When Joe meets Real, he's captivated by her.
|What's real? Or more importantly, who's real? Real is real. She is as real as the sound of the crushing waves on the shore, the apples that drop onto your backyard during autumn and the zillions of stars twinkling in the black sky at night. |
Now before you dismiss me as a rambling nutcase, I'm going to start on the story of a girl called Loreal. Or alias Real.
Real, my destiny. Real, the weirdo/freak/loner who broke my heart. Real, the girl I still love.
In North Creek High, there isn't any new face ever for you to spot on the first day of school. That was because everyone grew up together in that little shacky town (okay, not that bad) and went to school together for the past ten years. Anyway, when I started senior year, I just shuffled in the front gate and went about my before-school-starts routine. Which is basically what I have been doing for the past ten years. Which is like, slap high-fives with a few of my buddies and grab locker numbers and timetables from the office.
Yeah. That was what happened that particular morning. First day back at school. Yay. Senior year. Yay. Year to start preparing college admission essays. No yay. That was it.
My first lesson was Bio and I did my shuffling routine to the classroom. I had it down pat-my shuffling I mean-seeing as how that was basically how I walked for the past... seventeen years. And please do not be mistaken-because I am so not a loser/geek with a low self-esteem. I shuffle because... well, because that's how you would be walking if you have grown so tired of the same old boring routine that you have been going through your whole life. When you spend all your time with people whom you have known since forever. When everything you do everyday, you can do it with your eyes shut.
That's it. But I'm hiking it out of North Creek next year anyways. I'm aiming for a place at UCLA's life science course. Why so far, you ask. Well, because then, I would be halfway across the country, and living in the state of my dreams-sunny, smiley California.
Okay that's digression. Let me get back to my current life of going to Bio class.
I slumped into my seat next to Edwin Taylor and exchanged a few little words of encouragement to each other on Getting Through Rusty Dusty's (serious, his name's Mr. Dusty. Okay, Dursty. But whatever.) Dreaded Introductory Bio Lesson. It was the same every single year-he would refuse to teach and instead, bring up this old gunk that must have happened in the Stone Age and bore us to tears. I actually like Bio, but if he was going to talk about that... Thanks but no thanks.
"Joe." I raised my hand lazily up in the air for a fraction of a second. All the teachers in North Creek still did roll call even though everyone knew everyone. It was sorta a prehistoric characteristic kneaded into the DNA of teachers since the beginning of time I guess. Something that wouldn't be eliminated through mutation or whatever. Not whatever. I knew my work and I know it.
So when Mr. Dursty (Dusty) called my name that fine morning, my mind was somewhere else. When he called my name a second time, and louder, I finally raised my head from where I was staring aimlessly at the scratched tabletop, tracing my fingers in the loops of an imaginary name.
I looked up and that was the exact moment I saw her.
She wasn't someone you would think conventionally pretty. What was it about her... was more that she was striking.
Actually I couldn't really see her face at that juncture because her face was slightly obscured from sight by her hair. And her hair was this tangled mess of pale golden strands, all long and mussed.
But from what I could see of her face, what stuck with me then was that she was very fair. Or pale, if you want to get technical. The girl had the ashen look of a drug junkie, and I'm not even being mean. (You should hear what some of the kids in class were saying about her then. Something about "rat from the gutter" and the likes.)
So this pale, blond kid was standing at the front of the class with Mr. Dursty, who was strangely beaming at her as if he was standing next to his No.1 idol, Albert Einstein. Yeah. Then, Mr. Dursty finally decided to put us out of our agony from dying of curiosity and introduced the new girl to us.
"Kids, this is your new classmate, Loreal Cathrall. Give a warm welcome to Loreal, for she is the inter-school all-state champion for the Biology Challenge last term and she has just decided to join our esteemed school for her last year in high school!"
Jaws literally dropped. At least, you could hear mine from the loud thump it made when it hit the floor. I gawked at her blatantly. I mean, come on, it isn't every day that you get to meet the Bio Challenge champion-and it's someone who doesn't even look like one at any rate! Anyway, that was my very first impression of Real-a smart chick on dope (I'm a stereotypical judgmental asshole I know). But my true-blue impression of her... was when her head finally looked up.
"Call me Real." The pale girl said.
Even Mr. Dursty was gawking at her now.
"I go by Real." She said after a moment's pause, when it became apparent that no one knew how to respond to that mind-boggling statement of hers.
Mr. Dursty was the first to recover. "Oh. Oh! Okay, Real. Welcome to North Creek High, the place where we help make your dreams come true. Now why don't you go take a seat over there... next to Joe?"
That was the third time he was calling my name in less than five minutes.
But I didn't really hear it, because, when the girl looked up, her hair fell away from her face, to reveal a pair of startlingly azure eyes. Her eyes were incredibly well defined and shaped almost like a cat's. And her gaze... Intense and penetrating didn't even cut it. I was staring at her-and she was staring right back at me.
Later on when Ed finally caught up with me, he'd told me that when the new girl and I were staring at each other, there had been a palpable charge that was flowing out from our "energy fields". Those were his exact words. And that everyone in the room could feel it. I wasn't sure whether he was just bullshitting or what, but it sent a little thrill down my spine. A little tingle of hope and exhilaration.
I was in deep shit.
The next day, when I saw Real in the hallway, she didn't acknowledge me. The number of words I had said to her at that point was exactly nil. When I walked past her, our sleeves grazed past each other's just the slightest bit. Not even a touch. But it felt as if a whole electricity board had been wired up to me. I felt this strange, electrifying rush.
But she just walked past.
I tried not to feel too disappointed.
I finally saw her again in Bio. It was the last lesson and the warm golden sunlight shone into our classroom, making it warm and cozy and just perfect for an afternoon nap.
Anyway Mr. Dursty wasn't there yet, and kids were half-slumped over their desks, looking as sleepy as I felt. I perked up the moment she came into the room though.
She wandered over, almost idly, to her seat next to mine. I looked at her out of the corner of my eye. As if that were possible, she looked even gaunter than before. Real carefully pulled out the chair and lowered herself onto it.
I couldn't stand it anymore-I had to talk to her!
"Hey." I tried to make my voice sound as nonchalant as my suddenly tightened-up throat would allow.
Real turned towards me slightly. Her right eyebrow was arched. She gave me a bare glimpse of a smile-and promptly turned back to her open notebook on the desk. Her hair fell over her face again.
At that moment, Mr. Dursty came in, and I never got a chance to speak to her again that day.
After that, I observed Real in school, and I realized that with the exception of Lily McRae, who was the daughter of a friend of Real's mom, she never spoke more than three sentences to anyone. She kept to herself so well that everyone would have forgotten about her except for the fact that well, you can't forget about someone who dressed as... noticeably as Real.
It wasn't exactly that she had weird taste. It was just... well, Real dressed sorta like a... bohemian gypsy on her good days, and a Metallica fan on the bad. Okay, I don't know how a bohemian gypsy looked like. Yeah, but that's not the point. You just gotta get the point that she dresses in lots of twirly skirts/ colorful scarves/ heavy metal et cetera. Yes I know. It's weird.
But even though she's weird and quiet and all, I still can't get over the fact that she was so incredibly smart. She seemed to be able to do well for all her subjects-and all the teachers knew it too. They all loved her, and Real treated them in the same way. The only time I've seen her smile at anyone was at the teachers, can ya believe it??
So I guess I was determined to make her smile at a North Creek student too, not look right through us and pretend we don't exist. Yeah. I was fed up with that. Besides, I wanted to know her...
But she didn't let anyone in, and in a way, if I hadn't been at the alleyway right when I'd been, I would never have been granted access into Real's life too. And maybe, my heart wouldn't be hurting so horribly right now. But I also wouldn't have learned so much from her. So it's a fair trade, I guess.
A week after school first started, I was out on an errand for my mom. I was supposed to just pop by the Bean Grocery and make my way back ASAP with the chili sauce for her. But something made me turn down the side road, instead of walking back by the main road.
I sort of felt her before I even saw her.
It's fairly easy, you know, when you have been hyper-aware of this person's presence for the past five days, eight hours a day. When you have been practically trained to do so, and also because this person seemed bent on blending into the dull, gray walls, albeit her colorful clothing giving her away...
Anyway, yeah, so I turned down the alley, and there was Real. Real with some other guy, to be more exact. Some big, hulking guy who was also squishing the life out of a poor little kitten that was mewing pitifully in his tight grasp.
They didn't appear to have seen me yet. In any case, Real was scowling at Hulk Guy, and demanding that he drop the kitten ASAP. That was the first time I had heard her speak in a voice above the ticking of a clock.
I didn't have time to marvel at that amazing fact because the very next moment, Hulk brandished a tiny penknife, and after he flicked out the blade, looked pretty sharp to me. It looked just perfect for gutting out the intestines of a poor, hapless cat too.
Instead, he pointed it at Real. "How about I show you what's going to happen to this poor thing here?" And he looked ready to act on his threat.
"No!" I heard my voice come from some other entity above us, as I finally made my presence known-by jumping out onto the back of Hulk.
The kitten managed to jump out of harm's way when the guy loosened his hold on her as he fell over, but I failed to have the same lucky fate.
Somehow, I had forgotten the penknife he was still holding and brushed against it when I fell together with Hulk. Yeah, brush against it. Try, getting badly cut by it.
Anyway, he freaked when he saw my blood, cursed around a bit, and fled.
I thought he was a wimp. A nincompoop. But when I looked down at my injured arm, and saw the bloody mess there, I felt kinda faint too. And I fainted.
When I came to again, I didn't know where I was. My surroundings felt really bright and white. At first, I almost thought I was in a hospital ward. But that was just plain silly. Then I realized that I was lying on a couch. In a living room. Not my living room... which means... it was Real's living room!
I sat up pretty quickly at this sudden flash of realization.
Real came in at that very moment. Her long blond hair was no longer covering half her face-she had gathered it high up into a messy ponytail-and she was actually wearing a T-shirt and jeans. Oh my god...
"Are you feeling better now? I bandaged up your arm."
She sounds normal. She dresses normal. She is normal.
I didn't dare ask her why she was dressed like a normal kid at home, and like a walking fashion disaster at school, but didn't dare to. Anyway, after I'd left, I never got the chance to see her dressed that way anymore. She assured me that I must be "hallucinating" when I thought I'd seen her in jeans, but I knew what I saw. It was a plus though, because Real almost opened up to me after that cat episode. She talked to me in school (I was the only one, except for Lily McRae) and once, almost smiled at me when I said something outrageously funny.
It was something to go on though, and slowly, but surely, I know I was falling for her. It was not only her delicate looks that drew me to her, but also her evident intelligence and quiet wit that lay just beyond her loud clothes. It was the paradox present in her-the clash of personality and dressing style-that made her both an enigma and an outcast. People gave up trying to talk to her; it was as if they were willing to just let her flit through the school corridors, silent and unseen as a ghost.
But not I.
I was determined to draw her out, to let her feel that she belonged. For her to open up, to see the world as beautiful as it was. But more importantly, I wanted the world to see Real. See beautiful, intelligent Real. The girl who sparkled in my eyes.
I don't know, but I guess the day she first broke my heart, she broke me down just a little too.
It was her birthday, and I had spent the entire month before that carving this musical box in the school woodwork room. Every day after school, I would stay back a couple of hours, and carefully cut, sand, and glue together the bits and pieces. I created an elaborate design on the cover of the musical box-something I had sketched out especially for her. It took countless hours just to perfect the intricate design on the wood. And then I'd to figure out how to fix in the machinery and micro batteries...
So. I'd planned a private party for her at my house-just a few of my friends, whom had also become her friends in the past months-and was waiting eagerly for her to arrive. I wanted to give her the musical box and watch her glow with happiness. And maybe, to finally tell her how I felt about her.
She turned up, wearing a flowy aqua blouse with a long, dark blue skirt. She looked just like a mermaid to me when she appeared at the foyer.
I was grinning like a goofball, and my friends knew it too. They were nudging me and egging me on.
I slowly moved towards Real, as if in a dream. She half-smiled up at me in that special way of hers. I swallowed nervously. "Uh, Real. Happy birthday... This is for you." I handed her the box I had gift wrapped myself.
"Go on, open it!" Clara, one of my band mates, was clasping both her hands together excitedly.
Real stared down at the box she was holding. A hesitant look suddenly befell her face.
"Yeah, open it." I prompted her gently.
Real nervously fingered the flimsy paper covering the box. "Uh, maybe I should..."
She looked up at me, and I smiled down at her, willing her to just open it. She sighed softly and finally pulled the paper apart.
I didn't know how to read her face, because she barely had any expressions on her face whatsoever. But at that exact moment, Real's face was filled with a multitude of emotions that I couldn't fathom. In a flash, the look was gone again.
She stared down silently at the musical box. The design on the cover was an intricate picture of an angel playing a flute-her favorite instrument (Real's, I mean). When she slowly opened it, the soft, tinkling music of her favorite concerto-the Canon B. -started playing.
I couldn't see her face, because her head was completely bent now, and her curtain of long hair blocked it from my view.
"I made it myself. Do you like it?" I tried to make my voice sound jokey, but it came out sounding more like a croak.
Real finally looked up, and she stared up straight at me. "I know." Her tone was even, and it betrayed nothing. "But... I can't take it, Joe. I'm sorry."
Then she turned and walked out of the door. But not before pushing the box back into my hands.
I was so stunned that I just let the thing fall out of my hands, and from somewhere far away, I heard the breaking of my heart.
My friends were all shocked into silence, but after a while, I sensed someone leading me back into the living room, and people just sorta slumped around, talking in low whispers.
"Jeez." I heard someone remark angrily. "Does Real have any feelings at all?"
That was the first time she broke my heart. But I didn't really feel angry with her for doing so, and after I‘d more or less gotten over it, I approached her again.
They say that once you get pass the first time, the subsequent times just get easier and easier. Yeah, well, I didn't reckon that breaking someone's heart went along with the same logic.
When I tried to win Real's heart for a second time, she refused to budge. And she continued to do so for the third time, and the next.
It broke me. It really did. Just a little, bit by bit.
But I never gave up.
Because I couldn't do it.
You can say that my perseverance finally paid off, because when I stuck with her the whole month she was in the hospital with gastric flu, she finally broke down and accepted me. She even confessed that she felt the same way as I felt about her for a long time now. When I asked her why she hasn't just come out and admitted it when I'd probed her so many times, she refused to tell me why.
But that wasn't important. What was important was that we were finally together. I was finally together with Real.
That night, my heart felt so full that it would burst. I was practically singing and skipping along on that snowy night, along the slippery road back home, grinning my heart out.
Real. Kind, intelligent, beautiful Real. Real, the love of my life.
We were together for twenty days. And in those twenty days, I felt as if I was living each day as it were my last. Every day was filled with joy and laughter, and there was absolutely no room for regrets. We walked to school in the mornings, kicking up snow, and hugging each other for warmth. Real would point out all the tiny creatures that were milling about-the chirping birds on the bare trees, the striped raccoons, the furry baboons... And it would give me a smile that I carried with me for the rest of the day. When I met up with her again, she would sit with me while I did my homework on her kitchen table, smiling slightly when I asked her about doing hers. She never did her homework, by the way-just gave me a little half-smile whenever I asked her about it. Instead, what she did was to bake lots of cupcakes and cookies in her kitchen oven.
She did this everyday, and I soon found out that Real delivered these to the orphanage in a nearby town every week. In those twenty days that we were together, I accompanied her on all three of those trips. She never interacted much with the kids, just hanging back and watching them with a little smile. Maybe I was just imagining it, but a couple of times, I could swear that I saw her wipe her eyes angrily.
Real wasn't always nice.
I'd always known that there was a dark side to her-an indifferent side. She could turn as cold as the Snow Queen to me. I don't know why, but sometimes, she would ignore me for half the day in school, and disappear for hours on end. I didn't dare to question her about it, because... well, I had had such a hard time in getting together with her.
But one day, I saw her fighting with a kid in school. His name was Abraham, and he was one of the jocks who go around thinking that he owned the school. So, when I saw Real hauling off at him, I went into panic mode.
"Ohmygod-Real! Stop! Abraham, get off her!"
Only there was a factual error, because Abraham couldn't get off her, if he was the one lying on the ground, and Real was the one standing over him, panting heavily.
It turned out that she was just standing up for a kid that Abraham had been sneering at/picking on.
When I heard that, I wanted to laugh, then I wanted to cry. So I did a little of both.
"He's a gangbanger." I half-laughed, half-cried to her.
"Yeah. Well." Real shrugged.
I hugged her tightly to myself. "You make me go crazy."
That was the last time I touched her.
After I'd walked out of her house, I turned and looked back at it. I had an inexplicable feeling of anxiety. I didn't know why, but I took a few more looks at that house. The second floor window where Real's bedroom was. It was all lighted up, and I could see her silhouette standing in the window. The figure gave me a little wave-I waved back, hard.
After I finally turned and walked away, I felt as if I was turning my back on something for ever.
I got back into my house and fell into a deep, fitful sleep.
She was gone.
I don't know how I knew it then, but when she didn't turn up at the corner where we always met in the morning, a feeling just started up in me. When I got to school, and couldn't see her anywhere, it just grew. I called her house during lunch break, and the line had been cut. I went to her house after school, but nobody came to answer the doorbell.
The feeling intensified. My fear grew in leaps and bounds. Oh Real! Where are you?
As the day passed by and night came, there was still no news of Real. No one had heard anything from her either, and it was as if she had just vanished from the face of earth. My worry kept me awake and half-crazy the whole night.
The next day, the real shocker came when the principal announced Real's withdrawal from the school. She had withdrawn. She had left voluntarily. Without a single word to me.
It felt as if a deep black hole had opened up in the ground and I was freefalling into it. Feelings of betrayal, hurt, pain, bewilderment bombarded me from all sides.
I couldn't understand it. I was devastated. My friends tried to console me, but they couldn't understand it either. It was something so utterly baffling that we could not, for the life of us, understand why.
Why'd she leave?
And it is now three months later, and I am still thinking about her. I am still thinking of that beautiful, mysterious girl who flitted into our town and left barely a lingering scent before she was gone again. The girl who took me on a roller coaster of emotions that I would never forget in this life.
The girl called Real. The one who had hair as golden as the sunlight, and eyes blue as the wintry sky. The one I can never begin to fathom her true self. I miss, and miss, and miss her. I want her to come back.
Real, where are you?
The phone is ringing. I jerk out of my reverie and stumble over to pick it up. "Hello?"
"Is this... Joe Pherson?" The voice that comes over the line sounds hesitant.
"Yes. And you are..."
This time, the pause is significant. There is a slight shudder before the woman speaks again. "I'm Janie Cathrall, and I've called to inform you that Real has passed away from stomach cancer last night."