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Stupid. So, so stupid. I knew better than to mention presidents anywhere near the vicinity of Walter Emerson. But it was such an innocent question.
“Who was the president that came after Andrew Jackson?” I wondered aloud as I walked toward the door, thinking of the history test that was scheduled for Monday. From across the room I saw Walter’s ears perk up. The party for Sarah’s 17th birthday was in full swing, music blaring, boys shouting in the kitchen, but somehow Walter always seemed to hear when presidents were involved.
I tried to make a quick exit, hoping that he wouldn’t be able to tell that I had said anything. But as I reached for the doorknob, Walter was already standing in front of me, a look of pure excitement on his face.
“It was Martin Van Buren,” Walter pronounced with an air of superiority. “Martin Van Buren served after Andrew Jackson, Alice.” No, this was the opposite of what I needed right now. “He was born in Kinderhook, New York and was only five feet six inches, the second shortest president of the United States,” he continued. Walter proceeded to give me a very detailed biography of Martin Van Buren. As he concluded with his death in 1862, I planned to thank him politely and leave, but he went straight into a description of the next president, William Henry Harrison. I needed to get home, but I didn’t have the heart to stop him. He looked so blissful talking about his presidents, the way his eyes gleemed and his hands made wild gestures in the air. Somewhere around William McKinley, Walter’s phone chimed; the sound of “Hail to the Chief” coming from the pocket of his pressed kaki pants.
As he checked his caller ID, I shouted a quick “Bye Walter!” and darted out the door. Free at last. As I waited in the mirrored elevator, going down to the lobby of the trendy Manhattan apartment building off Central Park, I checked my own phone.
“Oh shoot,” I said under my breath, the glowing numbers of the clock staring back at me. It was 12:40am. I had to be home by 1:00. I had already missed curfew twice this month, once for accidentally falling asleep at a friend’s house while working on a math project and the other because the subway line was down and I had to find a way to take a bus all the way back to Brooklyn. If I was late tonight, I was going to be grounded until there was a brand new president for Walter to tell me about.
When the elevator doors opened, I sprinted outside, almost tripping over the doorman in the process. I was sure that he gave me a nasty look, but I didn’t have time to turn around and check. I rounded the corner and made my way as quickly as I could down into the 72St subway station. I pulled my worn metro card out of my back pocket and swiped it through the machine.
“Insufficient Funds” the machine read. I patted my other pocket, searching for my backup card, but I remembered that I had left it in my wallet, sitting on my bed, in my room at home. I had no way to pay for a new card, no way to get through to the subway. The business man waiting behind me, seeing the distress on my face, swiped his card for me.
“Go” he said with a smile. “It’s on me.” So I went. I raced through the turnstile and ran to the A, C, E subway platform. I needed an A or a C train; the E train wouldn’t take me out of Manhattan. I waited on the platform, bouncing on the balls of my feet, sticking my head out over the platform to check for the incoming lights. Looking down the tunnel, I could just make out some of the fading remains of a graffiti tag, the writing large and black, but undecipherable. I stepped back behind the yellow warning strip along the edge of the platform and impatiently ran my hand through my wind tossed brown hair. No more than a minute later, I heard the subway coming down the tunnel. It was a C train. My train. I let out a sigh of relief. It was only 12:45 and there was a slight chance that I could make it home in time as long as there were no delays. As the subway came to a stop in front of me I looked through the scratched plastic windows at the passengers. I scanned through them and my eyes landed on one in particular. He looked familiar, with his jagged black hair and his lean build. His face was turned away, but when his hand went up to rub the back of his neck, I knew it was Trevor. Trevor always did that when he was uncomfortable. A flock of muscular boys surrounded him; they were all laughing and pointing at an elderly woman who had fallen asleep in her seat. Why did Trevor and his friends have to be on this train? This train was supposed to be my train.
I imagined what would happen if I walked onto the subway car in front of me.
They would jeer at me. They would poke fun at the sweat running down my face. Ask me why I wasn’t already in bed. I knew how they acted in a pack, and Trevor would be the most vicious of them all. A year ago he was my best friend and now I couldn’t even look him in the eye. Our moms had been friends since college, and from the moment we were born, we were inseparable. We collected bugs together, built enormous forts in my backyard and looked at the stars. In sixth grade I gave him advice on how to ask Jessica Frank out on a date. It was in the spring of freshman year when I knew something had gone wrong. Trevor had just joined the football team and one weekend I asked him if he wanted to go see The Incredible Hulk. Trevor and I both have a fascination for movies that are based on comic books and we made a point to always see them together. He once waited until Batman Begins was out on DVD to watch it with me because I was away at camp when it came out in theaters. But when I asked him to see the Hulk with me, he said he had already seen it with a couple of his football buddies.
Over the next couple of months we started to drift farther and father apart. He spent more and more time with his football friends and I spent more and more time wishing that he wouldn’t. It got to the point where he would no longer acknowledge me when we walked past each other in the hallways. So I gave up. Found some new people to see movies with and tried to forget that Trevor and I were even friends in the first place. But I didn’t forget and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t want him back.
But right now, Trevor was with his football friends and I knew that he would go along with anything that they wanted.
The doors opened, but Trevor still didn’t turn around and see me. I could get on the subway and take whatever Trevor and his companions threw at me. I would get back in time and I wouldn’t be grounded. But I knew that the real damage that would be done on this subway car would be far greater than whatever punishment could be given at home. He had hurt me far too many times and I wouldn’t give him the opportunity to do it again. There was also a part of me that hoped that someday he would come back. I knew that if I got on that train with him and he mistreated me, it would be the last straw, and I would no longer be able to hope.
Passengers swarmed around my still body pushing on and off the car. I was jostled from side to side refusing to go with any flow. Finally the doors closed and I stepped back, tears begging to slip from my eyes. I let out a breath and as the subway started to slide out of the station, he turned around and our eyes met through the window. He held my gaze, his laughing smile slipping down into a solemn hard line. I glanced away and broke the eye contact, but as I turned around, I could have sworn I saw his hand rise in a wave.