School class picture day, third grade. Most of what I remember about the day comes from the photograph my mom still has, one of hundreds of pictures from what I call “my awkward years.” I cringe at little eight year old me, my frizzy curls slicked back in a half ponytail, my purple sweater over a white turtleneck. Mom says I insisted on wearing the turtleneck. I wished she hadn’t listened. But there I am, beaming on the back row, easily the tallest girl in the class, bested only by a small handful of boys.
My best friends sit in the chairs in the first row. I remember wanting to sit with them so bad. I remember lining up to walk to the gym, where the photographer waited with his camera. I remember the flash leaving big white splotches across my vision. Maybe I remember more about that day than I thought.
Ms. Wilson tells us to line up for our class picture, so we do, like we’re going to an assembly. “Tallest in the front and shortest in the back,” she reminds us, but I already know where to go. I walk straight to the front where Chase Gear and Ben Peterson are. They are almost the only ones who are taller than me. I stand shyly behind them.
I look back down the line. About two thirds of the way back, Helen and Emily are standing only a few people apart from each other, and they talk and laugh around the others. My stomach twists; I want to be back there, too.
I sigh. I’m always the tallest.
The last day of eighth grade, we all feel grown up. At the end of the summer, we will be in high school, and this year is the first year my mom doesn’t pick me up from school like a little kid. Instead, I get to wander the streets of our small hick town with my friends, traveling between Katie’s house, where we eat cake and gigantic orange crème suckers, and Amanda’s grandma’s, where we make pizza and swim in the pool. There are six of us, and tonight we’re going to celebrate Katie’s birthday with a sleepover at her place.
But first, we must take pictures to commemorate this day. We pose with our suckers and, just like third grade, they stick me in the back. Even then, I still tower awkwardly over everyone else. I slouch in a vain effort to make myself shorter and hope my cheeks aren’t as red as they feel.
The first day of high school is bewildering. The building is so much bigger than what I’m used to, and the upperclassmen are strange, with the girls’ heavy makeup and large breasts, and the guys’ defined abs and prickly facial hair. But perhaps the most bemusing thing is when I pass Gabe Egge in the hallway before lunch. He’s digging around in his locker, loose sheets of paper fluttering out of its already-messy interior, even though it’s only the first day of the year. Gabe has always been short, small, and kind of scrawny, so it makes my eyebrows scrunch together for a moment to see he is now eye level with me, maybe even a little taller.
After that, I start noticing every guy in my grade. Dustin is almost as tall as I am now, and Justin has surpassed me entirely. I smirk to myself and walk a little taller down the hallway.
“Maybe this time I’ll get away with it,” I whisper to Camille.
She nods. “Maybe!” But I can tell by her teasing tone that she doesn’t really believe me.
Brother Salmond, our choir director, barks out an order. “Everybody stand up!” We obey quickly.
“No, no, no!” He shouts. Brother Salmond always sounds like he’s yelling into a microphone. I’ve never seen him use one, not even in a space as big as this, a basketball stadium that seats eight thousand. It’s not unkind yelling, just remarkably loud. “That was awful! We got people sleeping in their seats! Sit down, we’re trying again!” He motions for us to stand again, and again we get to our feet as quickly and quietly as we can. We’re still as rabbits as he scans the rows upon rows of choir students. Occasionally he calls out a name and tells him or her to switch places. I hold my breath and think short thoughts. I don’t want to get moved to the top of the choir again. I want to stand with my roommate and be able to hear voices behind me to help me stay on my part.
“You!” The altos all jump when we see Brother Salmond pointing at one of us. We struggle to figure out exactly who he’s talking about, looking around as he says things like, “two seats in,” and “next to the blonde,” and, “the young lady with the curly hair,” and then I know he’s talking about me.
“You’re much too tall right there, honey. I need you to move all the way to the top.”
I nod and start to leave. Before I go, I shoot Camille a half amused, half exasperated look. She shrugs, as if to say, “What did you expect?”
I cling to the cliff face, grit digging into my palms, listening to Seth call out directions from the ground. It’s my first time rock climbing, but I want to do well and impress him. Technically, this isn’t a date, but I’d be totally fine if our friendship went that direction. I tentatively feel for my next foothold and consequently lose my balance. There’s a moment of breathlessness as I start to fall, but Seth is a good belay, so there’s little slack in the line and the panic lasts less than a second. I dangle for a moment, catching my breath and surveying the stretch of rock before me.
“You’re so close,” Seth shouts up at me. “If you could just reach that handhold up there, you’d have it!”
“I know, but I don’t have your height,” I remind him, squinting in the gray morning light at the spot he’s talking about.
“Hey, you’re pretty tall,” he says. “How tall are you, anyways?”
“Um, five ten,” I call, hoping to sound casual and not self-conscious.
“That’s cool,” comes his easy reply. “I like tall girls.”
I don’t respond to that, just tell him that I’m going to start climbing again, but the compliment buoys me up the cliff, as well as for several days to come.
We’re in rehearsal for our Christmas choir concert. I bid farewell to Camille at the bottom of the choir seats and head to a spot a few rows from the top.
Brother Salmond stands us. We’re running too short on time for him to sit us and stand us correctly, so instead he yells for us to hurry and stand, and we respond clumsily in our haste to obey. He scans the rows, tells a couple girls to move up a few rows and a few boys to move down. “Okay, you look great! Let’s sing!” I get to stay in my spot at the top. I can see the whole choir and audience from here.
Ty and I pull into the restaurant, its exotic Italian name glaring in red and green neon, obnoxiously bright in the darkening evening. We’re getting dinner with some old friends of Ty’s, and this is where we chose to meet.
I’ve never met Nate or his wife before, so there’s a brief round of introductions when we climb from our cars. Nate is short and stout and growing a beard. Grace is his match, though without the facial hair. I like both them and their lighthearted natures immediately.
Just before we go inside, Ty pats his pockets in surprise. “I left my wallet in the car, be right back.” I take half a step to follow him, then stop, confused if I should go or stay with Nate and Grace.
I see them watching me, faint smiles on their faces, and I think how silly I must look, wandering around. I give a little laugh and decide to stay. “Sorry, I’m kind of awkward,” I warn them.
“No, no!” Grace assures me. “We were just admiring how tall you are.”
I grin. “Trust me, I know I’m tall.”