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Sloppy firsts, p.20
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       Sloppy Firsts, p.20

           Megan Mccafferty
 
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"You don’t need to go to a homecoming dance to know it’s an evening devoted to worshipping the Upper Crust and U.C. wannabes!"

  "I, unlike you, like to form educated opinions."

  I was getting madder by the millisecond.

  "What’s that supposed to mean?"

  "It means that you’re quick to pass judgment on things you know nothing about."

  I hung up on him.

  Thirty seconds later, I called him back.

  "I’m sorry I hung up on you," I said. "That was lame."

  "It was a genuine reaction," he said. "I pissed you off."

  "I’m still pissed off."

  "Good."

  "Good."

  Pause.

  "Talk to you tomorrow?" he asked.

  "Yes. Good-bye."

  It wasn’t until after I hung up the phone the second time that I saw this as a major breakthrough. I was pissed off by something Marcus said. His words weren’t automatically intoxicating anymore, just because they were his words.

  Marcus is demystified.

  And I still can’t wait to talk to him tomorrow.

  the twentieth

  My mom was standing in front of the bathroom mirror in tears when I got home from school today.

  "Am I so terrible to be around?" she asked.

  "What?"

  "There must be a reason why both of my daughters hate me," she said, tearing apart a soggy tissue.

  Either my mom was having a menopausal episode, or something very bad had happened.

  "Did something happen?"

  "Bethie isn’t coming home for Thanksgiving," she whimpered, wiping away tears. "She and Grant are going to a business dinner party thrown by a bunch of dot-com brats instead."

  Mom likes throwing around words like "dot-com" and "IPO." It makes her feel très twenty-first century, which is sad considering technocracy is clearly on the decline. Bethany and G-Money are in denial about this.

  "I guess making money is more important than family. I bet the whole thing will be catered. Let’s see if they make Bethie’s favorite mashed sweet potatoes."

  I really couldn’t believe that even Bethany could be such an überbitch. I hadn’t been looking forward to seeing her, but this was the third time she’d bailed on my mom since she moved out to California.

  "As though turning forty-seven weren’t bad enough," she said, pulling back the skin around her eyes. "I’m old and my daughters hate me."

  For Christ’s sake. My mom’s birthday is the twenty-fourth. The Friday after Thanksgiving. I totally forgot.

  "Mom, we, I don’t hate you," I said.

  "You never talk to me," she said. "So I feel like you do, so it’s the same th—" She stopped mid-sentence, turned on the faucet, and splashed water on her face.

  I looked at my mom, water dripping from her nose, mascara running, congealed concealer clumping in peach patches on her cheeks, blond bangs wilting on her forehead. And for the first time ever, I saw my mom not just as my mom, but as a real person. A flesh-and-blood person who was hurt by rejection just like anyone else.

  Just like me.

  I suddenly felt guilty about every bitchy thing I had ever said or done to her. I wasn’t like Bethany. I was better than that.

  "Hey, Mom," I said. "Why don’t we do something together on your birthday?"

  She looked puzzled. "Isn’t Friday the night of the homecoming dance?"

  Leave it to Mom to have the PHS homecoming marked on her internal Palm Pilot.

  "Yeah."

  "So you’re really not going to the homecoming dance?"

  Why did she have to make it so hard to be nice to her?

  "I think we’ve adequately covered that I’m really not going to the homecoming dance." I did a pitch-perfect imitation of my mother using Marcus’s words. A very bizarro hybrid.

  "Why not?" she said. "You should go to homecoming instead of hanging out with your old mother."

  "Mom! You were just complaining about how I don’t hang out with you enough!"

  "But I don’t want to deprive you of special high school memories."

  It’s statements like this that make me seriously question whether I came out of her womb.

  "Mom! I wasn’t going anyway."

  "Why?"

  "Well, I don’t have a date, for one," I said.

  "You can’t get a date?"

  I growled and grabbed a hand towel to chew on.

  "Mooooooooooommmmmm," I whined through clenched teeth.

  "I just find it hard to believe that you can’t get a date, that’s all," she said, fluffing her bangs with her fingertips.

  "Can we please drop this?"

  "Okay," she said. "I’m sorry."

  I unclamped my teeth and made my mom an offer I knew she wouldn’t refuse.

  "Why don’t we fight the masses at the mall and do dinner afterward?"

  "Just the two of us," she said, her face brightening.

  "Just the two of us," I said.

  "I’d love that," she said. "Shopping with you."

  "Yes," I said. "We’ll look for an anti-homecoming dress."

  And my mom laughed.

  the twenty-second

  I was finishing up a brisk walk around the neighborhood when I heard a voice calling me from across the street.

  "Hey, Jess!"

  Bridget was standing in her driveway, waving me over. But I was totally baffled by why she would be trying to get my attention. We hadn’t spoken all month. And as far as I knew, she still held me personally responsible for her breakup with Burke, even though I wasn’t the one who snaked her man.

  "Jess! Come here. I’d like to talk to you."

  She appeared to be unarmed. So I slowly walked across the street.

  "Hey," she said.

  "Hey."

  She grabbed her ponytail and started stroking it. She was nervous.

  "Are you like, doing anything right now?"

  "Uh, not really."

  "Can you come in so we can talk?"

  "Sure," I said. "Okay."

  I hadn’t been inside her house in a very long time. There was more Precious Moments knickknackery than ever. But it smelled exactly as I had remembered it, a combination of Pine Sol and decades of cigarette smoke.

  "Can I get you something to drink?"

  "Sure," I said. "Is your fridge still filled with nothing but Diet Coke and condiments?"

  She laughed and opened up the fridge. Inside were two cases of Diet Coke, half-empty containers of mustard, ketchup, and mayonnaise, and a few indistinguishable foil-wrapped objects.

  "Some things never change," she said.

  "Is your mom around?" I asked.

  "Is my mom ever around?"

  I took that to mean that Mrs. Milhokovich was as absent as ever. Bridget’s parents were divorced. Even though her father was good about alimony, Mrs. M. still had to work long hours as a hostess at the Oceanfront Tavern to make ends meet. It was a typical Jersey Shore establishment, with $12.99 surf-and-turf specials, and bathrooms designated by driftwood signs painted Buoysand Gulls in nautical blue. When we were growing up, Bridget almost always came over to my house to play.

  "Some things never change," I said.

  We walked upstairs in silence. At each step, there was a different school picture of Bridget, framed and mounted on the wall. The higher we got, the younger she got. When we got to the top, we were greeted by a grinning pigtailed preschooler in pink-and-white checkered Osh Kosh B’Gosh overalls. That’s the Bridget I remember best.

  I barely recognized her room. Gone is all B. and B. paraphernalia, replaced by posters of matinee idols: Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and James Dean.

  She sat on the very edge of her bed. Very businesslike. I flopped down on a beanbag chair, trying to appear as cool and casual as possible.

  "I know you’re like, wondering why I asked you here," she said.

  "Well, yeah," I said.

  "Remember that first editorial you wrote? ’Miss Hyacinth Anastasia Wall
ace: Just Another Poseur’?"

  "How could I forget the article that caused the infamous cheerleader catfight?"

  She giggled nervously. "Oh yeah."

  Bridget got up and turned on the radio. Orlando’s latest (and lamest) prefab boy band warbled about a girl who was 2 Good 2 B 4 Me. I sipped my Diet Coke. It tasted like ass and needed three sugar packets. At least.

  "I totally got what you were trying to say the first time I read it," she said. "I just never told you because, like, everything blew up before I had the chance to."

  "Right."

  "Anyway, I found that paper when I was cleaning my room today. I was about to throw it out, but I read it again instead."

  "Uh-huh."

  "And when I reread it today, I was like, duh! It’s stupid for me to be mad at you," she said.

  "Really?"

  "I never asked you to tell me the truth about Burke," she said. "I, like, did the total opposite. I went out of my way not to ask you. I didn’t want to know the truth because, like you said in the essay, it’s easier to tell lies that others want to hear. Except, like, I was telling lies to myself. Get it?"

  I really couldn’t say that I did.

  "I’m not like, expressing myself very well," she said. She stuck her ponytail between her mouth and her nose, like a mustache. Then she let go.

  "Do you know the real reason I went to L.A. this summer?"

  "Uh … to be an actress?"

  "Sorta," she said. "You said it yourself before I left. I’m not an actress," she said, sweeping her arm in the air at the icons on her walls. "Not yet anyway." She stuck her tongue out at her reflection in the mirror.

  "Oh." I had no idea where this was going.

  "That was like, the excuse for the trip. The only way my mom would agree to it."

  "Uh-huh." I still wasn’t getting this.

  "The real reason I went was because I thought that if Burke missed me while I was away, he’d appreciate me more when I got back," she said. "Like, what a duh move."

  "Things weren’t cool between you and Burke before you left?"

  Bridget shook her head.

  "What was so bad?"

  "I don’t really want to get into that," she said. "It wasn’t bad. It was just like, boring. We’d been together for three years and things had gotten boring."

  I don’t know why this surprised me. Burke was boring. I just assumed that Bridget was boring too, and therefore didn’t care. Much like Bethany and G-Money don’t mind.

  "I should have just broken up with him."

  "Why didn’t you?"

  She took a deep breath and held it for a few seconds before answering.

  "Because I was afraid of being alone."

  The words resonated inside me, like a favorite song. I was afraid of being alone.

  "But you had Manda and Sara.…"

  She sighed. "I know you were too busy being miserable about Hope to notice, but like, I hung out with them outside of school like about as much as you did."

  "What?" How could that be?

  "It’s true," she said. "I was left out on as many things as you were."

  Then she pointed out a bunch of examples that I had missed: Bridget wasn’t invited to the spring-break ho-down. Bridget didn’t make the N.Y.C. shopping trip. Bridget wasn’t at the post-prom party. During the Hy heyday, Bridget had become an innocent bystander. But because she wasn’t Hope, I’d seen her as being as guilty as Manda and Sara.

  "The tighter they all got, the more like, desperate I got to stay with Burke."

  I thought about how close I’d come to getting back together with Scotty just so I’d have something to do in my downtime. And I really couldn’t blame Bridget for what she’d done. Not one bit.

  "I just don’t see why we have to go on not talking to each other," she said. "It’s like, duh. Especially like, when you’re one person who I know relates to what I’m going through. We both hung out with one person all the time. And now that person is gone."

  Whoa. I’d never once considered the similarity of our situations. At least Hope was still around in the emotional sense. For Bridget, Burke was obliterated. Permanently.

  I thought Bridget had a better shot at inventing cold fusion than surprising me in a good way. I can admit when I’m wrong. And I was wrong about Bridget. She’s no genius, but she’s not as brainless as I thought she was.

  There. I said it.

  Still, this conversation doesn’t change things in a monumental way. Bridget and I are not going to be best friends again. But there’s one less person in the world who hates me. And that can’t be a bad thing.

  the twenty-third

  Everything happens earlier on Thanksgiving.

  You get up at eight A.M.(a full four hours ahead of what’s normal) to watch the Rockettes get rained on in the corny Macy’s parade. By nine A.M. you’ve already pissed off your father by telling him you’d rather rebreak your leg than don red-and-white face paint and accompany him to Pineville’s homecoming football game. At eleven A.M. you point out to your mom that she’s prepping way too much food for four people, which drives her to the first of many glasses of chardonnay. At noon, your grandmother Gladdie has already asked you a bizillion times if you have a boyfriend, then forgotten she’s asked, and asked another bizillion times, and forgotten, and so on until she leaves. By one P.M., you turn off the TV for the day when you realize there’s nothing on but football and more football. Turkey on the table at three-thirty P.M. Dessert served at four P.M. The tryptophan kicks in and you’re asleep before the five o’clock news.

  That’s how it happened this year in my house, anyway.

  I woke up from my food coma at eight P.M.There was nothing to do. It was too early to call Marcus. I always called him at midnight. That was our schedule. That’s how we did it. However, I thought maybe everything was happening earlier for him, too. So I picked up the phone and dialed his digits.

  One ring. Two ring. Three rings.

  Then an unfamiliar click, kicking me into voice mail. "Marcus here, but I’m not really here …"

  I panicked and hung up before he finished. I couldn’t bring myself to leave a message. Leaving him a message was so … desperate or something.

  At midnight, as was our custom, I called again.

  No answer again.

  This was the first time Marcus had not been there for me and I was really rattled by it. I almost had to tape my hands together to stop myself from calling every five minutes until he picked up. The only reason I didn’t do it is because I don’t know if he has caller ID. I didn’t want him to see my number backlogged a bizillion times. That’s psycho stuff.

  I was kind of glad this happened because it helped me to come to my senses: I will not call him anymore. I’m giving this whatever relationship way too much power. Yes, he helps me sleep through the night. Yes, he makes me feel like a better person when I wake up. But if I continue using Marcus as my Tylenol PM, I might get addicted to him. And no twelve-step program has a cure for that.

  Besides, it’s not like I’m his girlfriend or anything. Then it would be different. Then I’d have a right to be upset by his absence. But I’m not. So I’ve got to get a grip. Or rather, I’ve got to loosen it. As part of that, I will make a point not to even think of him and Mia at the homecoming dance tomorrow night.

  I just can’t believe it, though. It’s harder than I thought.

  the twenty-fourth

  Black Friday.

  How appropriate, I thought, when I woke up after a restless, Marcus-less night. Why did I ever take it upon myself to brighten my mother’s birthday? Where did I get off improving anyone else’s mood?

  She was already dressed and ready to go when I went down for breakfast.

  "Happy birthday, Mom."

  "I thought you were never going to get up!" she said. "I was going to wake you but I know how cranky you get!"

  It’s her birthday, I said to myself. Don’t be a bitch.

  "It’s already ten-t
hirty!" she said, pointing to her watch. "We’ve got to get out there if we’re going to find anything! I’m sure the stores have already been ransacked by now!"

  It’s her birthday. It’s her birthday. It’s her birthday. Don’t be a bitch. Don’t be a bitch. Don’t be a bitch.

  I shoved a fistful of dry Cap’n Crunch in my mouth and headed back upstairs to get dressed. I spent five minutes standing in front of my closet in my underwear, contemplating the outfit that would be least likely to offend. I settled on a pair of tan cords and a beige hoodie. Neutrals. Neutrality. Peace.

  I brushed my teeth, washed my face, stuck a barrette in my hair, and spread Carmex on my lips. Seven minutes after I’d gone up, I was back down in the kitchen.

  "Let’s go."

  My mother popped out of her seat with surprise. "Already?"

  "This is as good as it gets, Mom."

  "You know," she said, grabbing her camel coat, "that’s the advantage of going out with you instead of Bethany. I don’t have to wait forever for you to get ready."

  Well, I was certainly glad there was any advantage. That’s one more than I’d thought there was.

  The mall put up its Christmas decorations before Halloween. So the red and green jingle-bellsy atmosphere might have gotten me in a holiday spirit, but who the hell knows which one.

  "Isn’t this fun?" my mom said, cutting off the circulation in my arm with her overly enthusiastic grip.

  I smiled with all my teeth.

  Mom wanted to separate for an hour so we could shop for Christmas presents without ruining the surprise. This was fine by me. I had already taken care of everyone’s presents. I stuck to a magazine theme. I ordered subscriptions for everyone in my family. (Martha and House Beautiful for Mom. PC World and Cycling for Dad. Cosmo and People for Bethany. Some boring trade mags for G-Money.) And for Hope, I made a fake teen-mag cover. I wanted to make something for her wall for a change. It didn’t require any artistic skill, just a computer. I scanned her picture and wrote cover lines like:

  HOPE WEAVER TELLS ALL: "IT’S NOT EASY BEING A TEEN QUEEN"

  THE ALL-GIRLS-SCHOOL GUIDE TO GETTING A GUY (WHEN THERE AREN’T ANY AND THE JANITOR IS LOOKING TASTY)

  MAD ABOUT PLAID: 101 WAYS TO WORK THAT DRESS CODE

  ARE JERSEY GIRLS THE BEST IN THE WORLD? TAKE OUR QUIZ!!!!

  It cracks me up.

 
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