The entrance hall. 8:41 PM.
The kiss was surprisingly soft.
When the lights snapped off, he’d felt a pair of hands pawing at his arms and his head, as if some clumsy person were trying to determine his shape in the darkness. One hand gripped his shoulder so roughly he’d later find a faint circle of bruises under his shirt.
“Ow, get off me,” he said, but in the noisy din he could barely hear the sound of his own voice. Then, just as he was struggling to back away, he felt a wisp of hot breath on his cheek. Someone was close to him—very close. Then it happened. It took him a second to realize what it was, this sudden flush of warmth on his lips. He instantly stopped struggling, and went completely still. He couldn’t have said if it lasted a second or if full minutes went by. It was that kind of kiss—the kind you realize is the only kind that matters, once you’ve finally had one.
Benny found himself wondering how such brute hands and such delicate lips could belong to the same person.
It didn’t occur to him that maybe they didn’t.
The school parking lot. 7 PM.
It was called the Spring Dance, but outside it still felt like winter. Calvin Harker stood in the cold, admiring the horse and carriage the school had hired. In a few hours, everyone would be crowding outside to wave and cheer as the Spring King and Queen took their triumphant carriage ride around the block. But for now, the world was quiet and beautiful and empty. Just Calvin and the horse, and the silent carriage driver, all breathing the wintry air. The horse’s breath created a fog of condensation, and Calvin ran his fingers through its tawny gold mane.
“Do you have a pen?” Calvin asked. “I need a pen, right away.” The caramel-colored horse was the most beautiful thing Calvin had ever seen. He needed to write a poem about it immediately.
The carriage driver leisurely patted each of his pockets. “Hmm, hmm,” the he mumbled. “Piece a’ chalk do ya?”
“Never mind,” Calvin sighed. “It’s too late anyway.” The poem was gone. Calvin had learned that if he didn’t write a poem down the instant it took form in his mind, he’d start overthinking it, and the poem would disappear. His brain would destroy it.
Calvin was the smartest kid at Riverside High. He got perfect grades without studying, he won every academic achievement award, and one of his AP physics papers had even appeared in a ranking scientific journal. But Calvin didn’t care about any of that stuff. He didn’t want to be a scholar: he wanted to be creative. He aspired to be a poet, like Coleridge or Keats, but his mind just didn’t seem to work in a poetical manner. His was a rational mind, a literal mind, and he felt trapped inside it. What good was a five-star brain if he couldn’t use it to capture the beauty and sheen of a caramel-colored horse?
Calvin often tried out different experiments to make his poetry more imaginative. One method was to write poems as fast as possible, without giving himself a second to think. Another was to recite his poems to his partially deaf grandmother, who would mishear every other word. Then he would simply insert these random words into the poem. It was helpful, but it made him feel like a phony.
The tried and true method of many poets, Calvin knew, was to be a raging substance-abuser. Most of the Romantic poets, including Coleridge and Shelley and Lord Byron, had regularly used opium to fuel their creativity. And all the Beat poets had taken LSD and benzedrine and basically every other drug known to man. But back then, no one had really understood the long-term effects of drug use on brain cells. And as much as Calvin longed escape the banal machinations of his brain, he couldn’t quite bring himself to do anything that might actually damage it. At the end of the day, sadly, Calvin was just too prudent to do drugs.
“Wait, give me that piece of chalk!” Calvin shouted at the carriage driver. A feeling of despair had come over him, and he had to write a poem about it immediately. Calvin held his hand out impatiently as the driver patted his pockets. Then, Calvin saw something that made him forget about his burgeoning poem. There was a pair of police cars slowly circling the school, just visible on the dark road.
“What are the police doing here?” Calvin wondered aloud.
“Who knows,” the carriage driver said with a shrug. “Kids today.”
Calvin watched as the cop cars stopped along the school’s entrance, and three pairs of officers emerged from the vehicles. He gave the horse a final, fond stroke across its mane. Then his slipped back into the dance, unseen by the officers, a shadow among shadows.
The punch bowl. 8 PM.
This dance is an utter joke, thought Virginia Leeds. It was supposed to be a Sadie Hawkins dance, the kind where the girls ask the boys. As if the concept of girls making their own choices was so outrageous they had to dedicate an entire dance to it. Virginia had planned to ignore the directive; she preferred going to dances alone anyway (better to play the field than be shackled to some drip you might get sick of in 20 minutes). But the rest of the school had turned upside down over it. Most of the girls had known who they wanted to go with, but no one was brave enough to make the first move. It wasn’t just the fear that the guy would say no—even worse: it was the fear that he would say yes, and that every hetero girl in school would hate them for it. At such a small school, there weren’t enough crush-worthy guys to go around. As a result, the entire school was in a stand-off. No one was asking anyone, and by Friday it wasn’t clear if the dance would even happen. Finally, some genius in the junior class declared that it was Opposite Day, so the boys could swoop in and restore order. On one hand, it was degrading to witness how eagerly the girls of Riverside High had relinquished the power to choose their own dates; on the other hand, given the general quality of the boys of Riverside High, it was equally degrading to think that was a power worth having in the first place.
Virginia loitered by the punch bowl, sipping cup after cup of too-sweet red swill. She was starting to wish the dance had been canceled after all. What should have been a regular night of awkward dancing and bored teacher chaperones had been completely taken over by Opposite Day. A group of rowdy OD enthusiasts were dominating the dance floor, and everyone was fast-dancing during the slow songs and slow-dancing during the fast songs. You’d think Virginia would be pleased by the chaos—she was always complaining about how boring Riverside was, and how nothing interesting ever happened there. But deep down, she knew she relied on the school’s usual monotony: it meant she could seem more interesting in comparison.