Read The Trouble with Emily Dickinson Online
Authors: Ken McKowen
Tags: #love, #gay, #lesbian, #teen, #high school
* * *
JJ sat nervously in her chair in the back
corner of The Spot, shifting her position every other minute,
fighting the overwhelming sensation to bolt from the room as soon
as the opportunity presented itself. The lighting was dim,
thankfully, so nobody else at her table could see that she wasn’t
only pale, but that a soft shade of seaweed green had settled along
her cheekbones as well.
“You okay?” Kendal asked. She was sitting
beside JJ, and every once in a while her hand drifted over and
squeezed JJ’s leg in moral support.
JJ nodded in return, afraid that if she
opened her mouth to speak, an awful regurgitated mess would come
“She’s fine,” said Queenie confidently. “Look
at her. She’s ready to nail this like a three-pointer at the
“I think I can do without the basketball
metaphors,” JJ grumbled.
“Oh, right,” said Queenie. “How about, she’s
ready to knock this one out of the park!”
“And without baseball metaphors, for that
“Hey, I’m just trying to lighten up the
Queenie sat back in her chair and mumbled
something about JJ having a poetry book stuck up her butt.
“What’s that thing everyone always says?”
asked Kendal. “Pick someone in the crowd and picture them
“I think if I pictured anyone naked I’d start
laughing.” JJ forced a laugh.
“I’d be able to concentrate just fine,”
JJ ignored her and took in the crowd. It was
as if people kept multiplying like pods from some alien invasion
“Is it me or are there more people in here
than usual?” she whispered to Kendal.
“More than usual. I invited everyone on the
cheerleading squad. And each one of them probably invited someone
else and so on and so forth. And then someone probably posted it on
Twitter and it went viral or something.”
“Isn’t that Mya?” JJ asked.
Kendal’s hand shot up in the air, “Hey,
Mya made her way to their table dragging an
unenthusiastic Kyan Stevens behind her.
“Ever since she asked him to the winter
formal, she’s been waving him around like an Oscar or something,”
Kendal slipped in through tight lips.
“Are they together?” JJ asked.
“I guess so. Honestly, I don’t think Kyan
even had a choice in the matter.”
“Hey, ladies!” Mya said cheerfully as soon as
she reached the table. She gave Kendal a slight squeeze of the hand
and winked at JJ as if they shared some special secret. “We just
came over to wish you good luck.”
JJ smiled politely, and watched Kyan fidget
until Mya elbowed him gently in the gut.
“Uh, yeah. Good luck,” he mumbled, as he
rubbed the sore spot.
“I must say, you two make quite the darling
couple,” Queenie remarked.
Both Kendal and JJ shot her a warning look,
but it was too late. Her mouth was already off and running.
“I swear you two are the Tom Cruise and Katie
Holmes of this school. I bet they’ll even dub you KyMya in the
“You think so?” Mya asked, genuinely serious.
She grabbed hold of Kyan’s hand. “I think we’re going to be voted
king and queen of winter formal this year!”
“Oh, that would totally rock, girl!” Queenie
replied, as she slapped Mya on the arm in an overly enthusiastic
and utterly obnoxious sort of way.
“Cut it out,” JJ mouthed, and turned her head
swiftly as soon as Mya looked in her direction.
“Are you nervous at all?”Mya asked.
“Me?” JJ pointed at her chest. “Not at
“Oh, yeah, she’s not nervous at all,” added
Queenie. “Just look at her. She’s as steady as a rock.”
JJ scowled at Queenie.
“She’s just psyching herself up,” said
Kendal. “You know, kind of like how we prepare before a
Both JJ and Queenie looked at Kendal. She
shrugged her shoulders back at them.
“Well, we better find a seat before they’re
all taken,” Mya shifted. She yanked Kyan by the sleeve of his shirt
and they wandered away through the crowd.
“That Kyan, he sure is a lucky guy,” said
“Mya’s a sweetheart,” Kendal maintained.
“He looked absolutely miserable,” said
“Wouldn’t you be if you had to deal with
that?” Queenie pointed behind her with her thumb.
“Hey!” said Kendal as she hit Queenie
playfully in the arm. “Mya’s a little—particular, that’s all. She’s
a girl who knows what she wants. And it’ll do Kyan some good to be
led around by his tail for a while. He needs to be knocked down a
peg or two.”
JJ was about to add a few more cents-worth to
the conversation when she saw Mrs. Clark take the stage. In an
instant, she lost all sense of reality and her head began to sway
lazily from side to side.
She felt Kendal squeeze her knee under the
table again and thought she saw Queenie give her the number one
sign. Or maybe it was the peace sign—she couldn’t tell. At this
point she was seeing everything double.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” JJ announced,
as she felt sweat break out over her entire body. The damp taste in
her mouth went dry, and she began to hyperventilate.
“Take deep breaths,” Kendal suggested, as she
leaned closer and rubbed JJ’s back.
“You don’t look so good,” said Queenie. “I’ll
go get you some water.”
JJ pushed her chair away from the table and
bent down until her head was between her knees. She felt Kendal rub
the small of her back as she tried desperately to block Mrs.
Clark’s voice from her ears.
Queenie returned with a cup of ice water and
proceeded to dump it over the top of JJ’s head.
“Hey!” JJ screamed instantly as she leaped up
from her chair.
A hush fell over the entire coffee shop.
Chairs shifted, conversation halted and a high-pitched feedback
squeal erupted out of the microphone in Mrs. Clark’s hand.
JJ stood there, water droplets sliding down
her cheeks and nestling in the part between her lips, as every
person in the entire room stared at her. With her cheeks growing
hotter, JJ knew she’d turned a deep shade of pink. “Thanks for the
water,” she hissed at Queenie.
“At least you’ve got your color back,”
Queenie offered in return.
“JJ,” Mrs. Clark shouted into the microphone.
“I’m glad to see that you’re so excited about this reading. For a
minute there I thought no one was going to volunteer to go first,
and I’d have to start calling names.”
JJ gulped, hard.
“Why don’t you start us off then?”
“Go get ’em, tiger,” Queenie said with a fist
pump. She gave JJ an encouraging nod and sat down next to Kendal,
who held her breath in anticipation.
“Whenever you’re ready, JJ,” said Mrs.
JJ licked her dry lips and commanded her legs
to move forward. She walked with her head down and her shoulders
low until she reached the stage.
When she looked out into the crowd, JJ
avoided any and all eye contact with the faces she recognized, and
focused on the ones she didn’t know, until they blended together
into a sea of colors. She caught a glimpse of Olivia Green, the
best writer in class, smiling supportively at her from the back of
the room. JJ’s trembling lips parted slightly and a short and
purposeful breath escaped. It was the final signal that there was
no going back.
Her eyes began one final lap around the room.
They stopped about halfway around the track, settling on Kendal and
Queenie in the corner. Queenie, of course, was making a funny face
at her and it almost made JJ laugh out loud. Her shoulders
straightened, and her hands reached out on their own and grabbed
hold of the microphone.
“I wrote this for class—well, I suppose you
could say I wrote it. I prefer to say that it flew out of me like
water from a faucet. I turned the handle and suddenly the words
were there, and they kept coming. There were no breaks in the lines
and no pauses to question where the poem was headed. The words just
kept flowing from my pen, one after the other. And these are the
words that ended up on the page. These are the words I was asked to
read out loud today and they come in the form of a poem entitled,
‘Mother May I?’”
As the crowd waited, JJ grabbed hold of a
wooden stool from the back of the stage and pulled it forward. She
sat down with her eyes facing the floor and when she felt confident
enough to proceed, she lifted her eyes to the crowd.
“She tied my hair in ribbons, I untied them
and my hair ran wild.
She forced a cotton shirt over my head. I
took it off and basked naked in the sun.
She remembered days of girlie pom-poms. I
dribbled a ball aggressively down the court.
She often wondered who I was inside. I
boasted that I was her only daughter.
She cringed at my defiance. I cringed at her
Yet, somehow we connected through years of
change when I finally wore a dress.
She accepted our fate. I accepted our
We found a common strand, which wove a mother
and daughter from two different textures.
Together, we knitted a quilt that I now use
when I get cold.”
Kendal watched the band set up their
instruments on the stage. A guy with crow-black shaggy hair and
tattooed arms strummed a few strings of his guitar and twisted the
knobs at the end. He looked up briefly and caught her watching him.
She smiled momentarily, and then refocused her attention on the
book in front of her, a biography of Emily Dickinson. When she
decided it was safe to let her eyes wander again, he was standing
right in front of her.
“Come here often?” he asked, while chomping
on a piece of gum.
“Every Friday night,” she said politely.
“A fan of poetry, actually.” Kendal raised
the book in her hand so he could read the title.
“Emily Dickinson? I’ve never heard of
“She was a poet. You should read some her
work. It’s amazing.”
“Maybe I will. My name is Brad, by the way.”
He pointed to the rest of the band members behind him. “We’re
called Candy Hearts. We’re pretty popular in this area.”
“Really? I’ve never heard of you,” Kendal
“Touché,” said Brad with a snap of his
finger. “I guess we’re not as popular as Emily Dickinson.”
“Guess not.” Kendal extended her hand to him.
“I’m Kendal, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you, Kendal.”
“So—Candy Hearts? That explains your shirt
then.” She pointed to his maroon T-shirt which had a white heart on
the front of it with the phrase “I like you” printed on it.
“Clever, isn’t it?” he grinned. “Candy hearts
make for great T-shirt designs when you’re trying to promote a
“Why Candy Hearts?”
“Why not? Beats out the other names we came
“Four Guys and a Drummer or, A Drummer and
“I don’t think we would have come up with as
brilliant a T-shirt design for those.”
“Speaking of T-shirts, would you like
“Tempting—but I think I’m going to have to
“So listen,” Brad said, as he tapped his
fingers at the sides of his jeans. “I’ve got a few moments before
we are supposed to warm up. May I join you?” He gestured at the
open seat across from Kendal.
“I’m sorry,” she said as nicely as possibly.
“I’m waiting for my girlfriend.”
“As in a girl who’s a friend or as in a girl
“As in a girl I’m dating.”
“Really?” He paused. “I don’t mean this in a
bad way or anything, but I never would have guessed that you were
“Neither did I,” Kendal smiled.
“So what brings you here on a Friday night? I
thought Sampson Academy was a party school?”
“This is our favorite place to hang out,
actually. My girlfriend participates in the poetry slam every
Friday night. After you’re done playing, you should stick around
and check her out.”
“Maybe I will.” As Brad turned to leave, he
stopped suddenly. “She wouldn’t like to buy one of our T-shirts by
chance, would she?”
“No,” Kendal laughed. “I don’t think so.”
“Never hurts to ask.”
“Stick around after your set,” said Kendal.
“She might change her mind after she hears you play.”
Kendal looked on as Brad crept back to the
stage and traded barbs with his band mates about how he had just
been shot down. She leaned back in her chair and set the open book
face down on the table so she wouldn’t lose her spot. She looked
out of the adjacent window, which gave a clear view of the school’s
front lawn that was a few hundred yards away. The fountain in the
center of the quad had been turned on a week earlier, signaling
that spring had arrived at last. Everything around her felt fresh
As Kendal began to consider the strange
course of events that had occurred during the school year, she
glimpsed JJ walking toward the coffee shop with her head high, no
longer shuffling her feet across the ground in the unsure way she
had before. Kendal felt the warmth in her chest expand. That night
on stage when she’d read her poem aloud, a new and confident JJ was
born, a person that Kendal somehow had grown to love even more than
she had before.
Since then, JJ had participated in every
poetry slam and open reading held at The Spot. Recently, some
interested poetry fans invited her to perform at clubs in downtown
Richmond. She’d also become a frequent contributor to a local
As for Kendal, she’d finally found that
purpose or sense of direction she’d been searching for. She’d
decided to study Women’s Literature in college and then go on and
get her master’s degree. Eventually, she wanted to become a
teacher, enlightening young minds with the magic of poetry in the
same way that JJ had enlightened hers. She’d also decided to quit
the cheerleading squad, because it just wasn’t important to her
anymore. Kendal never felt more secure than she did at that moment.
And she had JJ and Emily Dickinson to thank for that.