Chapter 4 Recap: Charlie and Jackie’s half-hearted attempt at school spirit is kind of a bust, at least for Charlie, who still can’t figure out why Jackie’s acting so distant. Plus, the only thing worse than the concession stand coffee is Charlie’s small talk skills, which are tested when an attractive/incendiary stranger chats her up in line.
There are certain teachers who, you can just tell, wish they'd never bothered with the whole thing. They're not terrible people. They probably had good intentions in the beginning, but it turns out that the opportunity to shape the future doesn't quite make up for the low-pay, low-respect public school gig.
It’s easy enough to accept that kind of resentment when you're one of thirty in a classroom. But, when you're the only student and, on top of everything else, that teacher has to be there because some smart-ass junior had the brilliant idea to create the first-ever culinary arts/creative writing independent study, and the school over-booked that teacher's schedule...and you were that smart-ass junior... and it turns out you're also not that great of a cook… Well, that's a bit harder to swallow.
“Now, look at your right hand. Is that the proper way to hold a knife?” I could hear in Riley’s voice that her patience was wearing thin. She had corrected my hand position three times already.
“Sorry. I'm sorry, I keep forgetting—“
“Careful!” She yelled as she snatched the knife from me. “Don't look at me while you're chopping. You nearly chopped off your index finger!” Her face was flushed and the knot of her silk neckerchief was askew. I had riled Riley.
“I'm sorry!” I said. I was so sick of hearing myself say that.
She took a deep breath and used the palms of her hands to smooth her bob. “OK, that's probably enough for this afternoon. You'll go home and practice your knife skills, and by the next time we meet you'll be in much better shape.” It was less of a directive to me and more like a little prayer she was saying to anyone that might be listening.
“I can trust you to clean all of this up?” she asked as she threw the handles of a leather tote bag over her shoulder. Over the last 45 minutes, I'd subjected one vegetable after another to my sub-par chopping skills, littering the art room counter with piles of defenseless potatoes, onions, and carrots.
“Yeah, definitely,” I said.
Halfway to the door, she turned. “Freeze it all for soup,” she said.
As I was scraping the last of the onions into a freezer bag, Liz walked into the art room. On Mondays, we walked to lunch together.
“Hey! What did you make today?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Nothing. Literally. I chopped ten pounds of vegetables. Not so we could cook any of them, just for the sake of chopping them.” I sealed the bag and wiped my hands on my jeans.
“Well, then you must be really good at chopping by now,” Liz offered.
“Actually, no. I suck,” I admitted.
“We're only a few weeks into school. You'll get better.” In Liz's world of practices, drills, and scrimmages, that made sense; you just practiced something until you could do it. The privilege of hand-eye coordination.
“So, how is it sharing the room with the art kids?”
“I think there's only one person, but they’re never here,” I said, pointing towards an easel in the back corner of the room. “I know someone comes in at some point because stuff's moved around back there.”
“Whatever,” I said as I put the last of the vegetables in the freezer compartment of the ancient refrigerator. I opened the main compartment to grab my water bottle and noticed that something was off.
“Wait a minute,” I said out loud.
“What?” asked Liz from across the room. She was carefully studying a cluster of drippy-looking watercolors.
“My nuts are gone.”
“What do you mean?”
“I bought walnuts for this pesto recipe I'm supposed to make next week and they're not here.” My “class fees” went toward grocery shopping once a week, and the nuts had been the most expensive item on the list. I stuck my head further into the refrigerator and shuffled around the small collection of jars and cartons marked “Charlie” in black marker.
“Are you sure you put them in there?” Liz asked as she joined me in front of the refrigerator.
“Yes, I'm sure,” I said definitively.
“Then, I bet someone ate them.”
“Ugh!” I gasped. “Who would do something like that?”
“Someone who was hungry,” Liz suggested.
“Riley has had this up for weeks,” I said, gesturing to a sign that had been carefully taped to the refrigerator door. It read, “Do not open. Property of Home Economics Department.”
“Can't you just get some more nuts?” Liz asked casually as she leaned against the counter.
“That's not the point!” I said. “Someone stole from me!”
“Remember who I live with. Ryan and Jacob are human garbage disposals. If I had a meltdown every time someone ate my food, I'd never leave the house.”
“It's not like someone ate my lunch, Liz. I pay class fees. Food is money.”
“Calm down,” she said, placing a hand on my shoulder. “My mom makes these oatmeal cookies with nuts in them all the time. I bet she has a bag of walnuts in the kitchen. You can have those,” Liz suggested. She smiled at me reassuringly.
“But, then I'm stealing from your mom,” I said with a shake of my head. “It’s a vicious cycle.”
“Remember what I said about the garbage disposal twins – food never lasts. She won't even notice. Besides,” she said, letting go of my shoulders, “she would want you to have them. She's always telling me to have you over so she can feed you.”
“Can you bring them with you tomorrow morning?” I asked, feeling relieved and defeated.
“Of course,” Liz said, slinging her backpack over her shoulder. For Liz, the nuts were just nuts.
“I'm going to have sex with Jared before the end of the year,” Jackie said. “The actual year, not the school year,” she added.
I took another sip of my iced coffee while I stared straight ahead, trying to think of a response. I was on break and we were sitting in Colson's parking lot on the trunk of Gram’s car. Jackie had texted asking if I wanted anything from Scones.
“I'm on the pill and neither one of us has had sex with anyone else, so, technically, we don't really have anything to worry about. But, just to be on the safe side, we'll use condoms, too,” she said like she was giving a presentation.
“Why by the end of the year?” I asked.
“Once I do it, I don't have to keep thinking about it anymore...I'm so sick of thinking about it, aren't you?”
I’d tagged along on group dates with Jackie and Jared. And then there was Dillon, the guy who I’d worked with the previous summer at Colson’s. He lived in the next town over and went to a different school. We hung out a few times after work, but mostly just made out in the stock room when Gary left us to close on our own. He didn’t come back to Colson’s the next summer. He’d never called after that. I hadn’t called him either.
“If it's all I can think about, then it's definitely all he can think about. So why are we torturing ourselves?” she continued. “Like, what are we waiting for? We've done everything else.”
When did “everything else” happen? I wondered. Jackie and Jared got together at the end of junior year and, over the summer, Jackie gave me almost daily updates on their progress. Last time I'd heard, they weren't anywhere close.
“Are you sure you're ready for that?”
“Well, yeah,” she said casually. “It's really not that big of deal.”
“It kind of is.”
“Please don't get all Lifetime original movie on me.”
“Well, we always talked about it like it was a big deal,” I said.
“When we were in, like, seventh grade,” she answered. “It was a big deal then, but now we're pretty much the only ones who haven't.”
“It's just...” I said, searching for the words to explain what I was feeling. “You just...you can't go back. You know what I mean?”
“You mean to being a virgin? That’s kinda the point.”
“Well, that and...I don't know. I guess you're not...” I paused. “You're sort of not a kid anymore.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“You know what I mean. Once you cross that line, you're different.”
“Well, I think we're done being kids. Jesus Christ, Charlie, we're seventeen.”
“I'm not judging you or anything,” I said. “I just want to make sure you're thinking this through.”
“I'm sick of analyzing every little thing,” she said. “And, I think you are actually judging me.”
“I'm not,” I said.
Jackie slid off the car and landed on her feet. “I need to go.”
“Jackie, don't be mad.”
“I'm not mad,” she said. “It's just that we're seniors. School is almost over...and...we're just...” she was struggling to find the right words.
“I just...don't think we're having enough fun...or something,” she said.
“We went to that football game,” I offered.
“The one I had to drag you to and beg you to stay.”
“I stayed, though.”
She rolled her eyes at me, and I felt it again. The off feeling. I was hoping she’d smile, but she didn’t.
“I'll see you tomorrow,” she said as she closed the door to her car.
I spent the last five minutes of my break in the stock room picking at the rest of my bagel.
“What are you listening to?” Gary asked as he stepped through the curtained-off doorway.
“Nicole Atkins,” I said, hoping that would be enough information for him, but knowing it wouldn’t be.
“Nicole At-KINS?” he asked. He had this annoying habit of repeating back the simplest sounding names of people and things he didn’t know as if they were difficult to pronounce.
“Yeah. She’s actually from around here,” I mumbled. “She got out.”
“Ah, a local,” he said as he stood on his toes and reached for a box on the top shelf above the sound system. My whole body tensed in anticipation of a disaster. Miraculously, he slid the box from the shelf without spilling any of its contents or destroying the sound system.
“What’s this song?” he asked. He tucked the box under one arm.
“It’s called ‘Cool People.’” Just leave it alone, I willed silently.
“Oh, so it’s about us.” He laughed at his own joke. I stared down at my bagel wrapper.
On his way to the door, he stopped in front of my chair.
“Well, in any case,” he said. “I think you’re pretty cool.”
I stared up at him. His smile was soft, his head was cocked to the side. He looked like an idiot.
He nodded and pushed the curtain aside.