I was finally a senior and I couldn’t have been more disappointed. I was a month into twelfth grade and I had realized that it was really no different from the previous three years of high school. It really wasn’t that much different from the eight years before that.
Something poked me in the back of the neck and I heard someone say my name.
“Nicole,” said Kevin Richardson as he poked me again with a stack of hand outs. I turned around and scowled at Kevin. His mouth was open like it always was. His heavy breathing moved in and out of his open mouth and carried the aroma of morning breath and Big Red chewing gum. I took a piece of paper off the top of the stack and handed the rest over the shoulder of the girl in front of me.
I remembered enjoying school when I was in Kindergarten and even most of elementary school but by the time I got to middle school, all I could think of was getting to high school. When I was a freshman I wished I could skip to senior year. The seniors seemed to have it good, they looked so much older and mature. To a freshman, the seniors seemed to have the run of the school. Now that I had become a senior, I realized I had blown it all out of proportion. I didn’t have the charisma or popularity to “rule the school” and the teachers didn’t seem to care any more about how much I learned than they did three years ago. I was convinced that I was smarter than most of my classmates and many of my teachers but my complete lack of interest in the subject matter of my classes meant I had a string of Cs and Bs in my report card. My grades were a constant source of contention between my mom and I. She knew I was smart enough to get straight As. My problem was everything came so easy to me that I couldn’t be bothered to try. I could sleepwalk through the majority of my classes and still pass.
The only class in which I really showed effort was English, but not in the daily classwork and definitely not the mind-numbing torture of group reading. Each semester the teacher picked a novel for the class to read and each day we would take turns reading the book out loud. I could read really fast and it was painful to listen to my classmates lumber through the beautiful language of a classic story like a first grader stumbling through a Dick and Jane book.
I sat in English class one morning listening to Kevin read from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I daydreamed while Kevin marched his finger across the page, stumbling on the southern colloquialisms and often accidentally re-reading the same line. Kevin got to the part Where Tom and his friends eavesdropped on their own funeral. The kids heard the townspeople say all kinds of nice things because they thought the kids were dead. It made me think of what people will say when they think nobody is listening.
When I was little, I was so quiet that adults wouldn’t realize I was there. I would sit and watch and listen and I would remember. I would follow my mom around the house or sit in the living room while my dad and his friends watched football. I listened to my mother talk about my dad or about the neighbors. I listened to my dad talk about his boss. I watched my mom sneak a cigarette next to the open kitchen window. I watched my dad pour whiskey into his morning coffee. Sometimes I would seem to appear out of thin air when an adult suddenly noticed my presence. I could see the guilt or regret on their face when they realized I had heard what they were saying.
As I got older, I had a harder time going unnoticed. I remember a day in the summer between seventh and eighth grade. I was playing in the sprinkler in the front yard with Trevor Kinsey. It was the first hot day of the summer and we celebrated by running through the cool spray in our bathing suits. Late afternoon meant the end of the main shift at the mine and at about 3:45pm, the men of our neighborhood would come driving down the cul-de-sac in a daily parade. Normally, a couple of kids playing in the sprinkler wouldn’t warrant the attention of weary men on their way home. But this day was different. In every car that passed, the driver would look at us. The driver of third car slowed down to watch us and I felt like something was wrong. The fourth car also slowed and I could feel the gaze of the man behind the wheel. They weren’t looking at us, they were looking at me. The driver of the fifth car was my father. When he pulled into the driveway, I could see that he was upset. He walked up to my mother where she sat on the front step. He didn’t think I could hear him.
“Jesus, Louanne,” my father said. “Can you have her put on a shirt or something?”
Before my mom could say anything, I told Trevor I had to go and ran into the house. The towel I had brought outside with me was wrapped tightly around my body as I ran to my bedroom. I sat on my bed and began to shiver now that I was not in the warm sunlight. The movement of my shivering body was reflected in my mirror and for the first time in a while I looked at myself.
I used the mirror often when I was little to check my outfits, which were very important to me at the time. The way the colors matched would dictate the kind of day I was going to have and I never left my room without one last peek in the mirror. I outgrew my childhood obsession with matching clothes when I got to middle school and started dressing almost exclusively in jeans and t-shirts. My cousin Nessa lived in Seattle and worked at a radio station. She would send me cassette tapes of new bands with t-shirts and stickers to match. At school, I would pride myself with knowing about a band months before they made it to the local radio stations. Many of the stickers I received were stuck to my mirror and created a jagged border around the reflective glass. I opened my towel and looked at myself. My face was framed on either side by a Nirvana sticker on the left and a Smashing Pumpkins one on the right.
At first I couldn’t find anything wrong with what I saw. The bathing suit was from last year and it still fit, for the most part. I took a few steps closer to the mirror and looked harder. Between the collage of band names and emblems, I refocused my eyes and began to see something different. My vision ceased to be clouded by what I expected to be reflected in the glass and I looked at my body as if it was the first time I had seen myself in a mirror. I couldn’t believe how much I had changed.
I had lost the scrawny body I was used to. My limbs had thickened slightly so my knees and feet no longer looked too big for my legs. My hips and my butt had filled in, curving in to my waist, which was the only part of me to stay the same size. I couldn’t explain why I had not taken notice sooner, but my breasts had grown too. In a matter of minutes, the swimsuit the girl in the mirror was wearing changed from the cute two-piece I wore last summer to a revealing bikini.
I was broken from my reverie by my teacher who was calling me to read the next chapter. I pulled the book out of my backpack and fumbled through the pages, trying to find the spot where Kevin left off. Some of the class giggled and Kevin was whispering a page number to me but I was too startled to understand what he was saying. The teacher, Mr. Warner, opened his mouth to remind me that we were on chapter eighteen when the bell rang. Fourth period was over and it was time for lunch.
I stopped rifling through the book and put it in my green Army Surplus backpack. I shut the flap that closed over the top of it and buckled it shut. I stood up, put the pack on my back, and began to walk to the door with my eyes on the tiles beneath my feet.
I had nearly made it to the door when Mr. Warner spoke up.
“Nicole, can I have a word?”
I sighed and turned around. I had a habit, when talking to a teacher, of looking everywhere but their face. I couldn’t stand the the way most of them looked at me. Some of them looked at me with pity because they knew my of my father and our often tenuous financial situation. Some of them looked at me with disappointment because I was not living up to my potential, whatever that meant. Others would look at me with concern because they saw me as a troubled girl who was certainly on the road to a life of drug addiction and sleeping under bridges.
However, Mr. Warner was different. He knew literature and he gave me the most constructive criticism I ever received on my written work. I even gave him some short stories and poems I wrote outside of class for his opinion. He put one of my poems up for submission to a poetry journal and it had been published. Nothing had ever made me so excited as to see my work published in a real literary journal. I showed it to my parents and while my mom smiled and told me she was proud, my father simply asked me if the publication had made me any money. I looked Mr. Warner in the eyes and managed a half smile.
“I know you’ve already read the book, probably more than once. I know listening to the lesser beings around you read at the pace of a preschooler is horrible. But you really need to pay attention in class. If you listen to the way other people read, you can get insight into how they might interpret the words differently. As a writer, it’s extremely important to keep your audience in mind when you write.”
“Kevin is hardly the audience I have in mind when I write,” I said.
“That might be true of most of your stories and poems. But if you want to be a journalist, you’re going to have to keep in mind that more than half of your readers will be mouth-breathers like Kevin,” Mr. Warner said the last words quietly, with his flattened hand held next to his mouth like he was telling a secret. I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Yeah, I guess,” I said.
“Speaking of which, I need your piece for next month’s Pathfinder Press.”
“I have it written up here,” I said and tapped my head. “I just need to type it out.”
“Please try to get it to me by tomorrow. Have you given any more thought to publishing another poem?”
I looked away from the teacher’s face and out the small window behind his desk. The glass was textured and allowed light to pass through but without any detail. Sunlight cast shadows of the moving bodies of my fellow students as they passed the window and gave the impression of water.
“I see. Well, if you have something you would like to share again, the editor contacted me last week and asked if you had another piece. He might even take a short story if you don’t feel like submitting another poem.”
My eyes returned to Mr. Warner’s face and I said, “I’ll think about it.”
“Please do,” he said with a crooked smile. “Now go and enjoy your lunch.”
I gave Mr. Warner another half smile and walked out of the classroom. The hallway was beginning to empty as most of the students made their way to the cafeteria to stuff their faces with what they considered food. It was Monday, which meant a slice of pizza with a crust of chalky dough topped with bland tomato sauce, one salty pepperoni, and not enough cheese. The school lunches, while technically nutritious, never interested me and I rarely ate at school.
Even though I didn’t plan on eating, I had to pass through the cafeteria before I could go outside and enjoy some fresh air. To ward off the juvenile cacophony, I put my headphones on, found my Walkman in my pocket, and pushed play. The latest tape my cousin sent me from Seattle was The Presidents of the United States of America. Chris Ballew began to sing about peaches just as the I reached the cafeteria and I turned up the volume to drown out the noise. I put my hands in the pocket that crossed the lower front of my hoodie and began to shoulder my way through the crowd to the exit doors.
Since that summer day when the neighborhood men slowed to gawk at me in my bikini, I became embarrassed about my body and the way it was developing. I still wore jeans and t-shirts nearly every day but when I went to school I would always wear a hoodie or a baggy sweatshirt. Muted colors, unassuming details, and any other way to blend in to the background became my regular wardrobe. I could walk through the crowded hallways and most people wouldn’t even notice that I passed by.
I walked face-down in the general direction of double doors and the freedom of outside. I was bumped, shoved, elbowed, and I had given up all hope for the future of America by the time I pulled my right hand out of my hoodie pocket and pushed one of the doors open. I stepped out into the cool air and took a deep breath. The heavy door shut behind me. The clatter and chatter of the cafeteria was cut off and suddenly the music in my headphones was too loud. I reached into my pocket and found the volume dial on my trusty Walkman by feel. I turned the Presidents down slowly until the sound pressure was a comfortable level . I could hear the birds twittering and the breeze blowing around the leaves that had started to fall.
I was startled by the sound of someone rumpling a paper bag. I spun around to glare at the person that dared sneak up on me.
“Want some tater tots?”
Trevor Kinsey was leaning up against the exterior wall of the school, a few feet outside of the doors to the cafeteria. When I realized who it was, I turned down the intensity of my death glare to a mere scowl.
“Are you kidding me? The boxes they come in should be covered with Mr. Yuck stickers. The lunch ladies should be fined for serving them to children,” I said with my usual haughty attitude.
“Oh, these aren’t from the cafeteria. They’re from the Brown Owl,” Trevor said as he popped a couple into his mouth.
The Brown Owl was a burger joint and shake shack on the highway. It served greasy cheeseburgers and chocolate shakes that were better than any restaurant in town. Their tater tots were to die for. My scowl died and my face couldn’t help but show my excitement. I reached for the orange paper cup in Trevor’s hand and took it from him. The weight of it felt wrong and when I brought it close enough to see inside I noticed the only thing left was a few crumbs and the grease that had dripped off of the tots that Trevor already ate.
“You asshole,” I said and punched him in the shoulder.
“Ow, watch it or I won’t give you the ones I bought for you!”
I rolled my eyes and tossed the empty cup towards the trash can next to the cafeteria door. The cup bounced off the rim, landed on the sidewalk, and rolled over to Trevor’s foot. The emblem of the Brown Owl rotated as the cup rolled and placed a greasy kiss on the side of his sneaker. He leaned over to pick it up and put it in the orange bag next to his other foot. He leaned over to pick it up and put it in the orange bag next to his other foot.
“Nice shot,” he said and pulled out another orange cup. This one was over-flowing with golden, crispy tater tots that steamed in the cool fall afternoon.
“Well, not everyone can be a sports superstar like you, Trevor. Or am I supposed to just call you Kinsey now?”
He smiled at me and said, “You can call me whatever you want. Except asshole.”
I smiled at him, popped a tater tot into my mouth, and said, “But what if you’re being an asshole?”
“When am I ever not being an asshole?”