STOP. KISSING. FINN - Chapter 16 + Music from José González + Neon Trees
When a memory is like that, you can only be alone with it for so long or it starts to feel like you made it up.
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I sat there, folding and refolding the small yellow note I’d been handed in homeroom. I read it again for what must have been the fiftieth time. Besides my name, there were no actual written words. In a faded blue pen, someone had scratched check marks next to “Please report to” and “The guidance office” and scrawled “11:15” beneath a drawing of a wall clock. It was 11:27 and I still had no idea what I was waiting for.
For a second, I’d wondered if this had something to do with what had happened with Finn. I allowed myself a five-second, fast-forward replay of Saturday night in my head, cutting out all the parts with Marlena and Bill and the fight with Liz, which left me with just Finn. Finn in the parking lot, in my room, and in my bed. It felt odd that something so monumental, so huge in my personal universe would happen without anyone noticing. I shook my head at the thought. People didn’t get called to the guidance office for having sex.
I stuffed the note into the pocket of my jeans and absentmindedly picked at the ripped vinyl of the seat of my chair. It was Monday, so did that make it one or two days since I’d seen Finn? Technically he’d snuck out of the house before dawn on Sunday morning, so it had really only been one day since we’d talked.
That’s okay…right? I wondered. If there were some kind of court of law for this kind of thing—maybe something like the student advisory committee that Jackie chaired—a one-day waiting period would probably hold up as reasonable and respectable. But from the very second I closed our kitchen door and watched Finn half jog down the empty street to his car I wanted to yell after him, “Can you believe that just happened?”
Now Spinning: Heartbeats by José González
“I want him to say that it happened,” I imagined myself telling the fake jury/advisory committee.
“Why? You know that it did,” they’d say.
“When something like that happens, you feel like you have to keep checking that it’s real,” I’d say.
“Something like what?” they’d ask all coy, because they’d want to know the details.
I’d be secretly glad they asked because I was dying to tell someone.
“Something that you knew would eventually happen but you could never picture in your head because there all these variables. And then, when it finally happens, you kind of surprise yourself because you always thought you’d have to settle for it just happening, but all the variables kind of fall into place and it’s more than that.”
“Explain what you mean by ‘more,’” they’d say.
“Well,” I’d start, fighting a smile, “I don’t think just any person can make you actually want to feel so… exposed. And have you simultaneously wishing the moment wouldn’t end…but also wanting to be able to have the memory, which is a 360 degree, 100 percent, all five senses memory that, every time you relive it, you have to stop whatever you’re doing and just breathe…
When a memory is like that, you can only be alone with it for so long or it starts to feel like you made it up. And then you worry that everything you just felt is over before it started. And that’s…”
I’d stop here for a second. I’d take a deep breath and shake my head a little, as if I could shake the feelings of doubt and worry and second-guessing from my brain. “I think, as corny as it sounds, that’s what people mean when they use the word ‘heartbreaking.’” And then I’d finally admit it.
“I need him to tell me he feels all this too, or my heart might break.”
That’s the part where they’d look at me with sympathy in their eyes and ask, “But what if for him it just happened?”
I’d been nervously tugging at the rip in the vinyl seat cushion and it had doubled in size, revealing a tuft of industrial-looking fiber. I glanced up at the guidance department secretary, figuring I’d just made things even worse for myself, but her attention was focused on her computer monitor. I adjusted my legs to hide the rip and folded my hands in my lap. I studied a series of ancient-looking posters that had been tacked to the walls of the office. Their edges were yellowed and curled away from the wall. In one, a man jogged alone along what looked like a desert trail. His shorts were neon orange and embarrassingly short.
If Finn texted or called by the end of the day, we’d be good. Even if it weren’t until tomorrow, it would only be like one day passed. One day, I’d decided, wasn’t a big deal.
Mrs. Trousseau held a manila folder in one hand and leaned on the doorknob of an office door that opened into the waiting room. I tried to read her expression, but it was neutral, like the nurse in the doctor’s office who was calling you in for your yearly check-up.
“Come on in,” she said.
I slung my backpack over my shoulder and followed her into the windowless office. Mrs. Riley and Mr. Clark were also inside the office. They’d been laughing about something but quickly stopped once I entered the room.
“Hi Charlie,” Mr. Clark said from behind his desk. “Go ahead and have a seat,” he said, gesturing to an empty chair next to Mrs. Riley. Mrs. Trousseau crossed her arms and leaned against a metal filing cabinet. I was surrounded.
“Charlie,” Mr. Clark began. “We thought we should check in with you, see how you’re doing.” His usual, dopey grin was unwavering, but he squinted slightly, in an attempt to look concerned.
I cleared my throat. “Oh. I’m fine.”
He stared at me for a moment, squinting harder and scrunching one corner of his mouth. Riley and Trousseau were silent.
“Well, the reason we ask is because you’ve fallen pretty far behind in your independent study and a couple of other classes. And your attendance has become an issue.”
Mrs. Trousseau chimed in. “Charlie, you’ve missed our last two scheduled meetings, and Mrs. Riley hasn’t seen you in the home ec room in over a week.
The armpits of my t-shirt were suddenly damp with cold sweat, and the fake wood-paneled walls of Mr. Clark’s office were too close. Being reprimanded by teachers was mortifying, and the space was objectively too small for four people.
Mr. Clark continued. “I pulled your class attendance records. This semester you’ve missed 11 different classes on days you were marked present in homeroom. Can you tell us what’s been going on?”
“I didn’t think I had that many.” My voice was small and shaky.
“Well, it’s all here.” He gestured towards a sheet of paper on his desk.
I began to open my mouth and realized I had no plans for what to say.
“Let’s come back to this attendance issue in a minute,” Mr. Clark said mercifully. “Not unrelated, you’re also significantly behind in your independent study.”
“Charlie, at this rate, I don’t see how you’re going to meet your mid-term deadlines. Is your detailed outline complete?” Mrs. Trousseau asked.
“Your academic record up to this time has been fantastic,” Mr. Clark interjected. “I’d hate to see you tarnish it in your last year. Contrary to popular belief, colleges do look at your senior year grades. It’s not all a done deal at this point.”
My hands were sweaty too. I tucked them under my thighs.
“Charlie,” Mr. Clark continued. “Only you know what’s really going on right now. Whether it’s that you’ve taken on too much responsibility or you’re struggling with something at home… or maybe associating with the wrong group of people.” I noticed Mr. Clark quickly lock eyes with Riley as he finished his sentence. I’m sure they thought I didn’t notice.
“We can only help if you let us know what’s going on,” he added.
“And,” Trousseau began. “I think we do need to be realistic here. There are only so many days left in the semester, and a lot of work needs to be done.” She focused her gaze on me. Her disappointment was palpable. “At this point, Charlie, I think you should consider dropping the class.”
“What?” I asked, cringing at how pathetic I sounded.
“I’d recommend dropping the independent study and picking up extra credits next semester. Stick to a standard course with more structure. And, start showing up to class. Every class. You can’t afford to miss even one.”
“Drop the class?” I practically whispered. It wasn’t the type of thing that I did. I’d never gotten below a B or had detention. “Won’t that show up on my transcript?”
“Yes. As an incomplete. You’ll have to provide some kind of explanation, but it’s better than a failing grade.”
“What if I just work really hard to catch up?”
“Charlie, I really think we’re past that point,” Trousseau sounded exhausted by the idea. “I needed to see your detailed outline weeks ago. Other students doing independent studies are well into their first drafts.”
“An independent study isn’t for everyone,” Mr. Clark added. I remembered him saying the same exact thing last year at that assembly.
What they were saying was that independent studies were only for the smart, responsible kids. It was like they’d forgotten that I was that kind of kid.
Honestly, I hadn’t really been thinking of myself that way lately either.
“So, I can’t even try to catch up?” I asked, aware of how desperate I was sounding.
“You can, but I’m afraid that you’ll find that your mid-term grade will reflect how far behind you’ve fallen,” Riley answered, speaking for the first time. “And, honestly, I don’t think your skills are where they need to be in order to excel in this course.”
She was saying what she’d been wanting to say since September: I sucked at cooking.
“So, I really have no choice.”
“You always have a choice, Charlie,” Mr. Clark answered. But, for once, he didn’t use that stupid smile.
Can’t meet 3rd period. How about after school? I typed into my phone.
Delete. Too much.
Happy Tuesday. Need to study during 3rd.
Delete. Too corny.
How r u?
Delete. It’s what you ask someone you haven’t talked to in a long time. And it had only been two days. I was too afraid to go back to the imaginary jury to ask what two days meant.
Since my class attendance was being monitored, I decided it was too risky to ditch even study hall, which almost everyone did at least half the time. I stared at the screen on my phone for a second before tossing it in my bag. Maybe he would wonder where I was and text me first.
I walked in the room just as the bell rang and slid into a seat next to where Liz was sitting. She looked up in surprise for just a second and then put her head back down again without a word.
I didn’t know if Liz was planning to dump me the way Jackie had. Either way, I was still mad at her for calling me desperate.
I opened my history book and stared at it while planning what I’d say after the bell rang. I hadn’t been a perfect friend lately, but I knew I shouldn’t be the one to say “I’m sorry” first.
Without a noise, Liz slid our notebook towards me. With an eye on Mrs. Barr, I silently lifted the notebook and placed it over my open History book.
“I didn’t mean that you are desperate. I’m sorry it came out that way,” Liz wrote.
Mrs. Barr stood up to pull the window shades down to block the sun’s glare. I waited until she sat down again before sliding the notebook back towards Liz.
“Seriously. That’s not what I meant,” she wrote.
“Got it,” I wrote.
“Are you OK?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine,” Liz wrote.
“I’m really stressed,” I started to write, but I knew that then Liz would ask “About what?” and I would end up writing about Gram and where we might live or being so far behind in school and getting my first incomplete. Or Finn and how I still wasn’t completely sure I should have done what I’d done with him the other night.
I scribbled over what I’d written.
“Just tired. I’m sorry, too. I should have called you back sooner,” I wrote.
Liz glanced over at me and gave me a small smile. For a second, everything felt almost back to normal.
“My brothers have a tournament this weekend. Thinking of having a party on Saturday,” she wrote.
In all our years as friends, Liz had never had a party at her house. Well, if you counted the birthday sleepovers we’d been having with Jackie since we were seven, she’d had exactly ten parties. But the only thing that had ever differentiated those “parties” from our regular sleepovers were Mrs. Farmer’s seven-layer taco dip and a store-bought sheet cake.
“Nothing big. Will you come over and help me set up?” she wrote.
I paused. A guilty part of me wanted to keep my weekend open in case Finn called. And I wondered if Jackie would be there. I knew our paths would eventually cross, but I knew I didn’t want an audience for my first encounter.
Liz reached for the notebook.
“I invited Jackie, but she probably won’t come. She has a meet for debate.”
“So, you’ll come?”
“You should invite Andy and Jessica. And Finn,” she wrote.
I read it twice.
“You sure?” I wrote.
“Yeah. I want to get to know them better.”
I meant it. I was thankful that I was still special enough to be the person who came early to help set up a party. I was grateful that Liz wanted to meet my new friends – that I had new friends for her to meet. And, I was grateful that I finally had a real reason to call Finn.
Thirty minutes later the bell rang.
“I’ve got a team meeting now, but I’ll text you about the party,” Liz said as we gathered our books.
“Cool,” I said and flashed her a smile.
“Talk later,” Liz yelled over her shoulder before taking off down the hallway. I shifted my armful of books and threw my shoulder into the swinging door of the girls’ restroom. I looked up and found myself face to face with Jackie. I hadn’t been this close to her in months. I felt like I was seeing a ghost.
“Hey,” I said, almost involuntarily. I said it the same way I would back when we’d talked every day.
For a second Jackie looked just as surprised as I felt, but she quickly regained her composure. She smiled faintly.
“Hi, Charlie. How are you?”
“I’m…pretty good. How are you?”
“Busy. Really busy. You know, senior year…” she said.
“Gotta go,” she said and brushed past me. I opened my mouth to say something but didn’t. The door swung shut behind her.
I sighed and headed for the last stall. The door next to it flung open and Jenna stepped out. Her long black hair was piled on top of her head. I couldn’t seem to catch a break.
I braced myself for her dagger eyes, but was surprised when her bright red lips curled back in a little smirk. Confused, I moved past her and waited in the last stall until I heard the faucet stop running and the bathroom door slam shut.
Figuring the coast was clear, I opened the stall door and dropped my backpack on the floor while I washed my hands. I grabbed for a paper towel, quickly glancing in the mirror above the sink.
Hit it and quit it.
I stared at the letters that had been scrawled across the cracked mirror. My own face stared back at me, stunned. The sentence was punctuated with a little smiley face.
The whole thing was written in Jenna’s bright red lipstick.
Now Spinning: Everybody Talks by Neon Trees