He Falls Well: A heartbreaking encounter with an Aztec king
When I left Louisiana to attend a boarding school in Massachusetts, my wardrobe consisted of a crusty old Speedo bathing suit and a few stained and tattered t-shirts. My mom affectionately referred to me as “her ragamuffin.” Unlike my frog-gigging prowess, my academic skills at the time were limited at best. And I had never seen snow. At Brooks School in North Andover, students wore coats and ties to class every day, there were courses like ornithology that I couldn’t even pronounce, and it snowed A LOT. I was a choupique out of the swamp. Like the protagonist in Jack London’s To Build a Fire, a short story I would read later that year, I was definitely not going to survive.
And then I met Mandy.
Amanda Coues was a sophomore. She had short, sandy blonde hair, radiant clamshell eyes and dimples on her cheeks and chin. She looked like the child of Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid. She had a tomboy gate and an addictive smile. From the kitchen crew to the faculty pets, everyone who met her became instantly enamored.
And I was certainly no exception. When I saw her, my heart skipped a beat. It was, as they say, love at first sight. All the telltale signs were there: sweaty palms, an uncontrollable stammer, a paralyzing inability to look into her eyes, fidgety feet and flushed cheeks. Yes, I was definitely smitten.
Now that I had a reason to live at this arctic prep school, I had to come up with a strategy for love. There would be flowers, of course. Chocolate, poems and puppies. I would make her mixed tapes (with New Orleans music), and I would serenade her outside her dorm room window – in the snow. Like the allies before the invasion of Normandy, though, I would need months to formulate my master plan. But alas, time was not on my side. Nor was Fortuna.
Once a week, the school staged a formal dinner with assigned seating. It was its way to ensure that kids socialized with kids outside their own Breakfast Club clique. The day before the first of these tortuous events (and with the assistance of a calculator), I figured out my chances of sitting next to Mandy. They were approximately 133.33 to 1. I liked my odds.
And then, on the next day, the goddess of (mis)fortune dealt me the Queen of Hearts!
Like a mirage, Mandy appeared and sat down directly across from me. She was wearing a beautiful white dress and she had a daisy in her hair. I was wearing an ugly plaid jacket with a mismatched polyester tie. And, to make matters worse, I had a pimple on the end of my nose that I could see without a mirror. Like a slug in the middle of the Bonneville Salt Flats, I was absolutely, utterly terrified.
The menu that night consisted of spaghetti and meatballs (more fear), Caesar salad and dinner rolls. For a brief moment, I dreamily thought of the restaurant scene from Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, but then determined that the possibility of a noodle-induced kiss was highly unlikely. Worried about drippage and slippage, I would eat pasta without sauce, salad without dressing and bread without butter.
For beverages, there were three choices, water, milk and grape juice. I ruled out the first for lack of originality. I liked the second, but it gave me cause for concern. The newly acquired peach fuzz on my upper lip was like catnip to dairy products and the risk of getting a milk mustache was far too great. So I settled on the third. Though long before the farm-to-table craze, I liked the idea of supporting local Concord grape growers. The drink was also the color of my favorite flower, the Louisiana iris. I thought it would look striking against the backdrop of Mandy’s blouse. (Author’s note: This is an obvious and feeble attempt at foreshadowing, a term I would soon learn from Mr. Spader, my ninth-grade English teacher.)
Next, I had to fill my glass. In this, I was as confident as a show dog. What I lacked academically, I easily made up for with athleticism. Though small, my eye-hand coordination and strength were both well above par. Like a seasoned sommelier, I lifted the pitcher and poured the juice with the utmost precision, even twisting my wrist at the end to prevent a dribble. Pleased with my performance, I cast my head from side to side fishing for adulation, but there was none. Most of the attention from the table was directed at the girl in white. Undeterred and eager to kickstart my nascent courtship, I decided to risk everything on my favorite joke.
“So,” I asked, “why did the chicken cross the road?” After agonizing seconds in a hailstorm of apathy, I leapt to the punch line: “To prove to the armadillo*** that it could be done!” There was nothing heard but crickets – and renewed attention to the angel with the flower in her hair. (In retrospect, I should have gone with “opossum.” Unlike the armadillo, Didelphis virginiana can be found in New England. The joke would have had a much better chance of succeeding, conceivably changing the course of history.)
Now, sufficiently deterred, I resolved to retreat. I would play it safe for the rest of the evening. I would simply eat, drink and avoid embarrassment at all costs.
Apparently, “all” was not enough. When I reached for the glass of Concord grape juice, something went terribly awry. Like an aye-aye’s odd middle digit independently probing for grubs, my pinky finger refused to comply with its more skilled coworkers. It stuck out like a sore version of its opposable counterpoint and crashed into the side of the glass. The tall glass tipped and swiveled on its axis. For a second I thought it might catch itself on a crease in the tablecloth. Like a bald cypress tree with splayed knees, it would swing back erect after the fleeting storm. But it didn’t. Instead, it collapsed, ever so slowly, like the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk.
When it finally hit the table, the liquid inside the glass defied laws of physics. Every ounce, every last purple drop shot from the cylinder, missing the table, chairs and floor and landing squarely on Mandy’s white dress.
There was a massive gasp that sucked so much oxygen out of the room that several people almost fainted. It was followed by a deafening silence. (A small caterpillar down by the lake could be heard spinning silk.) All horrified eyes were on Mandy. She looked like a blue-blooded version of Sissy Spacek in the movie Carrie. Then the eyes, like daggers, turned to me, the newbie ragamuffin from down on the bayou.
It would take years before I found the right analogy to describe how I felt at that exact moment. While on a sojourn through Mexico the summer after my sophomore year in college, I came up with this:
Kneeling at the top of Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, I looked down upon what appeared to be adoring throngs. Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc obviously were impressed by my bravery, the way I sat directly across the altar from Xochiquetzal, the goddess of beauty and fertility. Then, when the sacrificial cup fortuitously fell to the floor, the great Montezuma drew a macuahuitl or obsidian ax from his jaguar skin scabbard and plunged it deep into my bare chest. He ripped out my still beating heart and cast it down the stairs to raucous cheers. I watched in horror as it tumbled down the stone steps. When it finally reached the ground, it surrendered one final beat, and I collapsed in a mounting pool of blood and tears.
Yep, that’s pretty much how I felt.
From that day forward, I refuse to drink grape juice.
For the next three years I avoided Mandy like a Portuguese man o’ war, admiring her only from a spill-safe distance. I watched her play tennis from behind the green windscreen on the chain-link fence surrounding the courts; I followed her to class from behind snowdrifts, hedgerows and trees; and I went to chapel early to sit in the back pew so that I could catch a glimpse of my crush entering the nave. I was like the stalker in that popular song by The Police.
At the end of my junior year, I attended a farewell party for the senior class. As the festivities wound down, I found myself alone on a sofa staring blankly at a stack of coffee table books. “Folwell?” a soft voice enquired. I lifted my head and my heart skipped a beat. It was Mandy and she was sitting directly across from me again. I quickly surveyed the table to make sure that there were no precarious beverages lying about. I then tried to speak but, as always in her presence, my tongue became twisted and tied.
“I’m just curious,” she said, “why did you never ask me out?”
Once again, Montezuma raised his obsidian ax …
Mandy ended up marrying a friend and classmate of mine. Not surprisingly, he’s a great guy. A quarter of a century later though, I’m still a bit jealous.
Folwell Dunbar is a New Orleans educator, artist and survivor of many things, from roaches to German U-boats and heartbreak. He is putting together a collection of these short stories and survival tales called He Falls Well (his name is pronounced “fall well”). NolaVie is honored to preview some of those stories here. Email him [email protected].