Into The Wild Nerd Yonder
By Julie Halpern
Feiwel and Friends Copyright © 2009 Julie Halpern
All rights reserved.
I SO USED TO LOVE THE FIRST DAY of school. Ever since my mom let me pick out my first pair of first-day-of-school navy Mary Janes with the flower pattern puckered into the top, I knew I'd like the newness, yet revel in the sameness that the first day of school always brings. New pens I'll lose after first period, new schedules with the promise of a cool new teacher or intriguing new exchange student, and new classes to ace. Not in a braggy, nerdy way, just in an I'm-smart-and-I-kind-of-like-to-study way. It's not as though school defines me. Although, I guess I don't really know what defines me. Yet. Not like my best friends, Bizza and Char. Would it be lame to say that they define me?
Elizabeth Ann Brickman, or Bizza as she's been called since birth. (So I ask you: Why not just name her Bizza? I guess for the same reason my parents named me Jessica but call me Jessie. It's not really the same thing, though. Jessie's a pretty common name for an equally common girl. Unlike Bizza, uncommon in every way. Maybe that's why her mom decided to dub her only child Bizza, like how famous people name their kids after fruits and various other random unnamelike nouns — guaranteed un-anonymity.) Is it a name that lets someone know they're going to be different? Is it her name that makes her cocky and clever, weird but cool, funny but scary at the same time? Can a name do all of that? Or is it that everyone at Greenville High School knows Bizza because Bizza makes herself be known? If I truly wanted to, could I become infamous, too?
Not that I want to, but could I?
And then there's my other best friend, Char, who doesn't seem to have to try at all. Full name: Charlotte Antonia Phillips, every bit as gorgeous as her name implies, thin, but not skinny, tall, but not imposing, and hair so thick you could use it for climbing when in distress. If she were popular in the traditional high school use of the word she would be head cheerleader or prom queen or, I don't know, whatever else it is those "popular" people aspire to become. (Why are they referred to as "popular" anyway? That would suggest that everyone likes them, which is virtually impossible since popular people are notorious for treating the commoners like crap.) But popularity among the masses has never been anything that Bizza, Char, or I have aspired to. Which is why we've always been such great friends.
It started in first grade when the three of us convinced our teacher that the other students' lives would be empty without our fabulous lip-synching rendition of the movie Grease, so we gathered up any first graders willing to dance in front of people (amazing how it was so easy back then to find boys who weren't ashamed to dance) and any girl who was fine being relegated to one of the random, nameless Pink Ladies in the background. Bizza mouthed Rizzo's parts, Char mouthed Sandy's, and I was usually the Twinkie-loving Pink Lady Jan. At least my Pink Lady had a name, right?
Bizza, Char, and I have always had this fantastic creative energy, and a lot of funky things were born out of our friendship. In seventh grade we filmed one episode of a soap opera we created called Mucho Love (based on the telenovellas our Spanish teacher, Señora Goldberg, showed us in class). The soap was so funny, we actually got it aired on cable access (although I think cable access channels are legally required to air anything anyone sends them). Of course, Mucho Love wouldn't have been nearly as good if Bizza and Char hadn't convinced all of the hotties on the block to play the studly male leads. But that's why we work(ed) so well together: I bring the brains, they bring the brawn.
In eighth grade we started a band, The Chakras (Char thought it sounded "mystical"), and we all took up instruments. Bizza was, of course, the lead singer (without a care in the world that her voice sounded like the cries of a llama taking a particularly painful dump) and guitarist (her guitar playing wasn't much better than her singing). Char was the statuesque (and statuelike, since the only things she moved were her fingers) bass player. ("Chicks are always bass players," was her reasoning. My response: "Um, aren't we all chicks?") And I was the drummer, pounding away in the background. I didn't actually mind, since I was playing on Van Davis's drum kit. (Sigh.) And I'm pretty good. I think it goes along with my crazy math abilities. Sadly, The Chakas broke up after Bizza and Char decided that it was more interesting telling people we were in a band than actually practicing. They still tell people we're in a band. "But we're on hiatus." Bizza's words.
Now that we're in high school, being friends with Bizza and Char means I get invited to parties by the likes of Gina Betancourt and can experience firsthand what it's like to watch drunk people puke. It also means that at any of said parties, I practically don't even have to get dressed or fix my hair (not that it would matter anyway, since there is nothing I can do to perkify its straight brown blahness) because no one notices me anyway in Bizza's or Char's presence. Which I consider a good thing, most of the time.
But things are starting to change.
Last year, freshman year, I had the genius plan to start a sewing business. My mom has always made funny clothes for me, mainly for Halloween, but sometimes for other festive occasions (I look back fondly on my Arbor Day beret), and she taught me to sew last summer. My idea was to create simple, A-line skirts using a basic sewing pattern, but making them out of all of the hilarious fabrics they sell at fabric stores. It's insane what the bizarro fabric creators come up with (whose job is that anyway?): Jelly bean fabric. Prairie dog fabric. Coffee lover's fabric. They even have fabric for hunters: deer awaiting tragic death as they hang out in the woods. What kind of hunter would wear that pattern? Maybe hunters' wives like to make their hunter husbands little hunter pajamas. How quaint.
I thought the skirt thing was an obvious great idea, and Bizza and Char humored me for all of two days. Then they decided it was just "too home ec," and they'd rather hang out at the local Denny's. Denny's is where my brother, Barrett (two years older, completely adorable, the only boy at school with an orange mohawk), and his freakster friends hang out, drink coffee, and smoke (not Barrett, though, who believes, and I quote, "I'd rather my mouth tasted like the zebra-y goodness of Fruit Stripe gum than of someone's ass"). Barrett took me to Denny's a few times last year, trying to be all big brotherly, but it wasn't really my scene. His friends, for the most part, are pretty nice to me. Instead of looking through me (like the people at Gina Betancourt's party), they usually try to include me in their conversations. But their conversations are about music ninety-nine percent of the time, and I don't care enough about the Scrapheaps or the Turdmunchers or the Firepoos (I may have some of the names incorrect, due to my entire lack of interest) to converse about them. Ironically, I have filled in for the drummer (the aforementioned and insanely gorgeous Van) of Barrett's band, the Crudhoppers, during several practices, but I don't really listen to the music we're playing. That may sound impossible, but I'm so busy counting and trying to keep up the punk-fast pace that I don't really have the option of listening. It's funny how some of Barrett's friends think I'm his punky kid sister, when really I'm just some mathlete who'd rather be sewing Thanksgiving skirts in her bedroom while listening to an audiobook.
I glaze over the Crudhoppers' Denny's conversations and try to hold in my coughs as Van and Pete Mosely puff smoke rings and stank up my clothes. Bizza and Char, however, think the Denny's smoking section is the absolute of cool and berate me every time I fail to invite them when Barrett drags me along. (I also fail to mention to them that after Barrett invites me, he says, "Jessie, why don't you leave the two poseurettes at home tonight." Part of me feels guilty because I know they want to be there, but part of me thinks I deserve to be the attention girl, even if it is overed in a cloud of smoke.)
The worlds of the poseurettes and the freaksters collided this summer when Bizza decided that a nightly hang at Denny's was a must. Gaggingly, she even picked up the classy habit of smoking because "it's the only way we'll look cool sitting in the smoking section." Char bought a pack of clove cigarettes, claiming they tasted good, to which I ask why doesn't she just go suck on a clove so I don't have to inhale her perfumed secondhand smoke? Not to mention the damage it can do to my skirts. Even though Bizza and Char would rather make holes in their lungs (and mine) than make skirts, I am still way into the sewing. My goal is to sew enough skirts this summer to have a different skirt for every day of the school year. So far I have over seventy skirts (including skirts I started last summer, but not including the fifteen or so I made and sold at our school's summer craft fair). Bizza and Char have been too busy trying to infiltrate Barrett's crew to notice.
The final month of summer became a smoky Denny's extravaganza. The 'Hoppers were there almost every night, and since Bizza had made her mind up, we were there every night, too. Such a bummer because the end of summer is usually so amazing. Yeah, the back-to-school sales are unbelievable, but there's also something about the August air that's the perfect blend of summer and fall. It's so warm and wonderful. Bizza, Char, and I have spent every August since forever together in Bizza's backyard "tree house" (a floor of wood shoved into the top of her weeping willow tree) looking up at the sky and playing Would You Rather? Now I play Would You Rather? in my head every night we're at Denny's:
Would I rather
a) Be in the Denny's smoking section
b) Eat a live turtle, shell included
c) Lick a turkey's ass
Yeah. Tough call these days.
I have always held a mix of admiration and embarrassment for Bizza. It's amazing how she gets people to pay attention to her, something I could never do, and how she thinks she is so good at everything. Even when she sucks (as in her singer/guitarist days), she thinks she's a star. When she gets a seventy-five on a test, she thinks it's because the teacher doesn't know how to teach. And when a guy doesn't like her (god forbid), he's obviously gay. And on one dark and smoky night when Barrett drove the three of us to Denny's, she somehow managed to convince him that it would be acceptable to let us join the Crudhoppers' table. When we arrived at the smoky booth, Bizza gestured to me with her eyes as though I was supposed to introduce, or maybe even announce, her.
"Um, hey, guys." I tried to sound casual.
"Hey, Jessie." Van smiled. I always wondered if the reason Van was nice to me was because Barrett told him that I'd had a major crush on him since sixth grade. I had been borderline crushing on him for a while, as younger sisters do on their brother's friends, but then I had this über-omantic dream about him, which changed the status from borderline to obsessed. Van has this amazing smile, a freaky cool crooked nose, and dark hair that looks so perfectly imperfect. "Who are your friends?" Van asked, smacking me back into the reality that almost anyone is more interesting than me.
"This is Bizza. This is Char." The guys smiled and nodded as the girls charmed their way into the squished booth. I pulled up a chair. Coffees were ordered (loaded with cream and sugar), cancer sticks were puffed, and conversation followed the usual, musical route, but with many vapid Bizza interjections:
"That new Smokin' Chokes CD is shit. Why'd they replace Emery Gladen?" A 'Hopper mused.
"I love the new color of your hair, Van. How do you get it to stay so black?" Bizza blathered. This could have bothered me more, except any conversation between Bizza and a guy sounds flirty. Kind of annoying, but meaningless and completely the norm.
"We gotta get ready for our show at the Interoom. Our new songs aren't tight enough," a 'Hopper suggested.
"Did you get those shoes at Nordstrom, Eric? I totally saw them there. I almost got the same ones," Bizza noted importantly.
Each summer night was filled with identically inane conversations. All I wanted to do was stay home and sew, and look forward to the joyous day that I'd go back to school and homework and all of the smart-girl excuses I get to use so as not to waste my life at Denny's every night. I frequently tried telling Bizza that I had some sewing I wanted to finish this summer, but she would just say something like, "Whatever, Holly Hobby, you can sew later. We'll miss you if you're not with us," which made me feel simultaneously good and bad. Bizza is an expert at that.
So my final nights of summer were wasted with mediocrity and cigarettes. Barrett drove us to Denny's, Bizza acted like Bizza, and, as usual, her magical Bizzabilities charmed the pants off of them. Not literally, of course. The conversations turned away from music and moved to food, TV, movies — anything that Bizza deemed worthy of chatter. As the days went by, my skirts got smokier, and the weeping willow tree house got lonelier. Thank god, the summer is just about over.
Yeah, I used to like the first day of school. Until my best friends decided to turn punk.
WHAT THE BUTT? I ALREADY HAVE A Mr. Punk Rock Cool Guy brother; I don't need Punk Rock Wannabe friends. And today is their big debut: the first day of school, where summer can transform anyone and it's almost always accepted. Like Jenna Marny, who left school after eighth grade a fat, invisible nobody and came back a skinny, nose-jobbed somebody. Now she's going out with the captain of the soccer team. Or lacrosse. Or maybe both? Summer can do that to a person. Now Bizza and Char can be added to the list of the Great Transformed.
As I get ready for school (choosing a homemade skirt with pencils and rulers for first-day-of-school flare), I brush my straight brown hair, the same hair I've had for the past five years. (Obviously it's the same hair I've always had, but I mean the same "style." The only style, really, that my hair will do.) I sort of have a fear of trying anything different than shoulder length, parted a tad off to the side, ever since the Mushroom Cut Debacle of third grade. Who knew that, shortened, my hair would fluff up and become bizarrely fungi-shaped? The trauma left me with no choice but to leave my hair as is for the rest of my life, to ensure that nothing hair embarrassing ever happens again.
I experiment a little with some fun eye shadow colors and decide that green looks best with my brown eyes. I don't normally wear makeup because I'm too lazy and tired in the morning (and besides, what's the point? It's not like anyone else would notice.) but it's always easy for me to wake up on the first day of school. The excitement of new classes, seeing people who I like in an everyday way but not an outside-of-school way, and organizing my locker always springs me to life. Not to mention the joy of finally getting to legitimately use all of the school supplies that I've been hoarding for weeks. I follow every back-to-school sale in the Sunday paper, compare prices, highlight the ads, visit all of the necessary stores, and then hide the supplies in my genuinely worn, not faux-distressed, red backpack. I love opening the backpack on First Day of School Eve and — surprise! — there's all my new stuff.
I take one last look in the mirror before heading down to breakfast. I look kind of cute in my new skirt and eye shadow. Not much different than last year, but not all of us are dying to turn into someone else. Most of the time, anyway.
At breakfast, Mom and Dad run around, grabbing for newspapers and coffee cups. Both of them are teachers, although we like to refer to Mom as Doc, since she received her Ph.D. in education last year. I never quite understood how regular teachers could turn into doctors. (Like our old, horrid, Southern gym teacher, Dr. Stunter. What did she have a Ph.D. in — Dodgeball? Rope climbing? Child torture?) until Mom spent three grueling years in night school. Not that I'm not grateful, since it forced Dad to hone his cooking skills and prove once and for all that a man's place is in the kitchen. At least in my house.
Dr. and Mr. Sloan always leave the house a little before me and Barrett, to uphold the appearance that all teachers do, in fact, live in their classrooms. Both of them are wearing suits, which they usually do for the first week or two of school to scare the children into thinking they're serious teachers. After that, it's all Dad can do not to wear his ratty old Cubs hat to work (to cover up his ever-expanding bald spot), although Mom usually at least wears skirts until the slush of winter forces her into cords. She keeps her makeup to a minimum, and her hair is straight and brown, like mine, but in permanent mom-bob. People always tell us we look alike. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Into The Wild Nerd Yonder by Julie Halpern. Copyright © 2009 Julie Halpern. Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
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