As if it wasn’t bad enough she was holding his hand, she had the audacity to let go of it.
I hated her then. I hated her dumb, soccer-playing, headband-wearing, Dr-Pepper-flavored-lip-balm-applying guts.
If he ever wanted to hold my hand, I’d never, ever, ever let go.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said to Olive.
“Yeah,” she said. “We can get something from the vending machine instead.”
I walked off, depressed and lovesick, heading for the vending machine by the band room.
I bought two Snickers bars and handed one of them to Olive. I chomped into mine, as if it were the only thing that could fill the void in my heart.
“I’m over him,” I said. “Totally dumb crush. But it’s done. I’m over it. Seriously.”
“Okay,” Olive said, half laughing at me.
“No, really,” I said. “Definitely over.”
“Sure,” Olive said, scrunching her eyebrows and pursing her lips.
And then I heard a voice coming from behind me.
I turned to see Sam coming out of the band room.
“Oh, hey,” I said.
“I didn’t know that you had this lunch period.”
I nodded. “Yep.”
His hair was a bit disheveled and he was wearing a green shirt that said “Bom Dia!”
“So, I guess we’ve got our first shift together,” he said. “Tomorrow at the store, I mean.”
“Oh,” I said. “Yeah.” On Tuesday, Marie had borrowed my Fiona Apple CD without asking, prompting me to call her a “complete asshole” within hearing distance of my parents. My punishment was a Friday shift at the store. In my family, instead of getting grounded or having privileges revoked, you redeemed yourself by working more. Extra shifts at the store were my parents’ way of both teaching lessons and extracting free labor. Assigning me Friday evening in particular meant I couldn’t hang out with Olive and they could have a date night at the movies.
“Tomorrow?” Olive said. “I thought we were going to hang out at my house after school.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I forgot. I have to work.”
The bell rang, indicating that it was time for me to start walking toward my world geography class.
“Ah,” Olive said. “I have to go. I left my book in my locker.”
Olive didn’t wait for me, didn’t even offer. Nothing stood between her and being on time for anything.
“I should get going, too,” I said to Sam, who didn’t seem to be in a rush to get anywhere. “We have a test in geo.”
“Oh, well, I don’t want to keep you,” Sam said. “I just wanted to know if you wanted a ride. Tomorrow. To the store after school.”
I looked at him, confused. I mean, I wasn’t confused about what he was saying. I understood the simple physics of getting into a car that would take me from school to work. But it surprised me that he was offering, that he would even think to offer.
“I just got my license and I inherited my brother’s Camry,” he said. In high school, it seemed like everyone was inheriting Camrys or Corollas. “So I just thought . . .” He looked me in the eye and then looked away. “So you don’t have to take the bus, is all.”
He was being so thoughtful. And he barely knew me.
“Sure,” I said, “that would be great.”
“Meet you in the parking lot after school?” he asked.
“That sounds great. Thank you. That’s really cool of you.”
“No worries,” he said. “See you tomorrow.”
As I walked toward the double doors at the end of the hall, heading to class, it occurred to me that maybe it was time to just be friends with whomever I wanted to be friends with, to not try quite so hard to reject everything Marie liked.
Maybe it was time to just . . . be myself.
The next day I wore a red knit sweater and flat-front chinos to school, cognizant of my parents’ request to never wear jeans at the store. And then, ten minutes after the last bell rang, I saw Sam leaning against the hood of his car in the school parking lot, waiting for me.
“Hey,” I said as I got closer.
“Hey.” He went around to my side of the car and opened the car door. No one had ever opened a car door for me before except my father, and even then, it was usually a joke.
“Oh,” I said, taking my backpack off and putting it in the front seat. “Thank you.”
Sam looked surprised for a moment, as if he wasn’t sure what I was thanking him for. “For the door? You’re welcome.”
I sat down and sunk into the passenger’s seat as Sam made his way to his side of the car. He smiled at me nervously when he got in and turned on the ignition. And then, suddenly, jazz music blasted through the speakers.
“Sorry,” he said. “Sometimes I really have to psych myself up in the morning.”
I laughed. “Totally cool.”
He turned the music down but not off and I listened as it softly filled the air in the car. Sam put the car in reverse and twisted his body toward me, resting his arm on the back of my seat and then backing out of the spot.
His car was a mess. Papers at my feet, gum wrappers and guitar picks strewn across the dashboard. I glanced into the backseat and saw a guitar, a harmonica, and two black instrument cases.
I turned back to face the front. “Who is this?” I said, pointing to the stereo.
Sam was watching the steady stream of cars to his left, waiting for his chance to turn onto the road.
“Mingus,” he said, not looking at me.
There was a small opening, a chance to enter the flow of traffic. Sam inched up and then swiftly turned, gracefully joining the steady stream of cars. He relinquished his attention, and turned back to me.
“Charles Mingus,” he said, explaining. “Do you like jazz?”
“I don’t really listen to it,” I said. “So I don’t know.”
“All right, then,” Sam said, turning up the volume. “We’ll listen and then you’ll know.”
I nodded and smiled to show that I was game. The only problem was that I knew within three seconds that Charles Mingus was not for me and I didn’t know how to politely ask him to turn it off. So I didn’t.
My father was at the register when we came in through the doors. His face lit up when he saw me.
“Hi, sweetheart,” he said, focused on me. And then he turned for a brief second. “Hey, Sam!”
“Hi, Dad,” I said back. I didn’t love the idea of my father calling me “sweetheart” in front of people from school. But groaning about it would only make it worse, so I let it go.
Sam headed straight for the back of the store. “I’m going to run to the bathroom and then, Mr. Blair, I’ll be back to relieve you.”
My dad gave him a thumbs-up and then turned to me. “Tell me all about your day,” he said as I put my book bag down underneath the register. “Start at the beginning.”
I looked around to see that the only customer in the store was an older man reading a military biography. He was pretending to peruse it but appeared to be downright engrossed. I half expected him to lick his fingertip to turn the page or dog-ear his favorite chapter.
“Aren’t you supposed to be taking Mom on a date?” I asked.
“How old do you think I am?” he asked, looking at his watch. “It’s not even four p.m. You think I’m taking your mother to an early bird special?”
“I don’t know,” I said, shrugging. “You two are the ones who made me work today so you could go see a movie together.”
“We made you work today because you were being rude to your sister,” he said. His tone was matter-of-fact, all blame removed from his voice. My parents didn’t really hold grudges. Their punishments and disappointments were perfunctory. It was as if they were abiding by rules set out before them by someone else. You did this and so we must do that. Let’s all just do our part and get through this.
This changed a few years later, when I called them in the middle of the night and asked them to pick me up from the police station. Suddenly, it wasn’t a fun little test anymore. Suddenly, I had actually disappointed them. But back then, the stakes were low, and discipline was almost a game.