The Book of Children

The Book of Children

I close my eyes. I swear I felt it shift before. Not a kick. Just a shift: something settling into place. Of course it happened the one time we’re not careful. I wish he would call.

Photo Credit: Steve Snodgrass via Flickr
Photo Credit: Steve Snodgrass via Flickr

I’m supposed to be writing a story. Mrs. Anderson told us to write a story about something we know how to do well, something we’re an expert on. My story is about a baker. He likes to bake, but the real reason he loves being a baker is that he likes getting up early in the morning and walking through town while everyone’s still asleep. He’s based on Steve. Not the baking part—that’s me. But the waking up early is all Steve.

Yesterday, Steve told me that I was going to get bored of him. That’s what our fight was about. We were sitting on his blue couch, watching an old Jimmy Stewart movie, the one where he has an imaginary friend. Of course we had our first fight the same day I found out I’m pregnant.

I told Steve I could never get bored of him. To be honest, I thought he was projecting so I asked him if he was getting bored of me.

“Don’t flip things around on me,” he said. “You’re just trying to avoid the issue.”

He wasn’t yelling or being nasty, but there was something in his voice that I didn’t like. Something fake and condescending, like the way psychiatrists talk on TV. Like he knew something about me that I didn’t know.

Steve is six years older than me. He’s very insecure about the fact that he dropped out of college and since I’m graduating from high school next month, that’s been on his mind a lot lately. He paints houses and works at Espresso Joe, which is where I met him last fall.

To get ready for college, I had decided to start drinking coffee. My parents only drink decaf so I started going to Espresso Joe on my way to school. And one morning there was Steve behind the counter, wearing a brown apron and a green baseball cap with little strands of black hair curling up above his ears. He looked tired.

“What can I get for you?” he asked. His voice was soft. He cleared his throat and then he smiled. It wasn’t a fake smile, one he had been trained to do for the customers. It was warm. He had green eyes and freckles all over his cheeks and nose.

All month, I had been ordering caramel lattes, but that seemed like a little kid’s drink. I wanted to impress him. I ordered a double espresso.

To be honest, I just wanted to stand next to him. He seemed so nice; everything about him was earthy, brown and green. I swear, I actually pictured myself standing next to him behind the counter, wearing a brown apron and green cap of my own, with his arm around me. That was my fantasy.

He handed me the espresso and I forced myself to drink it in a shot, like I’d seen in the movies. It was disgusting, but I smiled and thanked him. Every morning I went back and drank a double espresso until finally he asked me out.

“Are you Italian?” was how he started the conversation as he ground the beans for my cup of dirt.

I said that was a funny question.

He laughed. “I just figured maybe you grew up drinking Italian coffee.” He was looking down and pressing the grounds into their little canister. “Most folks don’t drink it straight the way you do.”

I told him I was half German and half Irish. Then he asked me if I liked Italian food and looked up at me kind of sideways. He was blushing. It was so smart, is what I remember thinking. High school boys never ask you out that way; they don’t just smoothly work it into the conversation.

I’m tired of writing. I can’t focus. The room feels like it’s getting smaller, like the walls are creeping in on me. This has been my room since I was four years old. On my bed, four stuffed animals lie on their stomachs facing me: two puppies, an elephant, and a panda. Steve’s only been here a couple of times. He says the stuffed animals creep him out. Not that they’re scary, but they make him feel like he’s robbing the cradle with me. Also, my parents make him a bit uncomfortable. They’re very polite to him, but I know they don’t like me having an older boyfriend. They don’t even know how much older he is. My mom just keeps telling me to be careful.

On our first date, Steve told me about The Book of Children. It’s his big project. According to Steve, everyone needs at least one big project to focus on in their spare time. “You go crazy otherwise,” he said. His voice cracked just a little bit. That happens when he gets excited.

The Book of Children is about a school for orphans and runaways. Each chapter tells a different kid’s story. Some of them are about how the kids got to the school or what happened to their parents, but others are just about a particular kid’s dreams.

One kid keeps having a nightmare about drowning. She hears a sound like something crumbling and opens her eyes. Cracks spread across the walls and ceiling. Just as the water starts to flood in, she wakes up. She crawls out of bed and lies on the floor. Every morning, she wakes up there, looking at the bottom of her steel bed frame.

At least, that’s what Steve tells me. He won’t let me read the stories. He’s very shy about his writing, which I’ve told him is going to be a problem since he wants to be a professional author. He says he’ll show the stories to me when they’re ready; he wants them to be perfect before he lets them go.

Yesterday, I told him he was the most interesting person I knew. Somehow that upset him. That didn’t mean anything, he said, because I hardly know anyone. He said that when I get to college I’ll meet lots of guys who are actually interesting and forget all about him. That made me mad and I kind of snapped. I told him he was being stupid; I called him a baby. I told him that as soon as I left, he’d probably just find another dumb high school girl. He looked down. His fingers picked little threads from the couch.

Sometimes when we’re lying together, I take my hands and put them inside his. My hands are small; they fit inside his completely. It’s like they disappear. I close my eyes and feel his fingers covering mine. It’s like I’m holding every part of me in my hands and giving it to him.

Why hasn’t he called? I’m sick of waiting, with my stupid stuffed animals staring at me like I’m five years old. What will I tell him? “I’m pregnant?” Just like that? There’s no way I’m keeping it. Do I just say that too? It doesn’t matter. I just want to hear his voice.

He loves the quiet of the morning. In my story, this baker—who has to wake up before sunrise—actually gets to work extra early just so he can sit on the step and smoke a cigarette before starting the bread. Steve told me he does that at the coffee shop. He sits there watching the empty street. He thinks about how his body is getting older while he sits there. He exhales. He watches the smoke float away and thinks about things passing, bit by bit: things he’s lost already and things he knows he cannot keep.

Willie Johnson

Willie Johnson

Willie Johnson is a playwright and journalist based in New York City. His essays and articles have been published in The New York Times, Jacobin, Labor Notes, and the Review of Radical Political Economics. His play ICE CREAM MAN won the "Audience Favorite" award at the 2015 Unchained Festival in New York and was a selection at the Renaissance Guild's 2015 ActOne Series in San Antonio.

Willie Johnson is a playwright and journalist based in New York City. His essays and articles have been published in The New York Times, Jacobin, Labor Notes, and the Review of Radical Political Economics. His play ICE CREAM MAN won the "Audience Favorite" award at the 2015 Unchained Festival in New York and was a selection at the Renaissance Guild's 2015 ActOne Series in San Antonio.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *