J . ,
Well, I finally got the last e-mail you sent me. Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. They only let us use the “lab” three days a week now (I don’t know why they call it that) since the seniors complained that the underclassmen were hogging all the “lab time.” They keep saying that we’re going to get more computers, but who knows? It still smells like band-aids in here, in case you were wondering.
OK, it’s been two days since I wrote that last paragraph. Sorry. I had to close out of e-mail because like three million people came in and started using the lab for no apparent reason. Plus I kept deleting the paragraph that used to go here. It was about how guilty I feel when I make fun of people (like Liz) even though it’s the only way I can make friends anymore. Do you ever feel that way? I mean, that’s the way we became friends, when you think about it. Making fun of everything. I want to stop, but how?
Plus I still get angry. Like when you told me about all your new friends in Florida, and I didn’t write back for two weeks. I’m such a baby. Sometimes I can’t believe you’re still friends with me.
Some senior just sat next to me. Right now he’s saying, “Rob, give me one of those, man. No, I didn’t. YOU did.” Now he’s opening a Hershey’s Kiss.
Did I tell you that my mom had to have surgery for that mole on her neck? I went with her to the hospital. She wasn’t even nervous. She kept making jokes and stuff. We heard that commercial for Rogie’s Steakhouse on the way over, and she kept doing the little pig grunt they do at the end. Remember? I mean, it is pretty funny, but come on. I was too nervous to even crack a smile.
I felt better in the waiting room. You wouldn’t believe how nice it was. It had this plush sofa with tiny green pillows that was more comfortable than our sofa at home. It was like the nicest sofa I’ve ever sat on. Seriously. Plus they still had a Christmas tree in the corner (real) with gifts underneath (fake — I tested) and all these nice brass ornaments and blinking lights doing their thing for no one but me. I just sat there with a stack of magazines on my lap and really got into it. The lights and the sofa and the magazines. Don’t make fun of me for saying this, but I felt like I was going to cry. Right there in the waiting room. Then my mom came out with this huge square bandage on her neck, smiling like nothing was out of the ordinary, and all of a sudden I was mad at her. Like she’d ruined my little Christmas. I didn’t even talk to her on the drive back.
God, I can’t believe I just wrote that! I didn’t mean it like that. I don’t know what I meant.
J . ,
Thanks for writing back so soon. I feel less terrible now. Danke.
Yes, I know exactly what you mean about haircuts. I feel the same way. Like I’m on display. All that looking at yourself in the mirror. I get nervous. Same thing happens to me at nice restaurants when the waitress has to recite all the specials. Where are you supposed to look?
Too bad about your sailboat. (I can’t believe you have a sailboat.) Maybe you can spend the winter fixing it up? Ooh, then there could be a Big Race between you and the Rival Sailboats. Your crew would be a bunch of underdogs, determined to win against incredible odds, fighting to speed ahead of the Rival Sailboats. . . . (OK, I’ll stop.)
Did I tell you? I ended up going over to Liz’s the other night. It was weird. We didn’t have much to talk about. She’s got this new habit of closing her eyes when she says something she thinks is significant. I don’t know when this started. Like she told me how Mr. Berg wrote some encouraging comments on her last English paper. “He told me it was one of the best papers he’s ever read,” she said, “and [CLOSED] he can assure me he’s read quite a few.” I wanted to put my arms around her and say, “Come back, Liz!” but I didn’t. I told her that was great. She closed her eyes and said, “Thanks.”
Her parents are still the same. Mrs. Lawrence is as frantic as ever. She kept going on and on about you being in Florida. “Oh, what will they do without Jennifer?” she said. Then she hugged me and kept saying it. “What will they do?” (Remember the time she thought there were mice living inside their Christmas tree? I’ve always sort of loved her for that.) Mr. Lawrence still parts his hair in the middle. He shook my hand like I’d won a prize.
They just got a DVD player, so we ended up watching a movie with her parents and Toby, whose forehead still puckers when Liz tells him to shut up. The movie was Jurassic Park II — ugh. There was so much stuff to make fun of, but I couldn’t say anything because of her parents being around. But God, was it awful. Like all the dinosaurs were sooo overdone, all these ridiculous details that were supposed to make you think, Wow, how lifelike! when all it was was a bunch of drooling and blinking. I don’t know much about dinosaurs, but personally I don’t think they drooled all over everything or spent the better part of their day blinking like they’d just been poked in the eye. (You would have loved this one moment when Toby kept freeze-framing Jeff Goldblum’s face over and over and saying, “I’m Jeff Goldblum, and nobody cares!” until Mr. Lawrence told him to cut it out. Sometimes I swear the only person in that family who gets what’s funny is Toby. The poor kid.)
Anyway, after that we hung out in Liz’s room for a while. Liz showed me pictures of this guy she met last summer, Glen. Has she told you about him? He sort of looks like a cookie jar. I mean, he’s not fat or anything, but he has this glazed, peaceful look, like he wouldn’t mind if someone came along and pulled a pecan sandie out of his head. He wears wire-rimmed glasses: —O-O—. Hobbies: likes to play his acoustic guitar in the mountains (I maintained a straight face) and write poems in cafes. “Villanelles,” Liz said, her eyes closed.
Later she showed me some e-mails he’d sent her. I sat next to her and pretended to laugh whenever Liz read something she thought was clever. I mean, some of it was sort of funny (at least he makes fun of things) but most of it was him just talking about himself. Plus he uses all that dumb e-mail abbreviation you know I hate, like “how r u?” and “what’s nu w u?”
I sat there and got angry. But not at Glen. I was mad at Liz. And I was mad at myself. I don’t know how to explain it. I was mad that we were reading e-mail from a boy, thinking that was a fun thing to do. Then I was mad at myself for being mad at myself, since that’s one of the things I’ve been trying to fix about myself lately, along with not making fun of everything.
But I couldn’t help being angry. I wanted to stand up and say, “This is stupid, Liz. Let’s go downstairs and play pool with Toby,” but I couldn’t. I wasn’t supposed to want that. I was supposed to be mooning over boys. I wondered if Liz felt the same way.
Do you know what I mean?
It’s like this: Remember when Liz used to carry an aluminum-foil “vase” inside her lunchbox, stuffed with dandelions? How she’d put it on her lunch tray for “atmosphere”? God, Liz used to be so funny sometimes. That’s what I wanted to say to her. I wanted to say, “Liz, Glen has no idea who you really are, because Glen doesn’t know about the aluminum-foil dandelion vase.” But she wouldn’t have gotten it. She would have just thought I was being “overcritical” (her word for me) and told me to grow up. (I HATE when people say that.) But the truth is, Liz was more Liz in sixth grade. I was more me in fifth.
Fifth grade forever!
My new slogan. No, my new slogan is — I don’t know what my new slogan is.
I’ve got to keep myself from rereading these when I’m done. I always want to delete them. A bad sign. I barely mean anything I say. Really. If anyone else is reading this, I’d just like to say that Liz Lawrence is a fantastic human being full of love, sympathy, and kindness, and I am a total whiner. So there.
One last thing: next week is Spirit Week.
J . ,
Report in real time:
I’m writing to you. A senior to my left (boy) is reading his e-mail. Now he’s typing. He can’t type. I’m looking at him without really looking. I’m sort of good at that. He has a watch on, but not a “cool” watch, the kind you know I hate. It looks like something someone’s dad would wear. Gold and clunky. I like it.
The moment before I started my “report,” he came in and sat next to me. (I was writing you an e-mail about Mr. Ellio’s new “deluxe” chalk set.) He looked over and said, “Great American novel?” Bad joke, I know, but it made me embarrassed somehow. So I closed out of e-mail and started surfing Amazon instead.
He opened his book bag and fished out a Ziploc of dried apricots and put them between us. They looked like tiny, gnarled fingers.
“Want some?” he said.
I took two (but didn’t call him in the morning, ha-ha, etc.). I said something clever, like “I’ve never had a dried apricot before.” He said something understanding, like “Oh.” I ate my apricot. He ate his apricot. We didn’t say anything. He went to Yahoo Sports. I scrolled for negative customer reviews of The Country of the Pointed Firs — the book we have to read in English. There are some really funny ones, by the way. Here’s one:
Let’s Build a Time Machine. . . .
Reviewer: Jason, from Skokie, IL
Our class was forced to read this for summer reading. I found it pointless, stupid, and a total waste of nine dollars. Nothing happens, unless looking for herbs and thinking about pine trees 24/7 counts. Thank God we also had to read The Time Machine, which wasn’t all that great either, but at least it wasn’t 150 pages about making “spruce beer.” The Country of the Pointed Firs made me wish that I had a time machine so I could go back in time and tell myself not to be born so I wouldn’t have to read this book.
I thought about showing it to the senior, but I didn’t. After a while he said, “It’s funny.” I asked what was. He said, “It’s funny how we’re eating dried apricots.”
Pretty good thing to say, huh? What do you think?
OK, he just stood up. I’m going to go now, but please write back and let me know if you think I’m being dumb. Have you ever had dried apricots? They’re sort of not bad. Chew-ee.
I guess this wasn’t in real time after all.
J . ,
It was good to finally talk to you last night. Now I have nothing to say. My cupboard has been emptied. Wah!
In the meantime, here’s that e-mail I never sent you (the one about Mr. Ellio). Friday we’re having Spirit Assembly. You know how I get about Spirit Assembly.
Hope all is swell.
. . . Mr. Ellio got this new deluxe chalk set. It’s this long tin that opens like a container of Altoids. Inside there’s two rows of colored chalk, arranged rainbow-like. You can tell he’s sort of nervous about using it. He’s still nervous about everything. The other day he blushed so hard I thought he might pop. He was taking attendance and asked if anyone had seen Cathy Nyberg, and Jenna Purvis said, “Yeah, I saw her in the bathroom a few minutes ago. She said she’d be a little late. I think it’s, you know, that time of the month.” Mr. Ellio nearly stapled his tie to the roll book.
Anyway, he has this new habit of standing in front of the room with the chalk tin in hand like a painter’s palette, trying to decide which color to use. It takes him forever.
“Now, for line A-B,” he’ll say, “I’ll use, let’s see, ultramarine.” Then he’ll draw his ultramarine A-B across the board, making it nice and straight.
Sometimes, from the back of the room, Larry Webb will say, “That’s a beautiful color, Mr. Ellio.” But Mr. Ellio will just ignore him. “Now, for tangent G-B,” he’ll say, “I think I will try —”
“Magenta, Mr. Ellio,” Larry will say. “Make it magenta.”
Yesterday Mr. Ellio was drawing a triangle when Larry said, “Mr. Ellio, I’m feeling a little ocher this morning.” Mr. Ellio stopped drawing, but kept his hand up to the board. I could see the tension in his knuckles.
“Larry,” he said, “would you please stop making fun of the colored chalk? I’m getting a little tired of it.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Ellio,” Larry said. “I just thought ocher might look festive.”
I felt my breath get stuck in my chest. I wanted something to happen. But Mr. Ellio just finished the triangle, and then class was over.
But here’s the thing: Today Mr. Ellio came in all happy. Chipper. He made a joke about everyone looking sleepy. He sipped from this gianormous coffee cup. He didn’t take attendance.
Then he started his lesson plan. He picked a piece of broken chalk from the board and drew the first figure, naming all the different points, circling this and underlining that. The same chalk that’s been sitting there since forever, all white and crumbly. After a while, he set the chalk down and stepped back from the board. “And that’s what I love about geometry,” he said, and he gave this embarrassing smile. We could see him start to blush. No one asked him what he meant. (Thank God.)
After class, I lingered for a while, wanting to say something to him, but I couldn’t think what. Mr. Ellio sat at his desk and separated papers into little piles. His ears were red, raw-looking. I went up to the desk, but then turned away. I left the room and hurried to lunch. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’m still thinking about it.
What was I going to say?
J . ,
Me and my mom at the Pathmark Express Checkout register, last night, around 8 P.M.:
Me: We shouldn’t have gotten two Ben and Jerry’s.
Mom: You’re right. Do you want to grab a third?
Me: We eat too much crap. That’s why we’re always tired.
[I point to a Fitness headline: “10 High-Energy Eats — Raw!”]
Mom: Chunky Monkey should be number seven.
Me: I’ll meet you outside.
Mom: I think we picked the slowest lane.
J . ,
That’s funny about your brother being afraid of mylar balloons. Is this a new thing? You’d think I’d remember something like that. In a way, I kind of see his point. They are a little creepy.
I don’t know if I ever told you this, but one time my mom got a balloon from her co-workers that was in the shape of the Energizer Bunny. Across the bass drum it said: Congrats to Someone Who Keeps Going and Going! Anyway, she brought it home and let it float around the house for a while. It bugged me. Sometimes it would be at the top of the stairs, bumping its ears against the hallway light, making this sound like cellophane unballing inside a trash can. I wanted to pull it down and pop it with scissors, but I couldn’t reach. Once, it floated into the kitchen when I was in there alone, and I got so freaked I called Liz, and we ended up talking about cellphones. Liz: Cellphones, hurrah! Me: What was wrong with carrier pigeons?
Anyway, after a few days the balloon started hovering at eye level. I wanted my mom to throw it out. I wanted her to say, “Isn’t this the ugliest thing?” But she didn’t. She was real quiet all week and didn’t say much of anything. Sometimes she went to bed before me, and I’d be alone in the living room with the balloon, me watching Letterman and the balloon crinkling above the heating vent. I moved it to the dining room and let it do its creepy thing in there instead.
But here’s the thing: A few days later I found the balloon in the trash can, folded like a T-shirt. I fished it out and unfolded it. Congrats to Someone Who Keeps Going and Going! I put it on the kitchen table and tried to smooth away the wrinkles. It didn’t work, but I kept trying. I got this feeling: I felt like the balloon was a piece of skin that I’d made my mom throw away. This sounds stupid, I know. But that’s what it was like. Skin. All wrinkly and slick. So I tucked it into my book bag and carried it upstairs. I hid it inside an old shirt box and buried the box in the back of my closet.
It’s still there, I guess. I’ll show it to you next time you visit, if you want. I know how you love stuff like that.
The other night my mom said, “Don’t try to fit everything into one lifetime. Save a little for the next.” We were watching some old war movie on PBS that had put us both to sleep. When I asked her what she meant, she said, “I didn’t say anything.”
What do you think that means?
J . ,
Thanks for telling me about your house. I like the way you described it. That’s weird, you having your own bathroom. I’ve always wondered what that would be like. Don’t feel bad about liking the wallpaper. (I can see it, by the way. I’m picturing those old-newspaper-ad tabletops they used to have at Wendy’s. Is this close?) I know what you mean about liking things that are a little bit ugly. I can’t feel comfortable in a place unless it’s got some crappiness to it. I’ve always kind of had a thing for those stupid wall sconces we have in our family room (the ones that look like seashells). Sometimes I turn them down low and lie on the sofa with that pink-and-black afghan across my feet. I can get into that.
I think that’s why I don’t like Liz’s new house as much. I mean, it’s nice, but there’s no place that isn’t nice. That’s why I like hanging out in the basement, playing pool: because the basement is at least a little grungy, with those patio chairs stacked behind the water heater and all of Liz’s old crap spilling out of boxes, like that science ribbon she won in third grade for making her Venus’ flytrap go vegan. I always look for that.
I stayed over last weekend. Liz’s parents were having a party, and Liz and I were supposed to be “bartenders,” but all we did was hand people cups and napkins. I tried to talk to Liz about Mr. Ellio, but she didn’t get it.
“Did you see Mr. Ellio the other day?” I asked her. “He was just so . . . happy.”
“I know. Isn’t he a geek?” she said. “I can’t believe he’s married. Could you imagine being married to Mr. Ellio? I couldn’t.”
“That’s not what I mean,” I said.
“What do you mean, then?”
“It’s like he’s figured something out,” I said, but I left it at that.
That night I slept on Liz’s floor, trying to think what it was I meant. It got late. I heard people laughing downstairs, and my thoughts got all mixed in with that. I couldn’t even tell what I was thinking.
Sometimes I think I have no idea about anything. Write back and tell me you know what I mean so I can feel ok again. Or just write to me about your sailboat. I can’t get enough of that sailboat.
J . ,
My mom got her bandage off last night. We went out for pizza afterwards, to celebrate. (Her idea.) She wanted to go to Pappy’s, but I freaked out because I know too many people who work there, so we ended up going to Pizza Hut instead, where our waiter turned out to be Dennis Schroeder. Go figure.
My mom told me stories about work. Sometimes these can be pretty good, but most of the time they make me sort of depressed. I don’t know why. Like she was telling me about someone who taped a photocopy of something funny to someone else’s monitor, and the whole thing just made me mad. Then she kept repeating the punch line, I guess because I wasn’t laughing, and that made me even madder.
“Something the matter?” she said.
I told her no.
“Doesn’t look like a no.”
I told her to forget about it. We ate in silence. Sometimes she would turn her head to watch the Tv in the corner, and I would see the mark on her neck where the mole used to be. You could see where they’d patched the skin together. This faint, pinkish scar. I sat there watching her laugh at whatever was on, and I got this terrible feeling. I felt guilty for everything. I wanted to tell her I was glad she was OK, but I just ended up feeling mad at her again. I didn’t say a word.
I’m sick of being mad at everything. Oh, I am, I am!
I’m going to go spin my locker combination lock until I feel better. Sometimes that helps.
J . ,
Today we had Spirit Assembly. (I missed the bus to write this — it’s 2:50 already.) They still hold it in the gym, like always. And they still let Mr. Berg be the mc, although you’d think they would have figured out by now that he’s the last person who should be mc. The first thing he did was throw a basketball into the air and tell us to yell, “Go!” every time it hit the ground. That lasted for about two bounces. Embarrassing.
I was glad to be in the gym, though. You know how much I like it there. They’re still redoing the floor and “upgrading” the bleachers. I don’t know why. I like the old bleachers. I like the old floor, with that awful tiger painting that looks more like Garfield (your joke). They took down those block letters that used to be above the locker-room entrance, but you can still see the outlines where they were: Be True To Your School. I love how that’s still there. It makes me stupid happy to see it.
I sat next to Liz. She kept making fake hooting noises every time Mr. Berg asked who had spirit. She cupped her hands to her mouth and let him have it. That’s what everyone was doing: faking. The guys behind me were stomping the bleachers so hard I could feel my teeth rattle. They kept laughing, making jokes about how stupid everything was. When the mascot came out, one of them stood up and shouted, “I love you, T.T. Tiger!” and then his buddy screamed, “In a more-than-friends way!” Everyone was getting into it: “Be my lover, T.T. Tiger!” “You complete me, T.T. Tiger!”
I sat there and watched Liz. Her face was red from laughing. “Oh, my God,” she said. She looked at me as if to say, Isn’t this hysterical? and I gave her this big laugh. Because that’s what I was doing. Laughing. I couldn’t help myself. I felt like the air was shutting off around me.
Then the marching band came marching through the locker-room doorway. They burst through a paper “wall” with roast the hawks! on it. But the wall didn’t break at the top, and it knocked their hats off as they passed through. I felt tears in my eyes. I wiped one away before Liz could see. I could hear her saying something to me, but I couldn’t make it out. I wasn’t sure if I was laughing anymore.
I must have pushed by her and made my way to the end of the bleachers, because I jumped down and headed for the exit. I remember thinking that I was about to feel a hand on my shoulder and a voice telling me to stop, but I didn’t. I went out into the hallway, where the marching band sounded like a train in the distance.
I walked to the computer lab. The door was locked, but it wasn’t shut all the way. Inside, the lights were off. I left them that way. I sat down and started writing to you. Then I deleted what I wrote, because it didn’t make any sense. I missed you so much. And I missed Liz. I missed my mom, too, really bad. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I felt like I’d been this horrible person all along, and that everyone else was fine, that Liz was fine, and my mom was fine, and the problem was me. I couldn’t get my legs to stop shaking. (They’re still a little weird right now.) But I sat and wrote this to you, even though it doesn’t make sense. I’m tired of not making sense.
I’m going to go now — someone just came in and turned the lights on. Bye.
J . ,
Thanks for calling. You’ll be glad to know my weekend turned out not so bad after all. My mom and I went to this nature preserve where you’re supposed to be able to see some kind of rare woodpecker. (She read about it in the paper. The “Weekend” section.) We sat in this little wooden hut (bird blind) and waited for woodpeckers to show up outside this long, narrow window. But all we saw were birch trees with birdfeeders tied to their branches. We were alone, watching the branches blow in the breeze. It got a little cold.
“Mom,” I said, “what do you think about when you’re at work?”
“Easy,” she said. “Lunch.” She hummed the Woody Woodpecker tune.
“No,” I said, “seriously.”
She looked at me. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I kind of want to know.”
So she told me. It was strange. She thought about me: whether I’m happy, whether I’m lonely, whether or not she’s being a good mom. Stuff like that. “I think about coming home,” she said. “A lot.” We sat that way for a while, not saying anything. No birds appeared. Nothing. It was like I could hear the tiniest creaking of every branch, every leaf skittering across the ground. Like there was nothing else in the world.