“I’m so excited for you! It’s like a dream come true,” Vinh screams in my ear.
“Dude, I’m right here.” I plug my left ear for a moment before I continue putting books into my locker.
“I don’t care. Let me be excited for you,” he protests, plopping a donut hole from the bag in his hands into his mouth, then one in mine.
“You know, we’re only going as friends…” I arrange my books in a pattern of short, tall, short, tall, so that it would be easier to pull each out later.
“Only because you left him hanging. His anxiety was probably crippling him. Poor guy. Poor handsome, charming, sweet, heroic, all around boyfriend material guy,” he drawls, dragging each adjective dramatically.
“We’re going AS FRIENDS,” I scream in his face and laugh when he comically wipes away my spit from his eyebrow. “Now, can we talk about something else, like are you going to ask Jeremy to go to this?”
“He brought it up actually, so we’re going to meet up there,” he answers casually, then continues, “Do you know what you’re wearing to this thing?”
“Something normal, because it’s homecoming, not winter formal.”
As a kid, I grew up spoiled by all the teen movies that always showed the homecoming dance as a fancy little thing that people dressed up for. Imagine the disappointment that hit me when everyone showed up in booty shorts and started a grinding train that snaked around the dancefloor. I don’t need to ask to figure out what I need to wear to it because a tank top and a pair of shorts would suffice.
“Hey, kids. What are we talking about?”
I purse my lips, remembering what I had told Damon. I feel like I deserve a punch in the throat.
But it’s true. He’s proven himself to be a nice guy and potentially a good friend.
So why do I feel guilty? I didn’t lie.
“Homecoming. You coming?” Vinh is either oblivious to how sensitive this situation or trying to torture me. I shoot him an “I’ll kill you later” look.
“I-I don’t know,” Silas stutters, turning to look at me, “Are you going?”
“Yeah,” I answer and swallow hard as I elaborate, “I’m meeting up with Damon.”
I’ve never dangled candy in front of a child and then eaten it in front of them, but I imagine that’s exactly what I just did to Silas. His slight smile drags itself down like the melting clock in Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory.
Poor guy. I give him an apologetic smile and I think he understands.
He didn’t ask. Damon did. It’s only fair.
“I think I’m gonna sit this one out. I have a lot of That 70’s Show seasons to watch if I want to catch up on your weird references.”
“They’re not weird if you actually got them,” Vinh contends, rolling his eyes.
The bell rings, and we walk together until Vinh splits off to head to class. Silas and I share first, fourth, and sixth period together. I should have foreseen that he would bother me in class after the events of the past few days.
We don’t have assigned seats in Mrs. Francis’s class, but I’m sure everyone’s found a seat they call home in this room. I personally prefer to see the entire class so I’ve been sitting in the back, with all but one seat behind me, which is usually empty in the corner because it’s right next to the trashcan. No one wants that seat because people have the tendency to throw their trash from a distance and miss.
Today, Silas chose to sit there.
Maybe he likes to be pelted with banana peels.
Halfway through class, I feel a tap on my shoulder, the side that faced the wall. I turn my head to the right and see a folded piece of lined paper, wedged between his index and middle finger. He bends the two fingers a few times, urging me to take the paper. I grab it clumsily.
This is so stupid. I haven’t passed notes since 5th grade, when I was still hanging around Natasha. Her notes were always about what she should wear the next day or which guy she should choose to be her boyfriend. I seriously could not care less, because one, who cares about her outfit of the day, and two, we were in 5th grade. One time, I was having an off day and sent back a note that said “Get over yourself.” She didn’t talk to me for a week.
I remember silently hoping that week would never end.
I unfold the little piece of paper to reveal a note written on wide ruled paper. Really? Wide ruled paper? What are we, toddlers? Animals? Pfft. Wild ruled paper.
His handwriting looks noticeably neat, like he spent years as a child perfecting it. I’ve only seen children fresh off the plane from Vietnam write like this, so it feels off that Silas, a white jock from the suburbs would write like this.
“Psst! Teach me Vietnamese!”
I roll my eyes, then realized that he couldn’t see that eyeroll, so I deliberately turn my whole body around with my left forearm resting on his desk. He looks up from his notes, surprised. I stare at him for a second, then give him an eyeroll. He gives me a “Really?” look, but I don’t care. That was completely necessary. I turn back and write my response.
“No! You probably just want to know all the bad words so you can yell at people in a language you and they don’t understand.”
I toss the note over my shoulder, hearing him physically react to the surprise. I hear some frantic scribbling and then the note was thrown back over my shoulder, landing perfectly at the center of my desk. Nice shot.
“Well, yeah! But I want to learn other stuff too!”
I don’t hesitate to write down his first lesson on the language.
“Okay your first lesson is that words can mean different things depending on the symbol on top of the vowel. Ngũ is a fancy way to say five. Ngủ means sleep, which is what I need right now instead of your pestering. And lastly, Ngu is a word you should get to know, because it aptly describes you.”
Satisfied with my lesson, I toss it back over my shoulder. Silence. Then, he suddenly, he tosses it back to me. I didn’t hear much writing.
“What does Ngu mean?”
I write my answer quickly.
I toss it back. It comes back just as quickly.
“Yes, I know I am, but seriously, what does Ngu mean?”
I slap my palm onto my face and mutter “Oh my god” under my breath. I reach into my pencil pouch, pulling out my red dry erase marker and circle the words “Ngu” and “STUPID” and then an arrow from one to another. I fold the paper back hastily and toss it back.
“Oh!” I think the whole class heard him exclaim.
“Is there a problem, Mister Cravens,” Mrs. Francis asks, raising an eyebrow.
Everyone is now staring at him, and I realize that if I don’t turn around to do the same, it would look weird on my part, so I do.
“It’s nothing, Mrs. Francis. I just finally understood the lesson, that’s all.” Mrs. Francis turns back to the board, and Silas gives me a grin. I narrow my eyes at him and he reaches his hand up to pinch my cheek.
The rest of the day was like that, and I got into the groove of passing notes with him. After a while, there was a certain thrill to it. I learned a lot of things about him, like the fact that he is double jointed (he showed me the weird bendy thing his thumb could do), he’s read the entire Twilight Saga (and he actually liked it but hates the movies), he’s afraid of the dark (except for the night sky, which calms him), and he’s kind of sensitive about his brother leaving.
I wasn’t the only one getting information, though, because he was probing like crazy. I don’t think I’ve ever overshared this much with anyone, but there’s a first to everything. When school was finally over, I still had him on my heels.
“Hey, um, Lane.”
I stop in my tracks to find him a few steps back, standing deep in thoughts.
“What is it?” I don’t mean to sound harsh. I just need to pee.
“I’m not annoying you, am I?” Oh, those puppy dog eyes! I find myself staring at those big brown eyes, lined with long lashes. I can’t feel my knees or anything else, really. Maybe just my fingertips, but they feel a weird tingling, like they want to touch his face and comfort him.
“N-No, of course not,” I answer, trying to sound normal as I tug on one of the strings on his hoodie and letting it bounce up to hit his face. “I like having you around. It makes school a little better.”
He smiles gratefully and tucks a lock of hair behind my ear. “Thanks, Lane. I like being around you too. It makes me feel right.”
“Okay, well I need to pee, so…” I don’t finish my sentence and run around the corner to the nearest restroom.
As I finish my business, I flush and hear Natasha talking her to girls by the sinks, which face the stalls. I freeze and my ears become super sensitive.
“Kimberly, where the hell is my lip cream?” I hear Natasha shrieking at Kimberly.
Poor Kim. She was the first friend Natasha recruited after I gave up on her. Kim’s been following her around the longest, and I think over time, they started to look like each other. They carried the same figure, with the same signature layered soft brown hair, the same type of clothes, and sometimes even matching. Kimberly Tran was her little dress up doll and everyone knows it.
But there was more to it. Kim has grown tired, and anyone could see that. She doesn’t smile as much or really laugh at all. I remember a time when she did laugh and it sounded beautiful. It was a year ago, when she and Jake Kolter started dating. I remember that also being the only time I saw Jake smiling, but then again, I don’t usually notice him anyway. They only lasted a few weeks before Natasha started stomping her feet, causing a bitch-quake on the lover’s connection. They told people that it was because they weren’t a good fit, but I knew better than that.
Now, standing here, listening to Natasha scream at the most loyal person on her team, I can’t help but wonder why Kimberly stayed. Anyone with a functioning ear can hear that Natasha’s only gotten worse over the years. What Kim’s going through now is far worse than what I had to go through, so why is she still in this group?
“Who’s there?” I hear Natasha ask nobody.
Oh, she means me. I panic. I flushed my toilet exactly a minute ago and I’m still in here. If I stay, they’ll think I’m pooping, and I don’t want to deal with that. I don’t poop in these school bathrooms, because I care for these people and prefer not to drop any bombs on them.
Hands shaking, I lift my backpack and swing it over my shoulder. It takes me three tries to pull the lock out, due to the sweat on my fingertips. Slowly, I step out of the stall.
“What the shit, Tammy? Do you miss being my friend so much that you’ve resorted to spying on it?” God, her mouth is big. I don’t make eye contact as I walk toward a sink to wash my hands.
“You know, I was telling these girls the other day that you don’t even know half the brands at the mall.” Karen and Wendy giggle after Natasha, but I spot Kim standing on the far side of the bathroom, staring at herself in the mirror, in a daze.
“How’s that cheap-ass mother of yours? Still working to reminisce your pathetic father?”
That stung. My mom used to treat her like her own child.
We were fed the same food and taught the same life lessons, but I guess I was the only one listening.
I turn to her, my hands still wet from washing. With water dripping from my fingertips, I calmly ask her, “Does it feel good? Does it make you feel better about yourself when you talk like that about my overworked mother and my deceased father?”
Her eyes widen for just a moment before that mean smirk comes back. This is one of the very few times I’ve spoken to her since the fallout. Since then, I’ve done my best to avoid confrontation, but she’s crossed a line.
My mom is all I have and to have someone talk about her like she’s trash. It belittles my love for her, because she’s my world, and my world is so much more than a piece of trash. I feel tears burning at the back of my eyes, but I refuse to show them. I widen my own eyes for a bit to let them dry out.
“You know what I found out a few weeks ago?”
I don’t respond; I just stare.
“My mom has a friend, what was her name? Kao? Anne Kao?”
I freeze, my eyebrows furrowing. Oh, no.
“That’s right. She’s your mom’s boss. Hope she isn’t too comfy with that job of hers.” Her smirk widens into a wicked smile. She knows she’s hit a chord and she’s proud she found her way to slither into my life, poisoning it even worse than before.
Finally satisfied, she struts out, slinging her bag over her shoulder. I stand there, staring at the wall on the far side. Her girls follow her, and last out is Kim, who, on her way past me, gave me an apologetic look. I don’t care. My mom loves her job, and while she’s always tired coming home, she told me that she’s finally found a job she can stick with.
“Oh! Silas! What are you doing, standing here?” I hear Natasha’s I see a cute boy high pitched voice from right outside the bathroom.
“Well, that’s the thing. I was waiting for you, actually.” Silas sounds a bit off. That’s not how he sounds around me.
“Oh, yeah? You were looking for me?” It sounds like she poured ten cups of sugar into her tone.
“Will you come with me to the homecoming dance?”