You know you've been there, so just admit it.
Something about that figure standing in front of the classroom, intelligence, eloquence and panache flowing in each word, draws you into a subject that would otherwise bore you, and when you're not dutifully taking notes, you're sitting there wondering why all the others aren't like that. The cheerleader's allure, of course, is another story; it's simply a raw physical attraction that forces your gaze in her direction, focusing on that fuzzy sweater or that short skirt. Team spirit be damned -- you go to the game to watch her.
Well, perhaps that's a bit extreme -- it certainly was for me, being the sports fan I am -- but you get the idea, especially if you've experienced that sort of crush like I have. You know you could never have a chance with her, but you want her anyway, probably because she's so untouchable. Time and tide usually buries all but the faintest memories of those crushes, but one girl still stands out in my mind today.
Something was different about her. Sure, she had the looks, the charm, and all those other intangibles cheerleaders have, but unlike the rest of them, she never had that air of aloofness about her. She dated plenty of guys, but she never went steady with the star quarterback like you would expect. She was popular, but she never let popularity spoil her or push her into a clique like the others. Everyone else would watch from a distance as the jocks walked into a room, a cheerleader on each one's right arm. Jean had a knack for making that distance seem much shorter.
Case in point -- one afternoon I was at Sam's Pizza Palace, your typical teenager hangout. I was sitting at a booth all by myself and feeling generally lousy. She was surrounded by football players and her fellow cheerleading troupe. She didn't have to walk over to the table and acknowledge my presence, let alone my existence here.
"Hi, Jean. How's it goin'?"
"Not bad. Happy birthday, by the way."
I still wonder how she knew it was my birthday. Perhaps the fact that birthdays have always depressed me...
"A group of us are sitting up front. Would you care to join us?"
It was a pity gesture, sure, but who was I to look a gift horse in the mouth?
"Don't mention it."
So I walked over to her table, where I immediately recognized at least three football players
-- first among them the quarterback, Alan Green. Maybe this birthday won't be so bad, I thought.
"So what's up, you little punk?"
Three guys larger than you trying to back you into a wall can be pretty intimidating. The letter jackets they wore only made it more so.
"You couldn't leave well enough alone, huh?", said Alan Green, flanked by a couple of no-name linemen. "You had to tell the entire school that it was my fault, huh?"
The fact that the team started the season 0-3 didn't help, either.
"Hey, I call 'em like I see 'em, Al," I replied, trying to put up a brave front in the face of a certain butt-kicking. "I don't think I was being too critical, what with all those uncatchable passes--"
Of course, my article in the school newspaper pretty much pushed the tension to the breaking point.
"Look here, you runt," said Alan, his hand now firmly twisting my collar. "I don't see you out there playing this game, do I? The real men are the ones out there on the field busting their butts to win those games, not some little wimps who just write about them."
Yeah, I was dead...
"If you ever, ever try to take a pot shot like that at me again," he continued venomously, "I will rearrange your face so bad that your mother won't recognize you."
...but I guess being near death fills you with a certain chutzpah.
"Go right ahead," I said to him. "Bloody my nose all you want, but if you do, I will never write a good word about you in the school paper again. You'll never get credit for the team's success from me. Ever."
He knew it, too. He ran the two-minute drill with all the efficiency of a tree slug in a marathon. This was probably why he let go of my lapel and slowly backed away from me. He still fumed, to be sure, but he suddenly decided not to act on it.
"One of these days," he said, still putting up a bullying front, "your mouth is going to get you into trouble."
I was grinning like a fool as I watched him walk away. It was right then and there that I knew
I wanted to make my living as a sportswriter.
Next season, Coach Fogg came to the conclusion that Al was an option quarterback, and the team went from 2-8 to 8-2. Just to make sure he would get the credit for it in the school paper, Al got all buddy-buddy on me.
"Hey, look everyone -- it's Howard Cosell," he quips. I figured I could grin and bear it, since that's close to who I wanted to be, anyway. "Hey, Howard, what's with that crack about my kicking game."
"Let's see, how far did that pooch go, about 15 yards?", I tossed back at him. "How hard was Wilbur here laughing on the sideline afterwards?"
Wilbur Love was the running back sitting next to Al and his girlfriend, and he was still snickering at that botched fourth down play from two weeks before. I don't think a black student would have been hanging out with this crowd unless he gained 150 yards a game. Of course, Jean might have had something to do with that, too.
"But who ran for more yardage that game?", he answered. "How about that?" Al wrapped his arm even tighter around his girlfriend. She seemed pretty content with being his trophy.
"Yeah, Al," I said, "they just can't get next to you."
The groans at the table were almost comical.
"Have you ordered anything yet, Joey?", Jean asked me.
"Not yet. I just got a Pepsi."
"Want some pizza with us?", said Wilbur. "We just ordered a couple, and we could spare a few slices for you."
"Sure, I could chip in."
"Don't sweat it," replied Wilbur. "It's on us. It's your birthday, right?" The rest of the table voiced their agreement.
"Wilbur's paying for his P.R. man," said another player.
"Hey," I replied, "the best never comes cheap."
I ducked from the napkins thrown at me, then spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out with them. Imagine -- Joey Bilotti, a runt of an Italian kid who never even played in Little League, hanging out with the big guys on the team. Journalism was going to be fun.
What was more fun then, though, was being around Jean. I could barely stop myself from staring
at her from across the table, and every time I came close, she would snap me out of it with a
smile or a conversation starter. No question that I was living out Charlie Brown's fantasy --
this little redhead girl seemed genuinely interested in me. I've had a fetish for red hair ever
My attraction to Jean wasn't so much because she was accessible, but more so because she was ridiculously acrobatic. Every time I went to football or basketball game, I would watch as the cheerleaders jumped and twirled around in various formations, but Jean just seemed to jump so much higher and keep her balance so effortlessly. They would build a human pyramid, and Jean would manage to stand on top, then do a backflip off of it and land perfectly on her feet. They would toss each other in the air, and Jean would do that extra somersault or twist in mid-air.
"I'm surprised you're not a gymnast or something," I said to her one day while we were jogging our way through gym class warm-ups. Even in a worn-out T-shirt and sweatpants, she was gorgeous.
"Oh, I was for a while," she replied. "I just don't have the time for it anymore."
"No kidding," I said, starting to huff a bit. "I bet you never fell off the balance beam."
"Are you kidding?", she said, almost laughing. "I hated the balance beam. I used to fall off of it all the time. It took me years to get my balance on that thing."
"So you just like jumping around a lot?"
"I was a pretty hyperactive kid. My mother had to do something to get me to calm down."
The coach brought out some basketballs, and everyone spent the rest of the hour doing lay-up drills. Needless to say, I got to show everyone my athletic prowess.
Or lack thereof.
"Are you going to make one today, Joey?"
"Man, you can't hit the broad side of a barn."
"Good thing you write better than you play."
Derrick Chance, the basketball team's star center, jumped high into the air to grab a rebound off one of my bricks, then stared down at me for a moment. Considering he was 6'8" and I was 5'6", this wasn't hard for him at all. He finally smiled and shook his head.
"You shoot like a girl, man."
He tossed the ball over to Jean, who must have heard what he said, because she froze him with one cold look -- I'm talking liquid nitrogen cold. Then she prompted fired what had to be at least a twenty-foot jump shot. Admittedly, her form seemed a bit feminine, but the results were universal.
Derrick's jaw dropped. So did mine. She jogged over to where I stood in the other line.
"Don't listen to him," she told him. "You don't shoot like a girl, at all."
She winked, and I just laughed out loud.
The next time I got the ball in this lay-up drill, Derrick decided he was going to play defense against me. "Take it to him," Jean whispered in my ear. I didn't need any more motivation than that. I dribbled up to the basket, and he jumped in front of me, trying to block my shot, and somehow I managed to get the ball past his armpit and off the backboard for an easy basket.
"Way to go, Joey!"
I was so excited I didn't know what to say. I just slapped some guy's hand and growled something
unintelligible. To this day I still don't know how I managed to score a lay-up with Derrick
Chance in my face -- a guy who eventually would play in the NBA for several years, no less. It
sounds corny to say Jean was my inspiration and all, but hey, if the shoe fits...
"He's gonna beat you, you know."
Jean sneaked up behind me one day after school and looked over my shoulder at the chess board in front of me. As usual, Paul Abbas was throttling me. Paul probably would have invented the word "nerd" to keep the rest of the kids from calling him "poindexter" all the time. He was enthralled with science and science fiction and fantasy stuff. He was one of the few people who sat with me at lunch during those fiendishly awkward junior high years, and since I was never a bonafide member of the "in" crowd, I didn't have much reason to push him aside because I was too hip or something.
Besides, he did wonders for my chess game. I eventually got to the point where I could beat him semi-regularly while waiting for the bus.
"No way, Jean," I said, picking up my bishop and placing it firmly in an attack position. "I have him on the ropes. Just look at this board."
Paul dragged his rook from his side of the board to mine.
"Told ya," said Jean. Even her smirk was alluring.
"I'll let you take that move back if you want," said Paul. "I can see how you might be distracted."
"Baloney," I replied. "Line 'em up. Your king is going down, mister."
"Why don't I give it a try?", said Jean out of nowhere.
"You can play chess?", said an astonished Paul.
"My dad taught me a few things," she replied. "I don't play much, though." To be honest, I was more afraid for Paul than for her. Paul was excellent at chess, but when it came to women, he seemed too easily intimidated. I know if Jean ever so much as smiled at me during a game, I'd probably just knock my king over right then and there.
I stood up and bowed, gesturing my hands toward the concrete stoop. "After you, milady."
"Why, thank you, kind sir," she replied and sat down. Who said chivalry was dead?
If anyone was dead, it was Paul's king. In the span of 20 minutes, Jean laid out 21 of the most calculating moves I had ever seen on any chess board. Paul's usual attacking maneuvers, a few of which I had memorized, simply withered away under the attack of Jean's knights, which stood their ground in the middle of the board. When she finally checkmated Paul, he almost looked broken.
"Who's your father, Bobby Fischer?", I asked her.
She didn't have time to say it was beginner's luck before one of her friends came up and told us the bus was here. The four of us ended up sitting together as we rode home. Paul was so determined to prove that Jean's win was a fluke he drew up a game of paper chess on one of his notebooks, and they passed it back and forth while Jean chatted with her friend.
"I can't believe you're talking to that square," I heard the girl whisper. Good thing Paul was too wrapped up in the game to notice.
"Why?", Jean replied. "We're all human beings here. We all have feelings. What's the point of stepping on someone just because they're a little different?"
Of all the things I loved about Jean Grey, that was probably the biggest. She never let her ego get the best of her. She could dance with royalty without looking down upon the common folk. She was a straight-A student who could still be popular. She was more than capable of driving the best car to school, yet she wasn't afraid to take the bus. The more I saw her in action, the more I just stared in awe. She was an absolute marvel.
I think she noticed my stare, too, because a few moments later she glanced away from her friend and did a double-take. I must have had this totally goofball look of teenage infatuation on my face, because she began to blush and look away.
That's when we heard the bells clanging.
"What's that?", asked Paul, finally looking up from his notebook battle. I was a little too stunned to answer. The front of the bus came to a stop on that set of railroad tracks we pass every day. The driver sat paralyzed in his seat as he looked out the window to his left, the train in the distance inching closer to the intersection. He had to get whacked on the head to snap out of it.
I couldn't blame him. The whole atmosphere was like a fever dream, totally surreal and impossible in real life. Some kids were screaming. Others were running toward the back of the bus, hoping that part wouldn't get hit. Everyone sitting in the back was waving for the cars lined up behind the bus to back out of the way. A couple of them tried, but they didn't create a lot of room. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion, and all I could do was turn back to Paul and say, "Brace yourself."
I was sure we got hit. The front of the bus swung around to the right, away from the oncoming train. I could hear several thuds of students running down the aisle being slammed against the seats and the wall. I felt myself being squeezed against Paul and the side of the bus. I was afraid to look up, for fear of what gruesome sight awaited me.
Then Paul nudged me and said, "It missed."
My eyes popped wide open. I looked up and unexpectedly saw the bus was in one piece. A few kids were shaken up and scattered on various parts of the bus, but for the most part, everyone looked okay, and the nightmare seemed to be over.
Then I looked back at Jean. She looked like her nightmare was just beginning. As I watched her stunned countenance, I could hear some voices in the background.
"Is everyone okay?"
"Ow! That hurt!"
"What the heck happened?"
"It's a separated shoulder. I've had one before."
"Jean," I said to her, "You okay?"
Without warning, she jumped from her seat and ran out the emergency exit door in the back.
I literally climbed over Paul and followed her out the door. She ran beside the tracks in the opposite direction of the train. Somehow I felt like I had to catch up to her, as if somehow I could help her come to terms with what just happened.
I reached out my hand to try and touch her shoulder. She looked back at me as I was catching up to her, her eyes completely flooded.
"Don't come any closer, Joey!", she shouted. "I don't want to hurt you!"
"Jean, I'm not going to hurt you," I replied, still trying to catch up to her. "I just want to know what's wrong."
"Everything, Joey!", she shouted. "I'm scared. I don't want to hurt you..."
She said those words a couple more times, then outran me. I stopped and watched her run, thinking I was a fool to stop now. It was those words, though, that totally confused me. "I don't want to hurt you, I don't want to hurt you..." What did she mean by that? Why would she say that to me? What was she afraid of? Being an adolescent was confusing enough. I didn't need this on top of that.
I was sitting on a small incline on that side of the tracks when I spotted Wilbur running toward me. The caboose of the train had finally passed.
"Hi, Wilbur." It sounded dumb, but I couldn't think of anything else to say.
"I heard what happened", he said. "Where's Jean?"
"She took off down that way," I replied, "and I couldn't catch up to her. She said something about not wanting to hurt me."
"What did she mean by that?", he asked.
I just shrugged and shook my head.
That night I called Jean, but her line was busy. My Italian mother spent most of the evening crying over how she almost lost her baby and lavished me with giant heaps of pasta, so I let her. Aside from being my mother, she's too good a cook to refuse.
I thought about calling Jean again, but I had no idea if she wanted to talk to anyone, or if she even went home that night, so I decided to bury myself in my algebra homework, hoping I could somehow forget everything that happened.
I was almost finished when I heard a knock on my window. The head and shoulders of a dark, hooded figure was trying to get my attention.
"Joey," I heard a female voice whisper, "it's Jean."
I didn't bother to look for any red hair; I just jumped toward the window and opened it. She was dressed entirely in black, her hair and eyes obscured by her hooded jacket.
"Jean," I said, "I tried to call you, but your line was busy. What are you doing out here?"
"Joey, we have to talk. There's something I need to tell you."
"Sure," I replied, opening the window. "Come on in."
"No, in private. We have to get away from here."
I looked down the side of the wall, realizing there was no ladder to support her.
"Uh, Jean?", I said, a little surprised. "What are you standing on?"
"That's what we need to talk about."
I threw on a jacket and followed her out the window. It took a minute before she convinced me that I wouldn't fall, so I took her word, took her hand, and literally floated into the woods past our backyard. Now I've floated through dreams a lot before, but this was the first time I had done it in real life. It was very surreal, as if some force stronger than gravity has control over you, and you don't really know where it's going to take you. This force eventually found a small clearing in the woods and set Jean and me down on the pine straw surrounding the trees. Her hood slid off her head without her moving.
"Joey, about what happened today..."
She didn't have to finish for me to put two and two together.
"It was you, wasn't it?", I said. "You were the one that moved that bus."
Fear still clouded her eyes as I waited for her answer. "Yes," she replied, "and it's driving me crazy. You don't know what it took for me to get this under control, and to lash out like that, to hurt all those people..."
"Hurt them?", I said, a bit stunned. "Jean, you probably saved their lives. Who knows what would have happened to those kids if that train had hit the bus?"
"I'm scared, Joey," she said, starting to tear up again. "I'm scared of what's going to happen to me. I feel like I'm some kind of freak of nature or something."
"Don't be," I said, touching her shoulder. Maybe that would help, I figured. "I've read stories about people with ESP, who can move things around just by thinking about them. I've often wished I could do that myself."
"Don't say that, Joey," she replied. "I've had to fight this for years. I've seen things because of this that would make grown men scream out loud. I never even knew I was capable of what I did today until I did it, and that's what scares me. What if I end up hurting someone I care about with this ESP, or whatever it is? What if I let it get the best of me and turn into some kind of monster?"
I wracked my brain for something to say. This was as new to me as it was to her. I had heard stories about people who had these kinds of powers, but I had never experienced it firsthand. Nobody like that ever came to Annadale-on-Hudson. The fact that it was the girl for whom I had such a huge crush didn't help, either. I had never seen her so distraught over something like this.
"You've always been a good person, Jean," I said finally. "I know you'll do the right thing."
She reached over to hug me, and I more than willingly returned the embrace. It was too much of a bittersweet moment for me, to finally be this close to the girl of my dreams, only to find out she was someone else entirely, someone whom she hid from the rest of the world.
"Joey," she said softly, "I'm going away soon."
I pulled back slightly and looked at her. "Going away?", I stammered. "But...but why?"
"My parents are enrolling me in a small private school up in Westchester," she said. "They say there's a man there who can...help me with my problem."
"But...they can't do that," I said, almost indignantly. "Why should you have to suffer for-"
"It's okay, Joey," she replied. "I've agreed to go. After what happened today, I don't think I can face most of my friends again."
"But...but they don't know," I said, grasping for straws. It was selfish of me to want her to stay. I was just too young to know that at the time. All I knew was that Jean was leaving, and I could not deal with it.
"Joey," she said, "I know you've got a thing for me."
I blinked my surprise. "How did you..."
"It doesn't take a mind-reader to figure it out," she said. "I've seen the way you look at me, on the bus today, at Sam's on your birthday. I figured you had a crush on me. I would have talked to you about it earlier, maybe even gone out with you, but I was afraid that you would find out the truth about me, and I didn't want to hurt you like that."
"Baloney," I replied. "I can keep a secret better than anyone."
"Then promise me you won't tell anyone else about what happened today," she said. "Promise me you won't tell anyone it was me. I don't want them to remember me like that."
There were a million things I wanted to say to her. She was the first girl for whom I really felt something, whether it was love or a crush or whatever, and it dawned on me that I was going to lose her. I would have done anything for her, and in the end, that's exactly what I did.
"I promise," I said. "You're transferring to a private school. That's all I know."
She hugged me again, this time tighter than the last. "Thank you so much, Joey," she said, and with that, she kissed me on the cheek. She kissed me. Those three words have never left my head.
"Don't say it, Joey," she interrupted. "You'll find someone else and forget about me before it's over. I know you will."
"Probably," I said, starting to get choked up myself, "but it won't be easy to forget a girl who can fly."
She smiled at me. There in the dull glow of the moon in the trees, she was just too beautiful
I didn't know the word for what Jean really was until a few weeks later, when a man named Charles Xavier said it on a televised debate -- mutant. It seemed like such a distasteful word. Jean wasn't some thing that crawled out of the sewer or something. She was a beautiful girl with a beautiful ability. There had to be a better way to say it than that.
Anyway, time did pass, as she said, and the talk about Jean's sudden transfer subsided. People asked me if I knew anything else about what was happening with her, since I was the one who knew about her transfer in the first place. I didn't, really; I wrote her a few times, and I got a couple of letters from her, saying she was controlling her powers more every day, and that she met a guy she fell in love with. After that, however, we grew apart, like old friends that promise to write but never get around to it. It was sad for me, having cared for her so much, but somehow I knew it was for the best.