Novel Excerpt – Insignificant Others

Joseph “Joey” Karlson

47 minutes

-childhood dreams: playing second base for the Red Sox, retiring to host a show on ESPN, and finally using the exposure to segue into politics (because that would have been easier and more realistic than his chances of making it through law school)

-interesting fact: would buy any CD with a parental advisory label jut to pit his parents against one another

-began “dating”: during the first chorus of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”

-relationship ended: before the final chorus of the Goo-Goo Dolls’ “Iris” began

We’d known each other since we still wet the bed. Our mothers had us in the same play-groups when we were toddlers. We lived down the street from each other. I don’t know if anybody really saw it coming, but of course friends of ours on both sides claimed afterwards that they had always knows that it would happen and that it wouldn’t last. Frankly, it doesn’t matter and I don’t care. Everyone has to start somewhere and I started with Joey Karlson.

I didn’t really like him all that much but most of my friends did. He was one of the popular boys in class, which at the age of twelve requires only a moderate athletic talent and the ability to replicate the sounds of disgusting bodily functions.

Does it count as giving in to peer pressure? It wasn’t because I wanted their approval. In fact, my little move turned half of the girls in my class against me for years, longer than they would remember why they didn’t like me in the first place. A piece of why I went ahead with it was the fact that Joey was the one they all wanted, that it would make them jealous. What can I say? I was a brat.

The real reason I did it doesn’t make sense to anyone but me, so I won’t even bother going into it now. What I am going to do is tell you the sequence of events.

Let me set the scene for you a little:

Silver and white balloons hover in the air above our heads. Curling ribbon that no one took the time to curl keeps them tethered to the chairs along the walls. The tables have been folded up and pushed into the hallway where one of the chaperones stands guard to prevent kids from climbing, opening, or devising any other activity with the tables that would put themselves at risk for injury and the school at risk for a law suit. Meanwhile, the chaperone’s line of sight doesn’t include the corner where a few kids are experimenting with a helium-filled balloon.

The lights are dim but a few of the color-shifting stage lights have been moved in and turned on. Someone even managed to find an old disco-style mirrored ball in the prop room, dusted it off, and hung it from the center of the ceiling (well, as close to the center as they could reach on a small step-ladder).

My best friend at the time, Jenna Perry, had helped me put make-up on in the bathroom when we first got there. Bright purple eye shadow coated my lids. I thought the color complimented my fuchsia nail polish and blue dress nicely. I let her borrow my glittery chap-stick that actually dried our lips more than it moisturized them.

It was about twenty minutes into the two hour dance and most of the decorations had been pulled down from the walls. Streamers trailed from shoes like colorful toilet paper. I was hoping someone would start a little drama so I could go rushing back and forth between the upset parties making things right again. There may even have been a moment or two when I considered instigating something so that there would be something to do (like I said earlier, I was in a bit of a brat phase).

That was when the flutter of gossiping girls appeared. Whispering in each others’ ears, they slowly inched their way closer. They were close enough to witness first-hand but not close enough to be mistaken for being friends of mine. Their darting eyes told me where to turn my attention.

Joey Karlson was coming over with a few members of his posse hanging back a little. He had on a clean but wrinkled pair of khaki shorts and a short sleeve dress shirt. They clashed with the sneakers he was wearing, the same sorry pair he’d worn for a year and a half. His mom wouldn’t buy him new ones until after he went through his growth spurt.

It was only when it became clear he was coming towards e that I heard the difference in the music. Instead of the rock that had been pounding in my ears and shaking everything in the room as it charged its way out of the speakers, something softer had started. A slow song. Which meant one thing: he was going to ask me to dance.

“Hi Roxy,” he said when there was only one square-foot blue linoleum tile between us.

“Hi Joey.” From the corner of my eye, I could tell that even Jenna had backed away from my side to turn herself into a bystander.

“Would you like to dance with me?”

“Okay.”

His posse parted just enough to let us through. We didn’t actually touch until we were alone on the dance floor (alone with twenty or thirty pairs of eyes watching every muscle twitch, every subtle shift of weight, every blink).

Joey kind of just stood there, not knowing what to do. Shaking my head with a sigh, I reached out and took Joey’s right hand and put it on one side of my waist, then did the same with his other hand. I backed up a little so we wouldn’t be standing too close to each other and finally, placed my extended hands on his shoulders.

It was a relief when Joey started that wobble, the shifting from one foot to the other that qualifies as dancing to socially stiff sixth graders.

We teetered back and forth with only a few other “couples” in the middle of the cafeteria floor. Neither of us talked or even looked at the other. My eyes kept finding Jenna who smiled her encouragement from the sidelines amid a crowd of our scowling peers. If they had things their way, a crate of banana peels would fall from the ceiling to trip me up. One or two may have been allowed to watch Carrie and were likely envisioning pigs’ blood rather than bananas.

I could feel sweat from his palms making my dress clammy. Though they never moved, his hands alternated between nervously clutching my waist and becoming embarrassingly aware of his grip, he would loosen it so that he was barely touching me. I smiled as I fought the urge to laugh. When he caught the eye of one of his buddies, a cocky smirk would settle into Joey’s features but the moment I had his attention, a petrified smile took over.

Only when the song began winding down did we finally speak.

“This was nice,” I said for the sake of breaking the silence.

“Yeah,” he agreed. His hands remained frozen in place on my hips even though our feet had stopped moving. Looking at my shoes and speaking barely loud enough to hear him at all, he asked, “Roxy, um… do you… would you be my girlfriend?”

Just like dancing with him, it wasn’t really about wanting to be his girlfriend. It was about having that status and having it before anyone else.

I leaned in and gave Joey a kiss on the cheek and a smile. Then I promptly abandoned him for Jenna and a crowded girls’ bathroom. She helped me touch-up my make-up while we both giggled. Questions flew through the air from the other girls but I ignored them and Jenna sympathetically rolled her eyes. The cloud of gossipy girls trailed after us when we resumed our post along the cafeteria wall, like mosquitoes in the late summer twilight.

It seemed hours before another slow song was making its way down from the speakers but it turned out it was only about forty-five minutes. I started scanning the floor for Joey. His friends were clustered together, blocking my view, but it was safe to assume he was with them. I gave Jenna a quick smile and headed off to retrieve him. Since he was my boyfriend, I didn’t have to wait for him to ask me to dance. It was expected.

As I got closer, one of Joey’s friends spotted me and a ripple of shoulder tapping traveled inwards toward him. They parted just enough to let me see but not enough to let me through. Joey had his hands on Gina Greenwood’s waist until he noticed my glaring eyes. Then his hands dropped and he protectively stood a little in front of Gina.

The music carried on, but all adolescent eyes were straining to the scene we were about to make. Somehow I could feel that they were all waiting for me to be the first to speak.

“Joey,” I said, making the first move reluctantly.

He waited a few beats of the song before going on the defensive.

“Roxy. Is there something you need? I’m kind of busy here.” He nodded his head to Gina who was waiting patiently with one hand gripping the elbow of her other arm.

“I guess not. I don’t know why I’d think that you might dance with me. You’re only my boyfriend.” I tried to say it with the right attitude but I didn’t really care so it came out flat. I added a disgruntled crossing of my arms to keep up appearances since most of our audience couldn’t hear what I was saying anyway.

“I didn’t think I was your boyfriend since you never said anything when I asked.” He stuck his jaw out, though I don’t know if it was a concession to those watching or sincere.

“What did you think that kiss on the cheek meant? Did you really need me to spell it out?”

He hesitated, his eyes darted between Gina slightly behind him on his right and me standing about three floor tiles in front of him.

“I… uh. Well… you didn’t say anything. What? Am I supposed to be some kind of mind reader?”

“I thought it was implied but if you really are that dumb, I’m glad I won’t be wasting my time anymore.” I turned to go but looked back over my shoulder to see him standing there, unsure what to do. I shooed him a little with my hand. “Go ahead. Gina’s waiting. Be sure to ask her to spell it out for you so you don’t run into the same confusion again.”

All it took was a glance at Jenna and she joined me as I made my beeline for the girls’ room. The others followed at a distance and many hesitated at the bathroom door, lacking the guts to go in. Jenna and I did our best to muffle our giggling.

“I can’t believe him. I’m not gonna waste my time. Jenna, you be my witness and hold me to this: I’m not going to even try having a boyfriend again until at least high school. Swear to me that if I so much as say anything about wanting to date a boy who’s asked me out, you’ll smack me.”

“Can I pinch you instead?”

“Fine,” I conceded. “Promise you’ll pinch me.”

“I promise. Or do you want me to pinky swear too?”

“No, a simple promise is just fine.”

And so Joey became the first of my insignificant others.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Romeo and Juliet died young, but it wasn’t because of warring families. It was because of a drunk driver. I was only ten when they died and wound up in my grandparents’ custody. My dad’s parents, not my mom’s. They didn’t have the time or stability. They traveled too much, but more on them later.

Grampa Bill and Gramma Georgia picked up and moved into our house so my life wouldn’t be disrupted too much. The whole idea was completely ridiculous. My parents were dead. How could a move to a new school be more traumatizing than that? The kids I’d been in school with for years became strangers for a while. Or maybe I was the one who had become a stranger. Either way, dealing with actual strangers at that time wouldn’t have made much of a difference to me.

I love my grandparents and I’m grateful to them for everything they have done for me, but they are crazy. Not that they need to be institutionalized or medicated or anything like that. Odd is probably a better word for them. Better yet, alternative. That’s it. They’re alternative.

For example, you probably thought that I was joking when I called my parents Romeo and Juliet or that I was using it as a metaphor for their pure love that was cut short by tragedy. Nope. I know that my parents didn’t magically and romantically agree on everything. I knew better than anyone how to set them off against each other for my own ends.

I referred to them as Romeo and Juliet because those were their names. My father was Romeo Duncan and, before they got married, my mother’s name was Juliet Spencer.

But I was talking about my grandparents. Grampa Bill and Gramma Georgia love drama and the theatrical. They loved turning everything, even story telling, into a production.

“It was quite the scandal to both of our families,” Gramma Georgia would begin. She had a routine to perform before she would get to the heart of any lengthy tale. First she would turn off the television and place the remote control on the mantle next to a scented candle that she ceremonially lit.

Then she would pick up her yarn bag from its place in the corner and carry it to her overstuffed chair. It reminded me of the rocking chair from the opening credits of the Beverly Hillbillies, a show I was intimately acquainted with because Grampa Bill seemed to have taped every last episode so he could watch them on Saturday mornings, effectively ending my cartoon time. Gramma Georgia had insisted on bringing the chair with them when they moved in after Mum and Dad died. It had a matching footstool and anytime we went back to their unkempt house for even a few days, like over my winter break or April vacation, Grampa Bill would load the chair in the back of the pickup so Gramma Georgia wouldn’t have to do without it in the evenings.

Once her feet were up on the footstool and her hands were busy counting stitches or rolling the colorful skeins into neat little balls, Grampa Bill would come in with her drink. It used to be a gin and tonic for each of them, but after Uncle Pet scolded them and Uncle Orlie pointed out how insensitive it was to me and my parents’ memory, they switched to some godawful milkshake concoction that was supposed to have all the necessary vitamins and nutrients.

After a few sips she would continue where she’d left off. “Quite the scandal. My parents threatened to disown me or worse, send me to a different school. So I told them I had switched classes and let them believe I had broken it off.”

“We did have them beat for a while there, didn’t we,” Grampa would say, pulling out a pen for his crossword puzzle book. “We stopped meeting during the day but that didn’t stop us from meeting at rehearsals. I still don’t know how they could have missed that.”

“It was a student troupe,” Gramma would chime in. “They didn’t know you were the faculty advisor. Or if they did, they didn’t know how involved a faculty advisor was for student organizations.”

The only time I ever asked, “Why didn’t your family want you and Grampa Bill to be together?” was the first time they told me the story. I didn’t have to ask again because I had learned the answer, but rather because every time they told it after that, they incorporated the reason into the story. I learned quickly not to ask questions when they were telling their stories. They only got longer and more difficult to sit through when I did.

“They didn’t really care about who I was seeing so long as it was a respectable match. If it weren’t for how we met, I doubt they would have reacted so strongly against it,” she would say.

“My parents only worried that it might cost me my job if anyone found out. Even if it had,” and he always looked up from the puzzle book for his next line. Gazing into Gramma Georgia’s eyes he’d deliver, “You were worth it.”

“I hated that I had to switch out of your class. None of the others taught British literature the way you did. Especially Shakespeare. They didn’t have the voice for it, or the pace.”

This was the only part that changed regularly. Grampa Bill would dive into a sonnet or monologue. Sometimes Gramma Georgia would take another part and they would go back and forth. Once, they made it through an entire act of Macbeth changing their voices for the different characters. I mercifully fell asleep before they resumed their original story (though I’m pretty sure they went on with it even as I slept).

“You were made to play Shakespeare’s ladies on the stage,” Grampa Bill would say when they were ready to get back on track.

“And you made sure I got the chance to play them all.”

“You know Roxy,” he would say as he put his puzzle book down after filling in only one or two answers. “After your grandma and I got married – we waited until after she graduated, of course,” and Gramma Georgia would pipe up again.

“We still had to elope. Even after four years and with the threat of scandal at a minimum, my parents were still against the idea. They didn’t like that I had gone around them, that I had so blatantly disobeyed them.”

“Well, after we were married we moved away from them anyway. We made sure we found an area with a good community theater program. Couldn’t abandon our dear friend Mr. Shakespeare after all he had done for us, could we?”

“Of course not, dear,” Gramma Georgia would say, getting the final word in as she always did.

The Bard had no need to fear abandonment at their hands, though I doubt he would have cared much one way or the other. Grampa Bill and Gramma Georgia worked Shakespeare into as many aspects of their lives as possible (and drove everyone around them nuts in the process). When Gramma Georgia took a painting class, she aspired to capture the most enigmatic scenes from his plays on her canvas. When Grampa and Gramma had Halloween parties to go to, they always went as Antony and Cleopatra, or Othello and Desdemona, Oberon and Titania. And, as you have probably guessed by now, they named their children after their favorite characters.

First was my uncle, Petruchio, though he got away with having people call him Patrick or Pet. Then was my father, Romeo. He wasn’t happy but he managed to bear his name well. Gramma Georgia always said he could pull it off because he was such a “charmer.” Uncle Pet told me it was because he was able to hold his own when people gave him grief.

My next uncle, Orlando, had a tougher time of it. He got into a lot of fistfights and bears a few scars from them to this day. His nose is permanently crooked from having broken it two or three times. He can’t remember which so I’m pretty sure it was three.

And last but not least came my poor aunt, Ophelia. As if the name weren’t odd on its own or enough of a mouthful for a small child, when they finally read Hamlet in school she came storming home to let her parents have it once and for all. She had been familiar with the play for years and often thought about telling them what she thought of the cruel naming joke they had played on her, but she said it was when her classmates figured out the story behind it that she reached her breaking point.

“Orlie helped out a lot. Most of the boys who would have made fun of me didn’t dare because they didn’t want to face off with Orlando Duncan behind the bleachers after school,” she chuckled a little at the memory. “I could see it on their faces though. Their desire to say something and then the frustration when they saw Orlie watching them and chickened out. But the girls were the worst. Half of them thought the idea was really cool but wondered why they had picked such a sad and pathetic character. The other half of them found the whole thing as ridiculous as I did.”

Aunt Ophelia was braiding my hair or giving me make-up tips as she told me this. I must have been about fifteen at the time.

“I told Ma that afternoon after school how miserable I was and that it was all her fault. She said something to the effect of, ‘Everybody has a miserable adolescence, dear. But better it be miserable and memorable than forgettable.’ I wanted to hit her. I told her if they were going to be weird about the whole naming thing, why couldn’t they have picked a more normal name. What was wrong with calling me Rosalind, or Bianca, even Beatrice would have been better than Ophelia. Then I stomped off to my room.”

She sighed and undid whatever it was she had been working on to start again.

“That was when your father came in and told me I should be thankful for the name I had. I was about to yell at him too but he carefully pointed out that it could have been worse. They could have named me Goneril. Then he rattled off a bunch of STD jokes to make me laugh. He had a way of doing that. Finding a way to make things seem less frustrating than they were. That’s what I miss the most.”

I don’t remember what my original complaint had been that sparked that little bonding session with my aunt but it made me feel better. Especially when she added, “You do that too, you know. You come out with things sometimes and I swear it’s like having Romeo in the room again.”

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