Mock trial practice ends late these days. The stars are already out when I leave school. I join our youngest team members, the yet-unlicensed fifteen year olds waiting for their parents in the carpool lane. The air is sweet, the grass swells with dew, a breeze gently scrapes the clouds aside to reveal a crescent moon. The kids are buzzing. It’s their first competition tomorrow. They look to me approaching with such awe, it breaks my heart. Three years ago, I was them. I was the one anticipating my first ever mock trial, nauseated and imagining a judge’s glare, the competitors I convinced myself were smarter, more ruthless. They’ll find out tomorrow, being smart means nothing, not in fake court rooms. The judges zone out fifteen minutes in. It’s all about theatrics, who can best entertain, who can be a bigger bitch. But I prepared them well. My kids are chained hounds, hungry for flesh, ready to tear free from their leashes and sink teeth into the other teams.
A voice behind my back -- “Hey, wait.” It’s the Worm. I turn around slowly. I don’t want to talk to him. I just know he’s gonna say something snide. I know I messed up a little this evening, but he doesn’t need to rub it in.
“Great job today,” he says, catching up to me.
“Thanks, Mr. Co-Captain.” I like to call him co-captain because that’s what he is to me. He never gives me a “Ms. Co-Captain” back. If he had his way, he would have no co-captain at all.
“I think the team has a real shot at winning tomorrow,” he says.
“Yeah, I think we did a really good job getting everyone ready.”
See, I try. I try to be nice. I try to extend spaces for him to say something nice back, but he glides right over it. Maybe because he’s a boy and doesn’t understand social cues for politeness, maybe it’s because he’s a lizard in human form. And it doesn’t count as bullying to call him “the Worm” either. He knows his neck is too long, and I and everyone else say it to his face. If anything, it makes him more socially accepted.
He dawdles for a moment, head to the sky. I worry his skinny snake neck could snap backwards from the weight of his skull pulling down like that.
“Look,” he points up. “That’s the constellation Cancer.” His fingers trace lines between celestial dots.
It shouldn’t piss me off, but it does. The Worm knows about things. He knows how to read and write poetry, he knows the names of flowers and constellations and songbirds. It makes it harder to hate him, but also much easier. And he knows he’s smarter than me. He’s read more books, knows more quotes by remarkable dead people, studies harder in everything. But he can’t talk to people like I can. He knows that too. My one leverage point against him, the way I can charm teachers into better grades, get people to vote me into leadership positions. It’s the one thing that kept us neck and neck through every academic competition. Not literally of course -- my neck could never stretch to such heights as his.
“Are you going to prom?” I ask. It was one of those unfortunate scheduling overlaps, senior prom falling on the night before our last mock trial. My friends had already been curling hair and painting on glitter for hours while I was still in school clothes, withering my evening away at our last practice of the season.
“Yeah, I’m going.” I’m surprised.
“Is your boyfriend coming?” I’m aware of only a few details about the Worm’s personal life, but his boyfriend-who-lives-in-North-Carolina I know all about.
I want to ask who he’s going with then, but I think I already know the answer. Hey, going to prom alone could still be fun.
“Alright, well, I’ll see you there,” I say and smile. He nods again, and walks towards the parking lot, car keys swinging around one finger.
I’m waiting for a car, a baby blue Subaru. A very “lesbian” car, as I found out when I first began dating women. Annabeth has the unfortunate responsibility of driving back to school with her prom look half-finished, picking me up, and bringing me back to her house, where everyone else is running around looking for mascara and corsages and bobby pins.
A beep-beep in the carpool lane, and the Subaru screeches before me. I feel the younger kids’ eyes on my back as I climb into the passenger’s seat. Annabeth is my first girlfriend since I realized that I’m maybe not straight, and it’s no secret. I think our mock trial team is half-comprised of closeted gays, and it makes me happy to think of them seeing their captain dating another girl, if it helps them own their truth.
“You look good,” I tell Annabeth as we drive away. She’s finished just with her eyes, a smoky purple swirling like galaxies on her eyelids.
“Thanks,” she answers with a tight smile. Her shoulders are taught, her fingers pale from gripping the steering wheel.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“Yeah.” I know she’s driving, but I want her to look at me. It’s fine, she’s probably just stressed about pulling everything together.
Her house is bustling. Annabeth’s mom seems intent on being as involved as possible. She’s shoving snacks into lipsticked mouths, adjusting collars and skirts, taking pictures with the flash on. Annabeth’s friends, my friends, they don’t look like themselves. They’re gods now, yet-undiscovered movie stars, shining, dazzling, suddenly so adult. I’m going to wear a suit, a charcoal grey number, but I now seem underdressed. It reminds me of my mock trial pantsuit.
I struggle with makeup, every attempt at lipstick looking clownish. I don’t want to ask for Annabeth’s help, but I need it. Her look is more important -- she actually cares about this kind of stuff and I don’t-- and it seems sacrilegious to make her take any breaks. Even in her hurry, she lines my lips perfectly. I reassure her that she looks amazing, but she’s not buying it.
In the chaos, everyone is chattering like parrots in an Amazonian canopy. There’s much talk about the afterparty. That’s where the real fun is, the drunken grinding chaperones would break up at a school dance. No one talks about prom itself; their minds have already skipped over it. It hurts a little -- prom’s the only part I’ll be able to join them for. Mock trial starts bright and early in the morning.
But still, I’m happy. This is how it’s supposed to be. I worried the movies were false promises. I worried nothing would happen for me, that I’d spend my adolescence friendless, loveless, going to prom alone, spending all my time on homework and clubs and structured things that responsible adults approve of, that the only people who’d talk to me would consider calculus and college admissions as tenements of their personality. But it wasn’t like that. I was friends with normal people, good people, people who lived regular lives and didn’t think it was weird that I cared about things like mock trial, people that I could talk to about normal things and feel normal myself.
I look at everyone, so beautiful, and feel like I swallowed the sun. Pure burning energy concentrated in my abdomen. I love them all, so much I shake. I want to run around, hug them, wagging like a dog seeing its people for the first time all day. But I leash the dog in. Everyone is busy right now, there’s no time for sentiment. I’ll tell them everything when we’re at the dance.
We take pictures, lined up horizontally in the backyard, try out a few pose variations, then hustle into cars. We’re already an hour late. Everything is so fast. I just want a pause, a breather, to stop and look around and say this really is happening!
I’m in the backseat of someone’s car, Annabeth beside me. She really does look lovely, and I tell her so. She says thank you, still without glancing at me. I put my palm out. Her hand is small, cold, and limp in mine, like holding a dead minnow. I realize I’m sitting on the tulle of her dress, but there’s no space here, nowhere for me to move.
Our school is small and cheap, public and severely underfunded, and our venue reflects that. It’s in the ballroom space of a local bar, sandwiched in a plaza between a dollar store and a French restaurant. We walk with ball gowns dragging and high heels clacking on concrete, eyelid glitter and sewn-on sequins glimmering beneath fluorescent lights. The crescent moon winks above, and suburban moms peer out from minivans, bug-eyed. They’re in the parking lot just for some grocery shopping, they didn’t expect this teenage royal procession. It’s weird, it’s all weird, but it’s happening, and it’s mine. My chest is tight and tears bite the corners of my eyes. Every little bit is so delicious, the cracks in the pavement, the flies hitting themselves dumb over and over on fluorescent lights, even Annabeth’s hand still limp in mine as we near the place.
They made it cute enough inside, spinning lights and streamers and big bouquets in glass vases on clothed tables. I suspect they bought some of this decor at the neighboring dollar store, beauty on a budget. There’s screaming on all sides as people see their dolled-up friends for the first time, adoring coos, fawning, cheers. You can hardly hear the music over it all.
We’re approached, by friends, by acquaintances, classmates from all our years. They have nice things to say, compliments on hair and clothes, more towards Annabeth -- she clearly put more effort into it.
The lights, the sounds, the people, it’s almost too much. The wagging little dog threatens to burst from my body again. I hold myself back; it’s not time yet. The explosion will come soon.
I spot a few of my freshman mock trial teammates milling about, the lucky ones with older friends who’d invite them out. God, I hope none of my babies get taken advantage of. I hope they remember they have an early morning tomorrow.
I want to dance. That’s what you’re supposed to do, right? They’re playing pop hits from a decade ago, the kind of music you’d never listen to just by yourself but make your blood crackle with electricity in group settings. I tug on Annabeth’s hand, I shake my head at the group, but they won’t look my way. That’s alright, I decide I’ll wait for them out there.
I fucking love dancing. I’m so bad, but I don’t care. I pump my fists and shake my hips, clearing a circle around me on the microscopic dance floor. Good thing about my suit -- it allows for maximum mobility. My eyes slide closed, and sugary pop pulsates in my ears louder than any heartbeat. I crack my eyelids open briefly, just to avoid smacking anyone. I spot the Worm amidst swirling bodies. He looks so uncomfortable. Poor kid doesn’t know what to do with his long arms, how to hold his neck right. Hope he figures it out. I close my eyes again.
I’m waiting for my friends, my girlfriend to join me. I don’t mind dancing alone, but isn’t the point to make memories together? I squint around the little venue, try to visually gather everyone. They’ve all dispersed into other, separate circles, standing around with bored blank faces or chatting half-heartedly. And suddenly, I feel quite alone.
What am I doing wrong? How is this happening? How am I by myself? Everyone sees me, dancing like an idiot. It’s one thing to dance frantically in a circle, those around you just as awkward. But to be by yourself, it’s sad. I don’t want to be here anymore.
As I walk to the bathroom, I think of mock trial. I think of the opening statement I have to make, an inflammatory, accusatory speech packed with jargon. I think of the immense satisfaction that comes after, the pure adrenaline flooding the gut, the pumping excitement. And it makes me even more sad. Why can’t I be a normal person, bored at prom, looking forward to the afterparty and planning nothing tomorrow but sleeping and nursing a hangover?
I step into the bathroom, and there’s Annabeth, lying on the floor, tulle skirt splayed like a fan. I crouch down, ask if she’s ok.
“Yeah,” she replies. “Just tired.”
“Oh. You don’t want to dance?”
I’m not sure what to do with that. I sit down next to her. I pat my lap as if coaxing in a housecat. She puts her head there, and we sit quietly like that, and for a few moments, it’s nice. Then she rises suddenly and announces that she’s getting something to drink. She doesn’t ask me to come along. It may’ve been an implied invitation, but I would have liked to hear the words said aloud. And then she’s gone, and I’m sitting on the tile floor, staring at my knees.
I get up eventually, slowly. I glide through the crowd like a hot knife through butter.
The night air feels good on my face. There’s a few others standing outside, including one of my little freshman girls. She’s leaning on the wall, and crying quietly. I wonder what happened, but also I don’t really want to get into it. Either way, I sympathize. Empathize, really.
It sucks. It really, really sucks. I spy a roach skitter from the corner of my eye, away from the trash can, down the sidewalk, towards the dollar store. It’s getting late, and the plaza is winding down for the night. Only a few cars remain in the parking lot.
I’m going to break up with Annabeth. The thought flows up from the bottom of my brain, rising as lightly, effortlessly as steam from the depths. A grim resolve hardens like plaster inside me.
And of course the fucking Worm is out here too, sitting on the sidewalk with his head leaning back, looking at something in the sky. He looks as miserable as my heart, his suit crumpled at the elbows, his shiny shoes dangling too big on his feet.
What else is there to do? I sit down beside him.
“Are you enjoying yourself?” I ask.
“No. I wish my boyfriend could have come.”
“That would have been fun.”
“Yeah. Why aren’t you with your girlfriend?”
“I’m going to break up with her.”
The Worm nodded, solemn this time. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. It has to be done.”
“I hope this doesn’t affect your performance tomorrow.”
I force my eyes away from him so I don’t roll them. “Do you ever think about, like, not mock trial? Or not school?”
“Of course I do. I think about the universe a lot, stars and galaxies and all that.”
“Mm. Which one’s Cancer again?”
He points up, jabbing at the sky five times.
“Whenever my boyfriend is in town,” he continues, “We like to drive around at night. Look at all the stars and the moon. He comes for every meteor shower, says the views are better here.”
“That’s actually really sweet.” Really, it is. I’m glad the Worm has someone to spend time with outside of academics. I’m realizing that’s more than I have.
“Are you going to the afterparty?” he asks.
“No. I think I’m gonna go home.”
“Yeah, me too.”
Another realization -- I have no way of getting home. I can’t stomach the idea of being in a car with Annabeth right now.
It takes absolutely everything out of me to ask the Worm for a ride. The words clog my throat like half-chewed bread.
“Hey Wor -- Chuck. Chuck, would it be too much to ask you for a ride home?”
He looks at me and smiles. “Sure thing, Ms. Co-Captain.”