Sunday, January 5, 2014
‘You learn how to cut down trees cutting them down.’ - Bateke proverb
By Roy L. Pickering Jr.
First published in PROVERBS FOR THE PEOPLE
I can do this, I know I can do this.
So what if she’s the prettiest girl in the whole wide world, while I’m just … I’m just a guy who’s terrified. I don’t want to be rejected. More than that, I don’t want to be rejected by her. If only I was more experienced at this sort of thing. If I could look back at a time when I had been successful, I’d be more confident this time around. But since it’s my first time, how can I know if I’m doing it right? My grandpa says that some things can’t be taught. Certain things you just do, and when you’re done, then you’ll see how it went.
The problem with that is, I can’t afford to do this wrong. I’m pretty sure I’ll get just one shot. Screw it up and somebody else will be quick to take their turn, probably a smooth talking senior who’ll know exactly what to say and how to say it. I don’t think I could take it if she shot me down. Not after I’ve spent so much time daydreaming about us being together. Night dreaming too. Perhaps I shouldn’t give her the chance to rewrite my dreams. After all, if I don’t ask then she can’t say no. But she wouldn’t have a chance to say yes either. And maybe she will say yes. It wouldn’t be the craziest thing to ever happen. I’ve seen her smile a few times in a way that seemed custom made just for me. It could have been my imagination. That’s what my best friend says. But I don’t think so. I think I do have a shot at winning her over. If I do this just right. If I do it perfect. Like my grandpa says, loving is a much braver act than simply loving back, and sweeter too.
There she goes, right where I knew I’d find her, taking books for her first classes of the day from out of her locker. I am lucky enough to have a locker only a few feet away from hers. My grandpa says never to underestimate the value of location. Other students walk by laughing, talking loud, horsing around, greeting each other, completely unaware that I’m about to do this extraordinary thing, that my knees feel as wobbly as a newborn colt.
Her hair is prettily separated into dozens of spaghetti thin braids. Her hair clip is shaped like a butterfly perched on a flower in full bloom. Last year she wore braces, which did not keep her smile from speeding up the beat of my heart. But after they were taken out, the impossible happened. She became even more beautiful.
I had thought these last steps would be the hardest to take. Never would I have expected to grow so calm, so bold. I suppose I feel that this is beyond my control now. I’m like my grandpa’s great big Cadillac, moving forward on cruise control. But when I arrive by her side, I realize that the calmness was a mirage. My mouth refuses to open. I feel dizzy. I think I might puke. Even when I had a bad case of the flu this past winter, I managed not to do that.
Time to regroup. I walk past her and stop in front of my own locker. Why am I freaking out? I’ve spoken to her several times before. But never about anything important, just small talk I’ve managed to sneak in whenever she wasn’t occupied by the attention of others. She has never made me feel that my clumsy attempts at conversation were unwelcome. But I’ve never been convinced that she was inviting me to say more, to speak what I really think, what I truly feel, how I truly feel - about her. I know that once I do, everything will change. It may change into bitter disappointment and heartbreak, or else transform into something absolutely amazing. There is only one way to find out which.
I was hoping to take command of the situation today like an action movie hero. I would follow my grandpa’s advice, tell her that I liked her, and more importantly, let her know specifically what I like. For example, her big hazel eyes; the pitch of her laugh; her ability to expertly mimic the nasal voice of our school librarian; the way she purses her lips in concentration when we’re taking a test and she doesn’t realize I’m paying more attention to her than to the exam; the magical scent of her hair that I catch as I pass by her in the hallway.
Instead of saying these things I just stand here, helplessly peeking out of the corner of my eye, afraid to be caught staring, afraid that if I let her out of my sight, the opportunity to act on my runaway feelings will be forever gone. Resolve is a lot tougher to locate once it’s already been had and lost. So my grandpa says anyway.
Some might say I’m biting off more than I could possibly chew. My best friend Kurt is one of them. He insists that she’s one of the hottest sophomores in school, as if I had not figured this out for myself. I also don’t need to be told that she’s very popular, usually surrounded by friends from the school journal or the tennis team she’s on, not to mention muscle bound admirers from the football team who think they can effortlessly charm her because they wear jockstraps and jerseys, never mind that they won only four games last year. But Kurt doesn’t see, or can’t see, that her main priorities are not about being beautiful and in demand. She’s not like the extra fine, extra shallow girls that Kurt lusts after who would pass on a guy like me with scarcely a glance. If she was, she wouldn’t need to reject me because I wouldn’t be interested in her to begin with. It so happens that she is an honor student just as I am. And like me, she can often be found in the library checking out not only books that are assigned to us, but also those chosen for pleasure. Yes, she is pretty and athletic and popular. But she is also smart and ambitious and creative and funny and sweet. In short, she’s perfect. Perfect for me.
Oh, there is one other thing. She has the finest looking butt you ever did see, sweet as a chocolate covered cherry, especially in this pair of jeans she wears every other Wednesday like clockwork. They hug her hips just right, outlining her curves with expert precision. In anticipation of seeing her in those jeans, I wake up extra alert on those days. Or at least a certain part of my anatomy does.
What does Kurt know about what girls want? Not a whole lot, no matter how much junk he talks. He’s had exactly one more girlfriend in his life than I have, giving him a grand total of one, and that only lasted a month. He says I’m chasing after a girl who is out of my league, but there’s nothing wrong with the league I’m in, whatever it happens to be. I may not be a jock or one of those guys who walks around in phat gear and blinging jewelry like a big shot in a rap video, but I don’t think I’m someone a girl would be embarrassed to be around either. I’ve been called cute plenty of times, well at least a few times, the message usually delivered second hand. But the girls who have lazily pursued me in the past were ones I was not all that interested in, and the ones who have sparked my interest did not pay me much mind. I’m not sure why my love life, or lack thereof, has worked out like it has. I often see much dopier looking guys than me with pretty girls on their arms while I stand by enviously and alone. Maybe those guys are simply luckier than I am. Or braver. Probably a combination of the two. I’m guessing that Lady Luck will not just fall in my lap. I’ll need to test her to see if she’ll work for me. As for bravery, I’ll have to fake it. Maybe brave people are sometimes nothing more than cowards doing a good job of acting.
My grandpa told me recently that my dad was quite awkward and shy in high school. I think he was saving the story until I reached puberty. My dad was tall, which is usually a plus, except that he was the gangly type rather than one of those guys who take off their shirts on playground basketball courts to show off their 3-D abs. Apparently my dad did plenty of tripping over his feet and his tongue when trying to impress girls way back when. But his frame and his confidence filled out as he grew older, and by the time he graduated college he had successfully managed to win over the most beautiful girl he’d ever met - my mom. There was hope for my dad, so there must be hope for me too. I’ve met the girl of my dreams at a younger age than my dad met his, so I’ll need to grow into my own at an accelerated pace. I’ll need to get off the sidelines and into the game, as sports obsessed Kurt would put it.
I wonder what my grandpa would say if he were here beside me, an invisible guide coaching me to action. How would he motivate me to push away this gigantic boulder that my fears and insecurities have merged into? I’m surprised to draw a blank. The boulder seems too heavy for even my grandpa’s endless wisdom to budge. I remember him once telling me that if you can’t push something out of your way, you need to find a way around it. But this boulder is not only impossibly heavy, it’s also much too wide to circle in the amount of time at hand.
While I stand here idly considering my options, the bell goes off and she goes off with it towards her homeroom class. Everything around me suddenly speeds up from the slow motion it seemed to be have been moving in when my vision was locked on a single target. Lockers clang shut, conversations are cut short to be resumed later in the day, sneakers squeal as their inhabitants rush past me in opposite directions, my classmates for the moment nothing but a blur of colors. Not wanting to receive detention for late arrival, I have no choice but to join the stream.
I don’t hear a single word said to me throughout the school day. What my teachers are trying to place in my head, I have little patience or luck attempting to hold in. In history class the talk is of wars fought long ago. Geometry presents a bunch of fancy names for simple shapes. My French teacher communicates in a strange curvaceous tongue. In biology class I absently create colorful potions that sizzle in beakers. And if all of this isn’t thrilling enough, I am forced to grunt, groan and sweat for the entertainment of Mr. Bellamy, who apparently was unable to decide between becoming a gym teacher or a drill sergeant, so decided to split the difference. But not a single lesson taught from bell to bell explains how to find the courage to speak to a beautiful girl.
When my final class ends I rush outside and head home as if wearing blinders, desperate to avoid an encounter that would only deepen what is already an ocean of shame. I don’t want to risk seeing her again today. I don’t want to be reminded of what I let slip away before I was ever able to grab hold. With every step I further realize that my flight is senseless. I can hide from her today, but I will no doubt run into her eventually. There are still three years of high school left to go. And even if I somehow was able to keep our paths from crossing for all that time, it wouldn’t stop me from remembering. Remembering how crazy I am about her. Remembering that I’m a coward.
I arrive home to the sight of my grandpa nestled in his easy chair, spectacles hanging precariously at the very tip of his nose as he reads a thick, leather bound book. I’ve seen him in this pose a thousand times, watched him run his large veined hands over his neatly trimmed salt and pepper beard when he’s about to turn a page, observed his bushy eyebrows raising every day to acknowledge my entrance when I get home from school. It gives me comfort to know that some things do remain the same. They can be relied on no matter what happens around them.
Instead of waiting for him to greet me and ask how my day went, I break our ritual to ask the question I came up with on my lonely walk home.
“Grandpa, what’s the hardest thing you ever had to do?”
My grandpa answers every question of mine as if he was expecting it and had rehearsed giving the perfect response. This time proves to be no exception.
“I tried to make myself the father I never was to your dad. I’m still trying.”
“I don’t understand.”
He removes a bookmark from his shirt pocket to hold the page he’s on, places the book on the table beside him, and takes up his pipe. Although he puts the pipe in his mouth, he makes no move to light it. My grandpa gave up smoking years ago, transferring from daily packs of cigarettes, to a few cigars after dinner, to one smoke of his pipe late in the evening, until arriving at his goal of total abstinence. He still holds the pipe in his mouth sometimes, usually when he’s worried or in deep concentration over some important matter. This tips me off to pay especially close attention to whatever he’ll say next.
“You see, when your dad was growing up I wasn’t around for him very much. I used the excuse of trying to build a career, providing amply for my family. But even when I was home, I wasn’t involved like I should have been. I left the day to day details to your grandma, not realizing that the day to day details are what make up our lives. She’s the one who went to the PTA meetings, bandaged your dad’s bruises, went to his school plays, protected him as a growing boy and showed him how to be a good man. The most I did was watch the occasional ball game on TV with him.”
I am somewhat surprised, close to stunned actually. My grandpa is saying things beyond the logic of the world I have experienced. The words he speaks don’t match up with the deeds of the man I know him to be. Recognizing the disbelief in my eyes, he explains himself further.
“I was amazed by the kind of father he turned out to be, especially under the circumstances of having to do it mostly by himself. I used to make excuses for the way I’d been, saying I had the worst possible role model in my old man. But what he passed down to me, I failed to pass along. Maybe the fact that your dad had to become both father and mother to you had something to do with it. He needed to somehow fill the void left by your mother’s passing, and he did one hell of a job. I watched him raise you with enormous pride, and in the process, I got my first lessons on how to be a real father, not just the man who pays the bills.”
Hearing him speak of my father like this really gets to me, but I manage to hold my tears in check. Okay, I hold most of them in. Can you blame me for letting a few slip out?
“After the accident when you moved in with me, I was given the opportunity to put into practice what I had learned. And I must be doing an okay job the second time around because you’ve grown up to be a wonderful young man, even if you do wear your pants too baggy for my taste. I’m guessing you’ll grow out of that eventually. In life you grow in and out of all sorts of things.”
“You’re doing a great job, Grandpa.” I would give him a hug if he was more of the touchy-feely type, but knowing better, I just return his contagious smile. He puts his pipe back down and takes his book up, pushing his glasses closer to the oval auburn eyes that I inherited. I cross the living room of our bachelor pad, as my grandpa is jokingly fond of calling the house, and head upstairs to my room.
For reasons I do not comprehend and will not bother trying to figure out just now, the talk with my grandpa has released my apprehension. I find myself able to get to the business at hand. Knowing her last name and the street her family lives on, locating her phone number in the White Pages is a breeze. My fingers do not tremble as I dial. There is no quaver to my voice when I ask if she is home. And when she appears on the other end of the phone line, I simply begin speaking to her as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to do, rather than the near miracle I know it to be.
Our first real conversation lasts nearly two hours. It goes easier than I could have ever imagined, like a baby squirrel figuring out how to climb a tree. She seems to have expected my call, to have been waiting for it even. I learn countless new things about her. We turn out to have a whole lot in common, sharing the same favorite flavor of ice cream, and favorite song currently on the Top Ten countdown, and favorite book read in Literature class last year, and mutual annoyance at the frantic hand waving done by a certain pigtailed know-it-all in every class. I quickly grow fond of the frequently said phrase - “me too”.
As the phone call draws to a close, nervousness finally returns. I ignore this emotion and tell her that I have one more question to ask. To calm myself, I close my eyes and recall the first time I ever rode a bicycle without training wheels. I remember the shock of looking back and learning that my father had stopped running alongside to keep me balanced, that I had been riding for awhile all by myself. I remember how unstable the bike got after that, how I lost control, the skinned knee earned for the effort. I remember getting back up, brushing myself off, hopping on the bike again and riding towards my dad like I had been doing so all my life.
The details of life when my dad was still around grow fuzzier as time passes. I don’t want to forget anything about him, but little by little my memory fades. Once I ran home in a panic after school because I suddenly realized that I couldn’t picture what he looked like. I flew into my house and straight to the nearest photograph with him in it. That picture is of my parents, the father taken from me by a drunk driver and the mother I never got to know at all because she died while giving birth to me. Neither of them died as heroes, such as what they’re calling the firemen and police officers who rushed into the World Trade Center back at the beginning of the semester. If you have to die, I guess it would be nice to be called a hero by those you leave behind. My father and mother were just ordinary people with worse than ordinary luck, I suppose. Then again, my grandpa says heroes come in all sorts of shapes and sizes that you can’t always recognize.
With heroes, and my long ago bicycle lesson, and the steadying hands of my father, and a mother I never met who has always seemed like my own personal angel in mind, I ask a girl if she would like to go out on a date with me. It is the first time I have ever done such a brave and wonderful thing. I probably didn’t do it perfect. But I did it. And how did it go?
As my grandpa says, sometimes it is the journey that matters, not the destination. She answers that this weekend isn’t good for her. My heart drops. Then she says that the following weekend would be much better. So my destination is the movies next Saturday night.
I don’t know how I’m going to wait so long without bursting. I sure do wish it was sooner, although I’ll probably need all the time I can get to prepare myself. It will probably take me at least a few days to learn how to be charming and clever and whatever else girls like a guy to be.
Fortunately, my grandpa is a great teacher.