When I was a little, my Uncle Pete had a necktie with a porcupine painted on it. I thought that necktie was just about the neatest thing in the world. Once, he let me wear it; I kept looking for one of my own, but I could never find one.
I was twelve when we moved from Highlands to Arizona. With a dramatic flourish, Uncle Pete whipped off the tie and draped it around my neck. “It’s yours,” he said. I loved that porcupine tie so much that I decided to start a collection. On my 14th birthday, I read about myself in the local newspaper. The family section ran a regular feature about kids on their birthdays, and my mother had called in some information. The last sentence read: “As a hobby, Leo Borlock collects porcupine neckties.”
Several days later, coming from school, I found a plastic bag on our front step. Inside was a gift-wrapped package tied with yellow ribbon. The tag said “Happy Birthday!” I opened the package. It was a porcupine necktie. I inspected the box, the tag, the paper. Nowhere could I find the giver’s name. I asked my parents. I asked my friends. I called my uncle Pete. Everyone denied knowing anything about it.
At the time I simply considered the episode a mystery. It did not occur to me that I was being watched. We were all being watched.
“Did you see her?” That was the first thing Kevin said to me on the first day of school, eleventh grade. We were waiting for the bell to ring. “See who?” I said. “Huh!” He craned his neck. Scanning the mob. He had witnessed something remarkable. He grinned, still scanning. “You’ll know.” Our interest with each other was never keener than during the fifteen minutes before the first bell of the first day. I punched his arm “Who?” The bell rang. We poured inside. I heard it again in homeroom a whispered voice behind me as we said the Pledge of Allegiance: “You see her?” I heard it in the hallways. I heard it in English and Geometry: “Did you see her?”
Who could it be? A new student? A spectacular blonde from California? Or from back East, where many of us came from? Or one of those summer makeovers, someone who leaves in June looking like a little girl and returns in September as a full-bodied woman, a ten-week miracle? And then in Earth Sciences I heard a name: “Dyann”. I turned to the senior behind me. “Dyann?” I said. “That’s it. Dyann Caraway. She said it in homeroom.” “Dyann? Yeah.”
And then I saw her. At lunch. She wore an off-white dress so long it covered her shoes. It had ruffles around the neck and cuffs and looked like it could have been her great-grandmother’s wedding gown. Her hair was the color of the sand. It fell to her shoulders. Something was strapped across her back, but it wasn’t a book. At first I thought it was a miniature guitar. I found out later it was ukulele. She did not carry a lunch tray. She did carry a large canvas bag with full-size sunflower painted on it. The lunchroom was dead silent as she walked by. She stopped at an empty table, laid down her bag, slung the instrument strap over her chair, and sat down. She pulled a sandwich from the bag and started to eat. Half the lunchroom kept staring, half started buzzing. Kevin was grinning. “What would I tell you?” I nodded. “She’s in tenth grade,” he said. “I hear she’s been home-schooled till now.” “Maybe that explains it,” I said.
Her back was to us, so I couldn’t see her face. No one sat with her. She didn’t seem to notice. Kevin was grinning again. “You thinking what I’m thinking?” he said. I grinned back. I nodded. “Hot Seat.”
Hot Seat was our in-school TV show. We had started it the year before. I was producer/director Kevin was on-camera host. Each month we interviewed a student. So far, most of them had been an honor-student-types, athletes and etc. Noteworthy in the usual ways but not especially interesting. Suddenly Kevin’s eye boggled. The girl was picking up her ukulele, and now she was strumming it. Now she was singing! “I’m looking over a four-leaf clover that I overlooked before.” Stone silence all around. And now the girl was standing, slinging her bag over one shoulder and marching among the tables, strumming and singing and strutting and twirling. Heads swung, eyes followed her, mouth hung open. Disbelief, when she came by our table. I got my first good look at her face. She wasn’t gorgeous, wasn’t ugly, a sprinkle of freckles crossed the bridge of her nose. Mostly, she looked like a hundred other girls in school, except for two things; she wore no make-up, and her eyes were the biggest I had ever seen, she twirled as she went past, her flaring skirt brushing my pant leg, and then she marched out the lunchroom. From among the tables came three slow claps. Someone whistled. Someone yelped. Kevin and I gawked at each other. Kevin held up his hands and framed a marquee in the air. “Hot Seat! Coming attraction – Dyann.” I slapped the table. “Yes!” We slammed hands.
When we got to school the next day, Janeeva Virceles was holding court at the door. “She’s not real,” Janeeva said. She was sneering. “She’s an actress. It’s a scam.” Someone called out, “Who’s scamming us?” “The principal. Who else? Who cares?” Janeeva wagged her head at the absurdity of the question. A hand flashed in the air: “Why?” “School spirit,” she spat back. “They think this place was too dead last year. They think if they plant a some nutcase in with the students –“ Janeeva glared at the speaker, and then continued. “ – some nutcase who stirs things up, then maybe all the little students will go to a game once in a while or join a club.” “Instead of making out in the library!” chimed another voice. And everybody laughed and the bell rang and we went in.
Janeeva Virceles’ theory spread throughout the school and was widely accepted. “You think Janeeva’s right?” Kevin asked me. “Dyann’s a plant?” I snickered. “Listen to yourself.” He spread his arms. “What?” “This is Mica High School,” I reminded him. “It’s not an operation place.” “Maybe not,” he said, “but I hope Janeeva’s right.” “Why would you hope that? If she’s not a real student, we can’t have her on the Hot Seat.” Kevin wagged his head and grinned. “As usual, Mr. Director, you fail to see the whole picture. We could use the show to expose her. Can’t you see it?” He did the marquee thing with his hands. I stared at him, “You want her to be fake, don’t you?” He grinned ear to ear. “Absolutely, our ratings will go sky-high.”
I had to admit, the more I saw of her, the easier it was to believe she was a plant, a joke, anything but real. On that second day she wore a bright-red baggy short with a bib and shoulder straps – overall shorts. Her sandy hair was pulled back into twin plaited pigtails, each tied with a bright-red ribbon.
At lunch she was alone again at her table. As before, when she finished eating, she took up her ukulele. But this time she didn’t play. She got up and started walking among the tables. She stared at us and she stared at one face, then another and other. The kind of bold, I’m-looking-at-you stare you almost never got from people, especially strangers. She appeared to be looking for someone, and the whole lunchroom was dead silent. She started strumming the ukulele. And singing, it was a “Happy Birthday.” As Dyann marched out, I could see Janeeva Virceles across the lunchroom rising from her seat, pointing, saying something I could not hear. “I’ll tell you one thing,” Kevin said as we joined the mob in the hallways. “She better be fake.” I asked him what he meant. “I mean if she’s real, she’s in big trouble. How long do you think somebody who’s really like that is going to last around here?” Good question.
Mica High School – MHS – was not exactly a hotbed of nonconformity. There were individuals’ variants here and there, of course but within pretty narrow limits we all wore the same clothes, talked the same way, ate the same food, and listened to the same music. If we happened to distinguish ourselves, we quickly snapped back into place, like rubber bands. Kevin was right. It was unthinkable that Dyann could survive – or at least survive unchanged – among us. But it was also clear that Janeeva Virceles was at least half right: This person named Dyann may or may not have been a faculty plant for school spirit, but whatever she was, she was not real. She couldn’t be. Several times in those weeks, she showed up something outrageous. A flapper dress, a kimono and one day she wore a denim miniskirt with green stockings. “Normal” for her were long, floor-brushing pioneer dresses and skirts.
Every few days in the lunchroom she serenaded someone new with “Happy Birthday.” I was glad my birthday was in the summer. In the hallways, she said hello to perfect strangers. The seniors couldn’t believe it. They had never seen a tenth-grader so bold.
In class she was always flapping her hand in the air, asking questions, though the question often had nothing to do with the subject. She made up a song about isosceles triangles. She sang iit to her Plane Geometry Class. It was called “Three Sides Have I, But Only Two Are Equal.”
One day a girl screamed in the hallway. She had seen a tiny brown face pop up from Dyann’s sunflower canvas bag. It was her pet rat. It rode to the bag every day. One morning we had a rare rainfall and it came during her gym class. The teacher told everyone to come in. On the way to the next class they looked at the windows. Dyann was still outside, in the rain, dancing. We wanted to define her, to wrap her up as we did each other, but we could not seem to get past – “weird” and “strange” and “goofy”. Her ways knocked us off balance. A single word seemed to hover in the cloudless sky over the school “HUH?” Everything she did seemed to echo Janeeva Virceles: She’s not real… She’s not real…
And each night in bed I thought of her as the moon through my window. I could have lowered my shade to make it darker and easier to sleep, but I never did. In that moonlit hour, I acquired a sense of the otherness of things. I liked the feeling the moonlight gave me, as if it wasn’t the opposite of day, its underside, its private side. It was during one of these night moon times that it came to me that Janeeva Virceles was wrong. Dyann was real.
We fought daily, Kevin and I. My main job as a producer was to recruit people for Hot Seat. After I signed someone up, Kevin began researching the person and getting his questions ready. Everyday he asked me, “Did you sign her up?” Everyday he answered no. He got frustrated. “What do you mean, no?” “Don’t you want her to sign her up?” I told him I wasn’t sure. His eyes boggled out. “Not sure? How can you not be sure? We high-fived in the lunchroom weeks ago. We were thinking Dyann mini-series, even. This is a Hot Seat from heaven.” I shrugged. “Well then,” he said, “I’ll sign her up.” He walked away. “You’ll find another director, then,” I said. He stopped. I could almost see the steam rising from his shoulders. He turned and pointed. “Leo, you can be a real jerk sometimes.” He walked off. It was uncomfortable.
Kevin Quinlan and I usually agreed on everything. We had been best friends since arriving at Arizona the same week four years before. We both loved strawberry-banana smoothies and we both wanted to go on television. Kevin often said he wanted to be a talk show host, and he wasn’t kidding. I wanted to be a sports announcer or news anchor. We conceived Hot Seat together and convinced the faculty to let us do it. It was an instant hit. It quickly became the most popular thing in school. So why was I balking? I didn’t know. I had some vague feelings, but the only one I could identify was a warning: Leave her alone. In time “Janeeva’s Hypothesis” (so called by Kevin) about Dyann’s origins gave way to other theories:
She was trying herself discovered for the movies. She was sniffing fumes. She was homeschooling gone amok. She was an alien. She lived in a ghost town in the desert. She lived in a bus. Her parents were circus acrobats. Her parents were witches. Her parents were brain-dead vegetables in a hospital and everything randomly.
We joined her as she sang “Happy Birthday” to us in the lunchroom. We heard her greet us in the hallways and classrooms, and we wondered how she knew our names and our birthdays. Her caught-in-headlights eyes gave her a look of perpetual astonishment, so that we found ourselves turning and looking back over our shoulders and wondering what we were missing.
She laughed when there was no joke. She danced when there was no music. She had no friends, yet she was the friendliest person in school. In her answers in class, she often spoke of sea horses, aliens and stars. And she said that there was no television in their house.
She was elusive. She was today. She was tomorrow. She was the faintest scent of a cactus flower. We did not know what make of her. In our minds we tried to pin her to cork-board like a butterfly but the pin merely went through and away she flew.
Janeeva herself set the stage the day before. In the middle of lunch,she walked over to Dyann. Silence everywhere and only Dyann was chewing. Janeeva moved around to the side. “I’m Janeeva Virceles,” she said. Dyann looked up, she smiled and said, “I know.” “My birthday is tomorrow.” “I know.” Janeeva paused and her eyes narrowed. She jabbed her finger in Dyann’s face. “Don’t try singing to me, I’m warning you.” Only those at nearby tables heard Dyann’s faint reply: “I won’t sing to you.” Janeeva gave a satisfied smirk and walked off.
From the moment we arrived at school the next day, the atmosphere bristled. Janeeva Virceles was first to enter. She marched in, leading her girlfriends like an invading general. While her friends scanned the crown for Dyann, Janeeva stared ferociously at her sandwich. Dyann finally came in. She went straight to her table. Both she and Janeeva seemed unaware of each other. Dyann ate and Janeeva ate. We watched and only the clock moved.
Dyann finished her lunch. As usual, she stuffed her wrappings into her paper bag and returned to her seat. She picked up her ukulele. We stopped breathing. Dyann began strumming and humming. She stood and strolled between the tables. Three hundred pairs of eyes followed her. She came to Janeevas Virceles’ table – and kept on walking, right up to the table where Kevin and i sat. She stopped and sang “Happy Birthday.”
It was Janeeva’s name at the end of the song, but true to her word of the day before, she did not sing it to Janeeva – she sang it to me. She stood at my shoulder and looked down at me, smiling and singing, and I didn’t know whether to look down at my hands or up at her face, so I did some of each. My face was burning. Janeeva Virceles stomped from the lunchroom. Kevin looked up at Dyann and pointed at me and said that everyone must have been thinking:
“Why him?” Dyann tilted her head as if studying me. She grinned mischievously. She tugged on my earlobe and said, “He’s cute.” And she walked off.
I was feeling nine ways at once, and they all ended up at the touch of her hand on my ear – until Kevin reached over and yanked the same earlobe. “This keeps getting more interesting,” he said.
The change began around Thanksgiving of December first, Dyann Caraway had become the most popular person in school. How did it happen? The best chance for us to express our admiration came in the first week of December. We were gathered for the annual oratorical contest. Sponsored by the Mica High Student Officers, the event was open to any high school student who cared to show his or her stuff as a public speaker. The microphone was yours for seven minutes and talk about anything you like. The winner would move on to the district competition. Usually only four or five students entered the contest at MHS. That year there were thirteen, including Dyann. You didn’t have to be a judge to see that she was far and away the best. She gave an animated speech – a performance, really – titled “Call Me By My First Name.” Her gray-brown homesteader’s dress was the color of her subject. When she finished, we stomped on the floor and whistled and shouted for more. And the lights went on and the judges proclaimed Dyann Caraway as a winner. She would now go on to the district competition.
Suddenly we were no longer comfortable with losing. In fact, we forgot how to lose. No one had taught us how to be winners. One day, we were bored, indifferent and that’s it.
This was the start of a period that blurs as I try to recall it. Incidents seem to cascade and merge. Events become feelings, feelings become events. Head and heart are contrary historian. Hot Seat was never aired.
She gave everybody in school a card. That was my first thought. When I saw Kevin at school, I was about to ask him but I pulled back. I tried to be casual and I slipped it in with the only thing that mattered. Oh yeah, incidentally, speaking of Dyann: “Did you happen to get a card?” He looked at me funny. “She gave them to her homeroom, I heard.” “Yeah,” I said, “that’s what I heard too. But was that all?” He shrugged. “Not to me. Why? You get one?” He was looking away across the lunchroom, yet I felt he was grilling me. I shook my head. “Oh no, just wondering.”
Actually, I was sitting on the card. It was on the back pocket of my jeans. Meanwhile, all eyes in the lunchroom were on Dyann. As the lunched period was ending, she got up but did not head straight for the exit. Instead she detoured in the direction of my table. I panicked, I jumped up, grabbed my stuff and blurted “Gotta go,” left Kevin with his mouth hanging, and took off. Not fast enough. Halfway to the door I heard her behind me: “Hi, Leo.” My face got warm. I was sure every eye was turned to me. I was sure they could all see the card in my pocket. I pretended to look at the clock. I pretended I was late for something and I ran from the lunchroom.
I lurked in the shadows for the rest of the days. I went straight home after school and stayed in my room. I stared at the window and laid the card on my study desk. I picked it up. I read it, I read it, I read it, I read it, and I played “Hi, Leo’ over and over in my head. For hours I lay under my sheet of moonlight. Her voice came through the night, from the light, from the stars. Hi Leo.
Monday during lunchtime. This time I stayed put when Dyann came toward my table on her way out. My back was to her and I could see Kevin’s eyes following her, widening as she came closer. Then his eyes stopped and it seemed like everything stopped and the back of my neck was on fire. “You’re welcome,” I heard her say, almost sing. I thought. What? But then I knew what. And I knew what I had to do. I knew I had to turn around and speak to her, and I knew she was going to stand there until I did. This was silly, this was childish, this being terrified of her. What was I afraid of, anyway? I turned and I felt heavy as if I were moving through water, as if I were confronting much more than a tenth-grade girl. I faced the gaudy sunflower on her canvas bag – it looked hand-painted – and at last my eyes fell into hers. I said, “Thanks for the card.” Her smile put the sunflower to shame. She walked off. Kevin was grinning, wagging his head. “She’s in love.” “Bull” I said. “She is much in love.” “She’s goofy, that’s all.” The bell rang, we gathered our stuff and left.
I wobbled through the rest of the day. A baseball bat could not have hit me harder than that smile did. I was sixteen years old. In that time, how many thousands of smiles had been aimed at me? So why did this one feel like the first?
After school my feet carried me toward her homeroom. I was trembling, my stomach had flies. I had no idea what I was going to do if I saw her. I only knew I couldn’t go. She wasn’t there. I hurried through the hallways and run outside. For months she had been everywhere, now she was nowhere.
I heard her name. Her name. The same one syllable and the same four letters that I had been hearing all year. But I wanted to be slow about it, I wanted to feel the tension and I wanted to feel myself closer step by step. I did not know what I would do if I saw her. I knew only that I was nervous and afraid. I was more comfortable with her as history than a person. Suddenly, intensely, I wanted to know everything about her. I wanted to see her baby pictures. I wanted to watch her eating her breakfast, wrapping a gift and sleeping. Since September she had been a performer – unique and outrageous – on the high school stage. She was the opposite of cool; she held nothing back. And yet now I felt I had been paying attention. I felt I had missed something, something important.
Just two weeks before, I had found out she knew my name, and now I was loopy with love. I was floating and I floated up the white light that washed my sheets and slept on the moon. In school I was a yellow balloon, smiling and lazy, floating above the classrooms. I felt a faint tug on my string. Far below, Kevin was calling, “You’re in love, dude!” I merely smiled and rolled over and drifted dreamily out a window. The state lasted until lunch, when suddenly I became self-conscious. I was certain that everyone in school knew. They would be waiting for me, turning as I entered the lunchroom, staring. I was uncomfortable in the spotlight, always had been. I was happy to stay behind the camera and let Kevin take the bows out of front. After school we found each other, not that we had to look.
We were alone. We were the only ones in school at least that’s how it seemed in the following days. As I went about my day, I felt her going about hers. I sensed her movement, her presence in distant parts of the building. Walking the halls between classes, I didn’t have to see her, I knew she was there. I homed in on the beacon of her smile. As we approached each other, the noise and students around us melted away and we were utterly alone, passing, smiling, holding each other’s eyes, floors and walls gone, two people in a universe of space and stars. And then one day I began to discover that we were more alone than I had dreamed. Third period, Dyann and I would pass each other and we would smile and say hi and continue on our way. On this day, impulsively, I fell in alongside her. “How about an escort?” I said. She grinned. “Anybody in mind?” We touched little fingers and walked on. We were walking side by side. That’s when I noticed. No one spoke to us, no one nodded to us, no one smiled at us and no one looked at us. Mostly what I noticed were the eyes. Faces turned up from the steps below but the eyes never connected with us. They went right on through us as if they were gamma rays. And I had an urge to look down at myself, to make sure I was there.
For the rest of the day, and the next and the next, I grew increasingly paranoid. Walking with her in and around the school, I was intensely aware that the nature of our aloneness had changed. It was no longer a cozy, tunnel-of-love sweetness, but chilling isolation. We never had to veer, never had to make our way for someone else; everyone made way for us. Hallway crowds fell away from us except for Janeeva Virceles. Whenever we passed her, she tilted toward us with a gloating smirk on her face.
As for Dyann, she didn’t seem to notice. While I smiled and nodded to her, frost formed on the back of my neck.
Those were the best times, when we were alone, together. I introduced her to strawberry-banana smoothies. We never spoke of the shunning. I loved weekends. But Mondays always followed Sundays. And the shunning – it was clear now – had come to me.
It was less absolute for me than for her, but it was there. I saw it in the eyes that shifted away from mine and the shoulders that turned around me now than before. I fought it and I tested its limits. I called out to others just to see if they would respond. When someone turned and nodded, I felt grateful. If someone spoke to me, especially if I had not spoken first, I wanted to cry. I had never realized how much I needed the attention of others to confirm my own presence. I told myself that the shunning was more painful for me than for Dyann. I told myself that she was too busy being herself to notice that she was being ignored – and in fact, she continued to give a Happy Birthday song for people and to distribute assorted kindnesses. I told myself that even if she did notice, she wouldn’t care. I understood why this was happening to me. In the eyes of the student body, she was part of my identity. Students said things. Not to me, not directly, but tuned for me to overhear even as they pretended I was nowhere near. They said she thought she was some kind of saint – I cringed at that – and that she was better than rest of us. They said she wanted everyone else to feel guilty for not being nice and wonderful as she was. Unlike Dyann, I was aware of the constant anger of our schoolmates. In fact, I was not only aware of it, but at times I understood their point of view. There were even moments when something small and huddled me agreed with it. But then I would see her smile and take a swan dive into her eyes, and the bad moment would be gone. I saw, I heard and I suffered. But whose sake was I suffering for? I kept thinking of the sign I saw and that was a question: Whose affection do you value more, hers or the others? I became angry. I resented having to choose and I refused to choose. I imagined my life without her and without them, and I didn’t like it either way. I pretended it would not always be like this. In the magical moonlight of my bed at night, I pretended she would become more like them and they would become like her, and in the end I would have it all. Then she did something that made pretending more impossible.
The next day I faced the full impact of the sign. I thought I had truly suffered from the spill-over of Dyann’s shunning, but that was nothing now that the full torrent was turned on me. Of course Kevin – thankfully – talked to me; so did a few other friends. But the rest was silence. I’m invisible, nobody hears me, nobody sees me. I’m the friggin’ invisible man. I knew exactly what I had done. I had linked myself to unpopular person. That was my crime.
Days passed. I continued to avoid Dyann. I wanted her and I wanted them. It seemed I could not have both, so I did nothing. I ran and hid. But she never give up on me. She hunted me down, she found me in the TV studio after school one day. “So,” she said. “Why are you not talking to me?” “I don’t want to,” I said. “So why are you from me?” Forced to face her, force to talk, I felt my gumption rising. “Something’s gotta change,” I said. “That’s all I know.” “You mean like change clothes? Or change a tire? Should I change a tire on my bike?” Would that do it?” “You’re not funny. You know what I mean.” She saw I was upset. Her face got serious. “People are not talking to me,” I said. I stared her and I wanted it to sink in. “People I’ve known ever since we moved here. They don’t talk to me. They don’t see me.” She reached out and lightly rubbed the back of my hand with her fingertip. Her eyes were sad. “I’m sorry people don’t see you. It’s not fun not being seen, is it?” I pulled my hand away. “Well, you tell me what it’s like. Doesn’t it bother you that nobody talks to you?” It was the first time I had openly mentioned the shunning to her. She smiled. “You talk to me. My family talks to me. I talk to me.” She cocked her head and stared at me, waiting for a responding smile. I didn’t give it. “Are you going to stop talking to me?” “That’s not the question,” I said. “What is the question?” “The question is” – I tried to read her face but I could not – “what makes you tick?” “Now I’m a clock!” I turned away. “See, I can’t talk to you. It’s all just a big joke.” She put my face between her hands and turned me to her. I hoped people were not watching from the windows “Okay, serious now. Go ahead, ask me about the tick question again. Or any other, any questions at all.” I shook my head “You just don’t care, do you?”. That stumped her. “Care? Leo, how can you say I don’t care? You’ve gone with me to this school. We’ve shared each other a time. How can you say -” “That’s not what I mean. I mean you don’t care what people think.” “I care what you think. I care -” “I know – you care about me. I’m talking about the school. I’m talking about everybody.” She sniffed around the word.“Everybody?” “Right. You don’t seem to care what everybody thinks. You don’t seem to know what everybody thinks. You – ” She broke it. “Do you?” I thought for a moment and I nodded sharply. “Yeah. Yeah, I think I do know. I’m in touch with everybody. I’m one of them. How could I not know?” “And it matters?” “Sure, it matters. Because nobody talk to us.” She looked at me for a long time, as if in my face she could find herself explained. She said dimly at last. “I didn’t think. I just did.” I pulled back and I was tempted to say, well I hope you’re satisfied, because they hate you, but I didn’t have the heart. Now I was feeling sorry for her. I sat back down beside her. I took her hand, I smiled and I spoke as gently as I could. “Dyann, you just can’t do things the way you do. If you weren’t stuck in a home school all your life, you’d understand. You can’t just wake up in the morning and say you don’t care what the rest of the world thinks.” Her eyes were wide. “But how do you keep track of the rest of the world? Sometimes I can hardly keep track of myself.” “It’s not something you even have to think about,” I said. “You just know. Because you’re connected.” Dyann’s face went through a series of expressions.
We continued this conversation for the next couple of days. I explained the ways of people to her. And asked me again Everybody? she said. Well, mostly, I said. That’s what jails and mental hospitals are for, to keep it that way. You think I should be in jail? she said. I think you should try to be more like the rest of us, I said.
Why? she said. Because, I said. Tell me, she said. It’s hard, I said. Say it, she said. Because nobody likes you, I said. That’s why. Nobody likes you. Nobody? she said. Her eyes covered me like the sky, Nobody? I tried to play dumb, but that wasn’t working. Hey, I said, don’t look at me. We’re talking about them. Them. If it was up to me, I wouldn’t change a thing. You’re fine with me the way you are. But we’re not alone, are we? We live in a world of them, like it or not. That’s what I tried to keep it, on them. I didn’t mention myself. I didn’t say do it for me. I didn’t say if you don’t change you can forget about me. I never said that. Two days later Dyann vanished.
Fifteen years ago. Fifteen Valentine’s Days. Nothing had changed. Everything had changed. Since graduating, our class has had a reunion every five years, but I haven’t yet gone. I stay in touch with Kevin. He never left Mica, has a family there now. As for me, I throw myself into my work and keep an eye for silver lunch trucks. I read newspapers. I read them from all over. I skip the front pages and headlines and go to the pages in back. I read the community sections. I see little acts of kindness happening from Maine to California. I read of a man who stands at a busy intersection every morning and waves at the people driving to work. I read of a little girl who sells lemonade in front of her house for five cents a cup – and offers a free back scratch to every customer. When I read about things like these I wonder, Is she there? I wonder if she’s lost her freckles. I wonder if I’ll ever get another chance. I wonder but I don’t despair. Though I have no family of my own, I do nor feel alone. I know that I am being watched. The echo of her laughter is the second sunrise I awaken to each day, and at night I feel it is more than stars looking down on me. Last month, one day before my birthday, I received a gift-wrapped package in the mail. It was a porcupine necktie.