If this was a John Hughes movie, the credits would be rolling right now. The last people would have seen would be me dancing in a beautiful dress to “Photograph” with Felix. Then the credits would roll and music would play in the background, and people would leave the theater with a warm fuzzy feeling inside.
But this isn’t a movie, and real life doesn’t have perfect endings. So I’m walking barefoot home from a school dance early and alone, holding my shoes in my left hand and my eyes are burning from the effort not to cry. I’m still in the dress that never felt comfortable. I wish I could change. I wish I could take out the contact lenses that I didn’t want to wear in the first place and put on my glasses, but I don’t have them with me. They’re buried deep in the back of my closet along with everything else I haven’t worn in the past month.
I’d always wished I wasn’t a background character. I wouldn’t have said I was invisible—I got enough of the wrong kind of attention to call myself that—, but I never got the story I wanted. I wanted an 80’s movie teen rom-com kind of life. I knew it was unrealistic, but I dreamed anyway.
Six weeks ago I was paired up with Tanisha Anderson for an English project. I hated English—I still hate English—. It was my second language and every assignment felt like an uphill race. I never knew the answer when I was called on. The books we read were a pain, and I usually gave up and read spark notes. English group projects were my second-to-worst nightmares. Right after showing up to school in my underwear and getting chased by the monster under my bed. But Tanisha didn’t hate being my partner. She didn’t roll her eyes or beg to switch. She was nice. She even invited me to her house to work on our project.
We sat at the dining room table with my highlights and her scribbled in copies of The Great Gatsby open in the middle of the table and our plans spread around them in chaotic piles. Off to the side was the bag of pretzels I brought as snacks. We were doing a presentation on how clothing played a role in the color motifs. Tanisha had filled half her English notebook with sketches of the characters. She was an amazing artist. Her fingers were currently covered in graphite from her page. Either she didn’t notice or she didn’t mind.
“Wouldn’t it be so much fun to dress like this?” she said, showing me another reference picture of a roaring 20’s dress. It was blue and had a low waist and back and the girl in the picture was wearing it with a long necklace of pearls. Aside from the color, I couldn’t tell the difference from all the other dresses. I think it was supposed to be the blue dress Gatsby bought the woman from the party to make up for her tearing her old one.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “It looks a little bit uncomfortable. Besides, who would wanna live in the 20’s?”
“Well, obviously I wouldn’t want to live there,” she said rolling her eyes like that should have been obvious. I guess it should have been. “I just wanna wear the clothes.” She paused for a minute, then her eyes lit up. “Speaking of which, I have an idea.”
“Oh?” I lifted an eyebrow.
“We should dress up in era appropriate clothes for our presentation!”
“No.” I wasn’t even gonna consider it. I never wore anything to school but jeans and t-shirts since elementary school, and I wasn’t gonna break that record.
“Please? You’d look gorgeous.”
That’s when I hesitated. No one had called me gorgeous before. My parents told me I was beautiful, but they were my parents.
I should have put my foot down, I think miserably. Then I wouldn’t be here. I pebble cuts into my foot and I curse softly. I am already feeling tired, but I’m a quarter of the way home. I was stupid to think walking would work. I should have called my mom. I feel a sting behind my eyes and my chest goes tight. I blink to stop the tears from flowing, but it’s only a matter of time.
We stood up to do our presentations, and I was in a cold sweat. I thought that I was an idiot to have ever agreed to it. I felt horribly self conscious. But then after class I overheard Felix say we’d looked hot. Felix Hill was one of the popular guys. He was the love interest in my mental rom-com. I thought maybe I could be pretty. But I didn’t know how. I thought about asking Tanisha, but I thought about how embarrassing that would be and chickened out.
Luckily, I didn’t have to. She came to me.
“You know,” she said, “you’re really pretty. You’re usually just buried so far under sweatshirts and t-shirts you can’t see it.”
“I don’t know anything about fashion.”
“I’ll help you.”
It was just like a makeover movie. I’d watched so many and fantasies so much, and then all my dreams seemed to be coming true.
A truck came down the street with its headlights on. It slowed down when it came near me and the man in the driver’s seat stared at me as it passed, before driving off. I suddenly feel oddly vulnerable and unsafe. I want to be home more than anything else on Earth.
I went over to her house after school several times a week. I’d never been this close to anyone outside of my family before. She lent me pieces of clothes. We scrolled through amazon. She helped me write a convincing letter to my parents about contacts over glasses. We talked about boys a little, but we didn’t have much to say there. We ate tons of pretzels. She hadn’t thought much of them originally, but I showed her their superiority in the snack food group. She played country music in the background. I showed her 16 candles and The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. She introduced me to Douglas Adams and Connie Willis. I taught her a few phrases in Mandarin. She tried to teach me how to draw.
My parents were so thrilled with my sudden social life, they let me wear contacts and wear clothes they had barred my sister from. The boys at school suddenly started to notice me, and the popular girls found other people’s outfits to laugh at. The clothes felt uncomfortable, and not me, but the attention and confidence felt so overwhelming and dreamlike, that I didn’t care.
Then Felix Hill asked me out. We went on a date. I was so scared, so I let him talk the entire time. I let him choose where we went. He told me what I did that he liked. And what he didn’t like, which I got rid of next time. I didn’t ask him to watch any rom-coms. We watched action movies. I didn’t like them much, but I had a boyfriend. A hot, popular boyfriend. My life was a rom-com and that was enough for me. I kept wearing the fashionable clothes. I stopped eating as many pretzels, because he was worried it would make me chubby. It was a sacrifice, but everything takes some sacrifice and I was living my dream life.
I felt a cold spot. I thought it was just another pang of hurt, but then I felt another and another and dark spots appeared on the concrete and for the first time in almost a year, the sky opened up, and it rained in my drought ridden desert of a home town. The odds were minuscule, but even the sky was in on making my evening as horrible as possible.
Then winter ball came around. It was kind of a big deal at my school. Being asked was significant. Even if you were in a relationship, this was like being asked out all over again. So obviously, when Felix asked me, I was overjoyed. Tanisha asked if she could help me get ready the moment she found out.
I said, “Of course.”
When I went over to her house she had hot soft pretzels and Ferris Bueller's Day Off playing on the TV in the background. I told her I couldn’t eat the pretzels. She twisted her face into an expression I couldn’t place.
“Nothing,” she said. I didn’t think more about it, because I was so excited. And scared. And I was still in a bit of disbelief. I never imagined I could get this far up the social ladder and feel so pretty.
Then I showed her the dress I wanted to wear. And she made the face again.
“Won’t you be uncomfortable?”
“Don’t you want to be more yourself this time?”
“Are you kidding me? I have to impress Felix. This is a big deal, Tanisha.” This time she made a facial expression I knew. Disappointment. We spent the rest of the time in silence. She turned off the movie and I felt sad, but I said nothing.
I was about to leave when I realized she hadn’t gotten herself ready.
“Aren’t you coming.”
“No.” I felt a bit empty. I had imagined it would be an evening for me and Felix, but that she would be there. She was always there. We had only been friends for a few weeks, but I didn’t want to do anything without her. When she wasn’t there, I was thinking about her. Even on dates.
It's no longer raining. It’s pouring. It’s the kind of rain we don’t get here in California. This is the kind of rain that means there’ll certainly be a flood warning on the radio and the rate of crashes will spike. Puddles were already forming. I’m still less than halfway home. I’m almost certainly going to get sick. I’m suddenly hit with how tired I am, and all I want is to sit down and stay there in a random stranger’s yard till the police showed up. But I keep going because I know if I don’t, I’ll start crying and I won’t be able to stop.
When I got to the dance, I started losing confidence for the first time since that first presentation. My dress felt wrong and I realised how few people I knew there. The music was too loud and the strobe lights were giving me a headache. I remembered why I never went to school events. By the time Felix and I started dancing, I already wished I were home.
“You look hot tonight,” he whispered to me as we swayed to a slow song.
I laughed awkwardly. “I don’t know.”
“Really,” he said. “This is so much better than when you wore glasses and talked about cheesy movies. I’m so glad you’re not like that anymore.”
That’s when I knew I’d made a mistake.
“I mean, it would be so embarrassing to be dating someone like that.” He laughed, and I felt like I’d been punched in the gut.
“What’s wrong with them?”
“They’re dumb. And so unrealistic. Like what guy actually behaves like that? Women are always going on about the unrealistic expectations female characters set, then make movies where men date ugly women and won’t care?”
That’s when I snapped.
“Well actually, I still like them. I like them a lot! And you’re being a sexist idiot. And I’m going to wear jeans and a t-shirt tomorrow! And… and…” I began to realize how silly I was sounding, but I still wanted to hurt him. I wanted to make him hurt as much as I had been at his words. “And I’m embarrassed to be your girlfriend!”
I hadn’t realized how loud I’d been till I finished and saw everyone staring. I didn’t want to hear what they’d say. I didn’t want to hear what he’d say. I just wanted Tanisha and pretzels and John Hughes movies and country music. But I didn’t have those things, so I ran.
Now I’m halfway home, and it’s pouring. And I can’t hold my tears in anymore. My eyes burn and my nose runs till I’m gasping for air, and my chest is heaving. And I can only imagine what I look like, all dressed up, makeup running off, my hair plastered to my head, my face puffy and read, holding heels in my right hand, my left trying and failing to hold in the tears. I sit down in a puddle and wait.
The end doesn’t come. Not to my misery. Not to my tears. Not to the rain. And I’m still at least half an hour from home. I’m so hurt I can feel my pain physically in my stomach and chest and throat and behind my eyes. And I hear tires and I wonder if it’s another old guy that’ll stare at me. And I wonder if he’ll kidnap or rape me and I just sob harder because I have never felt so helpless and alone.
But it’s not an old guy. It’s not even a car. It’s a bike and on it is Tanisha. She’s soaked and she’s not wearing a helmet, just wearing jeans and a t-shirt, both soaked through and holding a plastic bag.
I feel the pain lessen. And when I think I can speak I say, “what are you doing here?” My voice still trembles, and I’ve obviously been crying. But she doesn’t seem to care.
“I was looking for you.”
“I didn’t think you’d be happy.” She pauses. “And I think I was right.” She was obviously right, but she always knew what to say to make me feel a little better.
“How’d you find me?”
“Well when I got to the dance, you weren’t there, so I started biking to your house, and…” and she found me along the way.
She holds up the bag. “I brought you more comfortable clothes…. And pretzels.” There was a silence. “I shouldn’t have tried to change you. I realize my mistake now.”
“But I shouldn’t have offered. You obviously aren’t as happy as you were. You may have Felix, but you lost yourself.”
“I don’t have Felix.”
I stand up now. Feeling myself more stable. I’m still red in the face and there’s snot on my face. By breath is still catching up.
She looks me in the eye for a moment before saying anything.
“Yeah, Felix is an asshole.”
“Yeah, you’re much better.”
I’d never thought of her that way before, but as soon as I’d said it, it clicked. I felt the mortification of saying something big and probably wrong that I couldn’t take back for the second time that day. I opened my mouth to say something. I’m not sure what, but I have to make it better. I’m desperate not to lose anything else.
But then she kisses me. It feels like a void has opened in the middle of my chest again, but this one’s a good thing. It feels like helium and butterflies. It’s like being ten and having your first crush.
We’re kissing in the rain and it’s like a movie. But my face is puffy from crying and she’s wearing paint splattered jeans and an old t-shirt, so it’s not perfect. But that’s what makes it amazing, because I’ve spent too long trying to be perfect.
She pulls back and I put my head on her shoulder, not yet ready to let go of her body heat.
“Wanna go home and change and watch Ferris?”
“Will there be pretzels?”
I may not have my happy ending, but I now have a happy beginning. And I don’t want the credits to roll for a while.