The Jennie Hackman Memorial Prize for Fiction, Third Place (2017)
I don’t take the school bus, I don’t drive, and because mom doesn’t get home from work until four most of the time, I don’t ask her for a ride. But if I take the 509 toward Whitney Avenue at 6:15, I usually get to school before most of the students I want to avoid. Other than the smell of piss and the several little Spanish women pestering me to give them cans for their oversized trash bags, the 509 isn’t such a bad bus ride once you get used to it. There’s even this spot on the corner of Benson and Smith where you can catch the sunrise as the bus idles. It’s brief on clear mornings, but pretty. The sun crawls over the lids of the bigger buildings on the eastside, and everything comes into light, like color is being reborn into the world.
I didn’t take the 509 to school today.
Dad’s been living with us for over three weeks — a new record for him — but I still get freaked out every time I come downstairs for breakfast and find his old, phantom ass sitting at the kitchen table. His comb over ruffled, his mustache frayed. When he and mom aren’t fucking, they’re usually fighting, and when they’re not fucking or fighting, he just always seems to be there, at that table, reading whatever terrors made the front page of the newspaper, highlighting them with a green marker. I don’t ask. There’s usually a cup of coffee in whichever of his hands has the dragon tattoo on it.
I’d done a decent job of playing the whole “can’t talk, got to catch the bus” card this week, but today he was in rare form.
He put the newspaper down when I reached the bottom step of the staircase. “Hey boy!” he twanged, and popped up. The lights were off in the kitchen, but I could see just enough of him to know he was sweating: grey patches of moisture all over his wife beater.
“How bout a ride to school?”
“The hell you mean, really?” he asked. “Yeah, be like old times. Fore’ your balls dropped and you decided you hated me so much.” He brought the coffee mug to his face; etched beside the dragon tattoo was a star with mom’s name on it — probably the only reason he’d been let back in the house this time. He pulled his car keys from his pocket and jingled them: “What do you say?”
We got into his Dodge; it smelled like beef jerky and body odor. A picture of mom had been taped to its peeling dashboard. She was holding a baby (me) and looked exhausted, but in her own defeated way, beautiful. I’d never seen this photo before. When he caught me staring at it, he didn’t say anything, only shoved the key into the ignition and started the engine.
“Jesus, it’s a motherfucker out here,” he said and clicked on the air conditioning. “Your mom says May’s not usually this hot.”
“It’s not,” I said.
“It’s somethin’ else.” He pulled a handkerchief from the glove compartment and wiped the side of his face with it. “So how you been?”
“Just good, huh? Your mom says you’re graduating soon, headed off to — what’s that school? California U?”
“Yeah, that’s it. That’s really somethin’, you know?” He rolled toward the end of the driveway, checked the road, and pulled left. I didn’t tell him which direction to head in.
“You got your mom’s brains. Boy that’s for sure.” He wiped his face again. “But that’s really somethin’.”
“Thanks,” I said and looked out the window. Small city houses with tiny, unkempt lawns passed in grey, the air between was them hot and humid. Crumpled newspapers danced like ash across the asphalt when we drove past them. The half-dressed risen waited for their dogs to finish shitting on the sidewalk so they could go back to bed; traffic lights blinked an inoperative yellow. It was clear the sun had more work to do if it was ever going to rise above this city. The air coming out of the AC vent was cool. It smelled like the inside of a vacuum.
“So, I’m sure a smart boy like yourself has a lot to say about all this stuff that’s happened with Korea?”
“I don’t know. It’s—”
“You don’t know?” We were at stop sign, no cars around. “You better know.” He shoved the handkerchief back in the glove compartment and stared at me. His eyes were circled by little grafts of grey skin. “Shit. This is going to be your country one day, boy. Real soon. Gotta start paying attention.” He tapped the side of his head with his pointer finger.
“I just think that—”
“You got all these overstressed people going to the hospitals, these campus riots… the protests n’ shit.” He cracked his window and spat through the opening. “And that governor’s kid who got shot for hauling a Molotov cocktail at a state trooper. You hear about that? All over the news. You know I thought of you when I saw that?”
“But that was never—”
“I think it had to be done, though — Korea and all. Everyone’s upset about the— what’re they calling em?” He closed his eyes, tried to remember. I watched the road. “The aftermath photos!” he said, snapping fingers. “But people forget about all the damn aerial shots of the Uranium. Compounds — warehouses full of the stuff, and these big rigs moving it back and forth: a real operation. Like we wouldn’t notice. You know drones, right?”
“Yes, I know what a drone is.”
“Little planes got these pics. Containment units everywhere. Rockets, too. Big fuckers. That’s what everyone’s forgetting. The threat.”
He finally pressed the gas and we were moving again. The streets filled with more vehicles: city buses, school buses, taxis, early morning commuters combating the fatigue with caffeine, trying to get to their jobs for another day of whatever their life’s work was.
“I saw them, but I don’t think those pictures were ever confirmed to be—”
“Confirmed, my ass!” He beeped the horn at a van for cutting us off. “It’s all on Army-Of-Ares.com. I know the guys who run the site: ex-CIA. Got all this intel about what’s really going on. That’s all the confirmation I need.” His voice was sharp. He brought the dragon fist to his chin and cracked his neck as if it were a knuckle, emitting a string of clicks. The sun came up behind us — its light moved past the hood of the car and covered the parts of road that were still grey. I thought of the 509, the women with their oversized trash bags.
He’d remembered to take a left on to Byron Avenue to avoid the bridge traffic. I was surprised, because the last time he drove me to school had been about three years ago. I would have commended him for his memory if I thought he could take a compliment, if such praise wouldn’t jack up his ego, or if his response, whatever it was, wasn’t so apt to take the form of a lecture.
Then again, I could’ve went to war with the man, just the two of us in the front seat of his Dodge. I could have contended every one of his misshapen facts, all of his misunderstood politics. I could have undercut his sources, railed against his faith in the propaganda until he had nothing left to say. But I was smarter than that. His defeat would’ve resulted my being told to get the fuck out of the car and walk your ass the rest of the way to school! And you don’t make it as far as I have in high school by engaging in battles you cannot win. I was old enough to stop being afraid of him, but I wasn’t dumb enough to defy him. Instead, I just sat in silence, letting the AC muffle the space between us.
“Hey,” he said, his voice softer than before. “That’s just your old man ranting. You know? I get caught up and… but I’m trying here.”
“It’s fine,” I said.
“You too cold? I can turn down the AC if you want.”
“Okay… So how’s school?”
“Less than a week left.”
“Oh… Well, how the ladies treating you?”
“They won’t leave me alone.”
“Yeah?” he perked up. “Damn boy. That’s—”
“Somethin’” I said, smiling. “They keep asking me to fill their bags with my can. You know? I get tired of turning them away all the time.”
“Yeah?” he asked, puzzled. “Well that’s, um…” he scratched his chin — flakes fell and were blown by the AC into the back seat.
“Yeah,” he said again.
We neared the school. Mostly empty lots. He had remembered which lane was for student drop off and pulled into it.
“Thanks for the ride.”
“Welcome, Phil. Welcome.”
My routine entailed arriving an hour before first period. Being this early guaranteed I’d be able to perform my morning rituals in solitude, unbothered, and without social obstruction (bullying) of any kind.
I rounded a corner, passed several of the “Kindness Month for Korea (Part of the Pro-Emotion Campaign)” banners hung up around the library, and discovered her, Constance. She was taping an oversized letter onto the wall with one hand and holding a black dispenser with the other. I stopped and watched. She was wearing a green dress with sunflowers on it, decorating a bulletin board outside the attendance office. The secretary, a squawking voice, was directing her from inside the office: “No dear, to the left. It’s crooked right there.”
“Oh, alright.” Constance was balanced on a chair, angling the paper letters accordingly.
“Not like that either,” the secretary said. “See, it’s still tilted.”
This was Constance Golden. A gorgeous girl in a green dress: the only thing standing between me and my locker in F wing, a barrier with breasts and a beautiful smile.
Her blonde hair, shimmering and slack around her shoulders, was damp from her morning shower. I found myself picturing it — the hot water, steaming and streaming over bare skin, suds, tan lines, open pores, wet contours. I was hard.
I checked to see if anyone was around — nothing — and I swatted my dick out of instinct, as it were some misbehaving pet.
“Fuck!” I yelled, not realizing how much it would hurt.
“Fuck,” I heard. An echo. Not mine.
Constance, down the hall, bent over, holding her hand, its blood dripping onto the linoleum floor.
“What is it, sweetie?” the secretary asked.
“I’m bleeding. I cut myself on the tape dispenser when—”
“Oh come in here, let me see.”
Constance walked into the office. I moved, still hard, tip-toeing past the bulletin board.
“That’s not so bad.” The secretary, a woman in a striped blouse and round glasses, examined Constance’s hand. “I’ll see if I have a bandage around here. If not, I’ll send you to the nurse. I hope she’s here this early.”
Constance’s blood was on the chair. It was part of the trail of red that led from the bulletin board to the office doorway. I hopped over the dots quietly. Without thinking, I unzipped my backpack, pulled out my first aid — something mom put in there freshmen year — and placed it on the chair.
I continued down the hall, toward my locker, unbothered, but still hard.
It was said that Constance Golden never missed a day of high school; that she, being the exemplary student she was, with her 3.992 GPA and lifelong allegiance to Spencerian script, had shown up on time for, and completed, a total of seven hundred and seven consecutive calendar school days over the last four years. She was now, with three days left in the school year, tied with Joe Shu, class of 1989 valedictorian, for the all-time attendance record. Most students knew this, but few believed it.
It was also said that Constance Golden was a direct descendant of Helen of Troy. There’d been word of Helen’s affair with some lion-hearted, Macedonian chieftain that resulted in a bastard son whose great-to-the-whatevereth-degree grandson rode with Alexander the Great, sowing his Hellenic seed all over various parts of Egypt and that when the Anglo-Egyptian war ended in 1936, Constance’s great-grandfather returned from Egypt with a blue-eyed baby girl swaddled under his collar talking of “royal extraction.” That baby, Madelyn Victoria Golden, who happened to grow up and dawn the sash of Miss England in the 1953 Miss World pageant, was Constance’s grandmother.
It was common knowledge that beauty was in Constance’s blood.
It must have started as a joke: some freshman coming from Mrs. Rowe’s mythology class probably saw Constance in the hallway and decided to let the lore of her origin take shape. The label, however, stuck so well that more people came to doubt Constance’s spotless attendance track than her ancestral tie to the face that launched thousand ships. I think the infatuation with the mythos of Constance Golden said something about the way a lot of us saw her. We prefer beauty steeped in story, eventfulness, a direct integrity of some sort, so that each of us can treat and view it as something more than just a random genetic consequence. Like it is a heroic, earned, and therefore praiseworthy, thing. Like it is a honed talent formed by years of effort. We like to fill in the blank spaces behind every Mona Lisa with a backstory because it gives us something to take a small sense of ownership in; it gives us an opportunity to commandeer, and grant permission to, the things we know are beautiful, so that said beauty is no more a combination of physical details than a story we get to stamp the name of our own authorship under each time we recognize it. We take it in, make it ours, however we can.
Constance’s often-questioned attendance track, on the other hand, was the closest thing to a flaw cynics could find in her long and illustrious list of accolades: thrice elected homecoming queen, varsity cheerleader, captain of the debate team, all-state javelin thrower, M.I.T-bound National Merit Scholar, blue blossoms for eyes, Cinderella locks, birdsong voice, and a physique so bountiful the best of Renaissance sculptors would take one look at it and say, “Oh shit, we’ve been doing this all wrong, haven’t we fellas?”
Hallways parted before her like the red sea, freshmen and sophomore alike cowering, not in fear, but in attempts to conceal their excited appendages for the sake of decorum.
There’s one yearbook picture in particular responsible for such a wide scale obsession. It was taken last fall at our homecoming barbecue. Constance is posing like a centerfold on the hood of someone’s jeep, and there is a slight aperture just under the third button of the red and white flannel she’s wearing. It presents before the more perceptive viewers a swath of satin bra padding and what appears to be the outer precinct of a pink areola. God’s gift to mankind: the nip-slip.
She’s the standard to which most, if not all, other high school girls compare themselves; the jailbait paramour of every PE teacher’s day dream; the profile PTO mothers liked to think they resembled in their own high schools days, but knows was never the case. Rumor had it she’s been on Playboy’s this girl is going to be hot as hell when she grows up list since she was seven.
Right now, I’m sitting behind her, looking at the back of her un-surprisingly golden head and wondering both if the rumors of her attendance are true and whether or not she’d notice if I gave her fourteen-karat scalp a quick lick.
There is a small, rotating fan in front of the chalkboard. When it turns toward us every couple of seconds, wafts of her strawberry-cucumber shampoo hit my face and I find myself picturing her in the shower. I’m hard again, but I think I could get away with blaming it on the heat if I had to. I scoot my seat back a few inches, hoping the blue balls I’m about to receive won’t be too debilitating. I see the bandage on her finger.
Yet, unlike this morning, some part of me considers yielding to the desire to make contact with her: maybe I’d lean forward, softly palm her shoulder, and whisper “congrats on the record, C” into the delicate shell of her earlobe. I’d say it quickly, confidently, causally, like we were friends, like it wasn’t the first time I was ever speaking to her, like I wasn’t erect. And she’d turn around and give me that starlit smile, and while biting her pen with those perfect teeth say, “aww… thanks for noticing, Phil. You’re the only one.” I’d call her C because that’s what everyone calls her. I might even tell her about the first aid kit.
I, of course, don’t do any of this. Instead, I lean back and try to make friends with the blue balls and the May heat as best as I can.
I’ve forgotten that today is senior skip day, and while the majority of our graduating class is out on Lake Whateverthehellyoucallit drinking and splashing and spanking each other under the fat sun, we are here, in SB320, a hot, musty, and clutter-filled classroom with ugly, unwashed greenhouse windows, passing the time with what we call “reflection.” It’s just one of the many “Kindness for Korea” exercises our A.P. Physics teacher Mr. Swenson has been having us partake in.
Despite whatever one might deduce from its name, the “Kindness for Korea” campaign doesn’t aid or benefit Koreans in any way. Some guy in and lab coat with the word “Grief Brigadier Toby” stitched onto its pocket gave a presentation on it few weeks ago:
“You know one in five people suffer from what my Grief Brigadiers and I have now termed “Korea-Occasioned-Cardiomyopathy. That is, heart trouble brought on by the excessive stress of the recent Korea bombing.” He held up his hand to signal one-in-five. He was reading off flash cards, pacing back and forth on stage: “K.O.C has sent thousands of people to the hospital already, and the numbers continue to grow. It is becoming a pandemic, kids.” He shuffled a card to the back of the deck. “Most people think that the only place damaged in the attack was Korea. Not true.” He tapped his chest. “Right here. This little ticker took some damage too, my friends. The stress that our bodies are unfit to withstand.” He broke off for a second, as if about to cry. He continued: “Not only are thousands of people living in guilt over what’s occurred, but they’re living in the fear of what might come next. The stress is defeating them.” He stopped, looked at crowd, dramatically ripped up the flash cards, and threw the pieces in the air. “But you know what? I think I’m tired of wondering what’s coming next. Aren’t you?”
“Yeah!” a single student yelled.
“We decide what comes next. We decide how were going to be affected by this whole thing. I’m here to tell you that instituting a wide scale reduction of the symptoms of K.O.C requires minimal effort if we all do our part. My fellow Grief Brigadiers and I have gone to extensive lengths to produce a whole repertoire of “Pro-Emotion” exercises that target K.O.C directly. It introduces content from some of most efficacious stress reduction therapies around the world.” The man brought his arms up, signaling offstage. A line of men and women in lab coats filed in. “Our aim is to enhance everyone’s mental and emotional wellbeing by building a community of compassion, openness, safety—a place where we can talk of real things and know our feelings will not be criticized. These exercises will make us all feel better about what’s happened. I’ve already spoken to your teachers about implementing these exercises into your curriculum for the remainder of the school year. We call our movement ‘Kindness for Korea’.” He walked to the front of the stage: “We can be the change we want to see in the world. Anyone know who coined those words?”
“Hitler!” a voice yells. The man pretends not to hear.
“Mahatma Gandhi,” he says.
School ends in less than a week, and those of us who are seniors finished our A.P. Physics testing last Tuesday, so there’s technically no educational reason for any of us to be here.
And yet, here we are: seven in number, bored to death, and eyeing the clock between desperate attempts to sleeve the sweat from our foreheads. Constance Golden, of course, does not sweat; such bodily functions are beneath her. She sits in front of me, stealthily texting little letters into her cell phone. She hides it beneath a large pink binder, and returns to it whenever she is sure no one is watching. I am watching.
If given the choice, most of us would skip. But we each have our own reason for attending class today. Thomas and Stewart Fitzgerald, the twin prodigy lacrosse players, who will be playing for Duke next fall, are here because they have a state championship to win for our school at some cross-state dome in about four hours. Though often attentive in class, their now-slouched postures make them look a pair of dead banana slugs in orange lacrosse pinnies. Their eyes are either half shut or half open, and every couple of seconds there is a gargling noise that emanates from one, if not both, of their mouths. I cannot blame them for being tired. They’ve spent most of their lives preparing for the game this afternoon. Why shouldn’t they sleep? I remember going to middle school with them, how they’d stand out in the January snow running drills, rifling balls into the net for hours while their dad watched from a minivan at the end of turf.
Athletes simply have no say in the matter. If they want to participate in their designated spring-time extracurricular, they must attend all their classes. The policy for jocks is clear: no school, no sports.
The starting center fielder of our varsity baseball team sits three desks in front of them, drawing various types of genitalia into its wooden surface with a ball-point pen. His name is Reese Leone, and he is one of the students I try to avoid by getting to school early. He has on more than one occasion been caught trying to run down freshmen with his Mustang in the school parking lot. He has two mothers, a bear claw tattoo, and he cheats at everything: academic tests, standardized tests, drug tests, pop quizzes, bingo with the elderly, sports, love, the lottery, and just life in general.
The pen looks tiny in his huge hand, dwarfed by the veins sticking out of his forearm, but he sketches the images with finesse. That’s the side of Reese people have a hard time comprehending: he is a genius. Not so much Einstein, think Da Vinci, think Van Gogh. Hundreds of school desktops feature his specific quality of artwork: cock monuments, vagina sunsets, clitoral chalices, semen gladiators fighting to the death in egg colosseums, and naturally, human-to-human congress depicted in the most acrobatic and erotic of manners. Teachers are so taken aback by vividness of such illustrations they’ve stopped penalizing him for vandalism altogether. I believe some of them fear such sketches may end up in a museum one day, and wouldn’t want to erase Reese’s desk-bound juvenilia from the annals of history. I look over at him; he’s finishing up what appears to be some type of dick garden.
Melissa Saul, senior captain of the softball team, is standing in front of the classroom right now, “reflecting”:
“I’m sorry the world is the way it is. I see those pictures on the TV and I want to cry. I want it to go away. The bodies. The people. That was their home. But if I have anything keeping me afloat these days, it’s the team,” she taps her hands on her hips, as if she is nervous to speak in front of a class of six. “The team… the girls… they’re my best friends… my sisters…my lovely bitches.” She wipes her eyes with her wrist. “I’m going to miss them so much when I graduate.”
Melissa wears an oversized softball jersey tucked into a pair of undersized black yoga pants. She is number 59. I didn’t know they made jerseys with such high numbers, but the quotient somehow suits her. Melissa is what you would call a bigger girl, not fat, but amply proportioned; I believe she bats clean-up for the team, and worry the bulge of her thigh may tear straight through its spandex seams at any moment. Like most of us, she is sweating.
Mr. Swenson, a man with an Oreo colored beard and tattered wool sweater, leans with his back on the chalk board, listening. His hands cover his mouth, and his fig-leaf eyebrows are slanted upward. He looks like he has just been told he is pregnant
When Melissa finishes her reflection, Swenson hops forward and starts an industrious applause. There are streaks of chalk dust along the back of his sweater. None of us notify him of this. Those of us conscious simply clap for Melissa as she takes a seat.
“Okay, my apes,” Swenson says, “who is reflecting next?”
He calls all of his A.P. students “apes”. Despite his using it as a term of endearment, nobody has made an effort to suggest that it might be a less than flattering moniker.
“Constance, our attendance queen,” he says, “Why don’t you go next?” She smiles and shoves her phone under the binder.
As Constance gets up from her seat and moves to the front of the room, I feel the sweat on my lower back roll into chasm of my but crack. I’m soaked. I try not to stare at her butt when she moves, but I’m only human. Four years of track and field conditioning has molded her hind parts beautifully.
I hope I am not caught staring, but of course but I am. Trevor Ruiz, class president, anchor for the 400 meter relay team, and Tony in last fall’s production of West Side Story is looking at me. He sits three seats to my right, eyes pinned on me in disgust. Sorry, Trev, I think and mean it. We’re not all saints like you.
Trevor has been my lab partner for most of the year. He tries to lecture me on the theory of relativity. It fascinates the hell out of him: paper boy chucks newspapers from a moving bicycle; assumes the force he applies to the newspaper by throwing is the only force at play but its not: you have the bike, moving ten miles per hour, general laws of gravity, the rotation of the earth. The kid harps on the relativities of perspective. Half the time I don’t even know what the hell he’s talking about. But I do know that he’s cooler than me.
I feel bad — not for getting caught, but for getting caught by Trevor. He himself is a prince among peasants in our grade: Saint Trev, doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, opens the doors for his dates, walks them to the door, pecks them good night on the cheek, and nope, no sex, not until marriage, that’s what God wants. His allegiance to higher purposes is so immaculate, so sound, that it’s totally unreal. Like he were a legend, but one that stands before us every day with his six-foot-three frame, vanilla smile, caramel skin, and pair of cinnamon eyes that seem to say: “You should expect more from yourself.” He was Constance’s date to Snow Ball last December.
“Firstly, I want to say that I think these Pro-Emotion exercises are a wonderful idea, Mr. Swenson,” Constance opens like a debutante. “Really, they do more for any of us than I think we realize.” Her skin is bronze, un-freckled in the ugly light coming from the window, and there are little blotches of sunburn under her eyes: patches of summer roses, thornless. I want to tell her she stopped blending this morning because of me.
“With everything that’s going on around the world — the K.O.C, the rallies, the protests — I think we need to now, more than ever, take inventory of the things we have; to reflect on this moment in human history before it passes us by.”
Swenson’s eyes are drenched. He’s crying. Constance has hit the nail on the head in no less than four sentences, and every teacher’s failed attempt to help students recognize the severity of recent global events is expunged. Constance has redeemed us all with her perfect heart.
I can’t say that I blame Mr. Swenson for endorsing the whole “Kindness for Korea” thing. The footage of the bombing is gnarly, and it just seems to be everywhere: one solitary and obese mushroom cloud, everything bursting into soot and sprays of ash; matchstick bodies still in everyday poses, either vaporized or petrified depending on their distance from ground zero; singed hair that look like half-reacting filaments, babies thrown into public fountains while mothers shielded their burning faces; aerial shots of mountains on fire, trees like charred bones ripped sideways by nuclear winds, stunning blue lake water topped with a layer of dead fish and palm-sized insects. We had all seen it on one news channel or another — the uncensored ugliness that snuck its way into our living rooms and forced us to acknowledge it.
Some part of the world had been backhanded by an immutable and manmade flame, and we, even if distanced from it by a sizable ocean, sixty thousand miles of planetary surface, and the distraction of this pre-summer swelter, were the cause. We did it, we were culpable.
The President had been on the television for weeks trying to explain the detonation with words like threat-valence, offensive-prevention, and terminative-diplomacy. I guess you’d probably throw in a few ten cent words yourself if you were trying to justify the tossing of the world’s first twenty megaton thermonuclear warhead on to foreign soil. Though a nuclear counterstrike wasn’t inevitable, it also wasn’t impossible. The plain fact of the matter was that the rest of the world hated us right now, and I think most people a hard time blaming them for it.
When students walked into their first period classroom on the Monday after the footage was released, they discovered that a purple, clay-pigeon-like disc had been installed beside every ceiling fire alarm. The discs were called Boom-Buddies, and they were programmed to emit a high-pitch siren if there has been any type of detonation on proximal soil. I don’t think that every school in the state, let alone country, was required to take this type of precaution. I assume it’s because our high school is located on the outskirts of what The Secretary of the Department of Defense deemed a “Target City” in his last national address.
We’d spent that first week engaging in a series of Boom-Buddy drills. When the little purple disc screeched, a robotic voice would come over the loudspeaker and say some type of code word like, “lemonade, disco, Halloween,” and teachers were supposed to run to the windows of every classroom, pull down the newly installed lead shades, turn off all the lights, and have students pull those x-ray vests you wear at the dentist’s office from the closet and put them on. I used to wonder why the protocol required turning off the lights. Would the dark stop the nuclear blast? Would shadow and silence ward off the radiation sickness? Or was a benighted classroom supposed to keep us from noticing our broiling skin?
I do not know.
Once the vests were on, students were supposed to sit under their desks and wait in silence until the words: “mashed potato” aired over the intercom. We were then free to go about the lesson.
“I will, no doubt, miss you all when I graduate,” Constance says, gesturing with her wrist to the small audience. “I’ll miss the friends and faculty I’ve come to know and cherish so intimately over the past four years,” she says, looking at Mr. Swenson. He squawks like some kicked seagull and wipes his running nose with his sleeve. “My time here has been marked with beautiful moments and beautiful people and I am happy to come from such a legacy of kindness, compassion, and fellowship.” She scans the audience and we make eye contact for a few seconds. I’m hard again.
“Thank you, everyone, for being who you are. Our bearing witness to recent world events, though difficult, has made us stronger. And such strength, I firmly believe, will make our generation the one that rids the world of this kind of hateful, and destructive diplomacy.” She appears to curtsy before walking back to her seat. We clap for the Constance the Queen, Constance the Good, Fair, and Virtuous, Constance the Successor of Royal Prowess and Political Dignity. Constance the Nip-Slip.
I feel a second run of blue balls crawling up in the pit of my stomach and realize that she’s impenetrable. She’s perfect. Constance. Not a chink in her armor anywhere. Everything polished and invulnerable. I think of the blood on the chair and wonder how a little tape dispenser could cause a queen to bleed.
I look at the clock, noting how it’s perched right above the chalkboard, several feet to the left of the Boom-Buddy. We still have ten minutes before class ends, and Trevor and myself are the only ones who have yet to reflect. I know neither of us want to.
We make eye contact. It is sustained and language-less; I wonder what I look like to him right now other than an opponent. I am still hard. I should probably expect more from myself.
“Ok who is next?” Swenson says in a cheery voice, and scans the audience. It is no-question comparison between myself and Trevor. I’m confident Swenson doesn’t even know my name. Despite the A I am most likely going to receive in it, I’ve only spoken about four and a half times in this class all year. The “half” time was when I sneezed and Swenson turned around and said, “Yes, yes, friction. That’s it.”
“Mr. Ruiz, why don’t you go?” Swenson says.
Trevor smiles, not at Swenson, nor Constance, but at me. “I’d actually like to go last, if at all possible, Mr. Swenson. I’m still trying to pick the right words for the occasion.” That suave son of a bitch, I think. He’ll get out of this without having to reflect.
“Yes, that is a good idea,” Swenson nods like some stoic monk. He moves his eyes toward me. “Okay, how about you, Mr.…”
“Collins. Phillip Collins.”
“Yes, that’s right. You’re the reason I haven’t been able to curve any of the exams this year. I like you. Phil Collins. Good name. Yes.” Swenson moves his body in front of the fan. I thank God I don’t have to smell Constance’s hair right now. “It’s your turn to reflect.” He grabs a yard stick off the chalkboard and begins tapping the floor with it… “dudum…dudum…dudum…dudum…duh…duh…” He half-hums half-mumbles to himself: “I can feel it coming in the air tonight… Oh Lord.” He does this every time I remind him what my name is.
I get up and feel the hot air on my soaked butt. I know Constance will see the patch of rear sweat when I pass by her, but it is better than her seeing an erection. I wish it wasn’t so hot.
When I get to the front of the room, Reese Leone takes a break from his drawing to appraise my sweat stains. He laughs, a row tobacco-stained teeth riding the ridge of his lip, and mouths “faggot” to me. I am reminded of why I try to get to school early.
I do not react. I do not move at all. I stand where I am in the front of the classroom and do as close to nothing as possible: “tonic immobility”. When Reese notices that I don’t engage — or more likely, reasons that I’m one of those kids who rides the short bus to school — he goes back to his dick garden, leaving me alone. Such is a microcosm of my high school experience. It is only when I refuse to engage that I prosper.
I learned the concept of “tonic mobility” in my honors biology class freshmen year, when my world was composed of a chaotic and overly gratuitous assortment of hazing, harassment, ass-slaps, and a thing called “rolling a fag” where seniors duct taped two underclassmen to each other in a 69 position and rolled them down a hill.
I feel my heart beating fast. I inhale deeply and listen for it to slow.
Certain species of animals enter into a state of paralysis when threatened or triggered in different ways. Once they’ve, more or less, turned themselves off, their predator ceases to either attack or ceases to deliver a death blow. When the predator has left, thinking that he will eat his kill at a later time, the prey simply gets up and leaves. Tonic immobility. I remember a video clip of fox burying a duck that was in a state of tonic immobility. Once buried, the duck woke up, dug itself out, and waddled away free and safe.
This defense mechanism seemed effective enough in the wild, so why not use it here? Consequently, I’ve made it through the last four years of high school without any trouble. I’ve minded my own business, kept to myself, done the work, earned the grades, and weathered the chaos of it all by simply refusing to engage with it. In five months I’ll be on the other side of the country at the school I’ve been dreaming of since I was a baby. People like Reese Leone will be nothing but a memory I refuse as my history. These days, I do not engage. I let the chaos pass, let it subside, so I can waddle away free and safe.
“Hi, everyone,” I say, looking out over the desks. Melissa and Constance are both on their cell phones. Neither of the Fitzgerald twins have moved. Trevor looks at me like he wants to break my face. I don’t know why, because he won’t have to reflect now that I am. His eyes are threatening, full of heat and what I perceive to be ire. I refrain from eye contact.
“I just want to say, I hope everyone is doing alright, both emotionally and… you know?” I look for the right words to say, but am drawing soggy blanks. I look at Constance and somehow let the word “sexually” slip from my mouth. I immediately consider blurting out “I mean psychologically,” but I’m stopped by a bead of sweat that has fallen into my eye. It stings, and I wonder if my sweat isn’t made of some type of acid. I want to cry for being such an idiot. I wipe the sweat from my eye and then slowly look up to see how they’ve reacted.
Nobody has moved. Nobody had made a sound, not even Mr. Swenson, who is lightly tapping the yard stick on his foot and nodding to himself with his eyes closed.
Nobody has acknowledged my Freudian slip because nobody is listening to me at all. Even Trevor, the only person in the audience with their face up, now seems to be lost in a day dream.
Instead of shame, I feel anger. Instead of relief, I feel invisible. I wait a few moments. Nothing. Just the fan whizzing back and forth, failing to cool the room.
“Fuck,” I say. Nothing happens. “Cock, shit, pussy, bitch, asshole.” Nobody moves. Nobody cares. Their minds are elsewhere: dreams, text messages, and dick gardens. I can say whatever I want and it will not be heard.
It wouldn’t be as bad if they were looking right through me. At least the effort to appear as those they were listening would be there. But right now there’s nothing, not a hint of evidence that I exist right and for the first time in my life, I am hurt by my inability to engage. I look at Constance, the attendance queen, and realize that I want to dig myself out of the dirt.
Before I can say another word, thunder seems to bludgeon the door. There is a violent flash from the window. The floor pivots beneath us, quaking into motion the miniature model of Newton’s cradle that sits on Swenson’s desk. The Boom-Buddy goes off and I cannot hear myself think.
A human voice comes on over the intercom: “Fourth of July!”
Time slows entirely. The remainder of experience is reduced to inertia.
I see Melissa screaming, but there is no sound — a horrified cavewoman in a block of ice. Her mouth has been jacked open to what seem like unnatural fathoms. She cannot tell if this is really happening.
Swenson is so shocked by the noise that he snaps the yard stick in half, accidentally cutting his right arm. He is bleeding through the sleeve of his sweater. He rises, tries to pull down one of the lead shades, realizes he cannot grip it because of the all the blood, and, forgetting that he still has another perfectly functioning, non-bloodied arm, gives up, sitting down. He says nothing.
Reese Leone stands up and moves at glacial speeds toward the back closet. There are tears coming from his eyes, and I find myself feeling sorry for him. He is in outer space. We are all in outer space. The closet door is locked. He heaves it with everything he has but cannot get it open.
The Fitzgerald twins sleep right through it all. They’ve earned their rest.
Constance, for the first time in her life, is discomposed. She is screaming into her cell phone while tears roll off her tan face. She’s never looked more beautiful than she does right now.
The room is getting brighter, hotter, like we’re being slowly swallowed by the sun. A sickness grows in the pit of my stomach, something poisonous passes through me. I begin to taste it in my mouth. It hurts. I want to spit it out, but can’t.
And it tastes like rotten lemons, if chaos could taste like anything at all. I feel the temperature rising with the passing of what seems like impossibly retarded time and I realize that this is probably it: the not inevitable, but also not impossible, counterstrike.
There are no thoughts, only certainties driven by instinct. I am going to engage. I am going to kiss her. Because, what else is there at the end of the world? I am going to approach Constance Golden — descendant of Helen of Troy, the beautiful angel of death in the green sunflower dress — for the first time in the final seconds of my life, and assault her face with my lips: my first kiss. I’m going to become part of that beautiful story. I am going out anew: lucid mobility.
I sprint toward her. My legs are heavy, battle-bruised soldiers home from war. My skin starts to hurt, reddening. I’m in front of her. There is a puddle of tears on her desk, mixing with the ink of one of Reese Leone’s cock cannons. I grab the cellphone from her hand and chuck it into the air. Our eyes meet. I’m hard. I haven’t stopped sweating.
Her face is a disheveled miracle, a story I cannot permit myself write from afar any longer. I grab her cheeks with both hands and move in. I am going to engage.
I close my eye on her eyes. Soft and blue with aquatic warmth…
I am knocked on my back. My chest feels dented, crushed under something full. The room continues to get brighter and hotter, incandescently folding in on itself from the corners.
I think I feel blood in my hair.
I see doubles: there are two Trevor Ruizs on top of me, looking down with Cinnamon eyes. One of the Trevors is talking. A golden cross is hanging down from his neck, swaying back and forth. It is the color of Constance.
His face is full of noise. I hear none of it, but somehow understand. The reputation of a prince among peasants, Trevor, himself, a story as well. Relativities of perspective.
I am not the only one who has waited until the last second to engage.
Because, what else is there at the end of the world?
The ire in his eyes is not, nor had ever been, ire.
He is mouthing what I assume overdue honesty looks like.
We are both dying, because we are all dying.
He kisses me, and I notice the familiar and bitter taste of chaos in his mouth. Like rotten lemons. The ugliness that unites us. I kiss him back. My first kiss.
We engage. We are the cause. He is hard.
An excerpt of this piece first appeared in the 2017 edition of Long River Review. The above represents the unedited, full version of this piece.