High School Sweet Non-Hearts, or: I was Definitely Smarter than Him

Within a thirty-mile radius, the Butler County Fair is the pinnacle of summertime existence in the lives of young people. If you are a teenaged-Midwesterner, there is simply no place else to be on a Saturday night in July. All your friends will be there, not to mention your younger brother, his girlfriend, everyone from high school—including an old classmate of yours, let’s call him Willy Thompson. He is long and lean and has this peculiar way of moving his eyebrows up and down whenever he speaks, like punctuation in a written sentence. You can never decide if this is charming or ridiculous, but at least he has a car.

This particular Saturday night, you have somehow ended up at the Butler County Fair alone with Willy. He asked you—specifically—to come with him, but it’s not a date or anything, you hope it’s more circumstantial than that. It seemed almost an accident that you have somehow ended up walking side by side with Willy, talking about if college is worth it.

I’m just so over school, he says, you know? I’m ready to get out of here and make something of myself.

What would you make of yourself? you ask, thinking how much you like this idea: making yourself, as if from scratch, picking and choosing ingredients at will.

I don’t know. He runs a hand over his tobacco brown hair, but it is cropped so short that his fingers just pass through air. He cut it last year, when he was thinking of joining the army and wanted to try out the buzzed look. You liked the longer hair better. I just want to be working, he adds, maybe head out West? I like working with my hands.

You find yourself admiring the fact that yes, he does have the body for manual labor.

Like The Grapes of Wrath, you say, thinking of the Joads going to California to pick peaches.

His eyebrows cease their vertical movements and furrow over his eyes. Grapes of what?

It’s a book, you tell him. I read it in English class. You don’t remind him he was in that class with you.

The two of you walk a bit more and you think of how romantic it would be if he took you on the Ferris wheel, or maybe bought you a sno-cone. You pass the aisle with all the games and a man calls out for the boy to win the lady a prize. Willy looks at you and grins. The upward tilt of his mouth has nothing on the curve of those eyebrows. Okay, yeah, let’s give ‘er a try.

He gives the man three dollars and throws a dart, pops the balloon. The man gestures for anything on the back wall. Willy studies the stuffed animals with an intensity you wish he had applied to Steinbeck.

What do you want? he says.

You see a cute bear at the bottom of the stack, yellow like Winnie the Pooh with a hat that reminds you of Indiana Jones, but all you say is, You pick for me.

He points to a Rastafarian monkey with dreadlocks and a rainbow beanie. That one. He hands it to you. Don’t say I never gave you anything.

Thanks, you say.

After that Willy says he wants to save his money and so you leave the games lined up like ducks in a row, and the rides spinning and twirling and lighting up the night sky like noontime. You head toward the animal barns instead, which pleases you. The shrieks of other people’s laughter fall behind and you are more alone with Willy than you have ever been before. This pleases you too—or you know that it’s supposed to, and that’s close enough.

Later you will not remember what you talk about walking through the goat barn, the cow arena, the pig stalls. What you will remember is when you ask him if the two of you can go to see the horses and he says, Of course. You skip a little bit ahead of him, greet each new horse like an old friend. Hi pretty girl, and a click of your tongue. Hello sweet boy, with a smooching sound. The horse slobbers on the stuffed monkey in your hand and you are not sorry.

Willy stands just behind you, hands in his pockets. What is it about chicks and horses? He laughs.

When you look over your shoulder at him you wonder if he always had that odd way of talking out of the side of his mouth.

I just like them, you say.

A buddy of mine has two big stallions, he says. He kicks at the dirt. He is trying, maybe, to impress you.

Stallions? You are amazed and, at first, also impressed, like he wanted. You have never heard of anyone casually owning a stallion. Keeping two male unneutered horses together is a high risk. You ask, What does he do with them?

He uses them to pull his plow, I think. They’re huge, like twice the size of these guys. He gestures to the chestnut quarter horse you’re petting in front of him.

What does he mean? Clydesdales, draft horses?

Does he breed them? you ask, because why else would anyone not neuter their male horses?

Nah, says Willy. But one is a boy and one is a girl, I think.

You say, Uh huh. Afterwards, when you are both walking back to his car, you let him hold your hand. His fingers are rough and red and sweaty. Yours feel squished in his big palm. You are standing in sun made from the headlights of his car, which he has started with a click of a button from the keys in his pocket. There is a moment when he almost walks to his side of the vehicle and you to yours but instead you call him back.

Yeah? he says, standing right in front of you now.

Suddenly you lose your nerve, maybe even change your mind, but he still sees it in your eyes. When he kisses you his chapped lips are slobbery and yours are still. Later, all you will remember thinking is How the hell are you supposed to do this?

It is your first kiss and you hate it.

He joins the army and three years later he will end up with a girl named Amanda who smiles sweet but empty. At least, you think it was Willy that joined the army. Maybe that was another boy. Certainly, though, he was the boy who kissed you for the very first time in front of a car. Wasn’t he? It is so hard, sometimes, to remember.

Either way, when you see his photos with another girl on Facebook, you will remind yourself about his friend’s female stallion.

Samantha Edmonds is the author of the fiction chapbook Pretty to Think So, forthcoming from Selcouth Station Press in 2019. Her fiction has appeared in such journals as Mississippi Review, Black Warrior Review, Pleiades, The Pinch, Indiana Review, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency, among others. Her nonfiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Literary Hub, Ploughshares, VICE, Bustle, and more. She serves as the Fiction Editor for Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts and the Community Outreach Director for Sundress Academy for the Arts. She currently lives in Knoxville, where she's an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Tennessee.