Why was every single thing so ugly?
In theory, I hated them. Flirting with the boys and the girls, and even a little with our teacher, Mr. Wick, which was okay, somehow. They were naturals at it. Being young.
The windows let in the last warm croaks of summer. Mr. Wick stopped teaching five minutes early, “as a treat,” perhaps tired from the sheer energy it took to deflect us, this useless drove of puberty. It would be too much to bear for anyone.
And the girls never did anything to hurt me– Justine, and Teddie, whose real name was Theodora. Nice, but not too nice. Inoffensively religious. Each the celebrity of her close-knit family. Like a pair of weightless pearls, they seemed to float through the classroom, settling neatly atop the music room's tinny piano.
Andy practically leapt to the cheap wooden bench. Brave of you, I thought. It was only the second week of seventh grade, and he was wasting no time, socially speaking. He started plunking down a tune I knew well. His parents’ first dance song. Once we spent hours in their unfinished basement, marveling at home videos while our moms drank coffee in the kitchen upstairs.
“IJUSTcalled… to say… I love youuuuuu,” Andy crooned. The girls giggled and kicked up their bare legs; a crown of knees alighted his head. The more they giggled, the more passionately Andy plonked down on the keys, though he still had enough sense to duck down to smile.
He looked like he knew that A Memory was forming. I laughed in Andy’s direction. He blinked toward me, but decided I was unsafe. He wanted the pearls.
My forearms stuck to the desktop. Meanly, garishly, I imagined him bragging to his future buddies, whomever they were, in whichever context. That time when Teddie and Justy and I took over my music teacher’s class and played Stevie Wonder songs, ha ha.
The thought was accompanied by a lurch of nausea and a mounting pressure against my temples. Andy's voice careening off the walls of the music room seemed to be pitched only to cause me pain.
I lowered my head. Squared-off hearts and jagged initials were carved into the approximation of wood, along with cubes and tally marks and cylinders. Evidently those were the only lines one could think to draw on a school desk. I lowered my chin until I could only see the expanse of red pimples across my inner thighs. They looked like an acute disease.
Why was every single thing so ugly? And why couldn't I ever get away from it? I tried to remember feeling okay that morning. The vacuum of my childhood bedroom usually led me astray in this way. It let me be, when I needed to be hyper-vigilant. The only way I’d get by was to anticipate any instances of embarrassment; excise them; move on.
Teddie and Justine were talking to each other now, about their favorite bagels, or making bagels, something inane about bagels. It was a cruel kind of luxury to talk about a bagel so freely. If I moved my chin to listen better, I would vomit on the floor. As long as I kept a thumb wedged under the ridge of my left brow the pain would dissipate, one of those mechanisms that reminds you we're just points on a mass that sometimes refract.
It was a mistake to wear these shorts. I had purchased them this summer at Dress Barn. I wasn't expecting to find anything— was just examining the sleeves on a floral number that had potential— when I saw Justine among us in the Ladies' section. She held up the black garment flinchingly to her mother’s squat back as if she were scared it might hurt her. I ducked into the nearest dressing room so she wouldn't see me. A pair of size 22 shorts were hanging behind the door. Black cotton, already distended and misshapen, they appeared to be borne of no discernible trend or purpose, as if they had just sprung to existence out of the dire necessity for cover. A fat person shroud.
Justine was still tittering distinctly, so I turned away from the mirror to pull on the shorts. The zipper was snug at the waist but the legs were comfortable, might even be flattering, by the way they slid over my thighs without a hitch.
I could only confirm this by turning around to look, as much as I did not want to risk that. Fluorescent dressing rooms were patently sadistic. One had to brace for them, more than other places.
Upon turning to face myself, it was hard to keep up with the unfurling catalog of parts that were incorrect. The wrinkle of fat over my knees. The jellied swoops of back fat that I always forgot were there, when I imagined myself, imagined myself in clothes. I forced myself to focus on the shorts. They were ugly, there was no question. They were made for people's aunts and grandmothers who had already given up. And I could see how the cotton would hug at my stomach if I didn't wear a long enough shirt.
But they did fit. So I guess that meant that I liked them.
Both thumbs were still wedged under my eyes. Outside a breeze attempted to, but could not flutter through the cracks in the vaulted windows. I shifted, and my legs skidded against the seat. Only Mr. Wick was left in the classroom, trying with some effort to move the piano back to its duct-taped “X” on the linoleum floor. Silty haloes floated over his face as it moved in front of me. I could only see his clammy-looking hands and the pleats of his pathetic khakis.
“Still nice out, huh?”
“Yeah,” I murmured, and rushed to the door. I couldn’t look at Mr. Wick today.
The late afternoon sun hung low in the limbs of the oak trees outside, pouring a warm green glow into the glass foyer. A faint rustle of wind led my gaze to Andy, kicking at the curb absentmindedly. I wondered the exact length of time it took before the strange flicker of someone's mannerisms grew so familiar you could spot it from twenty feet away.
For a second I forgot what I looked like and moved through the exit door and toward him, in a way that might be described as graceful. If Teddie and Justine had accompanied him before, they were long gone; probably rushed out to ice skating or gymnastics or whatever they did. I shrugged my backpack onto one shoulder. The fresh air was divine for my system; no more pain.
“Hey,” I called to him, my voice cracking a little, “familiar song on the piano just now.”
He looked over his shoulder sheepishly, then grimaced.
“Whatever, Anna. You act like you know everything about me.”
I would have felt like crying if I had not also felt that I deserved it. I agreed with him. I agreed that I acted like I knew everything about him, and I agreed with the way he said it. He said it the way he was kicking the curb. And he was speaking a little bit for he, Andy, but also for Teddie and Justy and everyone else at the school. This is what they knew when they saw me. I just had to keep up.
“Yeah, well, my mom said you need a ride home with us, so.” I trailed off.
He shook his head disapprovingly, as if he couldn't believe his misfortune.
Ninety excruciating seconds later, my mother's lumbering minivan arrived for us. Six excruciating minutes later, upon reaching the end of the Sawyers' driveway, my mother turned over her shoulder and waved.
“Bye, hon! Tell Mom I’ll call her tomorrow!”
The next time she asked about Andy, I made something up. Then I yelled at her. Then I ignored her; not just about Andy, but all of her questions.
* * *
“To the good old days,” Theodora and Justine toast each other now, their legs still tanned and lean, though they don't think so. They remember that day with the piano, too, as a general hallmark of other, more fruitful impulses. It is important to them that they wring out every detail of this story—the song, the kicking, the sitting on pianos-- though most of it is wrong. They say that they were in high school, they say it was their favorite song. They tell it for much longer than it’s worth. Cocking their heads to the side, they search for Andy’s name but come up short.