One late summer night in an ordinary small community, a group of boys was to be found lazing around by the banks of a familiar stream. Basking in the warm evening air, they were deep in discussion.
“Her hair is so long, she could practically sit on it during class,” Emmett proclaimed.
“I think she’s the prettiest girl in our grade, probably even in our school,” Frank put in.
“She’s perfect,” Joel agreed, nodding fervently.
Those words rang through Alden’s ears and he did not chuckle along with the rest of his friends. Instead his mind filled with the splendid vision they were discussing.
They could be talking only about Roxanne, the girl who lived in the mansion upon the hill, daughter of a prosperous banker who traveled often out of state and brought her back the fineries his money afforded. They had known her their entire lives, of course, but she had always been passed by like a painting on a wall. But since she had come back from her summer in France and they had all started high school, her beauty had been openly flowering. Blessed with clear, radiant skin, the delicate face with wide, sky-blue eyes framed by black eyeliner and mascara applied to a tee was topped off with a head of hair that was like a flowing and shining river of maple streaked copiously with artificial gold. That glorious head sat atop a body that was slim and pretty, with perfect proportions accentuated by only the finest garments of Juicy Couture and Versace, or simply Victoria’s Secret loungewear if she was at home, lounging. To Alden she was like a dream, a dream that often materialized as he watched her from afar in admiration. She was beautiful, yes, and she was sweet and kind and bright, if you were her friend….
The phrase, “A junior asked her to homecoming already,” voiced by Emmett, shook Alden out of his stupor.
“I heard she said no,” said Frank.
“She did,” confirmed Joel with a nod of his head and a later grin as he thought aloud, “better chance for the rest of us, right?”
Again Alden said nothing, though the words affected him. At ten o’clock he began to walk home, stumbling over tree roots as he made his way out of the little thicket of woods, so preoccupied with his thoughts that he hardly noticed the sweat beading down his neck from the hot, humid air. At the junction between Mallow Street and Bayberry Drive, Alden stopped a moment, poised to make a right onto the latter, and then made his decision. Forsaking the path that led home, he turned left onto Mallow Street instead, where Roxanne lived. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too late, he thought. Best to suck it up and ask her now, before she said yes to some other guy.
Before he knew it he was right in front of her house. Or rather, right in front of the very formidable iron gates blocking the long, winding path that led to the front door of her mansion some eighty feet away. There was a button to his left, and if he pressed it she would see that he was here, and perhaps let him in? He flushed from the sudden realization; this was too awkward, too unsure of a situation to get himself into. He stood there and looked up at the dozens of large glass windows glittering with golden light streaming out from within; at last his eyes landed on her room and he saw her mulling around, so far away, golden-haired and clad in what looked like a very expensive pink robe of pure silk. He stood there for so long that it was some time before he woke up and realized that it was pouring rain outside. Dejected and dripping wet, he turned around and began the walk back home. Lightning was flashing everywhere and his soaking clothes were clinging to his body like lead weights by the time he neared the intersection. Just then, a front door opened and someone called out his name. It was a girl from his class named Phoebe, and he obliged at her arm’s invitation to come inside.
“You didn’t have to invite me in,” Alden said when they were already sitting at her kitchen table and he glanced over at the large puddle of water that had come exclusively from him.
“I saw you walking outside in the middle of a storm, what was I supposed to do?” Phoebe asked as she rolled back the sleeves of her faded old gray sweatshirt so that they wouldn’t fall into the mug of steaming cocoa she was setting before him.
“Thanks,” Alden said rather blandly as he looked up, noticing a pimple near her chin.
He stayed in Phoebe’s kitchen until the storm waned some twenty minutes later and came home early enough to avoid being grounded from homecoming. The next day during school he sought for some chance to get Roxanne alone, but wherever he saw her, whether she was laughing melodiously down the hallway with a friend, or fretting about an upcoming test with worried angel’s eyes, he felt an invisible wall all around her that kept him from getting within a normal speaking distance. But at last during English fortune smiled on him, for Mr. Morris had put the two of them in the same group for their research project on the life of Shakespeare.
At last here was his chance.
“Will you go get the books?” Roxanne asked Phoebe, who was also in their group. “Thanks, you’re such a sweetie.”
“Roxanne will you go to homecoming with me?” Alden asked, seizing the opportune moment of their brief one-on-one time.
“Gosh, you’re forward! Um, I really would, Alden, but I already have a date.” She looked shocked, flattered, and sorry all at the same time. “You know, that girl in our group – Phoebe? – I don’t think she has a date, why don’t you ask her?”
Momentarily distracted form the sinking disappointment that had just settled in his chest, Alden looked across the room at Phoebe, wearing the same old sweatshirt from the night before, struggling to hold onto the three huge books that were making her bend over like a crone. This sight would’ve been cruelly funny were she a more noticeable persona, but she was dully plain. She wasn’t even ugly – an ordinary face set off by lank brown hair, tied back, with eyes to match. Not to mention that the oversized sack gave her whole presence an aura of diminutiveness; and with a slight smattering of acne across her face, she was so inconspicuous that Alden was sure he would have to be reminded several times of her existence.
“I…don’t think we’d go very well together,” Alden answered without regret, feeling that there was nothing about Phoebe to spark even a molecule of interest.
Roxanne let out a little giggle and he turned his attention right back to her radiant face.
“I really wish I could go to homecoming with you,” she said. “Why don’t we do something else this weekend? Like go to the mall?”
Alden felt like he was speechless but heard himself say “sure.”
“Great, how about Saturday?”
“I don’t want to cut in, but we have to go to the library on Saturday to work on this,” Phoebe cut in out of nowhere.
“We’ll go shopping after that,” Roxanne asserted, and there was no question about it.
So on Saturday, Alden met up with Roxanne, and Phoebe, who had been working quietly on their project in a corner for an hour already, at the library. While Phoebe worked further, Alden found himself incapable of any work at all, as he was preoccupied with the sound of Roxanne sighing by the Romance section, which she did whenever she read an especially romantic back cover. An hour and a half into it, Alden realized that he had forgotten to ask his parents for a ride back and had no way of reaching them.
“You two can take the bus home with me,” Phoebe offered when Alden voiced this.
“Um…the bus,” Roxanne said skeptically, “Oh, but we wanted to go to the mall anyway.”
Phoebe looked up, irritated, and said, “Look, you two aren’t doing anything anyway. Just go to the mall. But be back in two hours.”
Alden had some qualms about leaving Phoebe to do the work when all three of them were supposed to be doing the project together, but these quickly faded the moment Roxanne grabbed his hand and dragged him out of the musty building. A short walk away was their destination, and for the next two hours Alden felt fully justified in abandoning his group responsibilities, as he and Roxanne had a wonderful and exciting time together, talking and joking and laughing.
Two and a half hours later, as they ran to the library, they found Phoebe already standing outside it waiting for them, as they were about to miss the last bus for an hour. Fortunately they made it, but as they hurried aboard, Alden discovered that he had used his last change to buy Roxanne a strawberry smoothie, and Roxanne only had credit cards, so Phoebe had to pay for them.
This time Alden was truly sorry, but Phoebe insisted that it was no big deal, it was only change – the assertion didn’t make him feel any better.
“But it was really sweet of you, even though I totally could have paid for the smoothie myself,” Roxanne beamed to him, which did make him feel a lot better about the situation. Nevertheless, he felt that holding Phoebe’s books during their ride would redeem him, sort of.
When they got off, Alden and Roxanne walked back together, as she had invited him over for dinner. The ornate iron gates that had so intimidated Alden earlier parted gracefully as Roxanne punched in the code with neatly manicured fingers, and they walked through. Large, stately oaks grew up on either side of them, lush late-summer roses, blood-red or soft yellow, bordered the smooth white sidewalk that was just beginning to sparkle in the twilight, and the sunburst orange light emanating from the many windows shone brilliantly against the slowly deepening blue sky. The most dazzling light of all, Alden saw, was the enormous crystal chandelier roughly the size of a bed that hung from the ceiling as a spiral staircase of white marble wound around it, which was stationed right in the center of his view as he stepped into this modern-day palace for the first time.
By the time they sat down for dinner half an hour later, Roxanne looked stunning and quite at home in a satin blue cocktail dress that perfectly matched her eyes. So enraptured by her presence was Alden that he didn’t even feel out of place in his highly inappropriate attire. Roxanne smiled at him from across the lavish dining table, her long hair swung neatly behind her.
“So, Alden, Roxanne tells me you live not too far from here,” Roxanne’s father began.
“Just a couple streets away.”
For a while, nothing came from the father’s end except “Hmm…” until he suddenly said: “You’ll be renting a limousine for the dance, I presume?”
“Uh…I’m not – ” Alden began nervously, but then Roxanne cut in.
“Daddy, that’s not him. The guy I’m going with has his own car.”
“What kind of car?”
“A Lexus,” Roxanne said with a note of appreciativeness.
“Indeed,” her father responded in just the same tone. There was another lapse of silence.
“His own car, and he’s sixteen, now Roxanne I think we need to talk – ” her father suddenly said.
“Oh my God, Dad, please can we not?” the daughter cut in so sharply that Alden lost his grip on the fork. He couldn’t help but notice that she didn’t look anything as pretty when she sniped as when she smiled. Another uncomfortable silence followed this. And then, here and there attempts at conversation were made by Roxanne’s father, but Roxanne’s replies became increasingly cold, increasingly bitter, nothing like those Alden used on his own parents. Alden wished she would smile more often, and she did, but the smiles were forced during long lapses of silence and were not at all becoming to her looks. They were plastered on to uphold an image of perfection, and he began to wonder if the smiles he saw her smile at school, and around him, were not, too, part of that image?
As he walked out of her house after dinner, he did not notice the beautiful scenery as much, nor did he look back to glimpse the opulent edifice some more. He made a stop by Phoebe’s house, for in all the allure of Roxanne’s charm he had forgotten to give her back the books he was holding.
Phoebe opened the door looking as lame as ever, her dull hair getting in her face.
“You look lost,” she told him. “Dinner at Roxanne’s fabulous mansion too much for you?” she asked and smiled at him knowingly. But, feeling morose, he merely shrugged her off and gave her back her stuff.
Alden saw with his own eyes the façade that was Roxanne, and never again did he go after her, but he never learned later to look in the right way, for the right qualities that had substance to them. And so for the rest of his life he chased an ideal, never understood what it was he really wanted, and died unhappy. The end.