Being popular was supposed to be fun.
Guilt wrapped around my throat, I fiddled nervously with the collar of my shirt. What if the school thought this wasn't a joke? That I liked him. The doorbell was yellow and flower-shaped. My finger hovered over it for a bit, I thought about the excitement on his face when I said yes to the date. I thought about every compliment he'd ever paid me. Then I pushed it. I heard a soft chime of the doorbell.
I heard a few hurried footsteps and the door opened. He was wearing a sharp white blouse that looked vigorously over-ironed. His shoes were shiny and too big for his feet. I felt sweat snaking up my shoulders, choking me down in regret.
I waved awkwardly and he mirrored it, motioning for me to come inside. The house was filled with thick patterned carpets and dozens of lopsided picture frames hanging on the peeling argyle wallpapers. The house smelled of artificial citrus like a cleaning spray. I followed him through the long chestnut hall.
"Hey hon'- you must be Saffron! Tommy's told me so much about you." His mother grabbed my hand. She was short and pretty with long brown locks of hair. She wore elephant bells and an indigo turtleneck. Her eyes were annunciated with dark purple eyeshadow. I smiled.
A cumbrous stare was shared between Tommy and his mother. I glanced around. Outside, I saw a long checkered picnic with glowing orange candles and two glass plates. A bouquet of waxy daffodils played as the centrepiece.
"Why don't we go outside?" I motioned to the window.
"Yes- why don't you kiddos." Tommy's mother replied.
She steered up both outside.
The small flames on the candles seesawed. I watched Tommy fiddle with his fork. His cheeks were cherry red, guilt continued to spiral around in my head. I was filled with embarrassment. Never had I pictured, picnicking with Tommy Adams. Never.
"Did ya set this whole thing up?" I ask him.
"Yeah." His eyes lock with mine through their thick square lenses. I can tell that he's nervous. His left eye has a slight twitch. He bites his lip continuously.
"So -what are your hobbies?" This was one of the most basic questions I could think of.
"I like reading. I just read the Bell Jar. You should read it. Her thoughts are so interesting, not in sink with her actions. The figs are such a good metaphor, I haven't read anything like it!"
I nod, "Maybe I'll try reading it." The truth was that I did read the Bell Jar. But I hadn't benefited from it at all. Because all I do is blend in with society. I follow.
He talked devotedly about the Great Gatsby, the cliches of starry nights, his first three-pointer, and the day that he got his glasses. As he talked, I looked at his eyes, they were so passionate. The fact was, he was interesting. Very. But I couldn't be friends with. So many people would say things. I wouldn't be popular anymore.
"So what do you like doing in your free time?" he asks, rubbing his neck with his fingers.
"I - read Teen Beat and 16. I listen to pop." I didn't know what to say. None of that was true.
"Oh- cool." His face was a maze. His smile was completely erased and his cheeks went red. Tension started to buzz in the air. Now he thought that I was just another girl. Not who I was. I had a personality - I did.
"Well - actually I love Great Gatsby also. I read it first when I was 11 but didn't understand a single thing, so I came back to it at about 14. For two months, I read the book over and over. Until I knew it like the back of my hand. I do that with every good book." I felt the words flooding out of my mouth with no constraint, "I don't read Teen Beat except for when I go over to Stacey's house. Then I do, cause there's nothing else to read over there. I read the New Yorker, occasionally Dad will buy it at the grocery store. But every time he does, he gives me a lecture on how I shouldn't waste my money on expensive books. I have 5 of them, I've read them a million times." He started to smile and I continued, "I do paint sometimes, with my sister. She's always painting, mostly with her friends. She calls herself "a love child". The whole family doesn't get what that means. She says that when she's older, she's gonna leave the suburbs and find freedom away from the government and rules. I like her for that. She's different." I stop, out of breath.
The conversation became unconstrained and easy from then on. We laughed about snotty kids in school and talked about our favourite sections of the New Yorker. Slowly the air around us became colder. The light drained from the sky and the sky turned silver and spangled.
I heard a click and saw Tommy's mother coming outside.
"It's getting late now - I bet your mother would want you to be at home."
"Okay." Tommy and I said synchronously.
"Why don't you kids smile?" she holds up a camera.
I wrap my arm around Tommy and smile. A black and white picture slides out of the camera. Tommy's mother hands it to me. I look at Tommy and me. He looks so happy. I look happier. But I can't talk to him at school without being called names. I feel uneasy.
Tommy walks me to the door.
"So d-you wanna hang out soon?" He asks as if the question is more of a statement.
"I don't know about that- I." I feel so culpable and embarrassed at the same time. So I turn around and run, gripping the picture in my hand. Away from the frowning Tommy and the star-spangled sky. I cried that night. Maybe if I was different, I would say yes. But I didn't.
-- 20 YEARS LATER --
The attic air is thick and dusty. I cut open a box sealed with shiny tape, inside there are a bunch of grey-toned pictures. There are pictures of me at sleepovers in striped pyjamas. Lots of random boys that I don't recall. I stop of one with me and a familiar-looking boy. Tommy Adams.
The stars look like grey specks in the picture. My mouth is in a full asymmetrical smile. I look so - happy.
It's funny that I don't remember any of the boys that I thought I liked. The popular ones don't come to mind. The only one who I remember is Tommy Adams. Book lover. Wonderful. Strange.
Maybe if I was different - I would still know him. But I wasn't. I sigh and put the picture back into the box with a thousand others.