Bette On It: Weird Adolescence. 10th Grade 2001-2002. An Excerpt...
It was Christmas time. Bette and Kasey had worked a catered lunch event at the museum and were done working for the Saturday. Kasey had a car and suggested they go to the mall for some Christmas shopping. Bette didn't really need to go there, but she wanted to do something and Kasey was good company. The only store Bette thought to look in for gifts for her parents was the book store. Kasey wanted to shop the music section and she told Bette to come find her when she was done. Bette went into the section of books on antiques and collectibles and picked up a book about the history of pinball machines and thought of her father. He loved pinball. His love of the game was imbued in her. He could play for an hour on a machine on one quarter and Bette would go through a whole roll of quarters playing a pinball machine next to him. It was a big book, practically a textbook. She paged through it smiling at the history, creativity, and joy the game had brought over the years. She saw someone approach the section out of the corner of her eye and took a couple steps back so they could either pursue the section or pass.
"Was that the only copy of that book?" the guy asked.
Bette closed the book and looked at the empty spot where she took it from. "I suppose so." She closed it back to front and saw the $69.95 price tag on the back of it. "I'm not going to get it through. It's all yours." She handed it to him and walked to another section. She looked up and around and saw the puzzle book section and grinned. She went to it and picked up a book of visual puzzles and optical illusions. She was a little annoyed when she knew most of the answers already. She put it down and picked up a different book of lateral thinking puzzles and paged through it.
"Pinball and puzzles. Are you shopping for yourself or someone else?" It was the same guy's voice as before. Bette stared at the page another couple seconds before turning her head. She took a look at him. He asked with his hands in his jacket pockets. He was wearing a letterman jacket for Private West High with the name 'Keith' sewn on; shoulder patch was class of '03. He was a little bit taller than her, but not much. He was chubby, but good-looking, with narrow glasses, and hair that was a color that couldn't decide if it was blond or brown. He clearly doesn't work here, so why is he asking?
"A little bit of both."
"I don't typically see ladies our age look at books for antiques and puzzles with such interest."
"Who said I'm a lady? Maybe I'm a monster in a human costume."
"I can't see the seams, so you got the stitching right. I hope when your species comes to rule us, you will show me mercy."
He's quick, but I'm quicker. "Sounds like a plan, Keith." Bette put the book back and stepped back, walking away from him.
Why was she so hesitant to his interest?
Late September 2001
The post-9/11 news cycle was getting exhausting. It was clear that this was a new way of life. Life was never going to be the same. This was the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Kennedy Assassination, The Pearl Harbor of her generation. Everyone would know for the rest of their lives where they were when it happened. Bette did. She wanted to do something. All the red, white, and blue, money donations, See You at the Poll, it didn't seem like enough. She didn't feel like she was actually doing anything. Morning announcements were read second hour and the school paper mentioned they needed people to come in and help contribute in various capacities: write short opinion pieces, edit copy, contribute photographs for stories, contribute original relevant cartoons, and more. It wasn't much in the grand scheme of things to help, but Bette felt like it was something; it was more than what she had been doing. For being 15, it would be something.
After school that day, she went to Mrs. Dahlberg's classroom; she was the Journalism advisor and an English teacher. She tentatively entered the classroom where she didn't know anyone. None of her other friends wanted to go. She went up to Mrs. Dahlberg, introduced herself and asked how she could help. Mrs. Dahlberg pointed Bette to Sylvia, that year's editor-in-chief of the school paper: The Blue Bull, to assist. Sylvia was sitting at a laptop with a couple people around her holding their newly printed copies of documents and letting them know where to take them and what to do next. Sylvia was authoritative but respectful. Bette could hear her clearly from across the room, but she didn't yell, she sounded cheerful. Bette needed to go talk to her, but would have been drawn to her anyways. Sylvia is a powerful lady.
"Take the multiples of your drafts and put them in the copy edit pile." Sylvia told one student. "If you can come up with 50 more words for the article on the J.V. football team, that would be great. Two solid quotes would be a great way to do it." She told another student. They both walked away from her and she clicked away on the laptop. Bette almost felt bad interrupting her.
"Um, hi, Sylvia?"
"Yeah!" She looked up at Bette with a smile.
"Hi. I'm Bette. This is my first time here, obviously. I haven't written anything, but I wanted to see if there was a way I could help, with anything."
Sylvia's smile grew wide. "Sure." She pointed behind Bette. "There are a bunch of draft articles that need proofing, editing, et cetera. You got an eye for that?"
Bette grew a half smile. "Yeah. I'm a bit of a stickler for grammar."
"Great. Grab a colored pen, read and mark the articles as you go. Make notes of anything questionable: sentence structure, ambiguous pronouns, that kind of thing. Initial the bottom when you're done." Sylvia looked down and kept clicking away on the laptop.
I guess that's all the instruction I get. Bette turned around and went to the four desks grouped together where a bunch of copies of articles were printed off with names at the top and word counts on them. She sat, grabbed a green pen from the cup, and started reading. Not all of the content she read was the greatest, but she liked getting a preview of what was going to be in the upcoming issue. She made marks of Oxford commas, crossed out unnecessary uses of the word 'very,' and wrote in suggestions for better action verbs. It was a verbal puzzle and she was writing in the answer key; it made her smile.
She started her third article from the pile when another student sat beside her in the desk grouping. Bette saw him out of the corner of her eye and smelled him coming. She knew Julio MacMurray by look alone. He was a senior, half Mexican, half Scottish, Heath Ledger-good looks but less rugged, skinnier face with high cheekbones, a sandy skin tone, and brown-black hair, short and gelled. He was known as one of the best dancers in the school and he showed his stuff at school dances, talent shows, and when the dance team needed guys for performances. He came from money, or at least dressed like he did. He wore pristine Adidas laced so loose they looked like they would fall off his feet, all his clothes were Abercrombie and Fitch that day, a Fossil watch, a platinum chain, not silver, his class ring was also white gold and had both ears pierced with quarter karat diamonds. Bette's mom Lorna had a few pieces fine jewelry, but mostly the fake stuff from TV shopping, Bette knew the real thing from the fake; Lorna taught her how to recognize it. Julio sat in the desk next to her and the scent of Tommy Hilfiger cologne wafted off him. He was like fine art, so pretty but completely unattainable; and appreciated him as such.
She kept reading the article and was unmoved by him; grammatically correcting the paper as she went. She initialed the paper and set it on the empty desk across from her.
"I'm right here. I don't see anyone sitting there," said Julio.
Bette did a double-take between him and the paper. "Sorry. There were multiple copies." She reached over to the copy she had and handed it to him. "I figured you'd grab an unmarked copy."
He plucked the paper from her hand. "How else am I supposed to get your name?" He said casually.
Bette got a look on her face like she saw an inanimate object talk. She grabbed the next article and got back to her editing without answering him. She was halfway through reading an article about school lunch times when Julio tapped her arm. "Hey. I didn't find anything wrong with this one." He handed it off to her dismissively .
It was an article about school busing versus city busing, Bette had found several errors in it; it was the first in her finished pile. She gave him a confused look, "I did." She reached to the copy she edited in her finished pile and handed it to him covered in green pen edit marks. "You didn't find the bad pronoun use? The lack of the inverted news triangle? There are no quotes in it. It's an opinion piece with nearly no opinion." Why is he editing?
He shrugged. "I guess not...B.W." He pulled another article from the pile and went back to reading.
Bette was wide-eyed looking back at her article. Wow! Pretty, but not that smart. She continued to go through articles at a fairly rapid clip. For every three articles she read and edited, Julio read and edited two. She noticed the best writers with the fewest errors on the staff were Sylvia, a foreign exchange student named Sven, and a junior Julia. She figured it was because the girls were detail oriented and Sven spoke at least two languages and had to be thorough in his writing.
She finished the piles of articles and asked Sylvia if there was anything else she could do to help; by this point, most of the staff writers and photographers had left with their assignments and only a couple of the layout editors were working on the computers with Sylvia. Sylvia glanced around the room, "Can I see the copy you went through?" Bette turned and grabbed the dozen articles she had gone through edited with the green pen and her initials at the bottom and handed them to Sylvia. Sylvia paged through them, saw her corrections, notes, questions, and changes. "These are good notes. You have an eye for this." She looked up at Bette. "You should come back again next week when we do edits again. And put your full name on here so I remember you for next time. Otherwise, you can be done for today. Great work." Sylvia set the papers down and kept clicking away on the laptop.
"Thanks. Cool. I will." Bette smiled and put her name on the paper, put her pen back in the cup, and left she classroom. Her locker was just down the hall and put her leather jacket on. She started to reorganize her books and notebooks for the homework in her back pack she needed to bring home that night.
She was looking for her red biology notebook among Greyson's stuff when she heard, "Bette Wheeler."
Name mistakes happened a lot to her over the years: Betty, Wheeler, Webber. She had become dismissive of it. "Nope. Not my name."
"That's what you wrote down."
She found her red notebook, put it in her back pack, took it off the hook, put it on, and closed the door. "Nope. I would not have misspelled my own name." She was so dismissive of the conversation; she wasn't fazed that she was having the conversation with Julio MacMurray.
He was standing there in his letterman jacket with his backpack over one shoulder with his hands in his pockets. The patch of the blue bull head's eyes were on either side of his backpack strap. "Then how is it spelled so I can put it in my phone?" He pulled the Nokia cellphone out of his pocket.
She exaggeratedly looked around herself in the empty hallway. "I'm not sure who you think you're talking to, but I think you have me confused with someone else." She started to walk away from him.
He caught up to her and walked next to her down the hall. He spoke confidently and playfully, "B.W.? The green pen. Pretty sure I was sitting next to you ten minutes ago."
She breathed a laugh but didn't break her stride. "And there's the extent of your knowledge of me, Julio."
"Who told you my name?"
She scoffed another laugh. "You're kidding me, right?"
He's either clueless or he just likes to hear other people say it. "You're not exactly white paint."
"What does that mean?" He asked with no irony in his tone.
Clueless. "The talent shows? Assemblies? My friend Terry can dance pretty well. But you make him look like the Lawrence Welk show."
"What's the Lawrence Welk Show?"
She stopped in the lobby of the school and covered her eyes with a hand for a second and sighed. "What is this? Is this a prank? Is this some 'She's All That' shit? Because I'm much more likely to have this turn out like 'Carrie' and no one's going to like that."
His face lit up, "I like the movie 'She's All That.' Usher's in it. People tell me I dance as good as Usher."
"You dance as well as Usher."
"Thank you!" He said chipper.
Bette rolled her eyes and walked away from him and out the door of the school. He caught up to her again with his cell phone out. "Seriously, if your name isn't Bette Wheeler, either my eyesight or your handwriting is really bad."
She let out a genuine laugh. "It's the hand writing." She stopped at the corner of the school and looked at her watch. "Were you trying to be funny just now? Or are you messing with me?" She asked skeptically.
"Which one will get me your number?" He asked playfully again.
She looked at her watch again. "You have three minutes to convince me that this isn't some kind of joke, because I am not convinced right now."
"Why three minutes?"
"Because I have a bus to catch. If you're serious, is this how you want to spend your time?"
His eyebrows rose and looked away for a second. "This isn't usually how these things go for me." He looked back at her. "What is your last name?"
"Um-" He looked her up and down, but not like he was checking her out, more like he was trying to pick up information. "Where did you get your outfit?"
She gave him a bizarre puckering-frown before answering. "Most of it is from Sylvester's, that consignment shop down town. The boots are American Eagle. The t-shirt was my mom's in college."
"You have interesting taste."
"Uh-huh." She looked at her watch again and looked around. "Still waiting for the punch line on this - when you and your buddies laugh at me."
"Why would I laugh at you?"
"I'm a sophomore. You got my name wrong. You insulted my handwriting, which I am aware is bad. You called my clothes 'interesting,' not cool or nice like yours. You had no idea what I was talking about before when I corrected your grammar, mentioned Lawrence Welk, or Carrie. You're either goading me into something or messing with my head with that kind of talk. I might as well be a ghost to someone like you. I'm the perfect fodder for a joke or a prank. I always have been. Either someone told you I'm a target or you're a good guesser." She spoke deadpan through the whole thing. "So, Julio MacMurray, the gorgeous dancer, asking for my phone number; if this isn't the biggest fucking prank on me, I don't know what is."
Julio's eyes were saucers. "What-"
"And that's three minutes." She didn't look at her watch or confirm the time. She was wound up from talking to him. She remembered how Pete had been suave talking to her and he wasn't even good-looking. Julio was talked about as one of the best-looking guys in school, easily. He might be pretty, but not really my type, even if he can dance. He's either messing with me or a moron. No thanks.
He caught up to her again and kept walking with her, "Look, I don't know you. But I you didn't get all weird and giggly when I spoke to you. You showed up to the newspaper and you corrected all their stuff. You're not dumb. What can I say? You're-I don't know, a- a- a breath of fresh air."
Bette stopped walking and looked at her watch again. "You have one more minute."
"If I can give you a ride home-"
"Nope," she interrupted and kept walking. "I don't get into cars with people I don't know, not after Pete Johnson."
"Everyone knows that guy doesn't know how to hold his load."
She stopped and turned back, "How do you think he got that reputation?"
"I'm no Pete Johnson."
"No. You're Julio MacMurray and no one will ever believe me." Bette turned and walked away from him and towards the city bus stop.
Friday that week, Bette was in the lunch room. She went to the condiment station to get some napkins and Julio walked up at the same time as her. "B.W."
"Already forgot my name," she asked dryly.
"No. I thought you'd think it was funny."
"Think it was funny..." she held the 'y' and leaned her head forward a little.
"Bette Wheelan, not Wheeler."
She grabbed the napkins and stood to the side out of people's way, "Are you normally funny?"
"Not exactly. Not intentionally."
"Why not intentionally?"
"How did you put it? I might not be joke fodder, doesn't mean I don't get laughed at," he had a somewhat sad look on his face and he walked away.
She felt bad for a moment but saw him smiling and laughing with his friends at his table and dismissed her pity just as quickly.
The next week was homecoming week and the theme was 'Around the World.' Considering the world's state of affairs, it wasn't in great taste, but Bette dressed up anyways. Wednesday was Toga day and by the end of the day, she was a sloppy mess and her bed sheet toga was falling apart. She had to throw on her sweatshirt from her locker and safety pin the bed sheet around her waist. She was self-conscious most of the afternoon and felt foolish for looking so weird. She still showed up to the Journalism classroom after school again and went to the pile of articles to edit again. She wasn't going to let her embarrassment keep her from her commitment to help Sylvia again. She sat awkwardly and marked articles with the green pen, keeping her head down and trying to be invisible. After finishing her second article, Julio came and sat next to her and began marking articles. She didn't just ignore him, she ignored everyone around her. She finished her third article and Julio spoke up in a low, shy tone, "You always dress up in sheets?"
She was still embarrassed and did not like the phrasing of his question. "No." She grabbed another article and tried to divert the attention. "You didn't wear a kilt yesterday, MacMurray." She started reading.
"I didn't want anyone to give me grief for wearing it. It happened before. I didn't want to make that mistake again."
She glared at the paper, "Kinda like what you did to me just now?"
He let out a groaning sigh. "That's not what I meant." He said something under his breath in a language she didn't recognize, it certainly wasn't Spanish.
She glanced over to him, he was wearing his letterman jacket, at this angle, the blue bull patch looked less angry. "Were you trying to be funny?" She marked the paper with a comma and another note.
She softened her expression and looked to him. "You don't have to be funny. It's not your best trait. You clearly have better ones." She went back to her article and made another note.
She scoffed a laugh. "Okay, now you're goading me. I told you last week."
"You were being honest?" He was quiet for a second. "Are you always that confident?"
"Only when I think I'm being messed with."
"You're not supposed to end sentences with prepositions."
Bette let out a little laugh. "Now that was funny."
They spent the next hour reading articles together and going over the errors they found. He asked her about how she got so good at editing; her parents are sticklers for grammar. She asked him what language he was speaking in when he spoke under his breath; his father speaks Gaelic and taught him. By the time they were done editing the articles, there were only a few people left in the classroom. Bette checked the clock on the wall and grimaced. "I gotta get going if I'm going to catch my bus."
"Are you going to yell at me if I offer you a ride?" Julio asked cautiously.
"Did I yell?" She asked in a quiet, but high-pitched tone. "I know I had my defenses up-"
Julio interrupted, "Defenses? You might as well have pointed cannons at me."
She got a mushed smile on her face. "Fine. Cannons lowered. And if the offer stands, I would like a lift. I didn't think about the toga and the city bus. It wasn't something I wanted to wear on the bus."
He started to stand up. "Meet you in the lobby?"
"I'll be down in less than ten minutes. I need to go to my locker."
"See you down there." Bette felt her face start to turn red as she said it as he walked away. She picked up their finished articles and brought them over to Sylvia. Sylvia took them and flipped through them; Bette waited a moment.
"You had more and better notes last week. Don't let Julio distract you. He's not worth it." She looked up at Bette from her seated position.
Bette felt her redness from embarrassment, she wasn't sure if it was from Sylvia's critique, the bad bed sheet toga, her sweatshirt, the possibility of flirting with Julio, or the combination of all of it. "I didn't think- I wasn't- We were helping each other." She fumbled over her words.
Sylvia stood and stepped close to Bette. "Look, I'm not mad, I wouldn't blame you." She sighed. "He's not a bad guy, he's just not a good one. He used to get teased for being in dance, then his acne cleared up and he hit a growth spurt. Ever since he got a letterman jacket, he turned arrogant. He's got a system with girls. He's going to be sweet, use you for something physical, dump you, then act like nothing ever happened."
"How does that not make him a bad guy?" Bette asked confused.
"He would have to be smart enough to have the intent to be malicious. He's smart enough to know he's good looking and charming, but not smart enough to have actual intelligence, be it intellectual or emotional."
"That seems a little harsh." Bette adjusted as she stood and held up her bed sheet skirt around her waist.
Sylvia leaned close to Bette and whispered into her ear. "Harsh is going to Harvest Ball as a first date last year, making out in my mom's car, swallowing his spooge after four pumps, then getting dumped immediately after because I quote, 'corrupted him religiously.'" Sylvia leaned back and looked at Bette with annoyance, not anger.
"Holy shit," Bette whispered. "Is he gonna make me do that? I've never done that."
"No. We both wanted to. I was warned he was going to do that too."
"Shoot his load?" Bette asked.
"That, and dump me afterwards for a dumb reason." Sylvia sighed and rubbed her eyes briefly. "Look. He's fun for a little bit, just don't expect anything from him."
"So, why aren't you mad at him? Why aren't you bitter? That's so icky what he did to you, and on so many levels."
Sylvia got a strange look on her face, one of superiority and sarcasm, "Because when his good looks and money run out, he's going to have nothing left. He's peaking in life now. Girls like us are on our way up. In five years, he'll be a total loser, and he has no clue."
"That's a bit dark. How can you be so sure?"
"Because he's a moron!" She barked. "Not once in all the years we've gone to school together has he mentioned religion, and he cites that as his reason for dumping me. And I read all his contributions to The Blue Bull, nothing he writes is worth the ink." Sylvia saw the withdrawn, almost disturbed look on Bette's face. "Put it this way. He's pretty, he's shallow, and he won't last." She looked down and picked up her own letterman jacket. "He's the letterman jacket of people. Even if you can get one, don't bother getting one. You'll never think about it or wear it or care about it after graduation."
"I get it. Thanks," Bette said plainly. She started to walk away from Sylvia.
"Bette. You're sharp. You edit well. You ask the right questions. You should consider contributing to The Blue Bull. I think with the right subject matter, you could really do something."
Bette's face twitched into a smile. "Sylvia, you have no idea how much I needed to hear that. All of that. You are a powerful lady."
Sylvia laughed. "I'm a workaholic on this damn paper. If that makes me powerful, then I'm unstoppable."
Bette smiled and left the room.
After Julio took her home, she thanked him, but let her know that she wouldn't be needing a ride or anything else from him. Julio was surprisingly nice about it.
"Just because you didn't see me giggle, doesn't mean I wasn't thinking like that," Bette said to him as she got out of his car.
"What were you thinking?" He asked.
Bette looked over his spotless car, expensive clothes, chiseled good looks, and his letterman jacket in the back seat; the eyes of the bull patch were looking at her again. She thought about everything he had said, Sylvia had said, and her experience with Pete. "I think you're a senior. And I'm not looking to invest in something that's not going to last."
Boys in letterman jackets. Not worth my time.