When I was sixteen, I wanted someone to ask me to the senior prom. And since my sophomore class was nearly as excited about the senior prom as the seniors were themselves that fatal October month of 2013, it could be safely said that my predilections toward believing the illusions social media had for the past fifty American years created about proms were not radically distinctive. After all, no matter how short your attendance at Hans Christian Andersen High school had been, if an eighteen-year-old boy asked you to the dance, you could go. And you would very cool if you did, too; considering you would get to wear a sparkly dress that didn’t cover anything past your asshole and an even more sparkly bust that didn’t cover anything past your tits as a premarital endorsement of how hot you were two times instead of just once. However, it was precisely in this area of eighteen-year-old boys and fashionable thresholds of scintillant nudity where my especial problems kicked in: One, my family didn’t have enough money to spare for a cheap corsage, let alone two inches of dress material from some expensive boutique, and two, I lacked any potentiality to induce someone into the mistake of asking me to the dance.
When I was sixteen, there was a popular song particularly articulate in its pessimistic view on the life goals of all females, as the lyrics of the refrain harmonized so irrefutably: “Girls don’t like boys, girls like cars and money; boys will laugh at girls when they’re not funny...” Maybe most girls did like tons of money better than they liked boys, but there was one boy at my high school whom no one would ever go to the prom with, even though he was the perfect epitome of tons of money available to the enterprise of procural. His name was Clarence Karl, and, thanks to this universal inadmissibility as a male dance partner he had established for himself, nearly all the other boys called him Claire. His father was Oliver Karl, a successful commodities arbitrageur whose name inspired reverence to any city resident who heard it because he owned the biggest residence in the city. The Osborne family had 20,000 square feet in their imposing dove-grey house I always examined disdainfully when I passed 5293 Summer Acres; this calculation not including the colossal swimming pool and golf shed in their backyard, the latter which would have held my entire clan of extended relations and half of the Mexican refugees in Texas simultaneously with ease and the former which probably could have been used to provide a second Great Barrier Reef to all marine animals able to tolerate chlorine saturation. The Yarn couple had just built a mansion that was roughly 25,000 square feet, but they might have included the front stoop with the Doric-style pillars and white marble stairs in those real estate facts they flaunted. This would have constituted an addition which certainly seemed about 5,000 feet to me every time I jogged by it in my old, run-down sneakers to and from school. It was public knowledge, however, that Mr. Karl was not only twice-divorced from a celebrity and a model, had made ten thousand dollars in South Dakota soybean arbitrage last Wednesday, and employed New York’s William Fioravanti to hand-make him a new suit once a month, but also owned the only 100,000 square feet house in Charan, Wisconsin’s biggest city. His house I had never seen, because it was hidden behind the bluffs of Summer Acres; that glorified golfcourse of an elite hood where all the big wigs lived.
You might think that being such an impressive man, Mr. Karl would live somewhere more suited to his arbitrage profession, say, anywhere in the Eastern seaboard, no matter how colossal and extravagant and antique his house situated in Charan might be. It might also be assumed that his son would be a more impressive specimen, maybe with the looks of another potential businessman: Big, beefy, and brainy, with a tutelage at some Preston prep school instead of going to the same high school that I, Anneke Frare, and several other children with minimum-wage parents and two million younger siblings attended. You would speculate that Oliver Karl, considering all the grandeur he could buy with his success as a well-informed speculator, would utilize these advantages to conspicuously and ostentatiously show himself separated just a little from the common populace. But aside from attachments to two multi-media wives who committed suicide after the divorces, Mr. Karl kept a relatively low profile. There was no television camera to hear him say, “I’m determined that my high income should not have a bad influence on Clarence. I want him to have more of middle-class lifestyle, so that when he’s grown, he won’t be under the illusion that my wealth is going to be his ticket to independence. (Rude laugh). That’s what all the crap parenting books my brother has read tell me, and I’d rather follow the advice of a crap psychologist like John Christopher Coleman than have my son inherit my house before he can afford to buy his own apartment.”
No one except the principal of H.C. Andersen High was there to hear him; everyone else heard it second-hand or fifty-first-hand a couple minutes later. I heard it by piecing together gossip I overheard in the halls and, at the rate that this man spent money living his lifestyle even at the rate income taxes were rising, I lauded his good foresight of not guaranteeing this largely engaged estate to his son. Others approved less, but I doubt Mr. Karl cared, because Clarence Karl came to H.C. Andersen High and soon proved to be a dismal disappointment to all who had hoped for a display of the billionaire modus vivendi. He did not drive a Porsche, Hummer, or any of those fancy cars people believed make you Jehovah; he walked. Fricking “walked”, as in, used his own two feet for mobility.
When I first heard this, I nearly fainted on top of the girl who told me in the middle of class. It was inconceivable that his father should deprive him of this much luxury, I thought, dumbfounded that the pedestrian path I took to school could somehow be identical to the method of transportation a boy worth half of Haiti willingly utilized. Clarence Karl, however, soon proved to be disgusting in other ways, and not in a romantic sense stingy billionaire daddies might have provided by subjugating him to poverty. No, it seemed that Clarence “Claire” Karl was subjugating himself to poverty.
The first day of school, he was dressed like a blue-collar dork: Grey sweatshirt covering his skinny arms, neat, but shabby, green corduroy pants, and Oxfords for women. I had no idea how he had found a large enough size in the women’s section, because he had the biggest feet I’d ever seen, and they were hidden in shoes.
“Clarence Karl,” our calculus teacher, Mr. Gonquin, who is very good at acting normal in all situations; even when senior boys stumble into his classroom with their pants down, throw a Japanese moon cake at him, and then get arrested for heroin possession after passing out cold on the floor (which did happen once); greeted him.
“Welcome to calculus,” he went on in a very friendly voice to drop the bomb on the billionaire boy, “by which I mean I hope you’re better in advanced mathematics than you are at telling time. It’s thirty minutes after eight;” he pointed at the clock (this was the point where the girl told me Clarence Karl had walked to school and I almost fainted), while continuing with, “And I hope you have a good excuse, because in this school we really don’t care that you’re the son of a billionaire.”
Karl blinked his ugly blue eyes from behind his ugly square glasses, then scratched his nondescript brown hair once before saying, “I guess I have a good excuse, Mr. Gonquin. I walked from my house to your classroom and estimated the distance incorrectly.”
I hadn’t believed the girl until Clarence Karl said it himself: He actually walked to school. If the president had all of a sudden sold the White House and donated the proceedings to WHO, I couldn’t have been more delighted with such nonconformance. Mr. Gonquin gave a little smile at the head of his class shocked into silence, probably more because he was looking down at Karl’s suggestive shoes than because he was relieved that Karl was deferential. Mr. Gonquin wasn’t afraid of any student being disrespectful or disobedient. He just whopped them. “I trust you’ll recalculate your estimation after this, Karl. Please sit down. There’s only one seat left and you’ll have to share the desk with Miss Frare.”
That was my first encounter with Clarence Karl, and my first reaction was, I hate you, Mr. Gonquin. This ugly, boring, filthy-rich kid sitting next to me? I was in misery for two weeks afterwards, because it took exactly that long for the school to realize he was an ugly, boring, filthy-rich kid, instead of just fashion-irreverent, courteous to grown-ups, and heir to a currently six billion dollar bank account. They stood around the desk and asked questions, before and after class. They followed him to the cafeteria and sat with him there, trying to get his attention. He wouldn’t give it to them even when they harassed him in gym or picked him as captain of the volleyball team (a position he was instantaneously expelled from because he sucked at sports). It went from seduction to torture, like an experiment to see what this impassive Clarence Karl would respond to, but all it proved was that he was only unlike a normal, blue-collar nerd in one respect: He didn’t get flustered. Another boy would have eventually reacted to their experiments, lashing out or caving in, but Clarence Karl lived through those two weeks with a serene, open expression on his dull face. After two weeks, everyone forgot this walking contradiction of an utter disappointment and focused on human specimens more gratifying toward secular expectations of entertainment and scandal. At least, everyone except me was at liberty to forget him, because I, the only sixteen-year-old in the Andersen calculus class, sat next to him every school day, and I couldn’t forget him.
Poor Claire, I thought absent-mindedly one morning as I stood in my driveway thirteen days before the prom and went into a lunge to warm up my legs for the jog to school. The cool seven o’ clock fog hid one dilapidated house from the other all the way down the block as I switched to my left leg and decided, He probably won’t have anybody to go to the prom with either. As if he cares at all.
I laughed, sucking in the fog as though I was smoking a Haus Bergmann the way I remembered my aunt doing once, and started running. It would be a mile before I got tired, and then I would I would be jogging the rest of the way to school. The screen door to our house creaked just as I got past the curb, and the noise promptly made me run faster, because it could only signal one person coming out. That was what we smart kids did when we heard our dad coming: We ran faster.
It took a few minutes of pretending that I was a marathon sprinter to get to the middle-to-upper-class part of the neighborhood, where the general income was 30,000 to 60,000 dollars a year rather than too diminutive for sustenance of any luxury past motel calibre of room and board. I surveyed crisp green lawns, long past needing sprinklers in the moist, cool Wisconsin autumn, and even crisper brown, white, and blue houses that stood at the ends of them; houses I had stopped comparing to our plot of dirt, in our neighbor, when I was twelve and began attending middle school. Now, instead of contesting the facades of two sets of incompatible establishments owned by incompatible people to the point of frustration at economical injustice, I purposely remembered the time I ran right into Mr. Gonquin, when I hadn’t seen him until he walked past his Subaru onto the sidewalk into my path. He had laughed out loud about it, asked if I was alright, apologized for his inattention, and it was then that I had contracted a hopeless ardor for a man so suave and sweet and self-contained who was going to be my teacher someday, and no mistake. I had thrown myself into all mathematics at Andersen, excelling and getting bumped up the senior class at age sixteen just so I could study calculus as soon as possible in his worshipful presence, and I planned to flunk it so I could take it again next year. Well, that was a lie, but I kind of wished I was dumb enough to flunk it just so I could have nine more months of his wit and irony, his cheerfulness when handling D-tests, and his dark green eyes above that curly hair of pitch. It was my obsession with his wonderful qualities and my comprehension of his less than consummate ones; e.g., how he would probably run too slowly to save me from a car crash if he was aware that this incident could eliminate a clandestine idolizer who’d have paid blood money to obtain possession of a fingernail from him; that convinced me I was in love with him. If only my big mouth didn’t clam up every time he looked at me or spoke to me, he might have known of my wretched affections by now. But if being the millionth-and-one girl to worship him from afar was my doom, I would at least make sure he wasn’t aware that I was worshipping futilely, a love-sick calf he could pity like the senior Rachel Kinny who, just last month, managed to shovel a piece of chalk in her mouth when she was supposed to use the writing utensil for demonstration of the equation he had been explaining, because she was so busy staring at the way his damn pretty mouth moved when he talked and in all probability needed something other than this inaccessible gratification to stymy her overload of saliva. Whenever I was called to the front, I had to make sure I looked at anything but his moving mouth. Or his high Korean cheekbones. Or his tiny eyelashes...
After I ran a mile past the suburb of my oblivious graven image, I hit the impeccable sidewalks of Summer Acres, the part of my route where I used to be scared at any second when one foot was in contact with the ground that someone would come outside and yell at me because my presence was objectionable to the privileged scenery. I was like a piece of trash, a Burger King bag or an old condom wrapper, floating past the pristine properties which should be confiscated and disposed of right away to keep from polluting the ethereal environment. After two years of school, however, I was convinced that there was no law forbidding anyone who shopped at Goodwill from running down the Summer Acres sidewalks. It took two years, but it finally sunk in, and by then I had memorized every house; excuse me, mansion; on my route to school. The first looked like a cathedral. It was small, relative to its surroundings, but so adorned with trellises and arches I pitied whoever had damn maintenance of the thing. It stood on a half acre lot at the corner end of the bluffs, and I again pitied whoever had maintenance of the yard. Why would anyone need half of a whole acre to live on?
Mansions stayed roughly between the sizes of palaces and horse barns as I ran on past one long street of them, before the avenue curved and turned straight north from my westward path. I could see the mansions that went up that street, but only to the point of the Renaissance-style, baroque, and elaborate quartz fountain in the middle of that smooth surface cars generally drive on and generally does not permit fountain showcases to take up navigational space. But, there it was, where the black tar faded into more stately cobblestones, not one of them in less than excellent condition: Pink, ridiculous, and completely blocking my view of Oliver Karl’s castle. I may have gotten used to putting one stinky shoe in front of the other on the impeccably preserved sidewalks just on the edge of Summer Acres without wincing, but I would never have the courage to walk up that sidewalk into Summer Acres, toward that fountain where I would be confronted with Oliver Karl’s castle. No, I would stay in my own kind of suburb, thank you.
I turned away from the avenue leading into the heart of Charan’s elite and pulled my jacket closer, shivering, as I ran. The nippiness would warm my blood, but until then it made my lungs ache. I thought about Clarence Karl again as I ran by his residence I had never seen. Never. That was a good word to describe Claire, I thought, coming at last to the slightly wooded area where only one or two mansions sprawled, fat and profligate. You could hardly use a sentence to describe Claire without adding “never.” He “never” talks to anyone; unless required to extend his consolations after inadvertently making a sodium crystal combust with water in someone’s face during biology class. He “never” catches a ball during gym, volley, basket, or dodge. He “never” misses a school day, test, or question from the teacher. He “never” wears nice clothes, and he “never” does anything cool. He “never” laughs, and he “never” smiles.... Wait, never smiles?
I had to think about that one as I ran along, careful, as always, not to fall fifty feet off the sidewalk into this little lake below me that some rich old fart in the woods thought would be cool to build in his valley. I was remembering something odd that I hadn’t been at leisure to examine when I first confronted the phenomenon. It had happened at school, when I was in... When I was in.... Biology class. Yes, that was it, in biology class on the blessed Friday right before the torture of that period was terminated for two whole days. Besides calculus, that was the only class I shared with Clarence Karl, being sixteen, a sophomore in everything except where I was a senior in mathematics, and he being eighteen, behind in complex science. Minor performance in science class seemed to be the only thing we had in common, since we had both been set back when we made our experiments explode. I suppressed a groan that came automatically at the thought of biology class, and tried to recall the specific instance that was nagging me, most likely some counter-example to my mental slander of poor Clarence Karl.
Suddenly, my own words leapt out at me again, and instead of facing the crooked green sign “Ophelia Street” whose lack of perpendicularity signalled I had reached the end of my route past the houses of affluent people, I was facing Mr. Cass, hands slamming spasmodically to my hips whenever they weren’t flapping around in the most violent outrage, foot stomping on the ground as enthusiastically as though his face was under the floor, and throat bellowing without my permission for the benefit of the whole class, “Asexual reproduction is the opposite of fertilization and it only happens with little fishies in the ocean trenches five hundred feet below sea level who can’t fricking tell who’s got eggs and who’s got sperm so they evolved and now they all just turn into asexual little fishies so there’s no more confusion. So there.”
It wasn’t my best class speech ever directed at a teacher, but then, I hadn’t exactly been in possession of my best sass at the moment with Mr. Cass harassing me about my lack of specificity with the vocabulary terms again. He kept asking, “What is the exact definition of asexual reproduction, Frare?” “What is the exact definition of asexual reproduction, Frare?” “What is the exact definition of asexual reproduction, Frare?“, pronouncing “asexual” in such a way that I finally jumped up and screamed my most provocative guess at him, with the most disrespectful attitude I could muster in proportion to my infuriation that did not include turning books into battering rams. I had stood there, chest heaving, eyeballs glaring, while the class underwent an uproar and Mr. Cass tried to figure out how he should react. At that moment, someone in front of me turned around, and the movement caught my attention. I glanced at Clarence Karl, who was gazing at me with a thoughtful, almost amused expression on his face. Then he smiled.
My memory of the dainty distortion of Clarence Karl’s thin lips was less pertinent to my welfare, however, than the attendant reminder that I was in big trouble with Mr. Cass.