We are back, having survived a trip ten years back in time. The author has finished writing what most of you deem “how the nerd got the cheerleader.” She has rewrites to do, but hopefully in early May, it will be fit for public consumption. Then, we can pick up where we left off in LAC 11.
In the meantime, the first chapter follows…
In my mind, the word possessed enough volume to put my every nerve ending on high alert.
I made another study of the paper I held, as though it would somehow alter the moment: Claudia Kitterman FBLL President 4:30 Thursday UG Student Union. The review did nothing.
I glanced to the tables again. At one, a young woman sat, totally absorbed in scrawling notes as she pored over a thick textbook. She did not look like the president of anything—including her own fan club. At another, two males conversed while they sorted and stacked their books and papers. They perhaps boasted some underdeveloped presidential qualities, but still, neither of them looked at all like a Claudia.
Then, my eyes traveled once more to the dreaded inevitability, my fate. In the far corner of the union, two small tables had been shoved together, and seven people gathered around, laughing, talking, completely oblivious to anyone but themselves. History told me they were the pretty people, the kind who made school a living hell, the kind who looked down their noses at me with utter disdain. Maybe they didn’t. They probably didn’t. But it always felt as though they did.
And now! Now, I had to walk to that table teeming with them and ask which one had an appointment with me. Shit! The sheer idea of that made me want to turn tail and run, stopping somewhere along the way to retch the swarm of butterflies from my stomach. Deep breath!
After a bit of stealthy scrutiny, I decided my meeting had to be with the short-haired blond. Yeah, she looked like a president … of something. Okay, maybe they all did.
A panicky peek at my watch informed me I was now four minutes late. I cleared my throat, braced myself, and trudged like a trooper to the table.
“Claudia Kitterman?” I croaked and immediately castigated myself for sounding as inept and as intimidated as I felt. The instantaneous wave of laughter from them did not help, and even though I knew it was probably nothing more than coincidence, heat overtook my face.
Directly in front of me, a long-haired brunette rose and fluidly turned to stand within inches of my face.
“I’m Claudia,” she affirmed, smiling and flashing the greenest eyes I had ever seen. She politely extended her hand. “And that would make you Kate Sutter.”
I thrust my clammy hand forward, noncommittally shook, and withdrew it in a flash.
She pointed to the opposite side of the union. “Should we sit over there where it’s quieter?” she asked. When I nodded, she offered, “Can I get you tea or coffee or soda or something? I need tea.”
“I’ll go,” I blurted, desperate for a diversion to relieve the pressure of the moment. Immediately, I spun to head to the counter.
“I drink Earl Grey, hot,” she called after me. “You have to specifically ask for it, or they’ll give you some godawful crap.”
Godawful crap, I knew it well; it described my emotional state to a goddamn tee.
I placed an order for a coffee and the specified tea. As I waited, I watched her reflection in the beverage cooler’s glass door. She claimed a table, stretched like a sleepy cat, and then pivoted her head in my direction. Shit! I promptly looked down and busied myself with filling a pocket full of sugar packets and creamers, enough to please a platoon of Earl Grey drinkers … if they even liked it sweet and blond.
Bravely, I glanced to the rearview cooler again and found her still staring. Maybe she read the menu high on the wall in front of me. Maybe she was oblivious to her surroundings. Maybe I was just a chickenshit of a jerk. But how could this be? How the hell could this be? I had quizzed the mayor, the chief of police, cops, the school superintendent, lawyers, restaurateurs, and all the while, I had been confidently poised. Seriously, was I about to be brought to my frickin’ knees by the pretty-people president of some college club?
As I paid and collected change and the beverages, I tried to conjure up the image I got of her in that split second. Maybe she was ugly as hell, and those green eyes had merely distracted me from that stark and relieving truth. Yeah, maybe she hadn’t plucked her one bushy eyebrow since the onset of time, and those green eyes had merely distracted me from that monstrous and relieving truth. Maybe she wasn’t intelligent enough to formulate a complete, let alone a coherent sentence, and those green eyes had merely distracted me from that mumbled and relieving truth. Maybe… Shut up, Kate! Get a frickin’ grip!
Paper cups in hand and a deep breath in my lungs, I made for the table, mindful that spillage often led to slippage and my idiotic position within the village could be readily exposed. I carefully set the beverages on the table and plunked into a chair across from her. I fumbled in my inside pocket for my pad of paper and my lucky pen, and when my attention returned to her, I caught her green eyes piercing me. Holy shit! She wasn’t ugly as hell. She was breathtakingly beautiful, and I reminded myself to take those breaths as I counted two delicate eyebrows above distractingly green eyes. She was indeed a pretty-people, and I knew in that instant, it was only a matter of time before she chewed me up and spit me out like jalapeno oatmeal.
“I expected you to be much older,” she remarked, still staring. “I bet you’re younger than I am. You’re really a reporter for the Journal and not the school paper? I was hoping to get some real press for this thing.”
I nervously cleared my throat. “The Journal. I’ve been at the Journal for three years,” I assured, telling myself her remark was merely an observation of age and not an assumption of inexperience. Then, I forcefully reminded myself that I was a professional. I’m a reporter, goddamn it! This is my job! I’m good at my job!
She smiled and asked, “Did you go to school here, Kate?”
“Yes. Did you?” Shit! Shit! Shit!
She laughed, thinking I made a joke of something other than myself.
In an effort to divert attention, my hand dove into my pocket to extract the glut of sugar and cream, which I then placed in front of her like an appeasement to the goddess.
“Unnecessary,” she said, still laughing. “But thank you anyway.”
Desperate to shift beyond clumsy small talk and to gain the masterful upper hand, I looked to my note and clarified, “So you’re the president of the FBLL.”
“Yes, FBLL,” she replied. “Future Business Leaders League. Don’t waste your breath listing the alternatives. We’ve heard them all, and frankly, none of them are funny. Football. Foosball. Full of bull.” She enunciated, “Future Business Leaders League.”
I wouldn’t joke, and I also wouldn’t admit that I ran each of those, plus a few others, through my mind on the drive to the university.
I investigatorily probed, “And you have a fundraising event scheduled for the week of September 21st. Could you tell me about it?” Suddenly, I sounded very professional. I think I can. I think I can. Chooooo chooooo!
“Sure. I’d love to. We’re dividing up by five teams of four,” she explained, and her eye contact proved so penetrating I looked away, jotting notes that bordered on dictation. “Each team picked a business venture for the week to raise money for a worthy cause. The team has to build the company, market it, and run it. The team that turns the biggest profit wins.”
“Wins what?” I shrewdly asked the obvious.
“Bragging rights,” she answered with absolute seriousness, and I sensed those were indeed a tremendous prize to her.
Over the next twenty minutes, she described the event in minute detail. As though she knew exactly what I needed, she gave me spirited words to craft a less than mundane article. She gave me the human-interest angle: juvenile diabetes, the domestic abuse shelter, the humane society, a children’s hospital, and breast cancer research. She gave me the goods: T-shirts, soup, buttons, bakery, and pizza. She gave it all in easy-to-assemble pieces.
And all the while, her actions severely mismatched her fluency. Arbitrarily, she studied me; I knew it because I felt it, certain it did not stem solely from non-pretty-people paranoia. She looked at me quizzically. Then, she smiled with something akin to understanding. She watched me write. She appraised my haircut. She even glanced under the table to get a load of my shoes. My shoes! Seriously, she took a frickin’ gander at my shoes, and as she did, I desperately tried to remember which ones I donned that morning and whether my socks matched. By all that is holey, please let my socks match! It proved one of the strangest experiences I could remember. If she majored in business, maybe she minored in biology or psychology or hell, zoology, and I was a study.
When her dissertation finally ceased, I took a moment to scan my notes. If she did minor in zoology, she’d be interested in the chicken scratch I could barely read. Abruptly, any sense of professionalism I had evaporated. I had been pretty-people rattled, but I worked to convince myself that I could pull it all together and write that less than mundane article as soon as I removed myself from her sight, as soon as I raced back to my comfort zone where my confidence resided.
I closed my notebook and prepared a thank-you, but before I could deliver it, she said, “If you could spell out Future Business Leaders League each time in the article, instead of letting your readers do the football, foosball, full of bull routine, I’d really appreciate it.”
“And please, don’t refer to me as the leader of the Future Business Leaders League.”
“Okay.” I decided right there that she was the bossiest, most beautiful woman I had ever met. With a suddenly brave or brazen smile, I stupidly dared, “Because calling you the leader would make you the FBLLL?”
She laughed. Thank God, she laughed. “That wasn’t exactly why, but now that you mention it—” She paused and peered so intensely into my eyes that I knew for certain my pupils had to dilate to let her pass. “That’s an awful lot of l-words, isn’t it?” she asked. “Any other l-words you’d care to know about?”
“No, that’s more than enough. I’ll just make sure I use ‘president,’” I said. Feeling a bit more relaxed, I continued to veer toward the personal angle, “So which one of these businesses is yours? And am I safe to assume you’re the CEO?”
“You’re very astute,” she said with a smirk. Then, she leaned toward me and whispered, “Can I tell you off the record?” After my cautious nod, she divulged, “We skipped the mom and pop business and went straight to franchise.” When I asked her to explain what that meant, she did so quite eagerly. “We reserved large spaces, much larger than we could possibly need—and well before the other teams had a chance to. We will control the campus’ four main arteries at both the morning rush and the lunch hour. And, we have four businesses, not one like every other team. Plus, we got bakeries in town to donate their goodies for a mere mention in the school paper of their charitable contributions. It’s pure profit times four.”
As I pondered her ingenuity, she leaned back in her chair and gloated, but for some reason I couldn’t quite comprehend, her demeanor lacked even a hint of arrogance. She exuded self-confidence, pride even, but the pretty-people egotism I expected either lurked well beneath her flawless surface or it simply wasn’t there. I almost seized my notebook just to jot a reminder to myself to muse on that one.
She softly cleared her throat and smiled. “I was also hoping you’d do a follow-up after the fundraiser is over. Having the winners’ names in the paper would help my job prospects.”
I smiled. “Your job prospects?”
“Well, I do intend to win,” she replied, her eyes devilishly sparkling. “Care to make a wager?”
“Against your winning? I have a feeling that would make me a fool.”
“Would it make you a fool not to do a thorough follow-up like a good reporter?”
“I’ll ask my editor.”
“Cool!” she exclaimed and seemed to take my response as anything but tentative. She snatched my pad of paper and then plucked my pen from my hand. “Let me give you my phone number, in case we’re on school break or you need to get a hold of me instead of the league advisor.”
She scrawled and prepared to say something when the pretty-people table shrieked her name about a dozen times. When she finally looked in their direction, one of them yelled, “We’re heading out for pizza, Claudia. Are you coming with us?”
Instead of answering, she shot from her seat and zipped to their table. I tried to watch peripherally, feeling awkward as hell again. A tall pretty-guy wrapped his arm around her; she immediately reciprocated. Then, all eyes turned to me, and laughter erupted. Awkwardness morphed into mortification, and I scrambled to collect my things. I should have known. I should have made sure not to let a second’s pleasure creep into business. I should have kept up my guard. I should have expected this. Shit, I did expect this! The sudden pang inside me was my own damn fault.
I had just risen from my chair when she returned. Instantly, I said, “I appreciate your giving the time for an interview. The article should appear in the Sunday Edition right before your fundraising week.”
“You’re leaving? We’re done?”
“I have what I need.” I looked to the empty pretty-people table and feigned a smile. “Maybe you can still catch up with your friends.”
“I told them I was going to get you to let me buy you dinner.”
“You did?” That unexpected statement frickin’ threw me for a loop. “But I have to go,” I blurted. The truth was I wanted to run so fast I’d be nothing but a blur. Do not let your guard down!
Her face suddenly soured, and she looked away. “I’m sorry. … I’m pushy, presumptuous.”
“No, you’re not,” I respectfully assured. “You gave a good interview. I hope your fundraiser is a big success and your franchise wins.”
“I am sorry,” she said again, her eyes barely glancing at me. “I enjoyed talking with you. Thank you. Are you sure I can’t buy you dinner?”
“I’m sure,” I said, but I wasn’t. There was a part of me that wanted nothing more than to stay there with her, to peer into those eyes, to simply look at her. But I was a reporter who had conducted an interview. That was all. How the hell a man with his arm around her factored into that confused the hell out of me. How the hell hurt feelings entered into it stunned me. Regardless, she was out of my league anyway. Way out of my league. Run, Kate! Run!
“I’ll talk to my editor about doing a follow-up,” I assured.
She nodded, and when I looked at her, I got the horrid sense that I had somehow hurt her feelings, slighted her. Her eyes were different, her smile was gone, and something totally different reared inside me: guilt. But why? What the hell had I done wrong? She wanted press; I would give her press. If she wanted more, she could go to the pretty-people table. Then, the ugly truth dawned on me. If her goal had been to get me to agree to her buying dinner … if they had laughed… Aw, shit! I was a bet or a joke or a dare or a business endeavor. Aw, shit!
“It was nice meeting you,” I stammered in my turn to leave. Trying to look casual, I began my getaway.
“You, too,” she called after me.
Halfway down the hall, my mind fragmented into a thousand pieces. One part saw her incredible eyes. One part saw the guy’s arm around her. One part heard her laugh. One part heard them laugh. One part saw her smile. One part saw her let down. Let down? How the hell could I have let her down? I did what I came there to do: an interview. What the hell? Desperate to understand, I replayed everything I said, everything she said. And then, what I heard in my mind made a completely different truth dawn on me. “Any other l-words you’d care to know about?” … L-word! Lesbian! … Lesbian? Shit! I was a fool. Jesus, I was a frickin’ fool!
I came to a screeching halt and spun around, praying like hell she was still standing there. I scanned the many faces, searching for that long brown hair, searching for those green eyes. Nothing! I high-tailed it back to the now bustling union, and again, I searched. Nothing! I checked two corridors. Nothing! She had either disappeared, or she had been merely a figment of my imagination all along. The latter probably would have been easier to deal with.
Out of choices, I made the trek out of the building and to the sanctity of my car. I lit a cigarette, took a desperate drag, and then for some inexplicable reason, I began to cry.
Something inside me tore apart, as though an internal de-fleshing has occurred, as though the outside of something very deep had been peeled away, leaving it raw and stinging.
Stress, I told myself. Nothing more. Nothing less. Nothing that time and distance would not alleviate. I was in over my head, but I’d surface. I knew I would surface. I kept telling myself I would surface.
After a quick swipe of the tears on my face, I took another drag and then leaned back onto the headrest. I squeezed my eyes shut, the stupid leaky things, and I searched for reason within the confines of my throbbing skull.
L-words: there were a bazillion of them. To put stock in one was ludicrous. I was smarter than that. The person I knew myself to be was much smarter than that.
As I breathed deeply, I recited a litany of l-words. Litmus. Loser. Leprechaun. Linchpin. I started the car. Lactose. Lunatic. Liquor. Low-life. I drove. Loser. Lifetime. Lightweight. Lickety-split. I sped. Labyrinth. Lockup. Letdown. L’frickin’ loser.