Lisa Donzalski, a chubby girl with a nervous laugh, called me every day after school to ask, "What are you going to wear tomorrow?" Then she would tell me, specifying color and brand, exactly what she was going to wear, changing her mind only if I was going to wear something brave, like a skirt.
I knew that this was a level of desperation that spoke ill of us. There was something wrong with us, but I didn't know how to fix it. Someone brought The Official Preppy Handbook to school, and we all read it. We were so incapable of irony that we believed it was a self-help book, not a satire. We studied the line drawings of people named Muffy and Biff who had houses in the Hamptons and sailboats and docks on which to wear Dockers, and we saved our babysitting money so that we could be, as the book promised, "really top drawer." Each time the clasp of Lisa's add-a-bead necklace worked its way to the front, I would point to it and tell her, "Make a wish." She would kiss the clasp and pull it back around until it touched her vertebrae. We did this because it was the custom, the way we lifted our feet going over the railroad tracks in a car, the way we wore hot pink with green, the way we wished, mindlessly, fruitlessly, to be really top drawer.
On weekday afternoons at Alice Drive Middle School, a sad-eyed, gray-haired woman tried to teach us the nature of the cosmos. She showed us the periodic table and asked us to memorize the elements, and on hot humid afternoons, when she was grading tests or preparing lessons, she turned off the lights and let Carl Sagan demonstrate on TV what would happen if a person rode forward in time on a motor scooter at speeds approaching the speed of light. In the half-darkened science room, where sun streamed in on our backs and made curved, leafy shapes on the television screen, we listened to him say, with his peculiar, rounded enunciation, that when we approached the speed of light, the world would look very odd. Our bodies would compress in the direction of motion, our mass increasing while time on the motor scooter slowed down. On and on the scooter would fly, hurtling through space until the rider alone was young, and the world left behind was a burnt cinder.
Not long after that, Becky Bradham called me after school to inform me that she and everyone else had decided not to talk to me any more because, as they had all agreed, I was acting like Miss America and people were sick and tired of it. Mary Kay and Tamii and Becky no longer wanted me to come to summer camp with them. It was only for Episcopalians. It was a new rule, they said. Only Episcopalians could go to that camp, and I was Mormon.
It was my first experience with shunning, and I can see why the Amish find it a useful tool. Lisa stopped calling me after school to ask what I was going to wear. No one wrote me notes during Physical Science. I would gladly have climbed on a motor scooter and sped forward at the speed of light, leaving everyone and everything to age without me, to feel nothing but my own compression as the earth turned into a black, benighted star.
Instead everything proceeded at its usual pace. The sun rose and set. I stood on the blacktop behind the school until the bell rang, and then I went in. I suppose that I read books, as I always have, to take my mind off it. When people stopped shunning me, though, I took them back. It took years and years to grow up, finish school, meet Tom, and be happy. It would not make a good novel, or a short one, so we invented Audrey Reed, and when Audrey Reed goes into a classroom and a teacher begins to describe the nature of the cosmos, you can be sure that she will pay attention.
Laura and Tom McNeal will be signing books on Saturday, February 11, from 2 to 4 p.m., at The Book Nook, 129 E. Hawthorn Street, Fallbrook.