STOP. KISSING. FINN., Chapter 7
Everyone has that “first person.” The first person you call when you get a bad haircut. The first person you go pick up when you pass your driving test. I used to be Jackie's first person.
Chapter 6 Recap: Football game guy and art room guy are the same person and, as it turns out, he’s an ass. Marlena threatens to visit, but Charlie’s heard it all before.
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Liz switched out of Shakespeare Lit four and a half weeks into the year because she'd failed the first two quizzes and needed to keep a 2.75 GPA in order to stay on the field hockey team. It was known for being the hardest English class, but also the most fun if you could tough out the reading schedule. Mr. Thomas tried his best to weed out the kids who didn't care about school early on with a play a week, which made the class even better for those who lasted.
He would sometimes perform whole scenes in class, using props he kept in the classroom. He was short and stocky, with no neck and a big, barrel-shaped chest. He relied heavily on the use of his spindly arms and legs when acting. Unafraid of looking ridiculous, he would dart around the room, spouting lines from Macbeth or King Lear from memory. The class alternated between hysterical laughter and total silence.
I was surprised when Liz registered for the class. “Really, Liz?” Jackie had said as if she were exhausted by the whole idea. It’s not that Liz wasn't smart. She did her homework, studied, and got decent grades. She just wasn't the kid whose notes you asked to borrow if you missed chemistry. She was the kid you passed the ball to in gym.
“I had no idea what the hell anyone was talking about,” she'd said with a laugh. “I'm going back to English for Jocks.” It was what everyone called Mr. Hartman's Lit class. He was also the assistant coach of the football team. Guys who could barely read passed his class every semester.
“Are you sure?” I had asked. “If you want, I can help. I kept my notebook from last year.”
“No, that's okay,” she'd said convincingly, but I could tell her smile was forced.
So, we both ended up in third-period study hall. Being generally pleasant and respectful, we were left alone by most teachers, unlike the cluster of wrestling team guys who were forced to sit in the front row on the second day of school so that Mrs. Barr could more easily squelch folded paper football games and confiscate cell phones. They resorted to making farting noises and obscene gestures when her head was down. Liz and I sat together in the back row and discreetly slid a notebook back and forth, our eyes focused on our open books. Liz's handwriting was legible, but inconsistent. She never wrote her e’s the same way.
“Every guy in this school is disgusting,” wrote Liz.
“And short. And we've been watching them scratch themselves since first grade,” I wrote.
“The sad thing is that they all have girlfriends.”
“That can't be true,” I wrote.
“It is. They're all dating sophomores.”
“Jackie is with the only half-way decent guy in this school, and he barely even goes here.”
I wondered if Jackie had told Liz about her plans with Jared. Jackie hadn't told me not to tell Liz, but it seemed like one of those things I was supposed to keep to myself. I really wanted to know what Liz thought.
“You mean her lover?” I wrote.
“OMG – I didn't know if she had told you yet. Can you believe it?”
She had told Liz.
“I know. So crazy.”
“I wanted to talk to you about it, but I didn't know if I should. She told me to let her tell you.”
In fact, she’d told her first.
“It’s pretty big news,” I wrote.
“Yeah. She only texted me like once since it happened. I told her I need details!!!” Liz wrote.
My stomach flipped. Since it happened... It happened?
“When did she text you?” I wrote.
“Last night. Right after he left, I guess. Has she given you any more details?”
Jackie had talked to me about Jared a week ago. Knowing Jackie, she’d had plans for months. Now, she was keeping secrets that Liz could know… but I couldn't?
I wracked my brain for something to write back.
“No, just the basics,” I wrote.
“Unacceptable. Let's corner her at lunch!”
If I went to lunch, Liz would find out that Jackie hadn't told me... and Jackie would know that I knew. I wasn’t prepared for that many layers of confrontation.
“I can't,” I wrote. “I'm so behind in independent study. I'm going to just eat my lunch while I work.”
“Agh! OK, I'll tell her we absolutely need an update. Group chat tonight.”
“OK, let me know. I should finish this chapter by next period,” I scribbled before sliding the notebook back to Liz.
What was going on with Jackie? Why would she hide something like this from me?
I used to be special, I couldn't help thinking. Everyone has that “first person.” The first person you call when you get a bad haircut. The first person you go pick up when you pass your driving test.
I used to be Jackie's first person.
Skipping lunch wasn't technically allowed, but the music department kids got away with eating their lunches in the auditorium under the guise of “rehearsing,” even though the majority of them just lounged around in the cushioned chairs or hooked up behind the risers stacked backstage. I figured I could probably justify hanging out in the art room, especially if I was actually working. I wasn't supposed to move beyond knife skills yet, but it was probably about time I started doing some writing.
Rain spattered against the windows of the art room. I sat on the long radiator cover that lined the window and tucked my feet under me. Outside was gray and empty, except for Rent-a-Cop who wore a yellow, fisherman's raincoat and buzzed across the student parking lot in golf cart. He looked lost at sea.
“Hey,” I heard from the back of the room. Finn leaned sideways on a stool and peered at me from behind his easel and canvas.
I sat up quickly and instinctively smoothed my hair back. The last time we were both in this room he'd called me crazy and I'd scolded him like some schoolmarm. “Hey, I didn't think anyone was here.”
“Sorry, I didn't mean to scare you.”
“It's okay,” I said and stood up. I grabbed my bag to head for the door.
“You don't have to leave... I mean, I'm technically not supposed to be here either.” His tone was friendly.
I paused. I really didn't have anywhere else to go.
“Also,” he continued, getting up to rummage through his backpack. “Here.”
He held out a plastic grocery bag in my direction. I walked toward him reminding myself of my vow not to be distracted by his looks.
Jerk, jerk, jerk, I silently repeated to myself. I focused on a smear of orange paint on the inside elbow of his outstretched arm.
He handed me the bag. Inside was a smaller one that was identical to the bag of nuts he'd spilled on the floor.
“I work at a grocery store, so it's not a big deal.”
“I wasn't really thinking about it… but, I guess it would be like if someone took my brushes, or paint, or something,” he said.
We both just stood there for a minute.
Awkward turtle, I thought, almost saying it out loud. It was something Jackie and I said when we didn't know what else to say. We'd make the shape of a turtle with our hands so that our thumbs were the flippers. It was stupid and didn't really make any sense, but made us laugh. Or used to, anyway.
“Which grocery store do you work at?” I asked instead.
“Do you like it?”
“Sometimes...it's not that bad,” he said and absentmindedly scratched at the orange paint smear. He studied the smear for just a second before abandoning it, letting both arms fall to his sides.
“Are you a cashier?” I tried picturing him in a collared shirt and one of those aprons.
“Nah, I'm the flower guy. Like, bouquets.” He said it confidently, not mumbling through the word “bouquet” like most guys do when they have to say a word that feels girly. “My manager got transferred from produce, but he hates it. He gives me all the arrangements, so I don't really have to deal with customers. It's better than the registers, at least.”
“And, it's basically another art form,” I ventured cautiously. This was all remarkably close to a civil conversation.
“Yeah, exactly,” he said. “My friends are in the meat department and think it's funny because I'm, like, trimming roses and shit while they're covered in blood and grinding hamburger.”
“I think you have the better job.”
“Yeah, me too,” he said, shooting me the crooked grin again.
“So, what about you?”
“Do you have a job?”
“Yeah, at Colson's.”
“The shoe store?”
“Yeah,” I said. “The shoe store.”
“Not really. I'm around feet all day.”
“Still not as bad as grinding meat.”
“It depends on the feet. There are some nasty feet in this town.”
Am I really talking about feet? I wondered. But Finn just laughed and adjusted his baseball cap.
“But, you probably don't come home covered in blood,” he said.
“Only on a really bad day,” I said with a straight face.
He laughed again. He had a great laugh.
Jerk, jerk, jerk.
“Ugh, It's only October, and I'm so sick of this place,” he said stretching his arms up and back.
“I know,” I agreed and leaned against one of the art tables, trying my best to match how relaxed he seemed, yet suddenly feeling very aware of my arms. Do I cross them? I wondered.
“I'm totally not motivated today... Wanna get out of here?”
I froze. Not wanting to make too many assumptions, I asked, “And go where?”
“Wherever. Rent-a-Cop knows my car, but he takes a break after our lunch period ends. He'll be too into his meatball sub to notice us.”
Us. I tried to keep up with what he was saying, but it was hard not to linger on that word and how easily he’d said it.
“The day's practically over, anyway,” he added.
It really wasn't. But, I wanted to see what “us” was like.
“Okay, let's get out of here,” I heard myself say.
“Sweet,” he said. He scooped up a pile of paintbrushes and plopped them in a cup of milky-looking water. “Let's go.”
The hallway was empty, but I nervously scanned doorways for teachers looking to bust students for wandering around without a pass. I stole a sideways glance at Finn.
“We'll cut through the cafeteria when the bell rings. No one will notice us leaving,” he said quietly.
The bell rang the instant we entered the cafeteria. I kept my head down, wondering what I’d do if Jackie and Liz spotted me on their way out. We stepped in formation with the mass of bodies heading back to class. Finn weaved through the crowd, subtly edging towards the exit. I followed his gaze as he casually glanced in the direction of the two female teachers on lunch duty. Absorbed in their own private conversation, they barely paid attention to the emptying lunch room. Waiting until both of their backs were turned, Finn grabbed my forearm without looking at me, like he’d touched my arm a hundred times already, and walked briskly towards the double doors leading to the parking lot.
We slipped through the doors and out into the rain. It was pouring – the type of rainstorm that left you drenched in a matter of seconds. Finn quickly scanned the parking lot before grabbing my arm again—this time the crook of my elbow—and taking off towards the far end. My heart pounded as I ran alongside him.
We slid to a stop at the passenger door of the scratched-up blue car I’d seen at the football game. Finn fumbled with his keys for a moment before swinging open the door. I jumped in and slammed the door as he ran around to the driver's side.
Shutting the door behind him, he turned to me. I watched as a large drop of rainwater trickled down his nose and dripped onto the middle console.
“I think I heard Rent-a-Cop's golf cart,” he whispered.
“Really?” I said, and my voice cracked with panic. The motor of a golf cart buzzed in the distance.
“We'll say we just needed to get a book from your car,” I said, about to reach for the door handle.
“Wait,” Finn said, this time reaching across me to grab my hand. I froze. His fingers were wet and cold.
“Duck!” he said and slid his legs and waist under the steering wheel. Following his lead, I crouched beneath the dashboard on the passenger side.
“Try not to breathe too much,” he whispered. “We'll fog up the windows.”
I snapped my jaw shut and focused on the pattern in the stained upholstery of the car seat.
After about twenty seconds passed, I glanced over at Finn and realized he was struggling not to laugh. I tried my best to fight back a smile, but, to my immediate mortification, let out a small snort. Finn burst into a fit of muffled laughter, which caused me to gasp for air.
“I don't hear the cart anymore,” I whispered.
“I'll check,” he whispered.
He used the steering wheel to pull himself up high enough to peer out the car windows.
“I think we're good,” he said.
I pulled myself up and sat in the passenger seat.
“Dino's?” Finn asked as he buckled his seat belt and put his keys in the ignition.
“Sure,” I answered.
We managed to escape the parking lot without any problem and headed toward Dino's Diner, the only other place besides Scones where, as a seventeen-year-old, you could hang out for hours without being asked to leave. Since it was the middle of the day on a Wednesday, we were the only customers under retirement age. For a second I worried that one of the waitresses might report us, but there was only one on duty and she barely looked at us as she nodded towards a booth and slapped two laminated menus on the table.
Once our coffees came, I wrapped my hands around my mug.
“You got soaked,” Finn said, studying my wet ponytail and long-sleeved t-shirt. I hadn't thought to stop by my locker to grab my jacket. “You're freezing, aren't you?”
“I'm a little cold.”
“Here,” he said as he shook off his windbreaker and unzipped the grey zip-up hoodie he was wearing over a t-shirt.
“Oh, no, that's okay...” I started to say.
“No, here, take it,” he said, balling up the sweatshirt and handing it to me over the table.
“Thank you,” I said, as I wrapped the sweatshirt around me and slid my arms through the sleeves. It was two sizes too big and smelled like a combination of cigarette smoke, fabric softener, and Irish Spring soap. I was instantly warmer.
“No problem,” he said and took a sip of coffee.
“So, how often do you do this?” I asked. I eyed the metallic napkin holder that rested on the edge of our table and resisted the urge to check my reflection in it. I hoped my nose wasn’t too red from the cold.
“Come to Dino's?” he asked.
“In the middle of the day, I mean,” I said. “Or, maybe it's better for me to ask when you actually go to any of your other classes besides art?” It came out sounding judgmental, even though I’d meant it as a joke.
“You're not going to get caught, if that's what you're worried about. They don't bother checking attendance after lunch,” he said. He looked at me and stirred his coffee.
“I'm not worried,” I lied. I was mentally cataloging all of the adults I knew who worked in the area who just might stop in to pick up take-out or grab a burger at the counter. “I just don't get how you've managed to create your own schedule. And it’s like you’ve memorized Rent-A-Cop's.”
“I just pay attention,” he said. He leaned back against the booth and crossed his arms. “So, when are you actually going to cook something?”
I laughed self-consciously.
“All I've seen you do is chop onions. Don't you need more than that for your book?”
“Honestly, it may end up being a really bad cookbook,” I admitted.
Muffled thunder rumbled in the distance as the rain picked up and pelted the diner windows.
“Okay,” he said leaning in towards me, his elbows resting on the table. “Tell me again why you're doing this class?” He turned his cap backward and squinted his eyes. For the first time, I was close enough to see they were green with flecks of copper.
I wanted to ask, “Why do you care?” Why was Finn suddenly paying this much attention to me? Did he remember me from the game the way I remembered him? Had our fight in the art room kept him awake at night, too?
Or maybe the idea of ditching class occurred to him when I just happened to be right there. I could be anyone, and he was just making the best of it. If that were the case, I really had nothing to lose.
“For college applications, I guess?” I said in way that sounded like I was actually guessing.
“Are you applying to culinary school?”
“No. Just… regular schools,” I said, sort of wishing I would just dissolve into the booth’s vinyl upholstery. I’d already had this conversation a million times, and each version made me feel like a bigger idiot.
Finn waited a second before saying anything else.
“So, it’s more about writing, huh?” he asked.
I nodded, surprised he’d understood so quickly.
“I get it. I have to paint landscapes and bowls of fruit to prove that I know what I’m doing. I’d never get any credit for the stuff I actually want to do,” he said, sipping his coffee. “That’s why I’m starting the magazine.”
“You’re starting a magazine?”
“Yeah, with this group of friends. It’s this alternative arts mag,” he said, bending the corner of the laminated menu just short of creasing it.
“An actual paper magazine, or a website?”
“Definitely analog. I’m sure some stuff will be digital, if only for marketing purposes. But I’m over artists who, like, live to create Instagram content.”
I thought of Moledy Verses and squirmed a little. ”
“That’s cool,” I said.
“It’s called Blank. Our goal is to launch it on New Year’s eve.”
“Why Blank?” I asked.
“It’s up for interpretation… but, you know, it’s kinda like everything we’ve been talking about. I’m sort of filling in the blanks with this project. At least that’s what it is for me. Three other people are working on it.”
“That makes sense.”
“What kind of stuff do you write on your own?”
“Well... um… poetry,” I said and shifted in my seat a little.
“What kind of poetry?” Finn asked.
The kind you write so you don’t go crazy. The kind that starts as therapy then turns into an addiction.
“Um... it's kind of, free form. Sort of prose-like...” I said, struggling.
“What do you write about?”
Loneliness. Isolation. Fear. Sex.
“I...um, it sort of varies. It's kind of all over the place.”
He leaned in a little closer and folded his arms on the table. It felt like he kept trying to get closer.
Do I lean in, too? I wondered.
“You've never let anyone read anything you've written, have you? Nothing real, at least.”
“Not really,” I said. “I mean, no. I haven’t.”
“Why not?” he asked.
I must have look cornered because he immediately leaned back in his seat and put up his hands.
“Sorry, this isn’t an interrogation,” he said. “I just hate it when people talk about the stuff that’s expected of them and discredit everything else. You don’t need an assignment to validate you.”
“I know, it’s just…” I said, struggling to complete the sentence. Had Finn ever been self-conscious? Would he get it if I told him I was afraid of the attention? And inevitable embarrassment?
“None of us needs permission to create the stuff we want to create,” he cotinued. “I mean, go ahead and write the cookbook because you have to, but don’t hide the stuff that makes you a real writer.”
I nodded. He wasn’t scolding me like Jackie, or humoring me like Liz. He was talking to me like I was another artist, and he was saying what he saying because he actually cared about art.
It was really hot.
We were silent for a good ten seconds. Awkward turtle.
“Do you want to split some fries?” he asked.
Finally, an easy question.
“Yes,” I said.
“OK, let's do it,” he said and smiled.
I Know Better - @MoledyVerses
Yet somehow I cashed in on you
when all I really knew
your breath smelled a little like sour milk
like a tiny baby's breath
when it opens its mouth
of smacking contentment
when it only knows its mother
but not who she is
or that he needs her
that was you.
There was something in the coffee.
Or I wasn't quite myself.
A memory lapse, perhaps.
My vision blurred. I tasted metal.
And when I came to
I was reaching up at you.
Took my shriveled fingertips
and pulled those lids right up and out
to get a better view.
Saw green, green, green.
I never knew.