Fiction from Beth Thompson excerpted from our Fall 2015 issue.
Danville High was under renovation: cranes were suspended in the sky, and dirt from the dug-up football field floated in big loose clouds through the parking lot.
In August I’d received a map of the school in the mail. D hall, the center link in its figure-eight floor plan, was now closed off—cable locks had been looped through the handles of the double doors on each end. As a result of this blocked central pathway there were human traffic jams. On the first day of school I got stuck beneath a staircase for a minute. Tall loud students who smelled of French fries and perfume passed me by, pushing through the thin jammed passage between the stairs and the wall. Kids I knew from middle school did the same. No one said anything to me. A dozen people jostled my backpack.
I was late to art class. A lot of people were. The teacher, Ms. Richardson, stood in the doorway smiling. “Sit anywhere you’d like!” she said. “Anywhere you like. It’ll be like this all semester.”
Other kids strode past her hissing yes. They locked eyes with their friends across the room. This was high school: this new kind of freedom. I recognized one person, Alycia Small. This was worse than if I’d recognized no one. She stood in the room’s front and center, with her things—white bag, jean jacket, purple notebook—laid across her table and the one behind it. Our classroom seemed to be a retired chemistry lab, with long black tables for two instead of desks. None was empty, except for the one behind Alycia.
Looking around in a panic, I recognized another student but couldn’t place him. He was sitting in the back by the radiator. He looked like a statue: large head, smooth skin, sleepy eyes, though not in a druggie way—the whites of his eyes were bright as milk, like a baby’s. He had short gelled hair that glistened in little peaks. He was cute, in a way, though not really—few girls would think so. Regardless, too cute for me.
My problem, physically, was unrelated to weight. I was short, petite—a perfectly ignorable size. My face was the thing. I’d studied it in mirrors and determined that its features didn’t match. My eyes were small, close together, and sort of sunken. My cheeks were full and my teeth big; literally, my teeth were too large for my mouth. Last year, I’d had oral surgery to remove four adult bicuspids.
The boy with the gelled hair saw me looking at him and smiled. I smiled back.
He raised a hand and waved.
When I sat down I asked him his name. It was Joseph. I told him mine—Dawn—and he repeated it. After he did so he turned away and shrugged, as if he’d known my name all along and resented being told. That was when I remembered how I knew him. He was Joseph Gage, and he’d gone to Spealman, my elementary school. I’d never known how old he was. I’d never played with him at recess. At Spealman, he’d been in the class for kids with special needs.
I studied him intermittently as Ms. Richardson sped through her speech. Each class would begin with a lecture, she said; the rest of the forty-five minutes we’d work on our projects; she had to give us grades but she wished she didn’t—this was art! Meanwhile Joseph sat tall with his hands in his lap. He didn’t slouch but his shoulders curved forward, making his neck look short and his back smooth and round. His polo shirt was red and fit him well. He smelled good, artificially good, like industrial-strength soap—the same as all teenage boys who don’t smell bad.
At one point Ms. Richardson stopped talking and clapped her hands once. After a pause, with her hands on her hips, she said, “And now it’s time for you guys to get to know each other!”
She told us to sit back to back with a partner, to stand and move our chairs so that their backs were touching. This took a few loud minutes—the chairs had metal feet and they scraped against the tile. For a while Joseph didn’t move, so I asked him to. As he did, slowly, he kept looking all around the room, like he knew he had a friend somewhere but couldn’t find him. Now that I remembered who he was I didn’t want to be his partner. Maybe he didn’t want to be mine, either.
Ms. Richardson passed out white envelopes that contained small blue cards. We couldn’t look at them yet—the point of the exercise was to describe the design on the card to your partner, who would draw it, blindly, without asking questions. I took a blue card first and gave Joseph the paper. Sitting back to back like that, I was conscious of the many faces aimed my way. There were seniors in this class. The guy at the table next to me had a goatee.
Because our chairs were touching, I could feel when Joseph moved, shifting his weight in his seat. At first I felt painfully embarrassed. As I described my shape, though—it was two overlapping circles perched on a triangle—to my surprise, I found myself laughing. Nearly everyone was. When I laughed, Joseph laughed too.
“The circles look like … a Venn diagram!” I said, too late. At this point only ten seconds remained, and I knew I hadn’t done a very good job.
When time was up, I told Joseph to show me his sketch. By now the entire class was laughing even harder. I guessed no matter who you were, the exercise was tough.
He’d drawn a skewed sort of pyramid with sides like staircases. “What is this?” I said.
We were sitting facing forward now, with the chairs’ backs between our shoulders. “I drew stairs,” he said, matter-of-factly.
“But—” I laid my card down beside his drawing. “Do these look alike?”
He shook his head. “No,” he pronounced.
I laughed. Was he being sarcastic? He laughed too. I was kind of amazed to be laughing on the first day of high school.
When the bell rang and we stood to leave, the drawing of the group next to us, on Joseph’s side, caught my eye. Someone had left it on top of the black table instead of throwing it out. It was familiar.
For a second I thought it was Joseph’s. But that was impossible—I held his in my hand. This drawing, too, was a pyramid with sides like staircases, but the shape was symmetrical, and the lines straight. I picked it up and crumpled it in my hand. It made me sad to think that Joseph had copied someone else, instead of listening to me.
The second day I sat beside him again. I had no one else to sit next to, and the only open desks were closer to Alycia’s.
Alycia Small and I lived in the same neighborhood, and we’d ridden the bus together in middle school. She didn’t ride it anymore. I guessed she got a ride.
Once, on the bus in seventh grade, she’d grabbed my contest-winning self-portrait, a mosaic of shreds of construction paper that had spent two months on display at Symphony Hall, and held it out the window while we drove down Fountain Street. Kids laughed. Alycia’s blond hair rippled in the wind like a model’s on the beach. I grabbed a binder from her shoulder bag and tried to do the same thing. It was heavy. I dropped it. The binder’s contents—lined paper, neon Post-its, a package of metallic pens—spilled onto the road, causing an old woman thirty yards behind us to swerve to avoid them. Alycia let the portrait sail away as the woman crashed into a mailbox. We all watched. She was fine. But for me, it seemed like everyone had been waiting for this moment: for this clear proof that part of me, something deep down, was as ugly as I was. My nickname, once Triangle Head—I had thick, puffy hair—became Devil Girl. And later, thanks to a video game, Dawn of Doom.
During our second art class, we studied shading and worked with only pencil and paper. At one point, during the lecture, Joseph pushed his paper off the table. It floated through the air and landed in front of my feet. I could tell he wasn’t going to stand up to retrieve it, so I did. I moved quietly. No one but Ms. Richardson noticed me.
When I placed the paper on his side of the table, he pushed it onto mine.
I pushed it back onto his and he laughed. This made me laugh. He pushed the paper back toward me, into my hand. The paper folded and crinkled, making a cracking noise.
“Dawn!” Ms. Richardson said. “Please.”
“Dawn,” Joseph repeated, as loud as Ms. Richardson. He over-pronounced his consonants. The four rows of students in front of us turned slowly, like one of those reversible billboards on the side of the highway, in which the horizontal pieces suddenly split apart and began to flip around. I couldn’t help but see myself through their eyes: the full cheeks, the untameable hair, the pimples around my lips and eyebrows. The fact that I was—by choice—sitting with Joseph.
“Dawn,” Joseph said again, pointing sideways.
“Aw,” said Alycia Small. “I think he likes her!” Everyone laughed.
“Okay. Shh. Guys!” Ms. Richardson’s hands were at her chest, clasped around a piece of chalk, which made her look as if she were praying.
“Shh,” Joseph repeated. His lips were large, and he left them pushed forward as if about to give a big kiss. The class laughed harder.
Their eyes aimed my way made my insides twist. I began to sweat.
Joseph slid down in his chair, and his chin fell toward his shoulder; he thought the class was laughing at him.
“It’s okay,” I whispered.
He didn’t acknowledge me. He didn’t seem to realize I’d been speaking to him.
When the class lost interest in us and turned back to face the board, I put a hand on his shoulder. “Hey,” I said. “It’s all right. It’s okay.”
A few minutes later he put his hand on my knee.
I did not push his hand off my knee that first day, or the second, or fifth. It didn’t happen every day. But over a few weeks we developed a routine together. I learned that he loved to copy things—at first, this was the only way he would produce any work. He copied Ms. Richardson’s examples. I told her this. She put them away at the end of the lectures. He copied my drawings. I told him not to. I shielded my work from him with my arm and shoulder. After three weeks he started doing his own work. He drew in pencil and then painted a sleeping cat. With charcoal he sketched a forest of pine trees. He wasn’t bad; at least he tried. Most of the people in the class just talked and laughed.
Sometimes he did zone out and stare at the blank blackboard. When this happened, I touched his shoulder to bring him back. I asked him three times to tell me about his cat. Finally he told me her name, Sasha, and her age: she was twelve. He never acted out; he barely spoke. And, for whatever reason, he liked to put his hand on my knee. I liked it too. I’d heard that if babies weren’t touched for two days, they’d die. This was like that, I told myself. It was basic. Sometimes he didn’t come to class, and on those days the forty-five minutes felt much slower. I missed him.
I felt very sure that we would never be noticed. The tables in the old science lab were scuffed and heavy, their tops six inches thick and their legs even thicker. Because we sat in a back corner, it was hard for anyone to get an angle on our knees. I’d checked this as I walked to and from my seat.
I knew why the tables were so sturdy—to prevent chemical spills. In the corner opposite us was a red showerhead, the size of a large Frisbee, hanging over a drain in the floor. In front of the shower Ms. Richardson had strung a rope, to which she’d taped the message: Stay Away. Do Not Touch! Touching = Automatic Suspension!
There were also lots of cabinets. They lined every wall of the room except the front, which had the chalkboard. The cabinets’ doors had panes that had once been transparent. Now they were cloudy and fogged, like the windows of a car holding too many warm bodies. Through some I could make out the shapes of beakers and flasks. I imagined these containers still filled with forgotten chemicals. I imagined them breathing. I wondered if they were creating the whitish fog. When I did this, with Joseph’s hand on my leg, I felt like them: overlooked but very much alive.
My best friend from middle school, Yasmina, was smart: she went to private school now. I wanted to go, too. Yasmina had a scholarship. My family, on the other hand, could afford it. “But it’s not about that,” my parents kept telling me. “You need to give your school a chance.”
All summer, just thinking about high school made me cry. I knew it would be awful. How would I get help with my homework, make new friends, or set foot in a cafeteria without Yasmina? In a moment of weakness, in August, I let my mom convince me to get my first manicure and eyebrow wax. She thought it would help.
My manicurist was a small Vietnamese man. His hands were papery and the way he held my wrist gave me shivers and made my eyes heavy. The lightness of his fingertips was really astonishing; it felt like a hummingbird had chosen to land on my hand, of all places. After he’d scraped at my cuticles, he squirted pink cream into his palms and massaged my lower arms, from the tips of my fingers to the creases of my elbows. I thought to myself: this is what it feels like to be loved. Which wasn’t fair—there was my mom, treating me to this. It’s just that she was thin and beautiful, and even when she hugged me it didn’t feel like much.
The waxing room was the size of a doctor’s office, with a padded bench covered in a sheath of white paper, upon which I was to lie on my back. Flute music played from a small boom box, and the room smelled of mint and eucalyptus. Winnie, who did my mom’s eyebrows once a month, wore a white apron and her hair in a high neat bun, which sat on the top of her head like a circus monkey’s hat. I watched her dip a small wooden stick into a black container that resembled a mini-cauldron.
“Close your eyes,” she said, and then spread what I knew was hot wax above my right eyebrow. The warmth of the wax, the quick gentle strokes, at first felt lovely and made my eyes sweetly heavy, just as the massage had done. Then she laid a strip of paper across the wax and yanked it off. My eyes filled with tears at the pain. Something did not feel right, not right at all.
Finally she was done and my mother had joined us in the room. “How about …” I heard my mother say, with a slight sing-song lilt to her voice. “Yes, and yes.” She stood behind me, so I couldn’t see her.
“Keep your eyes closed,” my mom said.
Winnie waxed the skin above my upper lip, as well as patches on the sides of my neck and chin. When it was finally over, truly over, my mother leaned over me and said, “Beautiful!”
Winnie touched one of my hands and my shoulder to guide me up to a seat. She handed me a mirror.
“Beautiful!” my mother said again. “Don’t you think?”
“Better,” Winnie said firmly, then turned away to wash her hands in the sink.
For the rest of the day the skin where the wax had been was pink and raw, and when I woke up the next morning those same sections were filled with sore pimples. There were only three days left until the first day of high school.
Two nights later the pimples remained. I told my mother I wouldn’t go to school unless they disappeared. “They’re not that bad!” she insisted. We were in my room. I picked up a locker mirror she’d given me—it came in a plastic frame with magnets on the back—and smacked it against my desk. It was easy to break, and shattered into several jagged pieces.
“I can’t look in this,” I yelled. “I’m hideous.” My mother didn’t understand what I was going through—she couldn’t, she was beautiful. This made everything so much worse from the start. I hadn’t always had such bad luck. I’d been a cute child—my cheeks were an asset then, my hair blond and curled into ringlets—and in those years my mother had successfully passed on her vanity.
When our fight was over I locked my door and glued the pieces of mirror back onto the frame. I felt pathetic, and it was painful to have to see my post-wax pimples reflected over and over in the sharp-edged shards, but I couldn’t imagine having to look at my reflection only in bathrooms next to prettier girls.
One day in late September Ms. Richardson asked me to stay after class. She shouted over the post-bell chatter, “Dawn! Can you hang back a minute?”
I panicked. She must have noticed Joseph’s hand on my knee. We were in the midst of a sudden and intense Indian summer, and I was wearing a denim skirt without any tights. For the first time Joseph’s hand had rested on my very skin.
That day the warmth of his fingers, their pressure, had felt both magical and disastrous. At one point I went to the bathroom. I had to pee. Except I didn’t, not really, and in this way I figured out what that feeling really was. Exiting the stall, I saw something new in myself in the bathroom mirror. In my voluminous hair, in my small intense eyes, even in my big teeth, I saw a wildness and abundance that might someday be sexiness. What did it mean that I felt this way because of Joseph? It didn’t matter, I told myself, because no one would ever know.
After class, instead of getting serious—which she did from time to time, though not nearly as often as other teachers—Ms. Richardson smiled and put a hand on my shoulder. She told me, as I stood before her sweating, that I had been selected as Student of the Month. “I really appreciate all the help you’re giving Joseph. I’m sorry we haven’t talked about this until now.” She explained that he was in our class for social reasons; his parents wanted to give him a chance to make friends outside of the small Special Ed room.
“What does he … have?” I asked.
“M.R.” She could see that I didn’t understand. “That stands for mental retardation. Dawn, you being a friend to him now is really wonderful.”
I smiled at her and said thank you, but something about what she’d said unsettled me. I didn’t think I was doing anything wonderful.
A senior on the yearbook committee took my picture later that day in the office, in front of a wall that was painted in our school colors. Up to my shoulders the paint was brown, above them, yellow. We were the Danville Pilgrims, and our motto was: We explore and persevere to the highest heights! The principal emerged from his office to shake my hand, and his secretary gave me a certificate with a scalloped gold border, plus an envelope containing two movie tickets and a gift certificate to Pizza Hut.
I wasn’t planning to tell my parents about the award, but Ms. Richardson called them. At least now I had people on whom to spend my gift certificates. We went out on Friday night for pizza and a movie. Throughout the evening they said things like, “See? We knew you could do well there,” and, “You’re doing so well, Dawn. We couldn’t be more proud.” I got angry in the car on the way home.
“You’re going to hold this award against me. Aren’t you?”
“What, honey?” my mom said, and stopped bouncing her shoulders to the Britney remix playing on HOT 108. We’d upgraded our tickets to the premium theater, the one with the bar, so she’d had some wine.
“Don’t just think that everything’s okay now,” I said.
“Honey!” she said. “What’s wrong now? Can’t we be happy for you?”
“I want to change schools still. This changes nothing.”
“Dawn,” my dad said, with warning in his voice. “Give it a chance. Finish the year.” My parents had promised we’d “reevaluate” in June.
“I don’t even deserve the award,” I said. “It’s just because I sit next to a boy with mental retardation. I’m not nice. I have no one else to sit with.”
My dad sighed. “Well …”
“You do not just sit next to him, Dawn.” My mom turned to look at me. “Ms. Richardson says you’re wonderful with him. Just wonderful.”
On Monday my picture was hanging next to the door of the front office. The print was an eight by ten, matted in white cardboard and framed in shiny gold. When I walked in I paused and stared. Below the frame was a typed paragraph describing me as selfless, helpful, patient, a model student. The paragraph quoted Ms. Richardson: “One of the best things about Dawn is her big generous heart.”
At the start of math class Alycia sauntered to the back of the room. “Congrats,” she said to me. “I saw your picture.” She wore a tiny tank top beneath an open cardigan. I could see an inch of her cleavage and her whole belly button. I didn’t want to thank her. I wasn’t sure if she was being sincere.
Just then Joseph arrived. I stood to give him a hug. We’d begun a tradition of hugging at the start of class, because Alycia and her friends up front always did it, and Joseph liked to imitate people. But Alycia had never watched us hug before.
Luckily Joseph spoke to Alycia before she could make fun of us. “You are …” he said, enunciating as he always did with special care. He reached toward her. “Pretty.” He stepped forward with his arms outstretched to give her a hug, and she slid sideways to avoid him. Her slide was smooth and cute, like a step in a country line dance.
“Is she pretty, Joseph?” Alycia asked. She pointed to me. “Is Dawn pretty?”
Joseph looked from Alycia to me, then back to Alycia. “No,” he said decisively, and when she laughed with her mouth wide open and her eyes squeezed closed, he laughed too.
For many minutes that day he did not touch me. I thought he wouldn’t. But then he did, on the knee again, and it startled me. I pushed his hand off and yelled, “Don’t touch me!”
“Dawn?” Ms. Richardson lowered her chalk. “Did Joseph just touch you?”
I didn’t want to say yes. I nodded.
“Was it … inappropriate?”
The class went quiet. So quiet you could hear the humming of the trucks and drills at the construction site.
I lowered my eyes.
“Did he, Dawn? Dawn?” Her voice softened.
“Yes,” I said.
She said Joseph’s name and told him to go out to the hall. He didn’t move. “Joseph.” She pointed at him—“To the hall”—then pointed at the door.
He turned to me, eyes squinting in confusion.
“Go,” I whispered.
For the next three days Joseph did not reappear in art class. I did not see him anywhere in school. Normally I ate lunch in a teacher’s classroom to avoid the cafeteria—I rotated rooms, so as not to trigger alarms or become a nuisance—but on those three days I even toured the cafeteria looking for him. Was he gone forever, just like that? And was it my fault? I’d lied to the counselor. She’d arrived mere minutes after I’d yelled out during class, and she’d asked me again if he’d touched me inappropriately. “Yes,” I’d said, “on the thigh.” And then I’d answered, “Yeah, pretty high up.” I said that it only happened once, and that, yes, I had felt threatened.
Those three nights at home I was truly inconsolable. The counselor called. At first my parents said only, “Do you want to talk?” They were used to me crying, but not like this, not for hours on end many nights in a row. On the third night, my mom came into my room carrying her glass of wine. “He hasn’t come anywhere near you again, has he? You’d tell me?”
“No!” I said. My insistence only made her skeptical. She cocked her head down and looked up at me with disbelief.
“He didn’t do anything wrong,” I said.
“Yes he did, Dawn. Yes”—she widened her eyes—“he did.”
I turned to face the window. It was night. The houses on our street were all spread out, and the lights inside them looked thin and distant through the trees. “No he didn’t.” It felt good to say this. “He didn’t.”
“But he …” she said. “He touched you, Dawn. He touched my daughter.”
“He had been touching me.” I turned back toward her. Now I wanted to see her reaction. “I let him.”
She shook her head, back and forth. She shook her head faster. Her short frosty blond hair was getting in her eyes. “No. You’re confused.”
“I’m not. It’s my fault.”
Her face had turned red, and her eyes were shining. “I can’t,” she said, “I can’t even—this is worse …” She raised a hand then turned and left my room.
The next morning she let me sleep in and took me to the doctor.
A nurse I’d never met before took three vials of blood from a vein in my arm. I couldn’t endure this without holding my mother’s hand, and yet the feeling of her hand gripping mine, the pressure of her bones and the cold hardness of her rings, made it worse. “It’s too tight!” I finally said, and she let go.
The nurse left with my mother when the blood was done. The doctor, Dr. Paula, came in. She was the same doctor I’d been seeing my entire life. It was comforting to see her until she started asking me questions like, “When you wake up in the morning, is there something you look forward to?” “Do you find yourself feeling guilty sometimes?” “Do you get mad at yourself?” “When something is bothering you, can you get yourself to stop thinking about it?” She was a small woman who wore silver glasses attached to a beaded chain. She was not pretty like my mother; she looked older, though her voice was childish. There were flecks of gray in her eyebrows. I wondered if she waxed them.
Toward the end she leaned back and put her clipboard on the counter. “And what about boys?” she asked. “Any boyfriends? A crush? Or what about girls?” She pronounced this last word as if she were offering me an ice cream sundae.
When it was over I asked her what the blood tests were for. She said she was going to examine my hormone levels.
I did not speak to my mother as we drove back to school. She turned up the radio and I opened my window, wanting to be blasted away by the wind or burned into a tiny speck by the sun.
“I love you, honey,” my mom said as I got out of the car. Cranes hung overhead. Dust was flying. She was tapping the steering wheel with her nails.
After passing the photo of my face hanging outside the office and signing in with the secretary, I wandered around instead of going to Biology. I went down A hall, B hall, C hall, past the gym in E. Basketballs bounced loudly and boys were shouting at each other. I walked from E to F and, through a window, I watched the construction workers eat their lunch. They sat on a wall in their orange vests and ate out of white plastic bags, laughing and talking.
My Biology class was on the second floor of G hall, but when I approached that hall I stayed downstairs. And this was where I finally ran into Joseph. He was standing in the hallway, not far from the door to the men’s bathroom. As usual, he wasn’t moving; he just stood there, waiting, arms at his sides.
“Joseph!” I said. I walked up to him quickly, then stopped a few feet away.
“What are you doing?” I asked. “What class are you in?”
He was silent. He didn’t move, or even look at me. I noticed a polished wooden plaque in his hand and reached for it. He was gripping it hard, so I took his hand in mine and peeled his fingers away one by one. In all our interactions in class, we had never held hands. Now it felt both easy and dangerous. I knew it was wrong, but I felt a responsibility to help him. Where was he supposed to be? The plaque said Room G132 in yellow paint. Polka dots and flowers surrounded the text.
“Touching,” Joseph said. “You’re touching.”
Just then a muffled shout came from down the hall. When I looked in that direction, Joseph said, in his halting deliberate way, “Anita.” That was the Special Ed classroom, G132. Joseph used to spend most of his days there. Now that he’d been removed from art, he’d spend the entire day there, every day.
“I’m sorry, Joseph,” I said. “It’s my fault you’re not in my class anymore. Do you understand?” I was still gripping his hand. I wanted to be forgiven. “I’m sorry.”
He shook his head. He was looking at our hands.
“No touching,” he said. He pulled his hand out of mine and walked away. Even he hated me now. Stunned, I followed at a distance.
He went through the heavy double doors that led to the stairwell. Once the door shut, he turned. “Now,” he said. After a pause in which we stared at each other, he lifted his arms for a hug. For a second or two, maybe longer, I hesitated. I wanted to hug him, but I didn’t want just that. I was feeling both immensely happy and deeply confused.
It wasn’t that I felt the way I had last week, the day that his hand had rested on my bare skin. This was something different, something better. I didn’t know what to call it.
We were entirely alone in the stairwell. It had two flights of stairs and three sets of doors and there were no other people in here, no noise at all—just the faint thwacks and humming coming from the construction site. The work had started up again. Lunch was over.
Joseph hung his head. His arms dropped. I’d waited too long, and now I’d confused him.
I brought my hand to his chin and lifted it. His eyes widened and he stepped back. I stepped toward him. “Stop,” I said, putting my hand on his cheek. “Hold still.”
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This excerpt is featured content from our Fall 2015 issue
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