Wesley Carroll trudged down the hall in his ripped jeans, white T-shirt, and old, red Converse low-tops. A grin lifted the corners of his lips and I felt my stomach twitter in reaction.
“S’up?” he said, passing by me. I felt my heart skip, my stomach drop, and my mouth go dry. He stopped beside me and flashed his grin again. “Cool shoes.”
I was wearing a pair of old, brown work shoes, clunky leather things with thick soles. I suddenly thought of an e-mail I’d received of ridiculous pickup lines: Nice shoes. Wanna fuck? I blushed deeper, like Wesley could hear my thoughts.
“Thanks,” I stuttered, trying to conceal my reddening cheeks.
Wesley smiled again, said “See ya,” and continued on his way. Everyone knew him because he was the troublemaker, the kid from the wrong side of the tracks, the risk-taker, the school’s pot dealer. I’d watched him from afar, a middling crush, but this was the first time he had spoken to me, and he left my stomach filled with butterflies.
After English Lit, Hailey stopped me and smiled, typically pretty and a little superficial, flashing her pearl-white teeth, and asking if she could borrow my notes from class. She touched my arm when I told her that she could and she promised that she would return them by the end of the day. I suspected that she was flirting with me, but Wesley was still on my mind and I blushed all over thinking about him.
I ate lunch outside in front of the school, sitting cross-legged on a cement rectangle that served as a giant planter for a tree and evergreen shrubs. It was unseasonably warm for spring but the ground was still thoroughly cold and transmitted the chill through the concrete to my thighs and rear end. I took out a book while I picked at my ham sandwich and ate my apple. I still packed juice boxes in my lunch and slurped it while I read.
I was used to eating alone; I preferred my own company to the loud and obnoxious kids that talked about nothing. I didn’t think I was better than anyone else (well, maybe just a little; I had some culture) but I was shy and often earned the epithet “nerd” for getting good grades. Solitude was better than being ridiculed any day of the week.
Before sixth hour, I went to my locker for my history book. It was a heavy tome that we mostly skimmed through, studying about every other chapter. I looked over my shoulder and Wesley was walking toward me. I quickly looked down but strained my eyes to the side to see him.
“Hey, Toren,” he said and held out a green notebook. “This is yours, right? Hailey borrowed it?”
I looked at the notebook and nodded my head.
“I told her that we had History together and that I’d give it back to you.”
“Oh, um, thanks.”
It was like he knew he made me nervous. Suddenly, he threw his head back and snapped his fingers. “Oh yeah. Hailey wanted me to tell you ‘thanks’ and that you were, what did she say? Oh yeah, super cool.” He laughed and I tried to laugh with him but my lips smiled crookedly. “Well, see you in class.” He waved slightly and walked away.
People were walking past me and fortunately, no one knew why my face was so flush. My locker was near the classroom and I went inside, sitting in the second row. Wesley probably went to go smoke or was skipping class. Mr. Hannity was a minute late and Wesley strolled in later than that, whispering, “Sorry.” He glanced at me as he passed, moving to his seat in the back row.
I went home with a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. Alycia was at swim practice, Mom worked the mid-shift at the hospital, and I was glad to have the place to myself. I did some homework, but my mind drifted to Wesley to the point of distraction.
After an hour, and an hour before Alycia came home, I found myself in the bathroom, clutching the sink, pushed in there by my own urgings that wouldn’t be sated with mere thoughts. It was the first time that I touched myself with an actual person in mind and I felt ashamed as if Wesley knew by some kind of masturbatory telepathy.
Alycia came home, kicked off her shoes and moved around the small kitchen, taking a can of tuna from the cupboard. She left the apron hanging on the hook inside the pantry and I warned her that if she spilled on her clothes that I wasn’t going to wash them. She made a face at me and then shook her head.
“I just don’t look good in an apron…not like you,” she said. “Besides, what could happen? Crumbs could fall on me after toasting the bread?”
“That’s another thing too,” I said, tapping the counter with my fingers. “You always make easy stuff when it’s your turn. Tuna sandwiches? C’mon, even Mom can make those.”
Alycia laughed and agreed, but didn’t offer to make any vegetable to accompany. I took out a can of green beans and put them over a low heat. Alycia groaned and rolled her eyes.
“I swear, you’re gonna make someone a wonderful housewife someday.”
I thought of Wesley and blushed; I thought of my affair in the bathroom and blushed deeper and upon realizing that I was blushing, I blushed even more. Alycia caught the guilt in my eyes and grinned from ear to ear.
“Tor? What’s that look for? Got someone in mind already?”
“Give me a break,” I groaned.
Mr. Hannity was late to class and Wesley was later, repeating yesterday’s dialogue. Wesley smiled at me as he walked to his seat and my stomach fluttered. Mr. Hannity described the semester project in detail and then allowed us to choose our own partners. I hated when teachers did that; it reminded me of gym class in grade school. I stared at my desk, waiting for everyone to partner up so that I could be paired with the other person who wasn’t chosen.
“Mr. Hannity, me and Toren are gonna work together.” Wesley rapped his knuckles on my desk and Mr. Hannity looked at me before nodding and writing it down in his grade book. Wesley grinned and I stared back at him blankly. “You don’t mind, do ya?” he asked. I shook my head and blushed. “Cool. Wait for me after class.” I nodded and hid my face.
Mr. Hannity lectured for the rest of the hour, but I was too distracted to listen. I drew pictures in the margins of my notebook, but my mind always drifted back to Wesley. My heart was thumping.
Mr. Hannity asked me to stay after class. He was quiet until the classroom cleared, and then he leaned against his desk and crossed his arms.
“Thanks for staying after, Toren. I just wanted to talk to you briefly about your project… Well, more just to give you a heads-up,” Mr. Hannity explained, looking down at me over his glasses. “If you have any problems working on your project, talk to me right away. Okay? Will you do that?”
“Um…sure. Thanks, Mr. Hannity.”
He patted my shoulder as I walked out of the classroom. He didn’t have to say Wesley’s name specifically, but the implication was there. I was glad that Mr. Hannity recognized that I might have trouble working with him and gave me some leeway with his expectations. I was a good student and worked hard to get good grades. Someone like Wesley could mess that up if he screwed off instead of working on the project, but I still felt excited that he picked me to be his partner.
“Hey. What’d Hannity wanna talk to you about?” Wesley asked after I stepped out of the classroom. He furrowed his brows and stared at me. “Did he give you a warning about me or something?”
“No. He—he didn't say anything.”
“Yeah, right. He already has me pegged for disaster. But you, you get straight As, right? So, I figure I got myself an A already.”
“You’re gonna have to do your share of the work too,” I said quietly.
“Ah, he did warn you about me. Seems like that guy has had it in for me all along. Look, I gotta get a good grade on this project or he’ll fail me, so I need you to get me an A.” Wesley leaned back against the lockers and crossed his arms on his chest. “So, you’re gonna do your part and not talk to Hannity about anything. Got it?”
My heart was beating wildly. He seemed so nice when I talked to him yesterday. “I’m—I’m not gonna do your work for you. You’re gonna have to study too.” My voice was weak and I was trying so hard to sound confident. A smile cracked Wesley’s lips. I was waiting for something; I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was coming.
“Yeah, okay,” he said after a long pause.
That wasn’t what I was expecting.
“So we have to present on June fifth, right? That’s gives us…what, about a month? Well, we should probably start thinking about a topic then.”
“I’m kinda interested in the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Or maybe the Chinese Exclusion Acts of the 1880s,” I suggested. I had already thought about the topic for this project.
“Cool. Why don’t you follow me to my house and we’ll figure it out there.”
“Yeah. Don’t you have a car?”
My cheeks reddened as I shook my head. What a stupid thing to be embarrassed about.
“Hmph. I thought I saw you driving around in an old, blue Taurus.”
He noticed me? “That’s my mom’s car.”
“Well, I’ll give you a ride then.”
“But…shouldn’t we go to the library?”
“You wanna go to the library? C’mon, I don’t wanna be in school any longer than I absolutely have to be. Let’s just go to my house.”
“Well, I kinda think the library might be better,”
“I’d rather go somewhere with a smoking section, ya know? C’mon,” he said, starting to walk away. He stopped and waited while I got my book bag from my locker.
We drove to a ranch-style house with an unmowed lawn, a broken shutter, and a torn screen door. The driveway was cracked and weeds grew in the cleavages between concrete slabs.
“You want a beer or something?” he asked, dropping his book bag inside the door.
“No, thank you.” I stood just inside the front door, gripping the straps of my bag tightly. I looked around at the mismatched furniture, the nicked-up coffee table with two overflowing ashtrays, and the gold shag carpeting from the 1970s.
“Have a seat,” Wesley said, coming from the kitchen with a brown bottle in his hand. “You’re so uptight.” He sat down on the shaggy sofa and patted the cushion. I sat down, pulled my book bag onto my lap, and pulled out a spiral notebook and folder from our history class. He held his cigarette between his thumb and index finger and put his foot up on the coffee table while I fumbled around for a pen.
“Relax. I don’t bite. Are you sure you don’t want a beer or something?”
“No, thank you.”
I watched him from the corner of my eye. He seemed different but I wasn’t quite sure what it was. He was one of the coolest guys in school, drawing attention whether he wanted to or not. He was the type of guy that would probably end up flipping burgers when he was forty with three ex-wives and a mountain of child support.
Maybe I was a little resentful because everyone liked him and I didn’t really have many friends. He seemed to have it so easy. Most teachers liked him even though he skipped class a lot and never studied. Even Mr. Hannity liked him, despite his constant interruptions and obnoxious behavior. Belittling his future was all I could do to keep my self-esteem from bottoming out.
“You really wanna get started on the project now? We just got home from school. Relax a little first,” he said, taking a drink from his beer and another hit of his cigarette.
“But, I’ve got other stuff to do, so we might as well just get started.” I stared at the textbook on my lap.
Wesley looked at me for a moment, then stood up and retrieved his book bag from near the front door. “So you wanna do the railroad thing or the Chinese-whatever-Acts?”
He sat down next to me, leaned back into the couch, and crossed his ankle on his knee. His leg pressed into mine and I jerked to the side a little, but his leg still touched mine.
“Yeah, I’m kinda interested in the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Most people don’t even know that the Chinese built most of it, and basically for nothing. They were really exploited—I guess it just shows where the values of this country come from. Slaves weren’t the only ones exploited. Basically, if you weren’t a white European, you were pretty much screwed. And the Chinese Exclusion Acts were part of that too. The government actually excluded Chinese from entering the U.S. But the Chinese used the courts to gain entry, basically outsmarting the government.”
Wesley stared at me with a grin on his face. I suddenly realized that I was just rambling. Did that sound stupid? No wonder everyone called me a nerd.
“You really like this stuff, don’t you?” Wesley asked, tilting his grin to one side.
My cheeks were hot with embarrassment. “Yeah, I do.” Like I could hide it after my educational rant. “Actually, this is what I wanna study in college.”
“You wanna be a teacher or something?” he asked. I nodded without looking at him. “I can totally picture you doing that. I think you’d be good at it.” I tried to hide the smile that was curling my lips. “So which do you wanna do? The railroad or the Exclusion thing?”
“Let’s do the Chinese Exclusion Acts. I think we’d be able to find more resources about them, anyway.”
“Cool. Now that that’s decided,” Wesley said and leaned forward, opening the cabinet on the coffee table, “you wanna get high?”
“Huh?” I glanced at Wesley and he pulled a small pipe and a clear plastic bag from the cabinet and laid them on his lap.
“It’s my way of saying thanks for doing this project with me, even though you could’ve had a better partner,” he said, sticking his index finger in the bowl of the pipe and tapping it a few times.
“Don’t—don’t worry about it,” I stuttered. I pulled my book bag up to the side of the couch and tried to push my notebook and folder in.
Wesley stopped fingering the bowl and looked at me. “You don’t wanna? C’mon, it’s my treat.”
I had never smoked pot; I had never even seen it before now. Wesley felt dangerous to me, but it was also part of his charm.
“I should get going,” I stammered, still trying to fit my notebook and folder in my book bag.
Wesley set the pipe and baggie down on the coffee table and sighed lightly. “You know, Toren, you might look good on paper, but you’re boring as hell in person.”
I looked up sharply. “What? No I’m not.” I looked down into my lap again. He didn't even know me. How could he make such a quick judgment?
He rested his arm on the sofa behind my head and leaned toward me with his same grin. “Prove it then,” he said, moving his face closer to mine. I could smell the tobacco and beer on his breath. “I mean, you’re into boys, right?”
My eyes widened and I stared at Wesley. He smiled devilishly and leaned closer. I swallowed hard and looked down. He didn’t know that I sort of had a crush on him, did he? Was he trying to make me admit it? Or was he just making a joke?
“Wh—what? Why are you even asking that?”
“’Cause you always look at me like you wanna fuck me,” he answered, with a grin that was almost a sneer.
“What? I—I don’t—”
“No, that’s not quite right,” he said calmly, looking up at the ceiling and shaking his head. “No, it’s more like you wanna be fucked by me.”
My heart stopped. I didn’t know what to do. I pulled my book bag onto my lap and stood up. “I have to go,” I said quickly and rushed toward the front door.
“You want a ride?” Wesley asked, lighting a cigarette and looking at me over the flame. He sank back into the couch.
“I don’t live too far.”
“See you at school,” Wesley called as I pulled the door closed behind me.