My segue into fifth grade proved a real shit time.
First, rather than the luxurious freedom of walking to school along quiet, idyllic country lanes that I had enjoyed since kindergarten, there was the fact that I now had to ride the bus. The bus was like a prison riot on wheels that smelled of exhaust fumes and feet, with kids from fifth grade through high school crammed in three to a seat and constantly raising a hellish din. Somebody was always threatening somebody, or punching somebody, or trying to set one of the seats on fire. The bus driver was continually screaming her head off, while taking curves much too fast and threatening to dump us into the valleys below.
This alone was enough to cause me anxiety, but to make matters worse, this ninth grader, Gary Bernard, and his toadie eighth grader friend, Jason Artman, had started making fun of me every day on the bus ride home. Gary looked like an evil leprechaun. Jason had bleach blonde hair and claimed to be the school’s best break dancer. I had my doubts.
Then there was the new school itself – the Middle School. I had attended Elementary School since kindergarten, and in five years the kids there had somewhat grown to tolerate me. Now I was hurled into the maelstrom of four different elementary schools converging on the fifth grade. There were so many new faces, and they all seemed unfriendly.
To top it all off, my best friend since first grade was, once again, assigned to a different class. Actually, she hadn’t been in my class since first grade – a tragedy of my young existence. The fact that we lived pretty far apart meant that we only saw each other during the school year, but the fact that she was never in my class totally ruined that. I mean, we met on the playground at recess, but she had friends from her own class, and they laughed at inside jokes while I lamely kicked the grass with my sneakers and pretended I belonged.
I was a pariah on a good day. A feral mess, I pretty much lived life without any kind of adult supervision whatsoever. Kids were instinctually afraid of me. In the third grade, I accidentally dropped an f bomb on the playground and watched as the other kids receded from me, horrified. The fact that I was a girl only made matters worse.
I wasn’t a terribly bad kid, just wild. I was a smart aleck and never did my homework, but was clever enough to pass all my tests and thus get straight C’s. When you were bad – not doing your homework, passing notes, talking, etc – you got your name written on the blackboard. Each subsequent offense found a star beside your name. My name was often on the board, often with many stars. Teachers shook their head at me – I was that kind of kid.
In fifth grade I had begun to experience a new and intense sort of aloneness. The super jesus-ey kids with their praying didn’t want anything to do with me – same with the smart kids (all boys) with their Commodore 64’s, the horse kids with their rodeo, and the grubby, ultra poor kids with their extreme poverty.
My neighbors were mostly all old people, so I really didn’t have any friends that lived in my neighborhood either, save some nasty boys that could occasionally be corralled into a pickup game of baseball in the summer.
I remember it was still fall, but the winds had just started to blow cold when I met Nikki Strong.
Right at the beginning, right on her first day when she was a transfer student from Michigan, she was bad – shockingly, unapologetically bad. She was sassy to other kids in our grade, to older kids, to the teachers, whoever she was talking to really. An eighth grader stopped suddenly in front of us in the hall and she ran right in to him, but when he turned around and glared at her, instead of humbly apologizing she simply burst out laughing – great peals of derisive merriment. She just did not give a damn – and this was all on her first day! She showed deference to no one, and we all showed deference to someone or another – pretty much whoever could and would beat your ass.
Girls in Appalachian Ohio were not sassy, had no reason to be. Life was and would always be bleak. You got pregnant, hopefully at least you were in high school, and you – maybe – got married. And then you got a job as a cashier in a store, if you worked at all; most people collected welfare. In seventh grade a girl we knew would have to get married to a guy in his thirties for reasons of family poverty: life over at age twelve. There was nothing to be done and little to be said about it, besides an outcry against the shocking necessity of it all. All that was left for us to do was to silently seethe at the adults and system who we could instinctually, if subconsciously, feel failing us in great, sweeping cascades of inequity that no one mired in the shame of poverty had the sense or salt to directly rail against. We lived in an economically depressed area in an economically depressed time in a decade where nothing was cool if it wasn’t shiny and plastic and big and new.
Nikki wore her hair in short, bouncy curls that looked like they had just fallen out of a curling iron when all the other girls at my school, myself included, had long hair – aspiring for it to one day reach our butts. She had a pug nose peppered with freckles. She wore makeup, but did it tastefully – which was really unusual in fifth grade. Most girls weren’t allowed to wear makeup, but the ones who did looked like circus clowns.
That she sought me out right away was thrilling – obviously we were destined for each other. And she lived so close! Right behind Dino’s Pizza Shop, a local hang out for high school kids. This was a mere ten-minute walk down my street that earned its name: Highland Avenue, across a busy country highway, past the Mini Mart, past the weird little sewing shop, past an insurance company, past the ice cream shop, across another busy country highway, past the pizza shop and boom – you were there.
I had dreams about what our friendship – obviously we would instantaneously become best friends and stay friends forever – would be like: doing hair and borrowing clothes and books – awesome stuff like that we would do like it was no big deal.
That first day we met, we hung out after school, and I met her older sister, Billie. Billie, with her frizzy, brittle, bleach blonde hair and over abundance of blue eyeliner, was in eighth grade. She had a pale, narrow face and a pathological meanness that would surely lead her to a women’s reformatory in later years. Her saving grace was that she wore an ear cuff – something I had only seen in movies!
We sat down at their built-in kitchen table to eat leftover stuffing for dinner, and Billie immediately whipped a bandage off her hand to show me rows and rows of blue stitches.
I almost puked, but when she asked me if it grossed me out, I lied and said it hadn’t.
She said she had been doing dishes, in the dark, and had accidentally grabbed the blade of a butcher knife. I could plainly see that the amount of stitches didn’t match up with the story – although I didn’t call bullshit on her. I myself had a lifestyle that required a lot a prevaricating. I didn’t care anyway – I didn’t even close to want to know the truth behind a hand full of stitches. We all had our family shit that we had to lie about.
They both came over to my house, sneaking into my bedroom through the customary entrance: the window, and slipping as we put our feet down on a treacherous wall to wall carpet of books and papers. Bobby remarked on my slovenliness right off. I made a joke about something in the piles of papers trying to bite me – I was completely joking, we had way too many cats to have a problem with vermin – and from the way her nose wrinkled up in disgust and the leery way she eyed the floor, I could instantly see that they had lived places where something biting them had been a real issue. My joke was taken completely the wrong way and she dismissed me as strange and left.
Right away, Nikki seemed to know and have a relationship with every single older boy in our neighborhood, including Gary Bernard, who continued to make fun of me for no reason on the bus ride home. He and his toadie Jason always had something to say about my hair, how I was dressed, what I said – but that’s how boys were there: just plain mean.
I was disappointed when I spotted her with Gary Bernard one afternoon after school. I could tell from a distance that they were arguing.
“Yeah, someone on the bus said something to me about it,” he spat out angrily as I walked over.
I stood there, unnoticed, while they went over a list of suspects who had possibly leaked a shared secret, with Nikki feigning, obviously feigning, innocence.
“Did you tell?” he demanded of me, wheeling around suddenly and acknowledging my presence for the first time.
I had no idea what he was talking about and said so, but he continued to scowl at me anyway.
Nikki made some excuse about having to go somewhere with me, and we walked away from him together. I asked her right away what all the fuss was about.
“Oh, yesterday he put his hands down my pants over by the red brick church,” she said nonchalantly. The red brick church was the Methodist one right beside my bus stop.
“Why did he put his hands down your pants?” I asked in a rather scientific way, clearly baffled by such behavior.
“To see if I had pubic hair,” she answered, disgusted at my stupidity.
I was quite shocked at her answer… once I went home and looked pubic hair up in the dictionary. I was certainly a wild kid, but not wild ‘like that’. Sure, I would smoke weed for the first time in eighth grade in the girls’ bathroom, but I wouldn’t even kiss a boy until the end of tenth grade.
This development troubled me somewhat.
One day shortly thereafter, I heard a boy named Tim gossiping about Nikki on the bus ride home. Tim was an eighth grader for the second year, with a cuteness marred by acne scars. My ears suddenly perked up.
“Yeah, she fucked Jason on the pool table at his party,” he said. “He came back out all dazed and laughed and said ‘we should do that again sometime.’”
“No, she didn’t,” I snapped, instantly taking up for my friend against this outrageous lie. I knew what fuck meant and I knew she hadn’t done that. We had been friends a couple of weeks, and I felt obliged and able to speak for her.
“Yeah, she did,” Tim said emphatically. All of the kids around us, some of whom were fairly trustworthy, shook their heads in the affirmative.
“But she’s only in fifth grade,” I said, the words falling involuntarily out of my mouth from shock, not from prudery or judgment.
“She’s supposed to be in sixth grade,” he stated simply as both an explanation and a defense.
The next day, I asked Nikki about it on the playground, to which she replied “Yeah, so what?” and walked away.
Her capriciousness stunned me. I didn’t know much about sex, but I knew that sex stuff was what got a girl called a whore – and once you got called a whore, you didn’t ever come back from that.
Shocked as I was, I still did not disassociate myself from her. Yet our interests seemed to diverge at that point, and she paid less and attention to me as the days went on. After school she never wanted to hang out with me, and when I called her house for the third time one evening, it pushed her sister into a psychotic rage, whereupon she vowed to kick my ass. And that was that. The next day when I approached Nikki to say I was sorry for calling so many times, she wrinkled her nose in disgust and openly shunned me, then continued to shun me until it was ingrained into my psyche.
I quickly came to realize that her shunning was a permanent development in our relationship, and then one day she went so far as to openly mock me in front of the whole class while the teacher was out of the room. I had bent over to grab something out of my desk and fell out of my chair, face first, onto the floor.
She yelled, “Derrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Smooth move, ass wipe.”
The class roared with laughter, but I could hear her derisive cackle ringing out above the rest. I turned beet red and died one of the thousand little deaths of embarrassment common to childhood, but something inside of me rose to a quick boil. It was one thing for her to ignore me, quite another for her to make fun of me, then something all together different for her to laugh at me.
“Oh shut the fuck up, Nikki,” I screamed with enough force and volume to stun the entire class into silence. My classmates shifted uneasily in their seats, looking from Nikki to me and back again, because I hadn’t just yelled, but in the heat of my burning shame and in the language of my contemporaries, I had actually challenged her to a fight.
Nikki glared bitterly at me for what seemed like an eternity, but in the end she backed down without a word.
And just like that our friendship ended for good, something like the dandelion necklaces you make when you’re a kid – fun while you’re doing it but something you cast off in embarrassment when it shows wear.
I took it mostly like a champ, but I have to admit that when I got all my hair cut off over Christmas break I half thought it might rekindle our friendship, being that she and I would be the only girls courageous enough to lop all our hair off, but she continued to ignore me. She had obviously learned early the power of being mean and withholding. After that I just learned to live without the sunshine of her weird and intense friendship. We would have a couple of minor incidents where she tried to make fun of me again, cruelty being inimical to her character, but she quickly got the message that I wasn’t taking it, and being that my resistance was forged in the mighty furnace of rejection it was strong enough to dissuade her from further attempts.
In ninth grade, Nikki stopped me in the girls’ bathroom to ask who the cherry car in our driveway belonged to. I liked that she called it ‘cherry’. It was a cherry car – a red mustang that belonged to my sister’s boyfriend, which I told her.
I hadn’t talked to her since fifth grade, and I admit I was a bit pleased to be acknowledged out of the blue. Meanness was a currency in high school, and for someone to be civil to you and interested in you was something rare.
Just a couple nights later, the car was broken into and the radio torn out of it, right in our driveway. The next day I saw Nikki in the girls’ bathroom and told her about it. I was completely disgusted by the innocence and surprise she feigned – she actually said the words ‘oh, my god’ – when it was so obvious she was guilty. I had to let it go though; there nothing really to do about it anyways.
I was sleeping over at my friend Ashley’s house when her brother mentioned Nikki. It had been a while since I had thought about her – she was enrolled in the basic studies courses and I did college prep – so we hadn’t had a class together since fifth grade.
“Chunk says fucking that bitch is like fucking a bowl of water,” Ashley’s brother informed us, asserting that Nikki had slept with so many guys that her vagina had lost all of its elasticity.
Both Ashley and I agreed that she was a whore, but protested a slack vagina as a physical impossibility.
The last time I see Nikki Strong, she is waiting in the Vice Principal’s office. The Vice Principal’s office is where you are sent if you are in rather big trouble or are late to school. I am late. She is in trouble.
Someone makes a crack about me dressing like a freak, and she has the audacity to laugh – that same derisive cackle I knew from years before – even though she is so pregnant that the baby could practically fall out on the floor right there.
I glance over at her for a moment, thinking about her future prospects and letting it dampen my spirits.
But she is still unapologetically bad.
P. J. Sambeaux's work has appeared in such magazines as Typehouse Literary Magazine, Maudlin House, Space Squid, Alliterati, and The Broken City, and is forthcoming in Unidentified Funny Objects. She lives in upstate New York.
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