I was scared when I walked into the cafeteria, the talking, the groups of friends. I walked into the cafeteria and saw them, mermaids washed up on shore. I saw the girls in their wide-legged jeans, the thin strings around their wrists, and I felt frightened. Their hair swung down like rope. I watched the boys sharing headphones; I studied their glances, the t-shirts covered with writing, their eyelashes, the muscles on their arms.
There I am, sitting alone. I'm the ugly girl, the smart girl, the boyish girl, the loser. I'm the one who knows too much.
I sat listening while I stared intently at my lunch. I was listening to the beautiful girls. Their names were Sunday, Morgan, and Myrrh. Every now and then I looked up through my stringy hair and watched them talking. Nobody looked at me.
You know that girl I was talking about? Sunday said.
Yeah, just a minute ago?
Yeah. Well, apparently, when she went down on him she forgot that she was chewing gum.
No, I'm not.
It was a total mess.
The mermaids laughed in catty euphoria. The thunder of the lunchroom rose up behind them.
I'd like to tell you that I was better than they were, that they were dead souls, lost girls, superficial. But I wanted nothing more than to be like them. I wanted hair that swung down like rope.
This is what's happening: I'm running away. Away from these memories, away from myself. But the faster I run, the faster they follow me, until they're ahead of me and I'm running into them. I run into them like a girl stepping inside the movie screen. I run into them, and my world turns from black-and-white to color.
I run straight inside my eye. It's ten feet tall.
He walked into the cafeteria with his hands in his pockets and the strap of his bag across the front of his chest like a sash. The cafeteria was noisy and the tables were full and the women behind the food counter were wearing hair nets and bending over and scooping tuna fish out with ice cream scoops. He stood on line, accepted what they offered, and then walked slowly in my direction to the table with the beautiful girls. He laid down his tray and nodded and lifted the strap over his head and set his bag down gently on a seat. He sat down and put his elbows on the table and leaned forward and smiled with his eyes.
Sunday stuck out her arm in front of his face.
Smell my perfume. Isn't it amazing?
Yeah, amazing. He took a swig of soda.
Who's your friend?
Sunday shook her hair out behind her and pulled her knees up to rest against the table.
Why don't you find out? She said.
He took a bite of food and a long sip of soda.
You guys are friendly, he said. Then, showing them how it's done: I'm Tobey. What's your name?
I lifted my eyes. My face went hot, a stick of cartoon dynamite exploding inside my head.
I heard the girls laugh under their breath.
Hi, Beckett. This is Sunday, Morgan, and Myrrh.
The three girls glanced at me, nodded, and glanced away. He was enjoying playing the adult.
Where you from? What school?
You wouldn't know it, it's far away.
He waited for more. Long island. Way out on the North Fork.
He nodded and took another mouthful of food. Sunday squirmed in her seat and lowered her eyelids. Myrrh was wearing a wool cap and a tank top with her bra straps showing, and she stood up and walked over behind Sunday and started playing with Sunday's hair.
I took a deep breath.
Myrrh, I said. That's a cool name. How did you get it?
Parents were hippies.
Used to be.
From Innocence : A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn. © September 2000 , Jane Mendelsohn used by permission of the publisher, Riverhead.
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