Authors: James Klise
Tags: #young adult, #teen fiction, #fiction, #teen, #teen fiction, #teenager, #angst, #drama, #romance, #relationships, #glbt, #gay, #homosexuality, #self-discovery
Mr. Mallet’s reedy voice had been sharpened by two decades of yelling at ballplayers from the sidelines. He always read the daily announcements as if he were angry at them. But today, even Mallet’s violent recitation wouldn’t hold my attention. All I could see were the four flowers on my desk.
Sinking into my chair, I pulled the flowers toward me.
Hank, the kid who sat in the next seat, was staring. He was a meathead who towered over most people. Nearly every day, he wore a dark green windbreaker, ratty and worn, so in my head I’d nicknamed him the Incredible Hank. He wasn’t bad looking, but I noticed he didn’t have any flowers.
“Somebody’s popular,” he whispered. His breath smelled intensely of Doritos from the vending machine.
“I guess so.” I looked around at the other desks. Nobody else had four. One or two maybe, but not four.
“Impressive,” the Hank said. “Who is she?”
“Let’s find out.” I opened the first one.
Oooh, baby, when I see you in the halls,
I want to push you up against a
locker and cover you with sticky kisses.
Your bod is so hot—you could
fry an egg on that ass.
I smiled at Wesley’s unmistakable sloppy handwriting. What a goofball.
I opened the second one.
Hey Jamie, you rock!
Ho-hum. Guess I didn’t need that one after all. On to the third:
Love is so very timid when ’tis new.
I closed my eyes, feeling almost sick.
Why was a boy named Byron sending me a message? Had Crazy Paul told my secret to a kid named Byron?
I opened my eyes and studied the handwriting—loopy and careful. In fact, it looked like a girl’s penmanship. (Was beautiful penmanship more girlish? Didn’t boys care about writing neatly?) Maybe the message was from a girl after all. Maybe Celia. It seemed possible.
Then I opened the last one:
You’re a deer! No wait—only a snake
with antlers. Whatever wild species you
may be, I suppose I can let you inside
and feed you sometimes. Anyone for soup?
Okay, so this one was hers. Excellent. She sent me one, and it was funny. And yes, the penmanship was careful and girly. But who wrote the third one? Did another girl at Maxwell have a crush on me? And why would she call herself Byron?
“So?” the Hank whispered.
“They’re all from a girl I like.” I tried to sound bored. “Yippee.”
“Congrats.” He folded his enormous hands on his desktop, looking suddenly somber.
I lifted one of the flowers and handed it to him. “You can have one.”
“Dude,” he said, wincing. He showed me the wide pale palms of his hands. “I don’t want a flower from a guy.”
I shrugged and smiled. “No homo.”
I took the flowers with me to the cafeteria, where I found Wes and Mimi sitting at our usual lunch table. We had established a system where only one of us went through the cafeteria line each day and got food for all three of us. Today it had been Wesley’s turn, with predictably bizarre results: potato sticks, tater tots, and pickle spears. Wes was all about the sides.
Thank you for the flower,
” they said in unison, and I bowed.
“You got four?” Mimi said. Her tone was distrustful.
“Well, one of them was from me,” I said, a little embarrassed. “But thank
Wesley, for the other one.”
He grabbed the front of my shirt, all mock-toughness. “Don’t tell anyone, see? Ruin my rep around here.”
Mimi’s gaze was riveted on my thin bouquet. “And the other two?”
“One is from Celia Gamez,” I said, sitting down. I handed the flowers to her with some reluctance. “I don’t know what to think about the other one.” I began to eat, stuffing lukewarm tater tots into my mouth one after the other, like popcorn. I was always hungry after homeroom, but today my nerves had left me famished. I doubted that the odd meal Wesley had assembled was going to satisfy me.
“She likes you,” Mimi said, after reading Celia’s. “Weird, I’ve never seen the flirty side of her. Hell, I’ve never seen the friendly side of her. Are you psyched?”
“Stoked,” I said. “Girls get psyched, boys get stoked.”
She bristled. “What, I’m getting a sex lesson from
“This other one is wack,” Wes said. “Why is a dude sending you a flower?”
I shook my head, feeling exposed. “I … I can’t explain it.”
“Are you kidding me?” Mimi asked. “You jackasses, Byron was a famous poet. Lord Byron? It’s some kind of quote.
‘Love is so very timid when ’tis new.’
I mean, please—who says
anymore? Wasn’t that a clue?”
“I did wonder about that,” Wes said unconvincingly.
Mimi added, “And relax, it’s from a girl. Look at the handwriting. Some ridiculous, shy girl has a crush on you. Pathetic. But who?”
“I have no idea.”
For a split second, I wondered if Mimi had sent it. Was it possible she was interested in me? As any kid on a playground knows, we harass the ones we like most. Plus, Mimi had expressed a more-than-usual interest in my love life. But I couldn’t imagine her in romantic terms. She hardly ever cracked a smile; she was far too busy telling Wes and me what to do. Anyway, this theory was undermined by her next remark:
“You need to send Celia another one.”
“That’s what I was thinking,” I said.
“It’s like, put up or shut up,” she added.
“Lay off, will you?” I said. “I’m going to go buy one right now.” I hadn’t eaten enough, but there wasn’t much time left to go buy another flower. Getting up, I looked at Wesley. “Where is your flower, anyway?”
He flashed a goofy smile, his hand against his heart. “Saw someone on my way to lunch who just had to have it. Pretty girl needs to have a flower.”
“I hope you had the brains to remove the tag first,” Mimi said.
“Oops,” he said.
Grabbing my books and flowers, I zigzagged through the cafeteria chaos, stepping around loose chairs and grounded food, to the front of the room. At a card table, Ivan and Anella sat with their cheeseburger baskets behind the cash box. Their sign said,
SEND A VALENTINE FLOWER TO YOUR—SPECIAL SOMEONE!—SECRET CRUSH!—FAVE FRIENDS!
A line of students waited to buy flowers. I stood at the end, trying to think of something clever to write on Celia’s message. Did the tone of this next one need to be romantic? At the last minute, I decided that if one was good, two were better. One funny, one flirty.
“Two please,” I said, when I got to the front of the line.
“Four dollars,” Anella said, without looking up.
I handed her the money.
Ivan held up two tags, but when he saw it was me, he withdrew them playfully. “Hey, it’s Jamie—you have come to help us!” A red carnation lay on the table beside his cheeseburger. Was it the flower I’d sent him?
“Give me those,” I said, pulling the tags from him. I pushed them into my jeans pocket. I could fill them out later, when I had time to think.
“Sit with us,” Ivan said.
“Please do!” Anella said. “Seriously, we require assistance.” Until recently, she had basically ignored me, as if becoming friends with a freshman was a low priority for her. But now she waved me eagerly toward the seat next to her.
My impulse was to flee, but before I could go, Ivan jumped up and pointed me toward his chair. “Sit,” he commanded.
“Two dollars,” Anella told a student. And to me: “Where’s your girl?”
I hesitated. Did she mean Celia? “She has lunch later,” I said, when it registered. “I wouldn’t say she’s my girl.”
“She’s single, then? Pay
,” Ivan said to a customer.
I looked away. We hadn’t exactly made things official yet. No public announcements or bulletins in the school paper. We hadn’t even labeled it, whatever it was, ourselves. Was Ivan interested in Celia? Maybe, all along, that was the reason he’d been so nice to me. “Ask her yourself,” I said in response.
“And you’re single? How many?” Ivan asked a customer.
“I guess so.”
“But quite popular,” Anella added. “Two dollars, please.”
“Me? Not so much.”
,” Anella said, ticking my neck. “I think we must start calling you … Flowerboy.”
This was the funny part. I
carrying four flowers—a fact that everybody seemed to notice. But I didn’t have many real friends at Maxwell other than Wesley and Celia, and sometimes Mimi. I only
popular, and only for this one day.
“Here, Flowerboy,” Ivan said, moving behind me. He put his warm hands on my shoulders, squeezing. “If you sell for a minute, I can eat my cheeseburger.”
For an ecstatic moment, I couldn’t move. His spontaneous, casual gesture was no different from the thousands of gropes and punches that took place each day among male friends, but it sent a jolt through my chest that reverberated down to my feet.
I scooted next to Anella. “How many?” I asked a customer.
I gave myself a pep talk as I crawled into bed that night. The important thing was that I admired Ivan as a person. He was smart, funny, good-looking—who wouldn’t like him? And didn’t guys always admire older guys? Even Coach Mallet must have admired his classmates when he was a teenager, guys like my father, the sports heroes. Everybody admired them. True, Mallet probably hadn’t given too much thought to what my father looked like with his shirt off
the way I sometimes thought about Ivan. But I was working on that.
I was determined to dream about Celia.
me. Celia, who sent me a Valentine flower.
What did Celia look like with her shirt off? I’d never even thought about that, but it was what I needed to focus on. Closing my eyes, I called up an image of Celia—smiling, confident Celia—then unceremoniously stripped off her shirt. In my mind, she looked amazing in her bra. I had to hand it to her, she was in terrific shape. Hands on her hips, she swiveled back and forth like a girl in a bra commercial on TV. Then I removed the bra—
—leaving her boobs bobbling. Boobs, exposed to the open air like the ones I had seen for years in the pages of
magazine, which Wesley pilfered on a regular basis from his father’s workroom. Pleased with my powers of memory and imagination, I directed my fingers down to my shorts and waited for a reaction.
those boobs …
Bobbling boobs did nothing for me.
But it was okay. I had the pills, and with time—when it really mattered—Celia’s body would be all I thought about. Everything I wanted.
In the meantime, the weirdest part was? I really liked Celia.
And I fell asleep thinking of her.
I awoke in the middle of the night, my T-shirt soaked with sweat. Ivan’s tongue was in my mouth again, heavy hands on my shoulders, his body on top of me like a blanket. I jumped out of bed, my heart racing. I wanted to scream through the roof or swear at the stars, but my grandparents were light sleepers. I had to stay quiet.
I turned on my desk lamp, then angrily opened the drawer that contained the pills. I had these damn drugs, so why wasn’t I using them? I hadn’t even mustered up the courage to take one yet. I closed the desk drawer, leaving the pills out, and resolved to take the first pill the very next time I was alone with Celia.
I scrambled for my backpack. I pulled the blank message tags from my binder and stared at them.
I sat on my bed and wrote the first one, my hand still shaking:
Your body is so HOT—you could
fry EGGS on that ASS!
If this wasn’t direct enough, what would be?
I looked at the other tag, its blankness like a challenge to my brain. At the moment, I was in no mood to be clever or funny—for Celia or for anybody.
I realized I did have something urgent to say, just not to her. Again I printed with my left hand, so Ivan would never know who sent it. I wrote:
People like you make life really difficult for people like me. I wish you were an asshole. Go away!
I knew two things for sure: (1) Ivan wouldn’t know who it was from or what it meant; and (2) I didn’t really give a shit.
Pre-dawn on the big day: I heard a knock on my bedroom door, then a chirpy, strained, “Happy
I opened my eyes and turned toward the voice, the bedroom door creaking. My eyes adjusted and I saw the dark bony form of my grandmother’s arm as she lobbed a bag of M&M’s toward my bed. Although her arm was the only part of her anatomy she permitted to enter the room, the bag landed expertly between my feet.
How did she do that?
I cleared my throat. “Wow, thanks.”
“From your mom,” she called. “Don’t eat them all at once or you’ll be sorry.”
The door seemed to close by itself. I hadn’t even seen my grandmother’s face.
I leaned forward and picked up the M&Ms with both hands. It was a good-sized bag, but hard to tell the colors in the dark.
For years, my family had made a big deal out of Valentine’s Day. There were handmade cards exchanged, bowls of chocolates set about for all to enjoy, even a pink-striped cake with dinner. But the year we moved in with my grandparents, the tradition had ended: no candy, no cards, no cake. The change was abrupt and unexplained. Maybe my parents were too busy that year, too cash poor, or maybe they thought I’d outgrown such gestures. The following year, I didn’t make a card for them either. The holiday came and went like any other day, and so had all the Valentine’s Days since then.
And now these M&Ms—arriving literally, it seemed, out of nowhere.
I might have felt cynical about it. I could clearly picture my busy mother dropping off this candy with my grandmother weeks before, easy and efficient, another item crossed off her to-do list. This Valentine’s Day, however, I was not feeling cynical. After all, I had a to-do list of my own. I jumped out of bed, almost glad to be up early.
On my way out of the house, I stopped upstairs—in part to thank my parents for the candy, and more important, to discreetly grab some gift-wrap and ribbon. As it turned out, discretion was unnecessary since my parents were sound asleep. I found some paper and a pen, scribbled a note of thanks, added a sloppy heart, and left it on the dining room table where they would see it when they woke up. I helped myself to all the gift-wrap and ribbon I might need.
When I got to school, quite a few students lined the hallways, everyone doing the same thing as me—decorating lockers, tying up helium balloons, planning surprises. Nobody talking or horsing around. The work was serious and eerily quiet, a dutiful army of love zombies.
At Celia’s locker, I began by covering the door with metallic-red paper. I taped all four corners, then twisted the pink ribbon in a border all around. I worked quickly, happily.
I’d realized that it was a mistake to keep our relationship so quiet. My dreams with Ivan were trying to tell me that. I
dating Celia Gamez, and I was ready for the whole world to know. Once I told the world, maybe the world would convey the information back to me.
I got out the bag of M&Ms and glue. My plan was to glue the pink-and-red candies, one by one, into a big heart, with our names in the middle.
But the process was painstaking and tedious. It took more time than I expected to alternate between the two different colors of candy. Crouching, I had only completed the heart and Celia’s name, when I heard my own name spoken behind me.
I recognized the voice, and my body instantly tensed. I turned to look.
Crazy Paul stood about five feet away, staring. He was wearing his black pirate hat with the red feather. The hat was more annoying than ever.
It had been only a few weeks since we talked, but it felt like a lifetime ago. Another world.
“Hey you,” he said with a big, fake, shy smile. Pimply red chin.
I kept working, still in a crouch, but my heart raced full throttle. “Hey.”
“Haven’t seen you online for a while.”
“Yeah, well, I’m taking a break from that,” I said, and I hoped it sounded cold. I kept gluing the candy to the locker, one by one. Steady hands.
“Oh, I know the feeling. Sometimes you need a breather from all that
I need a breather right now, as a matter of fact.
“And what are we up to here?” he asked—too familiar, too friendly, as if this conversation was part of an ongoing intimacy that we both enjoyed.
“What does it look like I’m up to?”
“A Valentine’s surprise for …” He took a step closer. “Celia?”
“Good for you,” I said. “You can read.”
“Is that your girlfriend or something?”
“No, Paul,” I said, standing and turning to look at him. “She’s my personal trainer.”
His eyes seemed to survey me, top to bottom. “What are you trying to do?”
to do anything. I’m living my life.”
True, the bag of pastel-colored M&M’s and the glue in my hands slightly undercut the strength of my argument.
“Listen, Jamie, I’m not judging you. But I think you might be making a mistake. I want to help.”
Yeah, I know what you want.
“I don’t need your help,” I said. “Honestly, I don’t have time for this conversation.” I needed to finish the locker. More importantly, I didn’t want anyone to see me talking to this clown.
“Relax,” he said softly. “Trust me. You
need my help. I’m older than you. I’ve already been through what … what I suspect you’re going through.”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“Really?” He bent closer. “I mean, seriously? Do you want me to remind you of some of the things I know about you?”
I froze. The corridors were getting crowded, a few squeals of surprise and delight at the discovery of other decorated lockers. My time for this project was slipping away.
His voice softened again. “Jamie, if you go down that path, it won’t end well. For her or for you. No matter how many different ways you try to justify it to yourself.”
I resumed my work with the glue and the candy. “Thanks for your concern, but it’s nothing for you to worry about.”
Steady hands, steady hands …
“Good luck, then. Seriously, I wish you good luck.” He began to move away.
“Wait, Paul—one question.” I hated to ask, but I needed to know. “Did you send me a flower message?”
He looked at me, a coy smile on his lips. “Did you want me to?”
“Please just answer the question.”
“Sorry to disappoint you. I did not send you a flower. I’ve got my own life, too.”
I nodded, relieved. “Have a good one, then. See you.”
He stood there a moment, as if waiting to say something else, then turned and scuttled off to his own life. Whatever that was.
The rest of the work was hasty and sloppy. I hadn’t left enough space for my own name to fit properly in the candy heart. When completed, it looked like it said “CELIA + jawie.”
Well, she’d get the idea. I finished within minutes of the first bell, picked up my trash, and then raced down the hall, still waiting for my breathing to return to normal. I wanted to get as far away from her locker as possible—as if I was embarrassed of the work. As if I’d committed a very minor crime.
Later, in homeroom, two new red carnations lay waiting for me on my desk. My seat neighbor, the Incredible Hank, stared at them longingly.
He looked up when I approached. “She really likes you, dude.”
“Guess so,” I said, slipping next to him. “Did you get one this time?”
“Nah,” he said. “Most girls here are, you know, intimidated by my physique.”
I nodded, acknowledging the tragedy of his massive size.
While Mr. Mallet snarled his way through the daily announcements, I opened the first of the two messages.
Celia had printed in neat, small letters that filled the tag:
Jamie, I’ve always been a steadfast cynic when it comes to this cheesy holiday, but this year I can’t resist: Happy Valentine’s Day! No irony intended. Be a good boy and keep this message in your pocket as a sign of my affection. Hart to hart, Celia
I slipped the message into my pocket, feeling proud, relieved, and a little strange.
I set the carnation aside and reached for the second one. Unsigned, another mystery. The note was written in the same loopy, careful handwriting as the earlier unsigned message:
Fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and
the storms terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.
Vincent van Gogh
This time I recognized the name: Vincent van Gogh was a famous Dutch painter and
a boy at our school. That was a relief. Still, I was annoyed. If it wasn’t Crazy Paul, who was messing with me by sending these flowers?
After homeroom, I went searching for Celia and found her in the library. I dropped into the seat next to her.
“My locker!” she whispered, kissing me on the cheek. “It’s really—wow. Quite a work of art. Thank you.”
She thanked me for the flower, but apparently I hadn’t gotten the tone quite right in the message. “Fry eggs on my ass,” she chuckled. “Perfect. I’m glad to know my ass might be good for something. Maybe someday I could go to disaster areas and, you know, prepare breakfasts at shelters.” She noticed the two carnations in my hand. “Who’d you get the second flower from?”
“My friend Mimi,” I lied.
“Just a friend, huh?”
“Absolutely and without qualification,” I said. “Hey, I really liked what you wrote in your message to me.”
“Yeah. I’ll keep it in my pocket for a long time.”
“That’s sweet. And a relief! To tell you the truth, I was nervous about writing it.”
She shrugged. “I didn’t want you to think I was moving too fast. You know, in my head or anything.”
“You’re not. We’re not.”
“Wait … not what?”
“Moving too fast in our heads.”
“Right, good.” She made a pantomime of wiping sweat from her brow, then leaned forward and whispered, “It’s like we’ve planted this seed, and now we both have to wait and watch it grow. These things are sort of out of our control. Agreed?”
“Sure. We just let it happen.”
“Effortless, automatic.” She sighed. “You know, like in bad poetry, how a bud opens to become a perfect rose.”
I nodded, feeling silly. “Or maybe it’s like what they say about … um, snowballs and avalanches.”
She covered her mouth. “Yes, exactly! This thing could be like an out-of-control, speeding train.”
Celia clutched my hand dramatically. “But there’s good news. The train is on the fast track to a town called Love.”
, yay! Or hey, maybe it’s like Godzilla set loose in a sleepy Japanese city.”
We were both sweating and shaking, trying to stifle our laughter. Any second, Mr. Covici would come and tell us to get to work.
“Maybe,” Celia whispered, “it’s like a wildfire that spreads and destroys everything in its path.”
I paused, out of ideas. “Yeah, like … let’s see, one of those old-time smallpox epidemics that killed all the babies in the village?”
“Yes, yes.” She took my hands in hers, more soberly, and gave me the sweetest, most affectionate look. “Yes, Jawie,” she said, “
is our new relationship in a nutshell.”
This was what Crazy Paul could never understand: Celia and I clicked. We had something. I wasn’t forcing a relationship with her because I was simply afraid of being gay. Celia and I
one another. I didn’t need the sarcastic good luck he had offered.
Besides, he wasn’t aware of the legitimate good luck I had waiting for me in my desk drawer at home. Eleven doses of good luck.
My parents came down and joined us for a late supper. My favorite: spaghetti and “garlic bread” hot dog buns. My parents were in pretty good moods themselves. Like Celia, they had a new appreciation for Valentine’s Day—in their case, due to all the package mail it generated. The challenge, from their perspective, had been to figure out where to store all the items that required refrigeration. Imported chocolates, stinky cheeses, expensive wines, grapes out of season, and New York cheesecakes. Both kitchens, upstairs and down, had been packed to capacity. A lot of people, I realized, look at Valentine’s Day mostly as a way to justify eating like crap.
“Craziest week ever,” my mother complained cheerfully. “Honestly, I think it’s better than December.”
My father looked at me, holding the Parmesan cheese over his pasta. “Did you get any valentines, buddy?”
“A few cards from friends,” I said. “Thanks for the M&Ms.”
“Well, I mean … thanks for your note,” my dad said, a little awkwardly. “It meant a lot to your mom and me.”
“Did you give anybody a valentine?” my mother asked me. Her tone was casual, but this was a test question. She wanted to see if I was violating the house rule regarding the age requirement for dating.