I don’t see her coming.
I am looking at my piece of pizza. I am watching pepperoni glisten. It is my third day at the new school and I am sitting at a table next to the bathrooms. I am eating lunch with the blond girls with the pink sweaters, the girls who talk incessantly about Harvard even though we’re only in seventh grade. They are the kind of girls who have always ignored me. But these girls are different than the ones on the island. They think I am one of them.
She grabs my shoulder from behind and I jump. I turn around. She says, “What’s your name?”
I tell her, “Cassie.”
She says, “Alex.”
She is wearing an army jacket, a short jean skirt, fishnet stockings, and combat boots. Her hair is shoulder length, frizzy and green. She’s tall and skinny, not skinny like a model but skinny like a boy. Her blue eyes are so pale they don’t look human and her eyelashes and eyebrows are so blond they’re almost white. She is not pretty, not even close to pretty. But there’s something about her that’s bigger than pretty, something bigger than smart girls going to Harvard.
It’s only my third day, but I knew the second I got here that this place was different. It is not like the island, not a place ruled by good girls. I saw Alex. I saw the ninth grade boys she hangs out with, their multicolored hair, their postures of indifference, their clothes that tell everybody they’re too cool to care. I heard her loud voice drowning everything out. I saw how other girls let her cut in front of them in line. I saw everyone else looking at her, looking at the boys with their lazy confidence, everyone looking and trying not to be seen.
I saw them at the best table in the cafeteria and I decided to change. It is not hard to change when you were never anything in the first place. It is not hard to put on a T-shirt of a band you overheard the cool kids talking about, to wear tight jeans with holes, to walk by their table and make sure they see you. All it takes is moving off an island to a suburb of Seattle where no one knows who you were before.
“You’re in seventh grade.” She says this as a statement.
“Yes,” I answer.
The pink-sweater girls are looking at me like they made a big mistake.
“Where are you from?” she says.
“I can tell,” she says. “Come with me.” She grabs my wrist and my plastic fork drops. “I have some people who want to meet you.”
I’m supposed to stand up now. I’m supposed to leave the pizza and the smart girls and go with the girl named Alex to the people who want to meet me. I cannot look back, not at the plate of greasy pizza and the girls who were almost my friends. Just follow Alex. Keep walking. One step. Two steps. I must focus on my face not turning red. Focus on breathing. Stand up straight. Remember, this is what you want.
The boys are getting bigger. I must pretend I don’t notice their stares. I cannot turn red. I cannot smile the way I do when I’m nervous, with my cheeks twitching, my lips curled all awkward and lopsided. I must ignore the burn where Alex holds my wrist too tight. I cannot wonder why she’s holding my wrist the way she does, why she doesn’t trust me to walk on my own, why she keeps looking back at me, why she won’t let me out of her sight. I cannot think of maybes. I cannot think of “What if I turned around right now? What if I went the other way?” There is no other way. There is only forward, with Alex, to the boys who want to meet me.
I am slowing down. I have stopped. I am looking at big sneakers on ninth grade boys. Legs attached. Other things. Chests, arms, faces. Eyes looking. Droopy, red, big-boy eyes. Smiles. Hands on my shoulders. Pushing, guiding, driving me.
“James, this is Cassie, the beautiful seventh grader,” Alex says. Hair shaved on the side, mohawk in the middle, face pretty and flawless. This one’s the cutest. This one’s the leader.
“Wes, this is Cassie, the beautiful seventh grader.” Pants baggy, legs spread, lounging with arms open, baby-fat face. Not a baby, dangerous. He smiles. They all smile.
Jackson, Anthony. I remember their names. They say, “Sit down.” I do what they say. Alex nods her approval.
I must not look up from my shoes. I must pretend I don’t feel James’s leg touching mine, his mouth so close to my ear. Don’t see Alex whispering to him. Don’t feel the stares. Don’t hear the laughing. Just remember what Mom says about my “almond eyes,” my “dancer’s body,” my “high cheekbones,” my “long neck,” my hair, my lips, my breasts, all of the things I have now that I didn’t have before.
“Cassie,” James says, and my name sounds like flowers in his mouth.
“Yes.” I look at his chiseled chin. I look at his teeth, perfect and white. I do not look at his eyes.
“Are you straight?” he says, and I compute in my head what this question might mean, and I say, “Yes, well, I think so,” because I think he wants to know if I like boys. I look at his eyes and know I have made a mistake. They are green and smiling and curious, wanting me to answer correctly. He says, “I mean, are you a good girl? Or do you do bad things?”
“What do you mean by bad things?” is what I want to say, but I don’t say anything. I just look at him, hoping he cannot read my mind, cannot smell my terror, will not now realize that I do not deserve this attention, that he’s made a mistake by looking at me in this not-cruel way.
“I mean, I noticed you the last couple of days. You seemed like a good girl. But today you look different.”
It is true. I am different from what I was yesterday and all the days before that.
“So, are you straight?” he says. “I mean, do you do drugs and stuff?”
“Yeah, um, I guess so.” I haven’t. I will. Yes. I will do anything he wants. I will sit here while everyone stares at me. I will sit here until the bell rings and it is time to go back to class and the girl named Alex says, “Give me your number,” and I do.
• • •
Even though no one else talks to me for the rest of the day, I hold on to “beautiful.” I hold on to lunch tomorrow at the best table in the cafeteria. Even though I ride the bus home alone and watch the marina and big houses go by, there are ninth grade boys somewhere who may be thinking about me.
Even though Mom’s asleep and Dad’s at work, even though there are still boxes piled everywhere from the move, even though Mom’s too sad to cook and I eat peanut butter for dinner, and Dad doesn’t come home until the house is dark, and the walls are too thin to keep out the yelling, even though I can hear my mom crying, there is a girl somewhere who has my number. There are ninth grade boys who will want it. There are ninth grade boys who may be thinking about me, making me exist somewhere other than here, making me something bigger than the flesh in the corner of this room. There is a picture of me in their heads, a picture of someone I don’t know yet. She is not the chubby girl with the braces and bad perm. She is not the girl hiding in the bathroom at recess. She is someone new, a blank slate they have named beautiful. That is what I am now: beautiful, with this new body and face and hair and clothes. Beautiful, with this erasing of history.
© 2009 Amy Reed