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Photo by KristianneKoch.com

Susan Sigler narrowed her eyes at me across the lunch table. “We saw you heading into New Smyrna Beach in Big Kev’s truck Saturday night.”

I shoved a huge bite of peanut butter and jelly sandwich into my mouth for an excuse not to answer. If they got me to admit I’d gone out with Keven McDonough I’d be teased with both barrels. And it wouldn’t be pretty.

“Miss Knox saw you too.”

Diana Knox looked at me and bleated a laugh. “Yeah, before you ducked!”

Embarrassment flooded all the way to the roots of my hair. “It’s been fun, girls, but I gotta go.”

Susan called after me, “You haven’t phoned me all week when you were washing dishes—something’s up!”

I tossed the crusts of my sandwich into the garbage and high-tailed it out of the cafeteria.

That they hadn’t wormed the truth out of me all week bordered on miraculous.

I plopped my books down on the other end of the cement bench from LeRoy Henry. His curly hair fanned from his head like a young Einstein.

He picked up our debate from yesterday. “My point was, John F. Kennedy pushed supply-side economics and it plain didn’t work.”

I rolled my eyes. We were in kindergarten when Kennedy died. “All I know is that if my stepfather got a tax break for his bookstore, he could buy more books, sell more books, pay more sales tax to the government,” I said as if I had more than a clue what supply-side economics were.

Half way through LeRoy’s rebuttal, Susan and Diana race-walked down the breezeway.

“Incoming!” I jogged past a bedraggled palm and up the stairs to Algebra II.

Mr. Andrews handed back tests while the students buzzed about a senior who’d streaked naked through the cafeteria—that must have been what Susan and Diana were coming to tell me. Ray Stevens’ hit, The Streak, played in my head and I smiled.

Mr. Andrews commented wryly. “There’s the square root of Pi, and then there’s education.”

Laughter bubbled around the room.

His sense of humor was the spoon full of sugar that made the Algebra go down. He’d boosted me from a C in Algebra I in Stuart to—I peeked at my test score—a low A.

Photo by Jeff Sheldon

I wasn’t the only one who adored him. The class planned to thank him with a bottle of the Jack Daniels he cracked jokes about.

Across the aisle, James Karditzas snatched Sue Ellen Henderson’s test. “Bat, you big dummy.”

Sue Ellen had earned the nickname “Bat” by wearing a Batman T-shirt under her marching band uniform. The dreamy look she’d been giving James evaporated. “It’s a ninety-nine percent! Probably better than whatever you got.”

James held up his test and gave her a smug grin. One hundred percent.

I leaned toward Bat. “We’re doubling tonight, right?”

James didn’t need to know our foursome included Susan and Diana.

Bat blinked, trying to parse out what I was up to. Humor flashed through her eyes. “Seven-thirty, Pizza Hut.”

Photo by mensatic

Sure enough, at seven-thirty the four of us sat around a table in Pizza Hut inhaling pizza fumes.

What we hadn’t counted on was the carload of boys pouring through the door—boys we’d yelled at through the windows of my mom’s Duster.

Not for lack of trying, but we’d never picked up any boys—until tonight.

Diana’s eyes rounded as she peered over Susan’s shoulder at the scrawny specimens of manhood. “What are we going to do?”

Always the logical one, Bat said, “Talk to them?”

The boys elbowed each other toward us.

“Pretend you don’t recognize them,” Susan hissed.

I leaned back and spoke in a normal tone. “So, when I picked up Bat, her mom told us to always look underneath the car when we go to the mall.”

Bat shot me the stink-eye.

I continued, “Evidently, there are skinny men who slide under cars and wait. Then, whoosh! They grab you around the ankles.”

The girls busted up laughing.

Bat kicked me under the table.

“I was serious. It could happen.”

Somehow we made it through our pizza, shooting furtive looks at the geeky guys.

We piled back into the car, fairy-dusting giggles out the windows as I exited the parking lot.

Susan sang, “Ann and Big Kev sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G—”

Diana shrieked, “They’re right behind us!”

“Turn here!” Bat barked from the passenger side.

Photo by dantada

I swerved onto Palmetto Street.

Susan spoke behind me, “They had to stop for traffic.”

“Hurry! We’ve got to lose them,” Diana said.

“Turn right,” Bat commanded. “Now left on Live Oak.”

Five minutes later, with the boys a couple blocks behind, I yanked us from Magnolia Street, down Smith, and onto Riverside Drive.

“Kill the lights,” Bat said. “Find a driveway and pull in.”

I followed Bat’s instructions up a long shell path beside a dark house and wrenched off the key.

“Duck!” Diana whispered.

I clunked heads with Bat and she shifted away.

A car crawled by and we sucked in a collective breath.

The rumble rolled past.

My cheek deflated flat against vinyl.

A discussion on what to do next whispered around the car.

Diana popped up. “My house! I live in the opposite direction from where the boys went.”

As I backed down the drive, Susan said in her mom voice, “Spill it, Ann. We want the dirt on Big Kev.”

I sighed.

Even if no bottle rockets ricocheted around the cab of Kevin’s ‘71 F-150 truck, conversation had flowed—until I spotted Susan’s Chevette puttering alongside Kevin’s red Ford on US 1 and “accidently” dropped my purse on the floor. Three long minutes later, I sat up.

“There was no kissing. We went to see Jaws in Daytona, came home, and I’m never swimming in the ocean again.”

“See, that wasn’t so hard!” Susan said. “You didn’t have make it a big hairy secret.”

Bat eyed me. “So, are you going out again?”

It had taken Student Government President Kevin less than ten seconds to figure I was ashamed to be seen with him.

“Nope.” No way could I have convinced him of the truth—I’d ducked because I hated getting teased.

By the time we got to Diana’s they’d extracted the whole story, their laughter littering Fairway Drive. They promised to rib me the rest of my life.

It hadn’t been so bad after all.

Later, as I trooped into Susan’s bedroom with its queasy mix of purple walls and Cincinnati Reds paraphernalia, I couldn’t help feeling grateful. I’d finally nailed “normal” at the tail end of sixteen—friends, laughter, and a kaleidoscope of tiny teen dramas.

I’d dealt with divorce and Bat’s dad died young. We prized normal a little more than the other girls who’d grown up with two parents and gaggles of siblings. But they’d face their own traumas in the trenches of life. I think we all wound up thankful for the slice of normal we’d shared.

[Note: Susan earned a BS in elementary ed and is a fourth grade coach in Volusia County. Diana works with municipal bond compliance in Central Florida. Sue Ellen, who earned a law degree, no longer gets called “Bat” as vice president, US and Canada,  for Habitat for Humanity International. LeRoy earned a BA in management, Masters in software Engineering, and an EdD. He is an information technology director in San Diego. Kevin has a Bachelor’s in radiologic science and is a regional sales manager for a radiation monitoring company in Orlando. James graduated from West Point in electrical engineering and earned Masters in east Asian studies and mathematics education. He teaches high school math in California.

At the end of the year our Algebra II class took up a collection, recruited an older sibling to buy the Jack Daniels, and presented our gift. If a black man could blush, Mr. Andrews did. To NSBHS’s loss, the next year he taught at Spruce Creek High School.]