Mechanisms of Western Romance

Originally written for the 2014 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, this humorous short story went on to win a Silver Key and sparked my interest in writing about the high and low, humorous and painful, perfect and awkward, sides of relationships.  Since then, “Mech”, as it was known to me and a select group of friends, has gone through several revisions and expansions to become the story that it is now.  Now the cornerstone and first piece released on my website, I hope you enjoy this 3,300 word short story in its fully realized and final form.  

***

“Relationship status: single.  Facebook confirmed.  Dude, this is our time!” As if Tupac had resurrected, Griffin flung his head out the cold side of his stool, the blood running straight to his head like an egg cooked sunny-side-up, his jellied mouth dressing his shirt with a patina of yolky drivel. The computer mouse he was holding in his twitching hands slipped, clattering to the floor to the notice of no one. “And no boy on the horizon. Whew. She is ours to take. Brilliant. Wow. Brilliant. Wow. Brilliant”-

“Griffin,” Amy growled with eyes half-shut, “just because a girl isn’t hanging off the edge of some other boy’s V-neck doesn’t mean that she’ll be macking your chapstick-stained lips within the hour. Or the year.” Oh snap! Griffin reeled back, lambasted by a verbal TKO so fire it was probably unethical. Amy was appalled at herself, but, claimed by the candor she just realized she had possessed, she went double or nothing on her snark, dishing out a death burn so hot it was picked up by the National Weather Service.

“Some women just prefer men who put syrup on their Eggo, not their Ego.”

“Please!” Griffin whimpered uselessly. “I surrender! I surrender!”

Amy let up. “Of course she’d be single,” she said, changing the subject to the girl Griffin was stalking on Facebook. “Mr. Bond would never assign us a girl whose already in a relationship. That would be too hard.”

“Ha.”  The voice cropped up where Amy’s eyes just were, so smothered in oratorical garlic and framed in such a vulgar sneer that it could only be called friendly.  Robert Guzman, affectionately known as ‘Rob’, was mostly silent while Griffin harped on and on about how he finally got the chance to stalk someone else’s profile without feeling like a pedophile.  But when Mr. Bond was mentioned, Rob had his cake, and ate it too.

“Mr. Bond – Mr. Bond – professed to have convinced the superintendent of our district to provide county funding for his class ‘Mechanisms of Western Romance’ by offering her favors ‘on a range of one to five’ depending on how much money she coughed up.  And she coughed up.  Expect freaking everything for this freaking final project.”

“I mean, it’s not really unexpected,” Amy argued.  “Our class is about dating.  Our final project is to get a girl.  That’s rational.”

“We’re being graded on a checklist that includes getting her to say ‘I love you’ and a recording of your make-out session,” Rob retorted.

“That’s extra credit,” Griffin corrected.

“Look, Rob,” Amy cut in, “I know you’re still bitter about Ronnie, but like it or not, you’re doing this project, and you’re going to get us – sorry, we’re going to get us a good grade.”

Rob shook his head and plunked down into his seat, shriveled and burdened like the waistline of a politician’s wife.  “I didn’t even mean to sign up for this class.”

It was true.  Rob, with a helicopter head that constantly whirred with the words of Wordsworth, signed up for ‘Mechanisms of Western Romance’ thinking that the course was going to delve into the romantic movement in literature, not playing Hefner-lite in high school.

“Dating,” Mr. Bond had gushed the first day of class, “is truly the clearest, most economical way to success out of all the subjects in this school.”  Mr. Bond evoked a clean-trimmed, Timberlakean presence upon first sight (which explained the women), but as soon as he opened his mouth, that illusion sunk beneath his skin as the real Mr. Bond began to boil to the surface – the pasty, pockmarked hormoned teenage kid raging with more lust than Viagra could ever hope to turn into a pill.

Everyone saw it, as soon as he started talking like that, that this man was a vulture in a Polo and khakis.  He was crazy.  So crazy that the students came up with a medical term for his condition: ‘EWD.  Excessive Womanizing Disorder.’  Lore cycled through his students almost as quickly as a he cycled through the women – including the quite likely myth that he worshipped at an altar of Kate Middleton, whom he revered (“This woman did absolutely nothing with her life except make herself marriageable to a prince.  She legitimizes this course that you are taking.”)

And yet Rob, in an inexplicable parfait of laziness, curiosity (the kind of curiosity that makes cars retard in the middle of the highway to witness an accident), and fear of his guidance counselor who was so pretty you couldn’t go into her room and not feel like an adulterer, never bothered to switch out of this class, leaving him to suffer the consequences of the inevitable final project.  Rob sighed, his eyes sallow.

“At least tell me she’s hot.” He pitched his hands into his pants like a boy telling his mother that it wasn’t just the government that was pickpocketing from her wallet.  “At least she’s hot, right?”  Since he couldn’t wriggle out of the assignment, he hoped to at least win the consolation prize.

She has a name, you know,” Amy growled, her lip bent in a snarl, her eyebrows crossbows.

“Yeah,” Griffin said.  “Hot.”

“Fine, Amy, you win,” Rob conceded, ignoring Griffin.  “Is Eva hot?”

“Pretty hot,” Griffin chirped.  “On the Goldberg-Silverberg Attractiveness scale, she ranks a 7.8, but we all know that that scale is not cross-culturally sensitive.  I’m calculating her score right now on the – oh, on the Warner-Brocklehurst scale, adjusted for inherent racial biases ignorant White people like us are likely to subconsciously internalize, she’s a seven.”

“Wait you mean she’s not white?”

“Half-Hispanic, I think.  Better brush up on your Holas.”

“Guys, this is absolutely absurd,” Amy cut in.  “This is lower than Mr. Bond.”

“Nothing is lower that Mr. Bond,” Griffin retorted.  “He’s making us rate her for homework.”  He went up to Amy and politely closed her stunned, gaping jaw.  “Now, in terms of intellectual attractiveness

***

Rob plopped onto the sofa in the school library, so pooped he might as well have been a groundhog digging his way into a dirt hole from which he would never come out again.  He was looking forward to some rest and not having to deal with Griffin and Amy.   

“I told you you should have taken the diagonal seat!” Griffin’s jellied rear end appeared suddenly out of nowhere and rocketed into the cushion directly adjacent to where Rob was sitting, splattering the hapless victim into the Fiction aisle; Rob tumbled into the bookshelf, crumpled into a pile of James Joyce that no one had touched for the last five years, groaning like a wounded animal.    

“Okay, I’m fat, no need to be dramatic about it,” Griffin said flatly. “But what did I tell you?!  Don’t you understand? Girls have alarm sensors in their heads that whine like celebrities as soon as a boy comes within a foot! You chose the seat so close to her she could smell your breath!”

“In my defense,” Rob said defensively, “I just wanted the whole ordeal over with as soon as possible.”

You just wanted to fail us,” Griffin rejoined. “I have aspirations to go to MIT on a statistics degree, meet some really hot blond Asian chick, and dump her! And an ‘F’ on a high school report card ain’t gonna cut it!”

“A blond Asian?” Rob raised his eyebrows.

“Back to the subject!” Amy appeared from behind them, sending a series of jolts into both boys’ spines. “Well, Rob, at least Eva knows your name now. And that’s what’s important. That way, you can get a free pass to initiate another conversation with her – one that, hopefully this time, won’t end up with you saying that your mother is waiting, she has banana bread for your English project, and that you gotta go or your teacher might get late at you being mad.”

“I panicked,” Rob put on what little of the aw-shucks face that he had left after expending much of it on covering for his missteps with Eva. “I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to make eye contact with her or not.”

“Did you even read Graham’s 7th edition ‘Getting Girls with Your Eyes’?” Griffin spouted, clearly exasperated. “On the introduction, you give her one good, two-second look directly into her eyes, allow her to take in the draught, and then look away serenely to provoke imminent wanting.”

“She likes figure skating,” Rob mused, breaking eye contact with Griffin and hopefully not provoking imminent wanting. “And History.”

“Then just engage her in her interests. Say that you love History. Actually, I have a great idea,”

Amy remarked, “the next time you see her, ask for help for your History project. Tell her you remembered that she likes History, and that you aren’t so good at it. Then you got her right where you want her. You can then have an opportunity to make yourself appear like a reasonably decent person.”

“Why is it so hard to just seem like a reasonably decent person?” Rob moaned.

***

Griffin and Amy were, for the sake of narrative convenience, sitting at a table breathing at each other when Rob barged into their insignificance singing a triumphant four-layered classical harmony. “I have done it!” he called. “I got her to say my name!”

“I heard,” Amy said, pointing at her earpiece and Rob’s shirt-collar button, which was really a sophisticated microphone she had installed.

“Satisfactory.” Griffin grunted in approval, for once with no hint of sarcasm. Even a barely conscious loafer like Rob understood Mr. Bond’s patented progression of relationships. “First she’s gotta say your name,” he drilled into their heads. “Only then can you follow up on all your pernicious, low-blowing excuses for dating,” he kept saying without ever realizing that he was the one teaching these ‘low-blowing’ dating tips. Then someone called him out on his hypocrisy and he responded: “Silly girl! When would I indulge you with the Timberlake tips when I’m only legally obliged to feed you the Miley Cyrus crap? Don’t you know that the fisherman sells their lesser catches and keeps the best for himself?”

“Well, no, they keep their lesser catches to eat and sell their best catches at fishing shows.” “Nonsense!” Mr. Bond brushed her off. “Don’t you know that the artist sells only his lesser

works and keeps his masterpieces?” And that was that.

“But you guys gotta admit”– Rob began, returning to the conversation at hand, “the execution was perfect. I spent the first five minutes talking about History, then I made the History joke, then pounced! Bam! Started talking about her interests! And she was toying with her hair and cocking her head and batting her eyelashes and adjusting her bra and, ah… um, and guess what guess what!”

“You act like you don’t have a mic in your shirt collar,” Amy said flatly. “Yeah, she said ‘Oh, Rob’ and you flushed like six colors.”

“I mean, it was acceptable,” Griffin stated, as if he could do any better. “If I were there, in your body, I would have moved it straight to the head-on-the-shoulder.”

“Look, smart one, why don’t we just put you on the front lines with Eva?” Amy retorted. Griffin was about to say that it was because he was greasy and ugly, but not before Rob uttered a loud “No!”

The two other heads whipped like trapdoors straight at the sound of the objection, and two smiles crept up their faces. “Oh,” Amy said, glee lighting up fireworks in her normally composed demeanor.  “Guzman’s got a gal up his gutter!”

“Clearly not!” Rob denied it, but his face flushed.  “And up my gutter?  What the heck is that supposed to mean?”

“Sorry, I was trying for the alliteration but that didn’t really work out,” Amy said apologetically.  “But Rob, tell me,” Amy cooed in a dramatic change of tone, “is someone taking this project a little too seriously?”

“No!” Rob lashed back defensively in that way that boys always do when caught red-handed. “I mean…No!”

“But yes,” Amy broke in, savoring the moment so salaciously her excitement dripped off her brow. “Just admit it, Rob, Mr. Bond’s grand plan has worked far better than he would have even dreamed – you’ve come to like her. She’s your pudding and you’re her graham cracker.”

“No! And ew!” Rob retorted. “It’s just – it’s just – she – I – you – I don’t like her, okay. She’s nothing but a grade to me”-

“-But you like someone else,” Griffin finished for him. “And you want to prove that you’re

somehow worthy to her by getting a girl first, then disposing of her.” That was when Amy’s face went from giddy to frozen-solid.

“How did you know?!” Rob stammered, gaping at Griffin’s unsurprisingly self-satisfied face. Griffin shook his head unnecessarily and gave a frivolous wink that seemed to be addressed to some choreographer in the back of the room. “Manchester’s Law of Egoism. What do you do in class, hit on girls?”

Rob looked down at his fingers, which were shaking in obvious discomfort. “It’s just you make it sound like such an awful thing,” he said tinily.

“If you want my honest opinion,” Griffin replied as if Rob actually wanted his honest opinion, “it is an awful thing. But it’s psychology. This class is an awful thing. Most dating is awful, the things do to each other. It should be banned in high school.”

“Why are you even taking this class then?”

“I don’t care!” Griffin let out a heinous roar that smacked of depravity and garlic breath. “Rob,”- Amy said from behind him, meekly, with her voice controlled by an entirely different

horsehair than that of her last outburst. And Rob turned and faced her, and she was wide-eyed, with her long brown hair whistling warmly down her face. “Rob, that girl… who is it?” Her lips quivered in place when she uttered those words.

Rob looked into her eyes, burnt ombre, and smiled a smile he had never smiled before at her, the denouement of the moment coalescing into the sparks that worked between their eyes. “Amy… Amy, that girl,” he said, and Amy egged him on, “Yes?  Yes Rob?”

“Amy”-

“Rob”-

“That girl is Rachel.  I’m like obsessed with Rachel.  I want her so freaking much and no one else!  Ah!  I wake up in the morning and think only of Rachel.  I go to bed at night and wonder how Rachel is doing.  Rachel lights up every day of my life from I moment I met her, I mean will meet her.”

“Oh.” Amy’s voice snapped like a twig. “Rachel. Gotcha.” And she resumed listlessly staring at the floral patterns on the walls.  Rob blinked.

“But she’s Kenny’s girlfriend,” Griffin complained, and Rob flushed only one color this time – a smokin’ scarlet. “And Kenny’s smart, gorgeous, and vastly more popular and better than you.”

“And she’s outta my league! I know! I get it!” Rob slammed his hand on the table as if he was giving it a five-star. “I can’t believe I have to resort to some stupid cliché to convey my true feelings! My stupid situation feels like it’s part of some twisted fictional romance short story!”

Then he turned towards the door and stormed his way out.

***

“Good morning class,” Mr. Bond entered the room, looking chipper than he had ever been before. Noticeably but unsurprisingly, he was wearing a suit jacket without an undershirt, letting his abs do much of the small talk of the day. “Oh, me?” he said, pretending to be surprised at all the gawking. “Oh, I was just – just coming back from – yeah.”

“Conceited slob,” Griffin whispered to Amy.

“What?” Mr. Bond gave a ‘Who-me’ look for the ages. “C’mon, if Stacy can wear a bra with phalanges to school, and wear shorts that expose half her panties to the boys behind her, then I should be fine with my fashion choices.” Stacy’s jaw dropped and boys stopped gawking at her panties.

“Anyway,” Mr. Bond continued, “today the team captains present our final projects.” He grinned. “Jessica,” he started, “how was Arnie?”

And so the period continued (one girl played the recording of her make-out session in class to much mollification, especially from her group) until Mr. Bond called on Robert Guzman to present. “So Rob,” he asked standardly, “how was Eva?”

Rob stood up.

“Well,” Mr. Bond said, after receiving only a glare for the first five seconds, “go on.”

Rob bit his lip.

“If you’re asking how the pursuing went, the answer is great, Mr. Bond, I used your conniving and Machiavellian ruses to get Eva to like me – to such a degree, in fact, that she, a History girl, outlined our History together and our future too – three kids, a house in the Carolinas. If you’re asking me how the dating went, I have a far different answer for you. I didn’t like her. Everything felt fake. But everything felt real for her. One day I decided I couldn’t do it. I told her I was going to break up

with her. And she burst a leak so big your bath-drain of a mouth couldn’t swallow it.  Pun not intended.  She couldn’t stop crying. She started bashing me, confessed her love for me, and then bashed me again. And then I started crying. I cried because this entire ordeal gave no pleasure to me at all. Because what you taught me, Mr. Bond, are tactics to an ultimately fruitless and miserable experience. All dating does in the end is screw up lives. Now Eva’s going to be distrustful of any guy coming her way and I – I am too disgusted with myself to move on.”

The entire class was silent. But Mr. Bond broke it by laughing – an infuriating, sick laugh of a sick man.

“Rob,” he replied, “I agree with everything you say except your last sentence. You’re right. Dating is ultimately a misery-inducing experience. Much of it is callous and cutthroat. But Rob, I am not a moral teacher. (Surprise, surprise, Rob thought.) I don’t attempt to persuade you that dating is right or even pleasurable.  See, that’s where your last sentence comes in…”

Two weeks later, Rob was at his locker when he heard two voices, both girls, come down the hallway.

“Like, did you hear?” one said to the other. “Like, no!” the other said to the one. “Kenny got into a big fight with Rachel!” “No way!” “They broke up last night!” “OMGLOLLMAOSFGJT!”

“The reality is, Rob,” Mr. Bond said, back in the classroom, “all I do in this class is address the reality of the situation. And the reality is that dating is like a labyrinth.”

Rob tried to shut out the conversation between those two girls, but something in his head made it linger. Then she came. Rachel strolled down the hallway, lonely, blonde, with fixating hazel eyes that buttressed a pearl face and a taut, soothing form. Rob looked away, ashamed. Then he looked back.

“A labyrinth, Rob. Once you get in, you can’t get out. You decided that you want in by staying in this class. All I am doing is facilitating your entry.”

Rachel was moving closer and closer to his locker. Rob stiffened. In the process of stiffening he dropped his books and they clattered all over the floor. Rachel noticed, and then looked towards the source. Robert Guzman. She bent down and picked them up for him.

“Rob,” she said quietly. “Hi.”

Rob looked at her. And suddenly he forgot everything, everything, that stupid speech he made in class, he forgot the tears, he forgot the heartache, he forgot Eva, he forgot the Mechanisms of Western Romance.

“Rachel,” he replied back, “I’m real sorry to hear about your break-up.” But he wasn’t.

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