Here's what blows:
Sometimes, through no fault of your own, but based on who happened to bring you into the world, you become a social mutant with no foreseeable remedy beyond changing your identity and disappearing forever. How fair is that?
Take my best friend Meryl. Named after Meryl Streep, I suppose. But really, when you're sixteen it's just a weird name, and it makes no sense that she's named after Meryl Streep anyway because Meryl's parents don't even own a TV, much less patronize the theaters. Meryl Meryl, that is. Not Meryl Streep. I'm sure Ms. Streep's parents go to movies -- seeing as how their daughter stars in them and they'd want to be supportive -- and they probably have a TV, too. Probably a fifty-inch HDTV flat screen. Probably a gift from their daughter.
The point is, Meryl Morgenstern's dad comes with the triple whammy mutant-making qualities of (1) he's the VP of discipline in our school, i.e., if you're a troublemaker or a rebel, he knows it and you've probably spent quality time in his detention center, and (2) he's also the driver's ed teacher, so you can guarantee HIS daughter isn't going to get in the car with any of the guys, because he knows how incredibly bad they drive. Finally, (3) he's the assistant football coach, so none of the jocks want to piss him off.
Couple the triple whammy with the fact that Meryl's family is so anti-pop culture that you can mention the name BUFFY and Meryl's like, blink, blink, "Who?", and I can guarantee you the word DATE in Meryl's life refers solely to fruit.
Then there's Caressa Thibodoux, my other best friend, who has a few marks against her as well. First, she's the late-in-life daughter of a very famous, semiretired blues musician from Louisiana and his third wife, who doesn't seem like she's much older than us but is probably fairly old, like in her latish thirties. I mean, I don't think Mr. Thibodoux totally robbed the cradle in a creepy way when they got together. Caressa's dad is the richest and most famous person in our town, even though, to us, he's just some old guy who comes down the stairs every now and then, in his bathrobe and these grandpa-looking slippers, to grab a piece of cold chicken from the fridge and stick his head into the family room to tell us to "keep it down."
Meaning the noise.
We can get a little loud.
Their house is the closest thing to a mansion in all of White Peaks, which is mostly made up of your typical Colorado mountain homes -- cabins, the stone or cedar-sided types, the occasional A-frame or prefab. The Thibodoux house is sort of log-cabinesque, but it's the kind of place you'd move into if, say, you were Christie Brinkley and you survived a helicopter crash over the Rockies, had a romantic epiphany, and decided to stay west instead of moving back to your estate on Long Island.
Like, a log cabin mansion.
It has a portico and a recording studio. Need I say more?
Caressa's also some kind of reluctant musical prodigy and, at least in my mind, the girl most likely to blow this town and become someone famous (even if it's not in music) after we make it through the Seventh Circle of Hell which is White Peaks High School. (I swear, if one more adult tells me these are the best years of my life, I'm going to shave my head and tattoo a four-letter word on the back of my bare skull, and -- oh yes -- it will start with an F.)
To make matters worse, Caressa's also beautiful. The kind of breezy beautiful that makes high school guys dumber than they already are organically, what with all their blood rushing south Vogueon a regular basis. She's the kind of beautiful that's intimidating. Like, Vogue beautiful. Fly girl, J-Lo beautiful. But she doesn't even know it. So, you see, she's pretty well hosed in the guy department, despite what you might imagine. But think about it. A gorgeous, poised, rich, musically gifted daughter of a famous musician?
Yeah, the date thing? Not likely.
Not in high school, at least. Not in White Peaks, freakin' Colorado, for cripes sake. Mind you, Caressa does attract the attention of older guys, but like, have they not heard the term "jailbait" before? Please.
Then there's me, Lila Moreno. I have the lovely distinction of being the only daughter of our town's zero-tolerance-for-screwups police chief, and the little sister of four nosy, meddling brothers who intimidate every guy in town. Bad enough already, right? Well, sit back. It gets worse. Not only is my dad the aforementioned Intimidating Authority Figure, but -- and I must cringe while I admit this part because the BLECH factor is SO off the scale -- he's a hottie.
Yep, my dad. I mean, for an old guy.
He's a hottie, and he's a widower, and since that's a well-known fact, all the mothers, attached or otherwise, seem to become even dumber around my dad than the high school guys get around Caressa. Which sucks! I ask you, what guy in his right mind would want to date a girl when his own MOTHER has the hots for the girl's FATHER?
It's so gross! Really.
I mean, how much am I supposed to take?
For example, how would YOU like to go bra shopping with your FATHER, and then have the stupid bra lady pay more attention to him than to the fact that it's excruciatingly heinous to be browsing bras with (1) a man, who is (2) your father, in the first place?
Anyway, the whole bra thing? A psychic wound perhaps, and worth exploring later in my journal, but so not the point.
The point is that Meryl, Caressa, and I are White Peaks freaks, and there's nothing we can do about it except wait to grow up, move away, and forevermore lie about the identity of our fathers to any potential dates. Right?
HELLO! We're sixteen!
We have eons before we can blaze, and frankly, we wouldn't mind having a little guy action before the big exodus from White Peaks. Is that so much to ask?
It's not that we don't love our fathers. We do. But we are ostracized directly because of who they are, rather than who WE are, which is why we've come to affectionately refer to ourselves as the "Who's Your Daddy?" club.
Caressa made it up. She's creative that way.
My brother, Luke, claims the name has vague porno flick overtones, but (1) he shouldn't eavesdrop on us, and (2) I'm 99.9 percent positive he doesn't have any direct knowledge of the porn industry, because my dad would wholeheartedly thrash him if he did. So, how would he know?
Luke's my only brother still at home (thank God). He's a senior and a cretin to boot and, although he's got the high school girls snowed into believing he's as much of a hottie as our father (lemmings), the ugly truth is, Luke indulges in, well, gross bodily functions more often and louder than any human being I've ever had the misfortune to encounter in all of my sixteen years. He's no catch, trust me. And I will use this information against him if need be.
So, yeah, his opinion matters. Not.
Anyway, back to us.
My whole point (my teachers say I have a hard time getting to the point, blah blah blah whatever, so here goes) is that in the string of mediocre days and weeks that added up to our full-on mediocre freshman and sophomore years at White Peaks, no day was quite so bad as that particular day in September of our junior year.
You know, the day when all hell broke loose.
The whole thing actually started the summer before my sophomore year. Bored one day, I found myself thumbing through some of my dad's training materials from a fraud and forgery conference he'd attended, and that's what gave me the idea.
Throughout tenth grade, I had gained quite a rep as somewhat of a groundbreaking entrepreneur in our school, using the knowledge I'd gained from my dad's info. Don't wig -- it wasn't anything THAT illegal. It's not like I was floating checks or printing up phony money. My foray into the slightly illegal was really more of a public service, if you ask me. Teenagers are the silent oppressed, and my skills were an equally silent way to fight the oppression. Plus, we are given certain gifts in life, and I think it's almost a sin not to use what we receive.
My gift was this: I could, after studying a parental signature only once, perfectly forge said signature on an absentee excuse note, report card form, or what have you, and I would perform this valuable service for my fellow students at the bargain price of five dollars per John Hancock.
Really, I think I could've raised my prices to ten bucks a shot and people would've still flocked to me, but I didn't want to go all inflation-crazy on my peers.
I'd had such a good thing going.
It had almost made me popular (almost).
The whole reason I'd started the forgery service was because Dad had promised to match however much money I had saved when it came time for me to buy a car (which was NOW, but he kept ignoring that fact), and as a babysitter in White Peaks, I was firmly second string. I'd already stockpiled two grand from my, ah, business. Plus another thousand from my more legitimate pursuits, i.e., the occasional babysitting gig, extra chores, bribing my brothers. Three thousand bucks, with the promise of much more to come before all was said and done, because I was never hurting for clients when it came to forged parental signatures.
Until I got busted that day.
I won't go into detail about how it happened because it's a way ugly memory for me to relive. But it was mostly coincidence and pure bad luck. Suffice to say, questions were raised by key school administrators after a certain parent called claiming no knowledge of a note she'd supposedly provided, and one of my clients rolled on me.
Don't worry. He'll pay.
But that's basically how I ended up hanging out with Mr. Morgenstern on day one of my five-day, in-school suspension, stuck in a little jail-like cubicle stealing peeks at US Weekly which I'd smuggled in with my Biology II homework, and knowing that getting suspended was a freakin' cakewalk compared to the punishment my dad would dole out when I got home.
I just never thought he'd actually cancel my driver's license with the Department of Motor Vehicles and cut it up right there in front of me. I mean, this was my LICENSE. And not only that, but for the first time, I hadn't looked like a vacant-eyed, fashion-victim knuckle dragger in a photograph. Where's the justice? As if I wasn't already considered a freak of monster proportions, now I wouldn't be able to drive until I turned eighteen. He might as well have whipped out his Sig Sauer P220 and shot me dead right there on the Pergo floor.
He also restricted me from my social life for the rest of the semester, which was no punishment at all really considering I didn't HAVE a social life, but I didn't tell him that. The only real social contact I had was hanging out with Meryl and Caressa, which we refer to as "studying" in front of the parents, and Dad said I could continue that because it was, he thought, schoolwork-related.
I should've been happy to have pulled at least that off, but I wasn't. Not with my shiny, brand new, Colorado driver license sitting like confetti in the bottom of the trash can. Plus, my dad told me I would have to perform some sort of community service, but he hadn't decided what yet. Fine with me, because I didn't want to know.
I spent the dinner hour sullenly pushing my food around my plate and trying my best to ignore Luke's smirks while simultaneously wanting to kill him. I needed to get out of the house and let off steam, so thank God I was still allowed to "study" with my friends. I think my dad was sick of the tension in the house too, so he was more than happy to sequester himself in the dining room after dinner to avoid us.
Not wanting to push my luck, I dutifully cleaned up the kitchen, then hooked my backpack over my shoulder and stood in the entrance to the dining room. My dad was frowning over a bunch of case files spread out on the table in front of him, looking vaguely like Esai Morales from NYPD Blue, with a little more distinguished gray at the temples.
I cleared my throat. "I'm going to Caressa's to study."
Dad's arms remained braced on the edge of the table, but his eyes raised from the files. "Is the kitchen clean?"
"How are you going to get there?"
Rub it in, why don't you? I thought, fighting not to roll my eyes. "My bike," I said, attempting to sound stoic and martyr-esque, hoping the guilt would eat him alive when I made the front page of the Peaks Picayune after getting munched by a wild animal or kidnapped by a freaky mountain man with a meth lab in his basement. "Or I'll walk."
"Don't be silly. It's cold."
Not to mention the bears and mountain lions and freaky mountain dudes with bad tooth-to-tattoo ratios, but whatever.
"Have your brother take you." He turned toward the family room and called, "Luke?"
I shifted on my feet, but knew I was in too much trouble already to pitch a fit. Truth was, I'd rather end up hypothermic or mauled by a bear than ride in the car with my smug, smirking brother and his "I told you so" attitude. I clamped my lips together and said nothing.
Luke stuck his head into the dining room, all freakin' zoned out from a dose of The Man Show or Jackass or some other equally brain-numbing anti-stimuli -- just what he needed. "Huh?"
"Drive your sister to Caressa's."
"But, Dad -- "
The air of pissed-offedness hung thick and ominous in the house, premonitions of butt-kickings to come, so Luke shut his trap, too. He snagged his keys off the hook by the door with an angry swipe and glared at me. "Come on, Felon," he growled under his breath.
I punched him in the arm. "Don't call me that."
He ignored me, instead spreading his thumbs and forefingers and placing them tip to tip to make a box. "Forgery for Fun and Profit, by Lila Moreno. I can just see the book cover."
"Bite me, buttwipe," I said, pushing past him into the cold, dark, Rocky Mountain night. The elk had been bugling earlier in the day -- a sound I'd always loved, like whale song -- but now the black night fell silent.
Thankfully, so did Luke. I had expected him to taunt me about getting busted, but instead he drove to Caressa's with Disturbed pounding and vibrating from the stereo speakers, drumming his fingers on the wheel. He'd left his window open to the thirty-five-degree air, though, because he knew being cold annoyed me, and he loved to annoy me. I just concentrated on the flashes of gold from the aspen trees between the black of the pines along the sides of the road.
When he screeched to a stop in the portico, I leapt from the car and muttered, "Caressa will bring me home," trying not to let my teeth chatter.
He snorted. "Like I offered to pick you up."
I slammed the door, wanting to stick out my tongue but deciding that was SO seventh grade. Why did I let him get me so riled up? Luke wasn't that bad of a brother overall. He was just a guy. What can I say? Guys often suck, as a rule, and brothers are the worst. We used to be pals until...I wasn't sure when it had changed. I think it had something to do with me entering high school and immediately being shuffled into the loser corral. God forbid Luke would stick up for me. Apparently the attentions of a certain cheerleading überskank were more important than blood relations to His Shallow Highness. But I set his lameness aside, glad to be with my friends at last.
They say misery loves company, and if so I was in for my first bit of luck. As it turned out, I wasn't the only one who'd suffered a heinous day (although we all agreed, due to the license thing, I was in first place on the suck scale). Meryl had been trying out for the debate team, but in the semifinal round that afternoon, she'd tanked in a big way when most of her topics dealt with the worst of all possible things -- movies and television. Bummed didn't come close to describing her mood. Meryl is so smart, we were bummed for her, too.
Caressa, on the other hand, had what most people would consider a good day -- on the surface. Even though she hadn't formally auditioned, she'd been cast for the lead in the spring musical -- Beauty and the Beast. The only problem was, Caressa didn't want the lead. She had no desire whatsoever to sing -- it was the whole totally "doing whatever your parents had done" thing. Blech.
The coolio-factor of playing Belle and wearing kick-butt costumes weren't even enough to drag Caressa out of depressionville. She had joined the theater club because she likes makeup, not singing. No, she LOVES makeup -- worships at the temple of Sephora.com on a regular basis, if you want the whole truth. She wanted to work behind the scenes, doing makeup and costuming for the various productions. But, of course, having Lehigh Thibodoux, aka Tibby Lee, for a father meant, once again, Caressa got jammed. The theater club sponsor, Mr. Cabbiatti, who is a celebrity-wannabe to an epic degree, couldn't pass up the publicity opportunity. Now all the girls who wanted to play Belle were angry with Caressa for getting a part she didn't even want, and Caressa was angry because she just wanted to put makeup on the beast. Go figure!
We were all sitting around that night, painting each other's toenails, complaining about our parents and our horrid luck, and bemoaning the fact that homecoming loomed and none of us had dates or even prospects.
Surprising? No. Depressing? Uh, yes.
Fiona Apple was playing on the stereo, because we wanted to feed our already depressed moods, and so far, no directives from Mr. Thibodoux to "keep it down."
Caressa was bent low over my feet painting my toenails with this sweet OPI shade she'd just bought, "I'm Not Really a Waitress." It's kind of a red with sparkly gold in it. I had a hard time deciding between that and another shade from OPI's European collection called, "Amster-Damsel in Distress," but the gold shimmer in "Waitress" really won me over.
Caressa always has the best makeup.
Anyway, she was concentrating on my pinky toe, left foot, when out of nowhere Meryl goes, "We need to change our lives. Homecoming is on the autumnal equinox this year."
As though those two comments were related.
"Huh," Caressa and I said in unison, not knowing what type of response was appropriate to the equinox-announcement-slash-life-change directive. I mean, we'd been talking about how much our lives sucked, but the equinox? All I knew for sure was that homecoming had been rescheduled and would commence the following Tuesday night. Yes, a freakin' Tuesday, if you can believe that lunacy. The switch was the school district's brilliant solution to avoiding a big, heinous snowstorm expected on Friday.
Whatever. Tuesday, Friday. Equinox Schmequinox. You could only complain for so long, and Meryl always launched interesting conversations, so we went with it. That's one cool thing about having a friend who's completely Laura Ingalls Wilder-ish out of touch with the American entertainment scene (or any entertainment scene, really) -- she has tons of time to read stuff the rest of the high school universe would pass up in favor of this week's installment of The Real World. She's always popping off bits of useless but nevertheless pretty interesting trivia.
Meryl also works a couple of nights a week at the local metaphysical shop downtown, since Mr. Morgenstern put the giant kibosh on her first choice job at Blockbuster. Frankly, I think the metaphysical shop is a much better place to work anyway. It always smells good in there from the flickering candles and essential oils, and the tinkling bells and gurgling serenity fountains are soothing.
Compare that atmosphere to one of bright, corporate clone paint, fluorescent lights, zit-faced, overzealous assistant managers, and nonstop video background noise, and the choice is obvious. Plus, at Inner Power, she only has to work with the two way-mellow women who own the shop rather than all the mouth-breathing vidiots who work at Blockbuster, and she's learning all kinds of sweet stuff about, well, metaphysics.
"Since we're not going," Meryl continued, "we should all spend the night at Caressa's and have a dumb supper."
That made both Caressa and I blink up at her in confusion.
"If it's okay with your parents, of course," she added, glancing over at Caressa.
"It always is." Caressa shrugged. Her parents, as a rule, were totally cool about stuff like that.
"A dumb supper?" I interjected, just as Caressa and I exchanged a look. "You mean, like something we all hate? Great idea, Meryl," I said, not bothering to hide my sarcasm. "Brilliant. That would really cheer us up."
"No, goof. It's a tradition that dates back to seventeenth-century England. It's a midsummer's eve custom -- "
"Yeeeeeah, newsflash. It's not summer," I pointed out, even though it had to be obvious, even for a person who didn't watch the evening news. Hello, snowstorm!
"Still," Meryl said, unfazed by my sarcasm. "I think it's adaptable. It's all about our intent." She shrugged. "If they can hold homecoming on a school night, I figure we can host a dumb supper on the equinox rather than midsummer's eve."
She had a point.
"What do we have to do?" Caressa asked, her eyes glowing with curiosity that mirrored how I felt.
"Well, there are lots of details, but in general we have to hold a silent dinner that starts at midnight, with only black linens and total darkness. Well, except for candles. We have to make and serve everything backward, and -- oh, it's a long story. I'll explain it all later." She flipped her hand. "The point is, it's supposed to help us predict who we'll marry, but since we're only sixteen, I'm thinking it will help us predict who we might date instead. What do you think?"
"Is it reliable?" asked Caressa.
Meryl quirked her mouth to the side. "Well, it's been going on since the sixteen hundreds. It can't be all stupid." She looked from one of us to the other. "So?"
"I'm game," I said. Anything to take my mind off how much my life blew major chunks.
"Me, too," said Caressa.
Meryl's face spread into a huge smile. "Then it's a date."
"A date? Well -- " I said, "even if this dinner turns out to actually be dumb, at least we'll each be able to say we had ONE date this year."
We all laughed, but the truth was, we couldn't wait. I could hear it in my own breathlessness, in the equally nervous and psyched laughter of my two best friends. It gave us something to look forward to, and boy, did we need it.
Little did we know how this harmless, losers'-alternative-to-homecoming, dumb supper would end up changing our entire lives.
Copyright © 2004 by Lynda Sandoval Cooper