Bizza Johnson has just started her sophomore year at boarding school. Struggling with the idiosyncrasies and irritations of high school that every teenager faces, she also experiences and voices life's fears and insecurities; the roommate who touts homemade lasagna and Bible verses, the parents who won't get off her back and the girls everyone publicly hates and privately envies. Her occasionally dry sense of humor and irreverent observations point out the nearly universal, but often unacknowledged, experiences that make up the life of the most tortured creature on Earth: the teenager.
It wasn’t until I reached the dining hall after drama and looked out over the long red tables and scattered, multihued heads, that I realized I was trapped in the classic, cliché first-day scenario: no one to sit with. With less than a second’s hesitation, I lifted my head and wove through the crowd toward the plastic containers of bagels and industrial-size toasters. Lunch to go.
While the creaking wire belt conveyed my cinnamon raisin bagel, I kept looking around. Maybe I was looking for someone I knew, but even if I was, there was no one to see. Instead, I looked up at the mural on the back wall, above lines of hungry students. Of course, Icarian Collegiate would choose to decorate their dining hall with a larger-than-life unofficial mascot: Icarus. I always felt like watching the wax drip from his wings should have killed my appetite.
But we got used to it. Icarus (or, as the dark-haired girl behind me at matriculation had commented, “that dumbass adrenaline junkie kid”) found himself shamelessly abused in every matriculation, commencement and pre-break address, embodying the reminder that we shouldn’t think ourselves above the risks of inappropriate Internet pictorial finds.
My bagel dropped to the metal of the toaster. As I spread butter, it melted, and the smell of cinnamon made my stomach growl. Holding my takeout, I turned to go with one last look over the long tables.
“Hey. Elizabeth, right?”
I turned my head toward the familiar voice. Dumbass adrenaline junkie girl: Cleo Matthews.
“Yeah.” I would have smiled except that the speaker was more than mildly terrifying.
“Aren’t you in my dorm?”
Nod. I had seen her walking down our hall to the showers the night before: Cleo Matthews Now she was sitting less than twenty feet away from me with five other equally intimidating students, including, to some combination of my shock, horror and celebration, Devin from Acting, leaning one elbow on the back of Cleo’s chair.
“You have anyone to sit with?”
I shook my head and tried to smile, glancing down at the patterned tiles underfoot and the still-clean toes of my prescribed black flats.
“Come sit with us?” It wasn’t really a question.
“Thanks. That would be great.” My bagel became less and less appetizing as I wound through a couple of the red tables and fake wood chairs. The tables may have provided enough seating, but they left limited walking room. My stomach felt queasy.
I put my bag down next to an empty chair and slid into the seat, hoping they couldn’t smell my fear or the sweat that was trickling underneath my bra.
“Hey, you’re in my acting class.” Devin looked just as good against the bad lighting and dim linoleum of the dining hall as he had in the brooding shadows of center stage. Somehow, the fluorescent lights that washed out almost everybody else only emphasized the angular bones of his face.
I nodded again.
“I’m Cleo.” Her tall, thin body slouched in her chair in a way that invoked imperial purple, her dyed-black hair spread over Devin’s arm. The cafeteria lights glinted off a nose piercing so small that I had almost missed it. “Do you go by Liz? Lizzie?”
“Bizza.” I looked at the plastic red surface of the table and my cold and crunchy bagel. Thanks a million, Mom, for the most awkward nickname ever.
“Bizza? Like ‘busy’?” Cleo looked out of the corner of her eyes, through a heavy layer of mascara, at Devin.
The girl sitting next to me, a petite, curvy brunette with too many necklaces spilling out of the collar of her uniform button-down, took advantage of the silence to introduce herself. “I’m Amie.” She pointed to the boy next to her, slim with dark eyes and darker hair that fell across his forehead in a messy accidentally-on-purpose kind of way. “This is Alec.”
“Nicky.” A skinny blond with big eyes and a flawless tan—a real tan, not the orange glow of local beds—stretched her hand across the table.
“Scott.” He raised the hand not playing with the end of the loose ponytail over Nicky’s shoulder. His big watch looked like it was going to get caught any minute.
“Are you new?” The hand Nicky withdrew wound itself back into Scott’s fingers. “Dev, try not to prey on the freshman.”
He grinned. Closer, his smile was just self-deprecating enough to keep his arrogance on the attractive side of the line. He still assured everyone that he knew exactly how awesome he was. “I’m safe. Promise. She’s a sophomore.”
Cleo and Amie looked at each other and started laughing. They might have been laughing at me, but I tried to laugh with them.
Scott pushed back his chair and Nicky followed with an apologetic smile. “Nic’s going to help me with college essays before next period. See you guys later?” He didn’t wait for a response before he slung his free arm around her waist and walked away.
Cleo laughed. “You’d think they’d been apart for months instead of three weeks.”
“The eternal honeymoon is back,” Devin contributed.
“Two years is all. But it feels like five,” Amie told me. I thought I saw her give me a small smile, but it might have had nothing to do with me.
“And he spent half the summer with her too.” Cleo grinned. “Trust me: I went up there for a few days. I’ve never felt so single in my life.”
We all laughed. I smiled, very much on the outside. But it didn’t matter. To any observer, I was no longer on the fringe and that was a relief. The harder I laughed, the more I looked like I belonged, so I laughed until tears burned in the corners of my eyes.