Being almost-friends with Irish meant inside jokes and laughing all the time and singing harmony to “Yellow Submarine” and getting written up for stupid things like how many times we sharpened our pencils, and feeling like I actually existed. But it also meant spending a fair number of mornings sitting alone next to an empty chair because he was hungover or missed the bus or just didn’t feel like showing up to class.
I missed him on the days he didn’t come, but I wasn’t one to take his absences personally. I considered them to be the result of a kind of social impasse. He was not the kind of boy who felt obligated to attend Geometry on a consistent basis just to see a sometimes-friend, and no matter how many times he invited me to come with him, I was not the kind of girl who ditched class.
I started to notice the times I spent alone, though. It’s a strange phenomenon, but when you are used to being alone, the outside world starts to blur into the background. Alone means no intrusions, no distractions, and the page in front of you is the realest thing.
But when you are sometimes not alone, it gets hard to slip back into the trance you inhabited before, staring at the board while everyone else is giving each other French manicures with Wite-Out and flicking paper footballs. The sense of isolation was still there, but it had stopped being comfortable. It was with great reluctance that I came to a realization: I needed some more almost-friends.
The problem was, I had no idea how you did that—made friends.
However, as had happened with Irish, the decision was essentially made for me:
The girls who sit behind me in Geometry are always having a much better time than me. Or anyone, really. They play a lot of games, the make-believe kind, like it doesn’t even matter what other people think. They have actual names, but they never use them. Instead, they call each other Sodapop and Ponyboy, like The Outsiders.
For Halloween, Soda wore a pink taffeta prom dress and a blond wig, and painted red dye all over herself.
Irish didn’t come to class, so I was by myself. I got out my notebook and drew pictures.
“Tap her,” I heard Soda say behind me. “Tap her, turn her around.”
And then Pony’s hand on my shoulder.
“Do you know who I’m supposed to be?” Soda asked when I looked back at them.
I told her I thought she was Carrie, and she nodded and asked if I’d ever read The Outsiders.
She said, “We have this game we play, and we were thinking you’d make a good Darry. Do you think you can be Darry?”
“Please, we’ve needed a big brother for so long,” said Pony, who has glasses so thick that her eyes look magical, like they’re windows to someplace else. “Please, be our brother?”
“I guess so,” I said. “What would I have to do?”
Soda grinned. “Not that much. Yell at us a lot. Smack Pony around when he gets out of line. And be a total badass when we rumble with the Socs. Think you can do that?”
I said yes, because what else was there to say?
Today, they both turned around when Irish and I came into class, and called out, “Hey, Darry.”
Then Soda pointed to Irish. “Does he want to play?”
Irish looked at me. “What are we playing?”
“Outsiders. Maybe they’ll let you be Two-Bit or something. Can Irish be Two-Bit?” I asked Soda.
“No,” she said. “I’ve got a better idea. He can be Cherry Valance. Look, he even has red hair.”
“Cherry Valance,” Irish said. “Is that the girl?”
I nodded. “So, you want to?”
Irish shrugged. “Why the hell not?”
“Okay, see this?” Soda pointed to our side of the room. “Everyone on this side is Greasers. And over there, they’re the Socs.”*
Our side is mostly kids from my neighborhood, or else from the trailer park and a couple of the more run-down housing developments. People on the other side of the room are on the soccer team or the football team or student council. They all look like they’re from an alternate universe, or at least some other country.
“Hey,” said the boy who used to sit with Watch-Thief, before Watch-Thief got kicked out. He’s right across the aisle from us and has slick hair and a black leather coat. “Hey, can I be a Greaser? Look at me man, I’m no Soc.”
“Yeah,” said Soda, “yeah. But you better be careful over there. You’re in enemy territory and they want to kick your ass any chance they get.”
I wasn’t good at being Darry. In fact, I was pretty terrible.
I had no experience at being a total badass and also, I was smaller than both of them. But the thing was, it didn’t really matter. The game was basically rigged to be unplayable, and Soda was terrible at being Soda and Irish was terrible at being Cherry Valance. And anyway, the actual point of the game was that it didn’t involve a game at all. We didn’t actually have to do anything. The only one who remotely fit their part was Ponyboy, and that was only because she was 15, which meant she resembled the character by default, noble and shy and idealistic—she didn’t have to fake it. Mostly, it was just nice to be invited to something.
Still, when I actually thought about how it had happened, I was filled with unease. Something about the whole situation scared me, and the thing that scared me was this: there was a time where I would have said no instead of yes. I would have shaken my head mutely when Soda asked if I knew who she was dressed as, even though I loved Carrie and had seen it six times. I would have turned around and stared at my notebook, and then wondered if I would ever have friends.
So, I was scared by whatever had just happened, but I couldn’t tell if it was the old me that scared me, or the new me. My induction into the Outsiders was the first indication that Irish had changed me in a way that was true and significant. For better or for worse, I had stopped being invisible. Now, I just had to figure out what was actually there . . .
*It’s important to note that Soda wasn’t wrong about the way the class was divided. In fact, she was kind of alarmingly right.