Basically, it was all Amanda's fault.
Okay, maybe that wasn't fair. It wasn't like she had put a gun to my head. But she was the one who got the ball rolling.
It all started when Amanda made things official with Darren Duncan, her practice boyfriend who graduated to full-time, actual boyfriend. Amanda thought that, naturally, I needed to have a boyfriend too to balance things out. When I told her no thanks, I'm good, she thought I was just denying my true feelings, or not mature enough to take this next step with her. It was like she now thought of herself as some sort of relationship guru.
"Look, I'm not saying I'm a relationship guru. Though, let's be real, I am compared to you," she told me one day at lunch. "I mean, come on, Matilda. I have a boyfriend now, and you don't."
We were sitting at our usual corner of the lunchroom, at the table closest to the door. Unlike the rest of our school, which was in the same shade of brown, everything in the lunchroom, from the walls to the tables, was in a drab grey colour that made you think of a detention centre or an old folks' home. Our school wasn't exactly fancy -- whenever it rained the roof would leak and the entire upstairs corridor would smell like mouldy cheese. Our lunch table was covered in graffiti, either carved with a compass or drawn in Sharpie, and as usual I had put my juice box over the hairy cartoon dick in the corner so I wouldn't have to look at it while eating.
"I mean, you're sixteen," she went on, "and you've never dated. That's just sad, you know? You should go out with someone at least once, just to try it out. Otherwise when you're old you'll end up regretting it."
I shrugged. "Like I said, I don't really feel like it right now. And besides, there's no one I like. I'm serious."
Amanda flipped her long, dark hair over her shoulder and gave me a stern look. Amanda was pretty -- I'd like to think that I was, too, but definitely not in the way Amanda was. Amanda was tall and slim, and had good skin for a girl our age. But she'd always complain about being too tall for the boys she liked, or her boobs being too small. (She used to stuff her bra, something I thought girls only did in teen movies or books, until she loudly proclaimed it to me one day while we were changing for gym.) Meanwhile, whenever I'd complain about my big thighs or my flat hair, she would scoff and tell me I looked amazing, and then put herself down some more. Then it would be my turn to scoff, and so on. It was a dumb little game we played.
Amanda suddenly looked up and over my shoulder, and instantly plastered a smile on her face.
"Hey, Matilda," said a gruff voice behind me. "Hi, Amanda. I brought you a cake."
It was Darren, wearing his usual saggy jeans and sunglasses even though we were indoors. He moved around the table and sat on the bench next to Amanda, setting a lopsided, damp-looking piece of black forest cake in front of her. Amanda wrinkled her nose.
"Uh, Darren?" she said. "This looks like it was kept in the back of the lunchlady's fridge for, like, a year. They don't have anymore Jell-O?"
"Oh. They do. I didn't know that's what you wanted," said Darren.
"Okay, well, now you do," said Amanda. She stared at him, raising an eyebrow.
Darren looked at her blankly for a moment before finally saying, "I guess I'll go get you a Jell-O. What am I gonna do with the cake?"
"I'm not touching it," said Amanda. "It probably tastes like feet. You can have it."
"Uh, okay," said Darren. He sounded like he had just been told to lick the underside of a toilet seat. He slowly got to his feet and walked away, pulling up his pants as he went.
As soon as he was out of earshot I said to Amanda, "You shouldn't be so mean to Darren. He's not a dog."
"He doesn't mind," said Amanda. "Otherwise he'd say something. Anyway, don't change the subject."
I sighed and began to break my sandwich apart into little pieces. I used to do things like that without even realizing it -- nervous habit, I guess.
"Hey. What about Steve?"
"What about Steve?" I said carefully.
Amanda was grinning now. "He totally likes you."
"No, he doesn't."
"He asks you for help all the time in Math."
"That's 'cause he doesn't understand anything."
"Yeah, but he could ask anybody else, and instead he bugs you all the time. And I don't even think you mind. You think he's cute, don't you?"
"No, I don't."
Yeah, that was a blatant lie. Of course I thought Steve was cute. Most of the girls in our grade did. Steve had floppy brown hair, big blue eyes, and the broad shoulders of a swimmer. He sang and played bass in a band. Saying you liked Steve was like saying your favourite food was pizza. It was such a non-statement.
"Okay, maybe I do. A little," I admitted, but only because Amanda looked like she might reach across the table and slap me.
"There. See?" she said. "So tell him that you'd like to go out sometime. You have Math this afternoon, right?"
"Yeah, last period. But I'm not telling him that."
The truth was, I didn't want him to laugh at me in front of the whole class, but I knew that Amanda wasn't going to buy that. She'd think I was just putting myself down again. So I said instead, "Aren't guys supposed to ask you out first?"
"You're not going to actually ask him out," she said. "You're just gonna hint that you want him to. But you have to make it really obvious - guys are clueless."
"I really, really don't want to," I said.
"If you don't, I will."
"You're gonna date Steve?" I asked.
"No, dumbass. I'm gonna tell him to ask you out."
She might as well have said that she was going to plant a land mine under my front porch. Amanda wasn't exactly tactful, to put things mildly. My mouth went dry. "You're not gonna force Steve to go out with me."
"Okay. So you talk to him."
"I still don't want to."
"Then I'll do it --"
"All right, all right! Fine!" I wanted to slam my head down on the table. Repeatedly. "I'll do it. But if it goes wrong then I'm blaming you."
Her expression was so disgustingly triumphant that I was actually glad when Darren returned with her Jell-O cup and put it down on the table in front of her. She didn't even look at it.
"Matilda's gonna date Steve," she told him, still smug.
Darren glanced at me. I couldn't see his expression with his glasses on, but I didn't need to. "Seriously?"
"We're gonna have double-dates," Amanda continued. "And next year, for prom, we can share a limo." She grinned at me. "This is gonna be awesome."