“So we’re standing there talking to some neighbors, right next to this huge mud puddle; it had been raining for a few days and everything was still kind of squishy, you know? Anyway, Halley yells out to me, ‘Hey, Dad, look!’ So my wife and I look over and here she comes, running like little kids do, all crooked and sideways, you know?”
“Damn,” the clerk said, hitting the register tape with his fist. It wasn’t going in. I was in hell.
“And I swear,” my father went on, now chuckling, “I was thinking as she got closer and closer to that mud puddle, Man, she’s going in. I could see it coming.”
Behind me somebody tittered. My stomach turned in on itself.
“And she hits the edge of that puddle, still running, and her feet just—they just flew out from under her.” Now my father dissolved in laughter, along with, oh, about a thousand commuters and office workers all over the tri-county area. “I mean, she skidded on her butt, all the way across that puddle, bumping along with this completely shocked look on her face, until she, like, landed right at out feet. Covered in mud. And we’re all trying not to laugh, God help us. It was the funniest thing I think I have ever seen. Ever.”
“That’ll be one-oh-nine,” the clerk said to me suddenly. I threw my dollar and some change at him, pushing past all the grinning faces out to the car, where Scarlett was waiting.
“Oh, man,” she said as I slid in. “How embarrassed are you right now?”
“Shut up,” I said. All day I had to listen to the mud jokes and have people nudge me and giggle. Macon christened me Muddy Britches. It was the worst.
“I’m sorry,” my father said to me, first thing that night. I ignored him, walking up the stairs. “I really, really am. It just kind of came out, Halley. Really.”
“Brian,” my mother said. “I think you should just keep Halley’s life off limits. Okay?”
This from the woman who wrote about me in two books. My parents both made their livings humiliating me.
“I know, I know,” he said, but he was smiling. “It was just so funny, though. Wasn’t it?” He giggled, then tried to straighten up. “Right?”
“Real funny,” I said. “Hysterical.”
This was just one example of how my parents were suddenly, that fall, making me crazy. It wasn’t just the statewide shame on the radio, either. It was something I couldn’t put my finger on or define clearly, but a whole mishmash of words and incidents, all rolling quickly and building, like a snowball down a hill, to gather strength and bulk to flatten me. It wasn’t what they said, or even just the looks they exchanged when they asked me how school was that day and I just mumbled fine with my mouth full, glancing wistfully over at Scarlett’s, where I was sure she was eating alone, in front of the TV, without having to answer to anyone. There had been a time, once, when my mother would have been the first I’d tell about Macon Faulkner, and what P.E. had become to me. But now I only saw her rigid neck, the tight, thin line of her lips as she sat across from me, reminding me to do my homework, no I couldn’t go to Scarlett’s it was a school night, don’t forget to do the dishes and take the trash out. All things she’d said to me for years. Only now they all seemed loaded with something else, something that fell between us on the table, blocking any further conversation.
I knew my mother wouldn’t understand about Macon Faulkner. He was the furthest I could get from her, Noah Vaughn, and the perfect daughter I’d been in that Grand Canyon picture. This world I was in now, of high school and my love affair with P.E., with Michael Sherwood gone, had no place for my mother or what she represented. It was like one of those tests where they ask what thing doesn’t belong in this group: an apple, a banana, a pear, a tractor. There wasn’t anything she could do about it. My mother, for all her efforts, was that tractor.
Macon finally asked me out on October 18 at 11:27 A.M. It was a monumental moment, a flashbulb memory. I hadn’t had a lot of incredible events in my life, and I intended to remember every detail of this one.
It was a Friday, the day of our badminton quiz. After I handed in my paper, I pulled out my English notebook and started to do my vocabulary, at the same time keeping a close eye on Macon as he chewed his pencil, stared at the ceiling and struggled with the five short questions of the same test Coach had been giving out for the last fifteen years.
A few minutes later he got up to hand in his test, sticking his pencil behind his ear as he passed me. I braced myself, reading the same vocab word, feuilleton, over and over again, like a spell, trying to draw him over to talk to me. Feuilleton, feuilleton, as he handed his test to Coach, then stretched his arms over his head and started back toward me, taking his time. Feuilleton, feuilleton, as he got closer and closer, then grinned as he passed me, heading back to where he’d been sitting. Feuilleton, feuilleton, I kept thinking hopelessly, the word swimming in front of my eyes. And then finally, on the last feuilleton, the sound of his notebook sliding up next to me, and him plopping down beside it. And just like that, I felt that goofy third-period P.E. rush, like the planets had suddenly aligned and everything was okay for the next fifteen minutes while I had him all to myself.
“So,” he said, lying back on the shiny gym floor, his head right next to my leg, “who invented the game of badminton?”
I looked at him. “You don’t know?”
“I’m not saying that. I’m just asking what you said.”
“I said the right answer.”
I just shrugged. “You know. That guy.”
“Oh, yeah.” He nodded, grinning, running a hand through his damp hair. “Right. Well, that’s what I said too, Muddy Britches.”
“Well, good for you.” I turned the page of my English notebook, pretending I was concentrating on it.
“What are you doing this weekend?” he said.
“I don’t know yet.” We had this conversation every Friday; he always had big plans, and I always acted like I did.
“Big date with old Noah?”
“No,” I said. Noah’s P.E. class had come in for a volleyball tournament with ours, and of course when he grunted hello to me I had to explain who he was. Why I said he’d been my boyfriend I had no idea; I’d been trying to live it down ever since.
“What about you?” I asked him.