“Damn, there is no way she can make that.” The boy said looking up at her on the stairway landing, the light from the 2nd floor window vibrating around her. Dense bass and drums with screaming vocals was pouring out of someone’s device, adding to the chaos of the high school lunch period.
Tali held her board by the truck, it dangled next to her long baggy canvas pants while she looked down the stairs stretching into the first floor hallway. Her arms, lean and dark, looked extra long against her white tank top. The crowd coming from the cafeteria started to gather at the bottom, with mutterings of ‘no way’, and ‘Bill broke his arm trying that…’ The chatter echoed in the tiled walls and hard linoleum, buzzing like a distorted guitar. Many of the kids moved out of the way when Zach walked up to the crowd at the bottom, then glanced up, before turning to his boys to say, “I hope she tries it. I want to see her fall.” And his boys, Lucas and Rob laughed along.
Tali narrowed her dark eyes at Zach and the laughter, before she stepped back, tossing her skateboard down and hopping on it as it rolled away from the stairs and out of sight down the 2nd floor hallway.
The crowd, as one, lifted up their cell phones, filming, their breath held waiting, sounds of the driving drumbeat from the muffled speaker, then the clack and thum of the wheels humming along the hard linoleum floor laying down the prelude.
“Oh Shit!!” Erupts from the crowd and a blue-haired, compacted blur shoots out from the hallway, and launches into the air, her hands raised like wings as she floats up and over the curved top of the handrail, built to stop rails slides just like this. Almost too high, she lands on the rail slightly off center of the board, but shifts her weight, and leans in and slides, flowing like an extended guitar riff, drifting like a cloud on a spring wind, landing with the kick drum beat on all four wheels, then out of control, she almost crashes into the wall, but pushes off, and then past the cheering crowd down the hallway. “Damn- on her first try!” The ringing bell announcing the start of the next class closed out the solo performance.
Tali was in her last class of the day, AP Physics, when she got called to the office. The stage whispered “She’s suspended for sure-” follows her out of the door before she skates across campus to the administration building to meet her fate.
Mr. Peters, her coach and Ms. Olivia, her counselor, were sitting in the small office reviewing an open file.
“Talia, we want to check in with you on your college plans.” Ms. Olivia began. “We have received calls from several colleges, some of the top schools in the country, including the Ivy’s,” Ms. Olivia’s eyes get big, “and they want you to offer you a scholarship to run for their track team. With your speed and, your truly unbelievable test scores, and because you’re indian- I mean because of your heritage, you can call your own shot here. But the counselors have said you will not call them back. What is going on?”
Tali, just shrugged. She started tapping her foot to a fast beat only she could hear.
Mr. Peters chimed in. “Tali, you have a week before Signing Day- you need to make a choice. I have spent a lot of time making calls, and sending out your track times to get you recognized nationally. You have had a very successful high school career but- what do you want to do next? Don’t you want to go to college and be a success?”
Tali’s foot stopped. “What do you mean by success?
“Success- what do you think I mean? Go to one of the top schools in the country for free! Get a head start on life! Do you know graduates from these schools go on to six-figure starting salaries? That is what success is, come on Tali!” Coach Peters is turning red, just like he does at practice when Tali doesn't run hard enough, or when she shows up late for meets.
Ms. Olivia interrupts- “Tali do you understand- not making a decision, is making a decision?"
“OK-” Tali looks down at her shoes.
“In five days you need to make a choice. You could be the first in your family to go to college! Your Grandmother would be proud-”
“Grandmama is already proud of me,” Tali leans forward and her eyes flash and glint through her loose blue hair.
“Well, no one from this school has matriculated to an Ivy before, and it would be very prestigious for the school, and you of course. I want you to know that every other kid in this school would kill for this opportunity!”
Ms. Olivia has caught Mr. Peters' excitement and her eyes get even wider as she lends forward.
“We just want what is best for you!” She practically screams.
Tali stood up and walked out.
Tali had an edge to her, which came out in sharp angles if anyone got close. She thought of it as her Metal side, for her favorite type of music. Her spiky personality, and her rage got in the way, striving for perfection filled all the spaces with noise and guitar and primal yells, so she didn’t hear other people. Growing up the way she did, she has no one to look out for her, no one to protect her, so she takes care of herself. She only lets one person get inside her defenses, one person who she can breathe with, to listen to the silence. And Tali knows her choice will affect her too, even put her at risk. She has spent her whole life being perfect. Now she has the big stage in front of her, what she thought she wanted and it turns out she is repulsed by it. How can she choose a future when her whole body and her mind are saying she can not leave her present?
Looking up from the doorway leaving her last, and favorite class of the day, Honors English, JJ sees the day has cleared, leaving an expanse of blue, and big puffy clouds stretched out across the sky. JJ skips a bit on her way to the football field and knows it is going to be a good day for future gazing. Tali is going to be excited.
Once she is there though, JJ finds Tali is in tears.
“I have to decide this week! My whole life on this choice- what do I do!”
JJ and Tali hug while they walk to their usual spot, the center logo of the school mascot, a screaming donkey, toss their bags, and plop down on their backs looking at the sky. The football field stretches around them flat and expansive.
“Well, what do you think you should do?” JJ asks.
“I don’t know, I am tired of always having to be number one at everything. I need to just stop. I’m going to let the clouds decide.”
“Good idea.” JJ says, settles in and points to one off to the side of the huge blue dome above them. “That cloud looks like a deer jumping, or a long skinny dog.”
Tali “What are those fast dogs called - a whipper?”
“Ya, whipper. That’s what I’ll do,” Tali points to the sky. “I go to college for the reason women have always have gone to college-”
“-To meet husbands!” JJ and Tali both say the line Mr. Fuchs repeats regularly, and then roll over laughing.
“You don’t even like boys,” JJ says softly. She hasn't quite said this before, although Tali has talked around it enough.
Talia pauses a moment, then says, “That doesn’t matter. I‘m going to find a Man. He is going to have a job in the Big City, and I’ll stay home with our dog, a whipper who will run with me everyday, and our 1.8 kids and I'll be happy ever after.” Tali’s voice gets light and soft. “We’ll live in a big house in the suburbs with a laundry room and a lawn, and a pool, and a skate ramp-”
“-That was a sweet trick today- skating down the handrail. Even Zach was impressed.”
“Yah, I had to go quick, I was worried Mr. Peters would show up-”
“-The same Mr. Peters who let you into the school all spring break to skate in the halls and practice because you're his favorite?
“Well yah-” Tali smiles.
“Why 1.8 kids?”
“That is the average American family. I want an average, normal family, no missing Dad, no Mom who would rather be at the bar. No random cousins and Aunties showing up at the house at all hours. I picture the point-8 kid missing 1/5th off the side, it can’t be missing its head or its feet!”
JJ, again softly asks, “-‘It’ huh? Do you even want kids?”
Tali snorts. “ I have spent enough time taking care of my little sister - I never want to do that again. It would be nice to have a laundry room though-”
“- You know you don’t have to get married to have a laundry room, or have kids, or even a dog.
“Mr. Peters said if I go to one of these schools I will be a success. But I don't even know what that means. In my family success means having lots of kids to take care of you when you're old." Tali turns her head to look at JJ. “You know this is your fault.”
“How?” JJ says.
“If you didn't do so well on my SAT, I wouldn’t have to make this choice-”
“Yah!- I did better on yours than I did on my own! But you deserve a chance to get out of this ridiculous town. I just gave you a ramp. And your plan worked too! You got into every college you wanted! “
“-You also did all my papers this year-” Tali said.
“-Only English! I had already read those books, so-”
“But it's your brain they think I have, what happens when they learn that I am a dummy? They could find out and this could come back on you!”
“You will be fine, you’ll run track, and you are smart! In math anyway. For me, well those colleges have so much money and power, I had no problem screwing them- they screw everybody else.”
Talia turns back to look at the clouds flowing by overhead. “It is just not fair -because I can run around a track under a certain time, I am wanted, and yet you- you are brilliant and can write and tell stories, you’re not, and stuck here going to junior college.”
“Well it would be different if I had money- don't forget about the money.” Laying back on the painted astroturf JJ says, “I think that one looks like the letter h, on its side.”
“No, that is a flying duck, see the whoosh at the end!” Tali says.
The soft floating clouds drift by on the breeze, just like their future, twisting and evolving into different shapes as they cross the sky.
“There is an S- see, stretched out on the top and bottom-” JJ points to another cloud.
“ A dollar sign!” Tali shouts. “Ok- that is my decision- I am going to go after the money. I will go to law school and become a corporate lawyer. Or a financial analyst for a Wall Street bank, what are they called, ‘quaint’?
“‘Quant’- for quantitative-” JJ starts.
“-I will be a quaint and sell my soul to buy companies, then bankrupt the shareholders, sell their assets, fire the employees, raid the retirement accounts! And then buy an island in the Caribbean.”
JJ looks over at Tali, “That sounds like a good plan.”
“No, I can’t go down that path, what happens if the colleges find out? You risked so much-” Tali grabs JJ’s hand. “I don’t like islands anyway. What do you think I should do?”
“I'm not doing this assignment for you. What do the clouds say?”
Tali turns her eyes back to the sky. “That rectangular one looks like a doorway, I am going to go through that one.“
“That is not one door, that is two, three doors.” JJ gestures across the wide sky. “Door one is take the scholarship, door two is give it all up, what is behind the third door? What if you have more choices than take the opportunity, or lose it?"
“I need a break, from everything or I am going to explode." Tali squeezes her eyes shut and clenches her fists, swinging at the clouds. I just want to skate, maybe be a heavy metal drummer. If I could wait a year, maybe I could understand what I want...” Tali turns to look at JJ.
“So ask Mr. Peters that, if you could defer. You could live with me while you figure it out.” JJ looks Tali in her eyes.
“Is that success?” Tali asks sarcastically.
“You define your success, Not Mr. Peters, or your Grandmama. If you are experiencing happiness, adventure in this moment, you’ve already found success- do that.”
JJ pauses and closes her eyes. With her voice shaking she asked “What are you going to do?”
“I like the third door idea, give me time to figure things out, and not totally piss off Mr. Peters. And live with you.”
JJ’s whole body buzzes and she feels like a cloud herself, floating with joy.
Tali continues, “Maybe success is making someone else happy. Does that sound right?"
“Hmmm. If you are staying with me you need to come up with a lot of quarters, I don't have a laundry room either.”
Tali and JJ interlock their fingers as they look up at the drifting clouds, and their future, dancing joyously free across the sky.