Authors: Julie Buxbaum
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Text copyright © 2016 by Julie R. Buxbaum, Inc.
Cover art copyright © 2016 by Getty Images
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
Delacorte Press is a registered trademark and the colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Tell me three things / by Julie Buxbaum.
ISBN 978-0-553-53564-8 (trade hc) — ISBN 978-0-553-53565-5 (library binding) — ISBN 978-0-553-53566-2 (ebook) — ISBN 978-0-399-55293-9 (intl. tr. pbk.)
[1. High schools—Fiction. 2. Schools—Fiction. 3. Moving, Household—Fiction. 4. Stepfamilies—Fiction. 5. Grief—Fiction. 6. Los Angeles (Calif.)—Fiction.] I. Title.
eBook ISBN 9780553535662
Cover design by Ray Shappell
Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.
About the Author
For my E and L:
I love you
to the moon and back
and back and back.
even hundred and thirty-three days after my mom died, forty-five days after my dad eloped with a stranger he met on the Internet, thirty days after we then up and moved to California, and only seven days after starting as a junior at a brand-new school where I know approximately no one, an email arrives. Which would be weird, an anonymous letter just popping up like that in my in-box, signed with the bizarre alias Somebody Nobody, no less, except my life has become so unrecognizable lately that nothing feels shocking anymore. It took until now—seven hundred and thirty-three whole days in which I’ve felt the opposite of normal—for me to discover this one important life lesson: turns out you can grow immune to weird.
hey there, Ms. Holmes. we haven’t met irl, and I’m not sure we ever will. I mean, we probably will at some point—maybe I’ll ask you the time or something equally mundane and beneath both of us—but we’ll never actually get to know each other, at least not in any sort of real way that matters…which is why I figured I’d email you under the cloak of anonymity.
and yes, I realize I’m a sixteen-year-old guy who just used the words “cloak of anonymity.” and so there it is already: reason #1 why you’ll never get to know my real name. I could never live the shame of that pretentiousness down.
“cloak of anonymity”? seriously?
and yes, I also realize that most people would have just texted, but couldn’t figure out how to do that without telling you who I am.
I have been watching you at school. not in a creepy way. though I wonder if even using the word “creepy” by definition makes me creepy? anyhow, it’s just…you intrigue me. you must have noticed already that our school is a wasteland of mostly blond, vacant-eyed Barbies and Kens, and something about you—not just your newness, because sure, the rest of us have all been going to school together since the age of five—but something about the way you move and talk and actually don’t talk but watch all of us like we are part of some bizarre National Geographic documentary makes me think that you might be different from all the other idiots at school.
you make me want to know what goes on in that head of yours. I’ll be honest: I’m not usually interested in the contents of other people’s heads. my own is work enough.
the whole point of this email is to offer my expertise. sorry to be the bearer of bad news: navigating the wilds of Wood Valley High School ain’t easy. this place may look all warm and welcoming, with our yoga and meditation and reading corners and coffee cart (excuse me: Koffee Kart), but like every other high school in America (or maybe even worse), this place is a freaking war zone.
and so I hereby offer up myself as your virtual spirit guide. feel free to ask any question (except of course my identity), and I’ll do my best to answer: who to befriend (short list), who to stay away from (longer list), why you shouldn’t eat the veggie burgers from the cafeteria (long story that you don’t want to know involving jock jizz), how to get an A in Mrs. Stewart’s class, and why you should never sit near Ken Abernathy (flatulence issue). Oh, and be careful in gym. Mr. Shackleman makes all the pretty girls run extra laps so he can look at their asses.
that feels like enough information for now.
and fwiw, welcome to the jungle.
yours truly, Somebody Nobody
SN: Is this for real? Or is this some sort of initiation prank, à la a dumb rom-com? You’re going to coax me into sharing my deepest, darkest thoughts/fears, and then, BAM, when I least expect it, you’ll post them on Tumblr and I’ll be the laughingstock of WVHS? If so, you’re messing with the wrong girl. I have a black belt in karate. I can take care of myself.
If not a joke, thanks for your offer, but no thanks. I want to be an embedded journalist one day. Might as well get used to war zones now. And anyhow, I’m from Chicago. I think I can handle the Valley.
promise this isn’t a prank. and I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a rom-com. shocking, I know. hope this doesn’t reveal some great deficiency in my character.
you do know journalism is a dying field, right? maybe you should aspire to be a war blogger.
Very funny. Wait, is there really sperm in the veggie burgers?
not just sperm but sweaty lacrosse sperm.
I’d avoid the meat loaf too, just to be on the safe side. in fact, stay out of the cafeteria altogether. that shit will give you salmonella.
who are you?
nope. not going to happen.
Fine. But tell me this at least: what’s up with the lack of capital letters? Your shift key broken?
Lazy and verbose. Interesting combo. And yet you do take the time to capitalize proper nouns?
I’m not a complete philistine.
“Philistine” is a big word for a teenage guy.
that’s not the only thing that’s…whew. caught myself from making the obvious joke just in time. you totally set me up, and I almost blew it.
That’s what she said.
See, that’s the thing with email. I’d never say something like that in person. Crude. Suggestive. Like I am the kind of girl who could pull off that kind of joke. Who, face to face with an actual member of the male species, would know how to flirt, and flip my hair, and, if it came to it, know how to do much more than kiss. (For the record, I do know how to kiss. I’m not saying I’d ace an AP exam on the subject or, you know, win Olympic gold, but I’m pretty sure I’m not awful. I know this purely by way of comparison. Adam Kravitz. Ninth grade. Him: all slobber and angry, rhythmic tongue, like a zombie trying to eat my head. Me: all-too-willing participant, with three days of face chafing.)
Email is much like an ADD diagnosis. Guaranteed extra time on the test. In real life, I constantly rework conversations after the fact in my head, edit them until I’ve perfected my witty, lighthearted, effortless banter—all the stuff that seems to come naturally to other girls. A waste of time, of course, because by then I’m way too late. In the Venn diagram of my life, my imagined personality and my real personality have never converged. Over email and text, though, I am given those few additional beats I need to be the better, edited version of myself. To be that girl in the glorious intersection.
I should be more careful. I realize that now.
That’s what she said.
Really? Can’t decide if I sound like a frat boy or a slut; either way, I don’t sound like me. More importantly, I have no idea who I am writing to. Unlikely that SN truly is some do-gooder who feels sorry for the new girl. Or better yet, a secret admirer. Because of course that’s straight where my brain went, the result of a lifetime of devouring too many romantic comedies and reading too many improbable books. Why do you think I kissed Adam Kravitz? He was my neighbor back in Chicago. What better story is there than the girl who discovers that true love has been waiting right next door all along? Of course, my neighbor turned out to be a zombie with carbonated saliva, but no matter. Live and learn.
Surely SN is a cruel joke. He’s probably not even a he. Just a mean girl preying on the weak. Because let’s face it: I am weak. Possibly even pathetic. I lied. I don’t have a black belt in karate. I am not tough. Until last month, I thought I was. I really did. Life threw its punches, I got shat on, but I took it in the mouth, to mix my metaphors. Or not. Sometimes it felt just like getting shat on in the mouth. My only point of pride: no one saw me cry. And then I became the new girl at WVHS, in this weird area called the Valley, which is in Los Angeles but not in Los Angeles or something like that, and I ended up here because my dad married this rich lady who smells like fancy almonds, and juice costs twelve dollars here, and I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore.
I am as lost and confused and alone as I have ever been. No, high school will never be a time I look back on fondly. My mom once told me that the world is divided into two kinds of people: the ones who love their high school years and the ones who spend the next decade recovering from them. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, she said.
But something did kill her, and I’m not stronger. So go figure; maybe there’s a third kind of person: the ones who never recover from high school at all.
have somehow stumbled upon the Only Thing That Cannot Be Googled:
Who is SN?
One week after receiving the mysterious emails, I still have no idea. The problem is that I like to know things. Preferably in advance, with sufficient lead time to prepare.
Clearly, the only viable option is to Sherlock the shit out of this.
Let’s start at Day 1, that awful first day of school, which sucked, but to be fair probably sucked no more than every other day has sucked since my mom died. Because the truth is that every day since my mom died, she’s still been dead. Over and out. They’ve all sucked. Time does not heal all wounds, no matter how many drugstore sympathy cards hastily scrawled by distant relatives promise this to be true. But I figure on that first day there must have been some moment when I gave off enough pitiful
vibes that SN actually took notice of me. Some moment when the whole
my life sucks
thing was worn visibly on the outside.
But figuring that out is not so simple, because that day turned out to be chock-full of embarrassment, a plethora of moments to choose from. First of all, I was late, which was Theo’s fault. Theo is my new stepbrother—my dad’s new wife’s son, who,
is also a junior here, and has approached this whole blended-family dynamic by pretending I don’t exist. For some reason, I was stupid enough to assume that because we lived in the same house and we were going to the same school, we would drive in together. Nope. Turns out, Theo’s
T-shirt is purely for show, and of course, he doesn’t have to worry his pretty little head about such petty things as, you know, gas money. His mom runs some big film marketing business, and their house (I may live there now, but it is in no way
) has its own library. Except, of course, it’s filled with movies, not books, because: LA. And so I ended up taking my own car to school and getting stuck in crazy traffic.
When I finally got to Wood Valley High School—drove through its intimidating front gates and found a parking spot in its vast luxury car–filled lot and hiked up the long driveway—the secretary in the front office directed me to a group of kids who were sitting cross-legged in a circle in the grass, with a couple of guitar cases spread around. Like this was church camp or something. All
kumbaya, my Lord.
Apparently, that can happen in LA: class outside on an impossibly green lawn in September, backs leaned up against blooming trees. Already I was uncomfortable and sweating in my dark jeans, trying to shake off both my nerves and my road rage. All of the other girls had gotten the first-day-of-school memo; they were wearing light-colored, wispy summer dresses that hung off their tiny shoulders from even tinier straps.
So far, that’s the number one difference between LA and Chicago: all the girls here are thin and half naked.
Class was already in full swing, and I felt awkward standing there, trying to figure out how to enter the circle. Apparently, they were going around clockwise and telling the group what they did with their summer vacation. I finally plopped down behind two tall guys with the hopes they had already spoken and that I might be able to take cover.
Of course, I picked wrong.
“Hey, all. Caleb,” the guy right in front of me said, in an authoritative way that made it sound like he assumed everyone already knew that. I liked his voice: confident, as sure of his place as I was unsure of mine. “I went to Tanzania this summer, which was totally cool. First my family and I climbed Kilimanjaro, and my quads were sore for like weeks. And then I volunteered with a group building a school in a rural village. So, you know, I gave back a little. All in all, a great summer, but I’m happy to be home. I really missed Mexican food.” I started to clap after he was done—he climbed
built a school,
for God’s sake, of course we were supposed to clap—but stopped as soon as I realized I was the only one. Caleb was wearing a plain gray T-shirt and designer jeans and was good-looking in a not-intimidating sort of way, his features just bland enough that he could be the kind of guy who I could possibly, one day,
okay, probably not, date. Not really attainable, no, not at all, too hot for me, but the fantasy wasn’t so outrageous that I couldn’t revel in it for just a moment.
The shaggy guy sitting right in front of me was up next, and he too was cute, almost an equal to his friend.
Hmm. Maybe I’d surprise myself and end up liking it here after all. I’d have a great fantasy life, if not a real one.
“As you guys know, I’m Liam. I spent the first month interning at Google up in the Bay Area, which was great. Their cafeteria alone was worth the trip. And then I backpacked in India for most of August.” A good voice too. Melodic.
“Backpacked, my ass,” Caleb—Kilimanjaro-gray-T-shirt-guy—said, and the rest of the class laughed, including the teacher. I didn’t, because as usual I was a moment too late. I was too busy wondering how a high school kid gets an internship at Google and realizing that if this is my competition, I’m never getting into college. And okay, I was also checking out those two guys, wondering what their deal was. Caleb, his climb up Kilimanjaro notwithstanding, had a clean-cut frat-boy vibe, while Liam was more hipster cool. An interesting yin and yang.
“Whatever. Fine, I didn’t backpack. My parents wouldn’t let me go unless I promised to stay in nice hotels, because, you know, Delhi belly and all. But still, I feel like I got a real sense of the culture and a great application essay out of the deal, which was the point,” Liam said, and of course by then, I had caught on and knew not to clap.
“And you? What’s your name?” said the teacher, who I later found out was Mr. Shackleman, the gym teacher SN warned me likes to stare at girls’ asses. “I don’t recognize you from last year.” Not sure why he had to point so the whole class looked at me, but no big deal, I told myself. This was a first grader’s assignment: what did I do with my summer vacation? No reason for my hands to be shaking and my pulse to be racing; no reason for me to feel like I was in the early stages of congestive heart failure. I knew the signs. I had seen the commercials. All eyes were on me, including those of Caleb and Liam, both of whom were looking with amusement and suspicion. Or maybe it was curiosity. I couldn’t tell.
“Um, hi, I’m Jessie. I’m new here. I didn’t do anything exciting this summer. I mean, I…I moved here from Chicago, but until then, I worked, um, at, you know, the Smoothie King at the mall.” No one was rude enough to laugh outright, but this time I could easily read their looks. Straight-up pity. They had built schools and traveled to foreign locales, interned at billion-dollar corporations.
I had spent my two months off blending high-fructose corn syrup.
In retrospect, I realize I should have lied and said I helped paraplegic orphans in Madagascar. No one would have batted an eye.
Or clapped, for that matter.
“Wait. I don’t have you on my list,” Mr. Shackleman said. “Are you a senior?”
“Um, no,” I said, feeling a bead of sweat release and streak the side of my face. Quick calculation: would wiping it bring more or less attention to the fact that I was excreting a massive quantity of water from my pores? I wiped.
“Wrong class,” he said. “I don’t look like Mrs. Murray, do I?” There were outright laughs now at a joke that was marginally funny, at best. And twenty-five faces turned toward me again, sizing me up. I mean that literally: some of them seemed to be evaluating my size. “You’re inside.”
Mr. Shackleman pointed to the main building, so I had to get up and walk away while the entire class, including the teacher, including fantasy-worthy Caleb and Liam, watched me and my behind go. And only later, when I got to my actual homeroom and had to stand up and do the whole summer vacation thing all over again in front of another twenty-five kids—and utter the words “Smoothie King” for the second time to an equally appalled audience—did I realize I had a large clump of grass stuck to my ass.
On reflection, the number of people who may have sensed my desperation? At least fifty, and I’m estimating on the low side just to make myself feel better.
The truth is SN could be anyone.
Now, a whole fourteen days later, I stand here in the cafeteria with my stupid brown sandwich bag and look around at this new terrain—where everything is all shiny and
(the kids here drive actual BMWs, not old Ford Focuses with eBay-purchased BMW symbols glued on)—and I still don’t know where to go. I’m facing the problem encountered by every new kid ever: I have no one to sit with.
No chance of my joining Theo, my new stepbrother, who, the one time I said “hey” in the hall, blanked me with such intensity that I’ve given up even looking in his direction. He always seems to hang around with a girl named Ashby (yep, that’s really her name), who looks like a supermodel mid-runway—all dramatic gothy makeup, uncomfortable-looking designer clothes, blank wide features, pink spiked hair. I’m getting the sense that Theo is one of the more popular kids at this school—he fist-bumps his way down the hall—which is weird, because he’s the type of guy people would have teased in Chicago. Not because he’s gay—my classmates at FDR were not homophobic, at least not overtly—but because he’s flamboyant. A little much about muchness. Everything Theo does is theatrical, except when it comes to me, of course.
Last night, I ran into him before bed and he was actually wearing a silk smoking jacket, like a model in a cologne ad. True, my cheeks were smeared with zit cream and I reeked of tea tree oil, looking like my own ridiculous parody of a pimply teenager. Still, I had the decency to pretend that it wasn’t strange that our lives had suddenly, and without our consent, become commingled. I said my friendliest goodnight, since I can’t see the point of being rude. It’s not like that’s going to unmarry our parents. But Theo just gave me an elaborate and elegant grunt, one with remarkable subtext:
You and your gold-digger dad should get the hell out of my house.
He’s not wrong. I mean, my dad’s not interested in his mom’s money. But we
leave. We should get on a plane this afternoon and move back to Chicago, even though that’s an impossibility. Our house is sold. The bedroom I slept in for the entirety of my life now cradles a seven-year-old and her extensive American Girl doll collection. It’s lost, along with everything else I recognize.
As for today’s lunch, I considered taking my sad PB&J to the library, a plan that was foiled by a very stern
sign. Too bad, because the library here is amazing, so far the only thing I would admit is an improvement over FDR. (At FDR, we didn’t really have a library. We had a book closet, which was mostly used as a place to make out. Then again, FDR was, you know, public school. This place costs a bajillion dollars a year, a bill footed for me by Dad’s new wife.) The school brochure said the library was donated by some studio bigwig with a recognizable last name—and the chairs are all fancy, the sort of thing you’d see in one of those high-end design magazines Dad’s new wife keeps strategically placed around the house. “Design porn,” she calls them, with that nervous laugh that makes it clear that she only talks to me because she has to.
I refuse to eat in the restroom, because that’s what pathetic kids do in books and movies, and also because it’s gross. The burnouts have colonized the back lawn, and anyway, I don’t want to sacrifice my lungs at the altar of fake friendship. There’s that weird Koffee Kart thing, which would normally be right up my alley, despite its stupid name: Why “Ks”? Why? But no matter how fast I get there after calculus, the two big comfy chairs are always taken. In one is the weird guy who wears the same vintage Batman T-shirt and black skinny jeans every day and reads books even fatter than the ones I tend to like. (Is he actually reading? Or are the books props? Come on, who reads Sartre for fun?) The other is taken by a revolving group of too-loud giggling girls who flirt with the Batman, whose real name is Ethan, which I know only because we have homeroom and English together. (On that first day, I learned he spent the summer volunteering at a music camp for autistic kids. He did not, in any way, operate a blender. Plus side: he did not give me one of those pitying looks I got from the rest of the class when I told them about my super-cool smoothie gig, but then again, that’s because he couldn’t be bothered to look at me at all.)
Despite the girls’ best efforts, the Batman doesn’t seem interested in them. He does the bare minimum—a half-hug, no-eye-contact brush-off—and he seems to shrink after each one, the effort costing him in some invisible way. (Apparently, there’s a lot of hugging and double kisses at this school, one on each cheek, as if we are Parisian and twenty-two and not American and sixteen and still awkward in every way that matters.) Can’t figure out why they keep coming back to him, each time in that bubble of hilarity, as if being in high school
is so much fun!
Seriously, does it need to be repeated? For the vast majority of us,
high school is not fun; high school is the opposite of fun.
I wonder what it’s like to talk in superlatives like these girls do:
Ethan, you are just the funniest! For reals. Like, the funniest!
“You need some fresh air. Come walk with us, Eth,” a blond girl says, and ruffles his hair, like he is a small, disobedient child. Sixteen-year-old flirting looks the same in Los Angeles and Chicago, though I would argue that the girls here are even louder, as if they think there’s a direct correlation between volume and male attention.
“Nah, not today,” the Batman says, polite but cold. He has dark hair and blue eyes. Cute if you’re into that
I don’t give a crap
look. I get why that girl ruffled his hair. It’s thick and tempting.
But he seems mean. Or sad. Or both. Like he too is counting the days until he graduates from this place and in the meantime can’t be bothered to fake it.
For what it’s worth: 639 days, including weekends. Even I manage to fake it. Most of the time.
I haven’t had a chance to really look without getting caught, but I’m pretty sure the Batman has a cleft in his chin, and there’s a distinct possibility that he wears eyeliner, which,
Or maybe it’s just the dark circles that make his eyes pop, because he looks chronically exhausted, like sleep is just not a luxury afforded to him.
“No worries,” the girl says, and pretends not to be stung by his rejection, though it’s clear she is. In response, she sits on another girl’s lap in the opposite chair, another blond, who looks so much like her that I think they might be twins, and faux-cuddles her. I know how this show goes.
I walk by, eager to get to the bench just outside the door. A lonely place to eat lunch, maybe, but also an anxiety-free zone. No way to screw it up.
“What are you staring at?” the first blonde barks at me.
And there they are, the first words another student has voluntarily said to me since I started at Wood Valley two weeks ago:
What are you staring at?
Welcome to the jungle,
Welcome. To. The. Jungle.
t’s not so bad here, I tell myself, now that I’m sitting on a bench with my back to the Batman and those bitchy girls, the cafeteria and the rest of my class safely behind him. So people here are mean. No big deal. People are mean everywhere.
I remind myself of the blissful weather. It’s sunny, because apparently it’s always sunny in LA. I’ve noticed that all the kids have designer sunglasses, and I’d get all snarky about people trying to look cool, but it turns out they need them. I spend my days all squinty, with one hand cupped over my eyes like a saluting Boy Scout.
My biggest problem is that I miss my best friend, Scarlett. She’s my five-foot-tall half-Jewish, half-Korean bouncer, and she would have had the perfect comeback for that girl, something with bite and edge. Instead, I’ve only got me: me and my delayed response time and my burning retinas. I’ve been trying to convince myself that I can go it alone for the next two years. That if I need a boost, I can just text Scarlett and it will feel like she’s nearby, not halfway across the country. She’s fast on the trigger. I just wish I felt a little less stupid about how this place works. Actually, SN is right: I have lots of practical questions. I could totally use a Wood Valley app that would tell me how to use the lunch credit cards, what the hell Wood Valley Giving Day is, and why I’m supposed to wear closed-toed shoes that day. Maybe most importantly, who is off-limits for accidental eye contact.
What are you staring at?
The flirting blondes now walk by my bench—guess their attempt to get Batman to walk was fruitless—and giggle as they pass.
Are they laughing at me?
“Is she for real?” the blonder girl mock-whispers to her only slightly less blond friend, and then glances back at me. They are both pretty in that lucky, conventional way. Shiny, freshly blown yellow hair, blue eyes, clear skin, skinny. Oddly big boobs. Short skirts that I’m pretty sure violate the school’s dress code, and four coats of makeup that was probably applied with the help of a YouTube tutorial. I’ll be honest: I wouldn’t mind being lucky in precisely that way, being that rare teenager who has never stared down the head of a pimple. My face, even on its clearest days, has what my grandmother has always not-so-charitably called character. It takes a second, maybe a third look for someone to notice my potential. That is, if I have any. “Did you see that scrunchie?”
Oh crap. I was right. They are talking about me. Not only will I spend the next two years without a single friend, but all those
specials on school bullying will finally make sense. Somebody Nobody may be a prank, but he/she is right: this place is a war zone. I’m going to need my own personal “It Gets Better” video.
My face burns. I touch my finger to my head, a sign of weakness, yes, but also a reflex. There’s nothing wrong with my scrunchie. I read on Rookie that they’re back. Scarlett wears one too sometimes, and she won Best Dressed last year. I fight the tears filling my eyes. No, they will not see me cry. Scratch that. They will not
“Shhh, she can hear you,” the other one says, and then looks back at me, at once apologetic and gleeful. She’s high with a vicarious bitch thrill. Then they walk on—sashay, really, as if they think there’s an audience watching and whistling. I glance behind me, just to make sure, but no, I’m the only one here. They are swaying their perfect asses for my benefit.
I pull out my phone. Text Scarlett. It’s lunchtime for me, but she’s just getting out of school. I hate that we are far apart in both space
I don’t fit in here. Everyone is a size 0. Or 00.
Oh no, don’t tell me we have to do the whole U R NOT FAT thing. The entire basis of our friendship is that we are not the kind of girls who have to do that for each other.
We have never been the types who are all, “I hate my left pinky finger! It’s just so…bendy.” Scarlett is right. I have better things to do than compare myself with the unattainable ideals established by magazine art directors who shave off thighs with a finger swipe. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to noticing that I’m on the bigger side of things here. How is that possible? Do they put laxatives in the water?
And blond. Everyone is. Just. So. California. Blond.
DON’T LET THEM TURN YOU INTO ONE OF THOSE GIRLS. You promised not to go LA on me.
Don’t worry. I’d have to actually talk to people to go LA.
Crap. Really? That bad?
I quickly snap a selfie of me alone on a bench with my half-eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I smile instead of pout, though, and label with the hashtag #Day14. Those blondes would pout, turn it into an
I’m so sexy
picture, and then Instagram it.
Look how hot I am not eating my sandwich!
Lose the scrunchie. A little too farm girl with that shirt.
I pull my hair loose. This is why I need Scarlett here. Maybe she’s the reason I’ve never been teased before. If we hadn’t met at the age of four, I’d likely be an even bigger dork.
Thanks. Scrunchie officially lost. Consider it burned.
Who’s the hot guy photobombing you?
I squint at my phone. The Batman was looking out the window just as I took my shot. Not photobombing exactly, but captured for posterity. So it turns out Blond and Blonder did have an audience after all. Of course they did. Girls like that
have an audience.
My face flushes red again. Not only am I a big fat loser who eats lunch alone with an unironic scrunchie in her hair, but I’m stupid enough to get caught taking a selfie of this wonderful moment in my life. By a cute guy, no less.
I check the little box next to the picture. Hit delete. Wish it were that easy to erase everything else.
. S. Eliot’s
‘The Waste Land.’
Anyone read it?” asks Mrs. Pollack, my new AP English teacher. Nobody raises their hand, myself included, though I did read it a couple of years ago, in what now feels like a different lifetime. My mom used to leave poetry books strewn around our house, as if they were part of some unspoken scavenger hunt, a scattering of convoluted clues leading to I don’t know what. When I was bored, I’d pick up the books off her nightstand or from the pile next to the bathtub and randomly flip them open. I wanted to read wherever she had highlighted or scribbled illegible margin notes. I often wondered why a certain line was marked with faded yellow.
I never asked her. Why didn’t I ask her? One of the worst parts about someone dying is thinking back to all those times you didn’t ask the right questions, all those times you stupidly assumed you’d have all the time in the world. And this too: how all that time feels like not much time at all. What’s left feels like something manufactured. The overexposed ghosts of memories.
In “The Waste Land,” my mother had underlined the first sentence and marked it with two exuberant asterisks: “April is the cruellest month.”
Why is April the cruellest month? I’m not sure. Lately, they all seem cruel in their own way. It’s September now: sharp pencils. A new year and not a new year at all. Both too early and too late for resolutions and fresh starts.
My mother’s books are packed up in cardboard boxes and getting moldy in a self-storage unit in Chicago, their paper smell turned damp and dusty. I don’t let myself think about that or about how all matter disintegrates. About how all that highlighting was a waste.
“It’s a four-hundred-thirty-four-line poem. So that’s what, like, four hundred thirty-four tweets?” Mrs. Pollack gets a laugh. She’s young—maybe late twenties—and attractive: leopard-print leggings, leather peep-toe wedges, a silk tank top that shows off her freckled shoulders. She’s better dressed than I am. One of those teachers who the kids have all tacitly agreed to root for, maybe even to admire, since her life doesn’t seem so far out of our reach. She’s something recognizable.
On my first day, she introduced me to the class but didn’t make me stand up and say something about myself, like the rest of my teachers had done. Considerate of Mrs. Pollack to spare me that indignity.
“So, guys, ‘The Waste Land’ is hard. Really, really hard. Like, college-level hard, but I think you’re up for it. Are you up for it?”
She gets a few halfhearted yeses. I don’t say anything. No need to let my nerd flag fly just yet.
“Nuh-uh. You can do better than that. Are you up for it?” Now she gets full-on cheers, which impresses me. I thought the kids here only got excited about clothes and
and expensive trips to pad their college applications. Maybe I’ve written them off too quickly. “Okay, here’s how we’re going to do this. You’re going to partner up into teams of two, and over the next two months, on a weekly basis, you are going tackle this poem together.” Oh no. No. No. No. You know the only thing worse than being the new kid in school? Being the new kid who needs to find a partner. Crap.
My eyes bounce around the room. Theo and Ashby are in the front, and it’s a given that Theo will not help a stepsister out. The two blondes who made fun of me earlier are sitting to my right. Turns out their names are Crystal (blond) and Gem (blonder), which would be hilarious if they weren’t nasty. Look left. The girl next to me wears cool big black Warby Parker frames and ripped jeans and looks like the kind of person who would have been my friend back home. But before I can think of a way to ask her to team up, she’s already turned to the person next to her and done the whole
let’s be partners
thing without exchanging a word.
Suddenly, the whole room is paired up. I look around, try not to seem too desperate, though there is a pleading in my eyes. Will I have to raise my hand and tell Mrs. Pollack that I don’t have a partner?
Please, God, no.
Just as I bend my arm, ready to raise it in defeat, someone taps my shoulder from behind with a pen. I breathe a sigh of relief and turn. I don’t care who it is. Beggars and all that.
My stomach does an embarrassing squeeze. He gives me a little nod, like Theo’s guy nod, but this time, there’s no mistaking it: he’s clearly asking me to be his partner. His blue eyes are piercing, almost violating, like he isn’t just looking
me too. Measuring something. Seeing if I’m worth his time. I blink, look down, nod back, give him the slightest smile as a thanks. I turn forward again and use all of my willpower not to put my hands against my cheeks to cool them down.
I spend the rest of class wondering why the Batman picked me. Maybe I look smart? And if I look smart, does that mean I look dorky? I mentally scan my outfit: plaid button-down, Gap jeans cuffed up, my old beat-up Vans. My Chicago uniform, minus the heavy jacket. Nothing too telling there, especially now that I’m scrunchie-free. My first instinct is that, for whatever reason, he’s just doing a good deed. I must have looked pathetic, wildly scanning the room for a willing face, especially after he saw me getting bitched out by Gem earlier and embarrassing myself on the first day of school. Even Ken Abernathy, who according to SN has a farting problem, found a partner immediately.
When the bell rings and we’re all packing up our laptops—of course I’m the only one here without a fancy, slim computer—the Batman stops at my desk, stares me down again with those killer eyes. Am I just imagining that they have a sociopathic hint to them? He can’t be that mean. Picking me was actually a nice thing to do. I don’t remember taking the time to befriend a new kid back home. Hot and nice. That. Is. So. Not. Good.
I realize just in time that I need to stop staring and speak up.
“So do you want to exchange numbers or something?” I ask, and hate the nervous lilt in my voice that makes me sound way too much like the girls who gather around him at lunchtime. It’s just that I haven’t really spoken much in weeks. Scarlett and I mostly text. My dad has been so busy looking for a new job and spending time with his new wife that we’ve barely seen each other. He’s not my favorite person right now anyway. I don’t like this new version of him, distracted and married to a stranger, forcing me into an unrecognizable life without a say in the matter.
And that’s it. The sum total of people left in my world.
“Nah. I’ll just do the assignment and put both of our names on it.” This guy doesn’t wait for my okay. He just nods again, like I’ve said yes. Like he asked and I answered a question.
Right. Maybe not so nice after all.
“But—” But what?
I was looking forward to being your partner? I like your serial killer eyes?
Or worst of all:
I don’t finish speaking. Just look back down at my leather book bag, which I thought was cool until I got here and realized everyone else’s was a fancy French brand that you hear about in rap songs.
“Don’t worry. You’ll get an A.”
Then the Batman walks out so fast that it’s almost like I imagined him there. Some perverse version of a superhero. And I am left alone to gather up my stuff, wondering how long it will be till someone talks to me again.
It will get better, right? Eventually, it will get better.
I’m sorry I’m not the type to lower our discourse to emoji use since you totally deserve a smiley face right now. Yes, it will get better.
Ha. It’s just. Whatever. Sorry to keep whining.
That’s what I’m here for. BTW, that email you forwarded? My guess: TOTALLY A SECRET ADMIRER.
You’ve read too many books. I’m being set up. And stop YELLING AT ME.
No way. I didn’t say he was a vampire. I said he was a secret admirer. Most def.
Wanna take bets?
You should just know by now that I’m always right. It’s my one magic power.
Thanks a lot.
Kidding. You are strong. That’s your power, girl.
My arms are v. toned from stress-eating ALL the cookies. Hand to mouth. Repeat 323 times. Hard-core workout.
Seriously, for a second, J? Just because you’re strong doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for help sometimes. Remember that. I’m here, ALWAYS, but you might want to take up that offer from someone local.
Whatever. Ugh. Thanks, Dr. Phil. I miss you!
Miss you too! Go write back to SN. NOW. NOW. NOW. Now tell me the truth? Anyone at your school unusually pale?