Romi Vizcarrondo-Rosa hadn't taken to living in the United States like her brothers had. Her brother Diego, on the first day they moved into the rental house, had hit the street right away, and he'd met every other boy near his age within the first two weeks they were there. He made friends with some and he fought with others. They weren't big fights; shouting matches mostly, and a few shoving bouts. Diego was new, so he had to establish himself in the neighborhood pecking order. He'd been coached by his father and brother, and did what he had to. He had a winning personality attached to a short fuse, and he was soon 'Doug' to the other kids around. He was canny enough to recognize the boys his parents would approve of, and he brought them around to visit, and even to the new ranch.
Paolo was older, and the friends he made were from the people he dealt with for business, a few from church, and a guy who lived across the way in their little complex. Paolo could engage anyone in conversation, and that trait served him well in dealing with the business and the few friends he was making. His nature, though, was to be quiet, and he would often go the better part of a day without speaking with anyone. His family knew it was just the way he was, and they left him alone in silence when they didn't have anything important to say. He loved to read, and had a library card even before he got his American driver's license. His tastes were eclectic, and ran the gamut from classical Spanish literature to the Sears catalog, with lots of horse and farm related periodicals in between.
Had he chosen to stay in Mexico where he was established, he would have been actively seeking a girl to marry. Being a traditionalist, and from an aristocratic family, his move to the United States required that he once again establish himself before even thinking about courting a bride. He had to keep his back straight over that issue too, because the Americans he met who were his age went out all the time in search of female companionship. That caused Paolo to work all that much harder, because their lifestyle was certainly alluring to him. His mother had even told him to forget about tradition and go with his friends, but he held on just the same. Tradition got in the way, and if there was one thing Paolo was determined to be, it was a gentleman like his father and grandfather.
Romi was fifteen, and a beautiful girl in every way. She had a lovely face and a body that was slender, but soft and curvy in all the right places. She had bright, brown eyes and white teeth, and she'd never had a single pimple in her life. Like Diego, she loved horses and riding, and the clothes she wore often reflected that, although she'd Americanized the look somewhat. She wore jeans, and tight ones at that. She often wore a plaid, cotton shirt, and she'd begun pulling out the tails and tying them at her belly button like pop stars did.
People noticed. Boys noticed, and Romi now attracted a steady stream of them.
The first one would be remembered in family lore. On a singularly hot and humid August night, Romi had walked down the street to buy some ice cream at a neighborhood market. She wasn't accustomed to humidity in Mexico, but had been getting used to it in the U.S. - until that day and night, when it was so very hot and humid that the air around her seemed to actually weigh something, and unfamiliar sounds pounded in her ears.
She had walked slowly to the store and paid for the ice cream, then she hurried home to her family fearing it would be melted in just minutes. They were sitting outside enjoying it a few minutes later, when a strange sound invaded their space, ever so faint at first. It was kind of a 'splat-splat' that was foreign to all their ears, but it increased in volume, that was never great, until it stopped suddenly where their driveway met the street. They looked at each other in their curiosity, but not feeling threatened, they went back to their ice cream.
Then the 'splat-splat' sound came back; softer and slower, but clearly coming up the drive. The drive was short, and before long a boy stopped in front of them. He wasn't anyone they knew, and was clearly gasping for breath. When he spotted Romi he started to say something, and fainted dead away. He was lucky that he was in front of the trellis, because he ended up sitting with his back against it after his legs gave way.
Paolo was the first one there, and he began fanning the boy's face with the magazine he'd been looking at. The boy started to come to almost the moment he sat down, but he was still gasping for breath and unfocused. Romi's mother knelt with a wad of paper napkins that she'd dipped into their pitcher of iced tea, and she both cooled the boy's face and coaxed him into taking steady breaths.
He calmed down quickly, then his eyes darted back and forth between faces until he saw Romi there. Then he smiled. Romi smiled back shyly, because she didn't recognize him at all, but there he was. A nondescript boy around her age, with not much more than a nice smile going for him.
He said, "I can't say your name even. Is it Rahmi?"
"Roamy," Diego snapped. "What do you want?"
"Diego!" his mother said, quietly and with a warning. She looked at the boy in front of her and asked, "And your name is?"
He blushed, "I'm Jim. I should probably go now."
Elian, the father, said gently, "Nonsense. You just passed out in my home, and you can leave when I know you're alright. Calm down and tell us why you're here. And tell us your full name. Listen closely, because ours is a mouthful to English speakers. My name is Elian Antonio Vizcarrondo-Rosa, and this is my wife, Elfina." He pointed around, "My oldest; Paolo," and Paolo nodded. "Our least one, Diego," and Diego waved even though he hated the old term. "You seem to know our daughter," he said, then he smiled, "and now you know how to pronounce her name. In Mexico this would be cause for our families to meet each other. Let me drive you home, and I'll speak with your father."
Jim's face was a priceless mix of wonder and fear, and Paolo laughed, "He's messing with you, Jim. If you came to see Romi then go talk to Romi. And buy some new sneakers."
That caused everyone to look at what Paolo had noticed, and the 'splat-splat' sound they'd heard was explained by the dangling sole of Jim's left shoe.
Jim was embarrassed though, and stood to leave. He was very nervous and felt like a fool. Elian said, again gently, "Why did you come, Jim? You had business here, and you haven't taken care of it."
Romi had stood too, hoping to see the last of Jim, but she had her upbringing to bring out politeness. "Stay for ice cream," she said, then added, "If it's not all melted yet."
Jim gulped and held out his hand, "You ... you dropped your receipt. It has like your name on it. I thought ... you know ... identity theft and all that."
Diego laughed, "That's good! Ident...." He shut up suddenly when his mother tugged at his braid. He gave her a look, but stayed quiet, still thinking that fear of identity theft was a good pickup line.
Romi thanked Jim, then said, "I'll walk you out," and she did. She took his arm herself when he didn't offer it, and walked the short distance to the street. There, she smiled at him and said, "It was kind of you to bring me the receipt. Thank you."
Jim stood there looking hopeful and asked, "Can I call you sometime?"
Romi looked at him, and when she didn't respond Jim said, "Guess not, huh? That's okay. I mean, who am I kidding?" He smiled, but it wasn't a happy smile, "We'll be friends though, right?"
"We already are, Jim," Romi said thoughtfully. "Thank you so much for stopping by."
She turned to go home and Jim watched her for a few moments. He was proud of himself for extending the effort. Of course a girl like Romi wouldn't like him based on his looks, and there might be a million other social reasons. It was like his mother said though. If he didn't try, he'd get nowhere, and he'd tried. He'd have thought himself the fool with almost any other family on earth, but these were kind people. Now he had a friend who was a girl. Not a girlfriend like he wanted, but a giant step up nonetheless. He turned toward his own home, which was a second-story apartment that he shared with his mother and grandmother. He had a spring in his step that only accented the 'splat splat' of his ancient sneakers.
When Romi got back to her family, Paulo quipped, "That was close. I thought we were going to see first hand what 'drop-dead gorgeous' meant." His mother smacked his shoulder, while his father and brother just chuckled.
Jim wasn't Romi's dilemma, and they did become friendly during that first summer. Romi's problem, at least the one she perceived, was that American girls didn't like her, and she had evidence of that. Their neighborhood was close to downtown and densely populated. The city was racially mixed, too, and their neighbors represented a pretty good cross-section of that mix.
Romi wasn't like Diego in the way he made friends. Boys did that, she thought, and they continued doing it when they grew up. Diego could walk out with a soccer ball in his hands, knock some unsuspecting kid in the back of the head with it, and after a few minutes of yelling they'd be kicking the ball around together.
Romi wasn't built that way. She wasn't shy by any large measure; she had been brought up differently ... to become a lady. Adults adored her for her poise and her graciousness, while teenage boys went suddenly stupid in her presence and did stupid things for her attention. Teenage girls, though, wanted little to do with her, and it was female companionship she craved.
She'd sob to her mother, "How can I learn how to fit in if I can't make a single friend? How much do I have to change before someone talks to me? Everyone wants things, and they all seem boy crazy."
Her mother said soothingly, "I can't believe that nobody will talk to one as lovely and lively as you. If it's the white girls, try making friends with a black ... or an Asian."
"Oh, I have, mother. I don't even want to use their words for what they want to see me do." Her voice told of her despair, "I wish we didn't come here."
Her mother, disturbed by her only daughter's distress, briefly considered Romi's sentiment, but it was too late to change things. They could go back to Mexico, she thought, but to what? To live in a resort?
Romi's problems only increased when her parents took her to be introduced into the school system. Diego had been the day before, and he was readily accepted into the eighth grade. Romi, being distressed, had faltered badly on some of her tests, and they wanted to place her in the ninth grade. It took her father and mother, and a hasty cell-phone call to Romi's former school administrator in Mexico, to get the new school system to give her a 'trial' placement as a high school sophomore.
Too upset for anything else, Romi moped around the house for days. She should have been at the new ranch working with everyone else, and she knew she'd feel better if she went with them. She was on the verge of depression, though. She didn't know that, so she sat around and watched television blindly, flipped through magazines without looking, and decided that she probably deserved to feel bad. That was her fate in the United States, and she had to suffer it alone because the rest of her family was happy with the move. She was not happy, and she longed painfully for the ranch she grew up on. In Mexico, girls of her class knew what they were supposed to do, and they had great, giggling fun doing those things. Now she was alone, and she was terribly alone.
Her mother let that continue for three days, then decided to take action. She didn't know the girls who Romi was having problems with, but she knew of one boy who she didn't have a problem with, so she set out on foot in search of Jim. She marched down the street to the convenience store where Romi had first encountered Jim hoping for a last name, or perhaps an address. She found Jim right there, sitting on a cooler and talking to the clerk, who was his friend.
Jim slid off the cooler and stood up as soon as he noticed Elvina, and his attempts to look dignified weren't wasted on her. Jim was wearing a mostly-white tee shirt with some cartoon on the front, black shorts that went below his knees, and those damnable sneakers with the droopy sole.
Elvina could see as well as anyone that Jim would never be a handsome man, but she had a feeling that someday he'd be an important person. She was there with a mission for him. "Jim!" she nearly shouted. "There you are!"
Jim backed against the cooler, "Hi, Mrs. V." he said nervously. He had become familiar enough at the house to use the 'V' in lieu of the long name. "What's up?" Then he recoiled and asked, "Did I do something wrong?"
"Not yet," Elvina said regally, then her look softened. "Romi is an unhappy girl, Jim. I hope you can help her to make some friends here."
Jim recoiled, "Me? I ... Um ... I ..." Jim looked around, possibly for an avenue of escape, "I'm, um ... I'm not really that popular myself. If I knew how, then Romi ..." His face became blank.
Elvina continued, "Don't you see Jim? You and Romi need the same thing, but for opposite reasons. You see Romi as a goddess, and she is a pretty girl, but she sees herself as a girl with no friends. I'm interpreting now, but I think you see yourself as an unattractive boy, and that's not the case either. Look at the success stories; Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Tom Cruise; a whole lot of men. What do they have in common? Well, you know, but I'll tell you anyhow. They, not one of them, were attractive as boys, and the only thing that's attractive about them as men is the fatness of their wallets.
Jim smiled, "You're saying?"
Elvina smiled, "You are smart! What I'm saying is that in the future you'll get the women, because you'll be the rich one." She smiled at Jim and said, "That's then," and her look sharpened. "Right now I want you to help my daughter fit in." She looked at Jim, then added trustingly, "She's very sad here now. Very sad."
Jim's smile faded and he looked at the floor, "I'm not exactly the prom king, you know. I don't know why Romi should feel sad. People like her. Everyone talks about her."
Elvina thought about that, then said carefully, "About her is one thing. She tells me that nobody talks to her. Not girls her age." She regarded Jim kindly and asked, "Is that something you can help her with?"
Jim sighed, because he didn't think he could help at all, but he didn't want to be thought unwilling to try. He said, "Let me think about it," then he smiled meekly at Elvina, "I don't know if you'd want Romi to be popular with my friends, either one of them, and girls mostly come to me in ..." He reddened, "Um, visions."
She smiled, "Then this will help you, too, won't it? If you have to approach people you don't know, then you're bound to make new friends yourself. Our Romi is just too much set in her ways, and she has to learn to adapt. She shouldn't have to change a hundred percent to make friends with at least one other girl." She smiled at Jim and patted his shoulder. "You think about it, and I know you'll come up with good ideas." She looked at him and added, "Oh, Elian has suggested that you come out to the ranch one of these days. We'll be getting more horses soon, and we will have to hire some people to help with them. Even if you're not interested in a job, you can come and see the place."
Jim was dumbstruck by that, because he'd been looking for a steady job since he was fourteen. But, "Horses?" he squeaked. "I don't know about horses. They're um ..."
"Big, smelly beasts," Elvina said with a broad smile. They bite people, kick them, and when they get really lucky, they can trample a person right to death." She smiled at Jim's mortified face and added, "That's if you approach from the wrong side. If you get on their right side, then everything is fine." When Jim took a nervous step back she said, "I'm making a joke! Things can happen, but our horses will have to be better trained to deal with the public." She looked right through Jim saying, "It would be nice for a city boy like you to get out in the fresh air where you can breathe freely and," she looked at him pointedly, "Where you can think freely, too." She smiled kindly, "You have a good mind, Jim. When you think you have an almighty cure for a disease, then focus on that. Until then, play-ping pong with your ideas; bounce them around until they make sense."
She nodded kind of stiffly, then turned and left. Jim held up a hand, but she was gone.
"Whoo," said his friend, Vic, who was behind the counter. Jim looked and there were a couple of other customers in the store, both looking at him. He looked at the door Elvina had just gone through, then at Vic, and then back at the door again.
When the customers walked out, Vic said, "Yay, Jim! You can shovel horse shit for a living."
Jim looked around the dingy little store and smirked, "Yeah, just like you?"
Vic laughed, "That's a good one. If you get out there, let me know what it's like. I might like to play ping-pong with my own ideas."
Jim's thoughts were already headed elsewhere, but he quipped, "I think that might be illegal in your case, Vic."
Vic snickered, and Jim let his mind wander. Romi's family was his first brush with real sophistication, and he went back over Elvina's words. The parents seemed almost regal sometimes, but they were really down to earth people who had been very kind to him. Paolo was much like them, but he had a wandering eye at his age. He was kind too, but in a more distracted way, like it was his nature but not his mission in life.
Diego was Diego. Jim knew he wasn't especially liked by the kid, but he enjoyed being around him just the same. Diego had an antic energy level, and a short temper to make it worse. Yet he usually defused himself with a self-deprecating humor that Jim found to be almost precious. Diego could be yelling at somebody a mile-a-minute, and it would eventually break up into a gentle humor, where he'd refer to himself in the third-person 'Diego'. He'd say things like, "Diego don't like you anymore, so go home! No, don't do that. Stay. Maybe Diego not so mad after all."
Jim had learned not to laugh out loud about things like that, but Diego did amuse and charm him.
Then there was Romi, and Jim was in his own pain that Romi was unhappy. Not just unhappy, she was miserable, but he didn't know what to do. If she felt unpopular, he thought, then welcome to the club. Even he could see that it was Romi's own fault in a way. She wasn't stuck up, but she was very easily shocked, and when that happened she came across as disapproving.
That was his dilemma, and he did what most boys his age would when faced with a dilemma, which was nothing. He still saw Romi on occasion, and she was really his friend. At least that much was clear, but she wasn't sharing her unhappiness with him. Jim got the idea that Romi was just too civil, too nice a person, to push her unhappiness off on another. Or maybe she just wouldn't share it with him.
One day they were walking to town so they could both look at school clothes when Jim said, "Romi, I get the idea that you're not really happy here."
He left it at that, and Romi said nothing, but she started to lag behind him. Before long her distress showed, and Jim took her arm, steering her down a side street, where they stopped in a driveway between buildings. "What's wrong, Romi?" Jim asked in despair. "You don't like it here, do you?"
Romi looked at him tearfully, and it broke Jim's heart to see, then she leaned into him and just sobbed. That put Jim's heart back together in a hurry, and he put his arms around her, less awkwardly than his worst dreams had predicted he would. He said soothing things like, "I'm here, Romi," and "Just let it out. I'm right here."
He wanted to say that he loved her, and he did in a way, but his feelings for Romi had become more like brotherly feelings over time. When Jim told his mother that, she told him it might be a good thing. She said that everyone has a first love, but by the time they're thirty they don't even know where they are. She added, "You always know where your sister is, and that's a love that can't fade."
Jim held onto Romi like she was his sister, and she felt right like that. He was the big brother for a moment, and it was Jim that Romi came to, and that was more than he'd even dreamed of.
Romi's sobbing subsided quickly and she pulled back, and the look she gave to Jim through her tearful eyes was one she would have given to a brother. Jim acknowledged it like that too, giving her a quick kiss on the forehead and saying, "It'll be okay, Romi. School starts next week, and I know some people." He gave her a quick squeeze and added cheerfully, "You know, America has its share of jerks, but just like any other place. We're not all redneck morons. You'll see when school starts." He took Romi's cheeks between his hands to make her look at him and said, "You will make friends in school, I promise you." He grinned, "You'll make enemies too, but only because you threaten the other pretty girls."
Romi looked at Jim and asked shyly, tear streaks still on her face, "You think I'm pretty?"
Now Jim was offended, because of course he thought so. "Romi! I passed out in front of your whole family! What are you asking?"
Romi looked doubtful, "I thought that was from the running with a bad shoe."
She didn't look away, so Jim sighed, "I should have walked, okay? It was over a hundred out and I should have walked. I passed out because I ran, Romi." He suddenly smiled, "I ran to see you! I'm not dead, and we're friends, so it was worth it."
Romi giggled and pulled close to Jim, feeling comfortable in his presence. She always had, truthfully, but this was the first time she felt a real comfort level with the boy.
It was one of those things, and they both knew it. Romi and Jim would never become lovers, but they would love each other just the same. They would need each other, too, and despite other lovers who would come and go. Jim's awkward chase after Romi that first night, whatever he had hoped for then, had led them into the kind of friendship that could last a lifetime.
* * * * * * * *
Paolo drove Romi to school the first day, and they picked Jim up in front of his building. Paolo was driving his mother's Dodge Intrepid, thinking the dual-axle GMC was overkill for such a trip.
Jim was horrified by the choice, and let Paolo know it as he climbed into the back seat. "Paul, listen. You know I like you and I respect you, and you made me promise to be honest and tell you when you did something anti-American."
Paolo laughed, "I didn't say anti-American, I said anti-social."
Jim settled in and said, "In this case it's the same thing. If you just happen to own the coolest truck on the planet Earth, then you do not drive anything else within a million miles of your sister's school. I mean, that is un-American, and this is your mother's car."
"I should have drove the truck?" Paolo inquired.
"There's still time," Jim said hopefully. "You can make everybody get out of your way with that thing. It's what they call the boss hog ... the biggest and shiniest thing on the road."
Paolo looked at Romi, who was nervous. Anything that would delay her fate at a new school was something she favored, and she said, "We should get the truck. I trust Jim on this."
Paolo thought for a moment, then shrugged and took a few turns until he was headed back to their home. He wondered about Jim's logic, but didn't think for a moment that he was wrong. In rural Mexico there were not many who drove at all, much less who drove to school.
They rode horses though, and the size, stature and breeding of your mount certainly affected your social standing. After school, and sometimes on the way to school, there were impromptu races and rodeos. The boys where he came from preened their horses and tack to make them look their best, just as American boys of a certain age shined and customized their own vehicles.
Back at the house, they simply changed vehicles. It was a Tuesday morning because the Monday had been an American holiday. Paolo had taken the time to clean all the vehicles and trailers, so the truck was resplendent with its abundance of chrome. It certainly was an enormous vehicle, twenty-one feet long and eight feet wide, and the dark silver paint made it even more formidable.
Paolo thought it a waste of gas to use a truck that size to bring his sister to school, but he knew Jim was trying to help Romi fit in. If Jim said the vehicle she showed up in would make a difference, then he could only believe Jim.
Paolo smiled as they approached the school, because as caught up in traffic as they were, the truck he was driving certainly got a lot of attention. Jim was enjoying that attention from the back seat, and it got Paolo chuckling when Jim would squeak when he saw someone looking at them.
The traffic to the school door was slow going because school buses had their own access, and they'd take five or more minutes each to disgorge passengers. That made the rest of the traffic struggle for position, but when anyone saw Paolo's truck in the rear-view mirror they gave up their place in deference to size, and Paolo was amused by that. When he got to the school entrance. He announced, "We're here!" and Jim scrambled in the back seat.
"Don't get out, Romi. Let me open your door." Then he slid across to the passenger side because he's been behind Paolo, who he thanked for the ride.
Dignity wasn't Jim's long suit, but he struggled and managed to come up with some. He stepped down from the back seat and closed the door behind him, being careful to not stare at the kids he knew were right there looking at him. He opened Romi's door and helped her to step down from the big truck, and in doing so he shed his old image as a quiet loner and emerged as the escort of one of the hottest looking girls his school had ever seen.
They took time to wave to Paolo, then waited for the huge truck to drive off before they turned around. When they did turn, they were both careful not to meet anyone's eyes, which they'd talked about. Romi wasn't a tall girl at all, nor was she buxom at fifteen, but she was building status as a legend by just being there. Buxom or not, Romi had the rest of the shape in place, and she was all poise, which reflected her upbringing. Inside she was terrified, but she didn't show it.
An older girl that Paolo had befriended helped Romi to choose clothes for the occasion, and Romi was striking in faded bell-bottoms and a snug white blouse that was covered by a pale yellow, wrinkly, open front garment that was made of the same material as sweat shirts. Romi wore only lip gloss for makeup, and she'd blow-dried her jet-black hair into a soft fluff that somehow seemed less black. Her beauty was stunning, and apparently heartbreaking as well. Try as she would to not look, Romi couldn't help but to notice the awed looks of her future classmates, girls and boys alike.
She'd talked about how she should behave with Jim. He didn't have a clue himself, and joked that he'd probably have a hard time getting people to notice him if he was giving away money. Romi was different, though, and she would never have to fear being overlooked, so Jim had suggested that she just be nice to everyone, and avoid cliques and gangs at all cost. He knew how nice Romi was, and figured that if she spread that niceness to individuals then she'd make the friends she craved. If she treated everyone equally, then the other really nice kids would surely like her.
Jim was as nervous for Romi as she was about doing the right things. He had no claim to the knowledge of popularity, so he was really flailing in the dark as usual.
Romi had helped Jim pick out clothes too, and to her own likes since he didn't seem to have any preference. Jim didn't fit any simple description. He was very bright, but neither a geek nor a particularly good student. He liked to learn and he had good retention, but when it came to tests and essays, he had a hard time translating what he knew into what the school wanted to see. He wasn't athletic either, although he was strong and in good shape, and he usually had stamina. He enjoyed music and modern art, but had no aptitude whatsoever for either.
Jim did enjoy reading, and to a lesser extent writing. English was the one class where he could count on an A grade, or at least a high B. That was probably his due, because his father taught English. Jim just didn't know where his father was. His parents had suffered a nasty breakup when Jim was at an age too young to leave him any real recollection of his father. He had some pictures, and so knew that he had what he considered an unfortunate resemblance to the man. Jim was lanky, almost six feet tall at age fifteen, and he had a round head that looked alright up close, but it didn't go with his body. He had plump cheeks that old ladies loved to pinch, and he had fairly thick lips. His eyebrows formed very round arches over his eyes, and when he was younger old people said he looked like Howdy-Doody, although he never knew what they meant then. When he eventually did see an image of the puppet he disagreed, because he had neither freckles nor protruding ears.
Jim's legacy from his father, other than the resemblance, was his father's substantial library of modern and classic fiction. Per the divorce settlement it still belonged to his father, but he had never claimed it. Jim thought at odd moments that his father may have left those books for him, because Jim so loved them. Jim was a pragmatic guy, and he didn't have any real recollection of having a father, and therefore didn't miss having one. Still, he thought that maybe someday his father would show up and want to talk about all the wonderful books he'd left behind.
Serious readers often lead a borrowed existence, and that's what Jim thought he had. He had humor from Voltaire, Twain and many other sources. He had a sense of adventure from Verne and Stevenson, and humility from Dostoevsky. There was nothing in the real world that wouldn't trigger some knowledge learned from a story, and little left in stories that he couldn't relate to the world around him, except for one thing.
Now he was leading Romi Vizcarrondo-Rosa into the different world that American teenagers call High School. Jim had been chosen by Romi's mother to find Romi friends where he felt largely friendless himself.
He didn't have much of a chance for reflection. When guys saw him with Romi they were suddenly his friends, even guys that Jim would have sworn he never laid eyes on. Girls were interested too, and Jim had to get over his tendency toward shyness very quickly.
Romi was put off by the attention at first, and walked straight ahead to the extent that she could. Every time she had to walk around someone, new sets of eyes turned to her, and they tended to stay with her until she was out of sight. She had a tight grip on Jim's forearm, and he was stroking her fingers with his free hand while he tried to soothe her with words. "Heh," he chuckled nervously. "I told you it wouldn't be so bad."
"I don't like it," Romi said under her breath. "Everybody is looking at me."
"Come on," Jim said. "You must be used to that."
"Too many people," Romi said. "This school has more people than our whole town did in Mexico."
"You'll get used to it," Jim reassured her. Then he saw someone he thought Romi might like and called, "Huck! Wait up, Huck!"
Jim pulled Romi along with him. Jim rarely saw Huck out of school, but he thought of him as a friend just the same. Huck was a big, friendly black kid who Jim admired for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was their shared love of reading.
Huck turned when he heard Jim call, and he was greatly surprised to see Jim with a girl on his arm, and not just any girl but a real beauty. He showed his surprise to Jim, then turned his smile onto his companion, bowing slightly. "Hi. I'm Henry Onwauzer, but everyone calls me Huck. You must be .. ?"
Romi looked briefly at Huck, then remembered her manners and held out her hand. "I am Romi," she said.
Huck smiled again, "Romi. There's a name I haven't heard before, but I like it. You're new around here?"
Romi nodded and Huck smiled at Jim. "Man! I won't even ask how your summer was." He patted Jim's arm and said, "Nice going, James. Real nice."
Jim blushed and protested, "It's not ..." but he never got to finish his sentence.
A hand slapped him gently on the back and a familiar voice said merrily, "Jeemee! Carpe mucum, nosepicker! I thought you'd come around this summer and ... whoa!" A boy no taller than Romi, with a handsome, round face and a close-cropped head of blond hair suddenly appeared in front or Romi with a stunned expression on his face. That turned quickly to a nervous smile and he barely croaked out, "Hi. I mean hello. I don't believe we've met. I mean I'm positive we haven't met, because there is no way I'll ever forget this." He wiped his hand on his pants and held it out to Romi. "I'm Bill O'Shea."
Romi came up with a genuine smile, grasped Bill's hand, and said, "Romi. Romi Vizcarrondo-Rosa. You're a friend of Jim's?"
Bill eyed Jim for a second, then turned to Romi. "I try to be. I really do try to be his friend."
"And?" Romi asked suspiciously. "Isn't carpe mucum Latin for ... let me think, seize the ..."
"Um, never mind," Bill said, blushing. He went back to the original subject and said, "Jim's hard to know," he smiled to include Jim, asking, "Aren't you, Jim?" He looked back at Romi, "He never leaves his neighborhood, and I suddenly know the reason for that."
He elbowed Jim, "You've been holding out on us, man. What wave are you on for lunch?"
Jim pulled out his schedule and looked at it for a second, then said, "First." Then he asked Romi to see her schedule because he hadn't thought about lunch, and he was relieved to see that she was in the first wave too.
Bill said, "Good, let's sit together so I ... we can get to know Romi. Meet you at the doors, okay?"
Jim nodded and smiled reassuringly at Romi, who had her eyes on Bill O'Shea as he walked off with Huck. Jim brought her to her locker and helped her with the built-in combination lock, then he left her at the door to her home room class.
Romi was a Sophomore, but new to the school, and she'd be on her own most of the day. Jim was glad that Bill asked them to share a cafeteria table, otherwise Romi might learn to be a loner like Jim tried to be most of the time. Jim liked people and he had some friends, but his own circumstances embarrassed him. He lived with his divorced mother, who lived with her divorced mother, and both of them were often on welfare. They were both warm, caring people, but in Jim's mind they were also losers, and he didn't want others knowing the details of his life. And he did not want to end up in such a sad existence for his own future.
Now he had Romi to think about, and he'd promised her mother to help Romi fit in. He hadn't really considered that to help her fit in, he'd have to do the same himself, and the prospect didn't really displease him. It felt like the time was right. Finally.
When Jim left Romi at the door to her first class, she felt a moment of fear, but the faces of the people going through that door didn't seem menacing, and when she walked in there were many empty desks. She headed for one, but a girl her age called softly, "Sit over here," and when she looked a plump black girl was patting the desk beside the one she was sitting at. The girl had a wide, bright smile that disarmed Romi, so she sat at the desk beside her.
"I'm Necia," the other girl said. "You are?"
"Ooh, I like that name. Necia came from a book my mother read once."
"It's very pretty," Romi said, and Necia beamed.
Necia said conspiratorially, "Stick with me, Romi. Well, if you lead a straight life stick with me. I don't smoke, I don't drink, I don't do drugs, and I don't do boys." She grinned at Romi, "I'm no lesbo, that's not what I'm saying. I mean I don't do boys in the sense that their peckers will still be there after I finish school, so there's no mad rush to get it on. And if I did get it on, my daddy would make sure there's a dead boy and a dead girl, namely me, as a result of it." She shrugged with a happy, helpless look on her face, and Romi laughed.
As the room filled up, the girls whispered back and forth, their giggles evidence of a budding friendship.
They didn't have a class in common, though, and Necia was even on the second wave for lunch. That day there was an orientation for the new Freshman class, and Romi had to go because she was new. Necia skipped her first class so they could go together, and they were bored into a mutual stupor. That had them giggling when they left the auditorium, where they had to separate.
When Romi left Necia she felt hopeful. The girls she'd met in her own neighborhood were all about sex. That's what they talked about most, anyhow. Romi had nothing against sex in the abstract. Her only thing was that she wasn't ready yet to even entertain the idea, so meeting Necia had been very reassuring to her.
Romi's morning was less daunting than she had expected, and only because she didn't seem to be any more nervous than her classmates. She wasn't the only person new to the district, either, and she was quite surprised at the number of other students who didn't know anyone else. By lunchtime she hadn't really met anyone new, but she felt less alienated. That was only for the sorry reason that so many others shared her plight, but learning that you're not alone raises one's comfort level, even if falsely.
By their plan, she waited in the hall outside the class for Jim, and she had a moment to think. She had classes with a few of the girls from her neighborhood that she had found so unlikeable during that first summer, but their school selves seemed quite unlike their street selves. In class, the same girls who seemed so wild and unencumbered in the park were quiet and respectful of their teachers. Being the first day of school, there had been no opportunity for anything scholastic yet, and Romi was glad for that.
She was an intelligent girl and very bright in non-academic situations, but she'd never been a particularly good student. She didn't concentrate well and was prone to daydreaming.
She wasn't blind to her surroundings, and some things pleased her. Her classes were full of people, and they changed from class to class, which was different from Mexico where your class was your class for standard subjects. By lunch time, she'd been in classes with perhaps a hundred different people, and she found that to be intriguing rather than frightening. Also, on the first day of school most people were behaving themselves.
By the time that Jim approached her for lunch, she had relaxed and begun to feel comfortable with her new surroundings. Jim eyed her warily as he came close, but he could see the change in Romi's demeanor and it made him smile. It was a wistful smile because he realized Romi wouldn't need him to find friends for herself, but he was glad to see her looking relaxed.
Nothing lasts. Just as Jim got to within speaking distance of Romi, two older boys, both fat, walked down the hall, and they didn't split far enough apart to miss Jim, so their combined hips pulled him backwards until he fell down, at which point they laughed.
"Oh, look!" the fatter one squealed, "We got ourselves a dweeb! Wait! That's Jim down there!"
Romi ran to Jim and knelt beside him to see if he was alright, and other than embarrassment he seemed fine. She looked up at the two fat boys and asked, feeling despair, "Don't you help? You could have hurt him!"
One of the older boys sneered, "Wow. Jim the dweeb has hisself a girl friend! Wouldn't you know he'd find a spic!"
The big guys froze in their tracks when a deep voice from behind the one who'd just spoken said, "He has hisself a nigger too - a big strong nigger!" There stood a smiling and intimidating Huck Onwauzer, who suggested, "Give Jim all your money, then apologize to him and the lady, and maybe you won't die in the next ten seconds." He moved to close in on the boy closest to him and hissed, "Do it now!" Then his voice softened into humor and he added, "This is sick, you know that? Since when do you slugs go threatening my friends?" He leaned back in and said, "Now, do what I said. Hand over your lunch money, apologize, then get the hell out of my face."
The other kid got wise and asked, "And if we don't?" in a sarcastic tone of voice.
Huck turned to him and said calmly, "You don't get it, do you? This isn't a sequel called 'Porky's Part Ten', it's here and now. Can't you figure that out?" and his glare was met with defiance. He threw up his hands and said, "Okay, let me explain this one more time, then I'll knock your heads together. Listen carefully. You do not ... NOT ... advance your cause one little bit by trying to turn the teasing you get onto someone else!" He pointed his finger close between the nearest kid's eyes. "Do you understand that? I know what it's like to get picked on, believe me, and that's why I won't do it." He stared right in the kid's eyes, "Would you have me change, asshole? 'Cause if you want me to, I'll change right here and now. If you want me to tease you about a weight problem, then I can promise that you'll be begging for mercy before I get through the area-code jokes."
The sound of a single pair of clapping hands pulled all eyes away from Huck and the fat boys, and they all turned to see a smiling Billy O'Shea, whose reputation as a Holy terror had followed him since kindergarten. The reaction was immediate, too. Huck smiled in relief for the backup that Billy's presence brought. The big kids cringed, because Billy's reputation as a street fighter truly intimidated them. Jim had known Billy to stick up for many other kids, but never expected to need that kind of support for himself. He welcomed Billy's presence right then, and turned his attention to Romi.
"You okay?" he asked, and she nodded. "Don't worry," he said calmly, as he pushed himself up to his knees, then his feet. "Those guys have their own problems."
When Huck saw Jim get to his feet he asked, "You okay, brother?" and Jim nodded. Huck turned back to the big boys and snapped, "Just get out of here. Don't pull that again." They took off in a hurry, and Huck and Billy high-fived each other.
Romi smiled in admiration at Huck, then told Jim to turn around and brushed some dust from his hip. She asked, "Was that a bad word he called me?"
Jim had to think before it came to him, then he blushed a little and gulped. "Yeah, it's a bad word. If you want to, you can get them kicked out of school for using it on you like that."
Romi looked hurt and she asked quietly, "It's because I'm Mexican?"
Jim touched her shoulder gently and said, "They don't know you're from Mexico. They don't know anything, but the word means anyone Hispanic. It's not a nice term."
Billy got them all walking toward the cafeteria, and the conversation started to lighten up. Bill asked, "What'd that feel like, Jim? Like a big pillow fight?"
"Yeah, with three-hundred pound pillows," Jim joked. "Did you hear what they called Romi?"
"I heard," Huck growled. Then he muttered, "Assholes."
When they reached the cafeteria, it took all the boys a moment to realize that Romi didn't know what it was all about. That's when Billy O'Shea took over. He told Jim and Huck to get their food and save them seats, and then took his time explaining the workings of the cafeteria to Romi, starting by coming up with trays for each of them.
Romi had early-on found American food to her liking, all except what they called Tex-Mex, because she preferred the Mexican dishes her mother made at home. Most things were common enough in Mexico anyhow, so items like pizza and hamburgers were things she'd eaten all along. The one thing she loved about certain American restaurants was called a salad bar, and she was delighted to find one in the cafeteria. She stopped there and proceeded to create a salad with things she liked, and only took a roll and a bottle of water to go with it.
She had lost sight of Billy, and she waited for a moment while she watched other people go through the cash register lines. When she didn't see Billy after another look around, she decided to get in line and check out. When it was her turn, she put her salad on the scale like she'd watched other people do, then the woman at the register rang up the bread and water, and it came to three dollars and six cents.
That's when Romi panicked, because she realized that she'd left her book bag, along with her cash, in the hallway upstairs when she knelt to see if Jim had been hurt. She blushed, flustered, and told the lady, "I'm sorry. I left my money ..."
"I got it," a male voice said from behind her. "Ring it up with mine."
Romi turned, and the voice belonged to a handsome teenager with black hair and a generous smile. He said, "Don't worry about it. Are you sitting with someone?"
Romi was still flustered, and she said, "I'm supposed to be. I should look for my bag before I eat."
The boy said, "Lost and found is at the office. Eat first. Was there a lot of money in it?"
"Ten dollars," Romi said as she moved out of the way so the boy could pay.
After he paid for Romi, himself, and the girl behind him, the boy stood in front of Romi and said, "Hi. I'm Justin Castle, and this is Cindy. You are?"
"I'm Romi. Romi Vizcarrondo-Rosa. I'm new here."
The girl with Justin nodded and smiled, "I'm Cindy Knowles. Romi is a pretty name. It's different ... I like it."
Romi was about to respond when Jim skidded to a stop beside her, gesturing at a table and saying, "We're over here." He looked at Justin and said, "Hi, Jus. Hi, Cindy. There's room if you want to join us."
Justin started to say that he usually sat with his friends, but Cindy spoke first, "Oh, let's!" and Justin conceded amiably. They joined Huck, who had been looking around, and before anyone ate anything, Billy came sliding in.
"I lost you in there, Romi," he said cheerfully. "Sorry about that."
Before Romi could think of anything, another boy sat in a chair at their table, and he looked so much like Justin that she had to look twice. He saw that and smiled beautifully, "Hi. I'm Aaron. You must be Romi, right?"
Romi smiled in surprise, "You know my name?"
Aaron laid it on, saying suavely, "But of course. And I know that you are even more beautiful today than you were yesterday."
Stunned surprise spread over Romi's face, and her new friends delighted in seeing it.
Cindy broke the spell by slapping Aaron's hand and saying, "Cut it out. She believes you."
"Of course she does," Aaron protested, "because it's the truth."
Huck said, "You don't know what she looked like yesterday."
Aaron huffed, "I surmised, okay?" He turned a wonderful smile to Romi and said, "You'll be more beautiful again tomorrow. Beauty like yours can only grow, never diminish."
Romi was spellbound, and Jim had to hold back from laughing out loud when he saw Billy mouthing Aaron's words as if to commit them to memory. "Leave it to the gay guy to really know how to charm the women," he thought. Cindy looked at Justin expectantly, even though she knew better than to believe such flattering language would ever escape his lips.
They finally started eating, and their friendly banter continued. Romi was charmed, feeling acceptance even though it was unspoken. Bright, friendly people. She felt included in an easy way, as if that was how these people did things. They had curious questions about Mexico and Romi's life there, and they had intelligent questions about the difference in lifestyle. She answered, and she had questions of her own, and they answered openly.
In her mind, she contrasted these new friends to the people who lived in her neighborhood, and the thing that stood out in her mind was the difference in sincerity. She thought she might give those neighborhood girls another chance anyhow, based on how different they seemed to act in school. She thought that maybe all their sex talk was empty nonsense. She hoped it was.
There were two other classes after lunch, and one was a study hall. That was something Romi had no experience with, and she found herself quite bored by the time the dismissal bell finally rang. Her last class was Social Studies, and she didn't even know what that meant. She didn't figure it out in the classroom, but she liked her teacher at once. Mr. Sanford was an older man in a rumpled suit. He had a pink, clean look to him, and he had twinkling blue eyes that caught Romi's immediately. The man had an air of seen-it-all intelligence and a nice way with words. Romi enjoyed the monologue that was his first class, and when the bell rang it surprised everyone but the clock watchers that the time had passed so easily.
Romi smiled at the teacher as she walked out, and she felt far better about her new school than she thought she would. She waited outside the classroom door for Jim, and he showed up promptly, along with Bill O'Shea. Jim seemed edgy and Bill appeared to be nervous, too. They said hello to Romi, then Jim said he had to do something and he'd meet them outside.
That left Romi and Bill together, and Bill seemed to get even more nervous. He asked, "Where's your locker? I'll walk you there."
Romi told him the number and they started walking. Bill acted like he was on the verge of talking several times, but they finished at Romi's locker and were at Bill's own before he said anything.
"So, Romi ... Jim says you're not really going out together?"
Romi suddenly caught on, and she smiled at Bill's apparent terror in talking to her. "Jim is very nice," she said. "I do like him, but no. We're not going together. Just friends."
"Amigos?" Billy asked hopefully.
"Do you speak Spanish?" Romi asked.
"No, I just know a few words," Bill replied, calming down some. He looked at Romi and asked, "Have you been in Riverton long? I ... um, I don't remember seeing you around."
He smiled dopily, and Romi smiled back. "We moved here this summer. I said at lunch that we lived in Mexico before."
Bill's eyes widened, "Really? I'm sorry, I thought that with your English you'd been here a long time."
Romi shook her head, "No, we're new here. We learned English at home and always spoke it there."
"Oh," Bill said, confused. Then he shrugged and said, "Well anyhow - how do you like it here?"
As they stepped out onto the front steps of the school, Romi said, "I like it and I don't. At home we had miles of freedom and that was good."
"Where in Mexico did you live?" Bill asked.
"Sinaloa state," Romi said. It's in the Northwest of the country. If Mexico were the United States, we'd be Oregon."
Bill thought that over, then said flippantly, "Right, except without all the rain."
Romi chided, "Not all of Mexico is dry. I have yet to see a rainstorm here like the ones we had at home."
"Really?" Bill asked. "I should learn more before I say something else stupid." He looked at her, "How about if I walk you home?"
Romi giggled, "My brother will come for me. We can offer you a lift if you like."
Bill looked at Romi then, for the first time that close, and he smiled. "I have a ride too. Sometimes I just like to walk."
Romi said, "I have to wait for Jim."
"No you don't. We can walk if we want to." He looked at her and asked, "Want to?"
Romi tried to look at Bill, and her face stayed with him, but her eyes darted around looking for a sign of either Jim or the big GMC truck. Seeing neither, she said, "I like to walk, too," and she stood from the wall she just sat on. Bill was right beside her, and she wondered about her attraction to him, which had been instantaneous that morning. Bill was neither tall, nor dark nor particularly handsome, and the romance novels Romi read told her that tall, dark and handsome was what every woman looked for in a man.
That was in novels. Bill was hardly tall. He was blonde rather than dark, and kind of cute instead of handsome. But Romi had sensed right away that this boy was a man waiting to happen.
Romi was certain she'd see Paolo when he came by in the truck, and she managed to keep an eye on the street. Her interest was on the boy beside her, though, and his seemingly genuine interest in her. They talked about many things, and when Paolo tooted the truck horn as he drove by, Romi waved him on.
By the time they approached Romi's place, she had thought about her attraction to Bill O'Shea. He was cute, and he was something of a wise guy, but he was sincere at the same time, and that's what she liked. Once over his nervousness he'd become quite cheerful, and his personality seemed to bubble right to the surface. He would ask a probing question, then listen to the answer. He replied to Romi's own questions freely and humorously, and there were things about him that reminded her of the men in her life. He had some of Diego's brashness, Paolo's serious streak, her father's steady intelligence, and she also sensed the melancholy that her grandfather exhibited sometimes.
When they reached the driveway into the little compound where Romi lived, Bill whistled quietly. "Wow, nice place."
Romi said, "We're renting it, like I told you. Come in, and I'll introduce you."
Bill gave her a pained look and said, "I better not. Not today." He looked at the sidewalk, then into Romi's eyes. "I have to cook dinner tonight." His look became hopeful, "Next time, though. Okay?"
Romi smiled, not bold enough to ask why Bill cooked meals for his family. "Okay, next time. I will see you tomorrow?"
Bill's eyes looked right into hers again, and he said, "You'll see me tomorrow. Can I call you? And call me Billy if you like."
"Oh!" Romi said, and found a piece of paper to write her number on. Then she couldn't remember it, and she shoved the paper and pen at Bill. "I'm sorry, I don't know it yet. Give me your number and I'll call you with mine?"
Billy grinned, "Seriously? Haha, that's funny!" He shook his head as he wrote his number on the paper. "You must be the only girl I ever met who didn't know her own phone number." When he handed back the paper he said, "That's good, you know it? You must have a real life if you don't live for the telephone. I'll see you tomorrow," he said brightly, then walked away.
Romi watched him for a long moment, then turned up the driveway, the happiest she'd been since she set foot in the United States.
Billy saw his bus at the stop and ran toward it, but it was pulling away. The next one came in fifteen minutes.
He could run home in ten, so he kept on going, more than pleased that he got out of bed that morning.