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Never-Ending Pending Love
In love, there are two ways we break our hearts on someone. Two that I know of, anyway. The first I call Never-Ending Pending Love.
The sharp, lonesome cry of Never-Ending Pending has held me in its grip for as long as I can remember, and in matters of solitude, secrets, and shame I'm a shark, a ringer, a real pro. For the past four years, it's all been for one. For her.
She's sitting at her desk after school, grading today's five-paragraph essays on Siddhartha, furrowing her brow in her hazy, faraway way. She's wearing these tight black leggings and a gigantic, frumpy sweater that could fit at least three other Ms. Hayeses inside and I'm so hit for that great big sweater, I'm always giving her a hard time about it and trying to find ways to steal it and stick my nose in it, memorize the molecules of her siren-song scent.
She peers up at the clock, sighing, and she's delicate and dazzling and golden. She's deep-down sad in the most beautiful way I can ever imagine. She kills me. She really does. She teaches me metaphors, similes, drama, the classics. She's taught me poetry in more ways than one. She's white whale, slick-wet slippery and larger than life, and I'm Ahab and will never have her, but will seek her until I go Ophelia and die.
Up to her elbows in work, I ask her if she's planning on spending the night. She says no, she's going jogging in a few.
"Beat," I say, tapping a marker on my desk. "Mind if I join? I can climb inside that enormous sweater and hang on for the ride. I could really use some air."
She laughs, holding the mass of wool in her long, elegant digits. "No way. This is my favorite sweater, and you'll stretch it all out."
"So much wool," I tease. "Poor extinct sheep. I only have one question: Was it worth it?"
And she's cracking up and I'm all aglow.
Glow little glowworm, glimmer, glimmer.
I laugh and hum and pick up my marker and draw.
Shine little glowworm, shimmer, shimmer.
And yet she has no clue. She's Never-Ending Pending's longest-running practical joke. Please, sir, I want some more, my groveling Oliver Twist heart has squeaked out on repeat since the very first day of freshman year. And I've clutched my clandestine love tight to my heart cage like a stolen loaf of bread I'm starving for but am too ashamed to eat.
Zoë and Maya, my bestest Jacks, think I'm the lone wolf, an island of one. But my constant and unrelenting love orbits me like a distant star. Impossible, unreachable. An infinity of unrequited solitude. And Ms. Hayes, she's in it for the long haul with some zero in a photograph pinned to the bulletin board, his hairy digits gripping the wheel of a sailboat like he's master and commander of all he surveys. Which is flip, seeing as I'm the one soaking wet with her. But they're in "love," in Happily Never After, an out-of-bounds, full-daylight, forever variety I've never known, and probably never will. God willing.
It's like I always say, in love, there are two ways to fall apart, two ways to lose your mind and sully your soul. Never-Ending Pending and Happily Never After. I just can't decide which is the harsher ride.
Ms. Hayes sneezes and then laughs and I'm nearly overcome and I gotta get my hands on that enormous goddamn sweater.
I fake a shiver, I start to chatter my teeth.
"It's subarctic in this cave of yours, Hayes," I say and she cocks an eyebrow. I tremble and quake, shimmy and shake, pumping my arms, and she sighs, knowing all too well what I'm after. Another second or two of my histrionics do the trick and she's peeling the wooly prize from her elegant, slender shoulders. "You're too good to me." I grin as I teeter my desk forward on its front legs and reach to snag it from her hands. She rolls her eyes, bending again to her work, and I push my arms into the enormous bulk of warm fleece and engulf myself in its depths.
And her smell.
And I'm set adrift, I'm out to sea. She is shore and I am ship and her magnificent cliffs rupture my hull and I'm filling with water. I'm half up, half down. Half in, half out. I crash and crash against her. And I sink. Glug, glug, glug.
I take a deep, Ms. Hayes–scented breath, and try to focus back on the poster I'm currently slaving away over, a tragic depiction of Romeo and Juliet, just after he knocks back the poison and she axes herself in the ribs. All those Capulets and Montagues stand around sobbing, staring at the two dead bodies, wishing they hadn't been such crank scatbrains in forbidding the illicit duo. As Ms. Hayes's teacher's assistant extraordinaire, I'm hoping our students will go total Ophelia for all the blood and gore, and maybe even think Shakespeare's the switch for half a second. Maybe.
I grimace, squirming in my seat as an unexpected muscle cramp wrenches in my gut, just over my right hip bone. It bends me over my desk and I instantly regret that third ice cream sandwich I insisted on scarfing at lunch. I tense and feel small trickles of sweat drip inside my armpits, down the backs of my legs. I wait it out, suffering stoically in silence, until it finally releases and I can gingerly pull myself back up. Ms. Hayes is miles away, massively unaware.
I eyeball a pile of photos at the edge of her cluttered desk and slide the stack off, only to be greeted by a bright pair of baby blues, sparkling rainbows, enormous ivory teeth glowing obscenely from ear to big ear. Nate Gray. Our class' perpetual, non-controversial headline, everyday, every-guy, average hit hero. Who also happens to have found Willy Wonka's Golden Ticket to every good girl's panties in town. For the last two years, that good girl's been Eve Brooks, who also happens to be my ex-best, long-forgotten bosom buddy from the middle school days of yore.
"Ugh," I say, fake-barfing in my mouth, flipping to the next shot of Nate, leaning seductively into the grandeur of Ye Ole Sycamore Tree. Then, spread out on a virginal, white draped sheet with his three-thousand-dollar electric guitar and half-lidded bedroom eyes. And last, here's our guy, posing like a prostrate donkey in the middle of an overgrown meadow and at least this one's on-theme, though some circling flies and a pile of steaming dung would really seal the deal.
"So, what," I say, interrupting her again, slapping the photos back down on her desk, "you gonna blow these up and frame 'em? Mount them over your desk for all the world to enjoy?"
She doesn't look up. "Think I should?"
I scowl. "Um, no?"
She shrugs, ever the diplomat. "He brought them by. I think it's sweet," and I can imagine him bringing them by, flirting her up with his TV-sitcom haircut and overdriven, oversexed, testosterone-fueled ego, and she, reveling in the unmasked attention, feeling young and sexy and massive ace. Which she obviously is, though I can't tell her that.
"Sweet?" I say. "Nate Gray? Sweet? Oh, I know. Like when your cat pukes on your pillow 'cause it missed you when you were gone. Or a pug dog dry-humps your leg 'cause he really, really likes you — that kind of sweet?"
"Lu," she scolds, but she's laughing on the inside, I can tell.
"Don't be fooled," I say. "That Jack's a phony. Tried and true. A slithering snake."
"I appreciate your prudence," she humors. "Wise words."
And I slump back, digging a fist into the vise-gripping agony that has suddenly beset my abdomen, another cramp building in the tender depths of my run-amok guts. Goddamn frozen milky confections.
I frown down at my poster, a bitter little pill, barely able to admit that what I'm really steamed about is that it's all too clear who I'll never be. I'll never be Nathan Gray. I'll never flirt up Ms. Hayes. I'll never charm her pants off and she'll wish she were younger so she could flirt right back. I'll never be anything but me and my love will forever be wide of the mark, an unseen Icarus ever soaring to my imminent demise, like a moth to a blowtorch, my wax and feather wings flame and melt and char.
I'm a bobbleheaded, green-eyed monster and I wanna devour Nate Gray whole.
Crunch crunch crunch.
Ms. Hayes goes back to grading her papers, and I wanna make her feel young and sexy. But I never will. I'll just keep breaking my crank heart all over her, for forever and ever and a day. For this is Never-Ending Pending Love.
Welcome to hell. I'll be here all night.
That's when I feel another gripping cramp. And a wet slime emerging between my legs and I squirm in my seat to stealthily slip a finger down my pants, between my legs. Oh dearsweetgeezus no. I roll a marker off my desk and slip my head down to pick it up only to confirm the awfulest of truths — I've gone all period and gore in my pants, bleeding through my black skinnies and onto the pristine white wool of Ms. Hayes's enormous goddamn sweater.
Somebody, please, just ax me now.
* * *
Ms. Hayes calls after me as I scoot so fast from her room, tail between my legs, sweater mashed into a bundle of yarn under my arm, and I only pray she didn't see the blood.
In the betties' bathroom mirror, my sad-sack reflection sighs as I hold the sweater over the bathroom sink and stare, devastated, into the slick-red fabric of Ms. Hayes's single most prized possession. I turn on the water and watch as horror-flick streams of red run from the wool, over my skin, and into the drain and I just don't think I can ever look her in the eyes again.
My pulse quickens. The water isn't working, and I'm afraid it's gonna set the stain. But I don't wanna use soap 'cause it could ruin the wool.
I wish I were dead.
I cut the water and the orange-brown six-inch blush of bodily fluid is a scarlet letter of shame on my heart. Sweater in hand, I dodge into the bathroom stall and my underpants resemble a battle scene, Massacre at Wounded Pride. I sop up the mess and plug up with some mashed wads of toilet paper and lean my pounding forehead against the cool of the stall wall, deep-down buried in the muck and mire of the latest episode of Lucy Butler Blows Chunks at Life.
I sigh, count to one hundred. Do it again. I'm working up to facing the total mortification of the betrayal my uterus has committed, when I hear this small shuffling sound from one of the seemingly empty stalls at the other end of the bathroom. And then it goes quiet. I wait, one, two, three pounding heartbeats. I tell myself it was nothing, willing everyone and everything to just disappear, leave me the flip alone.
I close my eyes again and my mind tangents to eighth grade, when me and some flap-Jacks tortured this poor betty who'd locked herself in a stall after school. Bathroom Troll, Bathroom Troll, come out, come out, whoever you are! we sang, camping outside for an hour, laughing through the grate. Turns out her mom was massive sick and we were torturous, psychopathic beasts. I realize now that I'm the Bathroom Troll, hiding out in here for geezusthelord knows how long. It's pathetic. I pull up my pants and stand, pushing open the stall door, and in a moment of time so thick it moves like putty, I look up and come face-to-face with a betty I know too well. I can hardly believe who it is.
She goes still as stone, eyes locked in a vise grip on mine, and I notice a small, white spatula-shaped piece of plastic poised in her hand. And I know those things all too well, from when Marta, my older sister-Jack, used to leave them lying around our shared bathroom at home, giving Dad a coronary every time he took out the trash. My jaw slams to the floor in registering the home pregnancy test as I stare and stare at none other than the reigning priestess of the perfection personified Pretty Pennies, Miss Evelyn Brooks — aka my ex-best, long-forgotten bosom buddy from the middle school days of yore.
"Eve," I hear someone say, realize it's me.
She doesn't move.
I watch her watching me, shoulders rigid, face tight with fear. Ours is an age-old tale of two betties, apple-Jacks forever, when suddenly one goes ace gorgeous and then, naturally, massive popular. Said popular betty ditches other unsaid, unpopular betty for superhit cool crowd. Girls don't speak again for four years, until a chance meeting reunites them while they await together the results of an underage preg exam. A true, time-honored classic.
Eve gawks, owl eyes wide.
"Lu," she finally says. "It's you. I thought ..."
I remember Hayes's sullied sweater in my hand and quickly stash it behind my back. I awkwardly thrust a hand in my pocket, jingling away at my keys.
"Word," I say. "It's me." I stand there, jingle-bell-jingling. We both glance back at the test and I quit with the keys. She sighs and my heart goes to sillyputty. "Clash," I whisper.
"Word," she says. "Massive clash."
I step back and then to the side. I open my mouth and close it. "Um. This is sorta crickets. I should go. You wanna be solo." But I don't leave. I can't. Plus I still have this whole menses-on-wool situation to deal with. But Eve is watching me. "Okay, yeah." I turn and her hand darts out, grabbing my wrist. My heart stops, skips, putters back to life.
So I do. And we're hush, waiting, watching for that magical minus symbol, coveted by terrified teenage betties worldwide, to appear. A light blue tint of color seeps into the small window, shimmers, disappears. Eve shakes her head slowly, side to side.
"Nate?" I croak out the obvious, and she nods. "I was just looking at his senior portraits." She frowns and I will the ensuing word vomit back into my mouth. "Yeah, that sounds weird. Never mind. Anyway, you sure it's him?" And she nods again. "Word. I guess I was just holding out hope it was someone else. Like maybe a convicted criminal, or a born-again Bible-thumping preacher-man." She looks shell-shocked, confused. I lace up my fly trap.
My hands fall to my sides and Eve notices the sweater.
"What's the deal?" she asks, her voice tight and thin. "You murder someone in that thing?"
"Um, yeah," I laugh nervously. "Pretty much." I toss it despairingly into the sink. "Basically, I'm disgusting. And massively screwed. It isn't mine."
She laughs and it echoes against the icy white walls.
"You think that's riot?" I say. She just shrugs. "Word," I say, "Well I think —"
But she cuts me off, taking the wooly carnage from me and laying it over her arm. "Mellow." She takes my hand. "I can fix it."
"No, gimme!" I protest, but she's already pulling me out the door and we're padding down the hall and busting into the nurse's cubicle, two hot-handed crooks, and in the dark dim of cots and cabinets and pills, Eve unearths a tall brown plastic container. I'm cracking up massive at how bizarre this whole situation is, when we're sneaking it back into the betties' bathroom and I'm nearly keeling over when she dumps a mother lode of the stuff onto the wool. But then it starts to bubbling and frothing and I have a feeling that something supernatural is under way.
Eve slowly studies the stain and I secretly examine the slow curve of her swan-song neck. I silently spell her name in my head, E-V-E-(space)-B-R-O-OK-S. Cool water in my mouth.
Then she hands me the prego pop quiz and I peer down at the test, window still a blank.
"So, you peed on this, yeah?" And Eve shoots me a look, her chin-length amber curls bobbing as she scrubs the wooly blush of my blood with her two bare hands. "I can live with that."
She pushes the sweater back under the tap and the brown bubble-froth foam washes slowly away and down the drain. She cuts the water and I lean in to look and it's like it all never happened. It's like it was never there.
"Holy magic," I say, and she's laying the clean article out on the counter for us to admire, which we do. Until we stop and stare down at the still-blank prego test in my hand. Cue uncomfortable silence.
"Um," I say. "Thanks."
"... Oh." Her voice wavers and she clears her throat. "I heard you got a full ride for track." And I nod. "That's beat. For throwing the java, um. The jalavin?"
"That doesn't sound right."
She frowns. "No."
I study her face, and then the test, and then her face. She's stunning. She's as I remember her. She's the most ace betty in our school. Her eye makeup is cloudy, like she's been crying. But this blurry memento of anguish only heightens her abundant appeal as I fight every fiber compelling me to envelop her in my arms and gently squeeze the sweet, citrus sorrow from her lovely, delicate bones.
Eve's lips twitch as a hazy blue line appears, at first faint, and then bold and straight as an ocean horizon. She inhales and I lean in. Verdict: unfertilized! Eve Brooks is not implanted with Nate Gray's lowlife, underage seed! Hallelujahpraisethelord.
I issue a short, echoing laugh and Eve's face softens to a small, lovely smile, the test in her hand falling heavy to her side. I whistle, slapping my mitt on the sink as she stoops to slide the test and box deep into her purse.
"Holy. Crank," I say.
She looks up. "Holy. Massive. Crank." And we're laughing, until we're not and then it's sort of crickets.
I feel the oxygen circulating again through my limbs, but see Eve isn't recovering quite as quick. The corners of her mouth are turned down. And I'm desperate for that smile again.
Excerpted from "The Pursuit of Miss Heartbreak Hotel"
Copyright © 2019 Monique Bonneau.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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