CHAPTER ONE: A Very Happy Birthday to Me
MY 18TH BIRTHDAY WAS OFF TO a rather rousing start. Who doesn’t want to spend the evening before such a momentous day trapped inside an international airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, waiting for the announcement by an apathetic airline representative as to whether the freak snow storm (ridiculously named “Melissa,” — not exactly a fear-inducing moniker) currently pelting the entire East Coast was going to mean you lost your hard-earned spot at the Regional Speech and Debate Finals in Boston? As if that wasn’t lovely enough, I was also lucky enough to be in the company of eight other nerds, misfits, and social outcasts from my highly prestigious private high school, all of us overseen and barely contained by the completely overwhelmed, obviously furious, and passionately verbal Spanish teacher, Ms. Gonzales. The entire experience thus far had been — memorable.
I sat in one of the synthetic leather chairs; it was a muddy shade of grayish blue, (the South never did fully get over losing “The War of Northern Aggression,” — yes, there are people down here who actually call it that) with cracks and flakes, showing the yellowed cotton underpinning here and there in patches. For an International Airport, Charlotte Douglass needed some serious upgrades. They had recently installed armrests between the seats which, though “padded,” somehow managed to be more uncomfortable than a splintery piece of bare, un-sanded 2x4 would have been.
Your tax dollars at work, folks.
I watched one frustrated passenger attempt to wiggle underneath several of the immovable metal barriers so that he could lie flat on his back. In the end, (due in no small part to the growing epidemic of obesity in the country), he succeeded in stuffing himself under three seats — the armrests cut into his flesh at his neck, stomach, and thighs, making him look something like a pork roast trussed in twine and ready for the oven.
At least the carpet was relatively clean and mostly stain free. It was a shade of grey as well, of course. The windows were also clean enough. Not to my Mamma’s standards, but they would do. I could watch unobstructed as the snow began to fall faster and faster outside. It was oddly hypnotic; my vision would haze and I’d float away down some other daydream path for a while.
Well, ya’ll don’t want to hear all the oh-so-exciting details of the interior design of a southern airport. Suffice it to say, I eventually resigned myself to the inevitable waiting and pushed my ear buds further into my ears. I settled into a very uncomfortable chair to go over my notes on the several possible topics of debate I’d been instructed to prepare, all the while hoping the podcasts blaring in my ears would drown out the incessant hum of the fluorescent lights. My attention only remained on my own neat handwriting for a scant moment.
My classmates proved to be much more interesting fodder for my distracted thoughts than the pros or cons of “limiting the scope and reach of the fifth amendment to the US Constitution.” I knew my debate topics, openers, rebuttals, and closing arguments by heart at that point anyway.
A group of three girls, all sophomores, sat facing each other cross-legged on the grey carpet — the Humorous Interpretation girls, a.k.a theater chicks.
Humorous interpretation involved a single person performing a comedic selection. It could be a monologue or a multi-character piece; only those who were truly talented (or truly had no realistic grasp on the limits to their own “talents”) could pull off multiple characterizations in one short piece. But it was always humorous to watch them try. In that aspect, the category lived up to its name.
I had seen them rehearse, both together and individually, over the course of the semester: and still, each of their 2-minute “comedy” pieces, usually fell pretty flat. The novel setting of the Charlotte International Airport did nothing to elevate their talents today.
Across from me, mirroring each other in an almost otherworldly fashion, were the Alexander twins: James and Jonathan. They were freshmen, newly arrived from the mythical part of campus called “The Middle School.” Their arrival at the hallowed gates of “The Upper School” had taken little noticeable effect on the pair. I doubted anything could disturb their eerie sense of calm. Any moment, I expected them to stare at me with cold dead eyes and chant “come play with us,” in perfect unison.
I sometimes wondered if they actually could read each other’s thoughts. They remained at each other’s sides, rarely spoke to anyone else, earned near perfect scores in everything they did, ate lunch together, and, true to form, joined the Speech and Debate team in the Duo Interpretation event. They never even tried to make friends elsewhere. Sometimes, they would just look at each other over the lunchroom table, never speaking for the entire period. Kind of gave me the shivers.
But, it could not be denied that their ten-minute Duo Interp repertoire was rather impressive. They had had their entire lifetimes to get in synch and it showed in their performances.
Walking along the floor-to-ceiling windows like a small pride of supremely nervous lions stalking their prey, two well-coifed and serious looking Juniors, one male and one female, nearly paced holes in the carpet. They studied the papers gripped tightly in their trembling hands, looking up now and then, mumbling to themselves. Then, they would whip around quickly and be pacing in the opposite direction. True to stereotype, the two who paced the windows on the night of my 18th birthday wore that most essential serious actor ensemble: all black.
Though they never really looked around them, they never crossed each other’s paths, never bumped or even came near to the other pacing performer. That didn’t seem to fit with the statistical probability, so I idly wondered if they, too, shared some kind of extra sensory connection reserved only for the truly emotionally devoted thespians.
Or it could just be that High Schoolers are weird.
No sense in denying it.
High School and those who inhabit its’ near mythic spaces are held apart from the remainder of the real world. No one in the real world has to bring a signed permission slip to the bathroom in order to urinate. High School is just a strange, strange place.
Every now and again, one or both of the pacing actors would look up at the ceiling and begin talking loudly to themselves, asking things like, “what is the motivation!? I can’t just say something without motivation! It won’t be true! Real!”
I loved watching the Dramatic Interpretation people. Especially when they were preparing their Shakespeare.
Everyone always thinks they will be able to find a new and miraculously un-boring way to perform Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet that the judges won’t fall asleep a quarter of the way through. Surely, the world must realize that they are the best, most divinely
gifted actor to have been born in this or the previous three generations! The things they could do with their craft if only they could get perfect marks from this Speech and Debate Judges Panel!
At this point, it’s all been done.
That’s why I chose Lincoln Douglass Debate. It is simple, to the point, objective, constantly relevant, and supremely logical. All of which worked well for me. I was all of those things. Except for maybe relevant…
The wild card of our group was the newest member: Daniel.
A senior, like me, he joined the team at the behest of the lacrosse coach, Mr.
Whalen, with the strongly advised approval of the Baseball coach, Coach B.
Essentially, Daniel was there for the extra credit it provided. I doubted he really had any burning desire — a sudden epiphany, there at the tail end of his senior year, only four short months from the finish line — to join a bunch of social outliers on an Academic Extra Curricular “team.” After all, he played on the real teams already: baseball, football, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, and track. He did ’em all. And, though I didn’t really follow sports, from what I’d gathered, he did them all very well. Whatever that entailed.
Sadly, Daniel was not doing quite so well in his English classes, so the other rumor went; he needed the credit in order to avoid summer school after graduation in May.
Not that I was complaining. Not at all.
He was a welcome change of pace after three-and-a-half years of the bottom rung of the high school social ladder. It was interesting to observe one of the gods of the school, as such things went, up close and personal. To nerds like me, it was like observing a particularly interesting science experiment, but all from the comfort of your own safe space. A fascinating take-home biology lab.
Normally, my interaction with the jock set was reserved for the occasional tutoring session. Or, the odd bullying incident here and there. I was decently physically coordinated, as far as that goes for a nerd, so I avoided most of the worst locker room high jinks. But intelligence will always be targeted, even in a private school with a 100% graduation rate and a price tag to match.
There were only about 250 students in the entire High School, all grade levels. So each of the 60 or so kids in my senior class knew all the others. No one could escape notice, no matter how small they tried to make themselves, how strongly they wished to disappear and blend into the background. Everyone was very quickly labeled and filed away on the social hierarchy. It wasn’t ever discussed or talked about. Not really. It just….happened.
When it happened, I found myself pretty much at the bottom of that ladder from day one. I was an academic scholarship student; meaning, my middle class family
could never have afforded the thirty five thousand dollar a year tuition bill that went with admission to the hallowed halls of learning I found myself attending. And before you ask: no, it wasn’t a boarding school. It cost that much to go there just for the day, five days a week, like any other school in the country.
I did my best to stay out of trouble. For the most part, the jocks obliged. There were others on the Speech and Debate team who had received far harsher treatment than I.
You see, there was some protection of a sort, that was granted me simply because I was a senior. Not much, mind — but some. There were still some of the more popular freshman that out ranked me pretty handily.
Daniel had been quiet since we arrived at the airport. He had taken the previous three flight delay announcements with little evident care. His blue and green backpack was stashed between his feet and he had been reading, unmolested, for the past hour.
Jane Austen’ Northanger Abbey, of all things.
I assumed it must have been an assigned reading for some class. I took mostly AP classes, so I wasn’t privy to the reading lists of the “normal” literature and language classes.
He was short, only about five seven, and highly compact. While he was solid muscle, (his biceps stretched his black polo shirt rather drastically) he didn’t appear bulky. And he seemed much more mature than his 18 years could account for. He sported a five o’clock shadow at all times and his arms and legs were covered in thick black hair. Not too much, but certainly a fitting tribute to his Sicilian heritage.
(One of the perks of going to a small private school is you know nearly every minute detail about everyone else’s family, including if they were Sicilian. His was.)
His black hair was cut short but messily styled on the top and his brown eyes were large and intent as he intently read his novel.
In short, he wasn’t your every day jock type.
Or maybe that was just the Jane Austen clouding my judgment.
I must have lost control of myself because I suddenly found that I was staring at him. No matter how hard I tried, I simply could not tear my eyes away.
He was so…different…than anyone else there.
I’d seen him for years at school, but somehow in the airport on the eve of my first day of adulthood, Daniel blazed like a beacon, calling into question my entire tangential history with him. I thought back on all the times I’d sat near him in class, or passed him on the sidewalks, seen him in the parking lot. Over and over it flashed in my mind like an old time silent film.
Nothing stood out.
Nothing to explain why I suddenly found him to be the most interesting thing in universe.
I was studying his face with far too much focus when he looked up and caught me staring. My eyes shot wide when I saw the cinnamon brown pools of his eyes notice me. All at once, my fantasy bubble popped and I felt myself flushing bright red. The carpet at my feet, the very definition of mundane, was suddenly the most important thing in my world. I struggled to control the shiver that accompanied Daniel’s sudden attention.
How could he do that?
He’d just looked in my general direction.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention please. Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention please.”
The unidentifiable voice on the intercom carried only a few yards past the ticketing stand, but everyone turned to listen. All around the terminal, ears pricked up and bored, half-glazed eyes turned from gossip magazines and The New York Times towards the attendant with the microphone.
“We here at Delta regret to inform you that Flight 354 to Boston International has been cancelled due to inclement weather both here in Charlotte, and at the destination. Please accept our apologies and form and orderly line behind the counter to reschedule and rebook flights and make other arrangements. Thank you, and again, we here at Delta apologize for any inconvenience.”
Well, fuck. There you had it.
The past five hours of delay and waiting had been a total waste. I’d even forgone getting myself a birthday pastry just in case they called the flight while I was wandering the concourse. And now we weren’t even going to make our flight.
No flight AND no pastry. Happy crappy birthday to me.
All of this meant there was a distinct possibility that we were going to miss the check in time for the team and be disqualified from winning any awards. We would still be allowed to compete and perform in Regionals, but on a feedback level only. We couldn’t win or lose points or events. Even if we were deemed the best in the round, the actual winner would become the second place person.
All because of the goddamned snow!
Whose idea had it been to schedule an event in the middle of February in Boston?! Haven’t people watched the news? Boston is a hellhole in February at the best of times!
Ms. Gonzales, her wrinkled face suddenly becoming very terrifying in the way only Latina Abuelas can achieve, told us to stay put while she figured out what was happening.
She stalked away toward the counter, muttering furiously in her native Spanish as she went. I suddenly felt a little twinge of pity for the ticketing agent. Ms. Gonzalez was five foot nothing if she was an inch, but even still, I didn’t want to find myself on the receiving end of the tiny instructors’ fiery wrath. I said a silent prayer for the poor Delta employee.
The bus driver had returned to the school hours ago, so driving home was going to be an issue, even if the roads were still navigable. Given the relative infrequency of snow below the Mason-Dixon line and the spotty, at best, record of plowing and salting major highways, automotive travel of any kind seemed highly unlikely. Most of us lived an hour away or more. We’d had to drive an hour and a half north from the school to get to Charlotte in the first place.
A few minutes later Ms. Gonzales returned with an envelope and some disappointing news.
“Okay,” she began, the exhaustion and barely concealed anger evident in her slightly accented voice; “we’ve been booked on a flight at 7:15 AM. That’s the earliest we can get, but that means we will miss the 8:30 check in in Boston. So, I’m sorry folks, but we won’t be bringing back any trophies this time around.”
A collective sigh and some overdramatic moans (guess who moaned most dramatically? Someone get them dark glasses and a beret!)
“We have vouchers for five rooms at the Holiday Inn. A van has already taken our luggage there. So, pair up. We will be staying overnight. I’ve already called the school and they have informed your parents so be ready for a call when you get settled. Everyone up! Come on, we got an early morning! Go, go go! Vamanos!”
The Theater Chicks quickly asked if they could all room together as a threesome and were given permission. The twins were a done deal before the option was available. Since there was now an extra room, or half of one, the Dramatic Interpretation kids flipped a coin to decide who would get the single room. I supposed this was all for the best considering the pacing and out-loud verbal acting games likely to take place until the wee hours of the morning. Ms. Gonzales wedged into the female actresses room when her male counterpart won the coin toss.
Good luck, Ms. Gonzales.
That left only Daniel and me.
“Looks like that just leaves the two of us,” Daniel mumbled, stating the obvious. “Yeah, guess so,” I replied nonchalantly. “Must be weird for you to not be picked
I don’t know why I said it.
Perhaps I was just trying to lighten the mood with a little sarcasm. Or perhaps I harbored a little more resentment towards the popular crowd that I was ready to admit. I immediately regretted opening my big fat mouth at all. Fear and panic started to roil in my stomach and I felt my skin begin to tingle. My fight or flight instincts kicked in automatically. When you are a nerd, they become honed until they are almost something like a super power.
To my surprise, Daniel shot me a crooked smile.
“A little weird I guess,” he said as he hoisted his backpack onto his shoulders. “But hey, can’t be first picked all the time. Variety is the spice of life.”
He made his way out of the terminal behind the others. I followed, nearly stumbling along after him, adjusting my bag as I went.
I did my best to ignore the blood pounding in my ears when he called back to me, “Hurry up, dude!”
What the hell did that mean?