The second I wake up, I know it’s gonna be a hell of a day.
The only thing to do is mentally fortify myself beforehand, so I do: I pop in my female teen angst mixed tape and put on a kick-ass outfit.
I belt to Stevie Nicks, Joan Jett, and Pat Benatar as I pull on a camouflage-print shirt, fishnet tights, ripped jeans, a leather jacket, and combat boots. I style my makeup more dramatic than usual. I look fierce and feel powerful. I know shit’s gonna hit the fan the minute I step foot in school. But no one’s gonna mess with me today. I won’t let them.
I jab some punches at my reflection in the mirror. I got into a couple scuffles last year with some asshole boys. They grabbed my butt. I couldn’t let them just get away with it.
I know Calvin won’t be coming. He knows I need a few days to cool off and that I’ll come to him when I’m ready. I pack a lunch, put the twins’ tape recorder in my backpack, strap it on, and roll out.
I get to school just before the first bell. All eyes are on me as I walk to my locker, drop off my board, and head to class. No one stops me to ask if I’m okay. No one says anything to me at all. They all just look at me like I’m a wounded animal on the brink of death, and they don’t want to approach but can’t look away. I pretend like I don’t notice and coolly slip into class. I look to my seat by The Crew, but it’s already been taken.
My old seat behind Jennifer is vacant. Sucking up humility, I resume my lowly status. It’s over. My reign of Camelot has ended.
I plunk down into the chair and let the backpack drop from my shoulder. Jennifer passes back the stack of our composition notebooks. I take mine off the top and pass back the rest. Flipping to the next fresh page, I notice cursive comments scribbled in purple ink on some older entries.
On the page with my favorite Maya Angelou poem - from the day I stood on my desk rapping and got sent to the principal’s office - Ms. Barnes wrote, What a beautiful poem. I’d have liked you to share it with us. And on the first page, where I wrote about my nickname Kansas, she wrote, I’m sorry this happened to you. If you ever want to talk, I’m here.
I sigh. She’s so nice. If only it weren’t social suicide to hang around a teacher.
“Alright, everyone!” Ms. Barnes claps her hands. “Your essays are due today. So please pass them to the front.” A collective groan rumbles. I pull mine out of a shredded folder in my backpack and hand it forward. I fold my arms on my desk, put my head on them, close my eyes, and allow myself to go braindead. It’s the only way I’m gonna survive.
Someone gently shakes my shoulder. I lift my head and look around. The room is empty, except for Ms. Barnes, who is crouched next to me.
“Hey,” she murmurs. “How are you doing? I heard about your injury.”
It’s always weird when you see a teacher this close up. She smells sweet, like Bath & Bodyworks cucumber melon perfume. Her face is caked in makeup - contouring, mascara, bronzer are all obvious. She really is tiny. So thin, it seems like wind could knock her over and break all her bones.
“Yeah,” I say. “Sorry. I’m just not...feeling too great.”
“I understand. Concussions can hurt for a long time.”
“Right.” So that’s what she thinks this is. Just the injury. Alright. I’ll take it. “Well, I better get to second period.” I stand up and pull my backpack on. I hand her my journal, which was still on my desk. She takes it. She stands to her full height and crosses her arms.
“You know, Stephanie. You’re a very talented writer. You have the kind of raw honesty that Hemingway would appreciate.”
I shrug. “Thanks.”
“I’m serious,” she says. “Please keep writing. Someday, I’d like to read your memoir. It sounds like you’ve had a very interesting life.”
I nod, doubtful. “I’ll keep that in mind.” Then, I turn and leave.
I never thought I’d be a writer. I never wanted to be one. I don’t consider myself one. I just consider myself a woman with a story that needed to be told. So thank you, Ms. Barnes, wherever you are out there. It all started with you. I hope you’re reading this memoir - the one you wanted me to write.
The thought of apologizing to Cal makes me sick to my stomach. I am shaky and holding down bile as I tramp to our lunch table. I hate confrontation, but I’m slowly getting better at it. If this had been a year ago, I would’ve avoided him until he came to me. Unfortunately, I can’t keep running from my problems. So I’m doing what I have to do; at least it makes me braver.
The boys are already at the table. Calvin’s got his back to the rest of the room. He doesn’t know I’m coming up behind him.
“C-cal?” My voice trembles. He turns around slowly.
“Yes?” he asks. His hands are folded around a sandwich. His eyebrows are up. I can’t read him; either he’s been expecting me, or he’s still angry. Maybe both.
“Can I talk to you for a sec?” I look at the others. “Hey, guys.” I half-wave.
“Hey, Stevie,” they say, chewing their food slowly, eyes on me and Cal.
“Yeah, sure,” Cal nods. He sets down his sandwich, pushes his chair back and gets up. My insides settle with relief. He follows me out of the cafeteria, around the corner to an empty hallway. When I stop, he leans against the concrete block wall. “So...what’s up?”
I jam my hands in my pockets but force myself to look in his eyes. No half-assing this.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “You were just looking out for me, doing what’s in my best interest, and I treated you like shit. You don’t deserve that. I’m sorry for punching you and yelling at you and telling you I hate you. I lost it, and I took it out on you, and that was wrong. You treat me so well. You’re a good guy, Cal. You don’t deserve the way I treated you.”
He continues to look at me, unreadable. After a moment, he takes a deep breath.
“You know, you really hurt me,” he says. I drop my head.
“I know.” I don’t pretend to deserve forgiveness. He’s put up with all my shit for years, and what did I do? I turned on him. The only person who stood by my side through it all. “I’m not asking you to forgive me. I just need you to know that I was wrong, and I’m sorry. I...I love you, Cal.” I look back up at him and search his face. Please, don’t be cold and impassive. Please don’t recoil from me. Not you, too.
“Come ’ere,” he says. He opens his arms, and I rush into them. He holds me tight and close. He puts his face into my hair. Takes a deep breath. I am so relieved, I could melt. I thought it was over between us. I really did. “I was so scared. I thought I was gonna lose you,” he murmurs. And then he trembles. Oh, my God. Calvin is crying. Holy shit.
“It’s okay,” I say, not sure if I should be smiling, but I am. “It’s okay,” I repeat. “I’m here. I’m fine. There’s nothing to be upset about.” I love his smell, and the strength of his embrace. It’s a safe haven for me.
He puts his closed mouth to my forehead, but doesn’t kiss me. His chin rests on the bridge of my nose.
“So does this mean you forgive me?” I smile, eyes closed. He nods, moving my head with his.
“Always,” he says. “Always.”
Strength renewed, I ascend the mountain that is telling coach I can’t play.
“WHAAAAAT?” he bellows from the summit.
“I’m sorry,” I say, mouth dry. My knees are knocking. “But my parents won’t let me play for the rest of the season because of my concussion.” It’s a white lie.
“THEY CAN’T - YOU’RE ONE OF OUR BEST - WE NEED YOU - ” he sputters, spit flying with every ululation. “LET ME TALK TO THEM. I’M SURE WE CAN - ”
“I’ve already tried. Nothing will convince them otherwise,” I say. It’s a half-truth. If I let him talk to them, he might find out they had no idea I was playing to begin with, which would mean that all the signatures on my waivers and physical forms were forged, and that would land me in more hot water than I’m already in. “I’m sorry.”
He runs a meaty paw over his buzzed head. He scratches his above his right ear.
“Well...” He comes back down to earth. “I still want you to be part of the team. How about you take a week or two off, and if you’re doing better, you come tell me and you get your starting position back.”
I nod, knowing it’ll never happen but recognizing the need to appease.
“Sounds great. Will do,” I say.
He gives me a wink, a nod, and a thumbs-up all at the same time. I take that as my OK to leave. I leave the field and head back inside the school, still dazed that the very asshole who tried to bar me from playing would now go to bat for me so I can keep playing. I shake my head and smile grimly. What a hypocrite.
Alright, Stevie: Agenda Item Numero Dos just got crossed off the list. Final mission: confront Justin.
School just let out minutes ago. If Justin’s not at his locker, he’s in the locker room, changing. I jog to the senior hallway, but he isn’t there. Perfect. I jog to the lockerroom exit behind the bleachers and wait for him to come out. Boy after boy, I stand and say hey, trying to look and act casual. Finally Justin comes out with a few other Crewmen.
“Hey, Justin,” I call, grabbing his attention. He looks around and, seeing me, scrunches his face.
“Um, hey,” he responds uncertainly. “What’s up?”
“Can I talk to you for a sec?” I ask, feigning indifference. He looks at his bros.
“Uh, sure.” He shoots them a questioning look, then makes his way over to me. I motion for him to follow me a little farther into the bleachers underside so we can’t be easily overheard.
“What’s up?” he asks gruffly. I turn to him. My hand immediately grabs at my backpack strap. I would have freaked if it wasn’t there.
My heart speeds up.
“I know about you and Jamal,” I say. Not accusatory. Just a statement of fact. “I saw you guys kissing under the bleachers a few weeks ago.” I study his face. He doesn’t move. He doesn’t blink. He just stares at me, still as a statue. “It’s okay. I’m not judging you. I’m just trying to understand.” He continues to stare at me, unmoving. I switch tactics.
“Let me get this straight,” I say. “Here you are - Justin, the big macho guy, star of the football team, hottest kid in school, son of the most well-known, well-respected man in town. You feel there’s a mold you have to fit into, one that was given to you before birth. You didn’t have a choice. So even though you’ve been crushing on boys since you were young, you could never tell anyone, especially not your father, because what would he think of his only son being a fag? It would be the ultimate disappointment. So you date girls like Melissa Hanson just to keep up the public image. But inside, you’re dying for some validation for your feelings. Then Jamal comes along - a handsome basketball player, popular, funny, everything you want. You become friends, you feel it turning into something more, and next thing you know, you’ve got a secret lover the world will never know about - ”
“What do you want from me?” he interrupts, his face flinty. “What will it take to keep you quiet? Money? Weed? I can hook you up with my dealer. Popularity? You can sit with us at lunch.” He licks his lips, glances around.
I shake my head, hold my hands up.
“I don’t want anything,” I reassure. “I’m just seeking to understand. Why would you do what you did to me, if you’re not even attracted to my body type?”
He won’t look me in the eyes. He keeps glancing around.
“I thought...” He pauses. His mouth tries to form words, but no sound comes out. “I thought if I could...Jesus, Stephanie, what do you want me to say?!”
“I don’t blame you. It wasn’t really your fault. I just want to know what made you do what you did. That’s all.” I’ve almost got him. He’s on the brink, I can feel it.
He runs a hand through his long hair. He takes a deep breath.
“I just thought that maybe I could make myself...if I could just get aroused by a girl body that maybe I could...turn myself...not...gay...” He winces.
“And did it work?” I ask. He looks down. His face falls.
“No.” He shakes his head. “It doesn’t work like that.”
“So what about Melissa?”
He shakes his head again.
“You’ve slept with her, haven’t you?”
“No!” he answers, too quickly. His face changes suddenly. He inflates with aggression. “You won’t tell anybody,” he states. “Swear to me you won’t. Because if you do, I will kill you.”
“You have my word,” I lie. “Don’t worry. I just wanted to know why you did to me what you did. Thank you for tell me.”
He glowers at me, trying to intimidate me. It doesn’t work anymore. At last, he opens his mouth.
“This conversation never happened,” he asserts.
“Ditto,” I say. I pretend to zip my mouth, lock it, and throw away the key.
“I’m serious,” he says. “Tell anyone, and you’re dead meat.” I nod.
He eyes me one last time, then jogs off to the field for practice.
When I’m certain he’s long gone, I pull the tape recorder out of my backpack and hit ‘Stop’. I press ‘Play’, then fast-forward to his admission.
“I just thought that maybe I could make myself...if I could just get aroused by a girl body that maybe I could...turn myself...not...gay...”
It’s his voice, undeniable, clear as a bell. I grin. This is too perfect. Operation Revenge is all coming together.
A feeling I can’t quite explain descends like rain. A cold dripping, a sense of unease, like maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.
Why the hell not? I argue with the feeling. He ruined my life. He’s getting his just deserts.
The feeling persists. I look at the Talkboy in my hand. This is the right thing to do. It’s only fair and just. An eye for an eye. Reputation for reputation.
I shove the feeling away and doubleback to my locker to grab my skateboard and head home.