It was the first day of middle school. The hallway crowded with hostile sixth graders, half from East Hills Elementary School, and the rest from Harbor Hill Elementary School. The two schools had always remained divided until today. For the first time, we were combined to attend the same junior high, and the separation between the two schools was similar to rivalry.

There could be no other day as significant as today. Today would determine who was cool, and who was a loser for the rest of our lives. Whatever happened in elementary school didn’t matter. The canvas was completely blank as the girls explored the new landscape of boys while the boys carefully selected which crew best defined their character.

I stood alone.

It seemed as though the other lockers were full of excitement with pictures, photos, drawings and love notes, but it was the first day of school and all the lockers were empty. My locker still looked pale green and without a shred of personality like the others.

I had no friends.

From afar, I could see Brooke Avery surrounded by the click of boys that were handsome enough to have the honor to be seen with her in public. I dreamt of one day saying hi to her, or maybe getting lucky enough to sit next to her in class, any class. I often busied myself with unlikely thoughts such as these.

The bell rang, it was an odd sounding bell, more like a beep, and the kids scattered from out the hallways to their homeroom, another unfamiliar word. Homeroom. What’s that even mean? I wasn’t used to multiple classes. As far as I knew school to be, you showed up to one class and stayed till a normal sounding bell rang then went home on a bus.

Anyhow, I looked at my class schedule printed on some yellow index card but had no idea where to find the room I was supposed to be in. Everyone rushed right by me like I was infected with some weird cold or disease no one wanted to catch by fear of rubbing against. The hallway was nearly empty by the time I found my seat in homeroom.

Jake Stern sat next to me with a look of disgust as if he were the unluckiest kid in class to have to sit next to me. It didn’t occur to me disgust was just Jake’s normal look. Jake was this kinda ugly bushy kid with broad shoulders, which is just a nice way to say he was pretty fat. I had never seen him before that day.

Then came these weird sniffs. He kept sniffing, sniffing around his desk, searching for some kinda smell that was coming from some hidden hole or whatever. I saw it from the corner of my eye, cause I mean, I didn’t wanna just look at him, stir up attention, but it was makin me nervous for some reason. I was always a bit nervous. Maybe that’s where the tics came from? It always seemed like the bricks of the building might come crumbling down around me but only land on my head and save everyone else.

Then he turned to look at me, I didn’t know why, and he shouted, even though I was like two feet away from him, he yelled straight at my face, “What’s that smell!?” in front of everyone, even Olivia, Brooke Avery’s best friend.

Brooke and Olivia were the goal of school. Just get to them, and existence would somehow make sense. I hadn’t ever seen girls like that before. They musta kept em hidden at Harbor Hill Elementary, but now this kid, Jake, this kid I never even met before is sayin I stunk, threatening my existence. He turned to me and took a large breath, like he wanted to make sure the scent was me even though he already said it was me. Then he gave another, more affirmative “Yo, you STINK!” My face went cold as I delicately looked around the room to see who heard him.

Everyone.

Kids that hadn’t yet said one word to me or even seen me before for that matter, in that moment, they all looked at me with a look of sorrow, a pitiful look, but quickly busied themselves with meaningless drawings and fake conversation to hide the awkwardness after a moment or two.

Then the beep-sounding bell rang.

They all scurried out and I was left alone as I smelled my armpits tryina figure out what he was talkin about, but I didn’t smell a thing. I looked at my index card schedule thingy to see what class was next. Great, another class to find. Why can’t the classes just be easy to find? Like right next to each other? What’s the point of a maze? I hoped to God that no one from my homeroom would recognize me in the next period so I put on my jacket to hide the tee shirt I was wearing to disguise myself and block the odor, which I wasn’t even sure was there.

But it was too late.

I was branded as “the kid that stunk” from that day forward.  Every morning Jake came to homeroom and tried to reinvent his insults using different words and rearranging his sentences with what little vocabulary he had. A week later there wasn’t a soul in school willing to risk their social status associating with me. One bully turned into two when Jake invited his best friend Dave to join in on the fun of making my life a blistering hell. Dave was this kid with blonde hair that you’d just walk right by without noticing him even being there even if he was the only kid on the face of the Earth, so I guess I was an easy target for him. Jake and Dave musta had these long, drawn out brainstorm sessions thinking of every humiliating remark they could possibly scrounge up cause they never stopped. Not once. All day, every day.

I had no choice other than to accept my social standing as worthless, worse than worthless at that, so I hid from everybody as best I could. Three months into the tortuous hell middle school had become, Alex, an even bigger loser than myself by comparison, jumped on the “Greg’s a loser” bandwagon, I guess hoping to become a little less of a loser than I was. Anything was better than me apparently, so he gave it his best shot when he asked me

“Are you wearing eyeliner?”

That’s how my long, jet-black eyelashes came into play. Little by little I broke down to a nervous wreck, afraid of every next step. Showers had stopped, family life filled with silence, and my grades slowly tanked. Everyday became worse than the last. I was sluggish and depressed.

I stared at myself in the mirror everyday after school and told my mom everything was fine. I stared at myself even harder, trying to see what everyone else saw. To me I was just a normal kid. My eyelashes were a bit long I guess, and dark. My skin was kind of pale I suppose. I put on extra deodorant then smelled my armpits and they smelled fine. I was so confused. If I could just see what the others saw, maybe I could fix it.

The next day I woke up and put on my best outfit, a black tee shirt that kinda was too big and these skater jeans I thought were cool cause the kids at the train tracks wore them, and some Vans sneakers that my mom bought for me cause I also thought they were cool… cause I saw the kids at the train tracks wearin them too. I showered extra hard and brushed my teeth firmly, all over, and put loads of deodorant on. I walked into homeroom quickly and took my seat so that no one would notice my entrance, but was unsuccessful. Jake walked right up to me and stared at my outfit.

“What’s up faggot? Now you’re a poser too?” and he punched me in the chest so hard it knocked my binder outa my hand and the wind right outta me. Even worse, the three rings from my binder came undone and the papers went loose and fell all over the floor, but not before the air glided them as far away from me as possible so that I had to go around and collect them from underneath everyone’s feet and shit. I wanted to punch him, but I did nothing back. I didn’t want to smell bad AND get beat up, so I just wandered around the room and picked up all the papers and sat down in my seat pretending like it didn’t hurt, like nothing had happened… but it did, I could barely breathe and I was now a bigger loser than I was ten minutes ago.

It was a glorious day when I discovered these two kids actually knew my name, Robby Deltorro and Jon Greenley.

Robby was this Italian kid that was a skater-lookin punk loser too but big enough so that no one ever said anything wrong to him, but he had no friends, except Jon. Jon really had no friends, except Robby. Jon wore these huge jeans and weird choker necklaces and I think the only reason he was spared humiliation was cause his older brother left a good type of legacy. I was in the process of leaving my younger brother a loser legacy.

Anyway, Robby and Jon made fun of me more than Jake or any of the other bullies that aimed all their adolescent frustration in my direction, but at some point of every day, they would say something nice to me, and, they knew my name! They even let me hang with them after school from time to time. It couldn’t get any better in my eyes. For the first time I was a part of a crew. That was what mattered to me.

I had to secure my spot.

Music was a huge part of our boring discussions. They wanted me to like the music they liked, and so I did. I would run home and try my hardest to memorize Robby’s favorite bands. I wanted to fit in so bad. I thought that this would be the key to his respect, so I made it my life and started studying bands I had no interest in at all. I learned the lead singer’s names, how many band members were in each group, and at least three album titles. I never enjoyed The Toasters, but they were Robby’s favorite ska band so I memorized the lyrics to every song. Ska music was so stupid to me, I just hated it. It was this dumb typa reggae rock soundin music with trombones and shit. But whatever, I had to pretend the saxophone was incredible and the trumpet really brought the chorus together. I’ll never forget the look on Robby’s face when I made the BIG leap of drawing The Toaster’s logo on my binder.

“Name one song by them Cayea. ONE song” (and that’s ‘kay-yuh’ so that you’re not mispronouncing my name the whole damn story).

I named three.

BOOYAHH MOTHERFUCKER!  With a look of mediocre satisfaction he said to me “Oh. Nice. Maybe you are cool.”

Holy shit.

I was making SERIOUS progress.

This was big.

I was moving up in the world. I raced back home and studied a few more bands they would be impressed with if I knew about. I was on a roll. Then after school one day the three of us were shooting hoops, well I wasn’t actually allowed to play cause I was such a fuckin imaginary loser but I could watch and give compliments, when the subject of Ryan’s father, who had just passed away, came up in conversation. Ryan was one of my good friends as a child when I played in the Albertson Soccer League. I thought to myself, they are going to make fun of Ryan after his father just died. They make fun of everyone. I can feel it. What do I do then? How should I react? Would they not spare ANYONE? But Jon said “shut up man his dad just died.” And Robby agreed they should move on. Whoa. I couldn’t BELIEVE they had actually shown a glimmer of compassion. Hmm, there was hope for these two, my BEST friends. I was so happy.

They did have a heart. Maybe this would work out after all.

And so my days went… For two very lonely years I lived in Robby and Jon’s shadow and hated every waking minute of life. Well, maybe not hated… after all, they did kinda protect me plus they only called me a faggot like once or twice a day. So that was pretty good I guess.

Then in October of eighth grade, everything changed.