Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween

I haven’t eaten in ten days.  For the party I decided to be a Lost Boy.  Not the Peter Pan version but the Keifer Sutherland, Coreys-Haim-and-Feldman version, because there’s this one guy in it with long, black hair like mine.  He wears an open trench coat with nothing underneath.  I don’t want to feel self-conscious so I skip meals until I feel okay in nothing but jeans, black boots, and a coat.

I spray and gel my hair into a mane.  Every inch of exposed skin is Dead Guy Grey.  My eyes look bruised and bleeding, my mouth is a wet, red maw surrounded by splits filled with shining blood that doesn’t run.  I paid fifty bucks I couldn’t afford for a pair of vampire teeth, two little caps you put over your incisors with dental adhesive.  Open Grave colors the hollows of my eyes, neck, and body, Tombstone highlights the swells.  The makeup looks nothing like the guy from The Lost Boys but who cares?  I look cool, scary as hell.

The party is three blocks from my apartment, at one of the houses at the base of the Hill that change tenants with every graduating class.  Even this short walk turns my nipples into painful, chafing points, my nose into a runny mess.  I walk faster to warm up, holding my coat together.  I feel a little dizzy.  I’ve been drinking Gatorade and V-8 all week but I guess I could use food.   

The houses all look the same.  One has cars all around it and music blaring and a bunch of lights  on.  Looking at it makes my heart pound.  I wonder how many people I’ll actually know.  

There’s a crowd on the front porch dressed as zombies in business suits.  The porch cuts the wind but not the cold.  These people must be drunk to be out here.  I pass through them and they stare at my exposed skin and smile.  I nod hellos and one of them says “hey.”  I wonder if I’d recognize her without the makeup.  

“Three bucks, man.”  The guy sitting on a stool by the door.  His breath smells like beer.  He’s wearing a green tuxedo and a top hat.

Three bucks seems steep.  He tells me it’s five without a costume so I pay him.

The living room is darker than it looks from the street.  It’s hot and no one is dancing.  They’re standing around shouting at each other to be heard over loud music I don’t recognize.  Some of them look at my chest and stomach and I wonder what I was thinking.  I carefully blot my nose on my sleeve so my makeup doesn’t smear.  I watch a guy dressed as Beetlejuice and a girl dressed as Wonder Woman enthusiastically groping each other on the couch.

Laura is supposed to be here.

I see a bright doorway I assume is the kitchen.  I further assume I’ll find copious amounts of alcohol there, so I make my way over.

“What’s up, man?”  Scott is obviously drunk and dressed as a Mouseketeer.  Some guys do this, use Halloween as an excuse to cross-dress and tell themselves it doesn’t mean anything.  Scott is actually gay so it doesn’t matter that he's wearing a short, pleated skirt and a sweater pulled tight over falsies.  “You look soooo scary.”

“You, too.”

He slaps my arm.  I ask if he’s seen Laura.  He thinks maybe she’s by the keg out back.  I say thanks and go past him to the kitchen.  Delilah is there.  This is Delilah’s house.  She’s short and loud, with tremendous cleavage and a huge ass, looking like a scene from a porno in a French maid uniform. 

     “Oh my God, dude!” she screams at me.  Everyone turns to look, their drunk eyes crawling over my body.  The kitchen is really bright.  I pull my coat closed, wishing I’d gotten here earlier so I could be drunk like them, but the makeup took a long time.  “You look awesome.”

I thank Delilah.  I tell her she looks hot.  She’s looking at my hand on the coat, the veins popping white, the dark shadows, the long, filthy nails.  She knocks my hand away, slinks an arm around my waist, and pitches her voice low.

“You can suck my blood anytime.”  

She has a lot of flesh and it’s pushing against me.  

I give her a smile, revealing my fangs.  She squeals with delight and offers me a shot.  I drink it and taste fake blood.  I look at the kitchen counter and see liquor bottles everywhere.  She tells me there’s beer in the fridge, a keg out back.  I ask where Laura is but she doesn’t know.  I thank her and fill my empty shot glass from one of the bottles on the counter.  I taste fake blood so I try a different bottle.  I still taste fake blood so I settle on a bottle of Southern Comfort and I fill my shot glass and drain it and fill it and drain it until I don’t taste fake blood anymore.  There are plastic cups everywhere.  No one bothers to find their beer once they put it down, they just get a new cup.  It’s a mess. I pick through them and pour the ones that have cigarettes butts into the sink and I stack them up and the ones that have beer in them I drink - half full, a few swallows, mostly full - and I stack them up and I want to clear the counter of everything except liquor bottles but people keep setting plastic cups down and walking away so the work keeps piling up.  I get a little carried away because a guy wearing a Boy Scout uniform comes in from the back porch and sets down a beer he just got so he can light a cigarette and I grab the beer and start to chug it.  He gets pissed off and spills some on me grabbing it back.

Laura is supposed to be at this party but when I ask Boy Scout where she is he looks at me like I’m crazy so I laugh in his face and grab his shoulders and consider biting his neck but instead I push him aside and kick the screen door open and walk out and he calls me an asshole and I call him a bitch.

Laura stands by the keg, looking like Laugh In from the neck up and Girl Friday from the neck down but the boots are hot and the eye makeup is heavy so I sloppily drape myself over her shoulders and smear fake blood on her neck.  She pushes me away and says cool it, Drunk Boy.  She hands me her beer and asks a Zoot Suit gangster near the keg for a new one.  I take a gulp and I’m looking at a girl who looks like Laura because she’s wearing a wig that’s almost exactly the same and her makeup is the same and her dress is white too but it has twigs and leaves and splots of color on it and when I ask what she is she says she’s a wood nymph.  When Laura has her beer she turns around and her make up and hair are the same as Wood Nymph and it's like seeing double and it’s a little unnerving so I tell them I need to use the bathroom and I’ll be right back.  Before I go I kiss the Wood Nymph, smearing fake blood on her lips.  I taste nicotine and then my arm is being pulled and I’m looking at Laura dressed as a 60's chick and she’s laughing at me, calling me Drunk Boy.

I tell her I thought she quit smoking and for some reason this makes her laugh even harder and there’s a Wood Nymph next to her laughing and there are hands on my back, turning me around, pushing me forward.

Back in the kitchen Delilah is doing a keg stand.  Eraserhead holds her on one side, Han Solo on the other.  Delilah’s Spiderman boy-briefs don’t match her uniform.  My shot glass is gone so I set my plastic cup on the counter and take a swig of Jack Daniel’s right from the bottle.  It burns my throat so I take a swig of Frangelico and it tastes like hazelnut candy so I take the bottle into the dining room.  The dining room is darker than the living room and louder because the stereo is there.  

I can barely see but somehow there are people at the table playing cards because it doesn’t require talking and there’s a couple slow dancing because it doesn’t require talking and the music is fast and it beats in my body harder than my heart but the couple's swaying like they’re underwater kissing like they’re in love or at least ready for sex and the music has a weird beat and it’s making me feel strange.  I take a pull of sweet liquid candy and scream at them that I’m a Lost Boy but the music is too loud for anyone to hear.

I grab the kissing guy by the shoulder and shake him and he looks at me and I tell him he’s not wearing a costume and he can’t hear me so he laughs and they walk away from me toward the stairs.  I walk behind them, mesmerized by his hand on her ass, her hand on his hand, and I bump into someone in the dark.  I mumble an apology and see a guy dressed in black with a small number on a button on his chest.  He waves me off and I wander back into the living room.  

Laura’s there dressed as a Wood Nymph making out with Pan on the love seat and my hands tighten on the neck of the bottle and I take a big pull and I walk toward them and Laura is wearing white go-go boots, talking to Scott, telling me she thought I was going to the bathroom.  I scream at her, asking why that makes it okay for her to make out with Pan and I thought she was standing by the keg and she laughs at me again and cups my chin in her hand and points it toward the love seat and there’s Wood Nymph making out with Pan and I feel like an idiot.  Laura tells me not to worry, Drunk Boy, just remember the boots and she points my chin at her feet and I try to nod but I can’t because she’s holding my chin and she tells me they came in because they got cold.  People are staring at me again and I wonder how loud I was yelling and then I realize they’re not listening to me, they’re looking at the novelty of naked flesh in upstate New York in the fall and I wonder why the house is so hot and I drink some more hazelnut and ask where the bathroom is because I realize I actually need to use it.  Laura points up the stairs and offers to take me and Scott offers to take me and I assure them I can make it. 

The stairs are crowded with people sitting down talking to each other but mostly to their cell phones.  It looks like a conference call with monsters and celebrities and college students.  The stairs are moving slightly or else they were made at wrong angles so I have the banister in a death grip with one hand and the other hand keeps feeding me hazelnut and I can’t let go of the banister even if this guy in prison stripes won’t move so I accidentally on purpose step on his hand and he says hey so I tell him I’m sorry then I knock his cell phone down the stairs and he says hey! and I tell him to fetch and he does but he makes sure to call me an asshole first so I make sure to laugh at him.  I keep moving up and I can’t let go of the banister, not even for Josie and the Pussycats sitting around Elvis.  They try to steer their bodies away from my feet like they do for people going up and down the stairs they’re lounging on but it’s hard for me because of the weird angles they used to build the stairs and my boots are pretty big so I kick a rib or two trying to find a spot where I can safely step and I mash a finger or two because the spot keeps moving but it’s not on purpose because they’re trying to help me because that’s what Josie and the Pussycats and maybe even Elvis do and looking at the Pussycats' naked flesh in upstate New York in the fall doesn’t make it any easier for me to concentrate on my footsteps but I do the best I can and somehow I’m standing in the upstairs hallway and I consider spending the rest of the party up here because thinking of navigating the stairs again is like thinking of my life. 

There are plenty of people up here too and plenty of doors and some of them are open but three of them are closed and there’s no line because most of the people on the first floor just piss around the side of the house.  I don’t know which of the closed doors is the bathroom so I grab a passing mime to ask him and when he spins around there’s a bullet hole in his forehead and blood dripping down his face and I laugh and I forget what he was going to say and I drink hazelnut and let the mime go and the first door smells like pot and I open it just to pop my head in and scream I’m a Lost Boy! and take a whiff and close the door and the music is muted up here so they heard me and I can hear them laughing from behind the door.  The second door is dark and doesn’t smell like anything.  The knob turns but the door won’t open so I give a shove and the door inches open and so I shove a little more and the door opens a little more and then an arm shoots out of the dark crack and I scream and the arm pushes me back by the chest and the door slams shut  and a male voice tells me to get lost and another guy laughs and a female voice calls me a pervert which makes me think of my crotch with reminds me I need to find the bathroom.  It must be the third door but it’s locked.  I hear someone talking so I shout hey but no one answers so I knock and say I have to pee and no one answers so I pound on the door and say let me in and the voice stops talking and yells that they’re occupied so I kick the door open and there’s a Witch with her skirt bunched around her waist balled in one fist and her white panties and green tights rolled down to her knees sitting on the toilet and she yells at me to close the door so I tell her I’m sorry and I close the door only I’m inside the bathroom and I’m unzipping my pants and I’m walking toward her and she’s got hairs growing out of the warts on her nose and her white thighs don’t match her green face and her green hands and she’s on a cell phone and she says

Get the hell out of here!  Not you, dumbass, the guy who just walked in.  Because I’m in the bathroom.  Keep your pants onNo, I didn’t call you from the bathroom - what’re you doing? - you called me and I picked up.  Yes, I’m sitting on the toilet right now and this drunk piece of. . . don’t take it out!  Do you hear me?  Do not - get that thing out of my face, I’m sitting here!  I don’t know, use the sink or the tub, use the window, it's really not my problem.  Yeah, he’s drunk.  Well good, then get over here and kick this guy’s ass.  You hear that?  My boyfriend’s gonna kick your ass when he gets here!  (. . .oh, God he’s peeing. . .)  I don’t know, big.  What am I, a nurse, Victor?  How the hell do I know? Like Fred’s size, maybe.  No, Fred Savage.  Yeah, Fred Parziale, who the hell do you think?  Are you fucking kidding me?  Watch what you’re doing!  This guy almost - Hey!  Goddammit, you drunk piece of shit, this hat’s a rental- fuck, fuck, stop it, stop it!  Victor, where are you?  Shit!
     or something like that and then she’s not saying anything into the phone she’s throwing it at me and she’s yelling at me and it’s a really good shot right across the bridge of my nose and my eyes fill with water and I stumble forward and my penis hits something soft and hands are pushing me and through my tears I see my penis has turned green and I start screaming and she’s screaming and something dark and wet hits my face and her hair is hanging wild and her make up is smeared and she has hat head and she jumps off the toilet and she’s slapping me and she tries to kick me but her tights are still wrapped around her thighs and she slips in my piss and falls and I run out and slam the door behind me and I just have time to put my dick away when the knob starts to turn so I grab it and brace myself against the door jamb and there’s screaming and pounding and kicking and Alex from A Clockwork Orange walks over with his three toadies and asks me what up and I tell him nothing and then he asks what I did in there and I tell him nothing and he takes his cane from over his shoulder and rests it against his thigh and he tells me to let go of the door but I tell him there’s a wild animal in there and there’s more screaming and pounding and he tells me to back off so I let go of the knob but nothing happens except for more noise so Alex opens the door and his three thugs kind of surround me but they’re not touching me so I try to back away but they’re not moving either so I zip my pants up and stand still.

I take a swig from the bottle but it’s empty so I hold it to my bare chest.

"His dick touched my face," the Witch yells, pointing at me.  The witch yells that I pissed all over her and she’s holding the dripping hat in one hand and they look at me and I shrug and Alex raises the cane this time with real intent and I wonder if he’s on something but I don’t wonder long because the cane is at shoulder height and I have to do something before it gets any higher because if it gets any higher it will swing down and hit me so I toss my empty Frangelico bottle at one of Alex’s droogs and he’s so surprised he tries to catch it and before I can see whether he does and before I can find out if Alex really means to hit me with that cane I plow into him with all of my weight and maybe I overdo it because we’re flying down the hall and we split open a door and end up in a closet and I’m on top of him and I punch him until I can’t see his eyelash because of all the blood and my hand feels nothing so I punch him a few more times and I get up and his droogs are too stunned to move so I buckle my belt and I look at the girl in the bathroom and her mouth is hanging open and I bend over and pick up the cane Alex dropped and everyone in the hallway is staring at me but they’re not looking at my bare skin they’re looking at my face and their eyes are wide like children and I sling the cane over one shoulder and the pot door opens and someone says damn dude and the door closes then Delilah is at the top of stairs looking pissed and asking me what I did what happened and I ask her where Laura is and she looks scared and she doesn’t answer so I thank her for having me over and brush past her and I try to navigate the bodies on the stairs but it’s tricky so I kind of fall-walk and I’m in the dining room and I’m in the kitchen and I need something in my stomach right now or I’m going to puke so I open the fridge and it’s all beer so I pull a drawer and it comes out in my hand and everything spills and there’s a block of cheese so I pick it up and unwrap it and bite the moldy part off and spit it on the floor and I wolf the rest down in four huge bites and it’s disgusting and chalky in my mouth but it feels good and heavy in my stomach and I think I can make it home without being sick so I kick open the screen door and Boy Scout is standing there so I swing the cane and knock his beer out of his hand and he’s yelling and rubbing one hand with the other so I offer him the cane and tell him to take his best shot.

Boy Scout stares at the cane but doesn’t move.

I drop it and take off running around the side of the house because I’m going to be violently sick and even though most people who know me have seen it for some reason maybe because of the holiday I don’t want them to tonight so I force myself to slow down to a fast walk and I think someone is calling my name and I think maybe it’s Laura but I don’t have time to stop and talk to her because I’m going to be sick and I want to be home when it happens.  I manage to open the door to my apartment building even though the key and the lock don’t want to connect and I’m running up the stairs and I hear my name and I drop my coat on the stairs and my belt on the landing and I’m in front of my door and somehow I open it and get one boot off and I run down the hall and take my jeans and my underwear off and I try to step out of them but I can’t because I’m still wearing one boot so I drag it all with me to the bathroom and I hit the tile so hard I wonder if I’ve fractured my kneecaps and my face is in the toilet and the edges are cold against my arms and I heave chunks of slightly melted cheese and a torrent of Frangelico and beer and whiskey and bourbon and bile and the buzzer is going like mad someone wanting to get in and I shut my eyes and I heave more and my mouth is forced open wide with it and I hear someone pounding on the door downstairs and I realize I left the door to my apartment open and I heave again and most of it goes up my nose and hangs in burning strings so I blow my nose weakly and I heave and it’s just as violent but there’s less to it but it smells even worse and my stomach clenches weakly a few times and I make some odd hitching noises and I slap at the handle until it flushes my stink away.

It’s a long time or maybe only minutes before Laura is there pulling my hair from my face and the toilet with one hand and stroking my back with the other and telling me it’s okay that everything is going to be okay and I know she’s lying but I let her because it’s going to be a long night.   

I walk down the hall from the bathroom.  The tile has tattooed its pattern down my hip from dozing over the toilet.  Sunlight spears through the curtains of my living room.  My bedroom door is closed.  I open it and see Laura sleeping in my bed.  She always smiles in her sleep.  I wonder how we got here.  

My head throbs, my stomach feels vile, but there’s no way I can go to bed without a shower.  It takes a lot longer than it should for me to remove my other boot and the pants and underwear still clinging to my ankle.  I stand under the spray for a long time but the water never gets cold.  My right hand hurts.  The knuckles are swollen.  I wonder if I made new people I need to worry about last night.  I have to work tonight at five.  I’m exhausted but glad the room isn’t spinning.  I tuck myself behind Laura, making spoons.  The minute my damp hair hits the pillow I’m drifting.  The last thing I hear is Laura telling me we need to talk.

No one ever needs to talk for anything good.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Breaking the Fiction in the A.M. Rule

Because the days are just packed!  If you're unfamiliar with the Miami International Book Fair, it's in its 28th year.

Circa 1984. That's my boss on the left.
Because of Mitchell's involvement with MBFI, and because of our rather large sales tent, folks assume that Books & Books always handles sales for the author events.  This has been true from time to time over the years, but it's never a given.  2011 is a make or break year.  We're trying to be more organized than ever, looking at everything as hard as we can, to determine once and for all whether handling event sales at MBFI makes us money, or if we should hand event sales off to someone else (again).

I mention all of this because MBFI is consuming me.  I do the event appearances for Books & Books, among other things, and I've been tapped to order for this event as well.  It's like being handed a second full-time job on top of my regular full-time job.

Thankfully, some co-workers have stepped up to lighten my load.  Not a lot, but enough to where I haven't actually torn my hair out.

I know, I know, I'm lucky to have a job in this economy.  Particularly a book-industry job.

Then there's being a husband to my love, a father to my other love, Halloween, the After-Wedding Karaoke Jam Party, costumes, cleaning, meals, scratching the cat (no, that's not some gross metaphor).  You know- life.  I could be selfish and lock myself in my room until I'm published, but I don't think that would make me happy.

Besides, art doesn't happen in a vacuum.

I'm trying to keep the faith.  Pushing the cursor isn't coming as easily as it has at certain moments in my life, but I still tell myself most days that it matters.  I will dream big, and not listen to people who aren't.  I will stop listening to the little voice in my head that says "It's been five years, Curtis, who you trying to kid?"  I will follow The Rumpus's rule and Write Like a Motherfucker.

In the meantime, you'll probably find me in Books & Books buying office.  Please send dark chocolate peanut M&Ms and Tito's Handmade Vodka.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

I Saw Love Today

A couple just ran into each-other’s arms in the street outside my window.  They kissed fiercely, surrounded by cold front air and blowing leaves, the sun shining down.  It was a gorgeous moment, right out of a movie.  Did one of them just get back in town?  Did they just get sensational news?  Whatever the reason, he swept her into the kiss, lifting her off her feet and carrying her down the street.

They struck me as the most beautiful couple in the world.  

wanted to know them better, so I put my glasses on.  He had jowls and a paunch.  She had a muffin top spilling over wide hips packed into too-tight jeans.  But they smiled through their kisses, their beauty undiminished by my superficial judgments of their clothes and bodies. 

That's love.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Best Day of My Life

Living in a culture were everything is the "Best.  _______.  Ever." makes it tough to call something your best experience without it getting swept up with the rest of the hyperbole.  I'll take that risk and dub my wedding day the best day of my life.  

A nice surprise from the folks at Onondaga County Parks and Recreation greeted us on Thursday.
My sister's wedding gift was renting Camp Brockway on Thursday so we didn't need to rush the day of the wedding.

A good thing, since it took us six hours to put together everything we've doing over the last few months.  

Becky and I drew and labelled place settings.  Becky and her sister made dozens of flowers from book pages.  That's 10 pounds of Starbucks Espresso Roast holding them in place (whole bean; we have coffee for months).  We wrapped the books so they'd match and printed labels so our families would know what they are.  Those are Proust Questionnaires in lieu of a guestbook, which led my seven-year-old 2nd-cousin to say, "Why do we have a test?".

Our troubador, who performed Bob Dylan's You Ain't Goin' Nowhere.  

Our troubador, canoodling our officiant from the First Nation Church.
These folks are also known as Becky's parents.

Sometimes you need a little help getting dressed.

It might even be a two-parent job.

But it's worth the effort when this is your ring-bearer.

When getting married, try not to have too much fun.

Our menu was pulled pork sandwiches, mojo chicken, tomato-cucumber salad, mashed potatoes, and cornbread.
I love me some Dinosaur Bar-B-Que.  You can order the sauces and spices to your home, or you can make them yourself. Their cookbook recipes are the same recipes they use in the restaurants, and they taste just as amazing.

Nonpareils baked our cupcakes: Red Velvet with cannoli cream filling and ice butter cream frosting, Chocolate Espresso   filled with espresso ganache and topped with mocha butter cream frosting, and nut-and-raisin-free Carrot Cake topped with cream cheese butter cream.  Basically, you're looking at a lot of cream.

We weren't quite sure how we were going to pull off the cake-toppers, images of books we love cut from old publishers catalogs, and mounted on our cobalt blue.  Jen from Nonpareils suggested spray adhesive on card stock, then attaching those cards to coffee stirrers.  It worked like a charm.  They're stacked on books from my parents' shelves, wrapped in white, cobalt, and black.  I'm pretty sure Jen suggested that as well.  She was awesome.

We let folks take the leftover barbeque, but we took the cupcakes for the road.  I wish I had one right now.  

After our first meal as a married couple...

We repped 305 during a Pratts Falls photoshoot.
When we returned, we found many in the family had already left.
These are my parents, trying to sneak off.  Luckily, we caught them before they missed our first dance.

Becky thought we should do Judson Laipply's Evolution of Dance.  If you're unfamiliar, check it out.  You're in for a real treat. 

We rehearsed for several hours and several Coronas one Saturday night and decided that, apart from "The Worm," we could pull it off.  For the couple of weeks leading up to our wedding, we rehearsed when we could squeeze some time in.

As an introduction, Becky told our families, "We couldn't pick one first dance, so we picked them all."  

I must say, we rocked the Evolution of Dance.  Our families could not stop talking about it.  For six minutes, Becky and I were dancing machines.  Unfortunately, no footage of our efforts survive except for these grainy, poorly-lit, disposable camera shots.
The twist...
The Brady Bunch...
The Billie Jean...

The Robot...
This shot is clear proof that we know how to "Ride the Pony," but this next photo is a real shame.
We couldn't do The Worm, so this a picture of the up-rock grande jete salsa break we did instead.  It's a sort of Bob Fosse meets break beats meets Cuban Casino.  We couldn't decide on a name, we just called it, "that thing," as in, "Oh man, that thing you guys did?  It was fucking awesome."

Dylan finally met his cousins, Rylee and Sophia.

In lieu of keg stands, they did trash sledding.
Also, I got to use "in lieu of" twice in one post.

Then folks got changed into casual dress for the after-party, and to get the place cleaned up. 

While Becky ran around the mountain screaming, "I'm maaaaaaarrrrrriiiiiiieeeeed!" I stayed on the dance floor, rocking out to Becky's Ipod.  

It wasn't a good look for either of us. 

Ultimately, a good time was had by all.  Becky and I got cupcakes, Dinosaur Barbecue condiments, and some awesome reading material in the form of our family's answers to their Proust Questionnaires.

Some people took home paper flowers in glass vases filled with coffee, some took paper lanterns, and everyone got a book or two.

At this point, the only Curtises left were me and my brother. . . and Becky. 

A wedding doesn't make a marriage.  A marriage is created day-to-day as you and the person you've chosen learn what your love will hold.  Sometimes it means living in the moment.  Sometimes it means putting the mistakes of past relationships to rest so they don't cloud this one.  Sometimes it means having coffee brewed when your spouse wakes up.

But now is not the time for wondering about how our relationship will evolve, it's the time for enjoying each-other.  It's been thirty-seven lovely days that feel like an eye blink.  I intend to play the newlywed card for as long as I can.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Social Capital

He’s not the coolest boy or the richest boy, but his brown bag is packed with bargaining power.  The sandwich is roast beef from Leo & Sons Big M deli with muenster and honey Dijon, served on marbled bread with lettuce.  His mother packed the tomato slices separately to keep the bread from getting soggy.  This is a legendary sandwich, half to keep, half to trade for practically anything in the cafeteria.  

He misses haggling with his friends.  For four months, the boy has taken lunch in his classroom, seated at his desk.  The students are finally old enough to find their own way through the halls, but the Teacher walks the boy to the cafeteria and back, keeping him from his classmates the whole trip.   He purchases a half pint of whole milk, speaking only to the cashier before returning to his desk.

The boy has bought his milk.  He lays the tomato slices in place.  He takes slow, meditative bites of his sandwich as he stares at the Teacher.  The overhead lights are off so he can’t read.  She uses her desk lamp.  She shuffles papers around, opens and closes drawers, and pretends he's not staring.  He can tell his stare unnerves her.  When she sees him doing it in class – which he has been doing in lieu of work more and more – the Teacher tells him to stop.  

On some level he knows the sandwich is delicious, but it’s hard to taste past the bile rising in his throat.

The Teacher has a pinched face and a sharp nose.  Her hair is chalky black, with a white stripe down the middle where she parts it.  Ethan, who the boy used to sit with in the cafeteria, said it’s because her hair is really white but she dyes it black.  The boy isn’t sure if that's true; her stripe always looks the same.  

Some of his classmates call her Skunkhead, or Zipperhead, or, more mysteriously, Mrs. Hammerhead.  Mark Polaski, who already has muscles, stubble, and a deep voice, calls her Miss Z.  When he does this, she presses her lips together so hard they turn white, but she doesn't scold him.

The boy never calls her anything except Mrs. Zimmerman.  Or rather, he never called her anything except Mrs. Zimmerman before she began bullying him.  Now he uses all the nicknames.  On the bus ride to and from school, he talks about the way Zipperhead begins every lunch by pulling a tin of tiny mints from her purse and washing one down with water, how she stares for twenty minutes with her mouth opening and closing like a fish, then breathes deeply and closes her eyes before she finally starts working.  He talks about lunch in Skunkhead’s room, silent apart from the sighs and creaks of her chair, the rattling of her mint tin, the whip of her shh if he makes noise of any kind.  He talks about lunch in Hammerhead’s room, how her hands flutter around her head like moths before twitching to rest, one at her neck, one holding her bowed head, the way her lips pucker when she reads to keep them from moving. 

His friends – the ones he used to sit with at lunch - are sick of hearing about her.  He uses new nicknames, Batface, Farthead, Madam Bitchface, but even his vehement use of punishable language doesn’t hold their interest. 

The boy doesn’t know what social capital is.  If he did, he would understand the Teacher is destroying his.  The boy only knows she is mean, messing up his life for no reason.  

The boy has four older brothers and one older sister, clustered together, one after the next.  He’s a surprise separated by a gulf of years.  The oldest brother and the twins dropped out before graduating.  His sister and closest brother are in high school, and they could go either way.  In the school system, his siblings are known for intelligence, disregard for authority, and some legendary infractions.  The teacher knows the stories, but the boy doesn’t.  If his siblings are the reason for her bullying, he wouldn’t know.
The boy’s skin tone doesn’t match his classmates.  They are young enough to be only dimly aware of this.  If his skin is the reason the teacher bullies him, the boy doesn’t know.  

If the Teacher is addicted to prescription painkillers, the boy doesn’t know.  If bitter loneliness explains her erratic behavior, the boy doesn’t know.  If this boy, so much smarter and so much more ignorant than she is, reminds her of her own boy, of her failures raising him, the one lost to an inherited weakness for drugs, if she hates herself more each day for victimizing the boy yet can't seem to stop, if scraping him raw makes it easier for her to be sweet toward his classmates, the boy doesn't know.

The boy only knows she is hateful.  First, she snapped at him in class when he answered questions, whether he was correct or not.  Then she punished him for things everyone did - like getting up to sharpen his pencil without permission to leave his seat, or reading a book while waiting for the rest of the class to finish an assignment.  He reacted.  He became another Mark Polaski, a back-talker, a loafer, a snide remark-maker.  She punished him more.
The boy wants revenge.  So far, his only weapon is his stare, and he uses it as much as he can.  Every day, he sits at his desk and stares at his teacher until she tells him to stop.  For the first time in his life, the boy is not getting A’s.  He rushes through each assignment so he can get back to his real work as quickly as possible.  He contributes nothing to group work.  He doesn’t put his head down during games of Thumbs Up until specifically directed.     

The sandwich is gone.  The carrots were purchased whole, but the boy’s mother has taken the time to peel them and cut them into uniform sticks.  Much tastier than baby carrots, they’re swappable for a V-8 or Wheat Thins, if he could get into the cafeteria.  Still staring, he eats the carrot sticks as slowly as the youngest of six siblings can.  The clock moves like a turtle.      

The teacher never tells him to stop staring.
Stop that, is all she says.  As though what he’s doing is so loathsome she can’t soil her mouth naming it.  

The teacher can only ignore the boy’s gaze so long, and her tolerance is slipping.  She tells him stop that eight times a day now, with a series of inflections the boy has cataloged like varieties of potato chips. 

He discovered the stare by accident.  He had been looking at her, trying to think of something, anything, to make her feel for one moment as bad as she made him feel every minute of every day.  His head dipped.  His eyes narrowed.  His stomach seethed.  He had nothing.  You mean old bat-faced bitch, he thought.  

He didn’t know how long he stared, racking his brain for a plan, before the room began to swirl.  Everything in his peripheral vision blurred into nothing.  All he could see was his teacher’s face.  He had never stared at anything so hard in his life, so he had no way of knowing if this was normal.  His thoughts flattened to a single line, repeated like a mantra.  Mean old bitch, mean old bitch, mean old bitch, mean old bitch, mean old bitch, Meanoldbitchmeanoldbitchmeanoldbitchmeanoldbitchmeanold-
“Stop that.”

The boy felt like he’d been startled awake.  The classroom came rushing back. Beneath the teacher’s authoritarian mask, he saw a moment of hesitation.  She couldn't have pointed to her weak spot more clearly.

The boy was not stupid (and in his naivety he didn’t wonder if he’d have an easier time being the Teacher's student if he was).  Her reaction could be fake, a way to get him out on another limb so she could humiliate him again.

Over time, he came to believe her upset was real.  She wore half-glasses on a cord around her neck, and she acquired the habit of pinching the arms of her glasses while he stared.  She also donned and removed the glasses more often.  She scratched her nose.  She shifted her weight.  Her hand trembled over her shoulders like a hamster, rubbing her collarbone, her shoulder, then the small knot at the top of her spine.  That was usually the last gesture she made before slapping her arm to her side and setting her jaw, acknowledging him at last.

Stop that.

The carrots are gone.  The boy opens his milk.  Thinking of the half of an ice cream sandwich that five Double Stuff Oreos might have gotten him, watching the teacher’s condescending little smile, it’s difficult to enjoy his cookies.  He tries making each Oreo last six bites.

The boy had tried tacks and chewed gum on her chair, notes written in block letters on her desk, unscrewing the bulb in her lamp to make it flicker.  

"Gee," the teacher said.  "I wonder how this gum got on my chair."

She called half a dozen suspects to line up in front of her desk.  One by one she leaned down and smelled their breath, saving the boy for last.  He was unaccustomed to lying.  The smell of peppermint tagged two weeks on his lunchroom sentence.  Two weeks would have been worth it, if she had sat in the gum.

When the teacher pulled out her chair and looked at the tacks, her eyes went dark.  The boy entertained a stupid hope that she was in a far off place, thinking deep thoughts, about to sit at any moment.  Then she looked up and barked his name, making him start.  She used his guilty jump as a wedge to drive another confession from him, and add another three weeks to his sentence.  Three weeks would have been worth it, if she’d sat on a tack.

The notes she collected for a week.  

"Class, I have a special question."  

When the Teacher dubbed something "special," trouble generally followed.

She rose from her desk, a few loose pieces of lavender notebook paper in her hand.  The boy recognized the paper, each sheet ripped from his sister's Hello Kitty pad.  He had thought himself clever, throwing her off the trail with girly paper he didn't carry.  

"How do I feel about passing notes in class?"

This was not the special question; this was a line drawn.  Dawn Peterson raising her hand was a second line drawn.  The Teacher nodding for Dawn to speak was another line.  Dawn saying note passing is a low practice which detracts from lessons and disrupts the peace of the class was a fourth line.  The teacher would draw the whole gallows with questions and calculated gestures, and then she’d hang the boy.

"That's exactly correct, Dawn."

The teacher moved to the blackboard, erased the notes from the prior lesson, and picked up a piece of chalk.  She took a moment to select the proper length of chalk for maximum impact, not so short she'd need another piece to finish, not so long it might break.  She wrote four phrases on the board.

A few in the class tittered, but not because it was funny.  Most, like the boy, were shocked.  He recognized the phrases.  If asked, he could not have recalled what he'd written, but seeing them on the blackboard brought back the hatred coming from his pen.

You will die tomorrow at noon, with a knife.
You have stupid hair.
You suck and are so dumb.
Fuck you.  Hell.
In the teacher's precise print, the words he'd felt powerful writing looked stupid and juvenile.  The boy's face burned.  He squirmed in his chair.  He may as well have waved his hand in the air like Dawn Peterson, who always had the correct answer to everything and looked like she'd pee herself if she didn't get to say it. 
The teacher put her chalk down, turned, and grinned at the class.

"Fuck you hell," she said.  No one laughed.  Each word felt like an attack.  

The teacher paced the aisles between students’ desks, hands clasped loosely at her waist.  Her heels clacked like nails knocking into wood.

“‘Fuck you hell,’” she repeated.  “I was wondering, who would write ‘fuck you hell’ on a note and place it on my desk?"

The boy fairly leapt from his seat to stop his Teacher from saying the phrase again. 

"Me, I did it, it was me."

"You?"  Her astonishment was as genuine as Sweet n' Low, and about as palatable.  "I won't believe you, of all my students, could write something so vile, to me."

"Yes."  He wasn't sure what he was agreeing to.  The boy opened his desk.  Inside was that day's note, a doozy he’d been saving for the end of the day so the Teacher's weekend could start in the manner she deserved. 

"Oh."  She shook her head in pity, her white stripe waving at him.  Then she perked up.  "I have an idea.  Maybe you'd like to read your note in front of the class?"

"No, Mrs. Zimmerman."

"Don't be modest.  Work of this magnitude deserves a much wider audience."

“I don’t get what you mean.”  The boy knew; he was just stalling.

“I mean that your notes are so good, it's a waste that I'm the only one who gets to read them.”

The boy swallowed.  He ran a hand over his forehead, rubbing at his hairline.  The boy doesn't know it, but he's started a nervous gesture he'll take with him to the grave.   

"'You are…'"  

"Come on, you've never been shy during Show and Tell.  Show us the note."

The boy moved in a circle, holding the note in front of him like a shield.  He didn't look at his classmates.  He watched his shoes turning on the tile.

"Very good.  Now tell us what it says."

The boy licked his lips.  His mouth felt like sandpaper.

"'You are… a… mean old bat-faced bitch who should die.'"

She took great delight in repeating the phrase. 

“‘A mean, old, bat-faced, bitch. . . who should die.’  Well done.  Now tell me you're sorry."  Her face was as content as a cat bathing after a meal.

"I'm sorry."

“Are you?  Are you very, very sorry?”



"And I'll never do it again."

She told the boy he'd be enjoying lunch with her until Spring Break, and it wasn't even Thanksgiving.  It was an unfathomable stretch, but with a nice side-effect; the Teacher had to apologize.  

"Class.  On Friday, I used language that is unsuitable for the classroom.  How can I expect you to avoid using inappropriate language, if I use it myself?  If I offended anyone by using those nasty words, I'm very, very sorry."

And? the boy screamed in his head.  And?  And?  And?  Having to say I'll never do it again was the cherry on top of his misery that she always forced him to say.  Still, hearing the Teacher apologize was quite something.  He only wished he had thought of telling his parents about the Teacher swearing, so it would be because of him that she was forced to humble herself. 

The boy never tells his parents what happens in school.  He’s the good son, and doesn’t want to disappoint them.

The Macintosh is arguably the most delicious hand fruit available.  It’s certainly top two in the apple world, neck and neck with the Royal Gala.  The Macintosh could be traded for a banana or a fruit roll-up, but the boy probably wouldn’t.  Since his mom taught him that the apple is nature’s toothbrush, he finishes every lunch with one.  Misery dulls the crispy sweet memory of autumn in his mouth but at least he's managed not to cry.

Today’s lunch is especially trying because of the Vulcan Death Grip. 

There is no such thing as the Vulcan Death Grip, but the boy doesn't know this.  He doesn't pay full attention when his dad watches re-runs of this old show, he just thinks it would be cool to thwart his foes with a single touch.  He gives Ethan the Vulcan Death Grip twice, once in gym, and once in the advanced math class they take with a different teacher.  Ethan used to be his best friend, and he tolerates the action well enough.  In art class, the boy gives Renee Costanza the Vulcan Death Grip, also twice.  Renee looks very uncomfortable when the boy touches her, but he can’t stop himself.  In his opinion, Renee Costanza is the prettiest girl in his class.  

These acts are unsatisfying because they don't work.  The boy much prefers announcing his intention to perform the Vulcan Death Grip, then shuffling toward his victim, one hand stretched out in a claw.  He never catches anyone; the anticipation is the thing, the idea that it could actually render someone unconscious, just this once.

Yesterday he forgot which class he was in.  As he reached toward Scott Eggert’s retreating back, a waist bunched with pink flowers on stiff white cotton blocked his vision.  He looked up and saw the Teacher’s angry face.  

"What do you think you're doing?"  

"The Vulcan Death Grip," he said.

She loomed above him, hands on his shoulders, thumbs digging beneath his collarbones.  The pain was exquisite.  His eyes filled with tears.  

“The what?”  

“Vulcan Death Grip.”

He was never afraid of her before.  It doesn't occur to him that he might have an easier time as her student if he was.  

"How many students have you done this to?"

The boy shrugged as best he could with the Teacher performing her own version of a double-death-grip on him.  She commissioned Dawn Peterson to go from class to class and make a list.  

Before lunch, Dawn handed the Teacher three neatly printed pages.  The Teacher showed them to the boy before they left to buy milk.  According to Dawn’s list, the boy has given the Vulcan Death Grip to all of his classmates at least once.  Most claim he’s done it four to six times.   Ethan, Renee Costanza, and Dawn herself top the list, with claims of eighteen Death Grips each.

The boy's fingers shook as he flipped the pages of lies.  The Teacher might have thought the boy was afraid, but his hatred had crystallized into pain and rage.  

"What are we going to do about this?" 

He held proof of his classmates’ disdain for him, and it was the Teacher’s fault.  

"If we show Principal Hyatt, all the parents will find out.  There will be phone calls.  Everyone will know you've been assaulting your classmates.  Does that sound like fun?”

The boy shook his head.  How had she done it?  And why did his classmates go along?

“If you apologize to everyone in class, I'm sure you'll learn your lesson."


Did they think he enjoyed her company, that he liked eating lunch in the classroom?   Had her harsh treatment invited them to be equally harsh?  Were they that sick of hearing him complain about her?  Or did they lie about him just because they could?

His lunch is gone.  The boy raises his hand and asks for permission to leave his seat and dispose of the trash.  The teacher nods like a queen bestowing a great favor.  

He has nearly fifteen minutes to stare at the Teacher until lunch ends.  He stares until her face in the desk lamp is all he sees, but the effects are minimal.  She seems barely aware she's at her desk at all.  She broke a second mint in half and washed it down with the first, never a sign of good things after lunch.  It meant she'd be especially giddy with his classmates, but more openly antagonistic toward him.  

He stares even as his classmates trickle back to the room, but the contented little smile never leaves her face.  

"Class," the Teacher says once everyone is settled, "we have a special presentation."  She calls the boy's name.

"Would you like to get it out of the way?"

The boy certainly does not want to get it out of the way, but it wasn't really a question.  His classmates eye him as he walks to the front of the room.  Once there, he stands, whittled smaller and smaller the longer they look at him.

"Go ahead."

"I just wanted to say..."

His classmates hear his voice crack and their eyes grow hungry.  A lump forms in his throat.  He hates the Teacher for putting the lump there.  He hates himself for letting this hurt him. 

"I just wanted to say..."

If he continues, he won't be able to hold his tears any longer.

"Please hurry.  Afternoon lessons won't wait forever, and we have a lot of classrooms after this one."

The boy looks at the Teacher.  She looks back with the same avid interest as his peers.  Humiliating him here isn’t enough; she wants to bring him from room to room for her own Show and Tell.  Class, this is what a bad boy looks like, and he’s got something to tell you…

The boy feels like he's choking on the hurtful lump in his throat.  

"I wanted to say I'm sorry," he whispers.  

"You're sorry for what?"

The teacher's voice is soft.  The boy thinks of his mother, soothing him to sleep when a nightmare wakes him.  His feet on the tiles blur.  

"I'm sorry for giving you all the Vulcan Death Grip."  He doesn’t look at them.  Tears roll down his face.  


The word is little more than a whisper.  When the boy speaks, it's like an explosion.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'll never, ever do it again."  He's wailing, crying.  He can barely keep his feet.  A few of this classmates seem embarrassed but none of them look away.

The teacher rushes to the front of the class.  Her body shakes like she’s just risen from a cold lake.  Her lips tremble, her brow is knotted.  Concern, disgust, anger, it's all there as she reaches for the boy.  She grabs his arm.   

The teacher looks around, as if seeing her students for the first time.  Her lips spasm but no sound emerges.  Her hand hurts.  She looks down, sees her fingers digging into the boy's arm, and snatches her hand back like she's been burned.  

"Dawn, would you mind keeping an eye on things while we're away?"

Dawn nods smugly.  She looks at the boy, at his classmates.  

The Teacher leads the boy from the room, practically dragging him.  He's resigned to his fate, but crying makes walking difficult.  The Teacher opens the door to the neighboring classroom, leans insides, and asks "Can I borrow your class for a moment?" 

Mrs. De Los Rios looks like she's smelled something bad, but she nods agreement.   The teacher tells the boy to apologize for his alleged misdeeds. 

Again, there is the shameful walk to the front of the class.  Again, his classmate's hungry eyes whittle him down.  His tears burn.  The words are like vomiting pieces of lead.  

By the time they reach the last classroom, the boy should be whittled to nothing.  Except it's become both easier and harder to make the trip, to stand in front of the class, to make his mouth say he's sorry.  He had cried in front of everyone, but no one stopped the Teacher.  They watched his misery like a TV show.  Somewhere inside, crying in front of his classmates felt like when you bend small piece of wood back and forth for fun and before you know it, you're holding two pieces.    

If this is the reason he becomes the person he is, the boy doesn't know.  Looking at the things he has done, I think it's as good of a starting point as anywhere.