“Congratulations, class of 1997!”
Our caps went spinning up towards infinity and suddenly everyone was hugging everyone else. I felt two small hands slip into mine and looked down to find my on-again, off-again girlfriend Lisette standing there, smiling up at me. She stood on tiptoe and pecked me on the lips.
“Congrats, babe! We’re officially high school graduates now.”
I hated it when she called me babe. But we were on the on-again stage of our endless cycle at the moment and I figured it was probably best not to rock the boat. Especially since the party tonight was being held at her place.
As we walked out of the auditorium, Lisette kept up a steady stream of chatter, gossiping about who showed up wearing a bikini under their graduation gown and who had the dumb idea to try and sneak beer into the graduation ceremony. I tuned her out, scanning the crowd. I told myself I was looking for my parents, but the truth was I was looking for Ingrid. She had half threatened not to attend the ceremony last week on the basis that she hated absolutely everyone in our graduating class. Those had been her exact words.
“Except for you, Jack. You’re all right,” she’d said with a crooked grin, and then ruffled my hair, an action that sent Lisette into an apoplexy of rage, causing her to stomp away from our cafeteria table.
“Was it something I said?” Ingrid asked nonchalantly as she helped herself to some of my fries.
Meanwhile I could only shrug, as I stared glumly at the rapidly disappearing figure of my (ex?) girlfriend.
We’d patched things up again that evening, Lisette and I, but she’d had a few choice words for me before I was able to smooth things over.
“I just don’t know what you see in that girl. She’s bad news. You should just drop her.”
“God, Lisette, you sound like an overprotective mother. And besides, I’ve been best friends with Ingrid since the seventh grade. I can’t ‘just drop her.’”
“Oh, so you’re saying you put her above me. I see how it is,” she’d retorted, folding her arms angrily across her chest as her eyes flashed fire at me. I’d had to breathe deeply and count to ten to avoid saying something I knew I would regret later. Women. All they did was twist our words to their advantage.
“Of course I don’t put her above you. You’re my girlfriend.”
Somehow that had been enough to appease the green-eyed monster. But not for long.
I spotted Ingrid near the exit to the auditorium. She had already changed out of her cap and gown, the latter of which she was carelessly dragging across the ground. She stood in a pair of faded jeans and a cut-off tank talking to my parents, her own parents standing behind her. My older brother and sister, Joe and Angie, both down from college, were standing to the side, chatting. Angie had a bunch of balloons clutched tightly in her fist and I groaned, hoping against hope they weren’t for me. Just then she spotted me and began waving wildly, the balloons thwacking innocent bystanders. I groaned some more.
“I’m so sorry,” Angie apologized to an irate older man who was berating her quite loudly in Spanish. Then she turned and enveloped me in one of her bear hugs, unceremoniously dumping the balloons on Lisette.
“Oh my goodness, I can’t believe my little Jack-in-the-Box has graduated high school! Where do the years go?”
I heard Ingrid’s muffled laugh and saw my brother nudge her in the side. He was wearing dark sunglasses and a leather jacket and he had his hair slicked back. I saw Ingrid eye him appreciatively and I had to tear my eyes away for fear of giving away what I was feeling in that moment. I told myself I was just being overprotective, which I had every reason to be, my brother being the renowned lady’s man in the family. He changed girlfriends with almost clockwork precision, practically a new one for every month. Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen his latest number in a while, that tall, svelte Brazilian he’d been bringing by the house. So maybe he was on the prowl again, in which case… I squared my shoulders, confident now in my right to be protective of Ingrid.
It was just like Joe to start paying attention to Ingrid now that she was filling out her clothes a little better. Over the past year, she’d gotten her braces removed and she’d cut her hair short, the ends barely brushing the nape of her neck. Such a drastic change from the sloppy buns she normally sported had done something to change the contours of her face. Her cheekbones were somehow more pronounced now, lending her a more exotic air. She’d also joined the volleyball team, and the days spent playing on an outdoors court under the South Florida sun had baked her skin to a warm golden shade. In short, she’d come a long way from the way she used to look all those years ago when I first met her in seventh grade, when she wore long pigtails and had those unfortunate buckteeth. I found myself appraising her now with new eyes, appreciating her beauty for perhaps the first time.
“Earth to Jack, hello? Can you read me? Mrs. Gundt just congratulated you and you didn’t thank her.” My mom was waving her hand before my face and I blinked at her amused expression, confused.
It was the sound of Lisette’s laughter that brought me back down to earth. It had a brittle, harsh quality to it, like the sound of glass shattering.
“Oh, I’m sorry Mrs. Gundt. And um, thanks.”
Everyone laughed and the moment passed, but it took a while for the heat in my cheeks to subside.
After leaving the auditorium, we all went to my father’s restaurant for a celebratory lunch. Lisette couldn’t join us because she wanted to go get ready for tonight’s party. I couldn’t blame her pre-party jitters – everyone who was everyone was coming tonight. Lisette’s father was one of the richest men in Miami, what with him being an entertainment lawyer who represented several local celebrities. They owned a mansion on Star Island which was regularly featured in home and design magazines. Despite this, nobody from school had ever set foot inside this mansion, except for Lisette, of course. It was a surprise to everyone that Lisette was hosting a party there, and it was safe to say that the entire graduating class of St. Theodore’s would be attending tonight (along with a gatecrasher or two).
Angie, Joe, Ingrid, and I discussed the party over lunch. Angie and Joe had both graduated from St. Theodore’s a while back, but they’d gone to school with an older sister of Lisette’s and knew all about the famous mansion. As of yet, I’d not entered this sanctum sanctorum, despite the fact that I’d been dating Lisette for several months now. The closest I’d ever gotten to it was the front of the house when I was dropping off or picking up Lisette.
“Is it true her house really has five fountains made of solid gold?” Ingrid asked me as she slurped down the last of her soda.
“Nah, just one,” I said as I blew a paper straw at her. Ingrid immediately retaliated by shooting ice at me through her straw, nailing me right on the forehead.
Mrs. Gundt shook her head good naturedly at us, sighing in mock exasperation. “Won’t you kids ever grow up?”
“Never!” cried Ingrid defiantly, a mischievous sparkle in her jade green eyes that brought me back to seventh grade, remembering the first time I’d seen her with that look.
And then my brother burst my nostalgic bubble by reaching over and ruffling her hair. “Aw, you’re such a cute kid,” he cooed sarcastically. Ingrid simpered under his touch and I could only sit there, seething. Joe had no right to behave that way with her. He was turning 23 this year – he should be focusing on other girls, girls closer to his age.
And then Ingrid did something which made everything a million, billion times worse.
“Hey, you guys should come with us tonight. I’m sure Lisette wouldn’t mind. Didn’t you guys go to school with her sister Lynette?”
My brother cocked his sunglasses up, perching them above his brow as a militant gleam entered his eyes. I knew that look – I’d seen it before. It was the look he wore whenever he was about to move in for the kill.
"Hey, I think that's a great idea. Don't you, sis?"
Angie nodded and smiled. Of course she would agree. Joe's charm was infallible on all females. Even related ones.
It was all I could do to avoid putting my head into my hands and weeping out of sheer frustration.