Matilda is thirteen. It is 1999. Flared jeans and baggy t-shirts are in. She is at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, on a seventh-grade school trip. The sharp, feline eyes of Mrs. Watson dart around, looking for one single hormone-driven, angsty, rebellious foot to step out of line. Before long, the chaperone spots her prey and pounces, with unexpected speed, on a squirmy boy with greying socks who has somehow breached the code of conduct. He has braces, bad skin, and a perpetually sad look of his face.
Matilda sighs, eager to be off Mrs. Watson's radar. She slumps her shoulders, attempting to make her curvy figure less noticeable. As a child, Matilda was what her mother called "solid." She envied her older, leaner brother who ran faster because his legs were so long. Her mother would pat her back and murmur comforting words in Albanian. Men like women who are small and compact. Her mother would rub her own growing abdomen, ripe with a third child, and pronounce the ease with which she could deliver her children. Wide hips means less pain! Matilda's mother was only partially correct with her hypothesis. While the delivery of her next child would take a mere twenty-two minutes, those twenty-two minutes would be filled with words that the devout Orthodox wife rarely uttered.
Matilda pressed her face against the glass and stared into the dark tank. Supposedly there was a dolphin here, but she was unable to see anything except oily residue from other visitors and a half-completed piece of vandalism scratched into the glass with someone's keys. F-U-C--. Matilda smiled and giggled.
I always imagined Matilda was who Jenny would have become. The dark eyes. The olive skin. The slight accept. But no. Jenny was someone else. Jenny was scrawny, with thick curly brown hair. She liked legos and trucks, sometimes. Other times it was just Barbies. Pink. She wanted her hair to be crimpy. She was missing a tooth in the side of her mouth. You know, the canine tooth. It gave her this crazy mischievous look. Remember when we started the food fight at lunch, Jenny, and you had to sit with the principal every day for a month? We saved you a seat every day, in defiance, like some sort of vigil held for a prisoner of war. We we could see you over there, right across enemy lines, sitting next to the principal, eating your lunch while he tried to be a princi-PAL to you (he always thought that would make us students be less afraid of him). And you just grinned that crazy, gap-toothed grin at us as you had your head bowed, planning the next mashed potato war. We kept the seat saved for you. Our vigil while you were alive.