There are two things you should know about Ben Philippe. One is that he’s a debut author. His book, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager, is full of snark, self-realization, and, yes, more snark. Which leads us to fact number two, which is that he is an overall riot. We mean, just look at his dedication:
TO MY MOTHER, BELZIE.
I WOULD HAVE MADE A TERRIBLE DOCTOR, MOM. PEOPLE WOULD HAVE DIED.
Ben says that he’s been told in some ways that he’s like his main character, Norris Kaplan. Norris is a Black French Canadian who’s been forced to move from Canada to Austin, Texas. Obviously, everything he knows about American high school he’s learned from his favorite TV shows and movies, so he has some trouble navigating the stereotypes he thought to expect versus the people he actually encounters.
So, take a break from your Ariana Grande Christmas album and read a sneak peek of The Field Guide to the North American Teenager, which we guarantee will make you LOL in your onesie.
IDENTIFYING CHARACTERISTICS: Abundance of food trucks, strip malls, and concert T-shirts worn by grown adults.
HABITAT: 104 degrees. Generally inhospitable to human life.
OTHER FACTS: Observed slogan “Welcome to Austin: Please Don’t Move Here.” Hypothesis: environmental insecurity masked as pride.
Twenty-three minutes after landing at the Austin airport, Norris Kaplan could confirm that life in Austin, Texas, really did come with “a unique flavor,” as had been aggressively promised by all his mother’s tourism pamphlets. Unfortunately for Norris, and just as he’d predicted, none of this flavor, tang, zest, piquancy, whatever you might call it, was hospitable to your average Canadian.
No, to your average Canadian—black French Canadian no less—Austin, Texas, blew baby chunks.
From the moment he left Montreal, people had been squinting at Norris’s T-shirt. Only one little kid, back at their first lay- over at JFK, had appeared to approve of the insignia, giving Norris a big grin. Since then, it had been a sea of neckbeards whose glances went from confused to hostile at the fact that a sports team logo had stumped them.
This was offensive to Norris on multiple levels. Specifically, three:
- The white-rimmed navy C with an H in its mouth left no doubt to the team—especially against the red of the worn-out shirt.
- These people were way too comfortable gawking at a teenager’s chest in public.
- The Habs—or Canadiens of Montreal—were an iconic, nay, historic team. These people ought to be ashamed of their ignorance.
As Norris had learned over these past few hours, one of the ways in which Airport People interacted was by recognizing each other’s self-branding. College shirts, home state visors, high school rings. He’d witnessed nods of approval, high fives, and fist bumps occur without the two parties even slowing down from their respective paths. His mother, Judith, was less skeptical.
“Honestly, Nor, even you can’t write off an entire state—” “Country.”
“—country because your T-shirt didn’t get recognized in an airport. You’re being ridiculous.”
“I wasn’t writing off anything,” Norris had grumbled, pulling up his headphones. “I’m just saying it doesn’t bode well. Like seeing a white dove before going to war.”
All his life, Norris could count on his ability to strike up a conversation with anyone—French or English speaker, black or white—based on this sigil. Hockey was a third language back in Montreal. Where they were headed now, it would apparently only be a third eye in the middle of his forehead, as would most things about him. Black. French. Canadian. Based on sitcom jokes alone, Norris knew Americans were predisposed to dislike all three of those things. Why his mother couldn’t see—or at least acknowledge—that was beyond him.
Now that they had landed, however, the biggest offender was unquestionably the Texan heat.
“. . . I mean, good God! This is inhuman!” Norris groaned loud enough to be a bother to bystanders as they exited the airport and entered the taxi line. The heat hit him like a wall. “Who did this?!”
“Norris . . .” Judith sighed, fanning herself with some Wonders of Sixth Street! pamphlet she had grabbed somewhere along the way. “Please don’t start.”
“No, Mom. I want a name,” Norris said, pulling out his phone and navigating to the Wikipedia page for Austin, Texas. Sub- category: History. “Who decided to build a city here? What sick wagon of explorers stopped here and went: Guys, the surface of the sun is looking a little out of reach for the horses; let’s just settle here.” Norris pinched the fabric of his shirt and fanned himself. They were naturally sweaty people, both of them. Norris knew he could get his mother to break on at least this one point.
“‘Stephen Fuller Austin’!” He read aloud as the page finally loaded. Even his phone hated him here. “‘The Father of Texas. 1793 to 1836.’ Burn in hell, Stephen Fuller. Or, actually, he’d probably enjoy that, the degenerate. I hope you’re in heaven, enjoying a cool breeze. How’s that, Stephen?” Norris asked. His last hope was annoying his mother to the point that Judith might throw her arms up, turn them around, and book two direct over- night flights to Quebec.
“It’s not that hot,” she said, earning her a deadpan glare from her son.
It was the lying from one’s parent that really offended Norris. “I will take a vow of silence for forty-eight hours if you raise
your arm right now,” he said, nodding to the pit stain rapidly spreading under the arm of his mother’s blouse.
“That’s—I don’t—” Judith sputtered, self-consciously tightening her grip on her armpits. “Do you know what my mother would have done to me if I talked to her that way back in Haiti?”
He smiled. “Now, Mom, don’t joke about that. They take child abuse seriously here in America,” he said, steadily raising his voice with a smirk. “Right up there with beer and the second amend—”
“Norris!” Judith snapped, a whisper of a scream delivered through gritted teeth. Of all the things Norris disliked about leaving his life behind, his mother’s paranoid insistence that they become apolitical while living in Texas had provided Norris with the most enjoyment. It’s not that you can’t have an opinion, she had told him. You just need to have less of them. People won’t always know when you’re joking.
Norris was just wondering how far he could go into an off- the-cuff firearms reform rant when they made it to the front of the line and a taxi miraculously appeared.
“About time!” Judith exclaimed. “I’ll grab the left one, you grab the right,” she said, hauling the suitcase into the trunk.
Maybe it was the new country, the new job, but Norris had to admit that it was pleasant to see his mother so . . . peppy, after months of watching her refresh her inbox every morning with too much hope. Creole and Patois scholars weren’t in high demand in North America, as it turned out. Her smile would dim with every inevitable rejection of her candidature for adjunct vacancies, but as soon as she noticed Norris watching her, she’d turn it back on. A full tenure-track offer was a rare stroke of luck; Norris knew that too. It’s just, God, why did it have to be freaking Texas?
From the back of their cab and through the blanket of waving heat, Norris took in the city that was now their home. Everything really was bigger here, as it turned out. The buildings, the highways, the trucks. It made sense, really. With this much heat, you needed shadows. He didn’t spot warehouses of spurs and other cowboy accessories, and there weren’t any stagecoach collisions on the highway, but he did count no less than four Keep Austin Weird signs and one Welcome to Austin: Please Don’t Move Here tag. Austin was definitely a city with a very imbued sense of self, Norris thought. Maybe the rest of America had praised it too much as a child.
“It’s an amazing city, Norris,” Judith continued, intent on selling him on the city even now. She pulled another pamphlet out of her bag and foisted it on him. “They have movie festivals, music festivals. . .. That South by Southwest thing? . . . Ooh, Elijah Wood has a house here!”
“In what universe is that a selling point?”
They drove past a high school—or rather, a ridiculously massive football field and a square building in the background flanked by yellow buses that Norris assumed to be a high school. The grass on the field was so green compared to the rest of the brown patches of lawn that Norris would bet his life it had to be plastic. For all he knew, this might even be his high school.
“It’s not,” Judith said, doing that thing where she read his mind like it was just part of the ongoing conversation. Mother’s intuition, she called it. “Your school is Anderson High, near Pflugerville, I think? It’s ranked very highly.”
“What’s with all the orange?” Norris continued, eyes on his window. Every banner, every convenience store archway was in the same exact shade. Truly, an upsetting amount of orange. Was there even any orange left in the rest of the world?
“Burnt orange,” Judith said, already in the middle of a different pamphlet. “The Longhorn football team’s official color!”
“Austin blood!” the cab driver suddenly exclaimed, reminding Norris of his existence. He was skinny and the back of his neck was peppered with brown freckles. Burnt orange freckles, Norris thought.
The man’s eyes found Norris through his rearview mirror. Going by his mother’s glare, it was clear that Norris had done that thing where he scoffed without realizing it. It wasn’t an altogether-rare occurrence.
“You a big sports fan, son?” the man asked, squinting at Norris’s shirt from the rearview. Norris frowned. When was the last time the man had used a verb?
“Oh yes!” Judith eagerly confirmed. “Boys and their sports.
Some things don’t change, wherever you are.”
The driver chuckled. Norris could swear he’d detected a hint of fake Texan already slipping into his mother’s grossly hetero- normative statement.
“What is that C on your shirt there, son? Colorado?” the man asked with a furrowed brow.
“Hmm, well, I know that’s not the Carolina Panthers,” he continued pensively. Norris had apparently entered a nonconsensual game of charades. “Not Charlotte, is it? What do you call ’em, the Charlotte Hornets? Is that what the H is?”
A man can only be pushed so far. “Actually, sir, the C is for cock—”
“Canadiens!” Judith exclaimed as she simultaneously pinched Norris’s arm. Hard.
“Habs,” Norris corrected for the millionth time. Canadiens might be the team’s official name, but any fan that had ever called Montreal home knew to call the beloved team by their alternate moniker: the Habs. Short for Les Habitants.
“Uh. Weird name,” the driver commented without a follow- up. The fun for him was apparently in the guessing.
Norris continued to stare out the window as they cut through the University of Texas’s campus, an entire neighborhood of girls in loose ponytails, baggy T-shirts, and orange short-shorts. Austin had legs going for it, Norris could concede that.
“Fifty-one thousand, three hundred and thirty students,” Judith said, eyes on the white tower that seemed to mark the center of campus. “Can you imagine?”
It had taken a few years for Norris to understand why, to his mother, Montreal, New York, Boston, Vancouver, and even London were simply points on a map when she’d been applying to positions. Deep down, she was a complete nerd. She made a living translating on the side but being in a classroom was where her first-generation nerdy heart lay. So: Texas.
The cab took them to what appeared to be a residential area. There was dead grass everywhere. Dead and wet, as if it had been sweating. “We just had a rainstorm. It was a doozy,” the driver said. “Now, I myself like the rain. Always have! Especially after the drought we had through Christmas.”
Norris thought back to the mountain of snow left behind on their old apartment’s balcony, to the two sets of keys left behind on their old kitchen counter that morning, and some- thing rang in his chest. He hadn’t realized until just now that he would never see it melt come spring. Nor would he be ordered to begrudgingly shovel it after weeks of putting it off. Right now, one hour ahead, in a different time zone, his best friend, Eric, was probably practicing his puck on the ice rink behind their building—a flea market parking lot that the city iced every winter for kids.
“I am not forgetting about Whistler,” Norris said apropos of absolutely nothing.
Eric’s uncle had a condo in the town, and his belated gift to his nephew had been two week-long early spring passes to Whistler Blackcomb, one of the largest ski resorts in the world, for him and his friend to enjoy during the upcoming spring break. He would be away on business and put a lot of stock in being his only nephew’s “cool uncle.” He had a man bun, for Christ’s sake.
Whistler had been one of the carrots his mom had dangled in front of him when Austin had first crept into their dinner conversations. You can absolutely still fly back for that! Judith had said. Canada is not disappearing, Norris. Neither is your friend.
Another wrinkle that made returning to Montreal for spring break a necessity was that Eric was now gay. Well, had always been gay, obviously, but had only now started telling a select few people, which, as far as Norris knew, consisted only of himself, their friend Stephanie, and two of Eric’s cousins. The revelation that the best friend who’d showed him how to get around Judith’s porn blockers had been gay was a bit of a shock. Not because Norris had an issue with it, but because with two words, a thousand conversations now would be remembered in an entirely different light. They’d finally begun to settle back into their groove when Norris was whisked off to America. And now, here he was, two thousand miles away.
Of all the casualties of this relocation, Eric was undoubtedly the biggest one. Well, second-biggest one.
“We should call Dad tonight,” Norris added.
“Of course,” his mother answered with a controlled smile set to “motherly.” “I’m sure he’d like that.”
Norris looked out the window. The rest of the drive was mercifully quiet.
APPEARANCE: Tricolored plumage, “stylish” glasses.
FEEDING HABITS: Half-eaten containers of Light & Fit yogurt known to linger on desk past eleven a.m.; copious amounts of caffeine.
MATING HABITS: Thankfully not observed.
Anderson High looked nothing like a school. At least, not like any that Norris had ever seen. It was a big monstrosity that reminded him of a mall, another one of Texas’s looming brick boxes with long, vertical windows running through it. The sight of it made him sharply miss the cathedral-like exterior of Collège Français secondary with its old brick finish and Gothic archways, remnants from its earlier days as a monastery to Quebec pastors. Norris imagined it now, under piles of bright January snow with a few shoveled entrance points, as their car pulled up in front of Anderson High’s cement exterior the next morning. Distantly, he wondered if his locker, right over Eric’s, would stay empty through the rest of the school year or if it was scheduled to house some new student’s hockey calendar and grimy ice skates. “Time’s a factor, sweetie,” Judith said as patiently as she could, waving for another unnecessarily large burnt orange pickup truck to drive around them.
“I know, I know,” Norris said in a huff. His mother did not seem to get that this was a decision that could come to define his next two years of existence. Dad being in Ottawa with Janet, the baby, and “no real room for a teenager to stay more than a few weeks at a time” had closed that door pretty quickly, meaning he now had to clock two years in Texas—or 11.7 percent of his total life experience so far, not that he was counting.
“Fine, okay!” Norris swiftly removed his Canadiens T-shirt. As their flight in had proven, a bright red T-shirt with the letter C on it was not the best way to fly under the radar here. The fabric was already damp against his skin; he had only been away from conditioned air for that short walk from their new front door to the car that morning. God, what if he was dying or something?
“I’m buying you some medical antiperspirant on the way home today,” Judith said. Mind reading: today of all days.
“You know, you could stay home if you wanted,” Judith said. “Just today. Nothing happens on the first day back.”
Norris paused, shocked. In response to this clear ripple in the reality matrix, he imagined a violent car crash suddenly taking place on some distant highway somewhere. School was never optional in their household. Colds, swollen gums from dental surgery, hockey playoffs, divorce court hearings: unless there was a discernable fever, Norris couldn’t remember the option to skip a day ever being on the table. If he needed a sign that she was as nervous as he was, this was it.
“No point in putting off the inevitable,” he answered with a shrug. This wasn’t simply to soothe her nerves; tolerance for new faces was probably as high as it would ever be on the first day back from Christmas break. Tomorrow, Norris would be even more of an intruder to the school than he was now.
“That’s my boy!” Judith answered with a smile.
Norris pulled a fresh, label-free black T-shirt from his back- pack, bundling the wet mess of his 1993 Habs tee and discarding it in the back seat. With prayers and offerings, the hockey gods would hopefully forgive this betrayal in time for the Stanley Cup. “The other parents are going to think my kid gets dressed in the car,” Judith said with a chuckle that conveyed she would not particularly care if they did. As if on cue, Norris pulled his head out of the shirt just in time to catch a Texan mother in white capris and high red hair stunned by his momentarily exposed nipples.
“We’re black foreigners in a rental car, Mom,” Norris said, pulling the shirt down. “They probably already assume we live in this Toyota.”
“Now, honestly, you shouldn’t—”
“I know, I know,” Norris said. “I shouldn’t go in expecting to hate it.”
“Well, no,” Judith scoffed. “Of course, you’re going to hate it!” “Reverse psychology. Controversial but effective parenting strategy, researchers say.” Norris smiled.
Judith continued as if he hadn’t spoken at all. “You’re going to hate it the same way you’ve hated absolutely everything from the moment we got here. From the ice the new fridge makes . . .”
Crushed, not cubed.
“. . . to the smell of the grass here . . .” Artificial and plasticky.
“. . . to the layout of the grocery stores . . .”
What respectable community put Cleaning Products between Fruits & Vegetables and Canned Goods?
“. . . Even the fact that people here like football!”
Okay, that one was an exaggeration. It wasn’t the fact that Austinites liked football. There was nothing philosophically wrong with the practice of football itself; Norris had been known to catch the Super Bowl here and there back home. It was that there were seventeen fantasy football leagues in their zip code alone.
“So, yes, you’re going to hate it at first,” Judith concluded. “And that’s fine. It’s not ideal—Lord knows it can be trying—but I understand that’s how you’re processing this, which was . . . big. Is big. It’s a big change I sprung up on us, this Texas thing. So, it’s okay if you need to fuss through it for a little while.”
Norris gave his mother a look that could curdle ice cream and swallowed his five-prong reply lest it be classified as “fuss.”
“Anything else, Mother?”
Judith drummed her fingers alongside the steering wheel as if trying to remember a specific chapter of an old parenting book. Behind them, another car gave up on the honking and took the hint to go around. Burnt orange minivan with a Longhorns sticker on the bumper.
“I love you,” she suddenly spit out.
Norris paused, shocked. Another ripple in the matrix.
“I love you too? Jesus—why are you being so weird?” he asked.
“I love you,” Judith repeated as though the first one had been for Norris’s sake and this one was for hers. “So if you really can’t stand it”—she nodded over to the school— “if you give it a real shot, your best shot, and being here away from your friends and hockey and Montreal makes you truly miserable, as opposed to just regular teenager miserable, well . . .”
“Well, that will be a conversation. Canada isn’t going any- where . . . but you have to try, okay?” Judith said. “I mean it, Norris. Try to make friends, try to get along with teachers. No international incidents on day one because you couldn’t control your, y’know . . .” she added, moving her palm haphazardly.
“Your mouth, boy!” Judith said, stopping short of poking Norris in his chest. “Your fricking mouth. This is a new school, and these people don’t know you yet. So watch what you say to them. There are no such things as second impressions. And if we’re going to pack it all up and go back home, which I’m putting on the table, then you have to actually try.”
Just like that, “not trying” was no longer an option. Because Norris knew she’d meant it all. The way his mother loved him was occasionally vexing in how overwhelming it could be. Like the sun or some other celestial body; facing it too directly might kill him.
“Fine,” Norris conceded, one foot already out of the car. “I’ll try.”
“Bienvenue, Norris! Bienvenue!” exclaimed admissions officer Laura Kolb. Through the glass door, she’d looked like one of those impossibly compact elderly women who only managed a single city block every day to stave off death. But as soon as she’d spotted him, Laura Kolb had sprung to life.
“Welcome to Texas! We are so happy to have you!” she said, vigorously shaking Norris’s hand from across her plexiglass desk and pulling him down onto a chair in a single motion. Her cheer- fulness went right past caffeinated to medicated.
Like everything else in the school, the office itself was sleek and modern, at complete odds with the framed photographs, teddy bears, and stacks of mugs that had been added in to sup- press this cold, contemporary look. Going by the photos lining the walls of her office, Laura Kolb was definitely a lifelong Texan. There was a lot of posing in front of various landmarks in sunglasses.
“Nous sommes thrilled . . . happy? Joyeux? Joyeux! Joyeux de te recevoir ici,” she said pointing both index fingers downward. “Ici, Anderson High!”
Norris widened his eyes. Just what fresh hell was this? “You’re from Montreal, right? Oh, j’adore Montreal! I visited, gosh, what, fifteen years ago? What a time, I tell you!”
“Yeah, it’s a grea—” Norris started.
“Wait, are you from Montreal or, like, a nearby town?” she asked teasingly, as if she’d just caught him in a lie. “Like how everyone from Round Rock says they’re from Austin because ain’t no one outside of Texas knows what Round Rock is?”
“Um, no. Montreal.”
“Sorry, am I going too fast? Of course I’m going too fast,” she asked and answered in the same breath. “Don’t feel bad, I’m a fast talker. Since I was a kid, they tell me! Right, right: I . . . par- ler . . . rapide! Since tout petit? Toute petite! Oui!”
She squeezed both hands together to emphasize that petit
“Not to worry: we prepared for just this eventuality!” she continued, reaching into her drawer. She wiggled her eyebrows at Norris in a conspiratorial way and pulled out a yellowed translation book. English 2 French & Back Again!!! was splashed across the cover.
“We’re actually a very international school,” Kolb explained, paging through the book. “Why, in my time here, we’ve had students from Beijing to Latin America, and—”
“I speak English,” Norris interrupted on what he erroneously thought might have been a pause for breath.
“Yes. Very well, Norris!” she said distractedly as she continued to page through the book. She made sure to pause between each word. “You speak English very well!”
“Ma’am? Ma’am? Yes, hi,” Norris said, waving his hand to emphasize his existence. “These weren’t three memorized words just now. I speak English fine . . . well, some might even say.”
“Oh,” Mrs. Kolb said, looking at Norris. She seemed disappointed.
“Plus, my mom’s a linguist, so I’m probably one of five kids here that know the difference between who and whom. So, there’s really no need for . . . that.” He gestured at the manual.
Kolb blinked furiously and very slowly closed it.
“’Course this is a good thing!” She began to rapidly flip through a stack of papers that had been preemptively placed at the corner of her desk. “Guessin’ you won’t need these!” She swiftly removed three sheets from the stack, one of which, even upside down, Norris could read to be labeled Translator Request Form.
Kolb stopped and looked back up to Norris, her expression still perplexed.
“I don’t mean to be rude here, it’s just, I was told a French Canadian was coming in and, well—” She motioned to the whole of Norris as if the demand for an explanation were obvious.
“Quebec is bilingual.” He shrugged. “Je parles les deux langues depuis la maternelle. I’ve been speaking both since preschool. It’s pretty common up there.”
“Well, ain’t that a thing!” Kolb exclaimed. “I knew that hoity- toity waiter could understand English! I knew it! I mean, look at you: y’all barely have accents at all!”
“Merci beaucoup, madame Kolb, l’urètre du clown me semble amplement vaste,” Norris answered with a smile, making sure the cadence of his voice in no way reflected “ample clown urethra.”
Kolb laughed as if Norris had just paid her a compliment. Incredibly childish, yes, but he figured he could take some liberties on his first day.
Norris’s starter kit to Anderson High included his locker assignment, a folded football pennant for Anderson’s team— the Bats—and a sizable stack of pamphlets on everything from “pregnancy scare” to “bullying” with pit stops at “homophobia” and one that was simply the outline of a shotgun with a red X overlapped onto it. Norris was beginning to suspect that most of Austin’s city board was in the pocket of Big Pamphlet.
“I was going to alphabetize all of this for you, but I suppose you can do that yourself now.” Kolb laughed, handing it to Norris with two hands.
“Start with A, end with Z, and there’s an N in the middle, right?” Norris mumbled.
Kolb let out a wry cackle that seemed to signal that it was time for Norris to take on the rest of his day.
“Ooh! One last thing,” she added as she saw him getting up to leave. “We had this initiative for diaries . . .” she began, reaching into a drawer.
“I’m not much of a diary keeper, ma’am,” Norris said, taking the proffered notebook. It was small and inoffensive-looking enough.
“Try it! You get to see the school, the city, the state, the entire American experience from an outside perspective!” Her voice had gone higher with every new perspective she’d listed. Jesus. How was this person in charge of children again?
“That perspective—that’s a rare gift,” Kolb continued. “And definitely something worth chronicling!”
“If the urge strikes you!”
Norris nodded a final time, hastily removing himself from view lest she be struck by any other brilliant ideas.
Outside Kolb’s office, he caught a reflection of himself in the metallic doors of the elevator. Generic black T-shirt, fore- head glistening with sweat, and looking so out of place with the passing blur of the other students behind him that it was almost comical. He wouldn’t want to be friends with the kid who was staring back at him either.
He had only ever attended two schools in his life—Holy Spirit Elementary and College Français secondary—and had seen enough of Judith’s old movies (she was a bit of a collecting junkie and he had a lot of free time) to grow up with a healthy fear of the American high school. Back to the Future, The Breakfast Club, Dazed and Confused, Can’t Hardly Wait, 10 Things I Hate About You, Mean Girls, Napoleon Dynamite, The Karate Kid . . . Not to mention the ad nauseam TV reruns of Freaks and Geeks; Beverly Hills, 90210; Gossip Girl; Friday Night Lights; and everything else in between. If the flavors were different—pack of quirky outsiders here, ruthless-borderline-feral popular girls there—it all mostly amounted to one thing: in versus out. And Norris Kaplan—black French Canadian Norris Kaplan—had no delusion about where he would fall in that demarcation.
Here in Austin, the point was not to enter the field at all. Norris didn’t want to join a band of misfit rascals, overthrow the social hierarchy, go to Sectionals, upend the bully, or kiss the prom queen. No, what he needed to do was endure. Seven hundred thirty days with room for summer vacations, Christmas breaks, and the occasional long weekends: that was the number. He took solace in that fact, really. All he had to do was make it through this day for the giant counter he kept in the back of his mind to update to 729. Easy.
Jocks and Cheerleaders
IDENTIFYING CHARACTERISTICS: Muscular, rarely spotted without a water bottle, athleisure wear.
HABITAT: The jock table, football stadium or other athletic field, keg parties.
PREENING HABITS: Extensive.
MATING HABITS: Frequency of copulation typically overexaggerated.
It turned out that enduring wasn’t so easy after all. For the next two days, Norris couldn’t seem to stop drawing attention to himself.
Exhibit A: Norris’s very first class in his entire tenure at Anderson High—Advanced Chemistry with Frappuccino fan Mr. Donovan Goade—where three tall and interchangeably large guys all wearing the same dark red sweatpants had entered the room, making as much noise as possible in the process.
“Why am I here again?” one of them complained as he slammed himself into the seat to Norris’s left. He had a literal red neck and close-cropped hair hiding a prematurely receding hairline. It was a strong recession too. Like Obama’s first term.
“Because you failed last semester, dumbass,” the one who moved to his right said, wafting the same scent of protein pow- der pancakes and shower gel.
“He could have passed me! Goade just hates me for no rea- son!”
“Well, you did take a dump on his car,” said the last one to enter, casting Norris a dark look. He grunted and moved to a window seat, one row ahead.
“Allegedly took a dump on his car.”
“Allegedly sent around a selfie of yourself smiling in front of the steaming pile.”
The other two laughed. They didn’t need varsity jackets for Norris to recognize them. Jocks. Subcategory: unquestionably football, each of them a six-foot-five outline that would inevitably tip from “beefy” to “neckless” halfway through college.
And though Norris had not meant to look, had fully intended to avoid eye contact with the jocks, he made the fatal error of doing just that. He would now pay the price for weeks to come. (See Exhibit C.)
Exhibit B: In English, he made the mistake of volunteering a correction when someone was at the board during a truly random round of dictations. Which was apparently a thing, as Mrs. Gallo did not believe in keyboards.
“There’s no s,” Norris had simply said. “The plural of moose
is just moose.”
“Well, there you go, eh!” someone answered right on cue from the back. The unending snorts that followed signaled to Norris that it was best to stay away from all things deer- and elk-related.
Exhibit C: It didn’t help that someone kept playing a ringtone version of “O Canada” from their phone whenever he was at his locker.
The one thing Anderson High had going for it was an average student body of 658 students per class year. Six hundred fifty-nine would not drastically change things, Norris continued to remind himself. And yet Receding Hairline, Hairy Armpits, Protein-Shake-Crusted Upper Lip, and the rest of their brood— Norris went out of his way not to learn their names, as the ones he assigned were better—had clout at this school. Whatever the jocks talked about or mocked, so did their girlfriends and those girlfriends’ carfuls of friends, along with the wannabes and hangers-on. Somehow he’d rattled the top of some horribly clichéd pyramid. As he suspected, Original Thought had died in the desert on its way to Texas, baked under the sun for a few miles, and been slaughtered for sustenance when provisions had dwindled.
Judith’s constant nudges inquiring about how things were going at school and if Norris had made any new friends did not make things any easier.
Finally: the freaking heat. He’d started bringing new T-shirts to school and changing whenever one got soaked through. The prescription antiperspirant worked but barely. Any hint of stress and the pits were back. Austin’s was the sort of heat that had left him three pounds lighter in less than a week.
“We need a T-shirt budget!” he had told his mom, throwing his bag into the back of the car after his first day.
“We definitely need a T-shirt budget,” Judith had agreed after the fourth laundry load.
Norris still hadn’t made it home without a wet T-shirt bundled at the bottom of his schoolbag.
His lunch breaks were spent meandering around the school, getting the lay of the land and avoiding the hassle of figuring out where to sit in the cafeteria. Plus, being car-less with only a foreign learner’s permit was a deterrent to travel. Soon, he’d have to sign up for some extracurricular time sinkhole. No way would Judith let him go on for too long with anything less than a top- ten-college-worthy schedule.
The school’s layout was one of the few things it had going for it. Norris actually enjoyed roaming the oppressively oversize halls when they were empty. He knew that if he walked confidently, no one would question where he was going or think he had nowhere to go. In a few days, he had figured out the best, coldest water fountain, and the bathroom where if absolute need be a quick, emergency flush-after-every-drop shit could be taken. Really, this building was less of a school and more of a series of contingency plans needed to make these eight-hour stretches tolerable.
He wasn’t lonely, just tremendously bored. The biggest fear was that three days in, Anderson High had already run out of anything new to offer.
Norris was just making his way from the second-floor bath- room by the school’s dance studio when he saw it. Him. He was cut off at the neck and worn down from years of facing the harsh sun of another floor-to-ceiling window, but it was definitely him. “J’accuse!” Norris snarled. Okay, fine. The French had a way of slipping through.
Stephen Fuller Austin, 1793–1836, according to the bronze plaque. He was, as expected, an even uglier man in 3D, with a wide forehead that pulled into the wide expanse of his baldness and a pinched, offensively crooked nose.
“You . . . asshole!” Norris raged, extending a middle finger at the man to whom he owed his cursed existence.
Norris considered kicking the pedestal, but the ridiculous- ness of his anger—because he really found himself irrationally angry at this prick frontiersman—caught up to him, and he couldn’t help but chuckle, imagining what his mom would say right now. Fussy, definitely fussy. Instead, Norris took out his phone and snapped a picture of the bust. It was the perfect reply to his mother’s earlier text wondering, How is it going 2day??
The first photo came out blurry, so Norris repositioned him- self for another. Just then the door to the adjacent dance studio swung open, slamming directly into him. He went flying, then sprawled onto the floor.
Excuse him, because apparently the side of his face had greatly injured the metal door.
What was looking down at him—in every sense of the word— was nothing short of a gaggle of cheerleaders. A haze? A miasma. A miasma of cheerleaders.
Unlike the jocks, cheerleaders in Texas weren’t what Norris had expected. No pom-poms or red miniskirts, for one. Norris had classes with a few of them and they all wore a variation of the same getup: high-above-the-knee mesh shorts; huge, baggy T-shirts rolled up to the shoulders; and ponytails that started at the center of their skulls. They were athletes in their own right, only switching from gym wear to sequined prom dresses with no in-between. As far as Norris could tell, the key requirements for membership seemed to be flexibility, a dash of self-importance, and extreme displeasure with his existence at the moment.
“Is that—” one asked.
“Yeah, the new Canadian,” the first one answered.
If it weren’t for the fact that she herself was black, the subtext of “Canadian” might as well have been a racial slur.
“You were in the way,” she continued, her hand still on the door.
“So what?” Norris snapped, rubbing his thumb along his phone’s screen as he got up—no cracks. “You bump into some- one, you apologize,” Norris said.
Two of her friends scoffed in faux outrage as the rest of them filed out of the studio.
“What were you even doing behind the door, pervert?” the angriest-looking one asked. From the four clashing shades of pinks she was currently wearing—sweatband, sneakers, top, and nails—Norris could tell there was a particular strand of vicious- ness in her heart.
“Ew, were you spying on us?” another one asked.
Norris glimpsed into the mirror-walled dance studio behind them.
“You’re kidding, right?” he couldn’t help but ask with a scoff. One of them darted an accusing chin toward his phone.
“I was taking a picture of that!” Norris said, waving a little too manically to the bust. The last thing he needed on his bio here was Village Pervert.
“Do you want to check my phone? I guarantee you there are no pictures of you on there.”
“She doesn’t want to touch your phone, freak,” Pink Alpha answered. “Who knows what it’s covered in.”
Just what the hell is wrong with this school?
The black one next to her stepped forward, hands now actually on her hips. Her fingertips were perfect squares and shiny white at the tips. “Guys, c’mon. He’s probably never seen marble before,” she said, pretending to stroke the Stephen Fuller bust, her eyes wide with fake wonder. “Y’all just carve things out of ice up there, right?”
Her friends started to laugh behind her, pretending to pretend to hide it.
“Eh?” one more added.
Norris had had enough. Biting his tongue hadn’t helped one iota, and the eh thing bothered him more than he cared to admit. If he was going to be known as “The Canadian” whatever he did, he might as well be an honest Canuck. Bridges were easier to burn down than to build anyway.
“Hmm, a bitchy cheerleader,” Norris said with a sigh. “You definitely get points for originality there.”
The girl instantly stopped fondling Fuller.
“What did you just say?”
“You can’t call her a bitch!” Pink Alpha all but shrieked. “Actually, I called her bitchy,” Norris corrected. “But I guess it does track that a bitch would behave in a manner that can be described as ‘bitchy.’ Aren’t words fun, Madison?”
Norris decided then and there that all their names had to be Madison: the brood of some Queen Mother Madison pushing out egg after slimy egg of mindless cheerleader drones some- where in the Texan desert.
“That’s seriously so sexist,” the black Madison said.
“I read that’s called a microaggression,” Pink Alpha Madison added.
Norris clicked his tongue, exploring every facet of the notion. “I don’t believe you read,” he eventually concluded. “I really don’t.”
“Look, you little hick—”
“Now, now, Madison—” Norris began.
“My name isn’t fricking Madison!” she snapped.
“At least one of your names is Madison,” Norris said, moving an encompassing finger across the half circle they now made around him. “Or Brittany, or Kaycee with two e’s.”
“I’m Madison, actually,” the blonde on the far left volunteered, sounding more amused than angry. She was even skinnier than her friends; probably high on the human pyramid but low in the social hierarchy. Norris suspected that she got thrown a lot but not always caught.
“Ha! I knew it!” Norris exclaimed. “We’ve got ourselves one Madison. Do we have an unplanned pregnancy next?”
Norris could swear he saw Madison—the one actually named Madison—stifle a smile.
“Do you have a death wish or something, Canada?” the one who had accused him of being a pervert asked.
Norris tried to appraise the situation as best as he could. Up close, their upper arms all had definition where his didn’t, and they were probably already prone to rage blackouts from all the low-calorie meals; he seriously might be on the verge of getting his ass kicked here. “Guy Pummeled into a Bloody Pulp by a Cheerleading Squad” was at least more interesting than “Peeping Tom Canadian.”
Just then, a camera flash went off.
“What the hell?” the angriest one—Hispanic with a long single side braid—shrieked, causing Norris to wince.
“Calm down, Meredith,” their mysterious photographer said. “It’s a camera flash; not the rapture.” She was dark skinned, Indian or Middle Eastern maybe, with artificially dyed dark red hair that showed black at the roots. “It’s not just false advertising: you girls really do bring that school spirit.” She snapped another picture; the flash exploding in their faces. “Stop that!” demanded one of the girls.
“No.” The girl gripped her expensive-looking camera with her left hand, holding it over her left shoulder as she looked around the hall, scouting for angles. Norris had never been to Paris—Montreal’s skinnier, chain-smoking cousin—but there was definitely a worldly, Parisian thing about her.
“How about minding your own business for once, Aarti?” “But your business is so much better choreographed than
mine,” she answered with a pout.
“Shouldn’t you be off going down on Ian?” a girl with expertly curled brunette waves asked with a sneer.
For a moment, Aarti seemed taken aback by the swipe. “Excuse me?” she asked coolly.
“You really thought he would leave me for you?” the brunette asked. “You’re pathetic.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Aarti answered. “She’s not going to admit it,” Meredith scoffed. “What, are
you going to blow my boyfriend next?”
Jesus, Norris thought. Texas cheerleaders really are just laboratory-engineered little bags of evil, aren’t they?
“Hmm, I don’t believe I’m on the schedule today, no,” Aarti answered with a bright and earnest smile that Norris had to remind himself was completely fake. He didn’t know who they were talking about; from the roll calls alone, he’d found this school had an astounding number of guys with three-letter names. Tim, Joe, Dan.
“But you should really have access to the master schedule, Meredith, since you’re technically his girlfriend and all. . . . Or, is that just an ornamental title? Like cocaptain.”
She brought her camera to her eye and snapped another picture of the outraged look on the brunette’s face.
“All right, claws in, people,” the one actually named Madison chimed in. “Mer? My dad needs me at the restaurant and you’re my ride, so can we please wrap this up?”
Meredith cast Norris and Aarti one more dismissive glare. “Yes, please,” she eventually said with an eye roll. “And if I
see one picture of me online I’m reporting a complaint and suing. My dad’s a lawyer.”
“Really? A real one, with a briefcase and everything?” Aarti asked distractedly, adjusting her camera’s settings. Oh, Norris liked her.
“Ugh, whatever! It’s called an antiperspirant, by the way,” Meredith said, eyes locked on Norris’s stained pits as she walked away. “That’s freaking disgusting.”
Before Norris could think of a comeback, the cheerleading phalanx was already in retraction, too far down the hall to even hear him.
“Well, that was interesting,” Aarti said, sidling up next to Norris.
Her nails were painted dark red and chewed at the top. Between the leather jacket and short dress, she looked better prepared for a Friday night in New York than a day at Anderson High.
“I aim to entertain, I guess. . . . Thanks for stepping in,”
Norris said, arms self-consciously clutched tight at his sides. “And I really wasn’t trying to take a picture of them.”
Aarti shrugged, as if to convey that she wouldn’t care if he had been.
“Okay, okay! Although, fair warning: I don’t think you’re going to get many invites to the Sadie Hawkins dance after this.”
Norris went through his inner lexicon of American high school customs.
“Is that the one where the girls ask—”
“—the boys out in some patriarchal tradition because a woman making a decision about who might get between her legs as opposed to the reverse is a magical once-a-year event that requires taffeta?” Aarti said as she put her camera away in its stylish case. “Yup, that’s the one.”
“Not what us ‘bitches’ deserve, then?” Aarti said in a tone that implied she’d heard the entire exchange before stepping in.
“Okay, I really wasn’t calling her a bitch,” Norris said before he could stop himself. “I said she was being bitchy, which is, y’know, more of a gender-neutral adjective these days. I mean, I’m kind of bitchy sometimes. Often, actually.”
Norris imagined his parents, Eric, and really everyone he’d ever met simultaneously rolling their eyes across the continent.
Aarti only smiled in response, eyeing him up and down again in an appraising sort of way that did not, definitely not at all, give Norris the tingle of a boner.
“Look,” he continued, finding himself oddly flustered. “I’m really not trying to, like, mansplain away problematic language, I swear. That was an assholic exchange you just witnessed, yes, but I’m really not an asshole.”
“Relax,” she said with a slight shrug. “They’re total bitches. Although . . . shouldn’t you say ‘the B-word’ instead of ‘bitch’? I thought Canadians were supposed to be polite?”
“Yes, we’re all overly polite, forage for berries in the summers, and craft simple wooden objects of great beauty around the fire at night.”
She laughed, and Norris immediately wanted to hear that sound again. “Good to know.”
A series of questions flooded Norris’s brain. Why did that girl say you’d serviced her boyfriend? Is there an actual schedule? Do you have a boyfriend?
“What was your name again?” Norris’s brain thankfully spit out instead.
“Aarti. Two a’s, one i.” She sounded like she was used to spelling her name out for people around here. “Aarti Puri.”
Something new, Norris thought.
“Indian parents. You?”
“Cool.” She nodded.
Norris was impossibly grateful that her nose hadn’t started to bleed at the concept of Haitians moving to Canada and that he wasn’t subsequently asked for a chart of his family’s migration patterns.
“See you around,” she added. And with that, she walked away, still mostly focused on her camera’s settings.
“Um, okay,” Norris sputtered. “Bye.”
Norris couldn’t help but stand there stupidly, watching her walk away. When her jet-black hair had finally disappeared from view, he reached into his pocket for the journal Kolb had given him. She had told him to write about his experience in Austin, hadn’t she? Well, for the first time, Norris had had an experience he actually wanted to catalog.
Aarti Puri might just be the most interesting part of Texas so far.