The headline of The Central Florida Future, my college campus’s newspaper, read “Coping with grief, disbelief.” A good catch phrase, for a tabloid. The sub headline: “Stabbing death at University High School shocks students and alumni.”
The day of the stabbing I went for a three-mile run on a trail behind my alma mater after class. My apartment was as close to my college as to my old high school. Helicopters hovered above UHS that day. Classes had ended and kids spilled through the chain link fence onto the trail. I weaved around their sunken-in-the-cement feet like a slalom racer, close enough to brush their backpacks and hear snippets of their conversations: Did you see it? Mikey was red all over. What? Kevin ran, quick. I concentrated on my midway point: three yellow poles giving a warning for kids to watch out for cars at the crosswalk.
I slapped the flaking paint and turned around. Students clogged the trail. I shuffled through them. The three helicopters lapped between UHS’s freshman campus and its main campus in figure eight loops: news team, county sheriff, hospital. I ran a little faster.
As I scanned the Future’s article, it mentioned the victim’s last name: Nieves—a common Spanish name in Florida, like Smith for white kids in New England. Still, I had known one Nieves personally, in all of Orlando. A girl. In middle school. And I wondered if it had something to do with her.
The chaos started as students rushed to catch their buses in the loop between UHS’ two campuses. A circle ringed around the two boys. One moment both boys were standing. In a glint of a blade—coiled, then thrust—metal entered flesh and pierced Nieves’ heart. The girl who was the monkey-in-the-middle between the boys watched the knife go so far into Nieves that the bloody hilt remained lodged in Nieves’ chest. The next instant the other boy stood alone in the echo of screams as the circle exploded, scattering students like shrapnel.
The newspaper coverage continued with the arrest, court dates, and waiting for sentencing. Then Nieves’ sister—Barbara, my middle school crush—rose off the page from my memory.
In sixth grade, Barbara sat at a front table with me in Ms. Gonzalez’s sex ed class. We were told students were kicked out if they laughed when she said, “Penis” or “Vagina.” Ms. Gonzalez’s threat made us fake coughs to cover up our stifled laughter. There was a lot of coughing in that class.
Ms. Gonzalez taught an abstinence-only policy. She never put a condom over a banana. The only thing that stuck in my mind was when Ms. Gonzalez dispelled the pull-out method by saying, “A million sperms can sit on the head of a match.” She lit it, letting the sulfur-smell waft in the room, and then puffed out the flame.
At the end of the year, in the frenzy of yearbook signing, I asked for Barbara’s address, instead of her phone number. My grandfather had died and Barbara was going to a different middle school the next year. Barbara wrote her address on a scrap of paper and signed my yearbook with Good luck next year. I would be on a plane the next day for my grandfather’s funeral. I sent Barbara a postcard before I left. When I came home, I expected a letter from Barbara. I waited until the end of summer before I threw away her address.
In eighth grade, a middle school advisor told me I might as well take a high school summer school class to get to know a few kids before beginning my freshman year the next fall. All the middle schools filtered up to high school like a pyramid scheme.
Over summer, I took Physical Fitness as my first class at University High School. The coach told everyone to wear appropriate clothes and shoes. My uniform was mesh shorts, a t-shirt, and sneakers. I sat at my desk-chair coping notes and completing worksheets on stretching, exercise, diet, and nutrition. The air conditioning made me shiver and want to move around to raise my core temperature. But there were only two physical activities: the hour of gym after lunch and every Friday’s outing.
During lunch, the humidity thawed my blood as I walked through UHS’ open-aired halls, I bounced my eyes from one summer school student to the next, wondering if I would see them again in fall. Then I recognized someone I already knew. Her curvy liquid figure sat on the hard, right angles of a concrete planter box. It had been several years since I threw away her address. The bell rang before I could ask her if she ever got my postcard.
That Friday’s outing was at an ice skating rink. Barbara came up to me as I stumbled with my metal skates crumbling around my ankles on the rubber-matted floor, while I tried to stand up straight. I caught her arm for a crutch, looked up at her, and figured I could support myself. Barbara told me she still had that postcard.
During high school, I waved to Barbara in the halls and she smiled. I didn’t ask Barbara why she never wrote me back. She had already had high school boyfriends in middle school. I asked her what she was up to and she said she had joined drama and they were performing Shakespeare. I thought, “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” but I didn’t say anything.
I was a chicken. I never got Barbara’s phone number. And if I had, what would I say? That I had a crush on her, but wasn’t a guy who would stab another kid over her. That I was just another person from her past who hoped she could cope with her grief, but left it unsaid, unwritten.
When I came home from running, I recycled the newspaper. I opened my yearbook and saw the heart I had put around Barbara’s photo. I wondered who was there when Barbara crumpled into a heap. I should’ve at least asked for her address again, so I could write to her now. I would tell her that I wished the blade retracted. Pulling out, instead of pushing in. That her brother’s blood pumped in, instead of gushing out.
—Photo Randy OHC/Flickr