I was 13 and I didn’t know much. I knew all the songs from that series of dragon-rider books I was into. That didn’t do me much good in junior high. Some places, those years are middle school. I don’t know if it makes much difference, but middle school sounds more appropriate to me – I was in a middling place. On one side, the height of excitement arrived in the form of a Christmas sled perfect for racing down the hill our house sat two-thirds of the way atop. On the other, the realization that genetic inheritance had granted me the ability to be popular. In middle school, boys would creep up behind me, snap the strap of the bra I’d embarrassingly acquired. In high school, they’d kiss me first.
But back to 8th grade. I had this science teacher, Mr. West. Which was hilarious, because he was also a cowboy. With a ranch and everything. Twice a year, at the end of each semester, he’d have barbeques for his students and their families, plus a group of faculty members that encompassed, but did not exceed, those we all thought were “cool.” Mostly younger female teachers, the sort the boys all had crushes on and the girls all wanted to be.
Mr. West would have inevitably caught a rattlesnake early on, skinned it, tossed it on the grill. The smell would make us sick, but the boys and girls like me would insist we wanted a taste. Later, he’d bring out his guitar by the campfire, start sing-alongs, then wander into an old Johnny Cash tune, which he’d wrap up on a fade-out, as if he’d forgotten the words or maybe remembered what he’d wanted to be.
Only 8th graders were invited, which made it a sort of rite of passage. In 7th grade, my friends and I, and everyone else, would note those days a certain subset of 8th graders weren’t at school. They were at Mr. West’s BBQ, excused from classes for the day. “What do you think happens there?” we’d ask each other. Janine’s brother, a junior at the high school, told us that girls got naked and jumped in the river. Holly’s cousin, a senior, said that after all the kids were supposed to be asleep, Mr. West put out lines of cocaine on his guitar for all the female teachers to enjoy.
That seemed ridiculous to me even at 12. At 13, at the ranch, I could imagine neither nudity nor drugs. The fact that I would use “neither” and “nor” tells you what kind of child I was, but, well, that is the sort of child I was.
What I did not expect was the scandal to come from within my own ranks. My best friend, Lanie, whose parents were these kind of weird leftover hippie types – her mom taught step classes at the gym and her dad had some corporate job he hated – were closet pot smokers. I had no idea. I just thought they were really into air freshener.
“What’s going on?” I said, walking into the room behind the kitchen at the ranch. I don’t know the right name for it, the place where you’d come in to take off your boots and jackets all muddy from, what do they call it, breaking the horses? I guess.
“Nothing,” Janie said. She looked at me, but didn’t look at my face, not in my eyes, you know? I read somewhere once, well, in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or maybe Restaurant at the End of the Universe if you must know, that the trick to outwitting your opponents is to focus on the space between their eyebrows. It will seem as though you are looking them in the eyes, except not, but they won’t be able to quite explain it. I told Janie that after I’d read the books. We were 10 then, but she was doing it to me now.
“What’s that?” I said, noting Mark Garner passing something to Brent Clunich. Both of them were football players and bra-snappers, the sort of guys Janie and I hated.
Mark laughed and his laughing turned into coughing as smoked sputtered out from his face, which was bent towards his somewhat advanced six-pack of a belly. Brent, on the other hand, stayed cool, reached out what looked like a sloppy cigarette.
“It’s a joint,” he said. “Want a hit?”
Everyone looked at me. I could feel every bit of skin on my face. “Uh,” I said.
Janie put her head in her hands. “She doesn’t want any, Brent.”
He laughed and passed the joint to the girl next to him. Lori Schiminski. Long blonde hair held back with a clip, red lipstick that left an imprint on the paper that she passed to Janelle, the black girl that went to our school.
I looked at Janie. She looked at me. Shrugged.
I left the room. Outside, Mr. West had brought out the marshmallows and chocolate bars. Miss DeWitt stood by with graham crackers. I took a seat on a bench made from logs Mr. West had, undoubtedly, chopped down and carved with his own hands. Douglas Wilcox, class geek, the guy that everyone remembered from when he was in second grade an picked his boogers and ate them, leaned over to me.
“What are they doing in there?” he asked.
I leaned back, making sure that anyone watching would understand I was revolted by him.
“Nothing,” I hissed. “Nothing at all.”
Miss DeWitt flounced up to us. “Graham crackers,” she trilled.
Mr. West passed us sticks and marshmallows. “You want to catch it on fire, then put it out right away,” he said. “You slide off the burnt skin and the inside is perfect.”
“Here,” he said, handing us squares of chocolate.
I tried, but I was looking at the house instead of the fire.
“Oh, dear!” Miss DeWitt cried.
Mr. West came over and smacked my arm. Apparently my sleeve had caught fire. I dropped my stick and the marshmallow fell into the flames.
“Shit!” I said.
Douglas gasped and pointed.
Mr. West and Miss DeWitt glanced at each other. “That’s not appropriate language,” Miss DeWitt said.
“But under the circumstances,” Mr. West followed.
I hung my head.
Douglas reached over and patted my hand. “Here,” he said, offering me a perfectly sandwiched s’more.
I jumped up. “I’m fine!” I yelled. I marched off to the house, ignoring Miss DeWitt’s commands to come back.
Through the kitchen, into the back room, everyone giggling.
Janie looked up, met my eyes for real this time.
“Wanna hit?” she asked, holding the smoldering, sweet-smelling piece of paper.
I took it, held it between my fingers like she’d done. “Help me,” I pleaded, silently, the way best friends can say things without words.
“Like this,” she said, reaching to hold my hand, press it to my lips. “Inhale. Okay, stop. Hold it.” We looked at each other. “Exhale.”
When the joint came around, I did again, no help necessary.
The next day, I told Janie what kissing Brent was like. Tasted like smoke, I said. But soft. Better than that rattlesnake.
That was when I was 13.