For the past year, I'd been having these strange episodes, almost like hallucinations, but they were usually accompanied by intense physical discomfort. Unless the discomfort became so overwhelming that I couldn't sit still, I might easily have one without anyone near me taking notice - unless, of course, if I was in the middle of a sentence when one began, at which point I'd start speaking gibberish. What I didn't know then (and wouldn't know for many years after) was that I was suffering from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and that these episodes - “flashbacks” I called them because they reminded me of half-remembered dreams - were a type of mild seizure. They'd come on with little warning and I'd find myself utterly fixated on the sights and sounds that I KNEW were not real, only barely aware of my actual surroundings. I kept hoping, eventually, something I saw or heard might give me a clue as to what they meant - such as, was I crazy or possessed or maybe even some kind of psychic? I had a vivid imagination back then. But I only mention all this because I was having one of my “flashbacks” when I began reluctantly and unwittingly staring at the sweet-faced boy, thus humiliating myself to no end!
Unlike most 7th grade girls, I wasn't generally the boy-crazy type. My standards were higher than my hometown, nestled in the southern half of the Texas Gulf Coastal Bend, could ever hope to produce. I was too much of a tomboy, too much of a geek and, to be honest, a bit of a snob. I wasn't taken to giggling over cowboys or getting stuck in the mud on some backroad after a rainstorm and while I loved climbing trees and playing with flea-bitten dogs, the stench of the Annual Livestock Show, which was the social event of the year in my town, made me nauseous. To make matters worse, I was forbidden from flirting with, much less dating, well over half of the local population. Mine was one of the last Anglo families to stubbornly refuse to leave town after members of the Hispanic political party, La Raza, took over the school board. Even so, I was never once allowed to attend the public school or swim at the public pool. I was a student at St. Michael's Parochial Academy… and my family actually belonged to a private pool that unashamedly excluded anyone with a Hispanic last name.
I was standing in the choir loft of the chapel when the unfortunate staring incident took place. I'd been engrossed by the angelic sounds of the organ and the otherworldly colors of the stained glass, neither of which the Baptist church my family attended ever quite mastered, when the seizure hit. I was supposed to be singing, along with a few dozen other 12-13 year olds, but I never got a chance to start before I was swept up in another experience entirely, my eyes traveling unfocused towards my lower right where the far side of the choir stands curved. The instant I realized where, and for how long, my gaze had lingered, I immediately jerked my head forward and tried very hard not to turn several hundred shades of red. I failed… my father was Scots-Irish, after all.
It seemed, for the rest of the day, that I was uncommonly aware of the boy I'd been staring at. I'd hardly noticed him before, but now I sensed his every move in the chapel, on the playground and at lunch in the cafeteria. It was driving me crazy! Finally, I asked my friend, Nina, “Hey, ya' know that guy whose desk I sit in when we go to Mrs. Daniels' class?” Nina hadn't a clue, so I asked another lunch-buddy, “Micky? You know him?”
“He's Mexican, right?” Typical. That was always the first thing we Anglo girls were trained to notice.
“Um, I dunno,” I said. “I mean, he's kinda dark-complected, and I don't remember his name, but I saw it on his books one day and it wasn't... um, Hispanic.”
Finally, Nina tuned in. “Oh, you're talking about John?” Nina knew everyone in town. Her mom ran a beauty shop out of their home, so Nina was always up on all the gossip. “That's John Dorn. Yeah, he's kinda cute, for a Mes'kin.” Again, typical. Most of my friends had grown up around Spanish-speakers, yet half of us, myself included, could barely pronounce a single word correctly, let alone consider ourselves fluent. I started to point out that “Dorn” was hardly a Hispanic name, but Nina insisted, “Well, he's gotta be at least HALF Mes'kin. Either way, YOUR folks would have a cow if they knew you liked him!”
I totally back-pedaled. “I didn't SAY I liked him! It's just... well... gosh, this is so embarrassing. Ya' know how I sometimes kinda tune out and stare into space for a while? Well I did that today... in choir... and when I came to, I was staring RIGHT at him... John, that is. And he was staring BACK at me! I mean, I never really noticed him before, but now I'll bet he just KNOWS I like him... but I don't. I mean, I don't DISlike him but... like you said... Mom and Dad would FREAK!”
“Your GRANDMOTHER would freak,” Micky was quick to point out. My mother's parents were very influential in the region. They had certain standards for their children and grandchildren, especially my grandmother who was born in Mississippi! John couldn't possibly meet those standards - not even if he were a millionaire… or a crown prince.
“Oh, don't even go there!”
Nina was loving this, “Awww, our own little Romeo & Juliet!”
“Cut it out, Nina! What if he thinks I like him and my family finds out? They'd NEVER believe me!” I had a tendency toward the dramatic at that age. “They never believe anything I say, whether I'm telling the truth or not.”
Micky, a fellow Baptist, suddenly got preachy on me, “Why are you so concerned? It doesn't matter what anybody thinks. You know the truth. Isn't that what Bro. Tim preached last Sunday?” What a crock! Micky rarely ever sat with us at lunch because her “best friend,” Casey, was so demanding and insecure that she didn't want Micky to have ANY other friends. Fortunately for us, Casey was out sick that day, but that didn't stop me from pointing out the flaw in Micky's sermon. Of course, she had an answer for everything. “Casey's... complicated, but I wouldn't have a life at all without her. My folks are a LOT more controlling than yours, Alice.” I found that hard to believe. “Casey's mom and mine used to teach together, so my folks trust hers and I get to have some fun. It's totally worth it.”
Lunch was over. Mrs. Daniels' class was next. “Moment of truth!” Nina teased. I was starting to wish I could be out sick. Any second, I just might GET sick!
Micky came to my rescue, “Lay off, Nina. Alice, relax. The more you act weird, the more he's gonna think something's up. May as well go with it.”
“Mm'k.” I struck my best nonchalant posture and impassive expression and entered the classroom behind Nina and Micky. My detached façade immediately fell flat when I saw that John was still seated at his desk… MY desk for the next hour! He was writing furiously in a leather-bound journal with a determined look on his face and the remains of his brown bag lunch in the crook of his elbow. I couldn't think of a way to stall without looking suspicious and he wouldn't be leaving before I reached him, otherwise. Fabulous.
I leaned against the wall next to his desk and tried to pretend like nothing was different from any other day before. Eventually, Mrs. Daniels spoke up, “John, hurry up, now. Another student needs your seat and you mustn't keep Sister Bautista waiting.” He looked up and gave me a quick, shy smile. I returned the same as he gathered his things and stood up, just a little too close to me for comfort. I shuddered involuntarily. Nina muffled a giggle one desk over and I shot her what I hoped was a murderous look - truth be told, it probably came across more like... martyred.
As I sat at John's desk and felt the warmth he'd left behind, I remembered my mother telling me that, in times past, a lady always waited a moment or two before taking a seat vacated by a gentleman so that the scandalous exchange of body heat would not take place. I rolled my eyes and suppressed a snort. My next thought was grateful that I knew enough about the facts of life not to worry that such an exchange could cause an STD, or worse, pregnancy - then so embarrassed myself with these thoughts that I buried my reddening face in my hands. How ironic that, in just a few days time, John, with his knowledge of an “objectionable” culture and fluency in an “undesirable” tongue, would save me from a fate worse than death.
Nina came over the following Saturday to go bike-riding with me. Now, Nina had an average figure for a 12 year old. I, however, did not. For a girl who still preferred to play with dolls rather than makeup, I sure got hit on by a lot of grown men! For this reason, my mother censored my wardrobe rather strictly and never allowed me to wear shorts while bike-riding alone. But Nina was SUCH a fashion victim! She begged me, and by extension, my mother, to put away my culottes and wear the shorts she bought me for my birthday that matched hers. Mom conceded and off we went.
We weren't more than a block or two from the house when they descended. Four boys on two bikes, aged anywhere from 12 to 17, began stalking us, herding, threatening and laughing at our innocently appalled reactions to their lewd gestures and comments. We'd always been warned that the kids on the other side of the tracks, all of whom were Hispanic, began experimenting with sex and drugs at a VERY young age. Now, we were seeing the proof for ourselves! I didn't know what the boys were on, but it was obvious what they wanted to do. Nina wanted us to go back home, but that way was blocked and anyway I didn't want them knowing where I lived. We took off toward her aunt's house, instead, peddling as fast as we could. The boys were faster, even with each bike carrying one kid on the handlebars. They managed to get us separated. Nina made a beeline for her aunt's and the boys chasing her curved around and headed back towards me!
I headed onto a street I wasn't too familiar with. While this street was on the better side of the tracks, it was still mostly populated by Hispanics; granted, they were generally a more educated class than those on the other side. Looking back, I would swear the next few minutes went by in slow motion! I passed a house on a corner where a boy was watering the lawn. As I frantically glanced at the boy, I recognized him… it was John. I said a brief prayer that he might, somehow, be smart enough and brave enough and care enough to come to my aid, but I held out little hope. Why should he? I was just some crazy girl from an uppity family that stared at him like a statue! I turned another corner and barely repressed a shriek when I realized I'd hit a dead end. Even the alleyway was obstructed by barbed wire and the surrounding buildings all looked abandoned. I could make a run for it, but I'd not only forfeit my bike, I'd suffer some serious cuts on that wire, assuming I made it there at all.
As I slammed on my brakes, the bike skidded out from under me and I found myself face down in the gravel, sharp pains shooting from my knees and elbows and palms. I felt strong, rough hands on me, some of them pulling, some of them pushing, like they couldn't decide how they wanted me or who would go first. All of them were speaking Spanish and I wished to God I knew what they were saying and could plead for my freedom in their own language, not that it would do me a lot of good. I probably didn't really want to know what they had planned for me, anyway, although it might have helped me form some sort of last-minute escape.
The next thing I knew, I heard a not-unfamiliar voice, speaking VERY unfamiliar words and in a tone I found both comforting and frightening. I looked up toward the alleyway and saw John standing there, breathing heavily, but trying to stay calm. He must have leapt over the wire. His posture was authoritative, challenging. He had a hard look in his eyes - not at all like the expression on his face in the chapel. Based on his gestures, I think I understood him to say something that indicated I belonged to him. Suddenly, the hands were off of me. My attackers were moving away, back to their own bikes, shrugging and smirking and half-apologizing to us both. In a moment, they were gone.
For the first time, he actually spoke to me, “I didn't mean what I said. I hope you know that.”
“Um… what did you say? I - I don't speak Spanish.”
“Ah, just as well. You'd have taken offense, I'm sure. I just said what I had to to get them to leave you alone.”
He helped me up and righted my bike, offered me first aid, but I was still too well-trained in the art of discrimination to accept, especially since his mother wasn't home. I think he knew that and I hated myself for distrusting him, for treating him as if he were no better than my would-be attackers and yet, I couldn't provoke myself to do otherwise. I thanked him and limped home. Nina met up with me about half-way there. I didn't tell her what happened - just pretended that I'd outrun them, they got bored and then I fell.
We only had another few weeks before school was out. John and I never spoke again, although we occasionally shared a look and maybe, once or twice, a smile. St. Michael's only goes as far at the 8th grade, so he wasn't back the next year. Nina told me his mom sent him to live with his father in Houston because she, too, was concerned about the local school system.
I've always wondered what became of him, did he succeed, did he find true love with someone who didn't judge him by his DNA? I hope so. He certainly deserved it. I mean, we all do, but John especially so. I've wondered, also, if we might have been friends in another place… or time. Twenty-five years later, my own pre-school-aged daughter already has two “boyfriends” and neither of them are Anglo - not purely, anyway. I guess I should congratulate myself for that, or maybe, once again, I have John to thank.
(Written in 2008 for Honors English Comp II as part of my Final. My professor's feedback was: "Aly, You win the award: best story written for the B Paper. Good analysis, too. Your B Paper is accepted. How about submitting your story to the ACC lit journal, Rio Review?")