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Chapter One: Labels
I had to hear it from Pamela. But then, the fact that she told me, and that she wasn't going back, sort of put a seal on our friendship. Ours was the real McCoy. So I couldn't figure out what was bothering me most: that Liz and I hadn't been invited or that our old gang was breaking up.
She told us about it on our ride to school that Monday. And to make things worse, we were riding the bus -- one of the last places you want to be when you're a junior. Seniors would walk to school in snow up to their knees before they'd be seen on a bus. But Pam and Liz and I don't have cars of our own, and there was no one that morning to drive us. We sat close together on the back seat.
"This is the second time they've done it," Pamela went on as we listened uncomfortably. "Very hush-hush. The rule is that no one can speak. You can't move a deck chair or make any kind of noise, but you can do...well...almost anything else in or out of the water." She laughed.
"And everyone's naked?" Liz asked.
"In the pool, yes."
I couldn't help smiling a little -- partly remembering the skinny-dipping we'd done at Camp Overlook two summers ago and partly thinking how Mark Stedmeister's parents were pretty strict about alcohol and drugs at their swimming pool, but completely oblivious to the fact that Mark and some of his friends were having midnight swims in the nude.
It was too painful to ask Pamela outright why Liz and I hadn't been invited, too scary to think that Pamela was being pulled away while we were being left behind. So I took the mature route and said, "Well, it sounds fun to me, Pam. Why do you say you're not going back?"
"For one thing, when you know you weren't invited the first time around, you can't help but feel that your invitation is borderline," she said. "But afterward -- when we put on our clothes and drove to the soccer field so they could smoke and drink and talk -- it was nothing but a big, malicious gossip fest. Boy, Jill and Karen...Brian, too...can rip into somebody faster than a tank of piranhas. Just mention a name -- any name of anyone in the whole school -- and in a matter of seconds, he's totaled. And you get the feeling everyone's expected to take a bite."
"I didn't think guys did that," said Liz. "I always knew that Jill and Karen were into it big-time -- who's in, who's out -- but I'm surprised that the guys are interested."
"Hey, they're interested in Jill -- her body, anyway. And Karen, now that she's practically Jill's twin -- hair, clothes, makeup, nails -- parrots whatever Jill says. Whatever turns girls on turns guys on, you know that," Pamela said.
"So how did you get invited?" Liz asked. "And what did they say about us?"
Pamela just shrugged it off as though it wasn't important, but we weren't letting her off that easily.
"I'd overheard Jill and Karen talking about the 'Silent Party,' or 'SP,' as they call it," Pamela explained. "I was nervy enough to ask what it was, so Karen described it for me -- probably wanting to see if I was shocked. And when I wasn't, she asked if I wanted to come. I said 'Sure,' and asked if you guys were going to be there. She made this sort of face and looked at Jill, and Jill shook her head and said 'No.' And then she added, 'DD.' And they both laughed and walked off."
I tried to think what DD could possibly stand for. Dried dandruff? Dead as a doornail? Liz and I looked at each other, clueless.
"They speak in acronyms these days," Pamela went on. "When Jill and Justin and Mark and Brian and Keeno and Karen and some of Brian's other friends get together, they've got the whole student body divided up into groups, and each group has a label."
"Oh, every school does that," I said. "Walk in any high school, and they'll point out the Geeks, the Goths, the Nerds, the Brains, the Jocks, the -- "
"That's not the kind I'm talking about," said Pamela. "Jill and Company divide the kids into the Studs, the Players, the Sluts, the Clueless Virgins, the Christian Virgins, the Freaks, and even these are broken down into UJ (Ugly Jock), TM (Typhoid Mary -- don't touch), AG (Anything Goes)...you get the picture."
"And DD?" I asked.
Pamela dismissed it with a wave of her hand.
"Tell us!" Liz insisted.
"Dry as Dust," said Pamela. "But don't you believe it. I can only imagine what they'd been saying about me before I went and what they'll say now when I don't go back."
Dry as Dust. I felt my throat drying up just to hear it. This meant that somebody -- some bodies -- found me boring. Uninteresting. Unexciting.
Pamela grabbed my hand. "Who are they to decide who everyone else is?" she said. "And you know what Jill said they'd called me? Before I'd had the guts to come to their party?"
"What?" we asked.
"SS," said Pamela. "Serious Slut. I was mortified, but laughed it off. Yeah, right. Ha ha."
"They actually told you that?" Liz asked.
"Yeah. To see if I could take it, I guess. Boy, make one mistake, and you're labeled for life. After New York last spring, Hugh must have done a lot of talking."
We digested that for a moment or two, remembering what Pam had done in a hotel bathroom with a senior. Then Liz said, "It's hard to imagine Justin going along with all this. When I was going out with him, he seemed too nice to be so petty and malicious."
Pamela shrugged. "He's in love with Jill, and love is blind. Jill just laughs off all this gossip as a hobby of hers -- labeling people, that is. And at some point in the evening, I asked the others what label they'd give Jill. This was at the soccer field later. They'd been drinking, and the guys were cutting up. Brian said BB for Beautiful Bitch. Justin suggested LM for Love Machine. It was sort of like Jill had never considered what others might think of her. I couldn't tell if she was flattered or annoyed, but I knew by the look on her face that she didn't appreciate the question. Didn't appreciate me. I won't be invited back, you can bet, and if I am, I won't go."
I suddenly put my arm around Pamela. "We appreciate you!" I said.
"More than you know," said Liz.
This second week of my junior year, I sure didn't need any more hassles. Every minute of my day was filled with something, but I didn't know what I could give up. All juniors had to take the PSAT in October, ready or not, and I worked for Dad at the Melody Inn music store on Saturdays. I was the roving reporter for the junior class on our school newspaper, The Edge; I still belonged on stage crew in the Drama Club; I got up ridiculously early three mornings a week and ran a couple of miles to keep in shape; I visited Molly, my friend with leukemia, once a week; plus, homework was heavier and harder than it had been last year, and geometry was a killer.
"I feel like I'm going under for the third time," I told Sylvia, my stepmom, when I realized I hadn't called Molly all week. If anyone should be complaining about life, it's Molly.
"I know the feeling," said Sylvia. "I felt it every Friday for the first year I was teaching. But by Monday I'd usually recovered."
"So there's hope?" I asked. "The teachers are merciless! It's like theirs is the only subject we've got. 'Make an outline.' 'Write a paper.' 'Research a topic.' When you multiply that by five...!"
"Well, teachers are hassled too," said Sylvia. "If their students don't do well, it's the teachers who get hassled by their principals. And if test scores are down for the school, the principals get hassled by the supervisors."
Sometimes -- more than I like to admit -- Sylvia gets on my nerves. It's like I tell her about a problem, and she's always got a bigger one. I wasn't interested right then in teachers' problems. I wanted to talk about me. A little empathy here, please.
"I'm not talking about test scores, I'm talking about assignments -- about the timing of assignments," I told her. "When teachers get together in the faculty lounge, why don't they space their assignments so they're not all due at the same time?" I asked.
"Probably because we've got a zillion other things to think about," she said. "My guess is that after you get in the routine of a new semester, it will seem more bearable. If nothing else, you'll probably find at least one thing you can look forward to."
She was right about that. His name was Scott Lynch -- a tall, lanky senior, our new editor in chief on the school newspaper. He was smart, like my old ex-boyfriend, Patrick, and knew his way around; he was thoughtful and caring, like my new ex-boyfriend, Sam, one of the photographers for our paper. When I walked in the journalism room after school for our meetings, Scott would give me this big, warm, welcoming smile that enveloped me like a hug. As though he'd been waiting just for me. But then, he did the same to the rest of the staff, including Jacki Severn, features editor.
Jacki's not a real blonde, like Pamela Jones, but her hair's gorgeous, and on this day she looked even better than usual. Great top, great jeans, great makeup.
"Idea!" she said when we'd pushed two tables together and sat down for our planning session. "If students have to read the stuff we write every two weeks, they should at least know what we look like. I think we should have a group picture taken for the front page."
Now I knew why Jacki was all spiffed up. I'd washed my hair that morning because I'd been running, but I hadn't taken time to blow-dry it.
"Not the front page," said Scott.
"Well, any page," said Jacki.
There were four guys on the newspaper staff: Scott; two photographers, Sam and Don; and Tony Osler, sports editor. Scott, Don, and Tony are seniors, and I seemed to have a thing about seniors this year. Of my two latest boyfriends, Patrick and Sam, Patrick has traveled all around the world with his parents -- his dad is a diplomat -- and sometimes he acts incredibly sophisticated. But he's a couple of months younger than I am, and he can also act incredibly juvenile. Sam's a junior too, like me, and sweet as honey, but sometimes I felt I was out with a little boy. I'd never dated a senior, and right now I was crushing on Scott.
None of the guys on the staff were remotely interested in having their pictures taken, and I voted with them. But all the roving reporters this year were girls, one for each class, and they voted with Jacki, along with the layout coordinator. So the vote was five to five. Miss Ames, our sponsor, broke the tie with a yes vote and went next door to get the chemistry teacher, who came over and took our picture. Jacki seated herself in the first row beside Scott, and the rest of us gathered around them.
"A little closer," the chemistry teacher said. "The guy on the end there -- move in real tight next to the girl in green."
"With pleasure," said Tony, and put one arm around me, his hand on my ribs. I could feel his breath in my hair. Almost imperceptibly, one of his fingers moved a little under my arm, not quite stroking my breast. An electric shock traveled down my spine, but I didn't move away. And then -- flash -- the picture was taken and the group dissolved.
"Okay. Back to work," Scott said as we sat down at the tables again. "Here's what the classes have decided for Spirit Week."
A lot of high schools had been doing it for years, and though we'd always had a homecoming dance usually attended by the juniors and seniors, we'd never had Spirit Week -- a time for students to bond and show loyalty to the school and its football team. Each day during Spirit Week, the students -- and sometimes the teachers -- came to school in crazy outfits, decided on in advance. So our school had assigned the freshman class to choose the costume for Monday; sophomores got Tuesday, juniors got Wednesday, seniors Thursday, and the faculty would choose the dress for Friday.
"Here are the votes," Scott read. "Monday, Pajama Day; Tuesday, Beach Day; Wednesday, Mismatched Day; Thursday, Wild Hair Day; and the teachers chose Victorian Day for Friday."
"Are you sure that's not Victoria's Secret Day?" asked Tony, and we laughed.
"Don't I wish," Scott said. "Nope. Victorian England."
The freshman and sophomore roving reporters were already chattering about what they would wear.
"Somehow I thought we'd be a little more original than that," said Jacki.
"Well, what we need are ideas for next year, and here's where you come in, Alice," Scott said, his blue eyes smiling at me. "Would you go around asking for suggestions so we can get people thinking about Spirit Week next year? Making it a tradition?"
"Sure," I said, lost in the blueness of those eyes. They were topaz blue, like the Caribbean Sea I'd seen on postcards. "I can do that." Scott could have asked me to climb up on the school roof and recite the Gettysburg Address and I would have said, Sure! I can do that!
Dad had let me use his car that day. He lets me have it sometimes when I've got something going on after school if Sylvia can drive him to work. I stopped by the CVS drugstore on the way home to buy a new steno pad and some eyeliner.
Jill and Karen were smoking at one of the little tables outside Starbucks next door. I hesitated for a second, and then -- taking a chance to see if I was really as DD as they thought -- I walked over to them and asked if they had any suggestions for Spirit Week next year. When Jill saw me, she gave a sort of half smile and took another drag on her cigarette.
We've never been buddy-buddy, but ever since I stopped letting Jill and Karen use my employee discount when I worked at Hecht's last summer, I've felt they've cooled even more toward me. And after what Pamela told me, I was sure of it. Just the way they excluded me from their conversations some of the time. Once or twice I'd even had the feeling they'd turned away and whispered something to each other when they saw me. Their smiles seemed to have double meanings. The way they'd light up a cigarette, then glance my way. Just little things like that.
I know that a couple of times I've fanned their smoke when they lit up, and I've tried not to be so obvious about it, but I hate inhaling the stuff. This time, though, I tried to ignore it.
"Hi, Jill. Hi, Karen," I said. "I'm doing a short piece for The Edge with suggestions for next year's Spirit Week. Any ideas?"
"What kind of ideas?" asked Karen. She tilted her head back and blew the smoke straight up.
"How to dress. Hawaiian Day. Stuff like that," I told her, and added laughingly, "Tony Osler's already suggested Victoria's Secret Day."
They laughed too. "Hey, I'd go for that one," said Jill. "Bikini Day, maybe?"
"All right...," I said.
"We could do Twins Day," said Karen, and she looked at Jill. "You and I could team up."
"That's a good one," I said, and wrote it on the back of my hand with my ballpoint. I really needed that steno pad.
"Or Preppie Day, and half the school would already come dressed for it," said Jill, who dresses more like she's going to work at Saks than going to school.
"That makes three," I said. "Thanks. I'm off to buy a steno pad."
"There she goes! Alice McKinley, Girl Reporter!" Karen sang out as I walked away.
I know that Karen and Jill look on my little job for the newspaper with amusement, but what else is new? This semester was already a grind. I'd missed a couple days of school that first full week when we went to Tennessee for my grandfather's funeral, and I still had a paper to write for one of those assignments. The only solution I could see was to stay up late at night till I got caught up. Bummer.
Still...the truth was, our old group wasn't the same. Until recently, we'd simply thought of ourselves as "the gang at Mark Stedmeister's pool." Now our differences seemed more important. I know that some of the kids think I take life too seriously, but...well, sometimes I do. That's me. Also, word had gotten around that I'd chickened out over the summer when Brian was going eighty in a forty-mile zone in the new car his dad had bought him and that I'd made Brian stop and let me out. I felt that some of the kids were still talking about it.
"So let them talk," I told myself aloud, and headed for the cosmetic counter. This was my junior year, and I had some decisions to make about my future. Jill had already confided that her number one objective was to marry the wealthy Justin, and as for Karen, she said she either wanted to marry rich or get into fashion design.
I'll admit that, other than going in to talk to the school counselor about a career, my immediate goal wasn't any more noble: I wanted to get Dad to relax his rule that I had to go six months without an accident before I could have any friends in the car with me. Finally, knowing how much I needed the car for after-school stuff, he'd said that he might -- might -- shorten it to five months instead of six, but I couldn't so much as get a traffic ticket during that time. This would mean I could have friends in the car with me by Thanksgiving, not Christmas. Just the thought of Gwen and Liz and Pamela in the car, with me at the wheel driving them somewhere, was number one on my "can't wait" list.
Lester came over on Sunday to rake leaves. The trees seemed to be shedding earlier this year, and he said it would make things easier if we did a first raking now.
I was glad to see Les back in our old routine. After he and Tracy broke up last month, I was afraid he might become a recluse or something. My twenty-four-year-old brother is getting his master's degree in philosophy next spring. I guess I always thought of philosophers as the hermit type, but that doesn't exactly fit Lester.
"It looks like you're going to make it, Les," I said as we raked, the bamboo tines of the rakes making scritch scratch sounds in the grass. "I mean, your degree and everything. I've still got all that ahead of me, and I haven't even taken the PSAT yet. I'm scared silly."
"Of what?" he asked.
"If I do poorly on the PSAT, I'll probably bomb on the SAT," I told him. "If I bomb on the SAT, I won't get into college, and if I don't go to college, I'll probably end up cleaning public restrooms on the night shift."
Les looked over at me. "Congratulations, Al. You just beat your all-time record. You went from a potential high to a major low in four seconds."
"But it's true, Lester. Life is just a series of hurdles, and no one ever tells you that. Right now everything's riding on that PSAT. You get over one roadblock, you've got another staring you in the face."
He laughed. "Well, some people like to have 'next steps' to look forward to. Some people like to have challenges. Ever think of that? Think how bored you'd be if everything came easy."
We raked in silence for a little while. Then I asked the question I'd been wanting to ask him for the past month. "When Tracy said no -- when she broke it off -- was that a roadblock or a challenge?"
"No getting around it, I was disappointed."
"You'd been dating since January, Les. Do you look at it as eight months wasted or what? I really want to know how you deal with it."
"Not wasted. I don't look at the time I've spent with any girl as wasted. I feel I learned something from each one, and..." He grinned. "I certainly had a good time."
I ignored the good time part and concentrated on the learning. "What did you learn?"
"About the kind of woman I'm looking for," said Lester.
"What kind is that? What did you learn from Loretta Jenkins?" I asked.
"She was never my girlfriend," Lester said. "But I was around her enough to know that I wanted a girl with her feet on the ground. Which was definitely not Loretta."
"That I wanted a girl a little more...uh...physical. Like Crystal."
"Then what was wrong with Crystal?"
"I wanted a girl more sensitive...like Marilyn."
I wondered if I was naming these girlfriends in the proper order. "Lauren?" I asked, remembering one of Lester's instructors at the university.
Should I go on? I asked myself, but I did. "Tracy?"
Les sighed. "With Tracy, I thought I'd found it all. But she broke up with me, remember. For Tracy, her family came first." And then he said, "Nobody's perfect, Al. I could fall in love with somebody tomorrow who's as different from me as night from day."
"That's scary, Lester," I said.
"That's life," he told me.
By staying up three nights in a row till twelve -- two o'clock, one night -- I finally finished the last assignment I'd missed when we went to Tennessee. I'd researched the Marshall Plan for World History and finished a list of suggestions for next year's Spirit Week for the newspaper:
Scott was really pleased, and he gave my shoulder a squeeze when I turned in my list before homeroom the following morning. "Nice going!" he said. "We'll run it next time. Garage Band Day! I like that!"
That one shoulder squeeze was enough to make my day. I would have liked a Scott Lynch Day just to be able to tag along behind him for six periods.
I was beginning to feel, as Sylvia thought I would, that I was getting into the routine of things. That I was getting a grip. As I refreshed my lip gloss in the restroom after lunch, I came to the conclusion that I looked pretty good. Only a zit or two I couldn't cover with foundation, and if I was lucky, as the orthodontist said, I might get my braces off by spring.
I was putting a little blush on my cheeks when Jill and Karen came in the restroom.
"Alice!" Karen said, and looked genuinely glad to see me. "Did you do the essay question on The Great Gatsby? You know...that comparative thing?"
"Yes, and I was up until two in the morning finishing it," I said.
"I'm drowning in homework!" Karen said dramatically. "Absolutely drowning! I just couldn't get to it. Could I see yours? Just to get some ideas? I'll paraphrase it; I won't copy."
I had spent at least three hours struggling with that essay. I had come up with what I thought were original ideas for looking at F. Scott Fitzgerald's other works -- finding trends, contradictions, repetitions.... There was nothing Karen could paraphrase that wouldn't take my original ideas and run with them.
"Oh, Karen, I can't," I said. "I worked really hard on that piece, and I want to keep the originality."
"Just this once?" she pleaded. "I'll be careful." I could see a crease deepening in her forehead.
I shrugged helplessly. "I can't. Sorry."
She turned to Jill as they left the restroom, and I heard her say, "Told you! MGT."
Copyright © 2007 by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor