Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Claire Zielinski had her locker open to sort through books and papers, and was considering a redesign of her current arrangement of photos and stickers on the inside of the door, when her trivial contemplation was interrupted by a tapping on her shoulder.

She turned around to see, with a minimum of surprise, her friend Russell Gutierrez, who today was dressed in a Doors T-shirt and jeans, with a slightly ruffled set of black hair atop his head and an unshaven beard-in-the-making running down his cheeks and neck.

"What is it, Rusty?"

"Jimmy called me yesterday afternoon and told me that he saw you in your underwear." The look on his face was one of laughable desperation. "Is it true, Claire? Did he really see you," he said as he moved his gaze up and down her body, "like that?"

"My boyfriend called you to tell you that?"

"So it isn't true?" Rusty clapped his hands together and sighed. "Oh, thank god." He took his red backpack off his shoulders and was unlocking his locker, to the immediate left of Claire's, when she corrected him and threw off his concentration.

"No, it's true, Rusty."

Rusty stopped working on undoing the lock and turned to look back at his friend. "So he did see you…"

"Yeah. He did."

Rusty sighed.

"Hey, if it makes you feel any better, it was an accident. I was getting dressed yesterday morning before going to Descanso, and he just happened to walk in during."

"How much did he see?"

"Does it really matter?"

"Of course it matters," Rusty said. "There is a big difference between seeing a little cleavage and seeing, well, a lot."

"Then he saw a lot."

"Perfect."

"It probably wouldn't help knowing he copped a feel while we were making out, would it?"

"No, it wouldn't."

The two of them spent the next minute or so putting things in and taking things out of their respective lockers as a means of coping with the awkwardness induced by their situation. When Claire was done, some thirty seconds ahead of Rusty, she closed and locked her belongings away and then said, "So, he really called you just to say that?"

"He's the one dating you," Rusty replied. "I'm not. Hence the face-rubbing." He slammed his door shut and snapped, "That jerk."

"I'll admit that was an asinine thing for Jimmy to do—"

"So why are you dating him?"

"But, part of the problem rests with you, Rusty."

"I know what you're going to say. Seek other women besides you, right?"

"Right."

"I could do that, yeah, but we both know I'm not going to connect with them emotionally or share a history with them like I do with you, Claire!" Rusty explained. "To say nothing of the fact that," he cleared his throat, "none of them see me as anything more than a friend. Including you; you're just the friendliest of those friends."

"Think fast, Rusty."

"Why?"

Claire pulled her forest green shirt up to reveal the bra and skin underneath to her friend, and then pulled it back down again to cover those same parts up, in what amounted to only a second or two of time. It helped that their lockers were relatively hidden, located in a short hallway outside the underground theater (and drama room) on the basement floor of Crescenta Valley High School's primary building, meaning this was an act observed only by Rusty and known only to these two people.

"You don't get the extended look because you're not my boyfriend," Claire said, "but as a friend, you do get a look."

"That's all right," Rusty giggled and blushed as he put up one hand. "I can make my own extension." This awful pun was somewhat saved by further reactionary comments from the boy. "Wow. My life needs a pause, slow-motion button. Like Adam Sandler had in that movie with the remote."

"We saw that movie together," Claire said, cueing a shoehorning of memories of the two summers ago when this happened, in the July of 2006, before they were to begin their freshman year. "Click. I wanted to see it because I was bored. You wanted to see it because it had Kate Beckinsale."

"Any time spent looking at Kate Beckinsale is time well spent in my book."

"Hey, guys," a slightly Australian-accented voice from behind Rusty said, appearing at the top of the short stairway that led one down into the hallway after entering from the quad directly outside. It was Holly Snow, moral center of the trio. She walked past Rusty and Claire to her locker on Claire's right, her brown hair, blue eyes, and everlasting smile further cheering up the former. "What are we talking about?" she said while unzipping her navy blue backpack and balancing it on her leg.

"My lack of a woman," Rusty said with nonchalance. Returning to Claire, he asked, "Why would anyone want to fast-forward through sex with Kate Beckinsale?"

Claire grumbled. "You said that exact same thing when we watched the movie before."

"I wouldn't! I'd slow things down. Savor every second and then some, if you know what I mean."

"We get it," Claire said. "You like Kate Beckinsale, Rusty."

"Yes, I do. And isn't a wonderful coincidence that you're growing up to look just like her?"

Shaking her head, Claire replied, "I'd rather look like me, if that's all right."

"Okay, but that'll make casting a lot harder when it comes time for the biopic." Having worn out this subject, Rusty then moved them into a discussion about the weekend's events he hadn't been fortunate enough to be a part of. "So, girls, what was switching boyfriends like?"

"It wasn't too bad," Claire said. "At least until I met Kent's mom."

"You did?" Holly said as she shut her locker. "When?"

"A few minutes after you'd left."

"Then I could've seen her as I was leaving the gardens, right?"

"Maybe. She was wearing a blue sweater. Pretty, long blonde hair. Looks nothing like your boyfriend."

"Yeah, I might have seen her!"

"You were probably better off not," Claire said. "She's a bitch."

"Okay, what did you do?" Holly said.

"What makes you think I did something?" But receiving a prolonged stare from Holly after asking this question would send most people on a guilt trip, and Claire, having known her the longest, was no exception. "Fine. I did do something." Keeping the details minimal, she explained, "Kent fell down off his crutches inside the bird station while the three of us were talking, and I didn't help him up. …While his mom watched."

"Well, you did call her son a rapist when all he did was kiss his girlfriend," Rusty said as he glanced at Holly, who had finally made Kent take their relationship to the next level by wearing a costume straight out of the film Sin City—the outfit of Alexis Bledel's treacherous prostitute character, to be exact—for Halloween. "Something tells me no parent would take too kindly to that."

"She didn't seem to care too much about that, actually. Probably because she understands I was overreacting and made a mistake."

Holly crossed her arms and sighed.

"I'm never going to live that down, am I?" Claire asked rhetorically.

"Hi!"

The trio turned to see Kent Thomas standing on his left foot, and balancing his right one in the air with the help of a pair of crutches, at the hallway entrance where Holly had appeared moments earlier. Upon seeing him, his girlfriend smiled and walked up the stairs to join him, wrapping her arms around his neck and kissing his lips while he put one hand on her cheek.

"Good morning," Kent said to Holly, who replied in kind. He then turned his head to look at the other pair of students, Claire specifically, and when he had her in his sights, he said, "You said something about not living something down, Claire? I'm assuming you mean calling me the r-word?"

"R-word," Claire shrugged. "F-word. C-word. Can't you just man up and say these things?"

"Can you not? The last thing I needed was you calling my mother the c-word!"

To no great surprise, this announcement caused the previously unknowing Holly and Rusty to gasp at Claire.

"Yeah, and she was asking for it!" Claire argued. "Besides, you said your dad called me that first!"

"My parents aren't always the most sensible of people," Kent said as he moved down the stairway to join the others at their lockers; his, located somewhere entirely elsewhere on campus, was likewise almost entirely ignored in favor of carrying everything around in his navy blue backpack, which matched Holly's in brand and color, a coincidence that a month ago had been the catalyst for another switching of Kent and Holly's personal effects, albeit an accidental one. "I know. They're jerks. But I'd like it if we could set a better example than them."

"A better example for who?" Rusty laughed. "You know, Kent, unless you want to start being seen as a hypocrite, maybe you should stop hiding that…thing you're hiding from us."

Looking behind Kent and Holly at the top of the stairway whence they'd came, Rusty, and Claire by virtue of her facing the same direction as him, saw James Allen entering, and he didn't pause to say a word as the other two had done upon their arrival. Claire smiled and exchanged kisses with him after he walked past Rusty and the others to join her, and when Rusty shot him a disgruntled look, Jimmy took it in stride, and even patted his supposed rival on the shoulder. "Did Claire ever tell you to seek other women, Rusty?" he said.

"Don't touch me," Rusty said, despite the physical contact between them having been extremely brief and now over. "And as a matter of fact, she did."

"You didn't listen, did you?"

"As a matter of fact, I didn't."

Jimmy ignored this response—which he probably expected—and instead turned to Kent, whose generally bright, nature-oriented fashion sense and gangly appearance contrasted sharply with Jimmy's relative brawn and drabber clothing choices. "So," he said without a hint of enthusiasm whatsoever, "how did it go with Claire, Kent?"

"Much better than it went with you and Holly," Kent said, "that's for sure."

"It's not my fault you had such a stupid idea, though, was it?"

"Let's not have a blue, guys," Holly said, stepping between the two boys, though everyone could be reasonably sure that Kent would most likely not be the one to start a fight. "Come on."

"So, what happened with you two?" Jimmy said.

"We were already talking about that," Claire said. "I met Kent's mom."

"And you called her the c-word," Kent added.

"I'm sure she deserved it," Jimmy said.

"You don't know the circumstances," Kent said.

"Indeed. Anything else happen that might be considered too risqué for my virgin ears?"

"Cunt," Rusty said.

"Thank you, Rusty."

"You want to know?" Kent said.

"So do I," Holly said, giving her boyfriend the sympathy eyes.

"Then I'll tell you. The truth is," he said as he exchanged glances with Claire, "we didn't get a whole lot of time to do much of anything before my Mom showed up. Basically, she sat on my lap—"

"She what?" Holly gasped.

"There wasn't any other chair in that dusty old shack," Kent said, his hand on Holly's shoulder, "you know that, and this is Claire we're talking about, Holly. Half the things she does to me are out of spite."

"And the other half?" Jimmy said, grabbing Claire's left arm and pulling her closer to him, somewhat painfully.

"More spite," Claire said as she removed herself from Jimmy's grasp and looked at the rest of them in succession. "I just put on a façade of respect so I can avoid looking like an asshole all the time."

"Can I finish?" Kent said. "So she sat on my lap, for a minute, until I reminded her of the sprained foot here, and then she spent the rest of the time standing, while we started talking about you, Jimmy. How she felt about you and whatnot."

"So, you got the heart-to-heart you were hoping for?" Jimmy said.

"Yes," Claire answered for him. "But that didn't last long either, because then the topic of his father being a motherfucker came up."

Rusty giggled. "How else would we have Kent standing here?"

"I mean his father wanting to get revenge on me, somehow, for calling Kent a rapist. For which I'm sorry, by the way."

Kent nodded. "And then my Mom showed up and everything took a really bad turn."

"She thought I was you, Holly."

Shrugging, Jimmy began, "So I guess I'm not the only one who sees you and Kent as—"

"You corrected her, though, right?" Holly said, as she and everyone else completely ignored Jimmy's forthcoming remark.

"Of course I did!" Claire said. "…With my full name," she concluded, with far less zeal. Looking at Kent, she asked, "I know she threatened to tell your dad about me, Kent. Did she go through with it? Am I still safe?"

"It's a crapshoot," Kent said with a shrug. "I don't know, Claire."

"Who is your dad that he can allegedly do these horrible things to people, Kent?" Rusty said. "Because obviously, that's your big secret. I think if the well-being of one of our own is in jeopardy, and you know how to stop it, you'd better fucking tell us."

Kent sighed, while Holly rubbed his back in reassurance. "While I sort of agree with him," she said, "if you think keeping this secret is the best plan, you know I'll support you all the way."

"Where are your priorities, damn it?" Jimmy exclaimed, loudly and suddenly enough to startle everyone else in the hallway. Shooting Kent and Holly frightening looks, he said, "You're both being selfish! Holly, ever since you fell for him, you've been putting him up front instead of your friends! And you, Kent, you know that Rusty's right." Stepping up closer to Kent, until they were almost face-to-face, he warned him: "If anything happens to Claire that you could've prevented by telling us right here, right now, instead of keeping it to yourself…I'm going to fucking kill you."

The tension was just about to break, until the bell rang. Now 7:53 AM, students, these five included, had seven minutes to get to their first period classes. Claire and Holly both let out a relieved sigh as Jimmy stepped back from Kent, making himself both the last to arrive and the first to leave. Holly gave Kent another reassuring pat on the back, and then he, too, prepared to exit. This couple would be able to reunite in second period, when he had P.E. and she had her elective equivalent, dance class, in the same (and opposite from here) side of campus around the gym, field and sports courts.

Claire and Jimmy, alas, would have to wait until the snack break between second and third periods, and in lieu of the growing tension between the two of them, this extra time apart was almost certainly for the best. In the mean time, it was time to walk the ten feet into the underground theater behind her, where she and Kent's best friend Tom could begin the day with their favorite of classes, drama. Something that was far more tolerable on the stage than in real life.