Excerpts for Plastic Polly
True Confession: Every time I hear someone call me Plastic Polly, I imagine myself slowly turning into a life-sized Barbie doll, one phony piece at a time.
I'M STANDING IN FRONT OF MY EX-BEST FRIEND, ALYSSA Grace. She's on the other side of the salad bar, scooping for a cherry tomato that doesn't want to be caught. Looking at Alyssa, you'd never know how stubborn she is--she's so tiny and slight, her thin white-blond hair wisping around her face, that it seems like the slightest brush of wind could knock her over. But Alyssa can hold a grudge as deep and thick as the roots of the old maple tree in my backyard.
I haven't spoken to Alyssa in over a year. Not since the first week of seventh grade, when she ditched Kelsey and me. We ignore each other in the hallways and at football games and dances. But today I want to tell Alyssa the truth: that I miss her. That having only one best friend--instead of two--has left me feeling lopsided.
My two friends next to me, Melinda Drake and Lindsey McCoy, don't notice I've frozen. They're still chattering about the banners for Groove It Up we posted all over campus this morning.
I spear the cherry tomato with my fork and drop it onto Alyssa's plate. "Here." I flinch because my voice sounds squeaky--the voice I used to have in sixth grade when I got nervous. Not like my voice now--the one I practice every day in the shower.
Alyssa looks up at me, and I hold my breath, wondering if she'll walk away. But instead, she gives me a tentative half grin. I smile back and try to think of something to ask her. If she still takes voice lessons from that old woman who never brushed her teeth--we used to call her Lady Onion Breath. If she still goes to thrift shops. If she still eats chocolate ice cream with crushed-up pretzels.
Before I can say anything, Melinda, who thinks our popularity is a license to be nasty, snaps at Alyssa, "Hey, you with the hideous hair and unibrow. Can you move, already? The rest of us would like some tomatoes too."
Alyssa doesn't look at Melinda, but from the way her knuckles whiten around the salad spoon she's clutching, I know she heard. And whatever chance I had to talk to her slips away.
The half grin on Alyssa's face twists into a sneer. "Hey, Plastic Polly. How's it going? Heading over to Fakeville?"
Several students turn and stare at us, and I feel my face flush. Sure, I know half the school calls me Plastic Polly behind my back. But no one ever says it to my face. And hearing it from Alyssa, it feels worse. Like a sharp stab in the back--especially since it was Alyssa herself who invented the name.
If Alyssa had said it when we were alone, I could have let it go. I could have apologized for what Melinda said, could have asked Alyssa all about her life and hoped she's not still mad at Kelsey and me. But too many people are watching us. And after all, I am a member of the Court. We don't apologize.
I lift my chin and stick a hand on my hip. My other arm drops gracefully to my side, and my arm bracelets jangle to my wrist. I look confident. In command.
I know this because it's a move I've practiced a million times in front of the mirror.
In my best haughty voice I say, "Do you mean over there?" I point to the Court--the table where the popular kids sit--and nod. "We're talking about Groove It Up, but if you hate us so much, maybe you shouldn't bother trying out."
The minute the words leave my mouth, I regret them. Groove It Up is a talent show competition between Winston Academy and our rival, American River Middle School. It is the social event of the fall, and it's always planned by members of the Court. This year is an even bigger deal than usual, because it's the competition's fortieth anniversary and the winning school will receive two prizes. First, the members of the school's Talent Team will get to perform on Good Morning, Maple Oaks. And the entire school will be treated to a private concert by Shattered Stars. They're a really popular band whose members all grew up here in Maple Oaks. They're too famous to play in small towns anymore, but somehow the city council talked them into it.
I posted the sign-up sheet for tryouts this morning before school started. After first period I went to check on it and saw Alyssa's name written at the top. Alyssa has an amazing voice, and when we were in Winston Academy's elementary section--when we were still friends--she would tell Kelsey and me how she couldn't wait to grow up so she could become a famous singer. She must be dying to land a slot on the Talent Team, hoping we'll win and she'll get to be on TV.
Alyssa's face crumples, but then her expression quickly hardens and she raises her voice. "So you're saying the tryouts are rigged? Only the Court suck-ups have a chance?"
Now more people are staring at us. "What? No, of course not." Although--and I would never admit this to Alyssa--in a way the auditions are rigged. Kelsey, my best friend and this year's PlanMaster, has decided the cheerleaders, who are so good they won the state championship last year, will make up half of our Talent Team. She'll break the girls up to perform in groups of two or three and then bring them all together for our final act. So even though tryouts haven't even happened, half the slots are unofficially taken. Kristy Palmer, captain of the cheerleading squad, has been practicing with her girls for weeks. I told Kelsey that seemed to me like allowing the star player of a baseball team to bat in every inning.
"Polly, Melinda, Lindsey!" Kelsey calls from across the cafeteria. "Get over here!"
Alyssa smirks. "Later, Plastic. Your master is calling you."
I scoop up my cafeteria tray, shoot Alyssa an irritated glance, and follow Melinda and Lindsey over to the Court.
The Court is a long rectangular table in the middle of the cafeteria. Directly above the table is a skylight--so the sun can shine down upon the chosen few of us who are allowed to eat there. Winston tradition dictates that the most popular eighth graders sit at the Court, as well as a few seventh graders who will take our place after we graduate.
Normally I get a small thrill as I approach the Court. I know it's not cool to admit this, but I adore feeling everyone's eyes on me as I saunter over to my usual spot. Outwardly I pretend to be bored, like it's no big deal. But inside I'm loving it. Especially when I catch people like Jenna Huff--who used to laugh at me and make fun of my squeaky voice when we were in Winston's elementary section--watching me.
It makes me feel like, Ha! Look who's laughing now!
Today, though, I can't bring myself to sit down right away. I take a detour to the condiment area, where I fill up tiny plastic cups with my four favorite salad dressings. I like to drench pieces of lettuce in the dressing. I call it salad fondue. Out of the corner of my eye I watch Alyssa. I'm hoping she comes over. Maybe then I can apologize.
"Hey, Polly." I look up and see Kate Newport, a girl who likes to hang around Kelsey and me, hoping we'll invite her to the Court. She's wearing a white tank top and a pink flippy skirt. It looks exactly like the outfit I wore to the pep rally a few weeks ago, when Kelsey announced she'd selected me as her Vice PlanMaster.
"Like my outfit?" Kate says.
"Um, sure. That's a super cute . . . necklace you're wearing." And it is. It's a small pink-and-white rhinestone medallion on a silver chain.
Kate smiles like she just won the lottery. "Really? If you like it, you can have it." In a flash the silver chain is dangling from Kate's finger, the medallion ticktocking above my salad.
"No, Kate, really. That's sweet, but I don't want your jewelry. Put it back on." I push the necklace toward her just before it dips into my salad dressing. "Please."
"Okay, but here's a bracelet. It'll look good with the ones you're already wearing." Kate thrusts a silver bangle at me. "Friends share, right?"
"Um, sure." I stick the bracelet onto my wrist. "I'll give it back to you tomorrow."
"Oh, no. Keep it. It's yours," Kate says, and practically skips away.
Here's the thing about being popular: Sometimes popularity is like your own personal good luck charm, a talisman that bestows favor, whether it's a bracelet, fifty holiday grams from people you barely know, or guaranteed invites to all the middle school events.
I glance over at Alyssa again. She's finished up at the salad bar and starts over to the condiment table. When she sees me, she changes direction and plunks down at an empty table just behind the Court. I sigh and look away.
But here's the other thing about popularity: It doesn't come cheap. Sometimes it makes you choose one best friend over another. And you can never admit to anyone that sometimes you wonder if you made the wrong choice. Because if you admitted that, they'd just laugh and say, "You're popular. What problems could you possibly have?" So instead, you keep your mouth shut, stick a fake smile on your face, and pretend you don't have any. Problems, that is.
It's just easier that way.
"Polly!" Kelsey hollers. "Are you keeping vigil over there, or what? I have an important question to ask you!"
With one last look at Alyssa, I turn away and head to the Court.
And stick a fake smile on my face.