Paper Riddles (Lindsey Danis)

(Edited by Callie Doyle-Scott)

Freshman year of high school, someone hands me a note and a piece of candy. I eat the candy but puzzle over the note. Really it’s a series of numbers. It doesn’t make any sense. This is how Chris comes into my life: on paper, in riddles.

We attend an elite independent day school in the suburbs of Boston, filled with the entitled children of wealthy parents who all look like they stepped out of a J. Crew catalog, their LL Bean backpacks sagging with calculus problems and irregular French verbs. I’m drawn to glitter eyeshadow, fishnets, and cargo pants rather than khakis and sweater sets. I listen to Tori Amos instead of Dave Matthews Band. These things automatically make me an outsider, and they caught Chris’s attention.

My best friend is a chubby math geek from a trashy suburb. She scribbles and doodles and morphs the numbers on the note into letters by taking the square root of each coded numeral. Decoded, the note says something about coincidence and the colour of my eyes before asking whether I’ve been trying to say something all semester long as we passed in the hallways.

The note is romantic. At least we think it is, blushing and whispering, freshman girls who have never been kissed, but it’s also totally weird since I don’t know the guy who sent it.

We ask around in the hallways. The gay guy I crush on tells me he knows Chris and can pass him a note if I write one. What’s he like? I ask. Since Chris seems to think we have some sort of connection, I want to know.

He’s nice, my crush assures me, showing me Chris’s yearbook photo so I can put a face to the name. With his long hair, pimpled skin, regulation blue blazer and striped tie, Chris looks smart and a little bit feminine. I’m not instantly attracted to him, but I am curious. Plus, the seniors have already left school, getting out a month early for a capstone project. It feels unfair that someone I’ll never see in person gets the last word.

I write something open-ended and teenaged back. Like thanks, and no, and maybe let’s meet for coffee? Only we don’t meet right away. We trade another set of notes, then talk on the phone, and finally decide to get ice cream. He picks me up in a beater car.

Chris is tall and reedy, polite and engaged, but what are we doing? The sheer teenage awkwardness of it all makes me shy, so we fall back on discussing books and music. He orders strawberry ice cream and talks about how excited he is to go to McGill. I tell him about the YMCA trip I’m taking to Israel and Egypt. It feels exciting to be taken seriously by someone who’s a little weird, like me, and who survived my high school. By the time he drops me off, we can’t stop talking. I feel like I’ve known Chris for a long time and that sense of being understood gives me a high beyond mere attraction. Maybe we were cosmically connected, like he thought.

By the time I’m back from the Middle East, he’s at college. We swap massive eight-page letters penned in cramped handwriting. Whenever a new missive arrives, I take it upstairs and savour it, rereading the lines to know everything I can about Chris. When he mentions the Griffin and Sabine series, I special order every book. Scanning the fanciful, lust-filled letters for clues to what is happening, I feel certain this is life-changing.

Meanwhile, I join the gay-straight alliance to spend more time with my crush. He drags me to a citywide meeting and I freeze. It’s great that all these other kids are out and proud, but I’m just here to be an ally. I hang around, keeping my mouth shut, waiting for him to drive me home.

Chris drops out of McGill halfway through freshman year. He moves into his parent’s basement and our letters boomerang closer, until he moves to L.A. for a program in radio or audio, something technical and masculine and almost outmoded. I cannot understand how a smart misfit like him would willingly leave a top-tier university for his parent’s basement. I sink deep into his letters, needing to know what college, what life, will be like for me.

When summer comes again, I decide to go to camp. I offer to help teach fencing because it sounds fun, and I’m bored of the standard arts and crafts activities. I bond with the counselors who teach it, short Jewish women who attend rival Ivy League schools. Halfway through the summer I start arriving early to lessons. I lie on a flat rock beside the dining hall and watch entranced as one dark-haired instructor leads the campers back and forth in the fencer’s crab-like walk. You’re the best assistant, she says one day, her voice velvety in my ear. All the campers love you. They all want to hang out with you instead of fence. You’re so much more useful than the other staff. I am conscious only of her touch on my arm, the sudden nearness of her voice, and an unfamiliar trembling in my stomach.

I seek her out in my free time and memorise the way her hands move to punctuate her thoughts, how saliva collects in the corners of her mouth. I can’t stay away from her and I don’t understand it. But by the end of the summer I have two plans: I’m going to take fencing lessons when I get home, and I’m going to visit her on campus.

In the fall, Chris returns from L.A. and we meet in downtown Boston. He wears a suit and tie, his long hair pulled into a low ponytail. He appears suddenly grown-up in a way that confuses me. His job is mundane and doesn’t suit him, but he seems alright with it. I swallow my disappointment in his humdrum life: wasn’t he capable of so much more? We go another long period without contact.

It’s spring of my junior year. Prom is coming. So are the Indigo Girls, who’ve been a favorite band of mine for years. Taking Chris to the Prom feels like, if not my one shot at a high school romance, then a way to give our story a meaning that eludes. On the phone, I make awkward small talk before blurting out an invite.

No one’s ever invited me to Prom, Chris says. Sure.

We go for pizza. I buy a sparkly blue one-shoulder dress and try to decide how to style my chin-length hair.

A girl from the gay-straight alliance, Susie, finds out I’m going to see the Indigo Girls and offers my friend and me a ride to the show. Susie is a greasy insomniac poet whose older sister is best friends with Chris. We’ve grown friendly from the literary magazine and our connection is confirmed when we realize we’re both toting around The Bell Jar in our L.L. Bean backpacks.

The night of the concert, we huddle in front of the stage and talk until Susie offers me a sip of her Nantucket Nectar. Her petite hand brushes mine as I take the cup and the watermelon-strawberry juice shocks my mouth with its sweetness. I’m knocked off guard by her touch. She steps closer, and everything shifts.

While my head is still spinning, my friend leans over and says to Susie, At school everyone thinks we’re lesbians. But we’re not. They just think that cause we hang out a lot. My friend pulls me toward her. We like boys. Susie looks to me, waiting for a correction. I try to meet her eyes, but can’t say anything.

When the music starts, we crowd close to watch the musicians. There’s a rainbow light display and I point it out. Susie puts her arm around my shoulder and I am rooted to the spot, her skin against mine, suddenly wanting something my brain riots against. I’m drawn back to the fencing instructor and all those afternoons of careful observation. What I wanted then and what I want now crystallises, and a cold fear drowns my longing.

Prom plans are made without my knowledge. Chris’s family has a house on the Cape and we will all be sleeping over afterwards — Chris and I, and Susie and Susie’s date, a girl she’s been seeing from a wealthy western suburb. Chris sits down with my mother and explains how safe we will be and how no one will be drinking. I am left with nothing to do but go along.

I was looking forward to Prom, but when the big night arrives it feels empty. People I don’t like and never talk to mill around in fancy dresses, their shoes discarded under tables. No one eats because they don’t want to look fat. Susie is there with the girl and it isn’t a big deal for anyone, except me. We sit with her friends, who aren’t my friends, and I long for the formal event to be over because I can’t even talk to Chris over the music. I feel alone in the crowd.

I’m relieved when it ends and Chris and I drive down to the Cape. We’ve seen each other so few times that each occasion feels momentous. We lie in the grass and look at the stars, the ocean crashing beneath us as we wait for the others. I feel like I’m supposed to be in love with you or something, Chris says, but I’m not. His words cut to the bone. He’s not. He’s not? What has all of this been for, then? I study the stars as his words float between us, grasping onto the sound of the waves hitting the seawall, desperate for something to steady me.

Susie and her date arrive and we stay up, talking about nonsense. I push away thoughts about what I want, because I’m too nervous to say any of it out loud. Chris and I fall asleep on separate sofas; Susie and her date sleep in the guest room. Later they tell me they left me a bed and I try not to think about them squeezed into one twin together.

Back at school, I feel sick over how cowardly I’ve been. I pour my feelings into poems scribbled in margins during free periods and classes. The words won’t stop coming. A couple of weeks later, I see Susie again when the GSA holds a party to watch the Ellen coming-out episode. My old crush convinces me to read one of my poems. I sputter through an apology of sorts for squirming away from Susie at the concert. I need her to hear this, even if it’s difficult to grab the breath to acknowledge it. Susie sits next to her girlfriend; they hold hands, but her eyes are on me. She comes over afterwards and places a cool hand on mine. I like your poems. Then she too is gone.

Prom was the last time I tried making Chris, and myself, into something we weren’t. My expectations for a traditional high school romance fell apart under the nascent realisation that he could never be the person I really wanted. His rejection stung, but mostly because our relationship had all the trappings of a fairy-tale, so I’d let myself believe we had some cosmic connection, like he’d always said. It was becoming harder for me to ignore the fact that I just wasn’t that kind of girl. Even though his rejection on prom night shook me, I worried more about how things had ended with Susie. More than anything I wished I’d been brave enough to grab her hand when she reached for me, and face what I’d resisted.

Lindsey Danis is a writer living in the Hudson Valley. Her work has appeared most recently in Razor Literary Magazine, Mortar Magazine, and AfterEllen. When not writing, you can find her cooking, hiking, kayaking, and traveling.
Find her on Twitter @lindseydanis or at