When the phone rang I leapt across the room, a dolphin breaking the surface before my nosedive back toward the cordless telephone in my parents’ kitchen.
“Hello,” I answered.
I was calm. I was nonchalant. I was a boy in the middle of puberty.
“Hey,” the voice on the other end said. “It’s Amanda.”
Amanda. These were the three syllables that made every other syllable a meaningless grunt. Technically, we met in Mr. Welch’s biology class, but I already knew her name. Every guy at school considered Amanda Wilson the most beautiful life form on the planet. Her shoulder-length, oak-colored hair and ocean-colored eyes framed her face, which rested just above the feature that was fixed in the mind of every seventh-grade boy in Columbus, Indiana. They were the things that we knew existed. We had seen them in some R-rated movies, but they had been a rare live sight in our previous year in elementary school. Amanda Wilson’s skintight, v-neck Gap t-shirts had changed that for all of us.
“Oh, hey,” I said. “How’s it going?”
Not an earth-shaking intro line, but remember that this was well before the era of texting. Boys like me were drawing the blueprints for our romantic futures without the benefit of emojis.
The fact that Amanda had taken the time to dial the seven digits necessary to reach my parents’ landline was no small miracle. You see, the end of the first month of middle school is really the fourth quarter of coolness. This is when you set the course for your place in the social stratosphere. The first three quarters had not positioned me close to a victory. Each day, in addition to my hand-me-down, oversized, fraying green L.L. Bean backpack, I also lugged a trumpet to school. My mom, a flute teacher, and my dad, a former high school band instructor, had visions of their son becoming the next Miles Davis.
If you’ve ever played the trumpet in seventh grade, you know that none of your classmates care about Miles Davis. None of them even know who he is. My parents’ attempts to teach me about jazz legends were leaving me a lifetime behind my classmates, who listened to 311 and Tupac. Still, somehow, Amanda had looked past the fact that every day, when the fourth period bell rang, I occupied a chair next to the trombone section.
I had one saving grace: my place on the cross-country team. This may have made the difference. Cross-country isn’t like other sports in middle school — the ones that require things like tryouts and talent. Nevertheless, it was a team. I belonged to something that did not involve emptying a spit valve on the band room floor after another rehearsal of “Pachelbel’s Canon.”
“Do you want to come hang out with Allison and Adam and me tomorrow after school?” Amanda asked.
After school? I couldn’t believe the invitation. This was more than talking in class. This wasn’t just a wave in the hallway. This involved a setting outside of the learning environment.
“Well, I do have cross country practice. And we’ve got a meet the next week in Jennings County,” I replied. This was the hint that my presence alone might dictate the outcome of that meet. “But I have been kind of injured lately. It’s shin splints. Yeah, they’ve been really acting up. Practice was pretty rough last week.”
This, of course, was bullshit. But it gave the impression that my Olympic training regimen was so grueling that I had managed to hurt myself.
“See?” Amanda replied. “You should take the day off!”
Her voice rose in pitch, leading me to the obvious conclusion: Amanda Wilson was in love with me.
During class the following day, I outlined my plan. I would stop by Coach Lax’s office to let him know I wasn’t feeling well and needed to go home after school. It’s my stomach, I would say. Why would he care anyway? I owned the second slowest mile time ever recorded in Northside Middle School history. I could lie about shin splints all I wanted, but my absence carried no consequence for anyone.
Except for me, of course. This two-hour window with Amanda, Adam, and Allison meant everything. This was my chance to cement my gold-starred future, the one where Amanda would be my girlfriend. The one where Adam, the star of the soccer team, would call me his pal. The one where Allison, the co-captain of the cheerleading squad, would envy that Amanda had found me first.
That afternoon, we did what every group of kids in seventh grade does. We loitered. We hung out. We walked to the Village Pantry convenience store and bought bottles of soda. Nothing happened at all, but still, I felt I had laid the foundation for success with Amanda. Sure, she had paid much more attention to Adam during the excursion. After all, he did exude a confidence that was foreign to me. But, I told myself, this was the beginning. I had proven myself. I was like Joey from *NSYNC – the bad boy of the boy band, the one who was willing to do daring things like lie to his parents and coach. Amanda no longer saw me as that boy with the bowl cut who lugged that damn trumpet everywhere he went. No, now, I was the man.
I returned home that evening at the usual time. No one seemed the wiser — until the following evening when I went to practice, letting Coach Lax know that my stomach was on the mend. While my normal routine involved walking home, our maroon Buick Century was waiting in the turnaround at school. My father waved me toward the car. My mother sat in the passenger seat. Neither wore a smile.
“Hey,” I said as I closed the door. “Thanks for the ride.” My attempt at cheeriness was met with an immediate question.
“David, where were you yesterday?” my mother asked.
This was not good. Not good at all. “I was here,” I said. “Here at practice.”
“We know that’s not true,” my father replied, his voice a menacing baritone.
“Coach Lax called this morning to make sure you were feeling better after taking the day off practice,” he followed, glaring at me in the rearview mirror. “So what did you really do yesterday afternoon?” he asked.
Coach Lax, I thought to myself. That rat bastard.
This wasn’t the first lie I had ever told my mother and father. I had lied about the grades I earned on social studies quizzes. I had lied about where the issue of Playboy under my bed had come from. This was the first big lie of middle school, though – the time when parents begin to worry about falling in with “the wrong crowd.” To them, this lie was a gateway drug. I imagined the hushed conversations – I could see them perched next to each other at the peninsula in our kitchen, faces grim with worry.
“He lied to us about his cross country practice,” I could hear my mother saying. “What’s next? Marijuana? Cocaine?”
“Before you know it, we’ll be bailing him out of jail,” I’m sure my father agreed.
There was no way out of this one, I realized as the Buick turned onto Washington Street. I came clean. I had to skip practice, I told them. This was my shot to be with the cool kids. Amanda Wilson likes me. I’m not fitting in. I’m not good at cross country. You’re putting me through hell with this whole band thing. We didn’t do anything bad anyway. Seriously. Please, you have to understand, I begged.
It was no use.
“You’re grounded,” my father said as we pulled into the driveway. “Two weeks.”
“No phone, either,” my mother added.
“But,” I blurted. No phone time would doom my chances of nurturing my blossoming relationship with Amanda.
“No buts here,” he said, pulling the key from the ignition. “And one more thing,” he said. As he turned to face me in the backseat, my father’s body moved in slow motion. I watched as the clock in the fourth quarter of coolness dragged toward the zero-zero mark, sealing my fate. “When you’re home,” he said, “I want to hear you practicing your trumpet.”
After eighth grade, I quit the band. I was fearful that any further time would mold me into a social outcast who spent time at home with his parents listening to Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings in C Major”, or alone in his room aiming to climb one more octave on that dreaded trumpet. But here’s what no one tells you about the competition to be cool when you’re approaching the teenage section of your life: there is a very long overtime. Once you move past worrying about clearing up your acne, talking to girls in the hallway, coughing while smoking your first cigarette, and other items on the mile-long list of middle school concerns, there’s another world out there.
Nearly two decades later, I can thank my parents — the rare breed of Democrat-voting, symphony-attending Hoosier natives — for giving me the tools to chase the pinnacle of cool career paths. I’m in an indie rock band called Fort Frances. We’ve toured the US and Lithuania, and we’re preparing to release a new record this spring. I just got married — not to Amanda Wilson — and my wife tells me that being a musician is the main reason she ever bothered going on our first date. I play guitar and sing, and I play piano occasionally, too.
But you know what instrument on our new album really separates us from the thousands of other indie rock groups on the circuit? The trumpet.
The Fourth Quarter of Coolness was performed at CHIRP First Time.
David McMillin is a storyteller, singer, songwriter, traveler and occasional liar. He has made a career out of stretching the truth into songs that have landed him on stage next to Josh Ritter and Ryan Bingham and soundtracked shows on PBS, NBC andThe CW. Yes, the same CW that aired Dawson’s Creek that you watched in high school. Some of his recent honors include finalist honors in the Telluride Troubadour songwriting competition, the Kerrville Folk Festival New Folk competition and American Songwriter’s lyric writing competition. His band, Fort Frances, is named after a town in Canada. None of the members have ever been there.