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"Heads up!" was my only warning before it was launched over the aisle toward me. Even though I was on one knee, stocking shelves with acrylic paint tubes, my reflexes were on their feet. My long forearms met the ball of rubber bands with a force that sent it hurling back toward where it came from.
"Ouch!" Pam, my coworker-slash-bestfriend, yelped.
Snickering to myself, I rushed over to her aisle to apologize. She gave me the dramatic, injured look, so I knew it wouldn't be easy.
"C'mon, it was just a few soft rubber bands," I offered sweetly.
"Yeah and not a volleyball." She pouted, rubbing her forehead. "I swear, London, from now on, going to one of your volleyball matches is gonna feel like watching a scary movie."
"Seeing as how you overact worse than a Hollyweird D-lister," I teased, "that would be a step up for you."
Pam forgot about her wounded act and coughed up a boisterous laugh that I'm sure all of northern New Jersey heard. She's not usually the loud type, but the girl is known to turn up the volume on just about every aspect of her personality.
"You're never gonna let me live that down, huh?" Pam placed her hand the one not holding a stack of colored pencils over her heart and squinted as if the sun was in her eyes. "I did it for you. The ref had to understand how foul his call was."
Her theatrics aside, I appreciate that she comes to almost every one of my home games to show her support.
"Mmm-hmm," I teased. "Next time you get the urge to run screaming across the court during game time, don't do me any favors."
"Owww," Pam whimpered. Going for the right distraction tochange the subject, she started stroking her forehead again. I grinned and wrapped my long arms around Pam's shoulders, giving her a quick, apologetic squeeze. My five-foot-ten frame extended half a head taller than her.
"Sorry." I picked up the rubber orb and carefully pulled off the red band on top. "Anyway, I only asked you for one."
"Next time I won't be so generous." Pam got in the last word before she carried on placing colored pencils into separate slots on a fixture.
I smiled to myself and headed back to my acrylic paint duties. Without intending it to be, working the same shift at Art Attack was becoming the perfect chance for Pam and me to hang together. Even though we're both sophomores at Teawood High, my volleyball season being in full swing and Pam's double passions for fashion and her boyfriend Jake have kept us preoccupied. Before this job, we'd mostly been keeping in touch via text.
Unexpected bonus BFF time aside, Pam got me a job here for another reason altogether. Once she heard I was passed up for the volleyball summer camp scholarship and had to raise the fifteen-hundred-dollar fee on my own, she put in a good word with her boss. Now here I am, two weeks later, proudly rocking the faux-paint-splattered, red employee vest.
Art Attack was one of a few artsy stores to pop up on Main Avenue in recent months. The seven-block strip, known to locals as "the Ave," always had potential. Just a few miles from New York City, Teawood, New Jersey, is a large suburb with a metropolitan vibe. Cozy coaches or as we like to call them, adult school buses make their way down the Ave, shuttling Teawood residents to and from their New York City jobs every workday morning and evening. On Saturdays kids either head across the bridge to shop in Manhattan or parade down the Ave in celebs-on-a-coffee-run attire. For them it's all about comfy boots with oversize handbags and shades.
In the heart of the strip, the brick sidewalks are spacious and lined with benches and old-world lampposts. Luxury car dealerships, designer shoe stores, and fancy evening gown showrooms stand alongside busy restaurants, open-late ice cream shops, and trendy clothing stores. Lots of famous folks who live in nearby, more upscale towns including a few rappers who publicly claim to still be living in New York City can be spotted shopping or lunching here. (Reverend Run's kids are known to pass through, reality show cameras in tow.) Shiny cars cruise up and down, looking for both attention and parking.
No celebrity sightings in Art Attack to report yet. That's probably because my part-time working hours are spent avoiding customers and their art-related questions. Pam, in her artsyliciousness, is a much better fit for this job. Honestly, if I'd known that a prerequisite for working at an art supply store was creativity, I would've found another way to earn the money.
But it's all worth it. The Peak Performance Volleyball Camp in upstate New York trains top high school players from the tristate area and gives them a shot at making the national team. I've wanted to go to Peak Performance camp ever since my gym teacher told me about it in the eighth grade. It has the best reputation. Plus it lands athletes on the radar of prominent college scouts which is right where I want to be.
Trust, I would walk around stuffed to the gills in grills like rapper Plies if you told me gold teeth had transmitters that blip on the radar of college scouts.
Crazy ambition aside, what's fun about Peak Performance is that after weeks of intensive training in the art of spiking, blocking, serving, and winning, the camp squad flies to Miami to play against teams from other regions across the country.
Even though scholarships were awarded to only two star athletes from my school seniors who have already been handpicked to play volleyball in college I was selected to join the camp. My parents said they'd gladly pay the hefty fee...but only if I enroll the summer after my junior year. Trouble is, who even knows what chance I'd have for getting picked next year! Considering there's no guaranteed placement, I just can't pass up this summer's opportunity.
So for now I'm all about improving my game, which it turns out, has been the therapy I needed to get over my ex-boyfriend Rick Stapleton. Correction: I didn't need to get over him, so much as the humiliation of being dumped publicly. Of course, all of that intensified volleyball focus has been reflected by my wardrobe (I pair a v-ball jersey with jeans, like, every day) and the number of v-ball clips on my Facebook page.
I'm finally shaking off the heartbreak, but I still feel stupid when I think of how, right before it went down, I was beaming like SpongeBob because I was genuinely happy for my then boyfriend. Picture gullible me, all chipper in the bleachers, watching Rick get honored as Peak Performance's Top Athlete in his age group. I jumped up and cheered so loudly when his name was announced that I gave myself laryngitis and a migraine. That was mere minutes before I found out that Rick had also worked on his playa-playa game during his summer away.
Yup, in August Rick returned from camp with a new girlfriend the hot v-ball star from a rival school. After practically skipping off the bleachers, intending to congratulate Rick and welcome him back with a kiss, I caught the sight of him hugging up on a Keke Palmer look-alike. He didn't even unglue himself from her when he saw me staring, frozen in shock. It didn't matter, because by then my voice was too hoarse (and my head too achy) to confront Rick.
We haven't spoken since.
But despite the prime-time shaft witnessed by the entire athletic student body, by the way I'm turning things around. It's October, and I've established myself as a new, strong player on Teawood High School's varsity squad. Not even the sight of Unslick Rick watching from the stands (with her) can throw off my game.
"London Abrams, you're on register." My manager's squawky voice yanked me back from my daydream.
I noticed that I'd been squeezing a helpless tube of paint, leaving it misshapen and crinkled. As best I could, I flattened it to its near-original figure before placing it at the back of the shelf behind the undamaged tubes.
My boss didn't notice he's in his own world. While other managers and employees of Art Attack are funky, creative types, this one is offbeat in a chop-off-an-ear van Gogh way. The poor guy seems tormented by a million unfinished personal art projects. He wears that torment in his hair. It looks more mad scientist than everyone else's bed-head vogue.
"Great, my favorite place to be," I said sarcastically, sidestepping his attempt at authority. With a million different possible payment transactions cash, credit card, Art Attack bonuses, promotional codes, coupons, employee discounts, buy-two-getone- half-off deals I still wasn't completely comfortable manning the checkout counter.
"Would you rather advise customers on how to put their art projects together?" he asked.
I suck at art advice. So, after stocking the shelves, I went to relieve the lanky goth guy signing off of register 1.
Fortunately for me, it was smooth sailing for the first two hours just simple cash and credit card customers. But about a half hour before my lunch break, things started getting busy. The checkout lane signs wide lamp shades displaying red numbers blocked the shorter cashiers from view. On the flip side, my head towered above my lane's sign. Because they could see me, customers assumed I was the only employee on duty. So a long line formed at my register, while my coworkers at registers 2 and 3 seemed to be hiding behind their signs on purpose.
Just when I thought my boss would take notice of what was going on, an inquisitive customer whisked him away on a calligraphy ink hunt. It was up to me to handle the situation. I still had too much of that newemployee uneasiness to call out my coworkers, so I addressed the customers instead.
"Registers two and three are also open," I informed the back of the coiling line.
My announcement totally backfired. A cutie had been heading to my line, but just as I said this, he queued up behind the two customers who had also just switched to register 2. Dang. Curious, I stole a quick glance at him. He struck me as a cross between a teenage Lenny Kravitz and a modern-day Jean-Michel Basquiat. (Yes, working here has taught me a thing or two about famous dead hipster artists.) Dressed in a plaid button-down and khakis, he looked retro and current at the same time.
In the two weeks that I'd been an Art Attack employee, I'd come to recognize the look of a person with creative swagger. And Kravitz Cakes's air of creativity was more timeless than most hot-for-the-moment, trendy customers who pass through. Something about him made me want to act supergirlie, like twirl my hair around my finger or tilt back my head while laughing. I think it's called "flirting."
I wanted to meet this guy. For one, he was taller than me and possibly a full two inches taller at that. A lot of guys my age seem ten times more likely to catch mono than a growth spurt, so it's nice to come across a tall boy. Second and this was huge the mere fact that a guy caught my attention meant I must have been getting over Unslick Rick.
I started ringing up customers at double speed. I couldn't move faster if my name was Taylor Swift. Forget the checkout counter small talk I'd normally have. I just wanted the cutie to switch back to my lane when he realized it was the quicker option.
Funny how total strangers operate on the same timetable without even realizing it. There were solid blocks of time when not a soul walked into Art Attack. Then suddenly, as if a sightseeing tour bus had pulled up and parked outside the door, folks swarmed in all around the same time.
My coworker at register 2 and I both had two customers waiting in line. The cutie was at the end of her line. As she rang up stuff, I stole a glance over my shoulder to her lane like a paranoid marathon runner. She had two more items to ring up a roll of satin ribbons and a box of fancy transparent paper, apparently for a bride to be into DIY wedding invitations.
Yes, I thought. Those items take mad long to ring up because the UPC has to be typed in.
The two high-pitched beeps I heard in the next heartbeat meant that my coworker had somehow successfully managed to scan the wrinkled sticker codes on both packages. In a panic, I scanned my remaining three items and totaled the purchase. In a rare retail move (and without once removing his dark shades), my customer handed me glorious exact change.
The cutie looked over with anticipation when he noticed my now shorter lane. He took a step in my direction when, out of nowhere, a trio of loud Jersey types beat him to the punch. Only one of them was purchasing anything, but the obnoxious group made my lane look extra crowded.
"I know," one of the women heaved out in a raspy smoker's voice. "I would just die-yah if they had it I'm tawkin' flat out die-yah."
Then, like a killer block at the net to save the game, my boss walked up and pulled through.
"We have that size of canvas panels you asked for in stock," he told the trio. "It'll be out in a few minutes if you want to wait for it."
The raspy-voiced woman was so excited, she did almost die-yah. Her painful attempt to squeal with delight threw her into a coughing fit. Once she recovered, the excited group christened the store manager a "dawll" as he led them down a side aisle.
This time His Royal Hotness acted fast and moved to my lane just as I handed my outgoing customer his receipt. Yes! If daydreams could come true, I would jump over the Sharpie-marked counter into his waiting arms.
For all my effort to come face-to-face with him, I didn't think of anything clever to say to Mr. Crushtastic. I barely managed to greet him. He had such a quiet intensity that it felt like anything I said would've sounded silly. For one, he was as focused as I get when I'm on the court. Dude carefully examined each photo matting tool as he placed them on the counter. I recognized that need to concentrate on the details to get the job done right. I'm the same way when it comes to volleyball. And from what I could tell, this guy was heavy into his photography game.
The safest thing for me to do was ring him up in silence. Suddenly, I felt selfconscious and wished I hadn't worn my faded powder-blue jersey. It made my deep brown skin look totally washed-out. Plus my Teyana Taylor thick, curly hair was wrestled into a messy ponytail as proof that I hadn't consulted the mirror enough while I styled it.
Fly Guy expected me to announce the grand total, but when I said nothing, he squinted at the glowing digital numbers on the register's screen. Real smooth, London. I wanted to throw the lamp-shade lane sign over my head and pretend I was a fixture. But for some reason, he was the one who looked embarrassed enough for the both of us. Could I be making him nervous? I wondered.
"Oh no," he said to himself, barely loud enough for me to hear. His stone-serious face softened into a grimace. "I'm short two bucks," he told me apologetically as he dug into his jeans pockets twice. "Uh...I could come back and pay you in two minutes, or I can just put something back and pick it up later...," he rambled.
"No, it's okay," I heard myself say. "It's no biggie. I'll just use a promotional code and that should cover it." I made up what I was saying as I went along. Meanwhile, my internal conversation went something like: Why did I just decline his offers to swing by later? I just closed off my chance to see him again!
"Thank you." He paused, looking at me as if for the first time. My stomach flip-flopped. The paper shopping bag I'd packed crinkled as he bashfully picked it up. Apparently our sudden stillness (and the sound of the bag) signaled to the waiting customer that it was time to ring up his manga artist brush-pen set and drawing pad. He slapped them onto the counter.
Nudged out, my crush turned away and walked out of the store.
Like a game-ending buzzer to a losing team, the door chime announcing his exit put me in a slight funk.
Copyright © 2009 by Debbie Rigaud
"Earth to London." Pam waved her hands in front of my face. "Gurl, if you don't hurry up..."
I guess I had zoned out after the unidentified-fly-object-of-my-affection sighting.
When I finally snapped out of it, I moved from behind the counter to follow Pam. Her timing couldn't have been more perfect I needed to step out for a break.
Pam and I were almost at the door when I backtracked. I'd forgotten to take off my Art Attack vest. "Wait here," I said to an impatient Pam.
A few seconds later, right after I'd hung my vest on the hook and was nearing Pam, it hit me that I'd forgotten something else. I did an about-face again.
"Oh, no, no, no," Pam whined. "Whatever you forgot, do it when you get back. Our hour's practically over as it is."
I looked at the time on my cell and saw that we'd only used up four minutes of the lunch break. "You're so dramatic," I told her before jogging back to my post.
My intention was to open my register and place the two wrinkled dollar bills from my wallet on top of the pile of ones. But Goth Guy beat me there by a few paces. Where he came from, I had no idea.
Definitely not a good time to make that move, I thought.
Goth Guy looked like he expected me to ask him a new-girl question. I played it off by peering down an aisle as if searching for someone. After a convincing few seconds, I doubled back and headed for the exit.
When I caught up to Pam, she was waiting outside the store, her custom pink Sidekick already to her ear.
"But this is huuge you have to come through." Pam held her lips in the pouty form of the last word she spoke. Judging from the soft tone of her voice, I could tell she was talking to Jake Tulagan, her boyfriend of ten months. By now the poor guy is used to Pam's overreacting. She treats everything like a five-alarm fire. I've tried to tell her about herself, but she insists it's in her genes. Not on her dad's Irish side, but her mom's Caribbean side.
"HDQ Haitian Drama Queen is embedded in my DNA," she likes to say.
Pam frowned as she eyed me and my jersey. Whatever. Volleyball jerseys are formfitting and cute unlike the oversize basketball or football ones. But Pam is such a stylista, she wouldn't be caught sleeping in what I had on.
An Etsy devotee, my gurl is slowly turning her hobby creating mash-up T-shirts from salvageable thrift store finds into a small side business. But she gives me her funky designs for free. Even though I can't bring myself to wear them too often. They're just too fabulous. It's bad enough that I get the occasional once-over because of my long limbs, so I avoid wearing anything that might attract more head-to-toe eyeball scans.
"Thanks," she sighed into the phone. "See you there."
"What did you guilt him into this time?" I teased as Pam tucked her cell into her halfmoon- shaped bag.
"He promised to help me with my blog's redesign today, but now he's trying to push it to next week." She unraveled the chunky crocheted scarf from around her neck and tied it back on in a different style. "I can't be slackin' when that flashy copycat blog is trying to steal my shine."
As long as she's got creative blood pumping through her veins, Pam refuses to let her hip blog about local teen style get upstaged.
"I haven't seen you since your rubber ball assault." She put aside her redesign preoccupation and strolled in step with me. "How's work going?" Despite her HDQ leanings, Pam is a superthoughtful and caring person. Hers was the lone shoulder I leaned on in junior high when cold-blooded kids were calling me Elastigirl, thanks to my gangly arms and legs and bony body. It's hard to believe that just a few years later, natural hormones and high school volleyball teamed up to whip my physique into Venus Williams-esque form.
"I'll tell you the highlight of my morning," I continued, hoping my singsong voice piqued her curiosity. "This cu-TAY in chief got in my line when I was on register."
"Really, London?" Pam was touched, like I'd just handed her a bouquet of flowers. She couldn't hide her excitement over my interest in someone other than Unslick Rick. There was something about Rick that she hadn't liked from the get-go. Pam has a sixth sense for these things and she picked up on Rick's superficial stench almost immediately. He cared too much about appearances for Pam's taste. That's an ironic opinion coming from a fashion gearu like herself, but it's more about her disgust over his obsession with status.
Pam's theory is that Rick only hangs with people he's expected to hang out with. (This is unacceptable to a girl who learned at a tender age to ignore the stares her mixed-race family sometimes got when out in public.) Case in point: Last year, when Rick was a newbie freshman volleyballer, he started dating me, a fellow newbie volleyballer. As soon as Rick was crowned Peak Performance's Top Performer, he upgraded me for a star v-ball girlfriend. And ever since the incident, Pam really can't stand even talking about him.
I for one am grateful Pam doesn't care about status. She befriended me in my unpopular middle school days. And now that I've been branded the "jilted girlfriend," she's just as supportive.
"You should've seen your gurl acting all crazy, speeding through customers so Fly Guy could slide over to my faster line," I confessed. "I still don't know what got into me. It was like I had to meet him."
"What's his name?" she asked the minute we claimed an unoccupied bistro table outside our favorite sandwich shop.
I couldn't conjure a juicy response if I'd wanted to. My involuntary facial expressions primarily acted out by my dark, thick eyebrows always snitch my true feelings. My eyebrows twitched and rose, then in the next millisecond, lowered. This reflex babbled to Pam that this was the end of my crush story. Nothing else to say.
"Well, at least you now know there's crush life after Rick," she said before I could answer. "I'll go in and grab our lunch."
"Let me know if you need help carrying it out," I offered.
It had been only two weeks, but this was getting to be our Saturday-afternoon ritual. And what made this ritual extra nice was finding a sweet lunch spot where we could people watch. For October it was a relatively warm day. Sitting in the sun would help us stay warm after we downed our cold soft drinks.
It was a great day for people watching. Lots of modely types were walking the Ave for some reason. The skater dudes hanging out near Starbucks were happy about that. Their jumps got riskier and more helter-skelter every time a group of girls walked by.
"It's mad busy out here," I commented as Pam and I ate. "I wonder what's going on today."
Sometimes, if the new bookstore was hosting an author signing, or if a performance at the arts center around the corner was poppin' off, there would be more foot traffic than usual. Pam shrugged and spotted someone interesting.
"He stays forever framed out," she said of the guy walking by in white-rimmed shades. For the many times we'd run into him, we'd never seen his eyes rain or shine. "Lookin' like Kanye West in that ole 'Stronger' video," Pam continued.
"I'm sayin'," I agreed.
"Ooooh, come with me to Cynthea Bey's store," Pam pleaded, as if in response to something she told herself in her mind. She checked the time on her cell phone. "I wanna see what she came up with for the winter season."
Cynthea Bey had opened Chic Boutique a cool warehouse space showcasing local and popular designer labels a little over two months ago. Pam, the Cynthea groupie, had visited almost every week. I think she was stalking so she could one day cross paths with the supermodel. Despite her unlucky timing, Pam continued to have hope.
"We've got twenty-five minutes before we have to be back," I warned Pam. She's an overscheduling freak if you don't rein her in.
She hadn't even swallowed all of her food, but she stood up and threw away the rest of her sandwich and baby carrots. If I wasn't such a fast eater and hadn't already been done with my turkey baguette, there's no way I would have been leaving with her.
By the time we turned the corner toward Chic Boutique, the sight of a long line snaking from the store to the sidewalk twisted our faces into WTF grimaces.
"Are they giving away free clothes or something? What's with that crazy long line?" I asked out loud, but more to myself than to Pam. The last thing I felt like doing was dealing with a bunch of maniacal girls all vying for the same size-four jeans.
Pam and I stood staring in a paralyzed pause, reading the large pink storefront sign's swirly letters: CASTING CALL TODAY: 15 JERSEY GIRLS WILL BE SELECTED TO COMPETE FOR THE CHANCE TO BECOME THE CHIC BOUTIQUE MODEL IN OUR IN-STORE PRINT ADS!
It was clear that Cynthea Bey was out to prove that New Jersey could bleed style like New York. Good for her, I thought.
"I've seen enough." I tried to snap Pam out of her daze. I could tell she was excited. Nothing this huge had happened in Teawood since the year before when Jay-Z and Beyoncé were spotted buying iced coffees at the corner café. "Let's get out of here. I'm starting to catch a Rachel Zoe-clone contact high." Pam didn't respond. "Quick, before I break out in an 'ohmygod' attack or worse, break out in song." Still no response. "My humps. My humps. My lovely lady lumps."
Pam finally blinked; then she laughed at my rendition. "I'm sorry, this must be torture for you. I'll come back when this all blows over."
That's when I saw him. The hottie customer from Art Attack was just a few yards from me. He was talking to girls in the outdoor casting line. Even though most guys would love to have been in his position, it didn't seem like he was trying to hit on anyone. Instead, he looked professional snapping digital shots of each contestant, then attaching printed photos onto forms he collected from every girl.
"That's him, that's him!" I whisperscreamed. Pam knew right away what and whom I was talking about. She followed the direction of my gaze to the object of my obsess er, affection.
He was as tall and calm as an oak tree. I wondered if that made me a pesky squirrel foraging for an acorn of his attention. It was nice to see him looking more relaxed than he had looked in Art Attack, where he'd gotten all bashful about coming up short. His former pocket-digging hands were now carrying a clipboard and a tiny camera. He pulled one of those cool portable photo printers from his back pocket.
The official-looking lanyard hanging around his neck confirmed that he wasn't loitering here to check out the girls. It also nicely topped off his intrepid reporter look. The only thing missing was a newsboy cap.
"What's he doing?" Pam asked.
Loverboy was holding his finger in the air, counting the heads of every girl in line outside. As he counted his way down and got closer to Pam and me, I was able to make out what was written in all caps on his lanyard: BRENT ST. JOHN, WWW.FACEMAG.COM, PHOTOGRAPHY INTERN.
That was when he reached us. He was mumbling numbers under his breath as he pointed at me and then finally Pam. "Twenty, twenty-one" I heard him say before he turned around and headed back to the first girl he had counted at the entrance of Chic Boutique. It seemed that there were also people standing inside the store who were being grouped in a separate head count.
"He thinks we're in line for this casting," I complained to Pam. How did this happen? I blamed it on the mesmerizing fuchsia storefront sign. We'd gotten caught up when we stood there frozen to read it. Now our absentmindedness had made Fly Guy confused.
"This is a sign." A sudden gust of autumn wind blew Pam's flyaway strands into the sides of her mouth as she spoke excitedly. "You have to give him your number or something. Who knows if you'll ever meet him again? Much less twice in one day!"
He was about ten girls away from where we stood at the end of the line. I had to think fast. I had messed up the first time he and I were face-to-face. There had to be some way to strike up a conversation with him.
My inner scheming led me to the stack of applications jammed into a plastic brochure holder standing outside the store.
I grabbed one.
Pam knew where I was headed with this so she dug deep into her purse and furnished a pen. In the next hot minute, I was filling out the application as fast as I could.
Copyright © 2009 by Debbie Rigaud