Junior Year, October

"Aren't you glad you came?" CJ laughed.

I couldn't see her very well in the darkness, but stripes of light beamed through the rows of the metal bleachers and lined themselves down her body as she sat. She began to shift over and lay down in the grass and I followed suit. The grass was cold and nearly frozen stiff, but it wasn't so uncomfortable once I got used to it. The night air was cool and still, the sound of screaming and cheering voices all around and the music being played by the marching band blended together, muffled from above. It was the first and only high school football game I've ever attended. I didn't show up out of personal interest, I don't know anything about football. Instead I showed up for CJ Wellings, who invited me. Any chance to spend time with her I leapt too, even if it meant watching a game I didn't understand in the slightest.

We'd spent the first half of the game seated together in the middle row, her hollering and cheering for the game and me struggling to make sense of the kids in armor tackling each other beneath us. I acted like I was cheering for Theo but honestly under all the helmets and padding I couldn't even tell which one Theo was. The stands were packed with kids from school, a third of them even holding up signs as they cheered for our team, but it felt like it was just CJ and I alone. Every now and then she would get kind of close, her leg would rub up against mine, and she would occasionally place her hand on my thigh or even rest her head on my shoulder. I tried to think of how to go about holding her hand. As soon as halftime hit she grabbed me by my wrist and rushed me down the bleachers, mischievously giggling as she lead me to her hiding spot beneath them. She said it was where she went to get away from everyone momentarily without anyone noticing.

"Yeah," I answered, staring at the bleachers above me and trying to think of what someone who enjoyed watching football would say. "This is fun."

Smooth, Richie.

"I needed this," CJ sighed. "There's so much stress at home I never get to go out anymore."

"Your parents still fighting?"

"Filling out divorce papers."

"Dang. Sorry."

"It just means that now instead of fighting over bills and work, they're fighting over me. I'm seventeen years old and they still treat me like a non-person either of them can just claim. They don't understand I have a life of my own, you know?"

"My uncle's the same way. Only he's probably right about me not having a life."

CJ turned over on her side to face me. I met eyes with her and could see she was smiling.

"You always know how to make me laugh, Richie."

Even in near darkness I could still somehow make out a bit of the gleam in her eyes. The light from the posts above spilling through the seats reflected in her blond hair and made it almost seem to glow.

"I have a question..." I said without thinking.

"What is it?" she asked.

"Do you think I'm… Well, I don't know. Weird, or I guess different?"

"Why? Do you feel different?"

"Sometimes. I dunno. When I'm around everyone else I just always kinda feel like… Like I have to act a certain way and watch what I say, you know? You're kinda the only one I feel like I don't have to pretend around."

CJ laughed, and turned over so her back was to the grass again.

"Of course you're weird," she answered, closing her eyes. "You don't fit in at all. Everyone else is boring and they all think the same. I would hate it if you were like that."

I remained on my side, facing her. I felt like a creep just watching her when her eyes were closed, but I couldn't look away. She never seemed more beautiful.

"Look, CJ," I blurted, starting the second round of thoughtless speaking. "We haven't known each other that long, but us hanging out all the time has been the best part of school these last few weeks."

"Yes, it definitely has been."

"I don't know how to say it, but all this time we spent together has to mean… something. Right?"

"Of course it does, darling."

"Bri, huh?" Theo questioned, raising a brow at Travis. "She's not exactly known for her nun-like beliefs."

"So she's experienced," Trav defended with a shrug. "The less I have to teach her the better."

I rolled my eyes. The cafeteria chatter made his borderline misogyny indistinct to everyone around us, but Theo and I were stuck engaging in this conversation. I stared at my tray of the school's newly-commissioned unsalted fries.

"Aye, Trav," Theo began. "Here's a wild thought, but have you ever considered dating a girl and not just randomly hooking up?"

Travis scoffed and dismissed the thought. "Not everyone can have what you and V got."

Theo sighed and cringed. "Yeah… About that."

"What do you mean 'about that'? Don't tell me…"

Theo was silent.

"But, how? Y'all two never had any problems!"

He looked at me as if I was supposed to chime in with a logical-sounding explanation of why he and V were drifting apart. Richie to the rescue, again.

"Sometimes it just doesn't work out," I began. "Theo and V aren't always fighting or anything, but they can still be losing interest. The way I see it, nobody stays the same person when they start a relationship, and over time both of them can get so different they don't even like each other anymore. It's no one's fault, just happens."

"But they always look all happy," Travis continued. "Kissin' and huggin' and holding doors open for each other all the time."
"Well, when it comes to love and dating, people have a tendency to act differently than they normally would. Everyone who's ever liked someone's done it, because when you have romantic feelings it always makes you scared of what other people think. You could say Theo and V being all flirty around each other is their subconscious way of overcompensating for their mutual incompatibility, and making everyone think things are okay. Much like someone could guess you avoiding feelings and sleeping around is your way of overcompensating for a fear of rejection and hiding the loneliness you really feel."

Travis scoffed at me. "Since when do you know anything about dating anyway? You been single as long as I've known you, Rich."

"Might change soon," Theo interjected with a grin. I instinctively looked down and got defensive.

"Who?" Travis urged, almost in disbelief.

I tried to back out of the subject. "No one…"

"CJ Wellings." Theo proudly stated. Travis' expression went from surprise to confusion.

"That's… weird." He eventually thought aloud.

"Weird," I repeated. "How?"

He shrugged. "I dunno, she's just really popular, hangs around with all the preppy white kids and you're… Well, you."

"The heck is that supposed to mean?"

"Ayo," Theo cut in, motioning across the cafeteria. "There go your girl."

Bri Nelson walked by, big brown eyes glued to her cell phone, her pointlessly long press on nails hitting the buttons on the screen, her lip-gloss smothered mouth occupied with smacking her gum. She made made her way over to the lunch line.

"You gonna go for it?" Theo asked Trav. "Or are you intimidated by her experience?"

"Please," Travis replied with a self-indulgent smirk. "I'mma have her number in less than five minutes."

Theo gave a look of disbelief. Travis stood up from the table.

"Wahmeedoit!"

And he was off on his journey to Bri's uterus.

"That dude's a nut." I thought aloud.

"Yeah," Theo laughed. "But if he wasn't we wouldn't hang out with him."

I drifted off, staring at my disgusting fries again.

"Yo," he began. "Don't let Trav get you down about CJ. Go for it."

"You think I should?"

"Yeah, man. She's bad, I admit, and it sounds like she's feeling you. So I say try it out. Besides, you waste all your wisdom on me and Trav's stupid problems. You deserve somebody to kick it with and talk to. I mean, you definitely don't deserve to be alone forever."

"You have the weirdest room, Richie." CJ laughed, making herself at home upon my bed, looking up in shock at the posters on my ceiling, which ranged from Big Pun to Shakespeare.

"Weird like how?" I defended, leaning against my dresser.

"They say you can tell a lot about someone by their room," she began to explain. "Yours looks like a bunch of different peoples' rooms thrown together."

She turned on her side and made herself comfortable. CJ Wellings is in my bed right now.

"What's with you?" She said, snapping me out of my momentary daze. "Why are you being so quiet lately?"

"Aren't you always telling me to shut up?" I replied.

"Yeah, but you know I never mean it."

"CJ," I began, searching my mind for the right words. "There's something I wanna talk to you about."

This was it; the be all end all, the moment of clarity. I was finally going to open up to her about how I felt.

"Well?" She said, growing impatient in my silence.

"Well… You know. I… I mean we… We… Together… It's just… I wanted to know if you… We?"

"You gonna keep stammering or come lay next to me?"

"You… You want me to lay with you?

"It's your bed, isn't it?"

I tried to seem nonchalant about it as I walked over to the bed and joined her. My own bed had never felt so foreign. She turned her back to me and took hold of my hand, guiding my arm over her side. We were so close that her hair was right in my face, and I could feel her warmth passing onto me.

"I've been meaning to thank you, Richie." She said.

"Thank me? For what?"

"Just being here when I need you. Talking to me even when I get all emotional. You've been helping me deal with a lot lately."

"Of course," I said, taken off guard and searching for my words. "It'll always be that way, CJ. You don't have to thank me, I'm here because I care."

"I have a bad habit, though. With all my trust issues, I never let anyone get close without eventually pushing them away. The people that care about me usually give up trying to handle my craziness."

"I'm still here, aren't I?"

"You don't know what you're getting yourself into. Are you sure you won't give up like the rest?"

"Never. You have my word."

I was suddenly shocked by intense vibrations on my thigh. Not from my cell phone, from hers. She let go of my hand and reached into her pocket, staring at her phone then letting out a disappointed sigh. She turned and prepared to get up from my bad.

"There go my demanding parents again," she moaned sadly. "I gotta go take care of business."

I tensed up and tried to hide my angst. I was supposed to tell her how I feel and I'd barely gotten a word out, and now she was going to leave. I had to say something…

"CJ, I…"

Before I could say anything else, she leaned over until her face was nearly touching mine, angling her head to the side and pressing her lips onto my cheek. I froze immediately, smelling the strawberry in her lip gloss and feeling the moisture upon my skin. I lost all reactionary function, and could do nothing but watch, wide-eyed and dumbfounded, as she pulled back, smiled at me, then got up and made her way out.

"See you in school, Richie." She called as she turned my doorknob. And like that, CJ Wellings was out of my room. I was sitting there, running back that moment in my head when my door swung open again.

"Hey, Rich," my uncle called, barging in. "What do you vote we do for dinner."

I jolted upright and through my blanket over my lower half, angrily yelling back.

"Ever hear of knocking!?"

I don't draw very often. I mean, when I was a little kid I would be doodling all the time, I used to have dreams of being an artist one day. Eventually the cynicism of reality stripped those dreams from me, and art stopped being a priority and more of a once-in-awhile hobby. In my teenage years, whenever I did take the time to draw something, all of my friends that happened to see it told me it was amazing. I was always sure, though, if I showed someone who was actually an expert on visual art they would condescendingly pat me on the head and tell me to go to go have a seat while the adults talked.

This time, I put more effort into scraping led against a sheet of paper than ever before. The result, I think, was rather good. At least, it was far better than anything else I'd ever done, or anything people would expect from a scrub like me. I was never good with words, communicating how I feel to other people through talking and whatnot. I never really had an alternative either, so drawing in this case was the best thing I could come up with. This picture was of two people, a beautiful woman who happened to look a lot like CJ, and a relatively handsome guy who happened to look a lot like me. They were holding hands, surrounded by clouds. I thought if that didn't communicate to her how I felt, nothing will. Then I thought of something that might make it easier. In the most pleasant cursive my hands were able to muster, I scrawled one word beneath us: darling.

I didn't have nearly enough courage to hand it to her face to face, so I slid it into her locker the next morning. CJ and I had a routine, always meeting up at the end of fourth period by the busted water fountain, hitting the vending machine, then I'd walk her to her study hall. We'd regroup later that day, of course, but that was the first time we saw each other every day. I figured I'd wait by that fountain and she'd come running toward me with open arms in slow motion, and we could finally take everything to the next level and be honest to ourselves about what we were. But when I got to the fountain, there was no CJ to be seen.

The break between periods was still ending, and still no CJ to be seen. I knew for a fact she was in school that day, and she had to have seen my drawing, so if for whatever reason she couldn't meet up like we always did, she would at least send a text message explaining it and arranging a meetup somewhere else later. So I checked my phone and there was no text from CJ. Then I decided to send one.

'Couldn't find the fountain today?'

No response. I suddenly felt a knife of regret stabbing my gut. Maybe all of this was a bad idea, maybe I misread every sign, maybe… Maybe I need to calm down. I didn't know where she was, but I knew where she was going to be. I walked alone over to her study hall room.

As I turned the corridor to the room, I didn't see CJ, but I did see her familiar entourage of friends. They all saw me and stopped what they were doing, then quickly looked away and pretended not to see me, as if I was stupid or something and would fall for it. Then, they all started whispering amongst each other and laughing. It wasn't just cute little giggling; after a while it was hardcore, straight up, deep-breathed laughter. I didn't know what to do or say, so I just turned back and began to walk away.

I barely got a few steps away when I heard one of them take a breath to stop herself from laughing, just long enough to yell out to me.

"Where are you going, darling?"