I felt like crying as I stared down at my math test. It wasn't that I didn't know how to do one problem. One problem I could deal with. But I had flipped through the entire test and realized that I had no idea how where to start on any of them. Partial credit wasn't going to do me any good if I couldn't even put together the starting equation.
I hate math. That's the one thing that has remained true about me my entire life. I've been middle-class (now attended a rich-kid school), short (now a middling five-seven), angry (now sarcastic), and loud (volume control installed). But my math skills have never changed.
This is not going to be one of those stories in which the heroine is extremely good in every class and becomes the valedictorian and goes to Harvard. I am not that cool, and I'm not ashamed to admit it, thank you. In fact, I am very bad at very many things.
I completed the test inasmuch as that was possible (i.e. signing my name and returning it to the teacher), and waited quietly at my seat until the bell rang, doodling a picture of all the numbers being swallowed up by a black hole never to be seen again. If only wishes like that came true on a daily basis, I wouldn't ask for anything else.
In the hallway, I avoided everyone else's eyes and made a beeline for my locker, kneeling down on the floor to open it because yet again the school administration had stuck me with a crappy bottom locker. I ducked my head and undid the combination, all the while realizing the futility of trying to hide. They would find me anyway.
It took about two minutes for my prediction to come true. I was tugging my Psych book out from underneath the five water bottles, seven scarves, and twenty-eight Law packets I had never read when I heard the distinctive click-click, click-click of Caldwell's shiny, patent-leather penny loafers, and I froze in a moment of panic. Most people, I understand, would chuckle at the idea of being panicked by a nearly two-hundred and fifty pound man in overly-spruced penny loafers. I myself have had a chortle or two at his expense.
But this time was not funny in the least bit.
"Miss Ventura?" He queried in a tone that made it clear he was not, in fact, querying. I winced, closing my eyes, and shut my locker. I didn't get up, however, because I knew that if I did, I'd be tempted to run, and that the man to my left would stop at nothing to hunt me down, even if I came back minus an entrail or two.
"Hey, Mr. Caldwell, how's it hangin'?" Yeah, see, that was a bad idea, Pen. Very bad. You always wonder why you're in trouble, and then you do this. Why would you say that to a teacher? You're so awkward.
Luckily for me, the question was either way over his head, or he had prepped himself for this session by jabbing himself superficially with very sharp pins so nothing I could say would shock him.
It was definitely a choice between the two.
"Miss Ventura, I assume you know why we are standing here?" He quirked his brow so that his glasses slid down his nose and he could look over them at me. I decided, just in the nick of time, that making a comment on what happens when you assume things would probably get me in worse trouble.
I nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Then I would also be correct in assuming you would understand it if we were to take this to my office?" He was stiff and formal, but then again, he was always stiff and formal, so when he turned around with military precision and began his quick step down the hall, I simply rolled my eyes and followed him. I left my backpack on the floor. No one would take it, and even if they did, all they would find was a bunch of textbooks and two or three rude buttons. Gold mine there, fellas.
Caldwell's office looked like a fishing haven. Pictures of him, his scarily identical son, and a bunch of his friends smiling at the camera while presenting huge trout lined the wall otherwise occupied by the door. On the back wall, over a couch that no one had ever sat on, an enormous model marlin curved, his sword-like nose pointing blankly at the corner fern, the only sign that his wife had ever been in his office. On my frequent visit to his school hidey-hole, I had hoped the marlin was fake. I was sure, now, that it was absolutely one-hundred-percent genuine. Behind his desk, the wall was plastered with another feminine touch: pastoral, idyllic pictures of his wife and three daughters, dressed up in stuffy, eighties-fabulous WASP attire, complete with pearls. Behind them, a fire roared in a mahogany fireplace. The scene was the same in each picture, and except for the fact that the photographer had asked them to gaze adoringly into a different person's eyes every time, the photos were identical.
Usually, when I got to the office, I would plunk myself down in my favorite leather-padded, brass-studded chair, and fiddle with the curly-cues in his phone cord that trailed off the edge of his desk that faced the row of windows. He would talk about my latest minor infringement of school policy; ask me to button my shirt properly, or to wear my school-assigned uniform skirt. I would listen politely, crack a few jokes that he didn't get, and I'd be out in time for the next class.
This time, however, it was different, and the office was occupied when I trailed in behind my favorite Martian. As usual, Caldwell sat down pompously in his seat, interlocked his fingers together, and laid them to rest on his ample stomach, the light shining off his bald pate and the pomade in the black hair that graced the sides of his head. I stood by the doorway, uncertain where to go. I couldn't leave, I knew, but I also couldn't move further into the room either. To do that would be to make me a group with the three other people in the room, who were also standing.
"Miss Ventura has agreed to join us," said Caldwell, and I could see that he enjoyed my silence. It let him make jokes that only he thought were funny. Grace Finchley, who stood closest to the windows, glanced at me for a moment, as if she didn't believe I wasn't talking back. Well, let her wonder, I thought, irritated. It's not like we're friends anymore, anyway.
"Now, Miss Finchley, Mr Killion, and Miss Adams, we seem to have a problem, do we not?" I looked at the two others he had mentioned, at Jackson Killion, with his impeccably fashionable ensemble, at Joie Adams with her killer body. I had always wondered how some people could make school uniforms seem so classy, while others looked like hopeless shlubs. His eyes had not flicked toward me, as Grace's had, but instead we fixed stoically on a point on the wall over Caldwell's head. Probably checking out his daughters in the photos, I thought spitefully, It would be just like him.
Joie had tossed her magnificent head at the mention of her name. Unlike Grace and Jack, she didn't fidget or ignore Caldwell. She fixed him with her glare, her arms folded across her wrinkleless blouse. The fact that Caldwell was not at all uncomfortable made him rise in my estimation. He hadn't been made principal for nothing.
"I don't see that we do," Joie said in a flat, cutting voice. "We've already explained it to you." I looked sharply at her, then searched Grace and Jack's faces for confirmation. It was there in the way they weren't looking at me. So they'd told him the story they'd fabricated two nights ago. Good for them.
As if reading my mind, Grace piped up, "Yeah, we've already told you it was Pentea's idea. She did it, too. We didn't want to, sir, but she made us. She made us do it." What was meant to be a strong conclusion withered on her lips. Spineless. I was starting to understand why I had been drifting away from her over the past two months. She was spineless. If she was going to sell me out to protect herself, she might as well do it whole-heartedly. Her use of my full name was good, though, I had to admit. No one who knew me called me Pentea.
Caldwell raised his eyebrows. "She made you? Take a look at Miss Ventura, Miss Finchley. Each of you is at least three inches taller than she is, and as you are athletes, I'm sure you have some kind of endurance. You expect me to believe that Miss Ventura forced you to do anything against your collective will? Considering that she does not have wealthy parents to smooth over the amount of destruction that was caused here by a vast sum of money, and considering that she would get her scholarship cancelled and would be expelled, I'm almost certain it was not her brainchild. As since she is the smallest among you, and also, if I may say, Miss Ventura, the scrawniest, I'm equally sure that you could have put her down if you'd wanted to." I stared at Caldwell in amazement. He was defending me? We had never gotten along, and I had always thought that he had had it in for me, but he was sticking up for the underdog in a group of social gods. Cool.
"You don't understand, Mr Caldwell," Jack said, the usual arrogance that tinged his voice out in force. "Pentea's been a bad influence. She had a strong personality, and since she was so little, we thought that she was just cute and harmless," I looked fixedly at him, mentally clobbering him for being so cavalier about complimenting me after last weekend.
"But she's dangerous," continued Joie, who also looked a bit annoyed at Jackson's word choice. I could tell that she was getting double pleasure out of this, because now she could watch any serious competition for Jack shrivel and burn. At that moment, I realized that I had hated her my entire career in this school. That must have been why we were best friends—had been, had been best friends—because we wanted to watch each other like hawks.
Awesome. My to-do list was going well. Have the worst weekend in history. Check. Enjoy long, brutal conversation with the boy I like, getting shut down in the process. Check. Watch former friends destroy thousands and thousands of dollars worth of school property with racial epithets, and then get drunk. Check. Get blamed for said destruction by former friends and never-potential boyfriend. Check. Possibly be expelled for school. Check. Realize that I had never actually liked my best friend. Check. Awesome. One step closer to self-actualization.
Joie hadn't finished yet. "She's not like the kids we grew up with, sir. She's seen knife-fights and she used to sleep with one under her pillow."
"A knife-fight?" asked Caldwell, and I could tell he was enjoying himself.
"No, sir, a knife,": Joie snapped. But she modified her tone to one of sharp pleading. "She used to say that she never trusted black people in her old neighborhood, and she's never like Gavin at all. She was drunk, and she got angry, and she threatened us."
"She knows gangsters," Grace added helpfully.
"We couldn't do anything. We were caught. So we decided to do what she asked and then tell you later, so you wouldn't think it was our fault. And that's what we did." Joie's earlier harsh stare had been replaced with one of hurt innocence. Another teacher might have been fooled, but Caldwell was disbelieving.
And I was furious. I had never owned a knife, and my father had worked hard to move us out of a bad Chicago neighborhood when I was really young. I had never seen a knife-fight, and I resented their stereotyping. And suggesting that I made racist comments toward someone else in this school where I was a speck of color in a sea of white was ridiculous. Jack hated Gavin because Gavin was popular and well dressed and good at sports, and Joie hated Gavin because Jack hated him, and Grace hated Gavin to fit in. I just didn't belong.
"Yes, I'm sure Miss Ventura is a threat to our Clorox-friendly society, Miss Adams." Mr Caldwell said, shocking me again by quoting one of my rants from two years ago, as a sophomore. He was definitely on my side.
"It's the truth, Mr Caldwell, sir."
I knew we were at an impasse. All three of these kids came from wealthy, influential families. Grace's father was a billionaire sheep-farmer, if you could believe that. Jackson's family came from old, old, old money, but his father raked it in by being a high-powered lawyer and well-known economist on Wall Street. Joie was related to the Kennedys. There was nothing I could say that would get the school board to believe me, the tiny Mexican-American girl from Chicago over three detailed, agreeing accounts of the rich and the famous. I didn't fit in, and they wanted me to remember it. I might as well expel myself now.
"Miss Ventura, I've been given a choice by the school board." Aha, so my suspicions were correct. He looked at me pointedly. "If you wish to challenge these accusations, then we will take the necessary steps and get you a hearing. Any differing account you have, I'd be pleased to hear it, and it would go on record. Or, you could decline to contest the accusations, and the school board would take the necessary actions to see to your expulsion." The room grew quiet as they waited for my answer. Jack and Joie turned their gazes to me for the first time in the entire twenty minutes I'd been there, but I looked pensively at the air just down to the left of the center of my vision. I knew now that if I contested, Caldwell would back me up, and that would give me clout against whatever the Nymphs of Hell to my right could do. But fighting the good fight just to stay here was not a big victory. I'd get vindication, but I'd already lost my friends, one of whom was my roommate. The school, which had been tolerable before-hand, would be a death trap, especially with what Joie could to do to me if she lost.
Hell hath no fury, and all that.
I might as well go home to Chicago. I'd never belonged here in the first place, and it was stupid to think that I wanted to do so now. Screw them, I thought. Screw what they thought about who I was and what they could do to me. I made my own choices.
"Pen?" Jack murmured, before shutting his mouth violently and, apparently, mentally berating himself for the slip. Joie stiffened next to me, and Grace's eyes went wider.
"Well, Mr Caldwell, I appreciate your knowledge and your sudden and unexpected support, sir, I really do. And I do want to say that everything they say is absolute crap, and that they are God-awful people, and that I'm ashamed I ever clung to them like a helpless sicofante. But I do choose to leave the school, sir."
Shock all around. Caldwell, who had smiled a bit at my description of my ex-friends, and who had smiled even more at my defiant use of Spanish, now looked at me like I'd kicked his puppy. Grace, Jack, and Joie, who had expected me to cry, maybe, or flatly deny everything and demand a hearing were struck dumb.
"I don't want to be here anymore if the gratitude I get for being a friend is being dumped, slandered, and insulted by people I thought I liked. I don't care about this school enough to stay for looks' sake, and since I'm still a junior, I don't have a short amount of time before I leave to just go through the motions and come out with a decent GPA and a few colleges begging me to fulfill their Affirmative Action quotas. I don't want to stay here if it's just to prove a point. I want to stay here if I want to stay here, and I'm sorry to say that I don't have anything left to keep me here. So, I'll just pack my bags and catch the next van to the city, if you don't mind. I don't want to hem and ha over anything. I just want to leave and put all of this crappy self-importance and stupidity behind me forever."
Again there was silence. Maybe the Nymphs hadn't really thought I would be gone at the end of this. Maybe they hadn't actually intended for me to leave. Maybe they wanted me to stay so they could cement their clout in the school by ostracizing me, and then show me my own weakness by slowly accepting me back in their circle. Maybe they didn't understand that their games caused repercussions. Maybe they were just stupid. Whatever it was, they didn't expect me to leave.
Caldwell said, "Are you sure that's what you want to do?"
"As much as I'm glad we're buds now, Mr Caldwell, I doubt that eating together in the cafeteria would be a good idea. And anyway, you were right when you said I don't have the money to smooth things over here. If I chose to fight, I'd have to leave eventually anyway, whether the school board expels me right away or their parents make them later after they cry about injustice, lies, little people trying to bring the Man down, whatever. I just don't want to stay here, sir." I returned Joie's gaze now, smiling slightly. Whatever she wanted me to feel, I wouldn't feel it. However she wanted me to be defeated, I wouldn't comply. Screw her. She couldn't make me do anything anymore.
Still smiling, I left the office.