I’m thirteen. And the Miller Junior High class of 1985 has, in some unspoken, telekinetic election, chosen me as the ugliest and fattest kid in school. I’m the kid who doesn’t even get a store-bought Valentine’s Day card from that really nice Christian kid who smiles all the time.
One day I’m standing outside before school when a curly-haired girl walks up to me. I think she’s in third period Biology with me. She’s wearing a trilby hat, overalls, one blue sock and one red one – which at my school might as well be a space robot outfit. I look at the ground and chant, “Go away, go away, go away,” in my head.
But she stops and smiles. She says in a kind, low-pitched voice, “You seem really lonely.”
My stomach flutters.
“It’s just, I see you sitting every day in the library eating your lunch all by yourself,” says the girl, “so I think you should eat lunch with me.”
In my head there are a hundred angels in white linen swaying as they sing the hallelujah chorus. Behind them is a fountain made of green fire and I am in front kneeling, drowning in my own tears of happiness. But to her I just croak, “Um. Yes. Please.”
I start eating lunch every day with this girl, Marta. She shows me the ladder that leads to an in-between plateau that people like head cheerleader Tina Bianchini can’t see, but is also invisible to girls like Shannon Holraft, who used to leave ketchup packets on my chair so I’d sit on them and she could laugh and tell everyone I had my period. Knowing that I am going to eat lunch with Marta makes my old habit of standing in front of my mirror every day chanting “you…should…die,” over and over feel embarrassing instead of prophetic.
One day Marta asks if I want to walk over to her house after school. It’s white: an open-concept seventies mansion with five bedrooms and a living room that could fit the entirety of the rental apartment I share with my dad. Marta says, “Want to jump on the trampoline?” She points out the big glass windows to an in-ground trampoline twice the size of any I’ve seen before. I’m about to say yes when I realize I was due home ages ago and my dad might be calling our apartment right now wondering where I am.
“Um… can I call my dad first?”
Marta shows me the white phone hanging on the wall in the kitchen. When my dad answers I say, “Daddy, I’m at a – a – I’m at Marta’s house. She’s a girl. From my school.”
There’s a long pause and my dad says with hushed panic, “Sage. Have you been kidnapped?“
I laugh. “What?”
“Is this a secret code? Do you need me to call the police?“
My face is bright red. I’m hoping Marta can’t hear him through the receiver but if she can she must think he’s crazy. “What? No! I’m at Marta’s house! She invited me over! I swear!”
My dad takes a big breath. “Oh, Jesus. Okay. Phew. It’s never happened before, so… I didn’t…”
“I haven’t been – that thing you said! Geez! I’ll be home after!” I hang up the phone before he can say anything else.
Marta’s looking in the fridge. She asks if I like string cheese. We bring it to her room and sit on her bed. “You know how to play backgammon?” she asks, holding the cheese string above her mouth and letting it fall on her tongue.
I lose the first game and the third and most of the rest, but I don’t care. Marta could suggest roller skating on Highway 101 and I’d say yes. Soon we’re spending every day together and then racing each other to see who can get home first to call the other so we can rehash the last nine hours. We listen to Depeche Mode’s Some Great Reward on her record player, turning it over whenever it reaches the end of each side.
The bleached bob perm I was certain would turn me into a blonde Molly Ringwald grows out, and at the hairdresser I think of Marta in her trilby hat and one red sock. I ask for the short hair I’ve really wanted for years. On the way home in the car I feel my shorn neck and smile. I am shedding the girl I was trying to be: the too-tight jeans, the Madonna albums, and the Lancôme eye shadow lying on my bedroom floor like dusty lizard skin.
But then we turn fifteen. And Marta gets a crush on Boring Scott. The dullest human being ever to walk the earth. Boring Scott has beige hair, beige skin, beige clothes, beige thoughts. And now when I race home after school, Marta’s phone is busy. Soon she is doodling his name on her biology notes and instead of talking about what Reagan is going to do about the USSR, Marta is saying, “What do you think Scott is thinking about right this second?” And I don’t know. I have no idea what Scott is thinking about, but whatever it is – possibly taking a course on how to be more boring – I know it is so beige.
For the first time in two years I am sitting on the edges. I’m watching Marta laugh at Boring Scott’s boring jokes while they play backgammon, which is a two-player game. One day I go eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the library. When Marta rushes in to apologize, I will not mention Boring Scott. I will giggle and say, “Oh, gosh, is that why you thought I was in here?” and toss my hair.
But Marta doesn’t notice my absence at all.
And so, one night when Marta is sick at home and I find myself sitting next to Boring Scott at the school performance of My Fair Lady, I reach over in desperation and hold his clammy hand. If she thinks he likes me, she’ll stop caring about him. She’ll invite me in again.
I know the hand-holding sounds really tame. But you have to remember that it was 1985, and neither Marta nor I had ever been on a date before, much less held a boy’s hand. So, adjusting for inflation, pretend Boring Scott and I lay full length in the aisle and felt each other up during “The Rain in Spain Falls Mainly on the Plain” and you’ll have some idea of the magnitude of my betrayal.
Marta finds out. She ambushes me after school at my locker and she screams at me. And everything she says is right. Everything she says is true.
I whisper, “Please. Just tell me how to fix it.”
Marta leans in close and hisses, “There is nothing you can do to fix this.” She walks away.
I sink to the cement floor in front of my locker and hug my knees and hide my face. Finally I make myself stand up and walk to the payphone on the brick wall by the school entrance.
When I hear my dad’s voice I start sobbing. Between sobs I wail, “Come and pick me up, please, please, now, please come and pick me up from school, please, please, Daddy, come and pick me up.”
“Sage? Is that you? I can’t understand what you’re saying.”
I’m crying too hard to say anything.
“Try to calm down. Okay? Can you calm down? Kiddo, are you okay?”
“I’m – I’m okay- but Marta doesn’t – she won’t be my friend anymore – Daddy, come pick me up, I can’t…” My stomach hurts so much I lean against the brick wall so I don’t fall down.
After a moment he says, “I get that you’re upset, Sagie. I do. But I’m at work. I can’t just drop everything and come get you. It doesn’t seem like it now, but this will blow over in a few days. I promise. You can walk home just like you always do.”
When my dad uses this reasonable tone, I know I could beg for an hour with no results. This tone is unbreakable. So, sniffling, I tell him I will. He says he’ll be home at his usual time and I hang up. I walk home. It takes an hour instead of twenty minutes because my feet are encased in cement.
My dad’s wrong. It doesn’t blow over. For two weeks I watch a lot of episodes of the Facts of Life, I eat pints of Vanilla Swiss Almond ice cream. I cry. I cry in the grocery store, in Algebra class. I sit at the table with softening Grape-Nuts cereal and tears in my spoon and I howl, “She won’t talk to me, she won’t even look at me. I tried to talk to her yesterday and – and – she just laughed!”
My dad says, bewildered, “You’ll make other friends.”
“It took thirteen years before I made one friend! I’ll be old before I ever make another one!”
“Sagie,” my dad sighs, “This too shall pass. Come on, time for school.”
For two weeks I wish Marta dead. With every breath I take in. I am not proud of this. In the never-ending film reel she dies in a variety of exciting ways, but they all end with the same scene. In the one where she’s savaged by wolves by the swing set in the nearby suburban park, I come across her lying in the grass. There’s blood trickling from her mouth.
She looks up at me and whispers, “Sage, I’m so sorry. You’re so much more interesting than Boring Scott could ever be. Can you ever forgive me?”
And I do, I do forgive her, and then she dies and I step over her and I go to Tina Bianchini’s party and slow dance to REO Speedwagon with Phil Wagner Junior.
After two weeks of this, Marta has a brain hemorrhage.
Marta has a brain hemorrhage.
Marta has a brain hemorrhage.
She’s in the hospital in a coma for a month. A month that I don’t spend crying because I’m too scared that she won’t make it. I walk around all day like a person-shaped collection of broken glass, trying not to make anything worse. I get smaller. I put my dusty lizard skin back on.
On the day Marta wakes up everyone at school is talking about it and I beg my dad to drive me to the hospital. He calls Marta’s mom. She says that I’m not welcome, but that I can send Marta flowers. So I send her flowers.
Marta is in the hospital for a long time. She has to relearn how to walk, how to talk, how to eat. And I learn how to make friends without her. Until one day a year later I am standing outside waiting for class to start when Marta comes walking up to me.
She stops in front of me and says, “You sent me flowers.”
I nod. My legs are shaking.
“That meant so much to me,” she says.
I nod again because if I talk I know I’ll cry. I am thinking that I could live to be 103, and I will never be as kind as this girl.
And all through that fall and all through that winter we play backgammon, we watch John Cusack movies on her VCR, we go ice skating at the mall, and there’s always a shadow Sage. And a shadow Marta. They’re laughing. We’re not.
If you saw Marta walking down the street today, you’d have no idea that the brain hemorrhage ever happened. She has a partner, two children, she’s a successful psychotherapist specializing in teenagers, of all things. And if we were to meet at a bus stop we’d have nothing to say to each other.
But every once in awhile.
When I roll the dice for another doomed backgammon game.
When I’m picking up a box of Cheerios at the grocery store and “Blasphemous Rumours” starts playing on the PA system.
When I see two awkward, geeky girls on the subway leaning towards each other, laughing with wild abandon, I feel such an ache for that girl. That girl who saw my stark loneliness, and instead of walking by, held out her hand.
SAGE TYRTLE‘s stories have been featured on NPR, CBC, and PBS. She is a Moth GrandSLAM winner. When she was five she wanted to be a princess until her dad explained that princesses live in a dystopian patriarchy, so she switched to being a writer instead.