It’s the first sign of life my phone has shown in the past month.
When I see the text is from Kaitlyn I distractedly shift in my chair and feel a sharp pain on the back of my ear and a gasp from behind me.
“Oh my God Riley! You almost pulled a Van Gogh!” Tad, my go-to hair guy of ten years screams from behind me, grabbing a towel and holding it to my ear.
Apparently I’m bleeding out, but I don’t have time for that right now. Kaitlyn hasn’t cared where I’ve been all summer, so why now?
“Sorry,” I mumble as I text back “Haute,” and wait for a reply.
I can’t help but laugh. Ever since Kaitlyn discovered the beauty of peroxide she’s been trying to get my hair as blonde as hers.
I feel like I should be ignoring her texts like she ignored mine all summer, but instead, with a sick satisfaction, I text back, “Chopping my hair off.”
I’ve barely hit send before, “WTF???” and then “NOOOOOOOOO!!!” comes shooting across cyberspace.
For the first time, I begin to doubt my decision.
I’ve been nothing but excited since I found out about Haute Salon and Spa’s Locks of Love fundraiser, and I’m obviously not the only one. The promise of a free haircut in exchange for cutting off at least six inches has drawn women in en masse. The place is packed with hair. Lots of it. Some of these women look like they don’t even know what a haircut is. I’ve seen more than one of them sit down and have to readjust to stop from sitting on their hair.
But it’s not just about the haircut. There’s a feeling of camaraderie in the air. We’re all here for the same reason. There’s an unexplainable connection you share with someone when you’re literally giving a piece of yourself to a stranger. And the thought of a little girl running around the playground with a wig made from my hair covering up her chemo-bald head has waylaid any doubt I’ve had thus far. I picture my brown locks swinging around her chin in a little bob. With bangs. And freckles.
But suddenly that little girl seems less important, although there’s nothing I can do about it now. Tad has already sawed through my ponytail with a pair of shears and is now shaping my hair to look like the picture I brought in; a pixie cut, short in the back with longer swooping bangs in the front. I look at the envelope marked “Locks of Love” stuffed full of what used to fall to the middle of my back.
The buzz of my phone pulls me back to Kaitlyn and her new desperate interest in my life. “C U in 10.”
“YR home???!!!” I send back but I already know better than to expect a reply.
Twenty minutes later Kaitlyn makes her presence known as she rushes past the receptionist, her long blonde hair flying behind her just as Tad puts the finishing touches on my new cut. I watch in amazement as the entire crowd parts for her. I can’t tell if her sense of urgency somehow translates into authority or if these women have a sixth sense warning them that Kaitlyn will physically run them over and not look back.
“OH MY GOD RILEY, IT’S WORSE THAN I THOUGHT!!!” she screams in the middle of the crowded salon. Hair whips around from all directions as every single head turns to stare at us. “WHAT were you thinking? You don’t chop your hair off two days before school starts!”
I can actually feel the mood in the room shift as the titter of excitement is suffocated by a weighted doubt that settles over the crowd.
I try my best to ignore Kaitlyn and turn to Tad with a big hug. “I love it,” I say loudly, but my words get caught up in my fluster of adrenaline from being the focus of attention and it doesn’t come out with the confidence I had hoped.
Without even a glance in Kaitlyn’s direction I turn and walk with as much dignity as possible to the reception area, intent on giving Tad a gigantic apology tip.
“Riley,” Kaitlyn runs after me, “guys love long hair. You can’t have hair as short as theirs. No guy wants to feel like he’s dating a dude! No offense,” Kaitlyn says to an overtly gay man carrying a make-up brush.
“None taken,” he says, his voice saccharine with sarcasm. He gives her a snooty up and down but it’s impossible to find a single flaw to fixate on.
When he leaves, Kaitlyn rolls her eyes behind his back, “Diva bitch,” she mutters.
I pull out my credit card and hand it to one of the three clone receptionists standing at eager attention while Kaitlyn grabs a flyer with a list of services.
“I’m sure they do extensions,” I can hear her murmur to herself. “Wait!” she says, ripping my card straight from the receptionist’s hand. “Riley,” she whispers, her eyes glittering with mischief and excitement. “They do piercings here.”
“So…” she pulls me over to the side where the receptionist can’t hear, “let’s do it!”
“There’s no way my mom’s going to let me get a piercing,” I say, turning back towards the reception desk.
“Wait,” Kaitlyn grabs my arm and flings me back around towards her. “She doesn’t have to know.”
“Kaitlyn, take a look around you. This isn’t some nasty back alley tattoo parlor. This is a spa. They’re going to want a parent’s permission.”
“If I get them to do it, will you do it with me?”
“What am I getting pierced?”
“Our navels of course. Guys love it.”
“Fine,” I sigh, only because there’s no way she’s going to convince anyone here to do it.
Five minutes later I’m in the back of the spa sprawled out on a leather chair waiting to be impaled.
“So,” Mandy, our piercer says, popping her gum, “you’re just going all out for this Locks of Love thing, aren’t you?”
“What do you mean?”
“The Locks of Love haircut and now the piercing donation…”
I give Kaitlyn a wide-eyed look. Leave it to her to turn a fundraiser for kids with cancer into something that benefits her. I can feel the bad karma building as the needle slips smoothly through my skin. It’s going to get infected – maybe even gangrenous. That’s what you get for using little kids with cancer.
“I wish they had told me all proceeds from piercings go to Locks of Love. I totally would have told all my friends to come in and get something done today,” Mandy says, quickly sliding the needle out and replacing it with a silver and rhinestone barbell. “Next,” she smiles at Kaitlyn.
I stand and lift my shirt to examine my new piercing. I have a piercing. I am pierced. I reach towards the glittering rhinestone, mesmerized.
“Uht-uht-uhhh,” Mandy says, waving a henna tattooed finger at me, “never ever touch your piercing unless you’ve just washed your hands. You have no idea how dirty your hands are.”
“Yeah she does,” Kaitlyn says with a smirk as she settles herself into the chair. “Look at her hands.”
I immediately put my hands behind my back and hide them in my long sleeves.
“Let me see honey,” Mandy says, abandoning Kaitlyn mid-piercing.
I look into her dark chocolate eyes and see only sincerity, but her kindness just makes me feel like even more of a loser. I pull my hands from behind my back and hold them out for her inspection.
We both look down at my knuckles, scabbed and scarred from so much hand washing. I look like a burn victim. I know I need to quit being such a germ freak, but I’ve been like this for as long as I can remember. Kaitlyn’s never been openly cruel about it – until now.
“Aren’t they disgusting?” she says from her chair, the needle still sticking through her navel.
“Oh, honey. What’s wrong with them?” Mandy asks kindly.
“Nothing. They’re just dry,” I say, pulling my sleeves back over my hands.
“Well, I have some lotion that will fix that right up,” she says, turning back to Kaitlyn, slipping the matching rhinestone barbell through her navel and then reaching into a cabinet and handing me a tube of cream. “Here you go, on the house,” she smiles at me and pops her gum again.
“Thanks,” I tell her, fuming at Kaitlyn.
This is my best friend. Although right now, I’m not sure why.
Up at the register, Kaitlyn hands the little waif of a receptionist my credit card. “Two piercings and a disaster of a haircut.”
The girl gets a worried look on her face, and turns to me, “If you’re not happy with it –”
“No. It’s fine,” I interrupt. “I love it. She just thinks she’s being funny,” I say, signing the receipt and making sure to add an extra, extra big tip for Tad. The last thing I want is for him to think I don’t like my new haircut – or even worse – have this over-eager anorexic say something to their boss.
“Kaitlyn, why are you even here?” I ask, slipping my card into my back pocket and walking out the door into one of the last days of Northwest sunshine. The blast of fresh air is a shock on my newly exposed neck and it only reminds me of the magnitude of what I’ve just done.
“We’re supposed to go school shopping,” Kaitlyn says, steering me towards the department stores.
“Yeah. That was last month. And then you cancelled so you could have another month shopping with your aunt in LA. Remember?”
“Well, were you planning on buying me the new Gucci sandals?” she says, pointing to her perfectly pedicured feet.
I turn to glare at her, but the person standing before me isn’t Kaitlyn. There isn’t a single thing on her body that hasn’t been altered in some way and it’s almost like I’m not looking at Kaitlyn, but a reflection of her or an animated picture of her.
Thanks to new bright blonde extensions her hair is even longer, blonder and fuller. Her skin has a sheen to it that screams dermatology procedure and a tan too deep for her to have acquired at any beach, contrasting starkly against what are now shockingly white teeth. My best friend, someone I have known my entire life has disappeared and been replaced by this Avatar before me. It’s not that Kaitlyn hasn’t always been beautiful. It’s just that, she’s always been Kaitlyn. But this isn’t her hair or her nails or her skin or her teeth.
Standing in the middle of Lakeview with a stranger for a best friend, everything expands and I suddenly feel so small and so alone. I begin to panic at the thought of entering high school with only this cartoon character as my ally. My stomach lurches but I’m beginning to get used to it. Every time I think about starting high school in a couple days, my stomach does this weird dance. It’s beyond butterflies. It’s more like a nest of angry hornets or a bunch of satanic gnomes doing some crazy jig through my insides. I’ve been worrying about high school all summer and now that we only have two days left, my stomach’s a mess.
The stomach gnomes have kicked into overdrive and I feel like I’m going to throw up on those precious Gucci sandals of hers.
But in true Kaitlyn style, she doesn’t even notice.
“So, what do you have and what do you need – other than a wig?” she says, herding me along.
“Nothing,” I tell her, pulling my arm from her acrylic-claws.
“You don’t need anything? So what are you complaining about?” Kaitlyn says, tossing her hands up in exasperation.
“No. I have nothing,” I correct her.
“WHAT!?! Nothing! As in, not-a-thing? What about your two-week outfit chart?” It’s the single neurosis of mine Kaitlyn actually encourages. For almost as long as my hand washing obsession I’ve been planning my outfits two weeks in advance so I never wear the same one twice.
“I just haven’t gotten around to it.” I try to play off casual and keep walking like it’s no big deal, but it doesn’t work. Kaitlyn comes running after me like a dog after the mailman.
“Riley, are you serious?” she grabs my arm and pulls me down onto a nearby bench. “You haven’t bought anything? Aren’t you freaking out? I mean, you have to have something new for the first day.”
I shrug and concentrate on the obsessively kept sidewalk tiles and the lone weed that dares to challenge the perfection. “You were gone. Who was I supposed to go shopping with? My mom?”
I don’t make eye contact but I can feel Kaitlyn’s look of pity. It’s humiliating.
“So, you were just going to go to school naked?” she says, putting her hand on my arm. I look to the mothering smile she reserves solely for me, and finally, finally catch a glimpse of my best friend and my panic subsides. As long as she’s in there somewhere, I can handle this new version.
“Come on, we’re going shopping.” She jumps up and pulls me to my feet.
“No, I need to get home,” although even as I say it, I realize how ridiculous it is to think that me going to school in ratty old clothes will somehow punish Kaitlyn for leaving all summer – or for not calling. I got some texts, a couple pictures, but no phone call. After the first month, I gave up leaving messages.
Kaitlyn tilts her head and looks at me with bored disbelief. “You’re not seriously expecting me to beg, are you?”
“Fine. Whatever,” I say, allowing myself to be led. “But we need to make it fast. I don’t have all day.”
Kaitlyn smirks and calls my bluff. “Yeah you do.”
Sadly, she’s right. With Kaitlyn MIA and the few other peripheral friends we have off at summer camps or exciting vacations my social calendar hasn’t exactly been overflowing.
“Kaitlyn, I really don’t think I’m going to find anything here,” I tell her, eyeing the massive entrance to Nordstrom. I highly doubt they have a vintage section.
“Riley, you’re shopping here. End of discussion.” She scrutinizes my outfit with a single critical glance. “That look may cut it for junior high, but it’s not going to work for high school.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, people aren’t going to know you, Riley. They’re going to judge you by how you look. The hair – well, there’s nothing we can do about that now – but you’re going to have to be careful what you wear. You don’t want people thinking you’re a freak or something.”
“Ouch.” I didn’t realize being thought of as a freak was an option.
“Listen Riley,” she says, touching my wrist but being careful to avoid my hands. “First impressions are everything. Why do you think I went to LA this summer? The next couple of weeks are going to decide your entire future – whether you make the cheerleading squad, what sorority you get into, even what kind of guy you marry. I mean really Riley, are you going for a doctor or a garbage man? It’s time you start thinking about where you want to be.”
“With you,” I say dumbly.
“Well then, let’s go,” she gives me a huge bleached-tooth smile, takes me by the wrist and leads me into the clone factory and to the death of my individuality.
Once we’re upstairs in Kaitlyn’s fashion territory she gets a predatory look in her eye and immediately starts pulling things off the rack and piling them in my arms. Fortunately a sales lady quickly rescues me from the mountain of clothes Kaitlyn’s burying me under so I have a free hand to do a little looking of my own. I reject one item after another. The lack of originality makes me want to retch. I love vintage, retro, old Hollywood glamour. Made in China just isn’t my thing.
When Kaitlyn’s satisfied she’s scoured the entire store, we commandeer the giant handicapped dressing room. As soon as the door closes Kaitlyn immediately whips off her top and pulls on a tight pink collared shirt. She examines herself in the mirror, striking a pose, sucking in her cheeks. It doesn’t matter which angle she picks, she looks perfect and she knows it.
She frowns and makes a face at herself in the mirror. “I don’t know. Riley, you try this one on. I bet it looks better on you.” She pulls off the shirt and hands it to me.
I look at it and give her a face like she’s casually handing me a crack pipe. The shirt’s so not my style. “If you don’t like it, don’t get it.”
“But it’ll look really cute on you. Come on, just try it.”
I sigh and pull the fashion affliction over my head while Kaitlyn looks on in her pink lace bra.
“See,” she says, positioning herself behind me. “You look great. It totally gives your cheeks a glow. And it would look way cute with this skirt.”
“I don’t know,” I say, examining myself in the mirror. Kaitlyn wears the shirt much better than I do.
I pull off the pink atrocity and reach for the next shirt in Kaitlyn’s hand, but she whips it of my reach before I can grab it.
“Riley,” she says, scrutinizing my chest, “why are you lumpy?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what’s going on here?” she takes her index finger and makes a swirling motion around each of my breasts.
“Nothing.” I grab the shirt from her and pull it over my head. Unfortunately, it’s very low cut.
She gives me the look that says she knows I’m lying and reaches into my bra and pulls out the toilet paper.
“Riley. Toilet paper? Seriously?”
While Kaitlyn was gone this summer my hips grew and forgot to tell my boobs to keep up, forcing me to take matters into my own amateur hands. I started throwing a little extra in my bra hoping to even things out so I don’t look quite so much like a human bowling pin. I’m not saying toilet paper was the best solution, but socks weren’t exactly subtle.
“Stay here.” She slips her own shirt back on. “I’m getting you some new bras.” With that, she’s gone, and I’m left alone in the dressing room with a pile of fake clothes, an empty bra and mutant hands.
Kaitlyn’s words haunt me in the silence.
“You don’t want people thinking you’re a freak or something…”
Suddenly the reality I thought I knew peels away and I see myself through Kaitlyn’s eyes. No longer am I cute and funky and unique. I’m different, but in a bad way. I’m a freak. A freak with a big butt, small boobs and a bad haircut. I can feel my chest constricting and suddenly the air in the dressing room grows hot and thick and a rush of panic sears up my spine. If I’m ever going to have a date in high school, or friends even, I’m going to have to work at it like I never have before. Kaitlyn’s right. High school isn’t junior high. Do I even know how to not be a freak? I look down at my hands again. Gross. Disgusting. Freak. The skin on them sags from abuse. They look like the arthritic hands of a 90-year-old woman.
Out of my peripheral vision something catches my eye. Lurking beside me on the upholstered bench of the dressing room is a crusty white stain of what I can only assume is body fluid.
I launch myself off the bench, but my foot catches on the mountain of clothes piled on the floor and I hit the dressing room wall. Hard. The impact reverberates along the line of connected stalls sending a shockwave down the aisle.
I can hear the shuffle of more than one sales girl running.
“Everything okay in here?” one of them yells.
“Yeah, no. I’m fine. I just… tripped.”
“Okay…” she sounds like she doesn’t believe me. “Are you sure you’re alright?”
“Yeah, really, I’m fine.” It’s the biggest lie of my life. I’m so far from fine it’s ridiculous. I’m not fine. I’m a freak.
I can’t even be trusted to be normal for five minutes. I’m totally screwed. I slump down onto the pile of clothes and bury my head in my arms while Kaitlyn’s lingering words continue to assault me.
“First impressions are everything. Why do you think I went to LA this summer?” Of course it makes sense now why the Bishop girls go to LA the summer before they start high school. I never gave it much thought because it’s just the way it’s always been. After eighth grade graduation, Kaitlyn followed her sisters’ footsteps and spent the summer with her mysterious rich aunt in LA. I’ve known Kaitlyn my entire life and I know nothing about this woman other than she has no kids and more money than God.
“The first couple weeks of high school are going to decide your entire future – whether you make the cheerleading squad, what sorority you get into, even what kind of guy you marry…” More pieces of the puzzle fall into place… Mrs. Bishop is a typical Lakeview trophy wife and she’s grooming her daughters to follow in her Manolo Blahnik heels. If all goes according to plan, Kaitlyn will coast through life on the looks ticket and her biggest challenge will be worming her way out of a pre-nup and not getting fat after she’s had kids.
“Riley, let me in,” Kaitlyn jiggles the dressing room door from the other side.
I reach up and turn the doorknob without moving from my place on the floor.
“What are you doing?” She throws the armful of padded bras onto the bench where they land dangerously close to the stain.
“Am I really a freak?” my voice cracks, revealing the tears threatening to escape. Seeing Kaitlyn standing over me in the reflection of the mirror it’s finally clear how much the gap between us has grown. LA has changed more than just Kaitlyn’s hair and nails. She now stands differently, she acts differently, but most importantly, she looks at me differently.
“Riley,” she says, kneeling down beside me, “you’re not a freak. I think maybe sometimes you just try too hard to be different.” Her voice has a measured calm to it that sounds like she’s trying to coax a jumper off the ledge of a building. “You know I love you, but people aren’t going to know you like I do and I don’t want them getting the wrong impression of you. I just want everyone to love you as much as I do.” She reaches over and hugs me but it lacks the emotion behind it to be convincing.
I stand up and pull on my black Harley Davidson T-shirt and scrutinize myself in the mirror. I evaluate my dark blue hip huggers, red stiletto boots, and giant antique rhinestone bracelet, and suddenly I don’t want to be unique anymore. I just want to be beautiful. I want the double takes Kaitlyn gets. I want the old Kaitlyn back. I want that feeling of oneness with my best friend rather than this awkward distance.
And I want my old hair back.
I’m dangerously close to tears and I think Kaitlyn can tell.
“Look Riley, you said you want to be with me and that’s what I want too. I’m trying to help you get there. So here,” she says stepping between me and my reflection. “These are for you.” She hands me what look like two pieces of raw chicken.
“No thanks,” I say, backing up a little.
“Riley, they’re boobs!”
“I don’t care what they are. They look disgusting.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Riley, touch them.”
“Kaitlyn, I’m not touching your chicken cutlets.” But just as the words are out of my mouth, she grazes my arm with one. “Ew!” I instinctively pull my arms back and Kaitlyn uses the moment to reach down the front of my shirt into my bra and expertly slip the silicone pieces of raw chicken under each one of my breasts.
I squirm from the cold and try to pull them out but Kaitlyn grabs my shoulders and positions me in front of the mirror and I freeze. I have boobs. There’s a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach, like the gnomes are ice skating. I feel a shift in my posture, but it’s so much deeper than simple mechanics. For the first time in my life, I actually feel sexy. Not pretty. Sexy.
I feel like I can do anything; like all of a sudden I’m wearing an invisible superhero cape. I look at the reflection of the two of us and I still can’t believe the popularity gods decided to bless me with her. Thank God for the yoga class our moms met in when they were pregnant with us because there’s no way we would have become friends without it. But why we’ve remained friends even after our mothers drifted apart, I’ll never know.
“I’m so excited for school to start!” Kaitlyn squeals, throwing her arms around my neck in a spontaneous hug.
I smile back at her and look into the unfamiliar bright blue of her new contact-colored eyes. “Me too. Thanks.”
“Of course Riley, I love you!” She grabs my arm and gives it a tight squeeze. I wait for the customary “but” following Kaitlyn’s “I love you” and this time it doesn’t come.
When I arrive home with my packages, and yes, the chicken cutlets, the echo of my boots on the foyer tile is the only sound that greets me. But it’s a familiar sound; the sound of solitude. Now that my mom’s made partner at her law firm, she’s almost never here. Once upon a time, when I thought my family was perfect, my mom used to be into the whole Martha Stewart thing, but ever since my dad left she calls it domestic servitude. Now she’s all about female empowerment and climbing the corporate ladder. I suspect that’s why she and Mrs. Bishop aren’t friends anymore. But they used to be best friends. Like Kaitlyn and me.
I run upstairs to dump my new clothes in my room and there’s a note taped to my door:
going to work late, order a pizza if you get hungry. I’ll be home by 12.
I immediately go about tending to my latest Kaitlyn Adventure. The instructions say I don’t need to clean it the day of the piercing, but I decide to ignore that little piece of advice. After all, who ever heard of too clean? It also says to use a warm sea salt compress to clean it, but I figure it’s pretty safe to assume my standard of clean is a little different than most. I grab some alcohol from under my sink and use some Q-tips to clean in and around it. For good measure, I lie on the bathroom floor with a towel underneath me and pour hydrogen peroxide on it and watch the remaining germs bubble to the surface. There’s a strange gratification watching them die a peroxide-induced death.
Once everything is sufficiently sanitized, I pile my new acquisitions on the ottoman in my walk-in closet and begin organizing by color. It’s a compulsion. The first thing I grab is the infamous pink shirt designed for all things Kaitlyn. I grab a hanger, snap of photo of it for my outfit app, and place it in its new home among the other pink shirts, but for some reason, the other shirts don’t like it there. I pull it out and look at it again.
Why did I get it? I hate it. It’s a sweatshop shirt, made by children’s tiny hands who were paid ten cents an hour. It screams conformity. I grab another new shirt and this time I pull off my pajama top, put on my new purchase and turn towards the full-length mirror. I may actually hate this one more than the first. It’s got a plunging V-neck that I’m sure violates the dress code and it’s so skintight I can actually see my piercing sticking out.
Why did I cut my hair?
I fish through the pile to find the few clothes that aren’t too offensive and I carefully execute my routine of finding the perfect home for them. When I’m done, I grab the hated pink shirt and all the other desperately-trying-to-be-cool clothes and throw them into the shopping bag and then shove the whole mess to the back of my closet. Those clothes can rot for all I care.
The stomach gnomes lunge against the side of my intestines and my heart sinks as Kaitlyn’s words return. “They’re going to judge you by how you look.”
I give in to my insecurities and pull the Kaitlyn clothes from the back of my closet and reluctantly make room for them, but I refuse to let them mingle with my real clothes. Instead, I give them their own special section.
I wish my mom was home to talk to. Actually, no. I know exactly what she’d say if I tried to talk to her. She’d give me the typical ridiculous parental advice even she doesn’t believe.
“Be yourself and if they like you, they’re your real friends, if they don’t like you, who needs them.”
She always gives the same kind of worthless advice. Like in third grade when I came home crying because Scott Edwards made fun of me for having a mouth full of braces. My mom told me it was because he liked me and didn’t know any other way to show it. That was crap. Scott Edwards liked Katie Johnson and he made fun of me because he was mean and because he could. It was as simple as that. I looked goofy.
I check the time as I crawl into bed. One o’clock. I’d be busted if I came home an hour late with no phone call. I could be dying right now and she wouldn’t even know it. What if a burglar had broken into the house and found the note she left me and knew no one would be home for hours and he waited for me and then raped and murdered me? That kind of stuff happens. Not that it’s very likely to happen in Lakeview. But still, there’s a first time for everything. Take Mr. Pierceson across the street. For all we know he could be using our hide-a-key to look at our underwear and spit in our milk. There doesn’t need to be a reason. Sometimes people just snap.
I cuddle deeper into my down comforter and will my brain to stop spinning so sleep can enter and quiet the chaos. I don’t want to think about Kaitlyn or school, I just need the nothingness. In the distance a house alarm goes off but the siren is a welcome distraction from the silence of the house and the noise in my head. This is Lakeview. House alarms go off all the time around here. The cops will wander over in about a half hour or so, but it’s always someone letting their cat out or a housekeeper without the security code.
The alarm cuts short mid-siren and the silence that follows reminds me of how alone I really am. Even though Kaitlyn’s right down the street the distance between us feels bigger than it ever did when she was in California. My mind is stuck on a stationary bike with the same thoughts rotating back around every couple of seconds – “People aren’t going to know you Riley. They’re going to judge you by how you look,” Kaitlyn’s Barbie makeover, piercings, conformist clothing, “you don’t want people thinking you’re a freak,” hand cream, chicken cutlets, haircuts, “you’re going to have to be careful what you wear…”
I finally give up on sleep and grab my phone and open my outfit app to plan my outfits for the next two weeks of my life. One day left.
When I look at myself in the mirror, I find my superficial label-hungry popularity whore of a doppelganger staring back, ready for her first day of high school. She’s wearing my favorite jeans and a collared shirt I’m pretty sure is meant to be so overly preppy it’s cool, but it’s missed cool by a mile. In an effort to not completely surrender to conformity I chose Vans and a chunky leather bracelet, but vanilla’s too spicy to describe this new Riley. She turns sideways and I inspect the shirt from a new angle. It’s flattering, it’s cut well, and it certainly accentuates the chicken cutlets, but it’s not me. Imitation Riley turns forward again and this time I picture her as a blonde.
Maybe I really should bleach my hair.
In an unprecedented turn of events, I deviate from the outfit chart and rip off the pretend shirt and pull on one of my real shirts and this time when I look in the mirror, I find my posture has completely changed. My shoulders are back, there’s a tilt to my head and my hips – I’m back to being me. But what if being me makes me Freak Girl? I bask in the moment of self-awareness and try to keep some of that feeling as I strip off my identity and pull the Kaitlyn shirt back on. Imitation Riley is back.
At least my makeup’s easier: powder, a little eyeliner – but not too much, mascara, and a light gloss. Never blush. I still haven’t learned how to apply it without looking like a hooker. And now for the hair. The ultimate no-brainer. A dollop of product while it’s still wet, a tousle, a cute little clip, and it’s done. Right now I’m glad I got my hair cut. It adds a touch of funk to what would otherwise be a painfully boring outfit.
I run downstairs, fix myself a bagel and grab some lunch money from the spending envelope my mom leaves in the kitchen drawer for me. I pause, and on second thought grab an extra fifty. I have no idea what today is going to bring and I’m determined to be prepared for anything. I double check my backpack to make sure I have all the emergency essentials; hairspray, gum, money, lip gloss, cell phone, credit card and tampons – just in case. I started my period last year and if it weren’t for Kaitlyn, I’d still be using pads. Putting a tampon in, to date, is the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but now I take them with me everywhere. I never know when or where Mother Nature’s going to strike. It sucks.
When I hear Deborah laying on the horn of her Jeep Wrangler with one neck-clenching continuous blast, I run – and I do mean run. She’s not exactly happy about Mrs. Bishop making her drive us to school and I have no doubt she’ll leave me if I give her any excuse.
“Here,” I hand Deborah a twenty and shove her pom-poms aside to situate myself in the back seat. Although it’s a nice day, the top of the Jeep is firmly in place, no doubt to protect Deborah and Kaitlyn’s hair. “My mom says she’ll give you gas money to drive me to school.”
Kaitlyn turns around from shotgun and smiles at me. I’ve just secured our ride status way more than threats from her mother ever could.
“Great,” Deborah says with a smile and a hair flip Kaitlyn could only dream of mastering. “I thought I was going to have to pay for my coffee with quarters!”
We have to circle the Starbucks parking lot twice before we find a spot. We finally manage to squeeze into a space between a shiny BMW and an equally shiny Mercedes. I watch Kaitlyn twist and contort herself to maneuver out the door, but her boobs keep getting in the way. For a moment, I’m afraid Deborah might have to take the top off the Jeep to rescue Kaitlyn but she finally manages to escape. I climb from the back seat while she holds the door open and even with the chicken cutlets in place, I slip through with significantly less difficulty. Club Boobless; membership has its advantages.
“Oh, wait. Riley, will you hand me my purse?” Kaitlyn points to the floor of the front seat where a new Coach purse sits.
“That’s yours?” I ask in surprise.
“Yeah,” she smiles. “Isn’t it cute? My aunt bought it for me.”
It’s great. But we don’t use purses. I wish she’d told me about this new turn of events while we were shopping so I could have done something about it.
“Why didn’t you bring it with you when we went shopping?”
She laughs. “Yeah right. Like I wanted it to get ruined before the first day of school.”
We walk into the familiar chaos of our favorite Starbucks and take our place in the line of nonfat Lakeview moms getting their skinny triple shot lattes and their clone daughters pretending to do the same. My mom did it for me too; four dollars for a mint hot chocolate so I could mimic her tentative sips from a tell-tale Starbucks cup. Directly in front of us is a little girl who can’t be more than six carrying the new Louis Vuitton “it” purse – a mini version of her mother’s. Am I the only one without a purse?
Deborah waves to a couple people she knows and out of what I’m sure is nervous habit, Kaitlyn performs an overly zealous hair flip a little too close to me and a chunk of her hair gets caught in the goo of my lip gloss. It slides across my face, leaving a sticky trail of ick on my cheek. I try to wipe it off, but I’m afraid I’m wiping my make up off with it. I finally give up and decide I need a mirror.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” I tell the two of them as I duck out of line and head towards the back.
I look in the bathroom mirror and it’s as bad as I thought. A wispy trail of baby doll pink slime stretches across my face like a miniature slug has traveled from my mouth to my hair. Damn Kaitlyn and her hair flips. I scrub my face with the palm of my hand, but now of course I’ve got the angry red marks to prove it. This is why I need a purse. If I had a purse, I’d have make up with me. I let out a sigh of resignation and head back to get my usual Mocha Frappuccino.
When I finally make it back to Kaitlyn and Deborah they already have their coffees in hand and they’re ready to go. I contemplate standing in line, but thanks to a fresh flock of customers the line reaches towards the door. I make sure to give Kaitlyn a dirty look as we leave.
“Sorry Em, I would have gotten your drink, but I didn’t know what you wanted,” she says sweetly. I decide to pout rather than do anything about it.
When we get back to the car the owner of the neighboring BMW is rubbing white slop from the hood of his car with a cloth diaper. I smile, feeling a little better about my misfortune. There’s something comforting about the truth that no matter how expensive your car is, a seagull can still shit on it.
The student parking lot is packed with SUV’s whose tires will never know anything other than the feel of cement unless they’re doing donuts in some dork’s front yard. We turn the corner and out of nowhere a mammoth beast of a guy jumps onto the hood of the Jeep.
“Dallas!” He yells, pumping away like my cousin’s dog used to do to my leg.
“Shut up, Chuck,” Deborah says.
“Shut up, Chuck,” Kaitlyn says.
“I don’t get it,” I say, utterly confused.
“Her nickname’s Dallas,” Kaitlyn turns to face me.
“Yeah. I got that much. Why?”
“From the porno Debbie Does Dallas. Deborah, Debbie, get it?”
“Oh.” So much for high school guys being different than junior high.
We leave “Dallas” in her cheerleading skirt and pom-poms smoking a cigarette in the parking lot with Car Humper and follow the crowd up to the front of the school. We pass a few familiar faces as we walk up the steps to the main entrance, but no one I know well. Kaitlyn and I are the only ones from our group of friends going to this high school. The rest have been divided up among the other four schools on the Eastside or are off to private school.
“Welcome to Trust Fund High,” reads a banner hung across the entrance.
“Trust Fund High?”
“That’s what the other schools call us because they say everyone who goes here has one,” Kaitlyn says, obviously not bothered by the stereotype.
“Hmf.” It’s not exactly something I would have put on a banner but, whatever.
Under the banner stands a group of scantily clad cheerleaders jumping up and down bouncing their pom-poms for all to see while a group of guys standing next to them take in every detail. If I wore a skirt like that, I’d be a whore. And if I ran around jumping up and down like that, I’d be a lunatic. Who knows? Maybe they’re both. All I know is the dress code obviously doesn’t apply to these vixens.
“God, am I dreading that,” Kaitlyn says as she watches the girls perform their cheer.
“All the new cheerleaders have to do that on the first day. It’s kind of like initiation. Deborah said it’s totally humiliating.” Kaitlyn sighs. “It sucks we have to wait ‘til we’re sophomores to be cheerleaders.”
I don’t know why I never thought of it. Of course Kaitlyn’s going to be a cheerleader. It’s her destiny. Just like Deborah, just like her mother, and I’m sure her grandmother, and probably her great-grandmother. I’m sure somewhere in history one of Kaitlyn’s ancestors was in a short skirt with pom-poms out on the battlefields, cheering for the Confederates. The stomach gnomes start their warm-up routine. I don’t want to be a cheerleader.
I’m suddenly short of breath as we approach the glass doors of Trust Fund High. You can do this. You can do this. You can do this. It’s the best pep talk I can muster. All my brain power is focused on just putting one foot in front of the other and not falling down while I do it. My insides seize up and the stomach gnomes feel like they’ve gone into convulsions. I nervously reach to play with my hair but find my long hair gone and with it, my security blanket. Without my hair to hide behind I feel utterly exposed.
Inside the main hall we’re immediately assaulted by first day of school chaos. Guys run around yelling for no apparent reason, a football flies through the air, and girls scream greetings to each other in high-pitched shrieks followed by overly exuberant hugs. Correction. These aren’t girls, they’re women. They have fully formed breasts and hips and they’re wearing makeup and clothes that look like they’ve been pieced together and polished to perfection by a team of stylists. I watch them laugh and flash their fake nails and flaunt their diamond earrings and search in their designer purses for their lipstick or perfume, or whatever it is they keep in there. One girl next to me laughs and flips her hair. She’s good. Why did I cut my hair?
“Riley!” I hear Kaitlyn yell, and everything goes black.
The first thing I register before I even open my eyes is the cold tile of the floor beneath me. I’m lying on the gravesite of a thousand dead loogies and spilled sodas. One of the more shining moments of my life and wouldn’t you know, there’s a whole group of upper classmen to witness it. Somewhere in my peripheral consciousness I register the sound of rapid fire from multiple camera phones. Great.
“Sorry about that,” my assailant says, leaning over me. This guy has got to be the captain of the football team. His letterman’s jacket is collage of accomplishments - where one patch ends, another begins. “Are you okay?” he asks, although he looks like he’s about to bust up laughing as he helps me to my feet.
“I – I think so,” I say, still confused and beyond mortified to have all this attention on me. I may have been knocked silly, but I can still tell through the haze of my possible concussion that he’s definitely cute. I’ve always been a sucker for dark hair and light eyes. He runs his hand through his short spiked hair. The hairspray and gel concoction does its job and the captive hair doesn’t move a millimeter.
In the background some jackass is laughing like a hyena with a hernia and I’m acutely aware that my embarrassment is the highlight of this jerk’s morning. And then I hear from his hyena mouth…
“Dude, you guys, you gotta see this. Trent just tagged some freshman in the face with a football!”
“Oh my gosh Riley, are you alright?” Kaitlyn steps into my vision and begins examining a spot on my forehead, which immediately begins to throb. “That football came out of nowhere!
“You boys should really be more careful,” she turns towards them with a pout, refusing to surrender a single opportunity to flirt. “You could have killed her.”
“Hey, we’re really sorry,” Ball Thrower says, returning Kaitlyn’s pout with a not-so-subtle once-over.
“Well what are you going to do about it?” she asks him coyly through lowered lashes.
“I didn’t see you get hit in the head.”
“Um, you just about maimed my best friend. The least you can do is buy us lunch.”
“Well, I would,” he says with a smile and a toss of his football, “but little freshman aren’t allowed off campus. It’s just the big kids.”
“Thanks for the tip. We’ll meet you here for lunch.”
And with that, she grabs my hand and leads me away. Did she really just maneuver a date out of my injury?
“Riley, you getting hit in the head with that ball was the best thing that could have happened to us,” she whispers as she leads me away.
“Yeah, what’s the worst?” I rub the spot above my right eye, which is now starting to develop a rather large lump.
“Riley, this is what I was talking about when I said the first couple days of school totally decide where you’re going to be for the rest of your life,” Kaitlyn says, pulling me down the hall. “That was one of the Dukes.”
“A Duke, Riley. We’re going out to lunch with one of the Dukes!”
“As in Hazzard?” I rub my head again.
“What’s wrong with you? The Dukes and the Duchesses are the rulers of the
school. Riley, this is our first step to royalty!”
“How hard did you get hit in the head? Yes royalty.”
“Do people vote for them?”
“Riley. Seriously? No.”
“Then how do we know who they are?”
“Oh my gosh. I can’t even talk to you right now. I’ll see you at lunch.”
“Wait! How are we going to go off campus for lunch if we’re not allowed
“Riley, only losers stay on campus.”
“Oh,” is all I have left to say. What else do I not know about the popularity path for high school?
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