Before I Fall
“All right, everyone,” he’s saying as people shuffle and scrape into their desks, giggling and ruffling their bouquets. “I know it’s Cupid Day and love is in the air, but guess what? So are derivatives.”
A couple of people groan. Kent bangs in the door, almost late, his bag flapping open and papers literally scattering behind him, like he’s Hansel or Gretel and he has to make sure someone can follow his trail of half-completed sketches and notes to math class. His black-and-white checkered sneakers peek out under his oversized khakis.
“Sorry,” he mutters breathlessly to Mr. Daimler. “Emergency at the Tribulation. Printer problems. Malignant paper tumor in tray two. Had to operate immediately or risk losing it.” As soon as he makes it halfway up the aisle to his seat, his math textbook—which was riding higher and higher on a wave of crumpled paper inside his open bag—pops out and slams to the floor, and everybody laughs. I feel a surge of irritation. Why is he always such a mess? How hard is it to zip up a bag?
He catches me looking at him, and I guess he mistakes my facial expression for concern, because he grins at me and mouths, Walking disaster. As though he’s proud of it.
I turn my attention back to Mr. Daimler. He’s standing at the front of the room with his arms crossed, his expression fake-serious. That’s another thing I like about him: he’s never really mad.
“Glad the printer pulled through,” he says, raising his eyebrows. His sleeves are rolled up and his arms are tan. Or maybe that’s just the color of his skin: like burnt honey. “As I was saying, I know there’s a lot of excitement on Cupid Day, but that doesn’t mean we can just ignore the regular—”
“Cupids!” someone squeals, and the class dissolves into giggles. Sure enough, there they are: the devil, the cat, and the pale white angel with her big eyes.
Mr. Daimler throws up his hands and leans against his desk. “I give up,” he says. Then he turns his smile to me for just a second—just a second, but long enough for my whole body to light up like a Christmas display.
The angel delivers three of my roses—the ones from Rob, Tara Flute, and Elody—and then keeps sorting methodically through her bouquet, flipping each card over and checking for my name. There’s something careful and sincere about her movements, like she’s super focused on doing everything correctly. As she reads off the addressee she mouths the name quietly to herself, wonderingly, as though she can’t believe there are so many people in the school, so many roses to deliver, so many friends. It’s painful to watch and I stand up abruptly, grabbing the cream-and-pink rose from her hands. She jumps back, startled.
“It’s mine,” I say. “I recognize it.”
She nods at me, wide-eyed. I doubt a senior has ever spoken to her in her life. She begins to open her mouth.
I lean in so that no one else can hear me. “Don’t say it,” I say, and her eyes go even wider. I can’t stand to hear her say it’s beautiful. I can’t stand it when the rose—and everything else—is all garbage now, meaningless. “It’s just going in the trash.”
I mean it too. As soon as Mr. Daimler ushers the Cupids out the door—everyone in class still giggling and showing off the notes their friends have written them and trying to predict how many roses they can expect by the end of the day—I scoop up my roses and sail to the front of the classroom, dumping them in the big trash can right next to Mr. Daimler’s desk.
Instantly, the giggling stops. Two people gasp and Chrissy Walker actually makes the sign of the cross, like I’ve just crapped on a Bible or something. That’s how big of a deal the roses are. Becca Roth half rises from her seat, like she wants to dive in after the roses and rescue them from the fate of being crushed under paper and pencil shavings, failed quizzes, and empty soda cans. I don’t even look in Kent’s direction. I don’t want to see his face.
Becca blurts, “You can’t just throw out your roses, Sam. Someone sent those to you.”
“Yeah,” Chrissy pipes up. “It’s so not done.”
I shrug. “You can have them if you want.” I gesture to the trash can, and Becca casts a wistful look in that direction. She’s probably trying to decide whether the social boost she would get from having four extra roses is worth the ego hit she would take for Dumpster-diving to get them.
Mr. Daimler smiles, winks at me. “You sure you want to do that, Sam?” He raises upturned hands. “You’re breaking people’s hearts right and left.”
“Oh, yeah?” All of this will be gone, vanished, erased tomorrow, and tomorrow will be erased the next day, and the next day will be erased after that, all of it wiped clean and spotless. “What about yours?”
It goes dead silent in the room; somebody coughs. I can tell Mr. Daimler doesn’t know whether I’m deliberately baiting him or not.
He licks his lips nervously and runs a hand through his hair. “What?”
“Your heart.” I pull myself up so I’m sitting on the corner of his desk, my skirt riding up almost to my underwear. My heart is beating so fast it’s a hum. I feel like I’m skimming above the air. “Am I breaking it?”
“Okay.” He looks down, fiddles with one of his sleeves. “Take a seat, Sam. It’s time to get started.”
“I thought you were enjoying the view.” I lean back a little and stretch my arms above my head. There’s a kind of electricity in the air, a zipping, singing tension running in all directions; it feels like the moment right before a thunderstorm, like every particle of air is extracharged and vibrating. A student in the back of the class laughs and another one mutters, “Jesus.” Maybe it’s my imagination, but I think I recognize Kent’s voice.
Mr. Daimler looks at me, his face dark. “Sit.”
“If you insist.” I swivel off the edge of the desk and move around to his chair, then sit down and cross my legs slowly, folding my hands in my lap. Little giggles and gasps erupt around the classroom, bursts of sound. I don’t know where this is coming from, this feeling of complete and total control. Up until a few months ago, I still turned to Jell-O whenever a guy talked to me, including Rob. But this feels easy, natural, like I’ve slipped into the skin that belongs to me for the first time in my life.
“In your own chair.” Mr. Daimler’s practically growling and his face is dark red, almost purple. I’ve made him lose it—probably a first in Thomas Jefferson history. I know that in whatever game we’re playing I’ve just won a point. The idea makes my stomach drop a little—not in a bad way, more like at the moment right before you reach the highest part of the roller coaster, when you know that at any second you’ll be at the very top of the park, looking down over everything, pausing there for a fraction of a second, about to have the ride of your life. It’s the dip in your stomach right before everything goes flying apart in a blast of wind, and screaming, right before you let go completely. The laughter in the room grows to a roar. If you were standing outside, you might mistake it for applause.
For the rest of the class I keep quiet, even though people keep whispering and breaking out into giggles, and I get three notes sent my way. One of them is from Becca and says, You are awesome; one of them is from Hanna Gordon and says, He’s soooo hot. Another one lands in my lap, all balled up like trash, before I can see who threw it in my direction. It says, Whore. For a moment I feel a hot flush of embarrassment, like nausea or vertigo. But it passes quickly. None of this is real anymore. I’m not even real anymore.
A fourth note arrives just before class ends. It’s in the form of a miniature airplane, and it literally sails to me, landing with a whisper on my desk just as Mr. Daimler turns back from writing an equation on the board. It’s so perfect I hate to touch it, but I unfold its wings, and there’s a message written in neat block letters.
You are too good for that.
Even though there’s no signature, I know it’s from Kent, and for a second something sharp and deep goes through me, something I can’t understand or describe, a blade running up under my ribs and making me almost gasp for breath. I shouldn’t be dead. It shouldn’t be me.
I take the note very carefully and tear it in half, then I tear it in half again.
We’ve been restless all class and Mr. Daimler gives up two minutes before the bell rings.
“Don’t forget: test on Monday. Limits and asymptotes.” He goes to his desk and leans on it, looking tired. There’s a mass exhalation, a collective sigh of coats rustling and chairs scraping against the linoleum. “Samantha Kingston, please see me after class.”
He’s not even looking at me, but the tone of his voice makes me nervous. For the first time it occurs to me that I could really be in trouble. Not that it matters, but if Mr. Daimler makes me sit through a lecture about responsibility I’ll die of embarrassment. I’ll die again.
Good luck, Becca mouths to me on her way out. We’re not even friends—Lindsay calls her the TurkeyJerk, because she eats turkey sandwiches every single day—but the fact that she says it makes the knot ease up in my stomach.
Mr. Daimler waits until the last student files out of the classroom—I see Kent hovering at the doorway out of the corner of my eye—and then walks slowly to the door and closes it. Something about the way the door clicks—so final, so quick—makes my heart skip a beat. I close my eyes for a second, feeling like I’m back in the car with Lindsay on Fallow Ridge Road with the misty headlights of a second car bearing down on us in the darkness, an accusation. They always swerve first, she’d said, but at that second I understand with total and perfect clarity that that’s not why she did it—why she does it. She does it for that one thrilling moment when you don’t know, when you come up against someone who doesn’t swerve and instead find yourself plummeting off the road into the darkness.
When I open my eyes Mr. Daimler has his hands on his hips. He’s staring at me.
“What the hell were you thinking?”
The harshness in his voice startles me. I’ve never been cursed at by a teacher.
“I…I don’t know what you’re talking about.” My voice comes out sounding thinner, younger, than I wanted it to.
“The shit back there—right there, in front of everybody. What were you thinking?”
I stand up so I’m not just sitting there looking up at him like a little kid. My legs are wobbly, and I have to steady myself with one hand against the desk. I take a deep breath, trying to pull it together. It doesn’t matter: all of it will be erased, cleaned away.
“I’m sorry,” I say, feeling a little bit stronger. “I really don’t know what you’re talking about. Did I do something wrong?”
He looks toward the door and a muscle twitches in his jaw. Just that, that little twitch, returns all my confidence. I want to reach out and touch him, put my fingers in his hair.
“You could get in a lot of trouble, you know,” he says, not looking at me. “You could get me in a lot of trouble.”