Thursday afternoons we volunteer at the senior center. It’s in a basement in the projects at the end of the block. It smells like soup and the linoleum floors are stained yellow, but I usually play dominoes with Ramón and Marguerite, which is better than history or whatever we’d be doing eighth period. Ramón smells like he’s been smoking for 50 years, which he probably has. I can see the pack of Kools he keeps in his breast pocket. Marguerite always brings peppermints and throws a pile on the table next to the dominos. I love the feel of the tiles and their cool clicks. You snake! Marguerite says whenever Ramón wins. He always asks me, You got a boyfriend? And then says, Look at those dimples. She’s gonna be a real heartbreaker. Some weeks they make us do tai chi with the seniors, all together. Ramón never does it. It’s sooooo slow. You move like one centimeter a minute. If I were old I wouldn’t want to listen to someone saying, Breathe. Isn’t that like your one job at that age?
Jenna and Nikki have been going to Duane Reade at lunch and stealing lipstick. They always have new tubes of Toast of New York, everyone’s favorite, a deep wine and brown color. Last week Sabrina skipped lunch with us and went with Jenna and Nikki sixth period instead. What? she said, and sucked her teeth, I’m not hungry. Jenna reapplies and reapplies during math class when we’re supposed to be doing group work. She smoothes down the two gelled pieces of hair that hang loose from her bun and says, Pe-ter, will you do my graph for me? But then she does it perfectly herself in like two minutes at the end of class. That’s what’s so annoying—she doesn’t even have to try. She has this forest green shirt from the Gap with a silky ribbon that laces up her chest. She always leaves it half unlaced and then asks us, Does this make me look slutty? She’s been wearing a bra since sixth grade, but I don’t know what to say because I’m pretty sure when you don’t have boobs you can’t look slutty, so who am I to judge?
Jenna lives uptown. Her mom works for one of the museums and her dad is an architect or something, which she says is why she’s good at math. They work pretty long hours so when we used to have sleepovers last year sometimes they wouldn’t come home till late. One time we had some of their Kahlua with milk. It tasted like super sweet chocolate milk. I guess I got a little giggly but mostly my head just felt kind of weird. We watched like five episodes of The Real World. The next day we went to Modell’s and I kept watch while she stole a bunch of Jansport strings. She’s got like 15 of them now. This eighth grader who graduated last year had like 90. Joanna and I think this is the stupidest thing ever but we don’t have Jansports and now I don’t even want one cause kids are getting jumped for their strings. But I still try to keep my backpack from looking too full. The coolest thing is to look like your bag is totally empty, I guess like you never go to class?
* * *
In history we’re working on a mural about Plains Indians so we’re sitting on the floor in the hallway, sketching. Jenna says she’s got a new boyfriend, a 21-year-old from her block named Robbie. Jo and I raise our eyebrows, but we’ve heard her say stuff like this before. She says he’s picking her up on Friday and they’re going to Central Park and he’s gonna bring Zimas and maybe even a blunt. Kyle says, Yeah right. Like some pedophile’s gonna share his weed with you.
He is not a pedophile, you perv. You’re just jealous, she says. She stands up, throws her pencil down and marches away.
Dicktease , says Kyle.
Shut up, I say.
Aw, let’s make up and listen to the Gin Blossoms together. They’re you’re favorite, right?
Ew, no, I say, I hate them. It’s true. Nirvana, yes. Gin Blossoms, no. Tribe Called Quest, yes. But Kyle is always saying stuff like this. Just because I don’t dress like a fake homegirl he thinks I don’t listen to hip-hop too?
In the bathroom Nikki says, Why are you so skinny? Do you ever eat? You need some meat on those bones. Then she stares at her butt in the mirror. She spritzes on some Sunflowers and offers me some. Last year it was White Musk but this year we all wear Sunflowers. I spray some on my wrists and then dab it on my neck and behind my ears like Jenna showed me to. Back in class Simon leans over towards me and sniffs. Eau d’Seventeen Magazine? he says.
* * *
Last week there was a car parked outside blasting “Mass Appeal” on repeat through all of eighth period. As if Earth Science weren’t hard enough to pay attention to. Igneous, sedimentary, metamorphic, something porous. We pour water into these tall tubes filled with rocks. Chris says they look like bongs. He and Tim went to a rave last week and tripped and they keep talking about it in loud whispers like it’s some big secret but they want us all to know. There’s this store by my house where we go to try on blue lipstick sometimes and they sell a bunch of records and cool tee shirts and they have flyers for raves too but I looked at one and it doesn’t even say where it is. You have to call a number and they cost like 25 or 35 bucks. I want to go but I’d never be allowed or I’d have to make up a really good story and I think they’re all out in Brooklyn somewhere.
* * *
What animal would you be? Simon asks in the middle of English group work. When no one answers, he says, I’d be a cheetah, cause they’re fast.
Uh… okay. I’d be a bat cause they use sonar and people don’t understand them, says Jo. Sometimes she really has the perfect answer.
Um, maybe a dolphin cause they get to swim all day and they’re smart , I say.
Nerd , says Kyle. What about you, Jenna? He looks at her, strokes his chin like he’s really putting some thought into this. I know… a rabbit.
I’m thinking that’s not so bad when I look at Jenna and her eyes are welling up and her chin is shaking just a little. You… shit, she says, then stands up pushing her chair back from the table. She looks at the rest of us. You know why he said that? You know why he called me a rabbit?
No one says a word.
Because they fuck—she lets the word hang there like we will never hear it mean so much ever again—24 hours a day.
Jenna was a virgin last year, but now I don’t know. She started dating older boys over the summer. First there was Jorge who was 16, then Jon, and now this Robbie guy. I can’t believe he’s 21. I know she got to third base with Jorge, well she already had with some guy at her camp the year before. In advisory they showed us pictures of gonorrhea and warts. It looks like stalactites or mites or whatever. We get it. Use condoms. Don’t be stupid.
* * *
Sophie and I went shopping last weekend. I took her to Canal Jeans and we dug through the bins and she told me about private school. She has to spend like 45 minutes on the train, but her classes are really small and she gets to take studio art and they’re doing pottery with a wheel and a kiln. She’s almost positive she’ll get into LaGuardia now. Transferring is the best thing I could have done, she said. Outside she pulled out a pack of Marlboro Lights. Want one? she asked. I took a few drags and she said, You really have to learn how to inhale better before you get to high school.
* * *
Jo has a crush on Mark and asks me to call him to find out if he likes her. So after dinner one night I pull the phone into my room. His mom picks up and then I hear him, I’ll take it in my room.
What’s up? he says.
What’s up? I say. I don’t know how I’m supposed to ask this. It’s not even about me. How’s stuff? I say.
What like since this afternoon? he says.
I’m just playing , he says, I’m working on that primary source project, with the pioneers. Ugh. It’s so stupid, right? Why call it a primary source if we’re just making it up? We’re supposed to write these fake accounts of pioneers as if it’s their diary or something.
Alternative school , he says.
So… I ask him about Jo.
It hadn’t really occurred to me , he says. She’s not really my type.
Oh, you still like Jenna? They had a thing in the fall.
Jenna’s got that older guy, if he’s real, and Kyle, and… I’ve kinda been seeing Nikki, he says.
Seeing? I say, and then I feel like an idiot.
Sorry. Tell Jo I’m sorry. What about you?
What about me? I think of Ramón. He would be so disappointed in me. There’s a guy at the park I kind of like. You know, by me. Thompson Street is the only park by me and it’s tiny and mostly guido guys but there was this one guy I met last spring. We played basketball against these two brothers—I swear their names were Anthony and Anthony and they were both huge, even the one who was shorter than me seemed huge. But I never saw him again. I think his name was Andrew and he went to private school and was wearing this yellow sweater over a button-down collared shirt, kind of preppy.
Oh yeah, playa , says Mark.
Right. I say. I wonder if he buys it. I wonder if I’ll see Andrew again.
Mark and I end up talking again that week. He actually calls me to ask advice about Nikki. I’m not sure what to say, but I try. He thinks she likes Kyle now. I’ve got this other girl I’ll see when I get to camp anyway, so I’m not sweating it too much, he says.
Look, I don’t really talk to Nikki that much anymore, you know? But I’m sure there’s lots of girls who…
You know. I’m blushing.
* * *
Everyone’s packed into El Cheapo, what we call the deli across from school. Mark throws me a pack of Little Debbie Star Crunch. Little Debbie? he grins at me. I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean, but I feel like I’m starting to blush, but Jenna comes in and puts her arm around his shoulder and says she has to get his advice. ASAP, she says, out-side! I pay for my quarter water and a brownie and head out and see them walking towards Ninth Avenue, her arm around his shoulder—she’s like four inches taller than him. I think of that time she sat behind Mark in art class tickling the back of his neck and his head. I don’t know where Miss K. was. While Jenna was doing that I asked him the quiz questions from Sassy: Are You a Mooch?
I don’t know what to tell Jo. I told her Mark was seeing Nikki, which of course got her really upset, but now I feel weird that I’ve been talking to him. It’s Friday so Jo and I walk home, slowly, through the West Village and then down across Prince Street. We pass our old school and peek in the gym. It looks so small, the linoleum floor and padded pillars that kids would run and slam into on purpose. We gawk at the brownstones along the way. We each have our favorite. I like the one with the courtyard and gate and she likes one of the classics with a tall stoop and white door and pretty painted window frames. We stop in Zito’s Bakery and get a loaf of warm bread. I love to pick out the soft part from the middle, but it always reminds me of when our class went to the Wonder Bread Factory in Jamaica in like first grade I think. When we heard we were going to Jamaica we were all confused that we could get there by school bus. Our teacher had to explain that it wasn’t the island of Jamaica but a part of Queens. On the trip we looked down at the huge vats of dough being mixed—it smelled so good—and at the end they gave each of us a bag filled with Hostess cupcakes and Twinkies and a loaf of Wonder Bread. On the bus home Mike F. dug out the middle of his whole loaf of bread and molded it into a ball and took a bite out of it. He ate the whole loaf like that. Further down Bleecker we walk by the Little Red School House that we used to pass on the school bus last year and chant, Your school sucks! It was the one time the whole bus was united, the Tribeca kids and us. If there was a common enemy it was private school kids for sure. Sal would always yell at us to sit back down but I don’t think he really minded so much.
Jo comes over and we work on our fashion column for our zine. Half of it is street style—baby tees, overalls, raver pants and floppy hats—and half is catwalk style which is just crazy stuff like Marie Antoinette-type half-dress, half-shorts outfits with bullet sashes like Rambo and whatever else we can think of. We also have an On the Street column with weird art and stuff, like we found these Messages from Heaven last week scattered around Washington Square. They’re envelopes and inside are black and white postcards that seem to be pictures of graffiti from bar bathrooms. Like one says,Call Carlos and When Champion says no, Mondo says yes! and another says Marie-n-Nick and For a Good Time Call Josie and God loves a degenerate. When Jenna comes over to work on math projects we listen to Hot 97—Wu-Tang and Mary J. and Tribe. But Jo and I go through Mom and Dad’s records. We play Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow over and over again and burn incense. We go up to the roof to smoke one of the cigarettes from the pack I bought in Chinatown. I go to the newsstand on Canal Street because the man is so old and doesn’t card. Last summer we hooked up a hose up here and even Jenna would come over and the three of us would have water fights and then lie on our towels and take the quizzes in Sassy and Seventeen. I only buy Seventeen for the back-to-school issue. Even Jenna likes Sassy better, but she also secretly reads her parents’ Harpers. I bet she would die before admitting that to Robbie or Kyle.
We’re listening to the Velvet Underground and Nico, “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” coloring in our sketches with colored pencils, when Jo says if Mark wants to dance with me at the prom it’s okay with her. I say I would never say yes and besides he really does like Nikki. But I think maybe. I did dance with Josh at the sixth grade prom to “Save the Best for Last.”
* * *
A week later I’m out sick, and I call Mark for the homework. Why didn’t you call Jo? he says.
She’s not in Spanish with me , I say. I wanted to get it all from one person.
He gives me the whole rundown and then says, But the big thing you missed is Kyle yelled across the art room that Jenna’s a slut.
Oh shit, I say, what an asshole. What did she do?
She said, ‘Well at least I know you have a little dick,’ which of course had everyone cracking up. Simon said, ‘No, she didn’t.’ But then Kyle said, ‘Well you should know, you’ve seen plenty.’
Oh no , I said. Jenna definitely saw Mark’s or at least she said she did. Shit. Is she okay? What did Miss K. do?
I think she was shocked but she sent them both to the office.
I feel so bad for Jenna.
Me too, actually, says Mark.
Really? I say.
Yeah, Kyle’s a shithead and he sweats himself, thinks he’s some kind of big man.
I giggle. Yeah, that’s true.
I can’t imagine. I mean Jenna wants everyone to know she has a lot of boyfriends and stuff, but I know it hurts her feelings when someone calls her a slut. I think they’re really jealous. I am. Not about Robbie or those creepy guys, not really. Don’t we all just wanna know what she knows? There was this time in the fall she was sobbing in the girls’ bathroom, just sobbing, like hiccupping. And she grabbed my arm and said how it was so hard to have all these expectations on her. Like everyone just thinks she’s gonna give them a blow job when she only did that once at camp and then her parents think she’s like this perfect student, which she basically is, and then she was like, How am I supposed to be a good friend to you if even you think I’m a slut? Which I don’t, I told her, I don’t. I don’t believe in that word. But then why can’t I be happy for her and this Robbie guy?
I guess shit’s gonna be real tomorrow , Mark says. You coming back?
I can’t believe he cares. I can’t believe we’re on the phone again, still. Yeah, I think so.
Good. You can help me keep Kyle in line. He’s scared of you, I think.
No, I told him he should watch out. Oh shit, I gotta go. Loveline is on. Dr. Judy is my girl.
What if I called in to Loveline? I like this guy, but I think he just likes me as a friend and he kind of has a girlfriend anyway and my best friend likes him. Would Mark know it was me? Like I would ever ever do that.
* * *
We take a class trip to the Earth Room on Wooster Street. We have to ride up in the elevator in groups and Mark is in my group and he pokes me in the side, so I elbow him, gently. We listen to the guide—almost 300,000 pounds of earth and occasionally a mushroom grows. Magic mushroom, I hear Chris say to no one in particular and crack up. There’s a little corner of the room where sun comes in so Jo and I walk over there. I squat down and reach out to touch the dirt and close my eyes and breathe in. It doesn’t smell like we’re in SoHo or anywhere in New York. Hippie! someone says in my ear. Fucker, I say to Kyle, eyes wide open, and flick him off.
You think we could live here? Jo asks me. Like pitch a tent in here? How fun would that be?
Let’s not go back to school, I say. We’re so close to home anyway. I wonder how long we could stay here before anyone would notice.
* * *
The week of graduation and the prom Jenna comes in wearing really short shorts and her legs are like orange. And her hands. Oh my god, says Nikki, I thought she would stay home.
Whatever , says Jenna.
Mom let me pick out a black flowered babydoll dress from Merry Go Round for graduation. Then Jo and I went shopping together for hoop earrings. We got some silver ones from one of the guys on Broadway. We made chokers out of old ribbons I had from Grandma and we’re gonna braid our hair.
* * *
Graduation goes by so fast. I don’t know why we have to go all the way uptown and have it in a cathedral. I guess it’s better than our shitty auditorium. Nikki sings that annoying Mariah Carey song, “Hero,” like it’s the national anthem. She’s wearing these straw platform wedge sandals that make her even taller and she sticks her chest out the whole time. Outside I try to avoid Mom taking too many pictures of me and Jo and Sabrina. I seriously can’t believe we’re going to high school. I can’t wait. New start, new people except that like 10 of us got in, but it’s a big school so maybe we’ll be in different classes. Jo’s going to LaGuardia for art. Sophie didn’t get in so she’s actually staying in private school. Jo and I tried not to act too happy about that.
Prom is at some billiards hall. I wear a little kilt and a baby tee and my hair half up and my Docs. Not bad. Jo wears a fifties dress she found at Alice Underground for like 10 bucks. She looks like a movie star except maybe for her baby barrettes. Jenna is wearing shorts and a super low cut tank and the same wedges as Nikki. Nikki’s wearing a black lacy dress. A couple of the boys are wearing ties but no jackets. Absolutely no one is dancing. We play pool and sit around drinking soda. Rumor has it Kyle’s got a bottle of whiskey or something that he’s spiking everyone’s drinks with, but I can’t stand to talk to him one more time. Nikki is hanging onto Mark like she just won him at a carnival. He’s got his arm around her waist.
Nirvana’s “In Bloom” comes on and we kind of jump around a little bit. Then “Shoop” and everyone actually starts moving a little more, but there’s not all that much room around the pool tables. At least it’s better than the one dance last year where they only played reggae and all the eighth graders did the butterfly perfectly and the rest of us had no idea what to do and stood off to the side. The music stays good for the last half hour and when they play “Hip Hop Hooray” Simon starts a conga line with his dork friends. At first we’re all kind of looking at them like, Are you kidding? but then he grabs Jo and Jo grabs me and I grab Sabrina and she grabs Jenna and it goes from there. We weave between the pool tables and of course someone kind of starts running and then we’re all just running through there. Mark loops by me on one of the laps and he gives me this huge grin right behind Nikki’s back. Miss K. and the rest of the chaperones start to freak out that someone’s gonna get hurt and they keep yelling, Slow down and then, Stop, but then Simon grabs Miss K. and she gets in the line between him and Jo, but only for a second. Stop, she says, you guys, but she’s laughing. The song ends and they of course play “The End of the Road” and Nikki and Mark dance and a few other couples and I look over and Jenna is actually dancing with Kyle. Simon asks Jo to dance and she shrugs, but she keeps like 10 inches between them. He looks like he’s in heaven. Sabrina and I dance together, and I figure maybe by senior prom I’ll actually have a date. I heard nobody ever goes to the high school dances until prom and they might even stop having them.
People are talking about going up to Mark’s roof. Someone says something about blunts and beer and his parents are away. Jo gives me her I don’t know face. We have to be back at her house in an hour, but Mark’s is close-by.
He comes over with Nikki and says, You guys should come.
Yeah, she says, We’d really love it if you were there, and then twirls away to talk to Jenna, who has her arm around Kyle now.
We? Jo says. I’m over him, she says. I’ve got artist boys to look forward to… maybe. But you’re not.
Yeah , I say. There’s equally no chance in hell that I’ll get over him or that he’ll dump Nikki before camp.
Somehow we’re walking towards Mark’s house in a big group. He’s up ahead with Nikki and Jenna and Kyle. Then we’re in his elevator and then gliding into his kitchen and someone puts a beer in my hand and I don’t really like beer and Jo says they have wine coolers, which sound better, so I have a black cherry and it just tastes like soda. We take the stairs up to the roof. They’re painted gray like all the art gallery stairs always are. There are tags all up and down the stairs in thick black marker, which someone says were done by Mark’s older brother. Up on the roof you can see tons of water towers. The Empire State and Chrysler are so much closer from here than at my house. I squint at the lights to make them prettier. Jo and I light cigarettes but I start to feel a little dizzy and only smoke half of mine. Kyle lights a blunt and Jo says we should probably go because of her mom. I’m so glad she doesn’t say it too loud.
I want to say goodbye to Mark but I don’t know how to tear him away from Nikki so we just head back down to his house. But Jo wants to use the bathroom, so I walk a little further down the hall and there’s his room. He has a big fish tank—he told me about it—angelfish and these little tiny ones he calls Beavis and Butt-head. And he’s got a Yankees poster over his bed and a couple pictures that look like they’re from camp. I’m trying to guess which is the girl he likes, when he comes in.
Hey , he says. Spying?
Hey. We’ve gotta go.
Without saying goodbye?
You were busy , I say. Besides, we’ll talk. For a minute I think maybe we’ll even hang out before he goes. Or maybe he’ll actually kiss me. I hope Jo moves into the bathroom. It has a Jacuzzi (I remember him telling me about it on one of our calls) so it must be big.
He goes over to his desk and writes something down and hands me a slip of paper. Will you write me over the summer?
Will you write back? I say.
Indubitably. He gives me a hug, a really long hug. We hugged twice before—that day in math when I started crying—and this morning after graduation—but this one feels different. It’s long enough to smell him. Something woodsy—I think Kyle calls him Old Spice sometimes so maybe that’s what it is. His red hoodie is soft against my cheek. Have a good summer, he says.
* * *
Jenna and I go rollerblading in July. We skate from my house down to Battery Park City, but it’s like 85 degrees and so hot so we stop and take off our blades and socks and lie down in the big field and pretend the river is the ocean. I tell her Mark wrote me another letter and she says, You know he likes you. If Nikki didn’t have his dick wrapped around her little finger he might have even asked you to the prom.
Like two people had dates to the prom. And his letters are all about the girls at camp.
He just wants to make you jealous. I swear. I can tell he likes you.
Did he ever say anything? I ask. I don’t know if I really want to know except I totally want to know.
Maybe , she says. Too bad he’s going to private school. We’ll have to find new ones.
What about Robbie? I ask. Except what I really want to know is what maybe means.
He’s an idiot. I’m done with him. But he keeps beeping me.
Jenna got a pager for her birthday. She freaked out one time when Robbie paged her 911 in the middle of a Spanish test and she couldn’t sneak out to the corner payphone. I remember Simon saying how of course a 21-year-old wouldn’t understand that you can’t just leave in the middle of a test. Somehow she was always able to leave in the middle of class for no reason though. I wonder if she’ll be able to pull that off in high school.
The new Melrose is on tomorrow. Wanna come over and watch it?
I still love Jenna like this. It will never be the same as seventh grade, making up skits and songs together, but when there’s no Kyle or Mark or Nikki or even Sabrina, she’s still real with me, kind of. We were walking through the Village and we found this store that’s like half for drag queens and half for girls and they sell tons of Hello Kitty stuff and all these cool tees with decals like from the seventies and stuff. She almost stole a glitter lipstick from there but then she saw this salesgirl-man in drag eyeing us, and I’m so glad she didn’t cause I’m saving up so I can go back there and buy a ringer tee.
Let’s get some ice cream , she says.
We put our blades back on and skate down by the big fountain in the plaza that looks like a mini Niagara Falls. Jenna glides over to it, sits by the side and puts her hand in and angles it so the water sprays me.
What the hell? I say, and reach into the water below and scoop up a big handful and throw it at her. Then we’re both splashing away and trying not to fall in with our blades and laughing hysterically. And I wonder for a second if we look stupid, and then I realize we must look like best friends.