Well, I don’t know if it’s fair, exactly, to say I learned. I never paid (or even borrowed or stole) attention, because, in my mind, as an already fourteen-year-old prodigy, I’d learned everything there was to know. Right?
Literature-wise, I suppose. I’d read all the books we were reading—never made any of the grammar mistakes the other kids were making—analyzed what we were fated to be analyzing in my prepubescent time by the river, stuffing the chinks between the log bridge with moss and pondering the meanings behind Austen and Orwell and Lee (Harper, not Bruce).
My parents left me alone a lot.
I knew, from the first hour spent in that class, that I was above it. I probably could’ve gotten out of it, if I wanted to, or made Mrs. Wellston notice (like teachers are supposed to) that it was “below my level,” and I might’ve done those things, too, if not for the variable of Toby.
Our only interaction was on the first day of class, when I was rushing into the room in an attempt to be early, to make a good impression. (I was already late.) In an oh-so-shocking twist of fate, the doorknob decided, right at that moment, to jam; and so I was left, already out of breath from running with a backpack much heavier than it needed to be, futilely rattling the handle, sweat smearing across the slippery surface. Someone from the inside probably would’ve gotten the door in a few seconds anyway, but just then a boy reached from behind me and, as if he’d practiced all his life, deftly turned the handle, revealing a room half-full of slouching students, only a few of them turned to see who’d been frantic enough to seemingly try to wrench the door handle off. I slipped quietly into my seat, pink prickling across my cheeks in warm embarrassment. As the boy casually sat at a desk next to the wall, he whispered in my direction, “I’m Toby.”
I could only imagine the pink blush deepening to a red. “I’m Julia,” I said, even more quietly than he, and busied myself by kicking my backpack with the toe of my sneaker. That was our sole exchange for the entirety of first semester.
From then on, every minute stuck in that class was spent studying him.
Toby, as so many other people are, was from Canada, though I never learned where, so I just assumed (which, I believe, I cannot be faulted for doing) that it was Ontario. His full name was October, which was weird and pretty shocking to learn, but it helped me stop thinking of him as Tobey Maguire, so I really can’t fault him for it. Interracial relationships always fascinated me—I had a friend from sixth grade, Kadi, whose mom was Black and whose dad was Asian and she was, quite possibly, the most good-looking girl in the entirety of middle school—so, as one of the whitest people to ever have glowed under the light of the sun, I had aspirations that somewhere along the line of my teenage journey, I’d find a boy who helped balance that out; and hey, maybe we’d produce some kids half as good-looking as Kadi was.
Alas, Toby ensured that those dreams were not to be. His mom was a millennial, and she wore fedoras and named Toby’s twin sister Amberose (one word—to this day, I’m still not sure how it’s pronounced or what the heckity heck it means). His dad was, I don’t know, a pharmacist or something.
Toby—the boy who sat to my left every day in lit class—was somewhat of an invisible man. (He was probably bisexual; I never once saw him with uncuffed jeans.) He had that kind of blond hair that seems as though it could whisk away any second, dull and—dare I say it—somewhat similar in color to Tr*mp’s. He had green eyes that seemed to drift whenever he wasn’t paying attention (always), and I was at least 97% sure he had a little curved scar to the side of his upper lip. Toby was, in appearance, no one of importance, to every classmate but me.
Maybe I liked him because we seemed somewhat similar—at least, I thought it was pretty obvious that neither of us had dated before. He was always quiet in class, slumped against the wall, sleeping half the time; that just left me more chances to observe him. Toby gave me really good vibes, caramel and cream-colored pompoms and fairy lights and wavy ferns and autumn sort of vibes. (You have to admit, he kind of handed that last one to me—his first name was October. I take no blame.) Of course, I had absolutely nothing whatsoever to base any of this information off of, but ninth-grade-me liked to think I was good at reading people. (I wasn’t.)
I told myself that this was love, that someday we’d blossom into the kind of romance you read about in books. Really, all I learned in that class—all I taught myself—was how to see without being seen, how to deceive your mind into fantasies you were sure would one day be real.
Sometimes I’d slink around the halls, shadowing Toby or the guys he hung out with, straining my ears for any mention of him as I tried to pretend like I was listening to music. These pastimes—staring at him out of the corner of my eye in lit class, eavesdropping to hear what kind of backstory he might have, stalking him on social media, determined to find some scrap of new information—they were all well and good, until I got caught.
I remember it distinctly; it was January fifteenth, after lunch period, and I was lurking by a locker that was most definitely not mine, scrolling through the settings app on my phone. Pro tip: If you want to pretend like you’re doing something important when, in fact, you’re really doing absolutely nothing at all, keep your screen’s brightness low so no one can call you out.
Anyways, I was just standing there, coexisting as Toby and a few of his friends convened in the hall, when suddenly one of them asked, “Dude, you ever notice that chick follows you around all the time?”
Oh, crap. Crap crap crap.
Toby slowly turned to look at me. Amusement flitted across his emerald eyes. “Her?” Without waiting for a response, he added, “Well, there’s only one thing for it.” He called to me, “What’s up?”
Frozen in sheer terror, I could only stare.
Toby laughed and walked a few steps in my direction. “Hey, you okay?”
Now’s your chance, you idiot. You’ve been wanting to do this for months. Just—just get it out.
“Uh,” I stuttered, my throat somehow choked with air, “um—it’s—it’s Julia—would—would you ever want to go out sometime?”
Toby cocked his head, smiling. “Have we met?”