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WEEK ONE: GIRL MEETS BOY
Chapter 1: THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM
They're probably going to announce who got what part."
Mikey spoke against background cafeteria sounds of talk and laughter, clattering dishes, and scraping chairs.
"In assembly," she said. "In..." she looked at her watch, compared it with the clock on the wall, "twenty minutes, or maybe fifteen. Are you nervous?"
Mikey Elsinger and Margalo Epps claimed to have been best friends since the first day of fifth grade, which wasn't exactly true. It could have been if they had been willing to modify their claim with an almost -- best friends since almost the first day -- but neither one of them wanted to be modified, or to be a modifier, either.
"Why did you try out for the play, anyway?" Mikey asked. Margalo wasn't the kind of person who tried to get people to notice her by putting herself up on a stage, or out on a tennis court. What had gotten into her?
Margalo said, "It's Jennet Jourdemayne," which explained nothing to anybody other than herself, but Margalo didn't intend anybody to learn her secret reason, not even Mikey. Especially since Mikey was the last person who'd sympathize.
"It's because I told you last year you were a good actress."
Margalo welcomed the wrong guess. It was bad enough having this horrible hopeless crush on a teacher, but it would be ten times worse if anybody found out about it. And what if he found out about how she felt? Margalo's whole body blushed hot at that thought. It wasn't as if she didn't know that no healthy-minded grown-up man would want a fourteen-year-old girlfriend, even if he wasn't already married. She knew that. But she still hoped, and she couldn't believe how stupid that was. But as long as nobody knew -- absolutely nobody, not even Aurora -- and Margalo trusted her mother, but she still wasn't going to tell her -- because as long as she was the only one who knew, she was safe.
So Margalo didn't tell Mikey that her guess was way off. But neither did she say it was right on. Instead, she looked mysterious, with a little smile that almost admitted it matched by eyebrows that absolutely denied it. In fact, Margalo was enjoying herself. Even if the secret you know is about yourself -- and mostly just makes you miserable -- still, knowing something nobody else even suspects will increase your self-confidence. Secrets are like that. Besides, it isn't every day you can use the same facial expression to irritate somebody twice.
Mikey knew this trick of Margalo's. She took a gloppy spoonful of chocolate pudding into her mouth, closed her lips firmly, and stared back at her friend while she pushed pudding out between her teeth, then sucked it back onto her tongue, then swallowed it.
Margalo counterpunched. She peeled back the skin on her banana, peeling it down carefully, strip by strip, taking each strip no more than a third of the way down at each peeling, carefully rotating the banana as she carefully, methodically, peeled it.
They played out their two-man scene to their audience of two until Mikey got bored, and broke eye contact, and groused, "Next thing, you'll be going to the dance. With a date."
Margalo knew better. "I'm not even invited to parties."
"Yeah, but neither am I, and I'm a good athlete." Then Mikey wondered, "We don't want to be invited to their parties, do we? Do you? I don't. The stuff that goes on -- "
"Definitely squalid," Margalo agreed.
Mikey and Margalo tended to agree about things. Their quarrels were mostly for style, not substance. They had them because otherwise life would be too tedious, and discouraging. From the start junior high had been bad, and this year it had only gotten worse. In eighth grade school seemed to be all about couples and love and/or sex and/or everything-in-between.
Everything-in-between covered a lot of territory. There were crushes, for one, or a girl would have a thing about a boy. Boys liked girls. Boys and girls really liked one another, or really cared for, really cared about one another. But was it love?
Mikey and Margalo had discussed it -- of course. Their level of accomplishment in love-and-sex-and-everything-in-between was the same: Never been on a date, never been kissed. It was their attitudes that differed. Mikey was mostly outraged -- What's the big deal? Who cares? Whereas Margalo projected scientific detachment -- Aren't human beings bizarre creatures? They had their different attitudes and they each liked having the differing attitudes they had, while at the same time they both agreed that nobody understood either sex or love. But wasn't it curious, as Margalo pointed out, that there was a sex-ed unit in gym, but no love-ed unit in any other class?
They also agreed that they didn't plan to be kept ignorant. As Mikey pointed out, ignorance isn't bliss, it's not knowing something. Not knowing something always put you at a disadvantage, in Mikey's opinion, and that was not where she cared to be.
But it wasn't easy to find out anything about sex, or love, or everything-in-between, especially if you weren't invited to parties. That meant you had to get your field information from secondary sources, and it was Margalo's opinion that people often avoided telling the truth, especially the whole truth and nothing but, about those subjects.
As far as they could tell, the parties seemed to be about slow dancing, close dancing, and long bouts of kissing in darkened rooms. They were about almost getting caught by parents. At the parties maybe there was beer, maybe pot, probably cigarettes, so you could learn how to drink stuff and smoke stuff, things you needed to know for high school. Maybe you'd get fallen in love with at a party -- and everybody wanted a chance to get fallen in love with -- or maybe you'd find someone really special. Mikey and Margalo collected stories about the parties, and rumors, and reports, and they considered them. "I don't believe her, do you?" Margalo would ask, while Mikey fulminated, "Catch me."
Another useful source of information was Mikey's mother, the ex-Mrs. Elsinger, once again Ms. Barcley. Margalo had elevated Ms. Barcley to an educational experience, so she kept herself current with what Mikey's mother was getting up to, at work, at play. "Did you talk to your mother this weekend?" she asked.
"I was watching the Australian Open."
This did not interest Margalo. She'd already heard her fill on that topic from Mikey. Also, it did not answer her question. "But did you talk to her?"
"She's still crazy about this new boyfriend."
"She's always crazy about them, isn't she?"
"It's just my father she couldn't be in love with," Mikey observed.
"You know, all of these boyfriends have been rich and ambitious and already successful, which your dad just isn't. If you think about them, they drive late-model cars, dress
in suits and polish their shoes. They take her to four-star restaurants, they take her away for fancy weekends -- your dad didn't do any of those things."
"I just wish she didn't make me meet them."
"Mudpies, Mikey. You're always talking about the places you eat at."
"Besides, this one's much older than she is."
Margalo stared at her friend, who was being the same person she had always been, irritable and impatient and self-confident. Who cares? about summed up Mikey, in a plaid flannel men's shirt (a new fashion low for Mikey) and her baggy cargo pants (a long-gone style, but Mikey either hadn't noticed that or -- more likely -- didn't care). Not noticing things was a big part of Mikey, especially things having to do with people. Margalo knew this about her friend, and sometimes she was really grateful for it. Like now, in the matter of this...thing that was such a big secret part of Margalo's life, ruining it and making it wonderful. After a minute of staring she told Mikey, "People can love people who are older than them," adding for safety, "or younger."
"What do you know about it?" Mikey demanded.
"More than you think," Margalo answered.
"And what's that supposed to mean?" Mikey demanded.
Margalo wasn't about to answer that question. Instead, she said, "Your mother keeps having serious relationships. Do you think she's having sex with all of them? Do you think she's in love with all of them?"
"Dad hasn't had even one girlfriend," Mikey said.
"I don't think you can fall in love that often," Margalo decided.
"He's been fixed up. People saying, come for dinner to meet, come to a party to meet. But he hasn't been on a date he asked someone out on," Mikey said. "Not a date of his own."
"Not really in love," Margalo said.
"Do you think there's something wrong with him?" Mikey asked.
"I think there's something wrong with her," Margalo said.
"You know, you probably won't get the part," Mikey said. "Jennet Whoever."
"Thank you for your kind wishes."
"Get real, Margalo. Do you expect me to want you to? You know that if you're in the play, you'll be rehearsing all the time, from now until the performance. Which isn't until May."
"But you're in basketball anyway, or tennis, so why should you care?"
"Because if you're rehearsing, who'll sell our Chez ME cookies?" Last year, after the success of Mikey's cookies in the seventh-grade bake sales, Mikey and Margalo had continued baking and selling cookies. They liked being in business. Margalo welcomed the income and Mikey welcomed the work. It didn't suit Mikey's plans to have Margalo be unavailable for the spring cookie business. "And you won't be able to see my tennis matches," she added. "After I make the team. Again."
That again made them pause to smile at each other. After brief and unspoken mutual congratulations and admirations, they got back to their quarrel.
Margalo said, "I can do more than one thing at a time, you know."
"And baby-sitting jobs too? That's three things."
"I can count," Margalo said.
"I guess you're pretty confident," Mikey grumbled.
"You're the one who keeps telling me to think like a winner."
"I never said you," Mikey objected. "I meant me."
Margalo gathered up her lunch wrappers and put them into the brown paper bag. Mikey piled her dirty dishes back onto the tray. But neither one of them made a move to get up. They were in no hurry to get to an all-school assembly.
"So if you do get this part, do you have to kiss someone?"
"What is this sudden interest in kissing?" Margalo asked.
"What makes you so sure you'll be picked?" Mikey asked.
"I'm not." The only thing Margalo was sure of was that she could hear Jennet Jourdemayne's voice in her head, speaking the lines in a cool-headed, intelligent, courageous way. She hadn't even thought of trying out until Mr. Schramm told her she reminded him of Jennet Jourdemayne. Mr. Schramm had been in a production of The Lady's Not for Burning out in Oregon, he'd said; he'd played Thomas Mendip; this was before he became a family man and turned in his actor's equity card for a teaching certificate. He was glad to see that they were still reading it in schools, he told her. But didn't she have a class to get to? He wouldn't want to make Margalo late for class, he'd said, and asked, why didn't she try out for Jennet?
"What if you don't get it?" Mikey asked. "What if Ms. Larch picks someone else? Like, Rhonda," she suggested, naming one of their long-time favorite people to dislike.
Margalo had the answer. "Then I'll have more time to sell cookies, which means I'll have more money in the bank."
"Although you'll still have to do something for the play. All eighth graders do. I'm going to be an usher."
"In a little short, swishy skirt," Margalo said, grinning.
"I'll swish you," Mikey said.
"You'll need to style your hair, like, curl it for an updo. I'll help," Margalo offered.
Mikey's hand went up protectively to the thick braid that had finally gotten back to long enough, almost halfway down her back. "No way."
"You'll be adorable," Margalo promised -- and they both started laughing. Mikey and adorable were vocabulary words from two different languages. Two different languages spoken on two different planets.
"You should usher too," Mikey suggested.
"Ush," Margalo corrected.
"When you don't get the part. It's a minimum-stress assignment, and minimum time commitment. Unless -- would they give you one of the other parts? Is there another part for someone tall and skinny?"
"Jennet is the only part I want."
"You could play a man," Mikey suggested. This was not meant to be flattering.
"It's too bad you didn't have the nerve to try out," Margalo said.
"I thought about maybe that little priest, the one with his lute, the spacey one."
Margalo believed that the best revenge was a quick one. She said, "I guess, because he's supposed to be so short and round, you thought you'd look right."
"Also besides, I don't have time to learn lines. I'd have to miss a lot of practices and also I don't want to let the team down by not playing in a basketball game because of some rehearsal. Also, tennis begins in March, and I'm not about to miss that. So it's not that I didn't have the nerve," Mikey said, with her I-guess-I-win smile.
Margalo's attention had moved on to the new problem: If she didn't get the part, she was going to have to do something else for the play. Every student in each grade -- and every teacher, too -- had to do something for the West Junior High School annual class projects, the dance given by the seventh grade for eighth graders, and the play given by eighth graders for everyone. She was about to ask Mikey about the ushering committee, when Tanisha Harris pulled out one of the empty chairs -- there were many to choose among near Mikey and Margalo -- and sat down in it.
Tan was the only girl as serious about sports as Mikey. In grade school, when they first met her, she was serious about volleyball, but since last year she'd been serious about basketball instead. Tan had a good chance at an athletic scholarship for college, since she was a really good athlete, and smart enough, and African American. She looked at Margalo with dark, measuring eyes and said, "I've got bad news. Do you want to hear it?"
"How bad?" Margalo wondered.
"Not bad like your dog died. This is like -- a dead-goldfish level of badness," Tan said. She had always run closer to their wavelength than other people. "It's like a you'll-hate-dinner -- it's on a liver-for-dinner level."
"I don't mind liver," Mikey objected.
"OK," Margalo decided. "Tell."
"My grandmother loves it," Mikey told them.
"You know that today in assembly they're announcing who got parts in the play?" Tan asked.
"Sautéed, with onions and red wine," Mikey said.
"I know who's going to be Jennet Jourdemayne. Sorry, but it's not you."
"Hah!" Mikey crowed. All victories welcome, that was her motto.
"Hunnh," said Margalo. She was cool, nothing surprised her, nothing got her excited, nothing could upset her or disappoint her.
"I told you so," Mikey said.
"Mikey," Tan protested.
"Well I did," Mikey maintained.
Tan grinned. "You're so bad, you're perfect."
Mikey smiled right back at her, a So-what? smile.
"How'd you find out?" Margalo wanted to know.
"The way they're announcing it, they're calling the people up onto the stage. I guess they think that'll make it more exciting for everyone, like the Oscars or something. Aimi told me. She's going to be Jennet. Ms. Larch told her yesterday so she'd be ready to be called up on stage, and Aimi was too excited not to tell someone." Tan continued, "I thought you were just as good as Aimi in tryouts. You're a good liar, so it makes sense that you'd be a good actress."
"Aimi must have been better," Mikey pointed out. "Otherwise, why would she get the part?"
"She's black." Tan made a point of not adding dummy, made such a big point that she might as well have said it out loud, which was exactly her point. "Except for that, Aimi and Margalo are built a lot alike, tall and slim, and they're both pretty enough. The only real difference I can see is Aimi's not white. So, I figure, Ms. Larch wanted someone who looked different from everybody else for Jennet, because...People in those days would single her out and believe she might be a witch because she looked different -- when they were looking for someone to blame, for a scapegoat when things went wrong."
"That's smart casting," Margalo agreed.
"Did she tell Aimi all that?" Mikey asked.
Tan just looked at her, eye sarcasm.
"Yeah, but then how do you know?" Mikey insisted. Then she said, "Wait. OK. I do get it." In case they didn't believe her, she explained. "The play's set in the Middle Ages, and the Middle Ages are a lot like junior high. The Middle Ages are the junior high of history. In both places, if you look different, or act different, people are nervous, scared of you. Get people scared of you and they'll start doing things to make themselves feel un-scared, like -- burning you at the stake. It's as simple as math: Different is scary, new is scary, change is scary -- burn, burn, burn." Each time she said burn, Mikey pointed at Margalo or Tan, as if she was sentencing somebody to be tied to a stake and roasted alive. "I'll tell you what scares me," she said, as if either Margalo or Tanisha had asked. "People."
"The Salem witch trials weren't during the Middle Ages," Margalo pointed out.
Mikey ignored her. "By 'they' I mean mostly men," she said. "Because women couldn't do much of anything back then. Well, they could, and some of them did. Joan of Arc, for example, and look what happened to her because she acted different from other people, and looked different, especially dressed different. Things haven't really changed at all since then, have they?"
Margalo considered deflating this R&R, which was what her mother called it when Mikey got going on some topic, because it was the opposite of Rest and Recreation. With Mikey, Aurora maintained, R&R stood for Rant and Rave. Margalo was about to advise Mikey to put a lid on it, when Frannie Arenberg, who'd stopped on her way out of the cafeteria to listen, did it for her. "I think the human race has made some good progress since the Middle Ages," Frannie said.
"Yeah, but you also think Louis Caselli isn't so bad," Mikey pointed out.
"That's because Louis has a giant crush on her," Tan said.
Frannie never minded being teased, not about her plain, Quaker style of dressing, not about her reputation as the nicest person in school, not even about Louis Caselli's crush. She said, "I feel sorry for Louis."
"Louis has the brains of a mushroom," Mikey agreed. "We have to forgive him. At least," she added, "the rest of you have to. I don't think I will."
"Besides, as we all know, Louis is no competition for..." Margalo lingered on the silence before she uttered the name in a breathless, sighing voice, "Gregory Peck." Frannie's crush on Gregory Peck had begun when they'd been shown the movie of To Kill a Mockingbird last year. She didn't care if he was old enough to be her grandfather -- or great-grandfather by now; and Margalo did agree that he was incredibly handsome. But there was old, and there was way old, and Gregory Peck was definitely in the second category.
As soon as Margalo mentioned the one, Mikey leaned toward Tanisha to murmur the name of the other: "Tiger Woods." In eighth grade you wanted to be half of a couple, so if they didn't have a personal boyfriend, girls could get crushes on celebrities. The important thing was to have a name linked to yours. Almost all eighth graders were linked to someone. Not Mikey, and not Margalo, and there were a few others, too, although not many. Casey Wolsowski was one of these -- unless you counted linking your name up to the hero of some book, which most people didn't. This far into the year everybody knew about Frannie's crush and Tanisha's ideal man, so they got teased a lot.
Frannie and Tan looked at each other. "Their time will come," Tanisha promised.
"In your dreams," Mikey answered, and Margalo let Mikey speak for her in this, as if she and Mikey were in exactly the same position, untouched, and untouchable.
"Anyway, I'm not about to waste time and erasers on a notebook," Mikey declared. Eighth-grade girls erased their boyfriends' initials onto the fronts of their spiral notebooks. It was practically an eighth-grade art form, initialing anything you could get an eraser on. "Haven't you seen Ronnie's notebooks, with Doug's name all over them? And Rhonda -- it's pitiful. She's pitiful. She always was, but this year she's reached new levels of pitifulness. Or Heather McGinty, the way she drools around after whoever scored highest in the last game, whoever everybody's talking about. Acting like she's some movie-star irresistible sex goddess, hinting about how hot she is." Mikey concluded this R&R, "The whole thing's -- it's really embarrassing, and Heather's not even embarrassed."
Then she grinned. "I'm enjoying eighth grade."
Then she glared at Frannie. "What's so funny?"
Frannie stood up, shaking her head. "I have to get an aisle seat for the assembly," she apologized, "because I got a part."
"Which one?" Margalo asked, making a silent guess, The mother.
"The mother," Frannie said.
"Typecasting," Mikey announced.
"No it isn't," Margalo said. "The mother isn't -- "
Mikey held up both hands, palms out like a policeman facing traffic, Stop. "Leave me something to be surprised at, why don't you? Who else got parts?" she asked Frannie.
"I thought you wanted to be surprised. Anyway, we're not supposed to tell," she added, leaving.
"Are you trying to get rid of the few friends you have?" Tan asked Mikey.
"What did I do to you? I just said his name, just Tiger. Ti-ger, Ti-ger." Mikey ducked out of Tanisha's reach. "I didn't say anything about, That's a weird name, or, How dumb is it to think you're in love with some sports hero who never even heard of you and never will."
"No different from a movie star or a rock star," Tanisha maintained.
But Margalo disagreed. "Tiger Woods is a whole different story from Tyrese." Then she was diverted. "Denzel Washington. I could go for Denzel Washington."
"Or Will Smith," Tanisha agreed.
Mikey groaned. They ignored her.
Margalo didn't remember when it had become fun to make lists of handsome guys, fun just to think about who should be on the list; but she didn't deny that she enjoyed it. It was more interesting than listing all the boys in your class, ranked in order of who you'd like to kiss, or go on a date with, or marry, which one you'd most want to be marooned on a desert island with, or -- this was the currently popular list -- dance with, or slow dance with or super slow dance with, which were all the same unspoken question: Who do you want to go to the dance with? If every boy was going to ask you, who would you choose?
As some art-room kids passed by, Cassie Davis -- front-runner for the title of eighth grader with the worst attitude -- stopped to ask Mikey, "You coming to assembly? Or what?"
"Is there an or what choice?" Mikey asked, then "I'm not joking," she protested.
"I know," Cassie said. "That's what makes you so funny."
"I'm not funny," Mikey told her.
"I'll save you a seat," Cassie said, passing on by.
"Why does she think because we're in the same homeroom, she should save me a seat?" Mikey demanded.
"She doesn't mean it," Margalo explained. "She won't do it."
"Then why does she say she's going to? People," Mikey said, disgusted.
Being disgusted with people reminded her of something else. "What committee are you going to be on for the play?" she asked Tan.
Tan was rising, and it really was time to start over to the auditorium. She said, "Promotion -- you know, getting advertisers for the programs, finding stores that'll let us put up posters. The committee only meets during lunches, and we can sign up the advertisers and ask at stores during the weekends. It's Mrs. Sanabria's committee so you know it's not going to interfere with the basketball schedule," she said as she joined up with Ronnie Caselli and others from the team.
Watching the cafeteria get empty, Mikey looked at Margalo and smiled, a grim Let's-look-for-a-bright-side smile. "The sooner it starts, the sooner it'll be over."
Like someone about to step into the dentist's office, Margalo tucked her straight, chin-length hair behind her ears and squared her shoulders. "If you say so." She rose from her seat.
Slowly, reluctantly, they got going, drifting out of the cafeteria, drifting down the hallways, drifting into the auditorium, just two jellyfish riding along on tidal waters.
Copyright © 2002 by Cynthia Voigt