by Jessica Manchester-Sanchez
I still can’t believe she did it. I told her, “You hang up first,” and she did. She didn’t even say okay. She just hung up. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. Sheila’s my third serious girlfriend. I know how it’s supposed to go. She’s supposed to say no, you hang up first. Then I say no, you hang up first. We’re supposed to go back and forth a few times until I finally say, “I really have to go babe. See you tomorrow. Buh-bye.” But she hung up on me! The dude hangs up first. That’s just how it goes. Everyone knows that. But she hung up. That’s when I first started to change my mind about everything I thought I knew to be true.
It’s too early to tell her I love her and after what she did to me I’m almost certain that I don’t. We’re going to the senior prom together anyway. I already know her dress is going to be teal. Mom says she’ll order her a white orchid as a corsage so it won’t clash with her gown. Mom insists on calling Sheila’s dress a gown even though the prom committee has already threatened to prohibit her from attending the big dance because the dress is scandalous with its cut outs. I’ll probably be voted the King and the teal bowtie makes my eyes look awesome so I wish she could get her act together and wear a decent dress. Maybe Sheila’s acting out because Tiffany, my ex, will probably be named queen.
Sheila doesn’t stand a chance at winning queen. Everyone says she’s a rebound for me because Tiffany and I broke up three days before spring break. It was so stupid how it happened. We were at Memorial City Mall hanging out in front of the carousel and making plans. Then Sheila walked by with her squad, all those geeks from The Model UN, and I checked out her legs. Her skirt was so short. Her legs are so long. Tiffany screamed at me, “You just checked that bitch out!” She threw her I-cee at me. Sticky, sweet, cold blue liquid dripped down my face.
“Chill,” I said but Tiffany stomped off.
Everyone thinks because I’m the quarterback and Tiffany is head cheerleader we have life figured out. They think we have amazing sex and hold our liquor and are destined for greatness. Ha. The sex is awkward. Tiffany barfed all over my Air Jordan’s and on signing day I committed to Stephen F. Austin University, exactly where my dad played college ball. He’s coach at this school in the fifth ward where the kids sometimes don’t come to practice because they have to check in with their probation officer. I’m not headed for the NFL with my skill set. I’ll be carrying a clipboard in the suburbs if I get luckier than my dad. I’ll probably teach world history too, just like my old man does because if there’s one thing former high school quarterbacks are good at its reliving history. LOL.
My mom graduated from Harvard. Dad calls her his very own legally blonde. My little brother is smart like Mom but I’m like Dad. Except mediocre football bores me. I don’t want to spend my life stuck in a high school with a bunch of sweaty jocks but I don’t know what else I could do either.
Sheila is the kind of girl I probably deserve. I say that because she’s not who the people I hang with think she is. She’s got a bad reputation but the thing is she’s kind of a prude. Her style is an act. Once when I passed the joint to her she stomped the lit end out then threw it as far as she could. Tiffany always took a toke. “What the hell?” I asked her.
“I didn’t realize you were a burn out,” Sheila said. She had just joined me after school in the park by the library and never saw me like that before.
“I’m just relaxing,” I explained.
“You’re pathetic,” she told me before she stormed off, saying these words. “You literally have not a care in the world. Relaxing, my ass. Be somebody! Do something with your life!”
Sometimes I think about her words and I realize she makes a point. I’m privileged. Life is easy. At my dealer’s place in these run-down apartments a rat skittered across the floor where a baby was crawling as I paid for my baggie of weed. Sometimes reality is so traumatizing. My heart broke for a baby surrounded by filth and danger and all I could do was get high. Maybe I’m part of the problem.
Her dress is a political statement, Sheila explains. When she modeled it for me my eyes nearly fell out of my face like that cartoon wolf version of Jim Carrey when he sees Cameron Diaz in movie The Mask. Her round, full breasts that she still hasn’t let me fondle were minimally covered and the cut out showed her bare navel. Her back was almost completely revealed and a slit in the skirt went up to her mid-thigh. Then she showed me her clear platform shoes with glitter floating in the acrylic heels. They looked like the shoes strippers in movies and cop TV shows wear, sexy, sleazy, all that.
“How do I look,” Sheila asked.
“You’re so hot. Let’s do it,” I said. I held her close but she told me no. She always says no. I held her auburn hair in my hands wishing she was the girl everyone thinks she is.
“I just want to prove a point,” Sheila said.
“That you’re a cock tease?”
She narrowed her eyes at me. “I look cheap on purpose. This dress was available at Macy’s in the juniors section. Teenage girls are given these choices that make us look sexy and available but then our schools put limits on us and all the mixed messages are confusing. I don’t think it’s fair.”
“You don’t think having common sense is fair?”
She rolled her eyes at me. “What’s the point of the prom anyway? My mom and dad never get dressed up to go dancing. Are we supposed to think adulthood is a series of parties?”
I laughed then because my mom and dad do get dressed up and go dancing regularly. They have a lot of fun. Life is a series of parties for them.
“What’s so funny?” Sheila asked. I told her about my parents. “Do they belong to a country club?” She asked and I nodded yes. She sighed dramatically; rolled her eyes. “Your mom makes way more money than your dad, doesn’t she?”
I swallowed hard. My mom is a lawyer in the oil and gas industry. She works for some big corporation downtown. When they had an oil spill in Louisiana a few years ago it was my mom who spoke to the press and got everyone to believe that her company would make things right and actually cares about the environment. We went to the Harry Potter theme park with her bonus and made my little brother Joe who is a total Harry Potter nerd the happiest kid on earth. Logically Sheila’s conclusion is true but she didn’t have to spell it out like that. I looked down at my shoes not sure what I was supposed to say. My mom was once head cheerleader back when dad was quarterback. They were just like me and Tiffany. “So?” I asked, curious as to why she was going there. She only shrugged.
When I go by her house on Prom night I tell the limo driver to give me a few minutes. We’ve already picked up my best bud Jeremy Trainer who was my wide receiver. He fumbled a lot. He’s going to The University of North Texas in Denton where he won’t play ball. He’s going to study marketing His girl Molly sits next to him and they’re texting each other even though she’s practically in his lap. She’s wearing this purple dress with a short, fluffy ballerina skirt. The top is covered in sequins. Her strappy heels look complicated to put on. Jeremy forgot to buy her a corsage and she’s pissed.
Sheila’s dad answers the door. He’s wearing coveralls like a mechanic wears. Sheila lives on the side of I-10 where the blue collar people live. I just assumed she lived on the same side of the freeway as me. Her house is the size of our pool cabana. Some people call her poor white trash but I always thought they were just hating. She’s not trashy.
Sheila’s dad is holding a cold Budweiser and I’d love to have a chug but knowing my place I smile and politely ask if Sheila’s ready.
“She’s ready,” he drawls. He has a bushy red mustache but he’s going bald. All his hair is mostly under his nose. He has the same hazel eyes as Sheila. “But I don’t know if you’re ready for her,” he says. “Sheila, your date is here,” he calls out.
Two redheaded kids are sitting on the brown leather sofa watching a Harry Potter movie on the television. I think it’s The Goblet of Fire but my brother is the one who would know for sure. The redheaded twins in the movie suddenly have long white beards. The redheads in the room giggle. Their dad introduces me, “This is Danny, Sheila’s boyfriend. Danny, that’s my son Sam, he’s thirteen. He’s a quarterback too. “Sarah, say hey to Danny.”
The girl smiles at me. She has gaps in her smile waiting for her permanent teeth to appear. “I’m going to be ten in seven weeks,” she says. “Double digits.”
“Watch out world,” I tease and she giggles.
Sheila’s mom comes out first. She’s wearing a waitress uniform and orthopedic shoes. A pincushion is attached to her wrist. She pulls a pin out of her mouth and places it in the pincushion. “She changed her mind at the last minute. I whipped something up for her,” she says, shrugging her shoulders. “The principal called and said if she wore that dress she would risk expulsion.”
“Expulsion?” I’m surprised. I hear heels clacking against the hardwood floor and turn to see Sheila. She is covered from head to toe in a black shapeless dress with long sleeves. Her dress looks like what women in the Middle East wear. “Is this some kind of joke?” I ask. Her hazel eyes are rimmed in heavy black liner but it’s the only part of her I see other than her feet and she’s wearing those stripper heels. “What are you wearing?”
She walks towards me, extending her arm for me to place the corsage on her wrist. I slip it on and then I see the rhinestone message spelled out on her back. WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS, it reads. “The corsage is lovely. Thank you.” Sheila says.
“I bedazzled the dress myself, added all the bling,” Sheila’s mom says in a bubbly voice. I suddenly remember that she was the class mother when I was in fourth grade. She came to every field trip and baked cupcakes for all the holiday parties. My mom was always too busy for that kind of stuff. “Sheila is going a different direction with her political statement,” her mother explains.
“Dressing like a hoochie-coochie girl ain’t no political statement,” her dad says in a gruff voice. “I guess if my fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq is supposed to have stood for something I’d rather it be this. You show that principal what it is to stand for something, Sheila.” He sits down in his leather recliner and puts his feet up. He’s not wearing any shoes, just white crew socks and the soles are clean. This house is spotless and I bet they don’t have a maid like we do at my home where Joe and I make messes and Lupita the maid calls us cochinos, Spanish for pigs. “Help yourself to a soda from the fridge if you want, Danny.”
“Thank you Mr. Malone but the limo driver is waiting on us.” Something about his clean socks makes me admire him as weird as that sounds. Sometimes I fixate on the strangest details. A man with clean socks is a man who has life figured out. I want that.
He raises his eyebrows, “Fancy. Have fun. But not too much fun. Be home by one.” He winks at Sheila while her mom snaps a few pictures of us with her phone.
“Have fun you guys,” her mom says.
Sheila picks up her small sequined purse and we head outside. The limo driver’s eyes go wide when he sees Sheila but he doesn’t say anything. He just stomps out his cigarette and gets behind the wheel.
Molly’s mouth is open wide. “You can’t wear that. It’s like a berkha or something. You’re being racially insensitive or something. You can’t wear that.”
“Why not?” Sheila asks.
“It’s like you’re mocking Muslims or something.” Molly says.
“I’m not,” Sheila says.
Jeremy also has an open mouth. He squints. “Yo, that’s messed up,” he says. “You can’t be making fun of the Muslim kids.”
“How is wearing a dress making fun of people? The principal told me to cover up, so I did.” Sheila shrugs. “I didn’t show him a picture of this dress. He’s going to have kittens when he sees me. Did you have to show him a picture of your dress for approval?” Sheila asks Molly.
Molly nods her head. “He’s pervy. I think he was getting off to looking at all our pictures. Ugh. But you don’t have to go to extremes like a crazy person,” Molly says. “She has a corsage, Jeremy. She might be dressed like a jihadist but she has a freaking corsage.”
“I said I’m sorry already,” he snaps.
When we get to the restaurant we discover that the hood covering Sheila’s face is detachable. She takes it off to eat the lobster ravioli she ordered. I suggest she leave it off and she smiles so sweetly. “It never occurred to me I might come off as racially or ethnically insensitive,” she admits. Her hair needs to be brushed because the hood made it messy. “Do you think it’s racially insensitive?”
I look into her hazel eyes and I think about her dad fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Your dad was a soldier?” I ask.
Sheila nods. “He was in the Army. He left the day after my first birthday to fight in Operation Enduring Freedom, October 7, 2001.”
I narrow my eyes, thinking. She’s a little bit older than me I realize now. My birthday is December 12th. “This war never seems to end,” I say. I’ve lost my appetite but Jeremy and Molly are feeding each other and Sheila eats her ravioli. “Your dad said you wearing this dress made his fighting stand for something,” I say. “I just want to know, what’s your point? Is the hood really necessary to make your point or is just for shock value?”
Sheila looks at me like she’s suddenly seen me for the first time. Like all this time I was out of focus and suddenly she sees me. I’m more than a muscular body, square jaw and handsome face. My biceps are beyond belief, it’s true, but I’m not just some kind of beefcake. I think, I wonder, I worry. I care about the world around me even if people assume I’m shallow just because I’m built like an Adonis. Mom’s grandparents immigrated to Houston from Greece. It’s important to her that I remember my heritage.
“What if it was for shock value?” Sheila asks in a hushed voice.
“Then you are making a mockery out of people’s real life situations and that’s not cool.” I emphasize the word ‘are’ heavily then take a sip of my soda. My mouth is suddenly dry. I start thinking about Mr. Khan, my dad’s assistant coach at Wheatley High School who happens to be Muslim. He was an Army Ranger. He’s a badass. Mr. Khan grew up in the fifth ward. He says once a wildcat always a wildcat and he’s even sparred with George Foreman, the boxer, a Whatley alumni. Mr. Khan taught me to own up to my mistakes when the game doesn’t go my way. He taught me to move on. Let it go.
“What does we should all be feminists even mean?” Jeremy asks, suddenly turning his attention to Sheila. He sounds accusatory instead of curious.
She sighs. “I saw a TED Talk where a Nigerian woman named Chimamande Ngozi Adichie talked about her book by this title We Should All Be Feminists, and it opened my eyes. It woke me up. Gender roles are so arbitrary. Who makes the rules?”
“The people in charge make the rules,” Molly says as if that settles it.
“Why are they in charge?” Sheila asks.
None of us can give her a satisfactory answer. When the bill comes it’s up to me to settle it. I pull out my Dad’s charge card but there’s this heavy nagging feeling dragging me down. Why does my dad pay for everything when it’s so obvious my mom makes more money? Does he feel emasculated? I think about texting him but what would I even say? I hope he knows I respect him. I do.
When we get back in the limo Molly pulls a little baggie out of her purse. “Time to get really woke,” she trills. There are purple, star-shaped pills in there and she offers us each a hit. Nobody but her wants it. Sometimes I wonder if she’s really named Molly or if everyone just calls her that because she’s high so much of the time on ecstasy. “Is your name really Molly?” I ask and she explodes in a fit of giggles. Jeremy playfully punches my arm but he doesn’t answer me either.
Sheila has combed her hair. We pose in front of the fake Eiffel Tower. We dance. I see Tiffany giving me side eye but she doesn’t speak to me until we’re crowned the king and queen of prom. She whispers in my ear, “I rented a room upstairs. I’m here alone. Ditch the weirdo and let’s make up.”
I look into her big brown eyes. She has a nice tan right now. Her blonde hair is frosted at the tips. She smells like that perfume that drives me wild. Her strapless black gown manages to be sexy and classy at the same time. I guess Principal Tanner approved. I look over at Sheila and she waves at me. I don’t want to betray her. “I came here with Sheila,” I remind Tiffany.
“So?” She makes a snorting noise as if Sheila’s feelings don’t matter.
I put my hands on her bare shoulders and look into her eyes, “I have a feeling you won’t hear this word a whole lot in your life but I think you should. No.” I walk away with my silly crown on my head and sit down next to Sheila. She smiles at me. For the first time in my life I feel like I’ve earned something.
“You’re such a loser now,” Tiffany shouted as I walked away.
I get Sheila home way before her curfew. She doesn’t want to go to any after parties because she correctly assumes things will get out of control. It’s not her scene. In our class of 647 students she will graduate fourth in our class. I’m 183. Tiffany told me to mind my own business when I asked her ranking. Sheila got something called the Pell grant and an academic scholarship to study at the college of her choice. That’s a true achievement.
I think about the rumors people spread about Sheila. They say that she has group sex with bikers and all kinds of crazy theories about how she’s way wilder than anything our crowd gets into. I think of the motorcycle that was in her driveway and I realize when I saw her on the back of it on her way to the mall she had her arms wrapped around her dad.
Tiffany pointed to Sheila once when she was eating a burrito at the Tornado Taco restaurant and swore that the cholo bussing her table was going to use Sheila as a drug mule to traffic cocaine into our school. People believed her too. It’s not right.
“Text me when you get home so I know you’re safe,” Sheila says before kissing me goodbye. It’s just a nice sweet kiss. She doesn’t act like she’s auditioning for a porn film and I realize I like Sheila. I really like her. Maybe I do love her. I could. Maybe I do.
U Up? I text her when I get home.
She replies with the sleepy face emoji surrounded by three blue Zs. Yes, she texts.
Get sum sleep, I text. Thnks 4 A gr8 nite. I add the unicorn emoji because I’ve never used it before and it just feels right. I think of her now as some sort of mythological and pure creature. I’m a dork. She doesn’t send another message until the next day.
Did U hear about Tiffany? I receive her text around ten AM. I haven’t heard a word. First I watched that TED talk Sheila told us about. Then I went on the Army website. I’ve been going back and forth with the idea that maybe I should sign up. I want to do something with my life. I want to serve my country. I want to be of use. All my life I’ve been what everyone expected me to be. It’s like I’m bound by expectations. I want to be a guardian of freedom.
What happened? I text back with the wide eyed emoji that looks worried.
I’ll call you, she texts back. I answer on the second ring not wanting to sound too anxious but frankly I do feel concerned. “Are you sitting down?” Sheila asks.
“Yes. What’s wrong?” I hear the phone in our house ringing.
“You really don’t know?”
“Know what?” I ask. I hear my mother’s voice. She screams no at the top of her lungs. “Oh my God, sweet Jesus, no…” Mom’s voice is the sound of broken glass shattering into dozens of jagged pieces against the tile floor.
“They don’t think it was suicide,” Sheila says in a dreary voice. “Molly said she intended to land in the pool.”
“Who intended to land in the pool?” I ask. There’s a knock at my door.
“It’s me, Danny,” Mom says in that same voice she used when Argos our golden retriever didn’t wake up from the surgery to remove a tumor on his spine. He was my birthday gift when I was four; he was a puppy then. I was sixteen when he died but only days from my 17th birthday. My parents didn’t even punish me when I showed up drunk after going out with friends. They just wanted to know if I took an Uber to get home. I did.
“Come in,” I say. “It’s my mom,” I say to Sheila.
I knew before I knew. My English teachers always said I’m good at picking up on context clues. Tiffany was drunk and high, partying with friends on the twelfth floor in a suite. She’d tried cocaine for the first time and feeling euphoric decided she could dive into the pool from the balcony. She was in her underwear and high heels, wearing the tiara she got for being prom queen. I felt numb.
Everyone at the funeral patted my back. Sheila didn’t come to the funeral. She said it would be inappropriate and I guess she’s right. Some people at the funeral called me brave. That’s when I knew. Bravery is earned through acts of valor, not because your stupid ex-girlfriend loses her life being reckless and you survive. I wasn’t even there.
“I’m joining the Army,” I told my parents as Tiffany was being buried.
My mother threw a white rose on top of the dirt covering Tiffany’s casket before she looked at me with a flash of fury in her eyes. “No you’re not,” she said.
It wasn’t until I returned from basic training in Fort Benning, Georgia that she finally believed me. I went home before I was deployed to Camp Humphrey. Mom writes me long letters. Sheila called me a few times when I was in Georgia. She got the hang of the good bye game. “No you hang up,” she would say. We’d go back and forth until at last I would say, “I really have to go, babe. Buh-bye.” I didn’t tell her I’d see her the next day because I wasn’t going to. Maybe one day I’ll see her again.
Sheila asked me once about my first serious girlfriend. Her name was Ashley. Her parents were both doctors. Not the kinds who see patients but the kinds who stay stuck in a lab all day. Ashley’s going to be a doctor too but she wants to see patients. Ashley taught me the good-bye game when we were in the eighth grade. We broke up when I was a junior and became the quarterback. Argos was still okay back then. I thought I had life figured out and everything was under control. When Argos died I realized tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. I still miss him.
Tiffany shoved Ashley into a locker and told her to back off that we were destined to be together a few days before Ashley broke up with me. Then Ashley’s parents announced they were moving to Atlanta to work at the Center for Disease Control. Ashley never spoke to me again. Sometimes I think about her and wonder what she’s up to. Sheila says Tiffany shoved her against a locker once too. What did you do, I asked her. Sheila said she told Tiffany she was going to tell the bikers where to find her. We laughed about that. Then Sheila asked me what the good-bye game was. I explained it to her. She was fascinated.
“I’m not a gorilla. You’re not Dian Fossey,” I told her. Dian Fossey was a scientist who studied gorillas in their natural habitat. I don’t appreciate being treated like some kind of science experiment. I guess she’s just trying to get in my head and figure me out. When she laughed I felt like everything is going to be okay. Laughter builds a bridge that takes me back home.
My parents are an exception to the rule. Long distance relationships don’t usually last, it’s true, but I’ll always be thankful for the time we had. I receive the occasional text from Sheila. She’s living her life, doing well. Sheila, who is majoring in something called Ethnic & Diasporic Studies at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, opened my eyes. I never knew a thing about what a feminist is or gender roles until she clued me in. She’s busy with her studies. Her phone calls have dwindled off and I’m okay with that. You have to accept when things come to a logical end. Hanging up is hard to do but playing games is even harder. There are no losers in this game called life. Survival is the ultimate prize.