Marcus stuck dryer sheets in his shoes so when he walks up to her at lunchtime he wouldn’t worry if his feet smelled or not. All he would have to worry about is if other people overheard him ask her to watch his volleyball match next Thursday after school, and if they did, if they would laugh till their heads popped off their necks and rolled down the hallway like bowling balls. His mother told him it made no sense to ask her to his volleyball match, because he would be on the court and unable to spend time with her. “Girls want a guy to give them attention,” she told him. “It’s utterly stupid of you to ask her to sit in the stands alone and watch you run around hitting a ball over a net. You must get your understanding of women from your father!”
His mother knew nothing about Piano. That was her name. She wore gowns and pearls and sometimes ballerina clothes. Other girls made fun of her for it, but he thought the way she dressed was exquisite and charming. She would sometimes miss chunks of school but when she returned she’d have all her homework done and still get better grades than him. Her hair was flaxen blonde and curled around her ears in a way that made him wish he were her earrings, so he could get tangled up and lost in it. She was skinny, somewhat frail, but her complexion still glowed like a jar of summer fireflies, except for the times she missed school when it was somewhat pallid and spotty. He didn’t know why her parents named her Piano. For that matter, he didn’t know why his had decided upon Marcus. He supposed it was because they didn’t want to spend a lot of time thinking up something original. She probably had parents who wanted her name to be one-of-a-kind, beautiful, like the instrument itself — melodious sounding. Marcus… impossible to say without sounding like you’re coughing or barking.
If he was going to start listening to his mother, especially her advice on asking girls out on dates, it wasn’t going to be today, because there were dryer sheets in his shoes, lemon-scented Bounce, that made him feel like a different person — not like the kid everybody called Dorkus — and he was now approaching her from twenty yards down, through a hallway riddled with high school students in ripped jeans and pockmarked faces containing the dumbfounded stares of people with no idea what was coming next. Marcus didn’t really know what it felt like, but he was pretty sure he was in a zone. His mind was at ease, like a long-winged bird on a gentle thermal, he was lucid, laser-focused, and his body felt like a massage chair at the mall (not like his body was sitting in one, but like his body was one). Nothing was going to stop him.
He reached her just as she was opening her locker exposing a wall of photo booth pictures of her and her friends making funny faces. He tried to memorize each one starting in the top right corner but froze when there was one with Lance Bickerman, a boy who wore his hair shaved on the sides and wavy on top and knew the lyrics to every Kanye West song and one of the kids who called Marcus Dorkus.
He shook off the sting and spoke. “Piano?”
“There’s something I want to ask you.” He noticed her notebook had a picture of a baseball player glued to it and he hesitated, gurgling his distaste for the sport of baseball in his mouth while he tried to remember the speech he had prepared in his mind. What kind of girl that wears gowns and secretly writes poetry in the back of Algebra class could also like the sport of baseball? A filthy game that involves sliding around in dirt and where the participants were not only allowed, but encouraged, to eat sunflower seeds and spit them on the ground (which he couldn’t do due to his braces), a sport where you were forced to wear a plastic cup over your crotch and without the dignity of even naming it something besides cup? Marcus stood before her, silently raging against Abner Doubleday, while contemplating a better name for the athletic cup: jewel protector, salami shield, athletic personal battle armor?
Piano stared at him with bereft amusement. “Marcus?”
“I have to go now,” Piano told him. “Was there something you wanted to ask me?” She retrieved the rest of her books from her locker and shut it. Locker 142. His locker was 223… Together that’s 365. The same amount as days in the year. Surely, there was something to this — that numbers aren’t random and when the lockers were assigned there was a force that wanted them to be together everyday. Who cares if she likes baseball or baseball players or once took a photo booth picture with Lance Bickerman, that jerk? There must be things that she wouldn’t understand about him once they finally accepted that they were destined for each other and started sharing everything. Starting with the story of his ride to school this morning: he passed a dog that was walking alone up the driveway of the Hollow Creak Motel. This dog, a ratty lab of some kind, looked like it was going to walk into the office. Marcus imagined what a dog would say to the motel clerk when asking for a room. “Is there Continental Kibble in the morning?” he supposed, making himself laugh out loud so the other kids on the school bus shot perturbed sideways glances his direction. He wondered if he should share this story with her right now, if it would make her laugh.
He went to speak but his mouth was dry, like somebody shoved a saltine cracker the size of an apple down his throat. Finally, words clumsily fell from his mouth. “Yes, I do, there is, I mean, I guess,” he stammered. All the confidence and zone-ness he possessed just 30 seconds ago was lost under the pressure of the moment. Her eyes, sapphire blue and alarmingly sad, waited with the patient gaze of a 17th Century nun, making him that much more nervous. He felt suddenly silly for wanting her to come to his volleyball game, when, really, what he wanted was to get to know her. He wanted to know what she thinks a dog would do in a motel room and what makes her laugh to herself and why she always wears gowns when all the other girls wear those denim shorts with the bottom frayed and cut so low that the inside of their pockets show. He wanted to know why she missed so much school and why he once saw her on the bleachers when nobody else was around crying.
So he asked her, “What’s wrong with you?”
Piano shuffled her books around in her arms and then pulled them tightly against her chest. She looked down at her shoes and then up to Marcus as he waited for a response. He tried to understand the evolving look on her face, especially the last one, pursed lips, half-shuttered eyes, emptier than a Christmas stocking on the 26th. There was too much information coming too quickly for him to make sense of it, though.
She mumbled, “Nothing that’s not on the outside,” and brushed past him.
Marcus didn’t understand what she meant, but his left arm tingled from where it came into contact with her; tingled in a good way, not like your teeth after an orthodontist appointment, and nobody overheard him saying anything dumb, like the punchline: “Do you have continental Kibble?” And so, things being what they are, it could have gone worse, he concluded.