Twenty minutes after sneaking through the single crack in my high school’s student surveillance system, I was sitting in the front seat of Vader doing something with the one person that I never, ever, would have guessed I would be doing.
“This is awesome,” Porter said with a gravity in his voice that led me to believe he actually understood what it meant to be inspired to the point of awe. “Thank you, Ruth,” he added, never even bothering to pull his eyes from the view outside Vader’s windshield.
I sat and stared with him, not at all awed by airplanes, and only kept from complete and utter boredom by the fact that I was sitting in my car, alone, with Porter. Porter who, when something out on the tarmac especially excited him, would lean way into my personal space to get a better look.
I still hadn’t talked to Porter like I had planned. The whole ride over here had been spent with him giving directions and me following them. And now that we were alone, and not driving, Porter kept pointing out the windshield and exclaiming, “Look, that’s a 737!” Or, “Airbus 319!” And then he would explain, in what can only be described as excruciating, textbook-grade detail, every minute fact that I never cared to know about passenger aircraft.
Apparently Porter loved planes, and this is how I found myself parked outside the Trenton-Mercer Airport watching airplanes taxi, take off, and land on a day and at a time when I should have been subjected to the torture of listening to Bella Blake bullshit her way through answering questions about a book she never read.
Outside, one of the really big planes was making a turn and preparing to take off. The roar from the engines increased until I could feel the vibrations in my seat. “So . . . planes?” I tried to get Porter’s attention just as the jumbo jet accelerated down its concrete path and rotated up into the gray sky above. When it was a few hundred feet off the ground, Porter, who was leaning forward and resting his right arm over Vader’s dash, turned his head and looked directly into my eyes.
“Yeah. Stupid, right?”
Only there was nothing in either his tone or his expression that made me think, for even one second, that Porter actually did think this was stupid. He was testing me, waiting for me to make fun of all this, waiting for the chance to have a reason to write me off.
I shook my head. “I don’t think it’s stupid.” I tried to keep my eyes level with his—it was hard. Not because I was lying—I really didn’t think his love of planes was dumb—but because looking directly into Porter’s bottomless blue eyes while they were aimed directly at me was making my heart hammer hard against my chest. There were only a couple feet separating us, and the confines of Vader’s interior pressed me even closer to Porter, physically, emotionally, as if my life had been barreling toward this inevitable moment, alone in my car, with this mystery of a boy I hardly knew but felt compelled to untangle.
The one person I had promised my mother I would keep my distance from.
“I am guessing this has something to do with your grandfather’s old flight manual?”
He didn’t say anything, and after several seconds he shrugged and nodded in a way that let me know I’d hit a nerve. He returned his gaze to the tarmac, but I could see his mind was concentrating on what I’d just said.
“You never knew him?”
“No.” He sat back against my passenger seat. “Only stories, stuff my mom told me.”
“Why didn’t you ever meet him?” I asked.
Porter turned his head toward the window. Seconds ticked by. I started to think that Porter was probably not going to answer. “You know, it’s none of my business anyway. I’m so—”
“They fought.” He turned from the window, his eyes boring into mine. “My mom and her dad. They fought . . . a lot, I guess. The last time they ever spoke was the day she left her parents’ house.” His head dropped forward, and I watched as he now stared into his lap. “But I think she missed him; that’s why she’d tell me those stories about him from when she was a kid. About cities, and airplanes, and china cups on saucers . . . about trips they went on, as a family when she was young, with beaches, and cobblestone streets, and buildings that reached up into the sky. I guess she just never figured out how to tell him . . . and then it was too late. The day she got that letter. We had moved so many times, and I guess nobody knew how to get in touch with her. That letter had been forwarded three times and had been looking for my mother for three weeks before it finally ended up in our mailbox. Paige, my sister, was just a baby then, and my mother almost dropped her when she fell to her knees. She was sorry,” he whispered. “She kept saying that over and over: ‘I’m so sorry, Daddy . . . you were right.’” Porter looked up into my eyes, “Too late, though.”
“Why did they fight?”
“Lots of things, I think. She never said exactly . . . stuff from when she was younger, stuff she did. I could guess some of it . . .” He shrugged. “I don’t know.”
He did know, but he didn’t want to tell me.
“So, the planes make you feel closer to the grandfather you never knew?”
Porter swung his gaze back to me, his brow was furrowed like he was trying to figure out what I was talking about. “No. But . . . it’s what I would like to do. At least, it’s what I think I would like to do. I’ve read that entire manual, cover to cover. I learn what I can online . . . and watching planes, they’re amazing.”
I smiled and laughed. “I’ve never thought of planes as amazing. More like a necessary evil. All those people crammed into single biohazard tube. I’ve never flown anywhere and not gotten sick.”
“You’ve been on a plane?”
“Sure,” I shrugged. “Tons of times. My mom has family in Colorado and Arizona. We’ve been on trips to Mexico, England, Canada . . . well, lots of places, really.” I stopped laughing. Porter was looking at me with an intense interest, like I just said I’d been on safari in Africa, not a flight to Phoenix. “Wait . . . so you’ve never been on a plane?”
Porter shook his head.
“But you want to be a pilot?”
Porter looked embarrassed. “Yeah. Now you think it’s stupid, right?”
I shook my head. “No . . . I just . . . how do you know? I mean, if you’ve never . . . how do you know you’d want to be a pilot?”
“I guess I don’t, not for sure anyway.” Another plane taxied into position. Its engines cycled up and vibrated Vader’s looser parts. Porter’s eyes met mine. “But I figure it’s got to be better than working at a gas station.”
I smiled, “Like that’s what you’ll end up doing? I don’t think credit card transactions for lotto tickets and thirty-two-ounce Mountain Dews require your knowledge of Lagrange multipliers. You’ll be able to do pretty much anything you want to do. Certainly most pilots aren’t even half as smart as you are.”
Porter broke our eye contact and looked back out the windshield, “Yeah, well . . .” He sighed. “You didn’t track me down to listen to me go on about airplanes. What did you want to talk to me about, anyway?”
I’d almost forgotten I had an agenda. I had considered at least twenty different ways to begin this conversation. Everything from Look I know this is none of my business to What the hell is wrong with you? So, given all this planning, I was really surprised when what I ended up saying had nothing to do with our calculus project or his cryptic insinuations that he wouldn’t be around long enough to worry about failing.
“I like you,” I blurted.
The words were like physical things that floated around us, sucking air and making the already tight space even smaller. What had I done? Why had I done it? I watched Porter, his reaction—nothing. He just continued to stare out my windshield almost as if he hadn’t heard me. Maybe he hadn’t, I suddenly hoped. Maybe I hadn’t actually said such an amazingly stupid thing—out loud.
But when Porter turned his head away from me, I realized there was no hope—a tidal wave of embarrassment drowned out the rest of my senses and I wished for nothing more than to take those three dumb, impulsive words back. He had heard me just fine and was now trying to think of something nice to say, something rational, and also probably some way to get the hell out of my car.
He turned his eyes back on me and my heart almost stopped dead in my chest. “You shouldn’t, Ruth.” He shook his head gently. “You shouldn’t like me at all.”
It was true, I shouldn’t like him. I should stay away from him, just like I promised my mother I would. Porter was messy. Porter was dangerous. Porter had a mental health file that required a large rubber band to hold it all together.
My hand slid from my thigh, slowly, carefully, around Vader’s gear shift, past the small storage compartment that was filled with loose change, and stopped a centimeter from where Porter’s left hand was resting on his passenger seat. I didn’t look at his face, I couldn’t. I watched my pinky make the smallest and bravest move I had ever attempted, a movement so slight it was almost nothing.
A movement so huge, it changed everything.
My smallest finger rested on the back of Porter’s hand.
I didn’t move. I didn’t breathe. I waited, not quite believing that I was actually touching him, to see what he would do.
Porter let out a shaky breath and when I glanced up to check his face, I saw that his eyes were closed. I focused on his left eye, yellow and bruised from whatever fight he had been in, the skin swollen and puffy. I wanted to touch it but didn’t dare.
Outside, another jet engine broke the silence as it prepared to start rolling down the runway. The sound made Porter open his eyes and I could see, when he wasn’t busy being really tough, Porter could also look really scared. He pulled his hand away from mine and sat back in his seat. “You should go back to school Ruth. Just drop me at the library.”
That wasn’t what he wanted. Somehow I knew it. It was the look on his face, when our hands were touching and his eyes were closed—like relief. Porter pulled away from me, and a small part of my brain still worried that maybe I was wrong, maybe Porter didn’t want anything to do with me. But there were glimpses of something else. That first day I followed him, the way his hand nervously moved through his hair. The way his expression changed, softened, in the hallway when he realized it was me grabbing his arm.
And right now, the way he looked out the windshield and said these words that were meant to push me away, even though it seemed to cause him some pain.
“What if I don’t want to?” I dared.
Porter swallowed and shifted his gaze to the passenger window so I couldn’t see his face.
I let my head fall back against my seat. “Why don’t you come back with me?”
He shook his head. “I have things I have to do.”
“Is that why you leave every day? Because you have things to do?”
“Why do you care, Ruth?” He turned from the window now and looked at me. “You don’t know me. I’m nothing, no one. Why do you care if I’m at school or in your class or helping with your project that you can obviously handle all on your own?” He turned back to the window. “You should forget we ever met.”
I thought about that day in the library, watching him solve that equation and proving me wrong. “You’re really smart, Porter. I just don’t understand why you’re throwing all that away.”
“You sound like my guidance counselor.” He laughed.
“That doesn’t make it not true.”
Porter shrugged. “There isn’t anything I can do about it.”
“What’s so important that you have to leave school . . . every day?”
“Just stuff. I have stuff I have to do!”
“Okay, like what? What’s soooo important that you’d just completely throw away—”
“Jesus, Ruth! My sister, okay! I have to leave every day to take care of my little sister!” he clenched his fist and smacked it sideways into the door. “Shit! You think I don’t know I’m a total loser? You think I like being a failure?”
I sat back, a little freaked out by his temper, and raised my hands in surrender. When Porter saw me, he sighed and rolled his eyes. “Shit.” He shook his head before he leaned forward and grabbed two fists of hair on either side of his head. “I wouldn’t hurt you,” he said before he leaned back again. His head fell all the way back and he stared at my ceiling. When he rolled his head to the side and saw me still pressed against my door, he said it again. “I wouldn’t. Even though I don’t expect you to believe me.”
“I believe you,” I said but the edge in my voice gave me away. Porter was scary when he was mad.
Porter closed his eyes and took a breath. When he opened them he checked his watch. “Now can you take me to the library?”
I nodded, leaned forward, and started Vader back up.
For most of the ride to the library, we didn’t say anything. Only the sound of Vader’s tires sluicing through the dirty slushed streets kept the silence from completely overwhelming us both. I would have turned on the radio, but it didn’t work.
When we were halfway there, Porter turned toward me. “I’m sorry,” he said.
I shrugged like it was nothing, but I didn’t take my eyes off the road.
Porter sighed, and in my peripheral vision I saw him run his hand through his hair. His nervous tic. I could simply drop him off, like he asked, and never have another thing to do with him. It would be as easy as letting this conversation die and never approaching him at school again—it wasn’t like he was going to make it hard.
The light ahead of us turned yellow and I slowed down until I came to a stop behind an SUV driven by a woman who looked like she was yelling at someone in the backseat. If I didn’t say anything else, Porter would be getting out of my car in about five minutes. On with his life. On with mine.
The light was still red.
“Why . . .” I started but my voice caught in my throat. I covered my mouth with my sleeve and coughed.
“Are you okay?” Porter asked.
I nodded but kept coughing a few more times before I could stop.
“Are you sure?” He started looking around my car and then leaned back behind my seat and came back with a half-filled water bottle he’d spotted in my backseat.
The light turned green.
I took my foot off the brake and followed the angry lady in front of me while Porter unscrewed the bottle and handed it to me. “Here, drink this.”
I took a sip and made a face as I handed it back to him. “It smells like a swamp.”
Porter sniffed the water and made a face too. “How old is this? You’ll probably get giardia,” he joked.
“Great.” I smiled. “Just what I need.” Half a block away, I spotted a small blue compact pulling out of a parking space right across the street from the library. I flipped on my blinker and remembered what it was I was going to ask Porter. “So, why do you have to take care of your sister? Isn’t she in school too?”
Porter ran both his hands down his thighs, as if his palms were maybe sweaty or something. “She is,” he said, and looked out his window. “But she only goes for half a day right now.”
“How old is she?” I asked as I pulled up alongside the car in front of the space I was taking and turned Vader’s wheel so I could parallel park.
I looked out my rear window and shifted into reverse. “So why is she only in school for half a day?” In a single, expert move, I swung Vader’s rear into the space and then turned the steering wheel the other direction until the front end aligned perfectly with the car ahead of me. It was the one useful thing my father had actually taught me.
Porter didn’t answer until I shifted Vader into Neutral and set the parking break. “After we moved, and switched schools, they put her onto a half-day schedule.”
“That’s weird . . . why?”
“She was crying a lot, hitting other kids. Every day she’d crawl under her desk and then refuse to come out or speak to anyone.” Porter shrugged and took a breath. “Our mom died,” he blurted. “Six months ago . . . Paige is kind of screwed up right now.”
I didn’t know what to say. The information that his mom had died, recently, was like a fact bomb exploding right in front of us. He was talking about his sister, but I could tell from the way his voice trembled across the sentence that Porter was also “kind of screwed up” about his mom. “I’m sorry,” I managed to get out even though it was the dumbest most overused expression for situations like this—but what was I supposed to say?
Porter nodded. “Everyone always is.” He shrugged and swallowed, then he swallowed again. “But Paige, she’s little. She cries a lot, especially at night. They moved her to a half-day schedule hoping it would help.”
“But, I mean, why are you . . . isn’t your dad around?”
Porter nodded. “Technically.”
I expected him to go on. Explain why their dad wasn’t the one picking Paige up. Why it was that Porter was taking care of a seven-year-old girl, but the silence kept stretching on and on. “Well?” I finally asked.
“He works,” Porter said, and reached for the door handle, managing to open the door and slip out into the cold before I could ask any more questions.
I got out too, and slammed Vader’s door behind me. “Porter, wait!” He was already halfway across the street. I looked left and right and caught up with him on the sidewalk at the bottom of the library steps. “Porter.”
He turned quick to face me. “Did you mean what you said? Earlier?”
It took me a second to figure out what he was asking—mean what? But then it hit me—he wanted to know if I meant what I said about liking him. For a moment, I thought about trying to minimize what I had said, spin some of the embarrassment off my stupidly impulsive confession. Create some verbal acrobatics until Porter was left with the impression that, yes I liked him, like as a person, like any other person—but I didn’t.
“Yes,” I admitted.
Porter just stared at me, like he wasn’t really sure what to do, or maybe he didn’t think I could be serious. After several more horribly awkward seconds where I had to endure his skeptical expression he finally said something. “Why?”
Right then, I wished he had just kept staring at me in disbelief. Why? That was a really good question. I often prided myself on my ability to actually answer, with a high level of accuracy, all sorts of questions about all sorts of topics. Physics, history, geography—I was practically a Jeopardy goddess—but this question?
A woman with two small children bundled in puffy coats and tiny mittens came up behind Porter and turned up the library stairs. I watched them, as if maybe the answer Porter was asking me for could be found in their movements. I was stalling. I thought of all the reasons most other girls could have given for liking a guy: looks, personality . . . sports acumen? Maybe. But none of those reasons fit here, not really. Porter was good looking, really, really good looking, but if that was the only reason I was acting like an idiot here, then why hadn’t Bella’s boyfriend Darren, who was actually a stunning specimen of the male physique, ever made me feel anything but mild disgust?
Because it was more than those obvious things—at least it was for me. It had to be—but what? Finally, because I was cold and I just wanted to either go inside with him or head back to my car in utter humiliation, I looked into his eyes and told him the only truth I could come up with.
“I don’t know.”
Several seconds passed while Porter shoved his hands into the pockets of his jacket and seemed to consider what I had said. What did I mean—I don’t know? I wasn’t sure, but I knew it was exactly right. There was no logical reason why I felt the way I did, but I still felt it, and that feeling wanted me to figure out the why. “That probably sounds stupid,” I whispered.
He smiled and actually laughed. “No.” He held his arms wide. “What’s not to want? I mean, I’m practically every girl’s dream, right?”
He was joking, I knew that much. Except there was something about Porter, potential, that made me think that he might actually be all those things he didn’t think he was. “Have I completely freaked you out?” I asked.
Porter took a breath and his smiled faded. “No. I mean, how stupid would I have to be—a girl like you . . .”
Now it was my turn to laugh. “A girl like me?” I almost forgot that Porter had no idea how much most guys, most everyone, at Roosevelt High School barely knew I existed.
“Yeah, a girl like you. You’re smart, pretty. . . .” Porter shrugged. “You’re not exactly the kind of girl who’s usually into guys like me.”
Was my hearing working right? Smart—obviously. But pretty? The word almost made me squirm. Bella was pretty, all her friends were pretty, no one in the entire history of my life had ever used the word pretty in conjunction with the name Ruth Robinson. Come to think of it, not even my own mother had ever called me pretty as far as I could remember.
Where was this conversation going anyway? Was Porter trying to say that he felt the same, or was this the I’m a complete idiot for NOT feeling the same easy letdown? I was having a hard time figuring it out. “So does this mean you’ll still be my calculus partner?” I smiled and hoped he’d smile back, nod his head and simply agree that this was clearly the smartest thing he could do.
Porter didn’t smile. Instead, he looked up into the gray skies hanging over our heads. “I like you, Ruth.” He leveled his eyes at me. “I’ve never met anyone quite like you.” Then he shook his head. “But you should stay away from me,” he said in a tone so flat, so direct, there was no mistaking he meant it. “Thanks for taking me to watch the planes,” he whispered. Then he turned and walked up the stairs, through the double doors to the library, and out of my life.
At least, I assume that’s what he thought he was doing.
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