There was something pure in it, she supposed—so much devotion with so little return. And perhaps the return was not as small as it seemed on the surface. Anything that made high school more interesting had to be given its due. Perspective was a difficult thing to consider in the midst of it all, but even Melinda could admit that much. There was something worthwhile in that once-a-day spark, 11:55 am, around the corner from Mr. LaFray’s Algebra class, passing on the right as Kevin Callison approached from the left. Her friends stayed close – they knew their roles, Amy on one side, Marlies on the other, protective and failing utterly at nonchalance. They’d whisper and laugh as he passed, making her face flush with that small rush of… something. It was worth it for that, brief as it was. She missed junior high where they’d had classes together, or she had until she realized the absurdity of missing anything from junior high.
It wasn’t that she mistook it for love. Melinda knew better than that. It was one big step above the attention she lavished on the glossy paper faces that covered her walls and one big step below… well, something she hadn’t experienced at all. It seemed so profoundly out of reach, that thing. Neither she nor her friends had ever had a taste of it. Love was something reserved for fictional characters and those exalted classroom personalities, the ones she’d had nothing to do with once they’d grown out of their junior high cruelty into whatever they were now, perfectly manicured aliens, something she couldn’t understand but knew she was meant to admire. Love was something seen on television and in books that people chased after, even killed to win, only to lose it again six episodes later.
She’d glimpsed love once. She’d seen it up close. On a Tuesday afternoon in sophomore Biology class, she’d watched Karrie Kochan fiddle absently with the buttons on Jim Malczewski’s denim jacket, picking at the cuffs. She pulled it close around her and buried her nose inside the collar when she thought no one was watching. It was odd to imagine Karrie as someone who loved, or who had any life at all outside Melinda’s seventh grade memories where the brutality of alphabetical order had condemned her to several healthy doses of Karrie’s bullying each day. Now, watching her tuck her hands into the sleeves of her boyfriend’s jacket, these memories were difficult to reconcile. Karrie had laughed that day, discovering the jacket’s inside pocket containing “Jim’s pipe”. She’d joked about it and laughed, her eyes crinkled with sadness that remained after the laugh had faded. That was when Melinda spotted it. Love. It was heavy and grown-up in a way that Melinda couldn’t get a grip on. She knew for certain that it was nothing she was ready for. She wondered if Karrie had been, or if Jim Malczewski had ever seen that look. Three days later, when she heard they’d broken up, Melinda was unsurprised. Love, as she understood it, was not something to be trusted.
After that, her late morning ritual took on a new momentum. She was determined to enjoy it to its greatest potential. She willed the moments into slow motion, savoring each feeling as it fluttered by. She listened as her breath hitched and the blood rushed to her face, drowning out her surroundings with a single heartbeat. At the end of the hall, the rest of the world would return, Amy laughing, Marlies’ hand on her arm, a lingering shiver escaping through her fingertips. Melinda would smile, thinking of tomorrow. It might not be love, but it was safe and constant and hers. The least she could do was to offer it her attention and fidelity.
Years later she’d wonder how many times she’d seen love in other places, lurking, unrecognized. The breath in her father’s voice when he said her mother’s name—the late-night glances between two castmates after a long rehearsal—Marlies’ earnest face when she’d confided, “I love you, Melinda. I really love you.” Years later she would wonder, but for now she would be faithful. She turned the corner after Algebra class, Amy on one side, Marlies on the other, as Kevin Callison passed on the left.