As soon as Nancy appeared at the door of our eighth-grade classroom, even I, with my home haircut, near-sighted squint and ill-fitting skirt, could see that she stuck out. Her hair was a tangle of kinky, sandy-blonde curls. She grimaced, exposing her big teeth as overly enthusiastic greetings gushed forth. Wearing dated clothes and straw shoes with high heels, she carried a matching purse. No one ever brought a purse to school.
She was like a puppy wagging its tail among crocodiles. Her overtures were met with blank stares and titters. She was quickly relegated to our group of outcasts who suffered not so much from teasing, but the cruelty of being ignored.
The popular girls whirled in a cacophony of sound—casual and animated. They chirped at each other, “Oh, that is so pretty! … You did? … I am SO jealous!” Asian in a mostly white private school, I floundered as my own utterances fell flat, monosyllabic. I yearned to approach one of these dazzling creatures and ask her to teach me how to talk. If only she would take me aside and reveal the formula, I too could own a bright, perky voice.
It was during a dreaded home economics class that I had my first real encounter with Nancy. In this class, girls quickly formed teams while I waited to be picked. Cooking projects involved spilled food, shrieks of laughter, bursts of movement. There was no place to keep my head down, and quietly do my work. I felt exposed.
Nancy and I were paired to make a cake requiring four eggs. I figured I would get the fun part of cracking the eggs, and Nancy could stir. I cracked two eggs and was reaching for my third, when Nancy piped up, “No, you had a turn. I get to do the next one.”
Without looking up, I said, “My job is to crack all the eggs.” I couldn’t believe I was arguing.
“Who said so?”
“I said so.” I was horrified that this was continuing.
But when I looked up, a slight smile appeared on her lips. She grabbed for the egg I was holding. It slipped out of my hand and broke in the bowl.
“That’s why my mom never lets me crack eggs,” she said. “She calls my omelets ‘scrambled eggshells.’”
“My mom won’t let me in the kitchen. I only get to set the table. My brother gets to do all the fun stuff.”
“Cause he’s a boy,” I said.
“Yeah, I guess my mom’s a little nuts.” I couldn’t believe I just called my mom nuts! “My brother and Francis always hit me.”
“The boy next door. Once he told me that he and his friends lined up and took turns punching this girl, and he said if I ever told anyone about it, the same thing would happen to me.”
I was telling a complete stranger this secret I’d kept for seven years. In the middle of the telling, its power dissolved. I realized it was a story Francis had probably made up.
“My brother would never hit me,” Nancy cried indignantly. “He doesn’t even know how to hit anyone.”
We giggled again. This laughter was a complete surprise to me. It was like tasting the crust of a pizza for the first time, not quite bread nor cake, but chewy, delicious. That was my first experience of Nancy—something unexpected and something different.
• • •
We waited at a bus stop after school. I noticed a bubble gum machine across the street and dashed over to it. I put a penny in the slot, turned the handle, and got one bubble gum ball. Nancy fished two pennies out of her purse and got two. We looked at each other, and rushed towards mischief. Then I managed to find three pennies and got three more gum balls. Nancy ran into a store and got a dime worth of pennies. More pennies began to disappear into the slot. We raced from store to store asking for nickels, dimes and quarters worth of pennies. Bubble gum spilled from the dispenser onto the sidewalk. We rolled on the ground, shrieking with glee, our books scattered, the bus leaving without us.
Could we leave such a mess? Why had the clerks kept giving us more pennies? Nobody had tried to stop two thirteen-year-olds from being utterly ludicrous. What would we say to our moms about coming home so late? What else could we get away with?
• • •
When I first visited Nancy’s house, I was surprised I’d been invited. You didn’t get into my house unless you were family, and even then, you had to go through a series of gates and locks. My house was sealed like a citadel, wooden bars across windows locked tight. Our inner sanctum was as private and guarded as the Forbidden City of China.
Nancy’s front door was unlocked. Sunlight swept across the carpet from open windows. In the living room, her mom and dad were sprawled on the couch taking a nap—arms around each other, her dad naked to the waist. I’d never even seen my mom and dad hug.
In her dad’s study, books and records lined the shelves. There was nothing but piles of newspapers and magazines in my house. Nancy went through the titles and started talking about Dostoevsky, Mann, Hesse, Tolstoy. She spoke about the authors, casually, like they were her friends. There were books on Judaism. “Jesus was a Jew!” she proclaimed.
She put on a recording by Horowitz. The music coursed through my bloodstream, merry and vital. Possibility bobbed with each beat.
• • •
I stumbled out of high school physics, tears streaming from my eyes—negative charge…terminal velocity…air resistance. I knew I was going to fail this class. I just didn’t have those kinds of smarts. The worst part was that I couldn’t even understand the questions the kids asked. I saw Nancy. We headed for the bathroom, our sanctuary.
“I hate physics,” I whined. “They’re crazy—they’re screwing around with a drop of oil. Can you imagine this idiot scientist decides to pour oil around some electrodes, for god’s sake!”
Nancy received my torrent. Her eyebrows wiggled as she uttered sounds of sympathy. Encouraged, I started exaggerating and embellishing. Then the best part happened. It began to be fun. Our language turned foul. We snorted. We sputtered. Our voices went up a pitch.
Next came rants about our mothers; hers made her redo all the dishes, mine wouldn’t let me quit ballet. We gathered our new arsenal of labels from psychology class and reduced our moms to lunatics—they were obsessive compulsive, dysfunctional, anal.
We spoke about sex and the cute class president who had written a paper on the existence of God. I’d just gone to the library and gotten a stack of books on the “meaning of life.” Our moms, sex, philosophy, religion—these subjects would fascinate us for years, and there was the laughter—loud, rambunctious, irrepressible—always the laughter, the hilarity that fueled our intoxication and delight.
The bell rang. We thought it hysterical that we were late. We cracked up, stumbled about, bent over and then caught sight of our goofy, homely faces in the mirror. “Check this scene out!” we screamed. And this became our mantra. For years to come, we peered into mirrors, in bathrooms, department stores, plush hotel lobbies. At birthdays, graduations and every other conceivable situation, arms around each other, we posed. Check this scene out. Check out that we’re hurting, ridiculous, high, miserable. Check out that we’re alive and going through life together. Check out that we’re friends.
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