"What are you writing?"
I awoke to the real world to find Noel looking with curiosity at the Symphonians’ notebook.
"Oh, this and that," I stammered, trying to sound nonchalant as I quickly covered the scene with my arm. "I don't know. Sometimes I write any old thing in here. It's nice." I clutched my skull. I'm smart! Yet I talk like a cheerleader!
"You know, Kathy, I see you with that notebook, and more and more I think you ought to try out for Brain Bowl. I’m graduating next month, so I won’t be able to play any more. But you'd be perfect for the team. You obviously know how to concentrate, and you’re always hanging out in the library, so you’re not afraid of a little knowledge." Noel, holding his black fedora by its crown, lifted it a few inches and dropped it, lifted it and dropped it.
I squawked, "Really?" I cleared my throat. "I don’t know. It's obvious I can't talk."
"You're talking now."
"Yeah ... but talking's hard." Wow, did that ever sound dumb!
Noel put both arms on the table and leaned toward me, and I caught a whiff of spearmint gum. He chopped the table with the side of his hand as he spoke. "You have to learn some things to make talking easier. It's not easy for everyone. I learned because I had to." He leaned back in his chair. "Kathy, when I moved down here from Parnell in junior high, I didn't know anyone. So I made myself stand out from the crowd. I spoke to everybody, I remembered names, I complimented people. They paid attention. Now I'm beginning to reap the dividends. It was tough, though. I can't believe how cliquish these people are."
I nodded. "You got that right."
"Personally, I think you'd do well in Brain Bowl because you like research and you're smart. You've always got a book or a bass clarinet. Anyone who plays bass has got to have brains." There was a little wink in his voice.
I shrugged, though I was flattered. It would never be possible, though. It was too easy to look like an idiot in front of everybody. "Oh, I don't know," I said, being polite. "I'm doing all kinds of music stuff...." I glanced up and found his brown eyes full on mine, saw the little crinkles at their edges where he smiled. An electric current ran through me. Confused, I pushed up the sleeves of my cardigan. The library was warm as a strange tide rose in my chest, turbulent, wonderful, frightening. “I’m pretty busy,” I stammered, looking at my green notebook like some doofus.
“Have it your way,” Noel said, friendly.
He went back to his test. His brows lowered in thought as he frowned at his paper, his dark face intense, unguarded. Could he see how defenseless, how alone I am?
Yeah, maybe he'll pick you up and carry you away.
At once my imagination kicked into overdrive: Noel carried me out of burning houses, through war zones, rescued me from the mall during Christmas season.
The bell jangled: my lunch break was over. Reluctantly, I stood. Noel gave my arm a gentle squeeze, and I felt the warmth of his dark hand.
"See you later." Noel smiled at me. I longed to put my arms around him and AIEE don't think about that! And with one last confused smile in return I fled. I ran down the hall to Chorus, dodging students, my heart pounding, propelled by a giddy sense of doom. This is going to kill me! But I love it!
Yet I wanted to run down the hall with my arms open singing “Musetta’s Waltz” in a ringing operatic soprano, though my pipes would not have cooperated.
"It's just an infatuation," I told myself, knocking over students too slow to get out of my way, as my thoughts spun around Noel like a whirlpool. "Ignore it." Because my other infatuations had faded out after a year or two. This one would too. Simple as that.
Another part of me rebelled. Look, why are you so scared? Why can’t you be like a normal girl and go out with normal guys?
I didn’t have a good answer. So I squashed the voice like a bug. “That’s just the way I am,” I muttered, heading up the stairs back into the bandroom where the other Chorus students were gathering. “Deal with it.”
That’s not a valid reason any more, said the other voice, crawling out from under my metaphorical shoe. Why not change? Why not act like the rest of the world?
Shut up. I dropped a two-ton boulder on it and got out my choir music. I can't even take a hug, though I'd love a hug. They felt like an intrusion.
But that kind of love – sex – scared me even more. It wasn’t like I was going to have sex before I got married, anyway. Well, okay, not that I was even interested in getting married, either! So I’d be a virgin. I was curious, of course, and I mean really curious, but still, there’s nobody out there that I’d show myself naked to. Someone would see me with nothing on! Oh, God, that would be awful!
Besides, Noel’s a senior, and he’s going to graduate next month, so why bother? He has plenty of girlfriends to pick from. And I'm not good enough for him anyway.
That, I figured, was that.
Except I suddenly had an image of Jeremy, one of my Symphonians, tearing down the ice after the hockey puck, his blonde hair streaming out from under his helmet like Jagr’s. His blue eyes shone with the thrill of the chase. With a single slap shot – goal! And he did a double axle to celebrate.
Jeremy wasn’t afraid. So why was I?
(End chapter one.)