Stupid Things I’ve Done and Gotten Away With

Getting from here to there was never more challenging than in the hallways. My locker was next to Naomi’s so it always began well, and even though what I felt in those moments beside her was complicated, it was a good complicated (more on that later). Unfortunately, she usually had to go one way and I had to go another, so everything slid downhill quickly: a journey from the sublime (Naomi) to the ridiculous (the Creatures of the Hallway). They were afflicted with lack of control, need for attention, tragic loudness, or a combination of all three. Every hallway of any school had them in varying degrees and densities. The most outrageous got picked off by the teachers, but since there were always too many of them, the middle level of fools was usually left untouched as long as they were quick enough or stayed under the radar.

Case in point: Tweedle-Dumb and Tweedle-Dumber (they didn’t deserve names), directly in my path announcing their presence with authority. They managed to be directly in everyone’s path. I wasn’t physically intimidated, being almost the biggest kid in my class, but I knew others were and I refused to feed their need for attention, which was spoiling what little Naomi-glow was left. Normally, I would’ve worked around them, but today was too much of an imposition, so I stopped in front of them, very close, and stood there. A number of outcomes were possible and few of them were positive, but enough was enough. Dumb finally noticed and looked me over with a smile that rocked home why evolution was taking so long. The look on my face temporarily wiped the smile until his brainless instincts — reasoning ability was lost on an empty head — prompted him to poke Dumber, who turned around mid-giggle, looked at me, and started giggling even harder. This infected Dumb to the point where they moved on, snorting over some more private (thank God) joke. I continued on, mostly because I liked to get to class early to get settled — a little OCD never hurt anyone — and it didn’t hit me until I sat down that I’d gotten away with something stupid, again.

Let me begin by defining stupid. It wasn’t related to intelligence. I’m referring to the kind that surfaced either in the middle of doing something or the end. The kind that made you stop, shake your head, and thank the universe for not giving you the first-class crunching you deserved.
 Happened to me all the time, and it was a double-edged sword. The law of averages told me that I’d gone way beyond my quota, and that it wouldn’t be long before the hammer came down on my luck. Hated to use that word because I didn’t believe in it: more on that later. On the other hand, the thrill of knowing that the hammer missed me once again created a weird rush. I wasn’t a thrill seeker type, so this reaction worried and confused me.
 I wasn’t looking to play with the odds, but I had a problem being a part of something that wasn’t right. Unfortunately, I thought not doing something about it made me a part of it. The hallway experience with TD and TD-er was unusual. Open confrontation wasn’t my thing and it very seldom achieved satisfying results, but ambience was something worth preserving and protecting, they were destroyed every shred of it, and I just wasn’t in the mood. I should’ve blocked them out because they were pretty harmless as threats went, but I was feeling a bit vulnerable: Naomi was wearing one of my favorite outfits. She had trouble opening her locker and I banged it just right to make it unjam. The resultant smile should’ve gotten me through the day without my feet touching the ground (more on that later). To make it worse, Thanksgiving vacation began the next day: five days without contact with Naomi. Sad to say, our relationship didn’t go beyond the cafeteria and our lockers: my fault because I purposely avoided most channels. We were friends on Facebook, but I only checked out what she was doing and stared at her photos. I never commented on anything she wrote because I’d be too tempted to blubber something uncool, I didn’t Twitter because of philosophical differences, e-mail and texting were inappropriate because they were too easy and a bit cold and exposed, and I was even less glib on the phone. I could talk to her in the cafeteria, but how chummy could you get surrounded by two hundred people? The TDs brought me down rapidly. Who could blame me? Unfortunately, the hall happened at least five times a day, and the chance for stupid moves increase geometrically with every occurrence. Fifteen out of almost four hundred minutes in the day — less than four percent — that contained ninety-eight percent of the danger.

I tried to shake off the cranky because no one in the room deserved such foulness, and lunch began after class. I needed to clean up my mood and be at my best around my future wife and mother of my children (I sometimes get away from myself) so I could ask for her phone number. The fact that I’d planned to do it every day for the past month didn’t daunt me a bit (more on that later).

“Brian, do you think the protagonist was justified in refusing to listen to his friends’ advice?”

Caught. Quick glance around to make sure we were where I thought. Check. Switch to a thoughtful look. Hand over mouth, precisely placed with a slight shift of the head to indicate that I was considering my answer (which my brain was actually doing without the slightest idea of context), make eye contact — an important detail that was often left out by amateurs but necessary to show that I wasn’t trying to avoid the issue, which was worth a precious few seconds — and dive in. “Philosophically, he’s free to chart his own course. In fact, we should admire him for being willing to strike out at his own into potentially unknown territory, provided that he’s willing to take responsibility for his decisions and not assign blame to others or bad luck or the universe having a grudge against him.”

I was rambling, never a good thing. Punctuation increased clarity, and clarity increased believability. “From a more practical standpoint, however, we have to consider the fact that his friend probably has his well-being in mind. He wants to keep him from making a tragic decision that could have consequences beyond the more immediate, consequences that could spread into a course that would expand geometrically.” I glanced around to see the general reaction, foolishly forgetting that even with this class level, no one really listened. Until now, I’d avoided too many hand gestures because I’d been warned that it could be a real tell early in an explanation, but since I established a base, I figured that I could risk a little for emphasis, especially because I was sure I didn’t have a big closing. “However, motivation is always an important consideration, even with friends. Do they really have his best interests at heart? Do they have an underlying agenda brought on by recent events or perhaps even hidden and festering for years?”

I took a breath and did a quick read of Ms. Matthews’ face. Since I was scrambling, I wasn’t sure about the smile and didn’t have the time to analyze whether it was pleasure from the quality of my speech or amusement at how she was going to crush me when I finally stopped. She wasn’t throwing anything at me at the moment, so I plowed ahead. “It’s a very complicated issue, and I hope you’ll forgive the fact that I haven’t given a simple answer, but sometimes we need to stand up for the fact that answers should be well thought out instead of just being bandied about like insignificant things because the words I speak set off reverberations that eventually travel through the universe.” It was as good a time as any to stop for feedback, so I fixed my gaze on her with as much of a triumphant look as I could manage without spilling over to obnoxious.

I expected her to at least give it a few seconds’ consideration, but she immediately answered with, “While your answer was entertaining and enlightening in a surrealistic way, Brian…”

She hesitated because teachers always try to put things into a positive light, giving me a chance to interject, “You say that like it’s a bad thing, Ms. Matthews,” because I wanted to encourage honesty.

Which it did: she took a breath that had nothing to do with needing oxygen, locked her eyes on me, and continued, “…But you do realize that his friend was advising him to get a dog for companionship, don’t you?”

When you recognize that you’ve done something stupid, admit defeat in a way that leaves open the possibility that you weren’t a complete idiot. “While I’m sticking to my assertion about wider implications, I’ll also admit that he wasn’t very smart because he not only needed the companionship, he also needed the responsibility for another living creature because he was too wrapped up in himself.” My brain had thankfully caught up enough to add that part, which was one of the few things I’d said that actually related to the story.

“Very good. Wouldn’t life be simpler if you’d begun with that part?” She was being very charitable.

“Simpler but far less rich and fulfilling, Ms. Matthews.” I beamed my best smile, tinged with enough sincerity to let her know that I was aware I had chalked up another stupid one. Two in less than a half-hour was bad for the law of averages. Eventually, the mean would get its due.

She must’ve decided that she’d spent too much time in my world because she asked someone else another question. I glanced over at my supposed best friend Ian, who made a crash and burn gesture and shook his head. The world has so little appreciation for effort. I ignored him and tried to get caught up with where I was supposed to be in case Ms. Matthews decided she hadn’t made me squirm sufficiently. One of the reasons I liked her was that she was dangerous that way. Kept me on my toes.

The effort made the time go by quickly, and it was soon lunch time. I got a bit of a fishy sideways glance as I walked out, which I fully admitted I deserved, so I shrugged my shoulders and gave a lame smile. We live to fight another day.

Once outside the room, I began to work on my resolve to get Naomi’s number. I needed to get to my locker quickly. Thankfully, there wasn’t much interfering traffic and I made it there before she did by a few seconds. That gave me time to fumble with the combination and get my locker open. The next step was to coolly turn to her (after her locker was open) and engage. “How go the history wars?”

She frowned a little (bad opening?) but then smiled (encouraging) and answered, “I’m just glad I wasn’t born in the Middle Ages: way too complicated.”

An ordinary (less desperate?) mortal might not see that as an opening, but I was willing to grab at anything. “Then may I accompany the fair damsel to the mead hall?” I congratulated myself for saying it without going through a three octave range. I’d mostly gotten past that stage, but it crept in when I was stressed.

Another smile. “Will you defend my honor on the way, even if it should be threatened by marauding armies or fire-breathing dragons?” She thoughtfully managed a bit of a quiver in her voice.

“I shall defend you to the death.” I was feeling a bit princely already. Blame it on the quiver.

“But sir, what will you use for weapons?” Having closed her locker, she was free to clasp her hands together over her face. One of the million things I loved about her was her ability and willingness to get into the spirit of things, no matter how out of context they were. Context was important in my world, mostly because I usually seemed to be on the outside looking in.

“I shall use my slick and rapier-like wit along with incredible, gravity-defying dance moves.” I did a quick sword move or two before extending my arm.

She barely hesitated before grabbing hold of my elbow and we proceeded to join the cattle call. Traffic didn’t look too heavy, so we could continue with the historic drivel. “Mayhap doth thou know what is being served today?”

Trying to ignore the fact that philosophically, we were almost holding hands (or at least close enough for me, who needed so little to assume so much), “My Lady, if the offerings do not suit your delicate palate, just give the word and I will go out into the wide world to hunt down whatever might suit your sensibilities.”

“…Or whims?” Her voice went a little lower. I couldn’t look at her expression to see if it was because of the part she was playing or something else because I had to concentrate on not tripping or running us into someone or something.

“Especially your whims.” The very idea of her whims made my head swim.

“My hero,” and she moved a little closer, at least halving the gap between We’re Just Messing Around and Holding Onto My Boyfriend’s Arm. At least that was the way I saw it in my world, and I was sticking to it. I had to concentrate on maintaining the distance she established — I didn’t want to push it by moving closer and the last thing I wanted was to be further away — so conversation stopped until we reached the cafeteria door. That was the tricky part. All kinds of combinations and permutations became possible and I knew that if I was going to ask, I needed to be sitting next to her.

“May I sit next to the fair damsel in the mead hall to further protect her from the loud and boorish?”

We had to separate at that point because the geography didn’t know allow side-by-side, but she turned and said, “I would expect no less of my hero.”

The laws of motion took over when we got into line. We began together but as our friends descended, she ended up at least four back. I began to worry and thought about trying to slink back but decided that it was a bit lame. Even though she said she’d sit next to me, it wasn’t like we were dating and she’d promised anything. Being friends demanded a certain degree of loyalty, but fractals or quantum laws governing clustering and clumping took over, and she usually ended up surrounded by girlfriends with me two over and across the table no matter how I tried to be closer. Putting too much effort into it could be fatal. Our friends could be merciless if they caught a scent or saw that your fine white underbelly was exposed. I sat down and began to arrange the food, such as it was, forcing myself not to pay attention to where she was except through my third eyelid, which was enough to see her walking my way and talking to two other girls. Was it my imagination, or were they nodding and smiling? Whatever it was, they parted as if nothing happened and she sat next to me while the others surrounded us (or I could be reading volumes into nothing, which I excelled at). Life was looking very good at the moment

“Defend away, my liege. It looks like a rough crowd.” The standard blah-blah began after everyone settled. The topic of the day was fantasy plans for the holidays, which meant there was no connection to reality and therefore no need to pay attention. “I never asked how English went. Was it fulfilling?”

“This might seem like a total non-sequitur but it really isn’t, and if you can be patient I’ll eventually get to the point where some of it connects, and I have to ask you something before I use another conjunction.” I didn’t dare to take a breath but I did glance at her to make sure she wasn’t ready to throw something. “May I have your phone number because the thought of going five days without being able to contact you really depresses me even more than the fact that it’s taken me so long to ask you?”

She gave me a strange smile before answering with, “Yes, Brian, and it has taken a long time, which we’ll discuss at a later time.” She reached into her purse, pulled out a piece of paper, wrote it down, and slipped it to me. “Now, tell me how all this connects.”

“It’s a long and tragic story. I was forced to go from your smile at our lockers to confronting two Neanderthals in the halls…”

“Confronting?” She knew me well enough to be surprised at the idea of confrontation.

“Standing in front of them and looking like they didn’t exist until they moved on.”

She nodded. “Got it, proceed.”

“I shook it off and went to class with good intentions, but in the back of my head I was thinking about asking for your phone number, which I confess I’ve wanted to do for many weeks.”

“That’s a long time with no results. Why so long?”

“Another sad story for later. Anyway, I put too much energy into trying to shake my mood and prepare, and I got caught by Ms. Matthews.”

She nodded. “She is good.”

“Red-handed. Instead of admitting defeat as I should have, I couldn’t resist…”

“Oh no…” When she said it, she grabbed my hand in mock horror, it was a gesture that anyone in our group might and would have made, except for the fact that she didn’t pull it away.

“Yes,” trying to ignore the fact that I was sort of holding hands with her, an exercise in absurdity, “and except for the fact that I have [pause before a drop of one octave] The Gift [shorter pause, pitch returns to normal] and she’s a very patient and charitable woman, I could’ve been deeply embarrassed. Should have been.” I sighed. “The details are boring. Suffice it to say that I was distracted by my quest.”

“Which has been fulfilled.” Her smile was both warm and…something else I knew I’d spend a lot of time trying to figure out. I made a mental note to look for a manual that might help me translate her expressions. Surely, after thousands of years of male-female relationships, one had to exist.

“Yes, there is a God who watches over and protects fools such as I,” and that was the last that was said. It wasn’t a big problem because the holiday discussion continued around us. I’d love to give you a rundown of the highlights, but we had achieved Full Handholding — in my mind, it was significant enough to rate capitalization — under the table, so everything became white noise and time stood still. Really. Space-time hiccupped. Unfortunately, people began to move and reality with all its warts set in. I thought we’d become separated, but we somehow managed to walk down the hall together, minus the handholding but somehow more together than when we came down. A gravity that wasn’t there before seemed to be in play. I was musing about how that would work in an Einsteinian sense (especially since we already violated a few physical laws with the time thing) when it was rudely interrupted by TD and TD-er.

“Brian and Naomi, you seem to be walking close together.” It was a perfect example of how stupid spread. I put myself on their radar earlier, although how they could detect anything, even with their combined number of brain cells, was beyond me.

I tried the stare but they’d hooked onto something. “If we admit to everything beyond your wildest dreams, limited though they may be, will you go away?” Maybe it was dumb to include the limited part, but something in me couldn’t resist. Naomi gave them a frown that would’ve ruined my life forever, but it seemed to do more than my words because they giggled and elbowed each other.

“Okay for now. There’ll be other times unless you realize what a loser Brian is by the end of lunch,” and they were off with their new private (because no one could possibly share in their sense of humor) joke.

“Sorry, I think that was collateral from what I did earlier. I got on their radar.” Plain stupid got upgraded to very stupid.

“Let’s hope they have a short attention span.” She sounded a bit fatalistic.

“One would think. They have the minds of a gnat.”

As soon as we got through the door, the forces of gravity separated us, with Naomi being pulled into the girls and me being surrounded by the guys. I would’ve been more upset by the development, but I saw the TDs dancing around the periphery and I knew they wouldn’t chance a penetration, plus I knew that everyone would eventually gravitate toward our table. That left the annoying questions and comments to deal with:

“About time, Brian.”

“Yeah, the girls’ve been bugging us to get your rear into gear.”

“What took you so long, man? At this rate you might get to kiss her by the time we graduate.”

Why was I totally unaware of all this, and how did they know? Did I give off some kind of pheromone? “How is it that you guys, who’d barely notice an atomic blast going off next to you, know what I’m thinking or doing?”

Mike gave me a nudge on the shoulder, a big grin on his face. “The girls tell us, lame-o, just like always, although your desperate lost puppy look for the last few weeks gave us a slight hint. We knew there was either something up romantically or you were suffering from intestinal distress. They’re both very similar in my book.”

“So much for my future on the World Poker Tour.” They all thought that was hilarious. Friends. Support, yes; ego boost, forget it.

We were headed toward our table, where I could see the girls in closed rank. Naomi seemed to be the center of it but it could as easily have been about someone else’s distress. There was always something. I found it interesting how we sifted around when we came together so that when we sat down, it was pretty much randomly boy-girl with no special meaning. Today, however, as I sat down and Marty began to settle next to me, he was picked off by Mary and Naomi sat to my right. The musical chairs continued with two girls sitting to my left and two to Naomi’s right.

I would’ve thought more of it, but we magically went to holding hands under the table while Rosa and Lorraine provided cover by beginning an outrageous discussion about absolutely nothing. Naomi leaned a bit closer. “You never said what your fantasy vacation would be.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s happening right now,” leaving out the parts that the other sections of my mind were filling in.

“That’s sweet, really. Holding hands is wonderful, but after a while, you probably want to do other things.”

“Like switch hands, put my arm around you, or…” She gave me a look. “Okay, I’ll give it a try if you’ll allow for the fact that anything I mention pales in comparison to absolutely anything with you.” A slight eye roll and she nodded. “It would require instantaneous teleportation, but five days on the beach in Mexico or walking around Paris or touring the Ring of Kerry in Ireland would do nicely. I’m a man of simple tastes, except when it comes to a girlfriend.” I instantly wondered whether I had overstepped. “Am I getting ahead of myself?”

She hesitated long enough to worry me. “A little early, but the outlook is encouraging.” The smile she gave allowed me to breathe again. “Why did it take you so long?”

“Private moments don’t exactly happen every day with our group and the lockers aren’t exactly a romantic setting.”

“True. You could’ve written me a note or something.”

I always loved when I had to confess my failings. A deep breath and a plunge. “Seemed like a chicken way, which means I’ve written at least twenty of them. I’ll give them to you later. Texting seemed impossible as did phone calls, since I’m not terribly glib, as you’ve noticed.”

She lowered her eyes. “You’re doing okay.”

Go for it, you fool. “Not really, because I really want to kiss you but can’t seem to say it, or figure out how to do it.”

She made some kind of gesture that I was only aware of because I was totally focused on her and in a few seconds, everybody was standing around the table and behind, effectively blocking us from view. “Works best with the lips.” We turned toward each other and hugged, and then I gave it my best: soft and lasting forever. She gave me an interesting look — shy but mischievous — and said, “Again, please.”

The second lasted longer and brought an, “O my Lord. I think I’m getting the vapors,” and “Lordy, they’re going from zero to get a room in one lunch period.” Friends could be so helpful.

I could see her blushing and I was sure that I turned at least three shades. She surprised me by saying, “If that was jealousy, Mary Olson, I can assure you that you have good reason,” and then totally shocked me by planting another quick one on me. I did my best to keep up with her demands. When we came back up for air, she asked, “How often are you going to call me?”

I wanted to say something lofty and romantic that would fit the fact that a girl I had been trying to just connect with for months had just kissed me three times. Unfortunately, my body chemistry and brain wiring made simple speech almost impossible. Fortunately, she had given me an opening that required little beyond grunting. “How many minutes do you have?”

“Family plan. Unlimited, I think.”

“Me too, I think, but that may not be enough.” I hated talking on the phone, but with her it’d be worth the effort.

She nodded. “I agree. We’ll have to figure out ways to be together. Think you can come up with any? That big brain should be good for something.” All this time, we were still holding each other, so our faces weren’t more than six inches apart. Do I need to say how that affected me?

Challenges were good. They kept me on my toes. “I’ll devote every brain cell that’s left after those kisses to the problem.”

She snuggled in closer. We could officially be called connected. Her hair smelled great. “Better start now, because I can’t guarantee I won’t do something to the remaining ones.” At that moment — no one ever accused me of being quick — it finally got through that she liked me a lot, possibly had for a while, and that I had wasted a lot of time.

“I love it when you talk physiology.” I loved it when she talked anything.

Just as she looked up and said, “As you were,” the bell rang and everybody groaned, none louder than me because it meant having to let go. Everyone headed to the door like nothing happened.

“Walk you to your locker?” I was full of clever things to say.

“Promise you will always be willing to go so far out of the way for me?” Eyelash bat. There were many ways she could’ve gone, and I was grateful that she played along.

“Forever. I’ll even walk you home.” We lived a block apart and the group always walked together.

Matt cut in, “Hope you don’t plan on us doing the shield like every lunch hour.”

Mary cut him off. “Don’t know what you’re complaining about.” She turned to Naomi. “I had to turn him around twice.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” I recognized with a wince that it would’ve been my answer.

“Boys who like to watch only get to watch,” and then rolled her eyes before continuing, “not that he couldn’t have gotten a good education by watching you two.” She nudged Naomi. “Was it as good as it looked?”

Matt cut in with, “Gory details?”

Mary slapped him on the arm before grabbing it and pulling him along. “Great job, idiot. Now we’ll never get any details.”

“Brian’ll tell me,” as they faded away.

“Really, I won’t. Promise.” It was suddenly very important that she believed me, partly because it was true.

She smiled. “I know you won’t, Brian. You’re honorable. That’s why I’ve waited for you.” She put her arm through mine. “You could be a keeper.”

“Because I’m honorable?” Just then a teacher loudly cleared his throat for smiled when we separated.

“Yes, and because all the evidence in so far is that you’re a great kisser.” I’m sure I smiled like a goofy schoolboy and I know I turned red. I decided that this was the best lunch I’d ever had, even though I couldn’t remember what I had to eat or whether I’d actually eaten it. it wasn’t a matter of remembering if there was anything on my tray as I left because that moment was part of a separate reality: before I kissed Naomi.

As we walked into the building, my radar went out for the TDs and their ilk, but our friends were forming a gauntlet. I got a warm feeling that they were giving us some protection, but I knew that it wouldn’t last long because they weren’t that mushy. For now, we were their pet project, but they had a short attention for such things. I knew that because I’d once been one of their projects.

They adopted people, including me earlier in the year. You have to understand: they weren’t exactly A-list people. They were far too interesting for that, and because they were so interesting, they were always on the lookout for new people. If they saw anyone on the edges, not really connecting, they invited them in. Sometimes it was as subtle as asking them to join us at lunch or after lunch. Sometimes, like with me, it was a bit less elegant. Being new to the school and not terribly effective in social situations, I kept to myself and read, until one day I was descended upon by the entire group, which simply moved to my table and included me in whatever deep drivel they’d been involved in. I was hooked from the beginning. Who could resist instant connection with interesting people who talk about intelligent things or about absolutely nothing at all intelligently?

Unbelievably, this way of operating came from Matt, our loosest cannon. He could always be counted on to have the most outrageous opinions and ideas, but he had a streak in him that couldn’t stand for anyone to be left out (unless they wanted to be). We were always on the lookout. The idea was to try for at least one person a month. If a new recruit didn’t find us quite his cup of tea, there were no hard feelings. He knew that he had a group of friends if he needed us. Best of both worlds.

We had math together for the last class, so I only had to pull myself together for history before I’d see her again. Of course, I also needed to figure out how I was going to focus on anything in class besides her, but first things first. We had a test scheduled, not a huge problem because of course I was prepared, except I wasn’t sure if those synaptic connections were still valid. Events of the last half-hour (is that all it had been?) scrambled a lot of wiring.

The cool thing about Mr. Willey’s history class was that we had a choice on things like tests: multiple-choice or essay. Being a young man of many words with pen in hand, I could never resist what many others found daunting. The problem was to finish within the time frame of one period, although he’d been known to allow me to finish at home, with the provision that I’d make it worth waiting an extra day. Today’s question, “Why do we bother to study The Prince?” was going to take some time, especially since I was distracted.

Most of the methods I could use to bring my focus back that involved more time than I had or circumstances that would be impossible sitting in a history classroom of a typical American high school. The more expedient ones wouldn’t be appropriate either because they involved pain — stabbing my hand with a pencil, pinching myself in a sensitive area, pulling on an earlobe very hard — and I always tried to avoid things like that because they made me cry out like a little girl. A bit of a distraction and generally not a good idea in a testing situation. Fortunately, I had a few weeks of Naomi distraction to help me deal with it. I hadn’t come up with a good solution other than forcing my mind to concentrate, another example of the old-fashioned way being the best. At least the essential questions (will she laugh, hate me, throw up, asked for her locker to be moved, asked for my expulsion from the group, never speak to me?) had been answered, so I had no excuse but to buck up: took a deep breath, picked up my pen, and went to work on Machiavelli. It wasn’t my best effort and I hated that. Part of the problem was that I wasn’t sure how valid The Prince was anymore beyond a certain historic state of mind, but I’ve never let something like that stand in my way (Machiavelli would be proud). In fact, I usually did better when I was on the fence because I had to work harder, which kept me more focused than when I was sure of something. I had a tendency to get carried away and lost more points from that than any inaccuracies. I wasn’t sure how high that ranked on the Stupidity Index. More than one teacher (okay, most of them) told me with a very serious face that I’d either eventually control it or it would control me. That meant I had a choice, but the timing was unfortunately nebulous, so I managed to give myself permission to run wild, run free too often. “Eventually” gave me way too much leeway. I had to remind myself that my awareness of that took away all excuses I could I come up with. I knew I’d continued to come up with them, but their lameness would be too obvious to ignore, and I always had an aversion to lame, especially when it came from me.

I finished just as the bell rang. As I approached his desk with my paper, Mr. Willey gave me a questioning look. “Not my best effort, sir, but I hope you enjoy the fact that you won’t need to wait for it.”

He faked a horrified look. “You’re giving me less than your best?” I slumped a bit and nodded. “Is there a reason for this subpar performance with its attendant implications of lack of elaboration?” He gave me a What Is The World Coming To? look.

I took a deep breath and added a bit of stammer for effect. During this whole conversation, others were handing their papers in and giving us strange looks, so it wasn’t easy. “I-I’ve been…distracted.”

He gave it an effective pause. “Naomi?”

“Was I the only one in the school who was clueless about how much I was showing?”

“Oh, I’m sure you weren’t the only one. The laws of probability would dictate that there’s at least one other student among the hundreds in the school who didn’t notice, and knowing some of my colleagues, there has to be at least one who was oblivious to the suffering on your face.”

I was hoping that the last question was more rhetorical than information seeking: way too much in this case. “Thank you, I think.”

“Reality checks are free, but you’ve been going on for weeks like this and it hasn’t affected your work. What’s the difference today?” Slight cock in the head and smile. “You told her?” I could feel myself blushing like a little boy and couldn’t manage more than a nod. “And I can see that the results were positive.” Another dumb nod. “Congratulations, she’s a great girl, although as a father and a teacher, I firmly believe that girls shouldn’t date until they’re thirty.” I’d heard him tell a number of girls that, probably Naomi among them.

“Thank you.” It suddenly occurred to me that I was going to be late for math. I glanced up at the clock. I instantly regretted it because it was rude, which brought on more blushing.

Mr. Willey was a good man. “Have a great vacation.”

I clumsily mumbled, “You too,” and made an even clumsier exit, banging into two desks before I got to the door. Since I was late, the halls were fairly clear and I made it just after the bell. Mrs. Oches was on the phone and gave me a warm smile (what was that all about?), then signaled me to take my seat. As I walked by her and mumbled my apologies, I heard her say, “It’s about time. Thanks for letting me know,” and recognized Mr. Willey’s voice on the other end. He must’ve called to cover my lateness and told her about our conversation, or at least his conversation and my stammering. The duality of life: I was grateful and delirious at the same time.

The next task was to get to my desk without repeating the performance leaving history. I was doing pretty well until I spotted Naomi and she smiled at me. It wasn’t just that she smiled, but it seemed that most of the room was smiling at us, which forced me to step on Mary’s foot. “Careful, cowboy. Love is supposed to hurt, but I have no desire to be your collateral damage.” That really helped. I mumbled an apology (how many was that the last five minutes?) and tried to move on. Fortunately, my usual seat was two rows over and slightly in front of her. All I had to deal with was the temptation to turn around every ten seconds, which was tempered by how incredibly rude that would be. It was good to know that politeness won out over hormones. Who would’ve thought that could happen?

It took a while to acclimate; we had a warm-up problem to get me there. Unfortunately it was way too easy and despite my lateness, I was done with it before most of the others. I gave in and turned around to see her out of the corner of my eye. Nobody noticed because I have great peripheral vision — perhaps to make up for my distinct lack of coordination: a cosmic joke that I can see disasters heading my way but can’t seem to avoid them — and it appeared that I was looking for something in my binder. She was done with a warm-up too. Mrs. Oches liked to give us problems that built on recent learning but took us a little into the next step, which I suppose worked for some, but we liked to skip to the end and work our way back so we already understood the next steps. Naomi wasn’t looking my way, lucky for me, and she was looking especially good in a Hemingway sense.

I thought I was just glancing, but my first clue that I’d gotten stuck in time was Naomi looking up to Mrs. Oches’ voice going over the problems. I didn’t pay much attention because I knew I was right and I’d backed off the warm-ups a month or so ago at her request because I wanted to discuss the philosophical and sociological implications behind the steps involved in the solutions. She pulled me aside one day and said that, while she enjoyed the discussions and would be happy to have them any time after school (never dreaming that it would evolve into SPAM: the Society of Philosophical and Analytic Mathematics, which descended on her with no warning at random times), she thought it might be confusing to other students who needed a simpler explanation. Naomi didn’t have my sense of play (although she was a charter member of SPAM) or my need to blather on, so she didn’t have my restrictions. Therefore, I wasn’t surprised to hear her answer, and it gave me an excuse to turn around. When she finished, she gave me a smile that rocked my world. Not to minimize, but her breathing rocked my world. I blushed because I felt like twenty eyes were on me. I was dying because lunch wasn’t long enough to settle anything. I was normally a fairly patient person, but this was throwing my normal way of operating off. Most of the people who knew me would laugh at normal, operating, and me used in the same sentence, but it worked for me, at least to the point where I hadn’t been smote — biblical expressions came in handy in so many cases — by the universe. You might be equally amused by the idea of the universe finding me significant enough to smite, but I had my own fantasies that got me through the day.

Okay, better now. I buckled down until we got to the problem of the day, Mrs. Oches’ continual attempt to show us that math was relevant. “I have a fifteen by eighteen foot patio. On one end, there’s an eight foot high ivy screen that runs the entire fifteen foot length. I want to build a sunshade that covers the entire space. Design it and tell me how much it’ll cost.” She then called out the groups of four. Mine included Naomi, no surprise considering the smile on her face when she named her. Were all of them going to make us their project? Was I over-the-top paranoid?

We moved around and got together. I decided to take over because I was in my element (and I wanted to impress Naomi, and I thought that if we finished quickly, I’d have time to talk to her). “Okay, I have most of the design worked out. Naomi, will you take the wood?” She nodded. “We need twelve foot 4 x 4s, four of them, and see if they have 2 x 8s in twenty foot lengths. If not, ten or twelve-footers. We need six twenty-footers, double that if they aren’t available.” She nodded again and got busy on a laptop. “Sharon, find us awning fabric. See how wide it comes. Once we have that, we can figure out how much we need. If they don’t come in rolls, find out the lengths we can get them in.” She asked what kind we were looking for. Hmm-mm. “Brainstorm?”

“Waterproof.”

“UV resistant.”

“Air flow.”

I had a team. “Sounds great. Don’t worry about colors or design. Okay, Larry, we need hardware. Five crossbeams so five joist hangers, lag bolts or whatever they take, something more U-shaped for the screen end, and see what we can connect the timbers with in case we have to go with the shorter boards. Oh yeah, five bags of some kind of concrete.”

They were all giving me a strange look. “Are you some kind of contractor in your spare time?”

I explained how my parents had been planning an elaborate deck since we moved in. “For a while, we discussed nothing else. I have no idea what to do with the stuff, but I know materials. Family outings for a month consisted of trips to lumber yards, and the only videos we watched were the DIY kind. I’m hoping they finally hire someone so I won’t have to spend half the summer building the damn thing.”

Sharon shook her head. “Parents.”

The others nodded. “Yeah…” We got to work, and in fifteen minutes we were done, down to the drawings, the materials, and (oh yeah) the math. Sharon and Larry busied themselves noodling around on their computers so it would look like we were still working and to give us some privacy (yes, they knew too).

We were quiet for a minute until Naomi broke it with, “I want you to kiss me again.”

As if she was reading my mind, or at least parts of it. “I want to, but actually being alone for an hour or so would be really nice.”

She smiled. “Something to dream about. Have you figured out anything for the vacation between Machiavelli and building the deck cover?”

We were maintaining a proper group work distance but she was still close enough to scramble me. Last period proved that she didn’t have to be in the same room to do that. “Actually, there is the math project we need to work on together.” I congratulated myself silently for quick thinking.

She looked confused. “What math project?”

I spread my hands out. “This one. The one Ms. Oches, mean math teacher that she is, assigned us for the vacation.”

Big smile. “Devious too. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but right now I’m liking it.”

even these small baby steps required positive signs. “Might take a bit of time to work out all the details of the problem, but we need a place. If my parents get wind of us working on a project like that, we’ll have no peace. Maybe the library?” I actually had a thought about adapting it to their plans until I realized what I was doing. “It’s a shame, because they might leave us fairly alone otherwise.”

She thought for a second, then smiled again. “When we’re at your house, we could be working on the English project.”

It was my turn. Had I forgotten something? “English project?”

Bigger smile. “You know, the play we’re supposed to write…second semester.”

I loved her mind. “And you called me devious?”

“You’re devious. I just invent…possibilities.” The look on her face was way beyond intriguing. Actually, it was what attracted me to her in the first place. Yeah, I noticed her looks but there were attractive girls all over. Sitting around our table listening to her relaxed and cutting loose was what really got me. She was funny, she was smart, and she had an interesting way of looking at things, but it only came out when the group was together. For some reason, she didn’t feel comfortable acting that way anywhere else, even in class. Physical attraction graduated to pure fascination in an instant. I was smitten (same biblical term used in an entirely different way: did it mean something?) instantly. The rest was history.

Our moment ended when the groups were called together to report. I wasn’t concentrating that well because I was still sitting next to Naomi, but I think we were all in the same ballpark. I did notice her taking some notes for some reason. Thankfully, class ended soon after and I made sure we walked out together. It was a risk with the TDs, but I was hoping that they’d be too preoccupied with getting out to bother with us. They had to be bus riders because I’d noticed them going and coming from the opposite direction.

For once, I called it right. No matter how I arranged things in my locker, at least once a week they attacked me and it hadn’t happened once that day, so I was wary and almost forgot the math papers. No use reinventing, although I was already planning how to expand it. Part of me was saying, “What are you talking about? It’s just an excuse to see Naomi,” but another part — and I was pretty sure she thought the same way — knew that there was no way I was going to tell my parents we were working on something and then completely ignore it. They weren’t stupid and they trusted me. They might worry because I always seemed to bounce around from one thing to another (I thought of it as having many varied interests) but they knew I derived no pleasure from doing something just for the thrill of knowing they wouldn’t approve. Damn them for good parenting! Besides, I’d gotten a bug in my head about practical applications and I knew that wouldn’t go away.

As we left school property, our hands magically joined. I could get used to that. “Before we go any further, you know enough about me to suspect that I’m going to want to work on a way to make what we did into a formula for other patio sizes, don’t you? Is that lame? Are you already reconsidering even knowing me?” My mind filled in the more outrageous ones like, “Do you want to run home and wash their hands that touched mine and use mouthwash on the mouth that kiss me?” My mind was wonderful like that.

She moved closer. I momentarily wondered what I’d said to make that happen. Maybe I could come up with a catalogue of things that caused good stuff. Maybe they could be different chapters: things that make Naomi move closer, things that make Naomi smile, things that make Naomi want to kiss me, things that make Naomi happy. “Actually, I think I would’ve been disappointed otherwise for some reason that I don’t understand, except that I find this honorable thing sexy. Besides, why do you think I was taking notes during the discussion?” The rest of the group had joined up with us, so we were surrounded by a lot of white noise. “Now, about that kiss…” It was going to a great vacation.

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