Burnin' Down the House
The next morning, I awake before my alarm. I lie in bed, staring at the ceiling, mentally coaching myself on how I’m going to take on this day.
When the alarm starts beeping, I smack the ‘off’ button and sit up. I know what I’m going to do.
If this were last year, I would’ve blearily slapped the snooze button half a dozen times, thrown on some holey sweatpants and a T-shirt, and likely forgotten to put on deodorant or brush my teeth. In retrospect, this probably made me even more of a target; but I couldn’t bring myself to do anything else.
Not today, damn it. Not this year.
First thing’s first: gotta have a bangin’ outfit.
I rifle through my dresser. I know I put them somewhere - ah, yep, bottom drawer. Jackpot. Underneath trashed pants and paint-splattered T-shirts lies a goldmine of old-school fashion. I don’t know why I didn’t get rid of these. But I’m glad I didn’t.
I pull out my dad’s brown leather bomber jacket, covered in sewed-on patches representing all the places he performed at. He’s got Memphis, Dallas, Montgomery, and Stephanie all embroidered onto the heavy material. Underneath it is his band shirt collection - ACDC, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, the Who, Queen, the Rolling Stones, Kiss, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, The Cars, The Clash - all of their logo prints faded and streaked with cracks.
I choose the Ramones shirt. And to add to the ambiance, I pop my Ramones cassette into my shelved stereo. I crank up the volume and press play. “Blitzkrieg Bop” blasts through the speakers.
Why didn’t I think to start my mornings this way years ago?
“Turn that down!” Brian shouts, pounding on my bedroom door. I smile.
“Sorry!” I call, but I’m not. They can deal with it.
Well, if I’m going to wear this heavy jacket in the September heat, I’m gonna need some shorts to counteract it.
I pull out a pair of jeans from this magical bottom drawer. They are stained, with gaping holes at the knees and fraying cuffs. I snatch scissors from a kitchen drawer and - snip, snip - instant short-shorts. I leave the pockets, and they hang out below the cut line. Cool.
I pull on the clothes and do something I haven’t done since Justin:
I put on makeup.
It’s not a big thing, really. But it is to me. I haven’t wanted to be attractive in months. But today, I’m gonna try.
I have to raid my mom’s drawer in the bathroom. I threw all my makeup out last year after The Incident. It became disgusting to me, taunting me with its naivety. The girl who used to where it didn’t know the things I now know.
Thankfully, Mom has tons to choose from. She was a real beauty queen back in the day. She competed in ‘Miss Georgia’ pageants and even made it to ‘Miss America’...only to drop out when she married Zennen. She would’ve won, if she’d stayed. I’m convinced.
Foundation, eye shadow, eyeliner, mascara, blush - in twenty minutes, I’m ready. As I look at my made-up self in the mirror, I get the overwhelming urge to scrub it all off and wear a paper bag over my head. But I don’t. I am not an ostrich. That’s no way to live.
A quick bowl of cereal, and Cal’s in the driveway. I clomp down the stairs in my combat boots and jump into the cab next to him.
He glances at me and does a double-take.
“New look,” I say.
“I can see that,” he says, his eyes wide. He shakes his head. “You look...great.” His expression is bizarre. I can’t tell if he’s shocked, or terrified, or sick. He looks like he swallowed a lemon. Maybe I shouldn’t have done this.
“I can go change - ” I say, reaching for the door.
“No!” He puts a hand out to stop me. I look at him, startled. He’s acting so weird. “Don’t change. Stay the way you are,” he says.
“Okay...” I avert my eyes and buckle my seatbelt. I run a hand through my hair. What’s up with him today?
The drive to school is awkward and quiet. One of Cal’s 80′s British Invasion mixed tapes plays, filling the silence. I hum along to “Hold Me Now” by the Thompson Twins, and he taps on the steering wheel to the rhythm.
When we pull into the school parking lot, I brace myself for whatever I’m going to encounter today. With my backpack slung over one shoulder, I hop out of the truck. My boots hit the concrete, and something feels different about today. Cal comes around the front of the cab, and we walk across the parking lot to the front doors. I feel like Tom Cruise from Top Gun walking across the tarmac, looking cool and casual after an exhilarating flight.
People notice. I’m always being looked at - it’s a curse worse than being invisible. Being infamous, I mean. I thrived when I was invisible. Now I can’t get a moment’s peace. But I figure if they’re gonna look no matter what, let’s give ’em something to squawk at.
I push through the front doors, Cal beside me, feeling like a movie star about to walk onto the red carpet, cameras flashing, all eyes on me.
And they are. It’s official: the whole school has to know about me on the football team. That loser girl, that slut, that psycho, that freak? Playing football? Didn’t she and Justin used to date? What does he think about all this?
“Cal?” I ask, overwhelmed by the number of students staring at me.
“Walk me to class,” I say. He knows what that means.
“Of course.” We stop at his locker briefly, then head to mine, then go to English. Last year he had to walk me to every class for weeks. I didn’t want him to, until things got out of hand, and I wasn’t safe walking down certain hallways or going anywhere alone. He’s been a godsend.
I stop in the doorway and turn to him. He leans on the frame.
“Thanks,” I say.
“Anytime.” He smiles. “Meet you here after class?”
“Please,” I say.
“Great. Catch you later.” He ploinks me on the nose, turns on his heel, and walks down the hall, hands buried in his jeans pockets, plaid shirt tail billowing behind him. I shake my head. What a dork. But he’s my dork. So it’s all good.
I take my seat. It occurs to me that this is the first time I’ve shown my legs at school in almost a year. I feel naked. This was a bad idea. Too much of me is exposed. I glance down at my bare thighs -
His hands were on them. Get off, I’d screamed. At least I thought I’d screamed. It might have only been in my head; I don’t know if it ever made it out of my mouth.
A tremor runs down my back. I shiver. Not today, I tell myself now. He has no power over you.
There’s sniggering in The Crew corner. The rustling of papers and manic murmurs. My heart sinks.
It’s the second day of school. This year’s Hot List - the 1998 updated, revised version, with more editions than a fricken Webster’s Dictionary - will be circulating. Last year I broke Top 20. Not too hard at a school with only 90 girls, but it felt like a big deal at the time. I was so stupid. That’s what started this whole thing.
The Crew are definitely checking it out. They start passing the printed sheet around, and it floats from desk to desk, each guy smirking, each girl scanning to figure out where she made it. Jennifer, the girl in front of me, doesn’t look. She just passes it to me.
I don’t even need to look to know where I’ll be:
Last on the list is written,
Stephanie Rogers. So ugly she should kill herself.
But I can’t lie to myself: there is always a twinge of pain, no matter how small, when they say or do things like this. I wish I was stronger.
Now, I’m faced with a choice: I could pass the list on to the girl behind me, and probably ruin her day. Or, I could end this. The temptation to make the girl behind me feel like shit, too, is strong. But I wouldn’t wish what I’ve been through on my worst enemy. Except for Justin. That boy deserves no mercy.
I stand up, grossly aware of my bare thighs. I stride up the aisle to the front of the room, quash the stupid list in my fist, and chuck it into the trash bin.
Then I head back to my desk.
“What the hell!” the girl behind me hisses. “Why’d’cha do that? I wanted to see my rank!”
My jaw literally drops. I could kill her.
I whip around in my seat.
“I just did you a favor," I say. “You’re welcome.”
“Don’t worry,” Ned, the desperate virgin who’s dying to get laid, says. “There’s tons more copies floating around.” If I didn’t know better, I’d guess it was Ned who puts these lists together. So far the author has remained anonymous, but it seems like the kind of thing a repressed male would do. I could see Ned being the author.
I literally facepalm myself. I try to do something good, and this is what I get. No good deed goes unpunished. Next time, I’ll let Betty Sue behind me see her name second to last, in the section labeled “I’ve seen dogs prettier than these bitches”. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Ms. Barnes walks in, and I turn my attention to the journal prompt she’s writing on the board. The boys turn their attention to her boobs. She ought to know better than to wear v-neck tops at a high school. But you can’t save people from their own stupidity. Or hey, maybe she enjoys the attention. I might like it, too, if braindead brutes drooled over me.
The day ensues, practice happens, and all is well and good - I mean, as well and good as one could expect when you’re the most hated person in school. Can’t complain.
When practice ends, I head to the locker room to shower and change for work. It’s nice to have the locker room all to myself. I can shower naked and not be self-conscious. I put on some clean clothes and head out the back door, which opens to an alley behind the bleachers. The alley - which really is more like a passage - is darkened with shadow. Brick wall of the school building on one side, metal bleachers on the other. I walk along the passage but stop when I hear Justin’s voice.
I peer through the crossbars underneath the bleachers up ahead. Several yards in front of me, deep into the abyss of crossbars and tiered seats, there he is. He’s with someone else...if he would only move over a little I could see who it is -
“I’ll call ya later, babe,” he says. Oh, God. Which girl is his victim this week? He shifts and leans in for a kiss -
“Holy shit,” I whisper. It’s Jamal Davis. He’s kissing Jamal Davis. “Justin’s gay?” No way. Noooo way. This can’t be real.
They break apart.
“Okay, I’ll go first. Love you,” Jamal says. He’s holding Justin’s hand, and as he walks away, their arms, still connected at the hand, extend and detach at last, falling to their sides.
“Love you, too,” Justin says. Jamal walks away, coming back across to the thin paved passage. He’s gonna see me. I’m gonna get caught.
If they see me, if they realize that I saw them, they would murder me. No, really. They’re big guys, there’s no one around, and no one knows that any of us are here.
I can’t go back into the locker room - there’s no door handle on the outside. I dive into the meshwork of the bleachers and drop to the ground, lying flat and face-down. I’m so far into the Underside that I’m under the lowest tier. I lift my head a little and watch first Jamal’s feet leave, then several minutes later, Justin’s. Once they’re both gone, I let out the air I’ve been holding. I’m safe.
But holy shit. Justin and Jamal are a thing. Justin, Mr. Macho Womanizer, who was always putting on the face of someone who could get in any girl’s pants - likes guys? No one’s going to believe this -
Everyone is going to flip when they find out. Justin’s life is gonna be over. I can’t believe I walked in on this. There is a God!
How should I tell everyone? Should I make up a note and spread it around school, like the Hot List? Should I spy on them until I can get photographic evidence to prove it? I know he’ll deny it if I don’t have proof. And people will think I’m more deranged if I accuse him without substantiation. Maybe people shouldn’t know I’m the one spreading the information. It might make it more credible to be anonymous, like the Hot List.
OR maybe I can blackmail him. Threaten him with my discovery, tell him if he doesn’t leave me alone and treat me decently, I’ll tell the whole school his secret. But then again, who will they believe - him or me? Him, obviously. Even if I told him I knew, he knows no one would believe me. I’m a Bra Stuffer, a proved liar, remember? No, it’s better that he doesn’t know I know.
I can think about this more later. I gotta get going - I’m gonna be late for work.