The Strange/Scary/Stupid Day

It had been raining all week, which was weird. It hardly rained at all that year, and never in winter.

When Gatsby came into history, his shirt was wet, and there was mud on his shoes and in his hair. He looked strange, and smaller than usual—pale except for a little scrape, raw and bright on the point of his chin. He was dragging his backpack by the strap, letting it hang down so that it bumped along the floor as he walked. When he dropped into his seat, it looked awkward.

“Sorry, Mister T. Unavoidable.” Which is what he always said when he was late, but his voice cracked a little. He kept opening his mouth like he wanted to say something else, but couldn’t make the sound come out.

When he saw me watching him, he stared back and raised his eyebrows. But when he saw that Valentine was watching too, he ducked his head, fumbling one-handed with his backpack. He looked sick, but sicker than normal.

Valentine leaned across the aisle. “What’s wrong—something’s wrong. What’s wrong with your arm?”

“Nothing.” When he took out a pen, he was shaking.

After roll, Tully told us to work on our final projects while he ran down to the library. He told us to behave ourselves, but not as though he expected that we wouldn’t.

After he was gone, Valentine turned to face Gatsby. “Something’s wrong.”

Gatsby looked away and said very carefully, “I kind of hurt my shoulder.”

Valentine was out of her desk now, standing over him, hands on her hips. “I want to see.”

He shook his head.

“God damn it, Gatsby. Let me see it.”

She grabbed him by the collar and yanked hard, and he shut his eyes, biting off a short, harsh cry.

She looked down inside the gaping neck of his shirt, then let him go, backing away stiffly, her arms at her sides, her voice high and quick and breathless.

Ohmygod.” She said it in a rush, like it was all one word. “Jesus.”

He didn’t say anything, just nodded. He looked very tired.

“So, who did that? Who did that?”

He reached out with his right hand, his good hand. “V, I—”

She twisted away, skipping back. “Got in a fight. You got in a fight, Gatsby. What—was it over some petty drug bullshit? Did Shark-Boy tell you to ‘stand and recognize,’ some shit like that? You better $%&@ ing recognize this, Gatsby. You are on probation. You are not supposed to fight anymore.”

He opened his mouth. Closed it again.

“Take off your shirt,” she said, looking terrifying.

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The Bad Class

Last week, we kind-of/sort-of touched on the defining problem of my junior year, but in case it wasn’t clear, I’ll just come right out and say it. Public school has not only made me unshakably sure that I’m a Very Good Girl (a paragon of virtue, even), but also that goodness is quantifiable.

I have some theories as to how this happened.

Sad fact: most of my goodness is strictly relative at this point. Simply put, a large chunk of it comes from spending every afternoon in US History, surrounded by people who are much, much worse than me. And they are worse. The truth is, even though I picked the class—walked right up to the office lady and asked to stay—I don’t really belong there.

“Tully’s 4th hour?” I heard Oswald say to Thompson last week, because they couldn’t see me sitting there beside the potted plant, waiting for the guidance counselor. “I wouldn’t teach that crowd for anything. Honestly, look at the attendance sheet. I think they must’ve just Xeroxed the probation roster from [nearby boys’ detention center]!”

And in a way, that might not be unfair. I know that a lot of the kids, especially the boys, have been in trouble, and some have even been in corrections before.

Our class has more D’s and F’s than all the other History sections combined, Tully says, looking sad. He takes his purple marker and draws a line on the rank sheet. Above the purple failing line are my student number and five others. Everyone else is underneath.

The way Oswald talks about Tully’s class is snide and kind of vicious, which doesn’t really surprise me because it’s Oswald. He’s not a nice guy.

Later in the year, this will be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt when my regular counselor goes on vacation. Everyone will be assigned temporary guidance, and I’ll luck into Oswald and then watch in horror as he throws out my proposed schedule and presents me with an academic monstrosity of his own design.* It will include Business Administration and Interior Decorating, because, he says, that way I’ll have something to fall back on if college doesn’t work out. If our school still offered shorthand, I’m sure he would have signed me up for that too.

He won’t take into account my GPA or my test scores, or ask about my extracurriculars. In fact, he won’t even look at my transcript. All those things that defined me so clearly at the beginning of the year—grades and sports and irreproachable deportment? None of them will matter. He’ll study me blandly, and I will be reduced to nothing but torn jeans and battered green shoes. Of no consequence. Hopeless.

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In the morning, Little Sister Yovanoff dawdles on the porch. Which isn’t surprising. Any time we’re supposed to be in a hurry (to catch the bus, for instance), she’s always a few steps behind.

When I turn to check her progress, she’s still poking around by the front door.

“Come back,” she says. “There’s a thing for you.”

The thing is a plastic freezer bag of Hershey’s Kisses with a note inside asking me to the Homecoming dance. The note is anonymous, and also written in Dill’s handwriting, with his red rollerball pen.

“Did you leave a ziplock bag of candy on my porch?” I say, catching him at his locker.

His eyes widen in surprise, but the truth is, he’s easy to read. “Someone left a bag of candy? Maybe there’s something inside.”

When we get home, Little Sister Yovanoff (ever the pragmatist) gets out a mixing bowl and plunks herself down on the living room floor. We sit across from each other and unwrap the candy piece by piece. We find Dill’s name in the second-to-last one. There are 87.

At his locker the next morning, I say, “Okay, I’ll go to Homecoming with you.”

I don’t say it this way because I’m mean or ungracious. At least, I am never ungracious on purpose. It’s just that I’ve thought about it, and I’ve decided that this is what I’m going to do.

Dill says, “That’s not how it’s supposed to go. You’re supposed to tell me yes.”

“I did tell you yes. Just now.”

“No,” he says, looking mildly aggrieved. “Like with—like I did, with a note. Or . . . balloons or something.”

I think about this. Then, I take a deep breath and say, without any irony or ill will, “That seems kind of complicated.”

Ever since I told him I would go to the homecoming dance, Dill has been bringing me flowers in the morning. A single cheerful daisy—simple, sweet. We are sort of (sort of) dating again.

The first time he brought me a daisy, I thanked him for it. I put it on my locker shelf and forgot. At lunch, Little Sister Yovanoff accidentally set her Spanish book on it.

“Oops,” she said. “Were you saving that for something?”

Later, when I showed up to History without my flower, Dill wanted to know where it had gone. I tried to explain that I couldn’t just carry it around with me all day.

He said, “It was for you to appreciate. You can’t appreciate it if you leave it in your locker.”

So I carried the second daisy with me, even though it got gross-looking and started to wilt. It made my fingers sticky, and left a weird metallic smell, like you get if you hold a handful of pennies. When I showed up to Tully’s class with it, Dill grinned.

“You have my flower!” he said. “That’s so cool.”

“Classy,” muttered Rooster, who still has stitch-marks on his forehead. “Giving your girlfriend dead flowers.”

Across from me, #4 sort of laughed and sort of didn’t. He was looking past me and then he put his head down on his arms. I set the flower on the edge of my desk and tried to forget that my hands smelled filthy and like metal.

I wrapped the third daisy in a paper towel and ran it under the faucet in the bathroom. I came into History with a wilted daisy and a handful of soggy paper. No one said anything.

It’s not that I want things. I don’t care about romance or dating or being given things. Daisies are Dill’s favorite flower. I like primroses and violets. When he brings me something that he likes and I don’t, it’s confusing.

We don’t have to like the same flowers or the same music or movies or gum or anything else. But it would be nice if he recognized that the things I like are different from what he likes. I just want someone who pays attention, who takes into account what other people are thinking and doing.

This whole business of daisies is unsettling. It’s like a really clunky metaphor for the business of relationships, and last year I was naive enough to think that maybe I could demystify romance if I just studied the equation long enough. Now, I’m forced to admit that I absolutely do not understand. Anything.

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The White Trash Club

Today, I’m finally going to talk about something that happened to me (as opposed to describing events that took place in my general vicinity). As far as Spanish class goes, this story is actually kind of commonplace. To be expected. About average.

And it cements every tiny, fragile piece of resolve I have.

Up until now, I haven’t said much (anything) about Spanish. This is because I hate it. Not the language, just the class. I hate it so much that in the course of my 10th grade journal-keeping, I mostly pretend that it doesn’t exist.

There are several reasons for this. Mainly, it is both agonizing and deeply boring. For one thing, I am surrounded by half the basketball team and most of the wrestling team And for another, Pierre.

Perhaps you will remember Pierre from that time he licked my face. This is certainly what I remember him from. The interesting thing is that despite the gross, wet indignity of having his tongue touch my cheek, I do not actually dislike him.

Even though he can be a total jerk, I still see his antics as a game, and this gives our interactions a strangely competitive quality. His job is to crack my veneer. Mine is to not respond. When he crouches next to my desk and starts panting in my face or rifling through my homework, I stare back at him blandly. When he makes fun of my shoes and asks me if I had Wonder Bread and margarine for lunch, I tell him no. I tell him I only eat my Wonder Bread with Karo syrup. I do it with a straight face, even though I have never eaten Karo syrup in my life and the one time my health-conscious hippie mother bought white bread, it was for a papier mache recipe.

Socially speaking, I have very few natural talents.* But I’ve got one or two, and my best trick is recognizing where someone rests on the power continuum. Pierre is somewhere near the bottom—wherever it is that class clowns generally fall—and it seems probable that he wouldn’t constantly act like such an ass if Pharaoh and Trout and the other sports-boys ever congratulated him for anything else. I may be relatively new to the social dynamics of teenage boys, but I know pack animals when I see them. Pierre is loud, unpredictable, and disruptive, but he is not an apex predator. And until the day he breaks character, I am secure in the idea that I know exactly what I’m dealing with.

The other player in this weird little non-drama is Valentine. She’s taller than me, with long blond hair and pale sled-dog eyes. She wears heavy black eyeliner and boys’ jeans. She’s sexy, but not particularly feminine. She’s scary in a thrilling, austere way. And by scary, I mean that I kind of want to be her.

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