High School Sweet Non-Hearts, or: I Was Definitely Smarter Than Him
Within a thirty-mile radius, the Butler County Fair is the pinnacle of
summertime existence in the lives of young people. If you are a
teenaged-Midwesterner, there is simply no place else to be on a
Saturday night in July. All your friends will be there, not to mention your
younger brother, his girlfriend, everyone from high school—including
an old classmate of yours, let’s call him Willy Thompson. He is long and
lean and has this peculiar way of moving his eyebrows up and down
whenever he speaks, like punctuation in a written sentence. You can
never decide if this is charming or ridiculous, but at least he has a car.
This particular Saturday night, you have somehow ended up at
the Butler County Fair alone with Willy. He asked you—specifically—to
come with him, but it’s not a date or anything, you hope it’s more
circumstantial than that. It seemed almost an accident that you have
somehow ended up walking side by side with Willy, talking about if
college is worth it.
I’m just so over school, he says, you know? I’m ready to get out
of here and make something of myself.
What would you make of yourself? you ask, thinking how much
you like this idea: making yourself, as if from scratch, picking and
choosing ingredients at will.
I don’t know. He runs a hand over his tobacco brown hair, but it
is cropped so short that his fingers just pass through air. He cut it last
year, when he was thinking of joining the army and wanted to try out
the buzzed look. You liked the longer hair better. I just want to be
working, he adds, maybe head out West? I like working with my hands.
You find yourself admiring the fact that yes, he does have the
body for manual labor.
Like ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ you say, thinking of the Joads going
to California to pick peaches.
His eyebrows cease their vertical movements and furrow over
his eyes. Grapes of what?
It’s a book, you tell him. I read it in English class. You don’t
remind him he was in that class with you.
The two of you walk a bit more and you think of how romantic
it would be if he took you on the Ferris wheel, or maybe bought you a
sno-cone. You pass the aisle with all the games and a man calls out for
the boy to win the lady a prize. Willy looks at you and grins. The upward
tilt of his mouth has nothing on the curve of those eyebrows. Okay,
yeah, let’s give ‘er a try.
He gives the man three dollars and throws a dart, pops the
balloon. The man gestures for anything on the back wall. Willy studies
the stuffed animals with an intensity you wish he had applied to
What do you want? he says.
You see a cute bear at the bottom of the stack, yellow like
Winnie the Pooh with a hat that reminds you of Indiana Jones, but all
you say is, You pick for me.
He points to a stuffed monkey in a rainbow beanie. That one.
He hands it to you. Don’t say I never gave you anything.
Thanks, you say.
After that Willy says he wants to save his money and so you
leave the games lined up like ducks in a row, and the rides spinning and
twirling and lighting up the night sky like noontime. You head toward the
animal barns instead, which pleases you. The shrieks of other people’s
laughter fall behind and you are more alone with Willy than you have
ever been before. This pleases you too—or you know that it’s supposed
to, and that’s close enough.
Later you will not remember what you talk about walking
through the goat barn, the cow arena, the pig stalls. What you will
remember is when you ask him if the two of you can go to see the horses
and he says, Of course. You skip a little bit ahead of him, greet each new
horse like an old friend. Hi pretty girl, and a click of your tongue. Hello
sweet boy, with a smooching sound. The horse slobbers on the stuffed
monkey in your hand and you are not sorry.
Willy stands just behind you, hands in his pockets. What is it
about chicks and horses? He laughs.
When you look over your shoulder at him you wonder if he
always had that odd way of talking out of the side of his mouth.
I just like them, you say.
A buddy of mine has two big stallions, he says. He kicks at the
dirt. He is trying, maybe, to impress you.
Stallions? You are amazed and, at first, also impressed, like he
wanted. You have never heard of anyone casually owning a stallion.
Keeping two male unneutered horses together is a high risk. You ask,
What does he do with them?
He uses them to pull his plow, I think. They’re huge, like twice
the size of these guys. He gestures to the chestnut quarter horse you’re
petting in front of him.
What does he mean? Clysdesdales, draft horses?
Does he breed them? you ask, because why else would anyone
not neuter their male horses?
Nah, says Willy. But one is a boy and one is a girl, I think.
You say, Uh huh. Afterwards, when you are both walking back
to his car, you let him hold your hand. His fingers are rough and red and
sweaty. Yours feel squished in his big palm. You are standing in sun
made from the headlights of his car, which he has started with a click of
a button from the keys in his pocket. There is a moment when he almost
walks to his side of the vehicle and you to yours but instead you call him
Yeah? he says, standing right in front of you now.
Suddenly you lose your nerve, maybe even change your mind,
but he still sees it in your eyes. When he kisses you his chapped lips are
slobbery and yours are still. Later, all you will remember thinking is,
How the hell are you supposed to do this?
It is your first kiss and you hate it.
He joins the army and three years later he will end up with a girl
named Amanda who smiles sweet but empty. At least, you think it was
Willy that joined the army. Maybe that was another boy. Certainly,
though, he was the boy who kissed you for the very first time in front
of a car. Wasn’t he? It is so hard, sometimes, to remember.
Either way, when you see his photos with another girl on
Facebook, you will remind yourself about his friend’s female stallion.
Samatha Edmonds am the Fiction Editor for Doubleback Review, a new lit journal in the Sundress Publications family, as well as the new Assistant Fiction Editor for Sundress Publications. My work appears in Ninth Letter, The Rumpus, Black Warrior Review, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others. I currently live in Columbia MO, where I’m a PhD student in fiction at the University of Missouri.Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer who has published work in Tin House, The Washington Post, Pacific Standard, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The New Ohio Review, Brevity and more. In 2019, they published their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) and their novel All City (Seven Stories Press), which was a finalist for the Ohioana Book Awards. Their short story collection Transmutation (Seven Stories Press) is forthcoming in 2021. They are the recipient of grants and fellowships from PEN America and Sundress Academy for the Arts. They are an assistant editor at Sundress Publications.
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