Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel









For my Mr. Miyagi, Chris Lynch,

and my Fairy Godmother, Elise Howard.

Thank you for believing in me, even when

I don’t believe in myself sometimes.


My copy of
The Color Purple
lies in front of me on my desk, the spine bent and wrinkled from the many times I’ve pored over the book. I have so many things to say about the beautiful prose, the characters, but I won’t . . . because I, Leila Azadi, am a Persian scaredy-cat. I can’t believe even English class makes me anxious these days.

“Now, when Walker describes Shug through Celie’s eyes, what is she trying to convey?” Ms. Taylor has, of course, managed to touch on the one subject in
The Color Purple
that I can’t even begin to comment on.

Please don’t call on me.

Please don’t call on me.

Ms. Taylor is eyeing the class like a hawk about to swoop down on some unsuspecting field mice. A really hot hawk with great hair and an appreciation for literature, I might add . . . which reminds me, I should stop crushing on her in class, especially since it’s the beginning of the school year.

Ms. Taylor sets her sights on my friend Tess. “Any thoughts?” she asks.

Tess looks up at Ms. Taylor with those mousy eyes, her retainer glistening under the fluorescent lights. I’ve told her to stop wearing it at school, but she insists her teeth will not be compromised for popularity.

“I think Celie finds Shug attractive . . . like in a romantic fashion,” Tess says.

The snickering begins with Ashley Martin and Lisa Katz. They’re the girls every guy at our school has fantasized about since we were in ninth grade, which I find strangely disturbing. I’m pretty sure Mr. Harris, our science teacher, has been seeing Ashley outside of school. I should probably tell Ms. Taylor that because she and Mr. Harris have been dating since the beginning of the school year. They have never said anything about it, but it’s so obvious, especially when he comes all the way from the science building to borrow chalk from her. I should get him a gift card to Staples and tell him about all the discounts he can get on office supplies.

Mr. Harris is like one of those guys who loved his time in high school and decided never to grow up. I would probably find him endearing and dreamy like everyone else if I didn’t resent him for dating a woman far superior to him . . . and if I wasn’t failing his snooze of a class. Why would I ever care about frictionless acceleration anyway? How is that ever going to get me a girlfriend?

Not that I dare think about that. I’m not ready to announce my lady-loving inclinations as yet. I can hear the whispering, knowing that what they are snickering about could easily be me. I’m already different enough at this school. I don’t need to add anything else to that.

As Tess struggles through her answer to Ms. Taylor’s question, Ashley cackles with the fervor and depth that only a bitchy blond sixteen-year-old can muster. Apparently Lisa is no longer interested. She looks back to her notebook, hiding her face by pulling her brown bangs down. It’s a habit she’s had since we were kids.

Lisa and I went to the same private elementary school. She’s richer than God—her father is some kind of CEO—plus she’s attractive and dresses well. Considering our totally different social circles now, it’s hard to believe we were friends as kids. But back then we both had an obsession with Roald Dahl books, and that was all that was necessary.

“Very good, Tess,” says Ms. Taylor. “Celie does have strong feelings for Shug. Is it possible for her, even though she is married, to be attracted to another woman?”

The class is silent again. I hate when this happens. I’ve never done well with awkward silences or pauses. I can always hear people breathing. I can hear
breathe. It’s the most uncomfortable feeling ever. Usually I’d make a joke or something, but this subject is too risky. They’d all know.

“Robert? What do you think?” Ms. Taylor has caught another of Armstead Academy’s finest in her talons now. Robert Peters is on the soccer team, rows on the crew team, and gets great grades, but I don’t understand why he works so hard. His parents own a potato chip brand popular in New England, and Robert will inherit the company when he grows up. He always has a Gatorade bottle with him, full of piss-yellow Gatorade and vodka. He gets a little loopy from the booze by history, which is two periods away, but keeps it together enough that teachers don’t notice.

“I don’t know, Ms. Taylor. I’ve never been married and I’m not a lesbian.” Everyone laughs, this time including me. I don’t really mean it, but the fake laugh is high school protocol. Everything’s a lark when you’re rich and handsome, like Robert. Why upset the status quo? Though I’m not one to talk. My dad’s a surgeon.

My parents are both originally from Iran and think education is the most important thing. To give them credit, Armstead has facilities and resources beyond those of a lot of small colleges. We have a sleek fitness gym to train Olympic athletes (we’ve had two in the past eight years) and our dining hall is like a castle out of Harry Potter.

At first, when I came here in ninth grade, I really loved the place. I got along with everybody, I loved my classes, and I enjoyed sports. It all kind of went awry after meeting Anastasia this past summer at a Global Young Leaders of the Future camp, where we spent two weeks having mock debates while representing our countries in the United Nations. I was put in the Algeria group, the only Middle Eastern country other than Israel represented. Anastasia was representing Ghana, but she was from France.

Anastasia had a red birthmark near her eyebrow that she didn’t seem at all self-conscious about. One day she cornered me in the dorm lounge and talked to me about the concept of privilege and how I was a naive, spoiled girl who didn’t know anything about the world around me. I found her fascinating.

By the time the Festival of Nations came around, where we all dressed up in inappropriate ethnic garb from our represented countries, Anastasia came up to me while I wore a hijab and she was wearing a dashiki, which was clearly meant for a man. We looked ridiculous, but we had been talking for days about our favorite musicians, her melodramatic poems, and my crap photography skills, and by this time there was this . . .
between us. I had no idea what that tension was; I just knew I shouldn’t pursue it. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it, either.

Anastasia asked me to help her find her
drum in her dorm room before the festival got underway. We went upstairs to her room, and she locked the door. She swung me around by my arm and asked me if I had ever been properly kissed before. I thought back to playing spin the bottle in sixth grade and kissing Andrew Cassidy. His kiss tasted like Fritos, a snack I can’t stand. Then there had been my semiformal date, Greg Crawford. We kissed for ten minutes. I wanted to feel something, but I didn’t.

So here was Anastasia, gently tugging at my
covered arm, breathing softly on my lips, looking at the shape of my eyebrows and pushing back my head scarf with her other hand. I told her that no, I didn’t think I had been properly kissed. And then it happened.

She inched closer. My ears were warm enough to heat up a Hot Pocket. My stomach felt the way it had on the Thunderbolt coaster at Six Flags New England. I wondered if Anastasia would know that I practiced kissing on my pillow and could never quite figure out where my tongue was supposed to go.

All my wondering was put to rest when our lips met. The kiss started slow, her lips figuring me out, asking whether it was okay to continue their dance. I backed away slightly, looked her in the eye—and started to cry.

And then I knew for sure what I had been trying to avoid for so long. Everything rushed to the surface. I cried as I remembered throwing the dress I had received for my third birthday on the floor. I cried as I remembered wanting to be best friends with a girl in fifth grade because she was so pretty. I cried as I remembered always rescuing the girl, played by a stuffed animal, while pretending to be Indiana Jones. I cried and Anastasia kissed my lips again, this time aggressively, her tongue asking for acceptance. We missed the festival, but we couldn’t have cared less.

Our fling lasted through a couple more make-out sessions, but Anastasia ended up liking some guy named Enrique by the time the mock United Nations summit rolled around at the end of the summer. I was heartbroken. I threatened almost every country at the conference with whatever military capabilities Algeria had. My other group members had to appease everyone afterward by offering to export more oil. After days of the two of us not speaking, the program came to an end and Anastasia pulled me aside in the girls’ bathroom.

She said this was only the beginning for me and I was going to find someone special. She said she was a mess and I could do better. At the time I didn’t believe her, but I was willing to put up with her melodrama for one last kiss. We broke apart when we heard a toilet flush. A Japanese girl came out of the stall, washed her hands, and booked it out of there.

After this past summer, I came back a little wiser to the universe, having met people from all over the world. I realized I was different, and that Anastasia might not have been the only one who had figured that out about me.

“Leila, what do you think?” Ms. Taylor’s question pulls me out of my daydreams. I feel everyone’s eyes on me.

What do I think? After the summer I was thinking too much. I started noticing things I hadn’t before, like our hallway janitor, who had to clean up the snack wrappers we tossed onto the floor, even though a wastebasket was a few feet away. I started noticing how all the black kids in our grade, seven in total, sat in one spot by themselves and were always pointedly asked what they thought in class whenever we studied slavery or the civil rights movement. Greg hates being asked, and I don’t know why he doesn’t say something to his mother, who is on the board of trustees.

I also began to notice how white everything was. The students, the students’ teeth, and the fences surrounding the outdoor swimming pools we never used. We all seemed to categorize ourselves without ever explicitly saying anything. Where does that leave students who don’t have a clear category?

“Can Celie be attracted to another woman?” Ms. Taylor is standing near my desk. Ashley Martin folds her arms and Robert Peters guzzles his Gatorade bottle.

“With a husband as awful as Celie’s, I don’t blame her. Am I right?” I say with a chuckle that almost sounds real amid the laughter of my peers.


“What are you up to?”

Greg pulls up a chair next to me in the computer lab. I quickly minimize Anastasia’s Facebook page and turn to him. So maybe I’m not completely over her.

“Oh, nothing. What’s up?”

“I saw the new trailer for
Zombie Killers Part V.
It’s pretty sick.”

“No way! The teaser trailer wasn’t supposed to come out until November!”

“Hey, I know a guy. Here, I’ll show you,” he says, commandeering my computer as I shift my chair a little to the side.

Greg’s the kind of guy I wish I could crush on. He and I have a lot in common. We both like comic books and hip-hop, and we both think that Naya Rivera is our dream girl—though he doesn’t know that. He types in a web address and hovers the arrow over grainy footage of zombies parachuting out of the sky.

“Holy crap!” I say, and Greg turns to face me.

“I know!” We look at each other in excitement, but his eyes linger a little too long. I scoot away as he rubs the nape of his neck and looks back at the screen, almost as an apology.

At the semiformal dance we went to last year, he told me he’d liked me for a long time. I care about Greg . . . I just wish he didn’t have a crush on me. I suppose it’s flattering and makes me feel pretty. Other people have told me the same thing, but I never feel that way. I feel . . . not yet assembled, if that even makes sense.

After our make-out session last spring, I didn’t call Greg for about two weeks. Eventually he called and asked if I was okay. I told him I didn’t want to ruin our friendship by dating, and I could tell he was upset, but he agreed that our friendship was more important. I knew he’d be fine and date some hot girl who would treat him like crap, and I’d be left to moon over some girl of my own.

“I thought McNair died in the last one,” I say, watching the trailer on the screen.

“Well, he came back as a zombie.”

“But he’s a zombie hunter. So he’s hunting his own kind? Talk about self-loathing.” God, nothing in this franchise makes sense. When women in bikinis who have nothing to do with the plot show up, Greg clears his throat. I pretend I don’t notice and hope I’m not blushing.

I haven’t had a crush on anyone from school, which is a blessing. At Armstead everyone knows everything about everyone, even people you’ve never had a conversation with. While the school is physically impressive and has a lot of land and buildings, there are less than six hundred students, grades seven through twelve, inhabiting its halls. There are paintings and photographs of former educators and students, most of which look to be of the WASP variety, dating from the school’s inception in the 1800s.

The campus boasts several athletic fields, a giant gymnasium, a hockey rink, tennis courts, squash courts, a performing arts center, a photography lab, a science building, a building for the middle school, and three computer labs. There’s also a library, which is small and mostly used as a place to nap or read magazines.

Zombie Killers
trailer ends and Greg moves to a chair next to mine. “Are you going to Lisa Katz’s party this weekend?” he asks, checking his Facebook newsfeed.

“I didn’t know I was invited.” Greg and I aren’t exactly in the cool group. We’re more in the middle—not popular but not ostracized, either. There are a few well-established tiers within the social hierarchy at Armstead, yet Greg and I have somehow managed to remain floaters.

The cool kids are Ashley, Lisa, and their shopping buddies, some jocks, and some billionaire kids. I don’t understand how cool kids find one another. It’s like they have sonar for who is socially acceptable and who isn’t.

“Yeah, it’s like a back-to-school thing,” Greg says. “Almost everyone’s invited. You going?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I have a ton of work.”

“Homework? It’s a Lisa Katz party, Leila! I’ve heard her house is badass. We’ve got to check it out!”

I don’t tell Greg that I went to Lisa’s house all the time when I was younger. She and I always had a pretty good time, until her mother showed up. Stephanie Katz always put me on edge. There was something about her that made me nervous all the time. She didn’t yell or scream. She would just phrase things in a certain way that made you feel inferior or useless, like “I didn’t think you were familiar with Charles Dickens’s work,” or “Your mother has such an interesting accent. The way she says ‘
instead of ‘watermelon.’ ”

Lisa and I stopped hanging out when she came to Armstead in seventh grade. I came in ninth grade, and Lisa wasn’t superenthused to see me in her class. By the time I got here from my old school, Ashley had kind of swooped in on Lisa. They had this weird bond that I didn’t understand. They talked about clothes and TV shows I never had an interest in. It was like watching a
magazine article come to life, where the models look like they’re laughing about something you just wouldn’t understand. I think I had a window to join in but blew it when Ashley looked down and saw I was wearing sandals with socks. I have since remedied this, but in my defense it was cold and those sandals were within Armstead dress code. I don’t think Lisa or I really missed each other that much, but sometimes I wonder how she’s doing when I see her in class. She seems so . . .

Lisa’s older brother, Steve, died last year in a car accident on Route 128. Back when we were younger, Steve would hang out with me and show me his X-Men action figures when his sister had to practice the piano. Lisa hated playing, but her mother insisted it was a skill she would be thankful for in the future, and she had to practice every day at 5:15. I heard “Für Elise” over and over again while Colossus and Sabretooth duked it out for supremacy. Sometimes Steve let me, as Colossus, win.

During Steve’s funeral service, Lisa sat quietly next to her mom, pulling down her bangs in front of her eyes. For the shivah, a few days later, I went over to her house with a plastic bag in my hand. Ashley and all the popular kids were leaving as I walked in. We said hey, and they pointed me in Lisa’s direction. I stood around for a while, feeling a little out of place. I hadn’t been to her house in ages. The house seemed twice as big as I remembered and so empty, even with all the mourners ignoring the table full of food. Lisa made eye contact with me and excused herself from a group of her father’s business partners.

“Thanks for coming.” Lisa said.

We hadn’t really spoken outside of school for so long—it was funny talking to someone I didn’t really know anymore in a setting that no longer seemed familiar, either.

“It was a nice service the other day.”

She nodded.

“I’m sorry. I know you’ve probably been hearing a lot of that for the past week, but . . . I’m really sorry. Steve was a good guy.”

“He was. A really good guy.”

She looked away from me. Not at anything or anyone in particular, just away from me.

“Do you still play piano?”

She looked at me like I had just asked her an intimate question about her sex life. But whatever surprise she felt at the question was soon masked again with indifference.

“Yeah. I still play.”

“Practice at five fifteen?” I asked.

She made a noise that sounded like a cough, though given the circumstances I think that was the best version of a laugh she could muster.

“Not so much anymore, what with soccer and everything.”

I nodded.

“He’d always play video games with me when you’d go off to practice. He didn’t have to, but I always thought he was so cool, being older and everything. I always wished I had a big brother like him.”

She nodded politely, looking away from me again.

“I told him that once. I think I was about eight. He smiled and gave me this.”

I pulled a Colossus action figure from the plastic bag and gave it to Lisa.

“I thought you might want to have it back. I know it’s lame—”

She hugged me. I almost jumped back in shock.

“Thank you.”

We released and I gave her a small smile.

“Anyway, I better let you get back to things. Listen, I know, we’re not best friends or whatever, but if you need anything—” I thought I saw a hint of a smile, but I wasn’t sure. I walked away as quickly as I could. I didn’t want to be there anymore.

“Damn. Lisa’s e-vite has a hundred RSVPs,” Greg says, pulling me back to the present and the computer lab. He’s scrolling down the guest list, his eyes getting wider as the list goes on and on.

When is that stupid bell going to ring?

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