by Conor Powers-Smith
G-7’s were in style just then. They were detached, ironic; flirtatious, in a detached, ironic way. Tessie liked them well enough, when she had hers on, but that was the same as saying she liked whichever band or TV show was popular at the time. One was as good as another, as long as you weren’t totally without.
At the moment, she was without her G-7. She was on her knees in her room, still in her pajamas, hunting for it in the crumpled blankets, patting the thick white carpet under her bed and desk and wardrobe, flinging aside skirts and sweaters and socks. There was no sign of it.
“Mom,” she called, more out of panic than real hope. “Where’s my attitude?”
“What, dear?” Her mother sounded far off. A moment later Tessie heard her climbing the stairs.
“My attitude. My seven. I can’t find it anywhere.”
Her mother appeared in the doorway, wrapped in a fuzzy pink bathrobe, a cup of steaming coffee in one hand. “Oh, I don’t know, dear. Have you checked your kit?”
Tessie sighed. Of course the little plastic box, which held unquestioned pride of place on her dressing table, had been the first place she’d looked. All her other studs were arranged neatly in their little grooves, each recognizable immediately by its shape and color. Only the G-7 was missing, spurring her ransacking search.
“Not there, Mom. Have you seen it?” She had a horrifying vision of the little brown stud being sucked up by the vacuum cleaner. Could Ruff-Stuff, their white-and-brown terrier, have decided it looked like one of his treats?
Her mother said, “No, dear, I’m sure I haven’t.” She looked maddeningly calm, as if she just wasn’t getting the gravity of the situation. Her next words confirmed it. “Can’t you just wear another one for today, dear? You should get dressed; it’s almost 7:30.”
For a moment Tessie was too exasperated to speak. Wear another one! And walk around acting bright and chipper, or morose and hopeless, or sporty, or smart, or whatever, while every other girl was a G-7.
“Mom,” she said, suddenly inspired. “I’m sick!” She coughed, the best she could muster but not, she had to admit, all that convincing.
Her mother’s face lost its conciliatory expression. “I don’t think so, Teresa,” she said firmly. “You’ve missed three days this month already. Two you didn’t bother to tell me about, remember?”
Stupid G-7. It was easy to cut school when you were detached and ironic. She knew she didn’t have the courage to do it on her own.
“Mom, please,” she said hopelessly.
Her mother only frowned.
The only thing to do, she realized, was fake it. She arranged her face into her best attempt at detached irony, said, “Fine. Whatever. I don’t care.”
Her mother smiled brightly. “Good, dear. Now get dressed.”
She made it through the bus ride okay, feigning tiredness while her heart tapped out a hundred little hammer blows a minute. Without the stud’s guidance, she’d had to dress herself, reassembling an outfit from a few days before as best she could remember it. In her left ear she wore a plain brown clip-on, left over from before her long-awaited 10th birthday, when she’d finally received her implant.
She headed for homeroom in the company of Kathleen—who preferred Kate, Tessie reminded herself, while a G-7—and Ramona, who thankfully was not high enough in the seventh grade social hierarchy to make remembering her current name of choice absolutely necessary. She felt all right, except that she was shrugging too much. She was shrugging sometimes when no one had said anything to her. Just shrugging.
When Mrs. Kessler started taking attendance, Tessie’s heart resumed its frantic rhythm. Here, she said in her head a dozen times, in almost as many intonations. She was so busy practicing that she didn’t register any of the other girls’ answers until old Keister said “Luger, Kathleen,” and Kate answered, smooth as silk and after just the right pause, “Yeah.”
Tessie stammered something like “Hee-Yah,” smooth as corduroy and after no discernible pause. There came a chatter of detached, ironic giggles. She was in the front row, so she didn’t think more than a few kids saw her face go a deep, sudden crimson.
There was another blip in history, second period. Her notes from the day before were all doodled animals and elaborately decorated song lyrics, with the occasional, hastily scrawled “Munich” or “Danzig” randomly interspersed. But today she found herself unable to remain properly detached and ironic while Mr. Schwartz narrated the evacuation of Dunkirk. She found it riveting, so much so that, when Schwanz sought a regurgitation of something he’d mentioned earlier, her arm went up of its own accord, fingers stretched eagerly toward the ceiling, 338,000 on the tip of her tongue.
She recovered just in time to answer, when called upon, “I don’t know.” Giggles, detached, ironic.
She’d been dreading lunch, and it went badly. The soggy chicken nuggets made detachment easy enough, and she didn’t have to talk much; she’d never realized how much of the daily chatter came from Kate and a few other girls, how little from the rest of them. But Mark Kurtz just had to saunter up, lean in over Tessie’s shoulder, snatch one of her nuggets and plunk it into his mouth with the cool bravado of the B-9’s the boys were wearing.
He hovered there, awaiting a response; the next step in whatever little dance they’d been doing recently, that had seemed so engrossing yesterday. Again, detachment came easily, though irony was more elusive.
“I’m…hungry, Mark,” she managed.
He smiled. “Yeah?”
“For food. I’m hungry. Get your own.”
He leaned back, and she could breathe again. He waited, but for something from himself now, something that was not forthcoming. He moved off, a hitch of doubt in his saunter.
When she turned back to the table, they were all staring at her. Her blush returned. Her shrug was powerless. She bent to her tray, and it seemed a long time before she no longer felt their eyes on her.
At the mall after school, she passed the stud place three or four times before deciding that the gaggle of girls inside wasn’t likely to disperse any time soon, and resigning herself to dawdling until she could get in unnoticed. She walked the mall as she hadn’t done since she was nine years and 364 days old. She passed, untempted, stores she would’ve spent an hour in yesterday, never noticed boys she should’ve half melted over. She ignored the kiosk with the detached, ironic t-shirts, which had offered gear with cheery slogans voiced by cartoon animals the month before, red-on-black, suburban-morbid tees the month before that, the month before that she couldn’t remember.
She finally stopped outside the place that sold cheap, little-girl jewelry: tiny rings with plastic gems, polished metal bracelets which she could remember weighing down her wrists satisfyingly, but which she was sure were really very light. Clip-on earrings, all the shapes and sizes and colors of studded implants.
Part of the play Mr. Baumgartner had made them read aloud from in last-period English had been going through her head on and off, and it was definitely on just then. Reading it, she’d been shamefully unable to keep the fascination out of her voice, had been shrugging incessantly in self-defense by the end of it. Baumgartner had talked on and on about how great it was and why, but she hadn’t absorbed much of that. She understood it just the same. The guy named Hamlet, who she guessed was the main guy since it was named after him, was trying to make a decision.
She realized, with a thrill of real fear, that she was making a decision herself, or trying to.
To be, or not to be, she heard herself think.
Conor Powers-Smith was born in Patterson, New Jersey in 1979, and has read, watched and loved science fiction for as long as he can remember. He currently lives on Cape Cod, where he works as a freelance reporter for a local news Web site.