I guess your move wasn’t a sign of the Y2K teen angst apocalypse after all. I’m still here. You’re still there. Fortunately, I’ve been way too busy basking in the golden glow of adolescent adulation to be the least bit depressed about your departure …
I’m kidding. Sort of.
The pathetic truth is this: I have become somewhat of a Pineville High celebrity in the eighteen hours since our goodbye. Everyone is paying more attention to me. Of course, I still lack the Oscar-caliber star power that would win me instant acceptance into the Upper Crust or make Paul Parlipiano worship and adore me. No, mine is a Z-level celebrity, comparable to an actress who makes her mark in Lifetime made-for-TV movies with titles like Daddy, May I Dance with Danger?
The real reason I’m writing this letter is because I want it to get to your new zip code before you do. I figure you’d want something other than your grandmother’s Shalimar-soaked hug to greet you upon your arrival at your new Home Sweet Home. Plus, there’s no better way to ring in this oh-so-Happy New Year than by exercising my right to make good on the first of our Totally Guilt-Free Guidelines for Keeping in Touch:
1. Snail mail once a month.
2. Call once a week.
3. Email/IM once a day.
Remember: ONLY IF YOU WANT TO. The minute our correspondence becomes obligatory, there’s no point in keeping in touch at all. I miss you. Already.
Tonight I’ve been thinking about the mosaic Hope gave me the night she U-hauled ass out of Pineville. I wasn’t supposed to open it until my birthday, but I couldn’t wait. I tore off the wrapping paper and finally had an explanation for the mysterious slivers of shredded magazine pages all over her carpet. For months, Hope had been tearing out pictures of school buses and pumpkins to capture the color of her curls. Hershey bars and beer bottles for my bob.
I hung it on the wall next to my bed. I’ve been staring at it, trying to figure out how she glued all those tiny pieces of paper so they would come together to recreate my favorite photo: Hope and I at 4:00 a.m., wide awake and laughing, waiting to sneak out to watch the sunrise.
I remember that summer sleepover at Hope’s house two and a half years ago more vividly than anything I did today.
We watched the video of her Little Miss Superstar dance recital. She was the most coordinated of the dozen or so yellow-bikini-clad four-year-olds shuffle-ball-changing to a Beach Boys medley. (Hope’s review: Yikes! JonBenét Ramsey! Yikes!)
We tried to outdo each other in round after round of Would You Rather: Eat nothing but fish sticks OR wear head-to-toe *NSYNC paraphernalia for the rest of your life? Be zit-free forever OR fill a D-cup bra?
We flipped through our eighth-grade yearbook and decided that being voted Class Brainiac (me) and Class Artist (her) just about guaranteed geekdom in high school. We thought that Brainiac Who Will Actually Make Something of Her Life and Not End Up Managing a 7-Eleven and Artist Who Will Contribute More to This World Than Misspelled Graffiti sounded so much better. Then we literally rolled on the rug laughing as we stripped other Class Characters of their titles and gave them what they really deserved …
Scotty Glazer: from Most Athletic to Most Middle-Aged Yet Totally ImmatureBridget Milhokovich: from Best Looking to Best Bet She’ll Peak Too SoonManda Powers: from Biggest Flirt to Most Likely to End Up on Jerry SpringerSara D’Abruzzi: from Class Motormouth to Future Double Agent Who Would Betray Her Country for LiposuctionMrs. Weaver made German pancakes with lemon juice and confectioners’ sugar for breakfast. Hope’s then-sixteen-year-old brother, Heath, snorted the powdery sugar up his nose and imitated some seventies comedian all hopped up on cocaine. This made me laugh so hard, I thought my stomach was going to come out my ears. I felt bad when Hope later explained to me why she and her mom weren’t so amused by his antics. And when Heath died of a heroin overdose six months ago, I felt even worse.
My brother would’ve been in the same grade as Heath. Hope and I always thought that was a really freaky coincidence. I never knew him, though. Matthew Michael Darling died when he was only two weeks old. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. No one in my family talks about him. Ever.
Mr. and Mrs. Weaver made countless excuses for the sudden move back to their tiny hometown (Wellgoode, Tennessee: Population 6,345—uh, make that 6,348). They had to get Hope down there in time to start the third marking period. They had to move in with Hope’s grandmother so they could afford to pay for college. But Hope and I saw through the lies. We knew the truth—even if we never said it out loud. The Weavers wanted to get Hope out of Pineville, New Jersey (population 32,000, give or take three people), so she wouldn’t end up like her brother. Dead at eighteen.
Now I—I mean, we, Hope and me—have to pay for his mistakes. It’s not fair. I know this may sound selfish, but couldn’t they have waited another seventeen days? Couldn’t they have waited until after my birthday?
I told my parents not to even dare throwing me a sweet sixteen party. The very thought of ice-cream cake and pink crepe paper makes me want to hurl. Not to mention the fact that I can’t even imagine who would be on the guest list since I hate all my other friends. I know my parents think I’m being ridiculous. But if the one person I want to be there can’t be there, I’d rather just stay home. And mope. Or sleep.
Besides, I have never been sweet. Maybe not never, but definitely not after the age of three. That’s when my baby blond hair suddenly darkened—and my attitude went with it. (Which is why my dad’s nickname for me is “Notso,” as in Jessica Not-So-Darling.) Whenever anyone tried to talk to me, I’d yell bor-ing and run away. I probably picked it up from my sister, Bethany, who was fourteen at the time and spent hours in front of the mirror rolling her eye s and practicing pissy looks to advertise her so-called angst. Of course, the difference between Bethany and me is that I’ve never had to practice.
When I was a kid, I loved playing with the Charlie’s Angels dolls I inherited from Bethany. I’m talking the old-school Angels: Sabrina, Kelly, Jill—even Kris. (They never made dolls for Tanya Roberts or Shelley Hack.) They all wore a navy blue scarf and matching go-go boots, but their polyester jumpsuits came in different colors: Sabrina’s in red, Kelly’s in yellow, Jill’s in white, and Kris’s in green. I thought they were so cool, even though everyone else I knew played with Barbie and the Rockers.
This was back when I wanted to be my pretty, popular older sister more than anything, back when I was young and impressionable and stupid. I loved everything she loved. Anything she thought was cool, I thought was cool. Though my Bethany worship was short-lived—thank God—her pop cultural impact lives on. She is directly responsible for my freakish lack of interest in nearly all forms of entertainment targeted at my own generation (Gen Z? Gen i? Gen Whatever?) in favor of all things anachronistic.
The irony does not escape me.
One day when I was brushing the Angels’ hair, getting them ready for their next bad-guy-whupping adventure, I noticed that Sabrina didn’t have eyelashes. All the Angels had painted-on eyelashes but Sabrina. First, I thought it was a mistake—like I’d gotten a messed-up doll. But then I asked Bethany if her friends’ Sabrinas had eyelashes and she said she didn’t think so. I tried to figure out what it was about Sabrina that would make her undeserving of eyelashes. I never did.
Until last night. I caught a rerun on TV Land in which Kelly and Jill went undercover in hot pants while Sabrina—in a turtleneck, no less—gathered case-cracking clues with Bosley. Suddenly, her eyelashless-ness made sense. Sabrina was the brainy Angel. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: pretty or smart. Guess which one I got. You’ll see where it’s gotten me.
By the way, this is the type of thing that Hope and I talk about. But I won’t rehash our convos here. I’ll show and tell on a need-to-know basis. The rest is off-limits. Private.
I know it’s bizarre that I don’t gush on and on about someone who means so much to me. But that’s exactly why I won’t. When you say too much about anything important, it always ends up sounding more trivial than it is. Words trash it. Plus, my conversations with Hope are incomprehensible to anyone else. It sounds like blah-diddy-blah-blah to everyone except those who speak our secret language. If you read a word-for-word transcript of our last conversation, you’d come to the conclusion that Hope and I were total clowns.
I wanted to talk about Charlie’s Angels with Hope in person today, which I obviously couldn’t do. Even though my dad used his network administrator clout to hook Hope and me up with the most state-of-the-art webcams, it doesn’t help much when Hope’s computer isn’t as jacked-to-the-max as mine. We spend the artificial face time griping about how we can’t see or hear each other. I might as well use an abacus.
Truth be told, this is fine by me. My dad would love it if I were a computer wonk—it would give us something to talk about besides running—but I’m not. Firewalls be damned. I just don’t trust technology, especially since a PHS hacker emailed the contents of a freshman’s e-journal to every student in school. (He transferred out, so harsh was his humiliation.) Hope has no problem spilling her guts all over the internet, but she’s a far less suspicious person than I am. The point is, if I can’t talk to her or see her, I prefer handwriting a letter instead of venting over email, or scribbling in this journal instead of cyberchatting with total strangers with screen names like 2kewlchick or buffyrulz04. I’m all too aware of the fact that I’m not Y2K compliant. It’s nothing short of a miracle that my brain didn’t blow up on January first.
In lieu of Hope, I settled for asking Bridget if she remembered playing with the Charlie’s Angels dolls when we were kids. Bridget is my age and lives across the street. For the first twelve years of my life, these qualifications were all I needed in a best friend. But that was before Bridget’s braces came off and her boyfriend, Burke, got on, before Hope and I met in our seventh-grade honors classes.
“Hey. Do you remember when we used to play with the Charlie’s Angels dolls?”
Bridget shook her golden ponytail and stared like I’d just grown horns out of my forehead.
Bridget is pretty. Very. Actually, she’s beautiful. She’s usually compared to Grace Kelly or Gwyneth Paltrow—depending on the age of the eye of the beholder.
Her looks are directly responsible for the demise of our friendship.
One afternoon in August, before we entered seventh grade, Bridget and I went shopping for back-to-school clothes with my mom and my sister. More than one salesperson commented on the trio’s classically beautiful, high-quality genes. They all had straight, flaxen hair. (Me, a frizzy brunette.) Their eyes were as large and blue as swimming pools. (Mine were as small and brown as mud puddles.) Their skin, lightly tanned and unblemished. (Mine, sunburnt and zitty.) They were petite, yet curvy in all the right places. (I was long-limbed and skinny with orangutan arms.) Who wouldn’t have assumed I was the neighbor’s daughter? They thought it was hilarious. I laughed along, hiding my humiliation.
Our friendship was never quite the same after that. But it was okay. A month later, I met Hope and Bridget met Burke Roy (an eighth grader, no less) and we didn’t need each other anymore anyway. My mom still clings to the idea that Bridget is my bestest bud, an assumption based on the fact that I’ve known Bridget since the crib, versus the paltry three and a half years I’ve known Hope. This is one reason why my mother can’t comprehend how one weekly sixty-minute long-distance phone call to Hope is not enough. Another one of those reasons is that my mom knows nothing about me.
Seconds after Bridget’s Angels diss, Manda and Sara joined us at the table. “Honors” is a relative term in our school district, so I met them in my seventh grade classes too, through Hope. Or Hope through them. See, Hope, Manda, and Sara had been quite the clique in their own elementary school. This was as unfathomable as me being friends with Bridget back in the day. Once Hope and I discovered we were of like mind, we christened Bridget, Manda, and Sara the Clueless Crew. Now they’re still here and Hope is gone. My luck sucks.
Once all three members of the Clueless Crew were assembled, they commenced their daily ritual of not eating and alternately trashing/worshipping the models and actresses in a teen mag.
“How could they have put her on the cover? Her ass is like, totally huge,” cried Bridget.
Bridget is always zeroing in on the hugeness of models’ asses. That’s because Bridget herself is an aspiring model who is convinced she has a huge ass. This is the burden of being beautiful, apparently. In psych class I learned that the hotter you are, the more paranoid you are about the way you look. That wasn’t supposed to be the takeaway, but I read between the lines: Born beauties get so much pretty-girl praise that their appearance becomes crucial to their oh-so-delicate self-worth.
Anyway, Bridget has been modeling for about a year but has yet to make it in the pages of any of the major teen publications. She’s one of those anonymous magalog models. But that’s goddamn glamorous for PHS.
“Omigod! My dad’s photographer friend said she has cellulite,” said Sara.
“Ewwww!” said Manda and Bridget in unison.
“Yeah, he said they call her quote Stucco Butt unquote behind her back.”
Sara all too frequently utters the phrases “Omigod!” and “quote, unquote.” To her credit, she has stopped making the double-finger-bending gesture that traditionally accompanies the latter. She loves the sound of her own voice, one of dulled consonants and nasal vowels, as though her whole cranium is clogged with a bajillion pounds or gallons or whatever unit measures mucus. Her father, Wally D’Abruzzi, owns Winning Wally’s Arcade, Wally D’s Sweet Treat Shoppe, and other boardwalk gold mines, so she is also the most moneyed chick at Pineville High. This isn’t such a feat in our middle/working-class district. She could go to some pricey private school, but she begged her parents to let her go public. Here, her family’s extra coin gives her some social leverage. At a super chichi school full of bajillionaires, she knows she’d be a scrub.
I glanced at the cover girl in question. She wasn’t skinny, but she definitely wasn’t fat. She looked curvy. Sexy. Strong. I thought about Sabrina, without eyelashes, in a turtleneck. I decided to come to the model’s defense.
“I bet the editors put her on the cover to make us feel good about ourselves. To show that you don’t have to be perfect to be pretty…”
“Puh-leeze, Jess,” Manda said, pushing her glasses past the bridge of her nose so she could look down at me over the rims. “Stop being so Naomi Wolf already.”
Manda reads feminist manifestos to make up for what my sister’s generation would consider borderline ho-bag behavior. I’m pretty sure that’s why she wears glasses instead of contacts, so she seems less sexual and more intellectual. And guess what? It works!
Hope and I called her Mono Queen because she’d made out with thirty-one different guys by her fifteenth birthday. That’s when she decided it was time to move on to manual stimulation, so we christened her Lend-a-Hand-A-Manda. And when she turned sixteen, well, let’s just say she earned the title the Headmaster. None of the nicknames stuck, not even between the two of us.
Manda calls herself an “extreme” virgin and intends on keeping it that way until she finds someone who meets all her criteria: six feet tall; drives a Jeep; lean and cut, but not meathead muscular; blond; surfs in summer, skis in winter; flosses daily. She knows this is a tall order—especially at Pineville—so she unapologetically messes around with one Mr. Wrong after another until Mr. Right comes along. I’d never admit this out loud, but I think the real reason Manda bothers me so much is because she devised a radically pro-sex strategy before I ever could.
The Clueless Crew continued flipping through the magazine, taking swigs from their Diet Cokes and passing one-word judgments on the images on each page.
Copyright © 2021 by Megan McCafferty. Foreword copyright © 2021 by Rebecca Serle