Everyday since the beginning of the school year, I have chewed a single stick of Extra Winterfresh gum during physics. I never deviated from this practice; I never chewed bubblegum or tutti-frutti gums or even other brands of mint gums.
It had to be Extra. The wrappers had more surface area.
Surface area, generally, isn't what most base their choice in gum off of, but most people, generally, didn't write love notes on their gum wrappers.
Everyday, as I chewed my single stick of Extra Winterfresh gum during physics, I wrote a love note to the boy who sat in front of me on my wrapper. The notes were always written in red ink (it had started out with orange ink, but I lost the pen two weeks into the school year), and at the end of the class, I'd spit my gum into my little profession of love and then throw the whole mess away as I left for English.
It had started out as a way to stay awake during – arguably – the second most boring class in my schedule, the first being calculus.
It ended with my heart in more pieces than I cared to count.
Henry Bishop was not an overtly exceptional person. He wasn't very tall, he wasn't ripped, and, in general, he wasn't the type of guy anyone would spend a whole lot of time looking at because he was average. He was one of the rank-and-file; a nobody in an endless sea of nobodies who walked the halls of our high school. But he was special.
Henry Bishop – who was nearly always called by his full name by everyone except the teachers – was intelligent and he played video games and he played clarinet in band and he was, both unfortunately and inexplicably, the one nobody in the sea of nobodies that I wanted. I saw something so simple and special in him, and God only knew if it was the fact that his freckles hadn't quite faded from a summer spent at band camp or if it was a pleasant medium of envy in the form of affection for how well he did in physics.
Although, to be completely truthful, when I asked him for help with our physics homework over IM – which, given my innate skills of being terrible at it made this a frequent occurrence every night – he was always more than willing to explain it, and that just made him even more golden in my eyes.
And then every morning, right after band, we'd walk to physics, and he would always ask how my homework went after he gave me help and I would always smile and say I understood it (even though I rarely had any clue what was going on in class). We would go to class, he would sit in his seat in the row ahead of me, I would sit in my row, and my gum wrapper routine would commence.
It was average and it was simple and it was all the more horrible with each passing day.
Henry Bishop was my friend. One of my best, I'd argue. And I had done the most terrible, stupid thing a relatively smart person can do.
I fell in love with him.
As far as I could tell, I had all of three viable options available to me: I could tell Henry Bishop and inevitably – because I tended to have the inevitability of royally screwing things up, even when they were looking up for me – ruin our simple, horrible friendship; I could not tell Henry Bishop and try to forget that I had ever dared to think of him as more than my World of Warcraft-obsessed friend; or just not tell Henry Bishop and continue my fruitless gum wrapper love note routine.
Each had its own set of merits and downfalls, but because I had seemed to enjoy masochism, I, of course, chose the option that would leave the issue alone but would, in the long run, hurt me more as I allowed my affectation to continue thriving in each little gum wrapper. But I was okay with that. No one would know but me; it felt almost special, being able to keep my own little secret from the world.
I loved Henry Bishop, and nobody could take that little piece of information from me the way my peers had used to copy my papers in junior high.
I used this rationalization so often that at least once a week, my gum wrapper professions would invariably include that sentence; even now I had written it over and over again in small font on my wrapper, nonchalantly ignoring whatever my teacher was saying about rotary motion.
"Jude, what are you doing?" I jumped, eyes wide and my red pen flying out of my hand as I scrambled to cover the wrapper from a fairly amused Henry Bishop.
"Henry Bishop," I muttered, spitting the gum into the wrapper hastily before he could ask to see what I had been so absorbed in writing, "didn't your mother ever teach you that it's rude to interrupt someone while she's busy?"
"Jude Foley," he mocked, shifting his backpack higher onto his shoulder, "didn't your mother ever teach to that it's rude to not pay attention in physics class?"
I opened my mouth to retort that she probably wouldn't care given that her entire belief was that if you found something boring, you had every right to zone out (which explained more often than not why my teachers in elementary school used to hate that my own mother wouldn't pay attention to them talk about how I wouldn't pay attention), but he plowed on without waiting. "And, furthermore, didn't she ever teach you that when the bell rings, you are obligated by the forces of habituation to continue on to your next class?"
"She is of the opinion that I am only obligated to go to English not because of habituation, but because I can get away with sleeping in class." Which was what I spent a full fifty minutes of my school day doing while still managing to get an A for participation. How I could get an A in participation while sleeping was beyond me, but I liked to think that my subconscious felt so guilty for sleeping in class, that it had made me a highly intelligent sleep talker.
"I envy your freedom to sleep during classes and to not pay attention," Henry Bishop returned with a sigh, waving as he continued down the hall to gym and I branched off towards the nearest stairwell.
Only when I was halfway up the second flight of stairs did I stop, earning shouts of frustration and interesting names that involved several colorful four-letter-words. I had left my red pen in the physics room. By the time I could get back there and locate where it had flown to when Henry Bishop had snuck up on me, I'd be late to English and risk the wrath of my teacher paying enough attention to me to realize I slept all period.
Bad things come in threes; my poor red pen, lost to the scary world of physics for the rest of its life span was the first.
Under normal circumstances, the loss of a pen was not an omen of terrible things to come. I had lost the orange pen – the original gum-wrapper-love-note-writing tool – and nothing tragic had happened. But I had written on enough gum wrappers with the red one that it did sort of matter; it was a habit and, although I had processed that any other color ink would look odd on the wrappers, I was stupid enough to forget how it would change the routine completely.
Changing the routine was bad. Bad, bad, bad. The way I had the routine now was simple and perfect and horrible, but it kept Henry Bishop from ever seeing any professions of love.
I realized that the forces of nature were hell-bent on making my life miserable within the next week. In a rush to make it to school before being so late that I couldn't blame it on the erratic driving patterns of my mother (she seemed fond of taking random and circuitous routes while driving me to school to "keep her senses sharp with new surroundings," whatever the hell that meant) which happened with such frequent occurrence that the ladies in the office had created a new abbreviation in their sign-in sheet for it (DWMF: Driving With Mrs. Foley), I had forgotten to put a new pack of Extra Winterfresh gum in my bag.
As I was practically throwing things out of my locker and into the hallway, searching for just a stick of gum, a hall monitor walked by, and as though this was a common happenstance, just shook his head and walked away, muttering about today's American youth. It almost made me wonder how many people had actually done this before I had nearly emptied my locker and found not a single piece of gum anywhere.
With a string of curses that would have put many of my peers to shame, I shoved everything back into the locker, clumsily whipping my bag over my shoulder as I trudged to the band room. What was I going to chew during physics to keep me from falling asleep? It was one thing to sleep in English because the teacher never noticed, but my physics teacher would notice for sure if I nodded off.
I was still trying to figure out what I was going to do when I walked into band. I was still thinking of what I was going to do when I pulled my trombone out. I was still thinking about it when my band director yelled at me because I had the shortest arms out of all the trombones and couldn't comfortably reach a sixth slide position, so my out-of-tune horn was making the rest of the section sound bad.
Even as Henry Bishop waited for me at the band door while I struggled to get through the throng of other band students trying to force sixty or so people through two doors all at the same time, I was still thinking of how I needed gum – any gum – to get me through physics.
I wasn't even paying attention to what Henry Bishop was saying (blasphemy). " – He was completely unfair. I mean, for all we know, you were playing that note right and it was some freshman who can't read music who kept making it sound bad –"
"Do you have any gum?" I interrupted him, completely changing the subject, which was apparently my short arms and their inability to reach sixth position.
He blinked a couple times but swung his backpack around to rummage around in one of the pockets before producing a slim stick of Orbit gum. "Why?"
I took the gum disappointedly. Orbit wrappers were so much smaller than the Extra ones. "Because I need the action of chewing gum to stay awake during the hour of hell." I unwrapped it and was disappointed even further.
It was orange. The gum was orange, and it smelled so strongly of citrus that I was almost afraid to put it in my mouth.
I instantly regretted it. It was tangy and sour and I could feel my mouth puckering and my eyes nearly watering in response. How was it possible that I was so in love with Henry Bishop when the only gum he carried was the equivalent of sucking on a lemon?
"You sleep during English but you won't sleep during your least favorite class?"
I shrugged, an eye squinting as I tried to chew past the tanginess of the gum. "The English teacher doesn't pay any attention to whether or not I sleep," I clarified. "Whereas the Devil –" who better to teach the hour of hell but a devil? – "will notice. It's just easier to write random gibberish and make it look like I'm paying attention."
I'm not sure what pained me more: Chewing the citrus acid gum or calling my own professions of love gibberish. They were never gibberish. Sure, they weren't exactly poetry – I couldn't even write poetry if the comments on my third grade couplets were any indicator (Please do not write poems about your brother's dead cat, Jude) – but it was never like my little notes were illegible or unintelligible.
They were clear – almost ridiculously so.
I couldn't tell you what we did in physics that day – actually I never knew what we did in physics – but I can tell you what horrible, terrible, stupid thing I did: I wrote a love note that consisted of the words, "I love Henry Bishop," over and over again.
And it wasn't until I was nearly asleep in English that I realized that I was still chewing citrus acid gum. I was still chewing gum.
Which meant that there was still a gum wrapper out there proclaiming my love for Henry Bishop to the world.
It was on that thought that I felt nearly so sick that I almost wanted to throw up. Someone would find out. Someone would find out!
The routine that had kept me so safe, so completely insulated from the reality that I was chasing a fruitless desire that I hadn't even recognized when it started to fall apart.
I was late the next morning, and even as the band director yelled at me for being late – again – I couldn't muster the usual counterargument that it wasn't my fault my mother felt the need to take double the amount of time necessary to drive me to school. I didn't have the brain capacity to argue and be so paranoid that I thought everyone knew of my gum wrapper confessionals.
When the class was over and I pushed my way through sixty other teenagers, Henry Bishop was waiting, right at the front of the band hallway. Under normal circumstances, this was normal; he always waited for me.
"You left this in physics yesterday," was all he said to me in a cool tone, slipping one hand out of his pocket and presenting me with the gum wrapper from yesterday. He dropped it into my palm, wordlessly turning and heading out towards physics without me.
I didn't try to follow or explain. I didn't even go to physics; I hid out in the empty choir room, much as I did during gym almost every other day.
The sick feeling had returned as I trudged past the choir director, who simply nodded to me as I went past. He was used to me crashing in his room.
I sat in my usual corner, legs pulled up to my chest, forehead resting my knees, willing myself to cry. But crying's a strange little concept; you can't just do it because life sucks. You cry because – somehow, someway – you know that there's someone there to console you. It just doesn't work when you're so much of a coward that you have to write love notes on a gum wrapper that were never intended to be read by eyes other than your own.
There were two options available to me now, and neither was looking especially appealing. I could throw my gum wrapper love note away; forget that this had ever happened. Or, I could hope beyond all hope that Henry Bishop had left me a reply somewhere on the wrapper (why else would he have to give it back?).
I generally never chose the hope option, if only because it generally never worked out for me. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the non-hope options never worked out too well for me either.
Before I could second-think myself, I lifted the folded gum wrapper note to eye level. The contents of this horrible little piece of paper had the absolute power to either send me into elation or shred my heart; it was the tiger or the lady.
Never before had my hands shaken quite so much as they did struggling to unfold that wrapper, and never before had my heart pounded so hard as my own words (I love Henry Bishop. I love Henry Bishop. I love Henry Bishop.) came into view.
I won't tell if there was any writing besides my own on the inside of that little gum wrapper. Hypothetically (hypothetically), even if Henry Bishop had left me a message, I wouldn't have told. In a hypothetical situation, of course.
In a gracious act of kindness, the choir director wrote me a pass to go to physics. "If anyone asks," he said, looking up and around to make sure no one could hear him, "you were in the choir room because I was telling you how much I enjoyed having your brother in chorus and how I wish you would join."
I figured it would work well enough for an excuse; enough teachers in my life had unknowingly made the same speech to a girl who had inherited none of the same brilliant traits as her elder brother. My peers knew well enough that where Stephen was athletic, I couldn't even run without tripping. Where Stephen was a hotshot trombone player and singer, I couldn't even reach a proper sixth slide position. Where Stephen was valedictorian, I was barely passing physics, and even then, it was only because Henry Bishop was online every night to help me get through the homework.
My physics teacher wordlessly accepted the pass, shooting me a glare as I shuffled past him, and Henry Bishop didn't even look up from his notes when I took my seat behind him, which was okay.
I'd expect nothing less from someone who was legitimately interested in whatever the hell gravitation was.
Class was no more boring than it was any other day; the only difference between today and the other days being that I had gum wrappers to write love notes on then, and now, I actually took notes – or I tried and ended up drawing stick figures skiing and falling to their dooms on a mountain range instead. It all depended on how you looked at it.
"Jude Foley, 'Death Mountain' in all its sadistic glory is not what your notes on gravitation should look like."
"Henry Bishop, have you ever considered that I was demonstrating the powers of gravity by showing how when you fall off a mountain, you can die?" I returned with a smile, closing the notebook. I didn't even notice the bell had rung until Henry Bishop said anything.
He rolled his eyes, a smile quirking at the corner of his mouth as we left the class together. On our way out, he never mentioned the gum wrapper (he was probably as shy of the topic as I was), but the world felt like it hadn't suddenly stopped and I had lost my best friend.
It wasn't perfect. He didn't shove me against a locker and demand I make out with him, nor did he explicitly mention how he felt. I wasn't even completely sure of where we stood (were we just friends or boyfriend and girlfriend now?).
But the back of his hand brushed mine down the hallway right up until I branched off to the stairwell. It wasn't perfect, but it was pretty damn close.