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Authors: James Howe

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BOOK: Totally Joe
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Luckily, before I could say anything to him, he said (there's a reason I'm telling you all this), “It's hard to think of something for every letter, though, isn't it?”

“Yeah, like Z,” I said. “You're lucky your name is Zachary.”

He nodded, then said, “What about X? There's nothing but—”

“Xylophone
!” we both shouted.

We broke out laughing, and I noticed his dimples again. I could feel myself starting to blush, which meant I had to pull an emergency change of subject. So I asked him what he was doing over the weekend. He just shrugged and said, “Nothing. It's hard making friends here.”

Without even thinking about it, I said, “Why don't you come to my birthday party tomorrow?”

He went,
“Really?”
You'd think I'd invited him to go with me to the Oscars or something. “Okay, that would be great.”

And that's how Zachary ended up at my birthday party, which brings me to the Main Topic: I'm THIRTEEN!!!!!

(Okay, now that I got
that
out of my system.)

I guess it
is
exciting. To be a teenager, I mean. Although when I look at Jeff, I'm not sure what's supposed to be so exciting about it. He sleeps, like, sixteen hours a day!

Some of my friends already are thirteen, and they said the main difference is that things are more expensive now. No more “twelve and under.”

But, I don't know, I feel more grown-up somehow.

Not that you would know that from my party, which was totally fun and kind of goofy. After we went ice-skating at the rink (Zachary is an awesome figure skater), we came back and had what my dad calls “silly foods,” including hot dogs (Tofu Pups for Addie), which were barbecued outdoors (hello, there's, like, two feet of snow on the ground!), sesame noodles, corn on the cob (see previous parentheses; my dad said even though it was the frozen variety, corn on the cob was a
must
because it's my favorite food), four kinds of ice cream, and this
five
-layer cake Aunt Pam made, where the layers were all tipped in different directions and had different-color frosting. And when I say color, I'm talking TECHNICOLOR: fuchsia and magenta and aquamarine, to name a few! When Mom told her she should be a baker, Aunt Pam scowled and said, “Has our mother been talking to you?”

(Grandma is always going on about how Aunt Pam
needs to replace “rock ‘n' roll” with “respectable ‘n' responsible,” and it drives Aunt Pam crazy. As far as I can see, Aunt Pam
is
respectable and responsible; she just does things her way and not Grandma's. Like I said in O, Grandma and Aunt Pam have their issues.)

Anyway, Aunt Pam said she'd try to find the button for me (the civil rights one), and that it would be a little bonus birthday present, but her main present to me was this big stack of CDs. She said they were all singers I should know—Ani DiFranco, Dar Williams, Janis Ian, and Kris Delmhorst. Oh, and she also got me one by this band called the Red Hot Chili Peppers because she said I was a teenager now and it was time for me to “start rockin'!” (I swear I could hear Grandma say, “Oy,” all the way from Short Hills, New Jersey.)

I'd never heard of any of these people, but I've sampled all the CDs and I really like them. (I have to be careful about playing the Red Hot Chili Peppers when my parents are around, though, because some of the lyrics are kind of embarrassing, if you know what I mean.)

Aunt Pam said she's seen Ani DiFranco in concert and she is guaranteed to blow my mind, and that part of her birthday present is to bring me to New York (on the train from Albany—by myself!) the next time Ani (that's what she calls her) has a concert, and she'll get us seats as close
to the stage as she can, so I can have my mind blown, up close and personal.

I got other CDs for my birthday, too. One of them was Colin's leftover Christmas present. It was this double album with an all-white cover. I saw that it was the Beatles, and I figured out right away why he'd given it to me. Sure enough, I turned it over and there it was: #11 on Disc 1—“Blackbird.”

His other present was a small silver hoop earring. I put it in right away, and everyone said it was totally me.

“In which case,” Skeezie piped up, “you won't be needing that stud. Can I have it?”

I told him no, and he started whining about how we were earring brothers and that meant we were supposed to share, and, well, that wasn't
too
embarrassing. (Especially considering that when he said it, his face was a mess of cake crumbs and frosting.)

Anyway, I loved Colin's presents, and I think he liked mine, too. I gave him a shirt from the Gap. It wasn't the present I had under my bed. That was a Hawaiian shirt with about as many colors going on in it as Aunt Pam's cake. But after our last IM, I knew it wasn't fair to give it to him. That shirt was a lot more me than Colin. So I kept it and got him one of those polo-type shirts from the Gap instead. That's more his style—even if it doesn't have a
little logo thingy on it. I did get it in purple, because, hey, I'm not about to feed the Straight (and Closeted Gay) Guy Drabness Monster. Besides, one of Colin's secrets that only I know is that his favorite color is purple. (He tells everybody else it's blue.)

I won't go into a whole list of my presents, because I wouldn't want you thinking I'm a total Material Boy (even if maybe I am), but I have to tell you my two Very Favorites.

Very Favorite #1

This big box came from Grandma Lily and Grandpa Ray about two days before my birthday. For some reason, I decided to wait until my party to open it, which I'm glad I did, because it just added to the Goofiness Factor. It was a truck—a big yellow dump truck!

I said, “I think the grandparents have finally lost it.”

Took carefully,” my mother said.

I took the truck out of the box and turned it this way and that until I saw that there, on the back bumper, was a tiny rainbow sticker. I couldn't believe it!

“It was Grandpa's idea,” Mom told me.

If all my friends hadn't been there, I might've started bawling. I mean, this is my grandfather who has to leave the room for oxygen and who has never before exhibited a sense of humor we're talking about.

I asked Aunt Pam if she had put him up to this, and she said, “No way. He did call and ask me what kind of bumper sticker he should get, but he wouldn't let me help him find it. He said, ‘I'll go online.'”

My grandparents? Online? This was getting scarier by the minute.

Oh, the neat thing about the truck (besides the rainbow sticker)? The dump part is the perfect size to hold CDs! Finally, a truck I can actually use!

Very Favorite #2:

This one was from Zachary, and it was a toy, too. Nobody else got the joke, but I did, right away.

“Now you'll have something to write about,” he told me.

“Yeah, me and everybody else,” I said.

He smiled. (I tried not to notice his dimples.) “Maybe, but you'll be the expert.”

“You're right!” I said.

I started banging out “The Shoop Shoop Song (It's in His Kiss),” which is my all-time favorite Cher song.

I was pretty good, for somebody who'd never played the xylophone before.

If Cher had been there, she would have totally loved it!

LIFE LESSON
: Birthdays rock!

U is for
UNDERWATER

THIS PROBABLY WONT SURPRISE YOU, BUT WHEN I WAS YOUNGER, I WANTED TO BE ARIEL. YOU KNOW. THE LITTLE MERMAID
.

It wasn't because she was a girl or because she had a fin (although the fin
was
way cool); it was because I loved swimming underwater. I was so jealous of Ariel, the way she never ran out of breath and never needed to come up to the top. The funny thing is, all she wanted to do was come to the top and live on the land, and all I wanted to do was go under the waves and live in the water.

Once, when I was four, my family went on vacation in North Carolina, I think it was, where there was this humongous waterslide. I was too little to go down it by myself, so I rode down between my dad's legs. Every time we splashed into the little pool at the bottom (which was more like a wading pool than a real one), I'd push away and start paddling around underwater, pretending to be
Ariel. I could hear my dad's voice, which I'd imagine was King Triton's. I'd picture him puffing up all red-faced and muscle-y, going, “Ariel! Ariel! You come here this very instant, do you hear me?” And of course I'd disobey him, because that's what Ariel would do. I couldn't hear what my father was really saying. His voice was all gurgly. He probably
was
sounding like King Triton, telling me to hurry up, people were waiting at the top, this wasn't the time to dillydally, blah blah blah. But I couldn't help myself. I was on a big adventure with Flounder, and that was even more fun than going down the slide.

I got to thinking about all this because of a song that's on one of the CDs Aunt Pam gave me. It's called “Waiting under the Waves,” and it's by Kris Delmhorst, whose voice makes me sad and happy at the same time. When I listen to this song, I think about all the times I've been underwater and how I've always had the feeling of waiting but not knowing what I was waiting for. That time in North Carolina, I guess maybe I was waiting for my adventures with Flounder to begin. Other times, at the community pool in Paintbrush Falls, I was waiting for the kids who were picking on me to go away. That usually worked because I could stay under the water a lot longer than they could, and they'd get bored and go find somebody new to pick on.

One summer, I discovered that I liked looking at boys—and some of them were the same boys who were picking on me! That was very confusing. That summer, I might have waited under the water for the confusion to go away.

Mostly, I think what I was waiting for (or maybe wishing for) was the world
above
the water to feel as calm and peaceful and safe as the world
under
the water.

Does that make sense?

LIFE LESSON
: In the words of a very wise crustacean (and a good friend of Ariel's): “It's better down where it's wetter, take it from me.”

MARCH
V is for
VICTIM (NO MORE)

TODAY WAS NO-NAME DAY. KEVIN HENNESSEY CELEBRATED BY
calling me a “flaming fag” before the first bell rang and then defended himself by saying it wasn't “officially” school yet.

I celebrated by walking into Mr. Kiley's office right
after
the first bell rang and officially reporting Kevin Hennessey. Mr. Kiley invited Kevin to join us, and we spent first period together, the three of us, with me telling Mr. Kiley every single rotten thing Kevin has ever done to me and almost every single rotten thing he's ever called me (like I said back in E, there are some things that are too disgusting to repeat). Mr. Kiley asked me why I'd never reported any of this before, and I told him, “Because I was afraid to.”

He nodded, as if he actually got it, then stepped out of the room to ask Mrs. DePaolo to get Kevin's parents on the phone. The minute Mr. Kiley was out of sight, Kevin
turned to me with his face all tight like a fist and said, “You'd better
stay
afraid, Bunch.”

“Of what?” I said. “That you'll tell everybody I'm a queer? I am a queer. Big whoop.”

“You're sick!” he spat at me.

“Then don't get too close,” I told him, sticking my face right in his, “or you might catch it. Hey, Kevin, maybe that's what you secretly want.”

“Bite me,” he said.

I told him I was a queer, not a vampire, and either way he wasn't my type.

Before Kevin could threaten me with physical violence, which I knew was the only thing he had left to threaten me with, Mr. Kiley came back into the room and asked me, “Joe, do you have any witnesses to the claims you're making?”

I'm sorry, but this cracked me up. “Only the whole school,” I said.

Mr. Kiley honestly looked surprised. “And
nobody
has reported it?” he asked. “In all this time?”

I hate to say it, but it suddenly dawned on me that Mr. Kiley needed some educating. “Kids don't tell on each other,” I explained. “And teachers sometimes don't see what's right in front of their own noses.”

He shook his head sadly. “It sounds as if we might need No-Name Day every day of the year.”

“No joke,” I said. I didn't mean to be disrespectful, but really: no joke.

You should have heard it when Mr. Kiley got Kevin's parents on the phone. Maybe you did hear it. First his mother got on and was yelling so loud Mr. Kiley had to hold the receiver away from his ear. But that was nothing compared with how loud Mr. Hennessey yelled when
he
got on the phone. Nice people, Kevin's parents.

BOOK: Totally Joe
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