Thing a Week 12: Bittersweet Memory

The school bell rang loudly at the most magnificent time, simultaneously interrupting Joe’s 6th-grade teacher mid-sentence and also cutting her off before she had gotten even one word of the only-ever-implicitly-implied homework assignment written on the chalkboard. With their books already put away and their backpacks already zipped up, the class instantaneously sprung up and darted out of the classroom before the bell had finished ringing, leaving a speechless old woman too tired to learn from her temporal mistakes for the next period, either.

Joe’s friend Max caught up to him quickly in the hallway, pulling on the strap of the boy’s backpack to slow him down and match pace.

“No math homework again,” Max sang, grinning wildly. “Saved by the bell.”

“Easiest math class of my life,” Joe smiled. “The day she assigns homework at the start of class is the day I start failing.”

“Right. Hey, I’m gonna get a Gatorade from the vending machine for lunch. Save me a seat?”

“No can do,” Joe said. “I’m skipping out for birthday lunch.”

“Going out?”

Joe did a little hop and skip. “Yep, my dad’s picking me up. I’ll be back for sixth hour though.”

The two kids split, with Max headed toward the cafeteria and Joe unknowingly passing his future wife at her locker as he headed to one of the lesser-used exits of the middle school and nervously strolled out, doing his best to act as if he didn’t realize students couldn’t just come and go as they pleased during a school day — in case anyone was actually watching the school’s security cameras for once.

Outside, Joe found himself sprinting freely across the school’s vividly green grass toward the corner he told his dad to pick him up at, feeling the cool Spring wind on his smiling face. It felt like school was out hours early and his responsibilities for the rest of the day had instantly melted away.

The kid jumped in his dad’s beat-up Honda when it pulled up and he rolled down his window to let the fresh air in as he realized the adrenaline, quick run, and manual rolling had left him gasping for breath.

“You feeling okay?” Joe’s dad asked, looking him over. “You still want to go out for lunch?”

“Any excuse to get out of school,” Joe responded, waving at the huge brick building as they left. “Where are we going?”

“It’s your birthday, why don’t you pick?”

“Panera,” Joe said without thinking, surprising both people in the car.

“Panera?”

Time to double down, Joe thought. “I love Panera. Their soups are great.”

“There’s a Panera on 20th; we should be able to get there and back in time. You said you had an hour for lunch?”

Well, forty-five minutes. “Just an hour, yeah.”

Panera was great. Something about the soup tasted better than ever before, and Joe had a surprisingly long and thoughtful conversation with his parental unit that he’d be sure to never speak of to his friends at school ever, lest they label him lame. Such a simple gesture had turned into a wonderful birthday; one he’d remember for the rest of his life.

Even when the car stalled in the parking lot and they were stranded at Panera, Joe and his dad took it in stride.

“They said they’ll be at least thirty minutes for the tow,” Joe’s dad said, hanging up the employee phone. He turned to the nice young man that he’d asked for the phone from and thanked him, then whisked Joe over to pick out a pastry while they waited for their rescue.

“Guess you’re out of school for the day then.”

Joe had mentally willed with all his might that the powers of the universe might look fondly enough upon him for those to be the words that came out of his dad’s mouth — and lo and behold, they were.

“I guess I’m fine waiting here with you,” Joe said flatly, concealing his excitement. “Can I have the strawberry Danish?”

Before his dad could answer, Joe woke up with a face thirty years older, scrunched nastily together in a mixture of confusion, tiredness, and sudden emotional pain. He shoved his balding head under his pillow and tried unsuccessfully to drown out the morning’s alarm until the wife he used to ogle at in the middle school hallways snuggled closer and politely whispered, “Can you turn that damn thing off?”

Joe growled crankily as he sat up and silently glared at the alarm on the dresser, wishing it’d follow his example.

“It’s your turn to get the kids to school,” Joe’s wife said, as lovingly as is possible coming from someone who then shoved her own head under her pillow and went back to sleep.

“Sorry dear,” Joe muttered, waking up a bit more. “Another bad dream. Don’t worry; I’ll get them to school.”

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