There was an emptied out hallway where I liked to lurk during lunch period. It smelled like sawdust and the occasional whiff of grass clippings from the door that never closed all the way. From underneath that door there was a strip of light that slipped through and glimmered like drops of sunlight on the ground. The exit sign above the door swung from one flimsy wire. The light from that sign was the brightest in the hall. Looking into impending doom, it still flashed neon.
On the floor, tile was coming up in places. People had filled in the cracked spots with Sharpie or nail polish. Colors that imitated the red of the exit sign repeated on the wall, but in angry graffiti, like people shouting, wanting to be heard. I found new tags from time to time about people I didn't know, but sometimes I would see something about my old friend Joslyn. Usually people wrote that she was a whore, or that she had something or another disease. These rumors weren't entirely unbelievable. We stopped talking when she got that kind of interested in guys, and even though I didn't talk to her anymore, I always scribbled out her name whenever I saw it. She'd always had this grand desire to become someone, but she was just becoming something to write about on the wall.
My usual lunch hallway was occupied, as it sometimes was, especially on these cold days. It was midwinter and outside it was drizzling half-snow half-rain. I went to the detention room by the teacher's lounge instead. I flicked at a rubber band on my wrist to try and drown out my lunch time nerves.
There wasn’t much in this room except desks. There was one window, at least, that overlooked the parking lot where I could watch the tough guys huddled by the corner of the building, smoking. None of them wore coats, and they all had their cigarette-free hands clenched in fists, probably to keep from shivering. I knew from the television shows I watched that this was supposed to excite my teenage hormones, but it was all more of a spectacle to me. I did feel a pang of loneliness though, when I saw the girls who hung out there, bunched together two by two, looking happy with their shiny lips.
Before lunch was over I went back to my preferred hallway. Not everyone was gone, but I liked the bathroom on that end of the school so I braved the crowd of kids sitting near it. It was the kind of bathroom you might expect to find in an abandoned building. That creeped me out, but it also made me feel safe because most kids never used it.
As I started to push through the yellowed door I heard a whistle. I threw a glance toward the direction it had come. A short boy licked his lips and motioned for me to come his way. I tried not to react, though I felt obnoxiously visible. I just continued through to the bathroom and said a small prayer for the girls who laughed at him. “Don’t become a name on the wall,” I whispered.
I shut myself into a stall. The boy from the hall made me grossly aware of my body and grossly aware of myself, and I started crying. I pulled sloppily at squares of toilet paper to dry my eyes and listened nervously for the bell to ring.
"Hey," I froze at the sound of a voice. "Hey, are you okay in there?"
- tragedy, which is probably redundant
- natural disaster
- people killed in natural disaster
I made this list of sadnesses because there is never much else to do. I often spend my time making assorted lists like this. I live with my parents in a big house that's really far away from town. I can't walk anywhere or it takes too long to get anywhere worth going so it's easy to get bored.
The radio is on all day and I can always hear the news the instant I open the door. Sometimes it's so stupid that I can tune it out, but other times it's a tragedy. There was a tornado last week that killed one person and destroyed some buildings. I'm out here like a princess locked up in a castle where it's windy enough to lose a hat, but there's no danger of getting sucked into the sky.
Through all the rustling of wind, I heard the garage door open. My mom came in with bags of groceries and started in on how windy it was outside. She never even mentioned the tornado, like she didn't know.
"That's nothing," I said. "People have lost their homes, you know?" My mom walked into the kitchen and turned off the radio. She said I didn't need to let this upset me. Could she get me a snack? Did I have homework? We were safe.
"That's the point!" I shouted and ran upstairs to my room. I could feel the emotions inside and even though nothing of mine was destroyed I couldn’t keep from crying.
I knew from the way my parents talked about being young that high school was supposed to be my tragedy, not the news, but I didn’t let things upset me at school. There was never anything big enough. Not like what I heard on the radio at home, but one time I did almost cry in a school bathroom. I had been mentally adding this guy Idaho Joe to my list of sadnesses and I got that stingy nose feeling and those squinched eyes that try to hold back tears.
Idaho Joe was a guy I dated for a while. He was new in school and I thought he was super annoying with his SLC punk mohawk and his zippered leather jacket. We had been paired up in zoology class to dissect a squid. He never took his jacket off and the sleeves kept getting in the way. After that he wouldn't leave me alone. He caught up to me in the hallway and said how he couldn’t get the squid smell out of his jacket.
"Yea well maybe if you'd have taken it off." I had hoped to shut him up, but he just kept walking with me. He told me about how he didn't like to take his jacket off because he had a gnarly scar on his arm, which I thought was actually kind of cool so I asked him about it and could I see it? He didn’t show me, but said he had been burned as a kid, nothing super interesting, he just wouldn't listen to his mom when she told him not to touch the iron. I mentally added "not listening" to my list of sadnesses even though I was pretty much exactly sure that I didn't listen a lot of the time, and then I realized Idaho Joe had been saying something that I wasn't listening to. I just shook my head in the general direction of yes.
"Ok, cool. Well I can borrow my dad's car and pick you up at 4."
Shit. I had no idea what I'd just nodded yes to.
When Idaho Joe came to pick me up my mom yelled up the stairs, "Elli your date's here." I had told her I was going out. I hadn’t called it a date, but I guess that's what this was going to be. My mom looked all annoyed with this punk kid in our house. She grabbed my arm as I was leaving and whispered in my ear, “Don’t be stupid.” I honestly didn’t know what that was supposed to mean.
His dad's car was small and I felt squashed in the front seat even though he had pushed it back as far as it could go before I got in. My knees banged up against the glove box like I was a giant in an all-tiny world. I looked over and noticed Joe was having a similar problem. The steering wheel was practically resting on his legs.
“This is your dad’s car?” I asked. Joe nodded. “What, is he a midget?” Joe laughed really hard at that, slapping the upper part of his leg.
“He’s short, yea,” he muffled through the laugh he was trying to stifle.
When the thought of midget dad had worn off, Joe asked me if I was hungry and I said no. He said would I like coffee then? So we went to this place called Real News and ordered lattes. We sat down at a tall round table near the magazine stand and flipped through pages occasionally making a comment about photographs or articles.
After that Idaho Joe picked me up when he could and took me to Real News and other places. Sometimes he couldn’t pick me up because both of his parents were at work. He said his parents worked a lot, so when they were home they let him have the car. “Compensation,” he said. When he could pick me up I was excited to get away from my mom and I was excited to hang out with Idaho Joe and maybe, I even liked him. His mohawk was at least starting to look attractive and he showed me the scar on his arm. I said, "That's not gnarly, that's badass. You should show it off more often."
When it was nice out he didn't wear his jacket and he'd take me up to the top of the downtown parking garage where we'd look at the loiterers below us and make up stories about them. I'd huddle close into him as we sat criss-cross-legged on the edge of the wall and I'd rub the tip of my thumb over his scar. I talked to him about the steady stream of tragic news I heard on the radio. I told him about the death toll tally I kept in a notebook. I liked having someone to talk to about it. Someone who would listen.
"A person died in a tornado this week."
He took his gaze off the sidewalk below us. "What?"
I unlatched myself from him and hopped down from the ledge into the lot. He followed me and didn't say anything as I opened the car door. I only had to wait a few minutes in the passenger seat for him to get the hint. When he got to my house I grabbed for the door handle as quickly as he stopped. "Elli, I'm sorry, you just talk so fast, I . . . I wasn’t listening. I’m sorry." I got out of the car anyway.
Back at school I was hoping he would try to talk to me, but he made obvious moves to avoid me. I thought well whatever I didn't like him to begin with anyway. I carried on throughout the day, checking my locker and going to class, but by lunch time I realized what I was trying not to. I had liked him. I did like him.
Instead of going to the cafeteria with the rest of the lunch mob I fought through the crowds to get to the far bathroom in the graffiti hallway. It was a strange bathroom that was empty almost all the time probably because it was far from the cafeteria and main office and probably because it was the ugliest shade of green.
I thought the pea-green bathroom was sure to be empty, but when I got there I heard the distinct sound of someone crying. It was loud enough that I could sneak into my own stall undetected, but something about the weirdness of the bathroom or the sadness in the sniffles compelled me to ask, "Hey, hey, are you okay in there?"
I wasn't sure what to say. I couldn't say "yeah, I'm fine," because it was obvious that I wasn't fine. I sniffled and tried to get some words out, but mostly it just sounded like me gargling my own snot. Through the sniffles I noticed that this girl was wearing one of those flouncy perfumes that probably came in a curvy bottle with a glass dome lid. I wasn't sure that she'd have anything to say to me if I answered her anyway. I kept sniffling.
"Did you want to talk about something?" she asked. It didn't sound very sincere, sort of like she felt obligated, but I suppose she would, having come in to the bathroom completely not expecting this scene. I considered making up an elaborate story to make myself interesting, or at least less pathetic.
"I'm just feeling really lonely," I said, startling myself a little. I thought I was crying because of the boy in the hall, but I guess this was the truth. Realizing that, that I had just revealed the truth, I felt like I was getting way too personal with a stranger I couldn't even see.
The girl didn't respond to me for a while, but finally she leaned close to the door and said, "Me too." It was kind of weird, the way she said it through the crack in the stall all quiet like it was a secret. I guess she just didn't want to admit it. I hadn't wanted to admit it either. I opened the stall door and we looked at each other for a bit, sizing one another up. I knew her as the girl who didn't care who she hung out with. She was usually walking around the school with somebody, but she didn't have a group like everyone else. I liked that about her, and had always envied it a little bit. I wondered why she felt so lonely.
"What's your name?" she asked.
"Cool I'm Elli I like your shoes. I have that same pair too we should be friends."
She said almost everything as one complete sentence. I felt a little knocked back, and it struck me as incredibly odd. I looked at her, hoping I could figure out if she was serious without having to ask. Her brown eyes, which were dark enough to be black, revealed nothing, but it was hard to see them well because she was so tall and because she lumbered over me peering at my shoes. Shoes, the token of our friendship, it seemed.
I looked down at her shoes that were only different in that they had mismatched laces, and then I looked back up at her. This girl’s whole body was tall, too, each limb and her long Tim Burton-like fingers seemed immeasurably long.
"I mean look, if we're both feeling alone," she said as she looked down, picking at her jagged fingernails. It was like a business proposition, and it was okay with me."Okay," I said sheepishly. "Do you want to eat lunch together?"
"Yea, whatever.” Her whole body softened for a moment, and there was a tiny trace of a smile on her face. She pulled at strands of her hair and let her fingers run through them until they reached the ratty ends. “I didn't bring anything to eat," she said with her fingers still in her hair.
"Oh, well you can share my food. I brought a cheese sandwich."
Elli laughed at this. "A cheese sandwich huh? I guess that's better than a chicken patty from the lunch here," and with that proclamation she began walking out of the bathroom.
She went into the cafeteria and sat at the end of a nearly empty table. I pulled the sandwich out of my bag and gave her the bigger half. She looked at it uncomfortably, like the whole thing was moldy or something. When she finally took a bite, I took a bite too, and we sat there quietly chewing until this guy with a big mohawk came to the table and pushed Elli down the bench with his hips so he could sit down. He had a school lunch tray and was poking at the rigid dinner roll with his spork. Elli looked completely confused. I tried reading her face for an explanation, but she just held the half-sandwich limply in her hands and stared at this guy's lunch tray with those deep brown eyes bubbling up. They looked the way water looks when fish are feeding.