I knew his name before I ever knew who he was.
At St. Thomas More High School, the more popular you were, the more variations your name had. Barlow Lancelot: Bar. Lance. King (as in Arthur?). But there were so many popular senior boys that he didn’t stand out until the spring musical. He was the unexpected star of Grease, his Kenickie easily out-shining the affable Danny. I’d seen the movie more times than I could count, having watched it daily during my eleventh winter. I knew every burp in the old VHS, every place where Mom had pressed the pause button just a smidgen late; I knew all the scenes where Olivia Newton John wore a fake ponytail, had nailed the hand jive choreography. When the announcement of the spring musical was made, I wished I had the nerve to audition, dreamed of playing Rizzo, was almost coaxed into joining as an extra, but ultimately settled for attending three performances, two of which I was seated in the front row.
I was one of those below average freshman girls, not pretty or skinny enough to elicit upperclassmen attention, not artsy or weird enough to elicit upperclassmen ridicule. Nothing special. Which is exactly why, when the idea came to me, I knew that I might just be nobody enough to pull it off.
At STM, with its prison architecture and frigid air conditioning, the balloon kiosk served as the administration’s emblem of fun. It was the place where students could purchase balloons for other students, whose names would be called during the afternoon announcements. The beginning of the year was always the business boom, the excitement of back to school buoyed by consumerism. On their birthdays, the popular kids could hardly wrestle every last balloon into their cars (inevitably one popped or was given away to some lucky passerby). Heartbreak was a fourteen-year-old boy waiting after school for his mom holding a single happy birthday balloon. But I liked to fancy myself the only balloon secret admirer.
There was an art to it.
I recognized almost all of the mothers working the balloon counter; their enthusiasm betrayed smug gratitude for their popular children. That first day, the mother stared hard at me, as though she was trying to read a riddle in my blank face and shiny brown hair.
But I had tailored a list of foolproof rules to keep me safe: never make eye contact; act natural; always use exact change; make the purchase during first lunch, when most of the seniors were still in class and most of the freshmen were ballooning up on grease from the cafeteria. I slipped the note into the envelope, already queasy at my rhyme:
School’s more exciting
when I see your smile
My mind and my body
taken over, Kenickie-style
That day I bolted right after school, too scared to watch him retrieve his balloon, sure that he’d intuitively know it was me. The second one he picked up a day late and I only glimpsed him ripping open the envelope as Amy, my best friend, dragged me out into the parking lot. Already she was getting exasperated by my devotion. When I’d said “secret admirer” she envisioned more note-passing in Biology. What she hadn’t anticipated was me brainstorming clever rhymes while she watched Saved By the Bell virtually alone after school. You just missed Slater’s afro jiggle! What is wrong with you?
From my locker I watched Barlow retrieve the third balloon, betraying (could this be real?) excitement. At the very least curiosity. The play had been over for a month now. He read quickly, then put the note back in the envelope and into his back pocket. He patted it once, then looked awkwardly at the balloon. He made a reticent move towards the trashcan, shook himself straight, and strode to the door like he’d just been given a scholarship to somewhere he wanted to go.
Still, I knew I was blowing up a fantasy that was sure to be popped. How long could I keep cranking out these cutesy rhymes before he got bored? And one day, wouldn’t one of the Blonde Bobs (Amy’s name for the mothers) get wind of my name, perhaps mention it to her kid, who mentioned it to…
Charlotte Goodwin. Her name was synonymous with talent. She wrote poetry that got published in teen lit journals like Stone Soup, had danced the Nutcracker since she was six, and was the best Rizzo since Stockard Channing. She was the only sophomore girl in the freshmen second period P.E. because of her private piano lesson during sophomore P.E. She was rightfully peeved. For starters, second period was the very worst for P.E. because you’re wearing the muggy Louisiana grime-air by ten o’clock. Even worse, freshmen P.E. was “taught” by Coach Arnold, who wore too-tight polyester shorts that crept up his chunky inner thighs. He also ogled the pretty skinny girls.
With the exception of a few die-hard athletes, most of the prettyskinnies hated P.E., and Coach Arnold was a willing sacrificial lamb for their severe protests. As long as they moaned and complained, he smiled and cajoled. The more they fluttered their eyelids or caressed their flat stomachs (But I just got my period, Coach Arnold!), the more he’d flash that sweaty-eyed grin (Then it’s a perfect time for you to work out some of those cramps!). As for those of us who had flabby arms and tummies untamed by our P.E. shorts, well, we became part of the outdoor shrubbery, blending right into the blue and maroon stripes running the length of the basketball court.
Though Charlotte definitely qualified as a prettyskinny, she seemed to derive no pleasure from his attention. Somehow, we’d become cursory friends. We exchanged glances when Coach Arnold’s butt crack crept out of his polyester as he demonstrated a discus throw, discussed the probability of Bill Clinton inhaling, partnered up for the medicine ball toss.
She mentioned nothing about Barlow’s balloons. It was easy to forget that she was dating (probably having sex with!) the guy I thought about even more than Father Louie, the young priest who said Mass once a month at school. Sure, she got to kiss him. But I made him smile sometimes, and he didn’t even know my name.
Amy and I watched Grease in her loft bedroom with two twin beds. Her room was all pinks and whites and the softest cotton. A box of Lucky Charms was spread out on the floor in front of us so that we could more easily pick the marshmallows from the cardboard cereal. When we got to the slumber party scene, I dutifully performed Jan’s “Brush-a, brush-a, brush-a” song without a flaw. Amy laughed so hard that she spit a chunk of blue marshmallow out onto the floor. I laughed, too, but I was tired of loving that song. Tired of going along with the consensus (established years before) that we should fast forward through “Hopelessly Devoted to You” because it was too long, too boring. If I couldn’t even admit to my best friend how much I loved Sandy’s nightgown in that scene, wasn’t I the actress?
That night, bloated, I wrote rhyme after rhyme and rejected them all.
Amy was right, I would get caught. And the craziest part? I didn’t care.
In fact, my fear of getting found out was dwarfed by my fear of no longer writing rhymes, pushing a damp dollar bill across the counter, imagining the cigar box where he stashed all my notes. I thought about school without the balloons: gray and over-air-conditioned. Classes I’d long ago grown bored with, and the looming Theology assignment of memorizing—and then reciting to the entire class—the names of all sixty-six books of the Bible. Old and New Testament.
And then one day in P.E. Charlotte and I were getting changed in the locker-room while all the other girls tried desperately to de-frizz their hair and resurrect their soggy faces. She turned abruptly towards me just as I was tugging my shirt on over my bra. My eye barely caught hers as she glimpsed my belly. Flustered, it took me a minute to register her words.
Barlow got into Brown. And he’s going. He’s, like, practically enrolled already. And I’m really happy for him, I just don’t know if I want a long distance relationship, you know? I mean, he’s going to be so far away, surrounded by so many new girls, who are going to be, obviously, so pretty and smart—here she takes a breath and I’m trying to figure out why she’s spilling this to me—I mean, college isn’t like high school where there are so few original and interesting people it’s easy to be someone special, or noticeable.
If I were him, I’m sure I’d want to be free to explore my options.
I’m still nodding, but she looks like she expects a response so I say:
So are you, like, breaking up with him?
I say it because I’m actually curious about how she’ll deal with this major crisis, but as it slips out of my mouth I remember the note I sent him just yesterday—
Your eyes warm these frigid halls
Your mouth looks good enough to eat
Your voice echoes off the walls
And my heart skips, skips a beat
—and I sort of catch myself and for the first time since she started talking, Charlotte seems to notice me. She sighs.
Well, I don’t think I’ll break up with him until he leaves. Because there are still two more months of school, and prom’s coming up, and it would suck to have to be at school without a boyfriend.
And then Charlotte starts to cry. Not belly sobs, but tears so real I have to stop myself from touching them. Instead I hug her. I feel her small body shaking, her crying tapering and then finding renewed strength as she no doubt remembers all the great sex they have. And as I imagine all the things that she is going to miss about her boyfriend—his disheveled morning hair, the stubble that is popular among the senior and junior boys—I realize that I really know nothing about him.
And for the first time since Grease, I’m mad. Mad because here I am comforting a girl who gets to hold hands with her boyfriend in the hallway, gets to shop for prom dresses with her friends, gets to roll her eyes when Coach Arnold compliments her badminton swing. Mad because it would be worth it to have my high school boyfriend leave for a fancy college with prettier, cooler girls than me, if it meant getting to have a high school boyfriend. Mad because Charlotte doesn’t even seem to notice the secret admirer that is weekly assaulting her boyfriend with elegant poetry. Mad because those tears are mine.
Mad because now the thrill was over. Barlow was going to Brown; I was running out of rhymes and dollar bills. I needed to end it. But how?
For a few days, I thought about Rizzo’s sorrowful song and tortured myself with thoughts of the worst things I could do. I could sing, “You’re the One that I Want,” outside his bedroom window. I could declare my love in a letter so long it would weigh the balloon down to the ground.
Instead, I called him one night from a tent of sheets on my bed. I could hear the television in the living room, could smell the spaghetti I’d eaten for supper on my breath. Though I knew he was probably at home doing trigonometry problems at the kitchen table, I couldn’t stop thinking about Kenickie at the car race down at the L.A. River. I hung up a few times until I didn’t.
I begged him to never tell anyone at school. I wanted to believe him when he assured me he wouldn’t. My balloon admirer hadn’t been played on a major frequency, but it certainly had been picked up as a minor buzz on STM’s gossip channel. Barlow was popular, which meant he had no loyalties beyond his crowd. Why would he keep this juicy bit a secret? Then again, I thought, what if he keeps it a secret out of embarrassment? After all, no one knows who I am. Maybe he won’t tell because there’s nothing, really, to tell.
Here is what I will never forget:
You’re a freshman? Wow. From those notes I guessed you were at least a junior. I kinda thought you were one of the senior girls just playing a trick on me.
And there you had it. My writing had transformed me into one of the cool! senior! girls playing a trick on Barlow! I could not have been more thrilled.
As long as I can remember, I’ve hated endings. Most kids grieve the end of summer, but I’ve always grieved the end of the school year; summer happens again and again, but fifth grade is only once, and then it’s gone. The first time I saw the ending of Grease I was annoyed that Danny and Sandy’s red convertible becomes airborne, heaven-bound. Even at twelve, I knew I would never be as thin as Sandy, as bad-ass as Rizzo, would never nab the most popular guy at school. I could still imagine it though. But a flying car? From then on, I always stopped the tape before it happened.
The real ending of this story, the honest one, goes like this: Barlow still didn’t notice me at school. And the following year, after he’d gone to Brown, Charlotte began dating Keith Broussard, the guy who played Putzie in Grease. Though we usually smiled and said hey in the hallways, she never really talked to me again.
But I wish this story ended with me floating away on a balloon. Set adrift above the gray prison of St. Thomas More High School, unworried about my flabby arms and eleven-minute mile. I wish I could tell you that I became close friends with Charlotte and she helped me to unleash some of my own creative talent. I wish I could tell you that Barlow found me at school the next day and dragged me down an isolated hall just as the bell rang to begin class. He kissed me passionately, met my gaze, and then drifted away to Physics. I wish I could say I played a Pink Lady in a local production of Grease a few years later when I went to college. Mostly, I wish I could tell you that I was sent a few happy birthday balloons that freshman year. And boy, it sure felt good to walk outside into the thick Louisiana air and wrestle those suckers into the back seat of Amy’s mom’s Corolla.
About Jessica: Jessica Dur Taylor lives and writes in Santa Rosa, California, to the tune of her husband’s piano playing and their daughter’s happy shrieking. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Prick of the Spindle, Fractured West, Recess Magazine, Hipmama, Hobo Camp Review, and others. She blogs at www.gyrlwryter.blogspot.com.