“What’s the latest on your romance with the milkman?”
Marvela Shreaper sighed. “Can’t you stop calling him the milkman? He does have a name, for cryin’ out loud.”
Marvela’s older sister Jodie grinned. It was an old, old joke. “Okay, Marve, so how’s it going between you and Orson? Any progress, or have you stopped being his unrelenting designated stalker?”
“Still working on it, sis,” she said with a tired pout. “That guy has a high resistance tolerance, I’ll say that for him. But I think he may be weakening. Harder now, though, seeing as how I’m on the outs at Pembroke High.”
Days ago Marvela had been suspended from high school in the eleventh grade — yet again for fighting — and the so-called “milkman” in question was one of the students there. Her sister Jodie had given the boy that nickname years before, a play on the “milquetoast” sobriquet with which he’d been circumstantially and unfairly dubbed back in elementary school: Orson “Milquetoast” Henley.
She’d had her heart set on marrying Orson Henley ever since the fourth grade. For her there was a degree of inevitability that this would someday happen. He clicked with her at first sight . . . at the age of nine. It seemed, however, an unlikely goal in life at the time, considering the fact that their first meeting had ended in a one-sided punching match in which Orson, the hands-down underdog, laid flat on his back with a bloody lip, a black eye, and a bump on the back of his head when he’d hit the ground. For her part, the only wounds Marvela sustained were minor scratches on two knuckles of her left hand when connecting with Orson’s front teeth.
To describe Marvela Shreaper physically at nine years old would be to describe a pint-sized version of a female kick-boxer, built for pain and endurance — compact, lithe, rough-and-tumble. There was a kind of fierceness in her demeanor, like one of those action heroines in the movies, yet at the same time still very much a girl. As for Orson Henley, he looked the part of the geeky-but-nice kid on the block. It was obvious that he was no match for Marvela in a knock-down drag-out, or at least as first impressions seemed to indicate.
The two sweaty, now dirt-laden children were summarily marched off the playground to the school principal’s office by a horrified yard teacher to render accounts of the altercation. Principal Transome would see them shortly; in the meanwhile they were left sitting side-by-side on a bench in the hallway. Marvela eyed the beaten Orson with puzzled eyes for a moment, then finally leaned over to him.
“Why didn’t you fight back?” she demanded in a hoarse whisper.
He looked up. “Didn’t want to fight.”
“You let me beat the crap out of you,” she insisted.
He shrugged. “Maybe I had it comin’.”
“Are you crazy? I started it.”
“Uh-uh. I did.”
“What? You hardly laid a finger on me.”
“Maybe, but you wouldn’t of licked me if I hadn’t of said no, would you?”
Marvela knew he was right, but she wasn’t yet able to articulate her feelings civilly. All she knew was that there were strange stirrings inside her for the battered boy that she could not understand, and though he had done nothing but say no, he was still at fault.
She had confronted him at recess.
“What’s your name?” she’d asked without preamble.
The boy looked at her with curiosity. “Orson Henley,” he said.
“Well, Orson Henley, I’m Marvela Shreaper, and just so you know, I’m going to marry you one day.”
Orson blinked at her. “What?”
“I said I’m going to marry you. Whatta you say?”
“No,” was his reply.
“That’s right. No.”
“Yeah, you are,” she said, and hit him.
Such was their first encounter.
And when Miss Transome, the school principal, received the two in her office and demanded an explanation, both children confessed to be the perpetrator, but neither would say why, and neither blamed the other. At a loss, she finally dispatched Orson to see the school nurse for a patch-up and Marvela first to the lavatory to wash up and then back to her classroom, with dire warnings for the both that she’d better never see them in her office again.
Later at the next recess, and back in the playground, Marvela located Orson sitting on a bench, several boys razzing him. He, for his part, merely observed them with quiet reserve, seemingly not in the least ruffled by their taunts.
“Let a girl lick you!” “Beat up by Shreaper!” “Geez, Orson, what a milquetoast!” “Is Shreaper your Grim Reaper, Orsie?” “Ha-ha! Grim Reaper Shreaper!” “Orsie Milquetoast!” They howled with laughter.
Marvela approached the group.
“O-oh! Look out! It’s the Grim Reaper!” the boys hooted. “Run, Orsie! Run!”
Marvela stopped in front of the bullies and stared them down until her menacing scowl cowed them. “You brats want to feel my knuckles, too?” she said with the kind of quiet, ominous voice that inspires chills and dread. Silence. “Then scram.”
They regarded her furrowed brow. They ascertained her clenched fists. They glanced at Orson, appreciating now on a more personal level his swollen lip and half-closed left eye. They peeked at one another and nodded. After a few words of empty bluster, they scrammed. Marvela turned back to Orson.
“You all right?”
He stood up. “Depends. You gonna beat up on me again?” There was the slightest twitch of a grin.
Marvela twitched back. “Nah. Sorry I clobbered you.”
“Forget it. But why did you?”
She shrugged and looked down. “Dunno.”
“Said so, didn’t I? Dunno!”
She gave him a shove, feeling frustrated and confused, and started to stomp away. In mid stride, though, she slowed, then stopped, and turned around. He was still seated on the bench, staring at her. Marvela stared back. She saw him swallow, then stand up, his eyes still on her. They both held their distance for a moment, like two gunslingers in a western sizing one another up before whipping out their weapons and blazing away at one another. Marvela cocked her head to one side, then to the other, watching him for a sign. Would he stand his ground, or cut and run? She felt her heart thumping. She’d hit him because she had sudden, instant feelings for him. It had frightened her and she’d lashed out. Dare she say the truth? Would he laugh at her? Well, if he did, they’d both be back at the principal’s office, he worst for wear. She strode back to him and gave him a glare.
“You really want to know why?”
He looked surprised, but, licking his lower lip and still tasting blood, said, “I do.”
“Yeah. After all, you said you were going to marry me, didn’t you? Or were you joking?”
She swallowed, took a deep breath, then thrust out her jaw. “I wasn’t joking. Don’t know why, but when I saw you, I knew . . . I knew I . . . I loved you.” She whispered the last.
Her face blazed. “I love you! Okay? A-an’ it scared me. That’s why!”
“You love me?”
“‘Course! Why would I say I was going to marry you? So . . . so what of it?” She clenched her fists again.
Orson recoiled a step. His eyes — his right eye — grew wide with confusion. He gingerly touched his cut lip then and winced. “Uh, n-nothing, I guess. Just a freaky way to show me. How can you love me? We don’t even know each other. You gotta be teasing me.”
Marvela’s own disarray was enormous. Why had she blurted that out? Stupid, stupid, stupid! The recess bell to go back to classes providentially sounded in that instant and probably saved her from smacking the thunderstruck kid again.
“We gotta go back to class,” she cried out, and dashed away, mortified by her own bravado. Orson, watching her retreat, thought she might have a screw loose. He shook his head in bafflement and finally shuffled off to his own classroom. Loose screw or not, even for a nine-year-old she was one of a kind.
Seven years later, Marvela was still fighting, though not with Orson. Between fourth grade and eleventh grade, she’d battled her way in and out of school and back with students, teachers, coaches, and administrators. It wasn’t that she was a bully. She didn’t look for trouble. In fact, she would have been perfectly content to lead a life of complete peace and tranquility, but somehow she had the uncanny magnetic ability to attract trouble, or what she perceived as trouble, and once it was there she could not stand walking away from it or backing down until it was resolved, either verbally or physically . . . too often the latter.
With Orson Henley, however, Marvela Shreaper was not yet finished. The two had never spoken again of the fourth-grade incident, and she had never imposed her feelings on him again quite so aggressively. Not that she’d given up on him. On the contrary, she still pursued him, but more subtly — though to some it might have seemed stalking. She knew that some day he would come around. She did not know what was going on in the boy’s head about her, but at least they had become friends. Her interpretation of “friends” might have differed somewhat from his own in this case, however.
Now that she was persona non grata at Pembroke High for two weeks and had been ordered into an anger management program for “troubled” teenagers, Marvela was now also under close watch by her parents. Which meant that it wasn’t likely she’d see for a time the unrequited love of her life, Orson Henley. Instead, she had her sister Jodie for companionship, decidedly a second-best compensation.
At the moment, the two girls lolled together on a sofa in a converted den at their home serving as their study, taking a break from their respective school work. Marvela was expected to keep up with her homework during her suspension, while her older sister, a sophomore in community college, followed suit with her own school projects. The two girls physically could have been born of different parents. Though both were attractive, each in her own way, Jodie was blond, blue-eyed, lanky, and delicate in appearance, while Marvela embodied a shorter, more robust stature, was dark-haired, brown-eyed, and mutably buoyant or stern of expression depending on her mood.
“Seriously, Marve, you gotta forget that dude and hook up with somebody more your style.”
“Sis, I don’t need anybody with more my style. I’m already dangerous enough as it is. Why compound it? I need someone like Orsie to rein me in when I’m off my leash. No, not someone *like* Orsie; I mean Orsie himself.”
Jodie shrugged. “Well, like Daddy always says, one man’s foo is another man’s goo.”
Marvela grinned. “Well, Orsie is my goo. That’s all there is to it.”
“‘You really think he’s ever going to cave? In all these years you two have never once dated that I’m aware of. Do you have any idea how he feels about you?”
“He’s nuts about me, sis; haven’t you noticed?”
Both girls looked at each other and burst out laughing.
“I admit,” continued Marvela, once she’d composed herself, “that the guy hasn’t exactly thrown himself at me — except for that one time in fourth grade, after I threw the first punch and he grabbed me around the arms to ward off the second one. But, you know? Lately I’ve been getting vibes that make me think he’s beginning to come around.”
Jodie rolled her eyes. “Oh, really? How so?”
“Well, he doesn’t run and hide now when he sees me,” Marvela replied drolly.
Jodie sputtered a chortle. “Dammit, be serious!”
“Okay, okay. We share a couple of classes this year, and we get along okay. Sometimes we even eat lunch together at the school cafeteria.”
“Really? Wait. Wasn’t it there where you got busted?”
“Yeah, kinda. I didn’t start it, but there was a food fight, see, which considering the quality of the food that day, was probably the best use for it. I got basted with a hunk of limp pizza from that jerk Jeremy Scranton. The kind with pineapple topping? And you know how I hate pineapple toppings on pizza. There’s absolutely no justification for that kind of behavior. So things escalated. One thing led to another, I lost it, and pretty soon I’d decked Jeremy. And the rest is history. But can you imagine that they called in the law for that? He had it coming, big time!”
“Was Orson there?”
Marvela grinned and sighed. “Yeah! Poor guy was in the thick of it. He really got creamed bad. Another reason why I decked Jerk Jeremy. Sis, would you believe that Orsie actually tried to protect me?”
“No, really. Not that I needed it, mind you. Still, he stood up right in front of me to take several of those awful enchiladas in the face they serve on Wednesdays, at least three greasy sandwiches, and a plateful of spaghetti all aimed at me before he went down. And afterwards, he told the cop that Jeremy had accosted me first with the pizza and I’d merely defended myself.”
“Orsie did that?”
“Yeah! But you know him. He’s such a gentleman. ‘Course that cut no ice with the cop. Still . . . My hero! If that isn’t enough to prove his feelings for me are pure and chaste, I don’t know what is.”
“Marve, you’re delusional. I think you’ve been reading too much Jane Austen.”
“Jane Austen? Are you kidding?”
Jodie gave her sister a brief stare. “Yeah, I guess I am. In any case, you’ve managed to impress the heck out of me about Orsie. Sounded pretty cool, actually.”
The door bell rang then, and Jodie got up and headed for the living room. “I got it.”
“I’m tellin’ you, sis, if there really is such a thing as a soul mate, he’s the guy.”
“Does he know that?” Jodie called over her shoulder as she left the room.
“I’m workin’ on it. He’ll come around, I’m sure of it.”
Jodie shook her head and sighed. “Marve, I love you no matter what, but you’re one crazy sister, and this obsession of yours is nothing but a pipe dream.”
Marvela grinned. “Whatever that means. But you mark my words, sis. That guy will be your brother-in-law one day.”
“Hah!” was her sister’s response, and she disappeared into the front of their house.
Marvela’s eyes returned to the pending homework still awaiting her on her desk. She heaved a sigh and got back to the task.
“Marve!” It was Jodie, shouting from the living room.
“It’s for you! One of your classmates! More homework!”
Marvela groaned. More? Always more? She thought she had to slave more with school work at home than she ever did in the classroom. Her girlfriend Gloria Stillhelm usually toted it over after school each day. “Okay, send her on in!”
“Hey, how’s the urban hell-raiser?”
Marvela jerked her head around, shouting, “Who’s calling me an urban hell-raiser!”, then blinked. Then gasped. “Orsie?”
As she rubbed her eyes in disbelief, Orson Henley joggled his eyebrows and grinned. “How’s it going, Marve? Sorry to barge in.”
“Orsie! What are you doing here?”
“Gloria couldn’t make it, so she asked me to bring you your homework assignments. Hope you don’t mind.”
“Are you kidding? Come on in!”
“You’re sure I’m not bothering?”
“You really must be joking. Of course not. Take a load off. I’ll get you something to drink.”
“No, no, I’m good,” he said and sat down on the sofa next to Marvela, resting a small stack of papers in his lap. He looked around the room. “Nice place.”
“I cannot believe you are actually here.”
“In the flesh. Oh, here’s your homework, by the way.”
Marvela accepted the stack and dumped it on her desk. She suddenly felt her throat dry and her heart racing. She joked instead, “I gotta say, this is the very first time I don’t mind getting homework.”
“Well, we’ll see after you’ve had a look at it.”
“How’re things at school?”
“Same old, same old. All the kids miss you.”
“Well, maybe not Jeremy Scranton. He’s still sore that you cold-cocked him. That’s quite a shiner you polished him off with.”
Marvela chuckled, then sobered. “Listen, Orsie, I didn’t get a chance before, but I want to thank you for standing up for me then. That was awesome.”
Orson blushed and waved it off. “I still got wiped out for all my efforts.”
“Yeah, you did, but you took a few food bullets for me, and that’s what counts. But more than that, you defended me to that cop.”
Orson hung his head. “But, Marve, I failed you there, too.”
“No you didn’t! You spoke on my behalf — eloquently, too! — and if he’d really been listening to you, he would have had to agree with your arguments. You were superb!”
Jodie peeked inside the doorway, saw her sister looking dreamy-eyed and Orson looking hangdog. She pursed her lips and nodded to herself. “Marve, I’ve got an errand to take care of. Be back in a few minutes.”
She winked at her sister and disappeared.
“First time I’ve met your sister,” said Orson, eyeing the door.
“First time you’ve ever stepped foot in our house.”
“Yeah, well. . . .” He stood up.
“What? Don’t tell me you’re leaving already! You just got here.”
“Well, your sister gone and all. . . People might get the wrong idea. . . .”
“People? What people? Sit down. I’m not going to dishonor you.”
Orson gaped at her, then burst out laughing. “Dishonor? You said dishonor?”
Marvela grinned back. “You prefer debauch?”
“Who uses words like that in high school?”
“I get this stuff from my English class homework, naturally. I’ve been studying hard during my incarceration.”
“That’s great. I read recently that inmates at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Napanoch, New York, beat out the champion Harvard undergraduate debate team in a match. So maybe with your prison experience here at home you’ll be doing the same at our high school.”
There was a lull then in their conversation, the two regarding one another thoughtfully.
“Marve, I do need to go,” said Orson and made a move to leave.
“Oh, Orsie . . .”
Orson paused and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Marve, I forgot to tell you: I’m coming back to visit you every day instead of Gloria. I’m now your designated homework delivery boy until your suspension is lifted.”
Marvela’s eyes nearly popped. “Really? I mean, really, really, really?”
“Really, really, really. Speaking of which, I really, really, really need to get going now.”
“Yes, yes! Okay. Tomorrow then. Oh, my God, I can’t believe this!”
Marvela walked him to the front door. As she opened it, Orson paused, then turned toward her. “But before I go, Marve, I want to say something else that I’ve neglected too long.”
He gazed at her a moment, a light smile curving his mouth. “I accept,” he said.
Marvela returned a quizzical frown. “What do you mean? What do you accept?”
He said, “I accept your most unorthodox fourth-grade marriage proposal,” and pecked her softly on the cheek.
Marvela stood dumbfounded as Orson Henley stepped through the doorway, across the front porch, down the steps, and skipped away. When he was a half block down the street, he finally heard a piercing squeal behind him, and he grinned.