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One Never Knows
Jenson Mathers had perfectly straight teeth; no doubt daddy Mathers had paid for the best orthodontia in Pennsylvania for his son. Jenson had mastered the flippantly perfect look. He was tall and well enough dressed to look good but no so well dressed as to not to relate to his pack of football player followers. He looked like an early '60s Paul McCartney with puppy dog eyes and expertly shaggy dark brown hair. His well-defined jaw line was always a little stubbly, reminding everyone he actually had to shave. Jenson Mathers was so golden if one looked at him for too long it actually started to seem like he glowed.
But if one had been in my 4th period AP English class, which I shared with him- did I mention he was an AP student- and that person had pulled their eyes away from Jenson for a moment to notice the girl sitting behind him with average height, slightly more than average weight, plain dark brown hair, plain clothes, mostly straight teeth that person would have been looking at me, Lila Jordan.
As impossible as it may have seemed I always felt completely and utterly immune to Jenson Mathers' apparent charm. I only ever noticed that he always wore slightly too much cologne and had a blank look in his swoon-worthy eyes. I saw straight through Jenson's pretty outer shell just like I saw through the pretty outer shell of everyone else in my rich, white, suburban high school. My school was filled with ghosts. It might appear at first glance that it was filled with teenagers, but I can assure you they are ghosts. They are just empty shells drifting from class to class. They are not fully formed people, they don't have intelligent thought- unless its concerning where the nights alcohol drenched party is going to be- and they don't have an original bone in their bodies. I spent my high school years as the only living human in a school of metaphorical ghosts. They took very little notice of me as they gossiped and high-fived and did whatever else ghosts do, and that was fine with me.
Luckily I had Rebecca Dennison, who I called Becky, to keep me company in the living world. On the outside she looked like everyone else in out ghost school- pretty, athletically thin, long, straight, shiny blonde hair- but she was not. Most days in school I spent just trying to make it through school enjoying the moments between periods with Becky, then going home and pouring out my frustrations into stories and poetry. There is nothing better for escaping a horribly unstimulating life like writing.
It was Becky and writing that kept me going for much of high school. In school I could look to Becky for a commiserate eye-roll and a friendly smile and at home I could release it all on the page. I used poetry to vent my emotions creating webs of metaphor, assonance, alliteration, personification, and rhyme where I could catch and destroy all the negativity that built in me all day. Then I would use prose to create a world where I was not the only human stuck in a ghost world. I could become someone else, someone free and exciting who had adventures and knew interesting people with whom they discussed interesting things. While I had given up long ago on ever having any of those things for myself I could still give them to my characters and that was something. Never in a millions years would I have guessed that writing, the thing I used to avoid the general ghostly populace, would be what ended up connecting me to the world more than ever before, and more importantly to Alex.
“Lila, I know you want to do it. Just answer him. It’s only the Internet. It can't hurt. Just go for it.”
“Becky, I can't! I never do stuff like this”
“That is exactly my point.” Becky replied. She was sitting beside me on the floor of my bedroom. Resting between us, half on my leg and half on hers, was my laptop. On the screen, glowing impatiently, was a chat window holding one unanswered message:
RhymeswithAlex27: (2:32) Hey! I just read your poem 'Crystal Walls.' I don't normally comment on people's poems, but it was so fantastic. I literally read it, sat in awe of what you'd written, read it again, and then just had to tell you that I am so jealous of what you did there. Seriously, it was amazing. Sorry if I'm creeping you out. You don't have to respond, I don't expect poet-goddesses as skilled as yourself to converse even via chat with underlings such as myself.
RhymeswithAlex27: (2:33) I'm Alex by the way... in case my screen name didn't give it away.
He had written it almost 10 minutes ago. I kept blinking, staring hoping it would go away, but it never did. The words seemed to jump off the screen and scream in my face, ordering me to interact with someone I didn't know. The curser was blinking impatiently beside my user name, tapping its foot and waiting for me to get up the courage to respond.
I had posted a few of my poems on a website called Writescape, mostly because I assumed they would never be read. It would be a way, I had figured, to put a few of the poems I had written out into the world, but without them being at all noticed and with without anyone I knew ever finding them.
I had not anticipated that guys like Alex would find them and send me personal messages, extolling complements I did not deserve, and causing my blood pressure to rocket so high I would go momentarily lightheaded. Thankfully, Becky had been there to talk me down from snapping my laptop shut and never returning to Writescape again. Now she was slowly convincing me to reply, talking me through each and every word.
“Don't be to self-deprecating, but don't act like you think you are a 'poet-goddesses' either. Just say thanks. Then, open up another tab and go to his profile. See if he has anything posted for you to read and comment on.” Becky coached.
“Why can't I just say thanks and leave it at that?” I whined, but followed her orders anyway.
“Because that would discourage any further conversation.” She said it like it was a bad thing. Becky had always been so good at situations like this, her conversation skills were master-level. “There see, he has a few things up. Click on that one,” she said as she pointed to the top link to a poem titled “ The Winter Disease.”
I can only hope
That mucus production fails,
Bankrupting this flu.
“Well, he has a sense of humor,” Becky said, half-smiling at me. “We can't all write metaphorical and introspective stuff like you, Lila.”
I laughed at that. “You are getting dangerously close to sounding just like him.”
“Well I want you to reply to him anyway. You need to get out of this little comfort zone you've created for yourself. You complain about how boring everyone is here, but you are too scared to meet new people.” That shut me up.
I reopened the chat window and slowly, shaky fingers embarrassingly exposing the depth of my anxiety, I replied.
HeartsandMines: (2:44) Well I think you are exaggerating my skill level a little (or a lot), but thanks for thinking so highly of that poem. I read some of you stuff, its really great.
“Well, I'd say 'great' is an exaggeration, but good job, I'm proud.” I gave Becky a little shove with my shoulder, finally cracking a smile. A tinkle from my computer brought our attention quickly back to the screen. We read his reply intently, leaning in slightly and doing that ridiculous thing girls do when they analyze every possible intention and connotation of each word.
RhymeswithAlex27: (2:44) You have a distorted sense of the word 'great' to use it in reference to anything of mine, but I appreciate the sentiment. Have you ever submitted any of your work to contests or magazines? Talent like yours shouldn't be kept hidden.
“Aw he's cute,” Becky cooed, “and certainly eager to talk.”
“Yeah, Yeah, Beck. Um, don't you have some homework to do or something?”
“Ok, Lila, message received. If you think you can handle this without me, I'll go. But I expect a play-by-play report tomorrow during our pre-homeroom locker sesh.” I nodded. We shook hands curtly, as was our tradition, nodding to each other with stiff upper lips and then she left. I took a deep breath, stretched my back, and rolled up my sleeves, ready to see where this conversation took me.
I won't give a full word-for-word copy of Alex and my first conversation, but I think if I say we talked all night- our conversation finally ending at 10 pm when my mother threatened to cut of the Wi-Fi if I didn't end it- shows just how well we got along. I can't even remember now what we talked about. We talked about everything and anything. It didn't so much matter what we said so much as how we said it. Talking to him, it seemed for the first time I had found someone whose vocabulary in casual conversation matched mine. I found myself slipping into a level of intelligent conversation I had only experienced on a few rare occasions when I talked to my English teachers after school. He seemed too good to be true. I imagined I had to wring every drop out of the night, because when the clock struck midnight surely my laptop would turn into a pumpkin or he would disappear like some sort of internet phantom, floating back into cyberspace.
But Alex didn't disappear. The next day I logged onto Writescape and then began to do my homework, or I should say, tried to do my homework, every 30 seconds or so I would glance back at the glowing screen waiting to see if he would message me again. Of course, I could have initiated, but I still wasn't sure any of the previous night was real, and I wanted him to prove it.
At 3:03 he did, and then at 2:54 the day after, and every day after for weeks. How I managed to keep my grades up during the RhymeswithAlex27 days I still don't know. Eventually we exchanged emails, and in addition to our daily chats, we sent each other poems and stories we were working on. He trained me in the art of the funny poem; Shel Silverstien was his god. And I helped him hone his metaphors and discover the wonders of assonance, consonance, and introspection.
Without realizing it, Alex brought me out of my shell. Suddenly I was making Becky laugh at the lunch table when I would spontaneously compose works like “Ode to the Mustard Packet.” Conversation with Alex never got boring despite that we talked for sometimes 6 hours a day, it never became stagnant. It occurred to me on a few occasions that it was possible he was really some 40-year-old virgin or something, but my gut told me he was real.
After a month of daily messages and emails, it was Becky who suggested I find out where he lived. “Lila,” she said as I rehashed the previous night's conversation with Alex on the merits and weaknesses of floor-writing to chair-and-desk-writing, “you seriously need to find out where this kid lives.”
“What if I scare him off though? I mean, Beck, that's a really big step.” I smiled to myself noting the slant rhyme of 'Beck' and 'step.'
“I think it's pretty safe to say the guy likes you in some capacity. So it seems logical to me. If you stay just Internet friends, you can't make out with him.”
“Whoa! He could live in Brisbane, or be three feet tall, or be a conjoined twin for all I know.”
“Exactly,” Becky said, shifting her hold on her notebooks and leaning against the gray locker beside her, “That's why you need to bring up the possibility, it may bring something to light that he was hiding,” I frowned, “Or it could mean that you guys actually meet, fall instantly in love, jump each other right there, and birth children. One never knows.” This was why I loved Becky; she never held back, she never glossed over the truth yet she also had a knack for exaggeration.
“Okay, I'll bring it up. I promise.” I replied.
“Good. Text me what he says, kay?”
“You know it.”
“Alrightly, I've got to get to class, Frederick is apparently giving another not-so-pop quiz.” She said rolling her eyes. She then turned on her heal, her hair flipping around her shoulders, and bounced into class, leaving me leaning against a locker the weight of expectation pulling down on my shoulders.
HeartsandMines: (4:35) Hey, so idk if this is like pushing the boundaries too much or whatever but... where do you live?
RhymeswithAlex27: (4:36) No, no boundaries pushed, I was wondering when you'd ask. I live in New Jersey (or more accurately “America's armpit”)- but southern not too far from Philadelphia, PA. Where do you live? If you say Alaska or Bali or something I might have to commit metaphorical suicide.
HeartsandMines: (4:36) Well I'm glad it would only be metaphorical. I wouldn't want you to become too attached; that'd be more than a little creepy.
RhymeswithAlex27: (4:37) Oh come on, Lila, you're killing me. No actually you've already killed me (metaphorically) and now you are just playing with your dead prey (metaphorically).
HeartsandMines: (4:37) You are really liking the metaphors today huh? I'm glad to see I have had such a positive influence on you. I live just outside of Philly on the Pennsylvania side!!
RhymeswithAlex27: (4:37) No...
HeartsandMines: (4:38) Yes!!!
RhymeswithAlex27: (4:39) That's it then. Cancel any plans you have for the weekend. We are meeting somewhere. Anywhere.
HeartsandMines: (4:40) Agreed.
We agreed to meet at a coffee shop we both knew in the city. It was one of those few fall days that feel so perfectly “fall” that it seems like pumpkins and apples will just start sprouting from the concrete. I spent an embarrassingly long amount of time that morning choosing an outfit that looked perfectly interesting and intelligent without looking intentional. We had agreed to both wear obnoxiously colored shirts so we could easily find each other, which made my outfit even harder to choose, but somehow I managed. I arrived at the coffee shop at 1:50, ten minutes before our decided meet-up time. I ordered a large Earl Gray tea and a chocolate chip scone and arranged myself at a small, round two-person table by the window.
As the minutes steadily moved closer to 2:00, my mind raced. I was still half-waiting for man in his 30s, balding, with pale skin that indicated he very rarely left his apartment to walk in wearing a neon blue XXL t-shirt and start calling my name. I told myself that was ridiculous though. It was far more likely that he would be short, skinny, possibly with acne, a wearing a shirt that made him look like a beanpole. I was okay with that. I had nothing against awkward, nerdy looking boys so long as the conversation was good.
At 2:00 on the nose a boy with sandy blond hair, glasses with dark blue plastic frames, and an electric yellow t-shirt walked into the coffee shop. He was tall and lean, with broad shoulders that nicely filled out his eye-scalding yellow t-shirt. He carried himself like someone who had played sports all their lives, his legs solid and steady under dark brown corduroys. The shirt glowed so brightly it made my eyes strain to look at him, or perhaps it was the angel glow around him, I will never know. His back was to me so I stood, my chair scraping loudly on the floor, and called out his name.
“Alex?!” The boy turned and smiled a big, stupid, adorable smile that revealed teeth that were perfectly straight. He stood for a moment, apparently forgetting what to do, and so we simply stared at each other from across the small coffee shop, our shirt's glows bouncing off each other, or maybe it was the glow of our faces, one never knows.
And so the era of Alex began. May it never end.