Ode to Hindsight 

By Alex Widell

 

Beyond the slippery, ice-glazed schoolyard, a stony ridge rose from a snow-clad pine forest. In the summer, the ridge looked like a monk’s head, complete with a donut-shaped haircut of wild lilacs and a sagging red hat, in the form of an old barn. In the winter, the ridge looked more like an enormous pimple. 

Regardless of the season, this ridge gave you a perfect view of everything below – the icicle-toothed swing sets, the white lump that was the janitor’s buried car, and, most importantly, the field where everyone was making snowmen and engaging in friendly snowball fights. 

Freddy, who was my best friend at the time, had found a secret spot on the ridge where we spent countless hours spying on our classmates below and discussing everything between the gunmetal heaven and the snow-puffy earth. 

This morning, the topic of girls came up, and as with everything else, we were eager to see if our opinions matched. Mind you, at the age of thirteen it was an important thing to share the views of your best friend. We were soon in agreement that the most attractive girls were older than us – often ninth graders who would never look our way. Their air of utter unattainability was probably just as alluring as the mascara and black leggings.

“Isn’t that the new girl?” Freddy said, pointing at a figure standing near a partially ruined snow castle, quietly watching the other kids play, “with the strange name?” 

Our school was small and new students were always a cause for excitement, even if they weren’t in your year. This was apparently the girl we’d been told about – Nova – who had just started in the grade above ours. She looked small down there with her hands pulled into her sleeves, hugging herself against the cold. Her eyes were locked in a staring contest with her shoes, and she only ever looked up to make sure she wasn’t in the way. 

“She’s cute!” I exclaimed. 

“You think?” he said, one eyebrow raised. 

Was this the instant when our opinions differed? That dreaded moment when the security of a shared sentiment came crashing down like one of our snow castles, and the incredible insight was planted that having different opinions was harmless, or even a good thing?

“I suppose you’re right,” he said, after a drawn out pause. 

I saw in his face that he didn’t really think so, but I guess he, too, wanted to hold on to that brittle security for a little while longer. 

Later that day I saw Nova again, this time in the coatroom outside the cafeteria. She was struggling with an uncooperative cardigan, and the first thing I noticed when her head popped through was the sharpness of her eyebrows. Perhaps it’s an unusual detail to remember, but it was her one defining feature. Those eyebrows gave her face a pleasant symmetry but also an icy unwelcoming look, which I’m sure kept most boys at bay.

Without the thick winter clothes, she was a thin girl with straight gingerbread hair that went all the way down to the small of her back. The cold weather outside had colored her nose and cheeks in a soft shade of pink, and her lips were pressed together in a tight minus sign.

“What the hell are you looking at?” a voice said behind me.

It was Clare – a strawberry blonde girl, one year my senior, who had a reputation for being a vicious bitch. Once, during class, she had fallen into an argument with the German teacher and somehow ended up on the teacher’s back, riding her like a cowboy until the poor woman broke down in tears. Another time she had decided that the new guy in her class had looked at her the wrong way and instantly kicked him in the balls. She had ripped someone’s comic books to shreds and poured milk down someone’s shirt during lunch. And that was just the top of the list. I’m sure the teachers tried their best to keep her in check, but my guess is there simply weren’t enough resources. 

I turned around and was met by her pouting bulldog face. My first instinct was to do something to show that I wasn’t afraid of her. I knew very well how to deal with bullies like her, but I didn’t want to give Nova a bad first impression of me. So, instead of directly provoking Clare, I turned to Nova.

“Was nice meeting you,” I said, and went into the cafeteria, probably leaving them both confused. 

Fast forward to June – winter had turned into spring, and spring had turned into one of those disgustingly humid and pollen-ridden summers. With the grades set and only a couple of days left until graduation, the only thing remaining of the school year was to organize a massive water fight. And by ‘organize’ I mean that we succeeded in splashing a big bucket of water over some ninth graders, which marked the beginning of a school-spanning aquatic mêlée, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Battle of Waterloo!

It was in the aftermath of this epoch-defining free-for-all that I came upon Nova, who somehow had managed to stay dry throughout the ordeal. She was sitting in the shadow of a veiny old oak reading and was, in other words, the perfect target for my last water balloon. 

Ever since January I'd wanted to talk to her and get to know her, but it was difficult with Clare always around. It was hard to tell if they were actually friends or if Clare had turned her into some kind of servant.

This was the opportunity I’d been waiting for, but first I had a very wet present for her. I crept closer, readying my balloon.

“Don’t you dare,” she said, without looking up from the book. 

Slightly confused about how she had spotted me, I froze. I thought I’d been so stealthy! She finished the page, put a bookmark in, and stuffed it into her backpack. It was a copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

“Okay, I’m ready,” she said submissively and closed her eyes, ready to meet her wet fate. 

Was she really expecting me to throw the balloon at her like this? That was no fun. I lowered my weapon. 

After a few seconds, she opened her eyes again. Her sharp eyebrows rolled up in surprise. Her dark eyes were big, and darted between my face and the balloon. She was really expecting me to soak her. 

“Is it good?” I asked, nodding at her backpack. 

Her eyes lingered on the water balloon for a second, still not quite trusting me.

“It’s about a girl growing up in the American South in the thirties – it deals with racism and poverty and family and stuff.” She fired this off with obvious enthusiasm. 

“But is it good?” 

She broke eye contact and dots of pink appeared on her cheeks. 

“Yes, it’s good,” she whispered, clearly embarrassed over getting so carried away. “You should read it.” 

“I’ll just take your word for it. I’m more into fantasy.” 

“Oh,” she said.

 The neutrality in her voice made it impossible to tell if it was an approving or a condemning ‘oh.’

“Well, I have to get going,” she said. “Last chance to soak me?” 

I shook my head and gave her the balloon. “Use it well.” 

She squinted, and for a moment her icy exterior seemed to melt, as her mouth changed from the tight minus into a shy but genuine smile. 

During the summer, I thought about Nova and decided to read that book to have something to talk to her about in the fall. I also thought about calling her, her number was in the school registry after all. But for various reasons, it never happened – fear of rejection probably being the biggest one. 

On the first day after the holiday, there were a lot of grown-ups in the school, and the hallway smelled like burning wax. Students and parents were clustered around a small table with a framed photo surrounded by flowers and candles. 

I don’t remember pushing my way through the crowd, but I remember seeing Nova’s face in that photo. Her dark eyes, framed by those sharp brows, stared back at me. She had killed herself that summer. 

Feeling empty, I stumbled off to class, wondering why and how this could’ve happened. I had spoken to her only a few weeks earlier, and now she was gone forever. I had never before dealt with death. The whole situation made me want to throw up. How was everyone able to go about their day like nothing had happened? 

A counseling group was formed but I never went. I was probably too young to deal with such trauma at that time. Instead, I shut off my emotions and brushed it all under the rug, trying my best to forget about Nova. 

I still think about her though. Maybe if I had cared less about Freddy’s opinion, I would have approached her sooner. Perhaps I would have been less hesitant if I had known then that age difference is trivial. If I had ignored Clare’s presence and found the courage to call Nova during the summer – would anything have changed? Could I have been, or done, that one small positive thing that pushed her away from suicide?

Of course, in the end it’s impossible to know if the outcome was inevitable. But whenever I see her face in my mind’s eye, whenever I remember her speaking so ardently about her book, something hardens inside me, and I wish. I wish I had tried a bit harder.