A hand slams into the locker beside her, and Sugar takes a breath, steadies herself and swivels, her hand on her hip.
“Aren’t you late for special math?” one of the cheerleaders asks, making quote marks in the air with her fingers as she emphasizes the word.
“Oh, Kimberly,” Sugar says, her voice overly sweet and laced with condescension, just like she’d practiced with her mama. “Did someone forget to tell you that air quotes are so 2023?”
“Like you’d know, retard,” someone mutters from behind Kimberly (Jana, she thinks) and all of the cheerleaders snicker. Sugar directs her glare over Kimberley’s shoulder, but they won’t meet her eyes, dropping their gaze to the floor instead. Cowards, Sugar thinks, scowling.
Sugar can feel her eyes beginning to burn, but she forces the tears back and tries to focus. She wants to explain to them that she knows that they’re implying that she’s stupid, but Asperger’s doesn’t work that way—that it’s usually characterized by a lack of cognitive delay, and people with the syndrome often excel in a specific area of interest—but she remembers what her mama taught her to do, what they’d practiced.
“That’s a lot of judgment from someone whose make-up makes her look like a sad hooker clown that’s been run over by a car, Kimberly,” Sugar says, throwing Kimberly’s name in for good measure, in case the other girl didn’t realize that the insult was directed at her, “And Jana, Jana, do you ever wonder what life would be like if you’d had enough oxygen at birth?”
Kimberly opens her mouth and then closes it; the other cheerleaders stare blankly back at Sugar for a moment and then begin to snigger.
Sugar smiles sweetly, turns on her heel and flounces down the hallway to math class, hoisting her book bag over her shoulder.
Sometimes it kind of bugs her that in high school, her mama was a cheerleader, just like the girls who torment her day after day.
But sometimes, it has its perks.
Her mama picks her up after school. Sugar stuffs her backpack into the truck and hops into the passenger seat, giving her mama a quick kiss on the cheek and then reclining her seat, propping her feet up on the dashboard.
“Ay, this isn’t your living room!” her mama says, and reaches over to lightly rap Sugar on the head with her knuckles. She shakes her head theatrically, her gold earrings clinking. Her mama only wears gold jewelry, now, because she says that thirty is too old to wear cheap junk.
Her mama’s not actually thirty, though, she’s forty-four. That’s a joke, but it’s not polite to laugh at it.
“You sound like abuelita,” Sugar says, squirming around in her seat but obediently moving her feet to the floor.
Her mama doesn’t say anything, just stares intently at the road, and Sugar remembers too late that talking about grandmothers always makes her mama sad. Her own abuelita comes over every second or third day, but they don’t see her mama’s abuelita, even though mama says she doesn’t live that far away.
“So, did you make those girls cry?” her mama asks, after a few minutes, turning to look at Sugar and winking.
“Eyes on the road,” Sugar says reflexively, as the gap between their car and the truck in front of them shortens rapidly, and her mama glances back, hits the brakes and swears under her breath.
“Well?” her mama asks again impatiently, her voice rising.
“You should’ve seen their faces,” Sugar says, giggling softly, drawing her legs up to her chest and wrapping her arms around them, her chin pressed against her knee.
“That’s my girl,” her mama says, taking her hands off the steering wheel to clap softly, her palms pressed together, just the tips of her fingers in motion.
“They’ll just laugh at me again tomorrow,” Sugar says, more quietly, tipping her head so that her cheek is pressed against her knee and she’s staring out the window.
“Baby,” her mama says, more gently, her voice halting now. “They don’t—they don’t matter.”
Sugar just nods, her cheek still squashed against her knee.
“We’ll practice more this weekend, okay?” her mama says, after a second. She reaches over and swipes her thumb lightly across Sugar’s cheek, and doesn’t say anything about the fact that Sugar’s shoes are on the seat.
Her mama has a night shift, so after dinner she drops Sugar off at her mom’s place. They used to live in the same house, when Sugar was little. They had a tiny little bedroom but mama had insisted on a king size bed, so there wasn’t even space for a dresser, but lots of room for Sugar to curl up between them at night, when she had bad dreams. Her mom would tickle her and giggle, and Sugar would laugh too, and mama would moan and complain until she finally gave in and laughed with them.
Her mothers? They’re perfect together. They may have forgotten, but they’re going to remember any time now.
“Do you want to come in for a few minutes?” Sugar asks, after she undoes her seatbelt, the way she always does when her mama drops her off.
“Not tonight, baby,” her mama says. She says that every night.
“You’re the baby,” Sugar scoffs as she’s getting out of the car, rolling her eyes. “Mom’s not scary.”
She shuts the car door and begins to walk away, but she can hear her mother yelling after her.
“Sorry, Asperger’s,” Sugar mumbles, ducking under the strings of seashells that hang all along her mom’s porch.
She walks in and dutifully wipes her shoes on the brightly colored mat before jogging into the kitchen, where her mom’s stirring something on the stove, her hair in a messy bun. She’s wearing a long skirt that brushes the floor, and a baggy white shirt with stripes, and Sugar makes a mental note to pick out her mom’s outfit, next time she has to see mama.
Her mom turns, leaning on her crutch for support.
“Hey, Sug,” she says, smiling. “How was school?”
“Great!” Sugar replies enthusiastically, fishing the pink starburst out of the bowl on the counter to avoid her mother’s eyes. It took a few years, but she’s learned not to tell her mom the truth about school – she gets sad, and then she calls the other girls’ parents. The cheerleaders have to apologize while their mothers look on, but they’re always twice as mean the next day.
Her mom turns back to the stove, and Sugar grabs a couple plates and sets the table for them.
“Want to go to a movie on Friday?” Sugar asks, when they’re eating dinner. “There’s a remake of some old movie playing, I think it’s called Mean Girls.”
Her mom frowns slightly, like she’s doing some mental calculation, then says, “I thought Santana had you this weekend.”
“She does. We can all go,” Sugar says, and stuffs a big bite of food in her mouth.
“Sug,” her mom says quietly, and Sugar focuses pointedly on the tv for the rest of the meal.
The news comes on, as she’s clearing the plates. It’s the same old stuff: President Chelsea Clinton’s trip to Egypt, Prince James getting married, and the new iphone 27s.
Until the newscaster chuckles, shuffles his notes and says, and closer to home, a scientist at Harvard swears he’s discovered how to travel through time.