We told everyone it stood for "Total Geek Immersion Module." We knew if we gave them a name they could ridicule, no one would ever think to question it.
We never let any outsiders know the real name of our club. We already wasted enough mental energy hiding the bruises our parents gave us on the weekends. We didn't need any more gratuitous beatings from the brain-dead hung-over jocks at school.
We'd all felt so alone, for as long as we could remember. It seemed everyone else lived in happy homes, like on television. None of us knew what we'd done to deserve the horror of our weekends. Something terrible in a past life, maybe. That's what we speculated after we learned about reincarnation.
Buford was the first one to shoot a hole in that theory. The three of us must have done something right in our past lives, because we'd been allowed to find each other. Buford always was smarter than his name would make you think. To this day, I'm still sure that damn name was the only reason he got such bad grades in most of his classes. If it hadn't been for Mr. Carter, he would have had rotten grades in every class. Sticking him with that name was his parents' first way of showing him how much they wished they could afford a black market abortion. They found lots of other ways later.
Jolene never could let go of the reincarnation idea. I like to think she eventually stopped believing she deserved what her uncles and her father did to her, but she always held on to the hope of rebirth. She needed to believe she would get another chance at the happiness this life can offer to people born on the luckier side of the tracks.
She was always amazing to watch, from the very first day of school in the fall, and got more amazing every week. Nobody believed anyone could be so happy it was Monday. Later on, Buford figured out part of the reason. When she shared the truth with him and me, we finally understood. We named our secret club in her honor.
Most of the other kids could sense the insecurity Jolene tried to hide underneath her perkiness. Like any other pack of scavengers, they ripped into her with no mercy. "Too bad you're not as pretty as your name!" was one of their favorite taunts. She never fought back and never showed any pain. Those were the lessons her family taught her above all others. We never guessed how much the other kids were hurting her until after we formed our club.
For me, being in the TGIM club was pure dumb luck. My parents lived next door to Buford's. He figured out the similarities between his situation and mine just a few weeks before he figured out what was up with Jolene. Nobody can keep a secret for long in a small town, but kids take longer to catch on to some things. Without Buford, I might have been out of high school before I learned anyone else had parents who got drunk and pounded on their kids almost every weekend.
For the first few years after we met, our club didn't help us all that much. It helped us survive, and that was about it. Even put together, my luck, Buford's brains, and Jolene's joy just weren't enough to do much more. It wasn't until high school that we got what we really needed: a protector.
Mr. Carter was the newest teacher at the school, still full of ideas about "molding the character of the nation's future leaders." All the others spent more time thinking about how to hold on until they qualified for their pensions.
It was Buford that Mr. Carter noticed first. Any teacher with an open mind could have seen Buford was no dummy, but Mr. Carter was the first one of those we'd met. One day he kept Buford after school, and they talked for a long time. When it was over, they'd both talked each other into something new and risky.
I still don't know how he did it, but Mr. Carter managed to set up an advanced after school program just for Buford, Jolene, and me. Including all three of us was the condition Buford set on the idea. Even more amazing, Mr. Carter somehow persuaded all our parents to go along with this.
That was the year all three of us really started to mean it when we said "Thank God It's Monday." Before that, Buford and I always said it just because we were both glad to see Jolene. Now we all really meant it.
The rest of high school was still hell, of course. In some ways it got worse. The other kids took every opportunity to punish us for daring to stand out and above them. The time we had together, and away from our families, made it all worth it.
With help from correspondence courses (which, looking back, I think Mr. Carter must have paid for out of his own pocket), Buford leaped ahead with advanced math and science courses. Jolene started with perspective drawing and then branched out into painting, sculpture, and more advanced art work. I concentrated on literature and writing. We all started to get better grades in all our classes.
By the beginning of senior year, Mr. Carter was helping us plan how to apply for college admissions and scholarships with the absolute minimum participation from our parents. We never told him everything, but he could see for himself that none of our families had our best interests at heart.
That was the year my luck ran out, and I made the biggest mistake of my life.
The three of us had all been planning to attend the same college, or if we had to, different colleges that were close to each other (and far, far away from home -- that part almost goes without saying). What happened was all my fault, but I never ever planned for it to happen.
One day, while Buford was busy with a correspondence exam, I was helping Jolene decide which paintings to include in a portfolio for one of her college applications. One of them really caught my eye. It was a portrait of a strikingly attractive young woman.
"Beautiful!" I heard myself saying. "Who is it?"
When she didn't answer, I looked up from the painting. There was an expression on her face I'd never seen before, and she was blushing. I started to speak again, but just then something clicked in my mind. I looked at the painting again, then back at her. It was a self-portrait.
It was my turn to blush. I should have seen it right away. The portrait was painted with flattering angles and lighting; with clothes more stylish and better fitting than anything Jolene could afford in real life; with the subtle improvements of makeup, which her family never let her wear. But none of that was any excuse. None of what she had painted was a lie.
For years, Jolene had been growing up into this beauty, but I'd never noticed it until this very moment, and now my clumsiness rubbed her face in that fact. I fumbled for words, finding none that could undo the damage. She stopped me before I got past "I'm sorry."
"It's all right," she said. "Don't worry about it." Then she started to laugh, and just kept going. "You should see the look on your face!" she gasped.
It didn't take long before I was laughing too. This was the Jolene I knew, taking the pain and making joy from it.
But nothing was the same after that. I'd never been the sharpest knife in the drawer. Now that my eyes were opened, I started to see all sorts of things, things I wasn't prepared to handle. Some of them were inside me.
I knew it was a foolish thing to do, even as I rushed headlong into it. I fell in love with Jolene. The friendship we'd shared for so many years didn't stop me from doing it. It only stopped me from telling her. She knew anyway.
The other thing that stopped me from telling her was my friendship with Buford. Once my eyes were opened, I was stunned at how blind I'd been. They were both head over heels, and for them it was mutual.
I tried to hide my envy from him, but it was no use. It took him no time at all to notice something had changed, and not much more time than that to figure out what it was. That was when the curse from our family backgrounds kicked into play.
None of us had ever been able to trust the people who claimed to love us. Suddenly all the things we did together as friends were thrown into a new and sinister light. I could see it most of all in his eyes. The way they narrowed when I helped Jolene proofread an application essay, and we both laughed at some funny little mistake. That told me what I had to do.
Buford could see that I was deeply in love with Jolene. He could see that plain as day, but the senses he inherited from his parents weren't attuned to see the rest of the story. He couldn't see that I would never do anything to hurt him. He couldn't even see that Jolene would never do anything to hurt him. He'd never be able to trust either of us to be around the other. The three of us had become too much like family to each other.
I had to leave. I had to do it without even saying goodbye. It was the only chance for at least two of us to find happiness. I couldn't guarantee they'd find happiness together without me, of course. Something else might go wrong for them. All I could do was make sure I wasn't the thing that went wrong.
My life hasn't been easy since then. Dropping out of high school put an end to most of my hopes for scholarships to college. I ended up having to work a lot harder for a lot longer to get my higher education. I never regret my decision, though. Not for one minute.
Sure, I've been depressed many times since then. Sometimes I think about trying to reach Mr. Carter and find out how things worked out for Buford and Jolene, but I always get this feeling that I better not. Maybe they're happy together, and hearing from me might ruin that for them. Or maybe they're not, and learning that for sure might destroy me.
I'm in night school now, getting close to finishing up my undergraduate degree. I have to work weekends to pay for it. It's still better than the weekends my parents used to put me through, but I get more tired of it every year. I'm not getting any younger.
Every time I sit down in class again after a long weekend at work, no matter how tired I am, I can always revive my enthusiasm with a quick silent prayer. My professors seem to appreciate the results, even though I've never told any of them what it is I'm saying to myself under my breath.
"Thank God It's Monday."