I think that my whole childhood was spent wondering. I didn't have friends, but I was quite able to pretend that it didn't bother me. I was able to imagine what it would be like if Kimmy and I were best friends, if Richard didn't hog the paste just because he saw that my flower's petals were coming off in art class, or that I beat Susan's record for highest swing on the swing set, thereby winning the adoration of all.
Ultimately, though, I was a lonely kid and it showed. I can't regret my strange childhood, though. I never would have met Reed, I think, if I hadn't been so estranged from my classmates. I wouldn't have spontaneously skipped prom with Flo to explore New York City and I wouldn't have been so desperate for life that I went to that blasted party, the one that, looking back, was the beginning of everything.
I think you should understand how my life started, or else you won't fully understand the wonder of it all. It's also the story of how I got my first real friend, far later than most would believe possible. It's even the story of the shocking, positive effect that public humiliation can bring.
My English teacher in eighth grade told us to write a story about one of our friends, a story about how that friendship developed. I had a couple of friendly acquaintances, of course, who doesn't? And I figured I would just pick one of them. Who did I pick but Florence Kingsley? She was one of those girls that I wished I could talk to, but my tongue always got tied up and I usually ended up just awkwardly bobbing my head and walking away. She was friendly with everyone! People liked her! Even Grant Peterlin didn't say snide things about her behind her back, and he always had something to say about absolutely everyone.
I was fourteen years old then, and in the throes of my very most awkward stage. Never had I experienced more sheer embarrassment, though, than when the teacher had us stand before the class and read our papers, "To work on our public speaking skills," she said. My mother called the school and complained when I told her about it, claiming that we were being singled out for humiliation. Mrs. Litsch, my teacher, defended herself, though. She said that she had thought that we would be more comfortable talking about something so familiar.
Well, that day, I stood up there and, not meeting anyone in the eye, mumbled the story that I had written. It was complete fabrication, of course. I was nothing if not a storyteller, having grown up feeding an already active imagination. I told of how Florence happened to stop in at the library, the same one where I spent my every Saturday. I was so relieved to see someone from school, I told everyone. I was struggling with my Algebra and I asked for her help. She, being as kind as she was, helped me. And that, I said, was how we had become friends.
I hastily thrust my paper onto my teacher's desk and darted back into my seat. I hadn't wanted to get up there, so much that even now, when I was sure I felt every individual's eyes burning into me and my heart was racing so fast I felt sick, I felt better than I had before my recitation.
I didn't dare glance Florence's way. I was sure that she was laughing at me, she and her myriad friends. I was sure that I would never be able to meet anyone in the eye again.
After class, though, she came over to my desk and said that she thought it was really sweet, my saying she had helped me in Algebra. "I'm pretty sure I'm actually failing it, so it was nice to pretend for a bit," she said. We walked together to Geography, a class which we happened to share, and that was it: the start of a friendship.
Florence changed a lot between ages fourteen and eighteen. She grew a backbone, and with it came her first actual enemies.
And she was thrilled the say that Susan Leonard threw jell-o into her hair. She thought it was hysterical.
I guess what I'm trying to tell you is that I always saw Flo as some sort of magical being. She couldn't be real. She was so happy, so carefree. Just being around her made me feel more positive. It drew me a little further from my own imagination and into the real world.
Over winter break of our senior year of high school, she decided that she wanted to try partying. She knew that Grant Peterlin was throwing a big New Year's Eve party and when she called him and said she wanted to come, he said, "Great, see you there," and hung up.
I never knew it could be so easy.
So she and I, we spent hours doing each other's hair, curling it then changing our minds and straightening, twisting in braids and pulling them out. She brought a suitcase of her most party-appropriate (read: school inappropriate) clothes and we sifted through those and mine, looking for something to wear that was revealing but not slutty.
It wasn't until our next party that we decided it would be fun to dress like skanks and I promise, I'll get to that one. We barely were ready in time to be half an hour late, the time which we had decided was ideal. We took Flo's Honda Accord, blasting the Spice Girls through the entire ride, and… well, then we partied.
I lost Flo pretty early on; she threw herself into the midst of dozens of twisting, twining, writhing bodies and danced her little heart out. I ducked into the next room, where the music would make me only half deaf and where my kindred, the more awkward partygoers, had congregated. I sat on the arm of a couch that already held seven people and wondered whether people could see up my skirt and whether I was supposed to not care about that. I shifted a little and smiled down at Coby, my lab partner in AP Bio. I wondered whether I should say anything.
Thankfully, he saved me the trouble, turning and locking lips with Keisha, one of the girls I ate lunch with. I turned away, hoping that I wasn't blushing.
"Hey, you okay?" A hand gripped my shoulder loosely, an indication that I was, in fact, being spoken to.
I was never sure.
I turned and saw Caleb Brentwood, Flo's on-again, off-again fling. I grinned. I had always really enjoyed his company. "Hey, Cal! I'm fine, thanks. Flo's in the next room," I told him. They were "off" right now but if their pattern held true, it was only a week or so before they were back on again.
Cal gave me a funny sort of half smile. "Flo? She and I broke up ages ago."
"Two weeks and a day, actually."
A single brow rose. "You've been counting?" Cal took me by the arm and gently pulled me outside. I inhaled deeply, reveling in the crisp, clean air. It was getting pretty stuffy inside, and that wasn't to mention the various types of smoking going on inside.
I shrugged. "Actually, I have a graph." I laughed nervously. "It's more to prove a point than anything. You have to admit, you guys are kind of… cyclical."
Cal inclined his head, agreeing. "We were, I'll give you that."
"Are you so sure that you two are finished? I bet she's danced with every guy here by now- at least, the ones who aren't holed up with their hash. By the end of the night, she's going to be thoroughly convinced that you're the only one of them who isn't insufferable."
"Do you know why we broke up the last time?"
"I gave up asking about your breakups ages ago."
"Because she never really explained it, right?" I shrugged. So? Caleb's gaze slid away from mine. "That's because it wasn't real. None of it."
I stared at him mutely. I understood the words, sure, but they weren't registering with me. "What?"
"It was all fake. Do you remember when Jared Stevenson tried to get you to go out with him? You shot him down cold and avoided him for months. And a little slip of a girl like you? You're impossible to find when you feel like hiding."
"Call it a gift," I said, wondering at this turn of conversation. Since when were we talking about me?
"I didn't want to startle you. Flo thought it would be a good idea if she and I pretended to date so that I could get to know you better, and so that you could get to know me, without scaring you off." And then he closed the distance between us and gave me a butterfly kiss. He didn't pull very far away. So close, I could see clearly the blue flecks in his green eyes, shining in the moonlight.
I was so startled, I didn't push him away when he pulled me closer and kissed me again. It was surreal.
Also, he was the best kisser I had yet to try… so I let myself be pulled in. I felt his hands on my hips, gently kneading, and I reacted on pure instinct. I pressed myself closer.
"Hey, Caleb, Tibby called. We've got to go," a voice said from behind me.
Caleb groaned. "Alright. Give me a minute."
Meanwhile, I stood there awkwardly, torn between being intensely embarrassed and proud of myself. And here Flo and I thought that she would be the only one good at handling the party scene.
Besides, ever since that day in English when I read the story of my fake friendship with Flo, I had held onto a completely different perspective on humiliation: I knew that it brought with it great things.
It's only because of that belief that I was able to meet the intruder in the eye. He was a couple of inches taller than me, a couple of years older, and was looking on in undisguised amusement. He winked at me and went back into the house.
Caleb brushed his palm against my cheek. I smiled. It was strange; I had never once considered him in this light. I had never thought that I had that kind of response in me. "Don't mind Reed."
"I don't," I said. I stood on my tiptoes and pressed my lips to Caleb's one final time. "Now go. I'll see you around." I was proud of myself for being so casual about it. Caleb grinned at me and left.