The story of a kid who just wants to be cool. Arguably the main character doesn't change at all, just people's perceptions of him.
Dan was what one might call nervous about his first day at a new school. Like, throwing-up-in-the-toilet nervous. At his last school he had been considered a nerd, unpopular with everyone but his immediate friends. Who, of course, were also nerds. It's not even that he was interested in nerdy stuff, not moreso than anyone. He wasn't even bad at talking to people or girls. After a lot of worry during the summer, he had concluded that the problem was his appearance. No one could take him seriously with his square glasses, messy hair and hoodies over t-shirts. He looked like a socially horrible wimp even if he wasn't one. He had managed to convince his mom to let him buy new clothes—to “make a good impression at the new school,” which was basically the truth—and let his hair grow out. Now he was ready with slicked-back long hair, a leather jacket, combat boots and tight black jeans. He put on sunglasses. Time to blow their minds.
After he threw up one last time.
Dan strode through campus, intentionally not looking to either side, though from his peripheral vision he got the impression people were gawking. Good, let them stare. They probably hadn't seen anyone so cool before.
Time for first period.
“I want us to all get to know each other, so I want you to fill out these cards for a partner. Not yourself. People do that every year and it just doesn't help them get to know each other.”
Dan stopped staring at a weird doodle on the board behind the teacher--what was it?--took out a pencil and filled out his card.
“Hey, do you have a partner yet?” an annoyingly cheerful Asian girl asked him. He held up his filled-out card. “Okay cool, just checking.”
Dan saw another boy filling out his card without a partner. He looked cool, wearing a shirt with some heavy metal band on it. Dan decided this was his chance.
“Hey,” Dan drawled, trying to seem as nonchalant as possible. “Looks like we both filled out cards for ourselves. Why don't we partner up so the teacher won't bother us.”
“You mean so we don't have to fill our own out? That's a good idea!” the boy blurted breathlessly. He handed Dan his card. This guy seemed... also really cheerful. F*ck, maybe he was a bad choice.
“Hey, are you new here?” the boy asked Dan. “I've never seen you before and I know most of the people in tenth grade at least.”
“Yeah, I'm new.”
“I like your jacket.”
There was an awkward silence. Then the boy asked something really f*cking weird.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“W-what-no. Why would you even ask that?” Dan stuttered. “Jesus.”
“I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I don't want to creep you out. I just thought you look, you know, cool and pretty and I thought maybe... I don't know. I guess you just moved here.”
“I'm seriously so sorry, I don't know how to talk to girls!”
Just then the teacher interrupted. “Who wants to go first?” Dan winced when his partner called him “she.” Sh*t, already something for people to make fun of.
Dan was sitting, eating lunch by himself when that same boy approached.
“Hey, sorry about earlier.” He looked at the ground. “I'm an idiot.”
“No kidding,” Dan said caustically. “Please don't sit here.”
The idiot sat anyway. “Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?”
“Yes,” Dan said, “Going the f*ck away!”
The idiot raised his hands. “I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I'm leaving now.” He wandered off into the cafeteria's crowd.
Dan had returned to eating his sandwich—roast beef and horseradish, it was really good—when he he realized was standing right by him, tapping her foot.
“Hey,” the girl said. Like him, she was wearing a leather jacket. Also a truly stupendous amount of eyeliner. “You're new here.” It was statement, not a question.
Dan was excited but he couldn't let it show. That wouldn't be cool. “Yes. You are?”
“Coral. I'm talking to you because you look like you maybe don't buy into corporate America's preppy bullsh*t like the rest of the losers at this school. Maybe.”
“No, yeah, bullsh*t. I get it. It sucks.” Actually, he wasn't sure what she was talking about.
“Yeah. If you are actually cool, which from past experience I doubt, come sit with me and my friends”
She handed him a card and, like the idiot before her, vanished into the crowd.
Dan looked down at the card. It was an index card that read Coral Johnson, MD. Behind room K-11. There was also a weird drawing. It looked—actually, it looked like the drawing on the board from earlier. Maybe it was like a gang symbol. Cool. Dan was there.
It actually wasn't that cool. It was just a bunch of girls wearing black and leather, sitting on the grass eating their lunches. One of them was smoking an e-cigarette.
Coral stood up as Dan approached. “So you found us. You have passed the first test.” She bowed to him. Dan was intensely confused.
“Now. What is your name?” she intoned.
One of the other girls yelled, “Coral, stop being weird and introduce her already.”
Dan stuttered, about to say, “Actually, I'm a guy.” But maybe that would be uncool? Like, correcting someone. And he'd look really dumb if he misheard or only one girl thought that.
“Fine,” Coral complained. “I was gonna do the whole ceremony and everything. You never let me weird the new girls out anymore, Mist.”
“Yeah,” a third girl complained. “We could have made her do something funny for initiation. Like, have sex with Mr. Blount or something.” Everyone laughed.
“Who's Mr. Blount?” Dan asked.
“Oh, he's like a really creepy old teacher. There are rumors he molested someone but it's probably BS.” She stood up and shook his hand. “I'm Sierra, but these weirdos call me Mist.” There was a general noise of disgruntlement from the group. One of the other girls shouted, “You love us!” Sierra—sorry, Mist—raised her eyebrows. “What's your story?”
“Uh, I... just moved here and was hoping people here would be cooler than at my last school. So far it doesn't seem like it. Oh, and my name is Dan,” he added.
“So I can call you Dan? Not like, Danielle or Dani or anything?”
“Yeah, no, definitely Dan.”
Mist nodded. “Cool. I get that.”
The bell rang.
The rest of the first week went by fairly uneventfully. Dan continued to hang out with the girls at lunch. He was just alarmed that none of them had figured out yet that he was a guy. Like, he wasn't the muscly-est ever, but no one had ever thought he was a girl before. He could only think it was the hair. Fortunately, there was a natural solution.
Next Monday, the girls clustered around him. “Whoa, that is short!” Mist exclaimed. Cora said “Way to violate traditional gender norms. I'm so proud of you,” and patted Dan on the shoulder. Idiot--Dan never learned his name and wasn't planning to—stopped by the group.
“Whew, that's quite a change!” he said. Dan glared at him. “Sorry, sorry, no, it looks good! Really... punk,” he finished lamely. Today he was wearing an American flag shirt.
“Please leave,” Dan sighed. Idiot did, apologizing and holding his hands up until he backed out of sight beyond the next corner.
“That was kind of bitchy,” Mist commented in an obnoxious ironic voice. “You got some kind of history there?”
“History? F*ck no. He just keeps following me around, if that's what you mean by history.”
Coral said “He's obviously pursuing the male role of a traditional heterosexual relationship.” She paused. “Also, swearing more doesn't make you cool, Dan.”
“He likes you,” Mist translated in a sing-song voice. “Like, like likes you.”
“That sentence hurt my brain,” Cora, one of the other girls, complained.
“So do you not like him?” Mist probed. “Or do you not wanna look uncool around your girlfriends?”
Coral added “It's okay. I already think you're uncool.”
Dan sighed bitterly. The class had to partner up for projects and Idiot was hovering Dan's desk like a lost puppy. Dan really didn't want to partner with this guy but looking around, most of the rest of the class had already found people to work with. And unfortunately none of the girls shared this period with him. And this guy did actually seem to be pretty smart. Academically. Only academically.
Dan finally gave in. “Fine, jackass. You can work with me. I don't know why you're so eager to anyway, I'm probably going to let you do all the work.”
Idiot laughed. “I really like your sense of humor.” Dan should probably start calling him Bryan. He added, “Sorry, you probably get asked this a lot, but like Dan is a weird name for a girl? Not weird, just unusual,” he hastily amended.
Dan was sick of this. “Yeah, it's because I'm a guy,” he said resignedly. “It's short for Daniel.”
Idio-Bryan squinted seriously at him for a moment, then started laughing. “Yeah, that sense of humor.”
Dan was at Idiot's house, working on the project. He didn't exactly want his parents to hear someone call him “her.”
Bryan's mom came into the computer room. “Are you hungry, Dan, Bryan?”
Dan regretted saying yes. He didn't realize it meant eating dinner with them.
“So,” Bryan's mom asked in suspiciously breezy, conversational manner, “How long have you two known each other?”
Dan said, “I don't know this guy,” at the same time Bryan said “Two months.” Bryan's mom laughed. “I hope you're more coordinated on the project than this.”
“Oh, we are!” Bryan assured her. Dan took some more mashed potatoes. They were really good potatoes.
“So Bryan tells me you two are just friends, is that right?” She fixed her gaze on Dan.
“I wouldn't call us... friends,” Dan said carefully. “More like acquaintances.”
“But you two are not... in a relationship, right?” she asked equally carefully. Dan choked on his mashed potatoes.
While Dan was gulping water, Bryan endeavored to assure his mom. “No, mom, just because she's a girl and a friend doesn't mean she's my girlfriend.”
Right before Dan left, Bryan's mom pulled him aside. “I can tell Bryan really likes you, and you don't like him as much right now. You're free to do what you want, but if you break his heart I will come down on you.”
Dan shuddered. “Trust me, breaking Bryan's heart is the last thing I ever intend to do.”
She fixed him with a steely glare. “It better be.”
The next day, Mist was waiting ready to harrass him.
“I heard you ate dinner at Bryan's house! What's up there? I thought you said there was no history.”
“How did you even--never mind. There is no history. We were just partners on a project.”
“Well, maybe there should be a history. He seems to really like you.” Mist pointed behind Dan and he looked back to see Bryan waving excitedly. Dan groaned.
“Was it a history project?” Coral asked.
“Hey, Dan, has anyone asked you to the dance yet?” Mist pestered him.
“Yeah, I don't think anyone wants to go with me.” It didn't exactly help that all the girls he knew thought he was a girl.
“That's not true. I can def think of people.”
“Well, I'm sure Bryan wou-” Her suggestion was interrupted by a loud groan. “Seriously, I don't know why you hate that guy so much.”
Because he thinks I'm a girl and follows me around hitting on me, Dan felt like saying but didn't.
“Well anyway,” Mist added, “All the cool people will be there.”
Dan knew Mist had been kidding, but it still galled him for anyone to call him uncool, even jokingly. Except for everyone thinking he was a girl, his reputation here was way better than at his old school. He had only achieved this level of respect by paying close attention to the cool people around him and imitating them. Even one slip-up could be deadly.
That, he knew, was why he was in Bryan's mom's car on the way to the dance. The reason still didn't really satisfy him though.
I can't believe I'm doing this. Is being cool really so important to me? Going out with a guy?
He turned his head to see Idiot staring moonily at him. “Back off, dude. You're creeping me out.” At least the guy was good at taking orders.
As Bryan stuttered his usual apologies, Dan took a moment to gather his thoughts. He knew his parents would insist on seeing pictures of him at the dance. With this in mind, Dan had managed to get away with wearing a tuxedo even though Mist insisted he'd look like a lesbian.
Dan swam back into the present, realizing that Bryan had just said something to him. “What?” he snapped.
“Uh, sorry, we're here. There. At the dance.”
Dan honestly couldn't stand this anymore. “Dammit, dude. You need to not be so fu-fricking (Bryan's mom was in the front) nervous when you talk to me. Or girls.” Dan wasn't about to call himself a girl. “What's the worst that could happen anyway? All that's going to happen is that you're so awkward you annoy someone. Seriously, you need to just relax.”
Bryan slumped in his seat. He was still shaking but not as much as he had been earlier. “I'm sorry. I'm just afraid—I don't know, I already don't like myself, I know I'm annoying, and when I talk to people I'm always afraid they'll reject me. Whatever that even means.”
Dan sighed. “At least you tried. You took a chance asking me, and I didn't reject you, right? I'm at least going to this thing with you.”
Bryan sat up slightly. “That's true. Honestly, I'm surprised. I got the impression you didn't like me. Wait, but didn't you ask--”
Dan interrupted. “Let's go.” Bryan's mom's glare was making him uncomfortable.
Dan was chatting with Cora when some asshole decided to crack their idea of a joke. “Hey everybody, look at the lesbos!” Dan had an uncomfortable feeling that they meant him. Just because he had short hair and a suit. Jesus. He hoped this didn't hurt his cred.
“Hey! That's my--” Bryan started to yell before Coral punched the culprit in the face. “That's not something to make fun of people about,” she growled at him.
So now they were thrown out of the dance. And the original asshole didn't get punished at all. Typical.
Well, not punished except the punch in the face.
So now Bryan, Dan, Coral, and the rest of the girls were hanging out in the pizzeria while the dance continued. The cheaper one, even though its arcade was way crappier.
“Thanks for...uh...defending my honor,” Dan said to Coral.
Bryan winced. “I still feel like that should have been me,”
Dan reassured him, “I appreciate that you cared though. You can punch someone in the face for me another time.” He had been trying to be nice to this guy ever since his admission in the car. It was weird, he so used to yelling at him.
At least Bryan seemed to like it.
“I told you so,” Mist whined. Everyone glared at her.
For once, Dan actually felt cool.
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