“What do you want for Christmas?” Heather, sitting at the desk in front of me, was asking Sarah across the aisle. Their excited voices carried over the whole classroom.
“Oh my god, I just want it to be over!” my head screamed.
Had I just said that out loud? Had I said it loudly? The hum and banter of the classroom paused and everyone seemed to swivel to stare at me as though I was an alien they hadn’t noticed before. I was one of the quiet ones, never joining in nor getting a word in edgeways when the popular kids held court before the teacher arrived.
“So has anyone heard about the Whamageddon game? You have to try and get through December without hearing Wham!s Last Christmas even once. If you walk in a shop and hear even a line of that sick song you loose! Its like impossible”
It was Tracy, sitting half way across the room. Now everyone was looking at her. Normality restored, the hum and banter resumed. I breathed out and faded back into the background. The teacher walked in and the class hushed.
I sat up and paid attention. I liked all my subjects.
“You should join in more often”
I snapped my head up and looked around. That soft gentle voice was awfully close. It had been directed at me. It was Tracy, falling into step beside me as we headed to our next class.
“Sorry I intervened earlier. I figured you could use the diversion” Tracy said softly and grinned, “you looked like you were going to explode in embarrassment!”
I felt myself grinning back. Tracy continued “So, you don’t like Christmas huh?”
I shrugged. Truth was, I didn’t like the crass commercialization of Christmas. It wasn’t even December yet and we were already being bombarded by it.
“A shrug? Is that all? Very non-verbal. You could start talking more too, like right now? Practice a bit?” she laughed.
“So I kinda like Christmas itself, but its starting earlier and earlier every year” I shrugged again.
There was a pregnant pause. Why didn’t Tracy say something back? I looked like she was waiting for more. I shrugged again: “and you?”
“Oh the same” she smiled cheerfully, “Exactly the same”.
I was watching her out of the corner of my eye as we walked. It was novel to be talking to someone between classes. Novel to be talking to a girl. I found myself asking “You heard Wham!s Last Christmas yet?”
“Of course! Who hasn’t? Everybody’s already lost”
I just shrugged again as an answer. Tracy grinned.
“But we can start new game right now? See who can go the longest without hearing Mariah Carey’s All I want For Christmas? Our own Mariahggedon!” Tracy was excited now, babbling friendlily. We’d reached the next classroom and she paused, holding us back: “shake on it?”
And so that was how I entered into the Mariah Carey All I Want For Christmas Is You competition with Tracy, a girl I hadn’t ever interacted socially with before. Well, truth was, I had rather limited social interaction generally. And I’d held her hand! Shaken it, anyhow. What was Tracy thinking? What would everyone else think? Did I have a friend?
“this is really cool! Rick Ashley singing Never Going to Give You Up”
Okay, that message to my school email was an obvious trap. Tracy was claiming it was a video of Rick Ashley, but it was probably Mariah Carey. A sort of reverse-rickroll. I’m not stupid!
I looked up from my phone and scanned the crowd. Sure enough the only other person with their head out of their phones was Tracy, and she was looking in my direction and smirking. She was waiting for me to click on the link. Everyone else had their heads in their phones as they waited for the school buses to take us home.
A brave idea bubbled to the surface. I slipped and slinked my way through the crowd until I was beside her. Her friends ignored my approach; only Tracy was aware of anything happening outside their phones.
I got real close and whispered “How about I open this link right now? You want to listen? I can turn the volume right up”
Tracy shrieked and tried to bat me away ineffectively. She was giggling. Now a few people nearby were looking. Tracy’s friends seemed surprised and defensive and about to intervene so I retreated as quickly and stealthily as I’d approached and within seconds I was back near where my own bus would park. I looked back over and Tracy was chatting with some of her girl friends and they were all looking in my direction. They looked confused and, frankly, disapproving. I don’t think Tracy being my friend was sanctioned.
For the rest of the week things returned to normal. Tracy, along with everyone else, ignored me. I glanced in her direction a few times, and tried to track where she was in the periphery of my vision, but she never paid me any attention back. It was like it had never happened. I sighed and felt another lead tug on my heart. Christmas isn’t so nice when you’re lonely.
I reverted to form and slowly Tracy slipped from my mind as I threw myself back into my study.
And then it happened. On the way to geography Tracy walked beside me and asked me if I’d heard Carey’s All I Want yet. I shook my head and turned to face her, but she was being tugged back into the fold of her friends by a protective gabbing hand. She smiled apologetically and we turned and continued on to geography apart again. But at least she’d tried! I was elated. I smiled to myself. Perhaps she’d try again?
On the bus home that Friday evening I felt a bit foolish. Tracy had made no more attempts. Perhaps it wasn’t real? Perhaps I had to make the next move? It sure would be nice to have friends. Perhaps her friends would like me too?
On an impulse I replied to her only mail saying I still hadn’t opened the video link. It felt strange to be having a friendly conversation with another student on the school email; everyone knew the teachers could read it which meant that everyone typically used one of the gazillion social media alternatives to talk instead. Except I didn’t use any of those social media apps; and I didn’t normally get emails from students except about group coursework.
I sat there feeling embarrassed. What would she think?
Her reply was rapid and short; she just asked me for my WhatsitApp username. I replied that I didn’t have one and added my phone-number. At least we could move off of email and onto texting.
It was a novel experience, getting texts. My phone kept bleeping and I kept tapping away, not paying any attention to the cookery program. My parents were intrigued as we lounged in the living room watching evening TV together.
“Who is it?” my mum eventually asked. I could tell dad was half listening too, trying to divide his time between the TV and my embarrassment.
“Just a friend” I replied defensively.
Eventually mum wore me down and got me to describe Tracy in excruciating detail; thick shoulder-length jet black hair, dark chocolate skin, black eyes, full lips, bright white even teeth, dimples while she smiled. Tracy was very pretty. The full works. Why was mum focusing on her looks? I was relieved that mum’s probing focused entirely on Tracy’s face.
“So you like her?”
“She’s just a friend”
My mum snorted at my answer and turned back to the television, the interrogation over – at least for now. I turned back to my conversation with Tracy. Tracy was going shopping in the high street tomorrow and we were joking about how she might avoid hearing that Carey song and what her escape strategies were. We agreed to a modification of the rules that allowed her to retreat if she heard just one line of the song; the loser had to hear at least two lines to lose.
I was safer because I hardly ever ventured out. I was going to win easily.
After mum and dad went upstairs to bed I laid on the sofa and pondered my new friendship.
Tracy was going out of her way to be friendly. Her very last signing-off text had been an apology that she had to head out and meet her gang of girl friends; it was, after all, Friday night, and normal kids went out on Friday nights.
I wasn’t very sleepy so I got out my algebra textbook and started working through the extra questions at the back.
I heard nothing from Tracy over the weekend. Yet mum’s questioning had got me start thinking about Tracy in a different way; now I was fantasizing about her being my girlfriend!
This was predictable enough – I regularly fantasized about most of the girls in my year and a few above and below too. But Tracy was somehow special. She was the first girl to ever really speak to me so suddenly she dominated my thoughts and dreams and my libido promised myself to her.
On Monday first thing I shyly approached as we waited outside our first lesson but I didn’t manage to reach her before we began to file in. Her friends seemed to surround her protectively. Marsha, her best friend, even seemed to face me down as though she detected my motives. I shrank back, nervous and embarrassed. Marsha just looked at me bemused. I could sense the gentle hum from their corner of the classroom was Tracy being teased about me. I wasn’t boyfriend material. If rumours spread things could get even more uncomfortable for me. Feeling my cheeks burning I stared down at my desk and tried to wish myself far away and invisible. It was that little bit harder to concentrate on the actual lesson, my mind reeling in pity and embarrassment.
“Did you understand a word he was saying?” Tracy texted at lunch time, asking about the calculus we’d just sat through. As usual I was sitting alone, picking over my lunch-box, and Tracy was sitting with Marsha and the rest of her posse on a nearby table. I shrugged in reply, not needing to text as I could feel Tracy’s eyes gazing in my general direction. “Was that a ‘yes’ shrug or a ‘no’?” she texted back insistently.
“Yeah I know calculus” I typed back cautiously. I didn’t like to stand out and I was mortally afraid of people finding out I was a swot. I might have had trouble concentrating in that particular lesson, for the first time ever, but I knew my calculus anyway.
There was no immediate reply. I could tell that Tracy was being swept into some other conversation. I looked up and around, careful not to seem to be staring. Marsha was watching me, a curious unreadable smirk on her face. She must suspect something. The lead weighed heavily on my heart.
It wasn’t until we were waiting for the school bus that Tracy picked up our conversation. “Can you help me with the calculus homework?”
An innocent question? Just a friend? Had Tracy worked out I was a swot and was trying to use me? Would I end up doing her homework for her? Grasping at the chance to be real friends with Tracy my libido overruled my doubts and hastily replied in the affirmative. And that was why, on the bus home, my phone dinged and Tracy had texted me her home address and a suggested time!
My parents made me extra nervous at dinner by exchanging knowing smirks and not actually asking me why I had shaved, showered and put on some of my few trendy clothes. They didn’t even ask where I was going nor when I’d be home as I slipped out. It was infuriating.
Although I had had no idea where she lived before it turned out that it wasn’t so far to Tracy’s house and I could comfortably cycle there in about ten minutes. I checked my phone; I was a few minutes early. Had anyone seen me approach? Should I stand and wait until 6? Or should I knock? In the end I decided that the risk of being seen waiting awkwardly outside outweighed the embarrassment of being slightly early, so I braced myself and knocked firmly.
It was the most massive mountain of a man who answered the door. Not only was he tall and broad, he was also chunky. His silhouette bulged, muscles on his muscles. He saw me and his expression steeled, a cold mask waiting for me to say something, ready to shut the door in my face should I be trying to sell something.
“Is Tracy in?” I asked meekly.
His expression changed in an instant. He was completely genuinely shocked. I guess I didn’t look like her normal kind of visitor? For a moment he just stood there like a deer in headlights. Then he shook his head exaggeratedly and then he started to grin. He looked terribly amused. I must have looked scared to bits. He turned and called into the living room “Tracy, its for you!”. Then he stood back to let me pass, his eyes wetting as he tried not to chuckle.
Tracy came busily forward, ignoring her dad. “Good to see you! Come in! We can study in my room” and she led the way off. I was a bit too shocked to really take in my surroundings or even see if there were any other family watching me, judging me.
Tracy’s room was extremely neat and extremely girly. I had collected my thoughts and was feeling a lot calmer now I was sitting at her desk so I could look around and take in hints about who Tracy was from the way her room was. The wallpaper was pink with a definite princess theme being covered up and replaced by a teenager theme with posters of boy bands and music festivals. The bed was tidy with dark red bedding that even I could tell clashed with the wallpaper. The only hint of a little girl left really was a small stuffed animal of indistinct type tucked under the duvet with just the head poking up on the pillow. Everything else screamed teenage rebel. The closet was bulging and the door wouldn’t quite close because the edges of some clothes were poking out. There were even some piles of clothes around and I nervously tried to avert my gaze for fear of glimpsing some abandoned underwear or anything like that; I desperately wanted to look but I didn’t want to get caught at it and so I didn’t dare.
But the thing that struck me most was the complete lack of books or anything like that. All the books in the bookshelf had gone and in their place stood a gazillion small bottles and containers of make-up stuff. The window the bedroom was into Tracy’s mind confirmed a lot of my assumptions and prejudices, and my nagging self-doubt that Tracy just wanted me to use me to do her homework for her began to take over. It was a classic trick for trendy popular people to find and (ab)use nerds, offering the unrealised promise of a tiny bit of social warm in return for a lot of academic hard work. It was bullying by another name but it was bullying all the same.
Yet Tracy seemed genuine. She had gone to the kitchen to fetch another chair and came back with the cliché plate of cookies and two glasses of milk too. She sat these in the corner of the desk and playfully slapped my hand away when I reached out, telling me that they had to be earned. And the we really did open our calculus textbooks and start going through the chapter!
“Wow, you really can talk” Tracy had pushed back her chair and was studying me, grinning. I guess I can get a bit animated when I’m trying to explain something. Tracy’s grin was infectious and I paused, stuttered, unable to continue my description. Tracy beamed. “Thanks, this is really helping. Think I’ve earned a cookie yet? They are kinda hard to ignore aren’t they?”
We were half way through the next chapter when there was a distant commotion in the living room. It was muffled and I didn’t pay it much attention for the first second or two, but it was getting closer. Suddenly the door burst open and in marched Marsha. She stopped dead and stared at me, shocked and surprised. “Bloody hell, what’s he doing here?” she spluttered.
Tracy giggled awkwardly as though caught with her hand in the cookie jar. Perhaps that was it exactly, because she did have her hand on the plate of cookies. Perhaps she had some kind of cookie addiction problem she’d like to hide? Or perhaps I was embarrassment? I could see Tracy’s dad looming in the hall just outside the door gesturing apologetically as though he’d tried to keep Marsha away and failed.
“We’re just studying!” Tracy squeaked and held up the textbook defensively.
Marsha sank onto the bed, deflated. Whatever exciting news she had come to share with Tracy had evaporated when faced with this new unexpected situation.
“Why that charity case? Fucking goody two shoes. Can’t you just adopt a puppy or something?” Marsha was talking like I wasn’t there. The hair on my neck bristled. I felt anger and bravery welling.
“Calculus? I need calculus help too” Marsha whispered distractedly after her tirade subsided. She wasn’t even looking at us any more.
“Would you mind? Tutoring Marsha too, I mean?” Tracy was asking nicely. It took a second or three for my body to process the sensation of Tracy squeezing my arm as she asked this favour.
And that was how I found myself a few minutes later revisiting the start of the chapter with Marsha. Tracy said repetition would help her too.
After just a few equations Tracy got up to get another chair so Marsha could join us at the crowded desk. Marsha took the opportunity to put me in my place: “She means well but she’s just using you you know? This won’t last”. I could detect the hint of a sympathetic tone in her quiet voice. Like Tracy, Marsha was perhaps a genuinely kind person under that brash persona.
We soldiered on to the end of the chapter and finished up the cookies in reward. Marsha actually turned to me and thanked me. She was warming to me too. But then, to my horror, Marsha suggested we dance a bit and Tracy seemed to go along with it!
There wasn’t much space between the bed and the desk but the girls put on some music, playing from Marsha’s phone, and started dancing. Luckily at least, from a Mariahggedon perspective, it wasn’t Christmas music. I just sat there, rooted to the stool, scared. My brain stopped working. I wanted to disappear.
Marsha was tugging me up. Tracy had got the other side and, between them, they managed to force me to my feet. They were saying kind encouraging things as they explained happily that it was their turn to teach me something to repay me. And so it was I dazedly began to dance. I tried to let myself go with the flow and just listen to the music and move like they did. For a few joyous moments I felt that I had finally got it.
Tracy collapsed on the bed, holding her sides. Marsha sat down heavily beside her trying not to laugh too. “I’m sorry, its just so so so funny” Tracy tried to apologise.