Misbehavior is a key attribute of true genius. ––Phineas Fletcher
WEN: The Yungas Would Have to Wait
dIt all started when Sydney climbed out of the truck. Somehow, even though I didn’t know it yet, what happened that autumn morning is what set everything else in motion. The second the passenger door banged shut, I turned to my dad.
“So tell me, is she living with us now or what?”
My dad kept us idling at the curb while she promenaded all the way to the bus stop, finally turning to blow him a kiss. “No, not at all,” he said, snapping out of his trance. “She’s just going through some roommate problems. It’s not permanent.”
Until August or so, my little brother George and I had hardly ever run into Sydney, my dad’s girlfriend, even though they’d been seeing each other since the spring. Unfortunately, over the last month we’d started seeing a lot more of her.
Which, for me, was a real problem.
As we pulled away from the curb I snuck one last look in her direction. I tried to will myself not to, but I couldn’t help it. Today, an early October morning as warm and humid as summer, she was wearing a revealing halter top and a pair of tight cutoff jeans that accentuated her butt perfectly. My God.
Dad was obviously going through some kind of midlife crisis.
At twenty-six, Sydney was sixteen years younger than he was. I sometimes caught myself fantasizing about her shiny black hair or her cartoon breasts. I felt terrible about it, horrible. After all, this was my dad’ s girlfriend.
I hated myself.
Still, my eyes couldn’t help following her across the window until, mercifully, she slipped out of sight.
“You could’ve fooled me. She spends more time at our place than I do.” I immediately regretted saying it. My dad wasn’t about to let a comment like that go, and I had other worries at that moment. Not only had we wasted time dropping off Sydney, but before that we’d taken too long getting George to school, and before that we’d left our house late because Sydney took forever in the bathroom. So now I’d already missed homeroom and would probably arrive late for my social studies presentation. I was first on today’s list.
“That’s not true and you know it,” Dad said, racing us through a yellow light.
I didn’t answer. When he glanced over at me, I couldn’t help thinking about how everybody was always saying how much we looked alike. And it was true that we had similar faces, both of us blond with glasses. My hair fell almost to my eyes, though, while his was cropped short and starting to go gray over the ears. Our glasses were very different too. I wore black rectangular frames while he’d recently bought round wire-rims like John Lennon. Sydney’s idea.
“Come on,” he said. “Out with it.”
I fiddled with the latch on my trumpet case. That afternoon I had freshman tryouts for Marching Band. “Well, for starters,” I said, “she’s a mooch. Practically every day I come home and she’s on our sofa watching our TV. Either that or she’s helping herself to our food while she sits at our kitchen table doing her little drawings.” Sydney was studying part-time to be a graphic artist.
“She pulls her weight,” he said, as if that had anything to do with it. “She cooks sometimes, and picks up around the house. Unlike somebody else I could name.”
Right. She was like having our own nanny, the Sex Nanny Sent By Satan.
We shot past the line of orange cones in front of the school’s new, state-of-the-art gymnasium, a construction project that was supposed to be finished over the summer but was still not quite complete because of money problems. Finally, my dad’s truck screeched to a halt at the front entrance. That’s when he turned to me and gave his I’m-opening-up-to-you-so-cut-me-some-slack look.
“Look, I know you’ re not sold on Sydney yet, but I happen to think she’s terrific. She’s smart and caring and a lot of fun. All I’m asking is that you hold your judgment, OK? Think about it? For your old man?”
I grabbed my backpack, my trumpet and the big manila envelope that held my presentation. I shoved the door open and hopped out of the truck.
“Gotta go, Dad. I’m late.”
I slammed the door and dashed up the steps. Once inside the school building, I knew from the empty hallway that the first-period bell had already rung.
I sprinted down the long central corridor. Up ahead I happened to pass Jonathan Meuse as he jogged toward one of the chemistry labs. A popular junior with a lot of friends, Jonathan was tall, redheaded and about as clean-cut as they came. He looked like a soap commercial with biceps. Most significantly, he was the student leader of the Marching Band trumpet section and would be at the tryouts that afternoon. I often ran into him in the hallways but he never acknowledged my existence because I was only a freshman. Like now. I’m positive he saw me wave but he ignored me.
I kept running.
Unfortunately, seeing Jonathan brought my mind back to this afternoon’s tryouts again, which sent another jolt through my stomach. There was a lot on the line today. The way I saw it, getting into the high school Marching Band would be vital for my social life. I know, I know. You’re probably thinking I’m nuts, that Marching Band kids are usually the opposite of popular. But I’d been studying it, and it was clear to me that Marching Band nerddom wasn’t a firm rule. Just look at Jonathan—he’d figured out how to use it as a springboard to cool. And so would I.
Thing was, after two long years of living in middle school Nobodyland, I’d spent the beginning of ninth grade secretly observing the most popular kids—not just Jonathan, but also Seth Levine, Scott Pickett and guys like that—to see if I could learn anything that might improve my own social status. I figured if I emulated the coolest, after a while everybody would assume I was cool too. Like, right then I was wearing the same kind of Polo shirt and khaki pants I’d once seen on Seth Levine. When I’d waved to Jonathan, I did it in the same way I’d seen Scott Pickett wave to his friends—one motion, like a windshield wiper that suddenly stops midway. Yeah, I know this probably sounds stupid, but that was my strategy. If it looks like a duck and quacks likes a duck, it’s a duck, right? It was all about attitude. Anyway, one other thing I’d noticed in my research was that pretty much all the popular guys were in at least one club or another. Usually it was sports, but not always.
Of course, sports were out of the question for me since I was about as coordinated as a jellyfish.
Which left me with Marching Band.
It might not be the football team, but it was all I had.
From the Hardcover edition.