I’m the only one basically ignoring the sailboat stocked with Cute Guys straight out of central casting.
It figures. I haven’t been on the same page as my friends since just before the start of middle school. I don’t know exactly how things got so different. Not different in some edgy, gritty, I’m-a-rebel way. More of a Yes, I’m a dork way. Which makes it all the more amazing that while other friendships crashed and burned all around us, the four of us have managed to stay Best Friends Forever. Luckily, because in a group I can hide from my own I will never get life figured out fears.
Thing is, do my Best Friends Forever still really like me? Or is there just some leftover loyalty going on? You know, the way I keep Sammie, my matted, scruffy teddy bear. I guess Sammie “should really be thrown out” (according to Mom), because he is a total mess. But he was always there for me when I was little. I mean, the reason he’s so matted and scruffy is because I spent the vast majority of my formative years either drowning him with my tears or practically asphyxiating him with my hugs (not that he actually could breathe, but you know what I mean).
Anyway. My Best Friends Forever and I are all first-borns. We all live on Chittenden Street, which has the most architectural diversity in Franklin, Oregon. Students from the School of Architecture at the university come to study it, because even though there are different styles of houses from different eras it all works together. Just as Randi, Tanya, Nina and I used to. (Dad calls us the Vowel Sisters, because, you know, our first names all end in vowels.) For a while now I’ve felt as if maybe I need remodeling, updating, or maybe a bunch of architecture students writing a thesis about me on how to fit in anymore.
For one thing, Nina, Randi and Tanya love reality shows. I, however, have no patience for the phony drama on those programs. There’s more than enough real-life drama. (Okay, so mine is mostly internal and self-inflicted, but still.)
Then there’s the whole Looks thing. I was just as cute as any of them up until, you guessed it, middle school. Then my jaw got a little too square and my nose got a little too pointy and suddenly I was off center from being cute (Tanya Moreau), pretty (Randi Volmer) or beautiful (Nina Olsen). I’m not even interesting-looking enough to qualify as exotic or mysterious.
I no longer bring up the stuff I still think is fun. Horses or bike riding, for instance. Nina, Randi and Tanya went straight from that sort of thing to hair, makeup, clothes and guys. Not that I’m totally not interested, more that I never seem to get any of the first three right, which leaves me feeling less than comfortable around the opposite gender—as Mom insists on putting it. “Sex is what people do,” she says, “gender is who they are”. Whatever. Sometimes I still ride my bike. It’s not so much fun by myself, though.
Then there’s the fact I always think summer’s never going to fade. Until, of course, it does.
Like now—Labor Day. Boats, swimmers and splashing kids churn the surface of Pine Crest Lake. People soaking up the last rays of summer litter the grassy area of the park like refuse from the overflowing trashcans. Cute Guys in the sailboat circle like sharks on the trail of hemoglobin.
Nina, Randi, Tanya and I stretch out on our towels on the thin strip of rough, pebbly grit that doesn’t quite make it as a beach, but which I like to pretend is the white sand of Hawaii (not that I’ve ever been there). Did I mention that given a twelve-week stretch of warm, sunny school-free days I can imagine I live in a tropical dream world? While I’m pretending summer is going to go on forever, Nina, Randi and Tanya are talking about Wednesday, The First Day of High School, which they’ve been looking forward to and I’ve been (silently) dreading all summer.
“I so can’t wait!” Randi reaches up to comb her thick brown hair. She arches her back to stick out her boob region, and watches every guy within a fifty-foot radius check out her B-cups. I mean, guys must think they’re holding conversations with boobs, because that’s where they focus their attention.
“Yeah.” Nina twists the tiger’s-eye ring on her middle finger.
“Ooh, nice ring,” Tanya says. “Did you make it?”
Nina nods. Not only is she beautiful, she’s creative. She has a rock-polishing machine she got off the internet for almost nothing, and uses inexpensive semi-precious stones with twisting wire for the settings. She sells some of her jewelry to girls at school and occasionally at the Outdoor Market that’s held downtown every Saturday. “I’m ready for some decent art classes.”
Note: The closest I come to art is doodling in class.
In the boob department Nina’s not so much, but she’s so amazingly beautiful guys actually gaze into her face, or maybe stare at her with longing, as romance novels would put it. Sometimes it’s hard to believe someone so beautiful has to work for everything she has, from her clothes to her rock-polishing machine, earning the money by babysitting, dog-walking, jewelry-selling and yard work.
“I’m ready for more guys.” Tanya flicks her sleek wealth of black hair off her shoulder as she sits cross-legged, almost finished knitting the sweater that was originally going to be the first of a matching pair for her and Colin, her boyfriend all through eighth grade. While Randi and Nina usually have guys buzzing around them, Tanya is the only one who wore her boyfriend’s T-shirt, went to movies with him every week and called him to come over and walk her to wherever she wanted to go all the time. She’s totally entertaining when it comes to her endeavors of domination of the male species.
Colin’s dad got transferred to upstate New York in early August, however, and off Colin went, poof, just like that. He and Tanya were going to stay a couple and go to the same college, thus the matching-sweaters plan. But New York turned out to be too far from Oregon for a long-distance relationship for Tanya. Really, another school district would be too far for her. She wants a boyfriend to be elbow-to-elbow at all times. I think she thought she’d have hooked someone new by now, but it didn’t happen. Despite being a little on the chunky side, she is cute enough to get most guys to look at her more than once, especially since some of that chunkiness is in the exact right location, if you know what I mean.
“More guys, for sure.” Randi says. She shakes her hair so the sunlight bounces off the shiny chestnut tones, because she sees the Cute Guys in the sailboat sliding slowly by again, ever closer to shore. “But, also, high school is when your parents still take care of you financially, but you don’t have to spend that much time with them.”
“I want to skip right over high school and jump straight to twenty-two. By then, I figure, I will have gotten through my first date, first kiss, passed my driver’s test, taken the SATs, filled out all those college applications, somehow survived living in a dorm and gotten my college degree,” I don’t dare say, because I don’t want to anyone to know how dorky I am. I mean, I’m a good listener when it comes to others baring their entire inner selves, but I prefer to keep my own feelings bottled up.
However, even though I don’t say it out loud, if I could skip right to my twenties I would, so all the stress of high school and college and all those firsts would be behind me and I’d be ready to cope with life.
* * *
Though my stomach feels like a butterfly sanctuary, Mom insists, “You need to eat something, Becca.”
So I stick some whole-wheat bread into the toaster. White bread has been banned from the household. “No nutrition,” Mom says. I stand there, staring at the red coils, willing the bread to toast faster, while Dad rattles his newspaper as he turns a page.
“I’m thinking of getting a boob job.” Mom smears flax-oil spread on her toast.
If I were holding anything, I’d drop it.
Dad, however, doesn’t miss a beat. He’s cool about Mom’s proclamations. Without even looking up from his paper, he comes back with, “I’m thinking of getting penis enlargement.”
“Gil, I’m being serious.”
“And you think I’m not?” Dad lowers the newspaper a little so he can peer over it at Mom. “I get dozens of emails every day saying that’s what I need to do to ‘please my woman.’ You want to be pleased, don’t you, Jess?”
Ewww. I wish my parents would edit their conversations!
Mom lets out a little tsk, sips her coffee, eats a bite of her scrambled egg-whites, then says, “Those wench costumes we wear at The Colonial Inn are very low-cut and I’ve seen which waitresses get the biggest tips. Breast size affects earning power.”
Rumor is that there used to be a bordello upstairs at The Colonial Inn, but that was nearly a hundred years ago. Still, the wench costumes that the waitresses wear seem to be a current reminder of that long-ago business. I’m sure that’s what the manager had in mind when he selected them. I mean, on the one hand, the place promotes itself as a respectable place to have business and “ladies club” lunches and romantic dinners, but the red-flocked wallpaper gives another impression, at least in my mind.
Mom jabs her fork in the air. “Plus, the manager thinks that busty waitresses bring in not just big tips, but the big spenders.”
Dad closes the newspaper, folds it and puts it next to his plate. “Jess. You have a career with your catering business. You don’t have to wait tables too.”
Catering business is kind of an exaggeration. Mom bakes cakes for all occasions—wedding, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. Thing is, she doesn’t advertise except with flyers at the library public-notice board, so she might be busy one week, then go several weeks without anyone ordering a cake. I’ve suggested she post on some online sites or something, but she’s afraid that only weirdoes would respond, no matter how I try to convince her otherwise.
I realize my toast is starting to burn. The setting part of the toaster is broken. I think we should get a new one. Mom and Dad, however, say it can just be fixed, so we don’t add a “perfectly good appliance” to the landfill. Okay, except it never gets fixed.
I spread peanut butter on my toast, hoping to cover up the burned taste. After I pour myself a glass of orange juice, I sit down at the kitchen table, thinking the boob/penis/job conversation is over. I think wrong.
Mom points her fork at Dad. “You know my cake-baking income is not steady. I want some money I can count on every week. We have two kids to put through college.
“Besides,” Mom adds, “baking doesn’t get me out of the house every day.” She points at Dad just as he starts to open his mouth. “And…after having two kids, my boobs just aren’t as round, firm and fully packed as they used to be.”
Ew. Ick. I take a sip of orange juice, hoping to disappear behind the glass. I should be used to Mom’s and Dad’s weirdo conversations, but I’m not. They were college sweethearts, so they’ve had years and years to develop their routines.
“I think your breasts are great.” Dad wiggles his eyebrows.
“I’m going to school!” I jump up so fast I almost knock over my chair.
“In a hurry much?” Ray bursts into the room.
“Only to get away from you!”
As kid brothers go, Ray’s actually not completely horrible, especially considering that he is eleven, but I point my tongue at him just because, which, of course, prompts Mom.
“Rebecca Bidwell.” She uses my full name only when she’s scolding.
Ray, with his huge blue eyes, freckle-face and wavy brown hair that always falls casually over his forehead, is the picture of innocence. Mom calls him her “Little Ray of Sunshine.” That clues you into the fact that while maybe he can’t get away with a felony, misdemeanors are usually pardoned.
Living in a big old storybook house in the flats of Franklin has its advantages. It’s not only a pretty shade of pink, with cross-hatched windows and a roof that curves under at the edges. It also has plenty of room, so I can be miles away from my knows-everything (in his own mind) brother, which contributes greatly to having the okay relationship with him. s
The disadvantage is Mom and Dad like the place to look storybook on the inside too, so the bathrooms have pedestal sinks and antique mirrors. Yeah, it looks cute, and guests ooh and aah over the “charm.” But there is almost no place to put anything, such as a comb, curling iron or lipstick. Not that I can ever do anything with my hair, or figure out a flattering shade of lipstick. Still.
Maybe I just use lack of bathroom storage space as an excuse to wear my drab brown hair in a ponytail, and a barely-tinted-pink lip gloss on my slightly-too-full lips. In any case, that’s what I’m going with for the (drum roll, please) First Day of High School. Plus a bluish-green T-shirt (concession to one of my few Attempts at Beauty—I think the color sets off my hazel eyes), my favorite jeans and a totally new pair of all-purpose sneakers with green cotton canvas uppers. They have thick, grippy rubber soles and are almost as comfortable as my fuzzy bedroom slippers. For the most part, though, it’s Fade into the background. Fade!
I retract my tongue and give Mom and Ray a sunny smile, proof enough to Mom that I don’t actually have a cold, hard heart. “Okay, Mom. Gotta run!”
I give Mom and Dad a quick kiss, rap Ray on the head with my knuckles, which elicits only a minor-chord tsk from Mom and a cross-eyed look from Ray. He’s probably more interested in food at the moment than retaliation, because eating is his passion as well as his hobby. Fortunately, for him, he skateboards, plays soccer, shoots hoops and hikes up the reservoir just to make sure the view hasn’t changed, sometimes all in the same afternoon. A fat molecule wouldn’t dare hang out on his body.
“Have fun at school,” Dad says, just as deadpan as when he brought up the subject of penis enlargement.
He may not know I actually want to time-travel past high school and college, but he’s heard me complain about homework ever since I brought home my first assignment sheet with circles, triangles and squares and instructions on how to color them. I do get good grades, but it’s not because I love homework and studying. It’s because I have this annoying inner sense of duty to do all my assignments and do them well and on time. If only I could be normal and casually ignore schoolwork with no sense of guilt.
The early morning, first-day-of-school snap of cool air hits me as I step out the door. It’s probably been this chilly at this time of day for a couple of weeks, but I haven’t been heading outside this early since school let out in June. I hurry down the block because I see Randi standing on the corner in front of her so perfectly painted and landscaped that it’s trendy bungalow style house, cell phone to her ear. She looks completely together in a button-up shirt over a bright pink T and a rhinestone-belted mini.
Randi’s mother, owner of Rising Star Talent Agency, coaches her on all the latest fashions, as well little tricks to catch a guy’s interest. The stick out the boob region while combing hair ploy is one of them. Randi’s dad split when she was seven and lives on the other side of the country, so, while those tricks might get a guy’s attention, it’s not clear they hold that attention forever.
My cell phone rings. “Sorry I’m late, I’m on my way,” I tell Randi, even though she can see me coming. I don’t explain that I was forced to sit down and eat. Randi wouldn’t care. Patience is not one of her virtues.
Randi starts walking the second I’m even with her. “That’s what you’re wearing?”
“Uh. Yeah. I thought I’d, um, be, uh...neutral. ‘Til I see what everyone else is wearing.”
We click off our phones and start addressing each other directly.
“Becca, you should’ve gone shopping with me and Tanya on Saturday,” Randi says. “You so need to take more interest in how you look.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Mmm.” I think she means she cares about how I look because she cares about me. I worry maybe she cares about how I look because it reflects on her. She wouldn’t want me to look better than her, I’m sure. I mean, on the rare occasions I actually have gone shopping with her and Tanya it felt like a competitive sport. “Yeah, I know what you mean,” I say, making sure my voice rises at the end of the sentence, so it sounds positive.
I am such a wuss.
We stop in front of Nina’s house. The old Victorian looks pretty, despite the faded paint and scruffy yard. The one time I slept over I was surprised at the state of disrepair inside. Despite having a brother and a sister, Nina, like me, has space to herself, except hers is a tiny room that makes up the third floor. It’s almost more like an attic. Trouble is, the room has no heat and the extra blankets didn’t really keep me warm during that middle-of-February sleepover last year.
I hope she’ll be right out. We can’t call her, because she doesn’t have a cell and her dad gets pissy if anyone calls this early in the morning. We don’t want to knock on the door for the same reason. Nina’s mother’s already at work pulling green-chain at Weyerhaeuser. My Dad pulled green chain summers back in college. He says it was the toughest job he ever had, pulling green wood off a conveyor belt. At the end of the day his hands felt like pin cushions, and his ears rang from guys yelling whenever someone didn’t pull off a piece of wood exactly on time. He says he’s glad he’s an accountant now, even at tax time.
Nina’s dad works part-time delivering the Franklin Weekly, which must take him all of five hours a week, tops. Otherwise, from what I’ve seen, he sits around, smokes, drinks beer and gripes to Nina about how the dishes are still in the sink or the living room is a mess or the laundry is piling up. It’s not totally clear if he and Nina’s mother are actually married.
The door opens. Unaware I’ve been holding my breath, I let out a little sigh of relief. Nina floats toward us. A breeze gently fluffs her long platinum hair. Tall and lithe in a filmy, flowing top and skirt, she looks like the ballerina she once wanted to be until she started focusing on making jewelry and saving money for college. Pink ballet slippers complete the look. She makes half her clothes, gets the other half at thrift stores. Knowing how to put everything together combined with being naturally beautiful makes it all work. “Jewelry 101 and Beginning Russian. I’m absolutely ready for this day.”
“Me too.” Randi snorts out a laugh. Her real laugh, not the practiced one that sounds like tinkling bells she uses when guys are around. “I’m ready for freedom and gorgeous older guys.”
On the corner sits Tanya’s split-level, looking like something straight out of a Brady Bunch rerun. The Moreaus, who both teach Folklore at the university, have filled the house with kids (five girls), numerous cats and seventies furniture rough-and-tumble enough for all the occupants.
I see Tanya peek out the front window, and like-that she is on the sidewalk with us, before Randi can even whip out her phone again. She poses for a moment as Randi inspects her lilac brocade jacket, lilac pleated top, floral print shirt, brown chiffon skirt and white stockings. Tanya also sizes up Randi’s clothes. They do their hug/squeal/air-kiss thing, which I conclude means they approve of each other’s clothing while each secretly thinks she looks better. “Hi,” Tanya chirps, “I think I know who I want for my next boyfriend!”
No one is surprised Tanya is so over Colin already, but we all try to sound impressed as we simultaneously chime, “Who?”
“He’s cute,” Randi says, giving her stamp of approval.
“Del? Dark curly hair?” Just like Colin, I do not add.
“Yeah, he was in our Ancient and Medieval History class.” Tanya gets this dreamy look on her face. “Remember? He moved here in the middle of the last term. I figure that means he won’t be moving away any time soon.”
“Good thinking.” Nina turns so only I can see her close one eye, roll the other eye expression.
In a way, Nina and I are kind of alike when it comes to guys—we don’t plan our days around them. Nina does like guys, and she’s often trailed in the distance by love-sick admirers, one or two of whom she will let walk her to class or sit next to in assemblies, but she’s always so busy earning money and stuff that she’s not obsessed. With me, partly it’s because I’m too shy to go after guys and, in any case, they aren’t interested in me. But, also, I think there’s way more to life than constantly worrying about guys. For one thing, I want to dedicate myself to my Purpose on Earth—as soon as I figure out what that is. Besides, I don’t want just any guy. I want somebody totally great and I’m willing to wait.
With Nina, though guys are interested, most are so nervous around her that only a few dare to get close, as if there was some invisible shield around her. Maybe there is, one that maybe she puts up. Though Nina’s never said anything, I’ve kind of had the feeling she’s also waiting for someone more ... something, I’m not sure what. Great, of course, but most of the guys she attracts are great. Well, our-age-level great. It’s just that she seems to be waiting for that something I haven’t figured out that none of the guys who hang around hoping she’ll give some sign it’s safe to approach her have.
Suddenly we are dead even with the front door of the school. We pause, silent. Then Randi says, “This is it!”
We move forward as a unit. We could be synchronized swimmers, except, of course, we’re not in water. Two Really Cute Older Guys stand ready to the open the doors. Guy One has dark eyes and a ruggedly-handsome type face. Something about him screams jock. Guy Two has a pale gold, sensitive face and compelling blue eyes that seem to sparkle as he smiles at us (well, at Tanya, Randi and Nina, anyway). Suddenly, my whole being fills with hoping for Golden Guy to notice me. Yikes—is he The One?
The Really Cute Older Guys open the doors and gesture for us to enter the school. Randi and Tanya stifle giggles, Nina ignores Guy-One’s leer and I alternate between wanting to be invisible to wishing I had a clue about guys. I set foot inside and think I’m safely on my way, when my shoes hit the floor and make a huge fart noise.
Cue the screeching music! I am going to die of embarrassment.
Guy One laughs. Not some short, snickery laugh. A throw-back-his-head, loud, sharp-edged laugh. The kind where everyone turns to see what he’s laughing about laugh.
I check out the floor, wondering if I can pull up the green-and-white squares and hide under them.
Guy Two says, kindly, “New shoes?”
I turn and see the warmth in his voice is echoed in his smile. I can’t tell for sure whether it’s a smile of sympathy or pity, but I manage to nod.
Guy Two winks, turns and disappears into the crowd with Guy One. A wink! A wink? What did that mean? Did it mean anything? Gah! I’m obsessing about a wink. Must. Stop. But … what if he is, you know, That Someone Special?
“Omigawd! If they are just a sample, I am so going to love high school!” Randi fans herself as we dive into the sea of beings in the hall. “First assignment—find out who they are!”
“They’re probably seniors,” Tanya says. “They’ll be gone in June.”
“So?” Randi flips her hair across her shoulders. “I’m not looking for a forever deal. I just want to make the most of freshman year.”
“Whatever.” Tanya searches the locker numbers.
We are nowhere near ours yet, as I know from move-up day last spring, when the then-freshman gave us the Official Guided Sightseeing Tour of Franklin High.
“I’m concentrating on Del,” Tanya says. “I want a guy who’s going to be around for a while.”
Nina and I exchange knowing glances. First day, and already Randi and Tanya are completely fixed on some guys. I swallow a clump of guilt, however, because I’m still hyperventilating over the image of a certain wink. I’m also tiptoeing, so my shoes won’t make any more body-function noises.
Walking four across doesn’t work for long. We are bumped, jolted, jarred and shoved around as if we are insignificant flotsam, which, being freshman, I guess we are. The florescent lights cast a purplish glow on everything and everyone. It doesn’t help that the lockers are a dull maroon and the walls a dark gray. I think maybe that’s supposed to be some version of the school colors, which in reality are red and silver. Whatever. The contrast to sunlight reminds me summer is really over, even if the calendar says there are still two more weeks.
Slammed lockers. Loud voices. The scent of dozens of clashing perfumes, hair sprays, after-shaves. Shifting shadows of tons of kids I’ve never seen before. Sensory overload!
Through the confusing maze we find our lockers, propel ourselves over to them, try the combinations. A reassuring click, and Success! Our lockers open. Warning bell rings. Stampede. Jostle our way to homeroom before we get trampled.
We claim seats in the middle of the first two rows, Randi and Tanya in front of Nina and me. I see a few familiar faces—Tim Cook, Deana Lloyd and Kurt Durand huddle in the back of the room, scoping things out. There are a lot of people I don’t recognize, though. Three middle schools filter into Franklin High, so I figure I’m not going to know two thirds of the kids strolling into homeroom trying to look cool, calm and casual.
One head with a thatch of dark brown flyaway hair sticks up several inches above the rest. He cuts from the herd, comes down my row and plunks himself next to me. I detect a faint earthy aroma, sort of like the freshly-tilled soil of Dad’s vegetable garden. I try not to look at him, but he thrusts a hand the size of a softball mitt at me.
I hesitate, then slip my hand in his. I feel thick calluses as he gives my hand a firm yet gentle shake. “Uh, hi.”
I quickly note the work boots, jeans and red shirt with “John Deere” on the pocket. I am thinking, Farmboy.
“I’m Colt Strand. Lincoln Middle School.” He runs his hand over his hair, which tames it for a couple of seconds before it sticks out all over the place again, and not in a good way.
Lincoln is on the west side of Franklin, a more rural area that still has several farms. And Colt for a name? How country can you get? Could I have guessed it, or what? I don’t want him doing some first day of school latching on thing, but I don’t want to be completely unfriendly, even though it would be more convenient. It’s one of my many flaws. “Uh ... Becca Temple. Um ... Truman Middle School.”
Luckily, I am literally saved by the homeroom bell from more conversation. As the last clang sounds, in strolls a tall guy with sun-streaked hair, muscled arms, dark tan. Jeans, sandals, black T-shirt. He looks just old enough to be a teacher. Silence drops like a theater curtain as he surveys the room with a commanding air. He turns, picks up a piece of chalk from the chalkboard tray and writes, Mr. Raynor.
He flips the chalk back on the tray and faces the class. “This is my homeroom. Some of you will have me for ‘You and Others.’”
According to the description in the school handbook, “You and Others” covers “careers to character,” which is a pretty small portion of the alphabet, but a too-wide range of subjects, if you ask me.
The teacher-type points to the board. “Mr. Raynor. This is the last time you’ll hear that name. From now on it’s ‘Duke.’ That’s from Latin, for leader. But I’m not going to lead you. I’m going to teach you. It’s up to you if you want to learn.”
He crosses his arms and stands there like The Terminator. He studies us with eyes the color of green ice.
The loudspeaker at the front of the room comes on, and a sultry voice announces that she is Principal Demchak. She welcomes us to Franklin High, goes on to say how during school hours cell phones, iPods, etc., must be turned off and kept in lockers, backpacks, purses or pockets.
There’s more, but I can’t hear it, because Mr. Raynor, uh, Duke, talks over it, taking attendance and counting how many will be having hot lunch in the school cafeteria. (Not many.) He says, “This crap is busy work, but I have to do it.”
Okay. Practical me is thinking, yeah, it’s probably a pain to do it every morning, but otherwise how else will the office staff know the attendance? How will the lunch-room crew know how much food to prepare? I peek at my schedule, hoping I do not have “Duke,” (who should be a German Shepherd, not a teacher, in my humble opinion) for You and Others. I do. Ugh.
Bell rings. I haven’t heard so many bells, since, well, school ended in June. Randi, Tanya, Nina and I bunch together in the hall before setting off to class. Randi and Tanya have P.E. Randi says “I can’t believe I have to sweat and shower first period!”
“Yeah ....” Tanya says, but she’s looking down the hall at the back of Del Jara’s head. She tugs Randi’s arm. “Let’s go. I think I can catch up to Del if we hurry.”
Randi and Tanya meld into the blob oozing its way down the hallway. Nina and I elbow our way across the unwieldy mass to English class. Maybe it’s the clamor of the hallway or maybe my shoes are getting broken in, but they don’t sound quite so fart-y. Still, I lift and place my feet very carefully. I don’t want to take any chances.
Nina takes a seat in the middle of the first row. I sit next to her. The teacher, in a rumpled brown jacket, runs his hand through his hair as he rests on the corner of his desk like a sack of potatoes, a beaten-down look on his face. It’s the kind of expression teachers usually have months into the school year, not the first day. His name is Dudley McCoy and he’s been around forever. I mean, my dad had him for a teacher. Dad let it slip that Mr. McCoy’s nickname is Deadly Dudley. I can see why. He looks deadly dull.
To make matters less interesting, Farmboy takes the seat on the other side of me and offers another howdy. I nod, figuring that’s enough to be polite without being at all encouraging.
It isn’t long before I discover I was right about the class being totally dull. Deadly is all spelling, punctuation, grammar and sentence structure. Not that that stuff isn’t important, but we had it all through middle school. I can only hope the first day of class is some sort of refresher course and we’ll get into some books or plays or short stories soon. Such as tomorrow.
I regain consciousness in time to hear the bell for second period.
“Well, that was special.” Nina fakes a yawn. “See you fourth period.” She turns and is immediately swept into the massive clump of arms and legs.
She has Russian and I have Latin next. Dad was seriously breathless when he saw that Franklin High still has Latin. He insisted I sign up for it. Needless to say, no one I know is taking it, so I’m on my own for second period.
Ms. Bianco is tall and slender with blonde hair done up in a tight twist. Eyeglasses on a chain hang down against her chest. She’s attractive, yet very businesslike. Her dark snappy eyes look out from a round face, and it is obvious from the start that she loves Latin. I’m almost blinded by the reflection of sunlight bouncing off an engagement ring with a diamond the size of the Mount Hood. By the end of class I am declining the verb, “to love:” amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatus, amant. Maybe Ms. Bianco’s enthusiasm carried things along, but Latin was less boring than English class, not that that is saying much.
I fight my way back to homeroom for You and Others, hoping maybe it’ll be better than I think. Maybe Mr. Raynor, that is, Duke, won’t be too annoying. If not, at least I’ll have Randi, Tanya and Nina to share the misery.
“Okay.” Randi is next to me, talking as if she never left my side. “I know who they are.”
“The two gorgeous guys.”
“Oh. Yes ....” I try to sound über casual, but suddenly a certain wink is flashing in my brain like a neon sign.
“They’re seniors.” Randi says this as if, one, there was never any doubt and two, as if what else, she’d never waste time with anyone except a senior. “My hunk is Justin Cardon. He’s a quarterback for the football team, not the starter—but he should be.”
Suddenly Randi can judge football skill potential.
“He goes with Madison Gray. She’s all pretty face and prom queen material, but they fight all the time, so, no problem.”
“Ah,” I say as if I agree with her no-problem assessment of the Justin-Madison situation. Ow! Hey, did someone just pinch my butt? I turn to look, but the hall is so crowded I can’t pick anyone out of the lineup. Maybe it was a wayward pencil.
“The other guy is a senior too, Brent Kincaid. He’s president of the chess club or squash club or something like that.”
“Oh?” I try to hide my interest. Brent Kincaid. What a great name. How Randi could not distinguish between chess and squash is a minor point, but I would like to know which. I mean, maybe I’d lurk around the chess club or squash club. Just out of curiosity. Hey, I’m not a stalker. I am, however, sort of wondering if Brent is going with anyone.
“Brent’s been going with Claire somebody since freshman year. It’s like they’re practically married.” Randi waves her hand in a gesture of disgust. “But who cares about Brent?”
I do, I don’t say. I shouldn’t, of course, especially now that I know he has a girlfriend. While I’m too wussy to go after a guy in the first place, I certainly wouldn’t go after one who’s not single. That would be, like, I don’t know, cheating, and I would never cheat—another one of my downfalls. I try not to hope that Brent and Claire, after three years, are getting tired of each other, because even hoping something like that makes me feel guilty. Why did I have to be born with such an over-developed conscience?
The warning bell rings as we step into You and Others. Tanya and Nina have saved seats for us. We sit down and Randi repeats her bulletin about Justin and Brent. I turn and realize Farmboy is sitting next to me, just like in homeroom. No howdy, only a smile and nod. Thank goodness. I don’t know if I could handle three howdys in one day. I nod, but I leave off the smile.
The bell rings and Duke, who has been sitting at his desk, stands and faces the class. He smiles, big time. His teeth are round and even, like the decorative scallops on the edge of the roof of Nina’s house, only whiter. “There are two things I never want in this class. First.”
Duke (will I ever not want to gag over that name?) turns and writes Bullshit on the blackboard. “Bullshit! I don’t want to see it in you, hear it from you or read it in your papers for this class.”
I see all kinds of nodding, especially from the kids I know who’ve totally perfected the art of bullshitting.
“Second!” Duke writes Self-Justification on the board and underlines it twice. “Take responsibility for what you do. No whining, no excuses, no explaining.”
Again, the nodding heads, mostly from the biggest whiners, excuse-makers and over-explainers.
“No bullshit, no self-justification and we’ll all get along just fine.”
Yeah, yeah, whatever. Are we going to learn anything useful here?
“There’re is no textbook for this class. No lesson plans either.”
Yeah, that might require some work on Duke’s part. How much time is left in this class? I glance at the clock. Forty-seven minutes? Take me away!
“Okay! First question. For the guys.” Duke clenches his jaw and narrows his eyes slightly. “What’s the most important thing to do before going out with a girl?”
Tim Cook yells out, “Go to the ATM!”
Duke cuts off the laughter with a frown. “That’s materialistic.” He points to Kurt Durand. “You.”
Kurt blinks, as if waking up from a long nap. “Uh ....” He rubs his cheek. “Shave. Real close.”
A smattering of laughter.
“No. But you’re on the right track.” Duke looks around the room. “Anyone?”
No one volunteers. Duke stands there for almost a full minute. (I counted). “Masturbate!”
The room fills with gasps, giggles, oohs and whoas. Me? I’m thinking, Ew, let me out of here.
“Masturbate,” Duke repeats, “so you won’t screw around and get a girl pregnant.”
Gag. Pretty sure that’s not in the lesson plans. If this class wasn’t required, I’d drop it.
Tanya turns and whispers to me, “He is so cool!”
Double gag! I look over at Nina and Randi. Yikes. They have the same captivated expression on their faces as Tanya. What is wrong with them? Or is it me? Why am I so not in the same realm with them?
Colt leans over and whispers, “He’s bullshit.”
Great. My thought exactly. But what does that mean, being in the same mental zip code as Farmboy?
Nina and I make it through geometry, then head for the lunchroom. Nina gets hot lunch because she is eligible to get it free. I’ve brought a tofu-salad sandwich, which is sort of like a chicken-salad sandwich, as least as I vaguely remember chicken-salad tasting back before Mom and Dad went all vegetarian on me when I was about six. Randi and Tanya are going to meet us in front of the school after they pick up something at Funky Coffee. (Uh, that name? Dad says parts of Franklin never left the Sixties.) It’s sort of like a Starbucks except it’s much cheaper. It’s only a block from school, so it’s also convenient.
I get in the lunch line with Nina. Mrs. Palveski, who lives on the next block from Chittenden and who has been a cook at Franklin High since before Dad went there, adjusts the volume on a CD player she keeps on the counter. The rumor is she has music from every decade she’s been here. Whatever’s playing now sounds vaguely familiar, as if it might an oldie from Dad’s era that he bellows when he’s in the shower.
I see Brent and Claire cutting through the lunchroom hand-in-hand toward the main exit. I try to ignore them by focusing on the hot-chocolate machine in front of me. Mom would have a cow if she knew I got hot chocolate, but, hey, sometimes a girl just has to do something wild and crazy.
I reach for a paper cup. I’m only half watching what I’m doing, because I’m trying, not very successfully, to not stare at Brent. My hand hits the stack of paper cups and they start to sway. I quickly try to steady them, but somehow knock the top third of the stack onto the floor. Cups roll everywhere.
I’m down on my knees in a flash, trying to round up strays before they stampede. Suddenly Brent is down on the floor with me, herding the cups, stacking them and handing them to me. I take them, add them to my own stack, stare into his cobalt blue eyes and fumble the moment, voice totally cracking as I struggle to say, “Th-th-thA-ANk you.”
Just shoot me now, please.
“No problem.” The corners of Brent’s mouth curve up in the most adorable way.
My eyes meet his smile and the hand he offers to help me up. Must ignore erratic pulse. Must remember I do not plan my life around guys, ...