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“Essie…,” Thomas began.
She said no more, her lips pressed into a taut line.
My parents—young, in love, and pregnant, had run to escape a Mexican drug cartel defended by a gang he’d become involved with—leaving everything and everyone they’d ever known—to see me born in the US. To make a new life for the three of us. To give me opportunities they’d never had and a future safe from the violence under which they’d come of age. My father, not quite twenty, had fallen ill and died during the crossing in an overheated, airless truck; my teenaged mother had braved the loss of the boy she adored and separation from family and friends, and I’d been born on US soil—their first dream for me.
Mama cleaned motel rooms and houses while teaching herself to speak and write English flawlessly and attaining her citizenship. My earliest memories were not playdates or preschools, but libraries where helpful librarians kept me entertained with stacks of books and educational videos while my mother mastered computer skills. Her ambition paid off, and she eventually became the office manager of a busy pediatric practice. A few years later, she met Dr. Thomas Frank, whom she held at arm’s length until she was sure he understood and accepted her priority: me.
My phone beeped a message notification—a welcome interruption, no matter who’d sent it. Glancing at the screen, I said, “I have laundry to do,” as I bolted from the room and up the curving staircase.
Boyce:  Still hanging out with Dover, huh?
Me:  You know she hates when you call her that.
Boyce:  If you’re trying to convince me to stop, that’s one regretful line of reasoning right there. JS
Me:  As in I just gave you impetus to call her that more. *sigh*
Boyce:  If impetus means ALL THE REASONS, then yes.
The first time I first heard Boyce call Melody Dover was a year or so after his playground brawl with boys in his grade. I’d defended him to Principal Jaynes after that fight. I’d never tattled on anyone before, but no one else was on Boyce’s side. I had to do it. Tall, with a head of solid silver, square-shorn hair, an angled nose and sharp jaw, our elementary principal made students cower without speaking a word. My hands shook and my stomach threatened to heave as I recounted the ugly things those boys said about his mother. I was never sure if it was my testimony that helped him escape punishment, but I liked to think I’d paid back a little of what I owed him for saving my life.
Mama normally bought me one pair of new shoes at the beginning of each school year and another in the spring. But in the middle of third grade, my feet sprang forward two sizes after a growth spurt that only included my feet, so we went to the Thrifty Sense for something secondhand to tide me over. I went bananas for a glittery pair of sneakers marked five dollars, and Mama consented to buy them after asking multiple times, “Are you sure you’ll want to wear these every day until spring break?” I’d nodded and begged until, sighing, she consented.
Melody Dover was a year ahead of me in school and one of the rich girls, so I’d been completely off her radar. Until I showed up at school in a pair of her castoffs.
“Look! That little turd is wearing my shoes!” she exclaimed to a trio of friends during recess. “They still have the dumb pink shoelaces I bought for them.”
They all laughed or said, Oh my God! I kept walking toward the swing sets as if I hadn’t heard them, but my vision swam and my face heated.
“Hey, you—those shoes were mine until I got tired of them and gave them away.”
I stumbled, wishing I could melt and soak right into the ground.
“Bet you had to give them away because your big, fat, flappy feet outgrew them, Dover.”
I recognized the voice addressing her, but I didn’t turn around.
“Shut up, Boyce, you stupidhead. And don’t call me by my last name! I’m not a boy!”
“Oooooh noooo, Dover called me a stupidhead.” He laughed. “I think her bark is worse than her bite. Dover, Dover, Rover Dover—woof.”
His friends howled with laughter and started barking and repeating Rover Dover while Melody screeched for them to stop, and I kept walking away, no longer the object of her ridicule.
She had no memory of me or those shoes, evidenced by the first time we officially met—five years later, on our first day of tenth grade. I’d skipped ninth grade entirely, thanks to my stepfather’s money, which paid for tests confirming my academic skill level. Though I was happy to be more intellectually challenged, advancing up meant the loss of my few friends. I barely recognized anyone in my first three classes, and no one seemed to recognize me in my new wardrobe of brand-name clothes. Depressed, I veered into the girls’ restroom just before lunch, contemplating hiding in a stall for the rest of the hour.
Melody Dover was leaning over the chipped sink, staring into the mirror, sobbing and trying in vain to repair her dissolving mascara at the same time.
My first impulse was to turn around and leave before she saw me. She was spoiled and bitchy—something I’d experienced firsthand. “Um, are you okay?” I asked. I could have kicked myself. I shouldn’t have cared if she was wretchedly miserable. She probably deserved it.
She turned, sniffling, the pale skin under her eyes smudged dark. “Everything sucks. Everything. My boyfriend is being a dick, my parents are assholes, and I just had a wicked fight with my best friend, who is being a total bitch!”
I stepped closer and handed her a clean paper towel, and she renewed her efforts to blot the mascara from under each eye. I’d never had a boyfriend. My mother and new stepfather indulged and supported me completely. I had friends, but no one I could claim as best who would also claim me. And I’d never fought with any of them.
Mascara blotted, Melody heaved a sigh and managed to look like a beautiful, sad girl. No red, running nose. No blotchy skin. No fair.
“Hey, those shoes are really adorable,” she said, sniffling again. “Where’d you get them?”
For a moment, I thought she was alluding to those damned silver sneakers I’d dreaded lacing up day after day for two months, even though she’d never spoken another word to me. But her pale green eyes were wide and sincere. She had no recollection of what she’d done to me five years earlier, or my association with the nickname Boyce had invented that still made her livid.
“Barney’s. In New York?” I answered.
Since I was only thirteen, Mama and Thomas had taken me along on their honeymoon. We’d stayed in a suite at the Plaza, where I had my own room and watched television all night in the king-sized bed in an attempt to obstruct all thoughts about what was going on in the adjacent bedroom. We’d spent our days shopping and visiting places like the Empire State Building and MoMA and Ground Zero. Evenings, we walked through Times Square and saw a Broadway show and ate at restaurants that made Mama nervous about silverware use and what she was wearing. Thomas had smirked in a charmingly smitten sort of way and told her she could eat her mushroom risotto with her soupspoon or her roasted duck breast with her dessert fork for all he cared.