As it always happens, when Rachel smiled at Greg for the first time, he knew he’d be in love forever. This was well before he’d explored the meaning of love, and just two weeks before his first kiss. Rachel’s smile came at a moment when Greg needed it most — when he had fallen into that pit of despair in high school known as the “laughing stock” for his inhuman ability to embarrass himself just by showing up. The label would haunt him for every day of his life. But haunt is the wrong term in this context. After this day, Greg wore the label of “laughing stock” with great pride, as each time the label was crudely applied by acquaintances and strangers he would forever think of Rachel.
He’d just come out of the bathroom, clutching the paper towel he’d used to open the door, purpose in his step and a quick breath of confidence as the cool air of the science classroom corridor brushed his face. Rachel stood there, right where she was when Greg had gone in and decided to take action. She had the unfortunate locker location just outside the boys’ bathroom — unfortunate but for this day.
Rachel smiled at Greg, but only because his fly was down. He remembered the cool glance she gave to his crotch, the fleeting thought that maybe, just maybe, she desired something more. But alas, within 0.8 seconds of her smile, she laughed — cackled, really — and her smile moved on from Greg to her best friend beside her as they scurried away down the hall.
Greg didn’t care. One smile was enough. He zipped his fly, smooth as Sinatra. If he had sunglasses, he would slide them on and cruise through the school on top of the world. Sometimes, he thought, you just have to draw attention to yourself despite your pride. His brother taught him that.
When Greg was younger, his older brother Frank — elected class president and named valedictorian — once poked Janie Crenshaw in the right boob just to get a slap in the face. The mark of her hand faded in a day, but detention lasted a week. His legend carried even over the six years since. It was worth it, Frank told Greg, just to get a feel for that boob.
Frank married Janie as soon as they graduated. Greg felt inspired, so today he left his fly down. Next week, he would execute the next step of his official plan to “enjoy life as it is”: stamp on the toe of the school’s track star just before the next meet. No one really cared for track, least of all Greg, but the fact of the matter was that Tony Rockatori was the best athlete the school’d ever seen — as in, ever. And Rachel was in love with him. This was enough to inspire a jealous act.
Tony Rockatori was a monster, a junior who stood nearly six-feet tall and often went head-to-head in heated exchanges with Principal Tevale. He’d received Olympic qualifying times and was already a national household name — for households that paid any attention to track and field. His physique had a destiny on the front of a Wheaties box, a starring role in Nike commercials, and four marriages with three kids and a yacht that he would live on in international waters from the age of forty until his death. Tony Rockatori was destined to become a hero.
The week after the smile, Greg twisted his ankle. He ended ass-over-face upside down on the wet floor of the entrance hall after school, slushy floor at his forehead, tears in his eyes. Everything had been planned so perfectly — except for the weather. One thing about the Northeast is that your best laid plans are often covered with snow. He’d waited in his daily stake-out spot for Tony Rockatori, rubbing his hands, waiting for the magic moment to happen.
And then she walked by.
Rachel didn’t smile, but she did look away as soon as Greg saw her. He couldn’t believe it. One second, her eyes were locked on his. How long was she staring at him? Was she, in fact, glaring? Was there distaste in her eyes or, instead, dare he think it — desire? Greg didn’t have long to think about it. Mesmerized by her presence, he took the last step, instead of jumping it, just as Tony pounded down the hall.
Tony, for his part, wasn’t looking ahead. He was running backwards, checking out Rachel’s ass. His foot pounded on Greg’s. Greg toppled foreword, trying to catch his balance but instead slipping in the slushy entranceway, while Tony toppled back and smacked to the floor. Greg cried over his twisted ankle, while Tony gritted his teeth against a broken arm and sprained back. It would be only a year before he would run again and five years until the Wheaties box. But Greg’s mission was accomplished — although he was now the walking bullseye for insults and hate-stares from students and staff throughout the halls.
Rachel wouldn’t look at him again. Even when they were paired up in math class, or when he held the door open for her at the end of each preiod. Two weeks after The Smile, Greg decided to put his plan on hiatus. His ankle had just started feeling normal again, and despite the hate-stares and random, cruel noogies in the hallways, Greg’s life had pretty much returned to Laughing Stock status, reminding him again of her smile.
He found himself in the boys’ room finishing his business when he hesitated zipping his fly. Could history be repeated? Probably not. Nothing happens the same two times in a row, not exactly the same, anyway. What if he tried it again? Would he get a smile again, or a sneer? Probably neither. Wishful thinking, he decided, and zipped up his fly.
He exited the bathroom and casually walked past Rachel’s locker. She was alone then, face buried in her hands. Greg took notice, but decided this was not his place. He’d heard rumors of her not making the debate team, but thought that was impossible. She was more articulate than most of the teachers in the joint.
The hall cleared out, and class was about to begin. Then, he heard a sob, a blurt, and a sniffle. She was crying. Greg hated crying, hated doing it, hated seeing other people do it. The only thing that could save someone from crying — lesson two from big brother — is laughter.
He turned, watched the straggling students just make it to their classrooms. He was alone in the hall with Rachel, probably had less than a minute to say something, to do anything, before a random kid would skip out on class, or a silly monitor would shuffle through the halls. Time enough to go the distance, he decided.
He unzipped, pulled off his pants. He took off his shirt, folding it neatly on his bag, which he set on the ground just outside his classroom. If he was going to come out on top, he had to do it in style. He strolled up to Rachel’s locker in his tighty-whities and socks, realizing he looked like a pale bony idiot, but not caring in the slightest.
She flipped her hair from her face and wiped her eyes before shutting the door. She didn’t notice him behind her. Greg leaned against the lockers, put an eyebrow in the air and a grin on his lips. “Lot of weather we’ve had lately, ehl?”
She turned her head slow, like a shot in the movies. She was sad, still, and even afraid. Then, she looked him up and down — his scrawny body, bony arms, tiny nipples. She chuckled. She stifled a larger laugh, and then she giggled.
When she cackled, Greg let out his own little laugh. He lifted himself off the wall, straightened out.
“Stop cryin’, alright?” Rachel stopped everything — laughing and crying. She reached out, Greg already wincing from the anticipated slap. And then she kissed him. Just once, on the lips. She pulled back, looking him in the eyes. He was stunned, shocked, by all standards. The look on Rachel’s face told him it’s okay, this is perfect, this moment. She kissed him again, then one more time. She pulled away to go to class.
“Goin’ to class now?” Greg asked, unable to think of anything to say.
“Doesn’t mean I want to.” She stopped. She tiptoed back to him and kissed him one more time.
Greg was able to dress himself completely without being caught. He skipped school that day and felt like he deserved anything life had to offer, good or bad.
He married Rachel last week, four years after their first kiss, four years and two weeks after the moment he fell in love. Occasionally he leaves his fly open, and she zips him up.
This is their way of saying “I love you.”