They lean against the brick wall after school, hoping you don’t notice how they need you to want them. Their eyes stay toward the ground, occasionally glancing up in between strong pulls off their cigarettes. You know their faces better than you do your own, but they don’t even know your name. They can get you high with a single glance and you can make meals with their words, staying full for days while you wish for more to satisfy the hunger.
The older girls plan their attacks. They hike up their skirts and undo the first few buttons of their blouses, but we laugh to ourselves because there’s only so much they can do when we’re all dressed the same. The girls walk by the wall in pairs, laughing at imaginary jokes to draw attention to themselves, show the boys how breezy they are, how fun they would be, how flirty they can get. Please take me out, each one of them is saying. I would be worth it.
But the boys at the wall don’t care about a show. They’re not attracted to girls who laugh loud and smile all the time. It’s the girls who sit by themselves at lunch that do it for them, the ones who avert their eyes as though they’d be starting directly into the sun when of the boys walks by. They choose their conquests carefully and quietly. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you’ll receive a light touch on the shoulder in the hallway or a few sentences spoken quietly as one of them passes. They will whisper nothing more than a date, time, and a place to be, and there is little left to do but torture yourself with anticipation. What will you wear? How should you dress? These details will eat you alive, suddenly becoming the most important thing in your world.
They aren’t the most attractive boys at school—not smarter or more stylish and certainly no more articulate. Their appeal is a mystery to anyone who isn’t under their spell. My friend Andrew says that girls would rather be in danger around something mysterious that can hurt them than feel safe with someone who is knowable and kind. He tells me this with a mix of anger and sadness, and looks down when he’s finished as though he’s revealed too much. I consider his words, the importance of the conclusion, the gravity of his insinuation, but he isn’t a boy at the wall, and no girl besides me knows Andrew exists, so I can’t decide if he is right or simply jealous.
My dad hates these boys too. “Stay away from them, do you understand me?” he warns, waiting in the doorway of our bedroom, demanding the only acceptable answer to his question. “They’re no good,” he continues. He says he knows their parents, knows what kind of stock they come from, how they’re bad fruit that hasn’t fallen far from rotten trees. It’s hard not to believe him. Everybody knows everyone in our small town and mostly everything that happens in the even smaller ones surrounding it. Dad knows all of their first and last names, and what their parents do or pretend not to do for a living. He makes eye contact with me instead of my older sister Charlotte during these lectures about the boys because he knows I believe him and prays that I will listen.
Charlotte’s friend Sarah used to date one of the boys. I was a freshman then and can remember Charlotte helping Sarah get ready in our bathroom. He had told her to meet him at the football stadium late at night and she was so nervous that her hand shook as she brought the mascara to her eyes. I was sitting on the toilet, trying to stay quiet since it was a miracle Charlotte had let me stay while they talked. But I couldn’t help myself. “What’s so special about them?” I wondered out loud, my head resting on my knee, legs tucked in to my stomach. “They’re just boys.”
Charlotte and Sarah exchanged a look and laughed at my question, but I could tell neither of them had an answer. “You’re too young to know,” Sarah finally said, rubbing her lips together. They looked as though she had crushed cherries between them and she admired their color in the mirror. But when I studied her reflection in the glass, I caught a glimpse of her eyes, and I couldn’t see anything in them. They were large blue pools that she desperately wanted someone to swim in. Sarah didn’t know what made this boy special. She only hoped he might be able to let her know if she was.
Sarah would spend a lot of time at our house, but once she had her date with the boy at the wall, we didn’t see much of her. He soaked up her every moment. They went out for a few months, and she seemed happy at first, but something in her changed. She used to wave to me in the hallway, even though I was only known among her group of friends as Charlotte’s younger sister, and I would wave back, happy to be noticed by someone older. But Sarah didn’t acknowledge me anymore when I passed her. She looked through me as though I wasn’t there. She didn’t seem to see anybody. When I saw her on those days, she looked as though she had seen a ghost, something that had gotten inside of her and disturbed everything she knew. But as time went on, it was hard to tell whether we were the ghosts or if she was.
She started missing days of school, and then full weeks, and then one day rumors started circulating that she wasn’t coming back at all. By then, Sarah and Charlotte had fallen so out of touch that everyone in our family agreed it was better to leave the situation alone and not ask questions. I overheard my sister on the phone, talking with her friends about how Sarah’s relationship with the boy had turned bad quick. I remember trying to get her attention one day in the parking lot, but she was too busy arguing with him about something I couldn’t figure out. He had her by the wrist and was swaying her back and forth like a doll, moving her in any direction he wanted. I didn’t do anything or tell anyone because I didn’t know there was anything to be done. I went home that day worried about Sarah, but as the sun went down, the feeling faded, and I eventually fell asleep thinking that even if it wasn’t perfect, she was still so lucky to have one of them.
People couldn’t stop talking about Sarah after she left. They blamed her for losing all of her friends and finding out the truth about why she left was no longer important. Everyone agreed it was just her fault. But no one said anything about the boy at the wall or asked him questions about what happened. It didn’t matter. He just reclaimed his spot among the others and went on like nothing happened.
But I don’t think those boys are cruel—not all of them anyway. One spoke to me the other day. It wasn’t much, just a few words whispered as I put my French book in my locker. It was over before I knew that it had started. But as I watched him walk away, I had a date, time, and place I was supposed to be, and something to finally look forward to. It was nice to be chosen, to have someone want to spend time with me, someone who didn’t know me yet.
I know what everyone’s told me about the boys at the wall, the warnings I’ve received about going around them. But you don’t know how it feels until it happens to you. If you do one day, then you’ll know what I’m taking about—how it feels to float in the clouds from brushing against one of their shoulders, chewing on the words of a conversation by the lockers that takes you by surprise. You’ll race home and into your bedroom to scream with excitement into a pillow, because the boys don’t like loud girls and what’s wrong with that really?
Perhaps you’re the one he’s been searching for, the reason he’s been so careful. And maybe it will all work out—the date, the time, the place—a first encounter unspooling into more encounters and more words until you share something with a boy at the wall that no one else has. And maybe he won’t hurt you, won’t steal something from inside you that you can’t put into words, won’t fill you with a sadness that’s too much to take. Maybe he’ll let you shine as bright as you did before he met you, and you’ll have stolen something from him, and even more, you’ll have taken one of the boys away from the wall. Then it will all have been worth it.