We were reading Othello when Alex showed up. The doorknob creaked and turned a fly buzzed in my ear and she clomped in her clogs to Ms. Kingston’s desk.
“I’m supposed to be in this class.”She was chewing gum. Ms Kingston pointed vaguely to a desk near mine. Alex strolled over leisurely her hand lazily tracing the edge of each desk before she slid into the seat next to me. I glanced over at her. She looked relatively average: kind of skinny, straight brown hair, cute face. Almost forgettable. But I always remember the way her hands looked when I first saw them. Small palms with lithe fingers, pinkish unpolished nails, a half moon of freckles on her left pinky, and a small, splotchy birthmark on her right thumb. Pretty, pale, perfect in their small imperfections; I remember thinking that they looked exactly as girl hands should. I could see her fingers pressing down on guitar frets, or kneading bread, or praying. That last image gave me pause. Her slow voice broke my reverie then:
“Can I share your book?”
What odd sentence structure that was. As if she was going to share something of mine with me.
“Sure,” I said. She looked at me, then scooched her desk over to touch mine. She reached over and pulled the book towards her, leaning in so far that her hair brushed my shoulder, and began to follow along with the class. Karen Sliwa was reading Desdemona, her nasally voice loud with self-importance and snot.
Alex didn’t say anything else to me that day. When the bell rang, she stood up gradually, gathered her things, and walked out slowly but without pause. I don’t think anyone else thought about her again that day. Except for me. I thought about her a lot.
When I was fourteen, I was really scared of girls—because I liked them so much. I used to exhale whenever they’d walk by, just so they wouldn’t think that I was trying to sniff them or something. Even though I wanted to sniff them. I wanted to sniff them, and touch them, and feel them, and maybe taste them. I liked to watch them do stuff. Walk, talk, just stand around. I’d look at the way their t-shirts fell casually over their awkward, cute new bodies. And the way they moved once they realized these new bodies. The way they flipped their hair and rolled their eyes and giggled and stuck their chests out just a little bit. I guess what I liked best is that most girls didn’t quite know how to play at being women yet. I mean, I certainly didn’t know how to be a man. I had acne and braces, and a stupid haircut. And I wasn’t very cool. It was kind of reassuring to watch girls flounder a little bit too, trying to get used to all those changes they talked about in Health Class. Girls are at their most beautiful at 14, I think. Pure.
I’ve gotten better at talking to them. I still like them a lot. They’re pretty and I like to watch them laugh. But there’s not so much mystery there anymore. Sometimes a girl will surprise me, though. Like Alex did.
It was a Monday, when it happened. She had taken up the habit of sitting next to me, and I hardly minded. For whatever reason, she didn’t have a book yet, so she continued to share with me. There she sat, that Monday, reading along silently to the last act of Othello. I could smell a mix of girly shampoo and mothballs coming from her. She wore a red sweater with a hole near the neck, and a pair of jeans. We had exchanged words since she took her spot that first day, but nothing monumental. When class was over, I expected her to tromp out like she always did, taking her time, talking to no one. But instead, she tapped me on the shoulder while I was getting my things together.
“Do you want to come to my house?”
Even she seemed surprised by the abrupt nature of the question, and quickly looked down. Then, seeming to gain a new determination looked me in the eye.
I opened my mouth. Did I want to come to her house? Yes. Very badly. But I didn’t know how to play it with this girl, or if I even could play at anything.
“Uh. Um. Well, ye-hah,” I managed. Apparently I was playing it mentally ill.
“Okay,” she said. “Here’s my address. Come at 4:30, this afternoon. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
I knew where her house was. I had done a science project with a girl in the same neighborhood. For whatever reason, Alex didn’t seem receptive of walking home together, and so I waited around school for an hour, and then began my walk.
Her house was yellow with red trim. It had a bizzaro spiral staircase that led up to a second floor porch and a door. A black gate surrounded it. I checked my phone. 4:35. I was late, but not obnoxiously so. Just right. I opened the old steel gate, and tentatively walked to her front door. Just as I was about to knock, it opened. Alex, wearing blue shorts and a t-shirt that said “Beach Boys” but had the Black Flag logo on it. Before I could comment on how weird that was, she pulled me in. I looked around her house. It was pretty normal: a couch, a T.V., a stained wooden coffee table. Green carpeting.
“Sit down,” she said.
I looked at her face, surprised to see more expression on it than I had ever seen before. She looked really pleased.
“I’m rolling,” she said, as if she were telling me that her family was getting a new puppy.
“What?” I said stupidly.
She grinned at me, went into her purse, and came back with a small white pill. I had been to enough parties to know what it was.
“Oh, you’re on E?” I said, attempting collectivity. Like I was asking about the weather, about her mother’s job, about her t-shirt.
“Do it with me,” she said plaintively.
Why on earth was she getting high at 4:45 on a Monday? I had seen people do E at parties, at clubs, with their friends on Friday nights, but this—this was weird.
“Come on. I asked you over to roll with me. It’ll be fun. I’m already feeling good.”
“But...but, I don’t even know you!” I stammered.
She looked at me as if I had given her driving directions in Swahili.
“I promise you’ll have fun,” she said.
This was ridiculous. But I didn’t feel like leaving. And Alex looked so perfect and happy.
“Okay,” I said, “I guess so.” I was quickly learning to approach this drug in the afternoon on a school day thing with practiced nonchalance. Oh, you’re on E? Yeah, sure, okay, I do this from time to time, no big deal; yeah I guess I will have some, thanks.
I took the pill from her and swallowed it. I then immediately started to panic. Contrary to my cool demeanor and lax attitude, I had never done anything much harder than weed and an Aderall, once.
“You’ll probably feel it in a half hour or something,” Alex said lazily, guessing correctly at my ignorance. She grinned at me.
We sat there, on her white futon, not saying much. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing, or feeling. She looked at me and smiled again, leaning her head on my shoulder. This was new territory. We were classroom acquaintances at best—hardly friends, and certainly not friends who touched each other semi-intimately. I tried to relax. She turned on the T.V., and we begin to watch Sabrina The Teenage Witch. About halfway into the episode—Sabrina was stuck in some weird witch closet portal, and her way-too-cute-to-be-aunts were trying to get her out—the show suddenly got brighter. The colors on the T.V. were saturated. And I was feeling pretty good. Melissa Joan Hart was in a short dress, Alex was now sprawled—when did this happen?—across my lap, and I could hear her dog snoring. Then Alex began to talk.
“I’m from Connecticut, originally, but sometimes I tell people I’m from New York City, because it’s cooler there, and anyway we moved there two years ago, and I loved it. I hate Ohio, but it doesn’t seem so bad right now, you know? There aren’t any record shops in this town though, and that really blows. Do you like music?”
She looked at me. I had been running my arm up and down her ribcage, marveling at the soft cotton of the t-shirt. I stopped, and stared at her.
“What’s with your shirt?” I asked.
“Do you get it? I guess there’s nothing to get, it’s just kind of funny because The Beach Boys are the least bad-ass band ever, and Black Flag is like the godfather of hardcore punk.”
I got it. That was pretty funny. I started laughing, suddenly joyful. Alex looked at me and joined it. We laughed together, and it sounded like a Beach Boys harmony.
“You know what I hate?” I started. “English. I hate English so much.”
“Like, the language?” Alex asked.
“Well…well, yeah, it’s a pretty ugly language, but I was mainly talking about the class, its full of the stupidest people ever, you know?” I grinned at her, excited to have an outlet for my petty thoughts.
“I’ve only been there a week,” she said, “But I guess it sucks. I hate Shakespeare.”
I didn’t know what to say to this bold statement. Who actually says they hate Shakespeare? I had never met anyone braver. I clapped my hands in delight, a child on Christmas morning.
“That’s so great, that’s awesome,” I gushed. “No one ever says that, you’re so real, you know?”
She got up suddenly, and put on a record. The Clash, London Calling. She started dancing, kind of badly. She looked really beautiful. I studied her brown hair, how could I have not seen all the dimensions in it, the colors? She motioned me to get up, and I did. I danced with her, looking at the way her thin white arms arched above her head. I took in her imperfections—the mole on her arm, the fleshy hip sticking out slightly from her shorts, the long second toe—and loved them. I smiled at her eyebrows, her ankle, her upper lip. And her hands, those pretty, white hands, twirling and gyrating. The hands that had first turned the pages of Othello, that gave me that white pill, that now ran carelessly down her body. They were so there and so much realer than before. They were talking to each other, to me, telling me everything.
A couple of songs later, we sat back on the couch, facing each other. Alex turned down the music.
“Tell me a secret,” she said intently.
I thought for a moment and then I looked at her, quizzically.
“Okay, I’ll tell you one first,” she said. “The first person I ever got high with was my step-mom. She’s a recovering hippie. She got married to my dad when I was thirteen. She stayed at home while he went to work. One day when I was home sick with, like, an anxiety headache or something, she gave me some pot and taught me how to roll a joint. She had a piece though, so we just smoked out of her bowl, and ate Cheetos, and watched Wheel-Of-Fortune. We did it a couple more times before my dad just peaced out and she decided I wasn’t her kid anymore. That’s why I’m here with my Mom and her boyfriend.”
I didn’t really know what to say, but it felt good to listen to her.
“Kind of fucked up,” she observed. “Your turn.”
I thought about it for a few minutes.
“Okay…this is embarrassing. But…well, okay. I had, like, an imaginary friend till I was like…twelve.”
Alex looked at me.
“I don’t know. My dad paid a lot of attention to my brother, and my mom would pay attention to his girlfriends because she always wanted a daughter and he always had a girlfriend. So I guess I just wanted someone who would pay attention to me. Oh man, that sounds so gay, doesn’t it?”
I was worried that I’d scared her off, but Alex just smiled.
“No, it sounds totally fine,” she said.
“Anyway, his name was Nate, and we mostly talked about stuff—you know, superheroes, and TV shows, and girls sometimes, when I admitted that I liked them. We would go exploring in the forest preserve behind our house and find rocks down by the river, and pretend to be, like, geologists. Well, I would pretend, I guess.”
“Why did you stop?” Alex asked.
“My mom took me to a therapist. She thought I had problems. My brother went to college, and all of a sudden my parents had time to pay attention to me. It was kind of funny. I don’t know, guess I didn’t really need Nate anymore. I got ‘socialized’ once I went to middle school. Made real friends.”
“Do you miss him?”
What an odd question. And yet, it made perfect sense.
“Yeah sometimes. I didn’t have to explain anything to him, you know?”
“Yeah,” Alex said, “I know.”
She crawled over to me and laid her head on my chest. That kind of amazed me. Everything felt right. It was beautiful. I wanted to ask her to run away with me, or something, but didn’t quite know how to put it into words. So I just stroked her hair and watched her tiny hand make figure eights on my collarbone. And we sat there, and I smelled her, and we breathed each other in.
After a while I looked over at the tall clock in the corner of the room. It was seven-thirty. Seven-thirty? How did it get to be so late? I knew my mom wouldn’t worry—she was working late tonight and wouldn’t be home till nine or so. Still, I sat up.
“I should probably go,” I said, not sure why.
Alex looked at me.
“Okay,” she said slowly. “This was fun.”
“Yeah,” I said, “It was cool.”
“Are you going to be okay to walk home?” she asked.
“Well, okay. It’s been pretty real,” she said.
I studied her, as if I were leaving for a long trip and didn’t know when I’d be back again to see her face. Her eyes were brown. I’d never noticed. She stood on her tiptoes and kissed me on the nose. I turned quickly, and left her.
I don’t really remember my walk back very well. I know I got home, and went to my bedroom to pass out, waking up the next morning feeling pretty bad. I also know that when I went into English class on Tuesday, Alex was sitting on the other side of the room. She looked at me and cocked her lips up in a half smile. And then I started to laugh. Loudly and uncontrollably, until Ms. Kingston gave me a concerned look and wrote me a pass to see the nurse. When I went, the nurse asked me some questions that I didn’t really have answers for. Then she let me lay on the sick cot for the rest of the day. I wondered briefly how Alex was doing with the final act of Othello, before I fell asleep. I wanted desperately remember her how her fingers looked drumming against the desk when I left the room, laughing.
Ms. Kingston switched me out of her English class the next day, before we’d even finished the play. I ran into Alex a couple of times before graduation. I went to college somewhere far away. I never saw her again.
But after a while, it didn’t seem real. Everything that had happened seemed so far away. And Alex drifted off into a big filter in the sky, where all my weird memories went to rest. I hope it was something like Heaven.