Listen up, book nerds! The excerpt we’re revealing for you today is for one heck of a hilarious and powerful book. It’s called The Exact Opposite of Okay by Laura Steven, and it’s one you’re going to want to pick up immediately. It follows a girl named Izzy who finds herself at the center of attention in terms of high school gossip after she’s caught in a compromising position with a politician’s son. She refuses to let the labels and rude stares get to her—until the situation spirals into a national scandal.
The Exact Opposite of Okay has a lot of important things to say, and Laura does so in such a hilarious and heartfelt manner. We’re, uh, a little obsessed. But who can blame us??
Scroll down to start reading The Exact Opposite of Okay now! Readers, meet Izzy O’Neill!
Look, you probably bought this book because you heard about how I’m an impoverished orphan at the heart of a national slut-shaming scandal, and you thought, Oh, great, this is just the kind of heart-wrenching tale I need to feel better about my own life, but seriously, you have to relax. I am not some pitiful Oliver-Twist-meets-Kim-Kardashian type figure. If you’re seeking a nice cathartic cry, I’m not your girl. May I recommend binge-watching some sort of medical drama for the level of secondhand devastation you’re looking for.
Either that or you saw the nudes, which, y’know. Most people have. My lopsided boobs have received more press attention than your average international epidemic, which I bet the supervirus population is furious about. All that hard work attempting to destroy the human race gone unnoticed.
But here it is, the unvarnished account of everything that went down my senior year, taken straight from the journal entries on my blog. Which is a big win for me because putting this together for you was practically no work on my part. When in doubt, always do the least amount of work possible, in order to preserve energy for important things like laughing and sex.
Don’t look at me like that. This is a book about a sex scandal, did you really expect me to be a nun and/or the Virgin Mary?
Tuesday, September 13
Going back to school after summer is, at the best of times, the absolute worst. So when you combine back-to-school melancholy with the literal hellscape that is being a high school senior—i.e., being asked “WHAT DO YOU PLAN TO DO WITH YOUR FUTURE???” six billion times per day—it’s a recipe for unprecedented misery and suffering.
We’re only a month in, and already I’m in the midst of an existential crisis. Hence starting this blog. I have little to no idea what I’m doing with my life, and I’m hoping typing up every single minor occurrence will help me figure it out. A flawless plan, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Just had a career counseling session with Mr. Rosenqvist, who is Swedish and very flamboyant. The dude tries really, really hard to make sure everyone FOLLOWS THEIR DREAMS [he is very shouty, hence the caps lock] and TAKES THE PATH LEAST TRAVELED and STOPS INJECTING HEROIN ON WEEKENDS. [I hilariously added that last one myself. To clarify: nobody at Edgewood High is in the habit of injecting heroin on such a regular basis that it would be of concern to our guidance counselor. In fact if you are a lawyer who’s reading this, please ignore every such allegation I make, because I really don’t need to add a libel suit to my spectacular list of problems.]
We’re sitting in Rosenqvist’s minuscule, windowless office, which I’m pretty sure is just a repurposed broom closet, if the lingering scent of carpet cleaner is anything to go by. He sits behind a tiny desk that would be more suitable for a mole person. There are filing cabinets everywhere, containing folders on every single student in the entire school. I would imagine there’s probably some sort of electronic database that could replace this archaic system, but thanks to endless budget cuts, my school has to do things the Old-Fashioned Way™.
So he’s all: “Miss O’Neill, have you given mach thought to vat you vould like to study ven you go to college next fall?”
[I’m going to stop trying to type in dialect now as I don’t want to appear racist. If you can even be racist to white Scandinavian men, which I am not sure you can be.]
Breathing steadily through my mouth in a bid to prevent the bleach smell from burning away my nostril hair, I’m all: “Um, no, sir, I was thinking I might do a bit of traveling, you know, see the world and such.” This is not actually a thing I’m considering, but it seems like something people say to career counselors when they have no idea what they’re doing with their life.
“So do you have money saved up to fund your flights, at least?” he asks, completely unperturbed by the decades-old feather duster that’s just taken a nosedive from the top shelf behind him. As an aspiring comedian and all-around idiot, it is very challenging for me to refrain from scoring the duster according to Olympic diving standards: 8.9 for difficulty, etc.
But back to the issue at hand: my negative bank balance. “No, sir, for I am eighteen and unemployed.”
Patiently moving the feather duster to a more secure location in his desk drawer, he shoots me a sympathetic look. A waft of moldy apple stench floats out of the open drawer, and he hastily slams it shut again. This place must violate at least a dozen health codes. “I see. And have you tried to find a job?”
“Good god, that’s brilliant!” I gasp, faux-astounded. “I had not previously considered this course of action! Have you ever considered becoming a career counselor?” [This may seem like a pretty ballsy thing to say to a teacher, but honestly, they’re used to my snark at this point.]
In all seriousness, my unemployment is a sore point. For the third time this year, I just handed out my résumé to every retailer, restaurant, and hotel in town. But there are too few jobs and too many people, and I’m never top of the pile.
He sighs. “I know it’s stating the obvious. But, well . . . have you?”
Grinding my teeth in mild irritation, I sigh back. “Yessir, but the problem is, even the most basic entry-level jobs now require at least three years’ experience, a degree in astrophysics, and two Super Bowl trophies to even be considered for an interview. Unfortunately, due to my below-average IQ and complete lack of athletic prowess, I am fundamentally unemployable.”
So ultimately, thanks to my lack of money and/or job, we both agree that jet-setting to South Africa to volunteer in an elephant sanctuary, while very noble and selfless, is not a viable option at present. Since, you know, air travel is not free, which I personally find absurd and unreasonable.
Rifling through my shockingly empty file, Mr. Rosenqvist then tries another tactic. “What subjects do you most enjoy in school?” He tries to disguise the flinch as he spots my grade point average.
I think about this for a while, tugging at a loose thread on the cushioned metal chair I’m perched on. “Not math, because I am not a sociopath.”
He laughs his merry Swedish laugh.
“Or science. See above.”
Another endearing chuckle.
As a feminist I feel immediately guilty, because everyone is trying to encourage girls into STEM subjects now, but to be honest I’m not dedicated enough to the Vagenda to force myself to become a computer programmer. Sometimes you have to pick your battles.
The thing is, I know exactly what career I’d like to pursue, but I’m kinda scared to vocalize it. Most guidance counselors are interested in one thing and one thing only: getting you into college. Schools are rated higher according to the percentage of alumni who go on to get a college education, and so career guidance is dished out with this in mind.
Plus the chances of success in my dream job are not high. Especially for a girl like me.
Rosenqvist continues his gentle coaxing. “What about English?”
Nodding noncommittally, I say, “I like English, especially the creative writing components. And drama.” Before I can talk myself out of it, I add, “Sometimes I write and perform comedy sketches with my friends. You know, just for fun. It’s not serious or anything.” Judging by the tingling heat in my cheeks, I’ve flushed bright red.
But despite my pathetic trailing off, he loves this development.
“FANTASTIC! FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS, MISS O’NEILL!” [Told you.]
So now, despite the fact that it’s not exactly a stable career path, I have a backpack stuffed full of information on improvisation groups and drama school and theaters that accept script submissions. I’m actually pretty grateful to Rosenqvist for not immediately dismissing my unconventional career ambitions, as so many teachers have before.
He even told me about his friend who does reasonably priced head shots for high school students. Granted, this sounds incredibly sketchy, but I am giving him the benefit of the doubt here, because I would be quite upset to discover Mr. Rosenqvist was earning a commission by referring his students to a pedophilic photographer as a side business.
Geography is, as suspected, a snooze fest of epic proportions. I think if you offered me $500,000 right this second to tell you what it was about, I couldn’t, and that is saying a lot because for half a million dollars I could both go to college and pay to have Donald Trump assassinated. [Apparently this is an illegal thing to say, so it’s important to clarify: I AM JOKING. In fact it is fair to assume that any legally dubious sentences at any point are jokes. I am not sure if this gets me off the hook or not, but I’m hoping so because otherwise I’m almost certainly going to jail, where I will rot forever because I do not have the patience for a Shawshank-style escape. In fact without Netflix it is perfectly possible my general will to live would just evaporate within the week.]
At some point when Mr. Richardson is droning on, I make eye contact with Carson Manning, who’s sitting in the next row. He’s a professional class clown so I instantly know I am in trouble, because my ability to resist laughter is nonexistent.
Carson smirks and holds up his pad of paper, revealing a ballpoint-pen doodle scribbled in the margin of his sparse notes. I would have guessed it’d be a drawing of a penis, because teenage boys love nothing more than sketching their own genitals, but I’m pleasantly surprised to see a charming caricature of Mr. Richardson. Doodle-Richardson has giant jowls and a tattoo of an alpaca on his arm. This is funny not because our geography teacher actually has such a tattoo, but because he reminds us at least once every thirty seconds about the time he went trekking in Peru and climbed Machu Picchu.
I snort with ugly laughter, but Mr. Richardson is too busy talking about tectonic plates or something to scold me.
Carson looks genuinely pleased by my reaction and smiles broadly, tiny dimples setting into his smooth brown skin. The black shirt he’s wearing is tight around his arms and shoulders—he’s the star player on the varsity basketball team and is in tremendous shape—and his blue beanie is slightly lopsided.
Even though we hang out in different social circles—him with the jocks, me with the hilarious people—I feel like I already know Carson. Like, as a person. Is that weird? We have a ton in common. We’ll both do anything for a laugh, and if the rumors are anything to go by, his family isn’t exactly rolling in cash either. In fact I think I might remember seeing him at the soup kitchen a few years back, when Betty had the shingles and couldn’t work for a while.
So yeah, Carson Manning. He’s good people. And not exactly terrible to look at. And . . . maybe he feels the same about me? I mean, why else would he show me his doodle? Or am I just an incredible narcissist? Probably the latter.
Either way. Interesting development.
On Mr. Rosenqvist’s enthusiastic recommendation, I find myself staying behind after school to talk to Mrs. Crannon, our drama teacher, about possible career paths. Like, I am actually spending more time on campus than is absolutely necessary. Of my own free will. This is clear, unequivocal evidence that mind control is real, and that my lovely albeit shouty Scandinavian guidance counselor is in fact some sort of telepathic dark lord. It is the only explanation. Well, not the only explanation. For those who do not believe in the supernatural, it is of course possible that Rosenqvist performed some sort of lobotomy on me during our session.
For all my cynicism, I do actually genuinely care about writing. But, as much as I would love to be, I’m not smart in the traditional bookish way—more in the “watches a lot of movies” and “is very talented at mocking everything” way. Which means academia is not exactly my preferred environment. It’s almost like teachers don’t want to be told their subject of expertise is a cruel and unusual punishment.
Anyway, Mrs. Crannon’s office is up a random back staircase behind the theater. I traipse up there once the final bell has rung and all other students have evacuated the premises. I’m armed with a notepad, a sample script, and a crap-ton of peanut butter cups, since talking to teachers in your spare time is a lot like getting a tattoo—you have to keep your blood sugar consistently high so you don’t pass out from the pain.
Though as far as teachers go, Mrs. Crannon is pretty great. She dresses in purple glasses and Birkenstocks and crazy tunics, and veers toward the eccentric side of the personality scale. And she always gives me great parts in school plays because I’m loud enough that the tech department doesn’t need to supply a microphone. I’m currently playing Daisy in The Great Gatsby, for example, despite not being elegant or glamorous in the slightest.
I’ve always liked Mrs. Crannon, but in a Stockholm syndrome sort of way. I mean, do any of us really like our teachers?
When I walk in, she’s sitting behind a desk piled high with playbooks, coffee mugs, and a massive beige computer that looks like it’s from the nineties [good old budget cuts]. The whole room smells like dusty stage costumes and stale hairspray. My favorite smell in the world.
“Izzy! It’s lovely to see you outside of rehearsals for once.”
She ushers me in and I take a seat on quite literally the most uncomfortable plastic chair I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter. It is the iron maiden of the chair world. I’m not exaggerating.
“Thanks,” I say, trying to give the pleasant expression of someone who is not in severe physical discomfort at the hands of a chair-cum-torture-device. “I brought peanut butter cups to compensate for the fact that I’m keeping you from getting home to Mr. Crannon.”
“Actually, I have a Mrs. Crannon.” She grins, waggling her left hand at me. Her engagement ring has a Dwayne Johnson of a diamond on it, and an elaborate wedding band sits next to it.
“Oh! Awesome. But let me get this straight.” [Or should it be “let me get this gay”? Honestly, what a minefield.] “You’re both called Mrs. Crannon? Doesn’t that get confusing?”
She laughs, cracking heartily into the packet of peanut butter cups I’ve plonked in front of her. “Yes, in hindsight we probably should’ve kept our own names. But I had to do something to keep my traditional Catholic parents happy.”
I grin. “Aren’t you tempted to write some sort of farcical sketch about two wives with the exact same last name?”
Mrs. Crannon smiles warmly. “Which leads us nicely on to your writing. Mr. Rosenqvist told me you’ve been writing your own comedy scripts? That’s great! Tell me more about that.” She leans back in her chair.
Suddenly I feel a little embarrassed, mainly because I can tell I’m expected to hold a normal adulty conversation at this point, not one that’s peppered with inappropriate gags and self-deprecating humor. And I’ve sort of forgotten how to do that.
Mumbling idiotically about Nora Ephron, my all-time hero, I reach into my satchel, which is decorated with an assortment of pins and badges to give the illusion that I am halfway cool, and pull out the sample screenplay I brought along. It’s a feature-length film I wrote over the summer, when I decided I wanted to branch out from comedy sketches of a couple minutes to a ninety-page comedy screenplay. Basically I just wanted to make people laugh, while also having the breathing room to tell an actual story.
The logline [i.e., a one-sentence pitch] is this: a broke male sex worker falls for a career-obsessed client with commitment issues. Essentially it’s an updated Pretty Woman that challenges gender stereotypes while also telling an impressive array of sex jokes. [Be honest. You would so see this movie.]
“You’ve already written an entire screenplay?” Mrs. Crannon gapes at me, clapping her hands together. “Izzy, that’s fantastic! So many aspiring screenwriters struggle to even finish one script. When I was a working theater director, I used to despair of writers who seemed incapable of seeing an idea through to the end. You should be very proud of yourself. Writing ‘fade out’ is quite the accomplishment.”
“Really!” She takes the script from me, examining the professional formatting and neatly typed title page. [My best friend Danny pirated the software for me on account of my severe brokeness. Don’t tell the internet police. Or, you know, the actual police.] “I’d love to take it home with me to read. Can I?”
This show of unbelievable support catches me way off guard. “You’d do that? Spend your own free time reading my work?”
“Of course I would!” She crams another peanut butter cup in her mouth, tossing the paper in the overflowing trash can behind her. It’s full of empty candy wrappers and soda cans. Obviously she is just as nutrition-conscious as me, which is precisely not at all. “I know how talented you are through working with you on school plays. You have me in stitches with your clever ad libs and witty improv.”
I blush fiercely. Again. “Thank you. It irritates the living hell out of most people.”
“Well, most people aren’t budding comedy writers in the making. Have you given much thought to what you’d like to do after leaving school? College? Internships? If you wanted to do both, USC is incredible for screenwriting—Spielberg is an alum—and you could intern during spring break and summer vacation while you’re in LA. Best of both worlds.”
I fidget with the zipper on the fake leather jacket I picked up at a thrift store last fall. This is the part I dread: coming clean about my financial situation. For the second time this afternoon. It shouldn’t be a big deal, and in day-to-day life it doesn’t bother me that much, but now that it’s actually having an impact on my future, it’s kind of uncomfortable to discuss.
But like I say, Mrs. Crannon is good people. So I tell her the truth. “Actually, I’m not sure I can afford college. I figured I’d just get a job here to support me and my grandma, and write in my spare time. Film a few comedy shorts if I can scrape together the cash.”
She frowns. The sound of her computer putting itself to sleep whirs through the quiet room. Even technology has zero interest in school after the final bell. “Have you looked into loans? For college, I mean.” Figures that’d be her next question.
“Kind of. But the idea of being in that much debt scares the crap out of me. Especially with no parents to fall back on.”
She rolls up the purple sleeves of her wild tunic, revealing a set of black rosary beads triple tied around her wrist. Another peanut butter cup bites the dust. She’s plowing through them with impressive speed. If consuming chocolate were an Olympic sport, Crannon would be on the podium for sure.
“I get it,” she says, in a way that entirely suggests she doesn’t get it at all. “I do. But you have to think of it as an investment. In yourself, in your future. It’s so clichéd, and I know you’ll have already heard it all with Rosenqvist, but you’re young, you’re bright, you’re ambitious. You have to go for it.”
I nod, but I feel a little deflated. It always leaves me feeling kinda empty when people preach “follow your dreams” to those with “do what you gotta do” kinds of lives, even though I know their hearts are in the right place. Maybe being reckless and risk-taking is an option for them, but for me it just isn’t.
Mrs. Crannon senses the shift in mood, even though I try my best to hide it from her. Showing vulnerability is about as appealing to me as sticking my face into a bucket of worms.
Wiping a smear of chocolate away from the corner of her mouth, she says, “I’ll help you in whatever way I can, Izzy. Dig out old contacts, keep an eye out for paid internships, recommend some places to submit your work while you’re still a high school student. USC would be great, but traditional college education isn’t the only way into the industry.” She smiles at me, and I can’t help but smile back. “We’ll figure it out. I promise.”
When I leave twenty minutes later, stuffed full of Reese’s and silently praying Mrs. Crannon actually enjoys my screenplay after all that hyperbolic encouragement, I realize that I don’t just like her in a Stockholm syndrome way. I like her in a human way.
So I do have a heart. Who knew?
I’m chilling at the diner with Ajita and Danny, my two best friends in the world. We have a mutual love of nachos and making fun of everything.
Martha’s Diner is super old school, with neon signs and jukeboxes and booths and checkered tiles. You have to take out a small mortgage to afford a burger, but their fries have been cooked at least eighteen times and are thus the most delicious substance on earth. Honestly, you should’ve seen the hype all over town when Martha’s opened. Largely from those people who post Marilyn Monroe quotes on social media and go on about how much they wish they were born in the 1950s. Like, calm down. We still have milk shakes and racism.
Anyway, we go there because the milk shakes are actually pretty good. And whenever I’m here, I like to embrace old-fashioned language, not just from the 1950s but also the whole of human history. It doth be a very enjoyable activity. [I have little to no ability to use medieval lingo in the right context. You just have to roll with it.]
Incidentally, Martha’s is also where my grandmother Betty begrudgingly moonlights as a pancake chef. I mean, it’s not exactly moonlighting when it’s her only job. But it sounds more glamorous if you say it that way. In reality she works twelve-hour shifts on bunion-addled feet and is in almost constant pain because of it, but there’s just no way she can afford to retire. That’s another reason I can’t go to college. Not just because of the tuition fees, but because I need to stay in my hometown and work my damn ass off to give her the rest she deserves after so many years of hard graft. It’s my turn to support her for once.
Anyway, I’ve just filled my pals in on my chat with Mrs. Crannon, and explained how I’m not as dead in the soul department as previously thought.
“And so, it transpires, I do in fact possess an organ of the cardiovascular variety,” I finish, triumphant.
“Interesting hypothesis, but I’m not sold,” Ajita replies, tucking a lock of black hair behind her ear and slurping her candy-apple milk shake. The henna on her hands is beginning to fade after her cousin’s Hindu wedding last month. “I mean, it’s pretty off-brand for you to care about people. In fact, short of an alien parasite feasting on your brain, I’m not convinced you have the capacity to like more than three individuals at any given time, and those slots are already filled by me, Danny, and Betty.”
“Valid point,” I concede. Smelling burned pancake batter, I peer past the server station into the massive chrome kitchen, trying to see if Betty’s knocking around. There’s no sign of her. She’s probably swigging from her hip flask out back while telling dirty jokes to the unassuming dishwasher. [To clarify, the dishwasher is a person. Not an appliance. My grandma may be nuts, but even she doesn’t engage kitchenware in conversation.]
“That’s cool of Crannon to read your script, though,” Danny says, stirring his salted caramel banana milk shake with three jumbo straws. He’s wearing a grubby Pokémon T-shirt I got him for his twelfth birthday, which still fits due to his scarily low BMI. “She didn’t have to do that.”
I nod enthusiastically. “Right? And she was so complimentary. She even likes it when I spontaneously ad lib during rehearsals. I did attempt to show some self-awareness and reference the fact that it renders most people homicidal, but she was adamant. She genuinely likes my banter.”
“Clearly the woman is unhinged,” Ajita points out helpfully. I flick a blob of whipped cream at her face. It lands on her nose and she licks it off with her freakishly long tongue. She’s about three feet tall, but her tongue is like that of a Saint Bernard. If I spilled my entire milk shake on the floor, for example, she could just vacuum it right up with her tongue without even bending down. It’s truly remarkable.
“Well, I think Izzy’s funny,” Danny mumbles, blushing furiously before disappearing under his unruly platform of matted hair.
Confused, Ajita and I exchange looks. Danny has literally never complimented me at any point in his life. Even when I was five years old and my parents had just died, ours was a friendship built on good-natured antagonism.
“To look at?” Ajita suggests.
“Shut up,” he says, not looking at either of us. “I’ll go pay for these milk shakes.”
And then he slides out of the booth and walks up to the cash register, where a large-of-breast freshman greets him with as much enthusiasm as she can muster for minimum wage.
“What on earth was that about?” I whisper to Ajita, too shocked to crack a joke. “He thinks I’m funny? What’s next, he thinks I’m also a fundamentally decent human being?”
“Let’s not get carried away,” she says hastily. “But wait, he’s paying for the milk shakes? Danny. Buying us things. Why? I think the last thing he bought me was a box of tampons, and that was just his pass-agg way of telling me I was overreacting during an argument.”
Having forked over the moola, Danny walks back across to the booth, tucking his wallet into his jeans pocket and looking rather pleased with himself. The Pikachu on his shirt smirks obnoxiously as he almost collides with a waitress carrying three club sandwiches. She shoots him a dirty look, but his gaze is fixed so intently on me that he barely notices. Then he smiles this weird bashful smile I’ve never seen before. Smiles. Danny. I mean, really.
I’m so stunned that all I can do is whisper unconvincing medieval lingo to Ajita.
“What, pray tell, the fuck?”
Wednesday, September 14
Honestly, I swear I’m the only person in the universe who realizes how pointless life is. People act like mere existence is some beautiful gift, completely overlooking the fact that said existence is nothing but the result of a freak accident that occurred a cool 13.7 billion years ago.
I mean, yes, said freak accident did bring about some awesome things, such as dogs and nachos and starry skies and daffodils in spring and peanut butter cups and laughing with your best friends and turning your alarm off on weekends and pizza and snow days and milk shakes and movies and waffles. [Should I be concerned that so many of these things are food related? Is my endless appetite really my raison d’être? Probably.]
But still. We’re all doomed to a limited number of sun orbits before we finally kick the bucket and end up in the same infinite hell as Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler. Perhaps I’m overthinking it, but what we do between now and then barely seems worth getting out of bed for.
Maybe I’m being melodramatic. I just really hate getting out of bed.
That last post is exactly why I created this blog. Can you imagine if I subjected my loved ones to such histrionics on a daily basis? I would almost immediately be banished to a cabin in the woods with nothing but birdsong for company. [For the record, birdsong is not on my list of awesome things brought about by the big bang. I find it obnoxious.]
So yes, the obvious solution to my ludicrous inner monologue was to start a blog in a random corner of the internet nobody is ever likely to find.
Also, I have little to no ability to voice my innermost feelings in real life. Why is it so much easier to type out your emotions and upload them into a bottomless void than it is to share them with your friends and family? It is truly one of the greatest philosophical questions of our time.
Seriously, the universe is weird. My parents were perfectly healthy and happy when their car was hit by a drunk truck driver [and obviously the truck too, not just the driver himself, that probably would’ve ended differently]. Boom, dead in an instant. But my grandmother, Betty, the woman who raised me from that day forth, is told repeatedly by doctors that she’s going to die soon, on account of her significant BMI. And she’s still kicking ass and taking names.
Anyway, even though the doctor repeatedly tells her she has to cut down on fat/sugar/carbs/basically everything fun, Betty makes French toast for breakfast this morning. She’s absolutely incredible at it, due to making delicious batter-based goods 807 times a day at the diner. Our tiny kitchen, full of ancient appliances so retro they’re now back in vogue, smells of sweet cinnamon and maple bacon. The old radio is playing a tacky jingle-based advertisement in the corner.
“What’s going on at school today, kid?” Betty practically whistles, ignoring the fact I’m feeding Dumbledore under the table. [Dumbledore is our dachshund, by the way. I’m not hiding the ghost of the world’s most powerful wizard in my kitchen.]
“Oh, the usual. Feigning interest in the periodic table. Pretending to know what a tectonic plate is. Trying and failing to be excused from gym class for the thousandth time this semester.” I stir sugar into the two cups of coffee perched on the batter-splattered counter. [Try saying that five times without giving yourself a tongue injury.]
This is our morning routine: she makes breakfast, I make coffee, and we chat inanely about our upcoming days. It’s been this way as long as I can remember.
“Would you like me to write a note?” she asks. “I’ll explain how your parents just died and you’re having a hard time.”
I snort. “Considering that was thirteen years ago, I’m not so sure they’ll buy it. Besides, a couple of teachers have actually been pretty cool about my career potential lately. That’s kinda motivating me to show up to class a little more often.”
We sit down at our miniature wooden table, tucking into stacks of French toast that slightly resemble the Leaning Tower of Pisa. She listens intently as I tell her all about my meeting with Mr. Rosenqvist yesterday, and about how delightfully Swedish he is, and also about his excitement over my sketches, which I have repeatedly told Betty not to watch even though I know she will anyway. Then I brief her about the subsequent awesome session with Mrs. Crannon, and about how the enthusiasm from them both has made me feel slightly more optimistic about my strange brand of social commentary combined with dozens of dirty jokes per page.
“They’re right to be excited, kiddo,” she agrees. “You’re hilarious. But how come you’ve never mentioned this screenplay of yours?”
“I guess I was just embarrassed,” I admit. “Like, what does some random teenager from the middle of nowhere know about writing movies?”
I almost confide in her about my fears of sticking out like a sore thumb in New York or Hollywood, if I ever make it that far, but I don’t want her to feel bad or anything. She knows I don’t care about being able to buy fancy things, and it’s not like I blame her for our financial predicament. But if she knew it was a big obstacle in my career path, she’d only end up feeling guilty. And that’s the last thing in the world I want.
“If your mom were here, she’d say . . .” Betty trails off, blinking fiercely. She almost never manages to finish a sentence about my mom. As predicted, she fixes a neutral expression back onto her face, and I let it slide. “You shouldn’t feel like a fraud. Everyone starts somewhere, right?”
Right. But for most successful people, somewhere isn’t here.
“Maybe we could look at buying you another camera,” Betty suggests, slurping her milky coffee through a straw. “I’ve been working so many doubles at the diner lately that I’m not actually behind on rent, for once. You may notice that the bacon we’re currently consuming is actually within its use-by date. We are practically living in the lap of luxury here. So I’m sure I could scrape together the pennies for a secondhand DSLR and a lens or two. You know, if you want.”
The suggestion sends a pang through my chest. Earlier this year, when I’d begun to realize how much I wanted to make it as a comedian, Betty bought me a nice camera and a light box so I could start up a YouTube channel. I filmed a couple videos, and I loved it. People responded pretty well too. One went vaguely viral. But it was a long, cold winter that stretched all the way into early April. Tourism was nonexistent because of the snow, and unemployment is high in our town. Plus the holidays always leave everyone broke for months. And when you’re broke, you generally don’t indulge in seven-dollar milk shakes. As a result, Martha’s was so quiet there wasn’t enough work for Betty, and I ended up having to pawn the camera to cover our gas bill. It sucked, but you do what you have to do.
“Nah, it’s all right,” I say to Betty. “I’m just gonna focus on writing scripts and skits for a while. All you need for that is a working computer, and if worse comes to worst I can always use the library.” I smile gratefully. “But thank you. I promise I’ll pay you back when I’m a comedy mogul.”
We chat about my weird brand of comedy for a while longer, which is fun because I get my wildly inappropriate sense of humor from her. She tells me about how back when she was young, it was considered unattractive for a woman to tell dirty jokes or do ridiculous impressions of political figures. And how that made her want to do it even more.
Every time I catch myself moping about my general lack of parents, or our dire financial situation, I just remind myself how lucky I am to be raised by such an incredible human who’s always taught me how to laugh, no matter what’s going wrong in my life.
I love my grandma. Especially when watching her feed crispy bacon to our chubby wiener dog and listening to her sing her own special renditions of popular nursery rhymes. Today it’s: “Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep and doesn’t know where to find them, largely because Little Bo Peep is fucking irresponsible and should not be in charge of livestock.” It’s tough cramming all those extra syllables into the last two lines but she really makes it work.
Danny meets me at my house so we can walk to school together, as we’ve done every weekday for a decade. I decide to forget all about the weirdness of last night in the diner and write it off as a strange anomaly that will most likely never be repeated.
“Morning,” he chirps, like a cockatoo or something similar, I don’t know. Like most people with better things to do, I’m not that clued up on bird species. And then—THEN!—he hands me a paper coffee cup with steam billowing out the top. “Picked you up a mocha.”
He doesn’t have one for himself. Only for me.
And just like that, any attempt to overlook his sudden and deeply disturbing personality transplant goes out the window.
“Oh. Um, thanks.”
“Don’t mention it,” he grins.
Sorry, but wtf. Danny and I have been friends since forever, and I’ve never seen him like this before. And we’ve been through a lot together. Especially right after my parents died. While the court was deciding who to grant custody to, his parents got temporary custody, since his mom is my godmother and all, so I lived with him for a few months. We played outside in his family’s sprinklers, running around in just our underwear and spraying each other with water from the hose. I remember liking it because nobody could tell I was crying almost constantly.
For a while we all thought I’d end up living with them, since the government had concerns over Betty’s ability to support me financially. Let the record show that I’m eternally grateful they chose her instead of the Wells. I mean, they’re amazing people, don’t get me wrong. But I can’t imagine being with anyone but Betty.
Anyway, all I’m saying is that if anyone’s gonna pick up on Danny being weird, it’s me. And he’s definitely being weird.
Regardless, the rest of the walk is fairly uneventful. We chat about the geography homework we both struggled to complete without slipping into a coma-like state. We discuss plans for tonight—torn between filming a skit or binge-watching Monty Python for the gazillionth time—and speculate about what movies will garner the most Academy Award nominations in a few months’ time.
He’s forgotten to pick up a cardboard sleeve for the coffee and it burns into my palm as we walk, making it impossible to forget. As usual we meet up with Ajita halfway to school, and she eyes the coffee like it’s a grenade with the pin pulled out. Neither of us addresses it, but I know she’s thinking exactly what I am:
What’s going on with our best friend?
It’s Danny’s turn for a careers session with Rosenqvist this lunchtime, so while he’s off justifying his plan to become a hotshot surgeon despite his mediocre GPA, Ajita and I take the opportunity to brainstorm some new sketch ideas.
Ajita bites into her veggie hot dog. “I kinda want to do something controversial and political. Like, as much as your idea about a pet goldfish scheming to take over the world is entertaining, it’s kind of silly.”
“First of all, your face is kind of silly. I mean, come on, you really set yourself up for that one.” The meat-filled hot dog I’m shoveling into my face is slathered with enough hot mustard to kill a small horse. My nostrils sting aggressively. “Second, I fail to see how a neo-Nazi shubunkin is not political.”
“What in god’s name is a shubunkin?”
“Honestly, it’s almost like you’re not an expert on goldfish breeds. Why do we even hang out?”
Before I can unleash the remainder of this sarcastic spiel on my long-suffering best friend, however, an extraordinarily tall girl I don’t recognize plonks her tray down next to Ajita and smiles familiarly. She’s got insanely curly auburn hair and freckled white cheeks.
“Hey, Ajita,” she says cheerily. “Hey, Izzy.”
“Iz, this is Carlie,” Ajita says, suddenly staring intently at the ravaged remains of her hot dog. I can only assume this ashamed expression translates as: I am so sorry, dearest Izzy, for having people in my life you do not know about, for I understand how rude and inappropriate this is considering we’re supposed to be best friends, and I can only endeavor to be a better pal in the future, one who keeps you abreast of any and all new friendship developments as and when they unfold, lest I be condemned to an eternity in geography class, aka hell.
You know, something like that.
But really, wtf. Ajita and I inform each other of every single minor thing that ever happens to us, including but not limited to: bowel movements, disappointing meals, new and freakishly long hairs we find on our bodies. So it’s utterly bizarre that she knows mysterious tall and pretty people and just forgets to mention it to me.
[On closer inspection, it is possible I have friend jealousy.]
“Hi, Carlie,” I finally reply, once I’ve gotten over the unspeakable betrayal of the situation.
She smiles, all straight white teeth and naturally pink lips. “Nice to finally meet you.”
I repeat. Wtf.
“So, Ajita,” she says, spearing some lettuce on her fork and crunching into it loudly. Seriously, she is eating a salad. I’m not kidding. An actual salad. I was not aware this was a thing people did in real life. “Are you excited for tennis tryouts later?”
I absolutely die laughing at this, to the point where I am so hysterical I fear a little bit of fart might slip out.
Both Ajita and Carlie stare at me as though I am having some kind of seizure. Without, you know, making sure I’m not in any immediate physical danger. All I’m saying is they’re not the sort of people you want around in a potential medical emergency.
Once I finally wipe my tears away, I splutter, “Ajita? Sports? Tennis?? You must be new here.”
“Actually, I am new here,” Carlie replies, popping a cherry tomato in her mouth.
Ajita clears her throat. “Um, Iz, I actually . . . I thought I might go and try out. I think I might actually enjoy tennis. Serena Williams makes it look like an excellent thing to do.” A sheepish smile. “Carlie’s the new captain.”
And then they just look straight at each other. It’s like I’m not even there, and neither is the rest of the cafeteria. [This might not sound weird, but think about it. How often do you actually do nothing but LOOK at the person next to you without saying anything? It’s intense.]
I swallow the last mouthful of hot dog and resign myself to the fact that my best friend has been replaced by someone who likes sports, of all things, and that I am but a mere distant memory thanks to the sudden arrival of a Victoria’s Secret model in our lives, and that Ajita undoubtedly has absolutely no interest in me or my existence now that she has a new best friend to scheme with.
Obviously I know it’s irrational to be jealous, but I can’t help it. I think it’s human nature to feel vaguely territorial over your best friend. Not in a canine, pissing-all-over-them-to-mark-your-scent type way, but more in a childish not-wanting-to-share-your-favorite-toy type way. Yes, it’s selfish. Yes, I’m immature.
Both of my best friends are behaving way out of character. Which sucks because I very much prefer when things stay the same. What’s that biological term? Homeostasis? Does that apply here? Can we please find a way to make it apply to friendship circles?
It really has been a wtf kind of day.
Mrs. Crannon calls me into her office at the end of school. Her computer is wearing several of the 1920s wigs she sourced for our Gatsby production, and she’s combing them as I walk through the door. Before I’ve even taken a seat in the iron maiden chair of doom, she offers me a cup of coffee and a triple chocolate chip cookie, which is how I know my instincts were correct and she is in fact a fantastic human being on all fronts.
“So! I finished your script,” she says, all warm and friendly.
Through sheer nerves and stress, my stomach almost plummets through my asshole. [I realize this is a hideous thing to say, but you all know exactly what I mean, and I shall not apologize for vocalizing the sensation.]
“Oh, did you?” I sip the coffee, immediately giving myself third-degree burns, and try to resist the urge to flee the room banshee-screaming with my arms flailing in the air and a trail of cookie-based destruction behind me.
She abandons the wigs and leans forward onto her elbows in a very teachery way. “Izzy, I promise you I’m not just saying this because you’re my student and I’m trying to be encouraging. You have an unbelievable talent.”
“Really?” I grin insanely, like an insane person.
“Really! I fully planned to only read the first ten pages last night and make some notes for you, but before I knew it, it was after midnight and I’d finished the entire thing. And I’d completely forgotten to make any notes. That’s how good it is. It’s smart and super funny, and your social awareness really shines through. I didn’t feel like I was reading the work of a high school senior.”
The cynical side of me feels like she’s laying it on a little thick at this point, but I’m so happy I just don’t care. I beam even more. “Thank you, Mrs. Crannon. That means the world.”
“I’m glad,” she says, smiling back just as proudly. “Now, I’ve been thinking about next steps for you. You’re unsure about college, which is totally fine, and you’re not in a position to take on unpaid internships just yet. Again, that’s okay. But I did have a few ideas. Firstly, I really think you need to get this script into industry hands, whether agents or producers.”
I sigh. “Right. But no agents or producers accept unsolicited submissions. I already looked into it.”
“Maybe not,” Mrs. Crannon agrees. “However, there are a lot of screenplay competitions out there that have judging panels made up of exactly those kinds of people—agents and producers and story developers who’re looking out for fresh new talent. I did a bit of research over lunch, and there’s a fairly established competition running in LA, aimed specifically at younger writers. You only have to submit your first ten pages, and if you make it to the shortlist, you get a ton of feedback from people who really know their stuff. And guess what the grand prize is?”
I shake my head, hardly believing what I’m hearing. How could I not have heard about this? It sounds like a dream.
“A college scholarship!”
I blink, wondering if I heard her right. “What?”
She hands me a printout of a web page [literally something only old people ever do] that has all the competition info on it. Across the top is bold branding: The Script Factor.
But my eyes land on one thing.
Entry fee: $50.
“This is great, Mrs. Crannon, but . . . I can’t afford it.” My voice is all flat and echoey. “The entry fee, I mean. I could never ask my grandma to give me fifty bucks. That’s, like, seventeen hours of work at the diner.” [I did mention math not being my strong suit.]
Without a trace of condescension, she replies, “I thought you might say that.” And then the unthinkable happens. She reaches into her purse, pulls out a leather wallet, and hands me a fifty-dollar bill.
I stare at it in her hand, stunned. “Mrs. Crannon, I . . . I can’t take that. No. Thank you so much, but no. No, I can’t.”
“You can, Izzy. I want you to. My father recently passed away, and he left me some money. He was a teacher too. English literature. He’d love to know he was helping a talented young creative find their way.”
Her crazy tunic is all orange and pink and yellow flowers, but all the colors blur together as my eyes fill with hot tears. To have a near-stranger take such a massive leap of faith in me? It’s overwhelming.
“I don’t know what to say. Thank you. Thank you so much.”
“I’m glad to be able to help. Just remember me when you’re famous, won’t you?” She grins and boots up her ancient computer, which still has an actual floppy disk drive. “Now, let’s fill in this entry form together, shall we? The deadline is tomorrow, so we have to move fast.”
I hang out with Danny and Ajita tonight—you know, once she finishes tennis tryouts with She Who Must Not Be Named, i.e., Carlie.
Danny and I actually beat her home, so we spend the first twenty minutes of the visit chatting with Mrs. Dutta in the kitchen as she pads around whipping up fresh cardamom curry. She’s making a double batch to deliver to her elderly neighbor, who fell and broke her hip last week.
While we wait for Ajita to arrive, the three of us talk about her love of cooking and how her mom used to set aside every Sunday to teach her family recipes—and also about how Ajita would rather remove her own eyeballs with a skewer than spend a weekend with a pestle and mortar. Then Danny makes Mrs. Dutta hoot with laughter with his llama impression, and she accidentally adds too many green chili seeds to the curry. As punishment, Danny has to perform a taste test. His face goes so red and sweaty we briefly consider taking him to the emergency room.
Once the tennis-playing eyeball-skewerer returns, we head down to Ajita’s basement, which is bigger than my entire house, to play pool and watch this obscure Canadian sketch show we all love. The conversation drifts toward school gossip, as it so often does, and I make an offhand comment about how Carson Manning is hot in a sexy-yet-unintimidating way.
Danny is incredulous. “Carson Manning?” He gapes at me, pushing his thick-framed glasses up his nose so he can actually see the red ball he’s trying to pocket. His mousy brown hair is doing that weird frizzy thing he hates.
“But he’s . . .”
“What?” Ajita asks, chalking up her cue. Blue dust hangs in the air around her, giving a vaguely demonic vibe.
Danny mutters. “He’s just . . . well, he spends his whole school day pretending to be an idiot just for laughs. I didn’t think feigned stupidity was your jam.”
As it happens, feigned stupidity and general hilarity are precisely my jam, but I feel like this is beside the point.
I try explaining that finding someone hot does not necessarily imply a deep emotional connection, but this just seems to annoy him. An uncomfortable prickling rolls up and down my arms. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Danny was jealous. But why would he be jealous? I’ve talked about guys with him and Ajita for years.
Maybe he’s just grouchy. His grades have been slipping lately, and his dad has been kind of a dick about it. I’m sure that’s all it is.
In any case, instead of dwelling on yet another confusing development, Ajita and I continue to systematically destroy him at pool for what must be the seven millionth time this year. Ajita goes on an impressive pocketing spree and buries four stripes in a row. I whoop delightedly. We complete a complicated fist-bump routine we devised freshman year. Danny rolls his eyes and smiles. It seems like we’ve all moved past whatever emotional crisis he’s dealing with, until . . .
Ajita: “So, Izzy, I heard a rumor today.” She sinks a fifth. Danny is almost apoplectic. He’s not great at losing.
“Yeah? Did Carlie tell you?” I try to act uninterested, but Ajita knows I am deeply nosy, and while I don’t like to be directly involved in conflict itself, I must know absolutely every detail about other people’s drama or else I will spontaneously combust.
Ajita ignores my petty jab and says, “Zachary Vaughan wants to ask you out.”
I snort so hard that soda exits my nose in a violent manner. My brain is fizzing. Is that a thing? It feels like a thing.
Now, it’s important for you to know how utterly despicable Vaughan is on practically every level. He’s pretty but he knows it, he’s rich and he flaunts it, and his über right-wing daddy is a Republican senator known for his shameless racism and general assholery.
“That’s ridiculous. Has the dude ever even spoken to you?” Danny takes aim at the white pool ball and misses entirely. He sighs and thrusts the cue angrily at Ajita. Instead of catching it she just leaps out of the way, which if you ask me speaks volumes about her athletic abilities.
I say nothing, flabbergasted by Danny’s outrage.
Ajita, deftly steering the conversation away from potential developments in my love life, turns back to the pool table and pockets the black ball, securing our victory. “Aaaaanyway. Whaddaya wanna do for your birthday this year, D?”
It’s Danny’s birthday next month, and while mine is usually a subdued affair due to my lack of funds, Danny always does something cool for his. He’s an only child, so his parents don’t mind forking out for me to tag along, too. Last year we went paintballing, the year before it was go-karting.
“I was thinking maybe zorb soccer?” Danny says, pushing his glasses up his nose for the thousandth time, looking relieved now that we’re no longer discussing senators’ sons who have crushes on me. “You know, where you run around in inflatable bubbles and attempt to kick a ball around a field while crashing into each other like bumper cars. It looks hilarious.”
“Oh yeah, that looks incredible,” I enthuse. “And is the only circumstance in which I would consider participating in sports. One of us will almost certainly die a gruesome death, but I’m game.”
Ajita pipes up, “Speaking as the person who will most likely die that gruesome death, I’m willing to take one for the team.”
Danny grins. “Perfect. And I think your brother would love it too, Jeets.” Ajita’s brother, Prajesh, is fourteen and already an amazing athlete.
“You wouldn’t mind inviting him along?” Ajita asks, plonking herself down on the sofa. I nestle in next to her while Danny racks up the pool balls to practice not being awful. “That’s so sweet of you. He would love that.”
“Of course,” he says. The balls spread and rattle around the table as he strikes the white ball in the perfect break. Two plop into pockets, and he smiles with satisfaction. “I think he’s having a rough time at school at the minute.”
Ajita frowns, half confused, half upset. “He is?” I share her concern. Prajesh is like a little brother to me too.
“I mean, it’s nothing sinister. I don’t think he’s being bullied or anything. But the last few times I’ve seen him in the hallway, he’s been by himself, looking a little lost. And I know what it’s like to be a slightly awkward and nerdy fourteen-year-old.”
“Doesn’t he have friends on the track team?” I ask. Prajesh is a total track and field hotshot. He runs faster than most people can even imagine themselves running.
“I guess not,” Ajita says, lowering her gaze. “He’s so much quicker than everyone else, you know? They’re probably jealous. Plus he’s kind of awkward and introverted. And then there’s his OCD.” To say Prajesh likes things clean would be the understatement of the millennium. I remember the time he was taken to the hospital with bleach burns on his hands, back when he was six or seven. It was heartbreaking. “Not that it should matter, but fourteen-year-olds can be cruel. Maybe they think he’s weird.”
Danny squeezes her shoulder and says gently, “It’s going to be okay. He’s an awesome kid. I don’t mind looking out for him for awhile, if you want. Hanging out and stuff.”
“Thanks. I’d appreciate it.” Ajita smiles, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. I can tell she’s going to worry and obsess over this. Her big, tight-knit family is her whole world.
A flash of envy catches me off guard. Fleetingly, I wonder what it must be like to have so many people to love and care about, but I shake the thought away like I always do. Self-pity isn’t my style.
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