Being the only girl on the wrestling team has never really bothered me. Friends and family like to make a big deal over girls playing boys’ sports, as if it’s inappropriate, or dangerous, or “just not done!”—but let me tell you, I can handle any boy who steps in my way just fine. I may not have height, weight, or bulging adolescent muscles, but I do have technique. I’m fine; it’s the audiences who can’t handle it. I hear them in the stands during competitions, cheering or politely jeering when a boy goes down, sucking in their breath or moaning critically when it’s my turn to eat mat. There’s always that clueless spectator who shouts, “Ease up! She’s just a girl for Christ’s sake!”
(Yeah, I’m just a girl and I’m younger than everyone else. Thanks for rubbing it in, jerk!)
I suppose that’s why I’m the only one on the team who actually likes Coach Coffee. Well, as much as anyone can like a ranting, raving lunatic who refers to his boys as “ladies” on a good day, “maggots” when things are going kind of bad. He treats me with the same disrespect as everyone else during practice—he doesn’t baby me. He gives me three minutes to duck into the girls’ locker room and change out of my street clothes. Then he makes me and the boys jog around the inside of the gym until we feel like puking. Then he makes us hit the weight room for conditioning. Then he marches us back out into the gym and has us pair off to work on our drills for the rest of the evening.
Tonight, Mrs. Thrailkill stands near the exit and puffs coolly on a cigarette as she witnesses the proceedings. We’re sharing the gym with the volleyball team, so I can’t tell if she’s ogling the girls’ bottoms or the boys’ crotches.
My usual practice partner is this wispy freshman with the longest arms and the largest Adam’s Apple I’ve ever seen. Everyone calls him Gangles. I have no clue what his real name is, or if he even has one. I kind of resent him, one, because he looks at me like I’m a small child, frail and vulnerable, two, because Coffee thinks the only suitable partner for me is an anorexic, and three, because he likes to shoot his mouth off.
Usually I can take it in stride, but today I’m just not in the mood for restraint, what with my mom deciding I’m too helpless and too fragile to use my own computer. As soon as Coffee blows his whistle, I tackle the fuck out of Gangles.
(Yes, I’m a girl, I’m on the wrestling team, and I just said the f word.)
His headgear pops off his ears and topples across the mat.
The other boys stop what they’re doing and look in my direction as I get up, rearrange my singlet, and walk off the mat for a drink of water.
“What’s with her?” one of them asks.
“Must be on her period,” replies another.
“Dumbass, she doesn’t even have tits. How could she be on her period?”
I throw my water bottle onto the floor. The spray from the impact douses my face, soaks my hair. I whirl around in place, fire blazing from my eyes and causing the moisture above my eyebrows to sizzle. “Who said that?”
Someone stifles a giggle; several pairs of musclebound shoulders slouch guiltily.
Coach Coffee smiles at me, pleased. “Save it for next week’s match, Taylor.”
We work on our moves until six-thirty, at which point Coffee tells us that we stink and to hit the showers. The volleyball team is still practicing, so I get the girls’ locker room all to myself, which is kind of nice.
At six forty-five, Mom calls to tell me she’s going to be late in picking me up. To pass the time, I sit at the top of the bleachers, using my backpack and my gym bag as a makeshift pillow, and watch the volleyball girls do their thing.
Once, when he’d first realized that I was an honors student, Gangles had sat with me so that I could help him with his math homework. It had been kind of flattering having someone actually pay attention to me for a change. Inevitably, though, his had friends reminded him that hanging with the little flat-chested, bug-eyed girl was incredibly lame. He hasn’t asked me to help him with his homework since.
I wait a few minutes, toy with my phone, watch as Rigo, one of the cuter wrestlers, exits the boys’ locker room, approaches the bleachers, starts climbing in my direction.
“Hey, Eva,” he says when he reaches where I’m sitting.
“Hey,” I say back, carefully hiding my delight at his acknowledging my existence.
“Waiting for your mom to pick you up?”
“Yeah. She’s a little late tonight.”
Rigo nods, smiles, fumbles with something in his pocket. “Mine, too. I’ve got some time to kill, so…do you think you can do me a favor?”
“Uh…what kind of favor?”
He pulls out his iPhone. “I need you to hold my phone for a few minutes.”
Oh. “Sure, I guess so.”
“Cool. I’m going to, uh…have you ever heard of SuperMegaNet?”
“Then you know how it works.” Rigo looks relieved. “Isn’t it the shit?”
“It’s pretty neat,” I agree.
“It fucking rocks—though we’re not allowed to use it on campus. A couple of idiot sophomores got caught downloading someone’s pit bull into the school library.”
I seem to remember hearing something about that during the morning announcements. “Is that why they roped off the stacks?”
“Mm-hm. Principal Sandalwood sent in an animal control officer after several freshmen didn’t return from a book report, but he—the animal control guy, that is—was never heard from again. The freshmen are presumed dead.”
Wow. Who knew a school library could be so…morbid?
“But anyway, here.” Rigo hands me his phone. “Go ahead and upload me, and just keep an eye out for Coffee, or Sandalwood, or anyone else who smells of faculty, you know?”
Rigo smiles again—and pats me on the head as he would an obedient pup. “Thanks, Eva. You’re the greatest.”
I smile politely and send him off to wherever it is he’d rather spend his time waiting for his mother to pick him up (a booth in some burger joint, judging by the video feed). Then I set his phone down beside me, on the bench. I used to think I had a crush on him—but not anymore. Now I know better. He’s sixteen and gorgeous; I’m twelve and prepubescent. Of course I have zero chance of him considering me as anything more than a convenient holster for his dumb iPhone.
I glance around the gym. Coffee’s over by the exit, and is bumming a smoke off of Thrill-Kill; the volleyball coach is busy trying to get one of her girls to serve correctly. Assured that no one’s paying me any mind, I pull out my iPhone and bring up the App Store. Sure enough, there’s a SuperMegaNet app available.
I know what you’re thinking. I swore off SuperMegaNet, so why should it matter that there’s a SuperMegaNet iPhone app? Well, it doesn’t. I don’t care about SMN. But I do care about getting back at my mom for grounding me.
I tap the “free app” button. Momentarily, when SMN commandeers the screen, I log on, scroll through my buddy list. Out of habit, I peek at Ernie’s video feed, which is black and flecked with the swirling, translucent ghosts of morbid-looking honey bun boxes. Theo’s feed shows an empty bedroom; Jan’s shows his parents and several of their friends sitting together at a rickety card table and playing poker.
It would seem they’re doing a better job of keeping off SMN than I am.
I scroll down some more. Summer’s feed pops into view.
“Hey, babe,” she says, smiling and waving when she sees that I’m online. “What’s up?”
“Waiting to be picked up from practice,” I say. “How about you?”
Summer rolls her eyes, tilts her webcam to show that she’s lying sprawled out on the floor of her gym. “I’m doing after-practice cleanup at the club. Today was Open Gym Day. Greg and Donna are in their office right now trying to sucker some parents into signing up their daughter for weekend classes. Having an elite such as myself hanging around adds a touch of legitimacy to the joint. But I could stand to disappear for a few. Mind if I drop in?”
“Misery loves company,” I say.
Summer—in her usual gym shorts, spaghetti tank, and flip-flops combo—shimmers into existence beside me, starts to reach over for a hug, but stops suddenly, making a face.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
She frowns, pulls Rigo’s iPhone out from underneath her bottom. “Who’s is this?”
Woops. Forgot about that. “His name’s Rigo. I’m, er, holding it for him.”
“Correction: my butt was holding it for him.” She swipes her finger across the touchscreen, starts poking through Rigo’s files. “Is he cute?”
I grab the phone from her. “Oh, my God, that’s so rude!”
“Whatever.” She leans back, looks around the gym, fixes the volleyball players with a disapproving stare. “So, this is your new school, huh?”
I shrug. “For better or for worse.”
“Ugh. Bun huggers. If you ask me, spandex should be outlawed for anyone except superheroes or gymnasts.”
“Or fat guys riding unicycles.”
“Naturally.” Summer giggles, pays my backpack and gym bag an inquisitive glance. “Wait—no laptop? How’d you download me?”
I hold up my phone.
Her eyes widen. “You mean there’s an SMN app? Cool!”
“Rigo told me about it. And it’s a good thing, too, because my mom grounded me off my computer last night.”
“Ouch. Why’d she do that?”
“She found out I was using SuperMegaNet behind her back.”
“Really? She doesn’t like you using SMN?”
“My mom’s not as liberal as yours.”
“You must be pretty fed up with her.”
I sigh. “I’m fed up with myself, actually.”
“I shouldn’t even care about SuperMegaNet anymore. I swore off it last week, and I’ve never looked back. But now that I’m not allowed to upload to my friends’ houses, suddenly they’re all I can think about.”
Summer narrows her eyes. “Now, when you say ‘friends,’ who exactly are you talking about?”
“Theo and Ernie…and Jan, I guess.”
“Babe, you didn’t need to swear off SMN, you just needed to swear off them.”
“This is serious,” I say. “I think…I think I actually miss them, and I don’t even know why.”
“It’s the new school,” Summer says assuredly, “and the fact that everybody here is older than you. They’ve all got cars, jobs, boyfriends or girlfriends, and no time for you. So, of course you’re going to feel more comfortable hanging around people your own age—even if they are Theo, Ernie, and Jan. But that doesn’t mean they’re the right people to hang out with.”
I watch one of the more homely girls struggle to make a serve. Her thighs wobble like Jell-O in her bun huggers. “I know, I know. You tell me that every time we talk. But I can’t help it. I don’t want to be around them anymore, and yet I can’t stand not being around them.”
“Okay, then,” Summer says. “You wanted Jan, right?”
“Yeah. Past tense.”
“You wanted Jan, and so you made friends with his friends as an in, an excuse to be around him. You never really liked Theo or Ernie. And when Jan made that whole big deal over not liking you, it suddenly didn’t matter anymore whether or not you were getting along with the others because they no longer served your purpose.”
“That’s so shallow, Summer.”
“That’s the truth. It’s how these things work. You’re new at this, so you’re having a little trouble putting things into perspective, that’s all. The realist inside you knows it, and wants to move on, but the sweet little girl in you can’t stand the possibility of hurt feelings along the way.”
I want to tell her that she’s wrong, but instead I just clam up, pretending to watch Jell-O Thighs Girl again. I wonder: If Jan hadn’t been sitting there alongside Theo and Ernie the day we met inside Thrill-Kill’s office…would I have talked to either of them a moment longer than was necessary to complete that stupid socializing assignment? Other than Ernie’s fatness and Theo’s incessant worrying, I don’t have anything against either of them. I just can’t think of a reason we should be friends. I can’t think of a reason I should think of a reason we should be friends, either.
“It’s not like that at all,” I tell Summer, ignoring a pang of guilt.
She sighs, wraps her arm around my shoulders. “Babe, I can hear it in your voice. You’re beating yourself up over not caring for people you’ll probably never see again, people you were never meant to meet in the first place.”
“That’s silly. You either meet someone or you don’t. Destiny has nothing to do with it.”
“Let me put it another way…”
Uh-oh. She’s going to mention the national team again, I can just tell—
“…as a member of the national team, I have visibility. Hundreds of thousands of people have seen me on TV or read about me in Inside Gymnastics or online. I get e-mails all the time from hapless boys and creepy old men who say they saw me at such-and-such meet where I supposedly signed their T-shirt or poster or whatever. They friend me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter. They post on my Wall or reply to my tweets as if they’re my friends, but I can never truly know these people. They’re fans, not friends, Eva.”
“This is different.”
“Whether it’s me handling my fans or you handling a bunch of oddball boys who think they’re on your level, the concept is the same. You have to be the affirmative one. You have to make the choices. Otherwise you’re just going to be lead along by their shenanigans. You’ll tolerate them simply because you’re afraid of going the next four years without making any real friends.”
I think about that for a moment. Down below, Jell-O Thighs Girl is huffing and puffing, trying to keep up with her teammates. I wonder if she’s squeezed herself into those bun huggers simply because she’s afraid of graduating high school without having been on any teams.
“You’re only a year older than I am,” I say. “How can you be so sure about all this relationship stuff—and how can you be so sure that Theo, Ernie, and Jan are wrong for me?”
Summer squeezes my shoulder. “Babe, I just want to make sure that you’re sure. Look, I don’t think they’re right for you. But if you do, if you’re friends with them because you want to be and not because you think you need to be, then, well, I can’t stop you. Now, enough of the deep stuff. You never told me whether this Rigo character is hot or not.”
I sort of nod and shake my head at the same time. “He’s totally hot.”
“There’s nothing better than a muscley guy.”
“Before you get your hopes up, you should know we’re not friends or anything. I’m just holding his phone.”
Summer looks disappointed…and a little annoyed. “That’s it?”
“Hmf. Give me that thing.”
“I want to help you set things right.”
Whipping off her flip-flops, Summer snatches Rigo’s iPhone and descends the bleachers with expert dexterity, darts across the floor, past the volleyball players and into the girls’ locker room. She emerges a moment later—without the phone—and, throwing in several cartwheels and handsprings along the way for good measure, bounds back up to where I am.
“Why’d you do that?” I demand as she sits beside me once again.
She shrugs. “Who am I to look the other way when an opportunity presents itself?”
I glare at her. “But I promised I’d hold it for him. Now I’m going to look like a bitch—”
“Babe, if I’d let you hold onto his iPhone all polite and proper you’d be holding his phone for him every day. Let him learn the hard way that you’re not going to be his footstool.”
Down below, the volleyball coach blows her whistle and tells her girls to hit the showers. I still think it’s messed up, sabotaging Rigo’s phone as such, but the timing is impeccable, and I have to admit the look on his face when he comes stumbling out of the girl’s locker room trailing a flurry of high-pitched screams behind him is priceless.
Summer and I bow our heads together and cackle fiendishly.