In pursuit of an older girl on whom I had crushed hard, I developed the habit of attending an early-morning fellowship hour at the upper school. Some virginal, well-meaning college students had taken time from their own simple lives to organize the gatherings; they provided coffee and doughnuts, contrived skits for us kids to shuffle through, and entertained us with slideshows depicting ourselves during the previous week accomplishing much the same as before. Between these bouts of activity, they led us in singing watered-down versions of then-current radio hits. They had converted these into worship songs; they seemed to think that their ability to strum a guitar gave them the right.
And yet the hour and few minutes of fellowship had become my one solid chance to see her the entire week. Our age disparity caused us to exist in completely different spheres on campus, though I found numerous excuses to visit areas I knew her to frequent: the art studio, a particular carousel in the upper school library, and, overlooking the city, the viewing deck (from which the upper-school students tended to fling my backpack). The times I glimpsed her black hair, or received a slight smile in response to my waving hands, made all the humiliation worthwhile, though now I can imagine how odd and uncomfortable I must have looked, fearful even, with my arms flapping above my head as the older boys crowded around me. No wonder she recognized in me a child in need of saving.
By my trailing after her, we came vaguely to know each other around campus. But it was a faulty zipper on my backpack that led us into conversation. Several weeks before the spring break, the older boys launched my backpack over the railing, and I took my usual route down the stairs to retrieve it so that I could reach my human-development class before the second bell; however, this time the contents had dispersed themselves all across the quadrangle.
She found me methodically walking back and forth through the other students, eyes to the ground as I gathered up an assortment of school supplies: a handful of mechanical pencils, dirty sheets of notebook paper, three-ring binders. She crouched down next to me and helped me pick up the pieces of my graphing calculator. I caught a glimpse of her underwear as she smoothed flat the edges of her skirt. When she looked up, I pretended to study the shards of busted circuitry on the concrete between her sandled feet.
Are you OK, she said.
Still, she said, you should report them.
Oh, I can live with it, I said.
Do you have math today, she said.
My next class, I said.
She seemed to think for a moment, and then she turned and rummaged through her backpack. I quickly reached for my human development textbook. It had fallen open to a picture of some warty venereal disease or another.
I’ll loan you my calculator, she said. But on one condition.
What’s that, I said, zipping up everything.
You give it back to me tomorrow morning.
She handed me the calculator and a pink flier advertising the youth fellowship group that met mornings in the theater once a week. I tried to remember the exact placement of each little black hair that I had seen on her big toes.
Sound good, she said.
I nodded yes, and the next morning we stood together and clapped our hands as a girl on stage testified about her faith. I returned the calculator when the group broke for doughnuts and coffee.
My father immediately questioned the busted calculator, the pieces of which rained down upon the kitchen floor that night when he opened my backpack to look over my homework. He had made it his priority to take a vested interest, as he often said, in my education, since he paid all of the bills. Therefore, each evening after dinner, he asked me to spread my assignments upon the table for correction, which I did, and he looked over each one seriously, scribbled changes, made quiet animal-sounding noises, and marked errors down in a large notebook. The next morning I had only to sign my name in the top right-hand corner of each paper.
I had yet to develop any fear of this man, my father, despite his clearly obsessive character, because he had a subtle way of righting every one of my mistakes. What fear I contained within my small, angled body, I reserved for my mother, the idea of her, that is, and the changes she might bring about if she were to knock on our front door. She fled, I am told, shortly after I emerged from her womb, and I expected her to suddenly reappear and demand that which was hers be returned, immediately and with much violence.
I won’t keep paying for your things if you treat them roughly, my father said.
But a girl broke it, I said.
A girl, he said.
I believed then that explaining the constant bullying at school might have further disappointed him, but I know now that this little twist of logic created more complications than it solved. Any mention of the opposite gender had become a sort of catalyst for the appearance of the less admirable aspects of his character.
Why did a girl break your calculator, my father said.
Because I like her, I said.
Then you’ll have to ask her to pay for it, my father said.
I can’t do that, I said.
Why can’t you, he said.
Because I like her, I said. And she likes me.
Listen to me, my father said. Certain women should pay for their mistakes. Otherwise, you’re left with nothing but the evidence of their mistakes, and that evidence won’t buy you a new calculator.
I got the uncomfortable sense that he had begun talking about something completely different.
The next day at school, I managed to apply my father’s words with a minimal amount of failure on my part. By this I mean that the number of positive and negative events that happened to me as a result of my following his advice seemed ultimately to cancel out each other.
That morning between the first and second periods, I sought to remedy the problem of the calculator. I confronted the older boys and asked that they reimburse me for the loss, but they instead trapped me behind a door and dropped backpacks on my head, all the while shouting their apologies and loudly calling me a cum fart. I had not yet cultivated a healthy appreciation for rhetoric, though this experience certainly lent a hand to its development. When finally some other activity distracted them with its meanness, I teetered my way into a history class, only to discover that I happened to have the wrong backpack—upon my escape, I had grabbed the first one resembling my own. I therefore lacked the proper materials for the history lesson, which began with the collection of last night’s homework. So as not to call any unnecessary attention to myself, I handed forward a random sheet of paper from one of the numerous notebooks in the backpack, and then I wondered why my vision had gone suddenly fuzzy. I performed a little test, blinking one eye and then the other, and discovered that I could only see the haziest of forms out of my right eye.
I looked up from my blurry hands to see the teacher leaning over me, peering intently at a spot just above my right eye. As an adolescent, I preferred to avoid eye contact altogether, but I had also come to expect it during certain interactions with others, usually the kind involving confrontation of one sort or another. So you can understand, then, the confusion with which I faced this new situation: the blurry vision, the intent gaze of my teacher, the sudden ache between my temples. I was almost relieved when the teacher asked me if I felt OK. Few people thus far had shown any real concern for my well-being.
Should I not feel OK, I said.
You are bleeding from your forehead, he told me.
Oh, that. I walked into a door, I said.
How did you walk into a door, he said.
I am not sure, I said.
Do you want someone to go with you to the infirmary, he said.
I think I can make it on my own, I said.
I stood up and shouldered the backpack, with its different straps and zippers, its unfamiliar heft, and leaned against my desk to let a dizzy spell pass. Head wounds look worse than they really are, I reminded myself. I had learned this from some over-violent action movie, in which the characters talked about how head wounds look worse than they really are. I felt more knowledgeable than the other students, who had all twisted around in their seats to stare at my face, and that made the pain a little more reassuring.
Don’t be such a vagina, someone said.
I left the room before the blood in my eyes began to sting too much. I cried, but only a tiny bit. I thought to myself, I wish I had a way with words instead of the other way around.
Continued on the next page …