The Peculiar Philosophy of Handstands: Chapter 2

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There was a girl too. She was reading a very good book.

I doodle lazily on my math homework. The teacher’s droning on about the Pythagorean theorem or something suitably useless, so I draw complex flowers in the margins.
This is the last class of the day, thank goodness. I’ve already survived six periods, all of them terrible except art and free period, when I took a nap. Then I’ll go home and... sleep some more, I guess. Maybe do a little homework. But it’s not really worth it. Just vocab and proofs and reading from chem textbooks. If school is supposed to teach us about life, then I’ve learned that life is worksheets due at the end of the week.
“Mariah? Can you hear me?” Dang. My balding teacher, Mr. Horn, stands over me in all his hairless glory.
“Yeah?”
“Do you have the answer to question sixteen?”
I scan my paper. I did through number nine, and then it just seemed too hard. My eyes got hazy and I convinced myself that geometry didn’t matter and that I should really go lie in the sunshine for the rest of the afternoon.
“No.”
“Did you do question 16?” There’s no point lying.
“No.”
“How many questions did you do?”
“Nine.”
“How many questions did it say on the syllabus?”
“Eighteen.”
“Hmmm...” He strokes a pretend beard. I really hate that. “Your counting skills need some work, Mariah. So does your responsibility. We’re going to have a little chat after class.”
I swing my hair forward to hide my burning face. It’s always me, isn’t it. Not Courtney Wilkinson-- she barely does any homework. But no, it’s the tired girl in the back of the class.
I head to Mr. Horn’s desk after the bell rings. Hope this won’t take to long. Have to make it to the bus on time, or Mom’s going to blow.
He leans back in his chair with his arms crossed, the self-satisfied old goat.
“Mariah, you haven’t been doing your homework.”
“Some of it, Mr. Horn.”
He springs from his laid-back position and smacks one hairy hand on the desk. “Some of it is not enough!” He bellows. Not all the students have left the class. There’s still one dark-haired boy in the back, and of course Courtney. Wouldn’t miss my lecture for the world. She shoots me a smirk as she packs up her designer backpack.
“I won’t stand for this! You’re in high school now, and you should be able to manage your homework schedule!”
“Yes, Mr. Horn.” He looks like a football player gone to seed, with a big belly spilling over his belt. Funny how plump men always cinch their belts so tight, like it’ll make them slimmer. I can’t wait to draw a caricature of him when I get home.
“It’s important that you do it to enhance your abilities in geometry and guarantee that...” He launches into a speech about the qualities of triangles. I shift my books impatiently. I do have to catch a bus in five minutes.
Finally he trails off, and I sprint out of the room, my book bag banging against my hip. I run to my locker and yank out my oversized backpack. As I frantically stuff my binders into its cavernous depths, I overhear Courtney’s bubbly tones.
“So... like, are you from England?”
“Wales, actually.” Oh my God, it’s Austen boy!
“Where’s that?”
His tone sounds like he’s explained it one too many times. “South of England. I grew up on the border.”
“It’s a country? I’ve never heard of it!” Well, then. Must not be real.
“It’s a principality, technically.”
Her giggle is light and flirtatious, amused, like she’s never heard of a principality before. Actually, she probably hasn’t.
I swing my backpack onto my shoulder, hearing cracking joints that probably shouldn’t make that type of noise. Over my locker door I can catch a peek of Austen boy and Courtney. He’s just as cute as I remember, slouching slightly, as if he’s uncomfortable with his height. He still hasn’t gotten a haircut, so it falls over his eyes in shiny wings. All I can see is Courtney’s slender back covered by authentic Abercrombie & Fitch jacket. She’s absentmindedly stroking her straightened hair, as if it’s an errant but precious pet.
Austen boy sees me through his mop of hair. He raises a long-fingered hand in recognition. “Hey-- didn’t I see you at the mall?”
Courtney spins around, expecting rivalry, but she brightens visibly when it’s just me.
“Oh-- Mariah-- how great to see you!”
“I was in your last class.” I reply dully. Courtney Wilkinson-- stylish devil without the horns.
“How could I forget!” She titters, shooting a sidelong glance at Austen boy.
“Well-- it’s been great, but I really have to go.”
“Bye!” She says brightly, all too happy to see the last of me.
Austen boy rolls his eyes at me over her head. I stifle a laugh, and turn--straight into the shoulder of some brawny footballer, who sneers at me when I tumble to the ground. I break my fall with my face, and the books in my unzipped pack go everywhere. Rubbing my carpet-burned nose, I kneel on the burning asphalt to pick them up. The footballer doesn’t lift a finger. Typical.
Austen boy does. He neatly stacks them and offers them to me. I nearly faint with surprise. What’s the word for it? Chivalry? He is from the 1800s!
“Thanks.”
“No problem. Sorry about what happened in geometry.”
“You saw that? I mean, you’re in my math class?”
“Yeah. I just moved here a couple weeks ago. Took them a while to get me a proper transfer.” He has really nice eyes, kind of almond shaped, maybe Korean? “So... How’s the kid doing?”
“Cameron? Uh-- fine. Thanks for asking.”
“Of course. Well, you’re all packed up. You should probably go or you’ll miss the bus.”
I realize I’ve been kneeling here with my books in one hand, staring stupidly at him. The bus. The bus. I glance at the book. Crap. The bus-- has been gone for three minutes.
“I think it’s already gone.” I say mournfully. “I really have to go now. It’s a long walk home.”
“Nice to meet you again!”
“You too!” I almost expect him to offer me a hand as we get up, but I guess that’s too much. He gifts me with one last smile and goes to his locker. I feel dizzy.
But good old Courtney, she’s always there to burst my bubble. She pokes me hard in the back with one manicured finger. “He’s mine!” She hisses. So sweet.
Courtney Wilkinson and I used to be pretty good friends. Not best friends, but we had sleepovers and went to each other’s birthday parties. We dreamed of horses and puppies, and later cell phones and the cutest new boots. Then in seventh grade, it happened. After it, something cracked between us, and Courtney went shooting forward into a world of glittery eye shadow and parties, while I retreated into my safe cocoon of drawing, sleeping, and watching other families.
By eighth grade we were as far apart as you could get and still be in the same building. Now, in ninth grade, Courtney seems to have decided that she needs a sworn enemy. And that girl is me. I glance back at her. She’s still trying to chat up Austen boy, probably making fun of my bargain jeans. Jeez. I think God put that girl on earth to make my life miserable.

My mom’s face is bordering on scarlet, and her mascara is running from the heat of the kitchen. I toss my backpack onto the kitchen table and turn to face her wrath.
“Where have you been, Mariah?”
“I missed the bus, so I walked home.” I grab an apple from the woven raffia fruit basket and take a big bite.
“Don’t eat that, honey, it’ll spoil your dinner. Your father and I were worried sick about you!”
“Dad’s at work.” The apple’s pretty good, crisp and juicy. I can almost taste its redness in my mouth.
“Well, I was worried. Call next time, Mariah, for goodness’ sakes.”
“God, Mom. I’m fourteen! I can walk home from school without being assaulted!”
“Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain, and don’t you ever do that again. Now, set the table. When your father gets home, we’re going to have a talk about your priorities.”
Seriously? All this because I walked home? Parents are like another species sometimes. I wish they would just leave me alone, let me draw and sleep and hide.
After seventh grade, my family used different ways to get over it. My mom set out to become a housewife on par with Martha Stewart. She dropped her group of hippie-moms with jobs and picked up sewing, macramé, and flower arrangements. Our house became cleaner and prettier than ever before, with seasonal fruit pies usually baking in the oven and fluffy hand-washed towels in the bathroom.
My dad threw himself into his work. He got up earlier and came home later, tired and wan. He read the newspaper at dinner and complained about his idiotic bosses, but got two promotions in the same number of years.
Me, well-- I’ve kind of stopped caring. I don’t really have any hobbies except drawing. My friends all think I’m crazy boring, but, like Brianna, they deal. I haven’t had a sleepover in two years. I don’t want to bring people to my house. They might discover something.
The forks and knives sit neatly on the napkin, but the three place settings look so wrong at the four-person table. Don’t they make tables for three? It’s like a dollhouse. Happy Caucasian Mom and Dad, and Billy and Sally with painted-on wooden smiles, all chowing down on the fake food.
Dad isn’t home when dinner is ready, but Mom brings out the pan of vegetarian lasagna anyway. She sets it on a hot pad made from crocheted bottle caps and gives me a minute serving. She’s watching her weight, so everybody else is too.
By the time Dad strides through the door, Mom and I have have finished our squares of whole-wheat, heirloom tomato, low-fat cheesy goodness, and exhausted what conversation topics we have, which isn’t many.
He gives us a big grin, acting like he’s not half an hour late, again, and slings his briefcase by the door.
“Hey, girls! Mmmm--” He sniffs theatrically-- “Is that lasagna I smell?”
“You bet, honey!” So cheery, so perfect.
He pulls out the empty chair and scoops himself a sizable helping. “So, how was your day?”
“Great! I knitted hats for orphans and planted the sugar snap peas!” Mom twinkles. Dad smiles appreciatively, obviously not listening.
“So... Do you want to hear about Mariah’s day?” She prompts patiently. I feel the noose lower around my neck.
“Oh, of course, of course,” He shovels in bites of lasagna. I am silent. He’ll forget if I don’t say anything.
"Mariah, tell him what happened today!" Mom urges. Dad doesn't seem to catch the angst in her voice. I fidget. The noose is tightening.
"Well, uh, in Biology, we, uh, dissected a frog, and um, read part of the Iliad in English, and--"
"No, no," Mom interjects, "What happened after school?"
"I put my books away, and, um... OK, fine. I missed the bus so I walked home."
"Without telling her parents." Mom adds coldly.
I gulp, choking, but I don't have to worry.
"Very nice," Dad murmurs, straightening his tie.
Mom's eyes bulge. "Did you hear her? She walked four miles home without even calling us!"
"Wonderful," he replies, scooting his chair away from the table. "Now, honey, I brought home a little bit of work from the office, if you don't mind..."
"I do mind! We have to talk to Mariah about something very important, Warren!"
"Mom. Come on. I get it. I won't walk home from school again." What is it with parents? Making a mountain out of a molehill.
"No, Mariah. It's not about that. It's about your grades."
My heart beats faster and my stomach sinks to my knees. Have they sent out first quarter comments already?
Mom puts her hands on her hips in the official lecturing parent pose. "Mariah, you're an incredibly talented girl, but we know you can do better than this." Oh. I guess the comment did come out.
"Your grades have been dropping steadily, mostly because you don't pay attention n class. I don't know why we haven't gotten a call about this before, but your GPA is 1.7 and--"
"Actually," Dad says timidly, paying attention for once, "I did get a call. They said they had a record of eleven unexcused PE classes."
I cringe. I'd forgotten about that. It's just that PE is right after lunch, the perfect time to take a nap, and nobody misses me anyway.
"What?" Mom blows up like a bullfrog, huffing and puffing. "Do you have any excuses, young lady?"
I stay quiet. Don't want to dig that hole any deeper.
"That's it, Mariah! We are going to raise your grades if i have to come and sit beside you in every class!"
God forbid.
"You need a C to pass these classes," she paces frantically, "and I just don't know how we're going to do it!"
"Honey," my dad ventures, "there was something else they said in those calls. A way to raise a PE grade, to make the rest easier. I think they need volunteers at Thornwood Elementary's after-school care for two hours every night. Three months of that would give her an A in PE and service credit."
Mom brightens visibly. I can almost see the underused gears in her brain whirring busily. "That's a fantastic idea! Wholesome, grade-boosting service, conflict managing experience. And there are the collegiate benefits," she says like she's unveiling the eighth wonder of the world, "it'll look great on your transcript!"
Oh no. Little kids running and screaming everywhere, throwing tantrums and tortilla chips. And kids who are just his age, a reminder. "Mom, I don't--"
"Nonsense, Mariah. It's the perfect solution." She begins to clear away the saucy plates.
So there it is. I am going to spend half my afternoon volunteering at some stupid daycare. It just gets better and better.





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