Every day between second and third period, my freshman bio teacher would open the storeroom and sell candy. The proceeds from the sales were supposed to fund special science projects, but people said Mr. Carter probably used the money on those gallon bottles of whiskey from Sam’s Club, where he bought the candy in bulk. I didn’t care what he spent it on—I was ten pounds underweight and blessed with a mother who gave me handfuls of change every morning to spend on Otis Spunkmeyer muffins and king size Snickers bars.
Meanwhile, the most popular girls in our grade spent borrowed quarters, often from me, on Blue Raspberry Blow Pops. I remembered from elementary school that those suckers made your teeth feel like carpet, your tongue glow phosphorescent-fuchsia. They were always in birthday piñatas, and seemed novel until you ate two or three and your tongue blistered. I didn’t get why Nadia Cordova and Jade Mascarenas, who hung out with seniors and crash dieted and had come to school drunk once, consumed them as if they were as enticing as cigarettes.
Jade sat in front of me in Biology, and since she had the attention span of plankton, she would sometimes actually grow bored enough to talk to me. One day, as Mr. Carter was putting on a film about bioluminescence, “to spark some interest in our ecology unit,” he said with a dorky chuckle, she turned and unwrapped a sucker and said, “Hey, Huesos, have you heard anything weird about me?”
By the blue light of the film, I wrote my name carefully on my worksheet, sighing as if she’d interrupted some important task, even as a thrill ran up my spine. Though I didn’t want to care, these were the sorts of moments that usually ended up in my journal. “I don’t think so.”
Jade licked her sucker. A zit was surfacing on her chin, red and angry beneath a coat of powder two shades too dark. I didn’t get how someone so shoddy with makeup could be voted Best Looking for the yearbook, a class I’d joined solely so I could nominate myself for Best Eyes or Most Likely to Succeed, even though Nadia, with her C minuses and plain brown eyes, would win both, as always.
“You don’t hear much about what’s going on, do you?” Jade asked.
I watched a bay in Puerto Rico light up like an underwater city as a boatful of scientists rowed through it. Though I had the highest GPA in our class—mine typically hovered about two-tenths above Levi Pacheco’s, who was considered the smartest kid in school—I did seem to miss things even the dumbest kids picked up on. While I memorized big words from the dictionary, my peers learned to use the F-word as all the possible parts of speech. On weekends, as I sat at the kitchen table diagramming mitochondria and crafting paper-mâché Greek busts for extra credit, girls like Nadia and Jade drank tequila at the reservoir while watching older guys with real muscles perfect their back flips.
Mr. Carter caught my eye and grinned. Later in the week, he announced, students in good standing would get to make their own bioluminescent algae; he had ordered kits with the candy money. I smiled back and Jade snickered. Then she tossed her hair and blinked her mascara-caked eyelashes, which were spiky and black as a sea urchin.
“So no one’s told you nothing? Like, about me and Nadia and a couple of ugly-ass football players?”
Anything—no one’s told me anything, I thought, but I also realized I had heard something about them and Thomas Estrada and Jaime Ulibarri, though I hadn’t understood it and had figured if I knew, it was old news. “Actually, that does sound familiar.”
She raised her penciled-in eyebrows. “They aren’t that ugly. I mean, they’re OK, but it doesn’t mean I would ever do that to them. You know.”
I didn’t. Whenever anything related to sex came up in conversation, I mentally hummed until it was over and the adult had finished giving advice or the kid had stopped laughing at their stupid joke. Anything sexual was lumped into one of two categories: grownup sex, which was laughter, wine, and candlelight silhouettes like in Top Gun; and teen sex, which was beer, blood, and shame. I hadn’t researched the scientific facts and was content with the fourth-grade basics: male inserts penis into female’s vagina.
Jade smirked. “You’re afraid of sex, huh? You and your little gringa friend probably sit around and talk about your dick nightmares.”
I stared at my worksheet until the words blurred, waiting for her to grow bored with me and pick on someone else, the only song popping into my head to hum being Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” Apparently even my subconscious felt the urge to make fun of me. Then Jade leaned closer, smelling of Vanilla Fields and Aqua Net, and pointed out an answer to the first question—an incorrect one, but still.
“It’s no big deal—you’re just a kid. You can be afraid of sex. I never was, but I had my older sister to tell me what was up.”
Electra Mascarenas. She was seven years older than us, and still, I’d heard stories. At twenty-one, she already had four kids by three different dads. She was the closest thing most kids in our town had to an actual sex-ed teacher, but her lessons must not have included the part about using protection, because according to the newspaper, we had one of the highest teen pregnancy rates per capita in the country—the only thing that put Bolero on the map.
I glanced up at the movie and wrote “lanternfish” in the first blank. Bioluminescence allows lanternfish to find each other in the dark depths of the ocean so they can mate.
“I’m just not interested. Like, at all?” Flipping my hair, I raised my thick, un-plucked eyebrows, which my mother had assured me were lovely in a Brooke Shields way, then I searched the worksheet and filled in the next blank: In contrast, jellyfish most likely use bioluminescence to warn predators away.
Jade drew a flower on the corner of my desk. Part of me wanted to tell her to draw on her own stupid desk because I sure wasn’t paying the damage fee at the end of the year, but there was no way I would say something like that to her, and besides, I liked the way my insides swirled with her attention and wasn’t ready for her to turn away.
“What about, you know, blowjobs?” she asked.
“What did you say?” I realized I had heard the word before, and in reference to Jade and Nadia. “Oh, that.”
“Would you ever do it? I mean, people are saying I did it to a certain guy while Nadia did it to another guy, which isn’t true because if I was gonna do that, it wouldn’t be with him.” She studied me, waiting, I realized, for my answer.
I shook my head, even though I didn’t know exactly what it was. I knew that it was sexual but that it deviated from your standard intercourse, and the way people talked, it sounded unhygienic. I scrunched my nose. “Not in a million years.”
I expected her to turn away then, but instead she tilted her head back and squinted and her purple-stained mouth broke into a grin, the sort my mother wore when I told her that someday I was going to leave Texas and move to California to become a marine biologist/model.
“You say that now, but just wait. Someday some guy is gonna come along, and bam.” Shoving the sucker in and out of her mouth, she rolled her eyes back in mock ecstasy and burst into laughter.
I looked down, my cheeks burning, while Jade wiped blue spit from the corner of her mouth.
“You know why I get these suckers every day, right?”
I shrugged, afraid to say I knew and then get called out on it, and afraid to say I didn’t know and be made fun of. She smacked my shoulder. “Huesos, you’re hopeless.”
Though her tone was teasing, her eyes were cheery and lingered on mine like I was worth sharing something with. The nickname “Huesos,” which I’d received in a dodge ball game because I was such a skeleton of a girl everyone missed me, almost sounded like a term of endearment the way she said it. As she spread her acrylic-tipped fingers on my desk, I eased closer.
“See, it drives boys crazy. They see that, and they imagine their–” Her eyes flicked to Mr. Carter’s slacks. “And they totally pop a boner in class.”
My heart pounded as I leaned in. “And why do you want to make them pop a,” I whispered, “boner, in class?”
She licked her sucker and shrugged. “Because I can.” As her plump lips parted in a smile, she pressed her smooth brown hand closer to mine. “We’re girls, Huesos. Boys can climb mountains, but we can make mountains. You get me?”
The way she said it, with that smirk and bob of her shoulders that set her big hoop earrings bouncing, made me think I actually did get her. Maybe loud jewelry and high heels with jeans weren’t so bad, and maybe people with nice mouths should show them off with gobs of lip gloss, and maybe girls whose butts swayed when they walked weren’t being sluts, but had a natural rhythm the rest of us weren’t attuned to. I relaxed in the warmth of my seat, which had been heated by someone else’s behind, which usually made me uncomfortable.
Jade’s gaze drifted to Levi Pacheco. He zoomed through his worksheet—always the first to finish assignments. He was sloppy, though, and usually missed a question or two, and when teachers called out our grades and mine was higher, I would give him this little apologetic yet superior grin.
Jade dug in her backpack and set a sucker on my desk. “Try it,” she whispered.
I mumbled how ridiculous it was while rushing the wrapper off before I could change my mind. I thought about what I would write in my journal later that night: how Jade Mascarenas had given me a Blow Pop, how I’d wielded it with confidence as I acted like the kind of girl who could make even a smart boy like Levi turn stupid.
When I stuck it in my mouth, the sour sweetness made my whole face pucker. With that, suction formed, and as I released the candy, the pop seemed loud as a sonic boom over the steady classroom chatter.
As Levi turned, it was like he had never seen me before—his eyes sparkled as he studied my features, and I giggled into my palm because what else was there to do? Jade smacked my shoulder and I stuck the Blow Pop back in, my face surely glowing bright as a lanternfish.
Watching Levi smile, I was suddenly pretty sure I knew what a boner was, and my eyes sort of wanted to drift to his crotch, but at the same time, the thought alone made me so dizzy I thought I might throw up. I turned to Jade, for her encouragement, I guess, or her approval, her carefree shrug and bouncing earrings that said, “No big deal. We make mountains.”
But she was too busy copying answers from my worksheet to notice, and Mr. Carter was watching us with his arms crossed and his jaw clenched, and I was already catching myself, if this was myself, this slobbering girl acting like someone worthy not of a special science kit, but of cheap rumors. As I plucked the sucker from my mouth, sea worms sparked across the screen and the narrator said, “Luminescence is the emission of light not resulting from heat. It is a cold light.”
Levi grinned and I wanted to tell him he looked like a fool, a total chump. I wanted to tell him I was embarrassed for him, and that we were not in this together, though I wondered who I was in it with. Clenching against the hollowness in my gut, I stared right into his eyes and bit into the sucker, crunching my way to the gum.
Something in his face changed—a closing-off occurred, and as his gaze shifted away I knew I’d lost something that I’d barely begun to uncover. From the corner of my eye I spotted Jade sneering at me, eyes narrowed to disapproving slits.
“Fucking cobarde,” Jade said, peeling away from my desk, and I wanted to reach for her hand, to say something funny, to hold her attention, but I didn’t have the courage to be her friend, so instead I scowled at her big hair and smudged the flower she’d drawn on my desk into an unrecognizable blue blob. Levi went back to his worksheet and I turned my attention to the TV, where a woman I would never be like emerged from the sea in a wet suit and snorkeling mask, dripping with bioluminescent algae, turning her arms up and laughing even as she shivered.