I’m lurking in the shadow on the north side of the Mill Valley Middle School, as far away as possible from the playing field and paved quad where most kids hang out. I’m sitting on a weedy planter made of creosote-soaked beams, eating a butter, lettuce, and black pepper sandwich, listening to distant shouts and laughter while a lone seagull stares me down.
A skinny black boy with an uncombed afro comes around the corner and stops short when he sees me. He struts over slowly, shaking his head, walking like one leg is longer than the other, like he’s got something hard and heavy tucked into his sock.
“What you doing here, girl?” His cadence is melodic, as if he’s singing a little song.
“You ever heard of Troy? Well this is Troy’s territory.” The seagull doesn’t blink an eye as Troy leans against the far end of the planter and crosses his arms with his fists behind his biceps to plump them up. “You going to have to move. Unless you’re going to share, that is.”
I clutch my sandwich with both hands. He laughs and starts to pace back and forth on his stiff, skinny legs, shooting smiles over his shoulder as if he’s got a crowd of imaginary friends behind him. “What is that, anyway? Looks like shit.”
“It’s a pepper sandwich.”
“Pepper? Like salt and pepper?” His laugh is so full of derision it mocks itself. “That’s nasty.”
There hadn’t been anything else in the refrigerator to put in my sandwich that morning. Actually, it tasted fine until Troy looked at it. I toss the last bit in to the air and the seagull flaps up, downs it in one gulp, and then stands there, aiming its blank yellow eye.
Troy’s smile falls from his eyes. “Time to go then.”
I stand but I don’t know what to do. On the quad, girls stand in groups with one hand on their hips, smirking and fluffing their hair. Around the edges of the pavement, stray girls cling to one another. The only girls who sit alone are Ashley (who has Downs Syndrome), Eve (whose skull is encased in elaborate braces that extend into her mouth like metal parasites), Heidi with her pimples and her enormous breasts, and a few other hopeful outcasts. The boys are in the field on the other side of the cyclone fence, throwing balls and insults and wrestling one another.
I tell him, “I’m not going anywhere.”
Troy laughs again, pacing and laughing, pacing like an creature trapped in a cage. “You’re a tough little girl, aren’t you?” He’s standing right in front of me, so close his chest nearly touches mine. Up close, his brown eyes are amber and he has a fringe of peach fuzz on his upper lip. I feel the surge and snap of heat between us like the hum of an electric fence. He falls back, laughing hysterically, and when he finally catches his breath, he asks what my name is.
“You do pushups, Annie?” He pokes a finger into my bicep.
I hit his shoulder, hard enough for him to feel it. “I can take care of myself. How about you?”
He looks behind him again, as if there’s a group of people back there, watching to see what he’ll do. He laughs and hits me back, just as hard, and then freezes, holding his breath: It’s my turn.
I punch him again, harder this time, and again the punch comes back, an aching echo. The startled seagull flaps away.
“You can’t hit a girl,” I tell him.
“And you can’t hit a boy,” he retorts.
So we stand there, eye to eye, a foot apart, punching each other harder and harder in a slow, steady rhythm. He smacks me; I wince and rub my bicep for a moment before I hit him back; he hoots and shakes his arm out before punches me again. My eyes are fastened on his which are filled with the warmth of primordial sap. His breath on my face is sweet and and every time my knuckles connect with his brown skin, my whole body reverberates with the impact.
I don’t remember who got the last punch or who decided not to give another. Maybe the bell rang or some stranger stumbled upon us and changed the picture. Maybe some part of me is still standing there, hitting and being hit.
This story is as real as life, as real as any story. I write in the present tense because I still feel it: it feels like something was built between us, something solid and sturdy and real, something we threw together with the scraps at hand.
I’m writing in the first person but yearning for connection, longing for another point of view, wishing I could clamber up this imaginary thing we built so I could see a bigger truth.
ummm, well that was just brilliant.
Dear GITH; You are such a wonderful author. Your words hold us but your stories are great also. The two blend so well. I wish I had better words to explain how much I like your writing – – – but I do not. So let me just hope that soon – – – really soon – – – someone is going to recognize your emotion and skills. Best wishes.
Hey, Wally, you made my day. Being recognized by you means a lot to me.
Such talent you have! The descriptions are vivid and my biceps feel violated and bruised. I love how you ended it with a yearning for a new perspective which time so often gives us.
Your writing is a gift and so much like a female version of McEwan.
Wow, Susie, thanks and I wish. I’m a huge fan of McEwan. His debut was one of the most memorable stories I’ve ever read– it still makes my skin crawl in a good way.
where was i during this lunch Annie???
Jess! I don’t know! Where were you? You were in the Tanguays. I was in Ms. Hale’s class. xoox
Having attended MVMS a few short years after you did I felt transported directly there. Whether you explicitly mentioned them or not, so many elements of that place, basketball courts, the bike ring, even the “Tar Pits” and seagulls all came back to me in a rush.
Thank you Anna
Neil! Isn’t it strange how certain places get under your skin? Thank you for reading.
Yeah, I’d buy the memoir.
I had a similar standoff with a boy in grade school named Mike. He was following me down the sidewalk and kept pushing me, hard smack-pushes between my shoulder blades, all the way along the long chain-link fence beside the playground. When we got to the end, I turned around and screamed STOP! in his face, and gave him a push of my own that knocked him on his ass. I’ll never forget the hurt and surprise in his face, or my own awful rush to apologize and help him up.
This shit begins early.
It does start early. I keep staring at my kids, trying to see what’s happening inside. xoox
So, like do you have a “method” for coming up with your descriptions? …like channeling your characters, assuming their POV, then telling what they see (that’s kinda what Sherlock does… according to Watson last night)? Or, does that amazing shit just fall from your fingertips like a spring shower?
I was a jerk like Troy at that time. I could have done that. Councillors said I was mad ’cause of the divorce. My perspective is that you found another outcast that wanted to chat. Outcasts don’t socialize, negotiate, acquiesce. They choose their spot, they stand their ground. I think you were communicating, not so much a rivalry as an investigation. You built a mirror and were checking out yourselves in it. You must have learned something about yourself that day to have remembered it so vividly. Outcasts are self-contained, they live in their own thoughts, make their own worlds… their own sandwiches. They fight. Ashley would have done the same.
My method is write then cut then fix then add then change then write some more, then “publish” and edit until I start writing another one, but if I ever look at it again, I have to revise again. But I only write about things I feel strongly. Was it Joan Didion who said that she writes to find out what she thinks and feels?
Troy was not a jerk. He was an 11 year old kid (and so was I). MIddle school is a crazy time. I think you’re right about the communication and the investigation and the learning. Ashley is a person I’ll never forget. I got to know her later, in high school.
aarrrrgh… still bugging me… can’t figure out what Booyon ketschi means!
I probably spelled it wrong.
Argghh! Just for that, here’s my mother in law singing a Chinese love song. Can you please translate?
All I know is, they’re scaring the fish!
Fabulous writing. I was right there with you the whole time. You’ve captured the tension so well. It might be a revelatory exercise to write it again in third person … see what universal truths pop out at you. Though, as written in f.p., I see them.
Ooo. That’s a good idea. I think I’ll try that!
I recall that stance. Standing close to your opponent, hitting, taking the answering hit without flinching. The youthful dialogues with my brother. Good times.
You have the most peculiar stories tucked away in you… 🙂
“I remember this afternoon. My father had just been denied parole, for just about the 15th time. It was a lost cause, but it made me ‘man of the house.’ A title with which freeloads things beyond the fathomable scope of a 6th grader. You say I was “an 11 year old kid,” but that numerical value is nothing but a projection we force upon ourselves to feign a sense of ‘control’ over the seconds that tick inevitably away into the blackness behind us, but how ‘old’ was I really: was I ‘old’ enough to be the ‘man of the house’? Was I ‘old’ enough to comprehend the boundaries between my arm and your arm, my fist and your fist. We were hitting ourselves that day. But I do know for a fact that it was I who had the last punch. You were the stranger, in MY territory, on MY weedy planter, feeding MY seagull. How dare you even IMPLY that you had the last punch.
Dad, that one was for you.”
Thanks for the read tgith! And thanks for putting up with my response, your stories are a great way for others (like myself) to reflect upon and respond to in kind. I’ll be spending many a lazy afternoon perusing through your writing.
Evokes varieties of feeling in me: indignation, fear, pride, jealousy, wistfulness, resignation. Viewing this as I am now, with a greater sense of what we need to flourish as children, what I needed, and a sense of wanting to protect our innocent then-selves, interred without cause in a prison like holding cell public school system, a thoughtless efficient place to corral children for the day while the parents earned the bills, indulged their art, or worked on their figures, all I can feel is sadness at the lack of sensible design. There you are, outside, perched on a dusty box at the periphery, exposed and expunged from the inside, no place to curl up, hide, read in a nook, rest from watchful eyes. I never got, until this story, how daily we were expelled from whatever safe confines existed in that school and made to wander the desolate circumference of the black glassy box, almost in exile. I was one of the ones who lingered on the edge of the dance circle, braving the blaring speakers and wasteland of barren asphalt, agonizingly hoping I would be unnoticed by virtue of the crowd. I was too chicken to sneak off into the bushes and hide with a book, as it seemed that bad kids with drugs went there, and I did not want to test my fate. But if I could wave a wand I would bless middle school with a landscape filled with nooks, crannies, benches hidden by bowers, workshops, secret hiding places where a child could rest from prying eyes and the relentless social norm of daily exposure in class for a few brief moments to be afforded the cover of eating alone, resting alone, having time to contemplate and charge one batteries for the enforced interactions with people our own age and the inevitable comparisons. Yet we were all subject to the same suspicion of wrongdoing which may theoretically occur in those nooks, guilty by our common ‘tween characteristics and forced to wander our weedy prison yard during lunch hour under reverse mirror scrutiny by unseen eyes and threat of detention, while the teachers sought relief in their offices and lounges. I remember wandering around with a lunch bag looking for sanctuary in the shade of the far side of the box, and finding none. Troy was likely looking for relief when he found you on your island of temporary anonymity. What I wish for every child is a nook in which to exhale, and a place to ruminate without fear of having to punch another lonely stranger to defend it. A stranger who could have been a friend, if we did not have to look over our shoulders for the unseen audience.