Bartholomew Baxter is the only boy who's nice to me. He's half a foot shorter than everyone else, and chunkier—he’s shaped like Theodore from Alvin and the Chipmunks. His mom lets him go to Coco Exotique, the tanning salon, where he glows neon in one of those alien ship beds, so he can be the color of a roast turkey all the time. He's allowed to highlight his hair, which he parts in the middle and gels, so it sits on top of his forehead like the two arches of a mustache. He got his ear pierced on the upper part, on the left side, “the not-gay side,” he says. Sometimes when you catch a spark of his smell, which is spearmint Chapstick and Acqua di Gio cologne, there’s a clean moment, the only one you get all day.
Bart’s mom drives us home from school sometimes. She’s the same height as him, and she puts blocks on the pedals of her minivan so she can reach them. She blows smoke out the window from her long ladies' cigarettes. A couple of times she's let Bart take some puffs from them right there in front of us. He's allowed to play whatever he wants on the radio—Toni Braxton is his jam right now. In my parents' car you're only allowed to listen to the Oldies. A few months ago my mom drove us home from the Halloween dance and "Yellow Submarine" came on. Bart curled his lip and gave me a look that said, “This is why. This is why you will always be a poser.”
Bart is good at charming my mom. His voice gets girlish and gossipy, and he asks her questions like, "What color were your bridesmaids’ dresses?" or "What fragrance are you wearing?" She acts all embarrassing when he does this, and sometimes I think that—in this weird way—she likes him better than me. He makes her laugh all the time, and I hardly ever can. But other times I see that she’s concerned by him, because of his piercing, or the cigarette smell she asks me about. Probably also because he used to get me in trouble when we were kids—he’d get me to pull pranks with him. Once he got me to glue this Special Ed girl’s books into her cubby. Another time we threw her Babar doll into the mud, which made her cry so hard she turned all red and lost-looking. I felt really bad about it, and we had to go to the principal’s office. The principal yelled at us and called our parents. At the end of it, she took me aside, and asked me, “Katie, how did you end up here?” I shrugged while tears came out; I knew I couldn’t say that it was just because I wanted to make Bart laugh. He has this way of laughing, like a haunted house clown is taking over his body, and I always want to make it happen.
The popular girls love Bart now—all of the ones in our grade, and even some of the eighth graders. He stands around with them at recess, looking so short and plump next to them, while they pose like pretty ponies. They blow gum bubbles out of their mouths, which are ringed in brown eyeliner, and they yank each other’s hair up into high, tight ponytails. They zip down their hoodies to show off the new tits overflowing their bodysuits. Bart calls them all “hussies,” but it’s a compliment—he says it like an old timey lady in Louisiana—“husseh!” They perk up a little cocky when he says it. He’s called me a hussy twice, and each time I got this little Pop Rocks zip of pride.
In classrooms before the teachers arrive, the hussies take turns perching on Bart’s lap. He’s their doll and they’re his, and through him they can make the real boys think of sex, the boys who chuck baseballs to each other and spit onto the sidewalk, trying to be real men; as if you’re nothing but a pussy if you don't launch hot, foamy loads of saliva all the time.
Those boys torment me, usually. They call me “pancakes” or they call me “twig,” or they find some way of dissing what I’m wearing. In the classes where Bart sits next to me, though, he protects me from them. They don’t bother him, even though you’d think they would, because they know that if they do, they risk pissing off the hussies, who they’re in love with. The boys also know that Bart is smarter than them—that if they fling an insult at him, he'll only boomerang it back, but his words will be cleverer than theirs, bratty spikes all around the edges. The words will come back at them in a confusing way, from his confusing face, and it would be hard to say whether or not they'd just been beaten by a girl.
I do Bart’s homework for him sometimes, but other than that, the only way I know how to pay him back, for his protections and friendship is to conspire with him in secret cruelties. We make drawings on loose leaf in the back of the class: our teacher, Mr. Kirchner, who has a lisp, wearing short shorts and a crop top, the word 'FAG' printed across it, tilting his hand prissily. Or the two dweebiest girls in our school "lezzing" out together. "Scizzoring," Bart writes in his loopy cursive, and points to an image of it with an arrow.
Bart doesn’t always let me be around him. Sometimes when we get to the cafeteria, he does this thing where he gives me a pat on the arm, that I can tell is really a push away, and I know I have to sit with Chrissy and Sarabeth, my old best friends, who aren’t cool: Chrissy with her pants that are too short, and rhinestone Keds like it’s fourth grade. Sarabeth, who’s still obsessed with ballet, and has to use an inhaler or she coughs with a honk. They hate me a little now that I’ve made it obvious they’re always my second choice, but they put up with me while I sit across the table from them, and they get to act like the things they do when I’m not there are all so cool. As if the regular old multiplex is some sort of amazing nightclub, and that their secrets are suddenly life-or-death dramatic. They’ve invented their own inside jokes now—they use Australian accents, or they riff about Tweety Bird, and I can’t play along. I used to be the funny one, but now I’m kind of mute, lifting cafeteria peas into my mouth, watching Bart and the hussies across the room, and trying to understand why the nation of them seems so bright, while everything at my table seems small and stuck in place, like an old doll’s bed in the corner of a room.
The hussies are Kerri Alvarado, Nikki Kristakis, Jenna Caruso and Tracy Sansone. Kerri looks and acts like Gwen Stefani—tiny but loud, and brave around boys. Nikki is silent and always weaving her fingers through her hair like a harpist, or crying over something in a calm, elegant way that matches her steel gray nail polish. When she cries, all of the other hussies go over to her to pet her and make her feel better. Jenna is a huge slut but she doesn’t care, she brags about it. Once I heard her ask this girl if she ever “did sex.” The girl shook her head no and then Jenna said, “Well you walk like you did sex.”
My favorite of all the hussies, though, is Tracy. She’s the prettiest girl in school, by far. Everything about her face and hair is as gorgeous as sequins. She won the Miss Preteen New York pageant last year, and I think about that a lot: what it must be like to stand on a stage with a big bouquet and tiara, and be told you’re the most beautiful girl in the state. This year Tracy started being sort of goth and got a boyfriend in eleventh grade. He’s always zooming her off from school in a mean-looking Acura that drags low in the back.
Tracy and Bart are together all the time—I think she’s his favorite hussy, and his best friend—though he would never say that to the others. She’s nicer than the other hussies, so Bart lets me join them once in a while. Sometimes I think she maybe even likes me a little—mostly as a project, though. She wants to go to beauty school someday and she practices on me. Once when the three of us were hanging out at his house, they decided to give me a makeover. Tracy put a ton of black eyeliner on me. She said the most important part of the eye for eyeliner is the inside rim, and as she said it, she breathed hotly on the pencil tip with her cinnamon breath to soften it. Then she jabbed it really hard in there: that soft ledge of the bottom lid that’s the color of raw chicken breast. It hurt more than I let on. Then she did dark purple lipstick—I kept expecting it to taste like grape, like a Bonne Bell would, but it was more like gasoline. She put it on herself after that, and then Bart did too. We all looked in his mom’s vanity mirror, and Bart held our three heads together with his hands, and we made kissy faces. I remember how being there, in that triangle, felt like making a witch’s pact, wicked and secret—in the woods, somehow, a cold wind whistling through us.
One Friday in February there’s a snow day, and I get to go to Bart’s house for the whole day. We watch a lot of TV, and there keeps being all this stuff about JonBenét Ramsey. Montages of her photos, and video clips in slow motion of her baby beauty acts on stage.
It’s weird to see JonBenét all the time. It’s been a long time since she was killed, but she’s still everywhere. She’s on all the news shows, even the Peter Jennings news, and on half the magazines at the grocery checkout. She’s always staring at you from the middle of a cloud of curls, or wearing a corny hat and winking at you. A lot of times she has this look in her eyes that bothers me a lot, like she knew that all of this was gonna happen. Not just the murder, but the way everyone is acting about it. Like she knew that her whole life was leading up to this—all those times she had to walk across the stage like a game show hostess or do a rodeo dance. It’s like she was trying out for a starring role as the most famous little girl in the universe.
I hate having these thoughts when I hear about JonBenét, so when they start talking about her on Hard Copy, about how maybe the brother did it, I change the channel to MTV. Singled Out is on, which I kind of hate because of Jenny McCarthy’s huge boobs, but it’s Bart’s favorite show, so I leave it on.
We have pizza for dinner. I’m surprised when Bart invites me to sleep over at his house. At first my mom won’t let me because it’s “sleeping over at a boy’s house,” but then I convince her it’s not the same thing—that other girls do it all the time—and I tell her to talk to Francine, his mom.
“Oh Cathy, don’t think twice about it,” says Francine, chuckling. “I’ll make sure there’s no funny business.” My mom says it’s OK.
I lie in a sleeping bag on the floor of his bedroom and stare up at the ceiling at his glow-in-the-dark stars. He has a big canopy bed, and, behind it, a photo mural of the skyline of New York City. He seems like a small king up there, but he whispers to me in the dark, in the gentle, searching tones of a cartoon mouse.
“When I grow up I’m gonna be an anesthesiologist,” he says. “I’m gonna make a lot of money, and I’m gonna buy a big penthouse in Trump Tower.”
“I wanna live in New York City too,” I say. “But I want a loft in Greenwich Village.”
“We have to go clubbing together!” he says. “We’ll be club kids. We’ll take taxis. We’ll go to the Limelight.”
As we’re both getting sleepy, he says, “Sometimes I remember that Carly is gonna die someday.” Carly is their white toy poodle. He clutches the one stuffed animal he still keeps—a blue teddy bear. “It scares me so much. My Nonna died last year, I still pray for her every day. I used to tell ghost stories at sleepovers, but I don’t anymore, because what if she’s a ghost?”
We lay there quietly for a minute. I can feel night in the suburbs all around us. The telephone cables in a resting hum, the parking lot empty at the shopping center, my parents asleep a few blocks away. The cemetery next to the hospital, where Bart told me you have to hold your breath as you pass by, or you’ll die within the next seven years.
“Katie, will you please come up and sleep in my bed?” he asks.
It takes me a minute to make sure he’s being serious, but then I say OK. I climb up there and get under his blankets, into his teal colored sheets, which smell like his cologne.
“I’m so tired,” he says, and turns over on his side, but not before taking my hand, lacing his fingers through mine, and placing them, the warm wad of them, on his shoulder.
In March, the week before spring break, something happens between Bart and me. We are in Kirchner’s class, learning about the layers of the earth’s crust, when Bart hands me a drawing of JonBenét—naked, except for a tiara and beauty queen sash. She is hung upside down from a Christmas tree with X’s in her eyes, and her tongue dangling limply from her mouth. There’s a line to show the slit in the triangle between her legs. A bandit is in the drawing too—a mask like the Hamburglar, and a slick Musketeer grin on his face. His penis points outward from his pants, looking huge and cartoon-like, with the jagged triangles of an explosion shooting out from it. Bart passes it over to me, snickering in his crazy way—his whole body convulsing along with it.
When I see it, I tighten, the way it feels when you’re getting your hair brushed and it catches on a snag. I think of JonBenét's face on the TV news. The face of a collectible doll. Everything purple and blonde. Everything still, like the Virgin Mary cards they give you at a wake. The way you can picture her sparkles off-screen—dresses with crinoline stuffed into her closet on kid-sized hangers, and how you wonder who she would have been if she'd gotten older.
Everything about sex comes together for me for a minute: having to draw the bull’s head of a uterus and ovaries for health class. Madonna in black leather in the “Human Nature” video; all those men grabbing at her crotch. The age girl children reach when their nipples can’t show at the beach anymore. The music on Unsolved Mysteries—its sinister beat. The kit they use when there’s a rape. How I don’t know what a kit is. JonBenét is in heaven. Children always go to heaven unless they haven’t been baptized. I wasn’t baptized because my dad wouldn’t let my grandma do it. Guilt swirls around me like a cold river until I am washed away by it, tumbling numbly on its currents. Just draw a picture, I say to myself.
I send a drawing back to Bart—the only thing I can think of—JonBenét in a princess ball gown with angel wings. The X’s for eyes again, and hash mark bruises of blue erasable pen all around her neck. It calms me a little to draw the ball gown, something I've practiced at my whole life. I fold the drawing in on itself: a fortune cookie of paper. I pass it to Bart and he opens it with delight. His laugh hisses out of him again.
At night at home I watch reruns and eat my mom's lasagna and tell my parents how my day was. I don’t say anything about the drawing, even though I kind of want to. Just to get it off me, the thought of it, like when I was little and I’d run into their room after a nightmare. The only way I could shake the fear was to tell them everything that had happened in the dream: the snake or the witch or the wolf with teeth of flames.
Instead I tell them that we are reading Little Women in English class. I don’t tell them that I love it so much that it embarrasses me, though I can’t explain why. How I think about Beth dying and Claire Danes being Beth dying in the movie and how Meg has to wear a muslin ball gown to the dance instead of a silk one. How the whole story feels really nearby, like a place I could go if I just walked back through a field of snow.
My mom has been on me for weeks to go down to the basement and sort through all my old stuff—toys and books and notebooks from school, rolled up posters and YM magazines, so I take a stab at it. I’m not very good at getting rid of anything. It all smells like the way my room used to smell, like Barbie hair and Tinkerbell perfume. When I move boxes out from under the stairs I hear a small concert of sounds: baby toys that have bells in them; trucks that make a clackety sound; dolls that have voices when you crick their arms. It sounds too happy and it sounds too sad. Two dolls are shoved together stomach-to-stomach in a weird way, and I think of this time Tracy explained to me what sixty-nine is. “It’s amazing,” she told me, as she straddled this ledge near the baseball field. “You have to try it.”
I throw away a Kool-Aid telephone and some second grade paperbacks and make a big show of it to my mom, and she’s satisfied.
The next day, Bart starts ignoring me, in a very obvious way. I’m not really sure why, but it’s happened before, and so I know it means I’m banished back to Chrissy and Sarabeth. It stings, but I’m resigned to it. Like getting pegged in dodgeball as soon as the whistle blows, and taking your usual stroll to the bench.
It’s not that bad though—seeing those girls once in a while. The thing about it is that sometimes I miss them: how we used to ice skate and bake cakes, and admit things to each other and know they would stay secret. It’s just that most of the time I’m too busy obsessing about Bart and the hussies to remember that—trying to understand how they all know what to do. The glitter-glue outline of danger around them, and how I want all of it, and how I’m ready for it.
The next week is spring break, and Bart still isn’t talking to me. I go to Washington, DC with my family. Flowers are already starting to bloom there. We see the Star Spangled Banner flag at the Smithsonian, big as a gym in its tatters and soft colors. We go to the National Air and Space Museum and watch an IMAX movie where an astronaut gets detached from his spaceship and starts floating out into space. He gets saved in the end, but I think about it the whole trip—how if he’d kept floating he would have either frozen to death, or all the oxygen would have run out in his spacesuit.
We get back from break a week later, and Bart still won’t talk to me. Sometimes I see him whispering something to a hussy when I walk by, and I can’t help but think it’s about me. I think back on every loserish thing I might have done—about some outfit I might have worn, or how my backpack is from K-Mart. I think of how stupid I looked when I was growing out my bangs, even though I did it because Tracy told me I should. I wonder if maybe Jenna said something—I’m pretty sure she hates me, or at least she’s embarrassed when I hang around. Once she asked me if I was queer because of these blue sneakers I was wearing, and I never wore them again after that.
Bart starts sitting in a different seat in Kirchner’s class, even though it’s next to this girl Bethany who he calls ‘Tub O’Lard.’ He and I have never been in a real fight, so it feels like this whole new kind of lonely.
I start trying to adjust to the fact that I’ve lost the one cool thing about me. It’s not at all surprising, really, but I feel like I’m floating in the cold and dark now, just like that astronaut from the IMAX. The only time I come back to earth for a minute is when a teacher calls on me and I have no idea what’s going on. Or when I’m twisting my hair and find somebody’s spitball in it, and a bunch of boys start cackling in the back of the room. To try to forget about all of it, I do this thing where I count down the years until I go to college, until I never have to see any of them ever again. Eighth grade, ninth grade, tenth grade, eleventh grade, twelfth grade. I can’t decide if it feels like tomorrow, or infinity.
One day, Bart drops a note on my desk at the end of Kirchner’s class. He does it in a very somber way, and I think, “This is it. This is where our friendship really ends.” It says:
I've been thinking about the things we did and what we drew about lil JonBenét. I saw a 20/20 special about her and I realize now that she is an angel. She was a beautiful child and it's really the saddest thing what happened to her. It's a tragedy. I keep thinking that if my mom knew about what we drew, how mad she would be. Because she is always saying what if it was me who got murdered? I know that is the first thing she thinks about when she hears about JonBenét. And so you can never tell my mom or ANYONE and we can NEVER do that again. If we do we might burn in hell. I've been praying to God for forgiveness, maybe you should too.
His words open up a small doorway of guilt in me; a door I’d shut. I have a lot of practice now, shutting that door. I do it automatically, the same way you always walk to the same seat in class, even though nobody told you that you had to. I think of those cartoon lines of JonBenét on the loose leaf, etched deep, in waxy ink. How that girl is dead and never coming back. I think of the way Bart must feel about JonBenét. That it’s like the way he used to stroke my doll’s hair when we were little, with more care than I did, knowing he could only do it on borrowed minutes. As I finish reading it, the bell rings for next class. Bart hustles out and doesn’t look at me.
I spend the next class not listening to a thing about the men who signed the Declaration of Independence while I try to think of something to write back. Eventually I get something out:
You’re so right and I feel really bad too. I’ve felt so bad ever since we did it. It’s so childish, and I wish it had never happened. We can’t be evil like that ever again.
I debate about writing the next thing for the whole rest of class. Because it feels like kind of a dweeby thing to say, and that’s the last thing I should be right now. That’s the thing I’m worst at—knowing what to say that isn’t something a loser or poser says. I’m always checking each word before it comes out of my mouth to make sure it’s not completely embarrassing.
Anyway, I decide it’s something I want to say—that I’m very sick of not saying it, so I do:
I miss you though. You’re my favorite person. Do you miss me?
I stick the note in Bart’s locker. I don’t know if he’ll see it. It feels a lot like the time Sarabeth forced me to put an “I like you, do you like me? Circle yes/no” note into Anthony Lopez’s locker, and nothing happened, until three days later his gross friend, Michael Camarra, handed it back to me, in front of everyone. The word “no” was circled about a zillion times in brown marker, and there was a wad of gum stuck in the middle.
The next day I am sitting with Chrissy and Sarabeth in the cafeteria. Chrissy keeps bragging about the Stars on Ice show she saw that weekend. Sarabeth nods attentively, slowly eating the sections of an orange, but I barely bother to listen—the hussies are in the corner of the cafeteria, a crowd gathered around them to watch them dance to the Puffy and Mase song. Nikki is the only hussy not dancing, and she sits on Bart’s lap while they both look on at the other hussies with pride.
They move with the bounce and coordination of a double Dutch team. Tracy dances so well and looks so pretty, nobody would doubt for a second if you told them she was going to be the world’s next Mariah Carey. I start missing her too, along with missing Bart. But mostly I look on all of it perplexed, every part of it so far outside what I can ever imagine achieving that I don’t even feel jealous. Sarabeth looks over at them too. She rolls her eyes and cleans the orange peels up primly. “They are so conceited,” she says. I nod a little in agreement, but I do kind of mean it.
That afternoon, I am walking home alone, when Bart’s minivan pulls up beside me on King Street. I don’t know—I’ll probably never know—if his mom made him do it, or if he decided on his own, but he opens the van’s door for me to get in. Bart and Francine both have sunglasses on, and they flash me big smiles. Bart swings his short legs forward and back and says “Heeeeeyyy husseh” like nothing ever happened. I get into the van looking up at him like I’m getting into a lifeboat or something, but his expression doesn’t change.
We go to his house then do something we’ve never done before, which is go for a walk. It’s a warm day, and the sun is melting a bunch of snow that has built up. He has a cigarette that he stole from his mom, and at first he makes it seem like we’re going to smoke it. I probably would, if he’d made me, but instead we keep walking. Easter is coming and he wants to go to the pharmacy. He wants to buy one of those kits to dye eggs.