Awkward penguin. It's what we'd say to each other whenever situations got awkward (hence the name of the expression). And by we, I mean Axel and me.
Axel Spencer has been my best guy friend since the eighth grade, and I'm not even going to try denying the fact that I'm pretty much in love with him. But here we are, both high school seniors, and I'm still right where I started. I have made no move whatsoever, and if you ask why, you'll see it has to do with our silly penguin expression.
You see, in the eleventh grade, a girl who had been seriously crushing on Axel came up to him and blurted out her feelings. Knowing Axel, if she had told him about it quietly after school or something like that, then he would have probably agreed to go out with her at least once. However, as it was, she decided to practically scream it out in the middle of our physics class (and I was sitting right next to him at that moment), and the entire class grew silent and stared at Axel. And if that wasn't awkward enough, he had been standing up at the time, putting something away on his desk.
Axel is 6'5". And in the middle of tenth grade, he had dyed his hair bright red in order to imitate one of his favorite video game characters (you can probably imagine which one). He was not the sort of person who could just "disappear" in a situation like that. So he had no choice but to distract the class from the awkwardness of the situation. And how did he do it?
A penguin dance.
To do this day, I still do not understand how making a situation more awkward dispels the initial awkwardness. But apparently it did, because the entire class started laughing and Axel was able to sidestep the confession. (He did later confront the girl and tell her he had feelings for someone else, or so he told me. I still don't know whom he was referring to.)
So, ever since then, awkward penguin has been our standard escape phrase for any and all awkward situations. Axel even does the dance most of the time, though I try my best to avoid doing that myself. And this brings me back to why I haven't told him about my own feelings. We have been just friends for so long…I'm afraid it would only end in a permanent awkward-penguin dance between us. That was definitely something I did not want happening.
"Happy St. Patrick's Day, Lauren!"
I made a funny face at the phone before I held it back against my ear (which was now shocked numb from the screaming greeting it had just experienced), even though it was really the person on the other end who was amusing me.
"Axel, is that really necessary? That's such a lame thing to be excited about," I replied. Not that it wasn't a legitimate holiday or anything, but the way he exclaimed that phrase made me think of birthday celebrations or new year's day. And I usually didn't do much for St. Patrick's Day except notice it on the calendar.
"What? What do you mean?" Axel asked in reply, probably confused by my insult to his greeting. He shouldn't have been too surprised. In the four years that we've known each other, I've never worn green, pinched people, or tolerated anyone pinching me (and that last one he should definitely remember, since it landed him quite a nasty bruise in response).
"You know I don't care much about this holiday," I said. "I think the more important detail is that it's spring break." Yes, definitely the most important detail. That was the reason he was able to call me at ten in the morning and catch me doing nothing more important than lounging around on the couch, flipping through a magazine with one hand immersed in a bowl of chips while I held the phone with the other.
I frowned as I noticed that the magazine pages were starting to get all greasy because I was turning them with my eating hand, but Axel quickly distracted me.
"Of course. I love spring break! I get a whole week to myself!" he told me.
"Right," I replied, remembering that our parents and older brothers still had work. "How is Felix, by the way? You haven't talked about your brother in a while."
"Oh, he's cool. You know, he's thinking about proposing to his girlfriend soon," Axel responded.
I raised my eyebrows. "That is so awesome! They've been dating for three years, so it's about time. Do you know when?"
"I have no idea. He said soon. He must be pretty nervous about it."
"I bet. Well, wish him luck for me."
"Sure thing," Axel said. I smiled, flipping through another page in my magazine and coming to a bride modeling a beautiful white gown. How coincidental. "How are things going with your brother, by the way?"
"Aiden?" I asked, my concentration suddenly returning to the conversation. "He's good. Nothing as exciting as a proposal of course, but he and his girlfriend Miranda are doing pretty well."
"They've been dating for, what, a year?"
"A little over that." The conversation lulled again as I heard Axel busy himself with something in the background, and I went back to my reading. It felt really casual to be talking to my best friend about our brothers' love lives, even though I could feel my heart pounding wildly as I thought about how one day, the two of us could possibly be in a relationship as well.
That is, if I could ever grow a spine and ask him out.
"So, anyway," Axel finally said. "You doing anything today?"
"Um, not really. Why?"
"Good, that makes two of us. I just thought that since neither of us was doing anything, we might as well go to the mall and hang out or something. I need a reason to wear something."
"That would be good," I replied, so excited about the idea of seeing Axel today that I almost missed what he had said at the end. "Wait…wear something?"
"Yeah, I don't think I should spend the entire day naked on my couch."
I blinked. Why, wasn't that interesting imagery? "Uh…"
"Unless you are curious?" Axel whispered suggestively, and even though he wasn't literally standing there, breathing into my ear, his tone sent shivers down my spine.
"That is so awkward penguin right there!" I exclaimed. Axel chuckled.
"Right. And wow…it is so weird to do this dance when you're naked, because-,"
"Awkward penguin again!" I interrupted, trying not to picture exactly how Axel would look doing that dance at the moment. Naked. On his couch. With his bright red hair begging for me to run my hands through it.
Oh, I definitely did not need to go there.
"Alright, alright," Axel said with a laugh. "I'll pick you up in a little bit."
"With clothes on," I reminded firmly. I heard Axel chuckle again.
"Right…with clothes on."
A little bit later turned out to be an hour and a half. Leave it to Axel to be late. But I was used to his tardiness, and I had finished breakfast, showered, and dressed up in that gap with time to spare. Just to annoy him, I wore the one spring dress I had with no trace of green on it. It was a light yellow outfit with pink, blue, and purple flowers dotting the fabric. The neck dipped down almost to my waist, so I wore a bright orange cami underneath. I added some silver and gold accessories and my strappy white sandals.
Yup, no trace of green. I couldn't wait to see Axel squirm. In fact, I couldn't wait to see Axel period. I literally ran out of the house as soon as I saw his car pull up to the driveway. He rolled down the window as I walked up to the passenger side.
"Hey, Lauren," he greeted. I could see he was wearing a green and white striped polo with shorts. His bright red hair stuck out at odd angles. He obviously hadn't combed it since he woke up, but it still looked good somehow.
"Hey," I responded as I opened the door and ducked into the car. I could see Axel studying me intensely with his bright brown eyes.
"You do this on purpose," he muttered as he locked the doors and drove out of my street. I grinned, patting down my non-green dress.
"Are you sure you don't want to take a chance? I haven't punched anyone in a while and I'm dying to practice," I said. Axel shook his head.
"No thanks." I laughed, responding to his refusal by calling him a chicken. He came back with a retort of his own. Our lighthearted banter continued all the way to the mall parking lot, where even after parking and walking into the first department store our argument did not end.
"Give it up, Axel, you're never going to win."
"Just you wait. This is going to be your favorite holiday one day."
"Fat chance!" I poked him and he attempted to hit me in response. I giggled and ducked out of the way. As we exited the department store and entered the mall's interior, our playful fighting caught the attention of some elderly women passing by.
"Aw, aren't you two cute!" one lady gushed at us, winking. As she walked away, I blushed, and Axel did his little awkward penguin dance. Nothing even needed to be said. As we headed toward the center of the mall, I looked around for something to distract us from the residual awkwardness. And I found just the store.
"Isn't that so cute?" I remarked as I pulled Axel's arm in the direction of a small tent by the decorative water fountain. A small sign labeled The Fairy Wand was attached to the top of the draping pink fabric that surrounded the large stall. Ribbons, headbands, and all sorts of sparkling jewelry hung on display racks arranged within. Axel must not have seen what was inside the store because he willingly followed me as I ran towards it.
"Welcome, welcome!" the saleslady inside crooned as I stepped within the curtain. Axel finally noticed the abundance of girly accessories everywhere because he promptly made a face and stopped walking, but he was already inside.
"I love this store. Is it new?" I asked. The lady nodded proudly from behind the desk she was working at, folding ribbon and gluing it to a barrette.
"Yes. This is just temporary, though. Our more permanent store is not ready yet. It will be at the other end of the mall…but until then, here we are." She opened her palm and gestured to the shelves.
"Cool. Do you make all this?" As I continued the conversation, I browsed the selection of hair accessories. I noticed Axel grimacing out of the corner of my eye. I raised my eyebrows at him and pointed at a green hair bow. That cheered him up temporarily.
"You can say that," the lady was saying as I did all this. "My daughters help some, but most of this is my personal work." I made an interested sound. Axel finally came over to stand next to me. I could feel him frowning down, silently insisting that we should leave. Just to annoy him, I continued to look through the merchandise, every now and then making a comment or asking a question of the nice saleslady.
Axel was pissed. Yet, he crossed his arms and patiently waited for me to finish my "girl thing". The lady smiled at him often and I could tell she had no idea he was mad, though I knew how to read his straight posture and dim eyes. Axel was not exactly the kind of guy you brought along to chick flick nights or prom dress dates.
When I finally decided that I had put Axel through enough torture for the day, I selected a headband from the shelf that was made from a braid of three different shades of green ribbon. Axel perked up at my selection when he noticed me asking for the price.
"That will be ten dollars, my dear," the saleslady replied. I frowned. The pattern was very intricate, but I didn't want to spend so much money on such a small item.
"Really?" I asked. "That's a lot!"
"Well, it's handmade, and that particular one took a lot of ribbon. It is well worth the price."
I sighed, turning the piece over in my hand. I really liked it, but…
"I don't know if I should get this. I mean, I feel really spoiled if I spend ten dollars on a headband that will probably only match one or two of my outfits."
The saleslady smiled mischievously at that moment, for the first time looking at Axel seriously. I had a sinking feeling in my gut I knew what was going to happen next, but I didn't know how to stop it.
"But that's what boyfriends are for, right?" she asked suggestively, looking between Axel and me. I gasped and I felt him stiffen next to me. Sure, we had gotten a lot of these remarks before, but this one was more explicitly stated than most. Awkward penguin, awkward penguin, awkward penguin, I chanted in my head, expecting Axel to do the same out loud. However, all the penguins in the world couldn't have prepared me for his answer.
"Well, am I?"
I blinked, turning around with a shocked expression on my face to meet his amused one.
"Are you what?" I sputtered. Are you asking is that what you're for? Or are you asking if you are my boyfriend?
"What she said," Axel clarified in a manner that did nothing to clarify at all. My heart was pounding and I'm sure I was blushing at this ridiculously embarrassing situation.
"I don't know," I answered. Lame. The saleslady looked between us, confused.
"Wait…are you two…not dating?" she asked hesitantly. I looked at her with an expression that matched hers. Confused. Only Axel stared at her calmly.
"Well, I am a boy and she is a girl. We are out at the mall, just the two of us. I think that qualifies as a date. So I guess that means we are dating?"
"But are you guys 'boyfriend and girlfriend'?" the lady asked again. Axel shrugged, looking at me for a response. I was still recovering from the awkwardness, the embarrassment, and the general oh-my-gosh-this-is-happening.
"Well, you have to like each other a certain way for that…" I managed to reply. "And we don't…I mean…" I took a deep breath. "I mean, I do…but I don't know if he does."
Wow, I can't believe I just said that. Visions of the two of us stuck doing an awkward penguin dance whenever we saw each other filled my mind's view. Axel raised his eyebrows. Even the lady looked surprised. Their expressions jolted me back to reality, and I swallowed nervously. Oh no. I had just ruined it.
"Really?" Axel asked so sincerely I really felt like I could faint. I didn't really listen to him. Before either of them could say anything else, I scrambled out of the stall.
"Awkward penguin," I threw over my shoulder on my way as if it was a decent explanation. I heard Axel say something quickly to the lady inside, and soon I heard footsteps following me.
"Whoa, you can not just use our escape phrase like that." Axel grabbed my arm from behind and I was forced to stop. After all, being over a foot taller than me, he had quite the upper hand.
"I'm sorry…" I apologized in a rush. "I don't know what I was saying…can we just forget-,"
"I like you too!"
"What?" I spun around, face to face (chest actually, until I remembered to look up) with Axel.
"You heard me. I like you." The two of us just stared at each other silently. It reminded me of an awkward silence, except it wasn't awkward. It was just the two of us knowing we liked each other, but unsure of what to do next.
That is, until Axel held out his hand and offered me the green headband I had wanted to purchase earlier. I gasped, looking down at it and then back up at his face.
"You bought it!" I exclaimed.
"That's what boyfriends are for, right?" Axel replied with a wink. I looked up at him and giggled, and he looked relieved as he tucked the headband into my hair. He didn't pull his hands back right away, but instead he let them drift down through my black strands until they rested on my shoulders.
"You know, I think I'm starting to like this holiday after all," I admitted. Axel grinned, pulling me towards him until we were embracing.
"I told you so," he said. I narrowed my eyes, but before I could retort, he lifted up my chin and kissed me softly. It was the most wonderful feeling ever, so far from awkward, that all my fears about those awkward penguins vanished. For now, it was just me and Axel together, and that was all that mattered.