When the girls decided to have a “bull” session, they really didn’t know what it was. They assumed it was where you sat in a circle, and everyone frankly shared her view of the other girls. That’s how they interpreted it, anyway, and so that’s what they did.
The first girl who spoke was Tanya. Since she went first, she tended to be very polite. She said she basically liked everyone, felt good about them all. Sometimes it bothered her the way Diney always asked everyone where they bought their clothes, but that was okay. Diney didn’t mean any harm by it, Tanya was sure.
Then it was Suzi’s turn. Suzi agreed with Tanya. Basically, she liked everyone, too. She especially liked Skippy (whom she turned toward and hugged), and who had been her best friend since third grade. Skippy, with her short curls and beautiful clothes, was everyone’s favorite. All the girls just thought her so “cute.” Suzi agreed with Tanya about Diney as well. Every time she wore something new, Diney always asked her where she got it and how much it cost. The “how much it cost” was what really killed her. “I mean, what does it matter how much it costs? If it’s nice, it’s nice.” But Diney didn’t seem to agree, Suzi went on. “Only if it comes from Saks or Bergdorf is she impressed,” Suzi said. “But not everyone can afford those stores,” she went on. “Just because our mothers don’t take us to Bergdorf or Saks doesn’t mean our clothes aren’t nice. Look at Skippy,” at which Suzi turned affectionately toward her friend. All the girls did, which made Skippy cover her eyes. “Oh girls,” she said. “Stop staring at me. You’re embarrassing me.” She said this in a way that suggested she liked the way it felt. She turned and hid her face and, as if she were on stage and very far away from them all, gave a very exaggerated look of being embarrassment. That’s why all the girls loved Skippy. She was so cute.
“I mean, Skippy’s clothes are sensational ‑‑ the last word. And she doesn’t shop at Bergdorf or Saks,” Suzi said. “In fact, if you ask Skippy where she gets her clothes, she’ll tell you, “Clothes Horse,” or “Phil’s” (“Fabulous Phil’s,” where even Diney’s mother sometimes took her). “But the point is,” Suzi said, warming up to her real subject, “she never asks you where you get your clothes. That’s obnoxious,” she said and turned toward Diney, who was starting to get the idea about where this bull session was heading.
It didn’t bother Diney that Tanya had criticized her, or Suzi. After all, neither was her good friend. Tanya was jealous, she thought, and Suzi, well, everyone knew that Suzi had been nursing a crush on Jason ever since the beginning of eighth grade and that Jason only had eyes for her. Still, she didn’t like the silence with which the other girls greeted Suzi’s attack. Wouldn’t one of them rise to defend her?
Next came Carla. Diney and Carla were almost best friends, but Carla was so nice that everyone liked her, and lots of the girls at the bull session considered Carla their best friend. Diney thought that at least she was tied for first place with Skippy. Carla was equally close to both, although at times, the roster of “best friends” changing as often as the constellations, people considered Diney and Skippy the best-est of friends, closer than either Skippy or Diney was with Carla. After all, both Skippy and Diney had boyfriends (and their boyfriends, too, were best friends) and both had more than the other girls, especially in terms of clothes. Still, Diney didn’t know how much Skippy and Carla talked; maybe it was even more than she and Carla spoke, or more than she spoke to Skippy, with whom she was on the phone with every night.
Carla began softly. “This is hard,” she said, her face blushing even more than it usually did (Carla had very soft, white skin). “I love you, Diney, you know that,” Carla said, turning toward her friend and favorite math‑homework partner. She and Diney spent hours on the phone every night, laughing as they reviewed their stupid math problems. And, unlike Skippy, they were both pretty good in math, and very nervous, a condition from which Skippy was also spared. Skippy had an older sister, Patricia, and although Patricia was smart, she didn’t care about grades as much as she cared about records and clothes and the new moiré wall‑paper her mother had hung in her room (it was cream with pink roses; “French,” Skippy proclaimed).
“But it does really get obnoxious the way you’re always asking everyone about their clothes. ‘Where did you get this?’ or ‘How much did that cost?’ Honestly, Diney, you’re really such a snob.”
Carla turned toward Diney and gave her a look that was meant to suggest, “I’m only telling you this because I love you” but Diney didn’t respond. She was too stunned, and too upset. In a minute, she knew, she was going to cry, but for now, her throat was too dry. She didn’t think there was a drop of water left in her, only acid, coursing through her veins.
She hardly heard Anita, who went next. Anita was a bitch, everyone knew it. No one liked Anita and Anita was constantly complaining about not being let into the group, though occasionally she barged her way in. Anita, like Skippy, was short and so the two were always being compared, but never in Anita’s favor. Diney’s mother couldn’t understand why. “Of all you girls, Anita is the prettiest,” Diney’s mother often said, matter of factly. “She’s adorable. And she always looks good.” Diney didn’t see it. And neither did the boys or the girls in their class, so who cared? The real reason no one liked Anita was because she was mean. She also was, truthfully, smart, as Diney’s mother also pointed out. When Diney made the skipping in second grade, Anita was the only other friend in their group who did. But in school, Anita didn’t seem very smart. She never paid much attention and was careless with her work. Anita had never liked Diney, but she also didn’t like Skippy, which further kept her an outsider in their group. She was especially angry that Skippy got all the attention. And so she aimed her thrust not only at Diney, but at Skippy, too.
“Actually, I don’t agree that Skippy’s clothes are so nice. I don’t see what everyone makes such a fuss over. But Diney ‑‑ God, you just never tire of laying it on.” And here, Anita departed from the clothing theme because Anita’s mother was the only mother other than Diney’s mother, who took her daughter to Saks. Anita’s mother was a former model ‑‑ “stunning,” Diney’s mother had often said ‑‑ and bought expensive clothes for herself and her daughter.
“You’re always bossing everyone around. And you think you’re such hot stuff. It makes me sick the way you go around telling everyone that John’s the best Beatle, because he’s so smart. I mean, who cares? I happen to like Ringo. And he’s not simply ‘a talent‑less elf’ as you say.” That comment always hurt Anita because like Ringo, she, too, was short. “Who made you the authority on the best Beatle? Like you know so much about music because of those piano lessons you take with Dr. Bonhardt?”
At this, Suzi cracked up. She, too, was sick about hearing about Diney’s music lessons. Lots of the girls took music lessons. In fact, Suzi and Tanya were quite good on the guitar. But neither of them had a piano, which Diney did. And certainly, neither took private lessons. They’d learned how to play their instrument by themselves, not like Diney. Diney’s mother paid $6 an hour for Dr. Bonhardt, Diney had told the group, but only when asked.
Diney swallowed her gum. She hadn’t meant to, but it sort of slid down. She wondered if she would start choking, or if the gum could get stuck in her larynx and cause her to cough. She cleared her throat, attempting to figure out what happened to the gum, but all she could feel was a lump in her stomach. Perhaps the gum was sitting right there, right on that little spot that felt so strange.
Now it was Skippy’s turn. Skippy was sitting on the other side of Diney because, of course, they were best friends. At first, Skippy tried to excuse herself.
“You know what?” she asked, yawning. “I’m getting tired. Let’s go eat.” No one took up on her suggestion. “But I’m starving,” she whined, looking imploringly at Carla. When even Carla didn’t respond, Skippy decided to go on. “I guess I’ve basically got to agree with everyone here,” she said. “You know, it does get pretty obnoxious, Diney, asking people where they buy their clothes. Not everyone can afford such good clothes.” Skippy was thinking of her friend Carla, who lived in a one‑bedroom apartment and whose parents, the girls were horrified to learn one day, slept on a couch in the living room so that Carla could have her own room. “You’ve got to be more sensitive to people,” Skippy said. “My sister, for example, has friends who can’t afford to shop where she does. She’d never think of asking them where they buy their clothes.”
Diney knew at last, that Skippy, her best friend, or the person she had thought of as her really best friend, who all the girls agreed had the nicest clothes, was not going to defend her, not at all. And so she stopped listening. She looked but could hardly see. She made her eyes very wide to absorb the tears so that none would spillover. She could not let the girls see her cry.
When it was over, she couldn’t get up. She could see everyone else moving up off the hard wood floor, heading toward the boxes of pizza that had just arrived, but she couldn’t move. She turned to Carla who was starting to rise. “I didn’t think you’d go against me,” she said, but then she saw Skippy coming toward her.
“Oh Diney, don’t take it so hard. Everyone was just telling you what you needed to know. You can’t expect people not to feel bad when you do that.”
“But I thought we were best friends,” Diney said. “I mean, I knew Suzi would have a field day, and Anita, well, everyone knows she’s a bitch. But you’re my best, best-est friend. Why you?”
Skippy didn’t seem to want to get into it, and everyone was eager for Skippy to come to the table because she ate pizza in a way that made them all laugh. With great ceremony, she pulled off the long strands of cheese and ate only the crust, which all the girls thought was hysterical. Suzi ate slowly, and intently, as she did everything, and Tanya ate too much, which she always did. Carla, who saw that Diney was now crying, went to talk to her.
“Come on, Diney,” she said, putting her arm around her almost best friend. “You know we all love you. No one is as funny as you, you know, when you imitate Mrs. Jacobs (the French teacher) and when you tell everyone’s fortune with your orange. You’re hysterical, and we love you for that. Now come on, don’t take it too seriously.”
But Diney couldn’t get over what had occurred. She always thought she was the leader, the girl everyone looked up to, the best of the girls. It didn’t occur to her that it mattered whether they liked her. They liked Skippy, but who cared? Hadn’t Diney’s mother always said that Skippy was “shallow, not very bright.” And according to Mrs. Parker, Skippy’s clothes weren’t as nice as everyone in their group thought. “They look cheap,” Mrs. Parker said. “Only you and Anita wear really good clothes.” So Diney didn’t pay much attention to Skippy’s popularity. And she knew all the girls thought she was funny and even Suzi, who hated her because of Jason, always squealed when Diney began her fortune‑teller routine. “Oh Diney, you’re a stitch,” Suzi often said, along with Tanya, along with everyone. So, it never occurred to Diney that she was so disliked.
And did she really always ask everyone about their clothes, where they got them and how much they had cost? She made fun of Anita’s clothes ‑‑ everyone did – because despite Diney’s mother’s opinion, they did look silly. Anita’s mother always dressed her in the latest styles, which were slow to arrive from Manhattan to Brooklyn. The only one whose clothing she ever asked about was Skippy, and that was because she was a bit envious of Skippy’s clothes, and popularity. Her mother didn’t understand why the girls were so crazy about Skippy. “I think she’s ugly,” Diney’s mother had said, “and her clothes look cheap.” Actually, Diney thought Skippy was very cute and her clothes exceptionally groovy in a way her own never were. Diney’s mother picked out all her clothes. The few times Diney had tried to pick out an outfit, her mother had talked her out of it. “Oh, that’s horrible,” Diney’s mother said when Diney showed her the blue and green jumper outfit in the window of “Clothes Horse” with which Diney had fallen in love. “It looks cheap.” Diney especially loved the way Skippy’s legs looked in those heavy, wool sweat socks that all the older girls, especially the cheerleaders, wore in high school. Skippy’s sister, Patricia, had turned her onto that. Once, Diney’s mother consented to let Diney buy one pair of the heavy socks with her own money, but the look was terrible. For one thing, Diney’s legs weren’t as shapely as Skippy’s. Skippy had real curves, a thin waist, calves, even breasts, which Diney didn’t have. For another, Diney’s legs were pale and hairy. “That you get from your father’s side of the family,” her mother had said. Skippy shaved her legs, but Mrs. Parker insisted that Diney wait. And with Diney’s pale, stalky hairy legs, the new sweat socks looked ridiculous.
So Diney wore the clothes her mother told her to wear, which she didn’t like very much, and which none of the girls seemed to like either. But she knew, somehow, her clothes were superior. They cost more, and her mother bought them at Saks. This made her “better” than the other girls. She didn’t look “cheap” like the green and blue outfit she had wanted to buy at Clothes Horse.
When Carla’s Uncle Arthur arrived to pick up Diney and Carla, Diney couldn’t run fast enough to the car.
“Goodnight,” Carla called out cheerfully to everyone.
Diney did not want to see even a single face. The only person she did see, through the window, was Anita. The girl stood awkwardly behind Tanya and Suzi, hoping to have a chance to talk to Skippy, who never seemed to have time for her. Anita looked so lonely, standing there like that that Diney almost felt sorry for her. Anita wanted so much for everyone to like her, but she was mean, and she never said the right thing. Diney did say the right thing, and she got the right grades and was loved by the right boy, Jason, whom Suzi loved, and whom everyone else had a crush on. Why Jason loved Diney was a mystery to her, but it was one Diney didn’t try to figure out. He seemed to like her better and better all the time, and she felt the same way about him. Diney’s mother couldn’t get over it. “He’s stunning,” she said describing Jason to her friends. “One day he just came over and asked, “Is Diney home?” Mrs. Parker thought this was so cute.
The car moved silently through the dark streets. Diney stared into her lap. She didn’t even want to look at Carla, who was telling her how much everyone really loved her, and that she shouldn’t feel so bad.
“It’s just that one issue, Diney, really. Everyone will forget about this by tomorrow. You will, too. And Suzi and Tanya, you know, they’re just jealous about Jason.”
Diney stared out her window at the stars. Arthur was listening to that strange music again on his radio. It was always tuned to the same station whenever he picked them up. “WRVR Jazz,” the announcer said, and then hissed, as if the music were that hot. Normally, Diney didn’t pay any attention to the music but tonight she did. It seemed refreshing, like the cold breeze coming from the crack of space she had left between the window and the top of the door. It was freezing outside but Diney didn’t mind. She needed the air, and the night and the stars. And now she realized, she needed the music too. It allowed her to hear things she’d never heard.
Fran Schumer’s poetry, fiction, personal essays and articles have appeared in various sections of The New York Times; also, Vogue, The Nation, The North American Review, and other publications. She was the winner of a Goodman Loan Grant Award for Fiction from the City University of New York and, in 2021, a poetry fellowship from the Creative Writing Institute of Martha’s Vineyard. She has a poem forthcoming in Bryant Literary Review; fiction in Avalon Literary Review, and non fiction in Paterson Literary Review. She studied political theory in college but wishes she spent more time studying Keats.