Love and Coconut Shampoo
"Just Hang in There" read the inspirational cat poster hanging on the wall in Mrs. Dunbar's Social Studies Classroom. Just Hang in There. Chris closed his eyes and filled his lungs with a couple deep, calming breaths. His fingers found the pack of Orbit Sweet Mint gum in his pocket and popped one into his mouth.
First days of school were always a stressful time for Chris, but first day at a brand new school? This was downright terrifying. His classmates began filing into the room, laughing and talking amongst themselves. Chris looked down at his sneakers under the desk, wishing he was invisible. His sneakers were grey and navy blue Reeboks. His mom had wanted to buy him the Nikes, but they were way too flashy. You could look at his Reeboks and forget them a second later, but Chris liked how the blue was the same color as the ocean at dusk. The color helped him forget where he was. It brought him back to the shore with his sisters and cousins. The longer he looked, the better he could feel the warm sand in between his toes and the salty waves crashing over him. He could feel the heat from the bright sun radiating in his chest.
"Alright everybody that's enough. Settle down."
Chris jerked back to reality and fell back into his uncomfortable desk/chair hybrid. The warmth in his chest quickly dripped away and was replaced by a cold, dull ache. The teacher began to talk, but Chris wasn't really listening. He had no interest in being there whatsoever. He glanced at the second hand on his watch and counted the number of times he chewed his gum per minute, rolling it over on his tongue in an attempt to look nonchalant.
"Ok, I'm going to pass out the syllabus so we can go over what we are going to cover this year."
8… 9… 10…
The sun began to peek through the clouds outside. The grass looked cool and damp. There were several mature trees within view of the window. A few of the leaves had begun to fade from light green to dark yellow.
21… 22… 23…
Mrs. Dunbar continued to drone on at a hypnotic pace. Chris sank deeper and deeper into his uncomfortable chair. His back was already starting to hurt. He was just about to look down at his shoes again until-
The door opened loudly and a girl hurried through from the hallway. She had three large binders precariously perched under her arm.
"I'm sorry I'm late." She was short of breath. "My locker is all the way down by the gym." She gave the teacher an apologetic smile which made her squint to the point that her eyes were barely open. Her round face was flushed with embarrassment.
"Don't worry about it dear" said Mrs. Dunbar with a kind smile. "Here, take this syllabus and find an open seat somewhere." She handed the girl a packet of paper and took out her attendance list. "You must be…"
"Tiffany Collins." The girl said. She wore a white sundress with a light red floral pattern. Her thick, brown hair was wavy and hung down slightly below her shoulders. She scanned the room quickly before heading over in Chris' direction, taking the seat directly next to him. The scent of her coconut shampoo wafted pleasantly past him. Chris froze in his chair, afraid to breathe. There were three other empty seats in the room:
-Next to the red-headed girl with the freckles and the purple blouse by the door
-Next to the boy with the short blond hair, the basketball t-shirt, and the smirking smile
-Between the girl with the dark brown hair and the pink lipstick and the boy wearing the Bills jersey and the glasses with dark brown frames
Chris ran through the other options again and again in his head. Did she not know the red headed girl? Was she not friends with the blonde guy? Did the kid with the Bills jersey smell like cabbage? His mind ran wild hypothesizing various scenarios trying to explain why she would choose to sit next to him of all people. They filled his brain to the point that it expanded and painfully pushed against the walls of his skull.
He rubbed his hand against his forehead and started his gum-chewing count to calm down. He regained some composure within a few minutes and leaned back in his uncomfortable chair. Mrs. Dunbar seemed like a nice enough lady, but she had a voice that was very easy to ignore.
He could see Tiffany out of the corner of his eye. She was staring through the chalkboard at a scene only she could see tapping her pencil lightly against her notebook. She had olive skin that was tanned from the summer sun.
Chris had stopped pretending to follow along in the syllabus. He drew squiggles on the paper without any rhyme or reason. He looked at his watch. Shit. Still twenty minutes left.
"This is so boring I can't take it anymore" whispered a voice next to him.
Chris looked around. Tiffany was looking directly at him, waiting for a response. Her eyes were the shape and color or roasted almonds.
"I don't know how I'm gonna make it through another twenty minutes" he whispered back trying to look exacerbated even though he was thrilled she was talking to him.
"I seriously think I'm gonna start banging my head on the desk soon." Her eyes squinted when she smiled.
The blood in Chris' veins warmed pleasantly. "I'd like to see that actually."
She raised her hand to her mouth and poorly faked a cough to hide her laughter. Mrs. Dunbar shot them a disapproving look and continued on.
"Very smooth; I'm impressed" whispered Chris. His right heel started rocking up and down happily.
Tiffany shot him a sly grin and combed her hair back from her face with her fingers. "I'll admit that wasn't my best effort."
The remaining time flew by. The bell signaling the end of class felt way ahead of schedule. Tiffany stood up from her chair, smiled at Chris, and waved before picking up her binders and heading towards the door. Chris couldn't have wiped the smile off his face if he tried.
"Wait, so you mean to tell me you've never eaten a raisin?" She tried to stifle a smile, but the corners of her mouth kept forcing themselves upwards.
"Just to be clear I'm not talking just like in the past week. I mean your whole life."
Chris laughed. "I know. I've never tried one."
"Not a single one? Just to see what it tasted like?"
"Not even half of one."
Tiffany shook her head, laughing as quietly as she could "You're a weird dude, Chris."
Chris smiled widely. "That's probably true, but I just don't see the point of raisins. I mean, what's their deal? They're just really old grapes right?"
"They're absolutely not really old grapes!" She leaned over and drew a smiley face in his open notebook.
"So what the hell are they then?"
"They're uh…" She started off into the distance with a faraway look in her eyes. "They're…" She looked back at Chris in disbelief. "Crap… They actually are just really old grapes."
"HA!" Chris leaned over and wrote SUCKAAAA in her notebook.
"Oh, real nice."
Chris looked at his watch. There were only six minutes left in their study hall. The blonde girl trying to read in to their left kept looking up angrily; apparently frustrated that there weren't worse punishments doled out for talking during study halls. Chris casually leaned back in his chair.
"So what are you doing this Saturday?" He asked.
Tiffany thought it over for a second or two. "I don't think anything, why?"
"Do you think you would wanna maybe go see a movie or something?" He could feel his heart pumping loudly in his throat.
"You mean like a date?" She smiled wide, showing nearly every one of her teeth. Her eyes squinted and her olive face turned a faint shade of pink.
"… yea I guess so…" Chris blushed and wiped his palms discretely on his shorts.
"I'd love to." The pink hue grew in her face, but her smile didn't waiver. She pushed her desk closer to his and wrote her phone number in his notebook. When she leaned in he could smell the scent of her coconut shampoo.
The second day of school Chris practically sprinted to Social Studies. He sat at the exact same desk by the window. His heart excitedly bounced around his chest, bumping into his ribs and lungs and he tried his best to not stare at the door. The second hand on his watch seemed to be struggling through stale molasses. After what felt like an hour, his classmates began walking in through the doorway in slow motion. Chris couldn't hear anything over the pounding in his ears. Tiffany wasn't late this time. She walked through the door and the world hit the pause button. Chris wanted to appear as least desperate as possible so he jerked his head around back to the front of the room so quickly that he hurt his neck. He drew a circle in his notebook, waiting for her to take her seat and say hello. He looked up after a few seconds and saw that she had sat on the other side of the room next to a blonde girl wearing too much makeup. Chris' heart plummeted. All of his excited energy drained away and he slumped down in his chair.
He tried to reassure himself that she remembered him and surely she would be back tomorrow, but the voice in his head quickly grew depressed. He looked at the empty desk next to him and his ears burned red.
She didn't sit next to him the next day.
Or the day after that.
Or the next three days after that one.
Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. Chris couldn't understand why he was so upset. He had only had one, short conversation with her. Why was he so worried about where she was and what she was thinking about?
They walked hand in hand, down the boardwalk, watching the lights from the arcades and the food stands light up as the sun slowly disappeared from view. The air was warm and salty and a soft breeze blew in from the ocean. They made their way past throngs of happy people eating waffles and ice cream in various screen-printed knock off Giants and Yankees t-shirts and on to the deserted beach.
They took off their sandals and walked towards the water without letting go of each other's hand. The sand was doughy and cool under Chris' feet. Each step sank deep into the ground. They reached the edge of the water, climbed onto the life guard chair, and sat together watching the moonlight reflect off the waves. It shimmered like diamonds rolling around lazily in a washing machine. Chris leaned back and looked into Tiffany's tanned face. She smiled wide and her dark brown eyes squinted into slits. He put his arm around her and rested his hand on the bare skin on her shoulder. She moved closer and leaned against his torso, grabbing his free hand. Chris leaned down and kissed the top of her head. The scent of her coconut shampoo filled his sinuses. They sat and talked about nothing in particular for hours watching the moon rise higher and higher into the sky.
After a long while Chris heard his alarm clock in the distance. He sighed and closed his eyes, not wanting the night to end. Tiffany looked up at him with a knowing smile.
"You better start getting ready for school" she said lightly.
Chris closed his eyes. "Not gonna happen."
"Don't worry." She lifted his arm off of her and took his hand in both of hers. "I'll wait here for you."
Tiffany started going out with Jeff in December. The first time he saw them kissing in the hallway, Chris nearly vomited. A rusty nail ripped through his heart and his stomach burst into flames. The smoke stung his nostrils and charred his tongue until it was black. He went through bottle after bottle of Listerine trying to get the taste out and started brushing his teeth four times a day, but nothing seemed to work.
What was she doing with him anyway?! Sure he was tall and had broad shoulders, but he had beady, little eyes, a stubby nose, and light red curly hair that made him look like an elderly clown. Worst of all, however, Jeff was an asshole. He walked around with an air of smugness that was palpable. It absolutely baffled Chris how Tiffany would want anything to do with such a loudmouthed, pompous douchebag. She was beautiful, smart, funny, and kind. It made no sense. As their relationship aged, Chris' pain dissolved into numb bitterness, but he could still taste the thick, ugly smoke in his mouth with every breath.
She lay curled up in his arms, snoring so softly that Chris couldn't hear her without holding his breath. He absentmindedly stroked her hand with his thumb as he drifted in and out of consciousness. The air around them was filled with the scent of her coconut shampoo. All was well.
Every so often the voice in Chris' head would get depressed or angry. What are you doing you fucking idiot? It would say. She doesn't even know you exist or everything you know about this girl you made up. You're pathetic. Chris would try in vain to fight back, but he knew there was no point arguing. Every word of it was true.
Once a month Chris would swear off Tiffany forever and promise to move on with his life.
Once a month he would stop sleeping.
He would swear off her for days at a time and yell at her when she crept into his mind carrying synthetic memories. He would go as far as to never once glance at her in school and locking the pillows from his bed in his closet. He would lie on his mattress and count backwards from 1,000 over and over with smoke filled breath until it was time for school again, trying with all of his might to forget her. The longer he went without sleeping, however, the harder it was to keep her away.
So you don't love me anymore? She would ask.
Of course I do, but I can't keep doing this.
The longer he went without sleeping, the harder it was to answer.
Once a month, after a few days without sleeping, Chris would fall asleep with Tiffany in his arms again, listening to her quietly snore while he drifted off to dream about her.
She gently took his hand and led him out onto the dance floor. Chris wanted to beg and plead her not too, but he couldn't bring himself to let go. Tiffany turned around and smiled. Her kind, almond eyes were reassuring and the dim, colored lights danced around her face. She squeezed his hand and silently directed him towards her. She grabbed his hands and positioned them on her waist, then reached up and clasped her fingers behind his neck. They began to sway to the music and she laid her head against his chest. The world faded away around him. One by one the couples on either side of them disappeared. The music became only faintly audible until muting completely. They swayed slowly back and forth like a boat rocking at sea on a calm night. The only thing Chris was aware of was Tiffany's breathing and their heart beats synching together.
He lowered his head and gently kissed the side of her neck. Her skin was warm and soft, like smooth jazz in human form. Her hair smelled like coconut shampoo. He could feel their heartbeats skip together as he rested his head on top of hers. She held him tighter, as though trying to step inside his soul.
They rocked back and forth for hours, forgetting everything up until the present moment.
Chris sat at a table in the back of the library by himself reading Last Night at the Lobster for his English class. The murmur from the students around him melted in his ears. His table was set between two large shelves in the reference section. He skimmed over page after page fighting a losing battle to concentrate on the words in front of him. He finished the chapter he was working on and plopped his head down on the open book, listening to the fire flicker quietly in his stomach. To his right on the other side of the wall of thick rarely used books he heard a soft sniff. He moved his chair closer and craned his neck curiously around the musty volumes to see who it was. He hadn't noticed anyone sitting anywhere near his table before. He carefully peered around a set of outdated encyclopedias and saw Tiffany in the adjacent alcove. His heart leapt into his throat and he quickly scampered back to his table, suddenly out of breath. What is she doing here? His brain kicked into overdrive. Chris closed his eyes and slowly counted backwards from ten to calm himself. He then held his breath and crept back as quietly as he could to peek through the shelf again.
Tiffany was sitting by herself, staring down at the table. Single tears were dripping from her eyes, but she wiped each one quickly away with the sleeve of her grey sweatshirt. Chris' heart split in half. His skin felt too tight. Watching her cry was torture. He wanted to rip through the barrier and hold her in his arms. He would cut out his heart and give it to her if it meant never having to see her shed a tear again.
Get over there! The voice in his head yelled. Now's your chance!
I… I can't…
The voice grew louder. What are you waiting for?!
Chris couldn't move his legs. I just can't.
He wanted to go talk to her more than he thought possible. His arms were paralyzed. He willed his legs to stand up but they refused to listen. Even his eyelids rejected his orders to blink. The fire engulfing his stomach burned hotter and hotter. Black smoke billowed out of his nose and his face burned with embarrassment.
Help her. The voice said
Chris stayed in his seat.
Chris sat at a table in the back of the library by himself reading Going After Cacciato for his English class. The murmur from the students around him melted in his ears. His table was set between two large shelves in the reference section. He skimmed over page after page fighting a losing battle to concentrate on the words in front of him. He finished the chapter he was working on and plopped his head down on the open book, listening to his heartbeat. To his right on the other side of the wall of thick rarely used books he heard a soft sniff. He moved his chair closer and craned his neck curiously around the musty volumes to see who it was. He hadn't noticed anyone sitting anywhere near his table before. He carefully peered around a set of outdated encyclopedias and saw Tiffany in the adjacent alcove. She was crying, silently. A small tear rolled down her cheek, but she quickly wiped it away with the sleeve of her grey sweatshirt. Without hesitating, Chris stood up from his chair and calmly walked over to her.
"Are you ok?" He asked with a concerned expression on his face.
She looked up and quickly wiped her eyes with her sleeve. "I'm fine." She said quietly. Her normally olive skin was glowing red.
"It doesn't look like it." He stepped towards the free chair at the table. "Mind if I sit?"
"No, go ahead." She fidgeted with her hands in her lap.
Chris sat in the chair next to her and gave her a sympathetic smile. Her eyes were swollen and pink. The scent of her coconut shampoo hung in the air around them. He listened patiently as she told him story after story about her asshole boyfriend. Eventually she stopped fidgeting with her hands and placed one on the table. Chris reached out and grabbed it with his own. Her palm was a lot smoother than his. She looked up at him and smiled.
There were two people in between Chris and Tiffany in the lunch line. He thought it would be suspicious if he stood next to her so he timed his entry to let a couple of people in before him. He didn't want her to ignore him; he just didn't want her to notice him.
"Gina is so full of shit" she said to the blond girl next to her. "Why do we even hang out with her?"
"She's such a slut" agreed her friend.
She glanced down at the lunch options looking thoroughly unimpressed. "I'll have… whatever that is." She said, pointing in the direction of the French toast sticks.
Chris bought his meal and ate quietly while Greg and Andy discussed their math homework. His peanut butter and jelly sandwich tasted like ash.
They took off their skates and walked together towards the hot chocolate stand. They each ordered a large and made their way to a bench overlooking the outdoor rink. Chris took a sip and rolled the sweet liquid over his tongue.
"You are a terrible skater." He said with a smile.
"Hey, speak for yourself!" She punched his arm with a mitten-covered fist.
"Do us all favor and don't quit your day job."
"I'm just so shocked that you're not more supportive of my dreams." She took a sip of her hot chocolate through a wide smile.
The stars were brighter than usual in the cold, clear sky. Chris tried to decipher a constellation among the thousands of little white pearls, but couldn't find a single one. Tiffany moved closer to him on the bench in a thinly-veiled attempt to steal his body heat. Her hair smelled like coconut shampoo.
It took Chris so long to finish his article for the school paper that he missed his bus. He called his mom for a ride and went to wait for her by the back door near the gym. It was only a stupid story about the new school lunches, but his mind kept coming back to Tiffany. He smiled to himself and was excited to get to bed early so he could see her again as soon as possible. He leaned against the brick-red wall and stared off into the parking lot without really seeing it. He was happy.
He looked down at his watch to see if his mom would be there soon and noticed her out of the corner of his eye. She was leaning against the opposite wall, texting on her phone. Chris rubbed his eyes with his fists to make sure she was really there. Before his mind could fully process what was happening his legs walked over to her.
"Hi Tiffany" he said without meaning to.
She looked up and raised her eyebrow slightly in a confused expression. "Uh… hi." She smelled like generic conditioner.
"Do you want to go out with me this weekend?" His hands shoved themselves in his pockets.
She looked up again and scanned his face with a callous look in her eyes. "I don't think so." She looked like she had just smelled rotten eggs.
Chris' heartbeat stayed consistent as she quickly turned and walked back into the school without looking back. He unwrapped a stick of gum and started chewing while watching her leave. It was cool and minty on his tongue. Tiffany turned right towards the social studies classrooms and disappeared from view. Chris didn't care. He was in love.