The Human Sized Box
As it turns out, Ryan is very good at chess. In the sixth grade there was a chess tournament. Everyone who knew how to play entered. Ryan beat everyone in his class, and was set against the winners from the other classes. It came down to Ryan and K, squaring off face to face at a table in the gym. At the beginning of the match, in true sixth grade fashion, K secretly offered Ryan a five dollar bill if he would throw the game and take a fall. Ryan said “No way.” Then he beat the pants off of K and was named the chess champion of our elementary school.
“There now Ryan, it’s your turn again, and the queen is vulnerable. What’s your next move?”
They say chess requires patience. Well, weeks have passed since Valentine’s Day and this queen has been lulled from vulnerability to complacency as Ryan and I have simply proceeded as ever. Our continued laughing, teasing, hanging out in our group of friends has continued in such a comfortable way that I’m not even careful as we sit next to each other on the bus ride to and from an away basketball game.
Oh what a place the seat of a school bus can transform into when the sun goes down! Oh what can take place in that little box! More mysterious and innumerable than the contents of a box wrapped and given, are the possibilities of a human sized box with two people inside it.
At my back is a cheap vinyl wall, resembling leather. In front of me, at the knees is another. To my right, there is the cold glass that looks out on a starry sky and to my left, the warm body of the person sharing my box.
In the daylight, Ryan had faced out toward the isle, playing poker with the guys in the surrounding seats… and winning their money. He made me feel important by asking me for advice I have no business giving when it comes to card games. I had been the good luck charm, and he’d been the charmer.
But dark fell like a blanket, stifling the exorbitant energy of the bus’s inhabitants, muffling our voices and nestling us into our boxes for whispered conversations and whatever else develops.
“You make me wish I could read minds,” Ryan says, angling his knees my way, “I’m always wondering what you’re thinking.”
“If I could make sense of any of it, I would probably tell you,” I say, going cross-eyed and hanging my tongue out the side of my mouth.
“Well, if you can’t figure out your own mind, I guess I’m going to have to interpret. Now shhhh… stay very still.”
He places a forefinger on his temple and stares at me with intensity. “Don’t make any sudden movements or do anything startling because I have a feeling it’s scary in there.”
I laugh. “Are you afraid of what I really think of you?”
He shushes me again, not pandering to my teasing.
“I’m getting something! Your mind is speaking to me.” He makes a dramatic play of receiving my thoughts. “Mmmm hmmm. Uhhhh huh. According to your mind, certain boys don’t qualify as boyfriend material because… well, they’re the kind you’re saving for marriage, so you spend your time with guys that aren’t worthy of marrying you. Okay. That makes sense. Wait a minute. No it doesn’t.”
I smack him playfully on the upper arm. “Stop it.”
“I’m good right? Now let me see… what else?” He closes his eyes and pretends to concentrate harder. “You get your heart broken, by these guys that aren’t worthy of marrying, only of holding hands and kissing… so you decide you’ll build a wall around your heart and at the wise old age of fifteen, you’ll declare yourself forever single and make plans to be the crazy cat lady.”
I jut my lower lip out indignantly as he pops open one of his, mind-reading, eyes to gage my reaction. I fold my arms and slump down in my seat. “Plans aren’t definite yet. It’s between crazy cat lady and the nunnery. Anyway, it’s hard for you average people to understand the inner workings of a genius like me. You’re not much of a mind reader, you know. You didn’t deduce anything I hadn’t already told you.”
“How about the information that you like me?” he asks.
“Do me a big favor,” he says, “Just for tonight, whatever you do, don’t say the word ‘friend’.”
I turn toward him, poised to defend the word and everything it stands for. “But we are the best of-“
“Don’t!” He holds up a stiff hand, halting my sentence. “If you say it tonight, I swear I might have to believe that’s all this will ever be.”
His eyes are begging me not to say it. My mind, the subject of all of this conjecture, empties completely; it forgets all of the words.
I’m a girl who makes boys wait. I’m a girl who never makes the first move. Never calls. I’m a girl who surprises boys with the quickly turned cheek, when the target was the lips.
I’m a girl who finds herself tongue tied. A girl who’s watching her own hand reach across the inches in that little space carved out in a school bus just for us. A girl who’s watching her own palm land on the palm of a boy. A girl who’s watching her own fingers wrap around his. A girl who isn’t saying “friend”.
As it turns out, Ryan is very good at chess.
We hold hands for the rest of the bus ride. The action answers some questions, but asks many more. The bus drops us off at the corner of our street. We free our hands up to gather our things. We are the only two that get off at the stop. We’re quiet as we start the walk, side by side, the half block to my house. The stars light our way, as they so often have.
“It’s rare for you to be so quiet,” I say, my legs shaky beneath me.
“I’m concentrating,” he says. “Trying to read your mind again.”
“Oh no. What now?” I ask. I feel as though there are strings attached to my arms. I’m a marionette waiting for Ryan’s words to move me. We stop in front of my house. His house is another thirty steps down the road.
“I’m just wondering if I’d be pushing my luck if I hugged you goodnight.”
He's pushing his luck just far enough. My smile says as much, and we wrap our arms around each other.
Little sixth grade K, with your rejected five dollar bill in your pocket, sitting in a large quiet gym, face to face with the intense blue eyes of Ryan Edward Leonhardt over a black and white board with strange looking figures atop it… how I empathize with you.