Shirley sits three rows over from me in Spanish class. I sneak glances of her whenever I can, because something about her makes me feel all warm inside. She makes me feel that way despite the fact that everyone teases her and calls her a lesbian. It’s true that she dresses in an unconventional way, and yes, she kissed a girl once, but that was in a play we put on last year in drama class; that was just acting.
I’m no stranger to ridicule myself. I made the mistake of wearing army pants to school one day and have been branded G.I. Joe ever since. My first mistake, of course, was to have moved here in the first place. They hated me from the get-go, God knows why. It was my stepfather’s idea to move to this stupid town, not mine. I don’t even want to be here. I used to like my stepfather, but that was before the move. Now we just try to stay out of each other’s way. But I’m getting off the subject. The point is that I feel a connection to Shirley, because she’s bullied just like me.
You know how sometimes you get the funny feeling that someone’s watching you, and then you turn around and they are? Well, sometimes her eyes will slide in my direction and I’ll have to quickly look away. Every time she catches me my cheeks go red and hot, and my heart starts to pound feverishly in my chest. My hands will get all sweaty and I’ll have to wipe them on my jeans to keep them dry.
I often sit and think about how much I’d like to talk to her, but when an opportunity arises—like this one time when I stood behind her in the cafeteria line—my mouth feels like it’s been stuffed with cotton and I can’t go through with it. Besides, what would I say anyway, that at night I think of her while I masturbate, until my arm is sore and I’ve practically chewed through my bottom lip? Somehow I doubt that would charm her.
But when Valentine’s Day comes, I see my big chance to get her attention and win her heart. I snag my stepfather’s rock hammer and break open the piggy bank my real dad gave me back before he and mom got the divorce. Bits of ceramic pig and change go skidding across the kitchen counter and I scoop it up, depositing the coins into my pocket and the remnants of the piggy bank into the trash. Then I ride my bike over to the best flower shop in town.
It takes my whole summer allowance to buy a large bouquet of roses for Shirley, but I do it anyway. I spare no expense. The roses are beautiful and red and so fresh that they look like they’re still planted in the ground. When the salesgirl asks what I would like inscribed on the card, I tell her to write Be Mine—just that and no name.
I set it up to be delivered during Spanish class and I imagine her inhaling the fragrance deep into her lungs and then running into my arms. Next, I imagine the two of us on some romantic getaway—Paris, perhaps—toasting each other on the banks of the Seine. Is it the Left Bank that’s the good one? I can never remember. Sometimes I try to imagine our first night together, but my sexual fantasies of her are usually intercut with scenes from pornographic films my older brother keeps beneath the mattress, because I—I’m a virgin, okay? I’ve never even kissed a girl unless you count my cousin Mabel, but she was much older than me and it was only on the cheek.
The big day comes and there’s a knock on the door. I try to conceal the smile that’s threatening to break my face apart as Mrs. Espinoza goes to let in the delivery boy. There’s a rustle of inquisitive voices at the sight of the bouquet and then the delivery boy calls Shirley’s name. My heart starts its unrestrained gallop and my breath catches in my throat. Shirley contemplates the card then tucks it into her purse. For one joyous moment, her eyes search me out and I can barely contain myself—she knows it’s me.
Then the taunting begins.
It starts with a catcalling whistle and then one of the jocks seated in the back row shouts, “Got some flowers from your girlfriend?” After this, the teasing begins in earnest and although Mrs. Espinoza clears her throat aggressively, she doesn’t stop them. She never does.
Shirley shrinks in her chair. She’s clearly mortified and all at once, I realize it’s my fault. My heart sinks into my stomach with an appalling thud and suddenly—without warning and much to my horror—tears spill over the rims of my eyes.
“Hey,” Mick Wilson says from the desk next to mine. He stares at me with real contempt. He’s one of my usual tormentors, and he’s found a new opportunity to start in on me. “What are you crying for?” He looks me up and down and I can feel all eyes shift to me. “I bet you’re a little faggot, too.”
“Watch your language,” Mrs. Espinoza says, but she’s no longer in control of the class.
Before I can stop myself, I hear the words coming out of my mouth: “Shut up, dick—I mean, Mick.”
“What did you say?” Mick says, and slips out from his desk so fast it skids across the floor with a loud squeak. He’s standing over me with a mad gleam in his eyes and I cringe in my chair. I wonder if anyone notices. “You little punk,” he begins, but Mrs. Espinoza drops a textbook onto her desk. The loud bang shocks us out of our little one-act play.
“Go back to your seat, Mick,” Mrs. Espinoza says, regaining control. Then she says it again in Spanish: “Siéntese!”
“You’re mine,” Mick says to me, and fueled by chivalry and the adrenaline flooding my system, I make my final mistake.
“I’m yours?” I ask, feeling very clever. “Sounds like you’re the one who’s gay.”
Everyone laughs at that, everyone except Mick. I don’t even think he knows how. Mick’s eyes narrow in anger and a cold smile crawls across his face. That’s when I realize I’m really in for it. I look to Shirley for inspiration and courage, but her head is down, studying the wood grain of the desk top.
The bell rings. Shirley is swept away by the flood of students pushing through the door and I try to catch up, but lose her in the crowded hallway. Mick doesn’t have that problem. He follows me outside and the moment we enter the courtyard that separates the main building from the gym, he pushes me down. The hard packed dirt knocks the wind out of me.
“Get up, faggot,” he yells.
My head is throbbing from where it struck the ground, so this little insult barely registers. The rest registers just fine. Mick climbs on top of me without a struggle, pinning me down and pummeling me with his fists. My lip splits from the first blow, flooding my mouth with blood. I have a moment to wonder if Shirley is watching and then there is renewed shouting—faculty members coming over to break it up.
Already a crowd appears. I haven’t even sat up to brush the dirt off my clothes and there they are, staring. I secretly hate them. I can hear them high-fiving Mick as he walks away, escorted by the vice-principal and Coach Jones like some high profile gangster from New York. Someone helps me to my feet; another collects my books. They take me to the nurse’s office, where I sit wincing as the school nurse swabs me with hydrogen peroxide and patches me up.
After school I catch a glimpse of Shirley as she crosses the schoolyard. I marvel at the absence of the bouquet in her hands, but this tiny observation doesn’t slow my stride, nor does it dampen my joy at seeing her. I break into a run, calling out to her as I close the distance between us. I think about what happened with Mick and I feel older somehow, more man than boy. It kind of makes the pain worth it. I have defended the honor of a young girl, and the thought of it causes me to swell with pride.
“Shirley, wait up!”
I brush through a group of students and catch up to her at the edge of the parking lot. I walk along side and take a moment to really look at her. Her hair is dancing on her scalp, driven by the breeze. She is pretty and I realize that one day she’s going to be more than pretty; she’s going to be beautiful. But right then she seems troubled and stiff. Her arms swing mechanically, her legs scissor back and forth, and she stares straight ahead, her eyes as dull as a china doll’s.
“Hey,” I ask. “Are you okay? I’m sorry if I embarrassed you.”
“Why are you bothering me?” She answers, without looking at me.
I feel the first pangs of disappointment. It’s the same sensation that accompanies the first big drop on a rollercoaster. “I—I just wanted to know if you liked the flowers.”
She lengthens her stride, trying to out-pace me. “I don’t like you, okay?”
“I don’t understand,” I say, and my heart leaps into my throat.
“I see how you look at me. I’m not interested.”
“But, I thought—”
“You thought what?” she snaps, coming to an abrupt halt. She looks at me this time and chills me with her smoldering, red-rimmed eyes. “If you bought me some flowers, I’d fuck you? Is that what you expected from me?”
I reach out and touch her arm. “It’s not like that—”
“Get away from me, you fucking loser!”
She jerks away and I lose my balance, falling for the second time today. It’s a bone-jarring fall and right away my headache comes smashing back. I’m shocked by the force of her words, but I can hear the pain in her voice, a pain that says, I’ve got it bad enough as it is. A pain that is all too familiar. All I can do is sit up and watch her stalk off until she disappears behind a row of parked cars. A crowd of students closes in, pointing and laughing, and my humiliation is complete.
I don’t want to cry, but I can’t help it.