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Substance

Junior year slaps me in the face like a cold slice of bologna. All of the slime and drama I have been avoiding during summer is besieging me as an army of ants would swarm the figurative lunch meat on my face. Killing the engine to my mom’s Chevrolet Impala, I rip the auxiliary cable from my iPhone and swing the driver’s door open.

The student lot is mostly empty this time of the morning, but several expensive cars are parked neatly between the faded white lines. In a matter of minutes, the parking lot will be filled with shiny new Jeep Wranglers and black BMWs. My maxi-skirt brushes the damp pavement as I ascend from the automobile, and I have to wrestle with the stretchy fabric to avoid tripping over the hem as I make my way to the sidewalk.

College letters will be bombarding my mailbox in a matter of weeks, and I am completely unprepared for the upcoming school year. AP and honors courses, basketball practices, and social events fill my schedule. My weary mind is only pacified by the reminder that this is my junior year of high school, and after this, I only have one left.

The day sprints by in an amorphous kaleidoscope of fresh emotions and retellings of summer highlights. Whenever the question arises, I always answer, “It was good,” before changing the subject. My summer was perfectly wretched, and I am at a loss for words to explain why. The enmity between summer and I could have something to do with the casualty of a close friend and the stolen time sitting in the pockets of my basketball coach.

I blink, and the week is over. My backpack is stuffed with homework assignments; I can feel my energy draining away as I walk to my car on Friday afternoon. Keeping a few steps behind the group of juniors ahead of me, I listen in on their simple conversation. It pertains to a failed relationship, shocker. Tired of their stereotypical banter, my feet quicken their pace, and I brush past the clan of ignorant adolescents.
. . .

Due to my peer’s lack of imagination and free thought, I see a counselor every two weeks in order to keep myself sane. She always assures me that my feelings are completely normal, but sometimes, I wonder if cynicism is normal. On the afternoon of an appointment, I have time to kill.

There is a bookstore on the way to the counseling offices, and I stop in hopes of picking up a tea latte to calm my nerves. Counseling appointments always get me worked up. I have one hour to talk about whatever I want to with absolutely no restrictions. Usually, I keep away from verbally abusing my classmates, but rather, speculate about the world around me, and the evil it contains.

Only having twenty minutes, I enter the book shop without my school work. As I approach the café, a set of sad brown eyes meet my own. The eye contact upsets my stomach, so I tear my eyes away and order my beverage from the overly energetic bar tender.

Late August in South Carolina holds the cusp of summer heat, and I wish that I had ordered an iced tea rather than a hot tea. I glance around the shop in search of a solitary place to sit, but I am drawn to the seat across from the sad eyes.

He’s probably an unpleasant person, I think as I take a step towards his table. There is a rack of coffee mugs standing between my current position and my destination, and I peek around the edge of the ceramic display. He is still sitting at the table, but he is watching the steam billow from the top of his drink.

Uncertain of the source of moisture in my palms, I wipe them on my pants and take a few shaky steps towards the boy. His head jerks up instinctively, and I stand with my hands on the back of the wooden chair. Go ahead, ask, I think to myself, but there seems to be an invisible padlock piercing my tongue.

I stand there for a few seconds before mustering enough courage to ask, “May I join you?” before subsequently sitting down. I do not give him time to answer, but I keep my eyes locked on his as I slide into the seat across from him. The small table is the only boundary between us, and it cannot stop me from speaking.

“You look sad,” I note. He nods and runs his index finger around the lip of his coffee mug. Talking to a stranger was not out of my character, but caring about their emotional state was not in my list of priorities. Palms flat against the cool table top, we lock eyes. Beads of perspiration swell in the creases beneath my arms, and I blame it on the humidity.

“Are you a Jehovah’s Witness?” He asks and drops his hand into his lap. Thick eyebrows furrow together and mask the sadness for a moment, but when I shake my head no, it returns.

“What’s bothering you?” I ask. The questioning visage returns, and he leans away from the table in apprehension. Things are not looking good for you, I think as I survey his body language.

“That’s a personal question, don’t you think?” he asks.

“Yes,” I reply, “were you trying to make a point?” The bottle-brush brows raise and stretch his face to show surprise. A grin plays at the corner of my lips; such a typical response, I think.

“I don’t know you; why would I tell you about my personal life?” there is a hint of incredulity in his tone, and I can’t help but think how typical his response has been. Opening up to a stranger is completely out of the question for my generation. Wearing a mask is much easier than showing your thoughts and feelings.

“Because you don’t know me,” I reply, “You want to open up to someone, and I am not going to tell anyone. Why not tell me about your personal life?” Keyboard keys clack, coffee machines whir, and door bells jingle. Gears in his brain are turning; I can see them.

“I don’t know how to respond to that,” he finally concludes. The steam that has been rising from his coffee cup is settled, and the surface of his drink is cloudy. “If you really want to know what’s been bothering me it’s-“

The bartender cuts him off. My drink is ready.

“I would love to hear about your problems,” I stand up, “but that’s my drink.” He watches as I grab my drink from the counter and pass the rack of ceramic mugs for the second time that day. As I pass, I give him a genuine smile and say, “Congratulations, you just broke the stereotypes.”



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