First day as a frosh you stood there in that assembly. Nearly a thousand bored faces doing the opposite of staring at you. Looking anywhere else. Long black hair, black boots, black jeans, black button-down, black stone on a black chain. If it weren’t for the fact that you sucked in absolutely no attention, you’d have been the black hole for our scholarly galaxy. You weren’t. Until you spoke.
I’m not going to welcome you to Parks Memorial High School. I’m just going to read you something and you can decide if you want to challenge me to fail you in my creative writing classes. Or you can go off and play some football and I can continue to ignore you.
It wasn’t inspired rhetoric. Honestly I still wonder how they keep letting you speak to the incoming class every year. If anyone else there knew who you were or even would have known if you’d told us your name, I wouldn’t be surprised – I’d be completely fucking astonished. You didn’t look like what I expected. I thought you’d be old, which you were but it didn’t show. You could have been one of us, a senior, at least. I couldn’t help wondering how many times one of the other teachers told you to get to class when you started and whether you laughed or got pissed about it.
A pause. A very long pause because we were all of fourteen for the most part and you have the kind of patience that lets you stand and wait for quiet in a room that has no intention of paying attention so long that it actually happens.
Reach out but don’t touch me in silence.
Make noise even if you’re pretending because I’m pretending, too.
You incite feelings in me that I knew I had but convinced myself they weren’t for you.
You’re a cold fire of iced shoulders putting matches to something inside me that has been too wet to burn until just this moment.
I look away
because nothing in me
is prepared to admit
the chemicals you’ve made
turn me to liquid
between your fingers.
But I don’t move and within arm’s reach and hand’s touch I scream words I only whispered before.
I don’t love you. Don’t go. I’ll be yours anyway.
There was more and I remember every word even now. I’m sure it made it into a book like half the words you say and probably most of the conversations you had with me but I don’t need the prompt. It’s a day I remembered because of your words and wanted never to forget but I walked out of that gymnasium and into the park and sat there with my little folding keyboard, trying to channel you so I could write something that wasn’t whiney shit about flowers and birdsong and the crippling depression I liked to pretend I had long before it actually arrived.
Drugs scare me. There’s not much I really care about in the world. Bad things happen and I look the other way. Good things happen and I run. In the opposite direction. I don’t want to participate in life. I don’t like experiences. I just want to be left alone. I was already your shadow in all black but for me it wasn’t marketing, wasn’t some emo throwback to the alternative nineties culture that belonged to my parents’ hazy recollections of Cobain entering his appropriately-named afterlife or clubbing in places so dark you’d need neon shoes just to find your feet. I was trying to disappear. Most days it worked. That day less so. Behind the bushes on the north bank of the stream where I always sat. There were plenty of people walking by, jogging, skating, pretending to exercise while sexting – if you couldn’t tell from the expressions on their faces, you could tell by the expressions in their pants.
They had no idea I was there, though. Sitting in my trademarked lazy-half-lotus-in-training style with the iPad propped against a tree and my rubberized keyboard unfolded on my lap as if there was anything that would make that thing faster to type on than just holding the screen in my hands in the first place. Line after line. Poem after poem. Pure, unadulterated, unmitigated angst-saturated excrement. Stories with dead puppy allegories and verses about unrequited hatred and a misery I pretended was real when even I knew it wasn’t. I thought of myself as an undiscovered writer. Thankfully, the undiscovered part was absolutely true, as if I don’t have enough shame. When they emerged from the bushes, I did exactly the same highly-active thing I always did when someone stumbled on my hideout. I ignored them. Two guys stinking of the same things guys always smelled of. Beer and cigarettes, perhaps in that order. I just wanted them to leave.
What the fuck are you doing here?
I wasn’t sure whether to answer or keep ignoring them. Given my traditional approach to other humans, I didn’t even register their presence by moving my head. Thought they left. Until they didn’t. His hand was over my mouth and his weight on top of me before I had any idea they were still nearby. The smell should have given it away but I imagined it was residue, human experience left behind by inhuman things who shouldn’t have warranted the word used on them. And that was just because they were violent drunks.
I didn’t scream. Didn’t move. Didn’t even cry. I’d like to say the only thing I walked out of those bushes with ninety minutes later was a smashed iPad but surprisingly it survived, poetry and dead puppy allegories included. I did walk out of the bushes holding my head high. I made it all four kilometers to my own bathroom before I collapsed onto the floor of the shower stall, completely forgetting to turn the taps on for the first hour I was in there. I did reach up and soak myself with altogether-too-hot water until I was heading toward tomato from all the steam and scrubbing. It was over. I was alive, albeit bruised and terrified. No amount of heat was going to take away the shaking and I hit my head on the fake-glass panel when mom banged on the door telling me to give the hot water a rest.
I don’t know when she had last held me in her arms but when she came in to lecture me about the joys of environmentalist purity and short showers, one of her usual daily mantras, seeing me quietly bleeding on the floor with water running over me, she didn’t pause for a second before she ended up in there with me, holding me while I finally found tears against the collar of her now-ruined blazer.
So I disappeared from school. Days of self-doubt and shivering. More days of no-more-self-doubt but everyone else’s, especially the police. I don’t know why I felt like I had to convince them. Mom, maybe. I didn’t care what happened to the guys. Not in the least. Nothing was going to turn back time and with every new question I regretted ever starting down that path. It was over quickly. No more than a few weeks before they’d given up telling me black jeans were too sexy, quietly sitting alone was provocative and taking hot showers was either a sign of having enjoyed myself or making up stories without having to manufacture evidence – I’m not sure which was their favorite of those two, even now. Home schooling is a weird thing and I have to admit, before I experienced it, I thought it was a great idea. I spent half of middle school begging mom to take me out of that dirt-trap for young humans. It feels weirder when you’re doing it but she was prepared to protect me for awhile after the abortion.
Two years. Not quite to the day because solar calendars don’t work like that. Sitting there in the gymnasium with all the other students coming back reminded me and so many things looked the same. The football team hadn’t won any new banners to hang up over the stage. You were in the same black-on-black-on-black uniform. So was I. I was two years older. You were still a teenager, take twenty.
I’d say welcome back but you know I don’t give a shit. Your freedom’s over. The next two years are when you get grades that matter and we figure out whether you’re going to make something of your life or have to give up and beg your parents to let you live in their basement until you discover reading and writing.
Always the optimist, I know. Surprising how positive you are when you’re not acting.
After the darkness I had spent the last two years recovering from, badly and unsuccessfully, I couldn’t help wonder what you could possibly know of forgiveness. You might have been my literary idol but I had looked evil in the face, lying on my back in that park and I was fully prepared to die without entertaining the idea of forgiving.
It wasn’t the best of times but sunny skies loomed bleak overhead and beaches beckoned Lake Sammamish glinted calling to you in its muted almost-blue with a voice of syrup and quicksand.
One fit seized all of your future as I clawed my way toward where you’d moments before laughed and grasped at a sinking form but nearly a minute had passed by then, a lifeguard still too far away to reach as I dragged you toward a shoreline I knew was out of hope’s line of sight.
Undiagnosed and unforeseeable are no concession to my twelve-year-old self nor to today’s adult remembering of an older sister now made young in departure’s frozen moment of time’s unpassing yet there were no tears, not then nor now as I lost in that lake any hope of water’s cleansing power.
You may have lost your ability to cry that day or even just that moment in the school gymnasium, the assembly’s boredom-spell broken forever. I don’t know if I saw a single student without tears in their eyes. There were a few teachers who managed not to show emotion but they were few. As for me, after two years of thinking I had been all-cried-out-and-then-some, I wasn’t. Seventeen tissues later, having speed-walked out to the school’s ersatz courtyard and located myself between the seniors’ vegetable patch and the chimney from the kiln. It took me longer than I want to admit to realize you were sitting on the bench against the wall no more than two meters from me. I’m still not sure if you noticed I was there before I spoke. You jumped but your acting is better than mine.
I’m sorry. I’m just so terribly sorry.
So am I but I suspect you are no stranger to loss.
That’s all there was. I understood the darkness, the black you wrapped yourself in because it wasn’t someone’s childhood life I’d lost but my own, not something I could resuscitate as hard as I’d tried.
In my head I scream words I’d only whispered before.
I’m sure you were screaming them, too, but in that moment I walked out of my own death and I’d like to think somehow so did you, a little.