I follow Jake outside the school, over the sky bridge across the West Side Highway, to a nook behind the tennis court. He explains to me that this is where the cool kids congregate to smoke cigarettes between classes. I never knew what the fuss with cigarettes was about all. My mom, after I was caught shop-lifting them at 7-11 on a dare, told me if I were caught with cigarettes ever again, she would drag me out of school and home-school me.
I absolutely do not want that.
Jake, on the other hand, pulls out a pack from the front pocket of his backpack and offers me one. I guess I should be flattered. He only had three left in that squished up carton.
“My cousin buys them for me,” he tells me and dangles a cigarette between his lips without lighting it. “You sure you don’t want to try one? You won’t get addicted after just one.”
“No,” I reply and toss my apple from hand to hand. “I got in trouble with them before. I should stay away.”
“Oh, you used to smoke?” Jake asks, his eyes widening. “I didn’t expect that coming from you, Queens. You look like a Miss-Nerdy-Good-Girl.”
“Yeah, just shows you, you can’t judge people by their appearances,” I say with a nervous chuckle. Oh, if only he knew what I did at night or rather what I made my sexy werewolves do at night.
Jake sits down on one of the cement ledges. He pats the spot beside him. I see two other kids sitting on the ledge. They are dressed in black T-shirts, and their pants have chain belts. After waving to Jake, they go back to smoking and sharing a single set of earphones.
I notice that everyone here except for the two of us has hair dyed in a color not found in nature. I sit down and tuck my legs under myself. I am wearing jeans, but I still don’t feel comfortable enough to sit with my legs spayed open over the ledge like Jake. I guess I am a goody-two-shoes after all.
“Not going to eat that apple?” Jake asks.
“Nah, still not hungry,” I reply. I feel self-conscious about eating in front of people. I suppose it’s because they used to tease me at my old school about my weight. The popular girls used to whisper to each other about whether I needed that cup of rice pudding. “So, you come here often?”
“They call this The Wall, like the Pink Floyd album. Only the outcast kids come here,” Jake tells me with a smirk. “Careful, if you sit with us, you’ll be one of us.”
“Yeah, right,” I reply. “You’re full of shit. The world isn’t that simple. There’s no good kids or bad kids. Just people who walk around with a persecution complex and refuse to get along with everyone else.”
“Said like a true popular girl,” he replies. Jake doesn’t light the cigarette. He just bounces it up and down with the tip of his tongue. I wonder if he feels self-conscious about smoking it in front of me. Maybe he has his own hang ups too.
“Tell me about your writing,” I say to change the subject before he can tease me further about the apple. “Are you going to get published one day?”
Jake laughs at that. “I’m actually more of a poet. A misunderstood poet. No, I don’t believe in traditional publishing. I’m more of an underground performance type of artist.”
“Okay, sure. That’s what you tell yourself as you ride around in your motorcycle and flex your arms in your sweaty leather jacket.”
“Hey, hey, are you stereotyping me as some kind of a bad boy?” He asks and chews on his cigarette in anger. I’m starting to think it’s just for show, and he doesn’t even own a lighter. “Okay, I’ll take it. Chicks love that, right?”
“I don’t know. You tell me. Do you take all your girls here?”
Jake runs his fingers through his dark hair. He’s kind of cute, in an inner-city, hipster, sort of way. “I’ll let you in on a secret. You’re the first girl I’ve brought here.”
“Liar,” I reply and punch him in the shoulder. Ouch, his muscles get in the way of me getting my point across. “Whatever, I know better than to believe some tattooed up gangster.”
Suddenly, I feel uncomfortable. Is Jake making a pass at me? I twist my legs out from under me and think about jumping down from the ledge.
Jake gets up first and offers me a hand down. I refuse it. His large, calloused hand looks like it would be gross to the touch. The September heat is beating down on us, and I am just hoping my deodorant is keeping my pit stains at bay.
I try to make the jump but end up landing on the side of my foot. Darn these stupid Payless cowboy boots with their cheap, slippery heels! I fall directly into Jake Villin. Like I try to grab a strap of his book bag tin order o right myself up again, but instead, I end up going chin first right into his collar bone. Oh my God, I hope no one thinks we are hugging!
Luckily, Jake just laughs and rights me up again. He smells oddly nice, a bit like metal and worn leather. I wonder if he wears a leather jacket to school, and that’s why the smell lingers on his clothes.
My shirt had started inching up my belly while I was sitting. My flailing limbs from the fall didn’t help any either. Now, my flab is exposed, and I feel gross. I yank my shirt down and shove it into the waist of my jeans. Once again, I think about Ruth and her perfect athletic body. I bet she never worried about muffin topping over her pants. She probably rocks a halter top and never even thinks twice about it.
“I was right. You do smell like peaches,” Jake tells me in a mocking tone.
“If you try to taste me, I’ll punch you in the throat.”
“Don’t worry about that,” he says and shoves me away. “I’m allergic to them, by the way.”
I doubt that he’s allergic. Who the heck is allergic to peaches? I bet he’s just saying that to be contrary. Even so, I hate being compared to a peach. I feel plenty self-conscious about my mid-section as it is. Why can’t he compare me to something skinny like bamboo, a belt-fish, or even the slender man?
My phone vibrates inside my school bag as I try to think of a witty retort to his annoying nickname. It’s Nick. He says physics is so boring and he wishes he was eating lunch with me. I smile and text back - me too.
Yes, me too, Nick. Like more than you would ever know, considering the current company.