Author's note: Please pay CAREFUL attention to the dates (in bold)!
hopes fly and smashChapter 2: hopes fly and smash
February 14th, 2005
IT IS VALENTINE’S Day today. I wake, up, roll out of bed, dress with more care than usual. Stupid, I know, but each year I harbor a gleam of hope on this day – hope that someone would see through the façade of rumors, into me. There are many girls named Anna in the school, many girls who have boyfriends. They call to each other throughout the day: “Annaaa! Annnna! Annie!” High screeching voices, like birds’ mating calls. I never turn around. I have learned that those voices are never calling for me.
But today there is something waiting for me – a box, red ribbons wrapped around two plump cupids embracing. It sits on my desk, the girls around me eyeing it jealously, the boys looking hungry. Both incredulous. A tiny spurt of disbelief makes my hands shake as I open it, nudging the ribbons off with care, picking chips of silver filigree from the ground. I tuck the card – To Anna, from George - into my pocket, carefully. Who was George? George Francoile, sweater – wearing exchange student? George McWeeney, dating Ainsley’s friend Jennabee? The girls snicker, assuming the former, but for once I do not hide from their laughter, their prying, sharp eyes.
There are chocolates inside, dark and delicious – looking. I lift one to my mouth, slowly, proudly, wanting everyone to see my triumph.
From far away, I hear a stifled giggle. Ainsley covers her mouth, her shoulders shaking, her friends laughing, too. Heads turn, understanding; the teacher enters with a bang, the door blowing shut behind her. It is too much for me to process. Slowly I look at the candy again, searching. I feel raised edges on the bottom, under my fingers; frosting, piped to form a word. FATSO. I look at the rest. UGLY. MEAN. DUMB. HAIRY. NOT. HUMAN. I feel panic rising in a thick liquid up my throat. The teacher is flustered, searching for something; they all have time to stare at me and get in one last, silent giggle, before the class begins. We should have known, the girls’ faces say, pink and flushed at their stupidity, their almost fatal social fumble; who would ever really give her something like that?
I am silent, sad for a few days; then I let the memories slough off my mind like dead skin. I am not angry at them. They have played jokes on me so many times that I am numb and dead to their cruelty. No, I am angry at myself; for being fool enough to believe that anyone could ever want me.
I WAS UNWANTED and poor; Ainsley was pretty and rich - so naturally she and Luke O’ Grady, the basketball star, began going out. Luke O’ Grady was hot. That was the general consensus of every girl in my grade. Even I, the outcast, blushed when he passed, even though he never acknowledged me. At night I dreamed that he defied the standards of popularity, set by the brassy blonds who ruled the school, and asked me out. We’d kiss under the stars and make a new life together – a life undisturbed by mentally ill mothers or runaway fathers. In those dreams, I brushed off my life as if stepping out of grungy sweatpants, and into a model’s runway outfit.
He asked out Ainsley Peters two years after my father left for the first time, in tenth grade. Strange to say, his parents were devout Catholics, understandably distraught by Luke’s failing grades and the long queues of girls who followed him like panting puppies. The couple’s celebrity status shot up when it became known that Luke and Ainsley were lying to both sets of parents: Ainsley had told her parents that Luke was a glasses –wearing nerd who was taking college courses in calculus; Luke’s mother and father were thanking God nonstop for sending their son Ainsley – a girl they believed to be virtuous and pure as hell. Middle school, mid/ dle/ school/; noun: flaunting things ordinary people would be ashamed of. They walked the halls hand in hand, golden hair floating around their faces, blue eyes staring serenely ahead with the blank look of models, plastic as Barbie and Ken. They skipped class to kiss in closets, grades plummeting while their egos soared to unfathomable heights. I admit that I was jealous, although I knew that he would never have dated me in real life. I was almost sixteen, and I had never been kissed.
The only time I ever saw them apart was when Ainsley came to history class one day, half an hour late, her hair wild and a zit blooming like an unwanted flower on one cheek. A blue bruise was swelling on the other, puffing from her skin like rising dough.I saw Ainsley wincing as she touched it, gingerly. But then her friends swarmed around her, buzzing with fresh gossip, and she put on another face for them, smiling, rolling her eyes as she explained that she’d slipped. I know – how stupid of me, right? Dutiful chorus from the followers: hahahaha…you’resofunnyainsley…And I wondered: how much had she ever told them?
My only encounter with Luke O’ Grady came a year ago, in eleventh grade. He was in my math class, but he fooled around every period, and when I saw the red marks covering his tests and papers I knew his grades were not good. The teacher, Mr. Walson, told me to go work with him. I was good at math. I liked lining up all the numbers, squashing them into an incomprehensible equation, and seeing what came out of it. I heard snickers as I stood and moved to the desk next to him, trying to walk nonchalantly, as if I was not going to sit next to the boy I had liked for years, as if I was not grungy Anna Marshowley, going to help golden Luke O’Grady. What irony! His friends were clustered tightly around him, a big, lopsided circle of sweatshirts and cell phones. Ainsley reclined next to him, whispering into his ear, her tight pants creeping places they shouldn’t have been. She was the only girl there. They watched me approach, lazily, like crocodiles lying in wait.
“So, Luke,” I said to him, awkwardly. I pulled a worksheet out of my backpack, spread out the wrinkles on the desk, over and over, because I did not know what to do. He did not answer, his fingers flying across the keyboard of his phone. I looked helplessly up at Mr. Walson, and the teacher came over, snatching the phone from him with a sharp “You’ll get this back when you can behave.”
Luke glared at me. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he asked. “You just got my phone taken away.”
“Dog,” Ainsley said, low.
“I…I..didn’t mean to…” I stuttered, swallowing, struggling not to cry. I no longer wanted him to kiss me. I just wanted to get through this without him yelling at me. Is that too much to ask, God? I asked the blue sky silently, dimmed by the glass of the windows.
Luke sighed, rolled his eyes. His friends snickered, and he turned to me. “Let’s get this over with,” he said.
Grateful, I breathed out a silent sigh and pushed the worksheet towards him. “This is an extrema, see, it has a larger curve than the …” Stupid me, I really thought he was going to let it go. Luke stared out the window, his eyes unfocused, Ainsley kissing him, moaning. She glanced at me and whispered something I didn’t want to know. His arm went around her and they slid down on the seat, the drone of my explanation dying away.
“Do you want to try this one?” I asked Luke.
“Huh?” he said.
I stared at him, unsure how to respond. The warning signals went off again, and I saw a tiny smile slide onto Luke’s face, a glance at Ainsley.
“You know, Anna, I’m really bad at math. I’ll never get this, no matter how hard I try.”
I said, uncertainly, “I’m sure you will, if you just try this problem…”
“Nope. I never will.” He laughed, mocking self- deprecation. “But, you know, my friend Carter here has a D. He’s real smart, just doesn’t work hard.”
I stared at Carter, a boy with shaggy brown hair and slitted eyes. He was staring at me, his lips slid back from pointed teeth. A chuckle went up around the circle surrounding Luke, like a signal. Luke stretched, in his element. No longer crocodiles, they were wolves, circling.
“Why don’t you help him instead? Plus, you know, it’s no secret…..we all know that you have feeeelings for him…”
Red blood rose up my face. I tried to run, but I was frozen, my feet locked in place, a thousand eyes staring at me, hoots rising, thick and choking as smoke. From behind Luke, Ainsley smiled at me, her eyes hard and blackened with mascara.
“I…I don’t have f – f – feelings for him - ”
Luke said, “That’s all right, Anna, it’s nothing to be ashamed of…for a normal person, anyway…”
Around me, kids laughed, talked, texted, but I was trapped in this world, trembling as their laughter sliced at me.
“Carter’s really a cute guy…look at that smile…anyone would like him. You’re really lucky, Anna, he likes you too – don’t you, Carter? You’re really, really lucky – especially with a face like that, he’s by far the best guy you’ll ever get…if you ever get another…”
They laughed, long, lazy chuckles, eyes pinning me to my chair with callous amusement.
Mr. Walson was busy, helping someone else. I tried to call out to him, but I was hollow, their words had scraped away skin, muscle, sucked blood from my veins. I would stay there for a long time, visit that world in my nightmares for years to come. I fell far out of love with Luke O’Grady, in a few devastating instants.