I pretended to fall asleep next to Derek on the bus so my hand could touch his thigh. My fingers, progressing slower than an iPhone update, grazed the side of his legs. My heart raced and I panicked that Derek could hear it. Silly, I know, but it was probably also silly how much I enjoyed touching his leg. The risk of getting caught enhanced my excitement. It was the first time I had ever touched a boy in a way that wasn’t platonic. To be honest, it was the first time I had ever really liked a boy, and with Derek, the attraction was immediate. More than a precarious urge, there was something magnetic, something uncontrollable about my desire. It was like seeing an ice cream cone on the first day of summer and needing a taste no matter the cost. I couldn’t hold back. I wanted to open my eyes, to see if he noticed, to see if he reacted. Or—please God, please—to see if he liked it.
I was sixteen-years-old and on a charter bus from a small town in central Indiana to Kings Island amusement park in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was summer and I had won a trip from a fundraising company. My high school and virtually every other high school in the state used a company called For Fun and Service Fundraising, which sold everything from cookies to candles. The company was popular in schools for the prizes it gave away, and last year, they promised everyone who sold at least fifty items an entry into their Kings Island Getaway, a free trip from Indianapolis to Cincinnati. Out of everyone who sold fifty items in their particular schools, one person would be randomly selected. All you had to do was get a ride to Indianapolis and you’d get a free bus ride, overnight hotel stay, and a full day at the amusement park. I had been the winner from my school and Derek was from his. We had been driving for about sixty minutes, had first met about seventy minutes ago, and I had been . . . I guess you’d say in love or at least obsessed for about sixty-nine minutes now.
Daring myself to open my eyes, I couldn’t believe the audacity that pulsed through my veins. Maybe it was the fact that I was on a bus full of strangers, cocooned next to this boy, unaware and apathetic to all the bodies in other seats. But something made my arms shake with adrenaline when Derek reached out his hand and introduced himself to me. It was something I had never felt before.
“Hey,” he said. “Can I sit next to you?” He had thick, dark hair, gelled and spiked. Not a strand of hair would move, like a teen pop star in some outlandishly perfect Instagram pic.
“Sure,” I mumbled, caught off guard. I was expecting a fun, random weekend just before my junior year of high school began. I expected butterflies from roller coasters, nausea from too many corn dogs, vibrations in my ears from the cacophony of carnival noises . . . not the tightening in my stomach when I shook his hand.
“I’m Derek,” he reached out. That’s when my arms started to shake. What was this feeling? What was wrong with me? Electricity pulses in my veins.
“I’m Nick,” I managed to say through a dry throat.
“Nice to meet ya. You like roller coasters?”
“Yeah. You?” My voice cracked, and I tried to swallow the lump in my throat.
“Hell yeah. They’re the best. I can’t wait. This place has the fastest wooden roller coaster in the world, did you know that?” He grinned, revealing a cute half-moon dimple over a perfect smile.
“Yeah,” I said, although I had no idea. “It sounds like a beast.”
“That’s what they call it!” He laughed. I caught myself staring at his lips and all I could think about was how they might feel against mine.
God, what’s happening to me?
“What’s that you’re reading?”
I looked down at a book I had brought with me for the ride, but in that moment, the title, the story, and the characters had all vacated my mind. Derek followed my gaze and shouted, “Game of Thrones! Oh man, you’re on the last book, too. I won’t tell you what happens. But I’ve read it. It’s so good.”
“Yeah?” Game of Thrones. Okay, that’s what I was reading. That was my favorite and that was his, too? Is the universe messing with me today?
“Who is your favorite character?” he asked.
I couldn’t remember any of their silly names. I looked down at my book scrambling for a detail that would trigger my foggy memory. What the hell was wrong with me?
“I love Daenerys,” he told me, after waiting a moment. “I love how she starts so innocent and sweet, but she’s tough, you know? And she becomes a real bad ass, a fighter for those who can’t fight for themselves. She’s Martin’s best developed character.”
He paused and looked at me. Beautiful and smart? I couldn’t think of a single guy in my school who actually talked about book characters like that.
“Have you seen the series?” he asked. I wiped my chin, afraid I was drooling.
“Uh-uh.” And here I am, unable to say a complete word.
“Probably for the best. I won’t spoil anything then,” he said. “Except to say that I think they botched the ending. Books are always better.”
He continued to comment while keeping it ambiguous so not to spoil anything. After a bit, he took out his phone and started texting someone. I cursed myself because I worried I was losing his attention and interest. My arms felt like they were floating, and my head was fuzzy. I’ve never felt an instant attraction before, and apparently, it came with a side-effect of mental paralysis.
I looked out the window in silence, trying to gather a coherent thought that I could articulate. I glanced over at him frequently, smiling at his smile.
I could feel the vibrations of the bus, a buzzing through my legs and back. I could smell the bus bathroom, an intoxicating, superfluous amount of disinfectant. Everything surrounding me stimulated my senses, as if I were hyper alert to everything, but I still couldn’t think of a darn thing to say.
We had been silent for several minutes, too many minutes, and that’s when I decided I was going to “fall asleep.” If I couldn’t use words, I’d show him how I feel somehow. But how?
I could touch him. Yes. I wanted to touch him. I needed to touch him. My hands had been clasped, as if I were afraid they’d shoot out to him, enticed by this magnetic attraction. The potent force of fascination demanded a response, and since my mouth couldn’t act, I let my hands do the talking for me.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Why don’t I just ask him if he has a girlfriend and see how he answers? But you see, I wasn’t thinking. And if you want to know the truth, the real kicker here: I had a girlfriend. We had been getting pretty serious, but I hadn’t thought about her since the moment Derek shook my hand. I couldn’t even think of her name in this moment. I closed my eyes, edged a bit closer to him so our shoulders were touching. I didn’t feel him move or anything, so after a carefully timed minute, I let my hand fall off my knee. One hand just so happened to have enough momentum to swing gently towards his leg. It floated, glided, and rested right above his knee, inching towards his inner thigh.
It was as if he were pure electricity, and my hand was the cord. I felt charged, alive, my heart beating faster and feeling fuller than ever before, like filling up a tank with gas but letting it spill and soak the outside of the vehicle far after the tank was full. I decided it was time to open my eyes.
When I looked at him, he was still playing on his phone, but he must have sensed something because his head shifted, turned toward me, and then he smiled.
He smiled at me, and I about died.
“So you wanna be my partner?” he asked.
“What?” I gasped. My stomach dropped.
“On the roller coasters. Wanna ride them with me?”
“Yeah, for sure. That would be great.” My hand was still there. He didn’t seem to care. Or maybe he didn’t realize it. Could that be possible? Before I could do anything else, a kid in the back of the bus stood and shouted a question.
“Anyone wanna play Bullshit?”
Shut up, I wanted to tell him, but I took my hand away from Derek’s leg as the boy approached.
“Sure,” Derek replied. He turned and looked at me. “You know it? It’s a card game. You have to lie about what cards you’re playing.” I swear he looked down at my hand and grinned.
“Okay,” I answered.
“It will be fun. After a few rounds, we should be there. And then it’s time for roller coasters.”