by Stefani Zellmer
April 15, 2016
I meet Tracy because she has a hot brother, according to Kristen. Tracy and her brother Trent go to Bishop Lynch. Kristen and I go to Liberty. They wear uniforms and study Theology. We wear whatever we want and don’t know what Theology is. At least I don’t, and I’m embarrassed for not knowing so I don’t ask.
Even though we don’t go to the same school, we live in the same neighborhood. Some of the Liberty boys play basketball at Trent’s house. Eddie Johns. Arun. Kenith. Mark aka “Skin.” Mark aka “Meat.” Brandon. Lonnie. Brendon. Chris. Chris. Matt.
Looking at Trent you might wonder why he’s dating someone like Kristen. But once you get to know Kristen you figure out pretty quickly why Trent’s dating her. Why most guys date her.
Because Kristen has that come-hitherness about her, people ignore the razor marks she wears like jewelry. They look the other way when she scrapes one of the scabs off during Texas History and squeezes the blood out onto her notebook. For some reason Kristen likes me so I run with her and she teaches me things. Bad things.
We get drunk and play Candyland, end up sticking the plastic gingerbread pieces in our vaginas, making Kristen cackle. This is just a sampling of how we entertain ourselves.
We are 14.
A few weeks before the Sadie Hawkins dance, Kristen grabs me by the atrium lockers and says I have to come with her to Trent’s house after school.
“Why?” I ask. “Watching you and Trent have sex isn’t really my thing. You know that.”
“Har, har, smart ass,” she says. “I mean you have to come with me to look at dresses with his sister.”
“You’re wearing a dress? Say no more,” I say, because this I gotta see. “Can we smoke out first? Like we always do before watching scary movies?”
Kristen punches me in the arm. I don’t flinch but I bite the inside of my lip, taste blood.
“No dum-dum, the dresses are for Tracy. Eddie Johns asked her to the dance. She doesn’t know how girls dress for dances here. She wants my advice on what to wear.”
“Is she a retard?” I say. Kristen shoots me a look that could almost pass as hurt. I fall for it. “Okay, I’ll go but only to warn her that taking advice from you is suicidal.”
“Why do you think I asked you to come, dipshit?”
She pivots on her mismatched Converse hightops, makes the kiss sound and then slaps her own ass. I roll my eyes and sigh. Then, suddenly, it hits me.
“Wait a minute!” I holler. “Eddie Johns? For real?”
Rounding the corner into the cafeteria, she turns and shrugs, and then I think she grabs her crotch, but I’m not sure.
Eddie Johns is actually in my next period so I stare at him, puzzled, trying to figure out what kind of girl would date him. He’s an odd one, even in our circle of odd ones. He’s scrawny and giggly and walks with a strut that looks more like a limp. He wears denim from head to toe, drawings on the back of his jacket, not good ones. His hair is mullet-y. His teeth buck out. I certainly wouldn’t want to kiss him. It looks like it would be dangerous, with those teeth.
Given all that, when she opens the door I’m surprised to see that this Tracy is drop-dead cute as can be.
She invites us in and asks if we want Kool-Aid. I’m thinking, “Yeah, if it’s got Jack in it.” She has curling-ironed bangs wisping out of hair that’s otherwise pulled back in a bow clip. Her pleated, plaid skirt swings over skinny, bowed legs. She’s smiley and perky and a cheerleader, of course. I don’t loathe her, though, which is odd because it’s my hobby to hate cheerleaders.
Tracy’s house is a mess of Legos and loud TVs coming from every direction and high-pitched voices shouting about this or that thing. I’m an only child. No cousins I’m close to or anything, so I don’t know much about kids. I have no idea how old her brother and sister are. Maybe five or six? Seven or eight? They lurk. The sister eyes us from behind a door and the brother doesn’t even look up.
I’m in awe of Tracy. I’m in awe of this house. Kristen’s all whatever about it but that’s normal. She’s Kristen.
There are some older sisters too, I find out once we get upstairs to the mountain of dresses laid across Tracy’s bed.
“How many sisters and brothers do you have?” I say.
“Five,” Tracy says. “There’s six of us.”
“Your mom had SIX KIDS!” I say. I can’t even imagine how awesome it would be to have three sisters and two brothers.
When I was a kid, every year on my birthday I’d use my wish to ask for a brother or sister. I quit asking when my parents split up, when mom got her own education and career and new—but definitely not improved—husband. Now when it’s my birthday, I wish for something meaningless. Like, losing five pounds or getting asked out by a boy.
We stand side by side, surveying the hot pink taffeta, the Like-A-Virgin bows, the Snow White sleeves. There’s a cassette playing somewhere in the room, perhaps in my head. Prince. Van Halen. Motley Crue.
“Don’t spill wine on my dress,” a flash of girl says, passing in the hallway outside Tracy’s room. Tracy holds her middle finger up to the empty hallway as footsteps thunder down the stairs, the sister gone. I see only tenderness in the exchange. I ache with jealousy.
Tracy shows up to the dance in the dress I recommended. It’s all bunchy in the back, flaring out her frame and accenting her 5’1” cheerleader body. She’s all powder blue, from dress to bow to dyed-to-match flats. It’s a little over the top, I think. I didn’t recommend the shoes and the bow, but it works because she’s tiny and cute.
I always wanted to be tiny and cute.
Because I’m trying to be fancy, I wear heels. I’m a head taller than her anyway and now I’m two heads taller and feel awkward standing next to her, even though it’s my school, not hers. If she feels awkward, I can’t tell.
Trent and Kristen leave to “buy cigarettes” and never come back.
My date is Tony Gonzalez, who goes by the nickname Taco. I asked him to the dance after P.E. one day and for some reason he said yes.
I’m not really attracted to Tony (I can’t bring myself to call him Taco), but I like him. There’s something shy and sad about him. He’s sweet. And I like boys with darker skin. My Dad is American Indian, but most people think he’s Greek. Dark skin is familiar. Tony’s not. We spend about five minutes drinking punch together after he attaches my corsage to my dress and then spend the rest of the dance casually smiling at each other from across the room.
I stand along the edge of the dance floor with Tracy, who is waiting patiently for Eddie Johns to show up. When the waiting grows tiresome, we dance. I have this wild spinning move that I do where I thrust my body around one way, then I stop with a hard pivot and thrust my body the other way. This move works best to that song by Romeo Void that goes “I might like you better if we slept together,” though it can be done to any song with a dance beat. Tracy tries to copy my move, fails, and then moves on to her own private school dance which is basically a step together, step together kind of thing that would put me to sleep, but to each his own. Right?
Eddie Johns never shows up.
I feel kind of panicky for Tracy. I can’t imagine the horror of being stood up at a dance when you don’t even go to that school. I mean, how embarrassing! But she is remarkably chill about it so we try to have fun anyway.
After we dance for a bit, we stand around with our arms crossed, talking. I point out people that I despise and make fun of them while Tracy just nods. She’s way cooler than any cheerleader at Liberty. She’s on student council and drama club, which sounds dorky to me but she wears dorky well. We go outside to smoke. Her braces shimmer off the lights from the football field. Without hesitation she pulls a mason jar of Jack Daniel’s from her purse. That’s my poison, too.
We are instants.
Sneaking next door to the Elementary School, we settle on the swings and swig Jack. She chain smokes, lighting one Virginia Slim off the other, before stubbing the butt out with those shimmery flats. I smoke a lot, too, but I’ve never seen anyone smoke as much as Tracy.
“Aren’t you upset that Eddie didn’t show up?” I ask her.
“Eh,” she says, blowing smoke into the February air.
“He probably got arrested or something,” I say.
“He does a lot of drugs, doesn’t he?”
“Yeah. I guess so. It depends on what you mean by a lot.”
We swing and swig and puff and think. Even though we’re a track field away, we can still hear the music coming from the dance. Muffled Spandau Ballet. Tears for Fears.
After the dance, we catch a ride with someone’s older sister to TGI Friday’s. It’s where everyone’s going so we go there, too. Tony is there but we don’t really talk to each other.
This is dating at 14.
Normally, I wouldn’t have come. TGI Fridays makes me rashy. But I feel like it’s my duty to make sure Tracy has a good time, and I don’t know if she’d have a good time slummin’ in alleys drinking bottles of wine we stole from our parents. Which is what I’d normally be doing.
Even though she doesn’t know anyone but me, Tracy seems to have a blast at dinner. People bombard her with stupid questions about Bishop Lynch, like they’ve never seen someone who goes to private school before. She doesn’t blush once. She scrunches her curling-ironed bangs from time to time, but that’s probably just the Shaper hairspray wearing off, not her nerves wearing thin. She eats more potato skins than I’ve ever seen a human eat in one sitting. I say, “Damn girl, where you plannin’ on putting all that food?”
She shrugs with a mouth full and flicks her index finger out. She laughs at everyone’s jokes like they’re not inside jokes from another school at all. She seems right at home, at ease. So I study her. How is this done? This feeling-comfortable-in-your-own-skin thing that she does. It’s weird. I don’t get it.
We find out on Monday that Eddie did, in fact, go to jail that night. He got arrested for smoking pot while he was walking to the dance and then got a Minor In Possession ticket and hauled into juvie because it wasn’t his first offense. These are the kinds of people I hang with.
Tracy is an escape. An oasis in my dried-up rock quarry of delinquency. But when I begin to hang with her more, I learn that while I want to be more like her—little Miss Private School girl with saddle shoes and a uniform skirt—she wants to be more like me, more who-gives-a-shit-what-people-think-of-me and who-cares-what-the-rules-are-I’m-breaking-them, so there.
Because I can’t be who she is, she comes to my side of the cafeteria, so to speak, and we start breaking rules together and we start sneaking out of each other’s houses together and we start sleeping with boys in cars. Together. We start stealing our parents’ liquor and we start smoking pot and we start puking in alleys and holding each other’s hair back and we come a long, long way from those puffy sleeves and those taffeta bows.
We never cut ourselves like Kristen does, but we act like the kind of girls who would if we weren’t so concerned with being pretty. We have nice skin. We know it. We want to keep it that way.
I spend time at Tracy’s house and lather myself in the bath of that chaos. She spends time at mine, and soaks in the silence. We are different as midnight and dawn.
Trent and Kristen break up. Kristen and I stay friends, but Tracy has moved in to my heart. Kristen and Tracy don’t have any reason to be friends. Kristen is too wild for Tracy. She isn’t elegant. Which, neither am I, but Tracy sees something in me that I can’t see in myself. She laughs at jokes I don’t realize I’m telling.
I can be a bit of an Eddie Haskell so while Tracy’s mom seems skeptical of me at first, she eventually takes a liking to me and I become another sister in their house. It feels nice, being included, being listened to.
Tracy’s dad is kind of an alchy so he lets her smoke in the house. I show up one day and Tracy is just plopped in front of One Life to Live with a gigantic, tinted-glass ashtray on the floor beside her, blowing smoke rings into the air. I’m thinking her parents are going to kill her, but when I get all the way into the living room I see that her dad is already sitting there, tucked into his velour chair in the corner, smoking his own filtered cigarette, his other hand on a tumbler of scotch. When they see me, both are completely unfazed. It’s the most exotic thing I’ve ever seen, and Tracy becomes more goddess to me than ever that day.
My mom would be in awe of Tracy, too, if she were ever home when Tracy was hanging out. She works long hours so Tracy and I are alone a lot, usually bouncing or sunbathing on my trampoline in the back yard. We lay out in our ruffled bikinis that span across our protruding hipbones and talk about boys we’d like to mess around with. I don’t know the boys at her school, but she knows the boys at mine because they all play basketball in her driveway.
Trent has actually been through several of my friends, and even tried to feel me up in a hot tub one night at Kim Jenkins’s end-of-the-year party, and truth be told, I made out with him for a few minutes, but I haven’t told Tracy that yet and I hope I never have to. I think it might ruin our friendship. She might think less of me and I don’t care what anyone thinks of me usually but when it comes to Tracy, I care.
Her eight-year-old sister Kendall hates me. Every time I come over she rolls her eyes and looks at me like I’m dog shit on her shoe. It kind of bugs me. Then again, I don’t know what it’s like to have a sister you idolize, who you spend all your time with, who suddenly leaves you behind when she moves on to hang with friends her own age. I don’t know what that’s like so I don’t know what to do with the dirty looks. Just as Kendall doesn’t know what to do with the pain of watching her sister walk away from her with someone she doesn’t like or trust.
One night we get busted sneaking out with Rhonda, another of my Kristen-esque friends. I tell my mom I’m staying with Tracy, Tracy tells her mom she’s staying with me, and Rhonda tells her mom she’s staying with me, too, but then Rhonda screws everything up because Rhonda is supposed to call her mom when she gets home at midnight, which is our curfew, but Rhonda forgets to call her mom so when her mom calls my mom and asks where’s Rhonda, my mom’s all, “what are you talking about?” and her mom is all, “I thought Rhonda was staying there tonight,” and my mom is all, “I thought Stef was staying with Tracy tonight,” and Rhonda’s mom is all, “who’s Tracy?”
We are fucked.
My boyfriend who’s gay but I don’t know it yet calls me at Chris Crenshaw’s house, where we’re all smoking pot and getting felt up by boys, and says, “You better call your mom, she’s looking for you, she just called here wondering where you are.” Where I was was in the game room getting my boob fondled. Which I am just realizing is fucked up as I tell you this because I have a boyfriend at the time and even though he’s gay and I don’t know he’s gay yet, I’m cheating on him and that’s wrong. But like I said, I’m high and everybody knows there is no right or wrong when you’re on drugs.
Rhonda and I leave immediately and go to my house because we know we’re screwed. It takes us a while because we have to walk. We are only fifteen and still too young to drive. At least we don’t have to worry about getting DWIs. And there’s no law against staggering home on foot. Or so we think.
“You smell like a brewery,” my mom says, arms crossed, wide-awake.
“You smell like a bar room floor,” she continues.
“You’re drunk,” she says.
I’m too drunk to realize how redundant she’s being or how flair-for-dramatics she is so I just say, “Nu-uh.” Then I blush. My lie is that ridiculous. I can feel myself swaying in front of her. I can hear her toe tapping on the carpet. I can see her hands on her hips gripping so hard her knuckles are white.
She calls Rhonda’s mom.
“I’ve got them, Nancy. They smell like a brewery,” she says again. She likes this metaphor. This is not the last time I will hear her refer to me having this particular scent.
Rhonda’s mom comes to get her and while we’re waiting it occurs to my mom to wonder, “where’s Tracy?”
“Ummmm,” I say.
Tracy didn’t think it was necessary to come with us because her mom wasn’t the one who had called mine and therefore didn’t know what was up. But my mom manages to ruin all that by driving me over to Chris Crenshaw’s house to fetch Tracy.
When we get there, Tracy is cross-legged on the couch looking barely alive. When she spots me and my mom, her slits for eyes are shocked open. My mom whisks her away and lectures us the whole drive, not realizing we’re too stoned to listen that fast, then continues her march to Tracy’s front door where she leans on the bell. It’s 3am. Helloooo, don’t you know they have half a baseball team living under that roof? Ugh.
Even though I’m horrified, Tracy’s mom seems relieved that there’s another mom embarrassing her daughter for a change. Tracy’s mom is from Ohio so she’s got nice-as-can-be in her DNA. It’s the first time I see where Tracy gets her positive nature. Apples don’t fall far, they say.
I’m grounded for a month. It’s July. Life sucks for what seems like an eternity. Do I learn a lesson? Sure I do.
I don’t invite Rhonda to spend the night again.
Tracy and I go on to get driver’s licenses and sneak out to share boyfriends old enough to buy us liquor. I go to her prom with a boy from her school and she goes to my prom with a boy from mine. She flips her car and nearly dies one night and I’m one of the first to arrive at her side in the hospital, laughing at her chipped tooth and pulling her out of her depression because that’s what friends are for.
Later I get into some harder drugs and Tracy doesn’t like it but I’m sucked into it and so in love with the way it makes me feel that even Tracy’s disapproval can’t stop me. She has power over me but cocaine is more powerful than love. So is Ecstasy. And acid. And more gay boyfriends. And a lesbian drug dealer. And almost flunking the 11th grade because I don’t give a fuck, fuck you!
That’s me while Tracy’s voted Homecoming Queen at Bishop Lynch. Through it all, we are still close as two can be who are like midnight and dawn.
Maybe we mesh because Tracy loves me in that rare, non-judgey way. And maybe because of that acceptance, I actually survive high school. I get it together my senior year and write for my high school newspaper. I graduate and get accepted to college. I turn into someone who’s not half bad on most days. Which is a miracle, if you believe in that kind of thing. Which I don’t, of course. But I do believe in birthday wishes and now that I think about it, that one about wanting a sister?
It came true.