The next couple of days blurred by. It was as if I had been living in this self-absorbed fog and then I met Mr. O’Connor and that fog lifted. Well, it was lifting, anyway. It was hard for me to get used to calling him Archer, even in my mind. The day he said I could call him that my heart lifted high in an air ballon of fascination. I felt infected, like Archer came into my life carrying a dangerous contagion that somehow only weakened my white blood cells.
We didn’t talk much because he seemed distracted by something bigger then himself. I wanted to know what was bothering him and if there was anyway I could help but I didn’t say anything. The last thing I wanted to do was come across as pushy or reach too far out of what was permitted.
In any case, I had a lot of work to focus on. I would often look up and catch him glancing over at me, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, his papers askew around him. I would offer him my tentative smile from around the piano and he would give me a soft smile in return. We seemed to say so much to each other in those moments without having to say anything at all. I wanted to know what was going on inside his head, what that conversation the other morning had meant, and I wanted to know if he spent his nights dreaming about me too.
Steven dropped by twice after school to practice the song he agreed to sing with me. He was actually really fun to be around and he made me laugh so hard I couldn’t focus. Which was why I usually kicked him out. On the days that Steven was there, Archer never looked at me. Instead he stayed overly focused on his computer screen as if he was trying to perform an exorcism on it.
As usual I was so busy with school and practice that I hadn’t had much time to visit with my Nana. It wasn’t until Friday night that we were able to catch up.
“Hey, Nana!” I said giving her quick kiss on the cheek while she sat on the front porch swing. I was just getting home from a self-induced after school practice.
“My sweet girl, how was school?” She said just as gently as she always had.
It was a little after six and my brain was still on Archer. He was listening to the soundbites that Hollis was working on so I didn’t get to see him today, which made my practice awful because I couldn’t concentrate. I found this odd because I used to operate fine without his presence and it wasn’t like we talked much anyways.He brought me comfort, however small, by being there.
Sitting down beside her I said, “Well school is school but I do have a lot to tell you.” I hadn’t seen her all week. Nana was in her eighties and usually went to bed around seven.
She lost Pop last year and her heart hasn’t been able to recover fully. Which in turn made Nana weak, lonely, and lost, it was as if she didn’t know how to live without Pop. Nana was a shell of the person she had been when he had been alive. Nana met Pop when they were in diapers. They spent there formative years together as the best of friends. By the time they were sixteen they knew they wanted to get married. As the story goes, Pop wasn’t allowed to court her until they were both eighteen and he had a steady way of making a living for Nana. Pop quickly got a job at the lumber mill and worked there his whole life. They married on Nana’s nineteenth birthday and loved each other wholly. Pop and Nana had their ups and downs like any other married couple but they alway managed to work through it. Pop had always been by Nana’s side so I didn’t blame Nana for not knowing how to function when the other part of her was long gone. Their relationship had always inspired me. I hoped to find a love like they had one day.
When Pop died everything changed and I was left to fend for myself most of the time. I knew she still loved me and wanted to take care of me the way she had when I was younger. But now, she needed me to help her more then I needed her to take care of me.
“Ophelia, is everything ok?” Nana said reaching for my hand.
I turned my head and gave her a soft smile, I hadn’t realized that I had been so lost in my thoughts. “Yes…I’m fine.”
“What was it you wanted to tell me about school?” Nana asked as her eyes begun to get that sleepy haze around them.
“Ms. Jung said I could graduate in December because I have enough credits.” I finally told her.
“Is that what you want to do, dear?” Her indigo eyes were growing more and more distant. She wouldn’t be coherent much longer.
“Yes, I figured I could spend some time working before I leave for Nashville. Start college with a little pad in my pocket.” I said in a rush.
“Senior year is important, I wouldn’t want you missing anything.” She said mid yawn.
“I wouldn’t be. You know, I’ve never been big on school. I love Willows Edge and I have learned a lot there, but I don’t exactly blend.” We locked eyes for a moment and I was afraid she would say no.
“I am proud of you Ophelia, you were always meant for bigger things.” Nana said, smiling.
“When will mom be back? I need her to sign the papers by next Friday.” I asked.
“She flies in on Tuesday with Kelly. I’ll make sure signs them. What else is new?” Nana said trying to stay awake. I wanted to tell her to go to bed but I knew she was trying to be there for me. So I didn’t say anything.
“I didn’t take enough physical education classes so I’m forced to take ballroom dancing.”
“Oh, how fun! Herbert and I used to go dancing all the time! If there was anything your Pop would do it was Tango.” She had more zest in her voice then she had in months. I couldn’t help but grin, I loved it when she talked about Pop.
“Well, maybe you can help me practice.” I said nudging her will my elbow.
“Or, I can dance with you.” Steven added from the bottom of the porch steps. When did he get here? Why was he here? “I’m Steven, Ophelia’s dance partner.” He extended his hand towards Nana. His timing was impeccable. Nana’s eyebrows sky rocketed off her forehead. I have never had a boy over and the only other person she was used to seeing around me was Hollis. If she had a heart attack right now from shock I wouldn’t be surprised.
“Nice to meet you Steven, you may call me Annie.” Nana said taking his hand and giving it the lightest shake.
“Nice to meet you too, Annie, and if you ever need a dance partner I’d be happy to oblige.” Steven winked. Winked!
“Well aren’t you the charmer.” Nana said, with what I swear was a little color in her cheeks. “You two kids have fun and don’t stay up too late. I need get ready for bed.” Nana, grabbed her cane and walked back into the house. Steven took her place beside me.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
He put on a mock-offended face, “Well it’s nice to see you too.”
I let out a small polite laugh, “I’m just surprised. I didn’t know you knew where I lived.”
“I didn’t. I cornered Hollis in the studio.”
“You know Hollis?”
This time he laughed, “We have been going to school together for four years and she is the only person I have ever seen you talking to.”
“Wow, I really do live in my own bubble, don’t I?” I stated rhetorically. I was only five days into my senior year and I was already realizing how inside my own head I was. My life was my music and I didn’t make much time for anything else. I didn’t mean it in a rude way. It was just that music was the only part of the world I was comfortable in. The only place I felt truly free. “What brings you by?” I tried saying as friendly as possible.
“It’s Friday and I am hungry. I was hoping you wanted to go to Mama’s with me? Grab a slice?” He said looking kind of nervous.
Was he asking me out on a date? “Yeah, I could definitely eat.” I said patting my stomach. “Let me just tell my Nana I’m headed out.” I went inside to find her brushing her dentures in the downstairs bathroom. I let her know were I was going and to my amazement she seemed happy about it. I thought that maybe having a boy around would cause upset but in reality she seem relieved I was discovering a life outside of music. A big part of me was relieved too because I wasn’t sure how to function outside of music and I needed to function.
We spent the night laughing a talking about how Ms. Bellefleur cried when we had sung a duet together in class. It was how we decided to honor each other. We played small Damaru drums and sang one of my earlier, catcher songs. We played the drums because Steven was a percussionist and my song because I was a writer. Ms. Bellefleur cried because it sounded so happy and she loved that we were working together to honor each other. She said we had great things in store for us. Of course, Steven and I wanted to bust out laughing right then and there but we didn’t. Ms. Bellefleur was definitely a little whacked out.
I enjoyed being around Steven. He made me smile and forget about impossible things. Like my strange need to be around Archer. To see him, to smell him, to be looked at by those deep green eyes of his. Steven was good for me, healthy even.
At the end of the night when Steven was dropping me off, I asked, “Was this a date?” Then immediately felt embarrassed for blurting out what was on my mind. Sometimes, I really wished I had a filter. Or wasn’t socially inept. “It’s ok if it wasn’t a date. I just like to know because I hate surprises. Not that this is a surprise…I just want to know if…” Steven leaned over from the drivers seat of his Ford Ranger and kissed me.
The softest of kisses. So light I could barely feel his lips. I closed my eyes and leaned in. His kiss ran a little deeper and I brought my hands around his neck. One of his hands grabbed the back of my head while the other settled on my ribcage. I opened my mouth wanting to know what a boys tongue felt like. Our tongues moved together fast and then slow. I pushed myself further into him and ran my tongue along his teeth. He tasted like Dr. Pepper and pepperoni pizza but I didn’t mind.
He pulled away gasping for breath, my cheeks burned red. “Holy mother of God, you can kiss.” He said rubbing his hand over his lips remembering.
I wasn’t sure what came over me, angsty hormones, curiosity, or my need to forget who I actually wanted to kiss. If I was honest with myself though, I really liked Steven. He was smart, funny, handsome, and we had a lot in common. Steven was someone I could see myself with and he was someone appropriate.
I smiled, “So, I take it, it was date?” I asked because I felt like I should say something.
“Honestly, I hadn’t meant it to me.” He said.
Oh. How embarrassing.
“But when you asked me if it was… I got excited because I like you Ophelia. I’m glad you thought it was a date.” He smiled and I smiled back. “My mom has some big date on Sunday, do you want to stop by? We can watch some movies and get take out?”
“Yeah, I would like that very much.” Forgetting about Archer was easy when I was with Steven. I leaned forward and kissed him as lightly as he kissed me. This time it was him that leaned into me. We stayed liked that until my lips felt sore. I giggled when I excited his car. He was grinning ear to ear. The new found boldness I discovered in that car was a powerful high. I wanted to be that brave all the time.
I grabbed my moms hand, “Do you need me to get you anything before I go?” I knew she had Douglas, the weekend hospice nurse to care of her, but I still wanted to do something, anything, that would help. I was getting ready to leave for my date with Suzanna. I wasn’t looking forward to it and I was still kicking myself for asking her out. Why was it that our age was no big deal but my similar age difference with Ophelia seemed like eons?
“Ice.” Mom whispered, her voice raw and scratchy.
Talking was hard for her. It was almost to the point where she couldn’t talk at all. For the most part she had oxogen connected to her. She was laying in her queen-sized bed and had a mountain of blankets on top of her. She was incredibly pale and impossibly thin. Her skin seemed to sag around her. She didn’t eat much anymore because her appetite was gone. This week she took a turn for the worst. Most of her vital organs had shut down and she slept eighty-percent of every day. When she was awake she was usually confused and incoherent. I went downstairs to get her some ice but by the time I came back up she was asleep again. I put the cup of ice on the bedside table and ran my fingers through her stringy, mostly-gone hair. Even in this state she was still amazingly beautiful.
I had my fathers height but everything else was hers. Mom wore the Irish good looks better then I did, though. I had her eyes, shamrock eyes, as she called them. When I was a boy she would tell me that if we fluttered our eyelashes together we would make a four leafed clover and that together we were a good luck charm. I haven’t given her a butterfly kiss since I was six because I had thought I had outgrown kissing my mom. I smiled now remembering the humor in her eyes when I told her that big boys didn’t kiss their mommy’s. She told me that we didn’t have to give butterfly kisses to still be each other’s good luck charm. I leaned down into her sleeping face and batted my eyelashes against her closed lids, which were wet with my grief. All the luck in the world couldn’t save her now.
I moved my lips to her forehead and gave her a quick kiss, “I love you.” I whispered.
A hour later I was walking up the steps to Suzanna’s apartment. My plan was to take her out, be as friendly as possible, and at the end of the night tell her that I was grateful she was willing to give me a night out and that I (just?) needed a friend right now. That way I wasn’t leading her on or making things awkward when she was helping my mom throughout the week.
I didn’t date much because my father always told me that the more you date, the more of yourself you gave away. He would also tell me that the reason he loved my mother as much as he did was because he had more of himself to give. I don’t know how true that was but I still believed it. I’ve had a couple girlfriends and only one was kind of serious. I slept with her and it was great, I am a man after all, but it felt empty without the commitment of marriage behind it. I broke it off when I realized she wasn’t my forever. She was the only girl I’ve ever been with and at twenty-five that is pretty embarrassing. After that relationship I decided the only other woman I wanted to give that part of myself to was the one meant to be my wife. My parents saved themselves for marriage and loved each other so fully that I wanted that in my life too. Call me archaic and unconventional but the next girl I will be with will be my wife and I can’t wait to love someone wholeheartedly.
I hadn’t even been on a date in three years, let alone kiss a girl. Needless to say my nerves were all over the place when I knocked on Suzanna’s door. Even if it wasn’t a real date in my mind.
“Archer?” I spun around at the sound of Ophelia’s voice. Her hair wasn’t tied up and it hung in wild thick ringlets, reaching all the way down to her hips. She was a petite girl which made her hair seem like it had a life of it’s own. It captivated me in such a way my nerves were temporally forgotten. Her glasses were nowhere to be found and her gold eyes seemed much bigger when they weren’t hidden behind her thick frames. She wore a touch of makeup to make her features stick out just a little more than usual. The only thing that was recognizable about her was her oversized sweater and leggings.
“You’re early!” Suzanna beamed from the doorway. I hadn’t even noticed she opened the door because I was completely fixated on how stunning Ophelia looked. “Steven, Ophelia’s here too!” Suzanna hollered into the small apartment. She then opened the door wider and motioned for us to come inside, “I’ll be ready in a sec.”
Steven was by Ophelia’s side in seconds as we awkwardly stood in the entryway, “Wow, you look great.” He said to Ophelia, giving her quick kiss on the lips. My heart shot out of my chest and plummeted to the floor. I immediately felt a pang of intense jealously. I had seen them in my classroom last week and they only seemed friendly towards each other. Though, I made it an effort to appear as if I was studying my computer and not them. What changed?
I must of been staring because Steven seemed to be a little apologetic, “Sorry O’C, I couldn’t help myself. Have you seen this girl?” He said with a huge toothy grin. Yes, I have, I thought. Ophelia was standing there completely frozen with a look of mortification spread across her angelic face.
“You’re Suzanna’s date tonight.” She asked with a weird contorted expression on her face.
“Yeah, weird isn’t it?” Steven said looking amused.
“You’re dating Suzanna?” Ophelia said sounding breathless. Was she bothered by this? Why would she be? She was clearly dating Steven. Why was I even thinking like this? Shouldn’t I be feeling that level of uncomfortability from just seeing two students outside of the classroom? Shouldn’t I be feeling weird about having asked Steven’s mom out? No, none of that was even on my mind. All I could focus on was seeing Ophelia.
Gorgeous, spunky Ophelia, with Steven and the pang of the raw jealousy I felt.
“Not dating, she is my mother’s hospice nurse” I clarified without adding any clarity. Steven gave me a funny look. Realizing how that sounded I tried again, “What I mean is that this is our first time hanging out socially.” I cleared my throat, why was I rambling. Ophelia gave me a small nod. It was obvious she didn’t know what to say and felt uncomfortable. I didn’t blame her. I felt uncomfortable.
“Ready?” Suzanna said pulling on her jacket and grabbing her purse. She was wearing a modest black dress, minimal makeup, and her long brown hair hung in simple waves. She looked nice and I should tell her as much, but the words were slipping my mind.
Ophelia moved further into the apartment and looked directly at me and I starred back without blinking, “You look breathtaking.” I said hoping Ophelia knew that compliment was meant for her without directly saying so. It wasn’t fair to Suzanna but it didn’t stop me from doing it.
The night went very well. I laughed more then I had expected to and Suzanna had way more depth to her then I had given her credit for. Having gotten pregnant her freshman year of high school really shaped the person she had become. She also confided in me that she didn’t date much for Steven’s sake and that she was waiting for the right person to say yes too. Which made me feel like complete crap.
The guy who had gotten her pregnant was a complete jerk in my opinion. He had been a senior and gotten her really drunk at a party. The next thing she new she was eight weeks along.
Suzanna was strong, smart, and independent and I admired all of those qualities. I was a gentleman, opening doors, paying for the meal, listening to her stories, which were mostly about Steven. I liked her more than I thought I would but it was definitely only at a friendship level. At the end of the night I walked her to her door and told her a simple good night, offering her only a hug.
“Suzanna, I like you. I think you are an attractive, strong woman but you need to know that I only see you as a friend. I am grateful that you were willing to take my mind off my mother tonight but I don’t want to string you along.” I said this after we hugged because it was obvious she wanted me to kiss her. I didn’t want to waste any more of my kisses. I saw the hurt flash in her eyes but I could tell she was glad I wasn’t into playing any games. She opened the door to a very dark apartment and said goodnight.
Before she was able to close the door I heard her say, “What the hell Steven!” I turned around in time to see Steven jump off the couch and Ophelia adjusting her clothes. Were they having sex? I didn’t peg Ophelia as that type of girl. I figured she would at least weight until she was in love first. I know I was old school but somehow I thought she had an old soul like me.
Ophelia saw me through the crack in the doorway and covered her face in her hands, “I should go.”
“Let me get my keys and I’ll drive you.” Steven said sounding out of breath and rattled.
“No, I’ll take her home.” Suzanna said in a sternly and clearly irritated voice. She then turned around to see me still standing in her doorway eavesdropping like a creeper. “Oh, you’re still here?”
I scratched the back of my head, “Yes, sorry I heard you scream and wanted to make sure you were ok.” I said trying to salvage the situation.
“No, I’m glad you are still here. If it isn’t too much trouble can you take Ophelia home for me?”
I wasn’t sure that it was the best idea, a teacher taking a student home late at night, but I figured if anyone saw anything it would be innocent enough to explain. I nodded and waved Ophelia over, “Have a good night.” I said as she was closing the door.
****Next section will be posted 01/29/20 ****
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