Honorable Mention, 2015 ContestMost Memorable: November 2015
He held it up and out, away from his body and along his arm. He used it to point at us sitting there in front of him. Over the curved edge, he gathered us in his sights.
“You’ve gotta cut enough paper.”
He lowered the cylinder of wrapping paper; a tube of merry Christmas tidings or snowmen or holly berries, perhaps winking, rouge-cheeked Santas wreathed in pipe smoke. He tapped the end of it on the desk in front of him for a few beats before he let it fall.
“If you don’t cut enough paper, you won’t be able to do the whole thing.”
It was presentation week. One after another the students in Mrs. Concannon’s freshman English class tripped their way up to the front of the room, bumping into desk legs and catching sharp hipbones on chair edges. One girl stumbled over a text book lying open in the aisle. One after another we took turns standing behind the teacher’s heavy, wooden desk, sputtering to fill a hollow, five-minute chunk of clock in which we had to demonstrate a skill. One after another we glued pretty dried flowers onto a frame or picked out an off-key tune on a scratched-up guitar. Someone made balloon animals.
He was demonstrating how to wrap a gift.
What I remember: his hair was Minnesota blonde, bleached-out Scandinavian wheat. Clumps and clusters of freckles tangoed across his nose and jumbled onto his cheeks. His skin was chalk-milk white, that skim-skin color which shows every blush, every pinprick of embarrassment, every bloom of anger. A jagged pirate scar, stitched together skin from a vicious dog bite, ran from his forehead down through the edge of his eyebrow, curving under one blue eye.
What I remember: his eyes. Those bluebell eyes should have shone with youth and life and the promise of grabbing the world by the balls. Those little boy blue eyes should have been oceans of vitality, of blossom, of future and opportunity and freedom. But they weren’t. When you looked into them they reflected nothing. They absorbed. They took in, contained, and held. Not lively, but flat and lifeless.
We weren’t friends. Not even acquaintances. We went to high school together, traversing linoleum hallways, ducking and weaving through the sounds of locker clangs and attendance bells. But we were small town kids, he must have known who I was in the way I knew who he was. We shared class blocks; English classes with essays written on white, lined paper in ball point pen, science classes with test tubes, and geometry lessons with bored messages scrawled in the margins of textbooks. He was there, on the edge of things, in the corner of my eye. He must have gathered his lunch tray every day, spaghetti drowning in greased-up sauce, limp fish sticks and anemic peas. He must have sat on an orange button seat with a group of others. Or perhaps he sat alone with his food, with his dog bite scar and black-hole eyes.
From time to time we must have shared space on pull-out metal bleachers before the big game. Maybe he watched black and white pompoms shake and shimmy. Maybe fantasies of cheerleaders played out behind his lids at night. Or perhaps it was the taut behind of a fullback in tight, white pants that made him sweat in the dark. I didn’t know him well enough to ask. Or even to assume.
Those are whispers and secrets for friends. We weren’t friends.
I didn’t know him at all.
“It’s good if you can get everything together first. If you make sure you’ve got what you need.”
Slowly, he pointed out each item, ticking out the seconds in his head, filling the blank spaces in between the minute hand. Scissors. Tape. Bow. Tag. Pen. He must have timed how long he would spend pointing to them. At least two Mississippi counts went by for each.
Again: “Make sure you cut enough paper to cover whatever you’re wrapping.”
His voice was just on the cusp of breaking, hinged between boy and teen. You could hear the quaver and shake in his words, the way it hitched on certain syllables. The voice of a young man playing peekaboo with the sound of a boy. He had a slight lisp, the soft syllables of an ess here and there stalling on his tongue, caught behind his teeth.
“Do you remember that time he ran away?”
Three decades after Pomp and Circumstance, I am catching up with my high school girlfriends. We are middle-aged now, crow’s feet and laugh lines, blood pressure medications and retirement funds. Mothers and wives, far removed from those hallways, the desks and blackboards and chemistry labs. Yet it is easy to remember when we are together. Drinking smooth red wine, we reminisce about Peppermint Schnapps and keggers at the sand pits, about boys we crushed on, dances in the cafeteria and Homecoming games in the frostbitten November air.
We trip our fingers over black and white yearbook photos, accounting for one classmate after another. Where is she, and Oh, I’ve caught up with him on Facebook. Whatever happened to her? You remember, she used to go out with the guy with the hair…oh, come on, what was his name? Between sips and laughs we pull those lost moments from the pockets of our memories, coaxing them free. We account for the Donnas and the Cheryls, the Brians and Mikes. The cheerleaders, the jocks, the brains, and the basket cases.
“Do you remember that time he ran away?”
But I don’t. Not at all.
I remember the soft wool of the indigo cowl-neck dress I borrowed for the homecoming dance. I remember the way the quarterback’s hands twined together above the bottom of my spine. I remember Brian Calderiso calling me ugly one day in front of my locker, the rush of heat which crimsoned my cheeks. I remember burying my nose in the soft neck flesh of a boy, carrying the scent of him home, tattooed on my skin, catching a whiff of it on my pillow the next morning. I remember the brownies from the cafeteria, the weight of textbooks in my arm on the late bus, the disinfectant smell of the hallway after it had been mopped. I remember the Rorschach smear of blood on a pair of yellow jeans when my period had come unannounced. I remember desperately trying to find my way through high school without bumping into too many corners, without bruising myself too badly, without leaving scars.
I remember his gift wrapping presentation.
But I do not remember him running away.
“Lay the gift on the paper and use it as a guide.”
He flourished the scissors. From my desk I could hear the metallic snap of the blades, the whoosh of paper as the blade ran up the roll. A lank lock of blonde hung down over his eyes like a theatre curtain, so that when he bent over his work it swung forward, covering the freckles on his nose, covering the scar.
“Make sure you tape the paper so that it doesn’t slip.”
He ripped off a few pieces of sticky scotch tape and stuck them to the side of the desk.
What I remember: there was a soft, white underbelly to him which was exposed early on, making him a target. A victim of snide hallway teasing between classes. A victim of low-simmering cruelty, of meanness and blunt truths which may not be sharp enough to make you bleed but hit hard enough to bruise. Today we would say he was bullied. Back then I was glad it wasn’t me.
What I remember: we all had flaws, physical and mental. We were all made up of freckles and scars, of ghosts and dreams. Under the smoothed-over bits we presented to the rest of the world, there was an atlas of quirk and odd that led to the very heart of us.
Maybe the constant treading of those hallway waters accounted for the flatness in his eyes. It is exhausting to keep your head above the tide day after day after day. It tires you out. Or perhaps it was the other way around. Perhaps the dead calm of his eyes is what made him vulnerable in the first place.
How do you know which comes first?
“How can you not remember him running away?” my friends ask.
“Everyone thought he’d been kidnapped. Taken,” they said. “He was gone for weeks! Don’t you remember?”
But I don’t.
“He made it all the way to Texas before they found him. They made him come back.”
“He hadn’t been kidnapped at all. He’d just run away.”
Just run away.
But all I remember of him are those blue, ghost eyes and the way he stood at the front of the class, pointing a tube of wrapping paper at us, peering over the top of it, the class caught in the crosshair of his gaze.
“Take one piece and fold it over the top,” he said. “Tape it down so it doesn’t slide. Once you do that, fold the other piece over and then tape them together.”
He never had the right jeans or the right shoes. He dressed like a middle-aged man caught in a high school class. He didn’t fit into any of the neat boxes of teenage hierarchy. Not brainy enough to be a nerd, not sporty enough to be a jock. When I remember him it is alone, under the glare of harsh track lighting.
I thought he was odd. I thought he was creepy by process of elimination, because he didn’t fit into those square edged boxes. Because I was too young and stupid or naive or lazy or inexperienced to understand not everyone fits into a mold.
Under the canary cast of classroom lights is not the time to be alone, to be without a buffer, without a little extra elbow room to grow and stretch yourself. Raw emotion is difficult to hide, especially on skim-milk skin like his. The new length in your limbs, the scent of your sweat pooling, gone from sweet to sour in the space of a class. Senses sharp enough to hear every insult as a slice to the bone. The anger and frustration and rage and lust and confusion that rise and swell like waves in your blood, and the uncertainty of what to do when they crash over you and puddle on the floor.
I was hacking my own way through the maze of growing up. I didn’t have time to pay attention to the ones to the right and left of me.
I didn’t pay attention to him.
“Everyone said he ran away because his dad beat him.”
I thought of the curve of puckered skin under his eye. A reminder, an accusation. The scar made it impossible for him to escape notice, to be anonymous. I wondered if running away had been one last attempt at trying to escape the notice of a father who took out frustrations with his fists. To escape a mother who turned a cold shoulder or a blind eye. Was he running from teachers who must have suspected, adults who made note of a black eye here, a gauze bandage there, the fading sunset of a bruise exposed by a rising pant leg or on the soft underside of an arm?
A boy who’d been beaten down and bitten down, a boy who kept standing back up, yet with each attempt at righting himself, he got a little bit weaker, a little bit more wobbly.
Maybe he was running toward something. A bus ticket to anonymity.
“Later, you can add a bow or a gift tag if you want.”
A forced smile, stretching the scar, smoothing it. He put the box in the middle of the paper and folded. One side, tape across the middle. He stretched the other side across. He paused. Pulled and tugged. He turned the box around so that he could try from a different angle, but no amount of geometry or wizardry or magic was going to solve his problem.
He hadn’t cut enough paper.
He hadn’t followed his own instructions. He hadn’t left any extra room for width or depth of corner. He hadn’t left a buffer, a just in case.
He hadn’t left himself enough room.
“Whatever happened to him?” I asked my friends. “Does anyone know?”
“He committed suicide.” It was said with the remote, expected sadness of having known of someone, but not known them. Not really.
“Right after high school?” I asked.
“No, no. Later. About fifteen years ago, I think.”
“He’s buried in suicide alley. Down at the center of town.”
Too often now I sit and watch the letters string along a news ticker, slowly spilling and spelling out details of another shooting. Eventually a photo will appear; grainy black and white, a yearbook shot, a snapshot taken from a fridge. All those boys. Boys who walk into schools weighed down with the clunk and clang of automatic weapons. Boys whose last sensation was the feel of a finger clasped and closed around a metal trigger. Boys who blew holes in the chalkboards and left a trail of blood crumbs and shell casings.
There is something in those boy faces which always brings him to mind, standing there. Not a gun in his hands as he looked out over an English class. Just a tube of cheap wrapping paper. The kind that rips while you’re cutting it.
They all have the same kind of eyes, those boys. Eyes that have seen too much and yet not enough. Eyes that scream out at the rest of us, “Look at me!” and at the same time, “Stop. Stop looking at me. Please.”
They didn’t leave enough room. They didn’t leave a buffer for eventuality or screw-ups or just simple shit luck. All those boys who suddenly understood no magic or wizardry, no geometry or miracle was going to make the paper of their lives stretch to contain them. All those boys who suspected and feared they would never fit no matter which way they turned themselves or pinched and pushed.
No matter how much they squeezed. No matter how hard they tried.
What I remember: to leave myself enough paper. At birthdays or in the midnight hour of hastily wrapping gifts for my own boys, I think of him. I take care to measure the right amount of paper. If anything, I cut too much, excising strips and squares here and there as needed. I leave myself plenty of room for rips and tears, for mistakes, for miscalculations.
His unexpected legacy.
He stood at the front of the room that day, the pinked-up shame of realizing what he’d done creeping up his neck, past his shirt collar, up onto his cheeks. Red faced, that white scar of his stood out like a lightning bolt crackling across his skin.
What I don’t remember: if he cut another piece of paper to try again, or merely sat down and let the next student take his place at the front of the room.
He stares out at me from that small black and white square photograph. In it I can see the jagged scar, the lopsided tilt of his head. You can’t see that Minnesota blonde in the grayscale or the blue of his eyes, but I can fill in the colors with memory. The slightly too wide shirt collar, the close-mouthed half smile. The flat, dead look in his eyes.
Where the rest of us put quotes, song lyrics or words of wisdom, lists of things we’d belonged to and clubs we’d joined, the names of friends and lovers, the space under his picture is blank.
Except for his name.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Diane Cordell
As a high school teacher I was drawn to the students who were not leaving enough paper. Under the misguided philosophy that everyone gets a trophy, I worried about their sense of false security. Sadly, I have read from time to time in the local paper about some of their tragic results. In the classroom I would try to infuse a bit of realism and assure them it was okay to fail. Good lessons come from those moments I told them. But we have to learn to trust ourselves. False compliments don’t build trust. Thanks for a beautiful story.
Kim thank you for those kind words. You are right, absolutely, false compliments don’t build trust. I grew up in a time when the trophy only went to the best and brightest–while I agree with that principle more than the current one of everyone winning, I think we all need to encourage students to find the thing they enjoy, and that’s it ok to enjoy life without winning the trophy. The current notion of needing to have a passion fascinates me, and I think it is hobbling a generation. Ultimately I’m not sure that Josh’s story would have turned out any differently, but I hope there were teachers like you in that school who were drawn to him and saw in him something the rest of us didn’t. The world needs teachers like you, who see beyond and reach out.
Very powerful and beautifully written and put together. Thank you, Dina.
Thank you for your kind words, Kathleen, and for taking the time to leave them for me! Dina
This story breaks my heart in a million different ways, a million different pieces. I can barely breathe. Bravo, Dina.
Thank you Jayne. I was just wrapping a gift yesterday and once again, as I was cutting too much paper, I thought of Josh. And I wondered how many people who have read this will have a fleeting thought of a boy they’d never met next time they run a pair of scissors up a roll of wrapping paper. The very idea that there may be one is enough to glue some of those pieces back together. Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to leave a comment, Jayne.
Oh Dina. Gave me goosebumps as I read along, not knowing how bad his end was going to be…only that it was going to be bad… Textured and visceral evocation of adolescence, too.
Thanks, Alice. That adolescent angst is my comfort zone with writing, I think. I seem to come back to it no matter what I do. I’m glad it works in this piece. I feel a bit like Josh was a wounded bird, a wing clipped early on–and no matter what he did, no matter how hard he tried, he was never going to fly without pain. But again, these are only my memories and observations from the back of the class. Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to leave a comment. I really appreciate it.
Poignant and touching!
Thank you so much, Jennifer!
Spot on, terrific writing about one of those boys we all knew.
I think you’re right, we did all (do all?) know a boy like that. It’s heartbreaking, more so in hindsight. I think growing up is so fraught with its own perils that it’s difficult to pay attention to anything outside your own person. As an adult, as a mother, you can see the nuances much more clearly. Which sometimes makes it even more terrifying.
Splendid. Loved every word, animated and real.
Thanks so much, Bill. I really appreciate that!
Great piece. So well written!
Thank you, Kelly!