Not So Different

1. A Friend In Hell Is A Friend Indeed

The road to what fresh hell is paved with good intentions? Taking an immediate dislike to a fresh high school hell, even before they'd actually reached it, had the advantage of saving time. The good intentions, typically trite, flowed from the mouth of Sonny's father. He must have thought he was conducting a dialogue with his children. Sonny treated his father's words like a babbling brook from which he could fish the occasional feed line. There was one now, something about the difficulties of moving to a new town and a new school.

'Have we moved?' Would the sarcasm register?

No, the father reacted to his son's feigned obliviousness with the genuine article. Or if his obliviousness was assumed, it was done so thoroughly that it probably made no difference.

Quinn, unlike Sonny, wasn't listening to their father at all. She just turned the car radio up. Sonny didn't care about that one way or the other, but their father chuntered on, unconsciously turning the radio off. It made no difference to Sonny, he didn't need the radio noise to screen things out, but on a sudden experimental impulse he leaned forward and turned it on again, loud. As his father turned it off again, he did seem temporarily disoriented, but that was his commonest state, so it was hard to draw a definitive causal connection.

Another feed line. 'People will warm up to you if you just give it a little time.'

That's advice that neither Quinn nor I needs, Sonny thought privately, as he responded innocently.'I'm sure there'll be people who'll want to make things warm for me. Hot, even.'

Once again, his father didn't get it, or didn't want to. Sonny, on the other hand, had no difficulty summing things up. On this journey he had, to keep in practice, completed a review of his self-inventory, the package that was being delivered to his new high school in Lawndale: physically unimpressive both natively and in presentation; no talent for sport and no opinion of it; no compunction about demonstrating that he was the smartest person in the room; fond of sarcastic wisecracks; contemptuous of the high-school popularity racket and indifferent at best to all group activity. As for the reception such a package could expect at any school, Sonny had an extensive database of records, but no doubt Lawndale High would have some novel unpleasantnesses for the researcher attentive to detail. He was in no hurry to find out.

Quinn, on the other hand, couldn't wait for the reception any school would hand out to somebody like her. She was first out of the car to accept the first round of homage from her new audience. Sonny paused to promise his father that he'd give her all the big-brotherly support she'd need before he slid out of the car. Another irony Jake Morgendorffer, Senior, wouldn't figure out. Instead, with Quinn out of earshot, he mumbled hastily, 'Listen, Sonny, on your first day, try not to … well, you know …'

'Yes, Dad, I do know, you know.' Of course he knew, there was no reassurance in that, but it should satisfy his father long enough for him to make his getaway. And once out of the car, it seemed that Quinn's penumbra would at least shroud the visuals of the first collision between Sonny and Lawndale High. You know would come round soon enough: he wasn't going to shape his life around avoiding it, but he wasn't exactly going to hurry towards it.

For Quinn, a new high school meant something different. Of course she'd hurry towards it.

Naturally, if you made the right kind of entrance, you could draw the attention of the fashionable and the popular right away, and that could be so important to your own popularity. Boys were starting to ask Quinn for dates already. Of course decisions about that could wait, and should wait. You couldn't choose a boyfriend right away. That would be like eating the first pancake off the stove. You had to give one to the dog. Boys would come and go, she'd date them and she'd break up with them. The first thing to do was figure out the girls she'd be dealing with, because she'd have to keep dealing with them. She picked up on at least one of them noticing Sonny sneaking past, hoping that nobody would pay any attention to him because they were all interested in Quinn. All she saw on the girl's face, though, was a quick summing-up: male, unpopular type, of no further interest. That would be what Sonny wanted, but Quinn was glad she'd picked out already at least one ally or rival who knew a thing or two. She, Quinn, already knew that she would have to be careful not to have people connecting her with Sonny. Why would they, though?

They did both have to go on the principal's tour of the school for new students. Quinn hoped they wouldn't be the only two.

Sonny noticed that Quinn was careful to show up for the new students' tour independently, preferring that they be just two separate parts of a random assortment of six or eight. After the predictable school spirit hype, the principal explained that they were each going to have an interview with the school psychologist, to ensure that they were like little ships properly fitted out for their high school voyage. Oh good, another feed line.

'Shouldn't you distribute charts showing the reefs and shoals and the markers of past wrecks?' The principal ignored him, but other members of the group edged away. 'I see some of you have already marked me down as one of them. Maybe there is intelligent life at high school after all.' Sonny noticed with satisfaction the face Quinn pulled. And the principal had noticed, too, even if she wasn't giving anything away: she directed Sonny to the psychologist first.

Like everybody else, psychologists are sometimes good at their job and sometimes not. It didn't take long into the interview for Sonny to decide that this would be an instance of 'not'. For one thing, she wanted to know whether 'Sonny' was what his friends called him. Did he look like the kind of person who had friends?

Next she asked him about a photograph she held up. 'I don't know those people', he said. They were a conventionally attractive teenage couple. 'They don't look like they're going to be my friends.'

The psychologist shook her head. 'You're not going to meet these people. I just want you to make up a story about what they're discussing.'

'Hm.' Sonny scratched behind his ear. 'They could be talking about the new students who've just started at their school. They could be wondering which one's going to get up on the roof with a sniper rifle and start shooting people at random.'

The psychologist blanched satisfactorily.

Passing Quinn on his way out of the room, Sonny said to her, because he knew she wouldn't like it, 'I hope you're not too worried about the test.' He savoured her protesting response until it was displaced from his mind in his first class.

One of the teacher's eyes throbbed with the most peculiar tic Sonny had ever seen. It looked as if it might burst out of the socket at any moment. That might get on Sick, Sad World! Imagining the television reporter interviewing him, Sonny started studying the teacher. He was obviously not a happy man the same way the Sahara is not wet. As soon as he'd got Sonny to introduce himself to the class, he began probing him, asking him a question about the doctrine of 'Manifest Destiny'.

Looking for targets, obviously. But what kind? Oh well, there's no real question about what the answer should be.

'Manifest Destiny was the doctrine that Americans are better than everybody else, and so they should take other people's land away from them to prove it.'

Although the history teacher (along with some of the other students, Sonny sensed grimly) plainly didn't like the answer, he didn't say it was wrong, which was interesting. So it wasn't stupidity which was making his life so unhappy, or at least not his own. It might be intelligence, though, and other people's stupidity, judging by his next choices of targets. The first, addressed by the teacher as Kevin, had to be a 'star' of the football team, given the teacher's reference to his potential to win the Heisman trophy (the teacher sounded aggrieved about the prospect). The second, addressed by the teacher as Brittany, mentioned, at a distressingly high pitch, that she was dating Kevin. Both of them sounded as if they had never learned a thing in class and were never going to. The teacher's tic intensified and he began threatening the class with double homework and a quiz if nobody volunteered to answer his question. Sonny felt a wave of unhappiness through the room. He sighed and raised his hand, but the teacher only berated him for showing off. Once again, students as well as the teacher were unhappy.

Damned if I do and damned if I don't. So what else is new? At least I know what to expect for the rest of the day—the rest of the year—the rest of high school.

Before he got home from school, events had confirmed for Sonny that his accustomed niche was available to him at his new school. Over dinner with the family, he learned that Quinn had found a carefully selected niche, too.

'There's a Fashion Club?' Sonny's shock was only feigned. 'Good to see how the school has figured its priorities.'

Sonny's parents hastily turned the conversation to his first day's experiences.

'The principal's a hype-artist, the school psychologist's a quack, and so far I know all the answers to the teachers' questions …'

'That's great!' said his father.

'… so nobody's happy with me.'

Sonny's mother sighed.

'Oh, Sonny, how many times have we talked about this!' She shook her head. 'You have to give people a chance!'

'I gave the students in my history class a chance to appreciate historical truth. One super-patriot took the chance to demonstrate how much he didn't like it. No bones broken, though.'

Sonny's mother gripped the edge of the table. 'Don't tell me you got into a fight on your first day! You know how much we hoped that moving here would give you a chance to break out of that pattern.'

'And you know that I don't "get into fights". I get beaten up. And I know the pattern inside out. Do you want me to show you the graphs again?'

The phone rang and his mother swerved to answer it. 'Hello … Helen Morgendorffer speaking … Yes, Sonny Morgendorffer … Yes, Jacob Morgendorffer, Junior, that's the one, we call him "Sonny" … I think these things often involve some sort of misunderstanding … I'm afraid I'm very busy at the moment … What? … What? … Oh, but surely … Oh, I see … Well, I wouldn't have any objection to that … So long as it's clearly understood that there'll be no record made of what are really unsubstantiated speculations … Thank you … And you'll confirm that in writing? … Thank you … Goodbye.'

Sonny had heard his mother's lawyerly side coming out during the phone conversation, but just because she was defending him to outsiders he didn't expect that she'd automatically take the same supportive attitude within the four walls of the family home. Whatever they'd called to talk to his parent about, something was up, and that meant probably something bad.

When she'd hung up, she said, 'Did you talk to a psychologist at school today?'

'They said we wouldn't be graded on that test!' Quinn burst out.

Sonny's mother looked at him, disregarding Quinn. 'Did you say something to the psychologist about shooting people?'

'I just got finished telling you that she's a quack', Sonny said, keeping any hint of irritation out of his voice.

'Yeah', said Sonny's father, 'I heard that!'

Sonny's mother sighed. 'Well, whatever you said, at least this school is paying attention and trying to do something. They want you to take a special after-school class to boost your self-esteem. I agreed. It might help.'

'You're not really going to shoot up the school, are you?' Quinn gave a nervous giggle. 'If my freak brother did anything like that, it could really hurt my popularity with my new friends.'

Sonny didn't know what Quinn was making such a fuss about. She always told people that he was her cousin or something, anyway. He answered her question by saying, 'Don't worry, nobody will blame you. After the SWAT team's taken me out, it'll turn out that it was just one of those hilarious sitcom misunderstandings.'

Jane Lane picked out the spot behind the new student with the smart mouth whom she had first noticed in her US History class, Sonny Morgendorffer. O'Neill hadn't seen her in that seat before, which would make it easier for him to forget yet again that she'd been through the course before, and there was something intriguing about the new student's look. He wore a figure-concealing outfit in muddy colours, almost aggressively non-descript. Now that she was seated behind him she saw that from the rear, with his unusually fine silky hair—was it auburn or chestnut?—he could easily be mistaken for a girl. He was certainly short and slight enough to pass: he was Jane's own height at the absolute most, without her runner's lankiness, and Jane wasn't tall compared to the other girls in the tenth grade, let alone the boys. He could be interesting to sketch. She could interpret his bulky coat and unisex boots as a suit of armour, with his big-framed glasses as the helmet visor. She wondered what he was doing in the self-esteem class—he'd had no trouble speaking up to DeMartino in history. He seemed to be sketching something himself, or doodling, and she craned forward to get a better look. Ah! He already had O'Neill pegged, judging by the picture of him with a piece of stinky cheese for the head. But then, why was he also taking notes? And why was he raising his hand to ask O'Neill a question? She had him figured for the cluey intellectual type. He should know that this self-esteem nonsense wasn't a real class, and that when O'Neill talked about 'realising your actuality' it had no meaning.

Jane decided to use this opportunity to make contact and leant forward again. As she did so she noticed that he gave the shadow of a flinch, as if he'd sensed her intrusion on his space and been disturbed by it. She realised that he'd done the same thing the first time she looked over his shoulder. She made a mental note of the visually interesting effect as she delivered her message to him.

'He doesn't know what it means. He's got the speech memorised. Relax and go with the flow.'

'How can I do that if it doesn't make any sense?' he said in a voice outstandingly lacking in tonal cues.

Jane could see that the whispering was making O'Neill skittish; well, more skittish. 'Let me fill you in later. I've taken this course six times.'

Jane was able to make good on her offer as they walked home together. Both on the same route. Handy.

'… and then the next class after that is for "gender-specific issues", so they segregate us.'

Sonny nodded. 'And I guess they talk to you about "body image" and that kind of thing. Maybe eating disorders as well.'

'After six repetitions I could give you a near-verbatim report if you wanted one. Obviously I can't do that for the other room …'

'… but it's not hard to guess the kind of thing. Actually, it wouldn't be a bad idea to talk to the boys about body image and eating disorders as well. Those things are turning out not to be quite as gender-specific as some people used to think. But I'm guessing this school isn't quite that progressive.'

'So you've met Ms Li', said Jane. 'The principal, I mean.'

'Yes, and the quack psychologist too. Never mind that for a moment. If you've memorised the whole course, why don't you just pass the test and get out?'

'I like having low self-esteem. It makes me feel special.'

Their sidelong glances met and they walked on in a companionable silence.

The very next day after first meeting, Jane and Sonny had fallen into the habit of walking between classes together when they had the same ones. Jane noticed again, as she had in self-esteem class and walking home together, his subtle sensitivity to some kinds of intrusion on his visual field.

While Sonny might have the characteristics that drew the eye of an artist, Jane knew it was somebody else that most of the rest of the school was looking at, even if this other new student was only in the ninth grade. Within the general prescriptions of popular people's fashion she did show some potential flair for a style of her own, and her striking bouncy shiny long red hair, like everything else about her appearance, was obviously a combination of natural luck and careful grooming. That same first day together Jane and Sonny walked by as the girl was leaning against a locker talking with some unfortunate male she'd hooked and was reeling in to be gaffed, describing as she did so the expensive favours she liked boys to do for her. Jane pointed this out to Sonny, and he said that the girl was his sister. His voice didn't give much away, but Jane didn't think he sounded like a big brother sticking up for his little sister. He sounded like another kind of big brother. She felt sorry for him, but didn't want to say too much.

'Oh. Bummer.'

Just at that moment, the boy was asking Sonny's sister whether she had any brothers or sisters, and she was telling him that she was an only child. Jane would have expected Sonny to show some response. The change on his face was detectable only to the close observer.

At the second afternoon self-esteem class, Sonny took the seat next to Jane Lane and they collaborated on a drawing which they handed back and forth. This time Mr O'Neill was transmogrified into an ice cream and attacked by wild animals. The only interruption was when Sonny had to answer a challenge from O'Neill to think of a daydream he could make come true when he went home. Sonny suggested (to O'Neill's approval) getting his whole family to do something together, then added 'something they'd really hate'. O'Neill twitched beautifully. Jane congratulated Sonny.

Walking home together again, Sonny said to Jane, 'I'm not collaborating with you on any more art. I can pass my art classes well enough, but I know when I'm out of my league.'

'Is that your low self-esteem speaking, or is this a sneaky attempt to raise my self-esteem?'

'It shows what low esteem you hold me in that you should even canvass the possibility. I'm hoping you'll collaborate with me on something else. Do you still have all the answers to the self-esteem graduation test? I have to get out of the class.'

'Is O'Neill lowering your self-esteem to his own level?' Jane wisecracked.

'I can cope with people trying to beat down my self-esteem. With a sister like Quinn I'm used to that. The problem is that when I got home from the first class, my father had taken the afternoon off to see whether there was any contribution he could make to remedying my "condition". And his idea of a fun afternoon of father-son bonding was to take me to the park and throw a football around.'

Jane made a gesture of amusement. 'And this is a man who's known you all your life?'

'I tried to tell him that amateur meddling was a bad idea while I'm in the care of experts …'

Jane was even more amused. 'And yet your nose has grown no longer.'

'If my mother isn't satisfied with my father's performance—and when is she ever?—she might take over herself. For parent-teacher conferences she generally gets her office assistant to substitute for her at the last minute, but this time I don't think I can rely on that. No, there's only one thing for it—graduating from the self-esteem class. So, will you be my collaborator?'

'You want me to help you corrupt the process?'

Sonny gave a curt nod.

'What's my inducement?' asked Jane.

'The quiet satisfaction of a job well done.'

'You certainly know how to tempt a girl …'

Sonny let himself dangle.

'… I'll offer you a deal', Jane went on. 'One of the things about self-esteem class is that sometimes things in it, like some of the students, inspire my artworks—and I don't just mean cartoons of O'Neill. If I graduated from it I'd be cut off from that. But on the other hand, if we both graduate, I could use my afternoons to do sketches of you. That's my price. You sit for your portrait.'

'You drive a hard bargain.' Sonny's face and voice were as flat as ever, giving nothing away.

'And …?'

'And what? That's it, you drive a hard bargain. Don't let it boost your self-esteem too much.' Sonny scratched behind his ear. 'Now I have to hurry to complete O'Neill's homework assignment, because once I've graduated from the class I won't have that excuse to use against my family any more, and I'm looking forward to the expressions on their faces.'

'I like the way you think.'

'There's a kids' restaurant where staff dressed in animal costumes get you to sing along with them. We used to go there when Quinn was younger. Then she liked it, but now?'

Jane raised an eyebrow. 'Sounds like a scene I'd want to paint.'

'Why don't I get them to invite you? I can tell them your friendship is important to my self-esteem.'

'Okay, but this doesn't get you off the hook for sitting for your portrait. The only thing is, I have to be home from dinner in time to watch Sick, Sad World.'

Sonny nodded. 'I never miss it.'

'We could watch it together and I could give you the answers to the test at the same time.'

'That sounds like an efficient arrangement.'

'I wish I'd seen this before', Sonny said.

'I thought you said you never missed Sick, Sad World? Or are you talking about my room?'

'I never miss the show, but I haven't seen them covering UFO conventions before. "Once the domain of kooks, but now big business." What you call a false contrast.'

'You enjoy those?'

'Well, yes, but mostly I was thinking about the expressions on my family's faces if they were forced to go to one', said Sonny. 'That would be even better than the expressions on their faces when we were singing along to Row, Row, Row Your Boat at the restaurant. By the way, thanks for backing my play.'

Jane shrugged. 'Well, I figured I owed you one in exchange for the invitation. Your family's expressions were more than worth the price of admission. Your sister wanted the earth to open and swallow her.'

'Exactly. Now imagine if I'd got them to take us on a family outing to a UFO convention as my necessary self-esteem booster. I'll lose that excuse once I've graduated from the course.'

'Pity. I'm getting all sorts of ideas about painting your family.'

'Maybe it could still work.' Sonny scratched behind his ear. 'Will you back another play for me? If we graduate from self-esteem class, I could suggest an outing as a celebration, hint that if we don't my self-esteem might wobble, and insist on a UFO convention because my new friend Jane loves them so much.'

'You know, there is a family connection between you and your sister.'

Sonny's expression and voice flattened further, if possible. 'I hate you.'

'Hey, I call 'em like I see 'em', said Jane. 'Looks to me like you and Quinn picked up the same manipulation skills. But relax. Now you've got me on your side. So let's ace that test and then next stop the UFO convention.'

'I'm not going to wake up suddenly, am I', Sonny whispered to Jane.

'I'm afraid I can't tell you that it's one of my nightmares. No pink taffeta.'

They were seated on the stage at the school assembly as Ms Li announced the success of the latest school fund-raiser.

'And I'm sure the money that was stolen from the office will be recovered', Jane whispered to Sonny.

'As soon as the school nurse collects the DNA samples.'

'And to think you've only known Ms Li for a week.'

Now Mr O'Neill was at the microphone making his announcement. '… two students who have completed our after-school self-esteem course faster than anybody ever before! Please join me in congratulations as I present these certificates of self-esteem to Sonny Morgendorffer and Jane Lane.'

Seven people clapped. Look, Dad, people are warming up to me. And there's Mr Super-Patriot from history whispering something to a friend, and his friend's scowling. Yes, it's going to be warm for me all right. Sonny gave a gentle rub to a tender spot on his side.

Jane shrugged, and whispered out of the corner of her mouth to Sonny: 'I wish you had brought that sniper rifle to school. You could give me covering fire. Oh well, I'm going in.' Then she stepped to the podium as the clapping died and began telling the audience about how proud she was, knowing that she had self-esteem, which gave her even more self-esteem. Her eyes and the corner of her mouth flicked for a bare instant towards Sonny before she started to ham it up, provoking chuckles from the audience.

'… but having all of you know that I had low self-esteem makes me feel kind of bad … like a big failure or something.'

Knowing that nobody was looking at him, Sonny pursed his lips in approval as Jane sobbed and buried her face in her arms, making a muffled plea to go home, and then bolted from the stage, with the audience bursting into laughter as O'Neill pursued her, calling, 'Sunny! Wait!'

Sonny's expression was blank again as he stepped solemnly to the podium. 'To battle the terrible problem of low self-esteem I have learnt to realise my actuality. I have learnt that nobody else is like me, and that me is who I am. But the more of these lessons I was taught in class, the more I realised that the perfect example had been in front of me all along. What helped me above all to conquer low self-esteem was a person who stands proudly and proclaims "I am" better than anybody I know, my very own sister Quinn Morgendorffer. Stand up, sis, and accept my thanks.'

Sonny could see the boys next to Quinn switching from preening for her approval to cross-examination about this unexpected revelation. Quinn cringed. She'll be an only child again before she knows it. She doesn't realise that almost nobody was listening and most of the few who were will forget almost immediately. At least she's hating it now.

Sonny's public thanking of Quinn got him one additional reward on top of Quinn's displeasure, by playing into the plan he'd already made. His parents were pleased to hear the story, and Sonny's mother thought that they should thank him, for his 'achievement' in 'graduating' early from self-esteem 'school'. That gave Sonny the opening he was looking for.

'Now that you mention it, there is something …'

In the Morgendorffers' car, on the way to the convention, Jane pretended to be making conversation. 'You know, Mr and Mrs Morgendorffer, I've never met anybody called "Sonny" before.'

'He's actually named after his father. They're Jacob Morgendorffer, Senior, and Jacob Morgendorffer, Junior. We think "Sonny" sounds nicer than "Junior".'

Sonny said, 'My self-esteem teacher thought that being named as an extension of my father and then dubbed with a childish nickname could have been one source of my problems.'

'Oh no! Did he really say that?' Sonny's father's head reflexively swivelled towards Sonny and the car swerved wildly.

'Watch the road, Jake!' said Sonny's mother.

'No, Dad, he didn't really say that.' Sonny's tone still gave nothing away.

His father laughed. 'Isn't my son great! He's the greatest.'

Jane decided to lay it on with a trowel. 'Oh, Mr Morgendorffer, you and Mrs Morgendorffer are the greatest, the way you support his self-esteem. And taking me with you to the UFO convention, too. I'm so looking forward to it. Especially when we get a group photograph taken with the cardboard alien.'

Sonny's mother and sister both winced. Quinn opened her mouth, but her mother signalled her to be silent.

Unperceived, Jane winked at Sonny. Sonny winked back.

Some dialogue from 'Esteemsters' by Glenn Eichler