Memories of the Boy I Didn’t Know
Lincoln, California, USA
Whitney High School
Speed dating. It’s the first day of class and the teacher says it’s the best way to get to know people. I see the boy four chairs down, one of many in the Honors English class. I don’t pay much attention, but I think he’s cute. I don’t talk to him, but the boy I do talk to is kind. The teacher posts questions on the board. He tells me about his family, parents divorced. Mine too. And his anxieties, doesn’t know what he’s going to do in college. I don’t really know, either. He says it’s nice to talk and I agree, but I’m curious about the first boy. I don’t know if it’s because I think he’s cute or because he looks friendly. It doesn’t matter. I have to change classes.
Theatre. I don’t recognize the boy at first, but we have the same drama class and the same assignment to do a cold read. I can’t remember which one of us went first. He does not read from a script but has his scene memorized. Excitement shifts to disappointment shifts to anger shifts to I should’ve seen this coming! Great performance. I skim through monologues while our classmates go. I forgot to pick one in advance. I find one I like and get up to read, the words revealing themselves to me as I do. I didn’t expect that. Expect them to speak to me. The girl is mad at her dad. Her horrible, abusive dad. I see my stepfather in this dad. But her father is dead and isn’t real. My stepfather is gone but alive, his memory haunting. When I finish, a classmate swears and says the next person better read something light.
Scraping. I volunteered to do something because I’m tired of my Theatre teacher only asking the boys to help with chores. On my hands and knees, I scrape paint off the stage floor with the boy and a freshman in our class. The boy seems frightened that I’ll hurt him with the scraper if he works across from me. But he might be joking. I can’t always tell. We talk about classes and almost nothing until I mention I’m a junior like him. He doesn’t believe me. You’re a junior? Are you serious? No, you can’t be a junior. Are you serious? No, you can’t be a junior, he repeats again and again, smiling. I still can’t tell if he’s joking, but I insist that I am. The freshman vouches for me, but only because he thinks I’m mature. I’ve always been too old for my age.
Rehearsal. The boy got the lead in the school musical and I play one of the extras. I always bring snacks. Chips, apple slices, pizza, popcorn. I eat popcorn in the wings and he asks me if it’s a specific brand. It’s not. I bring that brand next time and we share, eating popcorn. After, in the green room, I hear him and his friends talking about Valentine’s Day. My mom and I don’t celebrate it. But they have to miss the football game to take their girlfriends out. They’re worried about the pressure of getting it just right. I feel for them but I’m also jealous. I feel alone. Then the boy runs lines and he says a word incorrectly. I correct him. He smiles and says I must think that I’m smarter than him and that he’s stupid. He’s teasing me. But he knows I’m a know it all. I don’t know you well enough to be able to think that, I say. He nods and looks down at his script. That is true… that is very smart.
Writing. I sit five or six rows back in the theater, watching him talk to a friend onstage. I don’t mean to stare. But at just the right angle, the acne on his left cheek looks exactly like the Andromeda galaxy. I can’t remember what I was writing about before. Maybe homework. Maybe a song. I set it aside. I write a poem about a boy the earth could not keep. I don’t know you very well / If I know you at all / But you have constellations on your skin / Nebulas / Shooting stars. I’m not really writing about the boy, I don’t think. I don’t notice a different boy glancing over my shoulder. He’s curious what I’m writing about. But the poem was just for fun. It has no purpose. No message. No theme. It was just for fun.
Lunch. I sit in my English class between periods and eat quietly. I look down at my phone for most of the time. Two other groups sit inside and talk, but I don’t join them. I want to, but I don’t know them. I wouldn’t know what to say. The boy comes up to the classroom but the door’s locked. The teacher always locks it when she’s not inside, but she only stepped out for a second. I get up to open it for him. But he’s gone by the time I get there. He probably wanted to talk to the teacher. I tell her when she gets back, but I can’t remember his name. The boy who wears flannels all the time. She stares at me. Who? I can’t remember his name.
Pirates. Our theatre class has to choose a one-act play to perform, but we can’t find one we like. Eventually, I pull up a play on my phone about pirates. While the boy reads through a different play, I show mine to a classmate. He really likes it. He shows it to the others to see if they like it too. They do, at least, better than the others we found. I don’t tell them I wrote it until they ask where I found it and I don’t have a better answer for them. I actually wrote it when I was a freshman. The boy interrupts me. I don’t think he meant to. He’s wearing an impish smile. So, you wrote it this year? It takes me a second to get the joke. I smile back. Okay, now I’m killing off your character.
Breathing. He and his friend are doing weird breathing exercises. It’s bugging me. I’m trying to write, but I relive past asthma attacks just listening to them. You’re going to give yourselves a seizure or something. The boy informs me that he has had seizures before. Then you definitely shouldn’t be doing it! I practically shout. This new information alarms me. This is the boy who tried to teach me how to do a proper cartwheel. I remember hearing that he can do backflips. He seems perfectly healthy and perfectly able to roll his eyes at my concerns. I know he knows better than me, but I nag him until he and his friend stop anyway. They must think I’m annoying. I hate that. But they promise to stop.
Winter. I’m a senior now. I haven’t seen the boy all year, not that I really think about him. Only as much as my other theatre classmates. I don’t have that class again until next semester. Right before AP Literature and right after Culinary II. I work on my screenplay, a new draft of my pirate’s one-act. It’s much funnier now, and more mature. My dad texts me while I’m writing and says he’s sorry about my classmate. I don’t understand. He says he got an email from the school that a student died. I didn’t receive one. He gives me the boy’s name and I recognize it immediately. It’s the boy. The one I shared popcorn with. My dad asks me if I’m okay. I say yes. I didn’t really know him. We had theatre together, but we weren’t friends or anything.
Why. I try to wrap my head around the odds. Over a thousand kids at our school. I don’t understand it. My mom is on her computer. Working. I debate back and forth in my head, then I speak. A boy at my school died. She looks worried. I tell her my dad told me. She asks me how. I don’t know. He had seizures. She nods, knowingly. She’s a hospice nurse. I tell her I don’t understand it. He was just teasing me about looking like a freshman. We shared popcorn. He was worried about impressing his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day. She walks over and hugs me. These are all wonderful memories of him, dear. I feel like I don’t deserve them, and I don’t cry.
Door. I can’t remember if my hands were full, but the boy had been walking just ahead of me as we were all leaving rehearsal. This is one of my favorite memories of him. There was no one behind me and he didn’t hold the door. It was closing on me so I kicked it open. He glanced behind at me just in time to see it. I don’t know why. He had been talking to a friend of his. But for some reason, he looked back just in time to see me kick open the door. Maybe pushing it open is more accurate, just with my foot. It swung wide enough for me to walk into the green room, but didn’t crash against the wall. Didn’t make a sound. He wouldn’t have heard it. I didn’t understand the look of amazement on his face. If I didn’t turn around just now… no one would have seen you do that, he said, as if that explained it. I still didn’t understand the amazement. I wished I had asked him what was so special about kicking a door open. But he left before I could decide whether or not to ask him. I even kicked open the next two doors for his benefit, or maybe to prove that I did it often. That it wasn’t special. But he was gone. The boy I knew and didn’t know at all.
The first time I read this poem, I had to get up from my computer, my seat, and take a literal walk outside. I was still processing what I had just read. "Memories of the Boy I Didn't Know" is an effortlessly beautiful portrayal of teenage love, brimming with the intimacy and fragility of handwritten journal entries. And that ending: it impacts hard.
Editorial Praise from Beth Kohl, CNF Judge:
This essay is admirably specific, its author using detail and significant moments to evoke an incredibly vivid high school world. Describing the titular boy’s acne like the Andromeda galaxy is perfect, intelligent, and allows the author to embed a really great poem within the essay. They skillfully compress time, and the piece beats hums with life, even as it ponders the sudden death of this unknown boy.
Samantha Stagmier is a Senior at Whitney High School, class of 2021. She has been writing since middle school and joined the Polyphony Lit. team in her Sophomore year. When she's not writing, she's thinking about writing, watching TV, baton twirling, or drawing. Her dream is to be a novelist. This is her first published work. She dedicates this piece to Zachary Didier.
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