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Love and Basketball
Leah Mandeville poised her arms above her head, the ball weighing heavily in her sweaty palms. She glanced at the timer. Five seconds. The cheers of the girls' basketball fans, her teammates as still as action figures on the court, the cheerleaders suspended in a perfect pyramidall waiting for her to make the perfect shot.
Leah lived for these moments. Nothing got her higher. Yeah, it was a cliché. Tall, big girl who was good at basketball. Every eye in the gym on her muscular body. Every breath held as they waited to see if Sonoma High School would finally be real contenders in girls' basketball that year.
Leah knew she could easily make this shot and get it over with. But she loved the anticipation of the audience, the held breaths. She loved putting on this show. All eyes on her.
Gracefully, Leah arched the ball into the air, as dirty and orange as the trampled autumn leaves that had been tracked into the gym, toward the basket.
Everything happened at once. The referee blew the whistle. The Sonoma fans stormed the court, and Leah, in the center of it all, was caught up in a mad group hug as Allison Taylor and Julia DeLouis swept her into the air.
Coach Jenna Richards was grinning ear-to-ear as she swung an arm around Leah's shoulders. "Nice one, Mandeville. Real nice."
"It's official, folks! Thanks to Leah Mandeville's tiebreaking three-point shot, Sonoma High School scores its first win of the season. Will Miss Mandeville be able to keep this up? Stay tuned ."
The words echoed in Leah's head as hot water pulsated through her shoulder-blade-length hair. She pumped a handful of the generic school shampoo (that smelled suspiciously like the generic hand soap all the sink dispensers were full of) out of the dispenser. Her mama had told her a thousand times to bring her own shampoo from home, "Indigo Bright, specially made for women of color." Apparently, anything less would cause Leah's coarse hair to gray early and fall out faster than the contestants on American Idol. Her mother, the almost-supermodel, had time to research these things. Leah did not. She scrubbed the generic stuff through her scalp and created a mound of frothy bubbles.
It had been a good game. Better than good. Incredible. The only thing that could have gone better would have been the second quarter. She'd missed an easy shot. If she'd scored that one, the game wouldn't have been so close. No one would be able to say she'd just gotten lucky at the end, as they surely would today.
Leah's self-criticism was interrupted by the rumble of her stomach. Perfect timing. The entire team was going to Slotki's for ice cream to celebrate the win. Leah was looking forward to her cake batter sundae with hot fudge. And whipped cream. And coconut sprinkles. What was life without coconut sprinkles? She watched the shampoo suds swirl, much like a mound of whipped cream, into the drain and wrapped a towel around her.
As Leah pulled a long-sleeved ringer tee over her head and tugged dark denim jeans over her hips, she frowned. Were her jeans feeling tighter? She sighed. Her mama would be on her butt if she went up any higher than a "respectable" size 8. Heaven forbid Leah cross into the double digits.
No matter. She wasn't your average teenage clothes-hanger-size girl, but her generous frame was all muscle. Well, most of it anyway. Plus, she highly doubted a normal high-school girl could pump out fifty push-ups and ten pull-ups in under three minutes.
"Honestly, darling, you are the last person who should be frowning like that," Allison Taylor drawled in her born-and-bred Bostonian accent as she finished blowing her hair straight. "Leah scores yet again. What complaints could you possibly have in life?"
"Thanks." Leah couldn't help but smile back. The blond senior could be an extra on Veronica Mars with her silky hair and whip-smart comebacks. As last year's star of the basketball team, she had given Leah a hard time about being a junior and the starting forward.
"I'm only saying it because you deserve it. This time anyway. Keep it up, huh?" Allison shot a sidelong glance at Leah. "Getting into the semifinals could really do wonders for the recruiting around here. Especially for juniors."
"True that," Leah replied easily, not sure if she should take Allison's backhanded compliment as an insult or not. True, Leah wasn't your typical straight-A, valedictorian wannabe. But who needed that? Her goal was to play ball for UCLA in two years.
"Coming to Slotki's?" Allison wrapped the cord of her ionic jumbo-jet hair dryer and tossed it into her bag.
Leah glanced at her disheveled reflection. "I'll be out in three minutes."
And that's exactly, down to the second, how long it took Leah to get ready. She ran a brush through tangled, ebony hair, which would dry into a frizzy disaster if she left it alone. Not wanting to take that chance, she coiled it into her usual tight bun. A dab of tinted moisturizer to brighten up her ashy cocoa skin, and a slick of Smith's rosebud salve on her lips and lids, and Leah was ready to go.
Leah started tossing her lip gloss and hairbrush into her tote bag. That encounter with Allison had been almost civil, compared to all their previous conversations. Funny, in eighth grade, she'd been friends with almost her entire class. Now, with so many cliques and interest groups forming the high-school food chain, she still didn't know where she fit in. Half her friends from middle school had become nerds and the other half had become cheerleaders. Neither hung out with the other. Or with her.
"Hey! Great game!" Shazan Ali tossed her perfectly highlighted chocolate and caramel hair behind her shoulders and made pouty fish lips into the mirror as she plunked her makeup bag down next to Leah.
She'd changed out of her cheerleading outfit into a long-sleeved minidress.
"What the hell did you do to your hair? Did your mom see this yet?"
"Please." Shazan rolled her eyes. "If she had it her way, I would be wearing a friggin' burka to school every day. With this cute Forever 21 stuff underneath!"
Shazan had once told Leah that Muslim women who wore burkas, the full-black head-to-toe graduation gown-type thing, also wore totally slutty clothes underneath. Microminis and belly-baring tank tops. Stuff Shazan strutted around in on a daily basis, much to the chagrin of her family.
"C'mon, Shazzam." Leah referred to her friend by her grade-school nickname. "A burka? Maybe a hijab, but not the full-on storm-trooper outfit."
"Shut up." According to Shazan, covering up two-hundred-dollar highlights with hijabs, the pretty, colorful head scarves her mother wore, was a crime of fashion (not to mention sanity).
"Was Queen Allison actually talking to you?"
"Yeah. Weird, right? She came over to tell me I did good today. I think so anyway."
Shazan raised a perfectly threaded eyebrow. As if, her look seemed to say.
Julia DeLouis, Allison's best friend, was still curling her hair, not even five feet away. Leah lowered her voice a notch. "Maybe she's okay."
Shazan didn't bother. "Don't listen to anything that bitch says. Everything has two meanings. At least."
"I'll wait and see."
Shazan rolled her eyes. "I warned you. You're so gullible sometimes, Leah."
Ah, the not-so-secret rivalry between the jocks and the cheerleaders. Leah and Shazan had been friends since second grade. Two peas in a pod. Until high school, that was. Shazan had suddenly discovered the fizzy world of cheerleaders and the cute footballer boys they usually dated. Leah was suddenly all alone and had turned to basketball and discovered she was actually pretty good at it. She and her former best friend often found themselves at opposite ends of the clique divide.
Shazan deftly applied green eye shadow to her wide-set brown eyes and brushed bronzer on her already tanned cheeks. "Remind me to wash this stuff off before I go home. Amma flipped last week when she found my stash of MAC lip glosses. I said they were yours."
"Great." Leah grabbed one of her so-called MAC lip glosses and squeezed a drop onto her fingertips. Sparkly lavender. It would look so stupid on her while transforming her friend into Abercrombie model material.
It amazed her sometimes that people used to mistake her and Shazan for sisters when they had been younger. Since then Leah had shot up over a foot and was still growing into her arms and legs while Shazan had shrunken into the required size 2 for the "popular" girls.
Somehow, they'd remained friends. Whether it was because Shazan still liked hanging out with her, or needed her vote to become Snow Ball Princess, was beyond Leah, but she liked to believe the former.
"So, what are you doing this weekend?" Shazan continued to hunt around in her Clinique makeup bag. She came up with a scary metal-looking contraption that she used to pinch her eyelashes.
"Um, not much. Hanging with Jay, I guess. Hoops. I might let him win for once," Leah said, wincing as Shazan lined the inside of her lower eyelid with eyeliner. Ouch.
"Ohhh " Shazan caught Leah's eye in the mirror. "Jay, huh? Still?"
Now it was Leah's turn. "Shut up."
"Are you ever going to tell him?"
"Tell him what? We're friends. That's it."
Leah's cheeks warmed. She was lousy with secrets. That was why it was extra important Jay never even got a hint.
"God, you have such good skin," Shazan commented, losing interest in Leah's love life and moving on to examining a nonexistent spot on her perfectly smooth cheek. "Mine is, like, freaking Crater Lake."
"A gift from my mama," Leah said, hiding a smile. The more beautiful Shazan became, the more issues she found to complain about. Last week, she had claimed she was fat and needed to be a size 0 by month's end to fit into some "totally perfectous" gown for the Snow Ball that December.
Shazan tossed her makeup into her bag and grabbed a pillbox. "You're so lucky she's a model. She meets the most amazing people. Didn't she get her Vogue cover done by Annie Leibovitz?"
The overhead fluorescent light bounced off the highlighter on Shazan's sharp cheekbones, which seemed to be more defined than usual.
"I don't even know who the hell that is." Leah eyed Shazan's pillbox. This was new. Her friend had never been sick a day in her life. Vitamins, maybe.
"Leah. God." Shazan shook out a pill. "You know you could totally be a model, too. Your mom would be your in. I'm dying to have a portfolio made, but my parents would kill me. Or ship me back to Pakistan. I'm not even kidding."
Well, that would officially be the first time anyone had ever been jealous of her. Especially Miss Popularity herself. Shazan was the shoo-in for Snow Ball Princess that year, the title given to the most beautiful junior-class girl.