Sir Theodore of the Formica Table
Theo was that kid at Salem North, the one we all knew would grow up to be a countercultural icon or a serial killer. A hank of dark hair, pale dishwater eyes, and – we suspected – an unparalled artistic gift. Some said he painted; others said he wrote; still others claimed he’d obtained a classic fender (through theft? from grave robbing? at auction?) and could shred like a damned soul playing for salvation.
Some admired him. I suppose.
Many avoided him.
We ignored him.
In the cafeteria galaxy, Theo, an ashen comet, traced a lonely orbit past our table, by the wannabes, through the geeks…and, finally, alongside the eccentric theatre kids, where he reached his perihelion, hovering on their system’s edge. We could see his eyes reflected in the double windows lining the cafeteria, twin dead suns, their shadowed gaze flashing darkly toward Fiona and Becky, sitting opposite Heather and me.
“He shouldn’t be allowed,” Becky would say, her intonation rising in proportion to her indignation.
“He’s creepy,” Heather would murmur, adding a debutante-worthy shudder.
“Don’t pay him any attention,” Fiona would declare, her delicate face determinedly serene. Then we’d return to whatever conversation he’d so rudely intersected – cheer routines – prom – college plans…our futures, twinkling just beyond.
When they said ‘marketing,’ I nodded.
Theo only had gym with us that year; his form just muscular enough to escape a social supernova. Most of us – the senior cheerleaders – took eighth hour gym; it was another fifty minutes in which tried (then failed) to dazzle the implacable Coach Callahan. I signed up last spring knowing Fiona was eight pounds lighter, with a side split of cosmic beauty. Sometimes Theo lingered after class, into practice time; if someone was ill, Coach Callahan would impress him into our service. He’d spot Fiona as she flew, her slim legs forming a momentary mustache for the falcon mascot on the far wall.
I was a base.
Previously Lucy’s spot.
She’d given birth to a baby girl last August. I had heard later that she was at the alternative school with metal detectors and an on-site daycare. Seven months before, Fiona’s auburn hair had tickled my arm when she approached me – me alone – at lunch, and asked if I’d ever cheered before. Which, definitely not; I had written for the newspaper, participated in various academic clubs. I casually leaned over my impulse equations.
“We’re going to be one short,” she said, “and the JV girls are –” The momentum of her eye-roll could have propelled us into an alternate universe.
“Um…sure,” I said.
Her grey-green eyes brought my spring three months early.
“Great. Tryouts are Thursday at 3:30.”
Am I remembering correctly that Theo witnessed that exchange, or did I place him there in retrospect? I never considered it then. I made the team; I remade my physique; and I acquired A&F shorts, a tan, and a trip-to-the-movies gang. I once suggested a trip to the planetarium (resoundingly negatived). I had Fiona, Becky, and Heather over to my house. My telescope fit in the closet.
Early senior year I had a stroke of luck: Fiona had gone to a Student Council meeting and Heather and Becky were inaugurating the prom committee. I stole up to the second floor, and made a plea to Mrs. Jenkins.
“You do know it would have been easier if you’d just signed up for the class,” she sighed.
“It conflicted with gym.”
She offered me a stare whose temperature approached absolute zero – but rummaged in her Einstein-papered cabinet for the last dog-eared book.
She assembled a pile of quizzes, worksheets, and tests, and tucked them into the book. “We’ll see.”
Theo’s locker was just outside. “Hey,” he said. “Your friend.”
No prizes for guessing which. “Yeah?”
“Is she seeing –”
He absorbed this. “OK.”
A Mobius strip of days practicing and performing. We borrowed hours in gym – never for homework. Theo must have been there the day Heather and Becky started (during water breaks) holding a prom committee meeting.
“I heard Dan asked Jess already,” began Heather.
“That’s insane,” sighed Becky, wistfully. “It’s five months away.”
“He brought her a single white rose on her birthday and asked her then.”
“I hope Chris does that for me.”
“I’d want something bigger. Like, a song.”
They went on in this vein, then turned to Fiona, who’d recently dismissed Zeke from her court. “How about you, Fee?”
With her pale Madonna smile – “Oh, I like a grand gesture.”
“Ladies,” hissed Coach Callahan, and we scrambled to arrange ourselves, obedient atoms in a crystal.
Football season: a black hole into which cheerleaders pour all of their time and energy. I missed fall entirely and invited the girls for panic-shopping the Saturday before Christmas. We hustled through forty-two presents in no time, then treated ourselves to a blue-moon burger and fries.
Greg had broken things off with Heather (per Becky, he had taken up with one of the JV girls) and that discussion absorbed all of our oxygen. We finished, and were bracing for the second gifting onslaught, when we heard,
The rubber snap-crack of three hundred necks craning simultaneously toward the source of the name…Theo stood atop the round formica table, beneath the food court skylight, a beneficient sun annointing his dark head. But he had no eyes for the slack-jawed, when his beloved stood there…
Oh, no, mouthed Fiona.
“I wanted to ask,” he said – his voice dropped and he murmured the words, as if they stood alone in a remote forest chapel – “if you would do me the honor of going to prom with me.”
A few awwwwwwws, as if this old-fashioned request had rekindled a glimmer of feeling in materialism’s devotees.
Fiona paled, like scores of Regency heroines before her; her fine brows and nostrils flared. “No!”
I half-expected that this staccato syllable would prove a bolt to the hero’s heart –
Theo started, nodded, began to climb down; one more cri du cœur emergedfrom her white throat. “You make me sick!”
The chair made no sound when Theo stepped on it, and I remember, I remember, his words…pale as any dying champion, he said, evenly: “I care for you, and I wanted to tell you so. I couldn’t…not.” He offered her a classical bow. “I hope you have a nice time.”
Fiona’s nails raked my forearm, and Heather’s. “Let’s go.”
The school might have been aroar with gossip and rumor, but Fiona perched regally at her desk and let Heather and Becky shush the masses. I suppose I did, too. But even I suspected the firmament had shifted.
“What she said was mean,” Anne-the-future-valedictorian declared loudly, before Mrs. Foray arrived for Senior Seminar.
“He embarrassed her publicly,” rejoined Meg-the-future-salutatorian.
“Yeah, maybe…but still…At least what he said –”
“All right, girls,” grumbled Mrs. Foray, amicably.
Fiona accepted James Carter’s invitation to prom later in the week – hoping, I think, to sweep the embarrassing incident away in a wave of new information. Instead the madding crowds precipitated a sort of beta decay, assessing that James was a wannabe, Fiona was a snob, and Theo was certifiable.
“No dude in his right mind comes right out and –” began Kevin…then Mrs. Foray glared.
In the following months we cheered at endless basketball games, and Mrs. Jenkins produced prior-year test questions that palpitated before my eyes, mysterious pulsars, blinding me with bursts of insight which then vanished. The second half of senior year was a red shift, exams and college letters hurtling past me. Theo vanished from our gym class; I heard he dropped it and picked up choir – then got cast as a show-stopping El Gallo in The Fantastics. (Heather and Becky privately conceded his excellence.)
He pulled me aside after the show. “I saw you clapping.”
“Your friends didn’t.”
I shrugged. “You deserved it.”
He confided that he’d gotten accepted to Juilliard.
May erupted, and the corsage-and-limousine event horizon loomed. Future prom queen Fiona looped her arm through mine –
“Pre-gaming, girl! 9 a.m., my house. We’re going to start at the spa, get manicures, get our hair done…
“After lunch…there’s an AP exam in the morning.”
Fiona blanched. “What? You don’t have an AP class.”
“Mrs. Jenkins provided an…independent study.” I beamed. “I’m going to major in astrophysics.”
Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, and diplomat; her pieces have appeared or are forthcoming in Chaleur, Burningword, Typishly, Panoply, Open: Journal of Arts and Letters, Allegory, Enzo Publications, The Write Launch, Palaver, Curating Alexandria, SunLit, Coffin Bell Journal, Five:2:One, Every Day Fiction, The Remembered Arts Journal, Raw Art Review, Weasel Press, Dragon Poet Review, Scribble, Cosumnes River Journal, and the Anti-Languorous Project.