I never get this much attention. So, after the second girl points at me, eyes wide, and half-whispers to her friend, “Look,” I figure either I look like a clown, or a clown is following me, and I accelerate. My Doc Martens pound the tile to the beat of my heart as I hustle to my locker, where I fumble with my combo twice before I manage to open the door and check my reflection in the magnetic mirror.
Something has to be off, but I can’t tell what. My thick, black eyeliner is crisp and my violet lipstick, unsmeared. I comb my fingers through my faded rainbow hair and check behind me for a stray clown. When I see nothing, I let out a relieved breath, puffing up my side-bangs.
Note to self: stop watching Killer Clowns from Outer Space at bedtime.
Everything’s fine. I look fine.
But Aaron doesn’t.
When I close the locker, he’s approaching me, his mohawk lopsided and puffed, hands stuffed in his pockets, signature skip-step replaced by a lumber-step.
“Hey.” I smile tentatively and lean in for a kiss, which he evades. He frowns, the creases around his full lips deepening. My nostrils flare, and I furrow my eyebrows. “What’s up?”
“Have you read Crumpled Papers today?”
I roll my eyes. “No, why would I?”
Aaron looks at me pointedly: he knows (almost) everything about me, so he knows I read the school’s online lit mag religiously, secretly wishing my poetry was good enough to submit. He says it is, but he doesn’t understand poetry.
“Not yet,” I admit with a sheepish smirk.
“Your poem was posted this morning.”
My eyes bug out. “What? But I didn’t submit.”
He hands his phone to me, which has the post already loaded. And there it is: “What Could’ve Been” by Ericka Slater.
Nostalgia bubbles in my throat
Just like the champagne we stole
From your grandparents the night
We first kissed.
Shit. Anxiety flutters between my chest and stomach. Only one other person knew of this poem’s existence, until now. He found out a month ago, when, on an impulse, I stuffed the poem into his locker. After he didn’t reach out, I’d assumed he’d thrown it away, like he did to me when he sold out. Then, two weeks ago, he DMed me.
Damnit, Rob! He must’ve submitted it—like Aaron, he thought my poems were brilliant. Heat creeps up my neck as I scan the post. Of all my shitty poems, I would’ve never submitted this one. It was only meant for two pairs of eyes and maybe—eventually—a song.
But then I see the comments section. One hundred likes. Twenty-five comments. The rage wavers and pride swells inside me like a balloon. I can’t help but smile.
“Oh my god. People LIKE it!”
I look up at Aaron to share my joy, but he scowls, his clouded brown eyes squinting.
My smile falters and I glower back. “Why are you so salty?”
“It doesn’t bother you it was submitted without your permission?”
“Well, yeah, but…” But this is still my first publication, my first accomplishment as a poet. No matter how it happened, it’s something to celebrate, right?
I refocus on my poem; I want to grasp the balloon of pride and joy. Out of curiosity, I refresh the page, swipe to the likes—and then scrunch my face in confusion.
Three hundred likes.
Crumpled Papers, though mainstream, isn’t that popular.
“Look at the first comment,” Aaron says.
Rob left the first comment: a link to his pop-punk (more like pop-rock) band, Harry the Great’s IG. Last year they won a set at Homecoming from the student council’s Battle of the Bands. That’s when Rob dumped punk (and me) for popularity.
Immediately the pride pops, releasing a sludge of concrete. It slides down into my stomach, where it hardens.
I hesitate over the link. Rob’s and my Twitter messages run through my head like the end credits of a movie. We had fallen back into our habit, transforming my poem into lyrics. He wouldn’t dare…
Aaron taps the link for me.
Rob sits on his bed, strumming his guitar.
“You probably don’t know Ericka Slater, but she’s one of the most talented poets and lyricists I know. And—she wrote a poem about me. It’s on Crumpled Papers today. Link in the profile.”
He changes chords and begins singing about writing lyrics over a screen, of it not being the same, of missing, of meeting and kissing, of should’ve dones.
I close the app after the first chorus. My eyes sting and my palms sweat. No wonder those girls pointed, no wonder my poem’s popular, no wonder Aaron looks sour. It has nothing to do with me. And yet, it has everything to do with me—and Aaron and Rob.
Just nothing to do with my poem.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” I try with a shake of my head.
The warning bell rings, but we remain still.
“Is it…is the song as true as the poem?” He sniffles, his cheeks splotchy, a beat away from tears. That’s one of the things I love about him: he wears his heart on his sleeve.
Tears welling, I compress my lips and give him a pleading look.
After a beat, he nods, and a tear streams down his cheek. I ache to reach out to touch him, to tell him I love him.
But it doesn’t mean the same thing when you know you’re not the only one.
So, I hold myself instead.
When he retrieves his phone, his fingertips touch my palm, causing goosebumps.
“Congrats.” He turns and walks toward Statistics. I press my hand against the cool locker door for balance. Five steps away, he pauses.
“Really,” he emphasizes. “You now know you’re good enough.”
Then he continues down the hallway, and I crumple, my jeans straining against my hips and thighs as I squat against the locker, crying into my palms.
The bell rings. I wipe my face on my sleeve, stand up, and reopen my locker. Ignoring my reflection, I grab the needed textbooks and notebooks and head toward the front desk for a late-pass—then stop.
I take my phone out of my pocket and load Crumpled Papers. And although a discord of prideful rage beats within me, when I see my by-line, I can’t help but smile.