Tuesday, 16 February 2021 16:05

Bad Taste in Boys by Lauren Voeltz

The school smelled like waxed floors and bleach. None of my friends were in my classes. So far, eighth grade was a dud year.

I stood at the front of the class -- my back to my classmates. Picking up the black marker made me seethe. I hated math. Writing in front of everyone was like an appointment at the dentist. The marker in my hand tasted like the drill -- I imagined flecks of enamel flying into my throat. I suppressed a cough. My mouth salivated, and I swallowed. I glanced at the clock on the wall, one long minute until the bell, almost 10:00. Breathe.

“Okay, Tuesday, here’s your next question. What does x equal if seven x minus two x equals 25?”

Uh, what? I picked up the marker, tasted the metal again, and wrote the question out, my jaw clenched tight.

There should be a support group for people like me, people with my terrible curse…

I'd say, “Hi, I’m Tuesday, my parents named me after a Cheryl Crow song.”

“Hi, Tuesday,” all the others like me would reply.

“My taste buds are weird; I taste everything I touch.” I’d explain that to them, and that the couch tasted like soap.

They would nod; they’d believe me. It wouldn’t be a secret anymore.

The bell rang, pulling me out of my daydream.

I charged out the door, a smile on my face, freedom, and the taste of oranges dancing in my mouth as my hand pushed the wood open.

“Hi, Tuesday, how’s math?” Mika smiled at me, and then closed her locker.

“Ugh,” I said, shrugging.

“Yeah, I don’t give a crap about math either. I had Rosenthal for English; he wasn’t too bad. Come talk to me at lunch, I got an idea to bounce off you.”

“Sure, see ya.” I reached out and touched my cool metal locker, mmm… pineapples with a hint of lemon.

#

After social studies ended, it was lunchtime. Sure, I had tasted things all day, but my stomach didn’t care; it roared, tumbled, and turned. Hotdish and tater tots were calling my name -- the smell wafted down the long grey hall. I searched the lunchroom for Mika. Where was she?

There. She was tall, easy to spot, a messy bun of pale blonde piled on her head. Standing, hand on her hip, she talked to some boys I didn’t know. There were over twenty tables to choose from, hundreds of kids in the lunchroom. Why talk to a bunch of boys?

“There you are. Come walk with me.” She looped her tan arm around my pale one. She flipped her hair and waved to them. Tilting her head to talk to me, she said, “Listen, I’m having a couple boys over on Friday. They seem nice, and Soph’s coming too. You in?”

“Eh,” I said. “Well.” I started. How was I going to get out of this?

“You are coming, okay. It’ll be good for you.” She winked. “Let’s get some grub, I can hear your stomach from here.” She laughed, and it sounded like dancing flames. I’m gonna be burned alive.

#

Friday came. School was the same: dentist math, boring social studies -- who cares about ancient civilizations, anyway? Gym was interesting enough. Today we played basketball, dribbling tasted like I was chewing bubblegum, and as I bounced the ball down the court, I tried to remember that, but I still bit my tongue.

All day my thoughts were a blur; I felt the anticipation of Mika’s social gathering like a heavy wet blanket, itchy, sticky, and uncomfortable.

Mika’s mom picked us up after school. Her mom was more laid back than mine, letting boys come over; when I asked my mom if I could go, I left that part out. It just occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t have; maybe she would have said no.

The car ride in Mika’s mom’s cherry Cavalier was uncomfortable. It filled me with uncertainty and anxiety for the impending escapade. The door was strawberry taffy on my tongue.

Thoughts plagued me. Do I touch each boy's hand to see how they taste? I won’t do it. I hate this, I hate myself for this. My hands twisted in my lap.

Why can’t I just be normal? I hate Mika for talking me into coming over to her house for this. I shifted my seat.

“Easy now,” said Mika, so calm.

Not that I didn’t like boys. It’s just… I always loved Joey Jones. In kindergarten, his touch tasted like peppermint -- I loved those fresh kindergarten days. He held my hand at the playground. We played skip rope and raced each other around the playground. But something happened in the sixth grade. Something weird. I was walking by, passing Joey in the hall, like I always did, when our hands bumped in the hall. I expected peppermint, but I got rancid apples instead. What if it happens again? What if all boys taste bad when they grow up?

We got out of the car, and Mika opened the door and charged down the stairs. I followed her to the place of my doom. I drug my cumbersome feet. My hand slid on the wood rail -- oranges on my tongue.

The basement had close-cut speckled carpeted floors, and a red cloth couch that wrapped around the outside of the room, its plush fabric was soap when I touched it. I sat down. The large screen tv loomed across from me.

“You’re a bump on a log, Tuesday. Get up. We gotta open these chip bags. Then you can help me get the drinks down here. The boys will be here soon.”

The doorbell buzzed.

“And that’d be Soph,” said Mika.

Mika’s mom opened the door, “The girls are downstairs,” she said.

Soph ran down the stairs to us. She had curled her shiny auburn hair; it looked glossier than my mousy brown hair. I was aware of my simplicity. Her heavy floral perfume coated my throat. Are boys even going to like me…. Wait? Do I care?

“So, we are gonna watch a movie. Obvs, but which one?” Mika asked as she opened the bag of yellow Lays chips. She continued, “I was leaning towards a scary movie. Then we’ll get to cuddle in close.”

“Er…” I hate scary movies. I cringed.

“No? Okay, then a romantic comedy?”

“That’s better,” I said. A sense of relief washed over me. I grasped the blue cooler ranch Doritos bag. The slick glossy bag tasted salty -- ironic. It crinkled in my hands as I pulled it open.

Soph nodded.

“The drinks,” Mika said. Yes, my throat is parched.

We ran up the stairs to the kitchen. The house smelled like incense -- otherworldly and eclectic to match the plethora of plant life upstairs. The kitchen was tidy; plants were in tiny terra-cotta pots. Her walls were covered in obscure artwork, with faces that had noses and ears in the wrong places. I grabbed a cup and filled it with water from the tap.

 The wall behind the sink had an intricate rope macrame decoration. I drank the water and dumped the extra into a spider plant.

Mika grabbed the two liters of Coke and Sprite from the fridge, and I grabbed the orange plastic cups from the counter by the sink. Soph looked at us and grabbed a handful of napkins. Good call. We go back downstairs and set the stuff on the table behind the couch.

I plunked down on the couch. “Are you sure this is a good idea? No boys will even like me. Maybe your mom can take me home.” I felt small.

“Oh, come on now,” said Mika. “It’ll be fine.”

“I know what will make you feel better. There’s still time before the boys come.”

I looked at Soph, my eyebrows pinched, and my mouth twisted. What was she planning?

“I’ll grab my bag.”

Soph ran upstairs, her curled auburn hair flying behind her. A minute later and she returned with her oversized khaki purse. She pulled out blush, lipstick, mascara, and eyeshadow. 

“I only have a few things. Makeup always makes me feel better.”

Soph got to work, slapping on the lipstick, instructing me to close my eyes for the eyeshadow. She was so close to my face, trying to make me pretty. Mika stood at her shoulder, watching.

A knock came from the door.

“The boys!” said Mika and Soph in unison.

I ran to the bathroom to check my reflection. It was hopeless: the red lipstick was too loud, my cheeks were unnaturally flushed; wispy black smears graced my face just under my eyes, making me look tired.

 I grabbed a tissue, got it wet and tried to get off the black smears, then I wiped my lips, fading the color to a pinkish red. Now, it was better but still looked a little clownish. My clammy hands trembled at the doorknob. I felt sick to my stomach. I could stay in here, and sneak upstairs once the movie started. No, I needed to be brave.

I opened the door. Time passed like a glacier floating across the ocean; the door creaked, and the handle was lemon in my mouth -- bitter -- my lips pursed.

Peeking out, I saw Mika and Soph flirting with three older boys from the lunch table. They were tall, even taller than Mika, they were ninth or tenth graders. All of them had the same blonde hair, long like surfer dudes. I cowered. Mika caught sight of me, “Come over here, T. I’ll introduce you.” T? Is she embarrassed by my name?

“This is T., T. this is Brad, Jason and Stephen.” T, again?

“Hi,” I said.

They nodded to me; they must have been disinterested, because they turned back to Soph and Mika again.

We made our way to the couch. Two boys sat on either side of Mika, and the third sat by Soph. I sat to the side.

“T., can you get the lights?”

“Sure,” I said, stood up and turned them off.

Mika turned on the TV with the remote, and I sat alone, tasting the soapy couch with my hand.

 Each scene seemed to build the laughter in the room until it was a tall tower I couldn’t climb up. The actors quibbled, jested, and perplexed each other, but the plot was lost on me. Mika’s downstairs hangout was booming with giggles, light touches of the hand between the other boys and girls. And I couldn’t help but think -- I would never know what a real teenage boy tasted like. Tears welled in my eyes. I shouldn’t have been there. I was too drab. No one would know I was a girl who touched and tasted more than anyone else.

No one cared or knew my secret. I felt invisible. I snuck up the stairs, looked back down again; no one had noticed my departure. I didn’t have to touch these boys to know they’d leave a foul taste in my mouth. Boys are dumb.

Upstairs, Mika’s mom was jamming out to hip hop music. Her house rattled upstairs. She didn’t hear me leave.

Sitting on the porch, I buried my face in my hands. My fingers were wet, my shoulders shook from sobs. This is pathetic. I’m pathetic. Ugh… The fall air accumulated in my chest and felt melancholy, like things could never be the same. It reminded me of the smell of pumpkins and wet leaves, musk, and mildew. The summer of my life felt over, and winter, an inevitable doom, on its way.

“Hello?”

I sniffled, wiped my tears, and then looked up.

“Oh, hi.” My face burned. It was Joey. Too late now, he’d already seen my tear-streaked face, no doubt covered in mascara. Was it waterproof?

 “Are you okay?” He looked at me with those large dark brown eyes, the ones I hadn’t seen since last spring. His hair was shorter than I remembered, trimmed around the ears, and spiked in front. He seemed taller too. “Can I walk you home?”

“Sure, I’d like that.”

He smiled, his braces were gone, straight white teeth gleamed back at me. He held out his hand. I hesitated. Would he still taste like rotten apples or like peppermints? He seemed different, that much was true. Maybe his taste would be different too.

I grabbed his hand, and he pulled me up. My mouth filled with the taste of chocolate peppermint ice cream. He had changed for the better. Somehow, it felt like he was made to be my favorite ice cream flavor.

“What happened?” he asked, looking down at me as we walked hand in hand down the street. The street had tall houses on either side, skinny trees maintained by the city, and cute black streetlights were already on.

“I feel like no one understands me. That I’m too plain.”

“You aren’t plain.”

Great. Now he knows I’m insecure. I bit my nail.

He stopped me and pulled my hand down. “It’s okay. I get it, eighth grade is kind of hard.”  He pushed a strand of my hair from my face. “We’ll get through it.”

We walked three blocks in silence, though my heart fluttered in my chest so loud I’m sure he could hear it too. I was holding hands with Joey Jones! Me!  He walked me to my door, gave me a kiss on the cheek. “See you tomorrow?” he asked.

“Yes, you will.” I smiled back at him before opening my orange-flavored door with the citrus handle. I touched my cheek. The chocolate mint was still there; I could taste it. My entire face warmed.

I opened the door, and my schnauzer Rufus ran at me.

“Hi, my name is Tuesday,” I told him.

He barked.

“And it turns out, I have excellent taste in boys.”

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Lauren Voeltz lives with her family in northern Minnesota. When she’s not writing, and especially when she is, Lauren drinks copious amounts of coffee. She also enjoys reading fantasy, craft books, and short stories. She grew up on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in Minnesota, and earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology at the University of North Dakota.

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