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September 5, 2023 Fiction


Katie Frank

Headphones photo

At least it’s Friday, Missy thought. Only five more weeks until summer break. She wove her way through the school halls to the section of lockers where her friends loitered before the first bell. The skater boys, who’d recently and unexpectedly migrated into the periphery of her nerdier circle, were drinking weed stem tea, grinning with the onset of the placebo effect. One of them was wearing a bra on his head. 

Missy clicked the back button on her CD player to replay a nine-minute screamo song by the band From Autumn to Ashes. Standing so close knowing that it kills me to breathe you in. 

Sitting against the lockers watching shoes fly by, she thought of Josh from Drama Club, who she liked to watch from the shadows of Stage Crew. Josh with the dimples, who had this nonstop lighthearted energy which seemed like the perfect foil to her fatigued, depressed quietude. But he would never notice her. Missy closed her eyes and let the song envelop her in yearning. She felt a tap on her shoulder. It was one of the girls on the nerdiest end of the spectrum among her friends, giggling, announcing she was dressed up, for no apparent reason, as Recycling. She was wearing towers of cereal boxes as pants, and plastic bags for a shirt. 

The bell rang and Missy headed to first period. US History with Mr. Larson. About whom rumors were flying because every lunch two stoner girls sat in his room chatting and giggling about whatever…how the song Date Rape by Sublime illustrated the enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment, or something. Mr. Larson was one of those desperate teachers who thought every day was a chance to be cool again. 

An hour and a half of learning about dead old white men passed and Missy dragged herself to Homeroom, which she dreaded because she sat at a table with three Cool People. The divide between them had been established on the first day of class, when Maureen, one of the coolest girls in the grade, had mercifully turned to Missy and tried to pull her into their conversation, asking, Did you watch the VMAs? and Missy, heart racing, had tried frantically to remember what those letters stood for. 

No, she murmured, smiling awkwardly. 

Oh, said Maureen, and she turned back to her friends. 

Now Missy busied herself with doodling the word Homeroom in an elaborate font. Their teacher was droning on about the importance of preparing for standardized tests. Missy tried periodically to appear to be taking notes by looking up at the teacher and squinting.

Her morning coffee was wearing off and her head was drooping. She felt like she was falling and then jerked back awake. As she resumed doodling Missy saw a flash of yesterday’s lunch period, when her friends had staged an intervention for her music addiction, accusing her of always putting her headphones on in the middle of conversations. This slid into a memory from 7th grade, of falling asleep while doing her math homework. When she’d woken up, she’d seen the words scribbled across her homework in a tiny font: nobody so alone. 

At lunch, Missy stood in the lunch line to get her daily two servings of french fries. She struggled to finish her math homework while eating, but after spilling ketchup on it she gave up and turned her attention to shooting aliens on her graphing calculator while listening to her charismatic best friend Jeanna make everyone laugh. 

The day passed in a droning blur until finally Missy arrived at her desk in her bedroom, ready for a long night of pretending to do homework while chatting on AOL Instant Messenger. It seemed like the boys in her school chose screen names by mashing together words they’d recently learned and thought sounded badass, which led to combinations like ArdentInfidel and audacious genre. 

Her screen name was mermaidfoam—a sophisticated yet goth reference to the moment when the Little Mermaid sacrificed herself to the sea. Missy saw AIM as her chance to bypass the debilitating shyness that overtook her in the presence of cute boys and finally exhibit her biting wit. 

She closed the door to her room and turned the volume up on her boombox to drown out her parents yelling. She signed on and surveyed her buddy list. The previous night she had stayed up late, too late as always, chatting with Jeanna’s junior ex-boyfriend. He had revealed his emotional soul, introducing her to Jeff Buckley and the song Lover, You Should’ve Come Over, specifically the live KCRW version. But now Missy was afraid to message him. She believed in the hoe code. 

A message popped up from ArdentInfidel. It was Tim, one of the skater boys. The cutest one, actually.


-nm, u?

-listening to modest mouse. 


-my parents asked me to turn it down because they’re trying to watch the news

-old people love the news. they love to be told what to think

-seriously, they’re robots. wanna see Ocean’s Twelve tomorrow? 

-sure, she replied nonchalantly, though her heart was racing and she was meanwhile messaging Jeanna,


because Jeanna had an away-message up that read, 

wHeRe Is My MiNd? 

This was exactly what Missy wanted to happen, and she felt like throwing up. 

She pretended to go to bed when her parents did, then worked on her website, which consisted of a layout of multisized rectangles with the word Unpredictability on a banner across the top in an elegant font, and zero content. She added a link leading to a pop-up box across which scrolled her favorite lyrics:


Once her parents were reliably asleep she helped herself to a long hot shower, a respite which was what she imagined drugs must be like. The water droplets beating against her head were drums summoning a mischievous spirit. Out poured her checklist of all the ways she’d failed to be a person that day. 

As Missy stepped out of the shower she saw her body in the mirrored wall. She opened the door to the bathroom and listened carefully for sounds of her parents stirring, then closed it again and placed her crotch up against the corner of the sink counter. She made eye contact with herself in the mirror, sticking out her lower lip and squinting her eyes a little. She started thrusting her hips and moved her eyes to her ass as her thrusting intensified. She swallowed her moans. 

In the aftermath, as always, Missy felt like a pervert. Wasn’t it a sign of some profound dysfunction, to find her own body alluring? It made her sick to even think about. There was no chance she was going to Ask Jeeves. 

Missy took the bus downtown to meet Tim at the theater. She was sweating and when she stole a furtive up-close glance into her pocket mirror she saw that her concealer had congealed, melting off her pimples and circling them in a shade slightly darker than her own skin. She glanced down past her elusive chest to the image on her shirt of a depressed Eeyore surrounded by a swirling rainbow. Her favorite shirt since middle school, she had that morning convinced herself it was a perfect symbol of teenage ennui. But now she wasn’t so sure. 

She saw Tim leaning against the side of the theater, staring off into the distance with big headphones on. She waved at him, feeling distinctly middle-school in the knee-jerk earnestness of her wave, and they hugged awkwardly. 

Not a minute passed after they found their seats before he grabbed her hand and held it. Missy didn’t know where to let her hand fall on the spectrum between limpness and a squeeze. She didn’t understand what was supposed to be pleasant about restricting movement with a sweaty hand sandwich. 

Not fifteen minutes passed and suddenly he was squishing his face against her cheek, nudging her like a needy cat. Missy panicked. If they started kissing now, when would they stop? 

So she ignored him. And ignored him again, and again, staring resolutely ahead, until finally, as the credits rolled, the storyline having long been lost on Missy as her embarrassment and annoyance subsumed her attention in a sea of ringing discomfort, her cheeks hot and heart pounding, Missy finally gave in. 

She turned to let Tim put his lips on hers as people got out of their seats and the lights came up in the theater, their hormonal display erupting at the worst possible moment. She tried her best to dive into the situation and be enveloped by his caresses to block out the people surely watching them like a minor car crash. 

At school Monday Missy was filled with dread. She'd thought having a boyfriend would be comforting and fun. But it was like having a dog when you’re a cat person. Someone to discourage her from putting headphones on. 

Someone to sit next to her like Tim was now in Photography class, holding her hand, shit-talking their gym teacher’s bad haircut, guffawing at his own joke. As if bad haircuts weren’t a sacred ancient requirement of being a gym teacher. Missy felt sick.

But she participated in the ritual of the after-school kissing session. And when she got home she didn’t procrastinate for once, got all her homework done, ate dinner with her silent parents. 

Then she was back at her desk. Typing and deleting words to Tim. 

-Hey Tim. Thanks for taking me to the movie. I had fun. The thing is, though, I don’t think I’m ready for a boyfriend. I’m too, like, crazy or whatever. I hope we can be friends. 

Three torturous hours passed. Missy bit all her nails off and binged on a box of Goldfish crackers. 

Finally he replied. 

-It’s okay, he said. And added that he’d been chain-smoking cigarettes all night, even though he’d just quit. Missy felt a pang of guilt.

Tim put up an Away message. The credits traverse signifying the end but I missed the best part, could we please go back to start? Incubus lyrics. Classy. Missy wanted to respond lyrically, to show that their brief relationship hadn’t been meaningless, that it had affected her. She put up an Incubus lyric Away message too. Pardon me while I burst into flames, I’ve had enough of the world and its people’s mindless games.

She got into bed, closed her eyes, imagining Tim sitting in a tree for some reason, glumly smoking. She felt bad for him and at the same time strangely elated because here was someone other than her feeling lonely, which meant she wasn’t the only one. In fact his loneliness was almost enough to make her like him again. But no, his jokes were bad, remember? Her mind wandered to the question of who her real soulmate was. Was it Jeanna’s ex? He did love Jeff Buckley. Missy felt a knot forming in her stomach.


image: Katie Frank