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A Girl Named Pepe
Pepe wasn’t her real name.
In fact, I haven’t the slightest clue what her real name was. But she called herself Pepe when we met at soccer camp. That day’s heat was the stifling, unbearable kind, when the sun beats down on your eyelids and the last place you want to be is outside.
I didn’t want to be there; along with piano, tennis, and Sunday school, soccer was one of the things my mother had decided I would like. In reality, I dreaded every practice, complained of fever on game days, and fantasized about a soccer-free summer, spent buried in books, curled up in an air-conditioned little nook in the library.
It was a huge camp; standing there amongst hundreds of other girls, caught in the buzz typical of any remotely large crowd of young people, I felt remarkably insignificant. I longed for a cold pool. Or, even better, an entire saltwater ocean, all to myself. Not a single soccer ball in sight. But for now, I was stuck here, and, I thought to myself, I might as well make the best of it.
Upon arrival, we were organized into groups, each with one counselor. I was called to Team Italy, where the twelve of us players sat in a circle around the grinning coach. “Alright, guys,” he said, clapping his hands together enthusiastically, “Let’s do this! Now in a second, we’ll all pick nicknames. No one’s using her real name here! But first, I’m curious, is anyone actually Italian here?”
Heads shook, eyes wandered; our interest was already waning. Poor guy. Yes-or-no questions were never good conversation sparkers.
Suddenly, an arm rose, swinging high into the air before unexcitedly flopping down. The coach’s eyes lit up and he grinned. “Great! We have a true-blooded Italian here!”
The arm belonged to a slumped, bored-looking girl directly across me in the circle. She shrugged, a slight smile playing on her lips. “Sure.”
With her bluish eyes, dyed copper hair, and beige skin, she sure didn’t look Italian. For some reason, I had the vaguest premonition that she was only saying so for the heck of it. Or, perhaps, for lack of anything better to do.
As the circle went on to claim nicknames, the girl went first, confidently introducing herself as Pepe (pronounced “PEH-pay”). Of course, I was instantly impressed. Pepe, like me, didn’t know anyone at the camp, but she had enough pluck to stand up and declare herself. Something about this girl smelled like danger, and I wanted to know her.
Over the next few days, I learned more about Pepe. She was a strange creature, so unlike anyone I had met in the past. Wearing cheap bright teal eyeshadow, with a mischievous grin, she texted her guy friends at breakfast and flirted with the boys from the wrestling camp at lunch. The word “hella” she used in frequent rotation, and she dropped an f-bomb every two or so minutes. She was a self-proclaimed amateur pyromaniac. Having lit a kid’s backpack on fire in the seventh grade, she offhandedly referred to her parole officer as Jim.
She was the kind of girl no parent wanted in a fifty-foot mile radius of their teenager. Her untroubled, who-cares-what-they-say aura was infectious, her strange throaty laugh a relief from the polite giggles I had always known. Above all, I thought of Pepe’s face next to my mother’s, knowing my mom would welcome me to quit soccer eons before approving of our friendship.
But my mother wasn’t there, and above all, Pepe was my first taste of freedom. At a camp I was forced to attend, for a sport I was coerced into playing, at least I had the opportunity to choose my company. And Pepe was the best company I could imagine. She cracked rude and hilarious jokes, eliciting sidesplitting peals of laughter from her audience; she could tell what one was thinking without their even saying a word; she even lent me her hip-hugging Levi’s for skit night. As camp came to a close, I knew what I would miss even more than the breadsticks in the dining hall: Pepe, a breath of fresh air.
In the next few months of my school year to follow, I broke the rules the best I knew how. If Pepe’s approach to rebellion had the boldness of a strong black coffee, mine was a sad, mild chamomile tea. My attempts to poke the outrage of authority were weak at best; dress-code violations and texting under my desk in class. I didn’t even dare forget my homework.
Nevertheless, something in me had changed. No longer was I the quiet, nodding, obedient one of times passed. I now had the courage to assert myself – occasionally, at least – against the many powers in my life urging me to do this and do that, to stay silent and to fit in. After learning to step out of line when need be, and practicing saying the word “no,” I could form an identity for myself separate from what I had been told to be. I realized what I liked a lot, and what I didn’t like so much. Oh, and I quit soccer.
It’s funny how the people we know come to shape us, even in ways we might not immediately understand. From that day at camp, something told me I’d always remember Pepe; and, indeed, I am – to this day and beyond – indebted to her, if only for showing me something different. I will probably never improvise an Italian heritage or even wear blue eyeshadow, for that matter; but I can stand up and declare myself.