I could hear my family gathering around the breakfast table. I was late again. I forced myself to go down the stairs and take my seat at the table. Of course everyone looked up when I came into the kitchen. My five-year-old brother announced in a loud voice, “Hey! You’re late, Karen!”
I sighed heavily, tried not to grimace, and I bent my head to my plate to eat my waffle. I wished I were somewhere else. I wanted to be part of the in-crowd at school—the bunch of girls and athletes that all school life seemed to revolve around. I especially wanted to be accepted by Amy James * and her friends. I felt tired of my family, and I was especially tired of Dad’s What-If jar.
Dad reached for his What-If jar that sat in the middle of the table and held it up where we could all see the folded slips of paper inside. On each slip was a question. The drill was that after the question was read, each family member told how he or she would react in such a situation. Yesterday’s question had been, “What if you are riding in a car, and your best friend is driving too fast?”
Dad held out the jar for Ben to choose the question of the day. I sighed again. Dad’s What-If questions seemed like predictable situations that would never really happen. I put down my fork and listened to my nine-year-old brother read the question he had drawn.
“What if you are in the bathroom at school, and someone you really want to be friends with asks you to smoke pot?” Ben read.
When Dad called on me to answer it, I thought about it and said, “No, thanks. I choose not to.”
“Don’t forget to smile,” Dad reminded me.
I smiled, but my face felt stiff.
I thought about the What-If question most of the way to school. I was still thinking about it when I entered the lunch room at noon. I looked around for my friends from seminary and set my stuff at their table.
My eyes slid over to the table where Amy James and her friends were clustered together, laughing and talking. These were the girls with the newest clothes who dated the coolest athletes in the school. I wished I were cool like them and could be a part of their group.
“Hey, Karen!” my friend Joanie said as she rapped her knuckles on the table in front of me. “Anybody home?”
“What?” I looked up to see my seminary friends looking at me.
“You’re not tuned in, Karen,” another friend, Spencer, said. “Worried about the calculus test?”
I shook my head and looked once more at Amy’s table, hoping she’d look at me and wave.
“Sorry guys,” I apologized, forcing myself to turn my attention to my friends. “I was thinking of something else.”
After lunch I had one free period to study before the calculus test. Before finding a quiet place to study, I stopped by the bathroom to check my hair. I pushed open the door and heard loud talking and laughing. A faint odor of smoke floated in the air. I stepped up to the nearest mirror and saw Amy James and her friends’ faces reflecting back at me. I wondered why they looked so uneasy when our eyes met. Immediately they stopped talking.
I noticed that Amy had a small marijuana cigarette between her lips. She focused her eyes on me and blew out smoke; then she held out the cigarette towards me.
Time sped like a tape measure closing together with a snap. All at once I understood what was happening. I was being offered a joint by these “cool” girls, the ones I thought I wanted to be friends with. I just stood there, frozen.
“C’mon, Karen,” invited Amy, pushing the joint closer to my face. “Have some.” Amy half-turned to the other girls. “Let’s ask Karen to our party Saturday night!”
Her friend Lisa nodded. “For sure, Karen. You’ll have a great time. My folks have promised not to be home.” The three girls laughed loudly, as if Lisa had said something hilarious.
I finger-combed my hair and carefully picked up my books. I turned to face the girls I had thought were so cool. For a minute a sour taste filled my mouth as I realized how dumb I had been. I couldn’t believe I had ever wanted to hang out with these girls. As I looked at the expectant grins on their faces, hoping to involve me in their smoking, I thought about my friends from seminary who had the same goals I wanted to have.
Then I remembered my answer to that morning’s What-If question. I smiled at Amy and her friends, just like Dad had told me, and then in a breezy, firm tone of voice I said, “No thanks. I choose not to.”
I carefully set one foot in front of the other and exited the bathroom. No one called me back. I stepped into the hall feeling lighter and better and smarter than I had felt in a long time.