When Mr. Bingham asked, “Why did Nixon go to China?” I kept a straight face and raised my hand.
He nodded to me. “Ms. Morgenstern?”
“To make American Chinese food great again?”
Others laughed, but he didn’t. “After class, please. Now, serious answer, anyone?”
I raised my hand. When no one else did, he nodded to me again.
“Why am I in trouble, but Mark isn’t? His jokes haven’t even been funny lately.”
I knew the reason. Mark Williams was the teacher’s pet.
Morons hooted behind me. Bingham pursed his lips. “Everyone, Monday will now feature a quiz. Fifty words on the significance of Nixon in China.”
The class groaned. A nearby jock said, “Thanks a lot, S&M.” That was their nasty nickname for me, Sandra Morgenstern – because, obviously, initials.
I went straight to Bingham’s desk after the bell. I had a bus to catch. He put me off. “Three minutes. When things settle down.”
I tried to appear calm as I waited. Inside I was fuming.
Bingham looked toward the door. “Mr. Williams, join us, please?”
For one shining moment I thought Mark was in trouble too. But when Bingham was finally ready, he said, “Ms. Morgenstern wonders why you don’t get in trouble for joking around. Please tell her what I said the other day.”
Tall-blond-and-dorky cleared his throat, shifted from one foot to the other, looked down at me, short-blond-and-angry, and croaked a single word. “Timing.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Maybe my tone was too harsh. He was already embarrassed. This was junior high, and a boy was talking to a girl.
“I crack jokes when things are under control and going smoothly, not when it’s rowdy or he’s hurrying to beat the bell.”
I glared at my captor. “Timing?”
Bingham shrugged. “Timing.”
“Can I go?”
Tall-blond-and-dorky rushed to open the door for me, and I hurried toward my locker. It was at the opposite end of the building, and I was fighting the two-inch heels I’d worn for a church thing before school.
Ninth grade sucked. Heels sucked. Riding the bus sucked. Locker combinations sucked. Boys sucked – jocks, brains, teachers, all of them.
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When I burst from the school, breathless, Bus Seven was roaring away.
“Crap!” I yelled after it. No one heard me. It was the last bus, and I had the loading area to myself. I took another step and fell off my shoes. I grabbed a railing, so I didn’t fall hard on the sidewalk, but my open backpack spilled all over.
“Oh, crap,” I whined.
I heard the school door open and close.
I knelt and started gathering my things. Someone handed me a book. I saw beat-up sneakers and jeans and looked up to say thanks.
“Oh, crap,” I said instead, under my breath.
“You okay?” Mark Williams asked, blushing less than before.
“No! I just missed that bus.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“I’ve never seen you on it.”
“Mom usually drives me, but her car’s broken. Where do you live?”
“I’m not telling you that.”
I ignored his outstretched hand and picked myself up.
He was still there, so I asked him my question. “How do I get home now? It’s too far to walk.”
“Especially in those shoes.”
“What’s wrong with my shoes?”
“Nothing. They’re nice. Just not for walking.”
“My shoes are fine.” I turned away and stumbled over them again. He grabbed my arm, steadying me, then quickly pulled his hand away.
Okay, he had a point about my shoes. And anyway, awkward!
“The activity bus leaves at 4:45,” he said.
“Two hours? How do you know? Are you a jock?”
“Hardly. Sometimes I have a student council thing after school. Just a dumb committee. Appointed, not elected.”
“Are you riding it?”
“It would take me home?”
“Where do you live?”
I looked up at him, then looked away. “Locust Lane, behind the high school.”
“It stops at the high school.”
“What are you doing until 4:45?” I asked.
“Catching up on history, I guess.”
That was too much. “Seriously? Mr. Straight-A Teacher’s Pet is behind in history?”
He hesitated. “Yeah. Got Ds on the last two chapter tests. Hadn’t done the reading. Things got … complicated.”
I was fuming. Again. “Two Ds, and Bingham still lets you crack jokes? Unlike me, you may have noticed.”
“I have timing,” he said seriously. “You sure you’re okay?”
My mood softened. “Yeah. Thanks for, um, rescuing me. I better text my mom now.”
“Yeah, okay. See you on the bus.”
When the bus came, he was first in line. Dorks did that to avoid asking someone if they could sit. My thing was being last in line, so I could spend the least possible time on the bus.
When I finally climbed the steps, seat after seat had a track star or two in it. I worked my way back to where Mark was sitting alone.
“Can I sit here?” I felt half-meek, half-sullen.
“Thanks.” I left some space between us and looked straight ahead, as the bus pulled away.
“Why do they call you S&M?” he asked.
“Because they’re jerks.”
He looked puzzled.
“Sandra Morgenstern? S, M? My initials?”
“Oh, right. Those guys suck, Sandra.”
I looked straight ahead again, as the bus rattled through the streets.
At a stop, when things were quieter, he said, “Your Nixon joke was funny.”
I glanced at him. “Thanks.”
At the next stop, I looked again. He was watching me. He colored a little when I saw him, but he didn’t look away.
I didn’t like my heart beating faster, but it did. “Why are you staring?”
He blushed more and looked away. “Sorry.”
“Seriously, why? Do I have a zit?”
He shook his head. “No, it’s just, well, cute girls don’t usually sit with me. Sorry for staring, Sandra.”
When he finally looked again, I smiled very slightly.
“Mark?” My face felt warm.
“My friends call me Sandy.”
Photo credit: Element5 Digital on Unsplash.
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