Friday morning I was on the bus on the way to the airport. Sitting across from me was a trio of high-school students—three girls, two looking like they were headed straight for the live audience at TRL and one in faded, baggy jeans, a big grey sweatshirt, a loose ponytail and no makeup. Sweatshirt Girl was a little heavy where the other two were thin, and she stared into space while they other two gossiped and whispered. It seemed, though, that they were all friends, in defiance of all the high school rules I remember.
Sweatshirt Girl had one of the TRL girls on one side of her and an empty seat on the other, on which she placed her backpack. About ten minutes went by. A heavy boy, a classmate of theirs, waved at them as he boarded, all awkwardness and self-awareness. Sweatshirt Girl waved back. The TRL girls ignored him.
Then another boy boarded. He wore a striped polo shirt that was ridiculously big on him, his hair stuck up all over the place, and he had these thick, coke-bottle glasses. The heavy boy leaned forward and stuck out his hand for a high-five. The boy in the glasses reached to return the gesture, and the heavy boy suddenly pulled his hand back and pretended to slick his hair (Psyche!). Even he winced a little at his own sad, small joke.
Glasses Boy did not once look at Sweatshirt Girl or her friends, and they didn't look at him, either. As far as I could tell, they didn't know each other at all. But when he boarded, Sweatshirt Girl moved her backpack, and he sat down in the newly-empty seat. They still did not look at each other.
About a minute went by before they looked directly at each other. Sweatshirt Girl cracked the smallest, most circumspect of smiles and waved at him—waved, even though he was sitting right next to him. He did not smile, but waved back. They went back to staring into space. All the while the high-pitched chatter of the TRL girls floated around them—it seemed as though the TRL girls were aware of each other, the heavy boy was miserably aware of himself and everyone else, and Sweatshirt Girl and Glasses Boy were each totally unaware of anything at all, including one another.
Several minutes later, entirely without preface, Glasses Boy stretched, yawned, and put his arm around Sweatshirt Girl. She did not react, except to look slightly more indifferent to everything. The TRL girls did not react either. I wanted to clap my hands and cheer.
Five minutes later one of the TRL girls addressed Sweatshirt Girl. “You're so quiet today,” she said. I couldn't tell if she was teasing Sweatshirt Girl or just making conversation. Sweatshirt Girl glared a little. “I'm just tired. It's early,” she pointed out. (True that, I thought, clutching my coffee.) But then she leaned a little into Glasses Boy and pretended to be very interested in his other hand, the one not attached to the arm around her. She picked it up and peered at it. He said something, gruff, his face still blank and serious.
Suddenly Sweatshirt Girl's face cracked wide open. She smiled and smiled; she laughed out loud, playing with his hand. She brought it up to her face and traced the lines along his palm. She turned it over, peered at the moons of his nails. It could have been the most fascinating, the most entertaining, the cleverest thing she'd ever seen. Glasses Boy said something else, his face inscrutable, and this time Sweatshirt Girl nearly collapsed with laughter. Joy shook her. Finally he laughed too. He held her hand. After a few minutes of this they lapsed back into their calm, inscrutable, staring silence. When they got off the bus, I watched them walk into school—next to each other, walking in the same direction, but, bizarrely, looking away from each other, in opposite directions, practically incurring neck injury in their efforts to not look at each other.
I know how that girl felt. I know that even though she wasn't spending her morning curling her hair or her eyelashes, even though she wasn't picking out the cutest clothes to wear, her whole morning strained towards being on that bus with that arm around her shoulders. I know that she knew how totally in over her head she was, daring and helpless in love, maybe for the first time ever. I know that she was trying to make sure she could still breathe, trying to stay above water, and that's why she only let herself look right at him for a few moments at a time.