Forward Motion

Sam Wassel
    Michael Gardane traced the contour of his lower lip with the tip of his pencil, running the smooth eraser over its chapped surface as he stared absent-mindedly at the blank piece of notebook paper in front of him.  Writing had never exactly been his forte, and he couldn’t afford another incomplete in freshmen English if he wanted to avoid the torture of enduring it again next year or—even worse—over the summer.
    The vacancies both in his mind and on the page before him were suddenly occupied by a torrent of springy mahogany curls.
    “You’re here early,” chimed a voice from beyond the curtain of curlicues, tinkling as though it were striking each russet coil on its way to his ears.  The sound reminded him of his mother’s wind chimes.
    Michael glanced at the large digital clock above the whiteboard at the front of the room.  The incandescent green numbers indicated that it was 7:06.  He had exactly 24 minutes to compose at least 12 lines of verse.
    “Why are you here so early?” he asked offhandedly, angling his face slightly to the left— toward Anna—but keeping his eyes on the clock.
    “This is the same time I always get here,” Anna replied, following his gaze to the clock, which was now flashing 7:07.  Michael moved his eyes from the clock toward Anna, keeping his head tilted downward.  Her right elbow was braced against the surface of his desk.  The outer edge of her palm was positioned perfectly in line above her elbow, cradling one sun-kissed cheek, and her cinnamon ringlets poured over her slightly parted fingers and spilled onto his desk.  It was almost as if her skin couldn’t contain all of her warmth, and the overflow was manifesting itself in the russet spirals currently splayed across the laminated wood board of his desk top. 
    “Is that your poem?” Anna asked, turning Michael’s attention back to the blank sheet of paper now trapped under her elbow. “You really give new meaning to the term ‘blank verse,’ huh?”
    Michael’s face turned the color of Anna’s hair.  “Shut up,” he said, sweeping the auburn tendrils off of his desk.  They felt as warm and soft as they looked.  “I have better things to do with my time than play Dr. Seuss or Jack Frost or whatever.  We’re not all as enthusiastic about our homework as you are.”  Anna had had her nose perpetually stuck in a book since kindergarten, when he used to tease her about it on the school bus.
    “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference,” Anna replied, her voice ringing just as melodious in Michael’s ears despite his total obliviousness to the words it carried.  She lifted her elbow from where it rested against his desk, momentarily taking his would-be homework assignment—which had adhered itself to her tanned forearm—with her, and took her seat in the desk next to him.  “And it’s Robert Frost.”
    “Whatever,” he mumbled as he slouched in his seat, tucking his chin into his chest and studying the paper in front of him.  He snuck a sidelong glance in Anna’s direction.  She had become engaged in a fierce battle against an expandable file folder lodged in her backpack.  When she finally managed to extract it from its nylon confines, Michael saw the source of the struggle: the massive folder appeared to be held together with rubber bands that—in addition to looking perilously close to snapping—had gotten caught in the backpack’s zipper.  After disengaging the rubber bands from the zipper and removing them from the folder one by one—transferring them to her wrist, which was already adorned with a collection of ponytail holders—Anna pulled out a sheet of computer paper encased by a plastic sheet protector.  Judging by the perfectly centered form created by the superfluously ornate typeface, Michael assumed it to be her poetry assignment.
    “You typed yours?” he asked, glancing back at the sheet of notebook paper on his own desk, now slightly crumpled in the spot where it had clung to Anna’s arm.  It was still blank, save for an arced pencil mark that he had smudged across it when he’d swept Anna’s hair from his desk.  “We’re not even turning them in.  Do you have to be Little Miss Overachiever all the time?”
    “I happen to take pride in making my work presentable,” Anna replied tersely.  The tinkling quality in her voice had become more like punctuated clanks, like what Michael imagined it might sound like if someone were to take down his mother’s wind chime and strike its aluminum tubing against a block of concrete.  Without glancing in his direction, she pulled a thermos from her backpack and placed it on the corner of her desk. 
    “It’s an oral presentation,” Michael replied, his eyes darting back and forth between the neatly typed poem on her desk and the shoddy sheet of notebook paper on his own.  He squinted at her poem, trying to decipher the words formed by the elaborate font.  He couldn’t.
    “Design govern in a thing so small,” Anna replied, the musical quality returning to her voice.  “I owe it to my poetry to make it as beautiful in vision as it is in content.” She unscrewed the lid of the thermos and placed it on the opposite corner of her desk before lifting the container to her nose and taking an exaggerated inhalation.
    Michael had no idea what she was talking about, but the way she said it made him feel warm—like her hair, or the cloud of vapor that he had just seen her breathe in so deeply.
    “You’re bonkers,” he said.  “I think all that caffeine is going to your brain and sending it into overdrive or something.”
    “Actually,” Anna replied, caressing the rim of the thermos with her lips before taking a tentative sip of its steaming contents, “there are quite a few ongoing studies that suggest that moderate amounts of coffee may reduce a person’s risk for diabetes, heart disease, cancer, strokes, dementia—”
    “Yeah,” Michael cut her off, “’cause there’s nothing demented about finding joy in doing your homework.”
    “Believe it or not,” Anna replied, placing the thermos back on her desk and turning to face him, “some people actually prefer intellectual stimulation to lumbering around the weight room all the time, trying to show one another up like a bunch of baboons.”  Her hazel eyes narrowed.  They looked like little orbs of mint chocolate.  Or those caramel apple pops that stores put out in the fall.  Or tiny patches of the camouflage his dad used to wear.  “Some of us have actually managed to surpass the early ape stages of human evolution.”
    Michael failed to suppress the smile that seized the outer corners of his lips, pulling them upward.  “Monkey,” he corrected her.
    “Ex-cuse me?” Anna said.  Her voice oscillated somewhere between offended, angry, and confused.
    “A baboon is a monkey, not an ape,” he told her, meeting her hazel gaze.
    “Yeah,” Anna replied, rolling her eyes and turning to the front of the room as the ten-minute warning bell for first period resounded over the loudspeaker.  “I’m the demented one.” 
    “Well,” Michael continued, his poetry assignment completely forgotten now, “in all honesty, who are you to compare me to an animal?”
    “And what exactly is that supposed to mean?” Anna asked, replacing the lid on her thermos and pushing it back to the corner of her desk.
    “Are you kidding me?” Michael grinned, shifting in his seat so that his entire body was facing her.
    “Oh, yes, obviously,” Anna replied, removing one of the hair ties from her wrist and sweeping her cherry wood locks into an extremely bouncy ponytail.  “I’m totally ‘kidding’ you, as I’m clearly just rolling on the floor here, convulsing in fits of irrepressible laughter.”
    Michael smiled.  He didn’t know that Anna was capable of sarcasm.  “Feisty this morning, aren’t we?” he teased.  “What, the coffee hasn’t kicked in yet?”
    Anna swept a loose curl that hadn’t made it into her ponytail away from her forehead.  “Are you ever going to get to the point?”
    Michael stared at her for a moment.  Her face was slightly flushed, and her tan complexion and rosy cheeks had blended together in such a way that made her skin look as if it were reflecting the color of her hair.  He opened his mouth soundlessly, struggling to remember what had initiated their banter.
    “Uhh…” he mumbled, trailing off.  “What point?”
    “Exactly,” Anna replied, tucking the rogue curl behind her ear.
    Michael blinked.  It required a conscious effort.
    Anna sighed.  “Your insinuation is that I’m not an intelligent, civilized human being, such as your oh-so-brilliant and sophisticated self?” She stared pointedly at the pencil smear on the otherwise blank piece of paper in front of him.
    “Oh, yeah,” Michael said, rubbing his eraser—the one that had traversed his lips earlier— against the dark graphite mark.  The smudge merely doubled in size.  “I mean, you’re going to call me an animal?  Come on.”
    “I don’t follow,” Anna said, matching his body position so that their torsos were parallel to one another.  “Please, do enlighten me.”
    “Anna Molkowski?” Michael replied, wiggling his eyebrows at her expectantly.
    “Ah, yes, very good.  Quite impressive,” Anna replied, glancing behind her as students began trickling into the classroom from the hallway.  “I see I underestimated your intellect after all.”  She reached for her thermos and took a long sip, exhaling audibly.  “My deepest apologies.  Please, teach me your ways, oh wise one.”
    “Anna,” Michael lifted one eyebrow.  “Mol,” he lifted the other one and nodded emphatically. “Kowski.”  He grinned at her.  “Anna. Mol.  Kowski.  Anna-Mol.  Animal.”
    Anna coughed, spraying his desk with coffee. 
    “Truly,” she sputtered, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, “your wit astounds me.” 
    Michael could have sworn he saw the semblance of a smile peeking from behind the hand she had used to wipe the dribbles of coffee from her chin.  He was beginning to wonder if he had actually managed to make her laugh, but the final bell signaling the beginning of first period interrupted his musing.
    As the bell rang, Anna snapped into perfect posture, facing the front of the classroom expectantly.  The abrupt twist of her neck caused her ponytail to circle her head like a boomerang, and Michael caught a whiff of it before it settled into place, its tip resting at the nape of her neck.  Anna’s hair smelled as warm as it looked.  Like apple cider.