Mom pulled our green Plymouth Duster in front of New Smyrna Beach High School smack at the front walkway teeming with football players and cheerleaders. I could tell by the “cool” wafting off them in waves.
“No! Not here! Drive up further.” The crutches tossed across the backseat—remains from a broken ankle—killed any modicum of cool I’d ever had.
Our perfectly adequate car, the one I’d learned to drive in, morphed to shoddy.
Mom inched forward and my stomach knotted into a figure eight, then the whole mess quivered like life had dropped a toaster in my bathwater. I just wanted a place where I belonged. A place to be safe. That’s all I’d ever wanted.
First day of my junior year. Welcome to New Smyrna Beach.
I chewed on my lip and eyed the brick school that presided over a marshy island in the Indian River, wedged between the mainland and the beachside. My eyes followed the covered walkway that led to cement rickrack framing a stark, two-story entryway. Students snaked up the stairs and across the balcony. One hundred percent of them would probably catch my grand entrance.
The faint scents of fish and something sweet like orange blossoms hung in the heavy, humid heat.
Morning sun glinted daggers into my eyeballs off the car ahead of us. It drove away, past the parking lot where a group of guys gathered near their motorcycles, chains that hung from their belts glittering in the sun. In the far corner of the lot huddled a group in surf shorts and T-shirts, snowy, sea-whitened hair falling on their shoulders. I wondered if they shared a joint.
What had I been thinking when I went along with Mom’s uprooting our family over a jalopy of a house—a house that likely would never feel like home? I hadn’t made friends with any of the ten places my family lived, not even the Volkswagen bus or my sailboat namesake, the Annie Lee.
I hadn’t thought about the Stuart friends who had sunk down in my soul when the adults in my life went MIA. Those girls became the spoonful of sugar that made the hard years go down. And when I let them, they stood firm at True North on my moral compass.
I hadn’t weighed whether I could make friends all over again.
And certainly I hadn’t considered the first day at a new school.
No, I thought about running away from my regrets—kisses I should have kept to myself, Marlboros, marijuana, and more I didn’t want to resurrect.
I gritted my teeth. One thing was for sure. I’d make better choices in New Smyrna Beach.
“I love you, sweetie.” Mom tried to sooth my nerves.
But I wanted to bite her head off for breathing. I muttered something that sounded like, “I love you, too.”
I sucked in a shaky breath and slid out of the car, hopped on one foot, and retrieved my crutches.
“Let me help you.”
I gave Mom a negative jerk of my head. The only thing worse than crutching through the gauntlet of “it” kids would be hobbling through them with mom in tow, nurse whites rumpled from her night shift at Fish Memorial Hospital.
Which fish did the hospital memorialize, anyway?
I rooted my eyes to the cement walk, polished smooth by all the feet that had gone before mine—not daring to glance right or left.
The crutch tips grabbed and released as I swung my body in graceless arcs toward the office. Three weeks, I told myself. I only had to survive three weeks, then New Smyrna Beach High School would become my new normal. I needed to suck it up. I wasn’t a newbie to first days from hell. This was my ninth school.
I gimped into the office and retrieved my newly minted schedule. The receptionist ran around her desk and opened the door for me.
“Thanks.” I smiled a wobbly smile I should have given Mom.
I glanced down at my neon orange jeans and one Kelly green Converse. Maybe I could have chosen something less conspicuous. I blew out a puff of air. It didn’t matter. I’d been here five minutes and everybody had already seen me.
I settled into a seat behind an IBM Selectric for my first period typing class.
Dust motes floated in the sunshine coming through the windows and I breathed in the scent of Wite-Out and oil.
A caffeinated, blonde version of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz swished into the seat across from me in a flowered dress. “Hi I’m Jackie Herold.” She introduced seven other girls and invited me to the beach on Saturday before the bell rang to start class.
Forty-one years later, we still dive into BFF whenever we can.
After Typing, I stood at the foot of the stairs, eying the students streaming up the right side and down the left. I clenched my books between my elbow and a crutch. Grass grew faster than I could climb stairs. My mind thumbed through my classes—second and fifth periods would be on the second floor. That meant four trips a day up and down the steps on crutches for the remaining month I’d be wearing a cast. Figured.
A guy stopped. Pale curls sprung from where he’d tried to comb them flat. Warm blue eyes smiled at me. “Carry your books?”
I shoved my Spanish text and notebook into his arms before he got the words completely out. “Thanks!”
He laughed and told me his name was David Lossing, a lowly sophomore.
The sea of students parted around us while I hoisted myself up one step. “You don’t have to wait for me. Just leave the books at the top of the stairs.”
“Are you kidding, and miss a legit reason to be late for class?”
The rest of the day, in fact the rest of the month, boys carried my books and even a few girls.
Linda Reader, a teacher barely ten years my senior, James Knox, John Scrivano, Kyle Avery, and the rest of the creative writing class took me in—just another right-brained book nerd—like I’d been born in New Smyrna Beach. My people.
At three p.m. I clomped to Mom’s Duster—parked in the exact spot where I’d left her.
I shot the smile I should have given her this morning over the back seat as I tossed in my crutches.
“How did it go?”
“Great!” Sweaty and exhausted, I rubbed my sore biceps.
Mom putted the mile home while I spilled every detail of the best first day of school. Ever.
I didn’t have to make friends. They found me.
My junior and senior years unspooled while this leafy, water-fingered town nestled down in me—not as a new normal—but as the place I’d always call home.