The Milky Way was real and dizzying and fantastic. Good luck counting the stars. They aren’t as lonely as those above Aunt Sandy’s.
You told me that I belonged up there somewhere, to shine among them, I said you’d shine brighter, and you said, “horse shit.”
We stared at the sky and at each other, for the first time not playing or thinking or loving. Meditation for adolescents, we’d call it.
And a godlike voice echoes through the heavens:
“Justin, what the hell are you doing?”
The stars rearrange to form the face of Mr. Dingle, a sadistic science teacher as wide as he is tall; the rest of the universe dissolves into his seventh grade Introduction to Astronomy class. Inside my textbook is a leaf of notebook paper on which I’ve written the text above—a love letter to Joshua, who sits at the front of the class and has pretty yellow hair and wears too much cologne.
Mr. Dingle snatches my letter, which I’ve thankfully left unaddressed, and looks down at it through the eyeglasses at the end of his nose. He smells like moth balls and Old Spice and has the voice of someone with an incessant need to clear his throat.
“Mr. Jones,” he addresses the class as he walks with my letter to the front of the room. My pulse quickens. “Mr. Jones has written a letter I’d like him to read aloud.”
Mr. Dingle—stupid name—takes off his glasses and throws them on his messy desk. He looks at me, almost licking his lips over thoughts of my impending torture. He sits on the edge of his desk and crosses his legs into an awkward position that almost causes him to fall. He retries, fails, and decides to stand.
“Mr. Jones, please humor us.” He waves my letter through the air. “Or should I read it?” He’s holding the paper in the wrong place for the dramatic effect he’s after, too far off to the side. It folds in on itself when the wind is against it. I imagine he thinks his presentation is smoother than it looks.
My ears start burning and my stomach knots. My classmates stare at me. To them, I am the quiet and strange nerd, too awkward to befriend and too bad at science to cheat from. But they don’t know me. They don’t understand. I’m not a nerd and I’m not quiet. At least not inside my head. I’m a romantic, a secret admirer, a busy seeker of things they’re too immature to know exist.
I want to say something witty or even obscene to Mr. Dingle, to put the class on my side, but I’m already stuttering and I haven’t said anything. I can’t be here. My palms are sweaty. My lower lip quivers and my eyes start watering. I can’t catch my breath and I want to die.
I look at Joshua. He stares at me with the rest of the class and shares their anticipation. What will the quiet and strange boy do?
I stand up from my chair. The world is spinning. I can barely see through my tears. I have no idea what I’m going to do, or what I should be doing. I want to scream, but that would be too strange. I want to curse at Mr. Dingle but I’m flustered and have no ammunition. So I run.
I run into the hall and past the lockers. I run outside and through patches of dandelions. I run to the “huts”—what we call classroom trailers used for overflow—and slide into the dirt behind one, watching sand swirl up into my wake.
I’ve just confirmed to my peers that I’m not only quiet and strange, but downright weird. Word will spread quickly about “that kid in science class” who literally stood up to, but ultimately ran away—crying —from Mr. Astro Dick. I’ve squashed my chances at friendship and will accept the mantle of punching bag du jour.
Out here is where I belong. In the weeds, by the huts. I’m social poison, a prepubescent pariah, something to be kept from “normal” adolescence. I’m different, and not in a good way. I’m shy. I’m queer.
I feel my cheeks burning. I’m so angry I’m hopeless. I fold my legs under me, crying, digging my fingers into the dirt, looking around me and hating everything I see: stupid huts, stupid school, stupid trees, stupid ground, stupid…dandelions? I spot a cluster of them nearby, maybe half a dozen, and scan the rest of the landscape for more. They’re everywhere—hundreds, maybe thousands—far more than I’ve ever noticed. Our school can barely afford electricity, let alone ground maintenance, so dandelions, queers of the plant world, are left on their own. They’re gorgeous en masse. To me, anyway.
“JUSTIN JONES,” says the school-wide intercom. My name comes with an almost obnoxious amount of background static, as if someone’s blowing into the mic. “Report to the principal’s office immediately.” Whatever.
I lean back and snap up a mature dandelion, one past yellow. It’s covered in feathery seeds, several dozen or more, each one vulnerable to the elements but indelicate, strong enough not only to survive, but to persist. To thrive. To grow.
I purse my lips, take a deep breath, and blow it all away.