The Blue Ribbon

By Laura Schiller

"So how is it?" Ava blurted out, fidgeting as she sat on the lawn of Hoffmann College campus. "Give me all the gory details."

Kegan, sitting next to her, looked down at the manuscript with a sober frown, as if measuring it with his eyes.

"It's... okay," he said, his voice slightly hoarse from getting over a cold. "I like how you characterize your narrator. How she's sort of tough and sarcastic, but vulnerable at the same time...the details are good, like the blue ribbon. But the male lead...um..."

Ava noticed that her fists were clenched so tightly in her lap that the knuckles were white; she loosened them with a stern mental command, drew her legs up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them.

"Kay? He's, I dunno. I guess since you're a girl, it's harder to put yourself in a guy's perspective, right? Like, no offense..." He stretched out his hands in a warding gesture, as if she might jump at him like a wildcat. "But he's boring. Too perfect to be true. Like one of the Prince Charmings from the early Disney movies. Handsome, smart, gives her red roses..." He read aloud from one of her passages, with wide eyes and sweeping hand gestures: "I love you, Annie. You're the music that flows in my soul, the brightest star in the firmament of my life...That's corny." He dropped his hands with an embarrassed little laugh. "I don't know about other guys, but I wouldn't be caught dead saying that. No matter how much I loved her."

He cleared his throat and handed the manuscript back. Ava took it without looking at him, feeling a smoldering heat growing on her cheeks. All her worst suspicions were confirmed.

"You're the one who kept nagging me to let you read it," she snapped. "Nobody forced you."

He sighed. "Now don't get mad. Look, I'm sorry. Just trying to help. And your story is good except for Kay. Why don't you make him a bit more human? Like, give him a few jokes to crack or flaws to deal with, you know?"

"I know."

She looked down at her little five-page romance - painstakingly typed in Georgia, her favorite font, and blue ink. Spell-checked and edited multiple times. Titled The Blue Ribbon for lack of a better idea. Two weeks' effort gone down the drain. At least she had one consolation: he'd never seen the first draft. If he were to read that...she shuddered mentally at the thought.

"You're right...it's corny. Full of clichés. I guess the falling-in-love-with-your-best-friend plot is pretty overused by now."

"No, it's not that. Plots don't have to be new, but the way you tell them can be. What makes this yours?" Kegan pointed at The Blue Ribbon with the intense, narrow-eyed look he had when talking about his passions, writing and video games. "What makes it different from all the other stories about a girl who falls for her best friend? It's the unique Ava perspective that makes your stories interesting."

He grinned at her, making his bright blue eyes crinkle, and leaned back so that the afternoon sun caught in the gelled dirty-blond spikes of his hair. All his respect and friendly affection for her were in that grin; it reminded her of countless hours sitting on the grass under this old sprawling poplar, talking about books and movies, ranting about their horrible teachers or just sitting comfortably in silence.

Ava found that look of his had been having strange effects on her lately. It made her feel light and fluttery, and at the same time tense, as if something exciting were about to happen or already happening. To defuse the situation, she raised one eyebrow at him and said, "Okay, now you sound like a teacher. Don't forget we're the same age."

He blinked. "Wow. Is it just me, or are you even more grouchy than usual? Is something wrong?"

"Bad test. And an overdue essay." Which was technically true, except those things weren't the root cause of her 'grouchiness' at all. She could hardly tell him the truth, now could she?

"End-of-term stress, eh? Tell me about it. I got three projects due tomorrow and two the day after. Guess I'd better start on them tonight."

Ava gasped. "You mean you - "

"Just kidding. I'm all done except for the research paper in History. You think I'd procrastinate that far? Ava, Ava, I'm hurt. You have no faith in me." Kegan put his hand on his heart and made Bambi eyes at her; she tried to glare at him and laughed instead. He reached over and gently tugged the blue silk ribbon on her ponytail, as he often did; she swatted his hands away, making them both laugh.

"What is it with you and that ribbon?" she exclaimed.

"I could ask you the same question. You wear that thing, like, every day."

"I just like it, that's all." Her face heated up again; she might be telling the truth, but she knew she was not entirely honest.

()

Later that evening, instead of working on her essay, Ava found herself staring at the screen of her laptop. The little white dorm room was full of night shadows, with the only light coming from the screen and the desk lamp; her roommate was out on a date and Ava could write all night if she wanted to.

She stared at in frustration, the familiar words blurring into gibberish. This was the first draft. The best story she'd ever written, and the one thing she couldn't show Kegan because it was loaded with a critical mass of truth that would explode in both their faces.

When Annie saw Kay for the first time, they were eighteen, she read. She was your typical nerd, with gray eyes behind tortoiseshell glasses, curly black hair and a habit of wearing baggy sweaters to disguise her lack of curves. He was a tall skinny bundle of energy and potential, always in motion from the gleaming spikes of his dark blond hair down to his sneakers with their trailing laces. His face was pale, with a sharp pointed chin and a light dusting of cinnamon-colored freckles across his nose. His most striking feature was his eyes – they were so bright and blue you could see them shining from five steps away.

He wore a grey T-shirt with a pudgy white Pillsbury Doughboy on it, saying 'Poke me and die'. The day she saw him wearing it in the cafeteria lunch line, it made her smile. "Where did you get that?" she asked.

"A clothing stand at the Fairview Center."

"No way! I work there!"

They ended up sitting opposite each other, chatting about college and what subjects they were studying as they ate. When he trained those eyes on her like searchlights, detailing his Modern Art course in his light scratchy voice, sometimes she found it hard to concentrate on what he was saying. It made her feel light and fluttery in her stomach, and at the same time tense, as if something exciting were about to happen. And no, it wasn't the effect of the shrimp. It was definitely him.

After that, since neither of them had any immediate classes to get to, they went outside and sat underneath the apple tree by the bus stop. It was September and the little green fruits were just starting to grow. Looking up, Annie saw that there was a long blue ribbon tangled up in the branches.

She stood up, but she was too short to reach it, so Kay carefully untangled it and handed it to her with a lopsided smile, as if wondering what on earth she wanted it for. It was made of silk and as blue as a late evening sky in summer, but mostly it was a memento of a day she never wanted to forget. The day she first saw the man she loved.

She did not look at the ending because it was painful. It ended with Annie realizing that Kay would never see her as anything but a friend, then walking down to the lake at the edge of campus and tossing the ribbon into the water, "tied around a flat grey stone and weighted down with enough pain and anger to give any fish that chewed on it indigestion".

She felt like screaming; instead she made a growling sound in her throat and buried her head in her hands. She'd edited it – taken out the details about his appearance, turned him into an ideal Prince Charming, erased the first scene with the ribbon, and given the characters a happy ending – feeling all the while like a mother cutting off her baby's fingers.

Kegan said the end result was corny. It really was, and she'd known it before giving him the copy.

He'd think she was a bad writer...when his respect meant more to her than anyone else's.

Her mouse hand moved almost before she was aware of it. She connected to the Internet, signed into AOL and fired off an e-mail with a word document attached.

Subject: Blue Ribbon edit

Date: 13/05/08 7:12:27 PM Eastern Standard Time

From:

To:

Attachments:

Hey Kegan

Here's my other version, hope it's not as corny.

C U 2morrow.

- Ava

Her cursor hovered above the Send button. Wait – what was she thinking?! He'd recognize himself as Kay in an instant, and then what? No...no. Even if he thought she was a bad writer whose characters were cliché, that would still be better than if he avoided her completely. Because, after all, she had watched When Harry Met Sally fourteen times and she knew that no friendship between a male and female could survive if one got too attracted to the other.

Ba-boom! Ba-boom!

That was her neighbors' stereo.

A thundering roar of drum beats blasted through her thin plywood walls. She jumped with fright; her hand tensed reflexively on the mouse. The tiny click of a key being pressed was drowned out by Rammstein's hard-rock.

A little blue window opened up, saying: Your mail has been sent.

She stared...then she cursed. Her own voice sounded foreign.

Your mail has been sent.

And the next morning, Kegan would be reading all about his glowing eyes and cinnamon freckles.

"Yo, guys! Turn that down!" she yelled, pounding on the wall with her fist. They didn't, but it was too late anyway.

Irrevocably too late.

()

The next day, Ava entered the cafeteria with dread ringing in her ears and sitting on her chest like a too-heavy necklace. This was the time of day when she and Kegan would sit opposite each other by the window farthest from the counter on the left-hand side – picking food off each other's plates, dueling with their drink straws or just talking.

Had he read her e-mail? Had he? If not, she could always tell him to delete it. But curious as he was, would he listen?

She was beyond nervousness; it was with a sort of leaden, fatalistic, come-what-may attitude that she moved towards their table. Was he even there?

He was.

Instead of standing up and waving, he remained in his chair, picking at his lasagna and ignoring her. A very bad sign.

"Um...Hi, Kegan." What was meant to be a casual, friendly greeting came out as a hoarse little squeak. She hovered in front of him, carrying a tray full of things she did not remember picking up – orange juice? A cherry turnover? She didn't even like them.

Kegan put down his fork, lifted his head abruptly and gave her a clumsy, twitchy imitation of his usual smile.

"Hey, Ava. C'mon, sit down."

She complied with a graceless thump; having something to lean on, even a bendy plastic chair, was rather reassuring.

For a moment, neither spoke; even though they were in an enormous, sunny, white-painted room with bright plastic furniture, Ava felt as if she had no room to breathe. And in spite of the roar of a hundred voices, hiss of steam and rattle of cash registers, it was terribly quiet.

"So yeah," said Kegan, clearing his throat and breaking the silence. "I got your e-mail. With the...the other version of your story."

"Yeah, about that – that was – "

"Autobiographical fiction, right?" he asked, sounding perfectly calm and steady... except for the way he kept running his hand through his hair. He wouldn't disarrange those spikes unless he were very, very nervous.

She nodded slowly; there was no point denying it anyway. All he had to do for confirmation was look at her head and see the blue ribbon. She had put it on out of habit that morning and it was too late to take it off.

"That's tricky," said Kegan, taking a deep breath and leaning forward. "You see...if you base your characters on real life, you never know what they'll do next."

He was lecturing her again – now, of all times! She took a small, mechanical bite out of her turnover just to do something besides stare at him. She felt like a china figurine at the edge of a shelf. Just a tiny nudge with your finger, and it could fall and shatter on the floor.

"Your ending is..." he grimaced and shook his head. "It's all wrong. She had no business throwing that ribbon in the lake."

"Why not?" said Ava.

He was sitting with his elbows on either side of the lunch tray; now he lifted his hands and gestured, as if trying to grip the words slipping out of his reach.

"Why not? Because...because then Kay couldn't pull on it anymore!"

"What?!"

"Does she know why he does that?" Kegan rumpled his spikes with both hands, fidgeting as if his seat were too hot.

"Um..." Ava was thrown. Were they still talking about her fictional characters or about something else entirely?

"It's just because her hair is so soft...and it smells like strawberries...shoot, I don't know how to say this. But if I'm Kay and you're Annie, then the ending is all wrong."

They were both on the edges of their seats, leaning forward, the food on the trays completely forgotten.

"Are you... saying... what I think you're saying?" Why couldn't her voice come out steady?

"I'm saying...that...like, every time I tried to write about love and relationships in a poem, it all sounded fake and stupid until I met you. The things you do...the way you switch the fonts in your stories, the way your eyes change color with the weather, the way you say hi...I can't explain it."

She beamed, finally understanding. "Me neither. It's like, you know when you're jumping off the deep end of the diving board and you're suspended above the water?"

"You see it sparkling blue in the sun and it's so beautiful..."

"...but at the same time it's terrifying."

"Then you hit the water and it takes your breath away."

"Little pearly bubbles swirling all around you."

"And you thought it would be cold..."

"But it's so warm."

With that, Kegan reached across the table and covered his hand with hers. Had his eyes ever been so piercingly blue before?

"Ava," he murmured, "I think this extended metaphor's gone far enough. Could you just get over here?"

She got up, still holding his hand, walked around the table, sat down in his lap and kissed him, ignoring the whistles and catcalls of the onlookers because at that moment, they were the only two people in the world.

"Was that what you meant?"

He wore her favorite crooked smile. "Exactly."