in soft, silky clumps. I was finished before I was even aware that something had started.