It's Friday afternoon, the beginning of May, and school is out for the week. Instead of going home, I’m walking the Park. Mansfield Park is three blocks from the high school and a block from my house. The Park is oval-shaped with a lake in the center. Strolling along, I come upon a tall tree. Coming up for a closer look, at chest level, I’m met by a carved heart, "Michael + Elizabeth Forever" written in the center. I trace the letters with my fingers then dispiritedly drop on the grass beside the tree, fighting away renewed thoughts of Joseline in an attempt to stay focus. Kia Smith’s gospel tract is open in my hand. I read through the tract searchingly. I then back closer to the tree, shutting my eyes gently as if to sleep, leaning against the tree and resting my head against its trunk.
Back in January during third period, I was in English class with Jozy. She sat in the desk in front of me. Her name is Joseline Baker but everyone calls her Jozy. I knew her ever since seventh grade. Even then I was the prisoner of her beauty. But that day in January we were taking notes as Miss Kagan lectured on Julius Caesar when she turned and faced me. “Hey, Eric," she whispered, "you got an extra pen you can lend me please?”
I swallowed and immediately I was rummaging through my backpack. I found twelve pens—I paid five dollars for three!—pulled them out and handed them to her. "Take whatever you want," I said. She picked up one after another, returning them back into my palm until she found one she liked. The one she chose was at the bottom. When she picked it up, her short fingers gently brushed my palm. My hands became numb under her touch and I lost my grip. The pens fell from my shaky hands and, hitting the cement floor, they dispersed. The moment they hit the shiny gray tiles, every eye was instantly on me.
“Mr. Anderson!” Miss Kagan chided from the front of the room. “Must you always make a scene?”
“Sorry,” I said. I bent down and began picking the pens up nervously but rapidly. Miss Kagan continued her lecture while I was on the floor burning with humiliation. What made my situation worse was that while on the floor I heard people snickering, trying to restrain their urges to laugh. But I had expected Joseline to bend down beside me—but before bending, saying to Miss Kagan, “I’m sorry, it was my fault” or “He pulled them out because of me and I may have knocked them out of his hand”—but she never did. All of a sudden I heard laughter. The deep and idiotic voice was Gus'; he wanted to show me that he didn't care if I heard him. Gus' outburst was not what struck me however. It was Joseline—she was laughing too. I was broken.
My head was spinning, but I went on picking up the pens. The last one sat by a frail and delicate pair of feminine legs. She had on black sneakers. They were “Air Force 1s”, the air holes above the toes, the Nike check-logo on the opposite sides. Before I could pick up the pen, the skinny, smooth and brown arm belonging to the legs reached down and picked it up. I looked up. It was Kia Smith. She was looking down at me with pity visible in her big bright eyes, sitting on her thin, brown face.
“Here,” she said. She swallowed. Her hand was shaking. I snatched the pen from her palpitating hand without letting out a single word of thanks and went back to my seat. As I sat down, Joseline's cackle resounded in my head. Every time I replayed the sound, Jozy became more odious.
That whole day and week, I refused to acknowledge Joseline’s existence. She didn’t seem to notice at first, but after she walked passed me in the hallways and tried talking to me but got no response, her glances, hi’s, and smiles became more frequent. But by February I began to forget why I was so angry.
One afternoon during the lunch period, I was sitting by myself in the cafeteria, finishing up my Sloppy Joe. I sat at the far end, away from the other students. I despised them, excluding a small minority. Joseline used to be part of that minority. To me they were victims of the plague and I feared contamination. I was wiping my hands when I saw someone coming towards me. The person's eyes were on me as if on a mission. I could tell by the face it was a girl but I couldn’t tell the face from the crowd of light brown, dark brown, graham, yellow, and white faces. When she got closer I saw that it was Kia. She was like a rose in full bloom in the desert. She didn't belong among us!
Kia had two small cups of vanilla ice cream in her delicate hands, her long, thin fingers securing them. She came and sat at the long table across from me.
“What do you want?” I said. She didn’t answer right away but just pushed one of the ice cream cups to me.
“I’m not here because of Joseline,” she said. I wanted to tell her I didn’t mind Joseline. It was her I minded, her with her condescension, as if there was something wrong with my being a loner. I had no one to call friend but I was happy. But her condescension made my isolation feel conspicuous and false—she changed my aloneness to loneliness.
“If you're not here for her then what are you here for?”
“To sit with you and share some ice cream, Eric! Is that so criminal?” She didn’t look at me. Her head was bowed over her ice cream cup. She removed the small wooden spoon glued to the lid and started scooping ice cream to her small curvy lips.
I started on my ice cream too.
“You know,” she began, raising her head and staring at me, “not everyone’s your enemy. Some of us actually like you and want to get to know you better.”
I placed my cup down and looked up at her. “Did you come over here just to lecture me on how to get along with others?”
She swallowed, looking away from me. “No," she said and stopped. "I also wanted you to know that Jozy feels awful about what happened in class. It’s killing her that you won’t look at her.” I was shocked: It's killing Joseline that I’m angry with her? Kia saw my amazement and got up. Handing me a folded white sheet of paper, she walked off, angry. After she left, I unfolded the note and read—
Eric, will you please forgive me? You’ve always been so nice to me. If you decide to forgive me—and I hope you do—call me!
She had her number in the bottom. I folded the note back up and stuck it in my back pocket.
Later that evening in my room, at about nine o'clock, I took out Joseline’s note. I was sitting on my bed, unsure if I should call. I stared at the note, reading it for the sixth time. I began keying the numbers on my cell phone. The phone rang twice and she picked up.
“Joseline? It’s me, Eric.”
“Eric, you’ve called! Does this mean you forgive me?”
“I can't even remember what happened.” I tried to sound passive.
“Really? Well how come you won’t look at me or even respond when I try talking to you at school?”
I didn’t say anything. “Why? I mean, if you forgive me and all.”
“It doesn’t matter, okay. I was angry, now I'm not. Isn't that enough?”
She stayed quiet for a second. “Is it because you got a crush on me or something? Julia seems to think so.”
“What?” I blurted incredulously into the speakerphone.
“Well, do you?”
I swallowed. “Yeah but that doesn't mean anything. You’re the prettiest girl in school. Every guy has a crush on you.”
“So it's true!” She giggled.
“Listen,” I said. My voice was shaky. “I’ve gotta go.”
“Oh. Don’t you wanna know how I feel about you?”
I took a silent deep-breath and released. “Okay. How do you feel about me?”
“You’re a nice guy, Eric. I like you too. I've always liked you...” Like that, I was an item with Joseline Baker. But I couldn’t rid myself of her statement “you’re a nice guy.” I felt like I could finish the sentence by adding “I’ll give you a shot; we’ll see how things turn out.” Excitement and uncertainty were strange feelings to have at the same time.
Despite my hesitations, dating Jozy was everything I imagined it would be. We exchanged notes during class; we talked on the phone every day. Feeling her soft lips pressed against mine while her strawberry scented perfume forced its way into my nostrils was the best part of our relationship. But I could tell that even though she was my first girlfriend, I was not her first boyfriend. The girl knew just how to touch me to make my spine tingle and have my heart jump. The first time we kissed, she stuck her tong inside my mouth! She laughed when she felt me jump.
One after school in May, I was walking through the school parking lot, a box of costumes in my hands. The twelfth grade English teacher was putting on Macbeth. She blackmailed me into helping her bring in props from her van to the auditorium, promising me that if I helped her she would keep my love of literature and our literary discussions secret. I agreed. It was after three, almost four. As I passed a black Oldsmobile in the nearly empty parking lot, I saw two people in the backseat making out. I hid my face with the box. I decided that whatever they were doing wasn’t any of my business. But curiosity got the better of me and I took a step back and peaked. It was Gus and Joseline! I stood there stunned, not sure what to do. I wanted to drop the box, run over to the car, yank the door open, knock Gus’ teeth out and strangle Joseline. But I turned my face from them and walked away.
That evening, after dinner, I went up to my room and called Joseline up. I planned to call her a host of foul names before breaking up with her. The phone rang once and she picked up.
“It’s me,” I said, my tone cold.
“I know,” she laughed, “I got caller ID, remember? So what’s up?”
“Listen,” I said, thinking what’s up? What’s up? You and Gus were making out, that’s what’s up, you— “It’s not working out. I don't think we should see each other anymore.”
“What?” She sounded so innocent. “Eric, what's wrong? What you mean nothing? I think I deserve to know why I’m being dumped!”
“I'm not in the mood for explanations.”
“Fine, if that’s what you want.” She was crying. “You're angry with me, aren't you?”
I swallowed. “No." I thought about it then said, "Yes.”
“You wanna talk about it?”
“You can't break up with me like this Eric, not after what we've done. But-but you said you loved me!" She was crying again. "Let's take a break—for a few weeks! You're angry and—”
“That’s not a good idea. No, I can't! Listen, I gotta go.”
“Please, Eric. Don't do this to me!"
I wanted to give in, run to her house and hold her, but the scene with her and Gus in the back of the Oldsmobile was still fresh in my mind. I stayed on the line while she cried. But my perpetual silence told her I was serious.
"Can we still be friends?” she said.
“Fine, whatever! See you around.” I hung up. I was on my bed, lying on my back, staring at the white ceiling. There was a lump in my dry-throat and my vision became blurred as salty tears ran down my face.
It wasn’t two weeks since we broke up and Joseline gave up trying to win me back. She and Gus got together. They walked around school holding hands, kissing in the hallways, doing couple-stuff. She’d see me and wave. I'd wave back.
Earlier today I was walking home. It was a sunny day, in the high seventies. I was less than a block from my house when I heard someone calling my name. I turned around and saw it was Kia Smith. I stopped to let her catch up. Watching her running towards me in her tight faded blue jeans, white blouse and white low-top “Air Force 1s” she looked shorter than five-eleven, just an inch shorter than me. Her thick, dark hair danced as she ran towards me. She was never more beautiful than she was that moment.
“What happened to your car?” I asked as she came to my side.
“It’s in the shop,” she said. “Something’s wrong with the AC. Since my mom can’t pick me up I have to take the bus home. You live around here?”
“Two blocks from the school,” I said.
“Oh! So you can keep me company till the bus comes!”
“I heard about you and Joseline,” she said. She looked over at me shyly as we were walking. “Sorry ta hear.”
“I’m not. I wasn't right for her.”
She smiled. “I never thought so either.”
I looked over at her and said, “Yeah?”
She looked embarrassed. “Well, yeah,” she said, trying to choose her words carefully, “she’s so outgoing and you, you’re just so introverted.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I think.” We walked in silence. "Listen, I'm sorry for giving you the cold shoulder so many times."
“Oh, that's all right." She said that like it was nothing.
"How did you get to be like this?" I asked after a moment passed.
"You know—all caring and forgiving."
She smiled. "Well, if you can remember, I wasn't like this in middle school and for most of our freshmen year either. I was the girl who always got into fights."
"I remember," I said. "So what caused this change?"
"I became a Christian," she said.
"I don't get it. I thought you always went to church. You couldn't have been a pagan!"
"No, I wasn't a pagan," she said with a smile. "What I mean is that I went to church because my parents made me go. I didn't have a personal relationship with God."
I didn't say anything, but she must have seen my confusion because she added, "One evening last year, I was at a church meeting with my parents. My sins were bothering me and I wanted forgiveness. The preacher explained that when Jesus died He suffered for the sins of the world. I realized I was in the world so that "the world" must include me. The preacher explained that, even though He suffered and died for the world, not everyone in the world is going to heaven. Only those who understand that He died for them personally and trust Him will receive forgiveness. I trusted Jesus during the meeting and I became a Christian. So I try and show God's love to people whenever I—" We suddenly heard the bus turning the corner. "That's my bus!" She reached into her purse, pulled out a tract and dropped it into my hand. "It's one of my favorites," she said, running off, "it makes salvation very easy to understand! See you Monday!" She got to the bus stop just as the big Transit bus came to a stop. She waved at me and I waved back. She got on the bus and was gone.
I opened the tract; it began with a Bible quotation
For God so love the world, that he gave his only Begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have ever lasting life
I read the tract while walking home. The more I read, the shorter my paces became, until I was barely walking. It was a short tract so I finished it in five minutes. The message convicted me. Like Kia felt that evening last year, I wanted forgiveness. When I got to my house, instead of going in, I walked passed the house and went to the park. When I got to Mansfield Park, as far as I could see, there wasn't anybody there. I walked deep into the park until I found a big, tall, isolated-tree and sat under it.
My eyes are still closed. I believe that God sent Jesus His only Son to die in my place. Because He suffered for my sins, I won't need to perish in hell. I open my eyes and rise to my feet. I kiss the tract and slide it into my back pocket, walking farther into Mansfield Park. I walk up to the lake. The water reflects the sun's beams, the water sparkling as if with millions of diamonds. Taking a deep breath, I look up at the bright sky and smile. I want Monday to come so I can tell Kia what happened to me.
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