Annie listened to the June bugs ping against the porch light. She reclined on the porch stairs so that one of the steps pressed into the small of her back. She knew she should change out of her graduation dress, but she couldn’t be bothered. Instead, she scuffed her Doc Martens in the gravel of the walkway.
“Annie, come in. It’s getting cold.” Annie tried to ignore her mother. “That dress was expensive. Couldn’t you at least sit in the chair?”
Annie moved to the wicker chair, hoping that this would be enough to please her mother.
“That was a lovely ceremony.” Her mother came outside. “Don’t you think?”
“George gave a nice enough speech.” Annie’s mother had been deeply disappointed to learn that this would be the first year that the valedictorian of Pine Valley High would be chosen by the graduating class instead of the faculty. She had been so sure that Annie would be the class valedictorian in any “normal” year that she had threatened to see the principal about what she said was the school’s decision to turn the whole thing into a “popularity contest.” Of course, she’d been right. It had degraded into a popularity contest. But Annie had never wanted to be the class valedictorian. She didn’t have anything to say to her classmates. What was there to say? So long? Good not to know you? She certainly couldn’t have said, as George had, that these had been “the best years of their lives.”
Her mother forged on, “Did you know that George is taking an electrician’s program at community college next year?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Well, his mother is very proud of him. She told me he would be the first in the family to go to college. Isn’t that nice?” Annie rolled her eyes. Her mother could be such a snob.
Annie’s mother tried to sit next to her on the wicker chair, but Annie refused to move over enough to make room for her. Her mother had to make do with perching awkwardly on the armrest. “You know, the guidance counselor told me everyone from your class who applied to university was accepted to their first choice.”
Annie snorted, “Right. All five of us.”
“Don’t be like that. Young people shouldn’t be so cynical.” Annie’s mother hovered over her. “It’s your grad night. You should be having fun. Don’t you want to spend one more night with your classmates?”
“Come on. George’s mother said they were letting the kids use their field for a big bash. Why don’t you go?”
Annie didn’t want to admit she hadn’t known about the party, that no one had invited her. She didn’t think the “missing” invitation was mean-spirited. George simply wouldn’t have thought to invite her. To be fair, it would be hard to extend an invitation to someone who only spoke to you during group projects.
“I remember my grad night. I wore a pink dress…” Annie’s mother smiled as she told the story of her grad and after-party. Seeing that smile, Annie wondered if maybe she had missed out on something. Maybe being the canny outsider had kept her from enjoying the “best years of her life.” But it wasn’t entirely too late. She could still take part in one last rite of high school: a field party.
It wasn’t hard to get her mother to loan her the car and Annie listened to a punk mix as she steered the station wagon to George’s house. Though she’d never been invited to his place, she knew the way. She simply had to follow the same route the school bus had taken every day for three years.
When Annie spotted the cars parked haphazardly on either side of the road, she knew she’d have to choose her parking spot carefully. She needed to make sure her escape route was clear, so she parked five car lengths away from the nearest truck and then got out before she could think too much about what she was doing.
Annie jingled the car keys in her hands as she walked towards the noise of teenage merrymaking. She climbed up the gravel driveway, stowing the keys in her purse so she wouldn’t drop them.
When she came to the top of the driveway and spotted the seventy or so teenagers hanging around in clumps throughout the field, Annie half-expected everyone to stop what they were doing and stare at her. She expected some kind of acknowledgement that something strange had just happened. Instead, nobody really noticed her. The group of basketball players continued to laugh together; Zach, the class lothario, hit on the same girls he flirted with at school; the stoners sat in a semi-circle and passed around a joint; and the farm boys hovered near the stereo trying to convince the music geeks to play a country song. Everyone knew where they belonged and so did Annie: anywhere but here.
Annie walked right back down the driveway. She ran down the shoulder of the road, hoping to make it to her car before anyone noticed her crying. The angrier Annie got with herself, the harder it was for her to fight the tears. She sobbed as she pulled the car door closed. She started the car and took off, even though she could barely breathe between the sobs. Annie drove much too fast and was home before she knew what to do. How would she explain the crying to her mother?
Annie passed her house, then pulled over to the side of the road and turned off the headlights. She tried taking deep breaths, but it was no use. She’d run away from the people she’d held in such contempt for so many years. She wasn’t any better than them, had never been any better than them.
Annie screamed then, trying to drive out all the anger. It didn’t work. It seemed to swell in her throat and stick there. She beat the steering wheel with the palm of her hand, letting the pain distract her. But even that was temporary relief. When she was too tired to be really angry anymore, when the anger was a sour feeling in her stomach instead of a burning, dangerous thing, she wiped away her ruined makeup with the sleeve of her jacket. Her eyes were red, but maybe her mother would think she was stoned.
After carefully parking the car, Annie marched herself to the front door. She pulled off her boots at the welcome mat, inched the door open and tiptoed inside. The voice that called to her as she tried to sneak by the kitchen was not the one she’d expected. “How was the party?” Her sister seemed not to realize how early it was, how pathetic Annie must be to be home before midnight.
“Bit lame, actually,” Annie said. She stood in the doorway watching Rachel scoop ice cream into a bowl.
“That’s a shame. George’s field parties are usually a blast.” Though Rachel was two years younger than Annie, she was friendlier with, well, everyone at school. The only reason Rachel hadn’t been at George’s that night was because the grad party was, through some unspoken rule, for grads only.
“Yeah, well.” Annie was about to walk away when her sister really looked at her.
“You okay?” Rachel pushed the bowl of ice cream towards Annie and then reached for another bowl.
“Not really.” Annie could feel the sour thing moving in her stomach.
“What’s up?” Rachel sat cross-legged on the kitchen counter and tilted her head. She looked so damned empathetic.
“I don’t know. I went to the party and I just couldn’t stay. I don’t belong there. I can’t be like you. I’ve missed out on all the normal high school stuff. I can’t… I can’t…” Annie couldn’t make eye contact with her sister anymore. She stared at her bowl of melting ice cream.
“Oh.” Annie was grateful to Rachel for not trying to comfort her with platitudes, though she’d hoped that her sister would tell her she was wrong. “You know, maybe it was enough that you just went.”
“Well,” Rachel ate a spoonful of ice cream as she seemed to think through how to explain what she meant, “I guess I’ve always wondered why you didn’t go to parties. I kinda thought you were happy this way. But you weren’t. So maybe it’s enough for now to just admit that you want more.”
“Maybe. But what’s going to change?”
“How do you know?” Annie needed to challenge the hope.
“Because I know you. You’re stubborn. If you want to change, you’ll change. Next year you can start over. You’ll know better than to just watch other people have fun.” Rachel finished her ice cream in silence. When she was done, she took both their bowls to the dishwasher.
“Thanks,” Annie whispered as Rachel headed to bed.