I lay awake deep into the night, staring at my poster-clad ceiling, pondering what to do about Justin.
Do I tell? That’s obvious: yes. He ruined my life. He could use a taste of his own medicine.
But how? And when? How do I hit him below the belt? What would do the most damage? It would have to be a public revelation, obviously; something in front of everyone. But how do I tell everyone all at once? Do I hack the school’s PA system? Announce it over the loud speaker? Take a photograph, make copies, and tack them up all over the halls? Or -
I should do it during a football game. Something to take his sport - his identity- the very thing he’s known for - away from him. Like he took everything from me. Wait! Not just any football game; the Homecoming game, the most popular game of the year. He’s sure to be crowned king during the halftime ceremony. I could take it from him then. Run up, snatch the microphone, and tell everyone right there.
“Hey, everybody,” I say hoarsely into the dark. “Justin’s gay.” The words hang in the air, echoing off the stillness. They’ll never see it coming. But there’s still one thing that I can’t wrap my brain around.
If he’s gay, why did he do that to me? Why would he do that, if he likes guys? I just don’t understand. What was the point of dating me, of - of - of - getting physical with me? Now that I think about it, he didn’t really seem to like it. It seemed more like we kissed and stuff out of obligation. Because that’s just what high school couples do.
“But then why did you do it?” I whisper. Unintentionally, tears form in the far corners of my eyes. They pool over and run down the sides of my face onto the pillow. “Why did you do it and then lie and ruin my life?”
I roll over onto my side and close my eyes. I don’t think I’ll ever know.
School comes, and I can’t look at him the same way. I’m sitting in English class, stealing glances at him from across the room. He’s got his arm around Melissa, but his eyes on Jamal. I’ll tell you what, this guy is a professional faker. His acting is so good, I wish he’d get nominated for an Oscar.
“Eyes up front, please!” Ms. Barnes chirps. I snap to attention. She sets the chalk down on the board ledge. “I’m assigning you your first paper of the year,” she says, and the room groans. “I know, I know,” she sympathizes. She’s a good faker, too. “Springboarding off of the first journal prompt, I want you to write a five-paragraph essay on your name. Remember to include your thesis statement in the introductory paragraph, and to restate that thesis in different words in the concluding paragraph. The paper will be due in two weeks.”
Great. I suck at essays.
“Now pull out The Sun Also Rises. Would anyone like to volunteer to read?”
No one raises their hand.
“Stephanie, we haven’t heard from you in a while. Why don’t you start?”
I close my eyes and sigh. Of course.
“Okay,” I grumble. Even the teachers pick on me. Why is it so hard to be invisible?
I pick up where we left off, in Chapter 2.
"‘Listen, Jake,’" I read aloud. It scares me, hearing my voice alone dominating the room. It’s a self-conscious act. ”He leaned forward on the bar. ‘Don’t you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you’re not taking advantage of it? Do you realize you’ve lived nearly half the time you have to live already?’ ‘Yes, every once in a while.’ ‘Do you know that in about thirty-five years more we’ll be dead?’ ‘What the hell, Robert,’ I said. ‘What the hell.’ ‘I’m serious.’ ‘It’s one thing I don’t worry about,’ I said. ‘You ought to.’ ‘I’ve plenty to worry about one time or other. I’m through worrying.’ ‘Well, I want to go to South America.’ ‘Listen, Robert, going to another country doesn’t make any difference. I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that.’ ‘But you’ve never been to South America.’ ‘South America hell! If you went there the way you feel now it would be exactly the same. This is a good town. Why don’t you start living your life in Paris?’”
“Thank you, Stephanie,” Ms. Barnes interrupts. “Anyone else?”
No hands go up. She picks on one of the goth boys who never speaks. Sometimes it’s a shock to hear that people have a voice. Too many people don’t use theirs at all, and the ones who shouldn’t use theirs at all, use theirs too much. I never understood that. Why do some stay silent while others fill their every second on this planet with drivel?
The kid - who used to be Jacob, until he dyed his white-blond hair black, painted his nails black, and changed his name to Blaze - reads on in a voice barely above a whisper. It’s so soft and high-pitched, but quiet.
Why don’t you start living your life in Paris?
Good question, Hemingway. You should’ve had this conversation with my dad. This is something he needed to hear years ago. Maybe it would’ve stopped him from leaving, and me from searching for Stephanie.
The bell rings, and we file out of class. I head to Physics, then Psychology, then lunch. I meet Calvin at our usual table, which has now (unfortunately) become regularly inhabited by the Allies.
I set my brown bag lunch down and pull up a chair next to Cal.
“Hey,” I murmur, “I gotta tell you something.”
“Hey! I’ve got something to tell you, too,” he smiles.
“Oh,” I say. “Okay, you go first.” I pull the salami sandwich out of my lunch sack and take a bite. The squashed white bread sticks to the roof of my mouth.
“You know that coffee house on Prairie Street?”
“Yeah,” I say through a mouthful. Classy, Stephanie. So classy.
“Well, they’re having an open mic night in a couple weeks. And I may or may not have signed us both up for it.”
I can’t help it: I smack his arm. Hard.
“Why would you do that?!” I roar. “Are you trying to humiliate me?!”
“Jesus, Stevie, calm down,” he says sharply. His tone jolts me.
“I’m sorry,” I say, and I am. I don’t mean to hurt him. I love him.
He rubs his arm.
“I was expecting maybe a thank-you, considering I just booked you your first live event. You’re always saying how much you’d like to be a musician. Well, now’s your chance to perform in front of a real audience. Not just me, Freeloader, and the horses.” He’s frowning at me. It makes me squirm. If I do something to upset him, I will do literally anything to make it right. If he told me the only way to get his forgiveness was to swim from LA to China, I’d drown trying.
I put my hand gently on his forearm, the same one that I hit. I look into his eyes, a gorgeous green today.
“Thank you,” I say. “You’re the best. I’m sorry, I just got scared. I don’t need another reason for people to make fun of me.”
He shifts in his chair towards me, and his expression softens. In that instant, I know all is forgiven. When he looks at me this way - I don’t know what to call it - it’s like past wrongs have melted and he forgets them and the focus is just on making everything okay.
“Why would you think that?” he asks, holding my gaze. “You’re an amazing guitar player, you have a great voice, the songs you’ve written are really good...I don’t see how anyone could make fun of you.”
I drop my head to the side and stare at him. He’s delusional.
“They don’t need a logical reason to, they just do!” I sigh. “Again, thank you, I know you’re just looking out for me, but I think I’m gonna have to pass. I’m sorry. I can’t.”
“Can’t what? What are we all talkin’ ’bout?” Josh asks, slapping down a lunch tray and taking a seat across the table from us. He’s always smiling. I don’t know how someone could be so happy all the time. Doesn’t it get exhausting? How does he do it?
“Play guitar and sing at open mic night,” Cal says. “Stevie is really talented, but she doesn’t think she can do it.”
“You play guitar? That’s tight!” Josh grins. He puts a fist out for me to bump, and I reluctantly return the gesture. I’m still getting used to this “friend” thing.
“She does. And she sings. And she’s great. But she doesn’t want to perform because she’s afraid people will judge her.”
I look down at my soggy sandwich. I don’t need this right now.
“Sounds like you bein’ a chicken, Stevie,” Josh says, shaking his head. He scoops up a spoonful of corn into his mouth. “Bawk-bawk-bawk,” he squawks, laughing. I glare at him.
“Chickens? This ain’t my farm,” Tractor says, pulling up to the table with his two lunch trays.
“We have one at the table,” Josh says. He points his spoon at me and squawks again. “Bawk-bawk-bawk.”
I can feel my cheeks turning red. This is why I don’t make friends. Everyone’s an ass.
Tractor joins in. He puts his hands into his armpits and starts flapping his elbows like chicken wings. They’re both doing it now - flapping fake wings and bawking. It’s drawing attention to our table. As if everyone didn’t think we were big enough freaks already.
Then Angus, who’s been quietly eating his lunch the whole time, falls into a laughing fit and joins in the chicken impressions. I put my head down and cover it with my arms. This is humiliating.
“Don’t let them control you,” Cal whispers directly into my right ear. “Don’t let them stop you from doing something you love. Don’t give them that power. Be brave.”
The bawking is becoming deafening. I can’t take it anymore. It’s gonna drive me up a wall.
“ALRIGHT!” I shout. “Sheesh, I’ll play at the stupid open mic night! Jesus Christ!”
Josh laughs, Cal smiles, and the four of them exchange high-fives. I put my hands over my eyes and slide them down slowly, tugging at my skin.
“I hope you know how much I hate all of you,” I say. “I don’t even know what song to play!”
“That’s okay. I’ll help you. There’s still a couple weeks to practice. You got this,” Cal says. Then, he ploinks me on the nose.
I glare at him.
“Really?” I say.
“Couldn’t help it.” He grins.
“Well, what about you? What song are you playing?” I say, deliberately taking the topic of conversation off of me. He just continues to grin.
“You’ll see,” he says and shakes his head.
The conversation shifts to debates about music - which song I should play; whether country music, or rap, or punk, or pop, is the best genre; if Tractor really has a golden voice (he does, surprising to us all; if Angus really knows all the lyrics to every Spice Girls song (he does, surprising to us all); and then they make me sing a verse or two from a song I wrote a while back. They actually compliment me. Whoa. That’s a weird feeling.
In all of this, I completely forget to tell Calvin about Justin and my discovery. Maybe it’s better off that way, though. Lunch ended up being actually pretty fun. Maybe this whole “friend” thing isn’t such a pain in the ass after all.