Here’s the winning entry for the Young Adult category for the 7th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Writing competition by high school English teacher K.R. Alligood.
Disclaimer: This work is fictional and not meant to portray any real person. Any similarities to any real persons are unintentional.
Totally in Like With You
“Well, Gawd-damn, Jim! I can’t afford another delinquency on my credit! We’re doing a re-fi on the shop in December, and I need those interest rates low!”
My mother swung a Virginia Slim into her plump lips and repositioned her buxom frame against the shampoo bowl at her station. She sucked a drag off of the slender smoke. I knew that look. Like a cobra rearing for the strike, she squinted her brown eyes so tightly that only a sliver of pupil showed. She exhaled a steady stream of whipped smoke with perfect control, listening to a very uncooperative Jim Smith, the president of Citizen’s Colony Corp.
“Policy and procedures, Jim, really?” She smashed the cigarette into a stubbed butt with brute force. “Well, here at Salon on the Suwanee, we have certain procedures we follow, too. Like informing certain parties of when their husbands have been screwing Caroleena from the Citgo out on Highway 92!” With every hike in shrillness her voice gained, her eyebrows ascended equally. I wondered for a moment if they’d reach her hairline.
A hushed and surely-stunned Jim was silent. My mother was a good person, but she was a shrewd businesswoman. Such sharpness had been what had allowed her to survive two divorces and fledgling economy in rural Florida. She casually withdrew another cigarette, tossed her bouncy, blonde mane against the mauve receiver of the phone and waited. After what felt like an hour, Jim’s low mumbling signaled his compliance.
“Uh-huh. The twenty-second sound good.” She made a notation in her appointment book. “The check’ll be on your desk by then. Pleasure doing business with you, Jim! Say hello to Lisa for me!” Her voice took on a syrupy intonation that so many people found irresistible.
I’ve always been told that I look like her. Although the likeness to my mother was a marvel, we shared some key differences. For one, she had a certain life-force that scared the hell out of some people. Her personality was as robust as mine was muted. Our physiques were equally discordant. While I maintained her facial structure, coloring, and mannerisms, I had inherited my father’s lanky, boyish frame. My mother, on the other hand, was shaped like a retro pin-up model. She wasn’t skinny by any means, but she wasn’t fat, either. She was Perfectly Plump, as my grandmother would say. Our final and most important difference was the fact that my mother had never been single a day in my life. Men loved her, whether they were conscious of it or not. Their pupils would fixate on her shape, their lips would match the cadence of her pout, and then, in between the two of them, a certain humming of the minds would take place. I couldn’t quite explain it, though I saw it daily. She’d always told me that a woman got three great loves in her lifetime. She’d already had two and was working on her final one.
I, on the other hand, had never been in love, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be. Growing up in the beauty shop had taught me that love was an undefined and fleeting thing. Women, for as long as I could remember, had sat in the spinning chairs, elated and repressed; confined and betrayed; hopeless and joyous. Love seemed far too momentous and tragic for me.
All I wanted was to be remotely liked. Liked, although a seemingly simple concept, was a stretch for me, especially when considering Jared Reeder, the object of my affections. Jared had thick mahogany-brown hair, denim-blue eyes, and angled shoulders that were bigger than the width of the desk his desk. He was an all-around nice guy, and while I wasn’t a total skank, slut, or troll, I wasn’t remarkable either. I was slim and tall, lacking all the curves needed to attract a lingering eye. When I was a child, my hair had been golden, but with adolescence it had dulled to a dim shade of dishwater. Even my lips are overtly somber. They are neither thin nor plump, and unlike my mother’s undefined cupid’s bow, my upper lip is distinct in its perfect-v.
Until freshman year, I’d floated in and out of the crosshairs of middle-school aggression, mainly because I wore thick-lens glasses and partly because I was weird. A freak. A certifiable tard, I’d been told by Caprice Ellington. And maybe I was a little odd. I read (Faulker and Poe particularly), I hate the sound of Velcro, and I have collected fortunes ever since our little town got a Chinese buffet when I was eight.
“Katy, Grab my cash bag, and let’s get the hell out of here. What time is it?” My mother was always in a hurry and saddled with extraneous baggage that made its way daily from our house to the beauty shop and back again. She swung in a hurried frustration to check the clock, the radius of her paperwork bag nearly grazing me. I’d learned this routine well and stepped back in just enough time to miss it. The rooster clock that hung above the towel bin read 5:57. “Sid and Shayla’ll be on the curb!”
Buddy Bear Daycare closed at 6:00. It was a twelve minute drive from the salon. We made it in seven.
My mother sped up to the curb of the daycare like a crazed madwoman. Brake dust colored the older twin’s left cheek as we screeched to a halt.
“I am so sorry, Jeanie-Kay! Kyle Farmer ran late for his weekly trim, and then Jolie Duggins was behind on her perm, and I-” My mother’s frantic mouth and feet couldn’t keep up with what had happened until she was interrupted by the screaming of the youngest twin.
“EEEEEOOOOOOWW!” Sid hollered. The bottom edge of the Bronco’s door slammed against his right eye. The sharp corner of the door left a mixture of green, blue and flushed red skin immediately.
“Oh, baby! I’m sorry!” My mother bent down and scooped up Sid, who, being the youngest, intensified his shrieks even more with each comforting stroke of her hand. Oscillating between sobs and screams, Sid slobbered against her shoulder; an act that I thought was too dramatic, even for a preschooler.
My mother held a whimpering Sid as Jeanie-Kay looked to be somewhere between disgusted and flabbergasted. I didn’t know what was more offensive to her: my mother’s tardiness or the fact that she had given my brother his first black eye.
“Listen here,” Jeanie-Kay started up in a hushed whisper just as my mother buckled in the twins. “I know you mean well, Bea. But this is your fifth late pick-up this month. I can’t have it anymore. You gotta’ find somewhere else for the twins.” Her gusto gave way as my mother turned to face her with those same half-winced eyes she’d had on the phone. Only this time, her reserve of gossip ran dry; Jeanie-Kay was a near saint, so my mother said the only thing she could think of.
“Oh yeah?!?” She jerked a half-eaten soggy animal cracker from Shayla’s hand and bit into it. “Well, your cookies taste like shit!”
“Yeah, like shit!” Shayla chimed in, giggling at herself. I saw the briefest look of reproach in my mother’s eye. Under normal circumstances, she would have welted Shayla’s round thigh with a handprint for such language. My mother, chain-smoker and certified potty-mouth, did not allow such salty words for her children. They were an indulgence reserved entirely for her. In this instance, though, my mother held tight to her pride, turned her chin upward, and sped off, leaving Jeanie-Kay’s sagging jowls wagging in disbelief.
“So, how was school today?” she said, halfway because she cared and in part to distract herself from the flutter of the afternoon.
“Okay,” I said quietly, fingering the fresh bite marks on the pencil Jared had borrowed from me earlier that day. It was holy writ, a declaration that I was noticeable. After I’d gotten contacts last year, most (not all) of the teasing had subsided, but then I’d been left with the most horrific treatment of all: I was a nobody; a nothing, devoid of even the most minimal interaction.
“Just okay?” My mother eyed me teasingly. “C’mon, Katy! I want to know! What’s going on in your life?” She was really pushing the whole I’m-a-cool/hip-mother-you-can-talk-to-me thing, but I gave in anyway.
“Well, there’s this guy…” My voice softened, and my cheeks reddened.
“Uh-huh.” My mother grinned as we approached a stoplight. “And does this boy have a name?”
“Jared. And Mom, he’s so nice and funny and-”
My head jerked forward as the Bronco came to a screeching halt even before we’d reached the light.
“WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?” My mother jerked her blonde head around to stare at the twins. A pungent and familiar odor filled the car. I gagged. The window wouldn’t roll down fast enough.
“Shit!” Shayla’s new favorite word. She giggled, pointing at Sid, who began to cry under my mother’s scowl.
“Gawd-damn it, Shay, don’t say that! And Sid, stop crying! That’s not going to help anything. Just don’t wiggle too much. I just had the interior detailed last Wednesday.” My mother’s shaky hand reached for another cigarette as we turned down our street.
It was Thursday night. Cleaning night in our house, though the only thing my mother looked like she’d be cleaning was the brown smear off of Sid’s back. He screamed as she picked him up by the elbows and cat-walked him inside. Shayla followed behind laughing like a maniac, while I trudged in last.
An hour later the doorbell rang. There stood two of the best people in the world, Desmond Smith and Savannah Phillips.
Desmond was threatening on all fronts to most people in our sleepy little town; he was big, Black, and flamingly gay. He wore a magenta do-rag and a plaid shirt that was violent in its color scheme. Orange and fuchsia checks danced against his robust frame. It was already dark, so the whites of his eyes and his wide smile glowed against the evening like the Cheshire cat.
Savannah, on the other hand, was a miniature model of a fashionista. Tonight, she wore stacked platforms (which put her at least five feet tall), skin-tight tapered black jeans, and a gold top that looked like the shaved hide of a disco ball.
“You gonna’ let us in or what? You one of them white folks who’s all skeered of the Dark folk, now?” Desmond put on his best Black-and-Bad voice, and we giggled.
“It doesn’t have anything to with you being Black,” Savannah’s nasally voice was sharp with wit and a mock Southern twang. “Don’t you know? She don’t want any of the gay to rub off in her house. They got kids, Desi! Use your head, here, man!” She pulled out her pocket-sized sanitizer and pantomimed rubbing down his hands. He howled with laughter.
“Seriously, we’ve got to tell you something.”
“They broke up!” Savannah’s pointed nose and reddish hair contrasted with her crimson lipstick, making her look like she was a fox on the prowl. She had gotten scent of the blood-trail and was now going in for the kill. “Jared dumped her in the courtyard today at lunch. Said she didn’t really get him.”
“Shut up!” I said in exasperated disbelief. “What did Caprice do?”
“Screamed like a banshee. You know, how all them white women do.” Desmond had on one of his mother’s bras we kept stowed away at my place over the plaid shirt. He jiggled his would-be chest and laughed.
“Seriously?!?” I felt myself doing that raised-eyebrow-forehead thing my mother does. I stopped immediately.
“Yes. And get this: he dumped her for homecoming, too.” My mind raced back to the gnarled pencil he’d given me today in class. Maybe he’d ask for it again.
I was pushed from my fantasy as Desmond teased, “Uuuuuh-huh. I know that look. You thinking nasty stuff.” He pulled out the only tube of lip gloss I owned and applied it lavishly to his pout. I blushed.
“No, I’m not.”
“Katy wouldn’t even know what to think, even if she tried to fantasize.” True, a borrowed pencil was enough to raise my pulse, but I was still annoyed at Savannah’s frequent teasing of my lack of experience. “You’re about to be driving. When you get pulled over, do you want to accidently show your V-card instead of your license?” I didn’t think that would be so bad, but I took her point thoughtfully.
“Anyway,” Savannah said, “You need to start putting yourself out there more, which reminds me…” she turned to her bag and withdrew a scant amount of sheer black fabric. “I have your dress!”
“Oh, wow,” I said through a pasted-on smile. “How nice of you.” Savannah had agreed to let me borrow one of her dresses since she knew money was tight around our house.
“Try it on,” she said with genuine excitement.
“Yeah, now! The dance is tomorrow! We’ve got to make sure it fits.” Fits what? A single butt cheek? I stared at her for a moment. She returned an unrelenting look, and I realized Desmond had broken his gaze with the mirror long enough to join in. They knew this was beyond my comfort level, and they didn’t care.
I shuffled to the bathroom. The garment had a black lace overlay and a sheer baby-pink slip underneath. Coupled with my pale skin, I looked naked. Savannah, at least a foot shorter than me and two cup-sizes bigger, had not listened when I protested that our bodies would not fit a dress the same way. And there I was, twisting and turning, wiggling with all my might to get the different sections of the dress assigned to the right parts. I looked in the mirror.
Holy bologna! It was short. But I noticed, after the shock of its length (or rather lack thereof) wore off, that I had two nice, long legs. Who knew? The top was strapless, but because of our varying body shapes, my length made up for my lack of bust.
“Does it look okay?” I asked meekly.
Desmond’s mouth fell open, and Savannah beamed.
My mother pulled and prodded at my hair, taking in a few swigs of beer with every curl she made. It was Friday. She wasn’t booked for tomorrow, so naturally she’d be drinking until Sunday morning.
“All done! Go put your dress on, but do NOT touch your hair,” she warned.
Savannah and Desmond picked me up at 8:00, and by 8:30, we were standing in a line outside of the gym. Dawn Casper, a classmate since kindergarten, greeted us.
“And your name is?” she asked sincerely, scanning her list. I wasn’t offended, but rather, took it in daily stride.
“Bordeaux. Katy Bordeaux.”
“Can you imagine not having a date to one of these things?” Caprice Ellington’s voice sounded from behind. The three of us turned to see her with Trent Turner, a football player apparently replacing Jared for the night.
Desmond swung around, his hot-pink tux accentuating his bleach-white smile. I hated confrontation, unlike Desmond, who reveled in the opportunity to put the haughty and ignorant in their place.
“Can you imagine,” he mocked her audibly as we shuffled into the gym, “Trying to fit two cottage-cheese looking stubs into that dress you got on, girl?” He raised an eyebrow at me. Caprice’s spray-tanned face look ready for a shouting match as Savannah, in a Gaga-inspired getup, pulled against the weight that was Desmond.
“What are you doing?” I hissed.
“Trying to make her see she ain’t hot LIKE SHE THINKS!” He yelled backward as we shuffled him into the gym. “Gonna look like a Vienna sausage rolling around on that dance floor.”
“Can we please just have fun tonight?” I begged.
“See, that’s what your problem is. You ain’t got no confidence.”
“Sure, I do.” We walked into the gym, which was adorned with kelly-green paper-mache and cardboard, outfitted to look like a Jungle.
Some people danced while others clung to the wall, but they only did so for a moment before stopping to stare. The quiet spread across a hushed dance floor. Every eye turned to the three of us. No, correction: every eye turned to me.
“I gotta’ go,” I said through clenched teeth, but Desmond caught my lower back just as I began to turn around.
“Uh-uh, honey. You ain’t goin’ nowhere.” He half-twirled, half-carried me onto the dance floor. Slowly, but surely, the crowd joined in. I felt awkward at first, but soon, I was part of a collective panting, a moving of the bodies that was neither conscious nor inhibited.
I was alive for the first time in my life.
Twice that night I was asked when I’d transferred to our school, but the biggest surprise came when I was scooping up sherbet punch. Jared’s low voice sounded from behind.
“I was hoping you’d be here.” I jumped, nearly spilling the drink.
“You were?” My voice cracked.
He laughed. “Yeah, I was. Look, you want to dance?” I nearly gagged on the stale punch. My silence was enough to be confusing, so he paraphrased. “With me?” I struggled to find the words, but they were lodged somewhere between hell freezing over and the Holy Rapture.
“She’d love to.” Savannah broke away from her date’s side long enough to rescue me. I smiled and took his hand.
We danced only for a moment before the tempo switched and the aging DJ called, “This one’s for all you lovebirds out there!”
His hand was heavy and warm against my back. We rocked side to side slowly, and he pressed a freshly-shaven cheek up against mine. I wasn’t sure if it was the close proximity to the speakers or the frantic thudding of my heart, but a pulse echoed somewhere inside of me.
“I’m really glad you came tonight.”
“Yeah, me, too.” A heat flushed against my chest.
“And thanks for the pencil, by the way.”
“No problem. You’ve got to always be prepared.” I suck officially, I thought.
He laughed. “You’re funny.”
“I am?” I pulled back to look straight into his eyes just to be sure I hadn’t misheard him.
“Yeah, you are.” I glanced over his shoulder to see Caprice, whose face was somewhere between carrot and a shade of mad-as-hell. “Listen, you want to get out of here?”
“Yes,” I breathed. Savannah raised an eyebrow as we floated through the crowd.
Soon, I was wedged between the leather of his pickup and the cleft of his arm. He kissed me, and I wondered for a moment if I might die. The rhythm of his lips escalated as a growing heat washed over me again and again. But soon, I felt a wet drip against my nose. I pulled back. A red smudge smeared across the back of my hand, and I looked up to see Jared, holding two fingers against his nose.
“Nose bleed. Sorry. There are napkins in there.” He gestured to the glove compartment with his free hand. Of course the best moment of my life would be interrupted by a friggin’ nose bleed, I thought as I retrieved some old napkins, but before I could hand them over, we were interrupted by something much more dangerous.
Caprice jerked the door of the pickup open. “WHAT IS THIS?” She was pissed, but beyond her usual demeanor, she maintained a look of disgust. I was confused only for a moment before glancing at Jared. He’d managed to keep his upper-lip clean, but his two fingers were red. I realized quickly that between his bloody fingers and my disheveled hair, Caprice had created a scene ten times more embarrassing than reality. I froze.
“You know, most girls use these,” she spat, throwing a handful of pads and tampons from her purse at me. They scattered across our laps, and I felt the interior of the truck start to spin. She ran off, and to my horror, Jared chased after her.
“Caprice, it’s not like that. I don’t even like her!” I sat alone in the truck, sure that the world had stopped spinning, that the only movement that remained was the single tear slowly moving against my cheek. I sat in the truck, dumfounded, for what felt like forever, until I decided to walk home.
I made it a half-hour later. When I walked in the door, my mother was finishing up her routine wipe-down of our kitchen, blaring Tina Turner in a half-drunken stupor. She and Mr. Clean did their best work when she was wasted, she had told me once.
I didn’t know what to do, so I stood, sobbing silently as she sang along, shoving her sponge jovially into greasy dishwater.
“OH, OH, OH!” she sang, looking as beautiful as ever in a ragged t-shirt. “What’s love, got to do, got to do with- OH MY SHIT!” She screamed, taking in my quiet presence. She slammed a nubby finger against the music. “Katy-cat,” she said both lovingly and confused, “What happened?”
I sunk onto a barstool and relayed the night’s events.
“I don’t even care that she thought…” My words hung on embarrassment. “You know, about the whole period thing. But then, Mom…” I was in a free-fall of self-loathing and shame, stammering the words out in a blinding gaze of tears and mascara.
“Then, he said-” I couldn’t get it out, but the genuine look of concern on my mother’s face told me I had to. “Then, he said he didn’t even like me.”
The deafening quiet of the kitchen clung to my bare legs and exposed shoulders. Feeling foolish, I pushed myself upward, heading for bed.
And then my mother said something I never thought I’d hear her say, something that made all the difference in the world: “I like you, kiddo.”
She leaned in close. The smell of sweet tobacco and beer and sweat overpowered me as she wrapped an arm around my neck. “As a matter of fact, I am totally in like with you,” she slurred. I felt the warmth of her lips press against my forehead. She gave a little sigh, heaved herself across the bar, and stumbled to bed.
I went to bed that night as Katy Bordeaux, knowing (from a series of concerned texts from Desmond) that Monday morning I’d awaken as Bloody Bordeaux.
And somehow, deep down in the pit of my soul, I was okay with that.