When I get on the bus at the end of the day, I’m not expecting to see Elaine, but there she is—sitting in our old seat. Alone, perched at the edge, as if to say Don’t sit by me, don’t even think it. When I walk by, she doesn’t look my way. I’m not brave enough to sit next to her. Instead I sit behind her.
The bus starts moving, and soon we’re riding along. I just sit there, staring at the back of her head.
To the back of her head, I say, “Where’s Hugh?”
Elaine doesn’t turn around. “Orthodontist appointment. He’s getting braces.”
“His teeth seem all right to me.”
“He has an underbite.” She turns around and looks at me then. “You know, he’s not the only thing I think about.”
Swallowing, I say, “I know.”
“What you said to me was mean.”
“I know. And I’m sorry.”
She nods and turns back around, and I feel like I could cry. Then, slowly, she scoots over, closer to the window. Making room for me.
I pick up my book bag and move up to her seat. Neither of us says anything at first, but then Elaine says, “Annemarie, my life’s not perfect either.”
“Sure it is,” I say. “Well, I mean, it’s not perfect, but it’s close. Your parents like each other. You’re pretty. Boys like you.”
Shaking her head, she says, “All of that isn’t as easy as you think. Being here, in Clementon, hasn’t been easy. Honestly, it sucks a lot of the time. It’s harder than I expected. … And, Annemarie, you are pretty. I wish you could see that.”
“Do you know how many times I’ve wished I look like you?”
Bewildered, I say, “Why would you want to look like me?”
“Think about it, Annemarie. I’m the only Korean American at our school. I’m the only Asian at our school.”
“So you have no idea how hard that is.”
“But you’re popular; everyone likes you.”
Elaine shrugs. “It doesn’t mean anything. They could have hated me just as easily. People will love you or hate you for being different, but who’s to say which way it’ll go? You never know. It’s completely arbitrary. And anyway, it’s not like no one’s ever called me names.”
I suck my breath in. “Like what?”
“Like ‘chink.’” She says this word like it is nothing, like it can’t hurt her, but I can see that it does, that it has.
“Oh. I’m sorry.” I am sorry too, sorry that my Clementon, the place I call home, could be as mean as people say. I knew it wasn’t perfect, but I guess I never dwelled too long on the why, or the how. I never thought how it must be for Elaine. Here I was thinking she had it so easy.
“Don’t be sorry. Don’t you get it? That’s why me and you are special.”
I don’t get it. “What do you mean?”
Elaine says, “We’re different. You like me for me, and I like you for you. The rest of it’s all a bunch of crap.”
“Yeah,” I say. “It is.”
Walking home from the bus stop, I see Mrs. Findley picking up the mail. I feel a funny clutch in my stomach, and I’m hoping she won’t see me so I can go home without speaking to her. I keep my head low, walking fast.
But she does see me. “Annemarie!” she calls. She waves at me.
I look up like, who, me? “Hi, Mrs. Findley!” I call back, but I don’t slow down.
“Come over here a minute!”
I trudge over to their mailbox. It’s a good thing Mark had to stay after school for the Student Council Christmas party today. Otherwise I would have kept right on walking.
Mrs. Findley opens her arms and gives me a hug. She’s wearing her thick lumberman’s kind of coat, red plaid on the inside. She smells like cinnamon and wood chips. “How come I haven’t seen you in so long?” she says.
“Oh, you know. I’ve been busy with school and stuff.”
“Still, I wish I could’ve taken pictures of you and Mark for your first dance. I would have loved to have seen you all dressed up. I know you must have been so lovely,” she says, putting both hands on my cheeks. “Did you have a nice time?”
Looking away, I say, “Mm-hmm, real nice.”
“Honey, is something wrong?” Mrs. Findley’s brow furrows. “Have you and Mark had a falling out?”
“Why would you think that?”
“Well, you haven’t been by the house in such a long time. And Mark did mention something …” Her voice trails off.
I’m dying to know what he said, but I don’t ask. Instead I say nothing; I just keep my lips clamped shut.
“Well, I know you two will work it out,” Mrs. Findley says at last. “How about you come over for dinner tonight? I’ll make spaghetti. We can bake those Christmas cookies you love, the pecan crescents.”
I smile. “I wish I could, but I have to be at home for dinner tonight.”
She nods. “All right, then. You know you’re always welcome.”
“I know,” I say. Then I walk home.
The next day I’m finally ready to see Mark. The sun’s just beginning to set, and I go out to the front porch and wait. Meeks waits with me. I think he misses Mark.
The sun’s dipping away when Mark comes down my street on his bike. He slows down when he sees me, and then he rides down my driveway. “Sic him,” I whisper to Meeks, who brightens when he sees Mark. Meeks, the lousy traitor, bounds over to Mark and starts licking his knees.
“Hey,” Mark says. He sets his bike down on the ground very carefully, taking an extra long time. He stoops low to pet Meeks and then faces me.
“What do you want?” I look straight ahead, straight past him.
“I came to say sorry,” he says, and his voice cracks. First time I ever heard it crack. I wonder if it’s been cracking all along, and I just never heard it. “I’m sorry for what I said at the dance. I didn’t mean it.”
“Yeah, you did.” I look at him now, right in the eyes.
Mark looks back at me, and his eyes are watery and scared. He is about to cry. “No, really. I didn’t mean it.”
“Then why’d you say it?”
The corners of his lips turn down, and he thinks hard for a moment. That’s what Mark does when he’s thinking hard—he frowns. He stands there, thinking and looking puzzled, with his hands in his pockets. Then he says, “I don’t know. I don’t know why I said it, but I know I’m sorry.”