Tumbleweeds

If only my mother had got me what I’d asked for for Christmas, what happened would never have happened. At least, it probably wouldn’t have. And maybe things with Mary Jo and me would have gone differently. Could have gone well. It wasn’t that my parents couldn’t afford it. It was just that my mother didn’t want me having one. Instead, I got a Playstation. I found it under the tree and unwrapped it. Why had she got me this? This useless console? This wasn’t what I’d asked for. I left the sitting room and went to her bedroom. She was already up, drying her hair by the dresser.

“MAM!” I call loudly. “MAM!”
She turns around and sees me at the door.
“¿Que es?” she asks, switching off the hairdryer. The sound drowning away.
“What’s this?” I ask dejectedly.
“Is what you asked for,” she says.
“It’s what I asked for two years ago!”
“Well, now you has one.”
“But, nobody uses these anymore, Mam.”
“Did you or did you not ask a Playstation from us?”
“I did, yeah. Two years ago. But I don’t want one now.”
“Now that you has one?”
“Yeah!”
“See,” she adds philosophically. “We always want what we can’t have.” As though this has somehow resolved the issue, absolving herself of any responsibility for my disappointment. She turns back around to the mirror, flicks the hairdryer back on, and returns to combing her hair. The noise fills the room. I stand in the doorway, and stare at her incredulously.

*    *    *

Mary Jo Sullivan is a girl in my class. In our home-room, she sits in the row to the left of mine, one seat back. My desk is right in the middle of the class. She has a big ball of fuzzy hair on her head. Like a tumbleweed.  Kind of greyish in colour. Tiny, dusty curls. Her desk is always cluttered with little balls of crumpled paper. They litter the ground around her feet too. A bit like tumbleweed as well. Blowing past. These little balls of scrap paper. They seem to be drawn towards her.

I’m a bit drawn to her too. I don’t know why, but I am. I like her. I think I do anyway. I mean, like, I like her. But I’m not sure if I like, like like her.  I just think she’s funny. She doesn’t even know she is, but she is.

Mary Jo is a scatterbrain, always wandering cluelessly around the corridors between classes looking for the right room. I suspect she may be incapable of reading a timetable, so often does she wander into the wrong class. She’s never on the right page. Literally and metaphorically. Sometimes she’s not even on the right book. Whenever a teacher asks her to read and she hasn’t a clue where we’re supposed to be, she goes bright red and giggles nervously. And even when everybody starts to laugh at her, she doesn’t seem to mind. Instead of being humiliated, like I know I would be, she seems to find it just as silly as everyone else does. ‘Mary, Mary, away with the fairies.’ Girls in school are always saying that to her. Though she never seems to mind this either. This big bright smile forms on her face when they say it. As though it amuses her too.

I like the way she looks.  Kind of all over the place. Her mismatched clothes. Her constantly undone shoelaces and uncontrollable hair.  She always looks like she’s just come off a rollercoaster. But still she’s pretty. She’s doesn’t have the shiny hairdos other girls do. Or the long painted nails. Or the eyeshadow or the earrings, or any of that stuff.  But she has these big wide eyes that make her seem in a constant state of surprise. Her skin is light with barely a freckle. And there are dimples in her cheeks even when she’s not smiling, though she usually is. These things; girls can’t buy.

*    *    *

“Ask her for her number.”
“How!?” I ask.
“Just go up and start a conversation, and then ask her.”
“I can’t do that!”
“Course you can. Just go up to her between classes and say hi.”

It seemed so easy the way Twenty Percent says it. It seemed the simplest thing in the world to him.  He means it too. I’ve seen him do it loads of times: just walk up to a girl and start chatting to her and then ask for her number. Not that he ever got a number from them, but that never seemed to put him off.  Twenty Percent’s 0% success rate with girls never discourages him or makes him re-think or question his approach. Luckily, this hasn’t become common knowledge, or he could end up with an even worse nickname than the one he already has. I’d say if he became known as Zero Percent, he’d start to miss what he is being called at the moment. He’d start missing the twenty percent he used to have.

“But I dunno what to say to her. How do I start a conversation?”
“Talk about her sketches or something like that.”
“But I don’t know anything about drawing.”
“So! Who does? Just pretend you do. ”

She’s always drawing.  That’s where all the scraps of paper come from. She crumples them up if she makes even a small mistake. She draws these odd pictures on her bag, and on her pencil case. She draws on all her books and copies.  She puts little characters in the corners of every page, so that when you flick the corners you can see little cartoons. Even in Art class, she can’t hold back from putting her little characters clambering all over her still lifes. No matter what Miss Simmons asks us to do, Mary Jo always goes and does something a bit different. Miss Simmons never gives out to her though. I think she encourages it. She says art is all about ‘expressing yourself’. But I don’t have anything to express.

“So, I just pretend I’m into drawing?”
“Yeah.”
“And then, what do I do?”
“Say you’ve something funny to text her, and ask for her number.”
“But I don’t.”
“It doesn’t matter. Just say you do.”

Mary Jo’s grades and mine are like the reverse of each other. Art is the one subject I do badly in, and the only one in which she does well. I suck at art. I’m easily the worst in class. I can’t even stay inside the lines in a colouring book.  I get A’s in all my other subjects though. Not because I’m smart. I’m not. I just have a really good memory. If I hear or read something once, I can remember it without any effort. But art isn’t about remembering things. It’s about something else. Something Mary Jo has: talent. If you were to judge us by our grades, you would think that I am the gifted student, and Mary Jo is the dunce, but I think the opposite is true. She is the one to watch. She is the one with the gift.

*    *    *

The next day during the eleven o’clock break I saw her in the yard. In her mismatched clothes. With a new purple denim cap on her head. Though it wasn’t really on her head. More like it was on her hair. Just balancing there on top of her curls. She was on her own, leaning against the wall outside the first year building, playing her Nintendo DS.  She was engrossed in her game; with that childish smile on her face.  I watched her from outside the canteen, trying to pluck up the courage to go and speak to her. I could see her nibbling on her lower lip with her upper teeth. I look at my watch. 11:15 it reads. Five minutes to next class. ‘It’s now or never’ I say to myself. I take a deep breath, and begin to walk across the yard. She gets closer and closer. I haven’t even thought about what I’ll say to her. I hope something comes to me when I get there. I really do. But, quicker than I’d imagined, there I am. Standing beside her.

“Hi,” I venture.
“Hey,” she says, without looking up.
“I like your cap”
“Thanks,” she says.

There’s a short silence, but she doesn’t seem to notice. She is too wrapped up in her DS. This eases my nerves somehow.

“What are you playing?” I ask.
“Picross 3D.”
“What’s your score?”
“There’s no score in Picross,” she replies matter-of-fact-ly.
“No?”
“No.” She still hasn’t even looked at me.
“So, like, how do you play then?” I wonder if she even knows it’s me she’s talking to.
“You kind of make pictures out of blocks and stuff,” she explains.
“Oh, ok.”

Silence.

“So, you like drawing then?”
“Yep.”

More silence.

“I’ve seen your cartoons in your copybooks. They’re pretty good.”
“Thanks.” She just continues poking the screen with her DS pen. She seems happily disinterested. I look at my watch. 11:18. Two minutes till class.

“I’d like to see some more of your stuff some time.”

Again: silence. I wait for the tumbleweed to blow past.

I stand there awkwardly trying to think of how to subtly ask for her number, and can’t come up with either a plausible reason or the courage to ask her with.  But just as I’m about to give up, say bye, and walk off; the unexpected magically happens. She taps one last time on the screen, closes her DS, slips the stylus into its back, and says, “Sure.”  Then reaching into her bag, pulls out her phone, and asks, “What’s your number?”
“What!” I say, unable to believe what she’s asked.
“What’s your number? I have a few animations I’ve made saved onto my phone. I’ll send you some of them.”

She’s asking for my number! This; I had definitely not expected. I’m completely taken aback, and am so elated that for the briefest of moments I manage to forget what my mam didn’t buy me for Christmas. I forget that I don’t have a mobile phone. I don’t have a number to give her. Why wouldn’t my mother buy one for me? It’s the only thing I asked for. I must be the only kid in school who doesn’t have one. My folks have no clue how embarrassing this is.

“Eh, I don’t have my phone with me,” I say. “My mam won’t let me take it to school.”
“Right,” she says, unfazed. “So, what’s your number anyway?”

Should I tell her the truth or not? I probably should. She probably won’t care. Maybe I’ll just tell her that I don’t have one. Or will she think that my family is really poor? If I don’t have a phone? And I suppose, I’ve already told her one lie, so… No, I’ll just tell her the truth. It’s easier if I tell her the truth.

“I forget it,” I lie.
“You forget your own telephone number!?” That big bright smile breaking across her face.
“I know,” I say.” I’m an idiot.” And I begin to laugh too. “It’s a new phone,” I add. “I just got it. Still can’t remember the number.”
“And I thought you remembered everything,” she says teasingly.
I am stunned that she knows this about me. I am stunned that she knows anything about me. But I am still stuck in this sticky situation. Small lies begetting bigger lies.

“I don’t ring myself a lot.” I try to joke.
And even more unbelievably, she finds this funny. She starts to laugh that cute, nasal chuckle of hers.
“Nor do I,” she chips in, which tickles us both. And here we are, standing here talking, and laughing, and looking straight at each other, and I can’t believe how easy it all is. This is great. I realise I do like her. I like, like like her. Like, I like her a lot.

“How about you give me your number?” I say. “Then, I’ll text you after school.” She says ok and pulls out a pen and writes her number on my hand. She’s actually touching my hand! Holding it! She glances up at me with those huge eyes of hers as she does so. Her dimples deepen as she smiles; whether at me or to herself I do not know. She finishes and puts the pen back inside her bag. I look at the number on my hand, and instantly memorize it. We share a look, and just then the bell goes.

“What have you got now?” I ask.
“Spanish,” she says. “You?”
“French.”
“Right. See you later,” she chirps as she turns to go. “Text me.”
“I will.” I say.

‘If I can think of a way,’ I say to myself. I remain there for a moment longer, watching her. Away she goes, meandering towards her next lesson. Gentle and carefree.  She is so lovely. And for the first time I realise how much she may mean to me. I stay there, where I am, my heart and eyes following her as she goes. Heading off towards her class; in what I’m pretty sure is the wrong direction.

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4 Responses to “Tumbleweeds”

  1. Jennifer McGrath Says:

    Really like this one. Made me smile.

  2. padraigoconnor Says:

    Hey Colm, love this story. I´m recommending it for a Reader´s Choice award. You nominate one of your own posts and recommend another blogger´s. Helps to get more readers if you get the award. Other bloggers vote for their favourites. Thought you might be interested. Here´s the link: http://readerschoiceblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/12/do-you-want-to-showcase-your-blog-and-your-best-work-to-a-bigger-audience-well-read-this/

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