Everybody says that if you want to see the ugliest people on earth, go to the Department of Motor Vehicles. I know; I work there. Not because I am ugly, but because I feel pretty compared with my coworkers. Like Myra, for instance, the woman who I work with in licensing. She has a mole on her nose that birthed another mole. Myra and her mole-mole stay behind the counter, out of sight; I take the pictures. Sometimes I pretend I’m working at a prison, taking mug shots. I silently assign each person a crime as they square up in front of the blue screen. Shoplifting. Lack of ambition. Poor hygiene.
Then Darrell Sabathia showed up for a replacement license. He looks like Ricky Schroeder, but like a grown-up Ricky Schroeder from his Silver Spoons/The Champ heyday and not the gaunt, Republican Rick Schroeder of unnecessary modern westerns. In the twelfth grade, I was in band with Darrell. Being in band meant you dated band boys who had braces or eczema or freakishly big lips from playing the French horn, but Darrell was a stone cold fox. Back then he looked like Billy Zabka in the Karate Kid and all those other teen movies. His little muscles bulged like plums in his sleeveless shirts, and a pair of drumsticks lived in the back pocket of his Levis. Darrell was too good for band. Band was a death sentence. Darrell could have been the next Neal Peart or Chick Webb (he was neither), but the girls stayed away. I felt good about my chances.
Until I met the second-tier girls. Second-tier girls were popular but not as popular as first-tier girls. They may have been cheerleaders, but not pretty ones. They may have been on varsity but didn’t letter. They may have had a first-tier friend. Tallie Hanson, a second-tier cheerleader who was not college track, became my passport.
It had been a surprisingly subtropical March. We had just run a brutal mile on the track for gym and were changing for class. My locker was five away from Tallie’s in the girls’ locker room.
Shit. I’m out of deodorant. Tallie wiped her underarms with her gym shirt.
Here, use mine. I held it toward her. I was a senior and had never spoken a word to any second-tier girl. I hadn’t even looked a first-tier girl in the eye. I was cavalier, foolish, that day. Oxygen-deprived in the head after ambling around the track like a lame horse.
This is good stuff. Tallie sniffed my Lady Mitchum. I use it, too.
I’ve also got Colors. I whipped out my prized bottle of Benetton perfume. Here.
Thanks, Sandi. Tallie sprayed herself like she was creating an aerosol force-field. You’re all right.
Suddenly, when I walked the overcrowded hallways from Geometry to Health, I was a somebody. A somebody that Tallie Hanson said “hi” to.
She used to call you lesbot, my best friend and fellow flutist, Leonore, pointed out at lunch. I had begun to giving Leonore a Tallie Hanson ticker, commenting on what Tallie wore, what she ate for lunch, how she smelled.
She still calls you one, I answered, finishing my tater tots.
That spring was going to be huge. With Tallie Hanson, I was going places. I would make the vaulted jump from band geek to second-tier girl. I could hang out on the bleachers during study hall instead of sitting in the back of craggily Mrs. Throckmutton’s French room, where the band and math and language club geeks sat in the back and conjugated dirty verbs for fun.
I would ditch Leonore, my friend since second grade, in my climb, but you do not fight your destiny. You step off the cliff and wait for the angels to blow under your arms. And hope your armpits don’t stink.
Gary Cocks asked me to prom, Tallie announced in April on the bleachers, plucking the tab off her Diet Coke. The second-tier girls, Tallie, Laura, Robyn, and Tracey, were going with second-tier guys: round-headed, skinny, hairless baseball players with big feet and appendages that flopped off their trunks like garden hoses. Who are you going with, Sandi?
I don’t know, I answered. I’d been agonizing whether to ask Darrell. Darrell, who had talked to me twice that quarter, who had tapped out Hang on Sloopy or some Sondheim masterpiece from West Side Story, I wasn’t sure, on my back with his drumsticks in the band room and gave me a stick of gum before the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Darrell, whose other choices were Patty with braces, who played the tenor sax, and Allison, the pimpled fat girl who played the bells. I imagined my strapless beige chiffon prom gown with matching pumps. We would eat at the Hunan Palace and dance to Def Leopard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”
You know, Richard needs a date. Tallie looked into her empty soda can. Sandi, you could ask him.
Richard was a second-tier by virtue of his athletic prowess, but not much else. He was hairy and pimpled and still wore braces. He had a horse face. And one would be wise to give him a space of five feet when talking with him, lest he sprinkle you with spit while recounting the college bowl scores from over the weekend. He had said four words to me in five years, two of them as my lab partner. I would rather bathe orangutans at the zoo than dance with Richard at prom.
I didn’t ask Richard to the prom, but it became understood that we were going. So I wasn’t surprised when he asked me at my locker one day what color my corsage should be. I wore a baby blue one because Richard’s favorite team was the Blue Hornets. I wore a white gown like all the other second-tier girls. We rode in the limo together, drinking Mad Dog, and we danced to Def Leopard but mainly sat at our table, next to the first-tier table, and talked shit about everyone else there which, given the unstable nature of their place in high school hierarchy, is what second-tier kids did. I got sick in the parking lot from the Mad Dog and wiped my mouth with my hand corsage. Richard didn’t hold my hair away from my face. He was too busy talking to Gary Cocks about the Yankees’ slow start.
Darrell wasn’t at prom. Obviously, once I was taken, Patty and Allison would not do. But Darrell and I didn’t talk anymore, either, mostly because I was formally second-tier those last few weeks of school and skipped band, anyway.
I got a lot of great yearbook inscriptions my senior year. People who don’t really know me might think I was really popular then, based on all the cheerleaders and baseball players that signed my yearbook SANDI—CLASS OF 90 WE ROCK BBF! But life isn’t like high school. Nobody cares at the temp agency whether you were second-tier or band geek or pariah. All they care about is how many words you type per minute and whether you know Microsoft Office.
It was the summer after senior year I found out that Tallie and Darrell had slept together the night of some field party during senior week, and that Tallie had gotten pregnant. I heard from Leonore (who I continued to send Christmas and birthday cards to until she talked to me again), that they eventually got married, although she thought Tallie was two-timing him with Gary Cocks. I didn’t think much of it, mainly because I was living two hours south, working at the DMV, and wanted to put the past, how little of it there was to that point, behind me.
But when Darrell Sabathia shows up in one’s DMV line, it is an act of providence. Or at least I, being raised mostly agnostic and who did not understand the intricate workings of faith, believed it to be.
“Do I know you?” he asked, spitting out his gum back into its wrapper. I wondered if, like me, he would save it for later. I opened my mouth, trusting that my new-found nondenominational faith would allow something witty, seductive to fall like manna from my lips.
“She’s cheating on you,” I said before snapping his photo. “With Gary Cocks.” Cuckold.
He sat in a plastic chair in the waiting area and picked at his knee through his jeans. He still wore Levis, although since high school he had filled them out in a soft adult-man sort of way. His head bobbed solemnly to an imaginary requiem. I was the biggest turd in the world.
“Who told you?” he asked when I called him, a tremble in his lip. I slid his likeness in plastic across the counter.
“Come on. I’m on break.” I nodded my head toward the door before heading to the parking lot to smoke. I sat in my car and lit a Virginia Slims. Richard had been drafted out of college by the Green Bay Packers. The county television station played a clip on him on recently. He wore a piece of foam shaped like Swiss cheese on his head. Something to do with the team, I found out, although it didn’t make sense. They were meat packers, I thought, not dairymen.
I saw the hand tap at my window from the corner of my eye. I nodded toward the passenger seat, and Darrell slid in.
“Are you one of those jerks that used to hang out with Tallie in high school?” he asked. “That used to talk shit about everybody?”
“No. I was the girl who loved you,” I answered and, not sure how to follow up, began to sing that song from West Side Story. But quietly. I feel pretty. I feel pretty and witty and bright…
He reached over for my hand. It was like every Harlequin Silhouette for Teens romance I had read on those Friday nights at home in my band geek days. I closed my eyes and waited for him to kiss me. I felt him take my hand and pull it toward him. I had never touched his face, his shoulder, any part of him. I wondered what part I would touch first.
He put my hand on his crotch.
It’s all relative. I’m sure would have given him a blow job on prom night. He pulled a tissue from my travel kit to catch it. I always knew he would be thoughtful that way. Afterward he bummed a Virginia Slim.
“You used to play the saxophone, right?” He exhaled a lopsided smoke ring. “You look better, without the braces.”
“My break’s over.” I poked my cigarette butt through the window crack. He recycled his gum. We listened to the wet snap as he blew a bubble.
His and Tallie’s kids. They’d never be first tier. I wonder if either of them had ever thought of that.
But there was hope for me. That afternoon, after I quit the DMV, I found Garth Brooks, my Maine Coon, under the bed and coaxed him into his kitty carrier. We packed our car. We would get a better job. We would learn Microsoft Office. And Dreamweaver. First we drove to the address on Darrell Zabathia’s license and dropped the tissue he’d left behind into his front yard. I had thought first to save it, to put it in the keepsake box along with my table card from prom, my high school ring. But there would be no room for such mementos now.
The wind floated the tissue into the street. We followed it to the intersection. When it blew one way, we went the other.