Middle schools sucks, doesn’t it? High school’s not much better. Trust me, kids, it really does get better in college, if you do it right.

 

—~

She moved in less than a month before school started. Her parents must have been crazy, or they were cruel–what kind of heartless being, responsible for their child’s happiness, would send her to a new school district at the tender age of eleven with only half of August to spare? I mean, this was the beginning of middle school, the beginning of our lives; this was the end of the line in terms of floating aimlessly through life, friends with whomever, and no really bad consequences if you got caught inviting the wrong kid to your birthday party. From here on out, all that mattered was that you hung out with your friends all the time, got a girlfriend as fast as possible, and wore as much Abercrombie as you could get your hands on. At least that’s what my brother told me, and he was about to begin high school. If you could do that, he said, you were set for life.

But this poor girl–Blanca Cruz. Rumors flew about her, even before school begun. She was from Kentucky. She was homeschooled. She was a refugee from Cuba. She didn’t speak English. She was super-smart and would be taking eighth-grade classes and no one would even see her again. Most importantly, though, she didn’t have any friends. She spent most of the half-month before school started in her house, presumably unpacking moving boxes. Who would she eat lunch with? Where would she fit? She seemed pretty enough, and normal enough, from a distance, but I made sure to never get too close. From what my brother had told me about the ever-changing and multiplying unspoken and unbreakable rules of middle school social life, I decided that it would be best if I played it safe. So I couldn’t risk having anything to do with the new girl, lest she turn out to be a black mark on my thus far impeccable social record.

This was difficult, as the Cruzes moved in practically next door to me.

We lived in a complex of condos, not exactly on the wealthy side of town, not on the poor side, just kind of smack in the middle along a main drag where the speed limit was 40, so that every time we came home from school the bus had to do a little awkward stop in the middle of the turnpike and piss off all the cars behind it. I remember jumping down from the bus to the sidewalk and towards home feeling daggers from the eyes of the bitter commuters. When Blanca moved into my complex, it wasn’t long before I realized we’d be on the same bus together, and that we’d have to get off at the same stop. She didn’t even live in my building, but since no one else in my school lived there, it would be just me and her when the bus stopped, and this could seriously test my ability to ignore her.

Well, school began, and soon we were all so busy we didn’t even have to worry about acknowledging each other. In school we were in mostly different classes (she did turn out to be super-smart, but she was only taking a few accelerated classes, not eighth-grade ones). She focussed on her studies, as far as I or any of my friends could tell; I focussed on my friends, and almost managed the girlfriend bit within the month with a blond girl on the volleyball team (at the last moment she couldn’t go to the dance because her dad wouldn’t sign the permission slip).

The bus situation, it turned out, was quite simple. Luckily, our buildings were on opposite sides of the complex, so itdidn’t take long for Blanca and me to develop a routine in which we would dismount the bus quickly (I always went first), wordlessly turn in opposite directions, and head off immediately to our separate buildings. It was quite efficient, even from the first day. There was no animosity between us; we simply didn’t have anything to do with each other. So it was that in ten months’ time I don’t think we exchanged more than five words.

Middle school was going swimmingly by June. It was looking like I had played my cards well and was in the popular crowd, my closet burst with Abercrombie merchandise, and I had even walked down the hall one day in March while holding hands with a girl. I had dusted off my old skateboard and was finally getting decent at it. Thus my head was filled that spring with friends, my skateboard, the nagging thought that I should probably find a date for the June dance, and just how generally well everything was going. And I had even badgered my parents into buying me some skating sneakers, which I wore always without tying the laces.

They were soaking one rainy day, and my feet slid wetly around in them on the bus ride home. They squeaked water as I got off the bus ahead of Blanca as usual, slipped on the wet grass and landed sprawling, face-down on the sidewalk, my backpack and my shame together a hundred pound weight I couldn’t lift.

I heard the bus pull away, my mind swiftly performing complicated calculations, remembering who had been on the bus, who might have seen, how badly they were likely to make fun of me for it. I hoped to God it looked like Blanca had pushed me. That was it. I’ll say that. In fact, I’ll yell at her now to make it look more convincing to any stragglers who might still be staring. I flipped over on the ground, sending my backpack flying. ‘Blanca, what the hell–‘

But she wasn’t behind me. I swung back around and there she was, standing above me in the drizzle, looking slightly frightened and holding out her hand.

‘Are you okay?’ she asked in a trembling voice.

Expletives wandered out of my mouth as I accepted her hand, sure that the bus had finally disappeared.

‘Did you…break anything?’ Blanca asked nervously as I fruitlessly attempted to brush off the wet grass from my shirt.

What a dumb question. Nothing was broken, it was a stupid slip. ‘Uhh, no,’ I told her in my most condescending voice, waving my arms a little so she could see I was telling the truth.

‘No, I mean, like in your backpack, a binder or something. I thought I heard something snap.’

Oh. Right. Of course Blanca would be worried about a stupid binder, she was such a nerd. ‘Uhh, maybe, whatever.’ I glanced at it lying on the wet grass three feet away.

There was a slight pause. The rain kept drizzling. ‘Well…I guess you’re okay then? Do you want me to walk you home?’

Ew. Walk home with Blanca? ‘No,’ I said, still picking off the wet grass.

Blanca bent down and picked my backpack up off the ground and held it out to me. ‘Well here you go then.’

‘Thanks,’ I muttered. Then, the words were out of my mouth before the thought had even materialized. If the thought had materialized, I probably wouldn’t have said it.

‘I didn’t know you could speak English.’

Blanca, who was about to turn around toward her building, gave a small, confused laugh. ‘Why not?’

I felt my face growing warm. I shook my bangs into my face to try and hide it. ‘I mean, we all thought you were Mexican or something,’ I stuttered, flinging my backpack over one shoulder nonchalantly.

Blanca furrowed her brow. ‘I’m Filipina.’

‘Right,’ I nodded, sure I could locate Filipina on a map if I had one.

She stood there a few seconds more looking confused and then said, ‘I’m going to go home now, if you’re okay.’

And then, for the second time in two minutes, I felt my mouth saying words I did not want them to say. The first one was ‘wait’, followed by a pause, and then:

‘Do you want to go to the June dance with me?’

Once again my face flushed and I jerked my head ungracefully to see how low I could shake those bangs. My ears couldn’t believe what my mouth had just said and began blazing red with anger in protest.

Blanca looked worried. ‘Did you hit your head when you tripped? Are you sure you’re okay?’

Maybe I had hit my head. That would be the best possible explanation. I couldn’t figure out how to backtrack, but could only stammer, ‘Um, yeah!–I mean, just like as friends or something, like–yeah, like, the last–you know, dance…do you want to, you know? Go, like, with me?’

I tapered off into one of the most agonizing silence in my entire life. I fervently prayed for the earth to open and swallow me on the spot, or for a car to come whizzing off the road and crash into one or both of us, or some crazy pedophile to come and carry me off, or something like that to happen to save me from whatever horrible mess I had just gotten myself into.

‘With you?’ she asked incredulously.

Everything I had wished before I found myself wishing doubly, triply, I wished to die then and there, I wished to sprout tentacles, I cursed my family for seven generations, I was rooted to the spot, paralyzed with fear–

‘Umm…no thanks,’ Blanca finally replied, still looking worried and even slightly frightened.

‘Oh.’

‘Um…’

‘Ok.’

‘I mean–‘

‘It’s cool–‘

‘But–‘

‘No really, it’s cool, like, trust me, it’s totally cool, like, I don’t even know what I was doing, I must have been confused from the fall, you know, like, why would I want to go to the June dance with you…’ I laughed pitifully.

She flared up for a second at that, but then laughed and shrugged. ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t want to go to the June dance with you, either.’

I was practically guffawing from sheer relief. ‘Like, are you even going to be there?’ I squealed.

Blanca was cackling almost as loud as I was. ‘If my dad signs the permission slip!’ she giggled.

We stood in the laughing at each other with abandon for a few more seconds and then both sighed lightly at the same time, looking down at our shoes, scuffing our feet in the soggy grass.

‘Well, I guess I better head home.’

‘Ok, see ya!’

And just like that we both turned in opposite directions toward our houses, and neither of us said a word to our families of what had just transpired.

 

 

 

 

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