Storytime: Frost Valley

Please enjoy this post where I tell you a story about an event from my life. Nothing more, nothing less. Today’s story: Elementary School Field Trip.

Brittney is on her knees, starring at me over the back of the seat on the bus. Next to her Michelle is pretending not to watch me through the space between the seats.

“Niam likes you” Brittney’s hair bobbles slightly as she giggles. I turn the music down on my Walkman, huffing slightly at the disruption.

“Of course he likes me, we’re friends”

But I know exactly what she means. He doesn’t just like me, he like-likes me. That’s the rumor anyway. And rumors in 5th grade are a dime a dozen and also mostly garbage. If every rumor in 5th grade were true, it would make the best untapped soap opera on Earth. It seems absurd to think this rumor is true.

Brittney sits back down and starts to prattle on, telling me about all the hand holding and the kissing that I should be doing with this boy. The tuffs of her black hair poke over the top of the seat, her mouth goes a mile a minute. She keeps trying to talk me into confirming if I like him or not, trying to wring even one drop of gossip out of me while the bus winds its way up through rural roads.

The entire 5th grade, nearly 100 of us, are on a multi day field trip headed to Frost Valley, a nature camp in the Catskill Mountains.

I’m not really interested in boys. Boys are loud and sweaty and stupid. They smell and they don’t care what you think even if you like Power Rangers and pogs, even if you don’t like boy bands and fashion. Boys don’t care about anything but themselves.

“You should tell him you like him”

“Why?”

“Because he likes you”

“Well, then he can tell me he likes me first. I don’t see why I have to do it.”

That’s all love is at 10 years old anyway. Liking someone enough to say it out loud. Bold and unflinching. Easy as it is complicated. Brittney goes on the entire rest of the ride, even after I turn the volume all the way up on my Walkman.

I think that’ll be the end of the conversation since she has her bunk in another cabin but as I’m putting my things in my bunk, Rachel, from Mr. Simon’s class starts talking to me. She also heard that Niam really likes me and wants to know if I like him back.

I don’t even know if she knows who Niam is, I certainly didn’t know her until that day.

The whole first day I’m plagued by boys and girls coming up to me, asking me if I like Niam or if I’m dating Niam. I’ve never been popular and the attention makes me deeply uncomfortable. Niam and I aren’t even in the same group for activities the first day so I don’t have a chance to confront him and put an end to the rumors. At night, in my bunk, I just lay there and stew. I dream about punching Niam in the face for making my trip less enjoyable.

Niam isn’t in my group on the second day either and I breathe a deep sigh of relief when people seem to have short term memories about it and I only hear one or two stray comments all day. We learn about recycling in a circle and barely anyone talk to me. It feels as if maybe the entire affair will blow over as easy as that.

But the third time is a charm and I find myself sitting on the other side of a circle from Niam as a cheerful councilor tells us about the life cycle of forests. Starring at Niam’s dumb face with its rounded edges and its soft brown eyes and the wisps of hair and the crinkle in his nose when he catches me starring at him. And I don’t know if I like him.

Last year a boy named Brad had said he liked me in front of a bunch of classmates. He was shy and sweet about it right until I said I didn’t like him back. And then, he had been loud and brash and stupid. He tortured me in only the way a 10 year old boy can. He pulled my hair. He dumped paint water on me. He pulled my chair out from underneath me. He broke my sculpture in art class. He told the teacher when I lied. Looking at Niam, I want to know at once if that’s what he’ll be like if I don’t like him back. If he’s secretly terrible under all his softness.

I spend the entire morning avoiding him but after lunch we go to a stream as part of our daily activities. We all strip off our shoes and socks, roll up our pant legs and wade into the cool water. The stream is slow and steady and we are supposed to be looking for a certain type of rock – red and smooth. The rocks were used by the Native Americans to mark and paint things. Every else walks back and forth in the stream skimming their hands under the water, picking up rocks to run along their arms, hoping it’ll make red lines on their skin but I simply stand in the middle of the water with my eyes dead focused on Niam who is ram rod straight facing me.

Neither of us blinks.

I feel my face heat up and I nearly dive into the water, shoving both arms far past my elbow and my face inches from the surface trying to pretend nothing is happening. Trying to do the assignment and remind myself that boys are stupid and no one likes me. But it’s too late, he wades through the water, his feet drawing lines and ripples in the current and he stands next to me while he also pretends to dig through the water for magic rocks. He smiles at me with his face turned away. Neither of us find a magic rock.

After the disaster in the stream, dinner is back to being full of rumors.

I saw Niam and XXX kissing! XXX wants to have Niam’s babies! Niam is going to marry XXX!

Niam hasn’t even said one damn word to me so I angrily eat my dinner and refuse to talk anyone. I console myself that I’ll probably be in another state and another school next year and I won’t have to think about any of these people teasing me. I won’t have to think about my feelings. I won’t have to worry that Niam is a boy who will torment me when he sees me in the halls or the lunchroom or the playground past this June. And June isn’t all that far away anyway.

After dinner we’re treated to a hay ride. I jump in the first cart, eager to get away from my problems and my friends from class sit next to me right away, but the last person in our cart is Niam. Everyone giggles and once the cart starts moving they shuffle around in the back until Niam is seated next to me and then they move away from us, giving us space to talk semi-privately.

“No” I whisper harshly at him.

“No? But I didn’t say anything” he looks at me with his hands open and his head cocked to the side.

“Fine. Say it.” I feel like I’m daring him to confess his darkest secrets to me.

“I got you this,” he pulls something from his backpack and presses it into my hands, “it doesn’t mean anything unless you like me but if you don’t, you can think of it as an apology for other people being dumb.”

It’s a stuffed animal. In the low light and with the wagon bouncing around it takes a second to see that it’s a stuffed tiger wearing a green shirt with the words “Frost Valley” on it.

It’s fur is soft under my hands.

“I really like you” he stares off the side of the wagon like he hasn’t uttered the words. I let it hang so long I can almost taste his anxiety. “And….I just wanted to ask you to the dance next week.”

I stare at the tiger and then back at the boy who is so terrified of me and yet, so clearly enamored with me. “I don’t know if I like-like you but I’d like to go to the dance with you.” He smiles brightly like I granted him a wish, “Thanks for asking me finally.” Like he granted me a wish in return.

He nervously turns away from me again, but this time he also lays his hand down next to mine. And when I put my hand over his, no one says anything because they can’t see it in the dark.

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