“They laugh at me because I’m different.
I laugh at them because they’re all the same.” – Kurt Cobain
Nikki flies out of the girls’ locker room, barely able to contain herself with what she’s heard on the soccer field. She heads to me like a homing pigeon, all long legs and flying wet hair, a stretched out version of her kindergarten self with boobs. Normally she dishes out gossip as she drives me home. We stop for fries if we have money. She drives and we dissect the day, speculating about who is pregnant, who got accepted to what college and who is a first degree burnt out destined for jail. What I don’t know is that this time the rumors are about me. They’re true and terrifying and are going to change my life.
Nikki and I have been best friends since kindergarten when she sidled up to me at playtime with her arms crossed, sniffing at the babyish scene. Her thick brown hair was plaited, tied with matching red bows. “See that kid over there?” She pointed to a boy with a suspiciously bulging nostril. “He has a Lego stuffed up his nose.”
I’d already spotted a tiny girl carefully licking her fingers at the craft table. “That red haired girl is eating glue.” Nikki didn’t care that my sweater was threadbare and missing two buttons or that my hair was a nest of snarls. A friendship sparked and grew. I basked in the glow of her unclouded family life, gobbled the square meals she took for granted. I was her willing audience, the person along for the crazy, adrenalin fueled rocket of Nikki’s life. She can’t wait for anything, ever. I am always the first to know.
In fourth grade Nikki marched right out of Mrs. Lainley’s class, down the hall into my classroom. “Kyle Parder peed his pants. It went all over the floor and touched Lisa Steeney’s shoe.” She hugged herself in delight, waiting dramatically to unveil the deliciously disgusting finale. “She barfed.” After a mighty bear hug, she whispered, “I won’t see you at recess. I’m going to get busted for leaving the class. You’re my bestie forever.” We linked pinkies and said our solemn goodbyes.
It’s senior year and no, she hasn’t changed all that much.
Sure enough, when she reaches the bench where I always wait for her after yearbook, Nikki blurts, “Someone nominated you for prom queen 1993.” The last three words are very dramatic, as if it’s the name of a Broadway show: Prom Queen 1993. It would be totally funny, this dramatic delivery with me sitting on the bench and her dripping wet from a hasty shower. Weatherwax High school is behind us, as grey and dismal as the cloudy late spring day. But nothing about it is the slightest bit amusing because she’s talking about me.
“Totally hilarious. Not.” I hoist my backpack as we head to the senior lot. Every day after soccer and yearbook she gives me a ride home. It’s always the part of my day.
I study her face as we walk to her car. “WTF? You serious?”
She nods. “As a heart attack. They posted the announcement right after third period. Heather Davis is having conniption fits. She was a mess at practice. Of course coach didn’t notice. Get this: Heather said that having you run for prom queen demeans the institution. Like prom queen is freaking Secretary of State or something.”
I’m not listening. I’m too busy staring at the jagged dents in someone’s Taurus, working myself into grade A panic attack. My palms sweat, my heart flips. I have survived high school like a barnacle clinging to the edge of a deep water reef, hunkering down. Being nominated for prom queen is dangerously close to the surface. People could and will talk. When you’re popular, like Heather, you don’t mind because most of it is sheer jealousy. In my case, it’s poisonous darts aimed at my exposed hide. Nikki, with her sky blue luck and rock solid family, of course, doesn’t get this. “Why would someone nominate me?”
She frowns, balancing on me to take a rock out of her fancy Nike slide. “Um, because you’re freaking awesome?”
Right. There is a small fringe minority that when pushed, might call me, at very best, nice. But the majority of the school actively despises me. As in, if burning at the stake were still a thing, they’d whip out their Zippos. “Nikki, they’re doing it because I’m gay and they think it’s funny. It’s like nominating a whale for mayor.”
She sighs. “I would totally vote for the whale. Who cares? Do it.”
Nikki is this horrible living, breathing Nike ad. She never dwells on the negative because an obstacle is something she effortlessly sails over or dies trying, bashing her head against it like a deranged water buffalo until she find another goal. When I was first slapped with the word “gay,” she didn’t let me moan or complain or feel sorry for myself unless we were otherwise occupied in something she deemed positive, like doodling mustaches on fashion magazine models or having a two person MTV dance-a-thon in her living room. Although it’s seriously irritating, she’s my lifeline. She’s the Ernie to my Bert, the Charlie Brown to my Lucy. Nikki’s parents are people who protest, people who believe in causes; people who think their opinions matter. Nikki inherited their oppressively optimistic genes. I don’t even want to think about what I’ve inherited.
“Heather will not just have a cow if I run; she’ll have kittens, followed by puppies and a variety of other small mammals.” We reach the student parking lot. Fat raindrops flop onto the pavement. On the Washington coast, we don’t have weather. We have rain. “She’ll kill me.”
Nikki rakes through her backpack for the car keys. “No, that’s too dirty for Heather. She’ll order one of her flunkies to plant weed or a fifth of vodka in your locker.”
“Now you’re just scaring me.”
“Which is exactly why you need to run.” She struggles with the car lock. If all the rust in the world suddenly vanished, Nikki’s mom’s Volvo would collapse. “If there ever was someone who needed an opponent, it’s Heather Freaking Davis.”
She’s a little too thrilled about this. Also, she has her own reasons for hating Heather Davis. “Did you nominate me? Is this about you and Heather on the soccer field?” Or Paul?
“No,” she says a little too quickly, followed by, “Although I do think it was a brilliant idea.” It’s about Paul.
“That Noelle girl is running. Little House on the Prairie Girl.” So named for her Holly Hobby get ups. We’ve had many a discussion about Noelle, who really needs to tell her mother to piss off and buy her own clothes. We get into the car.
“Noelle has as much charisma as a pack of gum,” pronounces Nikki.
“I’ve met some very charismatic packs of gum in my day. Fruit Stripe has a zebra that plays soccer. Beat that!”
Nikki whips her wet hair into a questionable crumb-covered scrunchie she finds on the floor. “See, you’re very funny. Charisma. You’ve got loads.”
Staring out the window, I touch a hole in my Goodwill bargain bin jeans. “Funny isn’t what people look for in a prom queen. Big boobs and a bitchy alpha personality is what the people want.”
“Heather Davis. You’re saying they want Heather Davis.”
God help me she has that look. “She will win. It’s written in stone somewhere. If she doesn’t win, I’m pretty sure she and her mother will melt into green puddles topped with pointy hats. Her birth certificate says Heather Davis, future prom queen, class of 1993.”
Nikki gives me a long, loaded look. “Unless you win.” If you want Nikki to do something, tell her she can’t.
“As the only person on this earth who knows that you still have a collection of My Little Ponies in your closet, will you please, for the love of god, drop this? There isn’t going to be a Big Gay Prom.”
She puts the car in reverse and guns it backwards without a glance. Luckily there is no one behind us. Nikki’s attitude toward driving is the same as her attitude about life: look out world, here I come. “I totally would have dropped this until you said big gay prom. I can see the posters now. It’s going to be freaking awesome.”
I groan. “Look, I get enough notoriety as it is and trust me, it sucks. I don’t need any more.” This would be a great time to tell her about PC. I almost did once, sophomore year while watching a cheesy afterschool movie-of-the-week where this beefy white kid picked on this stuttering Hispanic. The white kid threw rocks, knocked him off his bike and then tried to drown him at the pool. PC started calling me lezzie lesbo in 9th grade, getting nastier when his friends were around. Then it was hallway spitting, a push from behind. The first time he tripped me, I decided to memorize his schedule and avoid him, even if I had to walk outside in the rain. I have to tell someone before things get worse. I really, really need to. That would be the mature, healthy thing to do.
Apparently I’m not mature or healthy.
Apparently I’m a big fat chicken.
I knew Fran wouldn’t want to run for prom queen. As soon as I heard about it in fifth period I knew two things for sure. One: she had, had, had to do it and two: that she wouldn’t want to. But if I have one gift in life, it’s talking Fran into shit she doesn’t want to do. See, Fran’s whole life is about not being noticed. The one time she was caught off guard and shared something personal it led to her being outed in the most brutal way possible and since that moment, in the summer between 8th and 9th grade, she’s been shrinking into herself. She’s like this human sink hole that has been slowly but surely caving in. One day she’s going to disappear. As her best friend I’m not going to let that happen. Not on my freaking watch.
Did I mention I’m very good at getting my own way? Not just with Fran but with everyone. Maybe I learned it from my dad, who is a public defender. He loves arguing with me about everything, even stupid things like do eggs really need refrigerating or if I deserve to drive after those dumb neighbors said I came too close to their stupid kid and the other one who ratted me out for running over their boxwood hedge. I’m like a dog in a fight. I just go for the neck and hang on like hell until I wear my dad out. Most of the time, it works.
Although I can’t put my finger on it, something is going on with Fran. She’s distracted and jittery and just not herself. She thinks I can’t see it but there’s something dark and ugly eating at the edges of her mind. Even my mom has noticed because Fran has been keeping her distance, not hanging out with my family as often, making me look bad by clearing the table and complimenting my mom’s cooking. Fran needs a distraction.
Prom queen is ideal.
Maybe a place like Aberdeen isn’t the obvious choice to talk your gay best friend into running for something as conventional as prom queen. Sometimes the most ludicrous ideas turn out to be the best.
Fran Worthy is so totally running for prom queen, whether she knows it or not.
When we turn into her house, Mrs. Worthy’s latest live-in loser staggers outside, bellowing at Fran, telling her to get inside for dinner, she’s late. Except he doesn’t say, “Hey Fran, come in for dinner,” like a normal person. He says, “Get inside for fucking dinner. You’re fucking late.”
Yeah, welcome home.
Fran needs to escape that broken down shack and start living.
Winning prom queen is the first step. And no, the fact that Paul is dating Heather has nothing to do with it. Okay, well, maybe a little. If Fran won and Heather was denied prom queen that would be the icing on the cake.
Did I mention that I hate Heather?
There. I said it.
I hate Heather.
She’s mean. And tiny. And beautiful.
Also – she’s dating the guy I’ve been in love with years. At soccer day camp we’d sit in the shade under a clump of pine trees and share sticky fruit rolls, talking about how we both hoped to make the high school team. He was the kind of player people talked about. We both knew he’d make varsity his freshman year but he wasn’t cocky or boastful. For nine days I thought I actually had a chance with him until I saw him squinting into the sunlight at Heather, tracking her high blond pony tail across the bright green field.
At that moment I knew I’d lost him, possibly forever.
The last thing dad said when ditched us was, “Son, I sure as hell hope you understand women better than I do because they are a foreign species.”
Of course, dad didn’t leave a forwarding address or much of anything else so if I did puzzle anything out in that department, I wouldn’t be able to contact him. But no, I cannot figure women out, least of all Heather. You’d think after chasing a girl for year and dating her for three, you’d know more than you did at square one. Nope. Doesn’t work that way.
Heather is yelling at me because Fran Worthy was nominated for prom queen. When I first heard about it in the locker room I didn’t think much about it. Yes, Heather informed me sophomore year that as her boyfriend, I would be prom king but honestly, who cares? You stand on stage like a moron with a crown on your head. Your friends, who would cut off your balls if Heather crooked her perfect little finger, will make fun of you unless you break the stupid crown in half, which will piss off Heather. It’s all just high school drama. I have legit concerns, like keeping my turd brother from drinking all the grocery money. Heather sees it as the first tier of world domination. Ninety-nine percent of the school wants to bed her or be her. Popularity is her drug of choice and honestly, living on Planet Heather is exciting. Sometimes though, I wonder. Dating her is like a full time job.
As far as I know anyone is allowed to be nominated for prom queen but that’s not the way Heather sees it. She’s pacing up and down in her kitchen, screaming about how this is totally wrong and nobody is going to stand for it, getting herself worked up. By the time her mother comes in and drops her purse on the kitchen table Heather is full on screaming.
“Paul! Do something!” Heather’s mom yells like I know how to control her daughter. Nobody talks Heather out of anything, least of all me.
Not only have I not figured out women, I have not figured out Heather. When I heard she wanted to go out with me it was like being smacked with a meteor. Her dad is an orthodontist and their house looks like something out of a magazine. When Lyle Dennam told me at soccer practice that Heather wanted me to ask her out, I kind of freaked. A girl like Heather could have any guy she wanted. Why in the hell did she want me?
By the time Heather’s mom has calmed her down, we’re all sitting at the kitchen table drinking Diet Cokes. Well, Heather’s mom is drinking wine. After the first glass she’s up to speed.
“She’s a lesbian, mom! I’m running against a freaking lesbian.”
“Don’t swear honey, it’s vulgar.”
“Freaking is not swearing. Tell her Paul, it’s not swearing.”
Mrs. Davis glares at me so I mumble something.
“Paul, stick up for me here. Why are you being so quiet?” Heather snaps, crunching her ice.
“It’s not really swearing.”
“I meant about Fran!” Heather coughs as she accidentally swallows some ice. “Whose side are you on? I swear to god I’m going to start screaming if you don’t show me more support.”
I know it won’t do any good to point out that she’s already been hollering pretty much nonstop since we entered her house. Her Pekinese dogs trail her around like yapping wind-up toys. Between them and her screaming I have a massive headache. This was supposed to be a ride home after soccer but she was so upset I came inside even though I haven’t showered and it’s my night to cook. Mom will come home late to no supper, talking about how all the men in her life continually let her down.
I told Heather all this in the car and yet here I am. Heather has this way of almost crying that makes her cornflower blue eyes the size of dinner plates. When those suckers brim with tears, I panic, as if someone is dangling a mewing kitten over a vat of boiling water. She knows that I will do absolutely anything to avoid watching her cry. Anything. Even when it’s something outside my control; it’s my fault. Although it’s irrational, it’s predictable. Heather counts on it.
Mrs. Davis is patting Heather’s arm, giving me a cold look like I’m the biggest loser in the world. Like if I were a better boyfriend, I would be coming up with a plan that would soothe her troubled child. They both have this way of making me feel completely useless. As if they got the same manual on dealing with men that includes tips like Give the man a dirty look when you are dealing with an emotional woman. It will make the man feel like he’s not doing his job and you’re doing it for them. Then they’ll be in your debt, right under your thumb. This is where you want them. Always.
Heather likes dating me because I’m captain of the soccer team and thinks we look good together. I compliment her petite frame, making the other girls jealous. Yes, she’s high maintenance and makes me feel like an idiot. But when a girl like Heather likes you, you go out with her. That’s just how it works.
Mrs. Davis’ diamonds sparkle in the overhead light. The kitchen, like the rest of the house, is blindingly white. Even the dogs look bleached, with matching white satin bows holding the hair out of their beady little eyes. One of them bit me the first time I came over. Heather said, “Oh my god – isn’t that cute?” I’d love to put those dogs outside and see if eagles carry them off. That would be awesome.
Heather’s mom shoots me another look while talking to her daughter. “Don’t you worry about a thing, honey. I’ll go talk to Principal P and work this out. He cannot allow a lesbian girl to run for prom queen.”
“Why not?” I blurt, like a total moron. I know Fran. If it wasn’t common knowledge, I wouldn’t even know she was gay. She doesn’t look or act different. She’s just a pretty, normal girl, as far as I can tell.
Heather and her mom whip their heads around so fast they are a blur of tawny blonde hair and Chicklet teeth. Identical blue eyes narrow in on me, making me itch with nerves. These are two women I do not want gunning for me.
“Paul are you saying that Fran is a more suitable choice for prom queen than your own girlfriend?” Mrs. Davis doesn’t let me answer, just plows ahead, tapping the table with one long nail. “Do you think that it’s okay to have a known lesbian represent the student body and set an example for the students?” She wrinkles her nose when she says lesbian. I open my mouth to respond but she keeps on. “Do you think the school should uphold that kind of deviant behavior?”
Finally, she stops. Heather studies me critically. “Paul?” she says, sniffing delicately. Oh no, she’s going to cry. Shit. Better choose my words carefully.
“She won’t win. I mean, obviously.”
Heather feels a little bit better but her mother is still pissed. “True. But do you honestly feel I can sit back and let this girl mock my daughter?”
I don’t really see the problem. Heather will win. She’ll drag me up on stage wearing some monkey suit and I’ll stand there like a jerk, holding her hand. Running against Fran won’t change anything except maybe people will talk about Fran, which is probably what this is about.
“No, I guess not.”
Heather’s mom stands, dusting off her immaculate hands. “You guess not?” She tucks her thick hair behind an ear studded with a fat diamond. “Paul honey, you’d better think long and hard about this. There is a right side and wrong side to this issue and you do not want to be coming down on the wrong side. Things could get very ugly for you.”
Outside I sit in my car for a very long time. I’d just been threatened by my girlfriend’s mother. Things are getting very weird. And they are about to get a hell of a lot weirder.
Mom and Dwayne both turn to stare at me, when I come in the front door, which is strange. What is even more bizarre is that they are sitting at the little rickety linoleum table in the kitchen like some 1950’s family, if 1950’s fashion included mullets and acid washed jeans. We never eat together. Ever.
The first time I went to dinner at Nikki’s house I automatically carried my dinner into the den to watch TV. I didn’t think it was physically possible to digest food away from the television. I mean, sure, I saw TV families eating together but I didn’t know it happened in real life. Normally when I come home mom is glued to the TV in the tiny room off the kitchen with her hand in a box of Wheat Thins. Dwayne is in his “lounge” in carport with the ugly lamp glowing and his bigger, better TV.
The Outdoor Lounge was my mom’s idea. One of the many things she didn’t think about when she dragged him home was that our house would shrink. Although my whole life we’d lived with an assortment of her boyfriends, we’d had an entire year in this house to ourselves. So when Dwayne moved in with his big loud voice and explosive farts, there was no place to escape. I could hear every move he made from the paper thin walls of my bedroom. He’d watch sports late into the night, yelling at the television. So Mom convinced him that the carport was an extension of the house, like a den, without walls. But, instead of removing him, the lounge just put him on display, like a Komodo Dragon nduring the rain until it smells meat nearby. When he coated the television with shrink wrap to keep out the moisture it was a proud moment.
Mom came up with the term lounge. I came up with the term White Trash Terrace.
As I stand there studying him, Dwayne puts down his Oly and pushes out my chair with his foot. “Drink some fucking milk.”
I resist the urge to sneer, “Why thank you Dwayne.”
I cautiously sit and peel back the tinfoil from my Hungry Man. Inside is a gelatinous grey substance that could be road kill. Dwayne sees my distaste, adding, “You need to put some meat on you. Maybe you’ll grow some boobs.” He chuckles as if this is hilarious.
A note about Dwayne’s sense of humor: he doesn’t have one. Or rather, what he thinks is funny just isn’t.
Mom says “Du-wayyyyyne,” as if she knows it’s weird that her boyfriend just commented on my breasts or lack thereof and yet she’s going to put up with it because Dwayne helps with the rent and she doesn’t want to live with Grandma June who lives above a biker bar. Once a year, at my request, we have dinner together. Mom and grandma drink cheap wine. By the time we get to dessert they’re telling each other how the other one ruined their lives.
So that was Christmas.
While I’m drinking my milk, Dwayne points out that he chose the Salisbury steaks especially for me, which is ironic because I’m a vegetarian. “Thanks.”
When Dwayne moved in two years ago Mom neglected to mention the whole vegetarian thing. The gay thing was off the table too since mom and I have never discussed it.
Grandma June say the reason mom hates her is because she refuses to act like life is one big movie. “No one in the movies ever takes a crap. That’s the kind of life your mom wants. Crap free.”
Our conversations center on things like did I prefer Elizabeth Taylor’s ravishing beauty in “Cleopatra” or the fresh-faced girl in “National Velvet?” Was Faye Dunaway prettier in Bonnie and Clyde or “The Eyes of Laura Mars?” According to Mom, Vivien Leigh should have ditched “A Streetcar Named Desire” ‘cause the costumes were boring. Not like “Gone with the Wind.”
Dwayne discovered that I was gay from someone at his uncle’s hardware store who had a kid at the high school. I had become known as That Lesbian Girl or That Freak or this year, compliments of PC, That Fucking Dyke. The day Dwayne found out he came home furious, informing me that although it was perfectly acceptable to show girl-on-girl action in Playboy magazine, he wasn’t going to live with a “rug munching pervert” because it was “against the laws of nature.”
I didn’t ask him what laws of nature he was following. Nor did I point out that homosexuality abounds in nature. I just went into my room and listened to Nevermind three times in a row with the volume cranked at ten on my Walkman.
There are a couple things in life that Kurt Cobain’s wailing voice can’t soothe but I don’t know what they are. And I don’t really care. Summer of 1990 I wandered into Disc Jockey Records in the corn-dog scented South Shore Mall. I had an hour to kill while Nikki and her mom shopped for school clothes. The manager was listening to Bleach so I sat down on a milk crate and stayed until it was done. Then I asked him to play it again. After the third spin, I got up the courage to ask him about the band. When he told me that they were originally from Aberdeen I just about swallowed my tongue. The idea that someone from Aberdeen had produced music that was played on the radio blew me away. Not just any record, a record filled with rage and anger, detachment and loneliness. The kind of record I could listen to every single day a hundred times, letting the music sink into my skin until it became part of me.
It was the first time music didn’t just sound good, it sounded like my life. Nirvana’s songs cracked me open like a nut. All I wanted was more. More music, more time, more freedom from a life that dragged me down. The manager hadn’t ordered any more copies because no one would buy it locally but when I asked, he promised he’d order me a copy.
That record changed my life. Saved my life.
Moving the dripping hamburger patty around, I study Dwayne, knowing he has a scheme. I can see it in his beady eyes when he nods meaningfully at my Mom. “Tell her doll baby.”
Doll baby knits her brows like she knows this is a bad idea but also, she likes being able to afford meat. Two summers ago we subsisted primarily on day old fruit pies she carried home from work. By the time they reached us, they were smashed and nasty. She told me not to worry. Plenty of girls grow up and marry rich men. Look at Audrey Hepburn in “Sabrina.” Also, “How to Marry a Millionaire.” Marilyn Munroe knew her stuff. And Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.” If I just paid more attention to her movies, I’d stop being such a silly worry wart. By the end of the month, after we’d spent our food stamps, my mouth would break out in canker sores. I’d beg her to please go to the food bank.
“It’s humiliating,” she’d mumble, eyes glued to the TV. I’d point out that since we didn’t have a dental plan (or any other plan) we’d better get some canned vegetables or something. Half the town skulked down to the food bank. No wonder so many people in Aberdeen thought suicide was a good exit strategy.
I can tell by the way Mom’s eyes pin-ball around that Operation Saving Fran isn’t her idea. Confrontation isn’t her style. But she’ll go along with it. And if I want a roof over my head, I will too.
Forcing my face into a smile, I listen to their plan to ruin my life.