Duncan Leeds used to go to my school, but transferred when his dad got a promotion and his mom wanted a house in Wellington Gardens, a house that had an elevator and a trampoline in addition to the standard two stories and a pool for Florida mansions. Wellington was thirty minutes away from where I lived in Boca Raton, and in Florida time, that was a whole other world. He was my first real boyfriend, even though we only saw each other on weekends.
“I love you,” Duncan said on the phone. It was late, past eleven o’clock on a school night, and we both spoke in low voices. “Do you love me?”
“Yes,” I said, immediately uncertain of what “love” even was. Did I know? Did I want to be in love at age fifteen? I couldn’t even drive yet without an adult in the car. In a year, we’d both have cars, and we could meet up in the middle of the night if we wanted to instead of talking on the dumb phone, and maybe then we’d be able to be in love, real love, because we could be ourselves, and not these immature versions of kids who want more than they have.
But Duncan seemed happy. He seemed okay. He seemed to believe that this was it, this was love and we had it.
“I wish you went to my school,” He said after a long pause.
“Me too,” I answered in solidarity.
“Maybe you could shadow me for a day, and if you like it, you can transfer too. It’s private, so you don’t have to live here or anything.”
“It’s so far away though,” I said, picking at my nail polish, flicking red chips all over my white bedspread, collecting them in a pile that I would dispose of when we got off the phone.
“But next year you’ll be able to drive yourself to school, so it won’t matter. You’ll like driving. It’ll be fun. And maybe you can sleepover, if we ask my mom or something, like downstairs in the basement, or you can have my bed and I’ll go down there, or, I don’t know, something like that.”
“Yeah,” I said, my thoughts drifting off to what would happen after high school though, if I’d be the same person, if I wanted to be someone else, what would happen if this was it, if Duncan and I would have kids of our own someday who fell in love or thought they knew what love could be.
It was arranged for me to visit Wellington Christian High School and skip a day of my own classes. I had to beg my mom for this, even though I didn’t really want to go, and it took days of arguing for it to finally happen. I told her that my school was making me materialistic because all the girls had purses instead of backpacks. I told her I wouldn’t mind the longer drive to school in the morning, that it would actually help me practice driving because it’d be the same route everyday. In the end, she knew it was because of Duncan, but she let me go anyway because I think she really believed in our love.
“You play a cat and mouse game with him,” she said the night before my visit.
“What do you mean?” I asked, lying on the floor of the library room in our house. She hated when I did this. First, because she couldn’t see me when she was on the computer playing her puzzles, and second because she didn’t think it was safe even though it wasn’t dangerous at all. Sometimes parents worry for absolutely nothing, and the floor thing was definitely one of those things.
“When you like him, he runs, and when he chases after you, you run. Cat. Mouse,” as she spoke, pieces of her virtual puzzle clicked into place. She always had the volume up way too high. Sometimes if she couldn’t sleep, I could hear the pieces clicking, clicking, even up in my bedroom on the second floor with the door closed. I’d call the house phone just to be annoying and tell her to lower the volume. “Don’t call so late,” she’d say, as if I didn’t live there.
“That’s not true,” I said in response to her remark. I pictured Tom and Jerry chasing each other through various scenarios, and I remembered that Tom always goes after Jerry. The cat always goes after the mouse. I so desperately hoped I was the mouse in the situation with Duncan, and then I realized I probably was since he asked me to consider transferring schools, but then I also recognized that maybe I was the cat since I agreed to try out Wellington Christian.
I wanted to be in love, and maybe that’s why Duncan was so appealing at first. He asked me out by slipping a note in my locker. He wanted an answer by the end of the day. I never had a class with him, but I said yes and we started dating. And then he left after Christmas break. Even though we did long-distance, he was so available, so willing, so uninterested in anything except the hypothetical future. We didn’t have to worry about how any of us would get there. Maybe we were just in love with love, with the kind of love that didn’t have to exist because no one ever talked about it. We said it at the mall into our Nokia phones, we wrote it on the back of our hands, we called it the “L” word so it remained a small and easy thing.
“Do you have to wear anything special?” My mom asked.
“No,” I said. “But I think I want to wear jeans since everyone will be in uniform.”
“Is that allowed?”
“I’m the visitor. I can wear anything. And I want to look nice.”
“I don’t know if jeans are nice.”
“Oh my God!” I said and rolled myself up, off the carpet.
With traffic, it took thirty-seven minutes to get up to Wellignton. Duncan was waiting for me at the end of the carpool line when my mom dropped me off. I begged her to let me drive so I’d look cool when I showed up, but she said I would go too fast since I was so excited. I didn’t want to argue with her because then she’d know I was basically doing this all for a boy, so I smiled when I got out of the car and ran to hug Duncan.
“We can’t really, hug, or anything here,” Duncan said, detaching my body from his.
“Oh, ‘cause it’s like, super Christian here,” I said back.
“Not super, but, well, yeah,” Duncan shrugged and waited for me to be upset. But I wanted him to think I was really down to earth, go with the flow. I turned around and waved at my mom, who said she’d be waiting at the Wellington Green Mall, reading the paper and doing the crossword puzzle with her cell phone on loud in case I needed to escape. I told myself it was just one day, a few hours really, and then I could break-up with Duncan and date someone else, or no one, or whatever. I didn’t want to be in a relationship anymore if I was unsure of it, and even though I wasn’t sure if I was unsure, I took that as a no anyway.
“I understand,” I said and smiled. “Where do I sign in?”
Duncan led me to the office where the secretary had a nametag waiting for me. No one had inquired about my religious background, but I began to feel uncomfortable around so many crosses and plaques stating that Jesus was the answer to all my problems. I was never forced to go to temple or pray or anything, but I still considered myself Jewish. My mom was Jewish, and my dad, so it was really deep, down in there in my blood. But I didn’t know most of the Torah stories. I couldn’t have told you anything about Judaism other than you get eight presents on Hanukkah.
Duncan’s classroom looked like the rooms at my school, but there seemed to be fewer students. My classes had 25-30 kids per class, where here I only counted fifteen. There were nine girls and six boys, including Duncan. Some of the boys gave him a hard time for me being there, but I knew it was just because they thought I was pretty and probably wished I were their girlfriend and not Duncan’s.
The morning started off with the pledge of allegiance, followed by a whole minute of silent prayer, finished with an “Amen,” from everyone. I tried to stand up and sit down at the right parts, but felt jumbled and out of place. Also my jeans were really tight and bugging the crap out of me every time I moved. I should have worn a dress. The class schedule was normal. They had Science, History, English, Math, and then lunch. I was most nervous for lunch because I didn’t want to have to talk to any of the girls. The whole morning they eyed me up and down and gave me weird looks. I understood though; I was treading on their territory. Duncan was really cute and they all probably wanted to date him. They must have hated me for being his girlfriend. I tried to tell them with my eyes that it wouldn’t be much longer, that they could have him, soon.
After we ate our dry, turkey sandwiches, Duncan dragged me to the tennis courts so we could be alone. He kissed me, hard, with a lot of tongue, more than ever before.
“I thought we couldn’t do this,” I said, backing away a bit.
“No one’s here,” he said, pulling me back.
We kissed for a few minutes until I felt his boner through his khaki pants.
“You really need to get a digital camera so you can send me pics of your tits,” he said, grabbing my boobs over my shirt.
“Stop!” I laughed, even though I liked the attention.
“You know, all my friends are jealous of me,” Duncan said.
“I know,” I said.
“I can’t wait until we can be alone like this all the time.”
“Me too,” I said.
I looked out beyond the tennis courts, past the school’s courtyard and offices, out into the Wellington scenery of trees and dirt roads and nowhereness. I didn’t want to be here. I missed Boca. Wellington was a wasteland for the religious youth. I had no place here. I belonged at a mall or an extravagant restaurant. But I didn’t want to let him down, let my mom down. I didn’t want anyone to know that I wanted to try things, like sex and weed and maybe pills and maybe date an older guy or kiss a stranger at a party or even just go to a party and not have to answer to anyone. I felt like everyone just wanted me to do the right thing, and I didn’t want to do that.
When the bell rang, Duncan told me we’d have to separate until the end of the day. The last two periods were religious study and personal reflection. The class would be divided by sex; girls with one teacher, boys with another. My stomach dropped.
The boys stayed in Duncan’s original homeroom class, while the girls went across the hall and a few doors down to another room. The girls were arranging the desks in a circle and I pulled a desk to complete it and sat down. The teacher read us some bible verses and then told us a story about the woman at the well. I tried not to pay attention and bit my cuticles down instead, but I heard her talk about this woman who was a prostitute, a whore, who came to the well and had a conversation with Jesus. He ministered to her and accepted her, despite her character, and even wanted her to fetch him a drink of water, which was like, crazy apparently. I liked how the teacher told the story. The room was so relaxed, I almost wanted to lie down and sleep. I felt comfortable, like every girl in the room was accepting of everyone in the world, but for real because they believed in something greater than themselves. I wondered if Jesus would love me if he knew me, if he could love me like he loved the girls in the room, and if I could ever believe that it was possible to be loved that much by anyone.
The teacher asked the group of girls what they thought about stereotypes and judging others before getting to know them. Most girls gave generic answers about how that’s bad and we should love everyone as we love ourselves and as Jesus loves us, but one girl, Samantha, brought me up.
“Her for example,” Samantha said and pointed to me. “I didn’t know what to think when I heard she’d be coming here for the day. But she’s been so quiet and respectful of our school. She really belongs here. And Duncan is one of the best guys I know, so she has to be great if he likes her.”
I couldn’t believe she was saying all this to a teacher. My teachers didn’t even care if I showed up to class, let alone knew anything about my personal life.
“How do you like it here so far?” the teacher asked me.
“Everyone’s been so nice,” I said, which was true. I felt a shift, like maybe I had the wrong idea. Everyone was nice, a lot nicer than at my school. Maybe if I went to school here, I’d be popular because boys like me and I know about fashion and everyone was already jealous of me, jealous in a good way, a positive way.
“Do you think you’ll transfer here?” Samantha asked and smiled.
“I hope so,” I said.
“Let’s all join hands,” the teacher said. “And you too,” she directed her voice at me. I nodded and offered my hands to the two girls next to me. “Let us pray that Brittany find the strength to leave behind her old school and the courage to try Wellington Christian and know that she will be loved and supported by you, our Lord Jesus, and that you may bestow her the wisdom to know what choice is right to make and instill that choice deep in her heart. Let us do your work, good Lord, and keep our hearts focused on you. Lift me up so that I may guide these wonderful girls and bless me with your spirit that I may stay in your word. We adore you, Lord Jesus, and we will follow you forever and ever. Amen.”
Duncan gave me a hug goodbye, but we couldn’t kiss because the other kids were around, some teachers too. The one that prayed for me smiled and waved as I got in my mom’s car, the driver’s side this time. She let me drive home and I wasn’t sure if it was because she knew how important it was to me or if she was just tired and wanted me to drive. I didn’t speak to her as I drove away from Wellington Christian and watched the school disappear into the dust and dirt and palm trees and trailer trash neighborhood and strip malls until we were finally on State Road 441, a long a desolate road that led back to Boca.
I never spoke to Duncan again after that day. It was like we said goodbye without having to. The kiss we shared on the tennis courts burned in me for a long time until I fell in love again and again, forever and ever, with so many others.
After a few minutes of driving, my mom finally asked me how it went and I told her I loved the school and wanted to transfer and she laughed and told me I couldn’t go to a Christian school because I was Jewish.
“I’m not that Jewish,” I said.
“I don’t understand you!”
“You don’t have to understand me, you just have to love me like God loves me!”
She stayed quiet and looked out the window, mad.
“The whole class prayed for me!” I yelled and all of a sudden there was a noise. Something shattered. The window, the passenger window fell into my mom’s lap and she screamed. I swerved and she screamed more and I pulled over and stopped the car and we both got out. She started crying and her arm was bleeding and I pushed the OnStar button and it called them and they said they were coming and we waited.
I asked my mom if she was okay and I don’t remember what she said. I just remember her picking glass off her clothes, the way she shook her head in disbelief, disappointment.
“I’m sorry,” I kept saying, like a chant, a prayer of my own, asking for her forgiveness, for the way I was, for the way I would be the rest of my life; impulsive, indecisive, and wanting the wrong things.
Roadside assistance said it was a temperature fluctuation that caused the window to break, but the temperature changes all the time in Florida, rain to burning sunshine, humidity to random windy chills. My mom guessed it might have been a tiny pebble that was caught in a lawn mower, got spit out onto 441, faster than the eye could see. Maybe it was God that shattered our window. Maybe it was Jesus Christ. Maybe it was just a rock flying through the sky that happened to hit us. But I wanted it to be more.
Brittany Ackerman is a graduate of Florida Atlantic University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her forthcoming collection of essays entitled, The Perpetual Motion Machine, to be released by Red Hen Press in the fall of 2018.