The school bus smells like old rubber and smoky oil. It is thick and damp inside, warmed by the elementary school bodies and their competing voices, while outside, the sky is gray and close. Beads of mist have gathered into drops of water; they cling together on the far side of the windows.
I am eight years old.
Inexplicably, a fifth grade girl has chosen to sit beside me. I am snugged up against the glass, watching the drops of water trek backwards from the force of the bus's forward motion. She sits with her legs in the middle aisle, laughing with friends.
I accidentally look her direction at the same time she looks mine. She smiles, and although I know it is false, I can't help but smile back. Maybe? I think. Maybe she is nice?
But, no. "I like your sweater vest," she says. Her smile has turned to mockery.
I clutch the hem of the vest, looking down quickly at its patterns. Chevrons and hearts, pink and white and yellow and blue.
Then, there is a fist in my stomach. I curl around it, gasping.
The older girl laughs as she withdraws. Tears sting my eyes.
"Hi, is Sarah there?"
"This is her..."
"Oh, hi! This is Allie. I was just talking to some friends about going shopping, and we were wondering if you wanted to come. We'll be shopping for jeans, and my mom always just gives me her credit card."
"Allie? Allie R.? You want me to go shopping?"
"Sure. I mean, if you can. Or if you even need jeans. How many pairs of jeans do you have?"
"Well...I don't know. I mean..."
"How many pairs of Z Cavaricci Jeans do you have?"
"...I don't have any Z Cavaricci's."
"Oh. How many pairs of Pepe Jeans do you have?"
"Huh. How many pairs of Calvin Klein Jeans do you have?"
"I don't have any."
"And how many pairs of Guess Jeans do you have?"
My brother and I are walking into school together. He stops by a crowd of friends and I hang back, waiting. I blend into the wall, dig in my backpack purposefully.
A girl with shiny black hair moves to stand closer to him. She is a cheerleader, her skin smooth and golden brown, her eyes glittery black. He talks to her for a minute; she laughs. He tosses his fist over his shoulder, pointing one thumb in my direction before glancing at me. She follows his action and catches my eye.
I smile, hopefully. What a beautiful girl -- talking to MY brother!
She narrows her eyes critically, then speaks to him without turning away. Without even pretending to lower her voice.
"You're so much better looking than she is." Her black hair grazes her shoulders in a curtain of silk as she looks back towards her friendly crowd.
My pale face blazes with heat, and I slink desperately to the nearest hallway.
This is what frightens me about having daughters. These are only a bare (and even mild) few of the memories that still cling to my insides, threatening to return me to low places. It's only with age and time and love that I no longer believe the words and actions as truth -- but my daughters have yet to gain age and time and love enough to withstand such things. It's all coming.
I worry about mean girls. Do you?