“Okay, people,” Mrs. Kuwabara called out cheerfully. I’d been back in school barely two weeks since summer break, but I’d already learned that our new English teacher was cheerful about everything. “The bell’s going to go in about fifteen minutes. Finish up the questionnaire you have in front of you now, because I have one more for you.”
Beside me, Ben sighed and rolled his eyes. “Oh, God,” he muttered. “I don’t want to know myself this well.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Don’t people go blind that way?”
Ben chuckled. Mrs. Kuwabara had decided that it would be a good idea to spend the first weeks of eleventh grade doing this boring old self-knowledge questionnaire, a little bit every English class. She’d told us that no one was ever going to read them unless we gave them permission, not even her, so we should write whatever we wanted. I ask you, what was the use of doing all that work in school if you couldn’t even get a grade for it?
Mrs. Kuwabara handed Jimmy Tidwell a stack of sheets of lavender-colored paper. He blushed. He was all elbows and angles and zits, and he fell over his own feet as often as he walked on them, and he blushed at everything. He was mad good at trig, though. And a decent private tutor, once he got absorbed in the work and stopped blushing and stammering. His face crimson, he stood up and started handing the sheets out to the class. He was cute, in a skinny white boy kinda way. He always tried really hard to talk to my face, not to the front of my sweater. That earned him extra points in my book.
I reread the part of the last questionnaire I’d just spent thirty-five minutes filling in. Mrs. Kuwabara had copied the questionnaire onto sunshine yellow paper. Mrs. Kuwabara was big on colors. At the top of the sheet, printed in swirly black letters surrounded by scrollwork, were the words:
FIVE THINGS THAT MAKE YOU HAPPY
The rest of the sheet had five boxes, made up of more swirly scrollwork, for filling in the answers. I’d written:
1. Wine Gum jelly candies, but only the black ones. I think they’re supposed to be licorice flavored, so I should hate them because I hate licorice, but black Wine Gums don’t taste like licorice at all. Wine Gums don’t even have any wine in them, either. I know, because when I was little, my parents checked the list of ingredients before they’d let me eat any. Maybe those black ones aren’t licorice at all. Maybe they’re meant to be black currant, or something. The other colors taste like ass. Can I say that? Oh, right; Mrs. Kuwabara won’t be reading this, so I can say whatever I like. Problem is, you can’t buy a roll of Wine Gums of just one flavor. So I get Glory to buy them and give me the black ones. At least, that’s what I used to do back when Glory and I were still friends. Ben doesn’t eat candy. He’s watching his figure. Really, it’s weird how much I love black Wine Gums, seeing as other gummy things freak me out.
2. Hailstorms in the middle of summer. First time I saw one, I was a little girl. Maybe eight years old. I stepped outside our house in the middle of a boiling hot summer day, and little stinging things were pelting my skin. At least, that’s what I thought they were at the time. They lay there, sparkling clear in the green grass, melting even as I watched. I went inside and told my dad that there were diamonds on the ground outside. He’s the one who explained hail to me, but I still like to think of it as diamonds falling from the sky.
3. Hanging out with my friends Gloria and Ben. At least, I did like that. I still like it now, even though it’s only me and Ben any more. We can talk about anything—why boys are so dumb (Ben thinks boys can be dumb, too, even though he is one); why girls are so dumb; whether you should keep your eyes open or closed when you kiss someone, and if you keep your eyes open, how you stop yourself from laughing at how funny someone looks that close up with their pores showing and their eyes crossed from trying to look back at you; whether it’s better to have a happy life and die young or to have a miserable life and die old. I met Glory and Ben when I transferred to this school in grade nine. We hang out together, but not like the Thompson Twins. Ben’s on and off dating this boy named Stephen, and Glory’s trying to steal my boyfriend. Okay, he’s my ex. But that’s why I’m not talking to her anymore, ’cause she turned out to be such a big skank. I used to think that together, me, Ben, and Glory could do anything. Now I think that about just two of us. I mean, right now, it’s kind of like a three-legged stool with only two legs, you know? But Ben and me, we’ll figure it out. Human beings can walk and run, and we only have two legs. Right? It’ll be okay.
4. Dancing. Even though I’ve been missing practice lately, and I can’t get that new move that stupid ol’ Gloria came up with for the life of me, but I’m still the only one on our team that can do that move where you lean backward until your upper body is parallel to the ground. It’s because of my thunder thighs. They’re strong enough to hold me up, no matter what I do. To me, all kinds of things dance. The words of a poem are a dance. My dad’s Jamaican accent is a dance. I can memorize anything, if it dances. That’s how I used to be able to make fun of the way my dad speaks, even when I didn’t understand all the words. I don’t make fun of him anymore, though. There’s no fun at all in our house anymore. And it’s Dad’s and Mum’s fault.
5. Boys. The geeky, awkward kind that never seem to know where to look, but they always end up staring right at your chest and then they’re embarrassed they did that so they try really hard not to but it’s like they can’t drag their eyes away, and all the time they’re going on and on at you about the coefficient of a polynomial or how many rare issues of the very first Dolphin Man comic they have, or something else that no one cares about but them. And the first time you kiss them, they think it was an accident, and they always ask you if it was good for you, too, and yeah, that’s a total cliché. But they mean it, and I think that’s sweet. Don’t get me wrong; I like the fine-looking guys too, with their muscles and their baggy jeans and their swagger. But with them, it’s like you’re seeing a package in a pretty wrapper; you’re never sure whether you’re going to open it and find the bestest present you ever wanted, or something that totally sucks. The geek boys wear their insides all on the outside, you know? With them, you know what you’re getting, because they have no talent for hiding who they are.
Mrs. Kuwabara had said we should keep all the sheets in one place, to review when we’d filled them all out. So I folded the piece of paper and stuffed it into the front pocket of my knapsack, where I’d put “My Five Favorite Colors and Why I Like Them” (one of them is kelly green, because it’s the color of that amazing dress that Lil’ Bliss wore on the BET Awards this summer) and “Five of the Best Things I Did on My Summer Vacation” (I’d crossed out things one, three, and four because they were all things I’d done with Glory, so now when I thought about them, the happy was spoiled by knowing what a bitch she was being). I pushed the three sheets down to the bottom of the knapsack pocket, ignoring the rustling sound they made when I crumpled them. Jimmy Tidwell held a sheet of paper out to me. I reached for it, but took him by the wrist instead. I swear his face went purple. “Hey,” I murmured, “wanna hang out during break?”
“Uh, you mean, like, with you?”
“Yeah, with me. What’d you think?”
“But we already worked on next week’s math homework.”
“So, what; we can’t just hang out?”
From behind me, I heard Gunther Patel snicker. I turned in my seat. He was leering at me.
“What’s with you?” I asked, sneering.
He used his tongue to puff out the side of his cheek, twice. He hated it that I laughed whenever he whistled at me in the parking lot. I said, loudly, “You wish.” Mrs. Kuwabara heard me, just like I’d planned. She looked up from her desk.
“Is something the matter, Sojourner?”
Gunther scowled. I smiled sweetly at him. “Nothing at all, Miss,” I said.
Ben whispered, “Good for you.” I grinned my thanks. He’d coached me well.
Gunther mumbled, “What do you know about it, you fag?”
Ben picked his pencil up and started writing on his sheet, but I saw the devilish grin on his face, and I knew that Gunther was going to get it good. “Honey,” Ben said, squeezing every ounce of his blackness into that one word and speaking just loud enough for the few people around us to hear, “I’m more man than you will ever be, and more woman than you’ll ever get.”
Panama whooped. “Lord have mercy! Sorry, Mrs. Kuwabara. I’ll behave myself now, Miss.”
For the umpteenth time I envied Panama’s strong Jamaican accent. Mrs. Kuwabara called out, “Jimmy, now’s not the time to be talking with your friends, dear. Please keep handing those sheets out.”
Panama looked up in mock alarm. “Me, Jimmy’s friend? As if.”
God, girls can be so mean. Jimmy’d been kinda gaping stupidly at us. He blushed and scurried along on his task. Gunther pressed his lips together and stared furiously down at his paper. Served him right. When boys try to embarrass you like that, it’s easy to stop them. So long as the girls don’t get into it. Because once the girls decide to turn against you, next thing you know, you’re the school slut and everybody’s spreading these insane rumors about you blowing the whole basketball team in the locker room, and people are throwing rocks at you when you’re trying to walk home from school. I took my sheets out of my knapsack and erased my answer to number five on the “Five Things That Make You Happy” sheet and wrote:
5. I am thrilled to pieces to not be in my old school anymore.
I looked at the new questionnaire, and groaned under my breath. This one read, “Five Things That Scare You.” I sighed and started filling it out. I wrote:
1. Gunther Patel’s haircut. Didn’t that bowl cut thing go out in the old days with, like, the Beatles?
2. Getting someone else’s chewed-up wad of gum on me. It really freaks me out. I’m terrified it’s going to get into my hair. With all these curls I have, I’d never get it out.
3. Letting my big brother, Rich, down.
I tugged my right sleeve down over my wrist. Last night’s dream had been the usual kind of odd dream I’d been having lately. I was walking in the sun on someone’s crop acreage, past beds of spinach, vines of beans climbing wire cones, knee-high eggplant bushes weighed down with shiny purple eggplants. Daddy’s voice was murmuring something indistinct in my ear, although I couldn’t see him. His happy voice, not the fretful, angry one in which he spoke almost all the time nowadays since we’d moved. But then his voice started getting a little angrier and a little more fretful every second as I trudged past stalks of corn, beds of tomato bushes. And I knew that when I went around the next patch of tomato bushes, there would be something horrible waiting for me. . . .
4. This stupid skin condition I’ve got. Just when everything was starting to go great. I thought I’d finally figured out this school, and Rich was finally back home. And then this crap started happening. I don’t think the ointment is working.
What else was I really scared of? I gave the classroom a quick scan. It looked perfectly normal at the moment. Whew. On the lavender sheet, I wrote;
5. None of your damned business.
If I’d been being honest, I would have written, People finding out about me.
The bell rang.
“Thank God,” growled Ben. I think the whole class probably felt the same way he did. You could almost hear the relief in how quickly the chairs scraped back as people gathered their things and leapt up. Second to last period of the day! One more class, and then it was hello, weekend.
“Okay, people,” said Mrs. Kuwabara. Cheerily. Again. “Hang on to that sheet, and we’ll finish filling it out on Monday.”
Ben whispered into my ear, “Which ‘we’ she talking about? She not filling out this blasted questionnaire.”
I giggled. “It’s teacher speak. You know how it is.” As we stepped out into the hallway, we were hit by the deafening noise of hundreds of teenagers laughing, arguing at the tops of their voices, banging locker doors, shouting greetings to each other in the last precious fifteen-minute break of the school day.
Ben asked me, “Did you just invite Jim Tidwell to hang out with us during break?”
Ben looked incredulous. “But he’s such a dork!”
“A sweet dork. Sweet counts for a lot.”
Jimmy was standing by one of the water fountains, trying to look casual. I waved at him. “Hey, Jimmy!”
Jimmy came over. “Uh, look, I gotta meet my friends. We have this, uh, thing . . .” He stared shyly at the ground.
“That’s okay, Jimmy. Next time, all right?” I patted his shoulder. He started, like he didn’t expect anyone to touch him.
“Really? That’d be cool. Yeah. Okay. Um . . .”
He wandered off before he’d actually finished his sentence.
“Oh, thank God for Jesus,” said Ben once Jimmy was out of earshot. With one hand, he made like he was waving Jimmy away. “Yes, you go meet up with your friends, my love. Go and synchronize your iPhones, or whatever it is you guys do.”
I giggled. “Ben!”
A Horseless Head Man zipped past my ear, doing its chittering giggle and being chased by another one. I just managed to turn my flinch into linking my arm through Ben’s. “Let’s go outside. It’s sunny out.” Besides, the Horseless Head Men were harder to see in full light.
We pushed open one of the big glass doors and stepped out into the watery September light. The weather hadn’t turned anywhere near cold yet, but the sun didn’t seem to rise as high in the sky as it had during the summer, and there was a dampness to the air. Some days were colder than others. Today was a warmish one.
We sat on one of the broad stone stairs that led down to the parking lot. Claudia, Simon, and Mark were scrunched happily together on one of the picnic benches in the school yard. Simon was in the middle. Mark put his hand on Simon’s thigh so that he could lean over to say something to Claudia. Claudia and Simon were holding hands.
Glory was hanging out on the sidewalk with Panama and Kavi. Ben smiled and waved. I didn’t. I turned sideways so that my back was to Gloria.
Ben had already pulled his cell phone out of his bag and was texting away. He gave a happy sigh. “Stephen says I’m the best boo he’s ever had. I love having a boyfriend!”
“You guys on again, then?”
He slid the phone back into his bag. “Yeah. It was just a little fight.”
“And your parents are really cool about you dating a guy?” Ben had blossomed since ninth grade. He’d started wearing cute jeans and fancy shirts instead of baggy clothes, and a silver stud in one ear and a cowrie shell on a black leather thong around his neck. His jewelry looked amazing against his brown skin. He walked with more confidence. This summer he’d started dating guys. Stephen was his second boyfriend.
“Dad’s still a little freaked out, but Mom says she wasn’t surprised. She’s just worried that Stephen’s a white guy. She’s afraid he might break my heart.”
“Your folks are so cool. Mine would lose their shit if they found out I’d been dating Tafari. Or anyone. You know what I keep trying to figure out?”
“Are all three of the Thompson Twins sluts, or just Claudia?”
“Obviously, Claudia’s the slut! You know how this works. Girls get called sluts.”
“And guys who sleep around get called what? Studs?”
He shrugged. “Yeah. And when people call a guy a stud, it’s kind of a compliment. But when they call a girl a slut—”
“Then the next step is chewing gum in her hair and talking shit about her on MyFace.”
“I know it blows, but that’s how it is.”
I sighed. “Okay, but check it out.” I counted off on my fingers. “So Claudia’s dating Simon and Mark. Right?”
“And Simon’s dating Mark and Claudia.”
“And—hold on, my head always spins, trying to figure this one out—Mark’s dating Claudia and Simon.”
“You got it.”
“And each of them knows about the other two, and all three of them go on dates together? With each other? At the same time?”
Ben said, “Uh-huh. I saw the three of them at the movies once, all holding hands and snuggling! I don’t know how they do it. I’d be too jealous.”
Claudia’s happy tinkle of a laugh cut through the break-time noise. She leaned over and kissed Mark on the cheek. She never seemed to notice the glares she got from some of the girls in school.
I continued, “Why does everyone call them the Thompson Twins, anyway? There are three of them. And none of them’s named Thompson.”
He grinned. “Ah. For the answer to that question, my pretty, you need my fairy-certified sparkle dust obsession with pop music. ‘The Thompson Twins’ was the name of an old eighties band. There were three of them, too.”
I shook my head. “If high school’s this complicated, how am I ever going to figure out being a grown-up?”
Ben crossed his arms, cocked his head to one side, and looked at me. “Okay, I hate to even ask this, but you’re not thinking of hooking up with Jimmy Tidwell, are you?”
Glory and Panama were shrieking happily over something or other. I didn’t look over there. “Maybe I am. So what?”
He took my hands. Gently, I pulled the telltale hand away, leaving him holding just the other one. He didn’t seem to notice. “Darling, the boy’s a total geek!”
“Which means he might actually take me seriously when I say we’re going to use rubbers.”
“Scotch, for real, what’re you thinking?”
“I dunno. I think it might be fun.” That was what was so cool about having changed schools. At LeBrun High I’d been the school slut even though I wasn’t having sex with anyone. Here I was one of the cool girls and I could do whatever I wanted. I could experiment. So long as my parents didn’t find out.
“But you only just broke up with Tafari! Like he really didn’t mean anything to you, or what?”
“He did! You know he did. But he’s not the only boy in the world.”
Ben looked doubtful. “So, are you drowning your sorrows or whatever by hooking up with some random guy?”
I sighed. “No! At least, it’s not because I’m drowning my sorrows. I’m just exploring, okay?” Like I’d been doing before Taf. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed me while I’ve been dating Taf. I’d known all these guys since grade nine, when they were shy, awkward boy-men with voices still breaking, and I was the new girl with the chest bigger than anyone else’s in my class, who was too scared to speak to the boys for fear the girls would get jealous and it would be like LeBrun High all over again. For fear it was something to do with me that had made the harassing and the jeering and spitballs happen.
But pretty soon the other girls’ bodies had caught up to mine, and I didn’t stand out so much anymore. And Ben had taught me how to stand up for myself. All of us kids, our bodies had filled out and changed, and we were dying to try them out. Take Michel Beaulieu, who’d been short and zitty with that funny, squeaky voice; now he had a sharp trimmed goatee and his voice was all deep and shivery, and his hands had become the size of shovels (I had a thing for hands), and he walked with a swing in his step that he hadn’t had before. He was the first boy I ever necked with, no matter what Nancy Poretta at LeBrun had said. Michel had wanted to date me. We did for a while, until I’d figured out that that first taste of Michel had only made me even more curious about other boys. Me and Glory and some of the other girls talked about it all the time. How would it be to sit on chubby Walter Herron’s strong, sturdy lap? How would the plumpness of his skin feel under my hands? What did Sanjay Harsha’s breath taste like? What would it feel like to run my hands through his hair? Ever since then, I’d been exploring. I wasn’t the only one, either. Finally, I was normal. My parents would completely lose it if they ever found out. They wanted me to be good little Sojourner Smith, who always did her homework and came home on time and who was all meek and shit. They wouldn’t like to find out that their daughter’s school friends called her Scotch Bonnet, the name of a super hot Jamaican pepper, because her moves on her dance team were so hot. My folks wanted me to be safe. They didn’t really understand what I’d learned at LeBrun High; being good didn’t make me safe. Being popular kinda did, sometimes.
But I didn’t tell Ben any of that. Instead I said, “I am sad that Taf and I broke up. Way sad. I think about him every day. But this . . . thing that I do—”
“Thrill of the hunt?” Ben said doubtfully. That’s how I’d described it to him once. It had sort of been a joke. Only sort of not.
I smiled. “Yeah, that. I couldn’t do it while I was dating Tafari, and I gotta be honest with you; I really wanted to.”
Ben drew back. “You’re joking, right? You had one of the hottest guys in school, and your eyes were wandering?”
Ben made a titch sound. “Well, I guess Mr. Liliefeldt just wasn’t doing his job right.”
“Oh, he was.” I got that sick, lurching feeling in my tummy that I got when I thought about me and Tafari, broken up. “I miss him so much.”
He shook his head with an unbelieving smile. “Not hating on you, girl. Just not understanding you. I mean, if a guy’s hot, I can totally understand you wanting to get with him. But Jimmy Tidwell?”
The bell rang. Last period. Glory glanced briefly my way, no expression on her face, before heading inside with her friends. Ben stood with a sigh, brushed the seat of his jeans off. “History class. Oh, yay.”
“Hey! I like history!” I followed him in as we argued about whether we were going to ever need history again once we’d graduated. Me, I had geography. I said to Ben, “Come and see me in the gym after dance practice, okay? You gonna be around?”
“You know it. Can’t miss our Friday afternoon ritual. Be nice if Glory could be part of it again.”
I snapped, “Over my dead body.”
“Okay, okay. Just saying.”