How can some people's lives look so good when they're so foul underneath? That's the question I ask when I leaf through this photo album Macy gave me for my sixteenth birthday. I got it at my surprise party in October of sophomore year, three weeks to the day before Lani Garver showed up on Hackett.
It's full of pictures of me and Macy and our other friends, and we've got some wild and happy parade of the teeth going on. And it's not like we were faking happiness for pictures. That's what terrifies me most. If anyone had asked, my friends and I would have said in a heartbeat, "We rule the cule," and would have believed ourselves.
Macy scrawled titles by each picture in her pretty handwriting that slants backwards. The one most likely to rip our sides was "Uh-Oh, The Umbrella Ride," because of the disgusting story behind it, but like all "true brew stories," you find a place for it in your heart.
The summer after freshman year, Macy's big sister, Mary Beth, decided it was time to introduce us to Oleander's whiskey, better known by Hackett's fishermen as Old Sweat Sock. She felt we were getting too cocky about our alcohol imbibement tales. Mary Beth was eighteen but had a fake ID. She bought a good-sized bottle of Old Sweat Sock at the Rod 'N' Reel. The six of us passed this bottle around in her car as she gunned it down Mariner Road to Fisherman's Wharf for some general goofing around.
Myra Whitehall, who sat in the passenger seat, announced that she suddenly wasn't feeling so great. Mary Beth didn't want to slow down, because this Jeep full of Hackett's finest studs was bumper smooching her Mustang, and she didn't want them to see hurl flying out of her passenger window. She kept saying, "Deal with it, Myra!"
Myra couldn't help rolling down the window, and to our disgust from the backseat, the ocean breeze was blowing in-way hard. Macy rooted through Mary Beth's stuff and came up with an umbrella. She snapped it open and shoved it up in front of the four of us in back. When Myra's stomach said, "No more," we screamed some combo victory chant/barnyard noises, completely protected from impending doom. The Jeep passed us with all-too-embarrassing curses and loud requests for car wash reimbursement. Geneva Graham snapped this picture on the wharf right after we got there.
I was smiling so completely. Except for Myra-who had just been ruined socially for at least a week-we all were.
Right next to that photo there's "Lesbian Hayride," which happened around Halloween of freshman year. I don't even remember how we lucked out so well, but Macy and I ended up in a hay wagon with about a dozen guys from the fish frat-that's the sons of Hackett's commercial fishermen, who are sometimes lifeguards and usually very hunky. We were trying not to act stupid, but also to act like we could care less about these breathtaking studs. As Mary Beth had lectured us, the only way to catch a guy in the fish frat is to pretend you don't care.
Macy and I were standing in the middle of this cart, baying at the moon, or something acceptably retarded, when the wagon jerked and I fell on my back. Macy fell on top of me-with my spider legs all sprawled and her in the middle of them. I tried to tell her to get off, but I was like a jellyfish-major embarrassment laughing fit in process. And I could hear her laughing just as hard in my ear. I didn't know this at the time, but supposedly watching lesbians is some hot thing for upper-classmen. And these hunks were joking, all "Go, ladies! Be ladies!" Macy loved the attention. I was paralyzed with shock, like I was every time my naiveness caught up with me.
It wasn't exactly a big secret-just something we rarely talked about-but I had missed a year and a half of junior high school. My knowledge of sex was full of holes-everything you'd learn in seventh grade and the first half of eighth.
In this bonfire picture, we're surrounded by upperclassmen fish frat, and my smile is plastered on due to information overload about lesbians. Two of these guys actually asked for our phone numbers, and I wasn't even upset when they never called. The fact that they even asked was, like, too amazing. I figured they probably heard we were a couple of freshmen convent queens in disguise. The picture was good enough for me.
"March," "April," "June," "September" are four pictures on the same page. The first three were taken by my mom, of Macy teaching me a back handspring, each getting a little more graceful. "September" is my junior varsity cheerleading photo.
Great stuff. "Not a cloud on the horizon," an outsider might say. I can see a few clouds in some pictures, but only because I know my own life.
My mom, the former Coast Regional Homecoming Queen who never grew out of it, took a picture of me after my first day at Coast, all excited. She thought I was on my way to becoming her-I only had to add the cheerleading pom-poms and studly boyfriends. Macy called this picture "Claire Still Has No Friends But She's Getting There."
I was sprawled out in a chair in our living room, with my head on my hand. My hair, miraculously, had grown past my shoulders in the six months since I went back to eighth grade. I no longer had "chemotherapy cheeks," as my dad called them, which are the color of half-dried rubber cement. I see my hair, my complexion, and I can read some sort of magic determination in them: Get rid of the past. And my eyes caught the flash so they seemed to shine with hope.
Coast Regional High School was a huge place, where girls with problems could remake their lives. New faces poured in from four other barrier islands, which meant that to four-fifths of these kids, you did not have a past. There was a kind of hope whizzing around the corridors. Joe Hunk could ask you out tomorrow, even if you had been a dork-breath yesterday. You could work your way into a seat in the cafeteria at that fourth table from the door-which around here is known as the Queen's Table-even if you were shoveled off to the corner with the invisible unknowns during the first week. Some eighth-grade science nerd could save up for a foil job, come into school a raving blond, and totally believe her life would change.
I tried to tell myself just to forget about anything like becoming outrageously popular. I felt at a serious disadvantage even to a science nerd, having heard my last dirty joke at a sixth-grade pajama party, and then dropping into Homeschool Hell for the Sick for a year and a half. If you start eighth grade in January, completely naive, looking like something the cat dragged in, you can only hope for a huge high school like Coast to help you disappear a little better.
But even my brain couldn't help figuring out which crowds were going to have all the fun. A group of girls sat at the fourth lunch table from the door in the cafeteria, and they were so cute, and so not shy, and just mean enough that nobody would dare pick on them. Despite that cheerleading tryouts had not been held yet, they were starting to be called the Freshmen Cheerleaders, and their table was nicknamed-in mumbles from girls who didn't sit there-the Queen's Table.
I didn't doubt that these girls would be cool around here. In fact, they were all from Hackett, so I knew them from grade school, and they had been popular since about fifth grade, or whenever it is you start to think about stuff like that. Most had swapped jokes with me at a bunch of sixth-grade slumber parties.
The second week of high school, I was going past them into the girls' bathroom, and Eli Spellings didn't keep her voice low enough.
"Look, there goes that leukemia girl. Her hair grew back way nice, at least. Remember her from January? She looked like she'd been nuked in a microwave. Was that sickening, or what?"
I went into a stall and leaned against the side, with my hand over my mouth. I totally forgot to sit down and go to the bathroom. I had been suspicious that these kinds of remarks flew. It's just that people were polite enough not to say them where I could hear.
Macy Matlock was standing in the middle of them, as usual, and happened to take a different view of the thing. I heard her mouth go off, because you can't miss that.
"You pig, Eli. What the hell is wrong with you?" I heard something like a slap, like she smacked a book to the floor, or cracked a notebook on the sink ledge. "That girl is one of the sweetest people you'd ever want to meet, and not only that, but she just heard you."
Footsteps clomped my way, and I prayed to wake up from this nightmare. But there she was, gazing in the stall door, because I'd been too stupid to lock it. I glanced back, thinking the veins in my face would crack open.
She grabbed my wrist, and before I knew it, we were moving back toward this bathroom meeting of the Queen's Table, which amounted to about seven glares, all mowing me down to nothing.
"I know you heard that, Claire. Eli has something to say."
Macy folded her arms across her chest, giving Eli the death look, and I waited for them to jerk past me and run, or get meaner. What I didn't understand had a lot more to do with Macy than anyone else.
She has a big mouth, but her heart is bigger over certain matters of principle. Second, if she believes something and glares into your eyes, you believe it, too, no questions asked. For whatever reason, she totally believed Eli owed me an apology. Eli spit out what would have made the Pope happy.
"Claire. Oh my god. I didn't know you could hear me, I mean...not that I should be saying shit like that, anyway. I just...last year? I didn't know what to say to you, that's all. I'm just really stupid...Okay?"
I glanced at Macy in stunned awe, then at the floor, realizing some response was expected. Nurses forever warned me that people wouldn't know what to say. It was completely forgivable.
But it came out something like, "Forget it...please...I don't think...anyone should have to know...what to say...," and my voice box pizzled out because I couldn't smile and think of words at the same time.
Macy kicked her in the ankle. "See! Did I tell you she was sweet?"
Her loudness made me jump, and for whatever reason, they thought that was funny. Myra Whitehall grabbed my arm and pulled me along with them. "Come on, hang with us? I was at Kim Norris's sixth-grade slumber party with you. Remember?"
I felt sure they were just feeling sorry for Claire with the Novelty Sickness in Her Past, and I didn't want that. We were going into fourth period, which meant the cafeteria, which meant they were thinking I would sit at the so-called Queen's Table. I only got swept along with it because I was in shock.
There's a photo of all of us at the Queen's Table, taken three days later by Myra. My arms are crossed, and I'm biting my lip over my smile. I don't belong at this table, or in this picture with Eli Spellings, Geneva Graham, and Macy Matlock. And if I smiled too big, they would see the evidence in the photo later. Macy called that one "Claire the Humble, Macy the Horrible. Every Bitch Needs a Claire."
She was referring to her darker side, which everyone knew she had, because of her big mouth. For Macy's good part, she would never tolerate evil treatment toward somebody who had done nothing to deserve it. For example, I had not done anything to deserve Eli's bathroom ignorance, because you can't help having been sick. Macy would shove people for remarks on girls with huge chests, kids with bad skin, people with disabilities.
But those people were few and far between compared to people who could help what was wrong with them. Other people were obnoxious, dorky, phony, smelly, fat-yet-overeating, whiny, wimpy, stingy, clumsy, overly horny, or butt smooches. She had managed to perfect herself and could not see why it was so hard for anybody else. And she would rip on these people and not care who heard.
"Lyda Barone Bombs Out Macy" is a funny photo in a sick way, because I have this look of horror on my face as a glowing Lyda Barone clings to my arm. Lyda had all but wrapped herself around me for about a week, probably because I was the only person who had ever been nice to her. Everyone said she smelled. She looked like she would because she didn't wash her hair a whole lot, but I never actually smelled anything.
My look of horror came because of a trick Macy had started to pull in pictures. She would plan out ways she could "enhance" the picture, all the way back to when she was posing. She knew she wanted to pen in "air stink" squiggles going from Lyda's armpits to her own nose, so she posed all wide-eyed with her eyes going in that direction. I knew what she was up to, because she'd done it before, but it was hard to lecture her when you're cracking up.
When I say a foulness lay under the surface of these pictures, I can't say exactly what breed of garbage was ready to squirt from behind each person's eyeballs. But I can talk about myself, and it would only be fair to do that. Other people's foulness had to be there, and it had to be as big, or bigger, than my own. I say that because of what happened when Lani Garver showed up. A new kid walks into school, and you can't tell by staring whether it's a girl or a guy. A stink the size of Kansas doesn't get raised out of people's sweetness and kindness. I ended up being a victim, and everyone else wound up on the let's-obliterate-the-gay-kid squad. What does that say about whose garbage is bigger? And here's some dirt on me:
While all my daytime fun was going on, I had started having nightmares that were gory and disgusting. I would wake up all Claire, you are nuthouse material. In these dreams, girls I had never seen before would cut swirly designs in their legs with knives, or swallow forks, or part their hair with razor blades, stuff like that. I hadn't had a single nightmare I could remember while on chemo, and yet here I was in the greatest time period of my life having these dreams like something out of a horror flick.
And what's worse is I was not entirely scared of them. Some totally sick part of me was obsessed with them. I would make them into songs that I would play on my electric guitar, down in the basement. I had a notebook full of lyrics that would have choked the devil. Sometimes I was all ashamed of this thing, and yet these lyrics rhymed and rhythmed out so well that I couldn't bring myself to burn them. Nobody knew about this. Who could I tell? Macy was tone-deaf. My mom would tell the whole island, and my dad had just gotten remarried.
Copyright © 2002 by Carol Plum-Ucci
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