One day, when Junior leaves class to use the bathroom, he hears someone vomiting violently in the girls’ bathroom next door. Worried that someone is severely ill, Junior knocks on the door and asks if the person is okay, but she yells at him to go away. Even so, for reasons he isn’t quite sure of, he decides to wait in the hall for the person to come out so that he’ll know she’s all right.
Junior’s decision to check on the person in the girls’ bathroom and then to wait for her even after she’s said to go away illustrates two of his key character traits: caring and persistence.
The vomiter turns out to be Penelope, who comes out of the bathroom clearly trying to hide what she’s done by chewing a piece of cinnamon gum. When she asks what Junior is looking at, he says he’s looking at an anorexic. Penelope says haughtily that she’s not anorexic, she’s bulimic, and only when she’s throwing up—which reminds Junior of the way his dad says he’s only an alcoholic when he’s drunk.
Penelope, like Junior’s dad, is still in denial about her addiction. At the same time, though, their insistence that they don’t really have problems is an interesting way of refusing to let those problems define them. Penelope wants to see bulimia as something she does, rather than something she is, as Junior’s formulation (“I’m looking at an anorexic”) seems to suggest.
Junior reflects that Penelope’s purging and his dad’s drinking are both forms of addiction—that everyone has pain, and that these two self-destructive acts are both ways of trying to make the pain go away. Remembering what he always tells his dad when he is drunk and depressed, Junior tells Penelope, “Don’t give up.” Penelope begins to cry and confess how lonely and scared she is, despite being pretty and smart and popular (her mention of these three attributes makes Junior think she has an ego).
Junior’s reaction to learning about Penelope’s eating disorder (and experiencing his dad’s alcoholism) is compassionate and forgiving, and seeing that compassion is what leads Penelope to trust him further. However, it’s a mark of Junior’s immaturity that he’s unable to reconcile Penelope’s awareness of her own positive traits with her sense of fear and loneliness. Once again, overcoming this binary way of thinking will be part of Junior’s coming of age.
Junior finds all of this sexy, including Penelope’s ego and her cinnamon-vomit breath. He understands for the first time why love and lust could make his sister move to Montana for a guy she just met. With Mary’s romance novels in mind, he draws a book whose cover illustration shows him kissing the crying Penelope—a scene that feels like the beginning of a romance to Junior, even though the cartoon says it’s only “one boy’s fantasy.”
The humor of this scene comes from another set of overlapping opposites: sexiness and cinnamon-vomit breath. The cartoon is an interesting narrative device—by leaving what happens in the hallway ambiguous, it protects Junior and Penelope’s privacy in an intimate moment (of confession or anything else), while also inserting Junior’s fantasy into the real-life storyline, blurring the line between Junior’s fictional dream world and his reality.
Over the next few weeks, Junior and Penelope become “the hot item at Reardan High School—not exactly a romantic couple [but] more like friends with potential.” Their murkily defined relationship shocks their classmates because while Penelope is popular, Junior is the new kid, a stranger to everyone, and the only Indian in the school. Meanwhile, Penelope’s father, Earl, is a racist who declares Penelope is only dating Junior to piss him, Earl, off and that he will disown Penelope if Junior gets her pregnant. Junior suspects Penelope of being bored with her role of perfect, popular girl and really is using him to defy her father, but he admits that his becoming more popular through her makes the relationship beneficial for him too. What’s more, he thinks Penelope likes him because he’s different from everyone else: “an exciting addition to the Reardan gene pool.”
Junior and Penelope, like Junior and Rowdy, have opposite identities within the high school hierarchy. As it turns out, however, their differences complement each other and contribute to the strength of their friendship. Earl explicitly gives voice to racism—it’s not only an institutional barrier to Indians’ success, but sometimes also an interpersonal hatred. Junior’s explanation of why Penelope likes him recalls—and directly contradicts—the advice he once imagined Rowdy giving him, that he’d have to change how he looks and talks and walks to have a chance with her. For the first time, Junior sees his outsider status as an advantage.
Besides this, talking with Penelope makes Junior realize that they have more important things in common. At first, Junior makes fun of Penelope’s “big goofy dreams” and dramatic way of speaking—she says she’s so ready to leave her hometown that she was “born with a suitcase” and that she wants to travel around the world to see “every single piece of everything.” He tells her it’s hard to take her seriously when she’s talking about things that aren’t real.
Penelope’s declaration that she was “born with a suitcase” recalls some of Junior’s earlier statements, like that he was “born with water on the brain” and Rowdy was “born mad.” This time, however, Junior sees such a reductive self-definition as childish. With his strong sense of real-world practicality (something Penelope lacks, partly because of her relatively privileged background) he also pushes back on the vagueness of her aspirations. Though his dismissal of extreme dreams might seem hypocritical because of his own ambition, he’s actually judging Penelope for not dreaming with enough conviction and practicality.
However, Junior admires Penelope’s more specific dream of going to Stanford to study architecture: her desire “to build something beautiful [and] be remembered” matches his own. As an Indian boy and a small-town girl, they aren’t expected to dream big or achieve very much, but they both want to go beyond the limitations they were born into.
Junior has more respect for Penelope’s dream that’s a plan of action: Stanford is still aiming high, but it’s more within reach than “every single piece of everything.” Junior is moving toward a definition of identity that is more about what people do in their lives than the way they were born.
While Junior points out to Penelope that she won’t get to travel very far if she doesn’t eat enough, he doesn’t act very definitively toward helping her overcome her eating disorder, noting, “She was in pain and I loved her, sort of loved her, I guess, so I kind of had to love her pain too.” Mostly, he just loves to look at her, and includes a sketch of Penelope wearing Earl’s old hat to show how beautiful she is.
Embracing Penelope’s pain is another example of forgiveness and acceptance. In some ways, however, Junior’s infatuation with Penelope—sexy vomit breath and all—prevents him from fully understanding her as a person who needs help. Meanwhile, drawing Penelope in her racist father’s old hat shows Junior’s growing understanding of people’s complexity. She is beautiful to him even in the context of her father’s decidedly ugly views.