Lucky Few One
For a dentist office receptionist, she had stunningly bad teeth. The ocher stains on her enamel were a mystery of Sherlockian proportions. What was the culprit? Was it years of coffee consumption? Tobacco use? Or some other foul substance equally capable of corrupting a pearlescent smile?
“Do you need a school excuse?” she asked.
I was far more interested in the answer to my dental whodunit than the answer the receptionist awaited. I was about to tell her something she wouldn’t like and wouldn’t understand.
“No,” I told her.
I said it politely.
“I think both you and your cousin do,” she said.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure we don’t.”
The receptionist inched a blue square of paper across her desk.
“Come on, honey,” she said, like she was coaxing a naughty dog out from under the porch.
No choice was left to me.
I was forced to drop the H-bomb.
I said, “We’re homeschooled.”
Bad-Teeth Receptionist blinked at me. Then she asked the question I got asked about seventy percent of the time upon H-bomb impact:
“Oh, sweetie, don’t you miss being around people?”
I was used to this. I was well versed in the homeschool stereotype. I understood that this receptionist was probably thinking, Lordy, she’s Amish and doesn’t have a cell phone and lives with fifteen inbred kinfolk.
What I wanted to tell her, but never would, was that the realm of the home educated was a many-splendored, multifaceted thing. There was nuance. There was diversity. She couldn’t just slap a single, all-inclusive label on my forehead. She had to choose from an assortment of labels. If she wanted, she could pick from the list I had personally compiled in the ninth grade. I had divided the homeschooling population into four clean categories, as follows:
The most common stereotype associated with the home educated. You know, families of seven or more. The standard issue of dress for boys is jeans two sizes too big, Velcro sneakers, and button-up plaid shirts (we’re talking the original hipsters). Girls wear long blue-jean jumpers, and when they want to get super insane, they choose the jumper with the embroidered sunflowers on the front. They are bound by some cultish church law to never cut their straggly blond hair or expose their ankles. The kids all look slightly soulless, like something out of Children of the Corn. They’re so painfully shy, they can’t place their own fast-food order—if their parents even believe in fast food. They attend church five days a week, don’t own a television, and live on a farm with chickens. The mom makes killer homemade monkey bread. Commonly sighted at:
The homeschool co-op
Hippie folk who are conscientious objectors to the public education system. Usually upper-middle-class progressives who drive a Prius or, better yet, a tandem bicycle. They live on a strict Paleo diet. They compost. Favorite fashion choices include Birkenstocks, homemade beaded necklaces, tassels, and tie-dye. A typical school day involves “field trips” to the backyard and to the local herbal remedy shop. Commonly sighted at:
Urban organic farms
Mom and Dad have no clue what to do with their problem kid. After Charliekins got expelled from his third school, they figured they’d give homeschooling a spin, because if all else fails, do it yourself, right? Zero to 0.5 percent parental supervision. After parents leave for work, Last-Chance Charlie lapses into a pot-induced Netflix-slash-World-of-Warcraft binge. He texts his public school friends throughout the day to make them jealous of his unchecked autonomy. Dresses in baggy black jeans and one of thirty unwashed action hero T-shirts. Will eventually be booted to a school in Virginia or else run off to live with his gaming bro in the next county over. Commonly sighted at:
Curb outside the local liquor store
The kids who are just trying to get a decent education. The most diverse pool yet, this reasonably normal lot chooses homeschooling for a variety of reasons. Maybe they’ve been zoned for a bad school district and are unable to afford private tuition; or the parents are geniuses better qualified than public school teachers; or maybe the kids are professional models, actors, or Olympians with erratic schedules. The normal types dress in whatever Gap says is in vogue. More often than not, they’re high scorers on their SATs. Commonly sighted at:
(like the dentist’s—
NOT their parents’ basement)
It irked me that this fourth category got lumped in with all the others. Brand yourself a homeschooler and you’d branded yourself a sheltered, narrow-minded prude for life. That’s why I was loath to ever let on my true H-word identity. Not that it mattered there, in Dr. Kopeck’s Lasting Smiles office. I didn’t care that the stained-teeth receptionist was judging me.
But maybe I did.
Bad-Teeth Receptionist had asked me a question about my level of social interaction, and so far I wasn’t making a great impression. I’d already exceeded the socially acceptable span of time between the asking of a question and the answering.
I had nothing to lose.
I leaned across the desk and looked slowly to my left, then slowly to my right.
“I miss people so much,” I said. Then I shifted in closer and whispered the words “Help me.”
I bugged my eyes meaningfully at the receptionist. In response, she emitted a low, warbling sound.
As she warbled, I trotted from the waiting room out to Mom’s idling sedan.
I took shotgun. My cousin Joel was sprawled in the backseat, holding an ice pack to his jaw. His gangly legs were propped against the window in an odd, bendy way that looked like a yoga move gone wrong.
“You’ll probably want to hoof it out of here,” I told Mom. “That lady might be calling CPS on you.”
“Oh God,” groaned Mom, though she was smiling. “What did you do?”
“I told her I stay locked in my bedroom and I’m only fed one packet of Top Ramen per day.”
“Huh,” said Joel. “Sounds like college.”
“Funny,” I said, “I don’t remember you going to college.”
“Inconsequential.” Joel tipped his chin proudly. “You wear shirts with the Eiffel Tower and shit on them, and you’ve never been to Paris.”
“Language, Joel,” Mom said, though it was more of an observation than a reprimand.
She pulled the sedan out of the parking lot.
“So,” I concluded, “we may want to change dentists.”
“I can’t take you anywhere.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s the problem, remember? I don’t get out. You lock me in my bedroom.”
Joel moaned. He mushed his ice pack closer to his jaw.
“You are an infant,” I informed him.
“It hurts,” Joel whined, hovering in falsetto territory. “Oh sweet Lord, the pain. You wouldn’t know. You’ve never had a root canal.”
“Maybe because I clean my teeth with something other than Dentyne Ice.”
“Cut it out, both of you.”
Mom cranked up soft rock radio, effectively drowning out our bickering with the wails of Enrique Iglesias.
I propped my sneakers on the dash and watched cars crawl past as we joined the swarm of morning rush hour traffic on southbound I-35. I was in no particular rush to get back home. I had a trig test that morning. Mom would plunk down twenty questions on the breakfast room table, and the only thing I’d be able to sort out was where to write my name.
And yes, I realized that writing my name at the top of my tests was unnecessary, but it’s the little things that make you feel like a normal sixteen-year-old.
I couldn’t sweet-talk Mom into delaying the trig test. I’d already postponed my American Government quiz the previous week, and Joel had been in top academic form lately, so I couldn’t deflect by pointing to him, the once perpetual scapegoat.
There had been a time when I could one-up Joel in every subject, bar none. My scores were always higher, my goal chart always fuller. Once, Joel was the very picture of Back-the-Hell-Off-Couldn’t-Care-Less-Adolescent. And as long as Joel was in worse academic shape than I was, I could stay out of the heat. Then, in his junior year, Joel got serious about getting into UT-Austin, which resulted in a pretty impressive SAT score and a lot of backslaps from formerly concerned family members. I was happy for Joel and all, but his success meant my failures were more noticeable. I was going to bomb that trig test, and I was going to have to endure Mom’s unadulterated wrath.
My phone lit up just as we were pulling into the carport. The screen flashed a selfie of me and my friend, Valerie Borkowski. Our cheeks were squished together, Valerie’s lips forming the traditional fishy pout.
“This is important,” I told Mom. “About tonight.”
Mom waved her acquiescence, cut the engine, and got out of the car. I answered the phone.
“Are you alone?”
Valerie’s voice was taut and papery—the voice of someone about to have a good cry.
I glanced back at Joel. He’d fallen asleep, legs still crossed in an awkward gangle, ice pack drooping off his cheek.
“Good as,” I said. “What’s wrong?”
There was a whimper. Then a wheeze. Then a full-out sob. I yanked the phone away from my ear and jabbed frantically at the volume, lowering it to a more palatable decibel.
I cradled the phone back against my ear as I opened the car door. Valerie was sobbing, and there was only one good reason I could think of for that sobbing, and that reason was passed out in the backseat.
It seemed like a betrayal to Valerie and Joel to stay where I was, in the presence of them both, whether that presence be auditory or physical. I hopped out of the car and gave the door a firm slam, hoping it would wake Joel up. I wanted him to suffer, at least a little. I’d warned him about dating one of my friends.
But I’d warned Val, too.
“Val, are you still there?”
I knew Val was still there, because she was choking out indiscernible, snot-coated words. I had to say something, and “calm down” or “what’s wrong?” weren’t available options. A few months back, Val and I had made a pact to not diminish each other’s emotional validity by telling each other to calm down, which is harder than it sounds. And of course, there was no point in asking Val what was wrong, because I knew perfectly well what was wrong: Joel was a serial dater.
It took another excruciating half minute, but Valerie finally hitched in enough breath to form understandable speech.
“I thought it would be different with me. You know? I thought he was through being an asshole.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“ ‘Yeah’? What does ‘yeah’ mean? Is that your way of saying ‘I told you so’?”
“No, Val. It’s my way of saying ‘yeah.’ ”
“I can’t give you a ride tonight. The chance of seeing him at the house is too mortifying.”
I was reminded, suddenly and vividly, of Mom’s favorite soap opera, the one she watched when Joel and I were doing afternoon homework. Val sounded exactly like one of those insipid nurses with breast implants, an evil doppelgänger, and a hankering for a married doctor.
“Don’t be melodramatic,” I warned.
“Excuse me? Don’t be melodramatic? That’s as good as telling me to ‘calm down’!”
I swore low, away from the receiver.
At least, I thought it was away from the receiver.
“Are you cussing me out now? It’s not my fault you’re related to a total douchebag!”
“Look,” I said, “I’m really sorry about what happened. But you’re my only ride to the rally. Mom and Dad are going to a concert, and I’m not about to ask Hilary Mayhu—”
“Just ask Sanger.”
“Why not? She does anything you say.”
“She hates politics. Anyway, she already drove me to the mall on Wednesday, and I don’t want to abuse car privileges. I promised her I wouldn’t be that friend.”
“Well, I’m sooo glad that your friendship with Sanger means more than your friendship with me.”
There was nothing to say to that, really. My friendship with Sanger did mean more to me. Sanger was my best friend. I’d known her for way longer than Val. Also, Sanger had yet to chew me out over the phone.
By now, I’d reached Dad’s rock garden out back. I walked across the low bamboo bridge, my gaze flitting between pristinely raked pebbles and the morning shade cast by a long row of dragon trees.
I decided on a different method of persuasion.
“I won’t let Joel anywhere near the door or windows,” I said. “It’s not like he’s going to want to see you, either. If we’re going to stay friends, you have to get over the fact that you might bump into him.”
“But it’s too fresh. Somehow he’ll still know I’m outside your house, and I don’t want him to think I’m a desperate psycho stalker ex.”
“Uh. If Joel even thinks of you, I’m sure it’ll just be like, ‘Wow! How nice. She’s picking up her friend for a nonprofit event.’ ”
“You can be so cruel.”
“You’re just like him.”
Again, I thought of the big-breasted blonde on Mom’s soap. What was her name? Esmeralda? Anastasia?
. . . Val?
“You’re my only ride to the capitol,” I said, “and I’d really appreciate it if you did the mature thing and—”
“The mature thing. The MATURE thing? THE MATURE—Why don’t you talk to Joel about the MATURE THING to—”
I dropped the phone from my ear, and not just because Val was screeching at an unbearable volume, but because I saw it, across the fence, between the trunks of two dragon trees.
There was a blood-smeared body in our neighbor’s backyard.