Read an Excerpt
How (Not) to Find a BoyfriendAllyson Valentine Philomel BooksAn Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
As we sit at the top of the bleachers waiting for cheer practice to resume, Krista smears sunblock on her arms and I entertain her with a politically incorrect version of the team fight song that I just made up. She covers her mouth to contain a laugh, and nods to the scene below us. Like seals in a nature video, a bunch of cheerleaders are stretched out on the bleacher seats sunning themselves.
“Not everyone would appreciate your sense of humor,” she whispers.
Point well-taken. I look beyond the bleachers to the football field, tucking a white bra strap under the wider purple strap of my cheer jersey. Out on the field, a guy with a handlebar mustache, wearing nothing but shaggy cutoff shorts and a reflective vest, is touching up some of the white lines in preparation for Saturday’s opening game. He promised it would take no more than five minutes, but that was fifteen minutes ago.
“You know, that guy would move a whole lot faster if the bathing beauties didn’t have their shirts tucked up to their boobs,” I say.
As if on cue, the guy stops working to swipe sweat off his forehead, then pauses, twisting the tips of his mustache as he takes in the view.
Over on the far side of the red rubber track that circles the field, the rest of the cheerleaders sit in the shade of the trailer where popcorn and pretzels will be sold during football games. Someone had the foresight to bring nail polish to practice, and now there’s a whole mani-pedi convention going on. I stand, reach my arms over my head and stretch to the left and then the right. Then, facing away from the field, I set my forearms on the metal rail that keeps fans from toppling out of the stadium. It’s warm and feels good against my skin. In the distance, the football players are jogging down Newport Way. When the line repair guy showed up, Coach Avery sent the team off for a run. In their pads and white practice jerseys they look like a trail of bulked-up albino ants on their way to a picnic.
Krista joins me at the railing. “I saw Jake looking at you this morning.”
I can’t help but smile. “Seriously? I didn’t notice.”
Krista bumps me with her hip. “Liar.”
She’s right. I did notice him looking at me. Staring, actually. Jake Londgren, number sixty-six. Junior. According to stories I’ve heard from Krista’s boyfriend, Dex, Jake’s number correlates directly to his intelligence quotient. His popularity quotient, on the other hand, is pure genius. Stud fullback. Hot body. Excellent hair. On the ice cream scale? Jake is Theo’s Coconut Kiss—my favorite.
Jake Londgren. Last year he never would have given me a second glance—if he even noticed me at all.
I’m trying to pick Jake out of the lineup when out of nowhere a butterfly with checkered wings lands on the railing between me and Krista. I pull out my phone and snap a picture for my bug-obsessed little brother, Joshie. Krista offers her outstretched finger as a perch, which the butterfly politely refuses. “It’s really pretty,” she says.
It really is. I’m amazed that not so long ago this beautiful thing was in its larval state—practically a worm. After that, it hung out being kind of invisible for a while. And look at it now! The more I think about it, me and this butterfly have a lot in common.
Stage one: Egg. Okay, I was never an egg in the conventional sense, but close enough.
Stage two: Larva. That was me, totally larval all through elementary and middle school. Picture that kid who raises her hand and goes “Oooh! Ooooh!” when the teacher asks a question, or who simply blurts out the answer. I wasn’t just a teacher’s pet—I was their teacup Chihuahua. Other kids treated me like a worm, and wormlike existence is lonely.
Stage three: Pupa. Last year we moved two school districts over so Joshie could go to an all-day gifted kindergarten, and I entered my pupal stage as a ninth grader here at Riverbend High School—coincidentally my father’s alma mater. New school, new Nora. I’d figured out there’s a difference between being smart and being a smarty-pants. I kept my answers and test scores to myself. I joined the JV gymnastics team. I found a best friend. Nora Fulbright, brainiac nerd, was mostly invisible, and I never revealed my life as a larva to anyone, not even to Krista. Who’d want to be friends with a former worm?
Stage four: Butterfly. I swapped out my glasses for contacts. Lost the braces. Sprouted some semblance of breasts. Krista joined me at cheer tryouts last spring, and here we are, the only sophomores on Riverbend’s varsity cheer squad. Cheer camp in July was amazing. We’ve been practicing all of August. And when school starts tomorrow and I walk through those big double doors with a bag of cheer gear slung over my shoulder, I will have fully evolved.
Nora Fulbright has wings! Now I just need to learn how to use them.
I absently flap my arms.
“What are you doing?” Krista asks.
“What? Oh. Um, airing out my armpits?”
“Excellent idea.” Krista joins me, waving her arms up and down. A welcome breeze riffles the leaves of the maple trees that line the far edge of the football field, and the butterfly lazily opens, then closes its wings, and finally flies away. It flutters toward the school, heading for the faded remnants of a huge black-and-white chessboard painted ages ago onto the flat roof of the gym. Last year during freshman orientation, where Krista and I first met, our tour guide explained that chess geeks used to skip class and sneak to the roof to play matches with giant chess pieces. I suspect when my dad was a student here he led the chess-geek charge. I can picture him up there, sliding his bishop into position, kicking over some poor girl’s queen.
“What’s the matter?” asks Krista.
“You just made a weird face.”
“It’s nothing.” I jerk my gaze and my thoughts away from the chessboard, away from Dad. I think again about my butterfly metaphor. Last year I thought all cheerleaders were created equal—a rabble of sixteen perfect butterflies. I wanted to be one so badly. But as the summer has worn on, I’ve realized that not all cheerleaders are the same species. The girls doing their nails are like the stiff Cabbage White butterfly pinned to a sheet of foam board in Joshie’s collection—they’re practically moths. Chelsey and her friends, the bathing beauties, they’re Monarchs. Beautiful, striking, impossible to miss in a crowd. As for me and Krista, we have yet to be given our taxonomic identification.
I’ve figured this much out—it’s not enough to just simply have wings. You have to have the right wings.
“Jeez, look at that. She’s still reading her book.” Krista nods toward the blandest butterfly on the squad, a junior named Vanessa. She’s always absorbed in a book, which Chelsey, Queen Monarch, blames for Vanessa’s tendency to routinely botch up routines.
“You need to decide whether you’re a cheerleader or a bookworm,” Chelsey chided this morning when Vanessa missed her cue and stomped when she should have jumped. “And I know it’s only going to get worse when school starts, and instead of practicing for cheer, you’ll be busy doing homework for all your smarty-pants AB classes.”
“AP,” Becca, Chelsey’s sidekick, corrected her.
“Whatever!” Chelsey tossed up her hands.
It remains a mystery why Vanessa is even on the squad.
I tug at my ponytail and straighten the bow clipped to the back of my head. Chelsey’s rant has got me thinking. Stressing. Freaking out. I’m signed up for AP biology and AP French. What would Chelsey say about that?
Krista drops the tube of sunscreen into her gear bag and pulls out a packet of Skittles. “Want some?” I nod and she pours us each a handful.
“I’ll swap you my green ones for your orange ones,” I offer, holding out my hand.
“What is it with you and the swapping? Don’t be so picky. They all taste the same.”
“No, they don’t. And it’s good to be picky. That way you get exactly what you want.”
“Or you wind up with nothing.” Lightning fast, she snatches the Skittles from my open hand and tosses them into her own mouth.
“See? You could wind up with nothing.” Skittles clack against her teeth as she talks. In response to my look of abject disappointment, she finally grins, reaches into the candy bag, and plucks out a single orange Skittle, which she places into my hand like it’s the key to the kingdom.
“Thanks a lot, pal.” I pop the lone Skittle into my mouth.
We point our chins to the sky and soak in some sunshine. Me and Krista, “the Salami Twins,” as Chelsey calls us. I think she means Siamese, not salami, because neither of us resembles anything in the processed meat family. We are practically joined at the hip; however, that’s where the twin analogy stops working. Krista and I look nothing alike except for the fact that we’re both crazy short, we both have shoulder-length hair and we are both genetically predisposed to have excellent eyebrows. But according to the lab-coated lady at the Clinique counter at Nordstrom, Krista is an autumn and I’m a summer—we can’t even wear the same lip gloss. Thankfully, I’m a season that Jake Londgren clearly approves of.
This year, with my new wings, I am on a popularity-quotient-building regimen. In scientific observations of my own older brother, Phil, who is admittedly awesome despite the fact that he never actually evolved beyond the larval stage, I have witnessed what high school is like when one is lacking the popularity gene. For this girl it’s time for a little genetic engineering. This is the year that Nora Fulbright, brainiac nerd, completes her metamorphosis. Having Jake as my first-ever boyfriend could be an excellent catalyst.
Krista faces the field again and leans back against the railing. “I can’t believe there are only three days till the opening game. Are you as nervous as I am?”
Nervous? I run through my mental thesaurus. Panicky. Edgy. Jumpy. Anxious. Nervous will do. “Yeah, definitely.”
Krista groans and starts chewing a cuticle like she hasn’t eaten in a week. I picture myself jumping when everyone else squats. Shouting an extra “O” into “V-I-C-T-O-R-Y.” Falling off the top of the pyramid and sending my burgeoning popularity quotient right into the gutter. We need to get back to work!