Mid-spring. School was out in a month. We stood outside the baseball diamond fence in our cheerleading outfits, even though the boys were only practicing. The crack of the bat made us flinch while we stuck red solo cups in hexagon holes created by the blue wire metal. A classmate had overdosed but didn’t die, and we were writing his name in plastic. We had argued for an hour about whether we should also put strong next to his name. I wanted to say fuck him, but most of the girls already hated me. Just because we were cheerleaders didn’t mean our lives were full of bliss, pithy chants, and little pep talks we gave ourselves in the mirror. I just didn’t want to be alone in my hundred-year-old house my parents promised to fix but never had renovation money for. We were borrow-money-from-your-grandparents-to-pay-for-the-heat-in-winter kind of poor, and it often showed. So maybe they all expected me to have an attitude, to have a cracked vase veneer beneath my smile, but ragging on the kid that almost died, that had his own bullshit and trauma, was too much. Even I knew that. So I started the “S,” made sure it had a tight curve, and pretended to get a call on my flip phone. I often bragged about an out-of-state boyfriend, some guy I met over the summer at one of those dilapidated campgrounds with the unheated pools.
Bees hovered over the bowed heads of lemon-colored dandelions. And I shouldn’t have been near them. The little killers. I never take my EpiPen with me, and my mother has warned me. Not so much about allergies but about medical bills and how we can’t afford another setback right now. But I’ve got to get away from those girls. Friends, they say with their mouths while their eyes prepare to sting. If they only knew all my weaknesses. I’m desperate, so I don’t even mind my Converse staining from the week-old piles of cut grass. I didn’t mind talking to myself. Voicing my thoughts never bothered me the way it did my mother, who would catch herself talking out loud in a quiet room. She’d apologize to me, my dad, the person she wanted to be, one that kept secrets from all of us. So maybe I pretended to tell my imaginary boyfriend about this boy that almost died, how we were all dying right, and no one was cupping my name in a fence. The other girls just want to fuck him, I said. I’m surrounded by whores, who couldn’t use Pythagorean’s theorem to save their lives, how they all thought they were so pretty, so about to make something big of their lives, and I’d rather watch them all leak acid from their eyes than cheer next to them at another game. I mean, maybe it was the sun, my lack of eating lunch, the C- I got on my physics test, or just my sense of loneliness, but I forgot where I was, and there’s no anonymity when you’re a high school cheerleader in a 2A school in the Midwest. They teach us so young to become vultures of gossip and rumor, of the ways to needle our fucked-up minds into vaccines for the bored and listless kids who were hungry for anything that made themselves invisible.
I had made myself visible.
The crack of the bat, the swish of the girl’s feet running through the grass; I look up from my pretend call, trying to find the ball. I curl my shoulder inward and duck my head as the ball drops two feet from my hip. The girls stop in a frown figuration around me, none of them reaching for the ball. Two of them are petite, the high flyers in our squad, while Melissa is a base for a reason.
“Oh my god. Can you believe that shit?” I got out before Melissa pushed me to the ground, a high flyer at her hip, pointing down at me. The stings came quick, one to my wrist, another to my neck, and I was screaming, rolling to all fours, but every time I tried to stand, they shoved me again. “How’s this for some fucking math?” Melissa spits.
I was crying, unable to catch my breath to ask why, when the other girl, Sasha, picked up my phone and snapped it in half. “See if you can talk shit now,” she said.
“I can’t breathe, I said, my face as hot as the bottom of a skillet.
“Now you know how Dusty felt. All alone. Half-dead. He’s worth two of you.”
They left me laying in my own sweat and lack of air, the smell of grass as pungent as any B.O., hoping someone would notice me, the advertisements and the cups blocking the baseball players’ view, the coaches concerned with their strategies, while I tried to work out the formula of popularity and poverty. The blades of grass flicked in the wind, each patch a world with its own rules, a place I was barred from entering unless the anaphylactic shock turned me into a new leaf trodden by the upturned dirt.
Dusty visited me in the hospital, said he wouldn’t apologize for Melissa and the high flyers, said their savageness made him want to live, said maybe he could be an inspiration to me and my cocky mouth, that he’d watch me get better, hold my hand even, said loneliness was a cage he couldn’t see me surviving. Said, hey, I heard you loved flowers, and presented me with a bouquet of roses that buzzed with a life of their own.