I’m not who you think I am. That’s the first thing you should know about me.
For example, I met Valentine on Valentine’s Day, which is why I call him Valentine. It isn’t because I’m some asshole making fun of a guy who could never get a girlfriend. I’d be the last person to make fun of a guy without a girlfriend; I’ve never had one in my life, nor do I want one, to be honest. I called the kid Valentine because, when I first met him, he refused to speak aloud, and I couldn’t understand sign language. It was a simple matter of communicative difficulty. And could I help it if, even after we learned to communicate, he got attached to the name and insisted all his teachers use it? No. Not my fault. It’s a good name, anyway. I don’t know why everyone says I gave it to him out of spite.
So you see, not everything you’ve heard about me is true. I mean some of it is, in a twisted sort of way. I admit my social skills leave something to be desired, but I’ve always done my best to be friendly. I remember my first caseworker used to say, “You have to be a friend to have a friend.” I get it, and I tried that. But here’s the thing I learned about friends: they will destroy you. You know that tower of peace and solitude you built for yourself? You know the identity you carved out all on your own, with your own blood, sweat, and fierce cosmic questioning? They’ll rip it to shreds in a heartbeat. I’m not kidding. They’ll rip it to shreds and they’ll spit on it and dance on it, and then they’ll ask you to show them mercy when you finally snap. But don’t you dare give in. The moment you do, I promise you, they’ll gather all the leftover pieces of you into a pile and show you just how combustible you are.
There’s an assembly today, required attendance excepting those of us who run the clubs and after-school activities—you know, the not-so-subtle, keep-kids-off-drugs programs. Of course, they don’t work. My kid brother is signed up for four: Drama, Philosophy, Chemistry (that would be mine), and Sports Medicine. He never attends any of them, and he’s certainly not the clean-living boy his foster parents think he is. They dote on him, they do. And I can see why. He’s a lovable guy, and they’ve only had him a few months. They’ll learn, though, eventually.
The club presidents are meeting to discuss how to get more people to join, which inevitably ends in a mess of construction paper and cheap acrylic paints. That’s all we ever do: paint banners and gossip.
“I hear someone nominated the new girl for the Valentine’s Dance Queen,” Peter says to me, splattering white stars onto a long, black banner. “They’re going to vote her in whether she likes it or not.”
Peter Gringoire is prolific, only seventeen and already head of the Philosophy Club, a poet, and a playwright. He thinks he’s a true master of the arts. A charming, arrogant, spindly blond, he’s tall enough to be on the basketball team, but he wouldn’t think of playing. He doesn’t like to break a sweat. I’ve tutored him since he was a freshman, so I know. Right now, he and Valentine are the closest I’ve got to friends.
I think Peter looks up to me, though I’m only a year older than him and have far less to show for my efforts. People attend his plays, at least, though they don’t stay long. No one comes to the lab at all. They just sign in and walk away. They want the attendance record for college or to prove they were somewhere they weren’t for an hour, but they have no interest in chemistry, really. I never rat them out because without members, I don’t have a club. And I want to keep the lab. Correction: I need to keep the lab. It’s my second home.
“Who is this new girl?” I ask, though I’m hardly interested. Small talk is an art I’m still perfecting.
Peter shrugs, which means he couldn’t be bothered to remember her name.
“Her name is Similar or Emerald or something weird like that,” Phoebus answers, though I wasn’t asking him. And yes, Phoebus is his real name. His parents have an overly high opinion of him, if you ask me. He’s a soccer man. Mister Bright-And-Strong. Mister Sunshine. So I guess his name is appropriate, isn’t it? Mine is most often associated with little balls of dirt, perfect for throwing at people. “Hey, Claude.” Phoebus laughs, and I know he’s laughing at me. “Even you might have a chance with her, if you stop dressing like somebody’s grandpa.”
I resist scowling at him. It’s the hat; I know it is. It’s felt and not “baseball,” so that qualifies it as grandfatherly. Then again, I’m not getting away from that description, hat or no hat. My hair started graying when I turned sixteen, which has put me in fantastic social standing, let me assure you. Now, at nineteen, I’m already too old: too old for foster care, too old for dating, too old for everything but scholastics. And really, I’m fine with that. I’ve never had a social experience that didn’t end in disappointment.
Phoebus won’t shut up. “So she’s a Gypsy, did you know? A real, honest-to-God Gypsy from France or something.”
“Romani,” I correct him.
“I said France, not Romania.”
I try to explain it slowly. “The word Gypsy is a truncated form of Egyptian, which is where people originally thought the traveling tribes came from. But linguists have traced them to India. So Gypsy is actually a misnomer.”
Phoebus stares at me, unblinking. Then he shakes his head as though I’m the one who just doesn’t get it. “Uh, thanks for the lesson, Grandpa.” He turns to Peter. “So she’s a French Gypsy, and you know what that means.”
“What’s that mean?” Peter isn’t paying attention, but he’s good at staying half-aware like a cat, even when he couldn’t possibly care less about what’s being said. I should learn that trick.
Phoebus grins. “She’s easy.”
God, he’s such an idiot. I drop my head into my hands and groan.
“What? You don’t care?” Phoebus turns back to me when he sees he’s getting no response from Peter. “Have you guys even seen her?”
It’s true, I haven’t seen the girl yet, but I’d wager she’s no different than any of the others I’ve come to know and loathe. I wave my hand dismissively. “Not interested.”
“Okay, you’re gay,” Phoebus says. “I get it, and that’s cool. No, really. If you’re gonna come out after all this time, I’m totally in your corner.”
“I’m not gay.”
Peter glances up from his banner—which is looking pretty good now, actually—and says, “He’s asexual.”
“Asexual?” Phoebus looks confused. “Is that even possible? You’re a senior, man! Get a life. Get a girlfriend. Hell, I’ll give you mine.”
Phoebus’ girlfriend is Lily Darling. She thinks they’re in love. God only knows where she got that idea, but it could have something to do with the ring Phoebus gave her last year. Probably it was the only way he could manage to get a hand up her shirt.
“Asexuality is a perfectly legitimate lifestyle,” Peter says, and I wish he’d stop defending me.
“Yeah, for trees maybe.” Phoebus shakes his head. “But hey, your life, your loss.” He tears a giant piece of red paper from the roll, then grabs a brush and soaks it in pink paint. He hums contentedly while he paints the word SOCCER on his banner, grabs the tape, and heads off to slap it on a wall in the cafeteria before it’s even dry. His banner doesn’t matter, and he knows it. People will try out for the team no matter what he does. Mine is also pointless, but for the opposite reason.
“Want to help me pick a spot for this?” Peter holds up his banner: black paper, filled with stars and planets and colorful question marks. GOT TOO MANY QUESTIONS AND NO ANSWERS? it says, and then in smaller letters below that, join the club.
Yeah, I probably should.