by the edge of the river
 

Chapter 5: Nothing's Ever Gonna Be the Same

October 8, 1957

The next morning when Brian arrived at school, he saw that someone had cleaned the paint off his locker. There was still a faint trace of it, but it wasn't too noticeable until he stood just in front of it. He gave a small sigh as he closed the locker again, his binder and the novel he needed for his English class now in his hands.

He sat through the class, anxious for it to be over. More than once, his mind wandered and he found his thoughts drifting to Loyola. When the bell finally rang, he rushed back to his locker, picked up his chemistry book, and walked quickly to Mrs. Cowles' class.

He saw them as soon as he walked in the door: Loyola and Jesse. They were talking quietly, his head bent down near hers and that charming smile on his face. Jesse was tall, athletic, and intelligent. What girl wouldn't fall for a guy like that?

Brian felt his heart thumping as he approached them, trying to overhear but not sure he wanted to. He couldn't make out everything they said, but caught enough to know they were talking about the dance. Jesse didn't seem very happy at the end of the conversation—his smile had changed to a frown.

All through class, Brian tried to catch Loyola's attention. He passed her another note, but she didn't even read it. On top of that, Jesse kept glaring at him any time he looked her way.

Whatever hope he'd had when she hadn't said yes to Jesse the day before dissipated. She might or might not be going to the dance with the basketball player, but it didn't look like there was any chance she'd be going with him, either.

He finally cornered her after class let out. "Loyola," he started.

She averted her gaze. "We'll work on the project together, Brian, because I need the good grade in this class, but that's it." She turned to go before giving him a chance to say anything more.

 

He headed to his locker feeling dejected. It didn't help that Mike Larson had passed him in the hall and called him a Communist. He was still trying to figure that one out, but decided the other student had just blurted out the first insult that had come to mind.

He got through his next two classes, but not easily. US Government was always interesting and he was actually able to distract himself from what he was calling his 'Loyola-troubles' during the class. P.E. was next, and he went through the motions, but his mind was busy trying to figure out how to approach Loyola and what to say to her. His imagination worked overtime as he played out different scenarios in his head where he ended up being either kissed by her, or, more likely, slapped by her.

By the time he got out of the shower and the lunch bell had rung, he was nervous and anxious. He sauntered slowly to the cafeteria, not wanting to appear too eager to talk to her. He stood in line for the normal drab lunch fare and then made his way over to Loyola's table. He set the tray down and put his hand on the back of the chair next to her.

"Brian!" Loyola hissed. "You can't sit here."

"Why not?" Brian asked, glancing around the room. He caught Mart and Trixie's eyes and gave them a small smile in greeting. They both grinned back and then returned to their own lunches.

"Yeah, why not?" Shirley asked. "I kinda like him sittin' here."

Loyola glared at Shirley.

Knowing he had the 'best friend stamp of approval' from Shirley, Brian pulled out the chair and sat down next to Loyola. He started to dig into his lunch—cubed chicken with some rice and overly-boiled carrots. "What do you have today?" he asked, nodding at her lunch sack.

"Same as usual. Turkey sandwich and a couple of turkeys for friends." She frowned at her food.

"Gobble gobble," Shirley muttered. "What's eating you today, Lo-la?"

Loyola glared across the table. "You don't get it, do you?"

The question had been directed at Shirley, not Brian, although he felt like he didn't understand whatever it was she was referring to, either.

"Oh, I get it." Shirley sounded annoyed with her friend. "Let me run it down for you: You're gonna let some foo' with a bit of paint make you go all hinky and nix out a good thing."

Brian took a few seconds to decipher some of Shirley's speech. "They got your locker, too?"

Loyola made a face at her food, still not looking at him. "It wasn't a big deal, but it was, you know? Today it was just an 'x' but what about tomorrow or the next day?"

Brian gulped down some milk from the small carton before answering. "I'm not going to worry about that unless they actually do something more. And even if they do, well, it's not going to stop me from liking you."

Loyola's face shot up and her eyes met his. For just a second, Brian's world stood still. And then she turned away again.

They ate their lunch in silence; even Shirley remained quiet.

"Have you given any thought to the dance?" Brian finally asked.

"No."

He peered over at Loyola, wondering just how to interpret the no.

Shirley seemed to be questioning it, too. "You have so been thinking about it."

Loyola shrugged. "I've been thinking I may just not go." She finished up her sandwich and reached for her thermos.

"You have a little mayonnaise ...." Brian pointed to the corner of her mouth. He was trying to remain calm, to act normal, but his heart was doing summersaults. It seemed like she hadn't accepted Jesse's invitation, but he'd like to know for certain.

"I've got it," Loyola snapped as she picked up a napkin.

Shirley shook her head sadly. "You have to go. It's our senior year. You can't miss out on Homecoming."

"Why? It's not like I'm going to be part of the court or anything." Loyola shook her head slightly. "Papa doesn't want me to go, anyway. I may as well just stay home."

"Will you stop flapping at the jibs?" Shirley rolled her eyes and then grinned at Brian. "Can you believe this girl?"

"And can you believe her?" Loyola stuck her tongue out at her friend. "She's in my AP English class, but you wouldn't know it the way she speaks."

Brian chuckled. He really wouldn't have guessed that. He wished he were in their AP English class but it had conflicted with his calculus course. Jim was in that class, though. Focusing again, he wanted to confirm what she seemed to be saying about the dance. "So, you're not going with Jesse?"

Loyola sighed. "No. It just wouldn't feel right."

Yes! He tried not to let his glee be too obvious, but he couldn't help the wide grin that had formed on his face. "Then would you still consider going with me?"

"I ... I can't." Loyola gathered her things together as if she were going to leave, even though the bell hadn't rung yet.

"Because I'm white?" Brian asked the question quietly.

Shirley glanced at him and then narrowed her eyes at Loyola. "Is that really the only reason why, Lo-la?"

"You don't understand." She stood up as if to leave, grimacing at her friend. Her eyes pleaded with the other colored girl's. "You've lived here all your life. You don't know what it's like."

"No, but I know Sleepyside, New York isn't Farthing, Tennessee." Shirley gestured for her to sit back down.

"Is that where you're from?" Brian turned in his chair to look up at her. He knew she had moved here from somewhere out of state when she'd first transferred to Sleepyside Junior-Senior High at the start of their junior year, but Loyola wasn't much for talking about herself, so he hadn't known any specifics. The only clue had been her Southern accent.

Loyola nodded.

"And what was it like there? Can you tell us?" Shirley asked, her voice soft and calm as opposed to her usual brash manner.

"You know."

"I do. But Brian doesn't. Explain it to him." Shirley got up to take her tray back to the kitchen. She touched Brian's tray, offering to take it, too.

Brian nodded. "Thanks."

Loyola sat back down. She kept her voice low, as if afraid of being overheard. "When we lived in Tennessee, I didn't go to the same school as the white students. Negros weren't allowed. I couldn't eat in the same restaurants; I couldn't drink from the same fountains. I couldn't even walk in the front door to a store—I had to go around back and use the Negro entrance."

"I didn't realize ...." He didn't know what to say. It wasn't that he never read a newspaper, but the segregation issues in other states never seemed to affect him. Until a few minutes ago, he hadn't known exactly where she'd moved from. He certainly hadn't realized what she'd moved from.

"No, of course not. But it was just normal, you know. It was just how things were, and it was all I knew before I moved here." She glanced at him briefly and he thought he saw tears in her eyes.

Normal? He tried, really tried, to understand how such an existence could be considered normal by any person's standards, white or colored. He couldn't, though. It wasn't at all normal to him. He stopped trying to make sense of it and just listened to the girl sitting next to him.

"But when ... when my parents and my brother were run off the road by some white men who were mad at my daddy, the sheriff called it an accident. They didn't even get a slap on the wrist, even though everyone in town knew it'd been done on purpose. The only accident about it was that they didn't think they'd actually kill my family, just scare them." She took a moment to calm herself, breathing in and out deeply, and then wiped at her cheek where one tear had managed to roll down. "That's when Papa decided we should move."

Brian sat numbly. She'd mentioned before that the rest of her family was killed in a car accident, but she'd never said they'd been targeted. He really felt like a heel now. And he felt angry. How could there be towns like that in this day and age? It was truly unfathomable.

"Some people said we were running away, afraid." She gazed at him steadily, her eyes cold and hard behind the wire-rimmed spectacles. "Maybe. But at least we're alive. And at least here we have a chance to be part of the community, you know? It's strange, being not only allowed, but expected, to go to the same restaurants, to walk in the same doors. Good, but strange. But people still stare at us, like they're expecting ... I don't know, like they expect us to do something wrong or bad."

"I'm s-sorry."

"No. You don't need to be sorry. You just need to get it. We're from completely different worlds. We don't mix." Loyola looked around the cafeteria where most students were gathering their things and getting ready to get to their next class. "You have no idea how weird it felt even walking in these halls when I started here last year."

"Maybe ... maybe you don't get it. We aren't from different worlds. We're both students in this school, we're both seniors, we're both on the honor roll." He gave her a small smile, trying to reassure her. "And maybe your old town had everything segregated and your old school was Negro only, but that's not how things are here, and it's not how they should be."

"Then why, after yesterday, when you started sitting at this lunch table, are both of us are now being targeted by someone who thinks our kinds should be separate? I don't know if it's one person or a group of people or the whole school. I just know that I suddenly felt like I was back in Tennessee and had accidentally walked on the wrong side of the street." Loyola shook her head, frowning sadly.

Brian really wasn't sure what to say. He tried to imagine himself in her shoes. He couldn't.

"I can't do this, Brian. I've got too much at stake here. I've got a really good shot of getting into Barnard College and I don't want anything to tarnish my record." She gazed into his eyes. The bell rang; lunch was over. "And I'm—." She cut herself off and composed herself. "I'm not willing to go against the grain. Things may be different than Tennessee here, on the surface, but underneath, it feels the same."

Brian stared back at her solemnly. He was hoping to get into Columbia himself. He and Neil had been planning on doing their pre-med there. He couldn't help feeling a surge of hope at the thought of Loyola attending Barnard, Columbia's sister college whose campus was so close to Columbia. "They're not the same. This school's not like that." He knew what he was saying was true but he didn't know how to convince her. "Barnard's not going to blame you because some idiot or two at our school is prejudiced."

The cafeteria had emptied out and Loyola looked around with panic in her eyes. "I'm going to be late for class!"

Brian watched her grab her lunch box and run off. He had to talk to her more; he had to convince her, somehow. He just had to. He was about to follow her out when he realized she'd left her thermos on the table. He grabbed it and turned back around, and then he saw a blur in front of him and felt himself being slammed back. He braced himself against the table to keep from falling.

"Oomf."

The mumbled sound came from the vicinity of his chest. He put one arm near Loyola's shoulder, steadying her. Her eyeglasses had slid down her nose, crookedly, and she quickly adjusted them. Her chin looked a little red from the contact with the button on his shirt. He moved his hand to caress it and tilted her head up so he could gaze into her eyes.

"I forgot my thermos," she whispered, not breaking eye contact, not moving away from him.

"I know," he whispered back. It was still in his other hand.

In a daring move, he bridged the small gap between them and kissed her. It was good, and soft, and so much better than any daydream or fantasy. But it was loud, and the ringing in his ears seemed incessant. He puzzled over that until he realized it was the final bell to class that was ringing from the speakers by the door.

She realized it, too, and broke away from him. "I'm late!" And she was gone again, running through the room and out the door.

His hands were empty, no longer touching Loyola's shoulders, and as he stared at his empty hands, he realized the other loud noise he had heard was the thermos slipping from them when he'd kissed her. I actually kissed her! He sighed and then dropped to the floor, searching under the table for where the thermos might have rolled.


chapter 5: nothing I was doing was right