Authors: Caroline B. Cooney
An April Love Story
T BEGAN IN THE
high school lobby, while we were waiting for the bus to take us on a field trip.
“This is the first field trip in my life,” I said to Joel, “which is not to a museum or a theater, but actually to a field.”
“Got your birdbook? Your sharpened pencil for quick sketches? Your binoculars?”
“I am suitably armed,” I told him. “Right down to the regulation blue jeans and peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
“I knew I forgot something,” said Eve. “I wore stockings.”
We all looked at Eve’s legs. She wears stockings all the time because her legs are so nice. “They’re going to be a little less attractive after a morning of tramping through the fields in search of yellow bellied sapsuckers,” I observed.
“Marnie MacDonald,” said Mr. Ricks, in the voice of one who was tired when he got up, more tired still at the sight of his class, and due for a long vacation by the end of the field trip. “Please let us not have any yellow bellied sapsucker jokes. There really is such a bird. It’s a perfectly fine bird. And if you city types can even tell a hawk from a robin, I’ll be thrilled.”
“My bird,” said Joel, “is the pigeon. Its habitat is the sidewalk, the roof peak, and our dining room window ledge. It is known for—”
“Enough, Joel,” said the biology teacher, in his least thankful voice.
“First time in biology the subject has been truly relevant,” I said to Joel, “and you get cut off mid-sentence.”
Joel grinned. He is a senior, while I am a sophomore, and it is incredible to me that with all the sophisticated senior girls around him—in this class both Kay and Eve—he should be interested in me. But he’s walked me home three times, sat in the library and studied with me (sort of) twice, and yesterday he bought me roasted chestnuts from a street vendor near our apartment building. I happen to detest roasted chestnuts. I think they taste like something you’d feed a mongrel dog you didn’t like, but when a handsome, basketball-captain senior like Joel has already bought them for you, you don’t announce you’d rather have popcorn. Or starve. So I took the little white bag and ate every one, smiling, which just goes to prove my mother is right to say you can eat anything if good manners require it. As long as Joel doesn’t take me out to eat at a squid food restaurant, I should be okay.
And then Lucas Peterson came up behind me, tapped my shoulder, and said in his funny deep voice (Joel says he sounds like a newborn foghorn), “Marnie, I have to talk to you.”
Lucas is one of these intellectual types with so much knowledge squashed into his head there’s no room for a personality. He comes from this rather overwhelming family (I should know; they’re my parents’ best friends) who do not, for example, say hello. They bid you fair welcome. They do not have supper. They partake of an evening repast. They certainly don’t chat. They make meaningful conversation. Verbally, it is obvious that Lucas is their son. Physically, the resemblance is zero. Mr. and Mrs. Peterson might have fallen out of a fashion magazine, while Lucas looks like a street pole recently hit by a car. Due to circumstances beyond my control I have had to associate with Lucas since childhood; today, however, the circumstances were under my control. “Later, Lucas,” I said, brushing him away.
“There’s the bus,” said Joel, taking my hand. “Come on, Marnie, let’s get the very back seat so we can be alone.”
We clambered onto the bus. Joel took the window, I sat next to him, and the only other seniors in the class, Kay and Eve, sat on the other side of us. Biology is usually a sophomore class, but each year there are a few older kids who couldn’t schedule it then: We’ve got three seniors and one junior—Lucas. It’s typical of Lucas to be the only one doing something. I caught a glimpse of him getting on the bus, bent out of shape by a load of books, as usual. I think Lucas has some great fear of being stranded in the wilderness without any reading material, because he never fails to keep a wide selection of books with him: something entertaining, something meaningful, something instructive, and something that requires a pencil, such as a
magazine, and, of course, his pocket calculator. I guess you never know when you might need to find the square root of something. Several people veered to escape his elbows. I swear he has more than the usual number.
Lucas looked at me, and his expression, over the heads of the shorter sophomores, was very odd.
“I think he’s got appendicitis,” said Joel. “Have you promised to be his nurse or something?”
I laughed and forgot Lucas. Laughter is never very far away when I’m around Joel. Joel detests people who whine or complain. We are both in the select chorus, which is quite an honor for a sophomore, and the way he noticed me in the first place, and it’s quite the thing in our school for people with problems to spend a lot of time draped over the grand piano in the chorus room telling our very understanding music teacher all their problems. Joel would never do that. His philosophy is that you should solve your own problems, either by laughing them off, or by waiting for them to dissolve on their own.
I told my best friend Susannah that I absolutely loved Joel’s philosophy. “Don’t give me that,” said Susannah. “You love Joel, period.”
I didn’t, though, which was the reason I felt so funny when everybody wanted to talk about how much attention Joel was giving me, and about how he was co-chairman of the senior prom and didn’t seem to be dating any seniors. I loved being with Joel. I loved being seen with Joel. But I didn’t love him in the slightest. I knew because they say—Who is “they”? I’ve always wanted to meet a bona fide certified “they”—anyway, they say that love is star-spangled and all encompassing and leads to insomnia, and all Joel inspires in me is giggles and a tendency to choke on roasted chestnuts.
Besides, Joel was just as much fun when he
Susannah and all the other sophomore girls—and plenty of juniors and seniors—were so filled with envy and admiration that I could bask in it like a sunlamp. “Don’t forget,” said my mother dryly, “that you can get burned from too much exposure to sunlamps.” But I tend to hurry on when my mother is in an advice-giving mood.
“Lucas keeps looking at you, Marnie,” said Kay. “I guess he really does want to talk to you.”
“Lucas doesn’t talk to people,” said Eve. “He lectures them, assesses them, or analyzes them, but he doesn’t ever merely talk to them. Whatever Lucas wants to say to Marnie is probably fraught with inner meaning.”
“Lucas is really pretty decent,” said Joel. “He’s just so used to keeping a high profile at home, he forgets to get rid of it at school.”
is fine,” said Eve. “It’s his complexion, attitude, personality, and—”
“Hey,” said Joel. “Cut it out. You were spotty once yourself, you know. I remember you in eighth grade, and how we used to call you Christmas Tree because of all your red—”
“Okay, okay,” said Eve. “I won’t utter another unkind word about our dear friend Lucas.”
I happened to agree with Eve’s assessment of Lucas, but still, it was nice of Joel to defend the guy. Even if it did mean saying something humiliating to Eve. If anyone had said that to me about my complexion, I would have blushed so hard they’d have begun calling me Neon.
Eve and Kay began playing hangman with a three-letter word and Joel and I scrunched up in his corner and talked about whether or not he’d be accepted at Columbia University. “I’m nervous,” said Joel. His voice was at that soft, scratchy level just above a whisper, and would have been sexy if the topic hadn’t been college. “See, Marnie, Russell was just turned down at NYU, and everybody figured Russell could get in anywhere, and I haven’t heard from any of the four schools I’ve applied to and maybe that means …”
What I was mostly thinking was that my peanut butter and jelly sandwich was between his thigh and mine, and the sandwich was getting thinner and thinner, and no doubt the inside of my handbag was getting stickier and stickier.
I became deeply involved in the intricacies of deciding whether to mention this to Joel, and possibly arrange a shift of position, or whether talk of peanut butter would destroy not only his train of thought, but also his interest in me and the possibility that he would ask me to the senior prom.
I decided that if I ate with my fingers spread around my sandwich, no one would notice this pitiful little white, tan, and purple glue I was eating.
That’s when you know you have developed a truly deep philosophy in your fifteen years. When your boyfriend is talking about Life, Truth, and the Future, and you are singing to yourself, “Peanut butter and jellleeee, taste so good in my bellleeee.”
“Don’t worry,” I said to Joel. “You have so many activities, you’re sure to be a catch all those colleges will want to have.”
“But now I’m afraid I have too many activities and they’ll say I’m shallow and spread too thin and no different from every jock in the country.”
“No, they won’t, Joel. They’ll be impressed with how much energy you have. They’ll figure anyone so successful at eighteen will be even more successful at nineteen.”
“You think so?” he said eagerly, as if he really valued my opinion.
Up until Joel, every boy I’ve ever talked to (unless we’re discussing algebra or irregular French verbs) has made me so nervous just being there that my mouth fills up with Scotch tape and my vocabulary retreats to the first grade, so I feature exclusively such syllables as yes, no, uh, or hmmmm. But with Joel I can actually converse. It’s really exciting. Susannah says of all the things she envies about me (it’s so neat to be envied!) my tongue is the tops. “You can actually
to a boy,” she marvels.
“All right, class,” said Mr. Ricks sadly. “We’re here. Please remember your instructions. Scatter widely. Range through the field and scrub pine. Take a permanent position. Freeze in place. Remain until I blow my whistle. Keep your eyes open for birds and other wildlife. This area is redolent with feathered friends and you should all have a good thick list of birds to recount to me when we return to the bus.”
“I don’t know about Mr. Ricks,” said Susannah, “but very few of my friends sport feathers.”
We piled off the bus, and sure enough, as we filled the fields, great hordes of birds flew away. I wrote in my notebook, “hordes of birds.” “Birds don’t come in hordes, Marnie,” said Joel. “They come in flocks.”
“Flocks,” I wrote. I said, “Thank you, Joel.” And then he was gone, running easily across the hummocky grass to a position near a clump of grayish trees with little bent trunks from which point I supposed he felt he could do some really good bird-watching. I found a fat shrub with some dead vines clinging to it, set on the icy soil the plastic mat I made in Brownies eight years ago for just such an occasion, and squatted down.
Within thirty seconds it became apparent that this field trip was going to be cold, long, and boring.
Nature is fine. I’m all for nature. I realize somebody needs to observe the plankton, monitor the food chain, analyze the earthquakes, and invent better tractor tires. And I’m not going to grow up to be a polluter of atmospheres or roadside ditches or anything, but nature is just not my sphere.
I had my own binoculars, because my parents will buy me anything if I can relate its use to my education. I spend a lot of good study hours trying to think of a way to prove that rhinestone-studded disco shoes are essential to my education, but so far I haven’t found a satisfactory connection there. Still, I love these binoculars. I do a lot of people and city-watching with them.