Authors: Tom Perrotta
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
* * *
the only time Jill consistently missed her mother was first thing in the morning, when she was still half-asleep, unreconciled to the new day. It just didn’t feel right, coming down for breakfast and not finding her at the table in her fuzzy gray robe, no one to hug her and whisper,
in a voice full of amusement and commiseration. Jill had a hard time waking up, and her mother had given her the space to make a slow and grumpy transition into consciousness, without a whole lot of chitchat or unnecessary drama. If she wanted to eat, that was fine; if not, that was no problem, either.
Her father tried to pick up the slack—she had to give him that—but they just weren’t on the same wavelength. He was more the up-and-at-’em type; no matter what time she got out of bed, he was always perky and freshly showered, looking up from the morning paper—amazingly, he still read the morning paper—with a slightly reproachful expression, as if she were late for an appointment.
“Well, well,” he said. “Look who’s here. I was wondering when you were gonna put in an appearance.”
“Hey,” she muttered, uncomfortably aware of herself as the object of parental scrutiny. He eyeballed her like this every morning, trying to figure out what she’d been up to the night before.
“Bit of a hangover?” he inquired, sounding more curious than disapproving.
“Not really.” She’d only had a couple of beers at Dmitri’s house, maybe a toke or two off a joint that made the rounds at the end of the night, but there was no point in going into detail. “Just didn’t get enough sleep.”
“Huh,” he grunted, not bothering to hide his skepticism. “Why don’t you stay home tonight? We can watch a movie or something.”
Pretending not to hear him, Jill shuffled over to the coffeemaker and poured herself a mug of the dark roast they’d recently started buying. It was a double-edged act of revenge against her mother, who hadn’t allowed Jill to drink coffee in the house, not even the lame breakfast blend she thought was so delicious.
“I can make you an omelette,” he offered. “Or you can just have some cereal.”
She sat down, shuddering at the thought of her father’s big sweaty omelettes, orange cheese oozing from the fold.
“You have to eat something.”
She let that pass, taking a big gulp of black coffee. It was better that way, muddy and harsh, more of a shock to the system. Her father’s eyes strayed to the clock above the sink.
“There’s no rush. We’re both free first period.”
He nodded and turned back to his paper, the way he did every morning after she told him the same lie. She was never quite sure if he believed her or just didn’t care. She got the same distracted vibe from a lot of the adults in her life—cops, teachers, her friends’ parents, Derek at the frozen yogurt store, even her driving instructor. It was frustrating, in a way, because you never really knew if you were being humored or actually getting away with something.
“Any news on Holy Wayne?” Jill had been following the story of the cult leader’s arrest with great interest, grimly amused by the sordid details included in the articles, but also embarrassed on behalf of her brother, who’d cast his lot with a man who turned out to be a charlatan and a pig.
“Not today,” he said. “I guess they used up all the good stuff.”
“I wonder what Tom will do.”
They’d been speculating about this for the past few days but hadn’t gotten too far. It was hard to imagine what Tom might be thinking when they didn’t know where he was, what he was doing, or even if he was still involved with the Healing Hug Movement.
“I don’t know. He’s probably pretty—”
They stopped talking when Aimee walked into the kitchen. Jill was relieved to see that her friend was wearing pajama bottoms—it wasn’t always the case—though the relative modesty of this morning’s outfit was undercut by a cleavage-baring camisole. Aimee opened the refrigerator and peered into it for a long time, tilting her head as if something fascinating was going on in there. Then she pulled out a carton of eggs and turned toward the table, her face soft and sleepy, her hair a glorious mess.
“Mr. Garvey,” she said, “any chance you could whip up one of those yummy omelettes?”
* * *
they took the long way to school, ducking behind the Safeway to smoke a quick joint—Aimee did her best not to set foot inside Mapleton High without some sort of buzz going—then heading across Reservoir Road to see if anyone interesting happened to be hanging out at Dunkin’ Donuts. The answer, not surprisingly, turned out to be no—unless you thought old men gnawing on crullers qualified as interesting—but the moment they poked their heads in, Jill was overcome by a wicked sugar craving.
“You mind?” she asked, glancing sheepishly toward the counter. “I didn’t have any breakfast.”
“I don’t mind. It’s not my fat ass.”
“Hey.” Jill swatted her in the arm. “My ass isn’t fat.”
“Not yet,” Aimee told her. “Have a few more donuts.”
Unable to decide between the glazed and the jelly, Jill split the difference and ordered both. She would’ve been perfectly happy to eat on the run, but Aimee insisted on getting a table.
“What’s the hurry?” she asked.
Jill checked the time on her cell phone. “I don’t wanna be late for second period.”
“I have gym,” Aimee said. “I don’t care if I miss that.”
“I have a Chem test. Which I’m probably gonna fail.”
“You always say that, and you always get As.”
“Not this time,” Jill said. She’d skipped too many classes in the past few weeks, and had been stoned for too many of the ones she’d managed to attend. Some subjects mixed okay with weed, but Chemistry wasn’t one of them. You get high and start thinking about electrons, and you can end up a long way from where you’re supposed to be. “This time I’m screwed.”
“Who cares? It’s just a stupid test.”
Jill wanted to say, but she wasn’t sure if she meant it. She used to care—used to care a lot—and hadn’t quite gotten used to the feeling of not caring, though she was doing her best.
“You know what my mom told me?” Aimee said. “She said that when she was in high school, girls could get out of gym just for having their period. She said there was this one teacher, this Neanderthal football coach, and she told him every class that she had cramps, and he always said,
Okay, go sit in the bleachers
. The guy never even noticed.”
Jill laughed, even though she’d heard the story before. It was one of the few things she knew about Aimee’s mother, besides the fact that she was an alcoholic who’d disappeared on October 14th, leaving her teenage daughter alone with a stepfather she didn’t like or trust.
“You want a bite?” Jill held out her jelly donut. “It’s really good.”
“That’s okay. I’m stuffed. I can’t believe I ate that whole omelette.”
“Don’t blame me.” Jill licked a tiny jewel of jelly off the tip of her thumb. “I tried to warn you.”
Aimee’s expression turned serious, even a bit stern.
“You shouldn’t make fun of your father. He’s a really nice guy.”
“And he’s not even a bad cook.”
Jill didn’t argue. Compared to her mother, her father was a terrible cook, but Aimee had no way of knowing that.
“He tries,” she said.
She scarfed down her glazed donut in three quick bites—it was so airy inside, almost like there was nothing beneath the sugary coating—then gathered up her trash.
“Ugh,” she said, dreading the prospect of the test she was about to take. “I guess we better go.”
Aimee studied her for a moment. She glanced at the display case behind the counter—tiers of donuts arrayed in their metal baskets, iced and sprinkled and powdered and plain and full of sweet surprises—and then back at Jill. A mischievous smile broke slowly across her face.
“You know what?” she said. “I think I will have something to eat. Maybe some coffee, too. You want coffee?”
“We don’t have time.”
“Sure we do.”
“What about my test?”
“What about it?”
Before Jill could reply, Aimee was out of her seat, moving toward the counter, her jeans so tight and her stride so liquid that everyone in the place turned to stare.
I have to go,
A feeling of unreality came over her just then, a sudden awareness of being trapped in a bad dream, that panicky sense of helplessness, as if she possessed no will of her own.
But this was no dream. All she had to do was stand up and start walking. And yet she remained frozen in her pink plastic seat, smiling foolishly as Aimee turned and mouthed the word
though it was clear from the look on her face that she wasn’t sorry at all.
She wants me to fail.
* * *
like this—and there were more of them than she would have liked to admit—Jill wondered what she was doing, how she’d allowed herself to get so tangled up with someone as selfish and irresponsible as Aimee. It wasn’t healthy.
And it had happened so quickly. They’d only gotten to know each other a few months ago, at the beginning of summer, two girls working side by side in a failing frozen yogurt store, chatting during the slow times, some of which lasted for hours.
They were wary of each other at first, conscious of their membership in different tribes—Aimee sexy and reckless, her life a cluttered saga of bad decisions and emotional melodrama; Jill straitlaced and reliable, an A student and model teenage citizen.
I wish I had a whole class of Jills,
more than one teacher had written in the comments box on her report card. No one had ever written that about Aimee.
As the summer wore on, they began to relax into what felt like a genuine friendship, a connection that made their differences seem increasingly trivial. For all her social and sexual confidence, Aimee turned out to be surprisingly fragile, quick to tears and violent bouts of self-loathing; she required a lot of cheering up. Jill was better at hiding her sadness, but Aimee had a way of coaxing it out of her, getting her to open up about things she hadn’t discussed with anyone else—her bitterness toward her mother, her trouble communicating with her father, the feeling that she’d been cheated, that the world she’d been raised to live in no longer existed.
Aimee took Jill under her wing, bringing her to parties after work, introducing her to what she’d been missing. Jill was intimidated at first—everybody she met seemed a little older and a little cooler than she was, even though most of them were her own age—but she quickly overcame her shyness. She got drunk for the first time, smoked weed, stayed up till dawn talking to people she used to ignore in the hallway, people she’d written off as losers and burnouts. One night, on a dare, she took off her clothes and jumped into Mark Sollers’s pool. When she climbed out a few minutes later, naked and dripping in front of her new friends, she felt like a different person, like her former self had been washed away.
If her mother had been home, none of it would have happened, not because her mother would’ve stopped her, but because Jill would’ve stopped herself. Her father tried to intervene, but he seemed to have lost faith in his authority. He grounded her once in late July, after finding her passed out on the front lawn, but she ignored the punishment and he never mentioned it again.
Nor did he complain when Aimee started sleeping over, even though Jill hadn’t consulted him before inviting her. By the time he finally got around to asking what was up, Aimee was already a fixture in the house, sleeping in Tom’s old bedroom, adding her own peculiar requests to the family shopping lists, the kind of stuff that would have given her mother a heart attack—Pop-Tarts, Hot Pockets, ramen noodles. Jill told the truth, which was that Aimee needed a break from her stepfather, who sometimes “bothered” her when he came home drunk. He hadn’t touched her yet, but he watched her all the time and said creepy things that made it hard for her to fall asleep.
“She shouldn’t live there,” Jill told him. “It’s not a good situation.”
“Okay,” her father said. “Fair enough.”
The last two weeks of August were especially giddy, as if both girls sensed an expiration date on the fun and wanted to drink every drop while they still could. One morning, Jill came down from the shower, complaining about how much she hated her hair. It was always so dry and lifeless, nothing like Aimee’s, which was soft and radiant and never looked bad, not even when she’d just rolled out of bed in the morning.
“Cut it off,” Aimee told her.
Aimee nodded, her face full of certainty.
“Just get rid of it. You’ll look better without it.”
Jill didn’t hesitate. She went upstairs, hacked away at her dull tresses with a pair of sewing scissors, then finished the job with the electric clippers her father kept under the bathroom sink. It was exhilarating to feel the past falling away in clumps, to watch a new face emerge, her eyes big and fierce, her mouth softer and prettier than it used to be.
“Holy shit,” Aimee said. “That is fucking awesome.”
Three days later Jill had sex for the first time, with a college guy she barely knew, after a drunken spin-the-bottle marathon at Jessica Marinetti’s house.
“I never did it with a bald girl,” he confided while they were still in the middle of the act.
“Really?” she said, not bothering to inform him that she’d never done it at all. “Is it okay?”
“It’s nice,” he told her, nuzzling her scalp with the tip of his nose. “Feels like sandpaper.”
She didn’t start to feel self-conscious until school started and she saw the way her old friends and teachers looked at her when she walked down the hall with Aimee, the mix of pity and loathing in their eyes. She knew what they were thinking—that she’d been led astray, that the bad girl had corrupted the good one—and wanted to tell them that they were wrong. She was no victim. All Aimee had done was show her a new way of being herself, a way that made as much sense right now as the old way had before.