Tic-tic-tic. Tic. Tic-tic.
To anyone else, the clicking and ticking of a calculator grows real old real fast – with the exception of the goofballs who find peak humor in spelling "58008" and flipping it upside down. Maybe it's because of how accustomed I've become to the sound, but I find it melodious. Almost a sweet lullaby, if you will, if not for the fact that it helps me sleep a little easier at night.
I scritch at the page one last time, eraser shavings sprinkling the soon-to-be failure cake. Surely something is off – God knows I can't point it out, but I'm determined to find out what it is. That is until I hear the tiniest "plip" fall, leading my eyes to a bead of sweat spreading itself thin on my homework. Well, this is a first – I'm sweating over math. Math. If that wasn't the deterrent to stop, the grumbling in my stomach certainly did it, and I realize it's 10:38 P.M... which meant I haven't eaten in 10 hours.
I let myself breathe for what feels like the first time in forever, moving away from my desk and making my way down to the kitchen. With the limited vision I have to rely on so as to not disturb my mother (mission somewhat failed as I knocked on the table in the hall), the welcoming light of the fridge finally meets me. My eyes lock in immediately on the leftover spaghetti wonderfully staining the Tupperware it sits in ... tempting as it is, I reach for the last bit of milk and the Frosted Flakes sitting on top of the fridge. Not the most fulfilling meal, but less hassle excluding the microwave ... something I know won't be an issue for her.
I turn the dimmer up the slightest, crunching away at my cereal (which, in fact, is grrrr-eat), and pick up where I left off in my newest reading quest. I'm about halfway through it, but it's a bit of a tough read if I'm biting my lip every few moments. I wonder if she would like this ...
"'If You Come Softly?' You think they have another copy in the library?"
"Fat chance -- I had to buy this book myself. In secret." I confide to Mallory. "But I'll let you borrow it when I'm finished."
"Ooo, how kind of you," she jests, bowing her head in a mockingly appreciative manner. She picks herself back up, moving her too-long bangs out of the way of her deep brown eyes. The words almost lose me for a moment.
"Oh, by the way," I muster remembering a scapegoat. I reach into the second fold of my backpack and pull out a small Tupperware container. The excited, catching gasps Mallory lets out speak a novel's worth of words.
"Ah, you did have more!"
"Only a little bit."
"Psh, I don't care. I live for your mom's spaghetti" Mallory exclaims, busting the top open and digging right in. I try to hold it in, but the revile of horror leaves me before a second thought.
"That's the beauty of spaghetti – it works in both ways!" she argues. I can't help but let her win – that's just how Mal is, finding the beauty in almost everything. Call it naïve; I call it admirable, and soon my vision starts to cloud in that all too familiar shade of pink used in those cartoons, sparkles and butterflies coming into frame and a barrage of hearts flittering the screen. Maybe you've picked up on it, but Mallory Setiawan is more than a best friend, even to my shock as of recent, but for lack of better words, she's the girl of my dreams. On anyone else, an always chipper attitude, the boisterous laugh of a 12th-century fellow, and the occasional slips of Valley Girl judgment would be entirely off-putting. Yet, Mal and Mal alone make these qualities feel like receiving the gift you really wanted most for your birthday, Christmas, and all other holidays wrapped in one every day. And I'd like to think I'm above looking at the physical, but if fashion catalogs included more people with jet-black hair, eyes with the color and the sparkle of chocolate nonpareils, a full smile-in-progress adorned with braces and a full body robed in a blend of Black and Indonesian attributes, then maybe I'd understand the appeal of them. Though with all that, there can only be one Mallory, and without directly admitting myself a jealous type, I count my lucky stars there's only one. Somewhat.
"Zo!" Mallory snaps her fingers in front of me, and I come to from what I hope wasn't an embarrassingly long stare-down.
"Uh, yeah ... yeah, just – "
"Another late night of studying." Mal sighs. I'm stunned, though I'm not sure why – on the one hand, I'm relieved she's wrong but on the other, it fits too well.
I stammer through the lie. "H-how did you know –"
"Dude, you've said it all week. Lemme take another stab at it – it was trig again, wasn't it?" Mal has this matter-of-fact way of calling me on my shit that doesn't throw me off so much anymore, but man if it's not embarrassing.
"No!" I lied. "It was... uh, SpongeBob." Yeah, even I don't believe me.
"Ha, as if!" Mal scoffs. "First off, it doesn't play that late at night, and two, you swore off watching it."
I'd like to tell her the truth – cartoons don't appeal to me anymore. I'd outgrown them a few years back once I enthralled myself in the world of PBS programs (yes, really), but Mallory adores them still. Who am I to break the spirit and the natural rhythm of her gushing to me about the latest episode of Futurama and The Powerpuff Girls and me listening as if the sweetest and holiest of hymns sings in my ears?
"Who cares? That show won't last past the first season anyway..."
"Zo..." Mal says, cocking her head to the side, pouting. It shouldn't be this easy to break me, and yet...
"What, it was like one or two problems I didn't understand."
"Zo, you have dyscalculia."
There it is – the dreaded "D" word. It's been about five months since I heard the diagnosis, and it still stings as fresh as the first time hearing it repeatedly.
"Y-yeah ... and?"
"...and? You need a tu –"
"Don't say it!" I interject. "Look, I've accepted the dyscalculia thing –"
Mallory throws me a sarcastic "Mm-hmm."
"– but a tutor? What would that say about me?"
Again, matter-of-factly, Mal raises her eyebrows:
"That you have dyscalculia and need help with math! Trig is hard enough without a learning impairment in the way."
"Oh, but when I warned you about bending wire with your newly installed braces, I was annoying?"
"Hey, physical and learning impairments are two different things ... I think! And by the way, thanks for 'never speaking about it again'," Mal groans. Is it bad that even when she's lecturing me, I find myself enthralled?
"Seriously, Zo. I don't want you to fall behind! You're literally top of our class in every subject BUT math, and I'm sure the schools you're shooting for aren't going to be pleased with that."
And once again, Mal is 2 for 2 on the debate. I know she's right, and yeah; I know I come off a bit too proud to admit fault. Even knowing that this isn't my fault, in a way... I mean, it's not like I wished for this to happen; if anything, it would be the very last on a very long list of things I don't wish for, only behind various ways to die and/or other crimes and/or things of a morally corrupt nature. You heard her though, I'm at the top of all my classes. I would have a near-perfect GPA if only the anchor of AQR didn't constantly threaten to sink it. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it's... well, embarrassing.
I'm too flustered to rebuttal, and just in time for a blast of fanfare to rush through the courtyard. It's far too early for this, truly, but before anyone can process it, a rush of orange and white-clad football players and cheerleaders rush onto the yard, whooping and squealing. The Fireside Foxes take a step aside for the cheerleaders to take center stage, and everyone in the courtyard grows silent. I shoot Mallory a look, and it seems she doesn't know what's to come, either.
Then, on cue, the rolled-out loudspeakers boom, and the girls throw their pom-poms to the side. Britney Spears' "(You Drive Me) Crazy" starts playing, and the cheerleaders move at lightning speed to the routine. Sports aren't my thing by any means, but they sure are captivating. I'd argue cheerleaders are the strongest in the athletic realm; to do widely complex routines with all the risks involved (a twist of the ankle here, a collapsing pyramid there) while having to maintain an energetic spirit and aching smiles throughout as the crowd ogles them ... if I had to take my pick between running the mile in under 10 minutes or doing one routine, I'd take the mile (my lack of build will thank me later).
And none embodies this more than the head cheerleader herself, and the reason why I said "somewhat" when it comes to having one Mallory in the world – Jhene Setiawan, standing tall and proud one-legged atop the pyramid. And just when the stunt couldn't be any more dangerous (hello, concrete?!), Jhene flips over into two girls' "safety net" of arms, leaving the crowd in roaring awe. Claps and cheers fill the air, and I find myself a part of the noise, though Mallory sits out. I know better than to prod into their business, and it's not like Julian Romero gives a chance to anyway before his voice bellows over the mic:
"How about another round of applause for the Fireside Squad?" he roars into the mic. Desired applause follows, and I'm hoping no one walks by and thinks a natural disaster is imminent.
"Yeah, oh the energy! Love it! For those of you who don't know who I am –"
"How could you not?" Mal and I say, rolling our eyes.
"– my name is Julian Romero, your Senior class President, and I'm sure you all know our first game of the season is fast approaching!" Ah yes, our kickoff game, of which I'm going for my 4th consecutive year of not attending.
"Our awesome team behind me is fired up and ready to go! And – oh, oh, oh! What's this?" Julian points to his right, and all eyes follow suit. The outside doors burst open, and a flurry of the most obnoxious shade of orange comes flying out. I can feel all four of my eyes rolling in the back of my head, which would save me the ache of looking to my left.
"Let's give it up for Fireside Freddy!" Julian cheers, and the crowd goes wild with him. Poor Freddy, completely unaware that the cheers aren't necessarily for him but for the person that controls his being ... and yeah, maybe giving too much thought to a mascot costume is a waste, but knowing Mallory's enthrallment also comes from the person inside makes me feel a little ... how you say, annoyed?
"Freddy, any words for our players?" Julian asks. Freddy claps his paws at the team, jumping up and down and pumping his paws in the air. Everyone laughs, and Julian compliments him on the "top-class miming". Well yeah, what else is she supposed to do? I look over at Mal, who's focused on the scene. I nudge her shoulder, catching her off-guard.
"Nothing," I tell her, without saying in so many words that this whole stint is lame.
But oh God, how lame can I be?