You stop by your locker first to pick up your backpack and then hurry on to your fourth period. When you enter, Ms. Jensen is reading to the class, “… toward the close of the fifth or sixth month of his seclusion that the Prince Prospero entertained his—” she stops abruptly and stares at you over the rims of her reading glasses. You know better than to open your mouth or do anything less than move quickly to your desk and take out the anthology waiting for you in the tray below your seat. As soon as you stop turning pages, she begins again. “…that the Prince Prospero entertained his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence.”
Edgar Allen Poe. Awesome. “The Masque of the Red Death.” You read this yesterday after finishing your worksheet on “The Tell-Tale Heart.” But you like the way Ms. Jensen reads, passionately, like some old Shakespearean actor, who, rather than starve to death as an unemployed thespian in the big city, was forced to give up her bohemian ways to earn a living teaching literature and composition to unmotivated teenagers in some nowhere town … or so you imagine.
You find where she is on the page and follow along. “There were arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments.” Unsuited limbs and appointments? What did she just say? You don’t remember reading that yesterday. Maybe it was the way she enunciated the words, unsuited limbs and appointments. What did that mean exactly? “There were much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.” Excited disgust? Oh shit, this Prospero was like a rich pervert or something. You look across the room at Eric to see if he is getting any of this, if it’s not just you. His elbow is on his desk propping up his chin and his eyes are half closed. Apparently, it is, just you, getting turned on by your fifty-year-old English teacher reading Edgar Allan Poe.
After class, she stops you before you can get out the door. She’s wearing a tight-fitting blue t-shirt with the image of an eagle and the words “Presidential Physical Fitness Award” ironed on the front, which only further confuses you.
“Matthew, why were you tardy to class?”
You have a hard time meeting her eyes. “I’m sorry, Ms. Jensen. I, uh…” You feel your face getting warm. “There was, um—”
She puts you out of your misery. “Get here on time, Matthew. We should not be having this conversation.”
But she’s not done with you. “Is everything okay, Matthew?”
Now she has her hand on your shoulder. “Matthew, what happened, what you're going through, well, if you need to talk to someone about it, I’m here, okay?”
“Yes, okay. Well, have you finished that book of yours yet, what is it called, the something path?”
“The Warrior’s Path,” you say, looking up. “No, still working on it.”
“Okay, well.” She removes her hand. “When you need something to read, let me know. I have plenty of books.”
“Yes, ma’am,” you say, ready to move past her, but you hesitate. “Thank you, Ms. Jensen.”
“Of course, Matthew. Now go, have a nice lunch.”
Eric is waiting for you outside. “Dude, what was that about. She give you shit?”
“No, actually, she was asking about you.”
His eyes narrow. “What?”
“Yeah, she saw you sleeping in class and was worried you were on drugs or something.”
“Shut the fuck up.”
“Hey, don’t believe me, but I wasn’t the only one who heard you snoring.”
For a moment, you have him, as he considers the possibility this could be true, then just as quickly, he dismisses it. “Yeah, right.”
You both get in line at one of the cafeteria’s side windows because the one for a hot lunch is already too long and you don’t like the mystery of the daily menu anyway. You order your usual, a tuna sandwich, a Hostess fruit pie, apple today because they are out of cherry, and a carton of milk.
The two of you find your table at the edge of the outdoor lunch area. Most of the tables are clustered in the center beneath covered metal awnings, but the ones on the margins are positioned to take advantage of whatever shade is left over, under a tree maybe, or, like yours, against the back of a row of classrooms. Who got which tables had been quickly established in the first few days of school. At the center of the awnings were mostly the seniors, and from there out was based on either popularity or power, which in your limited experience was almost always the same thing. Last year, you ate in your homeroom teacher’s classroom. She played Beethoven and Bach, and sometimes Bernstein and Debussy while you ate. Out here was supposed to be a step up.
You eat the sandwich quickly, saving the milk to enjoy with your fruit pie later, and tell Eric about Claudia. The rest of the morning you keep to yourself.
“What do you mean you don’t remember?” he asks. “You either said yes, or no. What’s to remember?”
You shrug. “I know, but—"
“What’s that?” he asks.
You follow his gaze to the inside of your left arm, just then remembering Luz wrote her number there. You pull back your sleeve and hold out your arm for Eric to see. Some of the ink has already rubbed off, but the digits are still legible in thin raised welts on your skin.
“Is it hers?”
“I don’t think so,” you say, retrieving your arm. “I told Luz we might be going to a party.”
“You said, at that dude, Kenny’s house.”
“Oh, yeah.” He seems thoughtful a moment, but then shrugs. “Maybe.” He puts the last bite of his own tuna sandwich in his mouth, chews, swallows. “Luz? What Luz?” he asks. “You mean, Fonzie? She’s a lesbo, dude?”
“Is she?” You consider the idea. “So what, she’s cool.”
“Hey, I don’t care,” he says. “I just don’t want you to be getting your hopes up. Besides, I gotta see about wheels. You got any ideas?”
“I don’t know. If I go to the dance I could get dropped off.”
He gives you a disappointed frown. “By your mom?”
“I’m not staying home tonight,” he says, staring at the side of his milk carton. “No fucking way.”
“What about the van?” you suggest.
“My dad’s still pissed about the dent in the side.”
“It’s not even that big.”
“Yeah,” he says, looking at you. “You tell him.”
A Styrofoam tray appears on the table next to you filled with mashed potatoes, green and orange colored vegetables, and what is probably fried chicken. It is followed by your friend, Gus. “Hey, Guys?”
Your other friend, Rudy, takes a seat next to Eric with his tray. You acknowledge the both of them with a smile and quick lift of your chin, but they are deep in conversation and hardly seem to notice.
“What are you talking about,” Rudy is saying. “They’re all the same race.”
Gus shakes his head. “No, they’re not.”
“Apes,” says Rudy, as if the word alone should settle things. “Planet of the Apes.”
Gus is still shaking his head. “Haven’t you noticed?” A fork full of mashed potatoes gets halfway to his mouth before dropping back to his plate. “Check it out,” he says. “The chimpanzees are the smart ones, right? They’re the doctors, the scientists, right? And the governors or politicians or whatever are the orangutans, right? And the guards, the really strong and mean ones, those are always the gorillas.”
“Man, so what?”
“Don’t you see,” says Gus, finally putting the fork in his mouth. “They’re all like monkey stereotypes.” The last word causes a bit of potato to fly from his lip onto the table. He flicks it with his finger into the grass and continues. “It’s a caste system.”
“It’s a stupid science fiction tv show,” says Rudy.
“No, it’s not,” he says. “Okay, yes, it is, but it’s not stupid. What I’m saying is it’s the same for us right now. Only certain races are allowed to have certain jobs, or so much power, or to be smart or not smart. It’s racism.”
“It’s a tv show,” says Rudy. “Stop watching it if you don’t like it.”
“Dude,” Eric says, turning to Rudy. “He has all the dolls.” Gus and Eric grew up across the street from each other. Sometimes they act like brothers, other times Eric treats Gus like he doesn’t exist.
Gus looks offended. “Action figures,” he corrects.
“Oh, really,” says Rudy. “Like on your bed?”
“No, my book shelf,” says Gus, putting another forkful of mashed potatoes into his mouth.
Rudy seems to take the opportunity to change the subject. “So, you guys going anywhere tonight?” he asks. “Take us with you.”
Eric looks at you. “This one,” he says, “wants to go to the dance.”
“The dance?” asks Gus. “That’s cool. I’ll go.”
“Someone asked him,” says Eric.
Rudy straightens up in his seat. “Dude, who?”
“Her name is Claudia,” you say.
“What’s her last name?”
“I don’t know, but she’s on the dance team.”
“Ortega,” says Gus. “Her last name is Ortega.” The three of you turn to look at him. “What? She’s on the dance team.”
“I know her,” says Rudy. “She’s fucking cute, dude. Does she have a friend?”
“I don’t know,” you say. “I’ve never even met her.”
“Really,” says Gus, gesturing with his chin toward the center tables. “Because she’s right over there.”
“Where?” asks Eric.
“Over there, to the right,” he says, closing one eye and pointing with his fork. “See that girl in the red blouse and the jean shorts? Sitting right across from her. The one with the short hair.”
You see her. She is wearing a purple long sleeve blouse and black shorts. Her table is just under the edge of the metal awnings, only fifty feet across the grass lawn from yours. She is sitting at the end of her bench with her left side toward you, laughing at something her friend is saying, her head back, her mouth open. Suddenly, your heart is in your throat. You swallow it down.
“Go, man,” says Rudy. “Talk to her.”
“Yeah, what are you waiting for?” adds Gus.
“I don’t know. What would I say?”
“Just say, hi,” suggests Gus.
“Right here, in front of everyone?”
“Man,” says Eric. “Stop being such a pussy and go already.”
(A) Go talk to her.
(B) No, not in front of everyone. You’ll just embarrass yourself.
THE MISADVENTURES OF MATTHEW VAN DER BOOT is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental … no matter how many times you ask.