|The rat-a-tat-tat of my typewriter was as soothing as waves crashing on the beach. Every keystroke meant another letter, word, or sentence on the page. Every whoosh of the rollers meant another layer added to what I called The Leaning Tower of Paper. Hey, it‘s a working title. My ideas flowed so fast I should‘ve had a radar gun on me. I was in, what athletes like to call, The Zone.
It was in early January 1987 when I realized that it was my destiny to be a writer. I was good at it, I liked doing it, and when I wasn’t writing, I found myself thinking about it. Taking hold of your destiny when you‘re six months shy of your sixteenth birthday is no easy task. For one thing, you have school five days a week with homework assignments every night. If you play a sport, belong in a club, or play an instrument, then that takes up more of your time. When you finally do get home, your Mom and Dad hand you a long list of chores. It‘s not like when you‘re an adult and you have way more time to fulfill your destiny. It‘s way harder when you‘re a teenager.
The rain fell like Niagara Falls outside. Jacob worried that at any minute the giant window would shatter and send shards all over his room. The leaves on the giant oak tree in his yard that hadn‘t fallen in the downpour blew away in the howling wind. His unlucky neighbors caught in the rainstorm scurried for shelter. Their makeshift umbrellas of magazines and newspapers dissolved away in their hands. Jacob‘s ears perked up as thunder echoed in the distance.
Jacob imagined Lindsay‘s car pulling up to her darkened driveway. He would grab his coat and step outside. He‘d hurdle the chain-link fence surrounding his yard. Lindsay would be there waiting for him, flashing that brilliant smile of hers that he knew so well. He imagined walking up to her, standing face to face, with each of them feeling the heat of each other‘s breath…
Of course, that was when my phone rang and I dropped out of The Zone. Normally, I would have pulled the phone out of the wall. But after a quick glance at the clock, I picked up the receiver before the first ring even finished. “Right on time,“ I said.
“How‘d you know it was me?“ Ally asked.
“Because you are nothing if not punctual.“
“Am I that predictable?“
“I prefer to say reliable,“ I said. “It makes you sound more put together.“
Ally and I talked on the phone every night at the same time since she left for vacation. Our, I guess I‘d call it a relationship, had moved along great. Better than great. We weren‘t having those awkward pauses and silences like other people did. We talked like we always did: about the Lakers, about neither of us being ready to go back to school, and about life.
She cleared her throat. “How‘s the book coming along?“
I banged my elbow against the typewriter and the “Z“ key popped off. “Hold on,“ I said as I grabbed the Super Glue. “I‘m listening, I swear.“
“You sound busy,“ she said.
I held the phone with my shoulder and tried not to glue it there. “No, no. Tell me about your vacation. How‘s the weather? Did you go skiing?“
“Cold,“ she said. “And no, I‘m not up for it.“
“Why? Did you break your leg or something?“ I laughed. When she was silent on her end, I tossed the glue down. “Oh God, did you break your leg or something?“
Ally let out a soft chuckle. “No, I‘m packing for home.“
“Cutting the trip short?“
“My dad has some things to do here and Vince wanted to get a little more skiing in,“ she said. “It‘ll just be me.“
A drop of sweat fell onto my glasses. “So, you‘re coming home…by yourself?“
I cleared my throat. “Um…when?“
“Wednesday,“ she said.
I dug through my hamper for my best dress shirt and saw the giant smear of mustard across the front. “I can pick you up at the airport. I mean, if you want.“
“I couldn‘t ask you to do that,“ she said. “I can just catch the bus home or take a taxi…“
“Ally,” I said. “I’d be happy to help. Don’t worry about it.” I scrambled for a blank sheet that I wasn‘t going to turn into a paper airplane. “What time is your flight?“
“TWA. Flight 1789.“
“Got it,“ I underlined the flight info and circled it twice. “Why are you coming home so early? I mean, I‘m happy you are, but I was curious.“
It was silent on her end. “I want to see you.”
A church choir belted out the “Hallelujah“ chorus in my head. “You do?“
“Yes,“ she said.
“Wow,“ I said. I strummed my fingers on the typewriter as my mind raced with images of Ally in a slinky red dress. “I… I guess I‘ll see you soon.“ I winced as I heard the crack in my voice.
The line crackled and hummed. “Nothing,“ she said. “I‘ll see you Wednesday.“
“See you then,“ I said. We said our goodbyes and hung up. I felt my heartbeat thumping in my ears. Did I actually hear what I heard?
“She actually said that?“ Josh asked. “Alyson Paige McCartney actually told you, Brandon Jo-Jo Delacruz…“
“That‘s not my middle name,“ I interrupted.
“‘I want to see you,’“ he said. “She used those exact words.“
“Yes,“ I said as I tried not to have the biggest smile on my face. But in my head, I was bouncing up and down like a pogo stick.
Josh smiled. “You realize what this means, don‘t you? You need to step it up.”
“Totally step it up,“ Robbie said.
I took off my hat and scratched my head. “Step up what?“
“My God, do you brush your hair with a fork?“ Robbie asked.
I quickly put my hat back on. “Is it really that bad?”
He bridged his fingers and held them in front of his face. “Brandon, you‘re a six and a half or a seven on your best day. But Ally‘s tall, gorgeous, athletic, and has that half-Filipino, half-white complexion. She‘s like, a ten. You are way, way out of your league here. If you want to be with an angel, you gotta learn how to fly.“
“Hold on a second, if I‘m a seven…“
“Six and a half,“ he said as he stared at my head. “Remind me to give you my hairdresser’s business card later.”
“If I‘m a seven, then what are you?“
“Hey! I‘m not saying that I‘m perfect! I‘m like an eight…and a half.“
“Out of what?“ I asked. “A hundred?“
Josh put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “You know you and Ally are my best friends in the world, right? I‘m pulling for you two crazy kids. So believe me when I say this: if you want this to be the best night of your life, do not, under any circumstances, be yourself.“
“Excuse me?“ I asked.
“He‘s right,“ Robbie said.
“You have to be an even better version of yourself,“ Josh said. “A version that Ally‘s never seen. You want her to think of you as a man and not the kid from down the block. You gotta look the part, sound the part, and hell, you gotta smell the part!“
“Get a bottle of Polo Cologne. Or Drakkar. And for God‘s sake, no Old Spice,“ Robbie said as he flapped his tie at me. “You should come by my store. Our coats are 25% off. With my 20% discount, that‘s like 45%!“
“I see that math tutor you got has done wonders for you,“ I said.
“Look, B,“ Josh said. “We‘re not asking you to change everything.“
“Just the things that matter,“ Robbie said. “Your hair, clothes, and personality.“
Clearly, their idea of pep talk was tossing a drowning man an anchor. But I guess wearing a sweatshirt with coffee stains doesn’t make the best of impressions. “Fine,“ I said. “What do you idiots have in mind?“