The teacher droned in the
background, talking about proofs and
Pythagoras and crap like that. Tom, in a desk in the middle right edge
of the classroom, looked up from the crinkled page of notebook paper
and gazed up the row of desks at Nancy, who sat in the front left
corner of the room. She rested her mouth on her left hand and gazed
down at her paper, where her pencil was moving aimlessly.
She put the pencil down and drew her long sable hair over
her right ear. She looked up from her paper at the teacher. Then she
made like she was sort of casually looking around, her gaze moving
here and there, like a flying insect, lighting then taking off again, a fly-
gaze that led eventually to him she met his eye for a split second,
then looked away. Snuck another quick glance. Then looked down at
Nobody realized how badly his heart was breaking. These
kids sitting all around him. Dave Evans and Monica Levin and Renee
Patanski and Debbie Jansky. Nobody knew how his guts were
drowning in the dirty black oil bubbling from the ruptured tanker of
his heart, torn open on the treacherous coral reef of love.
It was a kind of fear, actually. Nancy was a real catch. He
didn't know for sure how he'd snared her, what power he'd stumbled
upon that had attracted her if it went away, he had even less of an
inkling on how to get it back. The heady sense of validation and social
ease among the school population that he'd been feeling for the last
month now that he'd gotten used to it, she was taking it away. And
yet they all sat around, in their own little worlds, Mark Fletcher and
Deanna Fisher and Ken Adams and Helene Abrams.
Didn't everybody know! They had to know! HOW COULD
They would know, before too long. By tomorrow, maybe. This
wouldn't stay a secret. People would talk. Tom took one last look at the
note, then held it up to eye level, and slowly and deliberately turned it
into an origami boulder.
He didn't care who saw or heard. The noise didn't bother the
teacher, who was drawing some equations on the board and talking
about theorems and shit. But it was enough to draw notice from the
people around him. They had to know something was brewing surely
they'd understand what it meant for him to be scrunching up a Nancy
note, when the two of them been happily passing notes back and forth
through an alley of complicit hands for weeks now.
Out the corner of his eye, he saw Nancy sigh and look away
out the open classroom door. His stomach surged in sick satisfaction.
He imagined heaving the ball of paper right at her. Bouncing it right
off her head. How incredibly shocked everybody would be.
He held the wad at eye level. He turned it over and over, a
jeweler appraising a precious gem, enjoying the cracks and crevasses,
the blue lines flowing every which way, the pencil patterns of Nancy's
loopy cursive scrunched into gibberish.
He placed it carefully on the metal top of the big air
conditioner vent to his right. It was November, so the fan wasn't on, or
the paper would've been blown upward by the wind from inside the
machine. It just sat there.
It crackled once.
He sat back, rubbing his finger across the little bit of stubble
on his upper lip. Smelling his finger. It smelled like soap. Sometimes it
smelled like Nancy, but not today. He curled it so that the knuckle
pressed up against a nostril. He inhaled and exhaled, enjoying the
whistling sound. He reached down and pulled his spiral-bound
notebook up from the bookwell. He placed it flat and threw open the
cover. In the slanting light over the blank page, he saw ghost
impressions of previous notes he'd written to Nancy. All run together,
chicken scratches, ghost lines of love. He knew they were all Nancy
notes because he hadn't yet taken Note One in this class. Nor would he
ever, if he could help it.
He flipped the book closed. Doodles on the red cover he'd
inked in the UPC symbol and filled in the spaces in the "A" and "D".
He'd doodled a fist holding up a middle finger. He'd written KLOS and
PINK FLOYD and BLONDIE and GENESIS in various places. On the
back were some pen squiggles, corkscrews. Some additions. Five
figures totaling "508". Carry the 1 and the 3. They had nothing to do
with that class, of course. In the tunnel of spiral wires ran corrugated
paper guts. Again, only from those notes to Nancy. And maybe a paper
airplane. And a sheet or two for Deanna behind him, who often came to
class unprepared. Stoned and unprepared. It was common knowledge
Deanna went home at lunch and got stoned with her brother. She was
He rolled his clear blue Bic pen out of the pen trough at the
top center of the desk. It stopped, because it was hexagonal. He picked
it up and twisted it in his fingers. He held it up to eye level and
bounced it so it looked like it was rubber. He glanced at the
mimeographed papers stapled to the wall next to him. With a
fingernail, he dug out the blue plug in the end of the pen. Why was
that there, anyway? When it leaked, it didn't make a difference if the
plug was there or not. It leaked out anyway. He put the plug flat on his
desk, where it sat like an upside down mushroom. He flicked it with
his index finger into the fan vent. Ting-changle.
He put pen to paper and wrote "you". And then crossed it
out. He tapped the shaft of the pen against a bottom tooth. He then
wrote "fuck." And then crossed that out too. He hadn't crossed them
out too dark, so it looked like he'd once written "you fuck". Well, that
He put the pen tip back to the paper and darkened the
crossouts. He darkened until the ink shone, two gleaming rectangles.
He darkened until the paper began to dissolve. Then he stopped. He
pressed a finger to the blob, then looked at his finger. Blue. He touched
it to the desk. Blue. He stamped out fading blue partial fingerprints. It
was sort of artistic. But now it was kind of a mess. Blue fingerprints
right in the space for his writing arm, so now he couldn't write.
"Renee," he whispered.
The girl in front of him shifted in her seat and turned slowly,
revealing the curve of her cheek and an ear with golden blond hair
swept behind it.
"Got a tissue?" he whispered.
She leaned forward and rummaged with her right arm in her
little brown purse between the bookwell and the air conditioner. Then
her right hand appeared over her right shoulder, within her hair, with
a crisp pink tissue among her clear-lacquered fingernails. He pulled it
out slowly. "Gracias," he whispered.
"De nada," said Renee.
He scrubbed the blue ink off his desk, wetting his finger and
wiping some saliva there because it was quick drying. When it was
clean, he placed the pink ball next to the larger note ball. He then
severed the ruined page, scrunched it up, and placed it next to the
smaller pink ball.
He sat back, contemplating the fresh sheet. There were two
rectangular divots in this page. And some blue seepage. He ignored it.
He positioned the pen point two lines down below the last of the
seepage, and waited. It stood poised, a millimeter off the paper, 45-
degree angle back and toward him, resting there in the crotch of his
He wrote, Fine, fuck you. That's fine with me. I don't care. I
know you like Jeff Rushton now. I saw you talking to him by the
bathroom yesterday during Nutrition. I heard from someone that you
were with him at the mall a week ago. So screw you. Good riddance.
Before he could vacillate, he loudly and abruptly tore it from the book.
The teacher was still absorbed in some talk about this or that,
Pythagoras, binomial theorems, whatever, clacking chalk on the board.
He folded up the paper, and when he turned, Debbie Jansky's hand
was already out.
He looked up into Debbie's eyes. He thought he saw
sympathy there. He held the folded note in the hand resting on his
desk, shielded from the teacher behind Renee's back. He looked at it.
He looked back at Debbie. She eye-prompted: Well? He rattled the note
in his hand, idly, like he was fanning himself with it. Finally, he
passed it to Debbie without looking at her again. Sat back and studied
Renee's hair. He felt tired. She had nice hair. It had the funniest bit of
orange in it. It was all golden, like clean straw or sunlight, but with
these orange highlights.
One hair had disentangled and was curled up on the dark
blue fleece of her jacket. He reached out. Was it secretly still
connected? No he could see both ends. He lifted it clean.
The hair was clean and fresh. No split ends. He pulled it
between thumbs and forefingers. Good tensile strength. He didn't want
to break it, though. He respected Renee. She was good people. She was
a cheerleader. Not Varsity, Bees. She wasn't a friend of Nancy's. She
and Nancy moved in separate crowds. Nancy wouldn't be able to hang
with someone as cool as Renee. Renee would laugh at Nancy. She and
her friends would laugh at Nancy. She and her friends and Tom would
laugh at Nancy. Stand together and laugh at Nancy as Nancy walked
by burning with shame. The thought of Renee laughing with him at
Nancy pleased him very much.
Nancy was, however, somewhere within Renee's general
social stratum, while he was more or less below it or rather a kind of
non-participant, not having really given a lot of thought to competing
over the years. Being with Nancy, however, brought him right into the
game. And it was cool to have the cool kids kinda nod and say Hi now
and then. And even Renee wouldn't be too cool to chat with him now
But now that he was dumping Nancy, for that would be the
official story henceforth and forever would Renee still be nice to him?
Good question. Renee and Nancy were like different states in the same
country and Tom was like the next country over on the same
continent. That was an apt analogy.
He still had one of Renee's hairs, though. He could do magic
on it. Like he did in fourth grade that time, though it didn't work the
girl didn't fall magically in love with him. Things pretty much stayed
the same. And then he worried about having called demonic forces
down upon himself. Those stupid little books you got at the checkout
stand in the supermarket. This one about witchcraft, wherein he'd
found the love spell he cast. It also told him to demonic forces hated
hand shapes. So he slept with a fabric hand nearby for months. The
hand was cut out of flowered calico.
He held the length of hair up between his fingers and
rotated it to catch the light, looking for that orange highlight. This one
didn't seem to have it. Perhaps it was not on all of them. He'd have to
make a point of looking at Renee's hair in the sunlight sometime soon,
just to maybe catch a glimpse of that secret bit of auburn. For it was
really auburn, not orange. "Orange" was not a complimentary word to
describe Renee's pleasant hair.
Holding the strand in his hand, Tom started thinking about
what it'd be like to be Renee's boyfriend. She already had one, of
course. He thought about it some more. Nah, it was silly anyway. She
was separated from him by that invisible border. He couldn't see
relating to her as if he'd gone to school with her all of his life and had
experienced the requisite loss of awe required to be romantic equals.
He hadn't at all. He'd only been going to school with her since here.
Since tenth grade. No, she was out of his league. Her boyfriend wasn't
like him. Her boyfriend was social and athletic. In fact, it was probably
his jacket that hung there over the back of Renee's chair, gathering
When Tom finally looked up and over at Nancy, he saw an
interesting thing. Nancy looked almost depressed. She was gazing
dully down at the paper on her desk, her face mashed against her
supporting right hand. He could see the cups of her eyes, could see the
white of her eyes moving, reading. Over and over. Along Note Alley,
faces snuck puzzled glances back in his direction.
Tom sighed. Now he felt bad. Mean note, but what had he
written exactly? He forgot. Bad stuff. "Good fuckin' riddance" or
something like that. How stupid. Nobody said good riddance. They only
said that on TV.
Tom laid Renee's blond hair on the desk. It didn't lie flat. It
was slightly wavy. He pushed down one part with his fingertip, and
another part came up. Had he fucked up here? Had he played it wrong?
Uncool? Nancy was a little more popular than him. Being with her had
hoisted him up to the....then again, dumping her would hoist him even
more, if he did it right. So maybe he shouldn't have kissed her off there
maybe he should've tried to get her back, then officially dumped her.
Peeved, he blew the hair. It moved a little. He blew it harder. It
disappeared over the edge of the desk. He was struck with a twinge of
sadness to see it go. But there was plenty more where it came from.
"Hey!" Debbie hissed.
To his complete surprise, Debbie proffered a note. The
teacher seemed about to turn around, so she panicked and sailed it. It
landed on his desk like a fourth-grade paper football. Renee stirred. If
Tom had been sitting in front of her, he'd have seen she was reading a
romance novel, idly sucking a finger, occasionally glancing up at the
Tom looked at the note. It was folded up tight, small and
hard. It didn't close all the way. He hadn't seen Nancy write a
response. Maybe it was from Debbie or someone else. He slowly
No, it was from Nancy. That is so uncool, but I know you so I
know your just angry. Me and Jeff are just friends and that is not why I
want us to break up and you know that. I won't let you kiss me off like
that, you and me have to work this out and be friends. I'm not mad at
you, I won't let you be mad at me.
Tom looked at the note. He looked up. He looked at the note.
He read it again. He looked up. He looked across at Nancy. He looked
at the note again. He read it again. He looked up.
The bell rang.