CHAPTER SEVENTEEN – Jell-o And Hankies
At lunch time on the last day of school, energy and spirits ran high. The noise in the cafeteria was deafening. Someone brought a huge boombox that thumped out dance cuts and several students waved their hands and bumped hips. Yearbooks were passed around and signed.
Knute and Gunther ambled through the food line, sliding their trays along, looking over the final day’s selections: macaroni and cheese with black specks in it, something that resembled soupy sloppy joe, a pan of green Jell-o mixed with chunks of yellow stuff and a dish labeled ‘vegetable hash,’ whatever that meant.
Gunther had given up the slobby jerk routine after the disastrous bra-snapping fiasco. Now he was back to his old self. He spooned up a dripping display of the mystery meat sauce and scrunched his nose. “What do you suppose this is?”
“I dunno,” grinned Knute. “But if it’s what it was last week, it’s not bad.” Knute ladled a big serving onto his plate. “So you’re back to normal, huh? All tucked and tidy, no more grungy guy, no more ‘Rocky’?”
“That’s all behind me,” said Gunther, inspecting a spoonful of the vegetable hash. “Wonder what these red things are?”
“Don’t ask.” Knute took the spoon from Gunther’s hand and dumped the hash next to his puddle of meat sauce. “What about the survey? I thought it said grunge was the way to get girls.”
“The survey was wrong. I was wrong,” said Gunther, sliding his tray.
“You? Mister Science Genius, wrong?” said Knute, chasing a wobbly slab of Jell-o around the pan with a spoon.
“I misinterpreted the results. When I observed girls going for jerks, I concluded that it was the boy’s unkempt appearance that was attractive. It wasn’t. It was the wild, rebellious personality of those boys that appealed to the girls, and that’s something I could never mimic. I saw only one side of the picture.”
Knute balanced the wiggly Jell-o on the spoon and carried it carefully to his plate. Halfway there, it flopped into Gunther’s glass of milk. “Oops! Sorry dude,” laughed Knute. He stuck his fingers in Gunther’s milk to fish out the blob of Jell-o. “So what’s the other side of the picture?”
“The other side is the majority side. The subtle, everyday interactions that are harder to see. The interplay among ‘normal’ people.”
Knute slurped the milky Jell-o into his mouth. “Tha da side we on?” he garbled.
“Well, I am. You I’m not sure about,” said Gunther.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Luann was in the restroom, building her courage to go to the cafeteria. She’d stayed home for the first part of the day, agonizing about whether to come to school or not. In a major show of understanding, Luann’s mom had not only allowed her to stay home, but had driven her to school when Luann finally decided to go.
Luann hadn’t seen Aaron Hill yet. More to the point, he hadn’t seen her.
She now faced a huge challenge: making a grand entrance into a cafeteria full of people whose opinions mattered to her, to face Aaron, Tiffany, friends — and the judgmental stares of total strangers.
Compared to this, the Horrible Button Incident was nothing.
Luann looked at herself in the mirror. In yet another amazing display of empathy, Luann’s mom had actually suggested a bit of makeup to help balance the blah face with the dramatic hair. As Luann turned her head from side to side, examining her bleached fuzz, the toilet behind her flushed, the stall door opened and Chayna, the GAP clerk, walked to the sink next to Luann.
“Howya doin’,” said Chayna. “You new here? I’m Chayna.” She turned on the tap and washed her hands.
“Um… hi, Chayna. I’m Luann. No, I’m not new here. I just have a new hairdo.”
“Yeah, I was lookin’ at that. It is SO adorable. I’d love to get a cut like that, but I’d never look as cute as you do. You have a perfect face for it.” She ripped off a paper towel, blotted her hands and headed for the door. ”Well, have a great summer, ‘k? You’ll slay lots of guys with that ‘do!”
A minute later, Luann walked confidently into the cafeteria.
Inside, she paused and looked around. She saw the Jock Table, but Tiffany wasn’t there. Neither was Aaron. Something off to the side caught her eye: it was Bernice waving at her — as usual — from the table near the boy’s restroom. Delta was with her. Beyond them, she saw Knute and Gunther, making their way from the food line, looking for someplace to sit.
Just then, a voice behind her said, “Excuse me.” Luann turned — and stood face to face with Aaron Hill.
“Oh! Sorry, Aaron. I didn’t mean to stand here in the way,” said Luann, jumping aside.
Aaron stared at her for a long moment, then said, “Luann?”
Luann instinctively fluttered her hands to her hair and looked at the floor. “Yes. It’s me,” she mumbled. “Got a little haircut.”
“No kidding,” said Aaron. He stared for a second longer, then walked away.
Suddenly, all of Luann’s confidence drained from her, like a plug had been pulled. Tears pooled in her eyes. She turned and dashed out the cafeteria doors and ran into the quad. She wanted to run all the way home, but it was too far.
She slumped on a bench in a corner of the quad, half hidden by a vending machine, and began to sob. She leaned her elbows on her knees and ran her hands through her fuzzy hair. Tears dripped off her nose and splashed on the concrete between her feet. She’d never felt more miserable.
Why had she done this? Why was she so dumb? Her parent’s voices rang in her head: what were you thinking?
What WAS she thinking? Did she actually believe that a pale fuzzy head would melt Aaron’s heart? That it would give her a bold new attitude? This haircut didn’t give confidence, it took it away. Luann realized that you needed the confidence first. Now she had no hair, no confidence, no Aaron, nothing. She was whatever was less than a 99 Cent Special. A 98 Cent Special.
Luann looked up through tear-bleary eyes and saw Gunther. She turned away. “Not now, Gunther.”
“I know exactly what you’re feeling, Luann,” said Gunther, hoping she wouldn’t shut him out.
“No you don’t,” blubbered Luann, a fresh wave of pity overcoming her.
Gunther stepped quickly to the bench and sat down, but not too close. “Yes, I do. I went through the same thing. After doing that survey, I was convinced that if I just changed my look, the world would change too. But it didn’t. It can’t.”
Luann sniffled and wiped her nose on her sleeve. Gunther pulled a hanky from his back pocket and offered it. Luann took it and laughed. “How many boys in this school carry a clean white hanky?” She dabbed her eyes. “Thank you, Gunther. You’re sweet.”
She put the hanky to her nose and honked loudly.
“But I look like a Bozo,” he said.
Luann stopped, mid-honk. Gunther held up his hand and smiled. “It’s ok. I know how I look. I’ve accepted it.”
Luann wiped her nose. “That’s good, Gunther. But how you look isn’t what’s upsetting me.”
“Yes, I know. I’m just trying to show you that no matter how you alter your outside, you’re still you inside.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard all that a trillion times. But it doesn’t help, Gunther. You know why?” She looked at Gunther, her eyes red and puffy, her nose dribbling, her face blotchy and smeared with makeup. “Because my inside isn’t any better than my outside.” Fresh tears welled up.
Gunther moved closer and put his hand on Luann’s shoulder. The tenderness of the touch made Luann melt and she leaned into him, shuddering with sobs, hanky held over her face. “Why am I such a… a… NOTHING?” she wailed.
Gunther put his arm lightly around Luann’s shoulder. “Luann, you’re not a nothing. Don’t say that. You’re wonderful and unique and you mean a lot to other people –” Gunther took a deep breath “– like me.”
Luann buried her face in Gunther’s shirt, which smelled faintly of detergent. She was touched by Gunther’s words. It was comforting to know that someone liked you for who you were, no matter how bad you looked. “Do you hate my hair?” she said into his shirt.
Luann’s fuzzy head brushed Gunther’s chin. It made him smile.
“Well, I prefer it the other way… but this way is kinda… um… exciting…”
Luann sat up. “Exciting? What do you mean?”
Gunther blushed and looked at his shoes. “I dunno… just… um…”
She took his hand in hers. “You’re a special guy, Gunther, you know that?”
“Thanks,” mumbled Gunther, still examining his shoes. “So… are you going to keep your hair that way?”
Gunther looked up. “Do you feel like it’s really you?”
“Honestly? No. I don’t think I’m the radical, buzzy type.”
“It’s almost… too exciting, you know?” Luann smiled. “False advertising, huh?”
Gunther blushed again.
“Ok. I’ll grow it out.”
The bell rang, ending lunch. Luann wiped her eyes and gave a last wet blow into Gunther’s hanky which was now a soggy, makeup smeared mess.
“I’ll wash this and give it back.”
Gunther held up his hand. “Keep it. I have dozens.”
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