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Authors: Rachel Vail

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BOOK: Not That I Care
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I felt completely idiotic. I held her up and looked her over. “Your outfit is tacky, but I love you, and I’ll take care of you,” I whispered. I felt myself start to cry a little. What a sap.

I sat there in my room trying to figure out how to play with my Barbie for a while. I moved all her movable parts, but without a change of clothes or any accessories, there just aren’t many activity options.

I called CJ. I didn’t really have anything to say. “Hi,” I said, looking at my new Barbie, so beautiful.

“Hi,” she said back.

I wanted to tell her, but I didn’t want her to think I was a big fool. “You want to do the math homework?” I asked her instead.

“Sure,” CJ whispered.

I laid Barbie on my pillow and picked up my math text. Math isn’t easy for CJ. I guess a lot of girls don’t like it, but I love math. Not that I’d ever say so. But it’s like puzzles to solve. I pretended, over the phone, to be having more trouble with it than I was, staring down at the answer already on my paper. “I don’t know,” I said. “Wait, do we subtract that?” It felt good to hear CJ laugh with relief. “What a couple of losers,” I said. She laughs like huh, huh—very breathy. She used to stutter, so now she doesn’t say much and what she says, she whispers.

“Did my hair look terrible today?” she whispered.

“What?” I asked, stalling. She always wears it pulled back in a tight bun, but that day she’d worn it down, or rather, out. She has very curly hair, which she brushes after it’s dry so it poofs up around her tiny face. It honestly isn’t the most attractive thing. If I were her I’d at least use a barrette, but she goes to extremes—bun or frizz.

“It looked gross, didn’t it?” she asked.

“No,” I lied. Did she want the truth or nice? “You know, I have a barrette that would look good on you.”

“I, no, that’s, I’m never wearing it down again,” she said. “I gotta go.”

“Nobody noticed it anyway,” I assured her. “’Bye.”

I picked up Barbie and lifted her dress. No belly button. If I got my belly button pierced nobody would even notice. But still, you have to feel bad for somebody who looked as sad and tense as Zoe did at lunch. CJ is not the only one who can act sympathetic, I decided. I dropped Barbie on my desk blotter, looked up Zoe’s number in my address book, and dialed her number.
I’m not selfish
, I congratulated myself as I waited for an answer.

“CJ?” Zoe asked as soon as she picked up.

“Zoe?” I asked.

“Morgan?” Zoe asked back.

“Yeah.” I picked up my Barbie and went out back to the deck to sit on the rocking chair. “Were you expecting CJ?” Did they have plans to talk to each other? I started feeling very paranoid.

“No,” Zoe stammered. “I just, what’s up?”

I blew my long bangs out of my eyes and squinted into the setting sun. Ned and Mom wouldn’t be home for a few hours, so it was safe to have my Barbie out. I bent her stiff creaky knees and tried to give her a little hug. She wasn’t at all cuddly.

“Um . . .” I said into the phone. I’d forgotten why I’d called Zoe. She waited for me to say something. I’d never called her before. What a bonehead, to call her out of the blue, the most popular girl in seventh grade. Who did I think I was? “I was just wondering,” I said, trying to think of something. “Did you get the math homework? I, um, forgot to write it down.”

“Oh, sure!” She ran and got the assignment, and I pretended to do it all over again with her. My mind had plenty of time to wander. I was wondering where Zoe was sitting while we talked, if she was on her back porch, too, and if so, could she see the Levit boys? What if they were in their “tree house”? Which of course got me remembering being in there with Tommy last year, mashing my face against his, and how good it felt at the time, and how awful, after.

Without realizing it I blurted out, in the middle of a word problem, “Do you think we were overly harsh on the boys today?”

“I don’t know,” she answered. I knew she hadn’t wanted to ignore them; I knew she was friends with them, easy with them in a way I can’t figure out how to be. She just goes off and plays catch with them if she feels like playing catch, even if she’s the only girl. She’s the least self-conscious person I know. If I weren’t best friends with CJ, I realized, maybe I’d be best friends with Zoe. Not that she would want to be, with me. Obviously.

“They seemed really upset,” I told her. I didn’t want her to think I never notice another person’s feelings.

She agreed that they seemed hurt. We decided we’d end the Silent Treatment. I was relieved. It felt like Zoe and I were getting close, bonding. Like we could really trust each other. So I whispered, “Their haircuts look sort of cute—don’t you think?” I curled up my feet underneath me, to warm them. The breeze was picking up as the sun set.

“I didn’t notice,” Zoe said.

“Oh,” I answered, feeling like such a fool.
Such a sex-crazed lunatic
, she must be thinking.
Yuck, who’d want to be friends with Morgan, what a slut
. I changed the subject quick. “Did your dad check Colette yet?”

“No,” Zoe said. “Thursday is his late night at the bakery. But she still has it in there, she showed me.”

“Are you a wreck?” I asked her in my most sympathetic way. I even held my hand over my heart, the way CJ and her mother do.

“Yeah,” Zoe admitted, her voice shaking. I tried to think what CJ would say. She’s much nicer than I am, she’d say the right thing. I prayed:
Saint Christopher, please let me say the right thing, I want to say something nice to her

Before I could think of something, Zoe asked me how was gym.

We chatted about how stupid gym is, how cloddish we all feel, especially next to CJ, who can rest her head in the middle of a side split. Zoe told me this fact, like I didn’t know my own best friend can rest her head in the middle of her split. I tried not to let that annoy me. If I took ballet four times a week, I’d be able to rest my head in the middle of a split, also. I made my Barbie do a split and raise her arms in the middle—

We got into the topic of sports, which was sort of a relief. Zoe and I are both pretty competitive. We talked about soccer and then about softball. Our team almost made regionals last year, me at first base and Zoe pitching. We talked about the final game last year, where Zoe made eight strikeouts. I asked, “What did you strike out in that game, seven?”

I wanted to see if she’d correct me. I’m so bad.

“I don’t remember,” she answered. “Maybe six.”

That made me really like her. I know she probably remembered every single pitch but just didn’t want to boast. Self-praise stinks, my mother says. As the sun sank below the woods behind the backyard, I hugged my knees for warmth but didn’t feel like going inside. The air smelled a little leafy, like fall—like I shouldn’t be sitting outside at night in shorts anymore. But, too bad. I felt on the verge of being liked by her. The balance seemed fragile, though; I didn’t want to move and risk wrecking it. “What a game that was, huh?” I asked Zoe.

“Yeah,” she agreed.

“That ugly girl I thought was gonna cry.” The superstar from the other team, this incredibly homely girl, wanted to whack a homer off Zoe so bad, but she’d only been able to tip Zoe’s curveball and I raced in and caught it for the final out. I screamed, then charged up and hugged Zoe after, up on the mound. Our sweaty cheeks touched.

She was remembering, too, I bet. She told me I was great at First. I could picture the scene so clearly, our teammates running in from the outfield slapping me and Zoe on the butts with their mitts. We had really dominated, and that team was supposed to be so great. I could still see CJ scrambling slowly in from right field on her skinny legs, being careful not to trip on any divots. She was the last one into the crush of us.

“Just between us,” I whispered to Zoe. “Maybe it’s good CJ has dance four times a week this year. I mean, no offense,” I quickly added. “She’s my best friend, but . . .”

“I know,” Zoe whispered back. “She has no arm.”

I pictured CJ onstage, like when we’d all gone on the class trip last year to see her in
The Nutcracker
, how raging jealous I’d felt, slumped in my velour seat bundled up in a sweater and my corduroys, watching her arms lift so gracefully into the air, her long, thin legs raised strong on
so beautiful, and then after, riding clenched in my bus seat listening to everybody talk about how special my best friend was, what a star. A better person would’ve been happy for her but not bitter nasty me.

It felt good, on the phone with Zoe, to realize—I’m better than CJ at something. Maybe it’s not so terrible to feel that way, even if it is a little self-praise. CJ’s mother always says you have to be dedicated to one thing if you ever want to be good at it. And me and Zoe, we were focusing on sports. So it’s only natural we should be better than CJ.

I could feel Zoe’s smile, through the phone. She has the best smile of anyone I know, so pure. We promised each other not to say anything to CJ, and agreed to get together for a catch some afternoon. By the time we hung up, it was dark out and really cold. I went inside to boil some hot dogs for my dinner.

While I was eating them, with Barbie sitting on the table keeping me company, CJ called back. She asked if I’d spoken to Zoe.

“No,” I lied, before I could stop myself. No reason, just, it sounded like CJ was accusing me. And it had been so nice talking to Zoe, so real and relaxed—I don’t know. I guess I sort of wanted to keep it private, not have to tell CJ everything we said. I think you should be able to be best friends and not tell every detail to each other. Also, I didn’t want to make her mad. CJ gets mad pretty easy; she’s very sensitive. “Why did you ask me that?” I asked her.

“Just wondering,” she said in her quiet, slow way.

I was so nervous I started babbling about Zoe, how I like her, to let CJ know I am nice and friendly. I took Barbie’s dress off while I talked and her sneakers. When Barbie was naked except for her built-on panties, I told myself to shut up about Zoe already, so I said, “Anyway.”

“Yeah?” CJ asked.

, I thought,
maybe CJ is scared I’m choosing Zoe instead of her. Maybe Cornelia Jane Hurley is jealous of me, of all things
. If only.

To make sure CJ knew where my loyalties lay, I knew I had to say something bad about Zoe. So I said something like,
But all Zoe ever talks about is sports
. I said it really critically, so she’d be sure Zoe wasn’t suddenly my favorite person. That’s the kind of friend I am.

CJ didn’t say anything then, which made me even more nervous. I ran my fingers over my pimply forehead. More gravelly than ever. I went to the bathroom to look at it and torture myself, compare myself to Barbie, who hung upside down naked in my fist.

With a headband holding back my long curtain of bangs, I stared at myself and Barbie, side by side in the mirror. “I guess I just feel bad for Zoe,” I told CJ. “About the boy thing. You know, like we were saying last night.” I thought maybe if I sounded sympathetic, CJ would like that. She always says I should try to be sympathetic. Barbie was smiling encouragement.

“Morgan,” CJ whispered.

I plopped Barbie into the sink and leaned toward the mirror to try to pop one of the bigger pimples. Spots, my father calls them.
Can’t you get anything to cover those spots?
he’d asked me this summer, on his one quick visit. I’ve grown my bangs since then, because no medicine or popping seems to be working, and I don’t want anybody else looking as grossed out as Dad did. Zoe has the clearest skin; it’s perfect, like Barbie’s.

CJ whispered, “I didn’t say anything about Zoe.”

“You know,” I reminded her, balancing the phone with my shoulder. “What we were saying last night, about boys liking Zoe but not in
that way
.” Popped one. I grabbed a piece of toilet paper and pressed it against my head. So what? CJ has very sensitive skin, red and blotchy. And Zoe has a big rear end. Barbie can’t even stand up. DOLLS CANNOT STAND ALONE, it said right on her box, so I don’t know why she thinks she’s so perfect. I’m not the only one with flaws. Everybody shouldn’t be so judgmental.

“I didn’t say that,” CJ protested. “I don’t know who the boys like.”

“Well . . .” She was right, of course. She would never say something nasty about anybody. But I wasn’t trying to be mean, either. CJ had sort of agreed, too. I think she did. Why was she twisting it around? The point wasn’t that I know who the boys like, anyway.

I could hear her breathing. Not saying anything to me.

I sat down on the closed toilet seat, my head hanging down between my knees. I really didn’t feel like beating up on poor Zoe who was sitting alone, probably, waiting for her father to come home and scream like my father used to. But why was CJ being so defensive of her?
Zoe thinks you have no arm
, I wanted to yell. I couldn’t, obviously.

“Come on,” I tried pathetically. “You know who the boys

“No,” CJ whispered. I could hear how angry I was making her but I didn’t know how to turn it back to good. I squeezed my head between my knees to keep from puking up the two hot dogs I’d just downed. So much for a good night. What did she want from me? But I refused to cry. If she hates me, well, fine. I inhaled the cold smell of the porcelain of the toilet beneath me. Fine. Be mad at me. Nothing I can do.

CJ mumbled something about having to go.

“Fine,” I said, grabbing Barbie out of the sink by her hair. Fine, go be best friends with Zoe if you want, if you feel so defensive of her. I don’t care. Nobody stays around me long anyway, and I don’t blame any of you. I’m stuck with myself, and I can’t say I’m thrilled with the company, either.

I scooped Barbie’s tiny pile of clothes off the table on my way into my room and threw them in my garbage. I sat down on my bed, crossed my legs, and looked at Barbie.
I wanted you for so long
, I told her.
I saved and saved to buy you. But now that I have you I’m too old to play with you. You’re no use to me, you stiff-legged-plastic-can’t-hug-you, you cannot-stand-alone piece of crap
. I pulled and yanked at her head until it popped off. Underneath was a white plastic thing that looked like a droopy capital T. I looked at the head. Still smiling, of course, hair still perfect. I fished her clothes out of the trash and dressed the body again, carefully.

BOOK: Not That I Care
4.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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