“You’re kidding, right?” Stacie’s brows lift and her eyes widen with suspicion.
“Of course,” I assure her. “Totally pulling your leg.”
She laughs loudly. “Because for a minute I thought you were serious, Elise. Even though you don’t look like the kind of girl who’s never been kissed, you had me going.”
I try to make my laughter sound genuine. “Yeah, well, you’re an easy mark.” Unfortunately, I was actually trying to be honest with her just now. But it’s obvious she doesn’t want the truth from me. She prefers fascinating fiction to the boring facts of my real life. Even so, I feel a little guilty for the way I’ve been stringing her along.
“So, back to the subject, Elise. What are you going to do for your sixteenth birthday?”
I stare down at my colorful toenails. Stacie decided we needed to give ourselves pedicures, and we’ve been experimenting with nail polish colors. The result is a carnival on my right foot. I just can’t decide between funky limelight, flirty fuchsia, perky purple, or punchy pink. “I don’t know,” I say as I wiggle my toes in the sunlight. “Which color do you like best?”
She squints at my toes. “Maybe you should stick with the rainbow look and just do your other foot the same. And here’s some electric blue for your pinkie. But I was talking about your birthday, Elise, not your toenails. Sixteen is big. A lot of girls around here pull out the stops with their sweet sixteen parties.”
“Is that what you’re going to do?” I ask her as I reach for the electric blue.
“Well, that’s a ways off,” she admits. “But maybe. Yeah, sure, why not? I think I’ll have a huge party --- maybe rent a ballroom and hire a band and have a Hummer stretch limo drop me off like I’m a celebrity --- and of course I’ll be wearing a really great dress.”
I just nod like I believe this. But the truth is I don’t think either of us --- Stacie or I --- are likely to have one of those over-the-top sweet sixteen parties. Furthermore, I don’t even want one. Oh, maybe I would want one . . . in a perfect world. But I don’t live in a perfect world. And neither does Stacie.
We live in the Tropicana Suites on Alejandro Drive on the not-so-cool side of town. Both of our moms are single and “financially challenged.” Currently, Stacie’s mom is between jobs, and my mom struggles just to make ends meet. Or so she likes to say, and way too much as far as I’m concerned.
So, seriously, a sweet sixteen party is pretty much out of the question for both of us. Besides that, Stacie, who’s only going to be a freshman, won’t even be fifteen for a few months, so her sixteenth birthday isn’t really an issue.
I don’t normally hang with girls who are younger than me . . . but nothing about this summer has been very normal. I guess I should be glad that it’s almost over, except for the prospect of going to a new high school. That, combined with Stacie --- a fourteen-year-old --- as my only friend, fills me with a deep sense of dread.
“So who kissed you anyway?” Stacie asks as she splashes her feet in the pool. This rather compact swimming pool is situated in the center of our retro (meaning old and run-down) apartment complex. But the pool is actually the one perk of this otherwise pathetic property. At least when there’s not some skanky party going on down here. But Mr. Galloway has been doing his best to make sure the tenants adhere to the “bathing suits required” rule lately. And I heard that Joey Feducci has been given notice, which has my mom greatly relieved. Joey is this middle-aged dude who thinks he’s God’s gift to women and hits on any female within whistling distance, including my mom and me, which is so disgusting . . . I can’t even go there.
“Elise?” Stacie is peering at me. “Hello?”
“Huh?” I look up from where I’m hunched over, finishing up the electric blue polish on my right pinky toe.
“Who kissed you?”
“Oh.” I sit up straight, pasting my “I’m so much older than you” expression on my face. “You mean the first time, right?”
“How many times have you been kissed?”
I narrow my eyes and give her a mysterious smile --- just like I’ve seen B do on Gossip Girl. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
She nods. “Yeah, I would. How many times?”
Now, I’m not usually inclined to telling fibs. But I’m also not inclined to opening myself up to unnecessary teasing from this fourteen-year-old. I seriously doubt that she’s ever been kissed either. I mean, between her braces, which she really needs to brush a bit more diligently, and her complexion, which I’ve told her might improve if she just washed her face once in a while, plus her totally absent breasts . . . well, let’s just say that not many boys have been knocking down her door.
Not that this gives me the right to deceive her, but I happen to be blessed with an excellent imagination. In fact, it’s this kind of creative outlet that probably keeps me from totally losing it. Because sometimes it feels like my imagination is about all I have. So what does it hurt if I tell a whopper now and then? If nothing else, I’m providing Stacie and myself with some cheap entertainment on a boring hot August afternoon.
“Come on,” she urges me, “spill the beans. I’m waiting.”
I stick my feet into the lukewarm pool water and sigh as if I’m trying to remember all the juicy details of my love life. “Well, let’s see. The first kiss . . . it was from Allen Brewster when I was thirteen, and it was at --- ”
“Seriously, your first kiss was thirteen?”
I kind of shrug. “I was almost thirteen.”
She giggles as she splashes some water on her arms. “What was it like?”
I consider this and come up empty. “It was, like, a kiss.”
“Duh. But what did it feel like? Was it soggy or mushy --- was there tongue involved?”
I roll my eyes and try not to be grossed out as I lean back. Taking in a long breath, I place my hands on the cement behind me and stretch my neck so that my long hair tickles the bare part of my back. “Well, it was slightly wet,” I tell her, “and no tongue was involved, thank you very much.”
“And so . . . ?” She waits eagerly.
“Then there was Jake Richey,” I continue with mock confidence to hide my guilt. “I was almost fourteen when we got together. We went out from the end of eighth grade clear into my sophomore year.” I continue to describe this boy in explicit detail. This is something I’m not making up --- I mean how he looked and acted and everything. Because Jake was a real guy and he was totally hot. But he didn’t know that I even existed, at least not back in eighth grade. The girl he went with all those years was a stuck-up cheerleader named Jocelyn Matthews. She was one of those perky, plucky blondes who acted like she was sweet and nice when anyone “worthwhile” was looking, but at other times she loved to pick on girls like me. I suspect it was simply to boost her self-esteem. Or maybe she was just bored. Whatever her reasons, the girl had a mean streak.
That was probably my excuse for fantasizing about her boyfriend. Like it was my way to get even with Jocelyn. Consequently, I daydreamed about Jake on a fairly regular basis during middle school. I would imagine stealing him from Jocelyn --- breaking her cold, hard heart. But I wasn’t only about retaliation, because Jake was actually a cool guy. And even though he didn’t know my name, he never did anything mean or hurtful to me. Sometimes I’d see him stand up for someone else who was being picked on. So, naturally, one of my favorite escapes from my pathetic reality was to hope that one day Jake would actually look my way, really see me, and even take a genuine interest in me. Sometimes I even believed it was possible.
In fact, it almost happened last year when some other mean girl, not Jocelyn, tripped me on my way into Geometry class. My arms were filled with my bag and books, and when I went splat on the floor, my stuff went everywhere like a yard sale, and while everyone else was laughing, Jake came over and helped me gather up my junk. I think I might’ve mumbled an embarrassed “thanks,” and then he looked straight into my eyes and said, “No problem.” I seriously thought I was going to melt into a great big puddle.
Unfortunately, the school year was almost finished by then, so my big plan for the future was that I’d reinvent myself during the summer and show up at the beginning of my junior year as the new and improved Elise Storton. I would get Jake’s attention and he would totally get over stupid Jocelyn, and we’d start dating, fall in love, go to prom, attend college together, eventually marry, get a dog, and maybe even have children someday.
But then Mom decided to take a “better” job, and that meant moving to a town about forty miles away from my old high school. So here I am stuck in the Tropicana Suites, telling Stacie lies about my past. Yes, I am a loser. My life is pathetic. And I’m halfway tempted to cut the bull and tell Stacie the truth --- the whole, ugly truth. Yet she eats up my stories, and I’m sure she has a lot more fun listening to my make-believe life than she’d have hearing the real deal, which would probably just depress us both so badly that we’d need therapy or medication or start smoking dope or something equally disgusting. So, really, I’m doing her a favor.
“Why don’t you and Jake still get together? I mean Renaldo’s not that far away. Can’t he drive over here to visit?”
“He could . . . except that we sort of broke up,” I tell her.
“Why?” Stacie looks seriously disturbed by this news.
Since I’ve been pretty much telling the story of Jake and Jocelyn, I decide to continue. “Well, it was the end of the school year, and this older guy, a senior, was really into me . . . and he was actually a pretty cool guy. Jake started get- ting jealous . . . and that’s when I decided I’d outgrown that relationship. Time to move on. Poor Jake, I think he’s still not over me.”
“But you’re over him?” She looks dubious.
“Yeah, what with moving away and all . . . I decided it really was time for a clean break.”
“So what about the senior dude? Where’s he? Why doesn’t he come over here and take you out?”
“Well, it turned out Micah wasn’t as into me as I thought.” I kind of laugh as I remember Jocelyn going around looking all miserable and brokenhearted toward the end of the school year. So much so that I suspect Jake has taken her back by now. Not that I care. I so don’t. “Anyway, after we moved here, I decided to take a vacation from guys. When school starts, I’ll just find someone new.”
“It must be so easy for you.” Stacie shakes her head.
“What do you mean?”
She turns and looks at me with a longing expression.
“You’re so pretty. Guys probably fall all over themselves to date you.”
This totally shocks me. “Seriously? You think I’m pretty?”
She rolls her eyes. “Duh.” Then she reaches over and holds a strand of my hair in her hands, flicking it in my face. “Your hair is so long and silky you could probably be in a Pantene ad.”
“Well . . . thanks.” Now I feel kind of guilty for lying to her.
“You’ve got perfect skin and a great body.” She scowls. “In fact, you remind me of my sister Leslie.”
“I didn’t know you have a sister.”
“She’s twenty and pretty and I hate her.”
I kind of laugh. “That’s too bad.”
“It’s just not fair.” She scowls again as she throws one of her rubber flip-flops into the pool, watching as it floats to the middle. “Why can’t I be pretty too?”
“Hey, you’re going to be pretty someday,” I assure her.
“Especially if you take better care of your teeth with those braces. And you’ve got really nice eyes, Stacie. I’d gladly trade my hazel ones for your blue. And your hair would be great if you used a little conditioner after you swim --- chlorine and blonde hair really don’t mix. Honestly, I’ll bet you’re one of those girls who’s going to be a knockout in a few years.”
“Yeah, right. Even if that was true, it doesn’t do me any good right now.”
“Sure it does,” I assure her. “This is a good time to work on your inner beauty.” Okay, I cannot believe I just said that. It’s exactly what my mom used to say to me when I felt plain and ugly.
She laughs. “Right. Inner beauty. Now that’s something most guys are really looking for.”
I consider this. “I’ll bet some of them are. But it’s probably the quiet ones, you know, the ones who are actually nice.”
She brightens. “You think so?”
I nod then stand. “Yep. I know so.” I dive into the pool and am surprised at how cold it feels on my sun-baked head. As I swim underwater to the other side, which is possible to do with one breath because the pool is so short, I imagine that I’m a mermaid (kind of like Ariel) and that when I pop my head out of the water, at the other end a gorgeous guy (kind of like Eric) will be waiting. Okay, I know that’s pretty juvenile and so silly I’d never admit it to anyone. But, hey, it’s my daydream!
Excerpted from NEVER BEEN KISSED © Copyright 2011 by Melody Carlson. Reprinted with permission by Revell. All rights reserved.