The first time she remembered feeling it was on her birthday. She had a conversation with him on Tuesday in English class about how her birthday was this upcoming Friday and she was having a party this weekend. She wanted to invite him but her parents said there were no boys allowed and he laughed, promising that if he could be there he would be. She spent the rest of the day buzzing with excitement.
In her room later that day, she called her friends and told them about the interaction. They all shrieked like a murder of crows — so loud that their respective mothers had to check on them and make sure there wasn’t some new music video causing mild heart failure. She had already pulled out every article of clothing that could make her remotely desirable prior to calling and laid them out on her bed. Her pink sheets were practically invisible underneath the mounds of clothes. With her phone propped up against a polished jewelry box she had gotten for her 12th birthday, she held up skirts and shorts that clearly violated the dress code and t-shirts that hung so low in the front her mom would make her wear a tank top underneath. She stepped off camera every few minutes to change into a new outfit and model for her friends to get their input. It was almost as important to them as it was to her that she would succeed. They had never met him, but her descriptions made him out to be the dreamiest guy on the planet. They tried out combinations until the natural light had long since disappeared, and once they had picked the winner she tried on a couple more outfits just to be sure. They settled on a low-cut sweater and leggings that accentuated her bottom half.
Pretty, but subtle enough to not radiate desperation.
Friday rolled around and she went into school doused from head to toe in Victoria’s Secret Bombshell. The weather was frigid but she felt so hot that not even freezing temperatures could interfere with her stride. The entire day everybody was staring and telling her, “Happy birthday, ______.” She was the girl of the hour, and nobody could pry their stare from her knit sweater and Aerie leggings that she had styled in just the right way with the help of her friends in the bathroom that morning. Her necklace hung right beneath her collarbone and her curled hair draped her neck as seductively as it could at 14.
Fourth period rolled around and she couldn’t help herself from nearly sprinting down the hall to get there early, hoping he would be there so they could have a moment to speak. When she reached the door, she was met with an empty classroom. The rows of chairs had been moved into groups for them to work on the upcoming projects, making the room much more spacious. The disappointment of him not being there had temporarily knocked her back, but during her scan of the classroom, she noticed something that put some pep back into her. A small, velvet gift box sat romantically on a table in the corner of the room. She knew it had to be for her, with it being her birthday and all. Her heart leapt and she did a little dance before regaining her composure and sitting down at the seat with her name on it. She took out her sticker-clad laptop and notebook, setting everything up so she could work mysteriously instead of desperately staring at the door for his arrival.
As the other students filed in, she kept adjusting in her seat to make herself look the best she could waiting for him to come in. When he did, he hadn’t even looked her way. Her heart sank slightly, but she remembered the bow-tied box that sat on the table and thought to herself, Maybe he’s waiting until after class. Throughout the lesson, her mind was anywhere but school. It was in the hallway, exchanging lustful glances. It was online, messaging each other about school work and group projects. It was with her diary pages, where she wrote about the new and exciting emotions she would experience when she caught him looking back. It was anywhere but where it should’ve been, worrying about the older girl perched in the back of the classroom, holding his gaze. Blonde and tall and playing volleyball after school for four hours a day. Eating her lunch at the back of the room and watching the whiteboard, paying him no mind. Waving him goodbye at the end of the period when he gave her the box on the table and wished her a happy birthday.
She was heartbroken, to say the least. At lunch, her homemade sandwich and potato salad sat untouched in her lunchbox. On top of the fact that the gift she had predetermined as her own was not actually hers, he had forgotten her birthday entirely. The party he had wished he could attend was all but a distant memory because at the forefront of his mind was the volleyball-playing thief that stole him away. Her friends tried to comfort her throughout the day and everybody else in the school paid her every bit of attention that she could have missed from him, but to her, it didn’t matter. The highlight of her day was dried up and tossed away in a waste bin.
At the party, she and her friends sat in her room watching old-school rom-coms like 10 Things I Hate About You and John Tucker Must Die like her older sister would do on the weekends. Wrapped gifts with tags reading “To ______, With Love” sat in the corner with her friends’ bags. The pink bed sheets that had previously been covered with clothes were now covered by her friends as they sat side by side, braiding hair and doing facemasks. She was getting her toes painted when she lay back on the bed and rested her head in her friend's lap, letting her run her fingers through her hair as she complained about him. She cried and cursed his name, vowing to never like a man again. All her friends agreed that he, and all other members of his species, were unworthy of their time and efforts. Her friend even told them how her mother warned her that men were dirty no-goods and to never trust one with her heart. She wiped her eyes and said, “That’s good advice. I think I’ll take it.”
Then her phone pinged with an email notification.
She nearly knocked over the baby pink nail polish bottle to lunge for her phone. The email notification read his name with no preview of what the message entailed. She slid open her phone at lightning speed and the girls laughed at how fast her fingers typed her password in, reminding her that she had just labeled him unworthy. She shushed them as her eyes examined the message for any tinge of vulnerability like she was the predator and this email was her next big meal. It was a response to the essay she had shared with him on Tuesday for advice, he had just gotten back to her now.
“Hey, ______! Sorry I’m so late on this one. It looks great, you’re really talented. I left some comments here and there but nothing too big. Also, happy birthday, I must’ve missed you in our class. Hope your party goes well!”
She read it aloud for all the girls to hear. They gathered around her like baby birds, savoring what she regurgitated. They all squealed and danced around the room, despite damning him and all other men not even 60 seconds before. She chose to neglect the fact that it was 11 PM when he answered, or that he said he must’ve missed her when nobody else in the school did. He had just given her the sliver of attention she needed to fulfill her fantasies. The rom-coms felt especially more enjoyable after the fact, and her day brightened back up to the perfect ten it had been when the clock struck midnight. It was like his message was the kiss to bring her back from the dead after he had given her the poison apple at noon. She went to bed happy that night, stomach full of cake and heart full of love.
The weeks following her birthday weren’t so special, however. She began to notice The Blonde around school much more often than she had before. And, even more importantly, she noticed him also noticing The Blonde more. In class, instead of in the front where he usually sat, he was toward the back, enjoying lunch with her while the rest of the class peer-edited. The small gift boxes became more frequent, and sometimes she would even catch them holding hands in the back of the class when they thought nobody was looking. She thought that maybe the girl was flunking a class that he could help her in because of how much time they spent together after school. She couldn’t stand it, and eventually, she stopped talking to him altogether — their conversations had dried up and the river of youth that their liaison had made her feel went along with it.
The lunchroom felt especially crowded when she started eating lunch there again. While she and her friends occupied a table in a corner that didn’t have many people around, it was still more than she was used to, considering she used to have lunch with him in the library. While she unwrapped the turkey and cheese sandwich she had packed, she absentmindedly listened to the conversations her friends were having. Something about Timothèe Chalamet and a history exam next period, something about the jock and cheerleader finally going from talking to together, something about... something. Just a month or so before, the table had been alive with discussions of her forbidden romance and the lovesick interactions that were accumulating by the day. She was the center of the juicy discussion, but more importantly, she was the object of his affection. Now, her friends had long forgotten the nickname they assigned him with at the beginning of the flirtation and moved on to the next high school love affair that came their way. But she still thought about him sometimes.
While her friends had moved on, she found it hard to ignore the blossoming relationship between the two that she envied so much. When they would sit in the back of the English class together was when it was the worst, though. They looked so romantic back there, despite their surroundings being posters of dead authors and definitions of literary terms hung on cork boards. They nearly reminded her of Ezra and Aria from Pretty Little Liars. She knew that she shouldn’t root for them, but forbidden romances were always her thing. Except for this one. They were so comforted by one another that the discomfort of how they were sitting in the school chairs had no impact on them. It made her sick. And, to make matters worse, in her new group of peer editors, all they could talk about was the love story unfolding in front of their eyes rather than the analysis of Romeo and Juliet that she had hers glued to. “What do you think about them, ______? You two used to be so close, you must know something!”
But she didn’t know anything. She had to break the news to them that their illicit affair had come to a close when he started meeting with The Blonde. They all grumbled and continued shooting unsubtle glances towards the two, while she sat with the familiar hunger of jealousy panging around her stomach like the pains of famine.
A few days later is when the cops started hanging around the school. She liked it when they were around because he hung out with The Blonde a lot less. Or at least less at school. And all she cared about was that she didn’t have to see it anymore. The Blonde even stopped coming around during fourth period, and he resumed his place in her peer editing group. She missed having him around, even if she and her friends had performed a cord-cutting “ritual” she had seen someone on TikTok do to separate themselves from their ex. The flow of conversation around the school had finally grasped a new topic, being why the hell were there cops crawling the school? Her group asked for his opinion on the gossip, and all he had to say was that it was something for the staff to worry about and not us. They all nodded and told him he was so wise for his age. He laughed and continued helping them dissect Shakespeare.
That afternoon she ran into The Blonde at a coffee shop. She noted how her usual liveliness had dulled since she last saw her in class. Her platinum updo had been replaced by grown-out and unbrushed locks that still made her look pretty, and her outfits had taken on a new style, the old seductress finally laid to rest. While her clothes used to hug her body in a meticulously beautiful fashion, they now hung loosely as if they had never fit at all. The bright colors were replaced with shades of black, mourning the loss of something she cherished deeply. The pity almost overtook her jealousy, and that was what urged her to actually speak to The Blonde after all this time. When she said hello, there was evident confusion written all over her face. They didn’t know each other after all, despite how much information she gathered in her blind jealousy.
“Sorry, you might not recognize me, I’m ______. You used to come into my English class at lunch?” The clarification didn’t ease her confusion, but she feigned recognition out of kindness. They exchanged casualties like old friends despite not knowing anything of substance about the other. When The Blonde said she was doing well, it was clearly a lie and the superiority she felt egged her on. She asked questions about why she had stopped coming to class and it was clear that The Blonde was trying to dodge them. According to her, her teammates had asked her to start practicing during lunch and that they came first, always. Not one word about him. Even when she directly asked, there was no budging. “He is nice. A good guy, just making sure I had company.” She wouldn’t give up any details, despite the prying. Finally, The Blonde’s discomfort urged her out of the situation and she got on her way, bidding the stranger adieu.
The dominance she felt after the interaction was enough of a high for her to ride on the rest of the week.
“Nothing else of note really ended up happening. Is that all you needed from me?” she asked.
“Is it?” The principal checked with the officer.
He scribbled down a few more details before making any sound. She sat calmly, not thinking too hard about the situation or the information she just shared.
“Just one more thing, ______. Did he ever ask you alone into his room, or maybe anything like he did with the girl you mentioned?” The officer spoke. There was hesitance in his voice, almost like he was wishing the answer would be no.
“Well, yeah. We were very close before she started coming around.”
The air in the room felt heavy, and she didn’t really understand why. The officers were writing things down and her principal was avoiding eye contact. All she really wanted was to get out of the room.
“Okay, um, that should be all. Thank you, ______. Your help is very much appreciated.” The officer smiled sympathetically at her, and she returned the gesture.
“Alright, ______. You can get back to your fourth period. When you get there, can you tell Mr. Humbert that we need to speak with him when he gets the chance? The sooner, the better,” the principal said.
“Oh, alright. Just, when you talk to him, don’t mention anything about us, or even just me in general, alright? He made me promise not to betray his trust, but it was just really relieving to be able to tell someone about what I’ve been feeling.” Guilt was evident in her voice. She wasn’t so sure as to why she felt that way, though.
“Of course, thank you, again.” The principal reassured her.
The air outside of the principal’s office was lighter, colder, and far more inviting. The weight she had been carrying around on her chest those last few months was gone and it finally felt like everything was getting back to normal. However, the relief was temporarily disturbed by the sensation of eyes boring into the back of her skull. She turned around and made eye contact with the notorious, blonde junior — the one she had grown to pity so much. The dim, yellow lighting of the main office highlighted the bags under her eyes that indicated at least a week of little to no sleep. Her outfit suggested the same, with a baggy sweatshirt and sweatpants sporting their school’s name hanging loosely off her frame. Her body was hardly sitting on the plastic chair with how low she was sunk down, but her posture didn’t make her stare any less hateful. It had started with vague recognition, making The Blonde straighten her posture in an attempt to solve just exactly where she knew this girl from. Once she had pieced together who she was, it all seemed to click. The coffee shop, the glares in the hallway, and now speaking to the police? Despite knowing nothing about who she was, The Blonde seemingly figured out everything about the girl’s intentions, and her recognition swiftly turned into rage. Her face fell flat, but the look in her eyes held all the emotion she needed to convey. The undecorated, red walls made the younger girl falter in her steps as she looked around for something else to focus on while the receptionist wrote her a pass, but there was nothing more captivating than the stare of The Blonde who hated her without knowing her. They both knew she had figured out all she needed to know. Thankfully, their interaction was limited to stares of hatred and fear. The Blonde had her mother right by her side, keeping her there, holding a similar expression of contempt, just not for the freshman.
When she was finally handed her pass, the principal’s door swung open one final time, and he invited The Blonde and her mother inside. The mother rose with urgency, nearly forgetting her daughter behind her. With the pass in her shaking hand, she craved for The Blonde to redirect her gaze to where she was walking, but the scorned lover refused to stop without making her point known. And the younger girl knew. Then the door shut, and she swung the office door open and fled.
She could understand a mild frustration from the ex, but the outright hatred that she just experienced felt out of line. She hadn’t done anything. Potentially The Blonde had heard rumors about her and him rekindling things, but even that didn’t seem worthy of a stare that could kill. Instead of dwelling, she turned her focus to the green tiles on the floor. She remembered how at the beginning of the year she would make sure she only stepped on the green tiles while walking to his classroom, never the white, because the green always brought her good luck. She knew it was childish, but everything else about being in high school made her feel so adult that it canceled out. She channeled her innocence into the tiles and left it all at the door of his classroom, before and after school. She didn’t even need to look up from the floor on the walk there from the office because the journey was ingrained in her muscles the way he was, and always would be, in her heart.
When she arrived, she had to knock on the locked door to be let in. He opened it and she smiled at him. Everything seemed to fall into place when he smiled back. A smile she knew was reserved just for her, regardless of how many tall, blonde volleyball players there were in the world. That smile would always be hers. Before she walked in, she let him know that they wanted him in the office. When he inquired about the reason, all she told him was the cops and the principal were chatting with people, nothing to worry about. She didn’t bother to wait and catch his reaction. Playing hard to get had always worked in her favor. She did, however, think his doe-eyed terror was a little bit odd when he told the class he would be back before the period ended. But there was nothing to be worried about, that much she knew. It’s what he had always promised her, before the cops, before the blonde, before it all.
Rachel Pullino is a 19-year-old student at Salem State University from Haverhill, Massachusetts. She primarily writes creative fiction in a short story format. Outside of writing, Rachel loves to spend time with those closest to her exploring, reading, and making the most of the time they have together.
"Birthday 2007 Card" by radiant guy is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/?ref=openverse