I was just standing there looking when he came up behind me. He swept his arms around my hips and I felt his lips on the back of my head. I didn't see him, of course, not just yet, but I knew who it was like I always do. He turned me sideways and started kissing the side of my face. Light. That's when I saw his face, and I was shocked how real it looked to me. This boy I knew. He looked into me, and I looked into him. I leaned against his chest.
"Why did you do that?" Because I had a boyfriend.
He didn't answer. He just stared with his blonde hair like he didn't want to answer me.
I asked him again. "Why?"
He held me and said nothing, and he smiled.
I believe that all break-ups should happen in person. Not in a text, not over the phone, not on video-chat, not in a hand-written letter that smells like Axe or that Taylor Swift perfume that's supposed to smell like peaches and unicorns. I've always believed that. So I guess I have a few boys who hate me.
"Jay," I said. He didn't see me coming, but when he turned around his face got all round and glowy like a baby that's just gotten a nap and a bath. He waited for me to catch up with him, and then he squirreled his arm around my shoulders and squeezed me tight. Almost anaconda status. It was what I liked about him.
"Hey, cutie. I haven't seen you all day." It was an odd comment to make, given that we didn't even have any classes together till after lunch anyway, and third period had only just gotten out. He never saw me all day, unless the bus magically became the subject of a miracle and showed up to school on time.
"I know," I said. "I've been avoiding you." That was also true. Because he could see me before lunch if I wanted him to – it was a matter of how much time I spent in the girls' bathroom.
His grip went looser. "Why?"
"Because I have to break up with you, and I'm not really a fan of doing that."
His arm vanished and he pulled me out of the press of people gliding down the hallway. We ducked into the doorway of an open storage closet. Janitors should never leave those things open. It makes it that much more awkward to break up with someone. "You're not- You what?"
I sighed and put my face closer to his, because I figured that might make him feel better about the whole situation. It wasn't my fault, after all. "I have to break up with you." He just stared at me, and when I realized he didn't have any comments queuing up in his brain, I said, "I promise, it's nothing personal. If it was my choice, I probably wouldn't break up with you. But, well, you know how these things go."
Jay's face started to get a little red. "No, I don't know how these things go."
I was perplexed. "You don't? The dreams? I thought you knew about this."
Even redder. "No, I don't know about this."
Then I felt sorry for him. A guy probably likes to know ahead of time that his girlfriend might break up with him. Honestly, when it started, I wasn't too hot on the idea of dating him in the first place, but the boy grew on me. He clocked in at six inches taller than me, so I could wear heels to Homecoming and not feel like I'd agreed to dating an elf. Plus he carried my stuff for me and gave me chocolate on the day of that super hard math test that half the school failed. He was a likable kid. But I didn't have a say in the matter at the beginning, and I didn't have a say in it now. At the end. "Oh. My bad. Last night, I dreamed about making out with a guy – but it wasn't you. So I have to break up with you."
"No you don't!" His eyebrows were holding a disco at the top of his face. "All you have to do is tell me! It's not a huge deal." Then he pulled me a little closer. "You just have to make out with me longer than you did that random guy."
I stepped back. He didn't get it. "It wasn't a random guy. It was Matthew Hahs. And anyway, it doesn't matter. I dreamed about Matthew Hahs, so now I have to go out with him. That's the way it works."
"That's why I started dating you."
Jay looked like he might start bawling. I really hoped he wouldn't. It would just cause a scene, plus it would be awkward, plus it would make me feel worse than I already did for having to break up with him on such short notice. "Really?"
I nodded. "Yessir."
"So you're leaving me for Matthew Hahs?"
"Like I said, it's not your fault. It's not even my fault. I just have to do what the dreams tell me to do. That's the way it works. That's how it's always worked."
He was angry now. "And once you dream about making out with some guy other than Matthew, you'll break up with him too, right?"
"Well, yeah." I shrugged.
"And if you dream about making out with your history teacher, will you go out with him, too?"
I cringed. Dating Mr. Greene was probably even more disgusting than cold cauliflower. "Yes. I have to. That's the way it works."
Jay's voice got quiet now, like it was his last hope, his last breath before passing out from thirst in the middle of the Sahara. "Will you ever dream about making out with me again?"
"Don't know. I can't control my dreams, you know."
Whatever I said, it snapped Jay's patience, and he shoved my textbooks into my face and said, "Well, if you do, assume that I've moved out of the country." Without saying anything else, without kissing me goodbye, without stopping to pick up the Literature textbook he dropped on the floor in his little explosion, he marched away. Into the crowd without a trace.
I really hate breaking up with people.
At lunch I found Matthew Hahs sitting on the bleachers with his basketball buddies. He wasn't as good looking as Jay, but I'd gotten some ugly catches in my time, and they usually turned out to be pretty nice despite their unfortunate genetic makeup. They had a game that day, so all seven of them wore dress shirts (untucked) and ties that looked like they'd lived at the bottom of some dad's underwear drawer for most of existence. See, all us girls have a reason to accuse boys of not being classy these days. No top hats to speak of.
"Matthew," I said. I ran a hand through my hair. In the course of my hormonal dreaming life, a few boys had turned me down, and that was my worst fear. If they turned me down, I couldn't live my dream. And if I didn't live my dream – I don't even know. So I had to look the part.
He turned and said, "Oh. Hi Tessa." I sat behind him in English class, so we talked a lot – though mostly regarding Hamlet's dead father and the last of those Mohiquans, whoever they were. "What's up?" You couldn't say he wasn't nice.
"Why don't you come with me?" I asked. I couldn't very well ask him on a date in front of all his wanna-be-jock friends, now, could I?
"Just, you know." I motioned vaguely towards the top of the bleachers. "Over there."
Matthew's friends gave him the bro look, that look guys give each other because they think girls can't decode it, but we all know what it means: don't screw up yet, she's hot. Or maybe it means something else. I'll never really know. But he got up and followed me up to the top of the bleachers, and we ducked behind the building where the announcer (yeah, the one they fired three years ago) is supposed to sit and announce things. Out of sight of his cronies.
"Are we supposed to be working on a project for Lit or something?" he asked.
Ah. Blissfully naïve. "Will you go out with me?"
Matthew took a few steps back and stared at me. "Did you just ask me out?"
I stood where I was, unwavering in my confidence. Males like a competent female. No mousy girl is going to get anywhere in life. "Yes I did."
"Oh." He breathed a few times, like a guy in a white lab coat was getting ready to jam a fat needle into his arm. "Why?"
This was always the hardest part. I didn't know Matthew so well, so the answer to that question would have to be some super-generic balderdash until I actually spent some time with him. Right now, all I knew about him stopped at his opinion on the sex scene in the Romeo and Juliet movie. "Because you're cute. And you're smart. And you're really good at basketball." I think that was true. If anyone asked I wouldn't be able to cite the number on his jersey, but he seemed like he would be good at it. And it was a safe compliment.
His face went red. Redder than Jay's had been when I broke up with him after third period. "Have you ever even been to one of the games?"
I could tell this was going nowhere fast. And I didn't want to be up here forever. I scooched closer to him, putting on my Bambi eyes and hoping for the best. And for good measure, I put a hand on his shoulder; my thumb happened to land on the bare skin of his neck. That makes a difference, you know. If people saw they might call it forward (if they lived in the 1800s), they might call me a slut (if they lived in the twenty-first century), but in my defense it wasn't anything worse than what he did in my dream the previous night. "Just say what you're thinking. You can tell me, you know. You can tell me anything."
I'd done this a few times before.
He edged closer. And closer. He put his hand out and I took it. "Sure," he said. "I guess. I'll go out with you."
Matthew started coming over to my house to study. I wanted to go to his house, but he said that wasn't a good idea – for whatever reason, but it's not like I had squirm room in the relationship. It was a little embarrassing going to my house. My house smelled like peaches and incense that came in packages with pictures of Caucasian Jesus on the front. My house had pill boxes sitting on the counter and a cabinet that had a chronic case of prunes. But who was I to say it registered worse on the house-continuum than Matthew's house? Maybe I'd never know.
He got a little weirded out by my grandma. I lived with her. She was the one that burned Jesus-incense, and if you have to know, she weirded me out, too. I generally tried to avoid her, and Matthew generally froze up and couldn't speak around her, so she reached the conclusion that I'd become a recluse and could only hook up with mutes. Yeah, she also thinks Neil Armstrong flew to the moon on a parakeet – because it's "the only thing that makes sense."
Clearly, he had next to no experience in the girl department. He got green in the face every time I put my hand on his leg, and you didn't hear this from me, but he couldn't kiss for anything. Seven minutes in Heaven was a huge disappointment – I wouldn't quite call it Purgatory, but you get the idea. Long story short, I was crossing my fingers for the next dream to come along.
It did. But when in my dream I opened my eyes to figure out who'd been kissing me, there hovered Matthew Hahs, smiling.
So I was stuck with him.
Another thing I discovered while dating Matthew was that I really can't stand watching basketball. It is so boring. Like, so boring I want to claw my eyes out. But I went to every game, because that's what girlfriends do. According to the chatter around me, Matthew came this close to qualifying for some fancy basketball scholarship, so I guess he was pretty good – not that I could tell the difference.
I was sitting on the bleachers (freakishly uncomfortable things, they are) listening to squeaking shoes and cheering, tracking Matthew's blonde hair across the court, when Kyle Mitcham sat down next to me. The gym was packed all the way to the ceiling, and I'd forgotten about the open seat next to me. Well, not quite empty. Kyle invited himself to throw my purse and jacket at me. We'd been science fair buddies in eighth grade and pantomime partners for ninth grade theatre (it's amazing, in a school this size, how few electives are offered to underclassmen). I hadn't talked to him since I asked him to sign my yearbook in June.
"Long time no see," he commented. I had a clever response ready when he leapt to his feet and screamed with the rest of the gym. Matthew'd just dunked something.
"Yeah…" I said when he sat down again.
"I didn't know you were into basketball."
I made a face. "I'm not. I hate it. But, you know, here to support the boyfriend."
Kyle looked pretty surprised. As if I couldn't make it with anyone I wanted to. That was practically my career, for the love. "I never would have put you two together."
"Neither would I."
He looked a little curious at that answer, but something kept him from asking about it. Our conversation meandered into embarrassing pantomime situations and how he still had fertilizer left over from eighth grade. All small talk, which I normally wouldn't classify myself as a master of. He didn't start crying boredom, though, and he kept me entertained enough for the duration of the game. I even got him to explain some of the better moves Matthew made so I could intelligently congratulate him afterwords. He was fun to talk to. He made basketball tolerable.
Matthew gave me an especially sweaty kiss that night. Close game, I guess.
Kyle and I exchanged numbers at the game, and we started texting. He when he was supposed to be babysitting his sister, me when I was supposed to be doing homework. I had a third dream about Matthew, and so I resigned myself to an early wedding.
Matthew tried really hard at the whole dating thing, but after the basketball team made it to playoffs, I almost never saw him. Half the time, he slept through English – not like it was all that fascinating, anyway – and he spent more time practicing than anything else. I yelled at him about it once or twice. Mostly I was just done dating him. Stupid dreams.
One Wednesday, Matthew had a basketball meeting during lunch, so I sequestered myself on the bleachers where we normally ate and tried to convince myself that the pattern on my lunchbox was worth my attention. Nothing else to do. You can only stare at badly-drawn flowers for so long. I stared out at the track, and I saw something that caught my eye.
"Kyle?" I have a loud voice, and he heard me all the way down at the end of the hundred meter dash. I stuffed the remainder of my lunch into my backpack and thundered down the metal stairs.
"Hey, Tessa," he said. "Are you picking up the track schedule?"
"No." As a general rule, I hated sports of any kind, the uniforms being one reason of many. Not flattering. Quite hideous, actually. "Are you?"
"Yep. Hurdles for life!" He pounded his chest, like boys often do when they're trying to be macho. There wasn't much there to pound. It made a flat slapping sound. "You should join track. It's fun. Are you better at long distance or short?"
"No distance," I said. "I hate running. It makes my throat hurt. I threw up after running the mile in junior high one time."
"Everybody throws up in track. I think that's the idea."
"Yeah, not my idea of a good time. But, whatever, different strokes for different folks."
Kyle gave me a look and started laughing. "Where did that come from? Your grandma?" I blushed, but he dropped the subject. "Where's Matthew?"
We stood awkwardly for too long, him holding a now-sweaty list of track events and meet dates, me wishing I had a hair tie to keep my hands busy. For all my hooking and breaking up, I wasn't actually that social, and I'd rather just be in any given boyfriend's room watching cat videos on YouTube or playing Call of Duty till way after dark. I started staring at his jawbones, because what else are you supposed to do while you're trying to figure out if a conversation is worth continuing?
"So it looks like you're pretty bored, Matthew gone and all that," Kyle observed. "Do you want to eat lunch with me and some of the track people?"
I took him up on it.
Pretty soon, I was in a predicament. I couldn't dream about Kyle.
I tried! I did some research on dreams, where they come from, that didn't lead anywhere. I thought about Kyle before I went to sleep, in case that would influence my dreams, but no such luck. Matthew talked to me less and less, and I wanted nothing but an excuse to break up with him, new territory to move onto, but my stupid subconscious thought I was having a grand old time.
Matthew was off on some away-game and probably playing as well as ever, and Kyle asked to talk to me in private during lunch. We trekked out to the track, apparently his favorite place on campus, second only to the lawn out front where he normally ate. He stopped me outside some portable classroom that had cobwebs covering half the doorway.
"I don't know how to start this conversation," he said.
I started getting a bad feeling in my stomach. I blamed it on the tamales my grandma forced down my throat for breakfast. "Then pretend you're in the middle of it," I suggested.
He breathed with his shoulders. "Fine." He breathed again. "-so that's why I think you should go out with me instead of Matthew."
A very odd place to start the conversation. A very odd place to call the middle. "Okay, now go back to the beginning," I said, refusing to let my lungs forget their duties just yet.
"I never see Matthew talking to you anymore. And word on the street is that you asked him out, not the other way around. I don't think he even likes you anymore. He sure doesn't appreciate you. And if I had to guess-" He paused and scrutinized me. "I'm not good at this, am I?"
"And if you had to guess, I don't like him, either," I finished for him.
Kyle looked surprised. "Yeah."
I shuffled my feet. Liking people had never been part of the equation in my life. I did what my dreams told me to, and it didn't matter if I liked Guy X or not. I'd not stopped to ask myself if I liked Matthew, or Jay, or any of the guys before them. And now, if I had any indication from watching other people struggle through the life I never had to deal with, I liked Kyle. But I couldn't dream about him. So it didn't matter. "I don't. But I can't… go out with you."
He looked even more surprised. And confused. And I wanted to leave. "You don't. But why not?"
I explained the dreams, why I broke up with Jay, why I asked Matthew out, just as straight-forward as I ever told anyone. I kind of had a formula by that point, and I was getting pretty good at the delivery.
Still, it never seemed to make sense to people. "Tessa, that's stupid." Nobody ever said it like that, though. I cringed a little. "You can't control your dreams. That doesn't make any sense."
"I know I can't. I'm not stupid. I have a 92 percent in math."
"So you can't break up with Matthew until you dream about making out with someone else?"
"Being with someone else. It doesn't matter what we're doing."
He turned around and started walking, pacing, back and forth like the dangly thing on the bottom of a clock, back and forth. "Have you ever actually liked someone?"
"Yes." You. Make this stop.
"I see." He seemed to be out of things to say. Like he had something in his head to say, and I just pulled it out through his ear and stomped it all over the track. "Let me know if you ever dream about me then, I guess."
The team won championships. Matthew invited me to a party one of the guys was hosting to celebrate the victory ("All you can eat burritos because the season's finally over!" whatever that meant). Whosever house it was at, the place was packed, and there were tons of burrito droppings all over the floor by the time we got there, fifteen minutes late. Fashionably late, when really Matthew just couldn't find his socks. He parked me by the closet by the front door and romped off with his friends, hooting and hollering like boys tend to do when they're excited. I didn't have a clue what to do.
So I stood there for a while, and I started thinking about dreams. And Jay. And Matthew. And Kyle. My grandma, too, and the way our house smelled. And I thought to myself, I believe that all break-ups should happen in person. When I want them to.
"Matthew," I said, standing in front of him in the back yard. Everyone was standing around eating burritos, fondling their girlfriends, drinking root beer.
"Yeah?" he said. His mouth was full.
"I have to break up with you." Before he could swallow and respond, I marched back through the house and let myself out. I'd take the bus home or something, because I certainly was not waiting around here for Matthew's mom to come pick us up and ask why things were so quiet there in the back seat – like they weren't always quiet.
I cursed myself when I realized there wasn't even so much as a nickel in my pocket. There went the bus plan. Maybe it was an omen. Maybe I should go apologize to Matthew, say I didn't know what came over me, say I was PMSing, I was out of my head. I almost did. I stood still on the sidewalk and closed my eyes. I knew what was going on. If I kept walking and never looked Matthew in the eyes again, my life would be totally different. There would be no more dreams. There would be no more breaking up. There would be no more playing games. I couldn't wrap my brain around it. But the thought of going back to Matthew and enduring him until I finally dreamed about someone else, and I didn't even know who, got less and less appealing, more and more nauseating.
So I pulled out my cell phone and selected the "recently contacted" list. Right there on the sidewalk.
I believe all break ups should happen in person. Then, by extension, I believe all hook-ups should happen in person, too (that's what my math teacher would call sensible logic, I think). But if I didn't do it now, I'd have no excuse for not walking back there and throwing myself at Matthew's mercy. I knew myself well enough to predict that one.
"Hello?" said Kyle. His voice was distorted. My cell phone was notorious for bad reception.
"Kyle?" I said.
"Tessa," he said. He didn't sound happy. He didn't sound disappointed. I don't know what he sounded.
I was quiet for a minute, standing on the sidewalk in front of a house with a yellow door, kicking a crack in the cement. Wondering what to say. "Look, I didn't dream about you," I said finally. "But I don't think that matters."
(Author's note: a little out of my usual style, I know. How do you think I pulled off the fluffy romance? Feedback always appreciated - good and bad alike. Thanks for reading! ~Petra)