Andrew knew that Angela’s mother would have dropped them both off at the restaurant, but he wanted to impress her by showing his independence and maturity. He rode his bike all the way into town all by himself (stopping only briefly to pick up some gummy sharks from the candy store) and hooked up his bike in front of Glen Avenue Pizzeria. The restaurant was a long and narrow hallway, widening just enough to fit the front counter and oven at the end. Andrew smiled as he walked in and passed dozens of pictures of children’s tee-ball teams that the restaurant had sponsored in years past. He could barely resist putting a coin into the dispenser machine to buy one of the toy ninjas. The line in front of the counter was filled with children holding their parents’ hands. This was their treat for a week of making their beds, keeping paste out of their hair, and yelling moderately less over breakfast. For Andrew, this was the best place for a date or perhaps anything else in life. Unfortunately, many other middle schoolers felt the same way. Andrew’s stomach lurched as he noticed several different clubs represented at the booths, including the middle school boys’ soccer team. Andrew’s gym class comprised the majority of the starters and they were jostling over one another on the booth to look at him as he came in.
“You gonna become a man tonight?” one of them shouted.
Andrew tried to ignore him. He was not going to get dumped on like this was the locker room, not again. He took a breath and walked by their booth near the front door. Andrew anxiously moved past each seat, head craned forward to try and catch a glimpse of who was sitting there. He spied her for a second at the last booth, right near the toilets. Andrew jerked back, took a breath, and then slid into the seat before Angela had a chance to react.
She was dressed by her mother. Pink flats, a nice matching dress (appropriate for both dating and church) and just a little bit of eye makeup that only accentuated the boney paleness of her face. Andrew could tell that she had just started the habit of wearing a purse, and thought herself quite mature for doing so, since she was holding it high on her lap for Andrew to see. Angela did not have a great reputation at school. She was known for being a staunch conservative and loudly protesting whenever she heard her peers testing out their new swear and sex terms around her. But Andrew knew that he was no catch either, as he was in the throes of what his guidance counselor called the “joy of puberty”, with pimples scattered across his forehead. He had attempted to put on his own best clothes for the occasion; boat shoes, khaki shorts, his best retainer with a baseball sticker on the center (his mom had told him it would be all white with red seam designs), and a bright orange polo. Andrew told everyone at school that the name on the corner had come from a fancy clothing store in New York that they had never heard of to hide the fact that it was a souvenir from a convention held by his father’s law firm.
“Sup Angela, how’s life?” he asked. Andrew felt a twinge of regret. “Sup” had been added to a growing list of words he realized that his parents said which were no longer cool.
“Not bad,” she said. “I liked that assembly today. I wish it had been longer.”
At school that morning the faculty had treated the impressionable pre-teenage minds of the middle school to a performance they were sure would get their attention. The students sat in the gymnasium stands until professional wrestlers burst through the gym door. One inflated a hot water bottle with his mouth until it exploded. Others tore phone books and twisted steel bars. Their faces grew red and their muscles bulged as they roared at the audience. The students stood almost in silence, perplexed by the strange men wreaking havoc on their school. As the bell rang for the end of the period, one of the wrestlers finally stepped up to the stands and said, “Now guys, if you want to be able to do stuff like that with your lives, stay off drugs!”
“I guess I always thought I was aiming for more in life than ripping a phonebook in half,” said Andrew.
“I really liked how he mentioned how Jesus Christ was what gave him his strength to destroy those things and stay clean,” said Angela.
“I think that’s why the teacher pulled the microphone away from him, since this is a public school,” Andrew replied.
“My dad says that the way political correctness is going, we won’t be able to celebrate anything but snow and dust soon,” said Angela.
Andrew shifted in the squishy booth seat. Andrew knew that this was the point in the conversation where his parents would have started fighting.
“Maybe we should order,” he suggested. He got up and led her over to the counter. The line had by now died down, with more of the children back at their seats coloring the walls with their crayons and eating snow cones.
“Ciao bello Paolo!” he barked, leaning over the counter. “Dui pizzy binky por favor!”
Paolo was the owner of the pizzeria and its main chef. He rubbed his sweaty face and pulled back his long dark hair. After a hard day in front of the oven, he wanted to roll his eyes at the poor attempt at Italian, but stopped when he noticed Angela next to Andrew. Her eyes were with wide astonishment at her sophisticated man speaking in exotic tongues. Paolo smiled. He had watched Andrew grow up. He could remember the first time Andrew and his friends came to his place as preschoolers on a class trip. Paolo had to reach over the counter so that the little ones could see how he tossed the dough. The flour had tumbled off the sides, and Paolo could still see the look on the Andrew’s chubby face as it fell on his head like snow. In later years Andrew was always among the gaggle of kids who used to come in after each sport season was over. Paolo remembered that Andrew usually had a few tears dribbling down his cheeks after having managed to blow the big game, the one sad face in a crowd of happy kids. Paolo turned quickly from the counter and reached back to the oven. When he returned he was carrying two hot slices so loaded with ricotta that the cheese was nearly leaking over the sides of the paper plates. Andrew had to cradle the plates in his arm like they were babies. While he struggled to extract his wallet from his pocket with his other hand, Paolo leaned over.
“This time, if you strike out, don’t let them see you cry,” he whispered, before abruptly spinning back to the oven.
Confused, Andrew turned and looked back at Angela. He motioned, and they returned to their booth. But he noticed that something had changed.
“What did he whisper to you?” she asked.
“Oh, it was just something in Italian,” Andrew said quickly. “He just likes his old Sicilian proverbs.”
Angela raised her eyebrows. “Where did you learn Italian?” she asked.
“Oh, my family is super Italian. Like, a ton of it is! Once, my dad even made a homemade pizza. It was an old family recipe or something.” Then he realized that he sounded like he was bragging and threw in, “No big deal.”
She was leaning forward, head resting on her hands. Andrew kept going.
“On Sundays, my mom makes spectacular pasta.” Andrew could barely contain his astonishment at his own cleverness. He knew he was making connections, establishing a report (that was what they were called, right?), the kind of thing that would land him in the ultimate destination of anyone who mattered to the world in any way: college. He left out the fact that the pasta he ate every Sunday was the product of his Polish-German mother, who often dropped bits of hot dog into it, and that his father liked putting the leftovers on sandwiches with ketchup. Now all he needed was for Angela to reach out and keep the ball rolling.
“I think that my dad would really like you. You have tradition. My Dad isn’t into all these liberals who don’t have any respect for the past.”
“Yeah, I think we would get along real well. Italians have a great connection to the past,” he replied. He could not help grinning. He had this in the bag.
They stayed until their curfews approached. With bellies full of ricotta and soda, they exited the pizzeria. The moment had arrived. In the setting sun, he found that Angela was much more attractive than she appeared at school. He stammered something unintelligible about “really liking you” and leaned in, hoping that his mouth positioning would not produce a result too similar to the kind of kisses he gave to his aunt. With a bang and the jingling of bells, the restaurant door flew open and the entire soccer team burst out. Their cleats clattered on the pavement as they surrounded the young couple. One of the players could not resist moving in for the kill. His hands shot out around Andrew’s back, index fingers out and poised. They jammed in under Andrew’s armpits, a classic locker room “jump start”. Andrew leapt and twisted backward in an awful mixture of tickle and pain. A fart, cultivated and dutifully contained by Andrew for the last hour and a half, came roaring out of him and into the world like a newborn child. The player staggered backwards in terror at what he had unleashed and toppled onto the pavement. Andrew looked over at Angela in horror. She was attempting to ignore what had happened, but the aftershock had hit, and she grimaced at the impact of the smell. The player on the ground shattered the silence with the sound of giggling through the fingers he had placed over his nose to shield himself from the smell. Soon the air was alive with both laughter and stink. Andrew felt his body go numb and his mind wander far away until he realized that he was staring down at his good, special-occasion shoes. The gummy sharks were sticking out of his front pocket, the colorful bag with smiling fish clashing with his beige shorts. Andrew felt so stupid, like a little kid dressed up in a clip on tie by his mother for a wedding. He tried to look through the glass door of the restaurant and get a glimpse of Paolo, but one of the players was leaning against it, laughing so hard that he could not stand independently anymore.
“Good night Angela,” Andrew said over the racket of laughter. His voice was coming out in a painful croak. “Hope you had fun. See you around.”
She tried to put her arm on Andrew’s shoulder, but he turned and shoved his way past the ring of soccer players and began his walk to the bike rack. His stomach felt lighter after the eruption, but his body still felt heavy with embarrassment. I was just asking for something humiliating like this to happen when I waited until age 12 to have my first serious romance, he thought bitterly. He would never grow up. He would always be some stupid little kid. The pain turned to anger, before dissipating to something else. He thought of Angela, of the way she had looked at him. Of how she talked to him. He was no little punk to her. He wanted to keep being that guy. That man. He glanced around at the soccer players. Their faces were distorted messes of acne, dandruff, laughter, and sweat, but really they were just the same snotty kids he grew up at school with. Then, he did something he would remember for the rest of his life. In a burst of passion, he whipped around and ran to Angela. She threw open her arms and he slammed his lips to hers. Had he been able to feel his face, the impact would have hurt. Andrew first connected with the corner of her mouth, where he could taste residue from the ricotta once again. Andrew recovered, dragging his lips to find the main target, lips. Lips! He heard the soccer team gasp and stumble back. Nobody got that far on a first date. Nobody. The soccer team went silent. That night, Andrew entered adolescence with all of its stink, humiliation, and glory.
Stephen D’Alessio was born and raised in Glen Rock, New Jersey. His ancestors come from Avellino and Bari. He attended the College of William and Mary, where he graduated summa cum laude with a double major in English Literature and Government. He currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as a paralegal for the Department of Justice