EVERYTHING CHANGED LAST fall when I started sixth grade. For one thing, it was the first time that the teacher wasn’t the tallest person in the class. Jillian Harris came back from summer vacation and looked like she had grown a foot taller. She was at least two inches taller than our teacher, Ms. Brisbin. Then there was Jessie, my best friend. She started acting differently, too. All of sudden all she seemed to care about was boys.
And me, well, I think I started to become a grown-up. Well, maybe not a grown-up exactly. It’s not like I had to get a job and pay my own bills, but I definitely didn’t feel like a little kid anymore. It all began on the first really cold day of the season. That Friday I woke up to my sister Haley’s voice. She always woke me up before I was actually ready.
“I’ll just wear pants under my skirt!” Haley said to herself excitedly. Even when Haley talks to herself, she’s loud. I hadn’t opened my eyes yet and wondered if I was still dreaming. I rolled over toward the wall and squeezed my eyes shut tighter. “Hey, Sophie,” Haley called. “Time to wake up! Should I wear leggings or jeans?”
I groaned and rolled over. I hated sharing a room with Haley. I never got any privacy or peace and quiet. “What are you talking about?” I asked. Haley bounded toward my bed with two pairs of pants.
“Mom said I have to wear pants today because it’s going to be really cold, so which ones?” she said.
“The jeans, I guess,” I said. Usually Haley and I wear uniforms to school—gray skirts with white blouses. But on Fridays we’re allowed to wear whatever we want. I like to wear jeans every chance I get, but Haley hates wearing pants. She’s four years younger than I am, and she likes to wear a skirt or a dress every day, even on Fridays.
Haley climbed onto my bed. “I think I’m going to wear my purple skirt over them,” she told me.
“Haley, get off my bed,” I said. I stretched out my arms and legs so there wouldn’t be any room for her. “That skirt is going to look really stupid over your jeans.”
“No, it won’t,” Haley insisted. “The jeans will be just like tights.” She jumped off the bed and went to the closet. “Oh, purple skirt, where are you?” she called. She moved some hangers aside noisily. I was sure she was making a mess, and I was already preparing to complain to Mom so that I wouldn’t get blamed and have to clean it up myself. “Oh, there you are!” Haley exclaimed suddenly. She yanked on the skirt and the hanger crashed to the ground. Even though Haley’s only in second grade and pretty small for her age, she makes a lot of noise and takes up a lot of space. You always know when she’s in the room. Haley’s good at being the center of attention, but I like things to be quieter.
“You better clean that up,” I told her.
“I will,” she said. “After breakfast. Mom said I could make it myself.”
“Where’s Dad?” I asked. Dad usually made breakfast. Mom called him the family chef.
“He went to work early,” Haley said. I watched her pull her skirt on over her jeans. “Now it’s waffle time,” she said, and she skipped out of the room.
I got out of bed after Haley left. I knew exactly what I wanted to wear: my favorite jeans and a pink long-sleeved shirt. I had pink Converse sneakers that matched the shirt perfectly. I like things to match, even though Jessie told me that pink is a babyish color. A month before, pink had been her favorite color too.
I finished tying my shoes and then I looked at myself in the mirror behind the closet door. I thought I looked okay and not too babyish. People always think I’m younger than I really am because I’m small for my age. I’ve always been the shortest girl in my grade. Jessie’s the second shortest. She’s just a little bit taller than I am, plus she has curly hair so that adds a bit to her height. We both have light brown hair, but my hair is straight and flat. I really wish it were curly like Jessie’s. I tried to puff it up a little with my fingers. It worked a little bit.
Jessie and I met in kindergarten and have been best friends for five and a half years. We go to the Anne B. Victor School for Girls, but everyone just calls it Victor. Anne B. Victor was a real person who started the school more than a hundred years ago. It’s a private school, which means we have to pay to go there, and which is why we have to wear uniforms. Victor goes from kindergarten all the way through twelfth grade, so you can stay at the same school until it’s time to go to college. I’m perfectly happy not to have boys in school, but the way Jessie had been acting, you’d think the fact that there are no boys caused her actual physical pain. She was all excited about the school dance the next month because there were going to be boys there.
Victor is on the corner of Eighty-Ninth Street and Madison Avenue in New York City. There’s a boys’ school across the street from our school. It’s called the Dorr Day School, and Jessie liked to hang out on the corner after school to talk to the Dorr boys. They get out of school about fifteen minutes after we do. Jessie waited for them to come down the block and cross the street, especially to see one boy in particular: Madden Preston. She never just called him by his first name. She always said “Madden Preston.” At lunch the week before she’d said, “Oh my God, Soph! Did you see what Madden Preston did with his hair yesterday?” Madden Preston’s hair had looked the same to me every day I’d seen him, but Jessie went on and on about how he must have started using gel in it. “He has the most beautiful eyes, too,” she told me. “Sometimes they’re blue and sometimes they’re gray. It depends on the way the light hits them.” I told Jessie that I hadn’t noticed. She said that was because I never paid attention to details.
I didn’t really think she was right about that. Details have always been important to me, which is part of the reason why I remember most things. I remember people’s birthdays, and the day I won the writing award at school, and the day my sister Haley broke her wrist, and the day my teacher Ms. Brisbin caught Jessie and me passing notes during math—that was also the day Ms. Brisbin started hating me. I had even noticed plenty of details about Madden Preston—like how he’d looked at me sort of funny that day when he’d crossed the street to where Jessie and I were waiting. I don’t think Jessie even noticed, which proves that I was paying more attention to detail than she was. Frankly, sometimes I wondered if maybe she was just making up her crush on Madden Preston because she wanted to be cool. She even started blowing her hair dry in the mornings and putting just a little bit of glitter on her eyelids. If she put on too much, she’d have to wash it off. You’re not allowed to wear makeup at Victor until high school, and that’s three years away. But Jessie was smart. She put a tiny dab over each eye, so you could only really tell if you were looking for it. She thought it made her look exotic, but I think glitter is kind of silly and certainly more babyish than the color pink.
Lunch was right after our math period, which was a good thing because math is my least favorite subject and it was nice to have a break afterward. Jessie and I went down to the lunchroom together. Friday is always leftovers day, and I wanted some of the macaroni and cheese from Wednesday. Jessie refuses to eat leftovers. I stood in line while she went to pour herself some cereal. “Save me a seat,” I called to Jessie, even though I knew I didn’t have to tell her that. We always sat at the same table, just left of the center of the room. It’s a good table to sit at so you can see what everyone else is doing, and it is far enough away from the teachers’ table on the far right-hand side of the room.
I balanced my tray on one hand and carried my orange juice in my other hand. Jessie was across the room at our table. Three other girls from our grade, Amy, Lindsay, and Melissa, were also sitting there. I’d never been that friendly with them, but because there are only about forty girls in our entire grade, you get to know everyone pretty well. Even so, I didn’t really want to eat lunch with them. But Jessie always did, so sometimes I had to put up with them.
Jessie was sitting in between Amy and Melissa. It’s not like I needed to sit next to Jessie every day, but I did anyway, unless one of us was sick. I put my tray down next to Lindsay. “Oh, gross,” she said as I sat down. “I can’t believe you got the leftovers. That’s from like Monday.”
“Wednesday,” I said. “Monday was beef Stroganoff.”
“Whatever. I don’t exactly memorize what I eat each day,” Lindsay said. The other girls laughed, even Jessie. And Jessie had said I was the one who was bad with details. Anyway, I don’t know why Lindsay thought leftover macaroni and cheese was gross. She was dipping two fingers into a mound of cottage cheese and sucking it off her fingers.
“So anyway,” Lindsay said, “my mom is determined to be one of the dance chaperones.”
“Oh, that’s terrible!” Melissa said.
“I know,” Lindsay said, and she paused to slurp on her fingers. “But she did promise that if she’s there, she won’t try to talk to me for the whole night, and if anyone asks, she’ll pretend to be someone else’s mother.”
“I don’t know why mothers always want to be such joiners,” Amy said. “My mom said she wanted to come too. She thinks it’s so cute that we’re having a school dance. But I told her she couldn’t come and ruin my night just because she wanted to relive her childhood.”
“I know what you mean,” Jessie said. But I knew she was lying. Jessie’s mother never comes to anything. It’s not because she doesn’t want to, but she works a lot. When we were younger, Jessie would get really upset about her mother not being around. Jessie’s mother is a researcher at a news station and she also teaches three nights a week at NYU. The only field trip Jessie’s mom ever came on was the one we went on in third grade to the TV station where she works. They pulled up the morning’s news stories on the teleprompter, and we got to read into a camera and watch ourselves on the monitor. The producer told us to ignore the monitor and just speak into the camera, but it’s really hard not to get distracted when you see your face staring back at you on the screen. Jessie and I got to be the anchors and sit next to each other on the couch in the front of the set. We read from the teleprompter in unison. Jessie’s mom had a tape made of it, and we watched it a couple times at her house.
Jessie used to tell me I was lucky because my mother is almost always around. My mom works too. She’s a head-hunter. I hate the name of her job because it sounds like she is out chopping off people’s heads, but really it means she finds people jobs. She interviews people in a room in the back of our apartment that is set up as an office. It should be a bedroom, but Mom has a desk, some chairs, a bulletin board, and a bunch of file cabinets in there. My dad even built shelves for her into the back wall behind the desk. My dad’s a lawyer but he likes to build things too. He made bookshelves for Haley and me, too. They are a little crooked but they work just fine.
The reason that Haley and I had to share a bedroom was so Mom could keep her office. By the time sixth grade started, I thought I was getting too old to share a room with a second grader, but at least if something important happened at school, or if there was a field trip, Mom could arrange her schedule to be there. Jessie’s father died when she was a baby, so her mother has to work an extra amount. He had a heart attack in his office. They rushed him to the hospital, and hooked him up to all sorts of machines to try to fix it, but he had another heart attack in the hospital, and he died. Jessie never talks about it, and she doesn’t remember him because she was so little, but my mom told me about it. My mom said that Jessie’s mother sometimes gets very angry with her husband for dying and leaving her all alone.
At first it was hard for me to understand why Jessie’s mom would be angry with someone for something that was absolutely not his fault. I mean, it’s not like he wanted to have a heart attack and die. But my mom told me that being really sad can make you angry. The thing is, Jessie’s mom never seems really sad. She’s pretty, just like Jessie, she likes her work, and she has a lot of friends—and of course Jessie. She even lets me call her Liz instead of Mrs. Adler, even though I have to call all of my other friends’ parents by their last names.
I never met Jessie’s dad, but I’ve seen his picture a lot. There are a bunch of photographs of him in Jessie’s apartment, and also, Jessie keeps a special album of pictures underneath her bed. It’s a secret album, but she showed it to me. All of the pictures are of her dad and her when she was a baby.
Lindsay swiped the last bit of cottage cheese off her plate and slurped on her fingers. She pushed her tray away. “I’m stuffed,” she said, and turned toward Jessie. “Hey, did I tell you I decided to get that dress from Bloomingdale’s?”
“The blue one?” Jessie asked.
“Yeah. My mom’s taking me tomorrow. You should totally come. You have to get something to impress Madden!”
“That sounds good,” Jessie said. Lindsay is one of the wealthiest kids at Victor, and her parents get her whatever she wants, but I wondered if Liz would really let Jessie get a new outfit just because Madden Preston was going to be at the dance.
“And after you guys finish shopping, you can come over and hang out with Amy and me,” Melissa said. Amy and Melissa live pretty close to Bloomingdale’s. Actually, Amy and Melissa live in the same building, so they’re always together. Lindsay lives in another building on the other side of the city, on the West Side, so she doesn’t always get to hang out with them, but Lindsay doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who would care about that or feel lonely. Amy and Melissa both really looked up to Lindsay, so I’m sure she knew she was invited to their homes anytime she wanted to be included.
I listened to the four of them make plans to meet at Melissa’s after Lindsay and Jessie finished shopping. Nobody said anything to me at all, as though I weren’t even there. I noticed that Lindsay, Amy, and Melissa had the tiniest bit of glitter on their eyelids, just like Jessie. I wondered if they had done it to be like Jessie or if Jessie had done it to be like them—probably Jessie had copied them.
“You guys can even sleep over,” Melissa said.
The five-minute bell rang, and we picked up our trays and walked over to the conveyor belt where we have to put our trays when we’re finished eating. If you get caught leaving your tray at the table, you have to wear your uniform on Friday, so I always make sure to clear my tray. Usually I hate hearing the five-minute bell, but this time I was relieved to get back to class. It felt strange to hear Jessie make plans that didn’t include me. In fact, it just didn’t make any sense. We were best friends, so we always included each other. Jessie had even come with my family to Florida a few times over spring break when we went to visit my grandmother, because Liz usually has to work over vacation. I decided to talk to Jessie about it. Maybe it was just a misunderstanding and I really was invited.
© 2010 Courtney Sheinmel