Cracked Up to Be: Excerpt
Imagine four years.
Four years, two suicides, one death, one rape, two pregnancies (one abortion), three overdoses, countless drunken antics, pantsings, spilled food, theft, fights, broken limbs, turf wars–every day, a turf war–six months until graduation and no one gets a medal when they get out. But everything you do here counts.
“No, seriously, Jules, just feel around in there and tell me if you have one–”
“Fuck off, Chris–”
“And tell me where it is, the exact location.”
He reaches out and grabs me by the shoulder. I shrug, shrug, shrug him off.
“Fuck off, Chris.”
He’s been on about the G-spot for like, a week.
“Don’t fail me now, Parker. Where is it?”
“Cosmo, December ’94. The Sex Issue. Came with a map and everything.”
“Hell yes! I knew I could count on you.” He points at me, grinning, and then the grin falters and he says, “Wait. You bullshitting me?”
I make him wait for the answer because I’m bullshitting him.
“Chris, I respect you too much to do that.”
“That’s so sweet. You look good today, Parker.”
“You bullshitting me?”
“I respect you too much to do that.”
I look like shit today for a variety of reasons, but let’s start with the muddy running shoes on my feet. Running shoes are expressly forbidden to wear with the school uniform, but damned if I know where my dress shoes disappeared to between now and yesterday. And then there’s my uniform skirt, which has a mustard stain on the front because I can’t do something simple like make a sandwich for lunch without screwing it up. I plucked my rumpled polo shirt from my bedroom floor and I guess I could’ve brushed my hair if I’d wanted to forgo the bus ride and walk all ten miles to school, but supposedly if I miss any more classes I could maybe not graduate, and if I have to spend another year in this concrete block–
Principal Henley’s got her arms crossed and her eyebrows up. I bring my hands together like I’m appealing to God. I might as well be.
“One day only, Mrs. Henley. See, I got up really late and I couldn’t find my dress shoes and I was so worried about getting here on time–”
“And the hair–”
“Can be brushed,” I say, smoothing my hand over the tangles.
“You’re due at the guidance office in five minutes.”
“Oh, joy,” I say. Her eyes flash and I smile. “No, really.”
Her eyebrows go down. It’s good, but not as good as when I got away with everything. I elbow my way through a mass of people to get to my locker because there’s something immensely satisfying about the toughest part of my arm connecting with the softest part of everyone else. A shapely embodiment of a female Satan appears on the horizon, flipping her long blond hair over her shoulder as she commands the attention of her many underlings. My former underlings.
“–I just bluffed my way through it,” she’s saying as I pass. “Hey, Parker?”
I half turn. “What?”
Did you get that essay finished for Lerner?”
“That was due today?”
Becky stares at me.
“You only had the whole weekend.”
I open my locker. “Why do you sound surprised?”
“Bet you fifty bucks you’re fucked.”
“You’re on,” I say. “I can do a lot with fifty bucks.”
She laughs and heads wherever she’s heading. Cheerleading practice, maybe. No. It’s too early, and anyway, I don’t care.
I grab my English binder and flip through it until I find the page with FRIDAY and HOMEWORK scrawled messily at the top but nothing underneath. Great. The bell rings. Guidance office.
I grab my brush, slam my locker shut and race against the flow of students heading to their respective homerooms. I reach the office while the bell’s still ringing. I take a minute to catch my breath, stalling, because Ms. Grey would cream herself if she thought I actually made the effort to be on time and I don’t like giving people false hope. I count to ten and run a brush through my hair. One. Two. Three. Ten. Again. A few minutes go by. A few more.
When I finally decide to enter the office, I’m still brushing my hair.
It’s not meant to be insolent–it’s not insolent–but the thing is, I can’t stop. My hair looks fine, but I just stand there brushing it in front of Grey, who sits at her desk looking all devastated, like I’m mocking her somehow.
Sorry, I can’t stop, I want to say, but I don’t. I don’t think I’m really sorry about it, either, but she should know this isn’t some kind of slam at her for making my life a little more complicated than it already is. If it was, I’d be a lot more creative about it.
I sit down across from her and run the brush through my hair a few more times.
“You’re late,” she finally manages.
My hand relaxes. I lower the brush and rest it in my lap. Grey looks like a bird, a dead-eyed sparrow, and if I had her job, I’d want to kill myself. It’s not like well-adjusted people ever come into the guidance office. You either get the crazy underachievers or the crazy overachievers and both come with their own depressing set of problems.
I don’t know. I’d just want to kill myself if I was her, that’s all.
“Yeah,” I say. “So we’d better get on with it, huh?”
“Right.” She clasps her hands together. “You already know this, but I think it bears repeating: no cutting, no missed days, no exceptions. You will complete your homework and you will hand it in when it’s due. Off-campus lunch privileges are suspended until you can prove to us that you’re trustworthy again and–”
“But what if I wake up one morning and I can’t stop vomiting or I’m hemmorrhaging or something? Do I still have to go to school?”
She blinks. “What?”
“What if I’m really sick? What do I do then?”
“A parent would have to call in for you. Otherwise, you’ll receive a warning–”
“Right.” I nod and start chewing my thumbnail. “Okay.”
She clears her throat.
“On Friday, you’ll meet me here and we’ll talk about any troubles you might have had throughout the week, the progress you’ve made both in and out of school, and–”
“But what if I miss some assignments, though? I’ve gone so long just not doing them, I think it’s kind of unfair to expect me to get back on the ball right away. You know what I think, Ms. Grey? I think I should get a grace period.”
She leans across the desk, her dead eyes showing a rare sign of life. It freaks me out so much I have to look away.
“This is your grace period, Parker.”
Then I have to run all the way to homeroom. Mr. Bradley makes a point to glare at me when he marks down my attendance because they all must have gotten the Tough Love memo over the weekend. I pause at Chris’s desk and tap my fingers along the wood until he looks up from the math homework he’s scrambling to finish.
“Becky knows where it is.”
He laughs. “Becky? You’re talking to her now?”
“Yeah. About G-Spots. At length. She’s an expert.”
“Okay.” His pale blue eyes twinkle. “Send her up.”
I wink at him and head to the desk at the back of the room, where Becky’s alternately painting her nails and the cover of her binder with sparkly red polish. A nail here, a red heart there. I slide into the seat next to hers and I don’t waste time.
“Chris wants you.”
Her head whips up.
“Chris wants me?”
“Yeah. Go see.”
She looks from me to him to me again, to him, to me, and she grins. Chris is popular, cute, all dimples. He wears his uniform shirt a size too small because it makes his muscles look bigger than they actually are and he’s never wanted Becky before.
“Thanks,” she whispers, standing.
She squares her shoulders and walks up the aisle as sexily as she can, which is not very sexy at all. As soon as her back is to me, I grab her binder and flip through it, carefully avoiding the drying polish decorating the front. It’s so beautifully organized, I find Lerner’s essay before Becky even gets to Chris.
We were supposed to write about patriarchy and Beowulf. I had no idea we even read Beowulf, but I’m resigned to the fact I can’t bullshit my way through this essay as effortlessly as Becky probably has, and since I’m confident she can do it just as effortlessly again, I rip it from her binder.
It’s my essay now.
“He’s disgusting,” Becky says when she comes back.
The funny thing is, she won’t even notice the essay’s missing until Lerner’s class and even then she won’t suspect me, because I may have done a lot of stupid things in the last year, but that doesn’t mean I’m an essay thief. People are kind of stupid like that when they think you’re tragic. You get away with a lot even after you’re caught.
“You obviously like disgusting,” I tell her.
She smiles this big blond smile.
“He asked me out, but I wanted to make sure it’s okay with you first.”
“Screw him, Becky, I don’t care.”
“Becky, really. I don’t want to hear it. You’re dull.”
She rolls her eyes. “For five seconds, you almost seemed human.”
“Five whole seconds, huh? That’s an improvement. Tell Grey; she’ll love that.”
The bell rings and Becky lunges out of her seat. Chris waits for no one.
“Becky,” I call after her. She turns. “I hope you have that fifty on you. I’ll need it for after school.”
I copy her essay during history, unnecessarily exerting myself with a little creative rewriting so it sounds authentically Parker.
After history, I run into the new kid.
The bell has run, the halls are filtering out and when I spot him, this new kid, he’s doing that confused stumble around the halls that makes it painfully obvious he has no idea where he is. He’s got brown hair that sort of hangs into his brown eyes and I stare at him when I pass, because new kids generally can’t handle eye contact and I find that amusing. He looks about eighteen and I bet his parents are assholes to do whatever it is they did that he had to transfer in the middle of senior year.
“Hey… hey, you–girl!”
I turn slowly, debating. Do I make this easy on him or do I make it hard?
A good person would make it easy.
I decide to start with mocking and work my way up.
“Hey… hey, you–New Kid!”
He takes it well.
“Uh, yeah. Hi,” he says. “Maybe you could help me?”
“I’m late for class.”
“That makes two of us.” He smiles. “Of course, you have an advantage in that you probably know where class is. Could you tell me where Mr. Norton’s room is?”
“Sorry, New Kid. Can’t. I’m late.”
“Oh, come on. You have time–”
“No. I have no time.”
Pause, pause, pause. We stare at each other for a good minute.
“You’re just standing there,” he finally splutters. “How can you have time for that but not enough time to tell me how to get to Norton’s room?
I give him my most winning smile, shrug and resume the walk to my next class.
“Are they all like you around here?”
I wave over my shoulder, but I don’t stop.
Norton says he’s going to tell on me for being late. Henley and Grey will get the notice and I’ll have to discuss it on Friday. Why were you late, Parker? What did you think that would accomplish, Parker? And then the tough question. What destructive behaviors were you engaging in for the five minutes you weren’t in class, Parker?
I’m going to tell them I’m on the rag.
Anyway, I have two classes with Chris and this is one of them. We sit next to each other because his last name starts with E and mine starts with F. Ellory and Fadley, Winter Ball King and Queen, three years running.
I can’t stand being around him, but I fake it pretty well.
“You’re late,” Chris says. We’re working with charcoal today. He passes me a pencil and a sheet of paper. “Where were you?”
“If I told you, I’d only disappoint you.”
I start working on a charcoal blob. Abstract charcoal. Whatever. The black flakes off the pencil tip, making a nice mess of my fingers pretty quickly. Then I smudge until my masterpiece is ruined. I bet Norton will report that, too, like I didn’t try, even though it’s art, where no one should be able to tell if you’re trying or not.
The stupid thing is, I like art. I mean, it’s okay.
“Oh, Jesus yourself and take a joke,” I tell him. “There’s a new kid. He asked me directions. It took a couple minutes.”
“Oh.” He sounds relieved. “Hey, your hair looks nice all brushed like that.”
“Took you long enough to notice. It was brushed in homeroom.”
“I’ve got a date with Becky for Friday.”
“Chris and Becky,” I say thoughtfully. I try it again in Movie Announcer Voice: “Chris and Becky. Presenting Chris and Becky…”
He stares. “What?”
“It doesn’t sound right,” I declare. “There’s no ring to it.”
“Yeah, well, you broke up with me.”
“I know; I was there. And that has nothing to do with how stupid your names sound together.” I try it again: “Chris, Becky, Becky, Chris…”
He stares some more.
“Seriously, there’s a new kid? You’re not drunk?”
“No, I’m on the rag.”
Enter New Kid. The door swings open and he’s flushed and out of breath like he ran all the way here. Everyone gets quiet–fresh meat–and Norton harrumphs.
“Better late than never. Gardner, I presume?”
“Yes, sir,” Gardner mumbles. “I got lost.”
Gardner looks like he can’t believe it. “I’m new.”
“Thank you for that, Gardner. Take a seat over there, help yourself to some charcoal and paper and get to work.” Norton’s such a hard-ass. He reminds me of George C. Scott sometimes. “I expect you to be on time tomorrow.”
“That’s not the guy you gave directions to, is it?” Chris asks.
“I didn’t say I gave him directions; I said he asked me for them.”
“Christ, Parker, you’re a real bitch sometimes.”
Gardner skulks over to the table next to ours, sets up and starts drawing. I stare at him until he feels it and looks my way. His eyes widen and he points his charcoal pencil at me accusingly.
“You,” he says. “You’re in this class?”
I smile. “Hi. I’m Parker Fadley.”
Chris reaches past me, extending his hand.
“Ignore her. I’m Chris Ellory. Welcome to St. Peter’s.”
“Thanks,” Gardner says, looking relieved that they’re not all like me around here. He and Chris shake hands. “Jake Gardner. Nice to meet you.”
Now that I’ve heard his name, I’m doomed to remember it. Just more useless information taking up brain space that could be better served for more important things like… stuff. Jake and Chris talk through art and discover they have so much in common it’s amazing. Like, They Could Be Boyfriends If They Didn’t Like Vaginas So Much Amazing.
By the time the period is over, my charcoal blob has eaten all the white space but for one solitary speck to the lower left side of my paper. When Norton does his rounds, he leans over my shoulder and, in his best George C. Scott, says, “I like it.” Then he glances at Chris’s halfhearted elm and goes, “It’s always trees with you! How many times do I have to tell you to think outside the tree, Ellory?” And I laugh so hard I cry a little.
Then the bell goes off again. The bell goes off too much.
We eke our way out of the room and Chris turns to Jake and says, “We’re gonna check out the fast-food strip for lunch. Wanna come?”
“Sure,” Jake says.
“How about it, Parker?” Chris asks me. Then he brings his hands to his mouth in mock horror. “Oops, forgot. You’re not allowed off grounds for lunch anymore! Oh, snap.”
I roll my eyes. “That wasn’t a snap.”
He says something else, but I don’t hear it because I’m gone. I drop my things at my locker and search out a spot in school that isn’t around people, but there are none and that’s when I notice that the halls are way too crowded.
There are bodies everywhere.
At first I do okay. I hover by the drinking fountain and try to look like I’ve got somewhere to be. Then I start hearing this sound, like this sighing, no–not sighing. Breathing. Everyone breathing. I can hear the people around me sucking up all the fresh air, leaving nothing for me.
My chest tightens and I can’t breathe.
“I can’t breathe.”
I scare the hell out of the school nurse. He darts up from his chair and makes a big fuss while I try to explain the problem.
“I can’t breathe. The air in here is too stale…. No, my chest feels fine. Yes, I can feel my left arm…. Make them open some windows; they’re using up all the air….”
He doesn’t get it, but he directs me to a cot at the back of the room anyway. No one else is sick today, so I get a little peace and quiet. I lie on my back and scan the shelves across the room for a bottle of ipecac, but no such luck.
I close my eyes.
When I open them again, it’s last period and I’m in English and Becky is freaking out and flipping through her binder while Lerner looks on. I don’t know what she’s so worried about; she’s golden. She never misses an essay and Lerner likes her. He’s even saying, “No worries, Halprin, just get it to me by the end of the week–”
“But you don’t understand, sir; I did the essay! I had it! It was here!”
“I’m sure it will turn up,” he tells her soothingly. “Just make sure you hand it in by Friday….”
Becky looks like she’s going to cry. Lerner moves on to me.
“I don’t even have to ask, do I, Fadley?”
Lerner likes me, too. Not as much as he used to. What I like best about Lerner is he’s been teaching so long, he doesn’t waste time. He readjusted his expectations of me immediately after the first time I got wasted and fell out of my chair in class.
“I think you should,” I say, smiling. “Go on, ask.”
His mustache twitches. “Well, I’m afraid to now.”
Becky’s mouth drops open as I make a show out of taking the essay from my binder and handing it to Lerner. He stares at it, and then me, and for a second I wonder if he knows it’s Becky’s. But then he tucks it away with the other papers he’s collected and it’s good. Only I hope he doesn’t do any expectation readjusting after this because then I’ll have to disappoint him.
Becky gapes at me, still teary eyed.
“When the fuck did you do that essay?”
“History, lunch. I’ll take my fifty dollars now, please.”
“I was joking, Parker. The bet was a joke.”
But I won’t let it be a joke, so when the last bell, finally, mercifully, rings, I chase after her down the hall, screaming her name.
“Becky! Hey, Becky! Becky Halprin!”
She pauses, stuck. At one end of the hall, her posse–my old posse–and at the other end, me. She thinks about it for a minute, sighs and heads in my direction.
“What time’s your date with Chris on Friday?”
“He’s picking me up at six.”
“Do you still have that pink sweater? The one that’s supertight across the chest? You should wear that, he’d like it.” She looks all disgusted because she’s too stupid to realize I’m helping her out.
“Uh.” She blinks. “Okay. Thanks. I think.”
“No problem.” I pause. “Hey, if you’d won the bet, would it still have been a joke?”
“Becky, come on,” someone whines behind us. I glance down the hall. Sandra Morrison is tapping her foot impatiently and giving me a look of utter disdain, which is pretty amazing considering she wouldn’t have dared to do it when I was the one leading her around by the nose. Becky sighs and briefly closes her eyes before reaching into her book bag, finding her wallet and pulling out a few crisp bills.
“Thanks,” I tell her as she hands them to me. “I hope your essay turns up.”
She looks touched, like I mean it.
“I do, too. You know, Tori quit the squad. There’s a position available.”
I snort. “Like I’d ever let you captain me.”
Her mouth drops open, but I don’t give her the chance to say anything back. I walk away, get my things out of my locker and head home. I’m tired of being around people my age, so I skip the bus, make the short walk to the city’s main street and hail a cab.
I can afford it now.