Dirty Red

Page 23

I am nothing like the rest of my family. Each one of them, with the exception of my mother, had raven black hair. Pair that with the Smith signature olive skin and green eyes, and they look like an army of beautiful Greeks. I was born red: my skin, my hair and my hot, fussy attitude. My mother used to tell me that I cried for a week after they brought me home. She said I lost my voice, and all you could hear was air coming out of me as I made screaming faces.

Our mother encouraged Courtney to do all of the typical, perfect girl things — cheerleading, modeling, and stealing other girls' boyfriends. I, on the other hand, was encouraged to diet, especially during my last year of middle school. I was a little chubby. I started eating my feelings when I discovered boys, rejection and Little Debbie snack cakes. I went from malnourished to fleshy all in a matter of months.

“You’re going to seriously regret this,” my mother said, upon discovering my stash. I’d hidden a dozen assorted boxes in an old Christmas popcorn tin in the pantry. “You already have red hair, now you want to add pounds of extra flesh?” To emphasize her point, she’d grabbed a handful of fat at my waist and pinched it until I’d cried out. She shook her head. “Hopeless, Johanna.” And then she’d tossed all of my snack cakes in the trash.

I bit my lip to keep from crying. When she saw me struggling with tears, she’d softened a little. Maybe she was chubby once, I thought hopefully.

“Here.” She opened the freezer and shoved a bag of frozen peas against my chest. “When you get the urge to binge on crap, eat these instead. Just think of it as a frozen treat … like ice cream.” When I looked doubtful, she’d grabbed my chin and forced me to look at her. “You like boys?”

I nodded.

“You won’t get them if you eat snack cakes, trust me. No one’s ever hooked a man with processed cake crumbs on her face.”

I’d carried my bag of frozen peas back to my room and sat down cross-legged on the floor. Staring up at my Jonathan Taylor Thomas poster, I ate the entire bag, pea by pea.

I was kind of nerdy. I liked boys, but I also liked math and science. But, math and science didn’t give you attention. It was a one-sided, dry love. I wanted people to look at me the way they did Court. I rolled onto my back and chewed on my peas. I kind of liked them.

The next day I asked Court to introduce me to her friends.

“You make fun of cheerleaders,” she said.

“I won’t anymore. I want people to like me.”

She nodded. “They will, Lee. I do.”

Court snagged me an invite to a sleepover, complete with all her giggly friends. Despite her reassurance, her friends had not liked me. They were thirteen-year-old bitches, heavily sedated by their mother’s opinions. They ended almost every sentence with the words sweetie or awesome. I didn’t want to be like those girls. I didn’t want to be like my mother. When one of them asked why I hung out with the math geeks, I’d snapped.

“They talk about more interesting things than you.”

The girl — Britney — had looked at me like I was something detestable. She’d cocked her head and smiled at me. I could almost see her cardigan-wearing mother doing the same thing. “She’s a lesbian,” she’d announced to the room. The rest of the girls nodded, like it was a completely acceptable explanation for my strangeness.

Court’s face had dropped. She’d looked so disappointed in me.

“I’m not a lesbian,” I’d said. But, my voice had been weak, unconvincing. The girls had already taken Britney’s word for it. They were already avoiding my eyes.

I’d looked around the room at their stupid, hair-sprayed, pink-lipped heads and said a loud “Fuck you!” before storming out. I felt mildly guilty for casting a shadow over Court’s social game. She’d recover. She was too pretty not to. When she came home, she stormed into my room and folded her arms across her chest.

“Why would you do that?” She’d asked. “You ask me to help you and then you act like an idiot in front of my friends.”

I shook my head. Was she kidding?

“Court, it was them. What are you talking about?”

“You made me look really bad, Leah! You’re so selfish. I’m so sick of your drama.”

She turned to leave, but I’d jumped up and grabbed her arm. I couldn’t believe she was saying this. It’s like they were slowly stealing chunks of her brain and replacing it with their lesser functioning ones.

“That’s not fair! You’re my sister. How can you take their side? Britney lied to everyone. You know I’m not a lesbian.”

Courtney had jerked her arm away. “I don’t know that.”

I’d opened and closed my mouth in shock. My sister — my Courtney had never spoken to me this way. She’d never taken anyone’s side over mine. I felt like someone was burning a hole through my chest, it hurt so bad.

“You’re ruining things for me,” she’d finally said. “They’re my friends. You’re my sister. It bothers me when they say stuff about you. Just please, leave it alone and don’t run your mouth any more. You’re making things hard for me.”

I swallowed my response and nodded. I could do that for her.

We never spoke about what happened after that day, but she was weird with me for a long time. Her friends made a point of snickering when they walked past me in the halls of our private school. They spread rumors too — told people that they caught me masturbating at the sleepover. All this and Court never spoke a word in my defense. I never spoke a word in my defense. I started wondering if she believed them.

In a few weeks, I was declared a lesbian by every popular kid in the seventh and eighth grade. When the rumors finally made it back to my parents, they sent me to Bible camp for the summer. I loved it. I met a Pastor’s son and lost my V-card in the bushes behind the communal bathroom. I came back with an affirmed taste for men. Of course, that didn’t stop the lesbian rumors when school started again. Britney took it upon herself to make sure every girl in her grade and mine knew that they shouldn't undress in front of me in the locker room. The boys would elbow each other in the hallways, snickering and making comments as I walked by. It was terrible. Hurtful. Courtney didn't correct them — that was the worst part. Our bond frayed and snapped, all under the cruel fingertips of Kings High School. I had become used to it in a way, I expected that it was the same way I had become used to my parents’ hands-off approach with me.

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