It started last fall, at the assembly to kick off the annual magazine drive. The whole school was packed in the auditorium to listen to this jolly old guy who looked like Santa Claus without the beard and red suit try to get us psyched up to sell enough magazines to keep the recyclers in business for another year. He said we should show our school spirit and sell a ton of subscriptions so each class would have a pile of money to do whatever it wanted, the yearbook wouldn't go in the red again, etc., etc. Big deal. I was a junior; I'd heard it all before. I'd do my part by selling half a dozen subscriptions to my parents and a few relatives, maybe nice old Mrs. Maruszak down the street.
Right now, though, I was more interested in watching Billy Hagan two rows in front of me as he stretched, then slipped his arm around Sarah Malinowski as casually as if he was at the movies. It was the first time in my life I regretted having 20-15 eyesight. The worst part was that she not only let him, but even snuggled a little closer. Sarah, the girl I dated most of the summer, who had sat with me like that at plenty of movies until she told me out of the blue she wanted to see other people. That was a couple of weeks ago, the Friday before Labor Day. We were parked down at the beach, not even making out or anything, just listening to the night. It was dead low tide, no wind at all, and the air smelled rank.
"It's not you, Robby," she said. "It's me." When somebody says that, you know it's you.
It was impossible not to watch. When I actually have a pretty girl first like me then dump me, and I can see no reason why she did either one, it's natural for me to be interested when she's cuddling up to some jerk I can't stand, the slimiest slimeball in the whole school.
My best friend Jim Dolan leaned over to me and whispered, "Guess he's got something you don't have."
That's the thing about a guy's best friend--he doesn't cut you any slack. That's not how we operate. A girl's best friend would have told her what a bitch the girl was who stole her boyfriend, how he wasn't good enough for her anyway. A guy just tells a joke and we pretend it's OK, though of course it's not.
"Yeah," I told him. "A rich old man and a new BMW."
"Don't forget the country club membership, and ski lodge in Vermont."
"If Sarah is that shallow, I don't want her anyway."
Jim shook his head. "You can't lie to save your life. It's sad, really."
"Shh!" Mrs. Joseph the math teacher was in the aisle scowling at us. Maybe she had stock in the magazine company or something. I wanted to yell to her, "Hey! What about Hagan the Degenerate over there molesting my girl friend?"
Suddenly this girl stood up, ten rows away from me across the aisle. I'd never seen her before so she was either a freshman or new here, because in a small school you know everybody, by sight at least. She stood up and raised her hand, and with a grin the pudgy magazine man pointed at her.
"What can I do you for, little lady?"
She hesitated a second. She had short hair so blonde it was almost white, with pale skin to match even after the summertime. Our town is on the beach, Long Island Sound, so it's strange to see a kid with no tan in September.
"Whoa," Jim said. "Is she an albino?"
Whatever she was, she talked too softly for me to catch what she was saying. Mr. Magazine cupped a hand around one ear and said, "You'll have to speak up, missy. These old ears aren't as sharp as they used to be."
Every eye was on this girl as she said, loud enough to reach every corner of the auditorium, "I don't think you care much about this school, or any school. You just want to make money."