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School Spirit (Or Lack Thereof)

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When Karen met Bill she was holding a jar of mealworms and a bundle of old fashioned underpants stacked over her shoulders – pantaloons as Miss Wilson had called them when requesting she take the costumes down to the office so that she could have them laundered before returning them to wardrobe. She’d been ambushed mid-walk by her best friend, who shoved her toward a dark-haired senior with coke-bottle glasses and a letterman jacket. Susan grinned, then nudged her friend’s shoulder and encouraged them to shake hands. “This is Karen, Bill. Bill, Karen. You’ll like him. He’s weird like you.”

Karen’s smile thinned out, and she promptly vowed not to speak to Susan for at least a week as her friend rushed off to her next period. “Uh, hi?” She’d seen him before at least once – he ran track with his brother Max, who was also her lab partner – but they’d always generally hung out with different people; she’d just been on a different frequency than the rest of the world since joining the gifted program.

“Hi. You’re Max’s friend, aren’t you?” His glasses slipped down his nose and he shoved them back up the bridge with an annoyed sigh.

“Kind of. We’re more like loose acquaintances,” she said.

“I see. And you’re a theater kid, aren’t you?” he asked dryly, offering her his hand again, and this time she shook it while trying to tuck the jar away against the middle of her elbow.

“This is my science project,” she said. “But the underpants are for the other kids in the theater class. We’re putting on Pride and Prejudice this year.”

“I knew I had you pegged,” he said, happy to be right – adjusting his glasses in what she would soon learn was a nervous gesture. “What are you doing with those worms?”

“Studying their breeding habits. You can never learn too much about asexual reproduction.”

“Neat,” he remarked. “What are you going to do with them when the experiment’s over?”

“Probably release them back into the wild.”

“That’s…really nice,” he remarked. “You’re a soft-hearted kinda girl, aren’t you?”

She smiled. “You haven’t seen me play lacrosse,” she said, as the bell run and separated them.

***

He took the hint and did come to see her play that very Friday night, alongside his brother, who yelled and cheered his way through a one-sided game. She came out the other end triumphant, and ended up celebrating for hours with her fellow players at the Suds and Dog. She traveled with Susan, ate heartily and was wolfing down a second chili dog when he found her.

“Congrats,” he said. “You worked hard for that one.”

She shrugged. “Thanks. I aim to kill,” she said. She was also suddenly aware that her chin was dripping with chili and that she ought to wipe it. Reaching for a napkin, she found him already there handing one over.

“Do you mind if I sit down?” he asked.

“Nah,” she said, and he did, holding his own tall fry and a hot dog. “So when’s the next meet?”

“Tomorrow,” he said. “How are your mealworms?”

“They’re doing fine,” she said. “Number six spawned three little wormlets the other day.”

He eyeballed his hotdog and set it aside. “Well – uh - how do you feel about short walks on the beach?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Okay, did you stash your brother in some cave or something, and he’s gonna jump out and yell ‘boo’ at us when we go there?”

“No!” he said. “He said he had to go home early because he gave himself a headache with his screaming. Also he said he’d tell our mother that I had to stick around late helping them tear down the rally signs. That is, if you’d like to have me around.”

“Are you asking me on a date?”

“I’m asking you on a walk. I’ll ask you on a date if the walk goes well.”

“Ugh, you’re so…practical,” she said, and meant it in the kindest way possible.

“That’s my job,” he said wryly, “as the man in the relationship.”

“How chauvinistic!” she snorted. “You don’t even know if we have a relationship!” But she went with him all the same, to the beach, where they walked and talked in tandem for hours.

It seemed they had a lot more in common than she’d have thought at first blush. They both had single mothers, older brothers, and a responsibility streak that clashed rather amusingly with a sense of whimsy. Bill, as the presumable head of his household had worked as hard as humanly possible to be sure that the family stayed afloat after the desertion of his father. Karen’s mother, meanwhile, had always been the breadwinner, and Karen had been pampered via her efforts.

“Do you have any idea what you’re going to do for college?”

“A law degree for sure,” he said. “Are you going to act?”

She shook her head. “I’m aiming for something in the sciences. And if push comes to shove, I’ll go with a business degree. That’ll get me somewhere.”

Silence filled the air. The wind buffeted her short, dark hair about her neck and he started rubbing the back of his neck in frustration.

“Karen, I’m having a really good time but it’s getting really late. My mom's gonna call out the cops if I keep the car out much longer.” He then said, “So…how would you like to go to the movies together next week?”

“I wouldn’t mind,” she told the ground. “In fact, I would love it. Especially if I paid.”

He smiled back. “You really are a wonder of a woman.”

“I’m sure you say that to all the girls.”

He took a step closer to her and gave her a small grin. “Do you really think a guy like me has to beat the girls off of him?”

“You’re cute enough,” she said winsomely, tilting her head and grinning.

He laughed at her sauciness – and then rested his hand against her cheek. It was the first time he’d touched her and she wondered why she wasn’t fighting it off when his lips lowered to hers.

Oh.

Everything inside of her seemed to swell and change; alchemetically transmogrifying into something new and beautiful.

The kiss stopped suddenly, and he seemed as rattled by it as she. Then his glasses rolled down his nose and he cursed softly. “I’ll see you later,” he said.

She watched him leave and her insides lurched, as if some vital part of herself was leaving. It was all too much, and too weird, and a first time and something that was primal and eternally vital.

“Hey Bill,” she yelled after him, and he turned. “I’ll see you.”

“Yeah, I’ll see you,” he said.

(Ten years later they told this story to their son. He gave it two chucks up and rolled his eyes during the slow parts.).