The World of Liking
You pass Dad on your way to the bathroom and encounter an eye-watering funk that reminds you of a petting zoo. Holding your nose for a count of forty-five and finishing your pee, you then gasp for air in the hallway. Here you bunch your underpants and nightgown between your legs and wipe yourself, a habit you've had for years. Mom has told you this may cause something called UTI?"a horrible disease that rots one's kidneys." But this did not frighten you. She exaggerates everything.
Back in your room you hit PLAY on your boom box. Britney Spears' world merges with yours, and you sway your hips on the way to the dresser. There you find your collection of My Little Ponys, three plastic storage boxes, and several plastic containers of liquid. Everything you own is plastic, because somewhere you've learned that plastic is good. Next to a bracelet spelling "Megan" in white cubes are your favorite red and purple pens and a heart-shaped jewelry box. Inside the box are Skittles, and you scoop a grape and lime into your mouth.
Standing behind your ten-year-old-girl's-collection-of-stuff are vessels of lotion: bubble gum, tutti-frutti and peach. After applying tutti-frutti to your face and arms, you toss your greasy, shoulder-length hair with flip of your head. You gaze into your green eyes in front of the mirror, as Brittany sings, "Isn't she lovely, this Hollywood girl ..."
You pull on a yellow sweatshirt and your favorite jeans. Then skipping downstairs to the kitchen, you pour a bowl of Frosted Mini Wheats, while Mom makes your lunch and unemployed Dad watches Nickelodeon. Mom then sneaks up behind you and brings order to your mop of black hair, reminding you that hair is to be washed often, not just on holidays. "You're getting that old dog smell," she says.
You reply, "Mom ..." because it's what your friends say to their moms and because you like the sense of power it brings. You then remind her that you may have this smell but she should not compare you to a dog. She says she was only comparing smells, and you say "Mom ..." and this exchange continues for thirty seconds.
Emptying your cereal bowl, you then run upstairs for more Skittles. Your supply is low -- three grape, one lime, two orange -- and you plan your evening. You'll volunteer to accompany Mom to the grocery store before she asks, and also volunteer to take everyone's plate at dinner. Because without Skittles, your life is empty.
With your backpack you then run for the foyer.
Dad yells, "Don't use drugs," and you respond, "I won't."
Then through the front door you follow your mother. She kisses you good-bye, and leaves for her job at the electric company, and you wave in small circles like a beauty queen.
Waiting at the double doors of the Gertrude Stein Elementary School are your two best friends, Allison and Jennifer. Allison has a girl-boy face and hair of no particular color; she's one of the shortest girls in class and likes Skittles more than you. Jennifer's a head taller and has long, blond that flows to her waist. Her teeth are completely wrapped with fine wire and miniature plates, stainless steel correcting a dramatic overbite. You stare at these teeth whenever she talks, often initiating conversation just to see them.
The three of you stroll the halls before entering Miss Hennigan's classroom. You wander through groups of kids, along locker-lined hallways, and then into the girl's bathroom. Here, nausea balloons in your stomach. But it's not the pukey green tiles and rusting stall doors that are to blame, or the toilets that require three flushes to empty. It's the questions you know Jennifer will ask.
As the three of you preen before a bank of mirrors, she stands next to you and studies your mouth. "Megan," she says in a tone much like Mom's, "where's your lip gloss?"
You haven't yet convinced your mother to buy lip gloss; $3.49 is not in the family's budget. Thankfully Jennifer is benevolent today and hands you her strawberry Bonnie Bell Glitter Gloss, with its sponge applicator. You awkwardly paint your lips, as she looks on, shaking her heard with disapproval. The stress almost knocks you to your knees, and you question your worth as a girl.
Jennifer coats her own lips with finesse and then addresses you and Allison: "Remember, you have to wear lip gloss all the time, wherever you go. The boys like our lips to be shiny."
"How do you know?" Allison asks.
"I just do."
Mouths now covered with sparkling pink sludge, you and your friends begin brushing your hair. Your arm quickly tires, and Allison and Jennifer brush on and on, as though brushing will get them discovered for TV. But then Allison stops, and you turn to Jennifer?she never breaks rhythm. Clean strokes from the crown of her head to the full length of her exquisite tresses. Your short, fevered strokes do manage to keep up with her long, practiced pulls, but a cramp grows in your bicep. So you cave. And Jennifer wins. She smiles and slips her brush into her purple patent leather purse.
In Miss Hennigan's classroom you sit next to Jennifer, with Allison in the row behind. You value this ranking, after all, Jennifer's brother is in eighth grade. He's growing a mustache and plays soccer on two teams. The class falls into a cadence of chatter and Jennifer leans over, with her mouth nearly touching your ear.
She whispers, "Who do you like?"
Before you answer, you're told you must be liking someone all the time. No further action is required?just the liking. She then says that boys never even know they're being liked and, if they did, they probably wouldn't like you in return.
"Megan, boys have no interest in liking," Jennifer says, with a toss of her hair, "but they absolutely love to be liked. And when you do like someone, you have to write his name on everything. Even your hand if your mom will let you. You have to pretend to kiss him when you're alone. You can use your arm or a stuffed animal."
"Really?! That gross."
Jennifer nods. "That's why you do it in private."
You'd give anything to write these sage-like principles in your spiral notebook because you absolutely have to be "a liker." Instead, you repeat the facts to yourself under your breath: Always like someone ... boys like to be liked but don't like you back.
Jennifer begins to discuss the candidates for liking, and you shift in your seat.
"Tyler and Ronnie are the only ones you can like, Megan. And nobody can like Justin, because Amanda Peters does."
You're then told there're some boys who, without question, should not be considered for liking: Hunter and Christian.
"Hunter smells gross, like a cat food," says Jennifer. "And I heard his stepfather uses a wheelchair." She punctuates this statement with a full exposure of braces. "And Christian has problems. He takes Ritalin and throws chairs. I'm liking Eric, so you can't. I'm even starting to like-like him, and could be his girlfriend by next year. Eric has an iPod and always has candy."
Jennifer again places her mouth above your ear, almost swallowing it. "So," she says, "who do you like?"
It's never occurred to you to be liking someone, and you haven't yet taken the time to consider your choices. Swallowing hard, you say, "I'm not sure, I'm making up my mind today."
Jennifer tosses her hair. "Well, okay then. Just let me know."
Miss Hennigan begins her lesson. Now feeling self-conscious, you sniff a shank of your hair. Dirty -- it is time for a bath. You then fold your small hands in your lap, not content with your choices for liking. Ronnie sometimes barks like a dog and wears an earring; he bites his nails until they bleed. And then you think, oh please, not Tyler. You saw him shove Alexandra into a locker last winter, and she sprained her finger. Tyler has that voice, too, much too big for his body. Every time you hear it your shoulders contract; a voice in your head tells you to run.
You can understand not liking Hunter, but there are other boys that seem likable. Like Ethan. He says hi to you at the drinking fountain and answers most of the questions in class. He makes you laugh, even when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and you find yourself staring at his cowlick. You glance in his direction, and think Jennifer could be wrong.
After seeing the school nurse about an itchy rash between your legs, you walk to the lunchroom and find Jennifer sitting alone. When you ask about Allison, she replies, "We're mad at her. She actually told Eric I was liking him, and Eric pretended to throw-up. We can't talk to her anymore. We can't even say her name."
"What if she calls me?" you say, slouching in your chair. "What if she wants to come over?"
"Megan, I said never. We can't let her get away with this; it will make her a bad person."
Back in Miss Hennigan's room she teaches everyone to write haiku, and your poem is about Ethan. You consider a second poem about Allison and turn in your seat. Seeing her sad smile you consider abandoning Jennifer, but then snap back to the reality of middle school politics. This act may invite her chilling wrath, and you may have to find all new friends.
When the day is through you follow Jennifer through the double doors, leaving the fifth grade behind. It's now drizzling, and your oily hair clings to your neck and ears.
At home you sit at the kitchen table with a cherry Popsicle. Dad is shooting baskets in the driveway, with a neighbor kid who goes to your school. You can't wait to talk to Mom about the liking, but then decide not to. She'd probably interrupt with another lecture on global warming and complain about the family wasting electricity.
Once dinner is over and you take the plates from the table, you study math and ask Mom to wash your hair in the bathtub. You're now the compliant child she's always wanted, because she's told you that she plans to go shopping tomorrow. Soon you're wrapped in a towel, and take time to experiment with brushing your hair. You find a stroke that doesn't tire your arm, and smile triumphantly in the bathroom mirror.
In your nightgown you sit cross-legged on the bed. Lotion now covers your arms, legs and face, a mix of tutti-frutti and bubblegum. The day has pummeled your emotions but you fight to stay awake, because there's so much to figure out. First, you've got to have lip gloss. You can't be without this necessity. You'll call your grandmother tomorrow; she's always good for a few dollars. Then after scratching the wrinkled bottom of a foot, you exhale enough air to fill a balloon. It's time -- Ronnie or Tyler.
Your mind races from theses names, like a cat being chased by squirrels. You attempt to recall Jennifer's logic, why these boys were the only choices and not Ethan. But you've forgotten, in the same unexplained way you forget many things. Wanting desperately to be someone who likes, you leap from your bed and go to your dresser, where you pop a grape Skittle into your mouth and click open the purple pen. You then stand there and wait, with a churning stomach and drumming heart, ready to ink your future onto the palm of your hand.
About the author:
Toms poetry and fiction has appeared in the online journals Quoth the Raven and jerseyworks, and in the print journals Lucid Stone, Wordwrights, Carriage House Review and Natural Bridge. A short story will also appear in an upcoming issue of The MacGuffin. He works with individuals seeking mental health services, and his experiences color his stories.