"What am I going to do? It's the size of a human head!" Natalie wailed into the phone as she slammed her bedroom door behind her. She'd been looking forward to this dance—really, really looking forward to it. It was her first-ever official Edgemont High social event with a boyfriend, her first chance to disappear under the bleachers and emerge some time later with messed-up hair and swollen lips. And now, just like that, it was ruined.
"That's impossible," said Jenna. "Your legs aren't that wide." Jenna—a fashion-emergency addict—was in true form: concerned but not particularly kind. "What about your new leggings? They're cute!"
"And be the only girl at the dance not in a dress?" Natalie spat back. "That's a great idea. Maybe I should wear them with my breast cancer awareness T-shirt!"
"God, I wish this had happened to you earlier," Jenna sighed. "J.Crew has these really great spaghetti strap maxi-dresses. You could have ordered one overnight."
"I'm gonna go," Natalie said, her despair turning to annoyance. Jenna couldn't possibly understand that denizens of unemployed households didn't get to order things from J.Crew, overnight or overyear.
As soon as Natalie had hung up, Elena's head appeared through the door. She may as well have had imprints on her face from eavesdropping.
"Is there something the matt—" she stopped, her eyes lighting on the purple-and-blue splotch on Natalie's calf. "Oh, sweetie."
Somehow, Elena's sympathy grated even more than Jenna's condescension. Why, of all days, did her mother have to be off from Books 'n' Beagles, home to see how kaleidoscopically horrible Natalie's skin looked, all bloody and gloppy, like an organic potato chip splattered with ketchup?
Though it was her father's fault she'd been cursed with Von Willebrand—Izzy had also suffered from a less severe form of the disease—he wasn't around to hate at the moment. Natalie had no choice but to blame her mother for marrying a man with such a nasty-ass genetic defect.
"Maybe I'll just saw them off." Natalie pulled her striped comforter over her legs.
"That's an idea," her mother said with unaccustomed sarcasm, then shuffled out in defeat. If she hadn't been so obsessed with Teddy at the moment, Elena might've tried a little harder to cheer her daughter up, but whatever.
A few minutes later, Elena reappeared clutching a banner of cream-colored satin and beaming for the first time since Teddy had come home with his pink slip.
"Will you try this on?" she asked. "I haven't been able to fit into it since before I was pregnant with you." Elena took Natalie's silence as an invitation to sit on the foot of her bed. "Believe it or not, your father designed it himself. He was a man of many talents."
Though she pretended to grumble, Natalie was intensely curious about the pale, shimmery garment her mother was in the process of unfolding. The halter sheath Elena unveiled was stunning, especially the infinity symbol threaded at the bust. It was Izzy's signature, the same one that he'd incorporated into the designs of all his houses and that Maya had tattooed on her lower back on the one-year anniversary of his death.
Natalie shook her head. It was all too much—thinking about her father, picturing her now middle-aged mom young and heedless and spinning across the floor in this dress. This beautiful dress, almost too beautiful for the occasion. Natalie hopped out of bed and threw it over her tank top and jeans, then shimmied out of her clothes lightning-fast.
"Wow," she said, looking in her full-length mirror. The infinity symbol shimmered majestically, drawing attention to her delicate collarbone and pert breasts. Not even Josh would be able to resist this.
"It's perfect," Elena said softly. "Your dad would be so thrilled."
After hugging her mother, Natalie jumped into the shower, determined to give her hair the proper blowout this dress called for.
Half an hour later, Teddy was watching the Food Network when his wife and stepdaughter walked into the living room. "Fancy meeting you here," Elena said to her husband, who was busy scribbling notes in his reporter's notebook. "What are you doing?"
"Working," he mumbled cryptically. "Food is the new politics."
Hadn't Teddy just said he was getting into education reform? Then again, the previous week he'd spent "investigating lobbying opportunities."
Teddy didn't tear his eyes from the screen when Elena said she was dropping Natalie off at Amy's, and that was fine by Natalie. She felt more than a little awkward standing there in the gown her father had designed for Elena, not that Teddy was paying either of them any attention.
The awesomeness of Natalie's dress was not lost on Jenna and the other girls 20 minutes later, in Amy's bedroom. "Your dad must've been so cool," Meredith Schecter said.
"Isn't that his, like, hieroglyphic?" inquired Jenna.
"He was a Jew, not an ancient Egyptian," Natalie said. "But yeah." She smiled around the room, basking in her friends' admiring stares. Why hadn't she been looking forward to this get-together more?
Though Jenna had always been her bestie, she'd hung with this whole group of girls—Amy, Meredith, Heather Grodstein, and Skyler Hutcheson—since junior high. Being with them now felt familiar, cozy, right.
Natalie tensed as a brown object came flying at her face. "Jesus!" she cried when she recognized the Mr. Potato Head that had doubled as a French kissing partner during countless junior-high truth-or-dare games. "What did you do to him?"
"Doesn't he look hot in Spanx?" Skyler asked. "C'mon, try them on, Nat—Jenna got everyone a pair."
"Paris Hilton wears them," Jenna said when she saw Natalie's dubious expression.
"So does Precious," Heather pointed out, and Natalie grinned as she liberated Mr. Potato Head from his 21st-century corset. As she stuffed her lower body into the human sausage casing, she felt more relaxed than she had in a long time.
Post-primping, the group gathered in a circle on Amy's carpet to munch on Entenmann's blueberry mini-muffins and pick apart the notable male members of the sophomore, junior, and senior classes.
"We should also discuss who to boot off the island," said Meredith. "Some of last year's hotties have become total notties."
"And vice versa. Have you guys checked out Simon Rostron lately?" Skyler asked.
"Ew!" Natalie couldn't suppress a snort. Just yesterday, when Risa Baynar had posted a photograph of the actress Sissy Spacek on Natalie's Facebook wall, he'd written right underneath: "Coal Miner's Daughter is a cloth audience favorite!"
Skyler squirmed. "I'm not saying he's my type—not at all—but he's definitely one to watch."
"Um, right," Jenna said, exchanging an is-she-batshit? glance with Natalie. "I'm definitely into watching guys who talk about dining alfresco with their cloths. Such a turn-on."
"OK, enough depressing talk about how few cool guys there are at Edgemont," Amy interjected. "Who wants to warm up for the dance?"
"I do!" squealed Heather. "Where's Mr. Potato Head and who has Blistex?"
"Ew, pervert, I was actually talking about doing some stretches," said Amy. She shook her head sadly. "Seriously, can't you guys ever talk about anything but sex?"
"OK, OK," Skyler said, grabbing the Mr. Potato Head doll out of Amy's hands. "Let's talk about . . . potato farming." Everyone burst out laughing.
Meredith bragged about having gone to the farm with three guys that year—then made sure to clarify that she had only "walked" across the fields.
"And what about you, Natalie?" Heather asked. "Have you and Josh, you know, tractored yet?"
Natalie shrugged. "Well, Josh and I have definitely been to the farm. We used to spend a lot of time there, actually. But over the past few weeks we haven't even, you know, taken off our overalls."
"Are you kidding me?" cried Skyler. "I assumed you'd had full-on sex!"
Amy's eyes bugged out. "Skyler! My parents are in the next room!"
"Sorry," Skyler said in a lowered voice. "I mean, I was sure you'd have, um, harvested the crop by now."
Natalie glanced around the circle. Jenna was staring at her, eager to hear more. She and Natalie hadn't discussed the particulars of her relationship with Josh since the whole Thisbe indiscretion.
"No offense, but we all thought that," Meredith said. "I mean, Josh did it with his last girlfriend, and that was forever ago!"
"Oh, so everyone knows about Chloe, huh?" Natalie asked. She felt a little sick. "It's awesome that I didn't find out until like a week ago." The girls were silent, their eyes averted from Natalie, as if they felt sorry for her. "So the answer is no," she went on, "we have not had sex. Not even close."
"It's probably because he respects you, right?" Meredith asked kindly.
Before Natalie could answer, Jenna burst out with, "God, why are we wasting our precious time dissecting lame Edgemont guys anyway? They are so beneath us. I can't wait to see next year's crop of Argentine exchange students—talk about H-O-T caliente."
"Mm, I do love those sudamericanos," Skyler said with a sigh.
Jenna made a lascivious lip-licking gesture, then leaned forward to pat Natalie's knee—a major show of intimacy on her part. It was like the memorable scene in My Darkling when Imogen fits her body inside Terra's to stamp out the sadness before Terra can feel it. Natalie felt a burst of gratitude to Jenna for so expertly redirecting the conversation away from Josh.
Half an hour later, while the rest of the gang was piling into Mr. Yablonski's minivan, Natalie held Jenna back at the curb. "Hey, thanks for being so cool in there, Jenny."
"Don't you dare call me that," Jenna said, but she was smiling.
"Friends?" Natalie said, making a dorky peace symbol with both hands.
"Always and forever," Jenna said, and the two squeezed into the car.