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We always hated the first day of school. Going back entailed finding new outfits (or combining the clothes we’d worn for the past two years in a skillful way so as to appear that the clothes were somewhat new), being alternately ignored and scorned (sometimes even within our own circle of society), and finding new and ingenious methods of doing as little as possible.
It wasn’t that we were unpopular, that wasn’t it. We were popular, if popular meant that everyone knew your name — it was a small school and besides, we were in the eighth grade. It wasn’t celebrity that we really wanted, it was reassurance. Security in who we were or weren’t, security in the fact that even if we weren’t porcelain we were still valuable. We hadn’t yet recognized that the fleeting thrill that comes with bucking the trends and singsonging to yourself in the hallway, that element of our personalities that we were forever attempting to suppress, was also known as individuality. We hadn’t yet learned to appreciate who we were as we were. Our lives were daily attempts at improvement, a fad-diet cycle of inconsistency.

Her name was Darlene. She wasn’t my friend. She sat next to me every morning in the high school gym as we watched the other girls running to and fro, half-clothed in the name of basketball. I was on the bleachers because while I wasn’t an athlete, many of my friends were, and I took advantage of what brains I possessed and became the stat girl for the team. I was there for the proximity of it all — if I were close, no one forgot I was alive. I wasn’t sure why Darlene was there at all for the first few days. I soon realized that she knew no one would forget her, that wasn’t a concern. No, she was there to prevent having to take an academic class. Classic avoidance.

She sat next to me every morning, her permed peroxide hair and pseudo-trendish clothes intimidating me — most days — into silence. I didn’t know her place on the scale of should-talk-tos, but she scared the shit out of me. Sweet, strong perfume and the orangey line along the edge of her jaw cemented that she was eons ahead of me in sophistication, and her baritone voice kept me solidly in awe.

The news that Darlene was pregnant fell into our laps, and we were unsure about what to do with it. We did nothing, for a while. We bided our time and went about our business, schlepping too-heavy backpacks, twirling stubborn combination locks, and sliding looks past smudgy glass doors.

One morning it all tumbled out, suddenly, like a dandelion bloom or a dead battery. It caught us by surprise. A rare free day in basketball found us sitting clumped in the corner of the bleachers, discussing various aspects of junior high society. Outfits were discussed, along with current couple news, third base accomplishments, and the latest breakups. One of the more daring of our numbers, Beth, sat down for a chat with Darlene, and they discussed various bits of well-known gossip — Nick and Brandy’s Spin the Bottle romp, Corey and Beverly and how they’d disappeared at a party last weekend for two hours (all of this was totally foreign to me, by the way. I’d never even seen the kind of bottle I imagined would make you kiss someone, much less spun one) — and suddenly, from nowhere it seemed, I heard Beth say, “Well, you know, Adam Felaton is telling everyone that you’re pregnant.”

“Well, don’t tell anybody, but…..I am.”

And just like that, we realized we were no longer children. This girl had grown up with us. Played on our playgrounds, eaten cafeteria food with us, stood in the same long stupid lines for yearbook picture day. One day we’re sitting in a semicircle on colored block rugs listening to a story read aloud, and now, this? Suddenly everything that was safe, not so safe, and secret about our childhoods was destroyed. Hell, I still liked to play with dolls and read fairy tales. Sometimes I even begged my mother to read to me. I was afraid of the dark, and yet sitting there, petrified as if I’d been caught doing something dirty, I could’ve been her. Never mind that I’d yet to hold hands (voluntarily) with a boy, much less engage in the type of contact babymaking required. The plain and simple truth of the matter was that she and I were not that far removed, and I was terrified and fascinated all at the same time.

We all sat, dumbfounded. There was nothing we could say, so we said nothing. I pictured myself in her position — the tragic heroine — gracious, brave, and wise. Suddenly she was miles ahead of anywhere I’d ever thought to go. My baby dreams were capsuled in plastic dolls, in movies, in a faraway dream of a Prince Charming who swept me away; her dreams were real, they were now. It was reality as I’d never experienced it before. I wanted my Mama.

A few of the gutsier girls made feeble attempts at chatter, forced banter about names and baby clothes. Soon enough the bell rang and signaled our escape, and we all stood up to go. It seemed like the end of something, though we didn’t know what.

I vaguely remember the rest of that year. Nothing astonishing really happened. I got my braces around the time Darlene’s baby was born, and as the rest of us prepared for high school, she got married. None of us were invited to the wedding. Not that I blame her, I wouldn’t have invited us either, but I wish I could’ve gone. I don’t know why really, but I feel sure that the sight of Darlene in a wedding dress, her lingering baby pudge straining her dress around the waist and her newborn whimpering over the organ music, would’ve given me some amount of closure regarding the entire situation.

As it is, Darlene is forever etched in my mind as a confidently frightened thirteen-year-old girl. Motherhood and puberty found her at the same time. I think of her now, and I wonder about that baby boy. I wish him well. I mourn for the childhood of which she only got a glimpse.

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