Revised version posted on 8/6/2010.
Chapter One: A Meeting of the Minds
The pact that Penn and I made back in middle school was not sealed with blood. We didn't spit in our hands and slap them together; that's simply unsanitary. There was no ivory, heavy weight paper, no sign here and initial there. We felt bound to it nevertheless, drawn partly by loyalty to each other.
Penn Carver and I were nothing but obscure names back then. We were in the honor roll that nobody read, the club meetings that no one bothered to attend. The two of us were sneered at by the ones who cared about popularity and by the ones who didn't. The reason, which I believe to this day?
They didn't know what to make of us.
Penn is, even to the most objective eye, very handsome. He's not all that tall; I used to say that he looked like a shrunken linebacker. Despite being the same height as I am, he's built solidly, with a broad back that sometimes makes it difficult for him to find suit jackets. Even in middle school the jocks wouldn't mess with him. His face reminds me of something from our old textbooks on ancient Rome.
He had braces back then, but he wasn't ashamed to smile with them. The first day we met, he shook my hand like a businessman and grinned, revealing pearly whites behind a row of silver metal and aqua blue rubber bands. I was charmed.
Also, Penn loved video games. Brazenly or cluelessly, I wasn't sure, but on the second day of seventh grade, he wore a t-shirt with a picture of Mario and Luigi on the front. His fate, profile of old Italian royalty or not, was sealed.
I could have helped him if we'd met earlier, I think. Told him what to wear and how to walk and that, really, invisible braces were worth the money and he should persuade his father at all costs. It was a damn shame that we hadn't gone to the same elementary school.
I could have told Penn not to wear that t-shirt. I could have told him to sign up for soccer and football instead if the chess team. But by the time we met, he had already been categorized into the group of people whose idea of fun was getting a new keyboard. Gross.
And me? Well, I was a hopeless case. A bit of advice could have saved Penn, but I was a mess. An unfortunate encounter with my asshole of an older brother and some hedge clippers over the summer had left me with a haircut suitable for a lumberjack. The hair that I had been growing out for the past four years was gone with one bad decision. I could have killed him, but the in-crowd didn't approve of felonies.
I was also flat-chested almost to the point of concavity and would not have been stupid enough to stuff tissues in my bra even if I had owned one. It's funny how things like that fall out during gym class.
So I remained, at best, androgynous. My mother would not let me touch my "pretty little heart face" with the taint of mascara or anything else from that aisle of CVS. I put her on the blacklist along with my brother and stalked to my room, the perfect picture of overwrought teenaged angst.
I knew Penn and I were alike from the moment we met. It was in the cafeteria, the ultimate test of petty popularity. The first week we had special activities during lunch, so this second Monday was my first real taste of the atmosphere. The girls, with uniforms of fruity lip gloss and barely-there denim skirts, packed into tables like sardines, tossing their highlighted hair and giggling over someone's smuggled issue of Cosmo. The boys slouched in their seats, snarfing down sandwiches and drinking soda and complaining about how "gay" all their teachers were. My lip curled against my will, because even then I understood the paradox of wanting to be a part of something I felt superior to.
I strategically headed for the lunch line, buying myself a sandwich and chips I didn't want to buy time to find a table. The cons for each option weighted heavily on my preteen mind. Saunter over the skirts' table and ask to join them? I could practically predict which one would give me the side-eye, which one would whisper something about my hair to her friend, and which one would finally take pity on me and tell me there was no more room. Go sit with the girl from my Advanced Algebra class, the one who blew her red nose like a foghorn? She was waving to me. Come to the dark side, Chelsea. We have cookies… and calculator games. Ugh. The third option—sitting by myself like a psycho—was not an option at all.
Just when it seemed like I'd have to run out of the room claiming that I had chronic explosive diarrhea, I saw him. There were two lunch lines at the middle school, starting at opposite ends of the room and snaking their way towards the middle. He was stalling like me; I could tell immediately. No sane person takes that long to pick a damn Jell-o flavor unless they're avoiding something. His eyes scanned the room, landing first on the table of future jocks and stoners, then on the adjacent table, where some poor kid complete with headgear had just pulled a saggy plastic bag of trail mix out of his lunchbox.
I coughed softly, hoping to attract his attention. His eyes stayed on the little plastic cup. I made a quick decision. "Hey, Jell-o?" I said in an undertone, my voice shaking a little. It was a delicate situation. I'm usually very good as judging people, but I've been wrong before. Telling my brother's girlfriend that he was sleeping with my babysitter shouldn't have warranted my unwanted haircut, but it had.
But he—Penn—glanced at me, confused. "Me?"
I gave a curt nod. "Wanna sit with me?"
He took in my appearance, raking me up and down with sharp gray eyes. I was boyish back then, but I wasn't a slob. My blue Converse sneakers were new and so were my small hoop earrings, the one thing that kept me from being referred to as "young man" constantly. I was glad he was studying me, actually. It meant we were the same. I would have been sorely disappointed if he turned out to be a social illiterate.
"Yeah," he said finally. "I think I would."
We picked a table by the wall, one good for observing the masses while still remaining inconspicuous. He shook my hand firmly, the way my dad was always telling me to do whenever I met someone important. I did my best to return the boy's enthusiasm.
"My name's Penn Carver," he said, flashing me a grin before digging into his lunch with fervor. I guess some things hold true for all boys at that age. He was courteous enough to chew and swallow before asking me my name.
"Gentry," I replied. "Chelsea Gentry." He chuckled, letting me know that the James Bond reference had not gone over his head.
It turned out that he didn't like Jell-o one bit. He ended up giving it to me.
I didn't know anything back then. I didn't know the highest highs and the lowest lows of complicated relationships or the cost of pretending to be someone else. I didn't know what love was. I didn't even know what a tampon was.
But I knew that that day was the start of something special. I knew that together, Penn and I could take on the world.