In the moments before the shuttle exploded, the sky shone bluer than I’d ever seen it. The cold wind—unusual for Florida, even in January—polished our cheeks and tugged our hair. We all giggled, even the teachers, and twisted under winter’s fingers like cats scratched behind the ears. With my head tossed back, watching for the launch, it felt as if the air moved through me, down my throat, and into my belly where it swirled in gentle eddies.
The Challenger went up into the sky on a plume of white smoke. We applauded. Then there was the boom of red and black and the plume split in two. I felt as if air had been pulled out of me and I remembered then a lesson from school. I remembered that explosions feed on oxygen and I wondered if I could have stopped the fire, if only I’d held my breath.
The smoke crisscrossed the sky for a moment before letting go and bleeding into the blue. Without prompting we turned in silence and walked back to our classrooms. The explosion killed all aboard the shuttle, including Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher from New Hampshire and the first civilian in space. Later, clean up crews found pages from her lesson plans floating on the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
And that is how it all ended: with that terrible moment at the end of that very strange week in a very strange year. That was the year I turned fourteen.
The Previous Tuesday
Miss Delfino assured all her algebra students, and any one else who would listen, that she had been short listed for the teacher slot on the upcoming Challenger mission.
“Except for the physical fitness exam,” she’d say, “I had the job. Had it. It’s a ridiculous technicality that’s keeping me off that mission. Why do you need physical fitness in space? You’re weightless, for dang’s sake.”
I imagined the physical fitness part kicked in sometime before you made it to the weightless part—and so did Miss Delfino; she was just too crushed to admit it. Everyone knew the real reason she’d never make it into the space program: she had a goiter the size of a grapefruit and was rumored to be able to spit blood a quarter mile. That’s not wholesome and the government likes wholesome. Not to mention the problems she’d have with the fit of the space suit.
Bitter, though she may have been, Miss Delfino kept space a part of her curriculum. All fall semester she’d worked the subject into her lessons—like making us figure out the distance between stars and planets. It was as if she hoped there may still be a NASA representative watching who would regret his decision when he saw how quick she was with fractions. Most of the year she tried to keep her personal feelings out of the equation, but after the Christmas break, with the launch getting closer, that was harder for her to do. Once, she even had us solve for X, when X represented the combined IQ of NASA committee members. It came out to a negative number.
With exactly a week before the big launch, Miss Delfino started class by showing us her audition video for the five hundredth time. It opened with the theme music from Star Trek and a little papier-mâché model of a shuttle. Pulling back, it revealed Miss Delfino wearing a blue jumpsuit with a hand stitched NASA logo on the shoulder. She gave a speech about her passion for algebra and space travel and we all mouthed the words, we’d heard it so often.
“Well,” she said when it was over. “What’d you think?” She stood with her hand at her throat and waited for us to answer.
Marla Williams, the suck up, raised her hand. “I think it was really moving. I really believed you could make the average American student love science and space travel. I love it more just from watching the video.” She didn’t even sound sarcastic. When it came to sucking up, Marla was just that good.
“Thank you, Marla.” Miss D. looked around the room. “Anyone else? How about you, Eleanor?” She looked over at me, real hopeful, but I just shook my head and sank deeper into my seat.
After a few long seconds of silence, Miss D turned off the VCR and sat at her desk. Her hands lay limp on her grade book and she watched them for a moment, her breathing deep and labored. Finally, she shook herself and began her lesson.
Midway through class, the door opened and a new boy walked in. His name, I found out later, was Seth Smith. He was a transfer student and wore a gray “Member’s Only” jacket and a calculator watch. He also had one normal eye and one eye that rolled around his skull like a demented Magic Eight Ball. I loved him immediately.
After class, I dawdled a bit at my locker hoping to get another peek at Seth, but I lost him in the crowd. I didn’t see him in the cafeteria either so I gave up looking and shuffled through the “a la cart” line to buy my lunch: a chocolate milk, a soft pretzel, and a square of cake. With my lunch in hand, I looked for Sarah Friedman, my best friend, role-model, and only hope for romantic guidance—the kind they skip over in health class, but is more vital to survival than the CPR they do cover.
In this town, if you did not at least tongue-kiss a boy in the back of the school bus by the end of sixth grade, you were called a prude and that was a label that stuck with you until you died unless you took some serious, dramatic action. This is a lesson I learned the hard way when I blew my one and only shot at back of the bus tongue action because Danny Barton had white bread and mayonnaise stuck in his braces, and I do not like mayonnaise. I have since learned to never let my gag reflex interfere with social advancement.
Obviously, social advancement was not something I was to come by easily. Which is how I found myself so heavily into spandex and trailing behind the fastest girl in school hoping to catch a little of her runoff. Sarah was two grades ahead and she had boys coming out her ears—and occasionally in them, but that was only once at a party, or so I heard. Sarah remained mysterious on the subject.
Even with the spandex, though, I could never match that Sarah sexiness—there was a beat inside her that gave rhythm to her every move. Maybe she’d always been like that or maybe she learned it somewhere, but either way she didn’t so much sit in a chair as Samba into it and she walked swinging her hips like a human metronome. I thought she was cooler than Wonder Woman and I felt lucky to sit at her lunch table—though I never seemed to have much competition. I didn’t understand why she wasn’t more popular, but I can see now that some people thought she had too much of good thing. But I never paid any mind to what other people thought of her. She was my hero and I tried to copy her style as much as I could, even if I still secretly wore My Little Pony underpants.
When I sat down, Sarah was already half-way through her sack lunch: peanut butter sandwich and a hard-boiled egg. Egg shells dusted the table and one flake stuck to the corner of her mouth. Coach Heatley walked past our table with his eyes on Sarah. He paused just as he passed her shoulder and looked back with his big droopy eyes.
“You’ve got a little something,” he said, running his finger around his mouth, “right here.”
Sarah ignored him until he walked away and then she brushed at her face like she was swatting a fly. The shell fell off and I noticed the girls at the next table looking over at us and giggling. Sarah finished her sandwich and looked off into the distance.
“Heatley’s a creep-o,” I said. Sarah just shrugged. “And he’s got enormous balls. He looks like he’s trying to hatch an ostrich in those shorts.”
Sarah smiled and finally met my eyes. “What’s got you so excited?” she asked. “You practically floated over here.”
“I’m in love. I’ve met the cutest guy ever and he’s going to be my boyfriend and we’re going to have sex and live happily ever after, the end.”
“Sounds promising,” she said. “What’s he like?”
I told her all about him. I told her about his cuteness and his right answers in class. I told her how, even though he was new, he raised his hand right away—before even Marla could and he took the wind right out of her and I liked that. I told her how I just knew he was special the same way you know it’s the first day of summer break even before you open your eyes in the morning.
“So what should I do?” I asked. “Can I pass him a note and tell him I want to do him?”
“Well that’s subtle.”
“I’m a freshman in high school and I’ve never even kissed a guy,” I said. “I have hormones coming out my wazoo—literally. I don’t have time for subtle.”
“Just take it easy. Offer to help catch up on his homework. Then start with something simple.” Sarah recommended I start with some Frenching and petting, but if I still wasn’t satisfied I could try a hand-job—but no further. All I needed for that, she said, was a little grease. Grease, determination, and a firm grip.
At that moment, Miss Delfino got up from a table three away and walked toward the door. I hadn’t even noticed her. As she passed us, the giggle girls started up again and one of them held an orange up to her neck. If Miss D noticed, she didn’t let on. I watched her pass through the cafeteria doors like the moon drifting behind a cloud.
As it turned out, Seth was a pretty easy catch, maybe because of that one googley eye. I found him the next morning sitting alone waiting for the first bell to ring. He still wore the “Member’s Only” jacket, but this time he had the sleeves pushed up. I nearly fainted.
“Hey,” I said, just like I’d rehearsed.
“Hey,” he said back brilliantly.
“I was thinking,” I said, “since you’re new and all, maybe I could help you settle in. I could help you with your math homework.”
“That’s nice of you. But didn’t you get a thirty percent on that quiz we took yesterday?”
My heart did cartwheels and I pressed my hands to my cheeks. “You noticed? You really noticed?”
Things were pretty easy between us after that. He offered to help me with my math homework since he’d been a Junior Mathlete at his old school. We started joking around and I did my impression of Marla Williams and he did his impression of Miss Delfino, which got us talking about space travel and we both agree we’d rather go up on the Enterprise than the Millennium Falcon. We made plans for him to come over Friday after school and I knew just what Journey song I’d have playing when he got there.
As I walked to First Period, humming the chorus of Open Arms, I passed by the math room. The room was usually empty until Second Period, so when I heard music coming from inside I stopped to look. I saw Miss Delfino sitting alone in the mostly dark classroom. She had her audition video playing and sat at her desk with her hands folded neatly on top. With the T.V. in the corner and her head turned to face it, I couldn’t see her expression but her shoulders were rounded and her back curved forward like a palm tree bent by rain. At first I almost laughed and imagined telling Seth all about it, but the longer I watched her the more I felt like I had nothing to say.
The tape finished and the screen came on all static and Miss D didn’t move to turn it off. She just let her head droop forward and I caught sight of her profile. She didn’t seem sad exactly, just very still and empty. Her eyes flicked left and she caught my eye. I felt a brief urge to bolt, but that passed. We held each other’s gaze until the morning bell blasted between us and the passing student bodies pulled me back into their orbit.
Math class began as usual except this time it was awesome. Seth sat next to me and I could practically hear his heart beat with mine. I leaned over and lightly tapped his knuckles with my pencil.
“Are you hitting on me?” he whispered.
“Are you always this literal?”
“Only when it works. Is it working?”
Seth took out his own pencil. He tapped me on my knuckles and smiled.
“Excuse me, Miss Delfino,” Marla Williams said from the seat beside me. “Could you please repeat that last equation? I couldn’t hear you because Eleanor and Seth were talking.”
I heard giggles all around and I realized that I hadn’t been as stealthy as I’d imagined.
“Yeah,” said Brian Jones, Marla’s soul-mate in all things sucky. “It’s hard to hear over all their nerd mating calls.”
Miss D put down her notes and looked back and forth between me and Seth. He’d shot back in his seat the second Marla called us out and now his whole face shone deep red—the darkest at his ears. I’d frozen in place under all the attention but the heat from Miss D’s stare made me melt into the plastic chair.
She stood there all quiet for a while and the whole class seemed to lean in close to get a good look at the impending bloodshed. I got so hot from all the attention I went from melted to boiling and I just couldn’t sit still in my seat. I shifted around and pinched my knuckles and I looked over at Seth who looked back at me and together we were so red and scalding we could have been a pot of stewed tomatoes. Miss D seemed to have noticed this look between me and Seth because when I looked back at her she’d had a temperature shift of her own.
Her eyes still had heat, but now it was more of a simmering warmth. She looked a little like she did that day I saw her watching her video all alone. “Well, Marla,” she said, “If you and Brian could get your noses out of other people’s business and stick them back in your books where they belong, maybe you wouldn’t have such a hard time keeping up.”
My breath let out louder than a deflating balloon and I nearly slapped Marla on the shoulder, I was so happy. I looked around at Seth—who’d gone back to a more normal pink color—and the put-out faces of my classmates. I looked back at Miss Delfino and her dress all dusted yellow from chalk and I just couldn’t help myself: I raised my hand and said, “When you’re done explaining this next word problem, can we watch your audition video again?” And I meant it for real.
Seth came over after school. My parents weren’t home from work, so I led him right to my room where I had the music going and a romantic snack laid out on the bed: cherry soda and some Swedish Fish. We talked math for a little while, but my folks would be home soon so I made my move.
“Do you want to make out?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
Everything went real smooth at first and we were rounding bases like we were in the World Series. Getting him out of his clothes was no problem, as he was wearing those slickery nylon parachute pants. He shot right out of those suckers. After that, though, things got a little sticky.
Like I said, up to this point my sexual experience had been limited to tight jeans and the seat over the wheels on the school bus. When it came to managing man-meat, all I had to go on was rumor and innuendo. Jerking off. Whacking off. Choking the chicken. Let me just ask, why give it such violent names, if that is not the approach I’m supposed to take? Sarah could have picked some better euphemisms and she and cable television are at least half to blame for what happened next, is all I’m saying.
I locked on with both hands and just squeezed the hell out of it. Then I started shaking it like it was a bottle of Heinz 57. Seth was screaming and pounding the bed and I thought, “Yes! I am a sexual genius!” Until I realized he was screaming in pain. I unclenched a little and discovered that it is also called “stroking off,” which is much more accurate and effective. After that, everything was great. But, alas, I was to encounter one final technical hurdle: aim.
Aim! I did not consider aim. But, then, I did not realize those things go off like a fire hose on a crowd of rioters. When the big moment came, milky white mess shot all over the wall, the ceiling, the bookshelf, the mirror down the hall, but, mostly, on his face. And then my parents came home.
It got a little weird between Seth and me after that. I saw him at school on Monday and tried to catch his eye, but it just wobbled, blinked and looked right through me. I wandered the halls after math class looking for Sarah and I found her leaning against her locker. She was reading a note on yellow stationery, but when she saw me coming she stuffed it in her pocket.
“How did it go Friday?” she asked.
“Ever see The Poseidon Adventure?”
“Like that. Only wetter and worse.” I told her all about it and she didn’t even laugh, which is another reason I love Sarah. She just patted my arm and said she knew how I felt.
“My first time doing anything with a boy,” she said, “was at a party. We locked ourselves in the master bathroom and messed around on the tile floor. Everyone called me ‘Spic n Span’ cause I make the floor shine.”
“How did anyone find out?”
“He told everyone. He was hardly out the door before he announced it.”
“Oh my lord. Do you think Seth is going to tell anyone?”
“Yes.” Sarah nodded her head and I followed her gaze. Seth and Brian stood across the hall. They were whispering and laughing and when they saw us watching them they laughed a little louder. Though I noticed Seth looked a little red around the ears.
“Well crap,” I said. “Since when did he and Brian become BFFs? Seth’s new here. I’m supposed to be his only friend.”
Just then Coach Heatley walked by. He ignored me completely but gave Sarah a little nod as he passed. I watched him swagger down the hall, his shorts creeping up between his butt cheeks and pad of yellow paper wedged into his back pocket. I looked back at Sarah who seemed suddenly as cold as a moonless night.
“That’s life,” she said. “You don’t get what you want, but you take what you get.”
The next day, Miss Delfino had us calculate a few more space related word problems in honor of the day’s big launch. Everyone was real excited and eventually Miss D gave up on teaching and just let everyone goof off and talk until class ended. I looked over at Seth but he was turned sideways in his chair and showing some baseball cards to Brian—I didn’t even know Seth liked baseball.
When the bell rang, Miss D got everyone to line up and walk single-file into the hall. Seth walked out right behind Brian and never looked back. I stayed in my seat until only Miss D and I remained.
“Aren’t you heading outside for the assembly?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I just need a minute.”
“Me too,” she said and sat down at her desk.
I sat and wondered why Sarah hadn’t given me better advice. I knew, at least, no one would call me prude anymore. I wondered what they’d call me instead and shuddered at the possibilities.
“It wasn’t really the physical fitness exam,” Miss Delfino said, interrupting my thoughts. “It was this.” She pointed to her neck.
I wanted to pretend I didn’t know what she was talking about but instead I said, “Can’t you get rid of it?”
“I’m trying. I take medicine. Maybe I’ll have surgery, but it’s expensive.” She looked out the window. “I’m sure this must sound crazy, but I never really noticed it before. It’s been there for a while, but wasn’t that bad. It got worse just when I started to want something.”
I watched her then, with the light from the window making her hair shine. She looked young suddenly, and I realized she was probably younger than my mom. She looked pretty.
“I hooked up with the new guy,” I said. “And now he won’t talk to me.”
Miss Delfino didn’t look surprised, or sorry, and I was grateful. She just stood up and laid her hand on my shoulder. We walked outside together and I stood beside her and watched the gathering crowd. And in that moment, the sky shone bluer than I’d ever seen it.