April Newman

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The first girl I loved was Lauren.  We had second grade together at the Nativity Catholic School and grew an avocado from the pit with water and toothpicks in the storage closet. When the avocado erupted into roots and grew big, we showed the class with toothless grins.

Behind us, Tina Williams sharpened her pencils, and Nate Saunders picked a booger and wiped it on Tiffany Owens’ sweater.  Adam Black and Neil Norris thought the avocado was so weird looking, shaped like an alien, something strange about its tentacles.  But Jennifer Severs noticed its roots stretching to the glass and talked about the fruit, if our avocado ever made it into a tree.

I felt funny and good for no reason standing next to Lauren in the closet where we kept the bottles of paint that smelled like clay and the pieces of soft construction paper.  So good in fact, that when I looked around the room it was transformed; the checkered tiles on the floor a life-size chessboard. Feeling something breezy in my palms, in my feet—a wild exhilaration like a garden hose that’s gotten loose and flails around the yard in sweeping arcs.

Now I know what it means when you feel that way. And that in any other context—this feeling, is a good thing. Is the best thing. Is a thing we all deserve. But then, I just thought about Lauren.  She kept a diary and wrote in it every single night.  What dedication!  Like one of the nuns.  Dates were skipped in mine. I’d usually spend the first line apologizing to “Dear Diary” and then listing what we ate for dinner or what time I went to bed.  I liked Lauren’s cheeks, how they changed when she smiled and how her eye color got darker too.  I wanted her to look at me all the time. I wanted to touch her vanilla sweater or feel the texture of the strawberry stickers she kept on her folder, because everything about her was, delicious.

The kids knew it.  She was my Lauren.  She sat by me in Mrs. Verttle’s class. Not next to Tina or Tiffany.  Lauren and I made up games; we pretended to be mustangs when we ran across the parking lot. The Nicks played kickball.  Hillary jumped rope.  Lauren and I were something new and better with one another.  It was part of the natural order of things.

Lauren told me she was moving the day before she left our school.  Not because she was withholding, or because she wanted to let me down easy or because of any of the motivations that adults insert on children.  But because it suddenly occurred to her to say it right then, after Mrs. Verttle set down the reading book and we were back at our desk cluster.

“I’m going to St. Anthony’s school from now on.” Lauren looked right into my face, her skin like yogurt.  She took off her sweater and wrapped the sleeves around her neck— like she was getting hugged from behind.  I looked at her hard.  She was in front of me, rubbing her teeth against her lips.  It seemed impossible to imagine that she would not be in front of me tomorrow.  And I liked her so much, the magenta, fuzzy ball that fit over her eraser, how she kept her hands on her knees at her desk.  The background of the class lost focus, the desks melting, the books fizzing away and disappearing like Alka-Seltzer into a glass of water.

“But I like you so much!” I said with alarm.  I sat up as straight as I did during attendance.

“I like you so much too.”  We looked at each other with a confused sort of outrage, like when someone is speaking in a language you don’t understand.

“But I don’t want you to go to St. Anthony’s!”

“But I’m going to St. Anthony’s, tomorrow.” Then she glanced up at the mobiles above and dipped the fuzz of her pencil topper into her mouth.  “I’ll write about you in my diary though.”

And that felt so good.  My cheeks were the size of eggplants.

“I’ll write about you too.”  Only a second passed—then other things occurred to me, like where we would sit later in the cafeteria and whether or not we would play statues or mustangs during recess and how I hated to eat the hot lunch everyday and just wanted to eat something out of the box like Lauren.  Her silvery chalice of Capri Sun.  I wanted it.  And then I wondered who would sit with me tomorrow? And I prayed to God, because being Catholic gave me a direct line— that whoever sat there would be just like Lauren.  And then Mrs. Verttle called for us to line up by height from shortest to tallest, so I was at the back by Neil and none of the girls.

When I got into the van that afternoon, I told my parents that Lauren was going away, and as the words came out they filled me with shock again. They jumbled together and didn’t make sense, which made me more upset and I snorted and took gasping breaths and cried.  My mom looked at me and said “Oh Ape-pooh,” just like when I fell on the ice.  She put her palm on my knee and gave it a good shake.  My dad pulled the car into Wendy’s restaurant.  Mom got out and went inside.  Dad took his foot off the brake and snapped the shift into park.  He swiveled around to face me, didn’t have to unbuckle the belt because he never wore one.

“You gotta learn not to be such a damn— pussy.” He spat out the word.  “You’re gonna cry every time some girl goes to another school?  You’ll be cryin’ the rest a your life!”  He looked at me like the time I threw up in the hallway— something more intense and raw than disappointment, disgust.  And I felt like there was something wrong with me for liking Lauren.  That there were weeds overgrown in my guts choking out my organs, or that I was missing some piece inside that everybody else got.  I nodded to him and wiped the snot on my sleeves.  When Mom got back, the Frosty was too cold against my teeth to eat.

The next day at school I was a mess.  Lost my Rice Crispy Treats pencil case.  Sat alone in Mrs. Verttle’s class because we had assigned seats.  It wasn’t until recess that anyone talked to me at all.

“So where’s Lauren?” Jennifer Severs asked.

“She goes to St. Anthony’s now.” I kicked the curb.

Jennifer sat down on the sidewalk, confused. “Well, who will you sit by?”

“I don’t know.  There’s nobody new yet.”

“Maybe Mrs. Verttle will move all the desks again.  Maybe she’ll do the reverse alphabet order!”  Jennifer declared.

I considered this with a sad nod.

Jennifer looked out across the kickball field. “You and Lauren made the best avocados though,” she said, before rising and walking back to the line.

It was true. We did. And just having someone see that, see us, made it easier for me to stay standing.

April Newman is a professor and writer (aprilnewman.com). Her work appears in The Iowa Review, Mindful Metropolis, and the anthology, Windy City Queer: GLBTQ Dispatches from the Third Coast (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011). She lives in Chicago with her wife.

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