YOU CAN’T JUDGE A GYM TEACHER BY HIS HANDLEBAR MUSTACHE

Lindsay and I can’t stop cracking up on the way back to school. It’s hard to explain, but I’m feeling happier than I have in years, like I’m noticing everything for the first time: the sharp smell of winter, the light strange and slanted, the way the clouds are drawing over the sky slowly. The fur of our tank tops is completely matted and gross, and we have water stains everywhere. Cars keep honking at us, and we wave and blow them all kisses. A black Mercedes rolls by, and Lindsay bends over, smacks her butt, and screams, “Ten dollar! Ten dollar!”

I punch her in the arm. “That could be my dad.”

“Sorry to break it to you, but your dad does not drive a Mercedes.” Lindsay pushes her hair out of her face. It’s stringy and wet. We had to wash off in the bathroom as the woman at TCBY screamed at us and threatened to call the police if we ever stepped foot in the store again.

“You’re impossible,” I say.

“You know you love me,” she says, grabbing my arm and huddling up next to me. We’re both freezing.

“I do love you,” I say, and I really mean it. I love her, I love the ugly mustard yellow bricks of Thomas Jefferson and the magenta-tinted halls. I love Ridgeview for being small and boring, and I love everyone and everything in it. I love my life. I want my life.

“Love you too, babes.”

When we get back to school Lindsay wants to have a cigarette, even though the bell for eighth is going to ring any second.

“Two drags,” Lindsay says, widening her eyes, and I laugh and let her pull me along because she knows I can never say no to her when she makes that face. The Lounge is empty. We stand right next to the tennis courts, huddled together, while Lindsay tries to get a match lit.

Finally she does, and she takes a long drag, letting a plume of smoke out of her mouth.

A second later we hear a shout from across the parking lot: “Hey! You! With the cigarette!”

We both freeze. Ms. Winters. Nic Nazi.

“Run!” Lindsay screams after a split second, dropping her cigarette. She takes off behind the tennis courts even though I yell, “Over here!” I see the big blond pouf of Ms. Winters’s hair bobbing over the cars—I’m not sure if she’s seen us or just heard us laughing. I duck behind a Range Rover and cut across Senior Alley to one of the back doors in the gym as Ms. Winters keeps screaming, “Hey! Hey!

I grab the handle and rattle it, but the door sticks. For a second my heart stops, and I’m sure it’s locked, but then I slam up against it and it opens into a storage closet. I jump inside and close the door behind me, heart thumping in my chest. A minute later I hear feet pound past the door. Then I hear Ms. Winters mutter, “Shit,” and the footsteps start retreating backward.

The whole thing—the day, the fight in The Country’s Best Yogurt, the almost-bust, the idea of Lindsay crouching somewhere in the woods in her skirt and new Steve Madden boots—strikes me as so funny I have to clap my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing. The room I’m standing in smells like soccer cleats and jerseys and mud, and with the stack of orange cones and bag full of basketballs piled in the corner, there’s barely enough room for me to stand. One side of the room is windowed and it looks into an office: Otto’s, probably, since he basically lives in the gym. I’ve never actually seen his office. His desk is piled with papers, and there’s a computer flashing a screen saver that looks like it’s a cheesy picture of a beach. I inch closer to the window, thinking how hilarious it would be if I could bust him with something dirty, like some underwear peeking out of a desk drawer or a porn mag or something, when the door of his office swings open and there he is.

Instantly I drop to the ground. I have to scrunch up in a ball, and even then I’m paranoid that my ponytail might be peeking up over the windowsill. It sounds stupid considering everything that’s been happening, but all I can think in that moment is, If he sees me, I’m really dead. Good-bye, Ally’s house; hello, detention.

My face is sandwiched up next to a half-open duffel bag that looks like it’s full of old basketball jerseys. I don’t know if they’ve never been washed or what, but the smell makes me want to gag.

I hear Otto moving around his desk, and I’m praying—praying —that he doesn’t come close enough to the desk to see me bellying up to a bunch of old sports equipment. I can already hear the rumors: Samantha Kingston found humping driver’s ed cones.

There’s a minute or two of shuffling, and my legs start cramping. The first bell has already rung for eighth—less than three minutes to class—but there’s no way for me to sneak out. The door is noisy, and besides, I have no way to know which direction he’s facing. He could be staring at the door.

My only hope is that Otto has class eighth, but it doesn’t sound like he’s in a hustle to be anywhere. I imagine being trapped here until school ends. The stink alone will finish me off.

I hear Otto’s door creak open again, and I perk up, thinking he’s leaving after all. But then a second voice says, “Damn. I missed them.”

I would recognize that nasal whine anywhere. Ms. Winters.

“Smokers?” Otto says. His voice is almost as high-pitched as hers. I had no idea they even knew each other. The only times I’ve ever seen them in the same room are at all-school assemblies, when Ms. Winters sits next to Principal Beneter looking like someone just set off a stink bomb directly under her chair, and Otto sits with the special ed teachers and the health instructor and the driver’s ed specialist and all the other weirdos who are on faculty but aren’t real teachers.

“Do you know that the students call that little area the ‘Smokers’ Lounge’?” I can almost hear Ms. Winters pinching her nose.

“Did you get a look at them?” Otto asks, and my muscles tense.

“Not a good one. I could hear them and I smelled the smoke.”

Lindsay’s right: Ms. Winters is definitely half greyhound.

“Next time,” Otto says.

“There must be two thousand cigarette butts out there,” Ms. Winters says. “You’d think with all the health videos we show them—”

“They’re teenagers. They do the opposite of what you say. That’s part of the deal. Pimples, pubic hair, and bad attitude.”

I almost lose it when Otto says pubic hair , and I think Ms. Winters will lecture him, but she only says, “Sometimes I don’t know why I bother.”

“It’s been one of those days, huh?” Otto says, and there’s the sound of someone bumping against a desk, and a book thudding to the ground. Ms. Winters actually giggles .

And then, I swear to God, I hear them kissing . Not little bird pecks either. Open-mouthed, slurpy, moaning kind of kissing.

Oh, shit. I literally have to bite my own hand to keep from screaming, or crying, or bursting out laughing, or getting sick—or all of the above. This. Cannot. Be. Happening . I’m desperate to take out my phone and text the girls, but I don’t want to move. Now I really don’t want to get caught, since Otto and the Nazi will think I’ve been spying on their little sex party. Barf.

Just when I feel like I can’t stand one more second squeezed up next to the sweaty jerseys, listening to Otto and Winters suck face like they’re in some bad porno, the second bell rings. I am now officially late to eighth period.

“Oh, God. I’m supposed to be meeting with Beanie,” Ms. Winters says. Beanie’s the students’ name for Mr. Beneter, the principal. Of all the shocking things that I’ve heard in the past two minutes, the most shocking is that she knows the nickname—and uses it.

“Get out of here,” Mr. Otto says, and then I swear—I swear —I hear him smack her butt.

Oh. My. God. This is better than the time Marcie Harris got caught masturbating in the science lab (with a test tube up her you-know-what, if you believe the rumors). This is better than the time Bryce Hanley got suspended for briefly running an online porn site. This is better than any scandal that’s hit Thomas Jefferson so far.

“Do you have class?” Ms. Winters says, practically cooing.

“I’m done for the day,” Otto says. My heart sinks—there’s no way I’ll be able to stay here for another forty-five minutes. Never mind the cramp snaking up my hamstrings and thighs: I’ve got amazing gossip to spread. “But I have to set up for soccer tryouts.”

“Okay, babe.” Babe? “I’ll see you tonight.”

“Eight o’clock.”

I hear the door open and I know Ms. Winters has left. Thank God. From the way they were pillow talking I was worried I was about to be treated to the symphony of another make-out session. I’m not sure my hamstrings or my psyche could take it.

After a few seconds of moving around and tapping some things on the keyboard, I hear Otto go to the door. The room next to me goes dark. Then the door opens and closes, and I know I’m in the clear.

I say a silent hallelujah and stand up. The pins and needles in my legs are so bad I nearly topple over, but I toddle over to the door and lean into it. When I make it outside I stand there stamping my feet and taking long, deep breaths of clean air. Finally I let it out: I throw my head back and laugh hysterically, cackling and snorting and not even caring if I look deranged.

Ms. Winters and Mr.-effing-Otto. Who would have guessed it in a million, trillion years?

As I head up from the gym it strikes me how strange people are. You can see them every day—you can think you know them—and then you find out you hardly know them at all. I feel exhilarated, kind of like I’m being spun around a whirlpool, circling closer and closer around the same people and the same events but seeing things from different angles.

I’m still giggling when I get to Main, even though Mr. Kummer will freak that I’m late, and I still have to stop by my locker and pick up my Spanish textbook (he told us on the first day that we should treat our textbooks like children. Obviously, he doesn’t have any). I’m pressing Send on a text to Elody, Ally, and Lindsay—u ll nvr believe what jst happnd —when, bam! I run smack into Lauren Lornet.

Both of us stumble backward, and my phone flies out of my hand and skitters across the hall.

“Shit!” We collide so hard it takes me a second to recover my breath. “Watch where you’re going.”

I start toward my phone, wondering if I can ask her to pay if the screen’s cracked or something, when she grabs my arm. Hard. “What the…?”

“Tell them,” she says wildly, pushing her face up to mine. “You’ve got to tell them.”

“What are you talking about?” I try to pull away, but she grabs my other arm too, like she wants to shake me. Her face is red and splotchy and she has an all-over sticky look. It’s obvious she’s been crying.

“Tell them I didn’t do anything wrong.” She jerks her head back over her shoulder. We’re standing directly in front of the main office, and I see her in that moment the way she was yesterday, hair hanging over her face, tearing down the hall.

“I really don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say, as gently as possible, because she’s freaking me out. She probably has biweekly visits with the school psychologist to control her paranoia, or OCD, or whatever her issue is.

She takes a deep breath. Her voice is shaky. “They think I cheated off you in chem. Beanie called me in…. But I didn’t. I swear to God I didn’t. I’ve been studying….”

I jerk back, but she keeps her grip on my arms. The feeling of being caught in a whirlpool returns, but this time it’s horrible: I’m being pulled down, down, down, like there’s a weight on me.

“You cheated off me?” My words feel like they’re coming from a distance. I don’t even sound like myself.

“I didn’t, I swear to God I—” Lauren gives a shuddering sob. “He’ll fail me. He said he would fail me if my grades didn’t get better, and I got a tutor and now they think I—he said he’d call Penn State. I’ll never go to college and I—you don’t understand. My dad will kill me. He’ll kill me.” She really does shake me then. Her eyes are full of panic. “You have to tell them.”

I finally manage to wrench away. I feel hot and sick. I don’t want to know this, don’t want to know any of it.

“I can’t help you,” I say, backing away, still feeling like I’m not actually saying the words, just hearing them spoken aloud from somewhere.

Lauren looks like I’ve just slapped her. “What? What do you mean you can’t help? Just tell them—” My hands are shaking as I go to pick up my phone. It slips out of my grasp twice and lands back on the floor both times with a clatter. It’s not supposed to be like this. I feel like someone’s pressed the Reverse button on a vacuum cleaner and all of the junk I’ve done is spewing back onto the carpet for me to see.

“You’re lucky you didn’t break my phone,” I say, feeling numb. “This cost me two hundred dollars.”

“Were you even listening to me?” Lauren’s voice is rising hysterically. I can’t bring myself to meet her eyes. “I’m screwed, I’m finished—”

“I can’t help you,” I say again. It’s like I can’t remember any other words.

Lauren lets out something that’s halfway between a scream and a sob. “You said I shouldn’t be nice to you today. You know what? You were right. You’re awful, you’re a bitch, you’re—” Suddenly it’s like she remembers where we are: who she is, and who I am. She claps her hand over her mouth so quickly it makes a hollow, echoing sound in the hallway.

“Oh, God.” Now her voice comes out as a whisper. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it.”

I don’t even answer. Those words—you’re a bitch —make my whole body go cold.

“I’m sorry. I—please don’t be mad.”

I can’t stand it—can’t stand to hear her apologize to me. And before I know it I’m running—full-out running down the hall, my heart pounding, feeling like I need to scream or cry or smash my fist into something. She calls after me, but I don’t know what it is, I don’t care, I can’t know, and when I push into the girls’ bathroom, I throw my back against the door and sink down against it until my knees are pressed into my chest, my throat squeezed up so tight it hurts to breathe. My phone keeps buzzing, and once I’ve calmed down a bit, I flip it open and find texts from Lindsay, Ally, and Elody: What? Dish. Spill. Did u make up w Rob?

I throw my phone into my bag and rest my head in my hands, waiting for my pulse to return to normal. All of the happiness I felt earlier is gone. Even the Otto and Winters situation doesn’t seem funny anymore. Bridget and Alex and Anna and Sarah Grundel and her stupid parking space and Lauren Lornet and the chem test—it feels like I’ve been caught up in some enormous web and every way I turn I see that I’m stuck to someone else, all of us wriggling around in the same net. And I don’t want to know any of it. It’s not my problem. I don’t care.

You’re a bitch.

I don’t care. I have bigger things to worry about.

Finally I stand up. I’ve given up on going to Spanish. Instead I splash cold water on my face and then reapply my makeup. My face is so pale under the harsh fluorescent lights, I hardly recognize it.

Contents