Chapter 2: Ashley
3rd - 5th grade | 1994 -1998 | Age 7 - 11
Third grade does weird things to people. Or it did to me, I don't know about you personally. For me it went kind of like this - I was finally starting to become cognizant of the world, which was exploding with new and more confusing things daily. I was obsessed with The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, which provided a nice launching pad of absurdity for my knowledge of the world and the laws of physics governing it. Mexico caught on fire for a short time, forcing us to stay indoors as a thick haze painted the sky bright orange day and night for two weeks straight. But hands down, the most disorienting thing about the third grade was Ashley.
Ashley's mom gave us slide projector presentations about sea creatures. Once a year since I had started elementary school, our teacher would lead us to a darkened room off the library, where the calm, slow-speaking woman would click through square images of vibrant coral and sea amenities. I wish I had more context to give you on this, but I really have no idea what all this was about. I have a feeling no one did, as teacher and student alike nodded understandingly, acceptingly, as she explained the migration patterns of sea turtles.
In third grade Ashley was in my class, and I finally made the connection when crazy sea lady showed up for a big presentation we were putting on. It was an after school sort of thing, informal, in that same weird little room off the library. Still parents lined the walls, video cameras in hand, as we sat indian style in the center of the floor hugging giant dioramas that smelled of rubber cement and Crayola water-based paint. Ashley's presentation was on Manatees of all things - she stood at the front of the room, swaying from foot to foot, clutching a paper mache sea cow to her chest like a giant teddy bear. Nervously she explained about a dozen memorized facts I can't remember as her long brown ponytail danced back and forth rhythmically. I really dug that ponytail.
These things are hard to communicate when you're young. It's silly enough just feeling them. The strange urges - to look at the ponytail, to touch the ponytail . . . to yank the ponytail? I just wanted to touch her, I think, I wasn't sure in what way. When we sat close my hand twitched like a divining rod, pulling me towards something, and that feeling of not knowing what result it would yield terrified me. So I never did. No touching, no yanking, not even any talking - I'd be surprised if by then end of that year she even knew what my name was. While other boys 'did' - that is, garnished their understanding out of yanked ponytails, touched hands, flipped skirts - I simply watched.
That is not to say that I was a quiet child, by any stretch. Oh, I liked to talk. I loved attention. At the time I had my career options narrowed down to rockstar or talkshow host. A couple of friends and I had formed the singing-sensation "The Milkyways" (named after the candy bar, not the heavenly body, of course), but for some reason a trio of pre-adolescent choir boys singing Beach Boys songs wasn't really a market niche in those days. On several occasions I would also come to school adorning a tiny suit coat my mom had purchased at goodwill and begin to interview classmates en masse, making small quips in an interview that was really about me.
Sorry, I haven't given ample time to Ashley - this story is her's after all, not mine. But I want to paint a picture for you. Third grade is the beginning of alot of things, I think, not the least of which is your abrupt release into the Plinko board of social hierarchy. Sure, there have been signs, maybe some indications up to this point, but it's all been guesswork. All of a sudden that music prodigy gets a little too inspired by Freddie Mercury and abandons the piano to start hand-stitching pleather vests - the game up to this point is null, you could land anywhere. Me, I never really stopped playing dress up and make believe. No matter where I've been in my life, there's been some sort of goodwill suit coat, some sold out stadium waiting for me in my mind.
I'm not going to say that particular skill set didn't come in handy at times, but it certainly did very little to help me win the affections of a real girl, who could not see the stage lights or hear the roar of the crowd behind me. The closer I got to initiating contact, just any sort of words, the more the orchestra faded and was drowned out by the sound of my own rushing heartbeat, a clock ringing silent alarm, reminding me that the spirit and courage I had counted on to get me this far was all imaginary.
No third grader should ever take love this seriously. If you are in third grade and you are reading this, yank that ponytail. I don't know why, but it works. Case in point - Trevor.
Trevor was tall and athletic, for a third grader, and talked with his butt. He would literally bend over, grab his cheeks, and begins moving them in a pattern that resembled speech for all the girls on the playground. I stood there baffled, as the girls swooned and giggled, asking Trevor's ass questions like some kind of surreal ventriloquist act. Ashley was a big fan - "Trevor's talking with his butt again" her friend would run up and inform her, and together they'd scurry away to sit on the dirty gravel and stare into Trevor's crack.
How do you compete with that? How do you even approach it? You might as well ask Dali why he thought clocks should melt. You couldn't. You just couldn't. So the whole year I didn't say a thing. Not a damn thing. Of all the things I look back on I think that's what gets me the most.
I made up for it in dreams, though, the most effective anesthetic for prolonged periods of longing. Texas classrooms are designed for the modern daydreamer - the intense rays of sunlight coming in from the single pane windows, the quiet, cool hum of industrial air conditioners creating a chilly vacuum removed from the summer heat. And the carpet - the grey blue weave was still new when I was there, though by the time I left it was worn to that itchy Brillo pad consistency that's just as hard as the concrete below it. I remember making friendship rings out of the strands when they were still plush enough to pull out individually, and knowing even then that there were parts of that school I'd want to keep with me in one way or another. In those dreaming spaces, those high ceilings and abnormally large chairs, I found no trouble creating a private place in my mind where me and Ashley were not only familiar, but were in love - the deep, actual love that only a third grader can feel. For a while I imagined me and Ashley living in this sort of bizarre white room beneath my driveway. I had it all planned out - there would be a secret elevator, sunken into the pavement, that my parents wouldn't know about. It would raise out of the ground when I approached, lower me down to this sterile-feeling white room with various pieces of white furniture and best of all Ashley. Her brown hair and eyes were the only things that punctuated the serene space that glowed like the inside of a movie-set spacecraft.
I swear to god I'm not a creep. I have no idea from whence this Silence of the Lambs-esque fantasy came, but frankly I refuse to worry myself about it. One of the tenants of childhood is immunity to impure thought, so wherever that thought came from, it was a good place. Plus this is where this dream ended - I truly had no idea what we would do in this place together.
Another dream I had involved guns. The aliens began their descent into the classroom from the roof, the windows darkening and fog billowing down from the fluorescent lights. We had to act fast, for as we all know, aliens wait for no man. Mrs. Hudson goes to the coat closet and retrieves the rifle the school has provided for us in case of situations like this - it weighs a ton and she does not think she will be able to fire it. She scans the classroom for the manliest of the third grade boys to take the mantle of exterminating this otherworldly threat, an action which will consequently save the entire class, including Ashley. Especially Ashley.
Mrs. Hudson initially makes the mistake of handing the rifle to some guy who's name I can't remember, we'll call him Ryan. As he begins to inspect it nervously, I intervene to correct a glaring oversight -
"Ryan," I ask him, "Have you ever even shot a gun?"
"Well," he admits sheepishily, "I've shot a BB gun before . . ."
I shake my head. "That's what I thought." I say, removing the gun from his childish hands.
It's important to note that I had never fired a gun either, not even a BB gun. But this was not seen as a problem. Like a pro I leaned down to one knee, the gun making all sorts of clicking sounds I had heard in movies. Ashley would clasp her hands and look at me hopefully, trustingly - as a ceiling tile descended slowly, revealing a squat, E.T.-like being, backlit dramatically with colored lights.
Here's where things got complicated - see, I actually really liked aliens. As a concept at least. Usually at this point in the fantasy I began to communicate with the alien, reaching a peacful agreement - he was just confused, did not realize he was barging in on a long division lesson. That's just how aliens enter places, its not their fault. I make good friends with the aliens, sometimes even leaving with them. Regardless of the outcome, everyone is impressed and jealous. Especially that dope Ryan. He totally would have shot the poor alien.
The trade off for daydreams has always been time - at the end of third grade I had a headful of fantasies but still was unable to communicate them. If anything the canyon between me and reality had widened, and I thought about Ashley so much that it was now impossible to even see her as a real person. Everything she did was imbued with the drama of yearner's exaggeration, and suddenly the orchestra was playing for her too - as she skipped through a foursquare court, as she opened a carton of milk - I remember feeling just this gush of who knows what as she attempted to pull the little flaps apart without ripping them, the most pensive look on her brow. It was living poetry, it really was.
This daily routine continued. Through summer, to fourth grade. Through fourth grade summer to fifth grade. I've got more stories from these years if you want to hear them sometime, but they really have nothing to do with Ashley, apart from the way every story has something to do with the person you loved at the time.
So let's skip ahead to fifth grade. I'm in Mrs. Guice's class, which is great because she loved Star Wars. Now, waiting three years for a girl is one thing, but being too shy to talk to one deserves neither pity nor praise. Its simply embarrassing. I wish I could take all the sighs I breathed those years and replace them with exclamation points. But then I also wonder if that would have even mattered. Some days I think yes, others I think no.
What happened was, I had a sleepover. One of those great fifth grade sleepovers where you pass out at five in the morning after running shirtless through the neighborhood waving empty mountain dew two liters. If you've never ran shirtless through your neighborhood in the middle of the night I recommend it, its extremely cleansing. But you tend to let things slip in the throes of uninhibited youthful catharsis. Like maybe the fact that you had a crush, or had had crush for a very long time and had never said anything about it.
"Since THIRD GRADE?" Jake wooped. "Oh man. That's too long."
"Are you going to tell her? LET US TELL HER" Robby pleaded, his eyes glowing with anticipation.
"No no no," I insisted, "I can handle it. Don't."
"We're going to tell her." Robby insisted, crawling into his sleeping bag. "Or you need to. Somebody needs to."
As I closed my eyes that night I felt uncomfortable. I had reason to be. Ten year old boys aren't exactly known for keeping their mouths shut, or taking social norms into account before they speak. And sure enough, all through Monday's lunch Robby smiled so wide that secrets were being secreted from the gaps between his big dumb teeth. He wasn't saying anything to the guys that weren't there, he was a pretty decent guy that way. But when I saw him scanning the cafeteria I began to scarf my PB&J, while he in turn began to haul ass through his Lunchables. My mom never let me eat Lunchables.
Still stuffing crackers into his mouth Robby sprinted from the lunch table and myself after him, out the open double doors, down the gravel-dirt path to the playground.
In those days Ashley spent her time on the old wooden playscape, or the swings near by. This day she was swinging softly by herself, like a dove swaying back and forth on a light branch caught in a breeze. The smile, maybe that's what got me the most.
Robby was skidding in the gravel, giggling wildly, B lining towards her. I grabbed him by the shoulder and begged him:
"Please Robby, I don't know what she'll say."
He looked confused, but slightly moved by what was now visible anxiety.
"That's why were asking her, right?"
I sit on the top level of the new metal playscape, by the fire pole. I can see Ashley from there, I can see Robby talking to her. Jake too, why did he go? He didn't need to be a part of this.
Occasionally Ashley looks over and I avert my eyes even though she's a good thirty yards away. What are they talking about for so long? It feels like days before Robby finally gives her a nod and runs back to the spot below where I sat.
"She says she doesn't like you."
Oh god, the pain in this moment -
"She doesn't want to see a movie with you."
It was like being slowly punctured by the fragments of every hope shattering inside you -
"But she will if you pay her."
"Three dollars an hour. Five dollars for a kiss."
I'm going to be honest with you - I really considered this. I checked my velcro Power Rangers wallet, and as usual found absolutely no money, just the backs of some action figure boxes and a cool piece of string I had found on the floor at the grocery store.
"How long is the movie we were gonna to see?" I asked Robby.
Robby just shook his head.
Well I didn't do it. Me and Ashley never spoke again (or ever, I guess). It felt awful and unusual to even think about her now - what was there left to say? Up to this point, I figured I had all probable outcomes figured out. For years I had planned in my mind what I would say in every situation, I was just waiting for the fuse to be lit and I would be ready. Only one factor remained unaccounted for - that Ashley was destined to grow up to become a total bitch. Like I said, the game up to this point is null. That dove on the swing had sharp talons and a beak just waiting to peck holes in boyhood romances. You think I'm just being bitter, but its true. I went to middle school with Ashley too - even worse, my mom got a job in that weird little room off the library with Ashley's mom the following year. Every morning she would drive me and my sister to work with her, where I would catch a bus from the elementary school to the middle school along with Ashley, Ashley's friend, and a couple of our neighbors. We sat together in that room every damn morning for an entire year, not talking, but this time I guess it made more sense. The last memory I have of Ashley is standing behind her outside, waiting for the bus to pick us up. Her friend is standing close to her and whispering, and she just shakes her head and says loudly, "Once a no, always a no."
Damn Ashley. I got the point the first time.
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