We All Looked Up
“IT’S NOT THE END OF the world,” Stacy said.
Peter looked down. He’d been staring vacantly at the sky, replaying his brief conversation with Mr. McArthur in his head. He still wasn’t sure what to make of it.
“I said it’s not the end of the world. So one person doesn’t like you. Who cares?”
“You really think he doesn’t like me?”
Stacy groaned. They’d already been talking about this for fifteen minutes, which, in Peter’s experience, was about fourteen minutes longer than his girlfriend liked to talk about any serious subject.
“I don’t know. Maybe he’s jealous of you or something.”
“Why would he be jealous of me?”
“Because, like . . .” She flipped her hair to one side of her head, then back again. Peter had never understood why she did that; maybe she’d seen it in a shampoo commercial or something. She did have great hair, though—a shoo-in for best in school, when yearbook time came around—long and latte brown, the same smooth, glossy texture as a basketball jersey. “You have all this potential, you know? Like your whole life in front of you. And he’s stuck in this shit school teaching the same shit history over and over again. If I had to do what he does every year, I’d probably end up hanging myself in a supply closet or something.”
The thought had never crossed his mind, that a teacher might be jealous of a student. As a little kid, Peter had figured that once you reached a certain age, somebody just handed you all the knowledge you’d need in order to be an adult. But it turned out that wasn’t how it worked at all. Peter’s dad had recently admitted that even at the age of fifty-two, he sometimes woke up with the absolute certainty that he was only twenty-four, with his whole life still spread out before him like an untouched Thanksgiving dinner. It was just one of the many mysteries of getting older, along with male pattern baldness, midlife crises, and erectile dysfunction. Of course the only alternative to going through all that stuff, to slowly losing your looks and your teeth and your hair and finally your mind, was to bite the big one early, which nobody wanted to do.
Mr. McArthur was bald. Maybe he had erectile dysfunction, too. And really, what right did Peter have to be pissed at some aging high school history teacher, when his own life was so freakishly, criminally good? In his three and a half years at Hamilton, he’d started on the basketball team four times. He’d been to state twice and nationals once. He’d lost his virginity to Stacy, been given a sweet Jeep for his sixteenth birthday, and ended up good and wasted at about a hundred crazy-fun parties. And now he was eighteen. In the fall, he’d be off to sunny California (technically, acceptance letters wouldn’t come until March, but the Stanford athletic department said he was as good as in). And seriously, how sick was college going to be? Pledging some frat and playing ball all over the country and partying with his teammates and frat brothers every weekend. Stacy would be sure to get into SF State, so they’d see each other all the time. Then he’d go pro if he were lucky, or else get into coaching or something, and he and Stacy would get married and raise some kids and hit up Baja or TJ over Christmas breaks and buy a kick-ass summer place on Lake Chelan with a Jacuzzi. That was what life was supposed to do, right? Just keep getting better and better?
But Peter knew it wasn’t like that for everyone; he watched the news (or at least saw it out of the corner of his eye when his parents turned it on). People starved. People lost their jobs and then their homes. People came down with messed-up diseases and they had ugly divorces and their kids got in motorcycle accidents and ended up in wheelchairs. Maybe Mr. McArthur’s life had just been getting worse and worse since he left high school. Maybe he really was jealous.
And if not, then what the hell point had he been trying to make in class?
“Baby, stop worrying about it.” Stacy gave him a dry kiss on the cheek. “If I got all bent out of shape whenever someone didn’t like me, I’d be, like . . .” She thought for a few seconds, then shrugged. “I don’t know. Seriously bent out of shape.”
“Yeah. You’re right.”
“Of course I am. And I’m also starving. Come on.”
It was chicken fingers day in the lunchroom, traditionally a day of joy (because the Hamilton chicken fingers were mad good). Peter loaded up his tray with two paper boats full of them, a lemon-lime Gatorade, a chocolate pudding, an apple, a granola bar, and a fingerbowl’s worth of wilted green lettuce and shredded carrot. He crossed the lunchroom, catching sight of his little sister’s newly dyed hair (the sink in their shared bathroom still looked like a leprechaun had thrown up and then died in it). She was eating lunch with her freak boyfriend over at the freak table. In his mind’s eye, Peter could still see a younger version of her sitting next to him on the living room couch, playing with her Legos, back before she transformed into something feminine and unfathomable.
“Dude, you okay?” Peter looked up into the waving hand of his best friend, Cartier Stoffler. “I’ve already eaten, like, three of your chicken fingers.”
“Yeah, sorry. I’m having a weird day. Something a teacher said.”
“You in trouble?”
“Not like that. It’s hard to explain.”
“Here’s my trick with teachers, right? Don’t ever listen to them in the first place.”
“It’s got me this far,” he said, then popped a whole chicken finger into his mouth.
Peter laughed as convincingly as he could. Cartier was generally pretty good at cheering him up, but it was no use today. Mr. McArthur’s question had created a black hole that sucked in everything good around it. Or more like it made everything around it suck. Like, it sucked that high school was almost over. And it really sucked that Cartier had applied to WSU to study beer brewing instead of trying to go to college somewhere in California. They’d been friends since the first day of high school, so inseparable that Coach Duggie named them Cookies and Cream (Cartier, though black, insisted that he had to be the cream, on account of his smoothness). They’d shared their first bottle of beer, their first blunt, their answers to homework questions, and even, for a few weeks in tenth grade, Amy Preston, who managed to convince them it was perfectly normal for a girl to have two boyfriends at the same time. And sure, there’d still be the holidays—Thanksgiving and Christmas and the long, long weekend of summer—but it wouldn’t be the same. Already, they’d stopped hanging out as much as they used to. The most painful part of it wasn’t that they wouldn’t be friends, but that they wouldn’t even care that they weren’t friends.
And if he and Cartier couldn’t manage to stay tight, then who was to say that he and Stacy wouldn’t break up too? Peter would be off playing away games every weekend, and she’d be left on her own. Would she really stay faithful to him? Would he stay faithful to her? Would any part of the past four years matter at all four years from now?
These black-hole thoughts wouldn’t leave him alone for the rest of lunch period, but then there was chemistry and precalc to get through, followed by two exhausting hours in the gym, mindlessly running lines and doing passing drills on instinct. So it wasn’t until he found himself under the steaming beam of the locker-room shower that he really had time to think again. And there was Mr. McArthur’s question—“Would that be a Pyrrhic victory?”—stuck in his head like one of those crappy pop songs that you only knew the chorus to.
He’d stop by the history department in Bliss Hall. If Mr. McArthur had already left for the day, then that would be the end of it. And if he hadn’t, well then at least Peter could get this dumb song to stop playing in his head.
It was the last week of January, and in Seattle, that meant traitorously short days. You’d step into the gymnasium in full daylight, and by the time you got out, the sun would be slipping behind the horizon so fast you’d think it was getting away with something. Peter left the locker room just after six, and all that was left of the day was that fugitive red glow on the horizon. He zipped up his North Face jacket and put his hands in the fleecy pockets. His mom had bought him leather gloves for Christmas, but he’d stopped wearing them after Stacy said that they made him look like the kind of guy who offered to show children the lollipops he kept in his van. The only students left on campus were those who inhabited the extremes of the work-play spectrum: overachievers laboring late at the library and the skater/slackers who didn’t have anywhere better to go. You could hear the faraway click-snap-skittle of their skateboards even from inside Bliss Hall.
Peter knocked on Mr. McArthur’s door, half hoping no one would answer.
The office was so cramped that the door stuck on a footstool in the corner, and Peter had to squeeze through the gap. Mr. McArthur was on his own—his two office mates must have already gone home for the day—sitting in a brown plastic chair in front of a narrow desk piled high with ungraded essays. Peter had never felt confident in his ability to guess the age of anyone between twenty-five and sixty, but he figured Mr. McArthur was somewhere in his late forties; his forehead had a few permanent creases in it, but they didn’t make him look old so much as perpetually concerned. He was popular with the students, engaging but not pushy. Peter had always liked him well enough—until today anyway.
“Hello, Mr. Roeslin. Make yourself at home.”
Peter sat down on a small sofa. A ragged stuffed bunny lay upside down on one of the cushions. Its once pink places had gone gray with age. Mr. McArthur wrote B+ on the essay he was grading, circling it twice. His pen wasn’t the typical felt-tip marker, but something slimmer and more elegant, with a diamond-shaped metal nib. He capped it and set it aside.
“So how can I help you?”
Peter hadn’t really thought through what he was going to say, and now the possibilities backed up in his head, tripped over themselves like a defense falling apart in the face of a solid drive. “I just, well, we were talking today, right? And you asked me this question about a sports star or something, and you were talking about stuff I do, you know? Or might do. I mean, I think you were. Do you have any idea what I’m talking about?”
“I might,” Mr. McArthur said, with a patient smile.
Peter idly patted the stuffed bunny, trying to remember exactly what had happened. They’d been learning about the phrase “Pyrrhic victory,” which came from Roman times and meant that you’d won something, like a battle, but in order to win, you had to lose so much that you really hadn’t won at all. Mr. McArthur asked the class if anyone could come up with some examples from real life. Nobody else was going for it, so Peter raised his hand and said that if you won a basketball game or a football game or something, but your best player got injured, that would be an example. Mr. McArthur nodded, but then he stared hard at Peter with the combined intensity of his earnest eyes and that inquisitorial forehead and said, “What about if you were a big sports star, and you made loads of money, and you bought big houses and you drove fast cars, but when your time in the limelight was over, you ended up unhappy because you didn’t know what the point of your life had been? Would that be a Pyrrhic victory?”
He’d let the question hang out there, like some big old rainbow of a three-pointer. And then Andy Rowen said, “I’d take it anyway,” and the whole class laughed and they moved on to Caesar.
But Peter couldn’t help thinking that Mr. McArthur was probably right: It would be a Pyrrhic victory. Because when the golden days were over, and you were lying on your deathbed, watching the instant replay of your life, wouldn’t it be pretty depressing to think you’d wasted your best years playing a game?
That was the thought that had plagued Peter for the last six hours, though he didn’t quite know how to put it into words. Thankfully, Mr. McArthur finally came to his rescue.
“Peter, I’m sorry if it seemed like I was criticizing you today. I like you. And I’ve seen a lot of popular kids go through this school. The ones at the top of the pile, I mean. Most of them let it go to their heads, but I don’t think you do.”
Flattery embarrassed Peter; he looked over toward the wall, where an empty Advent calendar still hung, open windows counting down the days until Christmas. He’d expected a lecture from Mr. McArthur, not a recitation of his good qualities. “I guess.”
“Most kids wouldn’t have given a second thought to what I said. So why do you think it’s made such an impression on you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Okay. Then let me ask you this—what is it that makes a book really good?”
“I don’t really read that much. Outside of homework, I mean.”
“Then I’ll tell you. The best books, they don’t talk about things you never thought about before. They talk about things you’d always thought about, but that you didn’t think anyone else had thought about. You read them, and suddenly you’re a little bit less alone in the world. You’re part of this cosmic community of people who’ve thought about this thing, whatever it happens to be. I think that’s what happened to you today. This fear, of squandering your future, was already on your mind. I just underlined it for you.”
Something inside Peter thrummed along with this explanation. “Maybe.”
“It’s a good thing, Peter, to worry about having a meaningful life. Are you at all religious?”
“I guess so. I mean, I believe in God and stuff.”
“That’s some of it, then. Religion is all about making meaning for yourself. And you’ll have to excuse me if this is too personal, but have you ever lost someone? Someone close to you, I mean.”
“Yeah,” Peter said, a little awed by Mr. McArthur’s intuition. “My older brother, a couple years ago. Why?”
“My father died when I was very young. It forced me to confront things that many of my peers had the luxury of ignoring. The big questions. Does that sound familiar?”
“I’m not sure.”
Mr. McArthur left some space in the conversation, waiting to see if Peter would say more, then shrugged his caterpillar eyebrows. “My point, Peter, is that you’re one of those people who’ve been blessed not only with talent, but with self-awareness. And that means you get to choose what you want to do with your life, instead of life choosing for you. But having that power, the power to choose, can be a double-edged sword. Because you can choose wrong.”
“How do you know if you’re choosing wrong?”
“You tell me. Do you think it’s better to fail at something worthwhile, or to succeed at something meaningless?”
Peter answered before he realized what he was saying. “To fail at something worthwhile.” The implications of his answer hit him like an elbow to the sternum.
Mr. McArthur laughed. “You look positively tragic!”
“Well, you’re saying I should stop doing the only thing I’ve ever been great at.”
“No. I’m not saying stop. I’m saying evaluate. I’m saying choose. You can ignore everything I said today if you want.”
“I suppose that depends on what kind of man you want to be.” Mr. McArthur stood up and put out a hand. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Come talk to me anytime.”
Peter stood up too. He was a few inches taller than Mr. McArthur, but he felt smaller than he had in years. They shook hands. As Peter was leaving, the teacher called out after him.
Peter looked down. Sure enough, he was clutching the old stuffed animal in his left hand, so tightly that its face had been squashed down to a nub.
“Sorry,” Peter said, and tossed it back onto the couch.
Back outside, darkness had set in. Peter felt like a different person; his certainties had all disappeared with the daylight. Almost too perfect then, that the sky was suddenly unfamiliar: Against an eggplant-purple backdrop shone a single bright star, blue as a sapphire, like a fleck of afternoon someone had forgotten to wipe away.
Peter heard the click of a door opening nearby. Someone was coming out of the arts building, a swirl of multicolor scarf that he knew for a fact she’d knitted herself—Eliza Olivi. It was the first time they’d been alone together in almost a year. And it was happening today, of all days? What did they call that? Serendipity?
“Eliza,” he called out. “Do you see that star? Isn’t that crazy?”
But even though she must have heard him, she just kept on walking.