In junior high, she was the most popular girl in school. She still is, really, but her name’s out of style and popularity isn’t what it used to be. These days, it’s all about niches, and Joanne learned the first day that no matter how rich, how popular, how athletic you are, there’ll be people walking the halls who have never heard your name. She’s not important, not like she used to be, no matter how many clubs she joins or events she organizes, no matter how many people sit at her table at lunch.
These days, it takes more than a fancy bicycle to be important, and more than a rich father to be noticed.
She stopped inviting her friends up to her room the first semester of eighth grade. There were better things to do, she announced, than lounge around painting their nails. Shopping. Boys. Music. She organized ironic bowling trips, picnics, coffee outings, excursions to the city, movie nights – but only at the theater – and when her imagination ran out and high school began, joined enough clubs that ‘too busy to hang out’ was an unquestionable truth, and ‘too cool to be bothered’ an irrefutable implication. Her space is inviolate, and there’s nothing to question when she chooses the babygoth girl with the soft mouth as the focus of their scorn that year.
(The consensus that only public hangouts were cool lasted about a month; Joanne hears her best friend, Nicole, whispering about a pajama party at Alexis’ house. No one invited her, not even to the first one, and over time they forgot to whisper.)
It isn’t that there’s anything really visibly different in her room, but it seems to her that this place at the core of her would breathe her secrets out, and she isn’t ready.
In particularly difficult weeks, questions sit in her teeth and she grits them, holding them in. How did you do it, she wants to ask. What is it that makes you important? She doesn’t remember when they stopped teasing Nita Callahan – she hadn’t liked to think about it, and had dismissed it as losing interest, but the truth of it is more that Nita had, abruptly, become other, assured. Adult. It made her unassailable, then. It makes her untouchable, now. Joanne doesn’t think Nita has thought of her in years.
Recently, Nita’s taken to hanging out at Joanne’s favorite coffee shop. It’s all fair trade and organic, and the owner is saving up to buy his own roaster because it’s more authentic. The cups are solid little glass things, and the signs are handlettered cardboard. Take-out is impossible unless you bring your own mug. If it has the Starbucks logo on it, you’re out of luck. Surprisingly, it’s not horrifyingly expensive, which is presumably why Nita’s there – Joanne doubts her allowance has room for a daily coffee, and she finds it hard to believe that Nita earns a ton of money doing odd jobs for Crazy Swale and his boyfriend. Anyway, it seems like half the time Joanne passes by on her way to the extracurricular of the hour, Nita’s in there with a battered book and a notepad, drawing intricate diagrams, lost to the world around her. It’s probably some kind of advanced mathematics – Joanne’s not stupid, but no matter how long she surreptitiously peers at it from one of the high bar stools, she can’t make sense of it.
Sometimes Kit Rodriguez joins her, with his own battered book, and they take turns sketching things, crossing them out, erasing them. There’s a synchronicity to them – if Nita’s mouth quirks, Kit’s shoulders shake. If she looks up, he will a moment later. The designs they create together have an integrity to them, an absoluteness unattainable without partnership.
She isn’t sure she envies them that closeness. There’s something a little frightening about the intimacy of it. And it’s probably something only people like them can have, anyway, this absolute certainty of action, of interaction. None of those things are qualities Joanne possesses, although she thinks she manages the appearance of it well enough.
Other people drift in and out – Nita’s sister, a haughty-looking guy with ridiculous hair, a weird, aggressively gleeful Irish kid who slouches in and drapes himself over a leather chair like he’s daring the world to make something of it. Boys and girls, they drift in and out but never away, like she’s the star at the center of one of those systems Joanne never took her up on the invitation to see through her telescope.
(She looked up some stuff on line a couple of times after that – spent some hours learning about the burning edges of black holes and the absorptive synchronous orbits of binary stars, and wondered what the sky looked like through a little backyard telescope rather than the glow of a laptop screen.)
Joanne doesn’t envy Nita and Kit, but she thinks she might envy the others the easiness and assurance of their companionship. She thinks she had that, once. There’s a familiarity to it. But she can’t remember who it was, or when.
Sometimes, when it’s raining and for once Nita’s alone, the questions press hard against her teeth and she wonders just how much it would hurt to sit down across from Nita and offer her a coffee. It’s only, she thinks, a few steps, a few dollars, a few words. But it’s a few more than she has in her, and so she stays on her stool and pretends to do her homework, and every now and then looks through the leaves to the reflections of the rain-soaked window in Nita’s table.
It’s a Tuesday, clouded over, and the days are a bit shorter than they were. They will go back to school and pass in the halls and Joanne will never ask her questions, and Nita will, if she has noticed Joanne at all, forget again that she ever existed. There will be another year of school, and then – something else, which Joanne tries not to think about. She tosses the last of the summer reading into her bag and reaches to drain the last of her coffee.
It is, much to her surprise, hot and heavy, and she overcorrects and nearly dumps it down her front.
“Careful,” Nita says, and Joanne flushes at her amused gaze. For a moment, she feels something stir inside her, a dark malicious desire to snap, to bruise, but it passes. Nita, looking at her face searchingly, grins a little and settles onto the stool beside her.
“I meant to,” Joanne says, a fragmented non-sequitur.
“I know.” Nita sits down beside her, and sets her own coffee on the bar. “It counts.”
“It really doesn’t.” It’s impossible to ask any questions now, not when she was too afraid to change things on her own.
“Don’t be afraid to make corrections. Don’t be afraid to lend a hand,” Nita murmurs, half to herself. The way she says them, the words sound like a quote, something from a song or a book she read once and can’t forget. “Do you remember when I asked you to look at Jupiter’s moons with me?”
For the past few months, Joanne has not really thought about much else. She nods.
"Do you want to give it another try?" Nita asks. "Sometimes you know you're going to be laughed at, and it's terrifying, but you have to anyway because... things can change. We can make them change. It’s not easy, and it hurts, and sometimes we need help, but we can make things change.”
They sit for awhile, nursing their coffees. A few fat drops of rain spatter against the windowpane. She can’t remember the last time she sat with someone in the rain.
“How did you do it?” Joanne asks, finally.
“I had help,” Nita says, smiling faintly. “A bright light. Good advice. A friend.”
The coffee is hot under her fingertips. A bright light. Good advice. A friend.
“Would you,” Joanne asks, “like to come over to my house? I’ve got some neat stuff in my room I’d like to show you.”
In Life's name and for Life's sake, I say that I will use the Art for nothing but the service of that Life. I will guard growth and ease pain. I will fight to preserve what grows and lives well in its own way; and I will change no object or creature unless its growth and life, or that of the system of which it is part, are threatened. To these ends, in the practice of my Art, I will put aside fear for courage, and death for life, when it is right to do so -- till Universe's end.