Trust me, I’ve heard everything,” Alan said. “I don’t think you can list something I haven’t thought about already.”
Alan was splayed on his bed. He felt uncomfortable laying like this with someone else in the room, even if it was Sally. But he also didn’t feel like moving.
“I think you can do it. You just have to practice,” Sally said, looking down at Alan’s strange position. His left hand was under his head and the other arm was sticking straight out, dangling over the side of the bed. His legs were straight but lay awkwardly apart from each other.
“Why are you laying like that?”
Alan flinched and sat up. “Umm, I don’t know.”
“Wrong,” Sally said. “You need to have more confidence. You don’t want to be cocky, but just confident enough to make you seem more, well, happy.”
Alan squinted his eyes. “So, how should I answer your question?”
‘Well, you could say something like, “I'm comfortable,” or, “Because I feel like it.” You even could've given your answer without the stupid “Umm.”’
“But I gave you the answers to that test, so let's try something else.”
Sally paused and looked around the room. Her short hair bounced against her ginormous hoop earrings when she turned her head.
Sally had been Alan’s only friend since sixth grade. She had other friends, but Sally still made time for Alan.
“Imagine I’m Ellie Stevens walking with my lunch tray in the cafeteria," Sally said. "We don't see each other, and you accidentally knock the tray from my hands. The food splatters on the floor. What do you do?”
“Umm…” Alan cringed at that thought. Sally knew about his crush on Ellie Stephens, just not the extent of it.
Ellie was very pretty, but not popular. She was the opposite of Sally; She started growing her hair long instead of keeping it short, she was Caucasian whereas Sally had tan skin, and although both of their styles were pretty, they were very different. Sally rocked a modern style, and Ellie was more contemporary.
Ellie Stevens was higher on the popularity tower than Alan, but not by much. She had a couple of close friends, but she was shy and didn’t talk to other people unless she needed to. However, Ellie was the type of person who could comfortably have conversations with anyone. Alan wasn't. Ellie was known to be smart, kind, and most people liked her. Alan was smart too, but others barely noticed him.
He would never admit it to Sally, but the main reason Alan was trying to improve his social skills was to get to know Ellie.
He remembered when she sat next to him in science class for the entire second quarter of seventh grade. It was the highlight of his year.
‘I might say, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” and then help her clean it up,’ Alan said. He shrugged.
‘Wrong again. That was better than your last attempt, but you still need some work. First of all, say her name after you apologize, like, “I’m so sorry, Ellie.” You might also want to say, “I’m such a clutz,” or something. Try to make some small talk while you clean it up with her, and offer to buy her another lunch.'
Alan rolled his eyes and flopped onto his back again.
“Well, it's not that complicated. Even I can think of this stuff. Wanna try another one?”
“No, not really,” Alan said.
Alan had to improve before high school. It was only a few days away. Since he had such a long summer and a quarter of his eighth-grade year got cut off from COVID-19, he’d spent some time preparing for high school. He started exercising every day and tried to cure his acne. At least all that was working.
“Arrg!” Alan grunted and slammed his laptop shut. For the past hour, he searched the internet for any advice from people with the same problem as him. It wasn't going anywhere. He was extremely frustrated.
“Alan?” He recognized his mom’s voice from the other side of his bedroom door. “What are you doing in there?”
“It’s just a really hard math problem.”
“Math? But it's still summer.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m just practicing. I need a lot of practice.”
Surprisingly, Alan didn’t feel nervous as he walked to his first day of high school. He took a deep breath; It smelled like rain, his favorite aroma.
Everything Alan was wearing was new; A pair of sneakers, a graphic tee, and some black shorts. He also got a new haircut. Alan felt confident.
He felt confident as he reached the sidewalk in front of the high school.
He felt confident as he walked up the steps to the doorway.
He even felt confident inside the building with people walking all around him.
Math 2 was next, which was his first class after lunch.
Some kids from his geography class invited Alan to sit with them at lunch. He softly giggled, remembering a conversation he had:
"Dude, I got this teacher named Mr. Gonzo," said Edwin, a short, Latino boy.
"I'm supposed to have Mr. Gonzo next period," Alan replied.
"Well, he's super boring. And he looks a lot like that muppet named gonzo too."
Sally's lessons must have been working.
Alan was almost late to Math, but he wasn’t worried. He felt like he was on top of the world.
Math 2 was in a small classroom. The walls were yellow, and the ceilings were way too low. All the desks were cramped close together, and most were taken by Sophomores.
And Ellie was sitting in the second row.
And the only seat left was the one in front of her.
All the confidence Alan had before blew away like a tumbleweed caught in a breeze. Alan did a scan of his entire body. Hair? Check. Shirt? Check. Pants? Check. Posture? Check. He was grateful that Ellie was busy with something under her desk when he walked by.
The class went as Edwin had described. They were reviewing material from Math 1, which was easy for Alan. He wasn’t even listening.
Then he felt a soft tap on his shoulder. He turned around in his chair to see Ellie with a timid smile.