Queen of Hearts

This story is inspired by the illustration entry “Remorseful Queen of Hearts,” by Shorra.

I changed high schools my senior year. I wasn’t happy about it but our family moved and I didn’t have a say in the matter. I felt alone in the new school for a time but then began to make new friends.

I hadn’t left a particular girlfriend behind, but I had been dating. At the new school I went out with a few girls, but no one special.

“Maybe the Queen of Hearts will take an interest in you,” said my new buddy Cleon. “You’ll be set then, at least for a while.”

“Who is the Queen of Hearts?”

“She’s this little senior who chooses a guy and the next thing you know, he’s in love with her. It’s spooky. Then they’re a couple for a while, real lovebirds. The fool walks around with a big smile on his face. Ask him why and he tells you he’s in love. When he’s with Annie – her name is Annie – they seem like the perfect couple. She’s not teamed up at the moment, but the next time she is, you’ll see what I mean.”

“They’re a couple and then she drops him?” I said.

“They’re together for a month or so and then it’s over. She puts him down just like she picked him up. It’s magic.”

“So he’s upset? Angry with her?”

“Nope, one day he just doesn’t love her anymore. He’s back to normal.”

“But bitter? Sad? Furious? What?”

“That’s the strange part. He’s fine with it. He says the time he spent with Annie was the happiest of his life. He can’t get over his good luck. He’s a better man for it. She picks guys who are a little slow, socially. You know, not the quarterback. Maybe she’s just doing them a favor. Providing them with some fond memories. Afterwards, the guy can’t say enough about her. She’s… well, she’s the Queen of Hearts. She’s a legend.”

“I don’t get it,” I said. “How can you be in love one day and not the next, and not feel rotten?”

“I’m just praying I get the chance to find out,” Cleon said, laughing.

“Never mind you. How do I get her to want me?” I said.

“Nobody’s been able to figure that one out.”

“Point her out to me sometime.”

“What are you taking this semester?” Cleon said.

“Physics, calculus, Latin,…”

“Which year of Latin?”

“Fourth.”

“She’s in your class. She’s tiny, like I said. Black hair, cut short. Quiet. Always sits in the back, unless the teacher assigns the seating. She’s sort of cute.”

“I know her,” I said. “I mean, I’ve seen her in class. You’re right. She sits in the back.”

When I came into the classroom the next day, I stopped inside the door. Annie was sitting in the back row. She didn’t look like the Queen of Hearts. She looked young, and shy.

Seating wasn’t assigned in Latin. I sat down in the desk next to her. She was reading a book, Anthony Adverse, while she waited for the bell to ring at the start of class.

“Where did you find that?” I asked her.

“In the school library. It hadn’t been checked out in fifteen years, according to the card in it. Do you know it?”

“It was the best-selling book in the U.S. before Gone with the Wind came out.”

Now she looked at me with interest.

“How would you ever know that?” she said.

“I was reading the Pulitzer-Prize winners last year. I forget how that led me to Anthony Adverse, but I was at just the right age for it. I loved it.”

“I must be a late bloomer,” Annie said.

And thus began our friendship.

We would chat in Latin class and we began having lunch together. We met for dinner at a Mexican restaurant one Friday night and it became something we did every week. She was so small. The top of her head came up to my chest. Nevertheless, she had a presence. I thought a lot about her. She wasn’t my type at all and it never crossed my mind to think of her as a girlfriend, but she seemed like the perfect friend. I was always asking her advice. I trusted her totally.

“Ye gods and little fishes,” Cleon said. “You did it. You got her to pick you. And you’re not like the others.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re good looking. You’ve got size. You’re smart. You like the girls and the girls like you. Annie has never connected with anybody like you before. Are you in love yet?”

“Whoa,” I said. “It’s not like that at all. It’s not like you described with the others. Annie is great. She’s a friend. She’s a sweet kid. But no way I’m in love with her. I’ve never been in love with anybody. This isn’t a romance.”

“Hmm,” Cleon said. “That’s a first. So forget the romance. Is there any… you know…”

I gave him a look and he dropped the subject. There wasn’t.

I talked to a couple of the guys who had supposedly been chosen by Annie. They all said the same thing. They had started seeing her and fell head over heels in love with her right away. It lasted a while and then, overnight, the feelings disappeared. Now they just liked and respected her. Strange.

Once Annie and I were comfortable hanging out together, I began thinking about bringing up this Queen of Hearts thing. I’d almost do it and then back off. My intuition told me to keep my mouth shut. My intuition must have stayed in bed one Saturday morning. Annie and I went out to hike up Mount San Carlos. It’s an easy climb on a well-kept trail south of town.

Clear blue sky, retaining some of the morning’s glare. Clouds would begin to build as the day progressed, but there was no sign of them yet. They would condense in streamers on the flanks of the mountain, rising to accumulate in a thunderhead, a huge gray anvil rivaling San Carlos itself in its feeling of mass and import, lit from within by lightning that would break free in the late afternoon and strike the mountain, to disappear into its core. We’d be back down by then.

Meadowlarks sang in quick phrases. Yellow grasshoppers sprang away from us as we passed. We hiked through a warm haze of scents, sage and juniper and scrub.

“I wanted to ask you something,” I said to Annie. “They say…”

“I know what they say.”

Instead of shutting me up, her reaction egged me on.

“We’re friends, aren’t we?” I said.

She stopped on the path and turned to me.

“Friends?” she said. She was looking up into my eyes with an intensity that forced me to turn my head away.

“Well… yes,” I said.

I understood that this was a Moment. Moments often come in a parked car on a date, when the going gets physical. Sometimes Moments happen on the front porch at the end of a date, or when the girl discovers that she has competition. This is the time to profess deep feelings of attraction, to comment on the girl’s beauty, perhaps even to use the L word. I never expected to face this with Annie. I associated any demand for my affection with weakness, and whatever Annie was, it wasn’t weak.

“Annie, look…,” I said.

Somehow it had never crossed my mind, even once, that she might have feelings for me. Not feelings like that.

She turned and continued up the path. I followed her.

“You know I like you a lot,” I said.

“Sure,” she said.

After a while, she said, “That was embarrassing.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

We moved faster. We began to sweat. We were both breathing hard. Dust coated our hiking boots. Finally, we started to chat again as we climbed the trail. Halting conversation at first. Up on top, we ate lunch. The sun was still clear but mist shrouded the slopes below us.

On the way down, I opened my big mouth again.

“So can I ask just one thing about what they say?”

“One friend to another?” she said, and I could hear something in her voice, not exactly resignation or sadness or anger, but the sound of a struggle.

I knew I should shut up, but my curiosity overwhelmed my good sense.

“Anybody would ask you this, eventually,” I said, “in my defense.”

“Sure.”

“They say that you can make any boy fall in love with you,” I said. “It lasts a while and then he’s not in love with you anymore, but he feels great anyway.”

“Are you in love with me?” she asked.

“You know I’m not. I mean, I didn’t mean it that way. I respec… I like you a lot.”

“Does that answer your question?”

“I talked to a couple of the fellows you dated.”

Annie glanced at me with an expression that mirrored that unidentifiable tone in her voice.

“Pretend I didn’t say that,” I said. “Any of it.”

“The day is not going as planned,” she said.

After that morning, a tension appeared in our relationship. We were still easy with each other and interested in each other, but Annie would gently check to see if my feelings for her had deepened and I’d know it when she did so, and I’d gently check to see if she felt of me more as a friend, and see the hurt look when she caught me doing it.

On New Year’s Eve, we went to a school party together. We got some knowing looks, which we ignored, and we had a pleasant time. We left the party with friends and went to a smaller celebration that began just before the midnight hour. There was some drinking, and maybe more than that.

“Jeez, do you love her yet?” Cleon said. “Just checking. It’s been weeks. If the answer is still no, how about letting me have a turn?”

“She’s my best friend,” I said, “but you’re a close second.”

Later she and I went back to her place. Her parents were gone for the weekend and we had the house to ourselves. I was a little drunk and we were goofing around in a lighthearted way. I lifted Annie off her feet and held her up so that we were face-to-face. She was as light and soft as a vision.

“I wish, I wish, I wish,” she said, staring into my eyes.

“I’m your best friend, Annie,” I said. “I always will be.”

I kissed her forehead. And then I was in love. It washed over me. I was enveloped in an emotion part longing and part joy.

“My God, Annie,” I said. “I love you.”

She laughed and hugged me as hard as she could, but her eyes were wet and tears ran down her cheeks.

I kissed them away.

“I love you, too,” she said. “You’re the first and only.”

The night was suddenly a miracle, heaven, the best that life could offer. I was delirious, frantic with love. We talked a mile a minute at first and hugged each other as if we wanted to merge into one. We laughed and wept and I didn’t want to sleep, ever. I didn’t want it to end, I didn’t want it to stop, even for a minute.

I did sleep, though, and woke on the couch with Annie in my arms. I looked at her, my friend, my chum, and thought about the night that had just passed. Was I that drunk? Had someone slipped me some Ecstasy? A memory of love lingered, like a mist, as if from a dream. I savored it as it dissipated, evaporated, and was gone.

Annie’s eyes opened.

“Good morning, friend,” I said.

She didn’t reply.

“I think we got a little crazy last night,” I said.

“It’s OK,” she said. “We’ve come to our senses now. Friend.”

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