The first time I saw Jen, she was coming down the path from Loorsey Hall just after second bell. She was laughing at something another girl said when they were passing, and her joyful smile and bouncing dark curls caught my attention. I smiled back as I approached her.
When we made eye-contact, she recoiled and stepped off the path to give me a wide berth. I was used to the older girls looking at me like that because I was a freshman and a scholarship kid, and I knew just how to handle it. “Good morning,” I said, not losing the smile.
“Do I even know you?” she snapped. “Who are you to look at me like that?”
Absolutely no one, that’s who, and I knew it. No one at all.
And that might well have been the end of it, only Marci saw it happen. I was still defiantly grinning through my hurt when I looked up to see her standing outside Loorsey Hall, waiting to walk with me to geometry. “Hi, Jerry!” she said, looking as always like she wanted to hug me, which I wished she wouldn’t. She was my best friend so far at this place, but a girl shouldn’t tease boys like that.
“Hey, Marci,” I said. “Did you finish the homework?”
“Took me three hours, but it did,” she said. “Sorry you had to meet Jen.”
“The girl you just passed outside,” she said as we made our way up the stairs to the math hall. “She lives in my hall, and she treats all the freshmen like that, Jerry. It was nothing personal, all right?”
“It sure felt that way,” I admitted. “It’s like, yeah, I know I’m –”
“Don’t say it, Jerry! You’re not a loser from the slums!”
I swallowed hard and smiled at her. “Thanks,” I said. “You’re right, my neighborhood isn’t a slum, it’s about four blocks out of the bad neighborhood. But that’s a lot closer than most people here ever get.”
“Oh, you’re not kidding!” Marci was a full-ride kid like myself. She got it. “But that doesn’t make you a loser, all right? You ought to be proud you got here. You’re not a bigshot like the other boys!”
I was sure I felt my face flushing as we made our way to our seats. “Thanks, Marci.” Now I did kind of want a hug, but Ms. Rawlings stepped in at that moment and anything like that was off limits.
Two months in to my first term, I had a wonderful coping mechanism when it came to people like Jen: blind fear. I’d been an underachiever when I was younger, but the misery of public junior high school had quite literally beaten some sense into me. I wanted out of that nightmare, so I’d worked my tail off and made almost straight A’s, and ended up with a full scholarship to the snootiest boarding school in the state. It was stuffy and snobby and I got a lot of dirty looks from the likes of Jen who somehow knew I really didn’t belong there – and for all that, I loved it. Losing my scholarship meant going back home and public high school with the same kids who’d made my life so miserable before, so I’d never once been tempted to slack off.
That day was no exception, and I had no trouble focusing on the latest proofs and theorems. Math had always been my weakest subject, but I was holding my own in it for once. It helped that I had a free period just afterward when Marci and I could go work on the homework together while it was all still fresh in our minds.
When that day’s forty-seven minutes in purgatory were over, I didn’t even have to ask. “Please tell me we’re going to go get a coke and work on this!” she said as soon as Ms. Rawlings set her marker down.
“Yes, please!” I said. “You know, I was looking at my average last night, and it looks like I can swing a B in this class if I get at least a seventy-five on all the tests left.”
“Oh, stop, Jerry!” Marci said, hugging her books and grinning at me. “You’re not going to lose your scholarship! You’re doing great!”
“You’re sweet,” I said, wishing it were warmer out so she wouldn’t have to button up her coat over her uniform. She’d told me more than once she hated skirts and tights with a passion, but she looked great in the preppy getup all the same. Of course I hadn’t told her that – she was my best friend and there were lines you never crossed – but I couldn’t help looking forward to enjoying the view when we got to the grill.
“So are you going to the dance on Saturday?” Marci asked as we made our way through the late-autumn morning.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, I was just reminded of what the girls here think of guys like me.”
“Don’t let Jen get to you!” Marci said. “I told you, she’s a creep and a snob!”
“I guess,” I said. “But look, I know where I stand in a place like this. What’s the point in looking for romance, you know?”
“No.” Marci sounded as close to angry as I’d ever heard her. “No, Jerry, I don’t know!”
The grill was crowded as always, but we welcomed the bright light and the warmth and I welcomed the surprise of a booth opening up just as we came in. “Wow, our lucky day!” I said.
Marci handed me her books. “You grab it. My turn to pay. You want to split a bagel this time?”
“Sure,” I said, and I had all but forgotten the morning’s angst as I staked our claim to the booth.
I had just enough time to take my coat off and get settled with my geometry book open to today’s lesson when I heard the barely-familiar voice. “Yo, dude, this is our booth!”
I looked up to see Jen, looking even more disgusted with me than last time. “Excuse me?”
“It’s our booth!” she repeated, pointing a thumb over her shoulder at two of her friends, who were looking just as annoyed and superior as she was.
“Well now, I don’t see your name on it,” I said with the politest smile I could muster. “And I was here first.”
“I was here first,” Jen mimicked. “You’re a freshman and you look like you take a shower maybe once a week! I don’t know what ghetto you came from, but if you won’t go back there, you can get out of our seat anyway. Upperclasswoman’s privilege!”
“I read about that in the orientation booklet,” I said. “It doesn’t exist! It’s just a prank people like you always play.”
“That’s right, Jerry,” came Joe Ralston’s voice over my shoulder, and I was relieved to see my dorm president approaching. “Jen, he’s called your bluff.”
“Who asked you, Joe?” Jen said, just as Marci arrived with our drinks and the promised bagel. “Marci?!” Jen added. “What the fuck are you doing with this drip?”
“This drip is my best friend, and all he did was smile at you this morning,” Marci said. “What’s your problem?”
“Oh, you like the charity boys, do you?” Jen said.
“What did you just say?” Marci had just sat down; now she jumped back up.
Jen laughed. “Oooh, a freshman girl’s threatening me! Marci, you don’t know who you’re fucking with, you know that?” She gave me another glare, and when I didn’t budge, she finally turned to go. But at the last second, she swiped at our tray and turned it over, spilling pop and ice all over my geometry book and notebook. “Happy studying!” she chirped as she and her friends strutted off.
“Oh my god, Jerry, I’m sorry!” Marci pulled as many paper napkins out of the dispenser as she could, and helped me mop up the mess.
We were still dabbling at my damp book when Ms. Toscano, the faculty chaperone, turned up. “Jerry!” she snapped. “You’re going to have to pay the school back for that book, you know! Scholarship kids never respect property around here!”
“It was me, Ms. Toscano!” Marci said. “I slipped and spilled our drinks. It wasn’t his fault!”
“Oh!” To my disgust, Ms. Toscano looked a lot less upset. “Sorry, Marci, but do try to be more careful next time, all right?”
“Yes, of course.” As soon as we were alone together, I opened my mouth to say thanks or sorry or both, but she waved me to silence. “Don’t mind her, French teachers are always weird. But I’m sorry about your book!”
“Looks like my notes’ll survive once the paper dries,” I said. But of course our study session was put off for the time being.
Rumors travelled fast on our little campus, I’d already learned that. So I wasn’t surprised when I arrived at lunch after fifth bell and my roommate, Kent, greeted me with, “You and Jen, huh?”
“Heard about that, did you?”
“Heard you thought you could be friendly with a junior girl,” teased Jesse from English class. “Who the heck do you think you are, Jerry? Forget you’re a charity boy?”
“Dude, don’t use that word!” snapped Kent. “And what’s wrong with being polite with a girl anyway?”
“Nothin’, as long as you remember your place in this school,” Jesse said.
“But you’re no good at that, Jerry,” said Matt from the next floor in my dorm. “Don’t you know who Jen is? Honor roll, drill team, orchestra – she doesn’t need you nipping at her heels!”
“Just what do you assholes think I did, anyway?” I asked.
“I heard you asked her out,” said Jesse.
“And I heard you stole her snack at the grill,” Matt said. “That’s no way to treat a lady, Jerry.”
“Guys, leave him alone,” Kent said. “He’s had a rough morning and it’s none of your business what he said to Jen.”
“That’s just it,” I said. “I didn’t say anything to her except good morning, and no, you can’t take my table.”
“Sure, dude, sure,” Matt said.
One thing about being the humiliated one of the moment in that place: it never lasted long. By the end of classes that afternoon, some boy I didn’t even know had started crying in algebra class and that had taken over as the hottest news of the moment. I bought a new notebook at the campus bookstore and met Marci in the common room of her dorm – where boys were welcome under the watchful eye of the housemother – and we got through the homework after all. My math book was wrinkled and still a bit damp but still readable at least.
Neither of us mentioned the morning’s altercation, even when Jen herself put in an appearance just as we were finishing up the last problem. She gave me a dirty look, but then looked at the housemother and spun on her heel and left. For all that had happened, she was cute. I hated myself for thinking so, but she was.
“By the way,” I said as we were packing our homework away, “I forgot to ask, are you going to the dance?”
“Well,” Marci said. “No one’s asked me. I guess I might go on my own, but…”
“Hey, no shame in that!” I said. “Maybe I will, too.”
“You mean you are going after all?”
“Well, you’re right,” I said. “I ought to stop telling myself I’m a loser, you know? So maybe I will. Maybe I’ll see you there?”
“Hope so, Jerry.” For some reason she looked sad as she said it.
As much as I told myself I didn’t want to go to the dance, the idea got more appealing as the weekend approached. On Thursday I went to town and got my hair cut. Jen’s comment about how often I showered had been eating at me. I showered every day, thank you very much, but somehow I never felt as clean and beautiful as the others. The haircut helped a little with that, anyway. So did ironing the blue suit my mother had insisted on buying me, and which I hadn’t had occasion to wear yet. When Saturday afternoon rolled around and the dance committee was at work, I’d given up on pretending I wasn’t looking forward to the dance. Maybe I’d even dance with Marci if she didn’t think that was too weird.
That thought had me too worked up to go on studying by mid-afternoon, so I put my sneakers on and ventured outside for a walk in the brisk wind. Plenty of others were out and about on the quadrangle, but I didn’t feel like chatting with anyone – after all, what if I let something slip about Marci and she heard about it? – so I walked around the dorm and down the hill to the End of the World, as the woods on the far edge of campus were known.
All too appropriate given where my mind was wandering, for rumor had it most of the students only ventured into the woods to fool around. Of course I’d never do that to Marci, but it didn’t hurt to imagine.
Imagining is just what I thought I was doing when I first heard the shrieks. “No! Stop it!” I had just long enough to wonder what I was imagining being told to stop doing, before I realized the shrieks were real.
“No! I said no! Get off me!”
It was real, and I knew that voice. Jen.
Once I knew it was her, it only took a second more to spot her. I spotted the two guys first, since one of them was standing over her and the other was kneeling on her back. Thirty feet or so ahead of me and well off the path, they hadn’t spotted me.
They looked like her class or maybe even seniors, either of them easily big enough to take me. I didn’t give that a second thought as I broke into a run.
The one who was standing saw me first. “Get lost, kid!” he growled.
“You leave her alone!” I shouted.
“The fuck’re you gonna do about it?” demanded the other one. He got off Jen’s back, and I had just enough time to see her pull her skirt down and scramble to her feet before both guys rushed at me.
I don’t know which one of them hit me first, but he easily put me on my back. One of them pinned me there and was just about to punch me in the face when Jen grabbed at his arm. “Get off him!” she shrieked. The other guy grabbed her and threw her aside, but not before she kicked the first guy in the balls. He rolled off me and curled up, and I reared back and kicked his friend while he was focused on shaking Jen off.
I got about halfway back to the edge of the woods before they tackled me. Then I don’t remember anything but a lot of unholy pain until a few other guys got there and pulled them off me. Next I remember Jen saying, “Thank you,” as the others helped me off to the infirmary, and the dean of students interviewing me in my bed while the nurse cleaned my scrapes up. I remember apologizing for not knowing their names, but I guess the dean did know them.
Naturally I decided against going to the dance after all, only the guys at dinner told me I just had to go. “You’re the hero today, if you don’t milk that for all it’s worth, you’re crazy, dude!” Ken told me.
“Girls like a guy who looks a little roughed up,” Jesse agreed.
As I stepped into the auditorium in my blue suit, my wounds dressed but visible, I wondered if Marci had heard about what had happened.
She had. “Jerry!” I heard her squealing at me, but didn’t get to see her right away because she buried me in her arms. “I am so proud of you!”
“Well, thanks,” I said, pulling back to see she was in a lovely blue dress I’d never seen before. “I just – I hope anyone would’ve done what I did, you know?”
“I hope so too, Jerry. But you did it!”
“Thanks. Listen…I’ll understand if you don’t, but…do you want to dance?”
“Of course!” She grabbed my hand and led me out onto the floor.
We’d barely made one round when I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Sorry, Marci.” It was Jen, looking miraculously immaculate after the afternoon’s mishap. “I’m cutting in. Upperclasswoman’s privilege.”
The look on Marci’s face just about broke my heart, but she did let go of me and back off.
I said, “No, you’re not cutting in,” and I reached out for Marci’s hand, which she gladly took.
“Jerry, you’ve got to be kidding!” Jen said. “After what you did for me this afternoon, you won’t dance with me?”
“That’s right, I won’t.” I tried to take no pleasure in the look of outrage on her face as I waltzed Marci away. Tried, but failed.
“Thank you!” Marci said. “I hope you don’t mind me saying I’m surprised!”
“I don’t blame you,” I said. “But you were right. It’s not me who’s the loser here, is it?”