At least, that’s what I’d thought until I pictured what I must look like with a new red bump from Addison’s baton on top of my already prominent schnoz. There went any chance I’d had of capitalizing on my guy’s interest in me.
I tried to resign myself to this and concentrate on making the pain go away. Ever since Addison had broken my nose, when I got hit there, it was like getting hit on my funny bone, a deep inescapable pain so bad it almost tickled. Pesky anger at her remained. But she didn’t always mess things up for me and boys, did she? No, because I had never had any “things” with boys before. She only had a habit of embarrassing me in front of guys who mattered to me, whether I mattered to them or not.
“All right, ladies!” the instructor called. The other girls stopped twirling and gathered around her to hear her last few tidbits of wisdom while I stood behind them, clutching my nose, wishing the pain would suddenly clear so I could smile over at the boys like it was no harm, no foul. The pain would not relent.
There was a rush around me as we were released from camp. “Here,” Addison said, pulling one of my hands free from my nose and thrusting something into it, which felt like my baton bag with all three batons inside. Then I was being dragged across the grass by my elbow, which of course was attached to my arm, attached to my hand, pressed desperately to my throbbing nose. She was dragging me over to those boys anyway.
“Really?” I asked. My voice came out extra nasally.
“Really,” Addison said. “And if you can’t say anything non-snarky, please say nothing at all.” We reached the sideline, and she let go of my elbow. “I saw you staring,” she told the boys. “You boys like what you see?”
“She is completely serious,” I explained to them with my hand still to my nose.
Both boys laughed. My guy asked me, “Are you okay?”
He was tall and paler than most of the football players we’d seen who’d been frying in the sun all summer. His deep black hair had resisted any reddish sun streaks and fell into his eyes. A perfect combination of sinewy body and delicate features, he looked like the lead singer for a Japanese pop band. Everybody at my school thought these bands were cool and had posters of them in their lockers, though nobody actually listened to their music because hello, their lyrics were in Japanese. In short, I had wondered from a distance whether this boy was hot, and he was.
I had given up on attracting him, though. Now it was only a matter of waiting until Addison was through throwing herself at these boys so we could go home. I would have preferred to make my way home on the MARTA subway by myself, clutching what was left of my face and my dignity. But Addison’s mom would be horrified, and I would get in trouble with my mom if I left Addison to fend for herself in downtown Atlanta, even though Addison was six months older than me and had never missed a chance to remind me of this and boss me around when we were younger.
“I’ll be okay in a minute,” I mumbled. Still squinting against the pain, I released my nose, felt around for the metal bench that I’d noticed earlier, and sat down. I waved at them dismissively. “Y’all don’t mind me. Flirt away.”
Addison grilled the guys. “Who were you really watching?”
My guy laughed as the blond one exclaimed, “You!” He was cute too, but big enough to look dangerous. He stood with his muscular arms crossed like he was uncomfortable, protecting his tender feelings.
“Out of all those girls?” Addison asked, tilting her head so that her long blond hair curved down around her boob on one side, and—oh my God, was she pointing both toes in like a two-year-old? Yes, she was. “You’re just saying you were watching me because I’m the one who came over here.” The first intelligent words she’d uttered.
“Nooooo,” said my guy. “We were watching you and your friend here. We were fascinated by that flippy thing you do with your baton.”
“This?” Addison asked.
I deduced from the whirring noise that she was demonstrating her skills for them again. For safety, I slid farther away from her on the bench, then gingerly touched my nose. It would stay on. I dabbed my fingertips under my eyes to make sure my mascara hadn’t run when I teared up. I wasn’t wearing foundation because I would just sweat it off in the summer heat, but I was wearing heavy eye makeup, as always, to go with the purple streaks in my hair. If you were going to have purple hair, it didn’t seem right to dress down.
“We’re taking the MARTA home,” Addison chirped, “but we’re stopping by the Varsity for dinner first.”
This was not strictly true. Addison had said we should stop there for dinner. I had told her no. The Varsity served killer burgers and dogs and fries. It was exactly the kind of place I tried to stay away from now that I was losing weight.
“Y’all want to come with us?” she asked.
“Addison,” I said sternly. “They could be serial killers.”
“That’s a separate camp,” said my guy.
“We could be the serial killers,” Addison protested. “Are you boys scared we’ll attack you if you walk to the Varsity with us? Chicken? Bock-bock-bock!” She led the way out of the stadium, with the guy formerly known as my guy beside her.
Shaking my head to clear it of the pain, I used my baton as a walking stick and hoisted myself up from the bench. With nothing else to do but trail along like lost puppies, the quarterback and I fell in behind Addison and my kicker. Awk. Ward!
So it was clear from the beginning that Addison and my guy, her chosen one, were bonding. The odd man out and I, who had no interest in each other, were waiting around for them until they finished.
I should have been thrilled that we were hanging with these boys who didn’t know I’d been fifty pounds heavier last November. Their names were Clean and Slate. But if I’d thought my only problem was being overweight, that idea faded as I tried to come up with something to say to this blond demigod. All the stars were aligned and I still couldn’t make small talk. Meanwhile, Addison walked ahead of us, chatting away with my guy.
In these situations I found it best to call up a surge of adrenaline and pretend to be extroverted. I’m not saying it was best. My extroverted imitation tended to get out of hand sometimes. I’m just saying I found it best. I switched my baton bag to my left hand and stuck out my right hand. “I’m Gemma Van Cleve, by the way.”
“I’m Carter Nelson.” The blond took my hand and moved it up and down gently, like he was afraid of breaking it. Which was good, because his huge, meaty paw could have wrapped around my hand twice if he were exceedingly limber and human anatomy worked that way.
“And that’s Max Hirayama.” He nodded toward my guy and Addison as we emerged onto the tree-lined sidewalk.
Addison looked around like she was disoriented until Max pointed to the left. “This way,” he said.
“Wow, how do you know your way around so well?” Addison asked in the you-are-so-big-and-strong voice she used when flirting with boys or getting pulled over for speeding by policemen.
“My dad is a professor here,” Max said.
“Your dad is a professor at Georgia Tech?” Addison shrieked. “You must be so smart! You must think we’re so stupid!”
I wanted to suggest that she stop tossing that we around so loosely. But the two of them had headed up the sidewalk, leaving Carter and me behind.
Then I remembered that I was pretending to be a person who actually wanted to talk to other people. “And that’s Addison Johnson,” I told Carter. “Where are y’all from?”
He named a high school just southeast of ours. They were one of our biggest rivals in academics, band, and sports, but especially football. “Oh, we play you our first game!” I burst out. “We’re going to kick your ass.”
I was kidding, of course. Both teams were great, and the outcome of the game was always a toss-up. Carter should have understood and responded with a grin and a snappy comeback.
But Max overheard me, stopped, and turned to stare at me wide-eyed in horror as Carter moaned, “Ooooooh, don’t say that where Max can hear you. He’s a kicker, and kickers are superstitious.”
Addison turned too and narrowed her eyes at me, angry that I was sabotaging her chance with Max. As my body went into fight-or-flight mode, everything seemed to intensify: the glare of the early evening sun, the heat radiating from the sidewalk, the smell of asphalt, the swish of cars down the university road, and the softer roar of cars on the interstates tangled around the skyscrapers nearby. I hated when Addison got mad at me and gave me the cold shoulder until she needed something from me. Most of the time I hadn’t meant to offend her, and there was nothing I could have done to prevent it. This time I honestly didn’t understand what was so awful about what I’d said.
I cleared my throat and timidly tried to repair the damage. “Superstitious, how?”
“Max has never missed a kick in a game,” Carter said.
“Wooowwwww,” Addison said, even though she probably didn’t even know what a record like that meant. I did, and I understood how impressive it was.
Carter shrugged. “He didn’t start last year, so he didn’t get that many chances.”
“I made the kick every chance I had,” Max defended himself.
“And when he made the first one,” Carter said, “Max decided that everything has to go exactly the same way before games, or his mojo will disappear. It’s ridiculous. He wears the same underwear every time.”
Now Max was eyeing Carter with a look that said, Shut up, Carter. I knew how Max felt.
To lighten the mood, I asked Max, “Do you wash this underwear?”
“I do,” he confirmed, but not in his jovial tone. He started walking toward the Varsity again. We all followed.
“Everything’s already breaking routine,” Carter went on. “Our first game won’t be like the games last year. He met a beautiful girl from our rival team at football camp. And then she tells him he’s going to get his ass kicked? You’ve just caused Max a lot of sleepless nights.”
“Gemma!” Addison reprimanded me, sliding her hand around Max’s forearm.
Rather than being angry with Addison for being angry with me, now both of us were mad at me. I had ruined adorable Max’s chance at a perfect season. He would probably get addicted to crack next, and it would be all my fault.
I hung back and let Max and Addison and Carter talk, removing myself from the conversation so I wouldn’t attempt any more tricks that I wasn’t skilled enough to handle, such as friendliness, or wit. We reached the bridge over sixteen lanes of interstate traffic. To our right was my favorite view of Atlanta, with the cars whizzing below us, grassy spaces bursting with pink flowers, and skyscrapers towering above it all, their glass panels reflecting the blue sky. I pretended to concentrate on the view—no, I wasn’t pretending, I really was concentrating on it, or trying to—because I could think of nothing to say to this Carter person I’d been saddled with.
We all walked into the Varsity together but got divided at the vast counter when we placed our orders. Ten cashiers boomed, “WHAT’LL YA HAVE?” with no patience for socially handicapped teenagers. They insisted that we move the line along by splitting up instead of standing behind one another.
It was terrible of me, but I felt a brief moment of joy seeing that Max did not offer to pay for Addison’s dinner. This didn’t mean he wasn’t into her, but he definitely presented no certification that he was.
I was the last person to get served, and none of the others waited for me before sitting down. The restaurant was huge, with lots of different rooms of seating. But predictably, Max and the others were all the way in the back, in an elevated room with a view of the skyline out one wall of windows, the Georgia Tech stadium out the second, and more skyline and the 1996 Olympics torch out the third. By the time I found them, Max was on one side of the booth with Addison next to him, and Carter was on the other side. I slid into the empty space.
As I sat down, I swear Addison glanced up at me, then scooted closer to Max as if to say, Mine. Like I hadn’t gotten that message already.
“So, are you dating anybody?” she asked Max.
I cringed on her behalf. Addison had always told me there was nothing wrong with flirting, and whenever I’d advised her to tone it down, she acted like she had no idea what I was talking about. She thought she was asking a casual question, “Are you dating anybody?” when she was actually yelling at Max, “DATE ME, DATE ME, DATE ME.” At least she would run him off, talking like this. I wouldn’t land him, but she wouldn’t either.
Incredibly, Max did not ease out of the booth and run for his life. He smiled, and bright spots of color appeared on his cheeks. He said, “No, I’m not dating anyone right now.”
“He makes girls mad,” Carter laughed.
Max gave Carter another warning look, then gave up and chuckled along with him.
Addison gasped at Max. “You?”
I could only imagine what Carter meant, if both boys found it so funny. Maybe Max was known as a heartbreaker around his school. I could understand that. He was so handsome, with the edges of his eyes crinkling as he smiled.
Registering Carter’s voice and remembering that he was sitting at the table too, Addison turned to him. “What about you?” she asked as an afterthought. “Dating anybody?”
“We just broke up,” Carter said.
“Awwwwww,” Addison said, poking out her bottom lip and giving him her sad, sad face.
Carter laughed again, though seemingly not out of embarrassment for her. He acted like he really enjoyed Addison’s baby face. Boys were disgusting. I attacked my dinner.