By Michelle Chalkey
Her stomach uneasy, Tess's nerves were in full force when she walked through the doors of University High School. The gut-wrenching feeling was still fresh from her first day at Woodland High just four months ago, but she hadn't been the only new girl then. She had been one in a group of freshmen, classmates who she had grown up with. To U High, she would be just another chubby girl among the crowd of pretty faces.
Tall and slender, her girlfriends at Woodland had been growing into their bodies well, while baby fat still clung to Tess's five-foot frame. At least then, she thought, she had friends who already liked her.
Having finally found her locker, Tess hung a few of her drawings along the inside of the door. Then, she clipped a photo of her with two of her closest girlfriends from Woodland and took a deep sigh. After closing her locker, she turned quickly to her right and nearly ran into a boy opening the locker next to hers.
“Oh, sorry,” she gasped. “I didn't see you there.” Tess was more embarrassed when she saw that this boy was impossibly handsome, way cuter than any boy at Woodland.
Tess took in the stunning blue of his eyes, his short blonde hair, and a dimple on the left side of his smile.
“That's okay. Are you moving in?” the boy asked, nodding toward her locker.
Tess nodded, trying to find her voice.
“Yes,” she stammered. “This is my first day.”
“Oh, lucky you,” he said, flashing that dimple. He doesn't even know how lucky I feel right now, Tess thought. “It'll be nice to have a locker buddy. This one has been empty all year. I'm Josh.” He offered his hand, and Tess shook it without hesitation.
“Do you know where you're heading?” Josh asked.
“Actually, no.” Tess tucked her hair behind her ear and opened her floor map. “My first class is art.”
Josh pointed her in the direction of the art room and wished her luck before he left for his own class. Tess's heart beat faster. It was only her first day, and she had already established who the cutest boy in school was.
As nervous as Tess was, she was eager to get to art, her first class of the day. U High had more funds than Woodland to provide better arts programs, and she looked forward to this new environment to do what she loved best—drawing.
Colorful and spacious, the art room was the wonderland she had remembered from her tour a few weeks prior. Large work tables lined the room, each with its own set of utensils and sketch pads. Paintings and drawings covered the wall space, inspiring Tess to make her own additions.
“You're coming in at a good time, Tess,” said Mr. Morelli. “We're just starting our unit on portraits. I'll have you partner up with Al.” Mr. Morelli pointed to a dark-haired boy sitting alone toward the back of the room.
Al raised his hand and gave Tess a half smile. To Tess, he looked the part of an art student. His dark hair spiked in all directions. Black, thick-rimmed glasses sat above a pointed nose.
“First day?” he asked as she sat down next to him.
Tess nodded. “What gave it away, being late or the look of fear?”
Al studied her a moment. “Neither. I've never seen you here.”
Tess snorted. “It's a huge school. How would you know?”
“I would know if I'd seen you,” he said.
Tess raised her eyebrows.
“What brought you to U High?” Al asked.
Tess explained while she set up her utensils. “My dad got a new job in Bloomington, so we moved from Woodland and here I am.”
Al looked at her, silently probing for more.
“It just sucks having to leave my friends and start over, you know? I don't know anybody here.”
“Yeah, I know that feeling. But hey, we get to spend the next few days drawing each other's faces, so we'll get to know each other.”
Tess smiled. She appreciated Al's friendliness, but she couldn't help thinking how nice it would be to get to know that cute boy, Josh, a little better, to draw the lines of that perfect face and express the dreamy blue of his eyes.
Her adrenaline rushed again later in the day when she saw Josh sitting in her geometry class. Fate would have it that she got to partner with him for a project, too. Maybe she was meant to be here, she thought. Maybe she was brought to U High to find the man of her dreams.
“Hi again,” she eeked out when Josh turned his desk to face hers. He raised a confused eyebrow, trying to place her round, freckled face.
“Remember? I'm your new locker buddy.”
“Oh, yeah, that's right. Sorry.” Josh smiled, and Tess melted a bit. “So, are you any good at geometry?”
“Good,” Josh said. “Cause I don’t know what the heck I'm doing.”
Tess laughed nervously.
After school, she spent the bus ride daydreaming about tutoring Josh, their love story unfolding from there.
“How did you get into art?” Al asked the following morning. Tess felt uneasy while he focused intently on her face, sketching his own version of her flaws.
“I started drawing when I was eight years old, not the natural way that most artists start before they even talk.”
She expected Al to chime in, but he kept studying her.
“My parents were getting divorced,” Tess continued, “and I remember our house was always filled with tension. I started doodling to drown out everything—the fighting, then the silence, my thoughts. Drawing was my safe spot. I've been doing it ever since.” Tess looked down at her hands, unsure why she was offering this to someone she had just met.
“Funny how something beautiful can come from an ugly situation,” Al said.
“Beautiful?” Tess questioned.
“Your art. I saw you sketching during the lecture. You've got talent.”
“Oh, thank you,” Tess replied, but her mind was skipping ahead to seeing Josh again.
Not much was said during her partner session with Josh later, but Tess was happy to sit close to him again. He really wasn't good at geometry, and she had to take charge of the assignment.
After class, she hoped to walk beside him, but a petite blonde girl beat her to it.
“What are you doing this weekend, Joshie?” Tess heard the blonde ask. She envied the confident way the girl spoke to him.
“I'm pretty busy,” Tess heard Josh reply.
“Oh yeah? Who are you taking out?”
Josh laughed. “Nobody, I'm just busy.”
“Too busy to hang out with me? I bet you asked that new girl out, huh?” Tess's ears perked up. She realized they had no idea she was behind them.
“What?” Josh snapped back. “No, come on. You know I don't like chubby girls.”
Tess stopped, frozen, nearly dropping her books to the floor.
From a distance, she watched as the pair walked on. Panic swelled in her throat, and tears pounded at the back of her eyes, threatening to unleash themselves. She ran out the closest door to the courtyard. With no empty tables, she found a secluded spot against a brick wall and slid to the ground. Burying her head in her knees, she let the tears win.
A moment later, she heard someone slide down next to her.
“I finished your portrait,” said a familiar voice.
Tess kept her head buried and said, “I don't want to see it.”
Al put a hand on her shoulder, and a moment later, Tess heard him get up. She lifted her head and wiped her eyes. Lying next to her was the portrait. The last thing Tess wanted to see was someone else's version of her chubby face.
Staring back at her was a reflection of her own face, somehow more beautiful than Tess ever viewed herself. She studied it closer. Al had marked every ugly freckle, every pudge of her cheeks, yet there was an eminent delicacy to the face he had drawn, her face. It was Tess through and through, not smiling, but holding a beauty within aching to be unveiled.
The next day, Tess studied Al's face. Without anyone else on her mind, she sketched the lines and detailed the shape of his almond eyes. It was as though she was seeing him for the first time.