Dad starts in before my ass even touches the kitchen chair.
“You’re going to school like that?” he says, shoveling four metric tons of waffles and sausages into his big cheesehead mouth.
Mom lends her agreement. “Oh, Danny.”
“What,” I say, and sit.
My sister pleads with the yellow ceiling, like maybe that’s where God lives.
He doesn’t. I’ve checked.
She whines, “Can’t you make him change out of that shit?”
Mom’s eyebrows indicate, It’s out of my hands.
“Shitty McShitshit,” I say, as an experiment.
“Watch your mouth,” Mom says.
“Just testing,” I say. I wasn’t hungry before this, and now I’m super not-hungry.
“You need to eat something,” she says.
Dad stabs a piece of meat. Wishing it was me. He scarfs it, and the four waffles on his plate vanish next. He vaults out of his chair in his haste to get more from the stack on the stove and agrees with Mom. “Wouldn’t kill you to put on a pound or two.”
“Speaking of putting on a pound or two,” I say, turning to my sister.
“Hey!” Dad snaps, and Mom says, “Danny!” and my sister says, “Fuck you!” She says it in this wounded singsong that turns it into four syllables: fu-UCK yoo-UH.
She does not get told to watch her mouth.
“I see my work here is done,” I say. My sister is not fat. She is opposite of fat. Like me, I guess. I just know what buttons to push. It’s a gift.
“Damn it, Danny,” Dad says, lancing more waffles with javelin precision. “You go to school like that, you’re liable to get your ass handed to you.”
“Really?” I say. “By whom, Father?”
He doesn’t answer. Mom dares to make contact, putting one hand over mine.
“Please,” she says. “Dad’s right. You don’t want to start your first day of high school like this.”
“First day at this high school,” I say. “This one. I’m a sophomore. I didn’t want to go to this school at all, if you’ll recall. I made a very convincing argument for staying at—”
“Stop,” Dad says. “You had your shot, you blew it. Now you deal.”
I shut up for a second, then ask, “So how do you all recommend I start my first day at this school? Being that it’s such a fine institution of learning and, no doubt—” I gesture to Big Sis. “Civility?”
“Start by staying way-far away from me,” Big Sis declares. It’s the first day of her senior year, and I pose a threat to her social standing. “I’m out of here.”
“See you at lunch,” I say. “Shall we dine together in the quad?”
“Listen, you little geek,” she says. “I’m not kidding. You stay away from me, all day, every day, until and unless you stop wearing dresses around. All right? I’ve got enough shit to deal with without you being a pain in my ass.”
No one says anything. I lean over the table and raise my index fingers. “So, she can swear, right?” I ask my parents. “Just for clarification. She can cuss, and it’s okay?”
Dad doesn’t sit back down to finish off his waffles. Just stays standing by the stove, letting his height dominate us as he says, “You’ve got bigger things to worry about than your sister.”
“Well,” I say, unable to resist the obvious bump-set Dad just gave me. “She is a big thing.”
“Bye,” my sister hurls in our general direction. She heads out the kitchen door when one of her meathead boyfriends honks his horn outside.
“Thank you for a lovely breakfast,” I say, getting up.
“You need to eat,” Mom says.
“No, I just need a ride.”
Dad wipes his mouth with a dish towel. “Good luck with that.”
“I can’t take him,” Mom says. “I’ve got a meeting at eight.”
“He can walk, then. Do him some good.”
“You want wind sprints too?” I ask. I can’t believe he’s actually going to make me walk.
Dad says nothing. He hefts his bag, gives Mom a rough kiss on top of her hair, and goes to the door leading into the garage.
All the garages lining our street are decorated like modern art museums that cater to the owners’ tastes. For example, one is dedicated to aircraft, another to billiards, another like a 1950s soda shop.
Dad’s? The Green Bay Packers.
We don’t live anywhere near Green Bay.
“You decide to start dressing like a normal human being, I’ll drive you anywhere you want to go,” Dad says from the doorway. “Till then, you walk.”
He shuts the door. A second later, his enormous silver F-150 guns, and I hear it move out to the street.
“Is this for real?” I say to Mom.
She carries her plate to the sink. “You’re wearing a skirt, Danny.”
“It’s a kilt. The MacDougall Clan wears them all the time. It’s a statement.” The MacDougall Clan is a Scottish-pub/industrial band I love. No one’s heard of them.
“I don’t care what it is, you know better,” Mom says. “You’re asking for trouble.”
“Not if I was at my real school.”
“You should have thought about that before you forced us to take you out of your ‘real school,’” Mom says. “Danny, you’ve got to learn to control your temper.”
“I was controlling it.”
“Some way other than drugs.”
“Drugs I procure, you mean. If I get them from our lovely family doctor, then it’s okay. Right? Even if they’re the same drugs? Explain that to me.”
“You’re not a doctor. The end.”
So that’s where I get my sarcasm from. It’s sure not from Dad.
“Fine,” I say. “It’s still got nothing to do with my clothes. Why can’t I wear what I want?”
“You can. Just be prepared for the consequences.”
And with that sound motherly advice, she walks out of the kitchen.
I change into black jeans, and take my time walking to my first day of classes as Karate High School jams in my ears. About a block from school someone honks and shouts something at me. Fortunately, the music cancels out most of it.
Most of it.
That kid is going to die!
That’s the very first thought that passes through my wee little freshman head the very first instant my foot crosses from the sidewalk to the parking lot on the very first day of school.
For starters, if he’d read the student handbook, which I did, because Dad made me, he’d know trench coats and dusters were banned years ago. I’d rather be wearing one of my tank tops today, but those are outlawed too, so I’m making due with a Ramones T-shirt like everyone else. Not that everyone else is wearing a Ramones T-shirt, I just mean a T-shirt in general.
Second, it’s hot. Hot like, stupid-humid hot. Hot like, why-am-I-wearing-makeup-today-it-will-only-melt-off, hot. That makes his coat a “statement.” A big loud statement that will definitely get him noticed, and not in a good way!
Third, if he was looking to accessorize with a studded belt or something, he could probably get away with it. But he has about five too many buckles, studs, and spikes sticking out from various pieces of clothing and he doesn’t have the body to support any of it. He looks like the firstborn of Hot Topic and KISS, or maybe Slipknot and Carpathian Forest. That’s fine with me, as it should be, considering I’ve got a bright-pink Jolly Roger pirate flag on the back of my black shorts, but I am pretty sure it’s not the first impression he should be giving.
I try to push through all the other students, cars, bikes, and boards to get to him, tell him to go home, take the absence, change your clothes. A friend of mine tried that look last year in junior high and paid for it every day till we graduated. No one deserves that, not for something as stupid as clothes. He ended up going to a private school this year. Sad face! Maybe I can help this kid the way I should’ve helped him.
But the trench coat kid disappears inside the school before I can get to him. Well, I’ll run into him sooner or later. Three junior highs feed into this place, but no matter how big a school is, it’s small. Word’ll get around fast about him, I’m sure!
As for my wee self, my first actual encounter with high school kids starts with a girl passing me in the breezeway, glancing down, and saying, “Nice shoes,” in that way that makes it pretty clear she does not think they are nice at all.
I freeze and look down at my Kermit the Frog Converse, because it’s better to let the girl and her friends move along. A person who acts and talks like that? Her vision is based on movement. She can’t see you if you don’t move. Rawr.
I knew my Kermie shoes from last year were a bad idea, but did I take my own advice? Nooooo. Mom and Dad and Johnny have given up trying to stop me from making decisions like that, for which I bless them. Still, I wish someone had given me a heads-up.
One of my friends would have, I’m sure, but they’re all gone. I ended up here while all of them went to another school. Plus, Faith moved in June, Gloria got pregnant for God’s sake, and Liza hasn’t been let out of rehab yet. What a summer! Sad face!
The girls pass. The combination of hair flips, hip tilts, and trendy bags makes it pretty clear they’re probably sophomores. Or juniors even. Seniors wouldn’t have bothered with me, I don’t think. Seniors have Big-Kid-College-Prom-SAT Plans, like Johnny did last year. And yet he still lives with us! I guess some plans just don’t go according to … um. Plan.
Since I have already ceased to exist to them, I follow the crowd inside and try to head for my locker, except when I turn to look for it, I plow into a wall. Awesome!
Wait, nope. Not a wall, a guy.
“Whoa, sorry,” he says.
He’s stopped beside me. I look up at him. I keep looking up. And up, and up, and up.
“Wow you’re tall,” I say.
“Thanks,” the guy says, not quite smiling, but not quite not.
“And really cute,” I add, because if there’s one thing I cannot do, it is keep my mouth from running.
“Thanks,” he repeats, but he doesn’t sound too sure he should be saying it.
“Zach,” he says.
“Cool! Do you play basketball? I like the Suns.”
“I do not play basketball, no.”
“I avoid sweating as a matter of course. That’s hard to do playing sports.”
“Are you smart?” I say. “I bet you’re smart, you sound smart.”
“I’m pretty bright, yes.”
Now Zach is smiling for sure. “Awesome!” I say. “Are you a freshman? I kind of doubt it. You’re too tall.”
“Junior. And I’m only six one.”
“Ah,” I say. “So I won’t see you in English. Or the short-girls-only class. Or any other class, I take it.”
“No,” Zach says. “I did try to get into that short-girl one, but it was full. Maybe next semester.”
I laugh out loud. He’s fun! I like it when people are willing to play a little bit.
“Since I’ve got you here, can you tell me where English is?” Then I sing a line from the Ramones song “Pinhead.” Zach adjusts his backpack like my voice is making it dig into his spine or something.
“That’s me,” I say. “D-U-M-B. For, dumb. It’s the Ramones.” I point to my shirt as evidence. “It’s a song. ‘Pinhead’?”
“You are fascinating.”
I can’t tell if he says that because he likes the Ramones or just because I’m a nerd. I decide he likes the Ramones, because that thought makes me happy.
“Sweet!” I say. “Fascinating is good, I’ll take fascinating.”
“The English department is that way,” Zach says, like he’s amused.
“Awesome! Thanks, Zach. See ya ’round!”
He laughs as I move down the hallway, which I choose to take as a good sign. I decide that next time I run into him (literally), like just now, I’ll have something fascinating to say.
Which reminds me, I still have a life to save! I get distracted too easily, Dad always says, and he’s right, because I’m always like, blah blah blah squirrel!
I run farther down the hall to where it splits in three and look all around, searching for the trench-coat-buckles-n-studs kid, but I don’t see him anywhere.
Dang it! Maybe he’s already been eaten by seniors.
I got the car yesterday, just in time for school. It’s older than I am, but to me it’s new. Spent this summer working two jobs, with short breaks for a free football combine in Los Angeles, then an NFTC in Oakland. Saved up money from the bit Mom’s able to dole out from her three jobs from time to time, and I finally got it.
Red 1995 Honda Accord, 198,476 miles—about the most boring car ever produced on planet Earth, but it came with a Pioneer CD receiver and twin twelve-inch subwoofers. The system is only 150 watts RMS, and there’s no way to jack in my old phone, but it thumps good. It thumps great, for the price.
And it’s mine.
I drive it to pick up Amy, because I promised her I would when I got a car. But I turn my music down when I pull into the driveway because Amy’s parents probably wouldn’t care for the noise. Or rather, their neighbors wouldn’t, and I’m not about to get anyone in this neighborhood mad at me. Coaches and coordinators have seen me now. Things are going to start happening. Just need to find a college that’ll give me a full ride and I’m out. Maybe Amy will even come with me.
“Damn,” I whisper. Got to stop dreaming. Keep my head in the game.
Amy dashes out of the house and leaps in, squealing. That makes me smile big.
“This is it!” she says. “You really got it!”
“Hell yeah, I did.”
“Nice. Happy senior year.” She swings her hair into place, and I smell coconut. “Now turn your music up!”
I crank the volume.
“You’re so lucky!” Amy shouts over the bass.
“No way, it’s more than luck.” I worked hard for this car. Though finding a vehicle with a decent system, at the price I paid—that might’ve been luck, sure.
This is going to be a great year.
“We meeting up with Brady at school?” Amy shouts.
Damn. Not what I want to hear. She should be focused on being in the car with me, not worried about Brady Culliver. B is my best friend, but he’s not what I want to be talking about right now. Damn.
“Probably. Don’t know for sure. Never heard from him.”
“Is he okay?”
“Yeah. Most likely.”
I decide to go all in now, man up, get it over with. I turn down the stereo. “So, hey, do you like … you got a thing for him? For Brady?”
Amy laughs. I love how it sounds, even in this context. “Why, you jealous?”
I wave it off, like I’m just messing around. I hope she’ll see through it. See that I’m not messing around at all.
But it doesn’t matter. If I can’t have her—and I can’t—Brady sure can’t either. No way. Amy even confirms it when she says, “I can’t go out with any of you guys.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard something like that,” I say, squeezing the wheel tight for just a second.
There’ll be other girls. Lots. None of them will be Amy, but. Me and Brady will have our pick this year.
Except I don’t want lots of girls. I want Amy.
But the pause in conversation makes me wonder: where is B, anyway? Haven’t heard from him since a couple days ago. Damn. I should check up on him. I turn right when I should go straight.
“Where’re we going?” Amy says. “Oh my god, are you kidnapping me? Is this some senior prank thing?”
“Just want to swing by his place,” I say.
Amy shrinks a little in her seat. “Brady’s house? Is that safe?”
I give her a confident smirk and set my bicep on the open window, flexing. “Who’s gonna mess with this?”
Amy swoons all fake-dramatic. She’s joking around, but I still like it.
But when we get closer to Brady’s neighborhood, I turn off the music and roll up the windows. No one is supposed to know where Brady lives, but some people do. They don’t talk about it. Brady always says he’s just waiting for some money from his dad so he and his mom can move into another place. Maybe someplace near Coach. Everyone accepts that. They’d better. Otherwise they’ll answer to me.
But Brady’s apartment building looks dead. Vacant. I keep driving but I ask Amy to text B. Check in. Just to be on the safe side.
Wake up thinking that I’m lucky it’s warm out at least. Won’t be able to sleep out here by Halloween. Be too cold.
Check my phone before sitting up. How much sleep did I even get? Three hours. Maybe four. It’ll do. At least no cops pushed me out. Good start.
Roll off the picnic table. Stretch out a bit. Tight. Not too bad. It’ll ease up. Pick up my bag. Slept with it looped around my foot. Head for the park bathrooms. Somehow they’re cold even though it’s warm outside. I go in. Glare at my reflection in the warped mirror.
“Hoo,” I grunt. Make my abs clench hard. Like concrete. “Hoo, hoo, hoo. This a man’s game.”
Roll my head on my neck. Stay loose.
“This a man’s game now. Hoo. Hoo.”
That helps. Keeps my head in the game. Clean up best I can using a sink and the deodorant in my bag.
Change clothes. I should text Donte. But I don’t. I’ll see him at school. I know he’s got a car now. Could give me a ride. But I don’t know. Can’t do it. Feels like charity. Screw charity. I’m not a pussy.
Get done getting ready. Take a long drink from the fountain outside. Tastes like metal. But cold. Then I start hoofing it to school. Shit I’m hungry.
First day of senior year.
Start the clock, Mom. You hear me? Wherever you are. Start the clock. ’Cause this shit’s gonna end.
Get a text from Amy. Asking where I am. Tell her I’m on my way. She sends a smiley back.
I don’t want to be here.
Keep your head down.
Don’t look up.
They’ll see you.
Hold your books. Tight.
Don’t look up.
Okay. Good. Safe.
I pass a tall, athletic girl hugging an enormous guy. He grins as she pulls away and promenades down the hall. Three younger girls scurry toward him like ants to sugar. Each is more beautiful than the last. I want to be one of them.
But they see me.
“What are you looking at, bitch?” a girl says.
Oh, no. I’m visible. The guy notes me, but his eyes flick toward the athletic girl walking down the hall. That’s where he wants to be. With her. The three girls surrounding him don’t seem to know it yet.
All three of them bare fangs and raise quills at me.
Don’t look up.
“Yeah, you better keep walking,” the girl says.
Don’t look up.
Two more years.
Just two more years.
I miss South. I miss the Dez. I wish Daddy had never been hurt. I hate this place.
I can’t make this stuff up: the gym is in the center of the school building. Like a gladiatorial arena. When you walk in the main entrance, the halls go left, right, and straight ahead. To the right, the hall continues on to more classrooms. If you go left or straight, though, you’ll follow the hallway around in a big rectangle. Huge windows look down into the gymnasium, which is sunk into the ground like a strip mine. It’s like the hall on this level is one big skybox surrounding the gym.
All you have to do is walk into the school building through one of three sets of double doors and blam: you can’t not see the
CENTER OF THE SCHOOL.
Bet I can’t find the library without consulting three maps and a GPS.
Ooo, education is broken in this country! Ooo, how do we keep up with Chinese? Ooo ooo ooo, my pussy hurts!
Jesus. This reminds me of the time I saw the football players’ bus being escorted to the game by cops. Two motorcycle cops riding in front, clearing the way. Again, I cannot make this stuff up. Like the football players were the god damn president.
I should take a picture of the gym and send it to the actual president and say
HERE! THIS! THIS IS WHAT IS WRONG WITH OUR EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM, DUMBASS!
But they probably throw you in jail for that.
At first, things seem okay. Roving the hallway looking for my first class, I get some looks, but that’s nothing new. Everyone here, unsurprisingly, comes off as pretty vanilla. I pass a few degenerates, malcontents, punks, and assorted high school flotsam among the facial-hair seniors, varsity date rapists, and professional teen alcoholics. A mixed bag.
I decide to take a picture of the gym and send it to a friend, who is at this moment probably sitting down to a visual art class at my school—the school I should be at, the school that doesn’t have a gym in the middle of the god damn building.
Except my phone is not in my bag. I pull out of foot traffic and rummage through the entire thing. Nowhere.
“God damn it,” I say out loud.
As if my profanity has upset the student body, someone twice my height pushes past me and whispers, “Skinny little faggot.”
I simply cannot make this stuff up. People still say shit like that. At least he’s bright enough to not say it loud enough for people to hear. Just me. He’s wearing a football jersey in our school colors. The back reads CULLIVER.
I shoot back, loudly enough to be heard over the hallway’s ruckus, “Your mom called. She said to go fuck yourself, ’cause she had plans already.”
Three seconds ago, no one would have heard me scream for help if I was on fire. They wouldn’t even have noticed the “I am on fire” part. Now, suddenly, the entire hallway is listening in—and they all shout “Ooooo!” in unison like third graders.
Culliver stops in his tracks. I see I’ve made my first enemy of the day. Of the year. Of the next three.
His eyes zero in on me, and I figure I’m about to get tossed through these skybox windows and down onto the court below. But a teacher in a rumpled pink button-up and blue tie steps between us and leans in front of Culliver, saying something I can’t hear. Culliver listens, still glaring at me over the teacher’s shoulder. Finally, he turns and continues down the hall.
Interesting. Looks like I got a “Get out of ass kicking free” card. Or, had one. Maybe I just played it. The pink-shirted teacher glances at me like I irritate him. Like I’m the one who did something wrong.
Whatever. My phone is gone, and I’m going to be late for my first class. According to my dandy new schedule, it’s Mrs. Garcia, for English.
Who teaches Spanish, I wonder—Mrs. Smith?
I want to kick that kid’s ass. Would have if Mr. Butler hadn’t stopped me. Kid’s lucky. Real lucky.
I see Donte leaning against my locker. That helps. Me and Donte slap hands soon as I get there. We bump chests. Growl, howl, and laugh. Camp went great. Two-a-days went good this summer. Except for being so hungry. Last two-a-day was three days ago. Only have them once a week now that school’s back.
D chews on his lip like he’s gearing up for a fight. Sticks his face in mine. “You got my lunch money, bitch?”
“Girlfriend, you look like you already ate a whole cow!” Grind my pecs into his.
We both laugh again. It echoes up and down the hall. Some people grin. They want to be a part of it. Some people walk faster. They want to get away from it. Either way’s fine with me.
D leans against the blue lockers. “I went by to pick you up this morning.”
Slam my locker door shut. Don’t like people going to my place. But it’s D. Can’t get too pissed. “Sorry, man. I was already up and out, you know.”
“Cool,” D says. “You want me to pick you up tomorrow?”
“Yeah sure, maybe at Starbucks, something.”
We start heading for English. Warning bell rings. Everyone runs. We walk.
“So hey, man,” Donte says. “My mom packed the biggest lunch today, like a grocery bag. It’s Chinese. You gonna eat some of that? It’s in Coach’s fridge.”
I bite down hard. Grind my teeth. Try not to wait too long before saying, “Sure, if you’re too pussy to eat it all.”
Donte hoots again. Punches my arm. Then we walk into English together. We have seats in the back. Like last year.
“State?” Mr. Butler says to me as we walk past him into the classroom.
“Hell yeah,” I say.
He says it again to Donte. Donte also says, “Hell yeah.”
Mr. Butler grins and says, “That’s right, that’s what I’m talking about. Welcome back.”
Butler loves Shakespeare and the Niners. I don’t know how. Don’t care. Pretty much our whole team’s in his class. Nobody ever flunks Butler.
None of us ever flunk Butler.
Butler does some texting before the last bell rings. So does half the class. He doesn’t care if we text right up to the bell. We put our phones away when it goes off.
Butler goes to the whiteboard. Writes down the word HAMLET.
“Anybody know who wrote this play?”
“Jesus!” my wide receiver shouts.
“Mr. Butler!” says my fullback.
“Shakespeare, you lumpish puttocks,” Butler says. Writes SHAKESPEARE on the board under HAMLET. “Turns out the drama department’s putting it on this semester, so that’s where we’re going to start.”
We all groan at the same time.
“Oh, really,” Butler says. He rolls up the sleeves on his pink button-up shirt. Getting down to business or something. “Anybody know what this play is about?”
No one answers.
“Who in here ever wanted to get even with someone?”
I almost raise my hand. There’s lots of mumbling and grunting. Dudes shuffling in their chairs.
“Like who?” he says. “Who have you wanted to get back at?”
“The Titans!” one of our boys shouts. Others shout, too.
Other high school rivals get called. It’s like a pep rally in here for a couple minutes. We start our hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo! chant. It vibrates the windows.
Butler lets us go for a while. It’s one reason we all like him so much. Then he raises his hands. We shut up. It’s respect.
“Well then,” he says. “You’re going to like this one.”
We start nodding. Lean forward in our desks. Most of them’re too small for us.
“They any sports in it?” says one of my guys.
We laugh at him. Give him shit. But Butler says, “Actually, yes. Hamlet uses sports to get revenge. Well, in a sense.”
He’s got our attention. Butler claps once and points at Donte.
“Heavy D,” he says. He’s prolly the only teacher who can get away with the name. “There’s a stack of books on the back counter. Pass them out, please.”
D does what Butler says. We each get an old paperback of Hamlet. The cover shows a dude dressed in black, holding a skull up to his face. Like two football helmets about to clash on the opening credits of a game. Usually I watch at Donte’s. Mom sold our TV.
I flip through the book. This might be kind of cool. Revenge. Skulls. Sports.
Gotta love Butler’s class.
My full name is Andrea Stephanie Townsend. I want people to call me Drea, or Dre, because I figure it sounds sophisticated and mature, you know? I’ve been growing out my hair for a year now so that it’s long and shows off the dark red better, not like the pixie cuts I used to get all the time, so hopefully I’ll look older. I’ve decided this year I will at least get people to call me AHN-drea instead of ANN-drea. But probably they’ll just call me Andi. With an I. Everyone calls me that. No matter how often I try to change it, it keeps coming back to that I.
A brown-haired girl reading a paperback copy of Hamlet notices me wandering around the cafeteria for ten minutes with my blue plastic tray. For no good reason that I can see, she waves me over to her table. Not many people are sitting there. It might be That table, where Those kids sit. There must be one of Those tables in every cafeteria in the world.
But I go stand across from her, because at least she waved. She stares up at me for a second, then blinks quickly like she’s trying to stop thinking about something.
“You need someplace to sit?” the girl says. “I remember freshman year.”
“Yes,” I say.
“Cool. Have a seat then. If you don’t mind sitting with a senior.”
I sit down, several seats away from the rest of Those kids, who all have earbuds in.
“What’s your name?” she asks.
And I get to say “Drea, or Dre,” and not Andi.
The senior says, “That’s cool. I think I’ll go with Drea. I mean, if I get to choose. I’m Kelly.”
I sort of smile, because maybe high school is off to a pretty great start after all.
Maybe I won’t need to cut anymore.
Because I still do it. Sometimes every day. It’s been every day more often over the summer.
No one knows. Not my mother and not my father. Not my friends from last year who promised we’d always be friends and we’d text and chat and talk but somehow haven’t.
It’s a release, that’s all, a way to deal. I’d never, like, go through with anything, you know? It’s wrong to cut, and I know it. I feel guilty every time I slide a box cutter or razor or knife or paperclip across my upper and lower arms. But for that moment, the world is silent.
These are all things running through my head when Kelly, who’s wearing a yellow T-shirt that says BEETLEJUICE BEETLEJUICE BEETLEJUICE, asks why I’m wearing long sleeves and jeans when it’s so hot out.
And I say, “To hide my scars.”
Why’d I say it? Because I have to keep so quiet at home that I just wanted to hear myself say it, you know? I think that’s why.
It’s as if the entire cafeteria hits an enormous mute button. I hear nothing, not a single sound, though I’m aware of life cruising along as usual around me, first-day hoots and hollers echoing through the room. This silence is spongy, airplane-landing stuffy, beginning in my nose and moving up to my brain.
Kelly looks at me like she can’t tell if I’m joking or not.
Then she says, in a reasonable tone, “Can I see?”
I roll up one blue sleeve and display the scab hatching there. Hatching is an art term for drawing parallel lines close together, I just learned. It’s used for shading. I did some last period in art class. The guy at the table beside mine, who must have weighed as much as three of me, was already amazing at it.
But his were done with pencil. Mine are done with a razor.
Kelly takes my forearm in her hands. Her fingers are cool, her touch soft.
“Wow,” Kelly says. “That’s intense.”
She lets a thumb drift across one series of lines. I can’t feel it over the scabs. But I imagine it must feel like braille to her. What do the raised bumps say?
“You won’t tell?” I ask.
“I won’t tell,” Kelly says.
“You don’t think it’s gross?”
“I think it’s too bad that you feel like you need to do it. That’s all.”
I start crying and reach for the paperclip in my pocket, but then Kelly puts an arm around me and says something like, “It’s cool, I got your back,” and I, Andrea-Andi-Drea-Dre, decide I can wait till after lunch to use the paperclip.
Just as I get myself back together, a group of huge guys passes by our table and one of them tells his huge-guy buddies, “Hey, Mister Kelly’s back this year. How’s it going, chickdude?” He doesn’t stop to listen for an answer.
Kelly acts like she didn’t hear them, but it’s obvious she did.
“Why do they call you that?” I ask.
Kelly snarls. “Because they’re Brady Culliver and Donte Walker, and that’s what they do.”
When I blink at her, Kelly explains: “They’re football players. They’ve been using me to cover up their own gender identity issues for the past three years.” She says it like it doesn’t bother her except I can see that it does.
Kelly’s snarl does not change as she says, “What I want to know is how the hell they get off campus and to a Pei Wei so fast. Maybe the coach has it delivered. It wouldn’t surprise me.” She crunches down on a celery stick. “Blegh, who cares? I’ll be out of this place in nine months, and in ten years they won’t have the social heft to start a Twitter account.”
A laugh pops out of me. It’s not much more than a squeak, but I decide to count it as a laugh, anyway.
“On the other hand,” Kelly says, glancing at me sidelong as if to see if she can make me laugh again, “where will I be ten years from now, Drea? One of the five most influential businesswomen in the world! Yeah, no.”
She called me Drea like it was my real name. I smile.
Kelly sighs and moves on to a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. “I mean, senior year is freaking me out. What’s out there for me? I’m not good at anything. I’ve failed at band, I’ve hurt myself and others in just about every sport, my grades are all Ds and Cs. I haven’t so much as Googled the word ‘college.’ Mom needs help with the twins. And my sister. And maybe even my brother even though he’s in sixth grade this year …”
“I’m making you nervous,” I say, interrupting. It’s why she’s talking so much.
Kelly shuts her mouth. I almost can hear her teeth clack together. Then she smiles. “It’s that obvious?”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have—”
“Hey, never apologize!” Kelly declares. “We do that too much. No apologies.”
I don’t know if she means she and I apologize too much or if she means women, like a feminist sort of thing, or if she means something completely different, so I just nod and don’t say anything and point to her book. “You like Shakespeare?”
“Not particularly, but auditions for the fall play are on September ninth and tenth. I’m taking Drama Four, so Mrs. Tanner has to give me a shot. I mean, it’s senior year! What’re you doing after school, do you know yet? You have to do something. Or maybe not. I just have to because if I don’t then I’ll end up at home and I am so beyond done with that.”
She’s still nervous around me, me and my scars, but I don’t bring it up. I also don’t tell her how much I already know about theater because that just reminds me of Mom and Dad and when I get reminded of Mom and Dad I want to use my paperclip.
“So?” Kelly says, staring me while she eats her chips.
“So are you going to be in any clubs this year? Obviously, I am kind of a drama kid.”
I point to the loudest group in the cafeteria, the one singing songs from Hamilton. They are definitely drama kids, and they are not throwin’ away their … shot! “Aren’t those the drama kids?”
Kelly glances at them, then away, shrugging. “Okay, so I’m not technically one of them, yet.”
“Well, maybe I can come with you? To the auditions? Just to check it out, you know?”
There’s no way I’ll audition, but the bell is about to ring and Kelly is nice and I want to make sure she’ll talk to me again.
Kelly looks like I just made her day, which I don’t understand. She puts a hand on my arm like she’s known me forever and says, “Absolutely!”
She doesn’t even wipe her hand on her shorts after touching my scars.
At lunch I find a table of girls who are giggling and talking and doing all sorts of things with their phones and I zero in on them. Maybe next week I’ll find some boys to hang out with, too, but I think for my first day, girls are probably safer.
I go to their table and sit down at one end. “Hi! What’s up?”
The girls, there are four of them, all stop talking and look at me. One of them says, “Uh, hi?” With a question mark. She’s wearing a shirt that says ADMIT IT, YOU’D GO TO JAIL FOR THIS, which takes way too long for me to figure out is a joke. But it’s not really funny, anyway.
“I’m Cadence,” I say.
Hmm. I feel like this isn’t going well. “Are you guys freshmen?”
Those question marks are really weird. “Oh. So, who do you have for English? Maybe we have the same teacher at some point!”
“… Mr. Case?” the spokeswoman says.
“Oh. I have Mrs. Christiansen.”
She doesn’t say anything this time. They just keep staring. Jeez, do I have tentacles?
“Do you like the Ramones?”
Sad face. Definitely not going good here. Maybe girls were the wrong choice.
“Okay, well, is it okay if I sit here? There weren’t a lot of places to sit, and I thought—”
“Uh, okay?” she says.
I start to say thanks, except they all get up at literally the exact same time, carrying their trays, and walk away so it’s just me.
Dang it. And I don’t see Zach anywhere. I bet he’d let me eat with him. I put in my earbuds and let Joey try to convince me that this is a rock ’n’ roll high school. Fun fun! But honestly, I’m kinda doubting Joey right now.