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Head Over Heels
an SAT/ACT vocabulary novel
  

October 1: Chinese Moon Festival

After she bribed me with a gift certificate for a free massage, I finally acquiesced to Nikki’s demands. Which is why, after soccer practice today, she dropped me off in Forest Estates at 3224 Grove Parkway—a.k.a., the House o’ Luke. We could barely see the house number because of all the trees and vines and fecund greenery cascading onto his front lawn.

“This is like a freakin’ rain forest,” Nikki said.

“Well, if I get assassinated by some irate primate, it’ll be on your conscience.”

“You’ll be fine,” Nikki said. “Thank you so much for doing this. You’re the greatest.”

“No prob. Anything for a friend and a deep tissue massage.” I smiled. “By the way, what’s your plan? Are you gonna wait until he answers the door and then just jump out and accost him?”

“What am I, an idiot? Wait—don’t answer that,” she said quickly when she saw the smile on my face. “I don’t know, I may wave or something. I haven’t decided whether or not to make my move today. Feeling kind of blah. I was thinking I’d let you get to know him a little first, and then give me some hints about the best way to reel him in.”

“Got it,” I said.

I stepped out of the car. The full import of what I was about to do occurred to me for the first time. Getting tutored by an egomaniac I don’t know so that Nikki can score a boyfriend. I shuffled across the lawn and pressed the doorbell. After an interminable silence, there was the tap-tap of footsteps on tile. The door creaked open. I held my already bated breath. A face appeared, but not Luke’s. It was the softened face of a matriarch who, despite her graying hair, maintained the radiant smile and general vivacity of a much younger woman.

“Hello,” she said. “You must be Francesca.”

“That’s me.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Mrs. Barton,” she said with a genial smile. She extended her hand. I shook it. “Welcome to our humble abode.”

“Thanks.”

She gestured for me to step inside. The house smelled like cinnamon and desiccated lemon peels. I heard the mellifluous sprinkle of running water in the background.

“Would your friend like to come in, too?” she asked, gesturing behind me.

“Oh . . .” I turned around and shooed Nikki away with a dismissive flick of the wrist. “No. She dropped me off. She’s leaving. Thanks.”

“Luke got home late from practice. He’s still in the shower. Can I get you something to drink?”

“No thanks,” I said bashfully, even though I was a little thirsty.

Mrs. Barton and I prattled for a bit about how nice a town Columbus was. She apologized extensively for her son’s tardiness and then asked me to excuse her. She was a therapis and had lots of paperwork to do.

I said no problem. I waited there, alone, in the den, listening to the shower run, for a solid five minutes. Which may not seem like a long time, but it is when the person who is supposed to be tutoring you is flippantly whistling to himself in a shower just a few feet away. I could feel the anger amassing inside me, and I knew that I would have to suppress it somehow in order to maintain my civility. I realized the shower had stopped and poised myself for His Highness to step out and finally grace me with his presence. The door opened.

“Oh hey,” he said unassumingly. “You’re on time. So punctual. I’m sorry. You must think I’m such a punk.”

I didn’t say anything. He stood there, his freckled skin flecked with glistening beads of water, holding up his towel at the waist. I swallowed hard. He was lankier than I expected him to be, more sinewy than buff. I indulged in a shallow thought: Jeremy’s got a tighter six-pack. I wanted him to know I was annoyed without having to say it. I wanted badly to feign disinterest, just as I had planned, but he was suddenly too human, too right there. It was disarming.

“No problem,” I heard myself saying.

“Listen, I’ll go throw on some clothes and grab my stuff. Be right back . . .” He started to walk away, and I couldn’t help watching. When he flipped around, he caught me in a compromising position. “And don’t be checkin’ out my butt,” he said.

I bit my lip, feeling my face turn five different shades of red.

But when he came back, Luke immediately got down to business. I was stunned at how professional, and quite frankly, how good he was at tutoring. I was less beset by ennui than I’d imagined I’d be. At the same time, it was clear that he grossly underestimated my verbal acumen, which annoyed me. But I sucked it up and played ignoramus in the name of allegiance to Nikki. My aplomb held up for almost the full hour, until, with about ten minutes left, he corrected my pronunciation of the word “arduous.”

“It’s not are-joo-us,” he said. “Technically, you’re supposed to pronounce the ‘d.’ More like, are-dyoo-us.”

I threw my hands up in the air. “Listen, I know the word, all right. I know that it means ‘involving great difficulty or effort,’ and I’ve heard it pronounced myriad times, by teachers, parents and newscasters, and I know that my pronunciation is just as legitimate as yours.”

“Whoa,” he said. “Easy there. I’m just trying to help out.”

“Well, you’re not.” I popped the cap on my pen for emphasis. “See, I’m afraid I’ve misled you somewhat. My friend signed me up for this because—um, because she heard me complain about my PSAT score from last year. But I’ve come a long way since then, and I don’t really need this tutoring. In fact, from what I’ve seen, my vocabulary prowess is basically tantamount to yours.”

“I doubt that, considering I’ve taken several SAT prep classes.”

“All the more reason for me to conserve time, energy and money by renouncing this little charade and going back to the vocab workbooks I’ve already bought.”

“Oh, so you are trying to bolster your score then?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Well, if you are, then trust me, no exercise could be more otiose than laboring over those workbooks without an actual person to help you out.”

Otiose? What the . . . ?

“It means futile.” Luke grinned at his own clairvoyance.

“I know what it means,” I lied.

Luke put up his hands in mock surrender. “Fine. I believe you. Listen, today I’m going to give you the abridged lesson. And from now on, I’ll concede that you’re an advanced student. Instead of doing these mundane exercises, we’ll just do random free-style word-offs, using bombastic words in discussions and polemics, just to amuse ourselves. We’ll both get better scores, and my parents can keep deluding themselves that I’m a responsible, industrious young adult with an actual income from this tutoring gig. How’s that sound?”

I paused, debating. This whole afternoon had been a waste of time, mostly. But I had picked up a few words I didn’t know, and I knew Nikki would freak out if I told her the whole plan was over before she’d even had a chance to take action.

“Sounds okay,” I said, trying to keep my tone from sounding as sulky as I felt.

“You know, I have to say that you deserve some plaudits yourself. From my first impression, I presumed you were totally regs.”

“Regs?”

“Yeah, you know. Normal. Dull. Plain Jane. A carbon copy embracer of the status quo . . .”

“I get your point.”

“But I’m not so sure about you anymore. You’ve got some guts.”

“Gee, thanks,” I said. Nothing infuriated me more than a backhanded compliment.

Luke stood up. “Cool. So, I’ll see you next time,” he said with cool self-assurance.

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