Tonight is Homecoming.   

  It’s like one of the biggest nights in the school year.   I didn’t go last year.  I thought it was kind of lame.  I mean, it was just a football game, right?  And I was a freshman so no one even knew I existed.   My mom would have had to drive me.  Or, God forbid, my dad.  So I didn’t go. The next day when everyone was talking about it, I pretended I had been there.  I pretended an upper classman noticed me and asked me to go to the back of the bleachers and make out.  But he didn’t, really.  And even if one had of, I probably would rather puke my guts up in front of the entire student body than make out with anyone, no matter how cute he might be.  But not going to Homecoming is almost as bad as a Junior or Senior choosing not to go to Prom.  It’s like tattooing a big sign on your forehead that says LOSER.  It would give the kids a reason to make fun of me for the next two years.  So I pretended I’d been there. I pretended I was cool and nobody could really prove I hadn’t been there, so it kind of worked out.  Except I knew I hadn’t been there, which meant I still felt like a loser. 

 I don’t want to have to feel that way again. 

  And smart people learn from their mistakes.

So I’m at Homecoming tonight. 

It’s been all anyone could talk about at school all week.   Each day, there was a different theme.  School Spirit Day, Character Day, Sixties Day, Rock and Roll Day and today was Duo Day.  You and a friend were supposed to dress up as twins.  Girlfriends and boyfriends dressed in matching colors. Some even made matching shirts.  McKayla and Cason, the Homecoming Queen and King, each wore a red shirt. On McKayla’s, the word “Queen” was emblazoned on the front; “King” was on Cason’s.  I saw one couple that had the same idea.  Their shirts read:  “Future Wife of Adam S” and “Future Husband of Katy W.”  Everybody had a twin.  Everybody was so happy and excited.  You could just feel the energy.   Every time the bell rang and we all poured into the hallways, the noise level alone could have told you that something was different.  Everybody was happy.

         Unless you’re not a cheerleader or football player. 

I think Homecoming was really created just for the cheerleaders and the football players.  Just like how at Prom the Prom Queen will never be just a normal girl:  it will always be one of those girls.  The popular ones.  The cheerleaders.  The ones that barely scratch by academically but who are loved by everyone anyway.  The Homecoming Court will never be made up of the quiet kids, the ones who do their work and sit by themselves at lunch.  It’s just not going to happen.  And the thing is, because everyone loves that crowd, the popular one, the entire student body feels an obligation to like the same things they do.  It doesn’t matter if you think dressing up like a sixties hippie is stupid…. You’ll do it so that you can pretend you ‘fit in’ with the rest of them.  It doesn’t matter if you know with one hundred percent certainty nobody is going to ask you onto the floor at the Homecoming Dance…. You’re still going to go so that you can pretend to be normal.  You will do what you have to do to feel like you fit in.

At least, I will.

 So, I’m sitting in the bleachers, watching a stupid game.  All I know is that my school color is red so the guys on the field in red uniforms are part of my school.  People have their faces painted red and are all waving red and white pom poms.  The stadium lights are so bright that even I can see everything on the field, even sitting way up high in the bleachers.  I have no idea who is winning because I don’t understand the game.  All I know is that boys keep jumping on each other and everyone goes wild when they do it.  Mostly, I’m watching the other kids, the ones not on the field.  Boys have their hands in the back pockets of their girlfriends’ jeans.  Girls are hugging each other and laughing.  Others are eating hot dogs and popcorn.  A lot are loudly cheering on the team.

It’s going to be a long night.    The Homecoming dance is in the gym, after the game.  I told my mother I really wanted to go.  So she isn’t coming to get me until midnight.  That’s, like, four hours away.  And the dance will be just as bad as this game except I’ll be watching my classmates dance.  The October wind is brisk.  I hunch my shoulders and stand.  I make my way down the bleachers.  I have to go to the bathroom.  I see a couple under the bleachers making out and I wonder if they’ll be stopped by a passing teacher.  I think about how I could ruin their night by going to tell a teacher what they are doing, and where they are.  If everybody isn’t having fun, why should they?  But I know I won’t.  They’d just go somewhere else. 

 The school hallways are deserted.  Teachers are still setting up the gym for the dance; I can hear people in there.  I walk into the restroom but instead of going into one of the stalls, I brace my hands on the sink and lean forward, staring at myself in the mirror. I tell myself it’s not that bad, that it will be over soon.  I feel like I should hurry back out there, but then I ask myself why.  No one is looking for me.  No one even knows I’m here.   Back outside again, I head back up to the football field.  But I don’t get far when I hear laughter.  I turn in the direction of it and walk to the side of the school.  Partially hidden under a big weeping willow tree sit five kids.  Two girls and three boys.  I know the names of the two girls and one of the guys, but I’ve never seen the other guy.  He must be popular, though, because the other three are.  Both of the girls are on Student Council. 

I start to walk away but when I step on a branch, they hear me.  The guy whose name is Derrick sees me first.  “Hey!  Hey, come on over here.  What’s your name again?”

 I hesitate but then slowly head closer.  They are sitting in a circle so I don’t see the bottle until I am almost up to them.

“Taya,” I answer.

“That’s right, Taya.  How’re you doing’?  You want to play with us?  We need another girl.”

The girls laugh and nod.  “Yeah, Taya, come on.  Join us.  Have you ever played before?”  Jessica is one of the most popular girls in school.  I have no idea why she is not down on the football field with the other popular girls are.  But if one of the most popular girls in schools asks you to join her, you’d have to be pretty stupid to say no.  So I shrug, trying to act like I can’t make up my mind, and walk closer.  The boys scoot closer together to make room for me. 

“Have you ever played?”   Jessica asked again, pushing her blonde hair out of her eyes.  I smell alcohol on her breath.   I swallow but shake my head, telling the truth for once. 

Derrick takes the bottle that’s lying in the middle of the circle and hands it to me.  “No problem.  All you got to do is spin it.  Whoever it lands on, you have to kiss.”

Warning bells go off in my head.  I know I don’t want to play this game.  But I can’t just get up and leave after I told them I’d play.  They’d think I was weird or something.  I stay put, but shake my head.  “That’s okay, I’ll go last.”  I say.  Derrick shrugs and takes the bottle himself.  He spins it and it lands on Amber.  Laughing, Amber looks at Jessica, then shrugs and gives Derrick a kiss on the mouth.  I lower my eyes to the ground, my stomach churning.  Amber gets to spin next.  It lands on Jessica.  They kiss.  The knot in my stomach gets worse and I hunch my shoulders, while I’m trying to think of a way out of this game that wouldn’t make me look like a complete idiot.  Or, worse, childish.

It’s finally my turn.  I don’t know why, but I go ahead and spin the bottle.  I feel like throwing up while it’s turning.  Everybody is cheering.  Finally, the bottle stops.  It is pointing toward the boy whose name I don’t even know. Everybody laughs.

 “Pucker up, Nick!”  Derrick laughs.

 Nick.  His name is Nick.

My face is flaming hot when I look up at him.  Nick is actually really cute.  He’s got amber colored hair, and a whole bunch of it.  He’s got dark brown eyes that have little gold specks in them. He’s hot.  But that’s beside the point.  There is no way I can kiss him. 

 “What are you waitin’ on?”  Amber asks.

“Go on, do it.”  Jessica prods.

Nick smiles.  He knows I don’t want to kiss him.  The challenge I sense in his eyes makes me lean over.  I kiss his cheek; sit back.  Everybody explodes with laughter.  Even Nick laughs.  Derrick holds the bottle up.  “If you don’t give him a real kiss, Taya, you have to drink a shot of this. And it’s Jack Daniels.  You probably want to kiss him.”  I didn’t even notice, until he said that, the two shot glasses sitting on the ground.  I’d rather drink a shot of pure alcohol than kiss anybody.  So, without looking at Nick, I say bravely:  “I can drink it.” 

 “Have you ever had a drink, Taya?”  Amber asks.  Her breath is clean.

I nod, lying, and reaching over for the shot glass.  Derrick pours it to the top.  “You gotta drink it in one gulp.  No little sips.” 

I don’t even think about the alcohol.  All I’m thinking about is that this is my ticket out of this game.  If I get drunk, so what?  I’ll have a really bad headache tomorrow morning.  My mom will ground me forever when she smells my breath.  I’ll throw up.  But it’s not as bad as kissing someone.  I just chug it.  It burns a path down my throat and my eyes sting with tears almost immediately.  Choking, I put the shot glass down on the ground and shake my head, trying to clear it.  I hear everyone laughing again, but it feels like I’m under water.  Thankfully, no one’s bottle lands on me.  When it’s my turn again, I choose to drink another shot.  My stomach starts feeling a little woozy after the second shot but it doesn’t really feel that bad.  This time around, I’m not so lucky. 

Nick’s bottle lands on me.  He smiles at me.  “I’m not drinking it,” he announced boldly.  Before I understand what he’s about to do, he leans over and pushes his mouth against mine.  Maybe it’s the alcohol that I’ve had.  Maybe it’s because it happened so fast.  I don’t know why, but I don’t stop him. I don’t feel anything though.  He doesn’t put his tongue in my mouth, just a quick push of his lips to mine. Then it’s my turn.  My bottle lands on Amber.  I drink another shot.  And so it goes.  Derrick chooses to drink a shot instead of having to kiss me. He is drunk too. 

 This really is a fun game, once you start to loosen up.  I laugh a lot over the next hour.  I don’t remember how many people I kissed.  I don’t remember how many kissed me.  I know I drank more than I kissed.  I drank more than anybody else.  Once the bottle was empty, the game turned.  Now, instead of drinking a shot, if you refuse to kiss somebody, Derrick said you have to remove a piece of clothing.  The girls thought this was hilarious. And I don’t think it was that bad a deal. I mean, it’s better than kissing someone, right? 

For the first time in my life, I feel like I truly fit in.  I feel like they are my friends and we’re all just playing a game. I don’t feel like the outsider.  I am the outsider, though.  When my bottle lands on Jessica, I choose to remove my shoes instead of kissing her.  Nick, also drunk, gets into the spirit of things and removes his tie.  I don’t know how many rounds we play until the only thing left for me to remove is my skirt and shirt.  I don’t want to remove them, and I don’t want to kiss either.  But Derrick said, “Last round, Taya.  Own it up.  Just flash us, then we’ll call it quits.” 

So I do.  I don’t take my shirt off, but I pull it up.  I have a tank top on, so I don’t have a bra.  I’m not even embarrassed; it’s just funny, because of the alcohol.  I feel really sick then and stand to go to the bathroom.  But I can’t walk real good. I fall a few steps later and puke my guts out on the school lawn.   Then I stumble a couple steps more and lay down.  Minutes later, I’m asleep.

***** ***** *****

I wake up cold.   My head is killing me, it’s not spinning anymore, but it is throbbing in pain.  I put the heel of my palm against my right eye and push real hard.  The pressure helps my head a little.  I call for Nick, or Derrick; then for Jessica or Amber.  But I don’t hear anything.  I stand up and look toward the football field.  The field lights are off.  That means the game is over.  Everybody must be in the gym at the dance.  Still holding the side of my head with my palm, I walk into the school. But instead of going into the gym right away, I go for the bathroom.  The bright lights make my head hurt even more.  I squint my eyes and head for one of the stalls.  It’s not until I come out to wash my hands that I see myself in the mirror.  Puke is on my shirt.  My hair is awful, tangled and matted.  Leaves are in it too. I get a paper towel and try to clean myself up some.  I take my hair down and use my fingers as a comb.  Then I put it back up.  It looks a little better, but not much. I wish I had a toothbrush.  I’ve got an awful taste in my mouth.  Then I reach into my pocket book and pull out my phone.  It’s eleven thirty.  My mom will be outside to pick me up in half an hour. I’ve missed most of the dance.   I’m hungry and I feel terrible.

Food will be in the gym. 


I leave the bathroom and walk into the gym.  The noise level makes my head worse right away.  A huge, silver disco ball hangs from the ceiling.  Loud music is being played and everybody is on the floor.  I walk over to the food table and start to get some punch.  Then I realize it’s probably been spiked.  I get a water bottle from a cooler instead, and a few cookies.  Then I make my way into the darkest corner I can find and lean against the wall.  Yup, that’s me: the wallflower. 

I’m staring at the dance floor without really seeing anything.  But something is different.  Everybody keeps looking at me.  When I go back to the food table to get a few more cookies, a couple of girls start snickering at me and then they walk away.  Even some people on the dance floor are looking at me weird.  Jessica and Derrick walk by.  I say hello but they ignore me, like they didn’t just play a game with me an hour or two ago.  I walk out of the gym and lean against the wall.  I slide down it until I’m sitting with my knees pulled up to my chin.  I don’t look up when I hear a couple girls whisper, “There she is,” as they walk right past me.  I don’t even notice the tears that creep from nowhere into my eyes and roll down my cheek.  I’m not sure why yet, but I know for sure that this is one of the worst   nights of my life.