A striped sweater with a tight turtleneck collar, a pair of light wash jeans, and a beige shoulder bag were essentially all that comprised Mercedes's outfit. The first day of her senior year should have been wrought with balloons, an orchestra, a golden dress, and a young man with roses and a red carpet at her doorway. None of those things had been made possible, Mercedes instead stirred slowly at a bowl of dollar-brand corn flakes and watched her mother scurry around the kitchen, looking for her keys.
"I'll buy you something nicer when my taxes get back,' her mother promised, but Mercedes knew all too well about those fake promises, not that her mother had intended to lie to her, only that any surplus of money would be spent on food or essentials, not an outfit. It was completely acceptable, growing up in a single-parent household had to be acceptable. She knew she would see some people driving to school in new cars, wearing the latest trends, talking about their trips to the summer beach house, and she wouldn't be able to relate. In all, Mercedes had volunteered at the library a few times a week and gone to visit her aunt and uncle in Cleveland around Independence Day, but most of those long three months had been spent cramped in her small home, reading and doing chores to pass the time. It was an average existence. Surely her teens years should have been comprised of something more interesting, but instead she spent time by herself wishing she was somewhere else doing something different.
"You gon' quit playing with your food, Mercedes?' her mother asked, snapping the girl back into reality. Mercedes shrugged her burdens off and began to eat the, now soggy, cereal. Her bag lay sprawled out on the table as her mother did another run through the house in search of her keys, finally picking up the light bag and discovering them underneath. Mercedes laughed as her mother rolled her eyes at her. Collecting the rest of her items, her mother started to leave the house before stopping at the front door.
"If you hurry up and wash that bowl, I'll drive you to school, Merc."
Brakes winced as the jalopy came to a halt a block away from the school, as close as the car could get behind a line of busses and student vehicles. Her mother leaned over the seat, kissed Mercedes on the cheek, and squeezed her hand tightly. "This is your last year,' her mother had said during the car ride. "I want you to have fun, I want you to be the chubby-cheek, little, brown girl I raised. You have an amazing sunshine about you, baby. Don't let all them kids with no sense outshine you, you understand me? I don't want you looking back at this year thinkin' you could've done, should've done, would've done something better."
It was the typical routine: an inspirational speech on the first day of school during a car ride that would then be followed by bus rides for the remainder of the school year. It would mean nothing if her mother's words meant nothing, and for the three previous years they had meant absolutely nothing. But they stuck that time, Mercedes's played her mother's dialogue in her thick, Northern accent over and over in her head as she walked the hallways for the first time for the last time. Her mother had said the same thing for the past four years. Don't let all them kids with no sense outshine you. Outshine you. Outshine.
Everyone moved in a blur, she didn't stick to any conversation for too long. One group of friends talked about dinner last night, one group of friends talked about signing up for yearbook club. One group of friends waved at her as she walked by them, Mercedes smiled and continued. Something about stopping and conversing with them about the same thing that she'd probably stopped and conversed about for the past three years turned her stomach; the conversation would probably start and finish with her attempting to make her summer break seem more than what it had been, and even in her bleak trifles, she would still fall short.
A long piece of colored paper, hanging by its corners and drooping in the middle was taped on the wall in the back of the school's cafeteria, apparently a means to sort children easily. Instead a hoard of hundreds of students pushed to see whose homeroom they were in. Mercedes stood close to the back of the crowd, moving forward whenever someone filed out, usually with a sigh and complaint that they weren't in the same room as their friend. After a few minutes, she made her way to the front and read her name under 'Mr. Roland' in room 234. Mercedes followed the train to the second floor, and, just as she had suspected and just as it had happened every year prior, was sent back immediately to the first floor's auditorium for an assembly: the annual first day's rite-of-passage. The line to get into the auditorium was worse than the line in the cafeteria, Mercedes stood in the midst of shoving arms and meaningless chatter. She'd caught a glimpse of her friends and made an advance to them, but they has disappeared as easily as they'd appeared, and Mercedes was left with the inevitable: sitting beside someone she didn't know. It wasn't the worst case scenario, that would probably be being forced to sit next to someone who smelled bad or a freshman who'd ask questions the entire time. She did her best to gravitate towards someone familiar, but the students were being corralled into seating like they were farm animals. Mercedes gave up and went with the flow, marching in what felt like a funeral precession. She followed up the bleachers, arriving to the highest row of them all. Two people in front of her made a dash for another row, where two vacant seats had been left by their friends. She yearned to feel the relief of her friends' remembrance, but that nectar was too sweet, instead she shuffled down the thin coral between the benches towards the end of the row. With someone already sitting at the end, Mercedes itched at the idea of being surrounded at all sides, but it was already too late to dash out of bleachers. Sitting down complacently, Mercedes slid closer to the boy on her left hand as a girl with long, messy hair sat on her right side.
"Let's switch spots,' he said just as her arm pressed against his. Nodding, Mercedes remained seated and slid over towards the rail as he stepped over her and sat back down. He pulled his collar away from his neck and sighed heavily.
"I swear to God I have claustrophobia,' he laughed. Turning to face her for a second, he joked, "I'm just going to ask everyone to switch spots with me until I end up at the end of the row, do you think that'd work?"
Mercedes shook her head with a curt smile. "You'll just have to try it,' she replied shortly, finally making eye contact with the boy. They locked eyes for a second before the bass of the microphone system tuned in, and Principal Figgins walked into the center of the floor. Mercedes shrunk into the corner of the bleachers, turning her attention towards the front, though the monotonous droning was a repeat of every speech delivered by Figgins: a weak attempt at stimulating the crowd of lethargic teenagers. Moreover, her attention drew to the boy beside her that she had, foolishly, failed to identify before sitting down. Had she known who he was prior to getting trapped between him and a set of railings, she probably would've turned around and pushed down as many people as it would have taken to get out of that section of the auditorium.
The boy beside her was well known and very popular, she imagined that she was probably the only one in the vicinity that grieved being so close to him. Mercedes wasn't a fan of popularity or the concept of popularity. But there remained the possibility that the only reason that was the case was because she had been at the bottom of the totem pole for many years. During her junior year, she'd ditched a few of her old friends in comfort of a newer, cooler crowd. Their intentions initially were to turn an innocent girl out, but over time she'd created a few sturdy bonds and rose the ranks. The dynamic of her friend group had changed completely. Like everywhere else in America, furthermore in Ohio, race cultivated the population. No matter how liberal everyone considered themselves and despite the fact that the textbook civil rights movement had ended over thirty years ago, there was a natural divide in the high school. No one would go as far as to call themselves racist or avoid hanging out with someone that wasn't the same color as them, but the friend groups and the popularity groups were all of their own accord. Mercedes had straddled the line in a group of misfits for most of her underclassman years. She was friends with a few Asian kids, a gay guy, and a kid in a wheelchair. Of course, the picture looked nice for a Sesame Street episode about friendship and equality, but at McKinley the ensemble raised a storm of slushies and slurs. Enough shirts had been ruined and her confidence had been beaten down to the point that Mercedes had trickled away from the group, instead doing her best to fit the norm. She dressed different, spoke differently, and picked up interests that weren't her own in hopes that the girls with bamboo earrings, boys with golden grills, and the section of the cafeteria that filled the air with rhythmic Nas and Master P might divvy their attention towards her, and eventually, with much suggestion, they did.
There was a hierarchy among all the races, a dance of popularity. There was, however, no popularity or social class without the division of race. Whereas Mercedes was popular to everyone with even an ounce of melanin in their deoxyribonucleic acid, she was a no name among any other student, and that was the way the world turned.
The boy beside her, however, was probably the most popular, or least well known, at the school. He definitely held the crown over students of his own faction, but his father's influence over the city and its constituents made his surname a household name. Sebastian Smythe, infamously known for his promiscuity and his wealth, was the definition of what Mercedes had wanted to be for years. Charming, attractive, wealthy, sexually appealing, and envied by many. She hadn't spoken to him in years, probably not since elementary school, but nothing had changed. He still had the same sarcastically humorous nature that, she assumed, drew people towards him. He played sports, wore nice clothes, and was well regarded by mostly everyone, but he joked that the only reason everyone liked him was because his father had gotten half of their relatives off parole.
How dislikable was he, Mercedes pondered. She watched him etch into his hands with his fingernails. He wore a dark University of Ohio sweatshirt pulled over a white button-down shirt, khaki shorts, and a pair of loafers. She imagined his shoes cost more than her entire outfit, and despite Figgin's loud philosophical seminar, Mercedes consumed herself with the theory that the boy beside her could probably buy and sell her, and she wanted to hate him for it, but she didn't. She never could. Everyone wanted to hate him and people like him, but an effervescence of charisma and nonchalance sprayed like a sensor whenever they neared, and everyone loved it. Even Mercedes, who claimed to hate caste systems, popularity, monarchies, and tomato sauce on pizza. She claimed to hate them all, yet ate it up better than anyone else, and for that, she hated herself most.
Three-quarters of the way through the delirious speech that, seemingly, no one was paying attention to, Sebastian turned his head towards Mercedes and pointed his finger at her weakly. "I remember you."
She was taken away that he had said anything to her, as he, along with everyone like him, was known for a conceited air and an unwillingness to talk to anyone beneath them. It startled Mercedes that Sebastian even went to public school, though many people had theorized that it was so that his father could attempt to ascertain some relationship and similarity to the people he served. In reality, Emmett Smythe could afford to send his son to any private school in the area and never sweat about the cost. That theory, along with every theory about Sebastian and his friends, proved the point that they seemed to rule the school just with their existence.
The conversation he initiated could simply be a way to pass the time, to distract him from his boredom and to earn himself a laugh. Afraid that she might be the butt of a joke, Mercedes remained cool. She raised her eyebrows and looked to him, feigning apathy. "Do you?"
He laughed and nodded, "Yeah, yeah. I do remember you." Sebastian turned slightly, straightening his back and hovering to create a partition between himself and the girl on his right. "You're the girl who wrote me a love letter back in third grade,' he paused, looking her over. "You're much cuter now, am I allowed to say that?"
"I think you have the wrong person,' she blushed.
"No, Mercedes,' he emphasized, Mercedes's blood running cold when he said her name. "I think I have the right person."
She grimaced at the thought that something so miniscule and easily forgotten had stuck in his mind. Valentine's Day in primary school was a formal holiday, in a uniform system, everyone brought in store-bought cards, attached a piece of candy, and wrote their name in crooked crayon. That was exactly what Mercedes had done, but she couldn't deny that the universal card set didn't atone for the feelings she had for one of her classmates. Instead of handing the freckled, green-eyed boy one of her Animaniacs cards, she slid a folded piece of paper containing, what at the time seemed to be the works of Browning or Bronte, a heartfelt passage about her unconditional and undying love for the young boy. Said student was Sebastian, and despite the colossal amount of courage it had taken to hand him the paper, Mercedes couldn't remember his reaction or ever seeing him read the letter. She did, however, recall him asking her why she hadn't given him any candy later on that day.
She shook her head and sighed heavily. "It was second grade."
Sebastian's mouth opened wide before he began to choke back intense laughter, he placed his hands on his knees and doubled over, further delighted by Mercedes's reluctance to laugh and her coy nature. "Oh, God,' he said and repeated a few times. "I knew it! - And you had the two pigtails on the side of your head, oh wow. I'm so glad you changed that."
Mercedes crossed her arms, eventually granting him a smile. "I loved that hairstyle. If I remember correctly, you haven't always been as cool as you are now."
Sebastian shrugged, "You're right, I used to run around my neighborhood in my underwear, but I've never had to nurse the blow of delivering an unreciprocated love letter. I'd probably die."
"Well, I'm still here. Alive,' Mercedes responded. "It wasn't that much of a blow. I just went on to the next boy."
Sebastian nodded, smirking a bit. "I'm glad, I've heard of a few girls so bad off that they write men off completely."
Mercedes sputtered in laughter, a head directly below them turning to shush the duo. Sebastian gave them a stern look and kicked their shoulder with his foot, much to Mercedes's surprise. She raised her eyebrows and grabbed his arm lightly, "You can't do that!"
He turned slowly with the same smile plastered on his face, Mercedes's hand falling quickly. "Incase you haven't noticed,' he said, a tone of arrogance filling his voice. "I can do practically whatever I want. You haven't been living under a rock, have you?"
Mercedes shook her head, "You can do whatever you want?" He nodded as she continued, "Except reply to my love letter, right?" She asked jovially. Laughing quietly, Sebastian shrugged his shoulder and pushed some of his hair behind his ear.
"You have me there,' he admitted. They continued the whispered banter for the remaining time in the auditorium, though Mercedes couldn't conjecture why he was sitting at his lonesome instead of with his group of friends. Unlike herself, he would be missed and an empty seat somewhere in the bleachers probably had his name on it, and he knew that. There was the possibility that he, too, was attempting to change something about his senior year, but Mercedes resolved to quit naming similarities between the two, because, frankly, they had few. In brutal honesty, as light-hearted and easy as their conversation was, she knew that once they left the auditorium, they'd never speak again. They would pass by each other in the hallway without saying a word, and even if she initiated a smile or a wave, it would go unreciprocated, and she would feel just as she had during the second grade. He was, or so he thought, or so he was treated, a deity amongst ants, and she was just another insect for him to swat at, or even worse, ignore.
That could have been the case or the possibility that all his kind words and pseudo-sincere jokes were a part of his method, that theory being pushed forth by the suggestion that she write down her number on a piece of paper when the assembly ended.
"Why?' Mercedes asked suspiciously, tilting her head as she withdrew a pencil and a notepad from her purse. She knew about his libido, and everyone knew about the urban legend referencing a twenty-year-old binder with the names of all the virginities taken over the years by boys at McKinley and who had done the bidding. Sebastian's name was apparently etched into the cover, that's what she'd heard, but nobody of consequence had ever admitted seeing the book even if it did exist. Whether or not the rumors were true, she knew he'd never dated anyone seriously, but he was always with a new girl or news was being spread about who he did what with where. He was a heart-breaker and a Casanova, and, according to many, more experienced than the teachers combined. She had no hope that they would ever be friends or anything more, but strong suspicion that she might be another notch on his belt, or worse: the subject of ridicule for being the only black girl him or any of his friends could toss.
"So we can catch up,' he revealed. "If I don't get your number, you'll probably just ignore me for the rest of high school, and then write a lousy memoir about your lost love. Daunting on about how you missed your chance and how you wished everyday for the rest of your life that you had given me your number, but instead led a miserable existence where you never saw me again. It's the quintessential ruin to all amazing writers, and, if I recall, your letter was obviously snubbed for a Pulitzer."
Scoffing, Mercedes shook her head and wrote down the number to her house phone. "Don't call me at any wild time, okay? My mom'll have a fit, then you really won't see me ever again." She handed the paper over reluctantly as the students around her began to stand and leave, Sebastian slipping the sheet into his pocket with a smile. Her eyes surveyed him, she couldn't conceive why he was interested in her or why he had any desire to speak with her further. It was enough to talk to her because they were sitting beside each other and she was a familiar face from a nostalgic time. That was excusable. What she didn't understand, what Mercedes couldn't understand, was why he wanted to get to know her any better, why he wanted her number, what needed to be caught up between the two. She could admit she had insecurities that formed a cloak of paranoia around her shoulders, the same cloak that had probably enabled her to be outshined for years.
Mercedes stood after him and watched him draw away from her as they slipped into the crowd. Her hand gripped her bag tightly as someone shoved past her, not bothering to turn back and apologize. She walked to her first period, sat down next to a familiar face, and took notes, just as she had done for the past three years. She repeated the ritual, only this time with the sincere belief that something would change.
set during the nineties