Matthew was the first person that I laid eyes on when I walked through the rusty doors of my new high school.
My father worked for Blockbuster and he was sent around the country to help open new stores. Sometimes he went by himself and other times we piled the whole family into the trusty station wagon and went with him. This time we left behind the warm Florida beaches and travelled across the country to Oregon. I didn’t know a single soul and I certainly did not like the rain that constantly seeped into my bones.
Matthew had blonde, curly locks of hair that danced across his eyelashes. He glanced sideways at me and gave a sideways grin. I bunched my lips together in a tentative smile. I knew he was just being polite. I buried my hands in the straps of my new backpack because I needed something to do with them. All around me students were standing in clusters, chattering loudly about their summers and making plans and promises for the new year.
I watched as a tall, dark-haired boy leaned on an open pale blue locker and winked at the petite blonde girl standing below him. I tried not to stare as she stood on her tippy-toes and leaned in for a kiss, meeting the dark-haired boy’s lips. I felt my stomach twist in longing, wishing that someone would show me affection in such a public way for all to see. I glanced around and saw that no one else was paying any attention to the couple.
I quickly stumbled forward, feeling the elbows and jabs of my peers pushing past me. I had lost Matthew in the crowd, but something told me that I would see him again. Or maybe that was just pure wishful thinking. I glanced down at the piece of crumpled paper the guidance counsellor had thrust towards me when I visited her office earlier that morning.
“Here, your homeroom is 201. Use the stairway on the left. Sorry hon, it’s super busy in here so I’ve got to move you along,” she’d said, ushering me out before I could even take a seat.
I hadn’t said anything to her. I just clutched the piece of paper and hoped I would know which was the stairway on the left. A long line of antsy teenagers snaked across the hallway in front of her office, each twitching with impatience in their own way.
201. 201. 201. I chanted this to myself as if it were some magical spell that would lift me out of this loud, hormone-infused hell and back to sipping orange juice on the beach in Florida, surrounded by the comfort of my family.
I wish I could say that I bumped into Matthew and dropped my books in confusion. That he swooped down to pick them up, my knight in shining armor and we lived happily ever after. Sadly, that only happens in the movies. In reality, Matthew was in my homeroom, but we didn’t speak for an entire year. From afar, I lusted after him. I watched him make the basketball team and help take the squad to victory. I tried not to stare as he too found his petite blonde girl and leaned down to kiss her at her locker. I memorized the way his brow furrowed when he was writing a math test, chewing on the end of his pencil as if that will help him solve the complexities of algebra.
Matthew says he noticed me during that entire year. He says he thought I wouldn’t be interested in a boy like him. He assumed I was too focused on my studies because he knew I would be going places. In reality, I know he just didn’t notice a quiet, shy and lanky girl like me.
My father told me I was the most beautiful girl in the world. My mother said my green eyes were my greatest asset. But I had trouble finding my voice. I trembled at the thought of standing up in front of the entire class and giving a presentation. My stomach rolled when I had to go to another school dance, pretending to sway to the music but feeling itchy under the emerald dress my mother insisted that I wear because it brings out my eyes. I wanted to disappear into a safe, dark corner of the school with a good book and no one watching me.
But one day, Matthew did set eyes on me. It was our second year of high school. We were in the same science class and the teacher paired us together as lab partners. That meant we would spend the entire semester sitting side by side on precarious stools while wearing protective eye gear and sticking our fingers into frog guts. How romantic.
My stomach did a million flip flops as I thought about what it would be like to have Matthew all to myself for 90 minutes every day. What will I say to him? What if I embarrass myself? What if he doesn’t like me? An even smaller voice at the back of my mind wondered how I will get him to fall in love with me.
I tried to tell my best friend Annabelle about my fears. She was excited that I would finally have a chance to be near Matthew. She reassured me that I wouldn’t make a fool of myself and everything that I said mattered. I tried to draw on her courage. She was the youngest person in school to be dating one of the football players. People whispered when we walked by, wondering how she managed to snag Rock Richards.
I know she got a note with bright red letters in her locker that read SLUT. I also know that Rock Richards saw Annabelle for what she was. A beautiful soul who handed out heaps of assurance, compassion and honesty. She walked with her head held high and she knew that her existence was important. No one would dare say anything nasty to her face because Annabelle would kill you with kindness. She would make you regret what you said in a way that would hit you so deep down to your core. I admired Annabelle with every cell of my being.
I decided to channel my inner Annabelle when I walked into science class that day. I sat down on the empty stool and waited until Matthew appeared. But he didn’t. Not for the first five minutes, ten minutes, twenty minutes. The teacher marked him absent on the attendance list. My stomach swirled and I felt my lunch creeping into my throat. Did he miss class because of me? Does he really not want to be near me that badly? The pep talk I got from Annabelle right before class went out the window. I couldn’t focus on anything the teacher was saying. All I could worry about was Matthew.
Finally, in the last five minutes of class, Matthew stumbled in. His blonde curls were windswept, and his backpack was slung casually across one of his shoulders. He clutched a pink slip in his hand.
“Sorry Miss G, I had a dentist appointment,” he said, handing her the note.
She nodded at him and continued on with the lesson, but time stood still for me, my heart thrumming loudly in my chest.
I watched as Matthew scanned the group of students and his eyes settled on me. He strolled towards our stools.
“Hey Marley, sorry about that. I hope I can make up for what I missed,” he said to me.
My heart melted at hearing him say my name for the first time. I felt butterflies flapping their wings all around my stomach. My heart was beating so loudly I was worried he would be able to hear it. I swallowed, hard.
“Don’t worry about it,” I smiled.
He put down his backpack and settled into the seat next to me. The same seat he sat in every day for the rest of the semester. What started out as polite conversation turned into more personal anecdotes. Matthew admitted he wasn’t sure if he wanted to play on the basketball team again next year. I told him I hated getting any grade below an A. With our eyes taking turns peeking into a microscope, we exchanged laughs and some heart-felt truths.
One science class, Matthew asked me what I was most worried about today. The question caught me by surprise. I wondered if he knew I had been thinking about the stupid school dance tonight. Annabelle wanted me to go with her and Rock. I felt so silly walking in with them. Rock would be greeted by all of the football players. Their girlfriends would pretend to compliment Annabelle’s dress, but I knew they were plotting to stab her in the back. People just didn’t know what to do with her kindness, so they tried to crush it. It never worked. I knew their eyes would sweep over me, the pathetic friend tagging along with them. My brain worked in double time, trying to think about how to articulate this to Matthew.
“I guess umm… the dance coming up,” I muttered.
“I thought you were going to say the science test tomorrow,” Matthew laughed.
I loved the sound of his laugh; it was like a symphony. It warmed my insides and sometimes made my cheeks red.
“Well, that too. But you should be more worried about that than me,” I giggled.
Matthew chuckled. We both knew I was better at science.
I watched as his smile faded and his gaze trailed away from my face and to the floor.
“If you’re so worried about the dance, why don’t you umm… go with me?” He whispered.
At first, I thought I heard him incorrectly but the way he looked up at me through his blonde curls, gazing at me ever so softly, I knew I had heard him right.
I tried to swallow but my throat felt parched.
“Unless of course you already have a date,” he quickly said, brushing back his hair with his hand.
“No, I don’t,” I said quickly.
He looked at me expectantly.
“I would like that,” I smiled.
Matthew’s face broke out into a wide-toothed grin.
“Nice,” he said plainly but his smile said it all.
That smile would get me through my father passing away from lung cancer three years later. It would get me through the excruciating births of our first, second and third child. It would remind me that it was all worth it as we took out a second mortgage on our house.
Matthew’s smile would help me find joy in the mundane tasks of doing the dishes or washing the laundry. It would be the main thing that I remember from our beautiful wedding night along with the glow of pride in my mother’s eyes. His smile would be the first one to greet me as I clutched my diploma after getting my bachelor’s degree then my master’s degree and finally my PhD.
His smile would be there every day when I came home from my teaching job at the university in town. It would be there as our children started getting older, throwing tantrums and then saying that they hate us. It would be there as I started growing older and thinking about how I wanted to spend the rest of my life.
One thing was for sure, I would spend it across from the glow of Matthew’s smile.
That night we walked into the school dance together and signaled to the world that we were a couple for the first time. Walking through those rusty doors in a silky olive dress, I could feel Matthew’s smile and I knew that everything else would be okay.