I ducked and ran. No, that wasn’t me! Totally not my name!
“I saw you!” the vendor shouted, who also happened to be my neighbor, so even if I got away now I wasn’t really getting away.
“Late for school!” I shouted over my shoulder in guise of a terrible excuse. It was true though, I was almost late for school. I was sixteen at the time and gangly tall for my age. As always, I wore my dilapidated shoes, some sort of jeans, and a blue hoodie over a t-shirt that I’d dragged from some rich person’s dumpster. It was big for me, but I liked that. It hid my breasts, which made me more comfortable. The only really recognizable thing about me, despite the aura of poverty, was the darkish blue of my hair. A touch of magic!, everyone used to crow about me. Yeah, used to.
Behind me, the dirty street was nearly empty. It was too early for the druggies to be out of bed and most of the drunks were home sleeping their hangover off. A thin, cold, mist hung over the earth, soaking through my pant legs and making my boots skid over the damp sidewalk.
“Thief!” the shitty neighbor shouted after me, as loud as he could. I didn’t care. Everyone knew I was a thief. Everyone, even my mother. She hung her head and nodded whenever someone came and yelled to her about it. She’d order me to give back whatever I stole- but I’d usually already eaten it. She’d get a good talking to from whomever it was (usually our crappy neighbor) and then she’d apologetically close the door. After that, I would get the silent treatment for a day or so. Then, the cycle might just repeat itself right away.
It wasn’t that Mom hadn’t educated me well, as everyone told her. It was that I saw the struggle in her eyes when I reached for a second helping of food. Once, there was no food for lunch. Then, I realized that yeah, I couldn’t eat twice at one meal – but oh look! A vendor!
Now, I never ate twice and mom knew why. It was a tacit agreement that neither of us spoke about the dire finances of our household – and she would keep nodding at the intruders shaking their fists at me.
As I rounded the corner towards school, I slowed to a walk. I pulled the warm pizza pocket out of my mouth where I’d been holding it. I took a smaller bite than the whole thing. It was steaming in the cold air, delicious, and with just a hint of spices that didn’t wholly belong on the pizza. Hey, no one said the vendor paid for these in the first place. I’d caught him garbage diving too one day. We’d fought over a whole box of old bread – and yeah, I just ran away with them.
But now, I happily munched on my breakfast. Yep, life was good right then. I strolled slowly now, knowing full well that I was early to meet my friend, Aaliyah. But I couldn’t wait to meet her. These quiet walks in the morning were usually the highlight of my day. They were also the reason I held an extra pizza pocket in each hand. Another for me, and one for her. This one I would eat with her and we would happily walk together, enjoying our short walk to school before the day really began.
Ours was a quiet existence. I already knew that someday, our friendship would hopefully breach the lines of friendship and we, the pariahs already of our ‘slumbug’ existence, would break into a whole new level of pariah – that of two female bodies in love.
Finishing my first pizza pocket I tried not to dwell on this. But of course I did. I tried to visualize how Aalliyah’s mother (another single mother, just like mine!) would accept this. Would she? I knew Madame Akizah as a generous and kind shop owner. But what did she think of women in love?
We could marry if we moved north, I told myself. There, there was jobs in factories for us ‘unbloomed’ ones. I would work hard to protect Aaliyah and provide for her! I would –
“Already eating?” a laughing voice jerked me from my thoughts. And there she was. The highlight of my life. The shining ray in all this misery.
Aaliyah had gleaming black hair that she kept simply long and plain. Her smile was brilliant, her skin just a tad darker than mine. She was shorter than me by half an inch (which I constantly rubbed in her face) and had the largest and sweetest eyes possible. Today, she was wearing her loose red sweatshirt and gray track pants with sneakers.
Still chewing my last mouthful I made sure not to speak so I wouldn’t spit all over. I’d done that before. She’d laughed at me so hard she’d turned redder than her sweatshirt.
“Thanks,” she said as she accepted it. Then, pressing it between her two hands, she said “Ooh, it’s still warm.”
I nodded and smiled, then finished my mouthful with a gulp. Akwardly, I tried to think of something to say. As usual in these strange silences that would so often fill the air between us, I wished to tell her how I felt.
If only I was big and strong, I thought. If only I was stunningly beautiful like she. If only, if only… and my thoughts would spiral down and down as we walked together. I hunched my shoulders like an unhappy bird and ate ravenously at my last pizza bit.
A fine drizzle began to descend. A car whipped past us, full of jeering idiots. Protectively, I slipped an arm around Aaliyah’s shoulders. She stepped closer to me. It was our safety mechanism. It worked well on strangers because they all assumed I was a guy – even Aaliyah’s mother sometimes called me ‘mister’ if she was scolding me (like the third time I’d tried to steal from her).
But right now it wasn’t wholly necessary. The car was gone, after all, and the walk to school was short. But… I jostled Aaliyah playfully just as an excuse to keep my arm around her. If it was a joke it didn’t matter, so I got to hold her a little longer. “You ready for today?” I asked cheerfully.
She looked up at me with those big doe-like eyes. She smiled, and it was filling me with sparkles. “I think so,” she said “I studied all night. I think I’m ready.”
“Great,” I said whistfully, wondering what it would be like to kiss her – and then my brain registered what she’d said. “Wait- ready for what? Is there a test?”
She gave me ‘that look’. “Physics! Today! First period! Did you forget?”
I whimpered, drawing my arm from around her to play with my hair. “Yes?” Oh crap! And I was trying to get good marks in that!
In a jerk she pulled her bag over her shoulder and whipped a light blue notebook out. First she smacked me on the shoulder with it. I yelped, then she handed it to me. “Cram!” she ordered.
“Yes, ma’am,” I muttered as I took the notebook and flipped it open. In the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but think she’d be the perfect wife. Strict but caring, disciplined and studious – I could get a job for the two of us and she could keep studying…
Shaking my head I tried to focus upon the notes before me, even as small droplets began cascading down harder and harder.
We, and the notebook, were thoroughly soaked by the time we stood in the corridor before the classroom. Funnily enough, only about half the students were soaked. There were those who had the good sense to own a coat and who were only damp. Then, there was the rich kids.
Oh, it wasn’t hard to tell them apart. They were dazzling and beautiful no matter what happened, and they were just – whatever. I didn’t even look at them.
I just stood in a corner with Aaliyah and our three friends – the total of us being five. ‘The’ five that teachers always talked about. We were the ‘special education’ ones. The unbloomed.