The first woman who ever confused David was his middle school English teacher Miss Sharp. She was a narrow thing whose small form was offset by her enormous eyes, so big she might have been better off with three eyes or one eye, anything other than those two big neglected holes plop right on her pale face. She was not beautiful. David knew this because other boys did not make jokes about her or look for her at dances. He wasn't sure if he thought she was beautiful, just that he found himself thinking about her a lot, wishing that it were possible for him to spend every hour of every school day sitting in the front row, watching her try to teach. She wasn't very good at teaching. Her voice trailed off and she tried to get everyone excited about things that would never excite them, pen pals a hundred miles away, Thanksgiving, all the things that don't excite kids. David liked to read mystery books and he came to think of Miss Sharp as one of the caves in one of the books. Always, the adventurous boy star of the book had to enter a cave if they wanted to solve a mystery. And it wasn't simple. Sometimes the cave was blocked off by trees or nailed boards. The boy plotted to get into that cave but it was never easy. Sometimes weather interfered. Sometimes he lost his flashlight and sometimes he brought potato chips and the sound of his own chomping made him lose his nerve. But eventually the boy did get into the cave and he did find what he was looking for. The thing was, the cave was like a person; it had to invite the boy in some way.
The day that Miss Sharp read a famous poem about a wheelbarrow, David had the sensation that he had finally entered the cave. She let go of some teacherly way as the few words slipped out of her mouth. Her posture changed. She was a runner of marathons and sometimes came to school with ribbons around her neck, another thing that failed to excite the kids. But when she read that poem, her body heaved forward and every part of her seemed to be spiraling. She seemed sad, as if she was a wheelbarrow, bright and wet and alone in the world. He sweated all night over what he would write to her, finally settling on a simple note, deciding that it would be best to say something kind, to cheer her up:
Dear Miss Sharp,
You are not the wheelbarrow. You are great.
He left the note on her desk the next morning before classes. The hours passed slowly and all day he understood that his life was taking a new shape. He would remember exactly what he ate for lunch, he would remember every second of the film strip on a hurricane they watched in social studies. He would remember that while he was in the boys' room, George Lasky was in there too, suffering from indigestion and moaning in a closed stall. And all of these moments were leading to the moment when it was finally his turn to sit in Miss Sharp's classroom. She carried on as if her world had not been altered. She did not seem to be in a state of hyper awareness. At the end of class, she stopped him on the way out. She handed him his note. He asked if she wanted to keep it and she said no and that they would not discuss this with anyone. He looked up at her but she smiled and those big eyes did not let him in. They were cheery and rigid and it was clear to him that he had made her uncomfortable, crossed a line and that his stupid note was nothing like the wheelbarrow poem. It had too many words, the wrong words. He couldn't sleep that night and he tried to figure out what happened. Maybe women wanted to be the wheelbarrow. Maybe she didn't care what young David thought. Maybe she knew that he didn't even know what he thought. Maybe his note had cheered her up and she was in love with him but couldn't tell him because he was young. But the damn truth was that he was not as savvy as the mystery solving boys he read about every night. And when he fell asleep that night, he felt that if someone wrote a mystery where he was the lead boy, nobody would want to read it and the book would collect dust in an empty library.
Sometimes he would become very sad, very aware that she knew what the wheelbarrow meant to her and refused to tell him. As he grew older, he knew that had she liked him as a human, she would have tried to talk to him. It wasn't like he'd written her a perverse note. It was a fine note. But she had been a cold bitch, a runner of marathons indeed. He understood that he had been rejected. He also understood that he wouldn't ever like happy girls and so it didn't surprised him when, in college and thereafter, he pursued one unhappy girl after another. He was drawn to one desolate cave after another, and he'd plot out all the ways to get in there, try with all his might but always the attempts would fizzle and again he would think of himself as the kind of character that could not sell a book. The mysteries remained unsolved, repeated and he became a man who had been the boy who spent too much time alone thinking about the wheelbarrow, why it made girls sad, why it mattered that it was wet. Every time he liked a woman, he would get a little too drunk and tell her about Miss Sharp and the wheelbarrow and ask the woman what she thought and the woman would begin to turn off him, cross her legs away from him, nod too much, look around too much and he knew that he'd be carrying that fucking wheelbarrow around forever. When he tried to not tell a woman about Miss Sharp and the wheelbarrow, things were the same only different. He would slowly turn off whatever woman it was at his side, looking at other passing girls, biting his lip and paying for dinner in a way that was cruel and condescending instead of chivalrous, and then he'd have no choice but to dump the girl because he couldn't go on being mean.
Eventually he was thirty-five years old and fighting with his parents about the state of his life. They knew he didn't like being a broker and said he should do something else. He said there was nothing else to do and that the money was fine. They said maybe he would be happy if Tanya were still here. He said Tanya was too miserable to make anyone happy. His mother said he was always that way, blaming his own state on other people and that Tanya was a lovely girl. He said Tanya was a fucking actress and a liar and a bad lay and his mother became upset and his father shook his head and said he should let his damn mother say what she wanted and not take it to heart. And he knew his father was right but he didn't feel like apologizing so he drove to the liquor store and bought a bottle of whiskey and then to the middle school, which was empty, because it was Thanksgiving break. Miss Sharp was not there anymore, of course, he said to the janitor who eyed him as if he was a pervert but let him in anyway, which suggested that the janitor might too be a pervert. He went to the library and found a book of poems and read the wheelbarrow poem. It was shorter than he remembered. Something in Miss Sharp's delivery had made it seem longer, as if those breaks between the few words were actual pages you had to turn in actual time. He thought it strange that somehow, in all the years, he had never done this, just opened a book, read the poem and moved the fuck on with his life. As it turned out, he didn't like the poem very much. He was no dummy. He could see that it was structured in a way that was smart, almost Japanese, that it was worthy of being as famous as Miss Sharp had said it was, but it wasn't for him and it was fine that the poem made him feel stupid and uncomfortable. It was fine that he preferred a good mystery any day of the week. Let other guys think about the wheelbarrow. The next time he went out with a girl, he told her that he'd gone back to his old middle school and she smiled and wanted to know everything and he told her about the janitor and the way it all smelled the same and the parking lot empty and sullen and the lockers painted blue instead of red and the library and the way she listened, he could tell that she liked the sound of a man like him, that she was thinking that he was romantic and present and all kinds of other good things and her eyes were jumping closer to him all the time. He didn't deliberately leave out the part about Miss Sharp or the wheelbarrow. They just simply had no place in a story about him sneaking into a closed schoolhouse with a bottle of whiskey.
BIO: Caroline Kepnes grew up in Cape Cod, Massachusetts and studied American Civilization at Brown University. Since then, she has worked at the Museum of Natural History, Tiger Beat Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, E! Online and ABC Family's The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Her stories have been widely published online. Two of them were recently translated into Arabic.