I touched it gingerly. “Still there.” I’d hardly thought about it when Max and Carter weren’t staring at me anymore.
“Good. First week of school treat you okay?”
“Band practice was great. We just work on our majorette routine for the whole hour every day. I can’t believe I get a credit for that.”
I didn’t tell Max about the drama. Mrs. Baxter had dumbed down the routine because Addison and one of the seniors couldn’t keep up with all the tricks she’d planned. Then Addison had gotten so embarrassed that she’d asked me to work with her after school. I’d told her I couldn’t because I had to teach a class of fourth graders at the baton studio. She’d gotten mad.
“That sounds fun,” Max said diplomatically.
“Yeah. And I switched my schedule around at the last minute. Our school has a great dance program that I never took advantage of before. I guess making majorette finally gave me the confidence to enroll in dance.” I left out that I’d always wanted to take my school’s dance classes, but there was no way. Every one of them required at least two public performances. In a leotard. I’d taken music classes instead.
I also left out that I hadn’t informed Addison of my decision beforehand. When she’d found out I wasn’t in music comp with her like I usually was, she’d gotten mad.
“That’s good,” Max said.
“I hope. And I’m getting a lot of attention for dating Carter.”
Max stopped at an intersection and turned to face me. “What kind of attention?”
I shrugged. “You know.”
He continued to watch me, which was frustrating. Max had seemed like a person I didn’t have to explain things to. He usually knew what I meant, or acted like he did. That’s why he was fun to talk with. Now that he was pressing me to be specific, talking with him wasn’t fun. I racked my brain for an answer that wouldn’t be embarrassing.
There wasn’t one.
I said slowly, “Attention in general. I never got any before.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“It’s just because I’m a majorette now, and I’m going out with the rival football team’s quarterback. It’s something for people to gossip about.”
In fact, I had heard a rumor that Robert had gotten jealous of Carter and was planning to ask me out. It hadn’t happened yet, but I had caught Robert staring at me a few times in band when I’d performed spin-turns he wasn’t expecting. Funny how I would have been so excited about that four months ago. I would have checked my cell phone twenty times a day, hoping he would text me. But after he’d been so unsupportive during majorette tryouts and spent a whole summer pretending I didn’t exist, I’d gotten to the point that I didn’t miss Robert at all.
And now that I’d met Max, it was difficult to remember why Robert had ever seemed like the perfect guy for me.
Just my luck.
“Are they gossiping about Addison going out with the rival football team’s kicker?” Max asked.
“Not so much,” I said truthfully. Addison had gotten mad about this, too. In fact, as we’d walked around school together, people had stopped to ask me about Carter a lot more than they’d talked to Addison about Max. She might be having second thoughts about which boy she’d chosen.
That was okay. Tonight she’d have a great time with Max. Carter could continue to test how long he could go without saying anything. Or anything nice. And Addison would realize that she’d chosen the better man after all.
Max was still frowning at me.
“Bless your heart.” I patted his bare knee playfully and tried to ignore the fact that his muscular leg was as hard as a rock. “I appreciate you, Max. I think you’re gossip-worthy. Now drive.”
Obediently he faced forward and accelerated through the four-way stop, but a worried crease remained between his brows. He was disturbed that Addison hadn’t gotten as much social mileage out of dating him as I’d gotten out of dating Carter. He should be disturbed. It served him right for asking her out instead of me, because I certainly wouldn’t have let something like that bother me if I were his date.
But I didn’t want to argue with Max all the way to the shopping center where we were meeting Addison and Carter. I should make polite conversation and ask Max how his first week of school was.
Before I could get the words out, he asked, “What made you decide to lose weight?”
Heat rushed to my face, as it always did when someone mentioned my weight. It took me a few seconds to remember that there wasn’t anything to feel self-conscious about now.
A second wave of blush hit my face as I realized why he was asking. He had met my mother. While I had lost weight, she had kept gaining. By now the contrast between us was getting pretty noticeable.
The silence had stretched so long that most people would backtrack and retract the question, thinking they had offended me. Not Max. He shot me a quick, expectant glance. I reminded myself that he was not Robert. Robert asked questions to embarrass me and put me in my place. Max asked questions because he liked me and was interested.
I swallowed. “Addison wanted to try out for majorette. She wanted me to do it too because she thinks she can’t do anything by herself.”
Okay, Max was my friend. He had not asked me out, but he didn’t mind spending time with me. I would ruin that if I kept taking potshots at his date, who was supposed to be my dearest compadre.
I cleared my throat. “I don’t know why Addison feels that way. Anyway, she said if I told her no, it would be because I didn’t want to be seen in the majorette uniform at that weight. So . . .”
Max was supposed to take that as my answer and change the subject. But he stayed quiet. He was telling me I wasn’t done.
And I realized that I wasn’t. “She’s made comments about how I looked the whole time we’ve been friends, as if I didn’t know how much I weighed and needed to have it pointed out.”
Great, I was insulting his date again. I backtracked, “Of course, she was only trying to help. And this time, something clicked with me. I didn’t want to wear the uniform. I didn’t even want to try out. So I lost some weight. I tried out. I made it. And then I really was going to have to wear the uniform, so I lost the rest of the weight.”
“Why didn’t you just tell Addison no?” Max asked.
It was a reasonable question. But I felt violated when he asked it, like he had stepped over a line between friendly conversation and invasion of privacy. I said, “I don’t tell Addison no.”
Because she’s all I have.
I turned to the passenger window. We drove down a winding, tree-lined road with strictly manicured lush lawns on either side. There wasn’t much to hold my interest as silence filled the car. The radio tuned to Album 88 wasn’t loud enough to be distracting. Reaching down to turn up the volume would have seemed rude, something I would have done to escape an awkward silence with Carter. Not with Max.
“When are you going to stop?” Max asked.
When are you going to stop crushing on me? I went cold with panic. By degrees I realized that wasn’t what he was talking about. “When am I going to stop losing weight?” I guessed.
“Yes. Addison said you’ve already lost fifty pounds.”
“Forty-eight,” I said without thinking. I cringed internally. Thanks again, Addison, for putting the forty-eight-pounds-heavier Gemma into Max’s head! I said carefully, “I’m not judging by how much weight I’ve lost. I’m judging by the result.”
“I’m asking you about the result.” He glanced at me across the car, his long hair swinging into his eyes. He shook it away and said, “You’re not still trying to lose, are you? It seems like you’d just be maintaining at this point.”
“I am so sick of people trying to get me to stop!” I said more loudly than I’d meant to. My own voice rang in the car, an upper-class debutante-type harangue with the punk beat on the radio as a sarcastic background. All the frustration I’d felt for months came spilling out. “I used to eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. It was good. It was incredibly hard for me to stop doing that. On top of that, I work out every single day and then practice baton for at least another hour. I am proud of myself. I feel better physically. I don’t get tired when I twirl like I used to. I have accomplished something here. And all Addison and my mother can do is put milkshakes and peach cobbler in front of me and tell me to eat because I look anorexic, when I don’t! I know I don’t.”
“Yeah, Addison commented on what you were eating when we were at the Varsity.”
And you still asked her out? There was no accounting for taste.
He ran one hand back through his hair. “I know that’s hard, and I know you’ve accomplished something. I also think there’s a point where you stop losing weight in a healthy way, and it becomes an obsession. I’ve played football for years, and I’ve shared the locker room with the guys on the wrestling team.”
I knew what he was getting at. Wrestling was huge around here—not as important as football, but still popular—and boys competed by weight class, which was decided when they got on the scale right before a meet. To have the best chance of winning, they wanted to be as muscular as possible, but weigh as little as possible, and I’d heard some of them resorted to drastic measures.
“I’m not bulimic or anything like that,” I assured him. “I haven’t thrown up since I caught the flu in the sixth grade. Addison and my mom have said that to me too, like that’s the only way to lose weight.”
“I don’t mean that at all,” he said. “I’m not talking about now. I mean in the future.” Max flipped on his turn signal. While we waited for the light to change, he reached one muscular arm across the car.
I thought he would put his hand on my shoulder, as he had when my mom picked me up from the MARTA last Friday. Instead, he touched my chin with one finger. He held me there gently and made sure I was listening to him. “If you don’t have a goal, Gemma, you will never reach it.”
My whole body vibrated from his touch, and from the realization that he was right. For the past nine months, I’d arranged my life around losing weight. What was my goal?
“You can get to the point that losing weight itself is the goal,” he said, “and that’s where you get into trouble. But you could stop here, today, and say, ‘This is my goal. I don’t need to lose any more weight. I have made it.’ Wouldn’t that be a huge burden lifted off your shoulders?”
I took a long breath, considering. “I enjoy working out. It’s part of my day now, something I look forward to. And I love practicing baton. This is the first time I’ve ever felt like an athlete, and I don’t want to stop.”
“So don’t stop. You are an athlete. Keep being an athlete. Your goal now isn’t to change your body, but to keep the great body you have.”
Max had said I had a great body. Last week Carter had called me beautiful, and it had hardly registered. But Max’s words echoed in my head.
I reminded myself that he was saying that as a friend, my best friend’s date. My date’s best friend. I knew this. So I concentrated on what he was really telling me. “It would be a relief to stop buying shorts.”
“And you look great in those shorts,” he said. “You look—”
He stopped talking and put his hand down. I couldn’t blame him. Having me gape at him in the middle of his sentence was probably somewhat disconcerting.
As the turn signal tick-tocked the seconds away, he watched me with his dark eyes. He swallowed. “—great in those shorts,” he repeated.
The light changed. He swung his car into the parking lot, where Addison and Carter were waiting for us in Carter’s pickup. As we pulled in, they both got out of the truck to greet us.
Addison’s top was cut so low that I was almost embarrassed for her. I would have been, if she hadn’t been enjoying the attention. Every man who walked past her in the parking lot turned and looked. A group of boys our age even nudged one another and nodded in her direction. I could not believe her mother had let her out of the house in that—and then I saw the sweater tied around her waist. Clearly she’d left the house with the sweater covering her boobage. Ruefully I looked down at my chest, most of which I had lost along with the forty-eight pounds. Gemma Van Cleavage was no more, but I did not miss her.
My outfit went in another direction entirely. I had made damn sure that what I wore would tell Max what kind of girl I was. I was the quirky one. Since my bracelet collection had not made this obvious to him before, I had worn my necklace collection instead, and I’d touched up the purple in my hair with an even more vibrant shade.
I might have miscalculated. I had assumed Max was that rare boy who preferred the quirky friend, and that he’d mistaken Addison’s ditzy qualities for her free spirit. But when I saw the way he looked at her as we got out of his car, I knew he’d gotten what he’d asked for.
Without another word, I bailed out of the front seat of Max’s car to make room for his date. Addison edged around the car door and squeezed past me into the passenger seat. I eyed her bare boobs and whispered, “Really?”
“Really!” She grinned her majorette grin. Sometimes I wondered whether Addison was all there. She didn’t know when she was being made fun of. But this time she knew exactly what I was talking about. She jerked the door closed behind her. Through the window, I could see her leaning across the seat and giving Max a big hug hello, positioning herself so he could see down what little there was of her shirt.