Kirsten wasn’t at the bus stop. My first thought? Betrayal. How could she miss the first day and let me go it alone? I wasn’t prepared for this.
Kirsten and I weren’t popular, pretty, or special in any way, but we liked to pretend. We’d walk through Kirsten’s trailer park — dirty knees faded shorts — one day cheerleaders, the next, cute boyfriends by our sides. Gravel roads were our runways, only marred by the damn sand spurs that clung to our ratty socks and dug into our palms when we cartwheeled.
She knew how much seventh grade meant to me. This was going to be the year we’d get noticed. Kirsten grew boobs this summer, and I got my braces off. We were sure to get some looks. But I couldn’t walk in by myself with my flat chest, too shy to smile and show off my one new asset. I looked down the road at her park’s entrance. She’d round the corner any second now — she had to.
Instead, the yellow carriage of doom appeared down the road. My stomach knotted. Boys at the bus stop threw sand spurs at my back. I didn’t feel them until I sat against the brown vinyl seat — alone — pretending to be mesmerized by something out the window. I didn’t have to look at them. Damn sand spurs. Embarrassment made me ignore the pokes.
I retreated into my imagination. I needed Kirsten with me. I replayed one of our last summer days, an exciting one. We’d gotten close enough to the peacock at the end of the dirt road to pull on a feather. That bird hated us. Kirsten’s mom let me inside the trailer, a first. Her dad usually said it was too hot for me. No A/C. But it never made sense. We lived in Florida. We sweltered outside. Kirsten was complaining that afternoon that the ground was too hot. She’d sat under a tree to alleviate the black bottoms of her bare feet. God knows why she didn’t put on shoes.
Cigarette smoke pervaded her home. I tried to hide my asthmatic cough—didn’t want the invitation to expire. We couldn’t go into Kirsten’s room, but I could see it, behind a sheet hung in the doorway. A mattress covered most of the floor. “It’s too crowded in there with my brothers,” she said. We sat in front of the black and white tv instead. Boring football game. We distracted ourselves by lying flat on our backs and playing bicycle with our feet in the air. Then, the unexpected; I was allowed to stay for dinner. I told them I’d never had chips dipped in ketchup before, but it was yummy!
I asked about the numbered strips of paper lying around the table. Kirsten’s dad laughed. “Your family doesn’t play the lottery?” “What’s that?” More laughter — no answer.
I climbed in my mom’s shiny Oldsmobile and watched her face twist with disgust at my rancidity. “You smell like a bar,” she said. I didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t my fault. I waved at Kirsten as we drove home, one road, and one world away.
I got through school. Orchestra felt safe. Musicians have an unspoken bond. I was still the fastest girl in P.E., but I hid in the bathroom stall to dress out. The other girls had bras. I kept my books close to my chest for the rest of the day. A group of pretty girls laughed at me when I walked into remedial math. I had to sit next to them in English. Their collective perfume made me gag.
Afternoon came, but I couldn’t call Kirsten — her family didn’t have a phone. My mom wouldn’t let me walk over, but sometimes Kirsten called me from the payphone. Maybe she’d call tonight. She had better! I gave her all those quarters from the jug in my living room.
By the next morning, still no word from Kirsten. I was furious! My mom drove me the three-tenths of a mile to the bus stop and kissed me goodbye. I brushed her off and stomped to the corner. Leaned against the light pole. Crossed my arms. Stared in Kirsten’s direction. She had a bounce in her step as she approached. Her hair was fixed, and her face clean. So different from the summer Kirsten of two days ago. She could be one of the pretty girls.
“Where were you yesterday?” I demanded.
“Don’t be mad.”
“Are you sick? You don’t look sick.”
“Then what? How can anybody miss the first day unless they’re sick?”
“It’s not really your business.”
“Not my business? I’m your best friend! Of course, it’s my business.”
“They wouldn’t let me go without shoes, okay! I had to wait ’til my dad found some money,” she said, not meeting my eyes.
I knew in that second where my quarters had gone. I looked down.
Blue Dollar Store jellies adorned Kirsten’s feet; the checkered pattern crisscrossed her dirty toenails — at least a size too big.
“I like them,” I said.
We got on the bus and picked sand spurs off each other’s backs.