Ten years ago
There are only thirty-five minutes left in the exam period when I finish the trigonometry final. The room is almost empty, nearly everyone else having long since finished. It’s just me and the kids who have barely kept up all semester. Even Connor, who has the attention span of a goldfish, is gone.
If ever there was a clear indication of how much of a mess I am right now, this is it.
I close the test packet and sling my book bag over my shoulder before trudging up to the front of the room where Mr. Willoughby, our trig teacher, is behind the desk. He raises an eyebrow at me as he takes the packet.
“Everything go okay there?” he asks, his voice quiet so as not to disturb the other stragglers. “The test wasn’t that hard, was it?” He chuckles softly. It’s a joke.
I ought to laugh, too. I’ve had the highest grade in the class for the entire year. We both know that this was not a hard test for me. I ought to make a joke back but I sigh instead.
Mr. Willoughby’s brows turn down. “Seriously, Dave, are you okay?”
I manage to nod. “Yeah, fine. Test was fine.”
“I’m sure you aced it.”
I have no idea. I could barely focus. I just nod and give Mr. Willoughby a wan smile. He wrote me a really nice letter of recommendation and this is probably one of the last times I’ll ever see him. I should thank him or something. But I don’t. Instead, I shuffle out the door, leaving those other three saps to their last few minutes of test taking.
My feet carry me through the halls of Kilkenney Academy, the private school I have attended since kindergarten. Attending Kilkenney is practically a tradition in my family. My grandfather went here back before the school accepted female students. There’s a photo of his senior class on the wall near the administrative offices, along with pictures of all the Kilkenney senior classes since the advent of photography. They’re sitting in front of this very same high school building, a group of seventy-eight young men in sport coats and light-colored pants. My grandfather is third from the left in the second row, his grin lopsided. Twenty-five years later, my dad went here, though by then the school was accepting women. All the students, men and women, are wearing the school uniform of a blue sweater vest over a white blouse with a tan blazer. The women wear knee-length skirts, the men wear slacks, and everybody has goofy hair because it was the 1980s. Two weeks ago, my whole class lined up in front of the building, too, all of us wearing the current school uniform of a blue button-down shirt, a blue and green striped tie, and blue skirts or slacks for the girls and blue slacks for the boys. In twenty years, our haircuts will probably look absurd, too.
A week from today I’ll walk across the stage in Atteborough Auditorium and accept a diploma while my dad and all the other parents watch from the seats, and then I’ll be a Kilkenney graduate, too. Frankly, it can’t come soon enough.
I make my way down the stairs and through the back hallway, past the locker I emptied this morning, and out the back door into the senior parking lot. On the far side of the parking lot, I find four of my friends—Riz, Wayne, Rosie and Connor. They’re all sitting under the big oak tree, enjoying the gorgeous late May afternoon and, presumably, the knowledge that we are finally—finally—done with high school.
They all look up when I toss my book bag on the ground and have a seat. “Jesus, what took you so long?” Riz says. He and Wayne are sorting through decks of Magic: The Gathering cards. “The test wasn’t that hard.”
I shrug, pull a bottle of water out of my bag and take a long sip.
Rosie, who is leaning against the tree with a book open on her lap, looks up. She gives me a cool appraisal with her big, weirdly expressive eyes before she returns to her reading.
“Hey, has anyone seen Bekah?” Connor asks, apropos of nothing. “She said she might want to… hang out later.” He wiggles his eyebrows just in case there was any question of what he meant by hang out.
Wayne rolls his eyes and Riz says, “Nope, haven’t seen her.”
“Don’t be a pig, Connor,” Rosie says without looking up.
Connor just laughs. “What?” he says. “We’re done. With school. The end. Who can blame me if I feel like celebrating?”
“Can’t say I quite agree,” Riz says. He’s still flipping through cards. “Some of us are headed for college.” We all are, actually. All except Connor, who enlisted in the Army.
“Yeah, college,” Connor says meaningfully. “It’s going to be all keggers and banging hot chicks. Meanwhile, do you know how many dudes I’m going to be stuck with?”
Rosie raises a disapproving eyebrow.
Riz sweeps a pile of cards into a stack. “Yeah, something tells me it’s not going to be all keggers and hot chicks for us, either.”
Much as I would like to disagree with Riz, I’m pretty sure he’s right. We could have partied in high school. Plenty of kids at Kilkenney do. It’s just that me and my friends were all more inclined to stay up late playing Dungeons & Dragons or a video game, or watching a cult classic movie marathon than we were to get drunk or high. Me and my friends, we are nerds. Complete and total nerds.
“Whatever, dorks,” Connor says. “I’ve seen Animal House.”
“Who are you calling dork, dweeb?” Riz says, throwing a handful of grass at Connor.
Some good-natured ribbing follows, with me and Wayne getting drawn in, and even Rosie a little, although by virtue of being a girl she never gets the worst of it. It’s familiar and fun, this joking around out here and I feel myself starting to relax, feeling a little less destroyed by my recent heartbreak. But just as I start to really get into the swing of the trash talk, the school door bangs open and the source of my misery emerges.
Kayla Vanhoorne looks as beautiful as ever carrying a box full of the contents of her locker, heading for her car. She looks up and sees us all looking at her. Her face turns red and she grimaces, embarrassed. I’d bet that my friends are glaring at her, trying to be loyal to me, but she looks so upset that I want nothing more than to go put my arms around her.
But, of course, the point of a break up is that I can’t do that anymore.
Kayla lowers her head and hurries toward her car. We watch her start to walk away.
Connor sighs. “This is bullshit,” he says finally.
“Connor,” Rosie says, a warning.
“No, this isn’t fair. Kayla is our friend. We’re just never going to hang out with her again because she and Dave broke up?”
Riz sighs. “Connor, it hasn’t been that long,” he starts to say, but Connor isn’t having it.
He turns to me. “Look, Dave, I’m sorry you’re sad but we can’t boot Kayla over this.”
“We’re not booting Kayla,” Rosie says. “We’re giving Dave some time, that’s all.”
“We don’t have time, Rosie,” Connor says. “We graduate next week. I leave for basic training in three weeks. Wayne has a summer job. You’ve got your internship. Before you know it, the summer will be over. So exactly when can we all hang out as a group again?”
None of us has a good answer.
“Hey, Kayla, wait up,” Connor says, trotting after her.
As soon as he’s gone, my friends rally around me. “Are you okay, Dave?” Riz asks.
I swallow hard. “I’m fine.” I have to be. Connor’s right. Kayla has been one of us since she started at Kilkenney freshman year. I may have had an enormous crush on her since the moment I laid eyes on her that first day but, in the end, we only dated for a few weeks. She doesn’t deserve to lose her closest friends just because it didn’t work out. I need to be a grown up about this. “This isn’t her fault.”
This would all be a lot easier if I didn’t still think she was the most beautiful girl, the most perfect girl.
We watch as Connor talks to Kayla for a few minutes, gesturing occasionally toward us. She looks over, biting her full lower lip.
I’m still so in love with her, I think. I’m a little worried I’ll be in love with her forever. God, that would be awful, wouldn’t it? Feeling this way forever? This can’t-sleep-can’t-eat-can-barely-concentrate feeling can’t last the rest of my life, can it? Because it’s the worst. I’d usually say that people who claim they’ll die from a broken heart are being overly dramatic, but this really does feel like something I could die from.
After a few minutes, Kayla shrugs and nods her head and then she and Connor are walking back toward us. Kayla looks like a woman going to the gallows.
Rosie puts an urgent hand on my arm. “We can go somewhere else, Dave,” she says. “We don’t have to hang out with Kayla if it will make you uncomfortable.”
It’s definitely going to make me uncomfortable but, watching her walk toward me, I kind of welcome it. It’s like when you can’t stop touching a sore in your mouth with your tongue. I sort of want to feel awful about seeing her because it will make me remember when seeing her was so good. Or it will punish me for whatever it was I did that made her not want to date me anymore. Regardless, I can’t look away as she walks over, even as my heart pounds and I kind of want to go puke in the bushes. “It’s fine,” I say.
All three of my friends frown at me.
“Hey, guys,” Kayla says quietly when she reaches us. Then, even softer, “Hey, Dave.”
“Hi.” I somehow manage to make my voice sound normal.
My greeting seems to give everyone permission to mumble a hello. After that, an awkward silence descends.
“So,” Kayla says finally. “What are you guys doing today?”
You guys. Like she doesn’t expect to be included in whatever we’re doing, even though for four years she’s been as much a part of our merry band of nerds as anyone. I wince, but I don’t think anyone notices.
It’s Connor who once again saves the day. “We’re going to celebrate the end of high school the right way. All of us.” He drapes a friendly arm around Kayla’s shoulders as he looks meaningfully at the rest of us, daring us to argue about the guest list.
“What’s that?” Riz asks.
“We’re going to go to Rosie’s house and watch Dave Saves the World, of course.”
Dave Saves the World is one of our favorite movies. It’s an inexplicably bad straight-to-video film that stars a few actors who went on to become moderately famous. There are whole internet forums devoted to how awesomely bad this movie is. The special effects are ridiculous, the plot is indecipherable, and the dialog is stilted to the point of absurdity. Parts of it are so boring that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t intentional. We must have seen it a thousand times. Definitely, we’ve watched it enough to quote lines of it back to each other, which never fails to crack us up and baffle any observers.
“Nice of you to volunteer my house, Con,” Rosie says, tucking a chunk of her dishwater brown hair behind her ear and looking moderately aggrieved.
Connor grins at her. “Oh, come on, Ro. Be a buddy.”
She sighs and rolls her eyes. “Fine. Whatever.”
But the idea of sitting on the couch in Rosie’s basement while Kayla avoids eye contact with me sounds awkward as fuck, and I’m suddenly not sure I can do it. “You know what, guys?” I say, and apparently they all know what’s coming because there’s a chorus of Nos and Aw, mans. Even Kayla purses her beautiful lips and looks pained.
Connor steps forward to take my face in his hands and look deeply into my eyes as he says in an overly dramatic stage whisper, “Dave… the world needs you. I need you. So much.”
At that, everyone—Kayla included—breaks into giggles because not only is that an absurd thing for friends to say to each other, it’s also the line that Dave’s love interest says near the climax of Dave Saves the World, right before basically sucking his face off and with exactly that level of ridiculous overacting. It is one of our favorite lines to quote to each other, particularly for them to quote at me. It isn’t lost on me that one of the reasons my friends love this movie so much is that so many of the lines have my name in it.
I sigh. “Okay, fine. Let’s go watch this really stupid movie.”
We all pile into Kayla’s and Rosie’s cars. A week ago, I would have ridden in the passenger’s seat of Kayla’s car, the site of a few fumbling encounters early in our relationship, encounters where I was fairly sure I was going to either die or come in my pants. Jesus, I felt like the luckiest guy in the world.
If only I’d known how briefly that luck would last.
I slide into the back seat of Rosie’s car when Riz calls shotgun. Wayne and Connor ride with Kayla.
At Rosie’s house, we all say hi to Rosie’s mom. She asks how our exams went and congratulates us on finishing our senior year. She tells us to get sodas out of the fridge in the garage and promises that she’ll heat up some boneless chicken wings and bring them down to the basement. We all troop down the stairs. I flop down on the couch next to Wayne while Rosie gets the movie from the cabinet. Connor, who has trouble sitting still for more than a few minutes, convinces Riz to play a game of pool at the table behind the couch. Kayla takes a seat at the far end of the sectional, basically as far away from me as she can get without going back upstairs. I feel a little bit more miserable, and even the ridiculous opening scene of the movie with credits that look like they were created in Microsoft Word can’t improve my mood.
We watch the movie and shout our favorite lines (”The rice is gone, Dave! Don’t you understand?! They’ve taken all the rice!” and “Well, Melvin, if I had to guess, I’d say it was aliens” and “Suck it, Sharon!”). Rosie’s mom brings down a couple plates of sticky, greasy boneless chicken wings for us to devour. I feel marginally better right up until we get to one of my favorite parts of the movie, a fight scene so confusing and bad that several of the stunt men just fall down for no apparent reason. Just at that moment, Riz sits down on the couch next to Kayla and says something to her. I look over in time to see her throw her gorgeous head back and laugh. She puts her hand on his shoulder like she needs the stabilization because the joke was just so funny.
In that moment, I see exactly how this is going to be. She’s going to go off to college and she’s going to go to parties and there will be guys there. Other guys. Guys who aren’t me. They’ll flirt with her and she’ll laugh. They’ll get her drinks. Some other guy will kiss her perfect lips. Some other guy will get to see her nipples which I have painful firsthand knowledge are exactly as awesome in reality as they were in my fantasies. Some other guy will get to be her first. And it won’t stop there. Some other guy will marry her and they’ll have kids together. If she winds up coming back to town to visit or to live after college, I might run into them. I’ll have to see some other guy put his arm around her and smile at her and while she holds their baby. I know that all I’ll be able to hear are the words she said when she dumped me: “Dave, you’re so great but I just don’t think we’re right for each other. I think we need to break up. I’m sorry.”
The room suddenly feels airless. I can’t stay here another second, can’t listen to her laugh, can’t live with her being down the other end of the couch, can’t know that I’ve had my shot with her and blown it in some way I don’t even understand. I have to get out of here. So, even as my favorite scene of my favorite bad movie is playing on the screen, I get up and walk stiffly out of Rosie’s basement, up the stairs, past Rosie’s mom, and out the back door onto the porch where I throw up soda and boneless chicken wings into the backyard.
When I used to imagine how my senior year in high school might end, this wasn’t how I thought it would go. In retrospect, the scenarios I imagined were pretty straight forward. Maybe I’d have a boyfriend. Maybe I’d be valedictorian. Maybe I’d get a full scholarship somewhere. Maybe I’d lose my virginity. None of those things happened.
Instead, I am furious with one of my best friends for breaking the heart of the guy that I, myself, Rosie Reagan, have been in love with since sixth grade.
Ugh, I’m pathetic.
It has been six years of desperately wishing that the nicest, coolest nerd in school would give me a second look. Six years of being friends with him—close friends, even—and wishing in vain that it would turn into something more. Six years of torture, basically.
After Dave and Kayla started going out, I spent so, so many hours fantasizing about them breaking up. Well, more specifically, about him dumping her to be with me. They were pretty juvenile fantasies, I know. Basically, the end of every stupid, girly teen movie where the hero runs through the school to declare to the pretty-in-a-normal-way girl that actually it’s her he loves and wants to be with, not the bombshell. I love those movies to an embarrassing degree.
So, I should be celebrating now that he’s free, right? I’m not. Because her dumping him has him so clearly wrecked. He looks awful. He has dark circles under his eyes and it seems like he might have lost weight in just the week since it happened. Dave is pretty skinny to begin with, so he doesn’t really have any extra weight to lose. And just in case I wasn’t absolutely sure he was a mess, he used almost all the time allotted to finish the trigonometry exam. Dave! Dave, who has been offered full scholarships to not one, not two, but three colleges on the basis of his math prowess. He should have been the first one done, should have loped up to the front of the room after an inhumanly brief period of time to hand in a completed test and give the rest of us an embarrassed half smile like, Yeah, I know, but I’m not a jerk about it, right? Instead, when I got up to hand in my own completed exam, he was just staring at page three of the test, clearly lost in his misery. I had wanted so much to pull him into a hug then, tell him she was nuts and not worth his sadness.
So, I could just kill Kayla. She had the heart of one of the best people I have ever met in my life, a boy whose hazel eyes absolutely destroy me every time he looks at me, and she just tossed it away. How could she do that? And how can she seem so fine about it? She just seems mildly embarrassed, and mostly because it’s so obvious how broken up he is. I’ll bet that if he was hiding his feelings better, she would be her usual cheerful self. Kayla has been one of my best friends for most of high school and right now I think she’s a heartless bitch.
This is all very confusing.
After we get to my house and I put the film on, I spend most of the movie worried about Dave. He’s not really paying much attention, and I’m wondering at what point I should suggest he maybe talk to someone about this. It’s breaking my heart all over again just looking at him.
With no warning, he suddenly stands up and walks toward the stairs. “Dave?” I say, but I don’t think he even hears me.
“Where are you going, Dave?” Connor asks, but by then Dave is already taking the stairs two at a time as though he can’t get out of here fast enough.
When he’s gone, we all look at each other while the overblown sound effects of the ridiculous fight scene play from the screen.
“Do you… do you think he needed to use the bathroom?” Wayne asks.
“There’s a bathroom down here, dumbass,” Connor says.
Wayne throws a pillow at him.
“Someone should probably go see if he’s okay, right?” I say. There are nods around the room, but it is clear that none of the guys really want to do it and Kayla definitely shouldn’t. When nobody else volunteers, I stand up and smooth the school uniform I’m still wearing. “I’ll go. Just keep watching the movie.” Then I leave four very tense teenagers in my basement while I walk stiffly up the stairs.
“Is everything okay?” Mom asks when I come through the kitchen. “Dave just ran out onto the porch.”
“I’m going to check on him.” I try to give her a reassuring smile and slip out the back door.
Dave’s leaning on the railing. He stiffens a bit when I step out but he doesn’t turn around.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hey.” He glances over his shoulder at me and then looks back toward the yard.
“You okay?” I ask, taking a couple of steps toward him.
He nods, but doesn’t turn around and doesn’t say anything. It is hard to interpret that as anything other than an admission that he is not, in fact, okay.
When I stepped out onto the porch, I hadn’t been sure what I was going to say to him, but one look at his face and I know there’s nothing I can say. So, instead, I just loop an arm around him and lean my head on his shoulder, breathing in the smell of his deodorant and the laundry detergent from his clothes. After a few seconds, he relaxes and puts an arm around me, resting his head against mine. It’s such a sweet moment that for a second I pretend that we’re actually together and he loves me. Warmth spreads through my whole body. I have to close my eyes to keep from bursting into tears.
He smells so nice.
When we’ve stood like this for a few magical minutes, I say, “Probably it’ll get easier.” He doesn’t respond. “Someday it won’t hurt so much. Right now, it’s awful, but with some time and some distance, you probably won’t feel anything.”
It’s an open question whether I’m talking about him or me.
We keep standing there, leaning against each other. Eventually, though, he sighs and lifts his head and drops his arm. He takes a small step away and I let my own arm fall. “I’m sorry,” he says after another short silence. “I shouldn’t have run out like that.”
“It’s okay. We all understand.”
That seems to make him even more miserable. “Oh, God.” He scrubs a hand down his face.
I shrug. “I don’t think anybody blames you for being upset.”
“I’m making everything awkward.”
“It’s an awkward situation.” I reach up to put a hand on his back and rub gently. “I really think it’ll get better.” I don’t know what I’m talking about. I only have what I’ve seen in movies and read in books to go by, but this seems plausible. “Pretty soon, we’ll all be… you know…”
“Scattered to the four corners of the earth?” He looks at me out of the corner of his eye and there is the faintest hint of a smile on his lips.
“Exactly. You’ll be off being a math genius and the rest of us will be muddling along, figuring out what our average brains can possibly do.” I say it cheerfully, but the thought of not seeing Dave every day is kind of gutting. He’s going to college just a few miles away at the state university where his dad teaches. I’m headed to Minnesota. I didn’t choose that particular school because of the distance but it definitely seemed like a really good idea to put some space between us. Still hurts, though.
He sighs. “I really fucked up the end of our senior year, didn’t I?”
“You didn’t fuck up senior year. We probably won’t even remember this in a year or two.”
The way his lips twist make me think he disagrees.
“I’m worried about you, Dave Wheeling.”
“Are you really, Rosie Reagan?”
“Yes. A Dave Wheeling who walks out in the middle of Dave Saves the World? That’s not the Dave Wheeling I know. What’s next, a Dave Wheeling who doesn’t want to play Halo? A Dave Wheeling who will turn down a game of Magic?” He smiles a little, which makes me feel slightly better. “I don’t think I want to live in a world with that kind of Dave Wheeling.”
He is really struggling to keep a smile down now. He has such a nice smile. I’d be lying if I said that he and Kayla hadn’t made an attractive couple. Dave, with all his lean corners and sharp edges, looks preppy, like he ought to be headed out on a sailboat somewhere with some kids named Tab and Chester and Winston. Kayla is one of the only girls in school who can make the stupid uniform with pleated skirts and a necktie look sexy. Once, I overheard James Rosier and some of the other popular boys talking about how she looked like a naughty schoolgirl fantasy come to life and, yeah, I can see that.
I, on the other hand, look like I’m in drag when I wear my uniform. Like right now.
Summoning up a cheer I definitely don’t feel, I say, “Let’s not have our last memories of school and each other be of moping around on my back porch, okay? Why don’t we go back inside and watch the rest of the movie? And then maybe you and I can log onto Call of Duty and demolish some unsuspecting twelve-year-olds online.”
He laughs at that. “That does sound like fun.” He throws an arm around me and we start walking back toward the house together. “Or…”
There’s something slow and sexy about the way that he says the word and it’s embarrassing the degree to which my whole body reacts. Or what?? Or you could kiss me right now? Or we could sneak up to my bedroom and make out until we forget Kayla even exists? Or we could run away together and be each other’s everything until the end of time?
“Or, I could go absolutely own you and everybody else downstairs in a game of Risk.”
My heart does this strange and uncomfortable pounding thing as though it’s not sure whether it’s relieved or disappointed by that answer. I cover by loudly saying, “Oh, in your dreams, Wheeling!” which I know is both the response he wanted and also the absolute truth. He’s never beaten me in a game of Risk in the history of our friendship.
He gives me a real, rolling, happy Dave Wheeling laugh then, and it goes straight through me. It’s all I can do not to sigh like the school girl I totally am around him.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I feel like all the moping I’ve been doing is just me storing up a whole lot of awesomeness. I’m feeling good about my chances.”
“I am going to end you,” I hiss.
He just laughs.
When we get to the door into the kitchen, he takes his arm off my shoulders. The weight had felt so good there that I have to take a deep breath. “Thanks, Ro,” he says before he opens the door. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.” He smiles. Ugh, his dimples. They make me stupid. He puts his hand on the sliding door. “It’s a good thing we’ve never been into each other. I can’t imagine how awful it would be if things were awkward with you.”
My breath comes out of me in a giant gust, like I’ve been punched in the stomach. “Ha. Yeah. Awful.”
“Everything okay, kids?” Mom asks when we get inside.
“Just fine, Mrs. Reagan,” Dave says. He follows me to the basement door. He must sense that something is wrong, though, because just as he puts his hand on the knob, turns to me and says, “Hey, we are okay, right?”
I look up at him. “Of course.”
“I just… I don’t want to lose you, you know?”
I take a deep, steadying breath. “Absolutely. I totally know.” And I do. I smile, but it feels wobbly. “We’re going to be friends forever.”
We graduate a week later, and then it’ll be ten years before I see him again.