If you thought of high school as a kingdom--and I don't mean the regular kind of kingdom we have today, like England or Monaco, I mean those small ones in fairy tales that probably weren't kingdoms at all so much as they were nobledoms where the nobles considered themselves kings and granted themselves the right of prima nochte, that kind of thing--if you thought of my high school like one of those, then Jeremy Cole would be the crown prince. The crown prince who could choose from all the women in his father's domain--and not only choose them but also have them parade in front of him at, say, a dance, trying to catch his eye, hoping to be chosen.
I don't know where I'd fall in the fairy-tale-kingdom hierarchy. I'm hardly Cinderella. I'm not beautiful and I'm not poor, and we have a cleaning lady who comes once a week, so I'm not stuck with the housework. Not Snow White either--the dwarfs always struck me as stranger than they were endearing, and wild animals don't look so much cute and cuddly to me as rabid and flea-ridden. Sleeping Beauty--not a chance. I'd be happy if I could just sleep through the night, let alone one hundred years. But I guess I could be Rapunzel; I do have long hair and I'm locked not so much in a tower by a wicked queen as in an Upper East Side apartment building by the SATs and college applications. Which are wicked enough for a hundred wicked queens and then some. Just my luck: Rapunzel, who wasn't a princess at all; Rapunzel, who--in at least some of the versions of the story--didn't have a happy ending.
It's pretty easy, sitting in the cafeteria, to imagine I'm in a fairytale kingdom, to transform the girls one by one from trendy students into stately-attired ladies. Just take the prettiest girl in the room, the most popular, whose clothes hang on her so lightly that you know she could pull off a gown as easily as she can those tight jeans with that black tank top. Give the boys swords hanging from their belts, and turn their baseball caps into crowns. I guess high school cafeterias are kind of like a royal court: your chance to show off the latest fashions, to make an entrance, and, if you're lucky, to be invited to have an audience before the royals--you know, sitting at the cool table.
I never sit at the cool table. I'm not at the nerds' table either, though I admit to having had a few dangerous weeks there in middle school when I was caught talking to myself in the stairwell. Now I know better, and keep my little reveries to myself.
Sometimes I grab a bagel and run off to the library to work on my SAT words, but mostly I just sit at the table right smack in the middle of the room, the biggest table, the one where almost anyone could sit and fit in just fine. So it's not that Jeremy's choosing me was a total shock because I was a dork. I mean, I am a dork, in my own "Hey, have you read this amazing novel?" kind of way--but not in any of the ways that get you kicked out of the kingdom. I speak up in class, but not too much; I come to school with my skirt too short and a black coffee in hand (even though I add so much sugar that you can barely taste the coffee); I even sneak out of the building between classes from time to time and stand on the corner with the smokers, bitching about the latest history substitute. The popular girls tolerate me just fine; the cool boys never take note.
So here I am, sitting at the central table in high court, staring at Alexis Bryant, who is sitting across from me and picking at a plate of limp lettuce. Alexis and I used to have playdates when we were younger, and the snacks at her house were always organic and whole-grain, while at my house, it was all Wonder bread and Coca-Cola. I wonder whether anyone else notices that Alexis is anorexic. Anorexia is so 1990s. In the twenty-first century, you only noticed when girls got skinny because they were doing a lot of blow. Even when celebrities got checked into clinics for eating disorders, rumors always flew that it was just a cover-up for their drug problems.
Emily Winters sits down next to me, her bangle bracelets clicking against themselves. She has to take them off when we're in class because they're so loud, but she always wears them in between classes, before and after school, and at lunch.
"Did you hear who Jeremy Cole is dating?"
Like anyone else would when Jeremy's name is mentioned, I snap to attention. "No, who?"
"Well, this is just a rumor, but I swear to God, I heard he hooked up with Beverly Edwards last weekend."
"But she's so . . . She's not smart. Once she asked Ms. Jewett whether To Kill a Mockingbird was a hunting book."
"She must have been joking."
"He can't be dating her."
"Maybe he just hooked up with her."
A new voice enters the conversation, a man's voice all high-pitched and pretending to be girly: "We should take him out back and beat the crap out of him."
Emily and I look up--Jeremy is sitting on the other side of me. If my face is anything like Emily's, I'm blushing wildly. Emily pretends to be done eating and leaves me. Alone. With Jeremy Cole. I'm sure that everyone's watching; this table is right across from the food line, right smack in the center. Everyone can see. From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Beautiful Between by Alyssa B. Sheinmel. Copyright © 2010 by Alyssa B. Sheinmel. Excerpted by permission of Ember, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.