Friday, August 11, 2017

Past & Present

Past & Present
by Kevin Quigley
The rest of the class rushed out, a cacophony of squeaking sneakers and squealing chairs. Conversation of what to do after school rose and fell. Logan watched them leave with a mixture of anxiety, regret, and envy. His friends, sure, but there was always that something that set him apart, even from them.  
            “Logan?” A voice at the head of the class. Mr. McDonough, noticing that Logan dawdled at the back of the class. “Everything all right?”
            Normally, he would make a joke. That’s what he was good for. Laugh it up. That’s what all the fat boys do, isn’t it? Treat the world like a joke, because that’s how the world treats you, and don’t think about it too much or you’ll end up going crazy.
            Not now. Now, he just hung his head, looked away. “Yeah. Everything’s fine.” His voice came out in mumbles.  
            “No rush, then?” Mr. McDonough asked, cocking an eyebrow. There it was again, that way Mr. McDonough had of looking into you, of seeming to know what you were thinking.
            “Nowhere to go to,” Logan responded, and chuckled. “It’s good to be me.” Yeah, brush it off. That’s what you have to do, isn’t it? Develop that shell, feel it harden around you. Soon enough, you’re cut off from the world.
            “What about Melvin?” Mr. McDonough asked. Logan winced. There, right there. The root of the problem. Melvin ... Melvin had a date. I mean, could you believe it? His geeky, glasses-wearing, pocket-protector best friend, had a date. Logan knew that he should feel happy for his friend, and further knew that he should take this as a sign. If Melvin could get someone, then he, of course, could. Right?
            But that somehow didn’t seem to matter. Melvin discovering girls didn’t seem to matter. What mattered was that Logan was, for the first time, facing the intimations of his adulthood. Eventually, his friends would leave him. He’d leave this class, his protection for the past four years. And he, Logan O’Reilly, would be alone.
            “Oh,” said Mr. McDonough. “The date, yes.” Logan watched his teacher. Mr. McDonough had known about Melvin all along, hadn’t he? Then why...?
            “Logan, I know what you’re going through,” Mr. McDonough said. Logan looked up, suddenly hopeful. Mr. McDonough always did seem to... But no. No, Mr. McDonough was smart and funny and good-looking, not a tubby nerd like him. No way he could understand.
            Mr. McDonough leaned back against the desk nearest him – Melvin’s desk. “You don’t think I could possibly have any idea, do you?”
            “Sorry, Mr. McDonough,” Logan said. “But no.”
            “What if I were to tell you that when I when I was your age, I stood in the background, watching all my friends leave me, one by one. That I was the odd man out? That when my friends were all noticing and starting to date girls, I’d stay home. In my room, all alone.”
            Logan gaped. “That’s very nice of you to say, but I bet you’re just telling me what I need to hear.”
            Mr. McDonough stood now, closer. Logan could smell his aftershave. “It’s true, though. I was that guy, Logan. Sometimes, I still think I am.”
            Logan watched his teacher. Could he be telling the truth, or was this more platitude to put an easy Band-Aid on a complex, open wound? The thing is, Logan didn’t quite know how he felt half the time, other than alone. His thoughts were so mixed up: if it wasn’t his weight, it was his brain. If not that, his choice in friends. And after that... well, just everything else. Why was his heart speeding up? Was he nervous? Why would he be nervous?
            “No,” Logan said, shaking his head in negation. “No, you’re ... well, you’re you.”
            Suddenly, Mr. McDonough looked sad. “I’ve been watching you, Logan. In class and out. Pulling away from people. Your friends.”
            “No!” Logan said, more sharply than he’d intended. “They’re pulling away from me.”
            “That’s what you tell yourself,” Mr. McDonough said, stepping closer. “You blame them. You blame the world. You blame your weight.”  
            Logan’s heart sped up more; now it jackhammered in his chest.  
            “Logan,” Mr. McDonough said. “I’ve been watching your weight. I don’t see a problem with it at all.”
            And Mr. McDonough stepped even closer, his head leaning in, and all at once, Mr. McDonough’s lips were on his, Logan’s, and all thought was obliterated.
            Moments (minutes? hours? eons?) later, Mr. McDonough moved back, a half-step. He was still close enough to smell, that scent of aftershave lingering in the air between them.
            “If I’m wrong…,” Mr. McDonough began, in an uncharacteristically soft voice. Logan interrupted him.
            “You’re not wrong,” he said, and now all thoughts of Melvin’s date, thoughts of not fitting in, thoughts of those long, long, lonely nights ahead … all of those were gone. “I just didn’t know what right was.”
            Now it was his turn. Logan stepped closer, so much closer to his favorite teacher. Oh, that smell was heaven. He parted his lips. Closed his eyes. Tumbled into his second kiss ever, wanting to cry for the fact that there was justice in this world. Mr. McDonough’s hand went to Logan’s belly, his fat belly, and remained there.
            I don’t have to be alone anymore, he thought, then wrapped his arms around Mr. McDonough and held him like that for a long, long time.
            

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Meatball Express, Chapter 1

Meatball Express
By Kevin Quigley

Chapter 1: Evan Hudzik’s Great Big Idea

            “Dewei.”

            He’s not listening. Not when pinball’s on the line. My name is Evan Hudzik. My best friend, Dewei Lin, is about to beat his high score on the Tilt-A-Swirl machine at Big Fun Party. He’s not, we both know, about to beat Sophie Klein’s high score, but that goal can wait. The tournament isn’t for a month and a half.

            “Dewei.”

            He’s always pronounced it “Dewey,” which I’m pretty sure is wrong. Whenever I’ve eaten over at his house, his parents give more of an inflection to the second syllable. I don’t want to offend them or anything so I basically don’t call him by name when I’m around them. I think they probably think I don’t know his name, or think it’s “bro” or “dude” or something. He’s still not paying attention to me.

            “Dewei.”

            Now he looks around, a little. 75% of his concentration is on the table. Tilt-A-Swirl is the hardest game in here, at least according to Dewei. I can’t play pinball at all. Either I don’t have the motor skills or the brain skills for it. I’m not bad at Tetris though. I like fitting pieces together. Dewei is severely annoyed at me right now, I know that, I feel that, but he’s keeping it all locked in. I can’t decide if Dewei’s Vulcan-like control of his emotions is a good thing or a bad thing. I cry at movie trailers, so maybe I’m not the best barometer.

            “Evan, I do believe we are both clear on the reason we’re both here today.”

            “Yes, but…”

            “I do believe my intentions before we left your house were articulated succinctly.” He talks like this when he’s mad. That’s kind of his only tell. Sophie Klein hasn’t picked up on it yet, I don’t think. She drives him bats.

            “Dewei, you know I wouldn’t interrupt you if there wasn’t a good reason.”

            “A good reason?”

            “Yes.”

            “There’s no reason that can be more important than pinball.”

            “That’s where you’re wrong.”

            He sighs. “It’s a girl, isn’t it?” This has been a bone of contention in our friendship for about six months. For most of our friendship together, not being remotely interested in girls was one of the things that bonded us. Also the fact that we lived next door to one another. Then, six months ago, I was reading this book called Airship Warkiller! by this guy named Ron D’Andrea. There’s a girl pirate in it named Annie Huxley with all this red hair and a scabbard and a sword and a gun and suddenly everything changed. It was like I was blind to half the world and then someone gave me these magical prescription glasses and now I could see everything. There are girls. In my school. How come no one told me this before?

            Dewei hasn’t quite gotten there yet, thus the contention. I’ve wondered a lot if he might be gay. My Mom and Dad’s two best friends are gay. If he is, I wish he’d just come out and say something so we could check out hotties together at the mall. It’s awful lonely sitting in the food court and trying to share how major a girl is with your best friend, and all he wants to do is talk about pinball or Star Trek or The Avengers. Those things are fine, but jeez, Dewei, there’s another interest before us now. 

            “It’s not just a girl,” I told him. “It’s the girl.” And indeed it was. Madison McMasters. Dewei always says, “Madison McMasters, of the Boston McMasters.” Like she’s all stuck up or something. Or maybe he’s just jealous because the McMasters are kind of rich. Her mother invented something to do with software and then sold it to a company and it was apparently a big deal. Sometimes I wonder why, if Madison and her parents are so rich, they live in a rinky-dink town like Cork, which is so stuck in the past that it still has a record store and an arcade and a roller skating rink. A roller skating rink. To tell the truth, I’m a little jealous myself, but it’s easy enough to get over it. Because Madison McMasters is the hottest girl, not only in school but in town and – look, I’ll be bold and say it – the entire universe. She doesn’t have red hair but that doesn’t matter. Okay, well it hardly matters. It’s so brown it’s almost black. She sometimes wears glasses but not usually. She’s bigger, too. I don’t know women’s sizes very well, but the way she wears her shirts loose and her jeans tight just drives me bats.

            “Madison, huh?” he’s not really listening anymore, just filling space so that I’m not talking to empty air. Dewei doesn’t really approve of Madison, but I’ve had a hard time finding out why. Sometimes I think he’s sort of threatened by the fact that I have an interest that doesn’t involve him at all. Sometimes I think he’s put off by her size, even though Dewei isn’t that skinny himself. I am. I’m so skinny it’s almost tragic. Last summer I read the comic book adaptation of Moby-Dick and they had illustrations of the people starving on the life rafts. I’m a little bit heftier than that, but not by much. It’s kind of an embarrassment to my folks, though they’d never say it. They’re too nice. But they run a restaurant, and I think it’s a little weird for them to work in food all day and their kid is basically like a skeleton with skin. The restaurant is called Meatball Express, and they never ask me to be in the ads. That’s okay. The food’s good enough without my skinny self endorsing them in the local circular and on the website.

            But back to Dewei and Madison. More specifically, Madison. She’s surrounded by a bunch of girls because everywhere she goes, she’s surrounded by a bunch of girls. They fed a few dollars into the jukebox machine and now some music I don’t know is playing over the bleeps and bloops of the games and pinball machines. She is the most beautiful person to have ever lived. When she’s singing along to the song on the stereo, she closes her eyes sometimes. I bet she would close her eyes like that when she kissed someone. And if the someone is me, well, I wouldn’t say no.

            “You know,” Dewei says, shaking me out of my reverie, “she’s going away for the summer.”

            It’s an effort, but I managed to rip my eyes off of Madison and face my friend. “What? What do you mean?” All at once, it was like all the air had gone out of Big Time Fun. Good luck breathing, chumps, we stole all the oxygen. “Where’s she going?” I envisioned her having a cottage somewhere on some beach near the ocean, and she and her rich family would sit around all day and sip tea and do crosswords and talk about how dull the poor people are. The difference between me and Dewei is that he would envision this exact scene as a scathing argument against her family, whereas to me it feels like a nice way to spend the summer. Certainly the Hudziks don’t own beachfront property. Still, the restaurant is a good compromise. You don’t get free open-faced meatball sandwiches on a beach. I think.  

            “It’s her folks. They’re sending her to fat camp.”

            I gape at him, then back to Madison, who I have never had a conversation with but who is nonetheless perfect. “She’s not fat.” I say it out loud and I want to take it back. The word feels weird in my mouth. Madison McMasters is the pinnacle of every girl in existence, but she’s hardly an isolated case. There’s a girl in Mr. Hudson’s math class named Claire who is a lot bigger than me but not as big as Dewei, and she is stunning. Her brain is also a lot bigger than mine. No math I ever took in junior high ever prepared me for algebra, and she just breezes through it like it’s breathing. When they were doing the scoliosis checks at the start of the year, I saw her in just her halter top. That might have been when I had the first stirrings of “girls are something else now.” I mean, Madison has lived on my street for most of my life and I’d never noticed her that way before. I was noticing her now. And it’s not like she isn’t bigger. That’s how I’ve always described her. Bigger. Zaftig, which is a French word. But I never call her fat. It isn’t nice to call someone fat. Right?

            Dewei lets go of the flipper buttons and now turns to me. “Yeah, she is. She’s fat. I’m fat. Your parents are fat. That girl Claire in school you like is fat. You’re the only person who isn’t fat.”

            “You can’t say that.”

            “What? Fat?”

            “You can’t say it about girls, Dewei.”

            “You don’t think Madison knows? Her parents are sending her to fat camp. I think she has a pretty good idea.”

            I look from him to Madison and back to him. “Okay, fine, sure. But like … why? She’s perfect.”

            Dewei sighs, which he does a lot around me nowadays. “For you, maybe, Evan, but you’re a special little flower.”

            “All right, that’s enough of that.”

            “It’s true, though. Most people hate fat.”

            “I really wish you’d stop using that word.”

            He sighs again. “Look, I’m sorry that the girl you dig is going away for three months. I actually really am sorry about it. I don’t know what you see in her but I’m not, like, ignorant to the weird needs of my best friend.”

            “Liking a girl isn’t a weird need.”

            “Regardless, maybe these three months away will give you some perspective. I mean, even if I was totally okay with this Madison thing, it’s like this singular obsession. Singular obsessions are weird.”

            I place a hand on the Tilt-a-Swirl, looking from it to him and him to it and back again. “That’s in no way the same.”

            “You’re in love with a pinball machine. So, okay, yeah, I guess you’re right. Not the same.”

            “I’m not in love with a pinball machine. I’m practicing. For a tournament. And you’re deflecting.”

            “I’m not deflecting! It’s just that three months without seeing Madison every day…” Okay, here’s the part where I have to delve into some clich├ęs. Because even though the McMasters have a guy who comes in and does all the chores around the house, is it completely out of the realm of possibility that she might have, at some point this summer, decided to mow the lawn? Maybe in a shirt that comes to her midriff, a word I learned in a book we had to read for school this year and now I can’t stop thinking about it. Midriff. It’s so descriptive. It comes midway down, and exposes a girl’s … well, riff? Is that right? Maybe it’s archaic. Anyway, Madison wears long sleeve shirts almost all the time and she never wears dresses and maybe that’s part of the reason why I like her so much, but the what-if is huge. What-if she mowed the lawn in a shirt that shows off her midriff. What-if she decided to sunbathe on the lawn wearing a swimsuit. What-if, oh my God, she decided to wash her Mom’s car in one of those old-fashioned shirts that girls tie in the front, maybe red with polka dots, and she’s wearing sunglasses and she keeps getting wet and I’m literally going to go crazy if I don’t get to see her every day, legitimately crazy.

            And just like that, I have an idea. Dewei’s not going to like it.

            “I have an idea. It’s a great big idea.”

            “I’m not going to like it, am I?”

            “Let’s find out. What if I went to fat camp, too?”

            Dewei stares at me. In addition to sighing, this is Dewei’s favorite reaction to everything I say. “Okay…” Now he’s looking at me like I’m a nutball. Am I a nutball? I glance over at Madison, who just put a straw in her mouth and now she’s drinking a root beer float and leaning up against the soda counter like she owns the place, and her stance is so effortless and easy and hot that I have to come to the conclusion that I am, indeed, a nutball.

            “I have some basic questions,” Dewei begins, slowly, as if I don’t understand words or what they signify.

            “I have answers to literally every question you could ask.”

            “Okay, first question: what?”

            As it turns out, I do not have an answer to this question. Look, Dewei had explicated the issues just moments before. I’m not fat. Not only am I not fat, I’m not even husky. Not chubby. Not tubby. Not “still holding onto his babyfat.” I am skinny. Skinny as heck. Like to the point that my Mom is sometimes concerned I’m starving myself. I swear I’m not. She sees me eat at the restaurant. Whenever I go to Babci Jadzia’s, she loads me up with more food than a boy can reasonably consume. They have a healthy lunch program at school, so I’m getting salads and fruits and legumes and all that at least five times a week, and it’s not like Dewei doesn’t make fun of me if I don’t finish it. I eat. I eat a lot. But it’s never enough. So I see Dewei’s point.

            “There are some bugs to work out,” I tell him, involuntarily letting my eyes drift up to Madison. She has yet to notice me and Dewei, but that’s fine. I think I might be perfectly content to watch her from afar as long as she lets me. She doesn’t have to notice me. Just let me look at her, and that’s all I’ll ever need.

            Then Dewei’s hands are on my shoulders and he’s shaking me. “Snap out of it, loverboy.”

            My head snaps back. “Quit it or you’re going to give me whiplash.”

            “Maybe that would improve your mental state. Now I’m having an idea.”

            “You’re going to give me whiplash?”

            “I should, but no. It occurs to me that we are both facing impossible challenges. You want to go to fat camp to be with Madison and you’re the skinniest person who has ever lived in history.”

            “I guess I wonder if hyperbole is necessary.”

            “I am facing the very real possibility that I will never be as good as Sophie Klein at Tilt-a-Swirl, and that’s unacceptable.”

            For the first time since Madison wandered into Big Time Fun, I commit my full attention to Dewei. “What is it with you and this girl?” I hold my breath, waiting for him to tell me that the rivalry is a big smokescreen and he’s really deeply in love with her and we can finally deal with things.

            Dewei sweeps his hand in an arc to indicate all of Big Time Fun. “You play on the arcade games. Have you ever noticed the initials on the highest scorer?” I shrug. I just play Tetris and I’m not great at it, but it’s fun. When we play games at home, it’s fun for Dewei too. I wonder if Tilt-a-Swirl is actually fun for him anymore.

            “Most of  them say SJK: Sophie Jane Klein. She’s good at everything here. And I’m not good at … well, let’s be honest, Evan. I’m not good at most things.”

            “Okay, now you’re being an idiot.”

            “Usually. You’re better at school and you have a handle on the girl thing. My parents are both successful. My older sister got into a good college without trying. What do I have?”

            “Besides that you’re just in general awesome?”

            A smile breaks over his face. “Okay, thanks. Sorry about the pity party. It’s just that I do love this table. I love it a bunch. And I know I’m good at it. But I’m not the best at it. Not yet. But I think I can be. With your help.”

            I looked at him and he looked at me. We both looked from the Tilt-a-Swirl to Madison, still sipping from that root beer float.


            From the smallest moments, the best summers begin.