It’s February 1st. Valentine vibes throb through the air. Mr. J. announces we’re reading Romeo and Juliet and I shoot straight up in my seat. Grip the sides of my desk tight. My scalp tingles and sparklers fizz inside my head. I hardly hear my classmates groan. Then Mr. J. says ten page essays are due at month’s end. I smile. Chair boogie while everyone else moans. I know R&J by heart. I’ll do something better than an essay. Bigger than an essay. So much bolder than mere words on a typed page, people will talk about it for the rest of the year — if not the rest of high school. Especially Craig.
My eyes flit to the bare spaces on the walls. My heart thrums and I desk-drum along until I notice other students staring. Cindy Martin giggles. I’m tempted to give her the finger. Instead, I rummage through my bag for my notebook and pen to jot down all the Awesome! ideas flashing through my head.
After class, I sweet-talk Mr. J. into letting me decorate his classroom. Say I’ll fill the walls with inspirational pop culture imagery via an installation that demonstrates classic literature is still prevalent and relevant to the late ’80s teenagers of today — especially ones who listen to Bon Jovi and Journey. I get raised eyebrows and a head tilt from Mr. J. He asks since when did I start using words like ‘via’. I give him my widest smile, my biggest eyes, throw in a long Pleeease and clasp my hands. He sighs.
“Keep it clean, Stacy,” he says. “And include Elizabethan elements.”
“No problem,” I say, figuring he’ll forget all about Elizabethan elements when he sees my work of art. Then I wonder how soon Mom can drive me to Wal-Mart.
There, I scour the aisles, wanting the biggest bang I can get from her measly ten bucks. It’ll take effort and improv to bring my vision to life, but that’s okay.
This is for Craig. And L.O.V.E.
I’m in my room, rocking out to Living on a Prayer. But unlike Bon Jovi, I’m more than halfway there with my L.O.V.E. plans. I’ve secured a package of thirty deep-red heart-shaped balloons. I’m pondering the best way to hang them from the classroom ceiling when my eyes land on the Rob Lowe poster on my wall. A recent addition to my collection, it will be the centrepiece of my masterpiece. The poster features Rob’s Youngblood movie where he plays a hockey star from one of those cold-weather states like Maine or Michigan or Montana. I’m not a hockey fan — too much tooth and blood loss. All that loose-fitting clothing and padding is a shame. But Rob’s films always feature a shower scene and that’s not a shame at all.
In the poster, Rob looks rugged. He stares out — arms folded, chin jutted, truly tough in his black-plaid lumberjack shirt. Craig has the same lumberjack shirt in red. I have the same lumberjack shirt in red. But we are not two teenagers merely following lumberjack fashion trends. No. We are the embodiment of L.O.V.E. dressed in fate.
One month and seventeen days ago, December 20th to be exact — a day noted with five bold gold hearts in my diary — on an otherwise mundane Tuesday, apropos of nothing, Craig wore The Shirt. That was the day my world transformed from black and white to color. Craig hadn’t worn The Shirt since junior high, but I knew our ritual like it was yesterday.
He’d wear his on Monday, I’d wear mine on Tuesday. When I wore mine on Thursday, he’d wear his on Friday. Sometimes. Without speaking a word, we bonded. Communicated. Fell in love. Deeply. In that intense, middle school *4EVER* way that sears like a fumbled curling iron touching an ear. Sitting next to Craig at the art table, my leg burned as it brushed against his — even after he returned to his desk and left me nudging table leg.
But we were in high school now. L.O.V.E. was no mere juvenile game. Seeing Craig in The Shirt on that December day, I entered a new level of W♥W. Felt like I’d been struck by lightning AND thunder. Stood swooning until a letter-jacket jerk and his pom-pom plaything shoved me into a locker. So many questions quivered through my mind. Were we really returning to The Shirt rite? Had he, too, kept his swaddled in tissue paper in his keepsake drawer? How did his still fit? Most of all: why now?
An answer boomeranged back: Don’t question, L.O.V.E., Stacy. Or Craig.
The first rule of our relationship was not to speak of The Shirt. It held magic delicate but strong. Able to withstand long periods of inactivity, The Shirt could snap us back together like a rubber band. Time and distance didn’t matter. Or words.
I’d reciprocate the next day. Wear The Shirt to show my love still sizzled deep. Magic would take over from there. I daydreamed my way to Algebra, knowing I’d be late but didn’t care. Mrs. Scheussler’s lessons were usually lost on me. Today, especially, I couldn’t possibly solve for x unless x determined how many xxx’s I’d soon receive from Craig.
As I entered the classroom, Mrs. Scheussler frowned and gestured to the front. My bliss burst. We were studying trajectory. Equations sprawled over two boards. According to Mrs. Scheussler, for an object to accurately hit its mark the right formula needed to be applied. It was all Greek to me. Still, I copied down the problems, then spent the rest of the hour drawing Cupid arrows flying straight to Craig’s heart. I didn’t need formulas with L.O.V.E. as my guide.
I hardly slept that night. My mind skated round and round like Rob Lowe on rink ice. Once Craig saw me in The Shirt again, he’d become enthralled. Probably propose. I’d insist we finish high school before the wedding. His last name sounded perfect both before and after mine. I fell asleep making a guest list. Dreamt I walked down the aisle in a stunning red-plaid wedding dress while Craig wore a matching red lumberjack suit. As we were pronounced man and wife and kissed, tiny axes flew from our lips like sparks. We walked back down the aisle under an archway of hockey sticks held by our cheering guests.
The morning of that fateful day I woke well before my alarm. Pressed and pulled myself into The Shirt. Didn’t let the glitch of fabric rip darken my day. In the end, I draped The Shirt over my shoulders in a Holly Golightly manner — achieving exactly the look I wanted all along.
I set off ready to greet my destiny. And Craig.
We didn’t share any classes, so I planned a casual walk-by in the lunchroom to include a bonus wave. Practised stroking my sleeve seductively in Algebra until Mrs. Scheussler told me to stop. When she asked if I’d solved the equations from yesterday, I said I had — in a mythological way.
Her lips pressed together. I heard her teeth grind. She probably thought she was clever telling me I’d better start applying myself in a mathematical way if I wanted to change the downward spiral of my grade. I could’ve told her about the trajectory of L.O.V.E. that I planned to launch in the lunchroom right after her class but shrugged instead. Old people couldn’t be expected to understand the complicated mechanics of modern-day romance.
In the cafeteria, I circled the room several times but couldn’t see Craig. My stomach flipped and skipped, like an in-play hockey puck. I wasn’t hungry but joined the serving line to kill time. Found myself drawn to the dessert bar where bowls of Jello jiggled — they matched the color of my shirt perfectly. As I looked at all those wobbling red blobs, something came over me. Nostalgia maybe, though it wasn’t like me to get melancholy over gelatine. I piled as many bowls as I could onto my tray, then looked for a place to sit. I guess I slipped or tripped, had one of those blips. All that Jello went flying, landing right in the lap and hair of Cindy Martin, sitting pretty in her red and white cheerleading uniform. Jello didn’t suit Cindy at all — though as girls we’d once shared secrets and crushes over after-school bowls of it, giggling and whispering at her kitchen table as it wibbled and jiggled. We moved in different circles now, only interacting to exchange lines in Drama Club. She didn’t have much acting ability but knew how to project well. Her screams grabbed all the attention while I sprawled forgotten on the floor, wishing Mrs. Scheussler had seen my perfect trajectory.
They sent me to the nurse’s station to check my ankle, though I insisted it wasn’t twisted. In all the hubbub, I wasn’t sure Craig saw me wearing The Shirt. He’d appeared out of nowhere looking gravely concerned — as if Cindy were some Stephen King prom queen covered in pig’s blood instead of squishy Jello.
It was bad enough to be left in love-limbo over the Christmas break, but then Mom found The Shirt in the laundry and thought it was a rag. When I saw she’d cut The Shirt into a neat stack of dusting cloths, I Chernobyled. Those first days of the winter break were long and bleak. Mascara tear-streaked. Dad spent the first part asking who invited the Christmas Banshee to ours. Said he hoped next year she’d give us a miss. But on Christmas Day itself, a miracle occurred: I received Rob Lowe’s Youngblood movie poster featuring him in his lumberjack shirt. Mom’s peace offering present was a sign from the universe: The Shirt magic still existed. My wails waned to hiccups. My flow of tears slowed. Through my pain, a belief grew — that the new year would bring new opportunity.
It does. In multiples.
Craig transfers into my Lit class. Mr. J. selects Romeo and Juliet. Everything falls into perfect place. But the best part is this: while Mr. J. drones on and on about end-of-the-month essay assignments and I scribble ideas in my English Lit notebook, I’m suddenly inspired to grab my Algebra notebook. I flip to a page where I’ve written this:
An equation that had meant nothing to me unscrambles in a swirl. I see it then. The formula for L.O.V.E. The ‘R’s Romeos, the ‘J’s Juliets. I spend the rest of Lit hour calculating my and Craig’s love using time (t) and distance (d). Know by the knock of my giddy heart that my answer of INFINITY is correct.
I also see that we are a better, contemporary version of Romeo and Juliet. Our relationship has obstacles to overcome, but we don’t rely on others to pass on super-important messages like rendezvous points, or where the ladder is stashed for balcony serenades. Our families aren’t feuding, though it wouldn’t take much to start one with Dad and his bowling team. What makes us better is that me and Craig are wiser. I’d never leave it to someone else to tell him I’m not dead when lying motionless in a crypt. All that tragedy could have been avoided if only Juliet had worn her red plaid lumberjack shirt. It’s far better to communicate like me and Craig do — without words. They just get in the way.
The rest of my plan comes together. Just like on The A-Team.
I figure out a way to dangle those heart-shaped balloons from the ceiling. It takes hours to blow them up, another to wangle a ladder from the janitor and one more to hang them with crimson string and loops of Scotch tape. But it’s worth it. The way they sway when hot air pumps through the vents is a nice touch. But it’s the poster of hockey-playing Rob in The Shirt on the wall behind Mr J.’s desk that’s the pièce de résistance of my total work of art. In addition to the poster and balloons, I borrow the heart from the biology dummy. Glue it to Rob’s chest. Try rigging it to pump fake blood, but that makes an even bigger mess than the cafeteria Jello. Rob looks a bit like a murderous lumberjack now, but regal — I’ve given him one of those neck ruffles popular in Shakespeare’s time. I also attach a paper pocket, perfect for receiving valentines. Then I sit back. Wait for the formula of The Shirt magic and L.O.V.E. mathematics to work.
The heart disappears within a week; I’m charged $20 to replace it. Mom’s not gonna like that.
The pocket remains empty. Craig doesn’t wear The Shirt.
Surely he sees Rob wearing his lumberjack shirt and knows it’s a signal from me. It doesn’t matter The Shirt Rob wears isn’t red — L.O.V.E. is color blind.
Then I realize — Craig is waiting for me. He didn’t see me in the cafeteria that day. It’s still my turn to wear The Shirt.
I wonder where Mom keeps the needle and thread. I take the MacGyver approach what I have to hand. Via a sophisticated staple and duct tape technique applied to an old ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ t-shirt, I reconstruct The Shirt. It rises like a phoenix, or rather, a mustang (the revered mascot of Rob’s Youngblood hockey team), ready to ignite our spark.
In dim light The Reconstructed Shirt looks alright. Perhaps it stretches the traditional concept of a shirt with its unique combination of fabric, patterns and shape, but within the avant-garde art world I’d be applauded for my far-reaching fashion design.
At school, I do my best to ignore the looks and laughs, especially from Cindy. Try to explain my creation à la Dolly Parton and her Coat of Many Colors but the comments about my freaky Frankenstein costume sting like hockey stick slaps. I take a deep breath. When Craig sees me in The Reconstructed Shirt, everything will be alright.
Instead, I spot him in the hallway. Holding hands and snuggling with Cindy. Shock glues me to the spot. I cannot look away. My stomach shrivels. My heart stops, both poisoned and stabbed. Eventually, on wobbly legs, I judder to the bathroom.
In a stall, I Hulk out of The Reconstructed Shirt. Sink into a Capulet-crypt of deep despair. No ladder is long enough to reach me. I feel our connection stretch-stretch-stretch then break. My heart bleeds Jello. Know there’s no formula for fixing that.
I gather the scatter of shirt tatter. It’s only third period, but I call it a day. Zip up my jacket and walk home in tears. As Dad puts it later, “The Banshee is back.”
Turns out Mr. J. expected me to submit an essay. He’s not going to count my decorations. Says he never said he would. He’s not impressed with them either. Wants to know how a bloodstained, poster pin-up wearing an odd-looking noose relates to Romeo and Juliet. Easily, I think.
I say we’ve miscommunicated, knowing he’ll think I mean the assignment. He shakes his head, his eyebrows meet. He waits, giving me a chance to explain, but I don’t have the heart to say Pleeease this time — it’s dissolved, along with my tongue. I receive my first-ever fail. Mr J. says I must complete a more traditional assignment next time.
After class, I burst each balloon with a thumbtack, imagining it’s a dagger. Leave the latex corpses scattered about so my display is even more on-theme. My lips tremble as I promise-whisper to my wrecked heart, a hand on quaking chest, one day I’ll avenge this wrong.
I walk to the wall, ready to roll up Rob. Catch a twinkle in his eye. Think back.
In Youngblood, Rob and his team suffer a humiliating defeat. As captain, Rob considers quitting hockey, but his heart won’t let him. He trains hard. Comes back determined to win. In the championship game, Rob single-handedly annihilates the rival team. Scores goal after goal in a tremendous hockey victory against his arch-enemy, a former pretend-friend. There’s lots of blood and tooth loss. Best of all, he wins back the love of his dream girl tricked into falling for his traitorous ex-pal. As I stare at the poster, a sly smile creeps across Rob’s face. In my pocket, I stroke a strip of revenge-red plaid fabric. My brain whirs. Excitement jitters my hands, boogies my feet. I doubt Cindy knows how Youngblood ends. Or that we’re reading Hamlet next.
I wink at Rob. Form a new plan. Ms. Bollinger, the Drama Club teacher, likes me —waaaay more than Cindy. Says I’m the ultimate Drama Queen. I’ll propose the next production to perform. Convince her to take a contemporary piece and add a splash of cheery pop tunes. Carrie — The Musical! will look fantastic in lights. And with its memorable prom scene, it’s the perfect springtime piece. And to show there’s no hard feelings, I’ll play the friend, let Cindy have the starring role.