HOPE AT LAST
by Jon Epstein

My skin didn’t fit. I was consumed with angst, self-consciousness, and low self-esteem. But, of course, at fifteen, I just thought everyone’s life was better than mine.

A loud siren blares outside in the distance. It’s the second week of summer school. Monday. Sunlit dust particles float down to the floor. I’m standing alone, leaning against the doorjamb in little more than an uninspired slouch, waiting for Dr. Weeks to unlock the door and first period bell to ring. I hate Mondays. I hate waiting. I hate first period. And I hate being alone. I hate Tuesdays too.

Kane Nakamura approaches me from the dark end of the hallway. That’s weird, what’s he doing up here? He’s not in my class. “Hey, Epstein,” Kane says.

“Yeah?” I do a double take. I pretend that I’m not totally uncool and look around to make sure Kane’s speaking to me.

“Do you know who Sue Jolson is?” Kane grins.

Muted sunlight washes over the semi-polished floor. I try to weigh things out, wondering if this is some kind of joke. I look around the hall at kids huddled together in hushed voices. The walls are lined with faded green metal lockers that look welded shut.

“Sure,” I say. I envision Sue’s bra, almost busting at the seams.

Kane looks over his shoulder like he’s a Rookies informant and says, “Sue asked me to tell you that she likes Jon Epstein.”

Even though Kane’s one of the jocks from Le Conte, I figure he’s not putting me on. Unlike all the other letterman sweater jerks, he’s never acted elitist and was nice enough to help me tackle the horse straddle in eight-grade PE in lieu of Coach Allayers’s belittling screams. I always figured since his parents emigrated to the U.S from Japan, they probably taught him old world manners.

“Really?” I can’t even imagine how that’s even possible. Sue and I have never spoken. The whole year in algebra she never even looked at me once. I would know, because I was always checking her out.

“Yeah, for real.” Kane seems convincing.

“That’s cool.” I try not to stammer or drool. “I think she’s nice.”

Kane looks as though he has something on the tip of his tongue but says nothing. He fidgets, switching his weight from one sneaker to the other. We stand in awkward silence.

“What?” I want him to spill whatever he’s holding on to.

“Well,” Kane says with a sheepish look, “she asked me to tell you last week but I forgot. She asked me again, just five minutes ago.” Kane looks at his watch. “You should go up to her during Nutrition and say ‘Hi.’ She hangs out in the quad by the banner wall under the trees.” 

“So you think I should just go up to her and say ‘Hello’?” That seems normal, except for the fact that I’m a klutzy nerd who doesn’t know how to act cool around girls. 

“Totally, dude.” Kane says.

“Okay.” What will be my opening line? What if she changes her mind? What if this really is some kind of prank? My brain seizes up like a hot engine in need of motor oil. “Well, thanks, man.” 

“Hey man, I gotta book it.” Kane walks away, then stops and turns. “Just go up to her.”

“Okay.” So this is how the world turns? Sue dispatches Kane to deliver news that can change my life. Man, she’s pretty, and jeez, talk about B-52s!  “See ya.”

* * *

The hallway is filling up and I’m no longer slouching. I whistle the theme song from M*A*S*H. Wow, a summer school girlfriend! We could take the RTD to the beach. We could go swimming at Verdugo Pool. We could do Baskin Robbins after dinner—eat ice cream and watch the sun go down.

Dr. Weeks interrupts my hopes and dreams with a loud clearing of his throat. “Do you mind, Mr. Epstein?” He scowls.

“Oh, sorry,” I say, and step aside so he can unlock the door; his long bony fingers fumble with his large key ring. He can’t seem to find the right one and mutters under his breath. He has a BAND-AID on the top of his bald head. Probably banged himself on the tree branch while mowing the lawn again. Beads of sweat trickle down the side of his scalp while he keeps wrestling with the lock. It’s the first time I’ve felt sorry for the man our class refers to as Dr. Frankenstein.

“Suicide is painless,” I whistle while taking my seat. The classroom fills, kids are talking and laughing, and for the first time I’m not preoccupied with being excluded.

Weeks whips around from the chalkboard like someone just threw a crumpled piece of paper at his back. “Open your textbooks to page thirty-one,” Weeks says, fuming.

Eyes roll, books flap open, sighs are sighed, chairs squeak, and pencils drop.

“Did you see how tight Jeff Adams’s shorts were?” Lisa Brown says to Lydia Stein.

“I could eat him alive,” answers Lydia. 

Lydia’s words are the last I remember as I drift to la-la land; the image of Sue waiting for me in the quad is the closest thing to hope I’ve had since that first kiss with Rachel. My attention drifts out the window. I daydream of Sue’s thick brown hair, and curves. A hand-holding couple walks into the International House of Pancakes. I imagine taking Sue there for breakfast before class; sitting together in a booth on the same side of the table; ordering blueberry pancakes; impressing her when I leave a nice tip; opening the door for her on the way out; carrying her books for her to school; saying, “goodbye, I’ll meet you after class,” then kissing.

“MR. EPSTEIN!” Weeks yells.

“Huh?” I’m shaken back to reality.

“Mr. Epstein, will you please join us?” Weeks gestures his pointer in my direction. 

I look forward and pretend to pay attention but am incapable. I see Weeks standing in front of the classroom. I watch his pointer and lips move, but all I hear is, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”

* * *

The bell rings and I jump out of my seat and run down the stairs toward the quad. Stopping on the landing in front of the steps that lead to the commons, I rise up on my tiptoes and scan the crowd for Sue. I spot her on a bench opposite Melanie Eberellie.

“IT’S A QUARTER PAST TEN, ROCKERS!” The PA system explodes to life. The announcement bounces off the cement buildings and asphalt grounds. “This is Radio KHWD coming at you strong and straight to the pocket.” The school radio DJ blares through multiple loud speakers. Chainsaw guitar bar chords lacerate the air.

I recognize Black Sabbath’s iron anthem“Paranoid.” It’s pulsating and driving. I don’t know the lyrics, but Ozzie Osbourne’s trill somehow fills my belly with courage. I grit my teeth and take a deep breath. I step down and walk tall, across the quad to Sue’s bench. It’s the longest fifty yards of my life, but for once I don’t feel invisible to all the kids standing around eating and laughing. I’m in hot pursuit of a girl whom, an hour ago, I didn’t even think knew my name.

I head toward the bench in cadence with Bill Ward’s solid drumbeat. Fifty feet away, Sue is sitting pretty, oblivious to my advance. Then Melanie spots me. She leans into Sue, gets up, and walks away.

My heart races and my face heats up like a fighter-jet pilot under attack. I shove my hands in my pockets. Sue’s smile waves me in like one of those flagmen atop an aircraft carrier. Three more steps, and I touch down and straddle the bench. I face Sue like we’re old friends; all that’s between us is a carton of orange juice and an untouched piece of crumb cake sitting in the folded waxed paper wrapper.

“Hi, Sue,” I say. I haven’t done any acting since I played Old Man Warner in The Lottery, but here I am, playing a scene that could get me an Academy Award nomination. “Kane told me you wanted me to say hello.” Did that sound okay? Should I have said that? Is she going to think I’m a dork?

“Do you remember me from Algebra?” Sue smiles.

“Yeah, you sat up front.” Is she kidding? I could practically describe every outfit she wore. Sweat drips from my pits. “How do you know Kane?”

“We used to go to the same church.”

“Oh, that’s cool.” Church? Uh-oh. Is she religious? Does she know I’m Jewish? 

“What classes are you taking?” She makes small talk. “Other than health class, I mean.” She blushes. Obviously, she knew where to send Kane.   

“I have Driver’s Ed with Rippey.” I point at the coffee cake. “You mind?”

“I’ll split it with you,” she says, twirling a lock of thick hair.

Split it with me? Whoa! What’s next?

“Okay, sure.” I can’t even believe this is happening.

She unwraps the waxed paper, and breaks the coffee cake in half. “Here.” She puts my portion on a napkin and slides it to me. “Mary Davidson’s in Driver’s Ed, right?” she says.

“Yeah, she’s in my class,” I say and pick up the crumb cake. “Are you guys friends?” I take a bite.

“Since kindergarten,” Sue says, “and we’re in first period swim team together.” She takes a bite of the cake and a sip of her OJ.

“Swim team? Huh.” I wipe my mouth and picture Sue in the Sheiks’ one-piece, red-and-white-striped swimsuit. I imagine her wet hair, wet face, wet arms, wet lips, and those B-52s poking through the sheer, wet material.

“Uh huh.” Sue dabs her lips with a napkin.

The bell rings. It jolts me like an air-raid siren. Suddenly there’s pressure like I’m a game show contestant, and the last seconds of the show’s clock are ticking, and any moment the wrong-answer buzzer’s going to buzz.

“Hey, can I walk with you after second period?” I raise my eyebrows. I’ve no idea where we’ll walk, if I’ll hold her books, hold her hand, or if we’ll kiss.

“That would be nice,” she says and adjusts her blouse. I force my eyes not to look at her boobs. “Meet me here after the bell,” she smiles.

“Great, see you then.” I get up and walk away. I want to turn around and look back and celebrate the fact she’s interested in me but am afraid to jinx things. I drift to Driver’s Ed.

* * *

I pull my chair away from the desk. The plastic thingamajigs are missing from the bottom of the chair legs, and the dragging sound makes an awful screech. Several kids look up at me, perturbed, but I’m back in la-la land, deeper than before. I take my seat next to Leonard Feinstein. 

“Hey,” Feinstein says, “you okay?” Lenny’s wearing pressed slacks, a tucked-in button-down shirt, leather belt, and polished penny loafers. He looks like he’s on his way to a bar mitzvah. On the totem pole representing who is the coolest and who isn’t, Feinstein’s actually one notch below me; of course, he’s one of the only kids who speaks to me.

“What?” I saw his lips move but heard only heard gibberish.

“You look like you saw a ghost,” Feinstein says.

“Ugh…” I take my seat.

The bell rings. Coach Rippey enters the room, rubbing his hands together like a fat man arriving at an all-you-can-eat buffet. He’s short, stocky, and is wearing athletic shorts that show too much thigh. His white, knee-high tube socks are monogrammed with the Hollywood High Sheiks’ logo, and his tucked-in polo shirt is also embroidered with the Valentino likeness. A lanyard and whistle dangle from his neck. Rippey tolerates no cutting up, on or off the ball field.

“Tomorrow we’re having a quiz,” he says. “For those of you interested in passing, get ready to take some notes. Let’s start with turn signals.” 

My blurry gaze drifts to the clock above the door. Click, click, click, click, click, click, click. I fall under the spell of the rotating second hand and am lulled back into daydreams of Sue. Does she have brothers or sisters? Does her family go camping? Does she have a pet? What’s her dad do for a living? Does her mom work?

Click, click, click.

“Any questions?” Rippey taunts, like we’re the JV team in the locker room at halftime after getting our clocks cleaned in the first two quarters. 

The bell rings louder than normal, like the time Grandpa Goldring took me to the Santa Anita racetrack and all the horses leapt from the starting gate. I rush out of the classroom and fly up the stairs two at a time.

* * *

The doors at the top of the stairs are propped open. My eyes adjust to the blinding daylight. I put on my brakes and squint.

Sue’s right where she told me she’d be, her face prettier than a thousand flowers. My heartbeat accelerates. Should I ask to carry her books? What about holding her hand? Should I let her make that move? I take a deep breath. I feel like Don Knotts in The Shakiest Gun in the West,but I act like Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke.

She sees me approaching and does a little waist-high wave. I want to do a cartwheel but wave back instead.

“Hi,” I say, and sit down beside her.

“Hi to you!” She smiles, places her hands on her knees, and arches her back in a stretch. There go those B-52s. “How was class?”  

“Okay,” I lie. I have no clue because I was too busy obsessing about her, obsessing about our walking to the bus, obsessing about our holding hands, obsessing about our kiss goodbye, with or without an open mouth. “Hey, before I forget, let me get your phone number.” I open my notebook and try to ignore the swarm of butterflies in my gut.    

“Sure, ready?”

“Shoot!” I steady my trembling hand.

“Hollywood four-one-eight-six-nine,” she says, smiling. “What’s yours?”

“Ready?” Oh my God, she wants my phone number.

The loudspeakers turn on again. Hot guitar licks rip through the air. Alice Cooper’s“School’s Out” blares like Olympian fanfare.

“I don’t mean to rush,” she says, “but I need to get to the bus stop.”          

“Where to?” I stand.

“I take the Hollywood and Highland Bus to Wilton.” She gathers her books.

I offer my hand. She takes it and gets up. “Let me grab those for you,” I say, gesturing for her books.

“Thanks,” she says with a smile. “You’re such a gentleman.”

“It’s my pleasure, ma’am.” I tilt an imaginary ten-gallon hat.

“Oh, and funny! You were really good in your Lottery performance.”

Oh my God, she remembers that? “What street do you live on?”

“Bronson,” she says.

“Those Bronson Caves are so cool!” I get excited. “Remember when they filmed the Batman TV show stuff there?”

“Oh, yeah,” she says. “We live about halfway up; I used to spy on the film crews with my girlfriend Katy Epson when they were up there shooting the series. Let’s go.”

She takes the initiative and grabs my free hand. Her hand is soft and warm. The whole scene feels like something out of a drugstore romance novel. Four hours earlier, we were strangers.

“What bus do you take?” She swings my hand.

“Either the 81 or 93,” I say. “I live off Barham up towards Lake Hollywood.”

“Did you have a girlfriend at Le Conte?” She gets right down to business.

“Well.” I panic. Does she know about Rachel? Does she know about Valerie? About Christine? About Cathy? About Susie Esposito? Does she know about my history of romance failure? “Uh, not really.” I feel my face turning red. “What about you? Did you have a boyfriend?”

“Nothing serious.” She blushes. “I mean, you know, there were a couple of guys I liked, and one I used to see at the dances and a couple of parties, but nothing steady or anything.” She pauses. “It’s kind of embarrassing, but my mom and dad said I couldn’t have a boyfriend.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean; my parents make me crazy,” I lie. Mom and Dad have never said two words to me about girls, sex, the birds or the bees, or any of that jazz.

* * *

We wait at Highland for the light to turn green. Loud, idling diesel buses, honking automobile horns, and radio music seeping from open car windows bombard us; my mouth is getting dryer by the second. I imagine a distant drum roll. Kiss or no kiss; long or short; open mouth, or closed?

“Have you ever eaten at the Longs counter?” I gesture over my shoulder to the drugstore right behind us.

“Sure, my mom and I go there when we’re out shopping.” She swings my arm again. “Oh my God, they have the best malts.”

Should I ask her if she wants to eat there tomorrow? What if she thinks I’m too forward or I’m jumping the gun?

“Do you want to get a burger there tomorrow after school?” I throw a Hail Mary.

“Okay!” Her light skin and thick golden hair glisten in the sun. The signal turns green and the bus zooms by us.

“Oh my God,” she says. “There goes my bus.” She yanks my arm and we rush across the street. 

“Here.” I let go of her hand and give back her books. 

“Thanks,” she says, taking them.

The hydraulic doors on the bus whoosh open. She tries to balance her books and retrieve her bus pass from her large denim purse.

“Here,” I say and take her books back while she fishes her wallet from her bag. 

“Got it!” She waves her laminated bus pass.

There’s a line of people in front of us waiting to get on the bus; I have a few seconds to figure out my move and make it. 

“I, uh.” I realize her face is open for business. Don’t be a schmendrick. I lean in, close my eyes, and give her a gentle kiss, like someone who knows what the hell he is doing. She reciprocates and all at once I understand how Ben Hur won all those races. I open my eyes. Sue does the same. We part.

“Bye,” she says. “Call me later.”

“OKAY!” I feel the fluttering of a thousand swan wings inside my stomach. “See ya,” I say. I turn and walk away, wanting to look back, wanting to stay by her side until she boards, wanting to run alongside the bus while it pulls away, wanting to chase it like I’ve seen in the movies, but I just keep walking.

I float across Hollywood Boulevard to my stop.

About the Author:

My work can be found in The Coachella Review, Poeticdiversity, Foliate Oak, Forge Journal, Sanskrit, and Poetry Super Highway. I am a member of The Los Angeles Poets & Writers Collective. I am an emerging writer and a fine artist inspired by the daily trials and joys of simple life—as well as a father, entrepreneur, musician, surfer, and sober, recovering alcoholic of thirty-one years. I live in the San Fernando Valley with my wife of thirty years.

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