September 26: National Good Neighbor Day
Lunchtime. Taco Bell.
Nikki and I have last lunch period, so the dining area was rife with taco wrappers and used hot sauce packets. I sat in our favorite booth, next to the window least obscured by those huge Taco Bell sticker ads, waiting for Nikki to bring the food over. She had magnanimously offered to pay for the food and deliver it to our table. This type of unprompted altruism was so atypical of Nikki that I was, quite frankly, suspicious.
“Here you go,” Nikki said, carrying a tray like a waitress. “A chicken gordita, Mexican pizza, burrito and a Coke.”
“No problem!” Nikki said, a little too ecstatically. “I’m just so pumped we have the same lunch period.”
“Isn’t it gorgeous out?” Nikki said, looking outside. “God, what a day!”
I stared at her, dumbfounded. This was exactly the type of saccharine, glass-half-full optimism we had always mutually railed against. The first time Nikki and I met was at a CH football game, when she overheard me verbally shredding the cheerleaders for looking like pliable plastic dolls. She cackled out loud, and I cackled back, and our cackles reverberated throughout the bleachers, and we’ve been us ever since.
“Pintos ‘n Cheese is the nectar of the gods. So good.” Nikki was chewing with her eyes closed.
“I’m not gonna argue there.” I finished chomping my gordita and leaned into the table. “But that alone would not explain your suddenly metamorphosing into the Bartholomew County Teen Spirit Queen. Would it?”
Nikki shrugged, smiled and jabbed her spork into what looked like cheese-covered mud. She shoveled it into her mouth with exuberance.
“Come on,” I exhorted. “Spill the beans.”
She almost snorted up a mouthful of mush. “That was the worst joke ever, Fran . . . Okay, okay, so I was saving it for dessert, but I guess I’ll tell you. I talked to him today.”
“Him? You mean Luke?”
“So you figured out a context?”
“I did,” she said. “Thanks for the advice.”
“Wow. So how’d it go?”
“Oh, my God. It was incredible. We totally established rapport. There’s just something about that guy—he’s got that quiet simmering brain-power thing. He observes but doesn’t comment too much.”
“He’s succinct,” I said.
“Totally. And he stays kind of withdrawn and makes you come after him, you know.”
“So he’s elusive,” I said.
“Are you kidding me? Totally. He’s everything. He’s the un-gettable guy.”
“Your ideal mate,” I said, slurping at my straw disdainfully.
“So how did you do it?” I asked.
“Oh. Well. I . . .” Nikki put her spork down. She wiped Taco Bell residue from her hands with a napkin. Not in a normal, massaging motion but more akin to the deranged, obsessive-compulsive Lady Macbeth manner of hand rubbing.
“You what?” I prodded.
“Well what happened was, I remembered—total coincidence here—that you weren’t so enthralled with your verbal PSAT scores. And I heard that Luke is a seriously smart guy, with a huge vocabulary, so I figured, hey, we could kill three birds with one stone or whatever. You know . . . help me, help you, help him. It’s a win-win-win situation . . .”
“Excuse me Nikki,” I said. “How exactly did I get involved here?”
Nikki ran her hand over her hair, and I noticed that her hand was quivering. “I signed you up for vocab tutoring lessons with Luke. Just like once every couple weeks.”
“You did what?”
“Think of it as an early birthday gift for my best friend,” she said.
I stabbed my spork vehemently into my Mexican pizza. “My birthday is a month away. And why would I want tutoring lessons from a guy I detest, especially in vocabulary, when you know that I pride myself on my verbal legerdemain?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re good with words. But I figured that since you scored way lower than you should have that—”
“Be nice,” I said.
“Oh, I know. I’m so sorry. I know I’m psycho. Go ahead and take me away in a straitjacket . . . .” Nikki slumped down in the booth. “It’s just that, you told me to establish context, and I brainstormed all night, and that was all I could come up with.”
“Why didn’t you at least ask me first?”
“You would have said no.”
“Valid point. But then—why didn’t you just get lessons for yourself? Why for me? How is my getting lessons from him going to help your cause at all?”
“I don’t know.” She groaned. “I don’t want him to think I’m dumb, especially when I practically needed a dictionary just to carry on a conversation with him. It just seemed too blatant. I didn’t want to put myself, you know, below him from the very beginning of the relationship. I figure this way I can get to know him slowly, through you, and strike that perfect balance between accessible and right there in your face, you know?”
Nikki nodded. “I guess you could put it that way. I’m so sorry. I know I’m a bad person . . . deplorable scum, a wretched low-life . . .” She scooched out of the booth and got on her knees, next to me. She clasped her hands together and shot me puppy-dog eyes. “I confess my sins. But please, if you have any empathy for me whatsoever, you’ll take these lessons. I’m paying for them, and you know how frugal I can be . . .”
“Gee,” I said. “Thanks for your patronage.”
“Pleeeeeeeeeeease,” she begged. I almost pitied the girl. Unbelievable what we’re willing to do for the opposite sex.
“But I don’t need vocab lessons,” I said. “What am I supposed to do, pretend I’m a moron so he doesn’t catch on to our machinations?”
“That would be nice . . .”
“I don’t know,” I said, though I could feel myself softening somewhat. “I think I need some more incentive.”
“You want another Mexican Pizza?” she asked hopefully.
“No,” I answered, holding out for a better contract. “But something. I don’t know. We’ll see . . .”