The Moment I Know It’s Over
I know it’s over when Liam Branson’s black Accord pulls in front of Tabby’s house before school.
I’m shooting free throws in my driveway, like I do every morning, waiting for the bus to deliver me to another memorable day as a freshman at Franklin High. It’s late October, which means the weather is perfect for my before-school shoot-around ritual. Warm enough that I don’t have to shove my fingers into my armpits, panini-style, after every few shots to prevent frostbite, and cold enough that I’m not a sweaty mess when the bus pulls up.
I’m about fifty free throws in when Branson’s car rolls into our circle, going around and stopping in front of Tabby’s house, straight across from mine. I try not to stare too much between shots. But what is a senior guy—one of the senior guys, varsity starter on our Black Bears football and basketball teams—doing picking up a freshman girl before school?
He beeps his horn, and an instant later Tabby’s front door flies open. Tabby throws her book bag over her shoulder and jogs across her front lawn, beaming, looking amazing in that not-even-trying way that Tabby has—worn jeans and a T-shirt, her red hair pulled back into a sloppy bun. It’s perfect.
When Tabby reaches the car, she opens the back door—I hadn’t noticed Liam’s sister sitting in the front seat—and throws her bag inside. She looks at me over the top of Branson’s car and waves.
“Hi, Matty! See you at school!”
I give a weak smile and wave back as she hops into the car. Naturally, I brick my next shot off the side of the rim and have to chase it to the end of my driveway. I grab it just before it bounces into the circle as Liam Branson pulls away, giving me a lame peace sign with the hand resting on top of his steering wheel.
What’s my move here? Mirror back his peace sign? Smile and wave like a little kid? Stare him down so he loses focus and crashes into a mailbox? In my head, I give him a little nod as I turn and trot in for a casual power dunk, everyone in that car knowing who the man is.
Of course, I manage none of these. I stand there, holding my ball, staring like an idiot as Branson—and Tabby—pull away.
When Branson’s car is out of sight, I dribble back and sink my next ten in a row before I hear my bus pulling up at the end of the street.
A Short History of the Girl Next Door
Okay, so technically she lives across the street, but whatever. And really, since we live on a cul-de-sac, it’s kind of across the street and next door. See how that works?
“No Tabby today?” Miss Edna asks as I climb the steps to board the bus.
“I guess not,” I say with a fake smile, heading down the aisle to my seat. Let her think that Tabby’s just absent.
Out of habit, I slide in against the window of seat eighteen and prop my knees up on the seat back in front of me. Then, feeling stupid, set my book bag on the empty space next to me.
It’s not that I have anything against riding the bus. I really don’t, other than that, at my height, I don’t really fit into the seats anymore. I can’t drive yet, and I don’t see how I improve my image in high school by having my mom drop me off.
Honestly, I’ve always kind of loved riding the bus. There are no delinquent assholes on my route, so it’s usually pretty peaceful, especially in the mornings. Plus, we’ve had the same bus driver, Miss Edna, from the time my mom helped me climb the steps on my first day of kindergarten. Miss Edna’s gotten drinks and snacks for us every Friday since then—even the high schoolers, who should otherwise be too cool for Goldfish and Little Hugs—and she always has the radio tuned to her classic-hits station. When I get my license next year, I think I’m actually going to miss it.
And the best part, up until today at least, is Tabby.
The school bus has always meant twenty minutes, before and after school, of uninterrupted Tabby time. Time that, until today, I’ve always taken for granted.
When my mom helped me climb those steps on my first day of school over nine years ago, Tabby was right there next to me, her Hello Kitty backpack nearly as big as her entire body. She flopped down beside me in the first seat behind Miss Edna, chattering away about what our teacher would be like, and what kind of toys would be in the classroom, and what the snack might be, and what the other kids would be like.
And that’s how it’s always been.
With Tabby’s mom already gone, my mom started babysitting Tabby when she was just a few months old. And since my mom stayed home with me until I started school, Tabby was at our house nearly every day. She’s part of our family. Hell, she was at the hospital when Murray was born four years ago, crying right along with my dad when they let us in the delivery room to see Murray for the first time. Tabby and I were both only-children up until that point, and it was like we both got a new little brother with Murray.
When we were younger, my parents used to laugh at how I would just follow Tabby around, trailing after her like a giant puppy. Little Tabby would decide what we were going to play—her squeaky, high-pitched chef’s voice shouting out orders for our fancy restaurant, or the doctor instructing me how to take care of the stuffed-animal patients in our doctor’s office—and I’d follow right along, happily doing my best to please her, weaving in my own ideas as we went.
Following her lead.
In fact, it was Tabby who got me my first “girlfriend” in fifth grade. She’d decided one day after school that November that it was time for me to have a girlfriend, to which I thought, Okay. Cool.
“What do you think of Rebecca Gaskins?” she asked while we fixed a snack in my kitchen.
“Who’s Rebecca Gaskins?” I asked, a knot already forming in my stomach.
“She’s the tall girl with curly brown hair in my homeroom. She’s nice. She sits at my table at lunch.”
“Wait, did she say she likes me or something?” I was confused, starting to panic. I was only vaguely aware of who this girl was, and part of me could tell where this was going. Tabby’s plan was already in place, and, as usual, I was going to follow along, provided I didn’t wet my pants or pass out. And even then, really . . .
“Of course she did, Matt. So do you like her?” Tabby grinned, leaning across the bar in our kitchen while I pulled the bag of popcorn from the microwave.
“I . . . I mean, I guess.” My heart was beating faster now.
“Would you want to go out with her?” Tabby’s grin widened, like the hungry cat grins at the mouse in cartoons. What the hell was I dealing with here?
“Hold on, did she ask you to ask me out for her?”
“Don’t worry about that yet, Matt,” she said, brushing off my concern. “Would you want to go out with her?”
The simple answer was Yes, absolutely. Even though I had never talked to Rebecca Gaskins before, and the thought of talking to her now was nearly causing me to go into cardiac arrest, I did like the idea of having a girlfriend. I really had no idea what that even meant, other than that I would get to tell people that, yes, I did in fact have a girlfriend.
“Hey, Matt, you got a girlfriend?”
“Yeah, man, of course I have a girlfriend.”
“Awesome. Which one is she?”
“I’m not totally sure.”
“Awesome. Play on, playa.”
It would be like my membership card into this new grown-up world of awesome.
“Sure . . . I guess so,” I replied. “So did she ask you to ask me?” I tried again.
“Yes! Perfect!” Tabby said, not really in response to my question. She hopped off her stool and pulled out her phone. She started dialing as she walked into the living room without me.
“Wait! Tabby, what are you doing?” I asked, following behind her.
“Hi, Rebecca?” she said into her phone, waving me off. “It’s Tabby. You know my friend Matt? Matt Wainwright? He rides my bus.” She paused, waiting. Then she laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s him.” (What the hell did that mean?) “So yeah, Matt’s my neighbor, and he wanted me to ask if you’d go out with him.”
My whole body went rigid.
“So, is that a yes?” Tabby continued, now looking at me and smiling, one finger in the air, as though I were about to interrupt her.
And then her final act of sadism.
“Oh, Rebecca, that’s great! Hold on, your boyfriend is right here. He wants to talk to you.”
My memory gets a little fuzzy at this point, as my brain and the rest of my central nervous system had completely shut down. I may or may not have shit my pants. It’s hard to say.
What I do remember is Tabby, bouncing back and forth on the balls of her feet, a look of twisted glee on her face, forcing her phone into my petrified hand. She lifted my hand up to my ear, like I was some life-size Ken doll, did some weird little dance, and disappeared briefly into the kitchen.
When my body forced me to start breathing again, the air escaping my lungs must have vaguely resembled Hi, Rebecca, because somewhere in the distance I heard her say, “Hi, Matt,” then giggle nervously.
Much silence ensued.
Tabby returned, popcorn bag in hand.
I think the most my brain could muster over the course of what had to have been twenty minutes was, “Uhh . . . So . . . do you . . . have any homework tonight?”
Tabby did this to me at least four more times that year, me following blindly each time.
Even through the last couple of years of middle school, when we started getting involved in our own separate activities and hanging out more with our own groups of friends, we had that time on the bus each day, time when Tabby could rant about her day or whatever was going on with her life, and I could just listen and make lame jokes to get her to laugh. Time where we could still just be buddies.
At some point, though, Tabby became more than my buddy. At least to me. I mean, she’s still my buddy, but every day it feels like more and more of a sham. Because while Tabby’s still happy to sit down next to me—where my book bag now sits—and give me daily updates on her new life in high school, I sit here each day, silently hoping for more. I’ll watch her lips while she talks, and my brain kicks into romantic-movie mode. She bumps into me, or puts her hand on my arm during one of her stories, and my whole body tingles. Then I overanalyze every little thing she’s saying, searching for any hint that she could be harboring similar feelings for me.
But as insane as I feel every day, our time on the bus together has become even more important to me. Now we’re in high school, and apparently older guys are taking notice.
Pulling up to the curb in front of Franklin, seeing Branson’s car already parked in the senior lot, I imagine the three of them walking in together, laughing, and I feel desperate, out of control.
I am completely in love with my best friend from childhood, she has absolutely no idea, and now she’s interested in older, more popular guys.
This sounds like a bad movie already.
This Movie Sucks
So why not just tell Tabby?
Why not just follow the script, and in some heart-wrenching scene—preferably under a streetlamp in the rain, where tears and raindrops stream down our faces as one—say something like, “Tabby . . . it’s you. It’s always been you,” and watch as my words take purchase in her consciousness, replaying all the moments I was there for her in her mind before she closes both the literal and the figurative gap between us with a kiss so full of longing and passion the camera has to turn away? Story over, right?
Well, it’s complicated. Which is why I’ve organized my rebuttal into three parts:
“Hey, remember how we used to spend hours playing together in your sandbox? Wasn’t that so great? Well, now I really wanna go make out in your sandbox.”
“Wait, where are you going?”
“It doesn’t have to be in your sandbox!”
Let me attempt to illustrate:
When we were in fifth grade, Mr. Holowitz had this handmade, laminated sign hanging next to his whiteboard. All it had was “OTM ≠ OTM.” He waited for a kid to ask about it before he explained—that kid was Tabby.
“On the mind does not equal out the mouth.”
After smiling at our blank expressions for a moment, he then explained to us how fifth graders—as we started to mature and learn things that younger students could not—sometimes suffered from what’s called diarrhea of the mouth.
“As you get older, you learn that not every little thing that flits through your brain throughout the day needs to be shared with the rest of us.”
It was kind of just an advanced way of saying to shut your mouth during class, but I liked it.
And whenever he caught Tabby whispering to me during class—which was usually at least twice a day—he’d tap his pointer on the sign and raise his eyebrows at her. Tabby would smile, and Mr. Holowitz would smile, not insincerely, back.
Mr. Holowitz never once pointed to the sign while looking at me.
For Tabby, OTM ≠ OTM was a gentle reminder—a swig of Pepto to quell her constant diarrhea of the mouth.
For me, OTM ≠ OTM was my default setting: nothing in my brain ever came out—and if it did, it was never how it sounded when it was floating through my head.
If Tabby had diarrhea of the mouth, then I suffered from verbal constipation.
Perfectly clear now, right?
I’m an idiot.