“Love transcends, you know, like rainbows or that sticky stuff on the end of a razor–” from The Love story of Agnes Langston Berchim, 2005.
“No playing in the yard, the back of the house, beside the fire hydrant in the alley–where I KNOW you like to hide–no cards, marbles, games, toys, laughter or enjoyment of any kind! And just let me catch you with Betty Stronghold!”
Up in apartment 506 lived two lonely people named Mrs. Smith and her son, Stu Smith.
Mrs. Smith was a strict mom with growing eyelashes and a despicably clean house. Stu did not like his mother. She pulled him by the ear at stores, made him eat pea soup, often times made with faucet water and cold and slapped him at regular intervals. She said the peas were better if they were crunchy and that it was not good for her to nurture his feminine side by babying his desires. Stu didn’t know if he had any real desires but he did want to stop getting hit in the face by his mom’s once-soft hands.
She was also never in an outfit that could make her look attractive, although the woman needed something to cover up the rage or to make it calm down. Stu knew that no one could completely remove it from her. She was mean and it was a staying-here kind-a mean like a strong memory. Maybe, she had been upset at Stu’s dad’s death.
Stu was ten years old, so he had heard the story at least twenty-eight times. She had told him almost yelling and at the same time in one of her moments of deepest sympathy for him that his dad had died buying him milk as a child, a victim of a thief. She said that’s when the beast in her woke or what she now called, her true nature. She had refused another husband, though three men had already asked and only one of them looked promising to Stu. Ruben, Caesar and Roger were their names, though Stu’s mom did not remember them.
Stu only remembered Ruben because he’d been a nice guy and had given him a five to purchase candy. Candy was on Stu’s list of can’t haves. He wasn’t sick or pale but his mom kept him away from anything that could be productive for him.
Stu didn’t have any trends.
Stu also could not go to school every day because that promoted a social behavior that was not acceptable in Mrs. Smith’s house. He only attended school on three wonderful days and luckily, they were consecutive because Stu could not imagine being at school every other day. On Monday, he came into class with his packed lunch (a brown bag with Don’t Touch written in black marker across the front), a pair of gray shorts and a blue sweater (for he was no longer allowed to wear T-shirts since the “incident”) and his one notepad with a pencil (in case the teacher taught him something Mrs. Smith didn’t like, she could just erase it).
It was summer.
The heat within the room spread like a fire because there were close to thirty students in class and only twenty-eight seats.
Stu had volunteered to give up his seat.
The teacher, Mrs. Tingle, would not hear of it and had even felt a little insulted when he suggested it. “No,” she said, “My star pupil sits in the front, here next to Betty.”
Betty was in a blue dress with a white undershirt and a pretty yellow tie. She waved hi at him. He waved back and sat next to her.
Mrs. Tingle liked to give the class what some would call “social time.” It was for them to get to know each other as classmates. It was for some to get a chance to finish the homework.
Stu was not worried about any of it. What was true in his life was the following: It was true that he hid his books from his mom on his locker’s side wall, where the school Janitor, Mr. Lopez, had made a hole for him to stash his stuff because the next-door locker was free. It was true that his homework was turned in on time because he found time during the night when his mother would fall asleep from exhaustion for practically twelve hours and would not wake unless he was awake. What happened was that she was so mad all the time, she used up a lot of energy and fell asleep really tired. It was part of an assignment for class that Stu had understood quite well and the other students were still a bit shaky about. It had been in the beginning of the semester’s lecture and since then, it was true that Stu had gone from being the student with the shiniest looking “F” papers pinned up proudly on the refrigerator at home to the un-worthy thrash-bound “A” papers he’d been getting in the recent months. One even had a gold star and it was known that Mrs. Tingle wasn’t a star teacher. The last time someone had gotten a star was about a month ago and it had been Betty and it had been silver. It was true that sometimes he did not eat the pea soup, especially when he went to school because he had his own way of getting meal tickets (his mom would never in a million years sign the papers to get them). Usually, what happens is that his mom would make him something horrible in the Don’t Touch bag and there were a few kids willing to trade their lunch in order to “experiment” (various things beginning with “Throw at PLACE KIDS NAME HERE”) with it afterward. His Don’t Touch bag was a big hit, literally. There had been actual rocks one time, when his mom was especially mad at him for having snuck away to a friend’s house to shower. That day’s special included a rock-like brownie that could be use to break walls. It was a perfect trade.
About once or twice a week, Stu would find the familiar fire hydrant, sneak behind it to the alley and go upstairs in one of the buildings to Room 205 to Brian’s house, where Bryan’s mom said she was going to call the cops on Mrs. Smith, then greeted him with a warm hug, examined his eyes and his most recent wound (sometimes it wasn’t a wound, just a small nick), and let him go take a shower hurriedly.
Stu found his life quite a storm of can’t dos. One of the worst can’t dos was the curse of love. He was unaware-ly involved with Betty Stronghold. He was involved with her like ice didn’t know it was involved with water and cold.
His most recent victory had been the changing of the roster and now he was sitting next to her.
Betty didn’t act like she noticed it but she was smiling more often, recently.
“Do you know how to make a perfect cirlce?” She asked him.
“I think you should do your homework,” Stu said.
“Oh, yeah? What’s the answer to number six?”
“It’s–Oh,” Stu said, realizing why she’d asked him the question. Question six said, Draw a perfect circle.
Betty laughed at him and it was a wonderful sound like soft school bells. He really liked bells some times; it was the only music he heard all day. Betty’s giggle was the only romantic song he knew. Thinking about that made him laugh and he realized he made his own kind-of music, though he liked Betty’s better.
“I’m sorry,” Stu said, “I guess you just have to keep your hand steady.”
Betty put her pencil to the paper and pressed softly on it, then drew something oval-shaped. “Like this?” She asked.
“Er,” Stu said, looking at the paper with his eyes wide, “Try it again. There’s only ten questions, anyway.”
“I know,” Betty said, “I got them already, I just can’t draw.”
Draw was a new word Stu because he’d been profoundly absent on Friday’s to school. He didn’t know what draw meant. He looked at her confused.
“I’m sure you can write a circle.”
“Silly,” Betty said, giggling, making him smile dreamily, “You don’t write a circle; you draw it.”
“No,” Stu said, one of his eyebrows up, “Draw, what’s it mean?”
Some of the students that heard him, stared at him from their seats. The teacher who was holding her head up on the desk, watching them, got up from her desk and said, “Okay, okay, class! Today, we’re going to skip to drawing lessons, just like every Friday. We’re going to make a Monday, a Friday!”
The class was looking excited by this new prospect.
Betty was staring at Stu, who had just done something wonderful for the whole class without knowing it.
The teacher came up to him as he stared at his neighbors (but mostly at Betty) who pulled out pencils and something he’d never seen before. They called them crayons. In Stu’s world, televisions on the inside of fancy stores he was not allowed into showed lucky people colors. There were many colors like blue, violet, pink, red, white and green. His favorite color yellow was on most of Betty’s pictures. She would draw the most perfect smiling suns. Her house was blue because she’d drawn it blue at least three times. Betty wasn’t trying to show him her pictures but she had to push the pages up to get to her place on the drawing book.
“Um, miss?” Stu asked the teacher.
Mrs. Tingle understood the problem right away. She had been looking for a drawing book to give him while he stared at Betty. “It was purple day last Friday,” Betty said. Then, her face got sad for a second, “But you never come that day. (then happily) Oh, purple day is the best! Everything gets colored purple and Mrs. Tingle has six different purples, one is lighter, one is darker and one is like a pen but wit a tiny point and you could draw these tiny lines.”
Instead of getting him a regular brown-paper drawing pad, Stu got the teacher’s all-white paper pad. Not only had he gotten the whole class a Friday’s lecture but now he was getting to draw on the most prettiest paper he’d ever seen. “Here you go,” Mrs. Tingle said, smiling down at him. She had the nicest smile and was never mad at him like his mom. He felt safe with that smile like nothing was wrong but when Stu saw the colors coming at him, he almost panicked.
Was he supposed to choose one to draw with? What if he broke one, how would they replace them, weren’t they really, really valuable? Stu said, “So to draw means to make pictures,” he said, getting a little of what it meant now that he’d seen Betty’s collection.
Mrs. Tingle was almost crying in sympathy, “You just use as many pages as you need, Stewart and don’t be kind to these colors, break them if you have to.”
Some of the kids were surprised by this but they were happy to hear that they could misuse the colors.
Stu was so amazed at everything that his hands were shaking when they touched the colors. They felt weird in his hands, almost too cold and his sweater wasn’t protecting him from them. He drew many circles with yellow first, then he realized that he didn’t have to just draw cirlces. One of Betty’s pictures had been a house! He tried to draw a house and he realized that it was pretty and it had too much green and yellow and then he saw that it looked blue. He began to cry in front Betty but he didn’t care.
“Oh, Stewart, what’s wrong, honey?”
“I changed them; I didn’t mean to do it, Mrs. Tingle, I swear! They changed by themselves. Everythings Blue! It’s all blue!” He cried.
Mrs. Tingle gave him a hug. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” she told him.
Stu didn’t think it would change so fast.
His world had been so full of black and white and the only colors he saw were filled with dust because his mom did not clean his room, nor let him clean it. He was forced to deal with sleeping in places where she had cleaned, mostly in the tub.
One day, some time after the drawing, Betty and him had been left at school by their parents but it was okay for Betty because she did not live so far and was allowed to walk home, so long as it wasn’t too late and only if it was with a school mate. She had accompanied him to his house but instead of showing her his room, he had led her to the tub and put a blanket over it and asked her to climb into it with him. She had giggled but agreed.
They didn’t fit but they were looking up at the ceiling sitting side by side. Her shoulders were on top of his shoulders and one of her legs was on top of his but none of it bothered them.
Love isn’t bothered; it grows.
“You draw pretty houses,” Betty said.
Stu remembered and said, “Drawing changed my life.”
“You drew me a heart for Valentines. You never knew how to draw, is that why you drew me a heart now, because you couldn’t do it before?”
“No,” Stu said, “I probably woulda learned how to write you a heart, eventually.”
“Are we ever getting out of this tub?”
“I think,” Stu said, grabbing her hand, “I always knew the colors were there, if they existed or not.”
Mrs. Smith stormed in the house, went through a living room full of items, hitting some and smashing others with a broom, splashing glass or dust everywhere and when she got into the bathroom and saw them in the tub holding hands, smiling at each other with dreamy eyes, her eyes rolled to the back of her head and she fainted.
“I’m a bad son,” Stu said, getting out of the tub to call the police.
“AAAaaaah!” Betty screamed.
“Shhh,” Stu said, “I’m calling somebody here. Hold, no don’t put me on hold, my mom just passed out in the bathroom; no, she wasn’t doing anything to me, you perv!”
“But it’s your mom, Stu, she passed out!”
“Well, der,” Stu said, “No, not you, just send an ambulance.”
“Wow,” Betty said, “I never seen anyone do that and you?”
Stu looked at his mother and pitied her. She worked very hard and he had acted so badly. “She doesn’t want me to see you.”
Betty kind-of frowned down at her, “Let’s go.”
“Do you care?”
“Even if I buy you crayons?”
“Mom said you’d tempt me.”
“Don’t come if you don’t want.”
“Then,” Stu said, “If you’re giving me a choice and not making me, I want to come.”
“Where to then?”
“How long will we be there?”
“Forever.” “Okay,” said Betty, “But I got to be back by eight.”