If I seem a little wired or high strung or just plain off, don’t worry. I’m not nuts. I just have a tendency to overthink every single thing that comes my way, ever. I suffer from what’s known as social anxiety disorder, sometimes called social phobia. Big deal. So do fifteen million other people in America, or at least they will at some point in their lives, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. I’ll spare you the psychobabble. Basically, a good number of my social interactions, both online and IRL, do bad, bad things to my nerves.
So you can probably guess how I’m feeling right now, in the dining hall at Alexandria Preparatory Academy, less than two weeks after my boyfriend dumped me and the whole world remembered that I’m socially irrelevant. That I’m not even close to being the cool, collected girl I’ve been passing for over the last three months.
My palms are so slippery that the tray I’m clutching like a religious offering may pop right out of my hands and fly across the room, trailing lunch behind it. I can hear the screams of laughter already. I close my eyes for a second and inhale through my nose.
Go somewhere calming in your mind, my therapist, Dr. Bechdel, would say in her soothing voice. I picture the volcanic black-and-snowy-white landscape of Vatnajökull Park in Iceland, feel the icy wind, not another soul in sight. Exhale, then open my eyes. One thing at a time. I’ve been working with Dr. Bechdel on it for months.
“ ’Sup, Anna?” I hear at my three o’clock.
I turn just in time to see Dylan Johnson whiz by me. Then, as Dylan passes, another word comes out of his mouth. The word I spent all of Christmas break dreading, the word I’ve heard six times already today. That I can’t stand hearing anymore.
“Sorry,” he says without looking.
It’s the first day back from winter break. The beginning of the end. Last semester of my high school career. It’s an enviable position to be in, and you’d think that by now I’d have a million choices for where to sit in the Prep dining hall. But I don’t have a million choices. I’m not sure I have any choices.
My old table--the one I sat at all of sophomore and junior years--is on the far left side of the dining hall. Nikki, Jethro, and Haven are yapping away, laughing and gesturing. Whatever they’re talking about, I’d give my left ovary to be in on it. This is my mission now--to get back there. Someday I’ll convince them that I am not the biggest jerk in the history of Prep. I have to believe that.
Today I’ll settle for sitting anywhere that people won’t say That Word to me. And hopefully where people won’t even look in my direction. The plan is simple: get to an empty table, take a few bites, get my blood sugar up, and show the world that I’m still here. That I’m down but not out.
I’ve run through this scene in my head--play by play, shot for shot, all possible outcomes--approximately 2.4 billion times since Christmas. But right now, bolting through the cafeteria is so tempting.
Stick to the plan, Anna. The plan is the only friend you have left.
I spot a table at the back. I can do this.
Mr. Fortini, the PE teacher, gives me a crinkly-eyed smile as he walks by. Great. Pitying looks from my teacher. At least he spared me an “It Gets Better” speech.
The first table I pass on my way to my I am woman, hear me eat alone home on the other side of the dining hall is the table of the drama crew, also known as the Thesbos. Most of them are run-of-the-mill hipsters, but some are dolled up for whatever YouTube vlog they’re hosting after school.
After the Thesbos table is the Future Leaders of America table. They’re the shiny-faced suck-ups in khakis and button-downs always trying to get you to vote for them for student council. Despite the fact that we’re less than ten miles from D.C., school politics are dominated by people with an excess of optimism about the world. The good news today is that none of them seems to notice me.
“Sorry about your Christmas, Soler,” some khaki wearer murmurs.
A stifled laugh follows.
Damn. Spoke too soon. My hands shake a little, but I clench the tray tighter and pretend I didn’t hear anything.
The Hoodies have colonized the next table--a mix of techie, fanboy and fangirl comic-book types my (ex)-friends overlap with. The Hoodies smoke a lot of weed and are always telling you which concerts they’ve been to lately (featuring bands they may very well be making up, since no one has ever heard of them).
Just past the Hoodies, two boys are blocking my path to the eat-alone table.
“You’re trying to tell me you’ve hit puberty, peewee?”
Wallace Reid, star center on the basketball team, is torturing a scrawny redhead. He’s got him by almost a foot.
Only this kid isn’t backing down as quickly as most of Wallace’s victims. “I’m sorry,” Scrawny says. “Having trouble understanding you. I’m only about fifteen percent fluent in meathead, according to my Rosetta Stone app.”
Wallace laughs. “Man, you little white dudes crack me up.”
Ms. Sozio, the pretty new dance teacher who graduated from Maryland just last spring, happens to be walking by and overhears. She wags a finger at Wallace and calls him to her as Scrawny scuttles to wherever he eats lunch. Wallace towers over Ms. Sozio as well, but now he leans down, and Ms. Sozio whispers in his ear. Whatever she says, Wallace’s face now looks like a droopy dog’s.
Ms. Sozio goes, and Wallace looks back toward his table. The very table I have taken a blood-sworn oath to myself I wouldn’t even look at. Only now Wallace catches my eye. “Anna,” he says with a big smile. “How was your . . . break?”
Wonderful. He’s mastered the art of wordplay.
“Look,” he says, lowering his voice a register, “let’s chill sometime, Anna. We’ll talk about it, hang out. My parents are, like, never home.”
“You . . . and me?”
“No reason not to anymore--am I right? Hey, Palmer’s loss. But me, I’ve always dug South American girls. I dated a Brazilian hottie once. You knew that, right?”
Any normal person would ask if he was really trying to scam on his best friend’s ex less than two weeks after Palmer and I broke up. But my tongue feels two times too big, and all I want is to make it to my empty table in back without anyone noticing. To die peacefully with my chicken salad sandwich.
I muster the best response I can. “Leave me alone, Wallace.”
He claps his hands and gives me one of his famous ooohs, then grins and swaggers over to his table. The most valuable real estate in the dining hall.
Okay, I’ve denied you the most important group here at Prep long enough. The Instas are our version of the Beautiful People, who got their nickname by constantly posting pictures of themselves having crazy-fun times. They’re the toned, cut-from-marble athletes of Prep’s top-notch sports programs and their corresponding spirit squadders, plus a handful of, you know, absurdly good-looking and/or effortlessly cool nonathletes. Most people at school claim they loathe the Instas, but we’re all kind of obsessed with them at the same time.
And for the past three months, I was sort of one of them.
What a difference a Christmas break makes. Palmer has lunch in a different period, but even so, I know all too well how weird it would be if I just strolled up to the Instas’ table today. I wince, trying not to watch as Wallace says something inaudible to fellow jock Dylan Johnson and to Vanessa Eubanks, sandy-blond-haired captain of the spirit squad and unofficial queen of the Instas. She turns to look at me, and now a few other Instas do as well. Prickles go up and down my back. I always knew Vanessa thought I wasn’t good enough for Palmer.
Now she’s been proven right, I guess.
Prep is a small school. A lot of us have been going here since kindergarten. So Vanessa and I have known each other since we were six. And until about sixth grade or so, she was plain-looking and mostly kept to herself. It’s not that she and I were friends then, exactly, but we acknowledged each other’s existence. Which is a lot more than I can say about our relationship since then. Because when adolescence hit? Boom. Vanessa got hot. Tall. Gorgeous. And she learned the power of her family’s wealth. Suddenly it was like everyone forgot that she was once a plain-Jane wallflower, and our whole grade has revolved around her ever since. She barely tolerated my guest appearances at the Insta table over the past months. She never asked me a single question about myself, and her minions--Alexis Bowman and Jocelyn van Mecl--weren’t allowed to either.
Good thing they don’t have to worry about tolerating my presence anymore.
I stop short and turn. Staring back at me is a pair of gray-green eyes.
“Oh,” I say, caught in his gaze. “Hey.”
Where do I start when it comes to Jethro Stephens? He’s delicate featured and long lashed, with a mop of chin-length hair. He’s grown into his skin-and-bones frame, so now he’s tall with a nice, lanky body. So much has happened between Jethro and me, we could have a series on the History Channel.
He leans in and smiles a little. “On a scale of one to being forced to take part in a pep rally, how bad have your last three hours been?”
“Nine point nine.”
“So it coulda been worse.”
My pulse slows a little. My friendship with Jethro (before I bailed on it, anyway) has gotten . . . more and more complicated in the last couple of years. Twice we’ve gotten really close to kissing--sophomore year in his Jeep, junior year in my beat-up Honda (why does drama always go down in cars?)--but somehow it’s never happened. Still, no matter how much things change between us, one thing’s always been true: Jethro has a magical, calming effect on me. The same one he’s having on me now.
“I meant to ask you,” he says. “Did you see the Chuck Close exhibit?”
“Chuck Close. He’s one of your favorites, right? Did you make it to the exhibit?”
I shake my head, exhaling. “I wish. But the National Gallery over a holiday?”
I adore Chuck Close’s portraits, but the massive crowds at D.C. museums and galleries are way too much for me. When I look at a painting, I tend to stare at it forever--to lose myself in it--and especially during tourist season I always feel like I’m loitering or in someone’s way or doing something wrong. I end up spending the entire time worrying about what the museum-goers standing beside and behind me are thinking about me. How they’re judging me. It is, in a word, miserable. Yeah, I know. If it sounds ridiculous, illogical, then you’re starting to understand SAD.
Jethro smiles a little. “Yeah, I figured. Good.” He reaches into his pocket and takes out a tiny black thing, then gently drops it on my tray. It’s a thumb drive.
“Merry Christmas,” he says. “Belated.”
I smile. The first smile I’ve managed all day. I’m genuinely confused by Jethro being so nice to me right now, considering I basically ditched him the past three months.
“What’s on it?” I ask.
“I took a video for you,” Jethro says. “Got most of the pieces. They threw me out before I could get the Philip Glass portrait. But I got some good footage of Lou Reed.”
There’s always been something more than friendship between us--something neither of us has acknowledged. Or probably ever will. But after I was a total and complete jerk for the past few months, I don’t deserve this kindness. Or Jethro.
“Come sit with us,” he says now.
I glance over at his table. “Probably not a good idea . . .”
“C’mon. It’s a new year,” Jethro says. He puts his arm around me, pressing his shoulder into mine. It makes me shiver. “Clean slate. For all of us.”
He emphasizes one word slightly: us.
I’ve always (and when I say always, I mean most of the time, when my head’s not up my you-know-what) taken pride in the fact that my group of friends doesn’t have a label. It took me three months of hanging out with other, supposedly “cool” people to reinforce that they--this group of misfits--are the coolest people I know.
“Look what the holiday dragged in,” Haven Dodd says as Jethro and I approach.
Nikki shifts in her chair, suddenly sitting a little more upright and formally than before. “Anna,” she says. Just that. Nothing else. I resist the urge to turn and run.
Nikki’s blond, with a cute, smiley face and a dimple in her right cheek but not her left. Her figure is round and soft, and, though I think it’s beautiful, she tries to hide it by crossing her arms over her chest or sucking in her stomach whenever a cute guy walks by. We’ve been friends since the first grade, and when I first started hanging out with Palmer, Nikki stuck with me. For the first month she’d still call me to watch The Voice or go shopping for the sweater Amandla Stenberg was wearing in that month’s Teen Vogue. I’d either put her off with a lame excuse or say yes and then cancel at the last minute so I could see Palmer instead. Mostly, Nikki just seemed bewildered. She’s such a good person that she couldn’t conceive of one friend treating another so crappily.
Leave it to me.
I slide into the seat next to Jethro and set down my tray. Pretending to adjust the buckle on one of my boots, I hastily wipe my swampy hands on my leggings.
Think mountains in Iceland. Warm sunshine . . . black volcanoes . . .
“I heard the fam went skiing?” I ask Nikki, my voice even shakier than I expected it to be.
Nikki picks a carrot stick off her plate and dips it in hummus. “We had to come home early because my mom broke her arm.”
“Wow. I didn’t think Andrea actually skied.”
“Yeah, that’s not how she broke it. She made friends at the lodge with some of the other moms who don’t ski. They had this long lunch with no food. None that they ate, anyway.” Nikki rolls her eyes, then looks at the boys and makes a tippling gesture with her thumb and pinky finger. “She tripped getting off the elevator. She wears those fur boots with heels instead of, like, actual snow boots. Course, my stepdad wasn’t there to help, so I wound up babysitting my brother, and then we all just went home.”