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He couldn't help but stare at her butt as she walked by, swishing in a plaid skirt that shouldn't have looked that cute. He stood up, scraping his chair on the ground with an awful reeeeek and moved after her, rushing to catch the door just as she did. His hand slapped the wired glass window with an open-palmed grip as he pushed the door open from behind her. When she turned to look he stared into her green eyes and asked, “Will you go out with me?”
All the other guys thought he was crazy. Her hair was blue, for Pete’s sake, why would you chase a babe like that? So outta your league. But he walked into the cafeteria with his collar popped, the new Elvis. The new King. He strolled down to the table where the valedictorian-hopefuls sat, the tall muscular football players who got 4.00s and volunteered at the library on certain Saturdays, and threw his hands down on the table, the noise cracking through polite inquiries about each others’ work schedules. They turned their success-driven eyes toward him without setting down their sandwiches. He said without precedence, “She said yes.”
Nobody thought they would last. Not the studious teens who roamed the halls with Eragon copies tucked under their arms. Not the rowdy athletic type who had long-distance relationships of their own, dating sports-players from other schools, though secretly, because they were supposed to be rivals. Not the dark-clad poets, not the overworked student council, not the teachers who bothered to notice. Certainly not they themselves: they walked next to each other down the halls in between classes with silence on their tongues. Finally on the fourth day he asked, “Would you like to see a movie with me?”
She hesitated as she closed her locker. “I’d rather draw.”
“Okay,” he said, surprised. “Drawing’s cool. Art in general, it’s pretty cool.”
Everyone turned to stare as he shouted at her back, “Can we draw on Friday?”
Her turquoise ponytail bounced as turned and nodded, refusing to break her stride.
They began spending afternoons together, skipping their homework and walking outside. They stopped in old sheds where she drew pictures of hooded dragons and angels knocking down outhouses and he changed the TEACH AGRICULTURE lanyard he’d stolen from the lost-and-found to TEA CULT with sharpies. He asked if he could look through her sketchbook and she said no, but then she took his hand in hers to let him know it was nothing personal. He asked her if she took art class and she said no. “I want to draw when I feel like it, not when they tell me to.”
November passed, then December and January. He gave her a red hat that was shaped like an owl for Christmas and she gave him a new lanyard, this one that said LEARN WHAT YOU LOVE, LOVE WHAT YOU DO, DO WHAT YOU LEARN. She said, “You can have fun with this one.” February, March and April swung by, and in that time she began using crayons to draw minotaurs inside teacups and fairies eating ice cream. His lanyard said EAR HAT OVE, LO WHA YO, O HAT YOU EAR. She asked him what that was supposed to mean and he just said, “It looks like a rap song. I’m a poet now.” When she told him poetry was art, he said he guessed she was rubbing off on him.
The would-be-valedictorians itched as graduation approached, furious at every extra-credit assignment offered as their shot at the top weakened. The Eragon readers had moved on to The Hunger Games and the athletes and their out-of-school partners, now broken up, really were enemies. People had rather forgotten about them being a thing. The teachers who dared to notice how she’d let her roots grow out, brown at her part and fading down to dusky blue, complimented her on what a cute vest she had and how she always had such nice jackets. They mentioned to him that his handwriting had improved a little since sophomore year and that they liked his essay on heterochromia that almost won that teen writing competition but quoting X-Men: First Class as a source was probably what knocked it out of the final round. Nobody asked them what their plans were for after high school; nobody cared.
She called him near Christmas. They hadn't spoken in two years – she hadn't come back for the holidays and he had sat silently in his bedroom, pushing the papered box under his bed like last year and convincing himself she wouldn't have liked it anyway. When he answered his phone he was surprised, but his voice came out more level than his face. All that gave him away was that he said hello twice.
“I’m coming home this year,” she said, “and I was wondering if you’d like to see a movie with me.”
He said, “I’d rather draw.”
They met on the 22nd behind their old high school, just in front of the old track shed. The peeling white paint etched a finer backdrop to her silhouette than that time near their lockers four years ago. Her hair was blue and curled back in a ponytail, unaged. He became suddenly uncomfortable with how shaggy he’d allowed his hair to become, how tall and thin he had grown, how essentially different he was. He felt the thin package in his coat pocket – the unopened one, the one that bouncy blond in his economics class had given him – and swallowed hard, wishing it away. Her eyes traced over him, as if wondering what was going on, but when she held out her hand he quit wondering which one of them had made a mistake and gently brushed his fingers against hers. It wasn't snowing, but it was cold, and she said, “We haven’t got all day. People might start locking up.” And they both smiled as they wandered toward the equipment shed. He could see the outline of her sketchbook beneath her coat and he realized he’d brought two sharpies with him.
He kept her number in his phone with the excuse that he might need someone to call when he got lonely, but between classes and insisting roommates who tried to bring out his inner party animal, he received his diploma without ever redialing. He trimmed his hair and donned a suit, set for the business world. At one point he tried to find her on Facebook, but then one of his cousins from the east coast started messaging him and he didn't know how to respond to the prying questions and had shut the computer off. He had issues tying his tie.
His phone rang when he was meeting with a client. Embarrassed, he ignored it, but felt a tingle when it quit. It had to be her. Didn’t it? He folded his hands in front of his mouth, elbows askew on his desk, while the couple looked over their credit statement. When he allowed himself a glance at his missed calls list, he recognized the number.
He called her back as soon as the Millers left with the bill. He was surprised when she answered, and this time his voice was a bit breathless when he said hello an extra time. She asked how he was doing. He told her great and returned the question. He asked where she was. If she’d like to meet him for dinner.
“And maybe a movie afterwards,” he added.
“Nice try,” she said. He thought he heard light in her voice. Was that a smile? “I’ve got something to show you.”
It was her sketchbook. After all this time. The same one. Their fingers did not meet as she placed it in his hands. Somehow he was not surprised. He did not ask why. He asked, “Why now?”
“Because,” she said. “I was using it.”
He pulled out a chair for her and sat down at the well-set table, pushing the white linen tablecloth out of the way as he dragged his chair closer, making a hideously out-of-place reeeek as it scraped the floor. Neither of them were dressed for the occasion; he’d come straight from the office and wore a day-stained sports coat while the hems of her jeans were covered in dirt from an unknown adventure, clearly irritating their quiet waiter who had chosen not to say anything about it.
The sketchbook sat between them, ruffled and a bit battered and holier than ever. He smoothed the cover with his palm and did not open it. Canson, 9x15 inches, apparently.
She reached across the table, deftly avoiding the water glasses and nudged his hand from the label. She began opening the cover, promising it wouldn't bite, when someone shrieked across the restaurant. They jumped. Her arm hit the pitcher and sent ice and water everywhere. He snatched the sketchbook up too late and stared as drops fell from the pages into his lap. She leaned around the edge of her chair, trying to catch a glimpse of the commotion; he couldn't peel his eyes from the soaked book.
“I think someone was choking and they had to do the Heimlich,” she said. “I can’t tell.”
“It’s ruined. After all this time,” he said. His mouth was a little open.
“It’s fine,” she said, though there was a slight tone that suggested otherwise. “It’s not all wet. And it was my fault.” She gently yanked the table cloth up to soak in some of the water. “Sorry.”
He finally turned to her. “I’m more sorry for you. This was…” Everything? He didn't know. It had seemed like it.
She rose and hurried around the table. She crouched next to him as he set the sketchbook in his lap. She guided his hand towards the cover and told him he could still look at some of it, if it wasn't too wet. She went to call the waiter about the mess.
The first few pages were just doodles. Then the pictures became more serious, proportionate and shaded and textured and created. He began to recognize a few of the dragons and angels he’d glimpsed through the corner of his eye in his youthful days in the various sheds they’d visited. Sketches he’d never been shown but had tried to peek at anyway, weird and beautiful creatures and characters. He flipped a page. He couldn't believe he was seeing this now. By junior year he’d given up hope that he’d ever get a chance to see what lay inside. And now she was sharing it with him. Now.
She arrived back at his side as he turned over a page, and he stopped. There were no wings or teacups now.
“Who is this?” he asked, and she said, “You.”
Toward the bottom of the page was a doodle of two stick figures holding hands along with their names. There were more, on other pages, of them, of him. Unchanged. Then suddenly he looked different. His hair was longer, his face thinner. He was older.
It went on, doodles and sketches and masterpieces of all sizes, of him. Despite the water they had clarity. He didn't know what to say. He reached the final page. It was just doodles again, but of the same stick figures, dancing and sitting in sheds.
He finally turned to face her and her eyes were large and silent. He asked, “Why did you do all of this?”
It was a moment before she explained. “I have lots of sketchbooks. For different occasions. One was for field trips, and every time we went away from school I would draw in that. One was for summer vacation. One was for Spring Break.” She tucked a piece of her hair, brown, behind her ear. She was still crouched by his chair. “I started this one when you asked me out. I didn't think you were serious, so I figured I’d have two weeks at best in here. But you were, I guess. I started to run out of pages.”
“And then we graduated.” He had almost forgotten that the reason he’d chased her out the door in the first place was because a few basketball players had said he’d never get a girlfriend.
“I thought it was the end of that, but I couldn't help it. I kept drawing. You were on my mind.” She smiled then, and it was adorable. “I guess I didn't get over you.”
He laughed. He didn't know what to say. Before he could speak, she said, “I finished the last page today.”
He grew still for a moment, thinking. Behind them a waiter was explaining they did not serve vegan steak here. Slowly he turned and bent down, brushing his lips against her ear. He said, “And I thought I was the poet.”
Their lips met in a soft hello, and it was a minute before they leaned back. He smiled shyly at her and took her hand. She said, “That was a long time coming, wasn't it?”
He said, “Can I draw with you on Friday?”
“Of course.” She paused. “Maybe there’s a good movie playing then too.”