I instantly looked down on her. Zuleima was short and dark, her mousy brown hair weedy from a home cut. Her teeth were coated with greenish scum. I thought she didn't brush; she explained that her teeth were naturally green.
She did have one virtue—she wanted my company. We were both new to the fourth grade, new to the school. I felt weird and different in a classroom of strangers. Perhaps she did too, not that either one of us ever admitted it. The class had forty-two boys and eight girls. In my mind, I divided the fifty of us into roughly three castes: the amorphous ocean of boys, the six girls who knew each other from the year before, and Zuleima and myself, leaning on each other for companionship.
Zuleima's admiration bordered on fawning. If I sighed, “Liz Taylor is the most beautiful woman in the world!” she would shoot back, “She is pretty, but not as pretty as you.” She admired my intelligence. She even envied my name: “That's the nicest name! I wish I was called Debbie too.” Her admiration felt like molasses, sweet but sticky. Besides, I didn't believe her. I felt clumsy and ungainly like a newborn calf, and I thought my name was dumb.
I tried to keep my low opinion of her a secret. When she was out sick, I loyally awaited her return. So it came as a total surprise when she abruptly ended our friendship. It happened towards the end of the school year. We stood outside the girls' locker room, our bookbags propped up on the stone wall, when Zuleima broke the news: “I'm not your friend anymore. Me and Marisa, we are cutting you off.”
Panic sucked my breath away. My worst fear was now a reality. On to the doghouse. I was being taken to the edge of the world and flicked off, and by Zuleima, no less.
“You're cutting me off? YOU?”
“WE are.” A collective effort! With no provocation on my part! I stammered:
“Why. . . what's going on?”
“You are too conceited. You think you are pretty hot shit. You are getting a swollen head.”
“I am not!” I replied hotly.
“You are too!”
This couldn't be happening. Not with Zuleima, my fawning fan, my sure bet, the one who would never dare leave me. She was the lesser form of life on whom I had graciously bestowed my favors at the expense of the better girls. Not only that, but now she had an ally in Marisa, their opinion of me a majority vote. Zuleima stood still for a moment, drinking in her moment of glory. Then she stepped into my confusion:
“You are getting fresh, too. You showed your legs to the boys. We've seen the boys look at your legs.”
“I did nothing of the sort!”
“You can say what you like. We don't like you anymore. We think you are awful, and we are going to teach you a lesson.”
This was final, I realized. No use arguing. For some reason only Zuleima knew, I had fallen off her graces.
I dealt with the blow in my usual fashion. This page of my life must be torn out and burned in secret. Damned if I was going to let her get to me. In fake calm I gathered my books and marched alone down the hill to the streetcar stop.
It was a lonely two weeks. I made lame attempts at friendship with the girls outside the boycott, but after a year of bonding, they weren't about to let me into their circle. Besides, unlike Zuleima and I, they lived within walking distance and played together after school. Marisa made herself scarce, having sold her soul to the Devil for two copper coins, so to speak. Friendship with boys was like bedding down with aliens.
I came alone to class and alone I left at the end of the day, my rejected state in full public view, as obvious as Zuleima's green teeth. Recess became a problem. Interest in the weather--did it really look like rain?--used a minute fraction of break time. The rest of recess was dedicated to burning interest in my fingernails and the peeling Coca-Cola ad on the wall. Much as I detested school, I began to look forward to the bell that called us back to class.
The teacher took me aside one day as I was leaving: “Is everything OK, Deborah?” So my gloom was that obvious? Momentarily shaking off my misery, I stuck my chest out and replied in my best business tone: “Oh, super, I'm fine.” No way would I tell her that I had been blockaded, by Zuleima of all people. After all, what could she do? Make Zuleima love me again?
I didn't breathe a word at home either. I never revealed any of my humiliations to the folks, and I wasn't about to begin now. My parents were too busy, and besides they might blame me instead. Forget my sister. She took special glee in my setbacks.
Meanwhile, true to her word, Zuleima kept her distance. She spent recess mostly alone, occasionally with Marisa. One time she addressed me, if you can call it that. Uniforms were optional during finals week, and Mother let me wear my white dress with lovely blue ribbons. As I walked by Zuleima, she made a sotto voce remark to an imaginary audience:
“We dress up for finals, now. How fancy schmantzy.”
Two days before the end of school, Zuleima took a more frontal approach:
“Debbie, I really think we should end this silly fight, don't you? Don't you think we've had enough?”
Of course, I'd had enough. I'd had enough that afternoon a century ago, outside the girls' locker room. I reached at once for the olive branch. Now I could stop feigning interest in the landscape and the Coke ad. Lack of apology or explanation from her made it all the more generous and Christian of me to accept the offer. I did not know, then, that I was selling my own soul for small change as Marisa may had done two weeks before. With school about to end, I could have survived two more days of solitude and left with dignity intact.
At any rate, the last day of school came and went. Like old times, Zuleima and I walked to the streetcar stop together. I bought myself a chocolate ice cream cup from the corner deli to celebrate the beginning of summer freedom. When the streetcar arrived, Zuleima let me take the last vacant seat on one of the long side benches. A blob of ice cream floated in sweet slush as I methodically nibbled down the sides of the flour cup. Standing, Zuleima wobbled in front of me in time with the rocking of the streetcar, holding onto the strap.
It happened very fast. I couldn't have stopped her, even had I known what she was about to do. Reaching down with thumb and forefinger, she pinched the bottom of the ice cream cup. Her vigorous squeeze propelled a geyser of chocolate ice cream all over my face, down my chest, streaking with brown my pretty white dress with blue ribbons.
She looked startled and slightly embarrassed at this dramatic outcome. That was the last I saw of her, but in my dreams I still see her green Cheshire cat smile in the streetcar on the last day of our year together.