I wrote this in 2005 for an English class. I’d love to know what you think.
When I was on my way to ninth grade, my mother and brother ordered me to be happy. It seemed their sanity depended on me acting like a child, showing my mother and brother that I was carefree and unaware of our poverty and insecurity. Time and time again, I’d tried to pawn the Fender Stratocaster I’d won in a raffle for something cheaper. Time and again, Darrin had wrested my prized possession for me, locked it in Mother’s closet, and gone into the street for an evening, returning early the next morning with red eyes and $100 to avert disaster for a little while longer. Mother and Darrin talked every night behind closed doors when I was supposed to be asleep, trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents.
“If all they want you to do is be happy, what the hell is wrong with that?” Valencia asked. My neighbor and best friend, Valencia was the only one I could talk to about the frustrations of ghetto life without coming off as a snob, possibly because she talked so much she never stopped to really listen to me. I didn’t mind for the most part. Most days it seemed like everyone was listening, and I was saying, singing, even thinking the wrong things. Being light-skinned with gray eyes, everything I did was subject to ridicule. “Look at the white kids go,” our neighbors muttered as half-white Darrin and quarter-white, quarter-Korean I drove off to school. “White car and all.”
The last day of summer vacation, Valencia and I sat outside the Dairy Queen, eating all the ice cream shameless flirting could buy (not much if you’re counting). “I wish my mama would tell me to be happy and stop nagging me about money. ‘Buy your own clothes, buy your own shoes’,” Valencia mocked, snorting and sneezing from her allergies.
I didn’t reply, merely picked at my new Nikes, a gift from some guy who wanted Darrin to play football in Oregon next year. How was I supposed to be happy when I knew that Darrin was taking general education college classes at Owens, counting the months until he’d break loose of Mother’s centripetal tragedy force and get a scholarship to The Ohio State University? I’d still be orbiting my mother for the next four years.
A contrary child, to say the least, I swore I’d hate high school. Stupid kids, stupid teachers and stupid cliques. What’s not to dislike? The Central Catholic Fighting Irish were all stereotypically concerned with their looks, extracurricular activities, petty inter-class rivalries, and their SAT scores and grades, in that order. I felt omniscient somehow and resented the small minds that I was able to read. Be happy. Fine. I’ll be the happiest, most clueless self-absorbed little cheerleader you’ve ever seen. But don’t expect me to enjoy it.
I didn’t anticipate any trouble making good grades. Darrin was and is a pack rat, and the homework and tests changed little from year to year.
What else do happy teenagers do? Oh, yeah, worry about fashion. Of course, the terms ‘fashion’ and ‘Catholic school uniform’ seemed contradictory, but there’s always a way. Darrin had taken me to Wal-Mart for uniforms, and warned me about bitching about the uniform policy in his succinct way: “I don’t want to fucking hear it.”
He didn’t. After the first day of floundering to find my classes, I realized that the hallway on the second floor between the study hall and the computer labs was no mere corridor, but the Senior Stroll. I’d heard of it from Darrin and thought it was a formal dance. The object was to turn heads, and ultimately end up with a prom date, but I swore I’d settle for no less than whiplash.
Returning to Wal-Mart after school while Darrin was at a study group, I exchanged my plaid, pleated affairs for pencil skirts and acquired gold lamé and flame red heels that had mysteriously walked off from Valencia’s place of employment. As an afterthought, I’d decided to help myself to some push up bras from Sam Walton’s collection too. I didn’t yet know what I would in winter about pants to fit my height, five foot ten inches and still growing. Valencia said she knew a way to steal people’s credit card information, but most Payless shoppers were probably so maxed out that they’d notice the tiniest transaction in excess of their usual Wal-Mart/Payless/Kroger shopping circuit. We were working on it.
When I arrived Tuesday morning, priest, nun and layperson alike all wanted to cite me for violating the dress code, but I wasn’t. I produced a copy from my purse as proof and read it in imitation of Principal Greene’s reedy voice. “Remember, ladies, skirts must be blue or black, mid-thigh length or better. “ I chuckled, imitating a sultry character from some old movie Mother used to watch. “These skirts are plenty long. No one’s seen the sins of my flesh yet.”
“And your shoes?”
People were gathered around by then, eager to watch the funny looking freshman get dressed down. “Yeah, those shoes,” one stage-whispered. “She’s a bean stalk as it is!”
“My shoes are dress shoes in good condition, as per the policy,” I said to the teacher. “And as for my beanpole status, I do believe I’d rather be a beanpole than a redheaded slug as wide as she is tall.” I turned to stare at the girl I’d described. Even if she hadn’t said it, she was definitely the type to say it. I didn’t strut away until she flushed and averted her eyes. The High School Goliath defeated, the crowd parted and I headed up to the Senior Stroll. By lunch, I was strolling arm in arm with Mikell, one of Darrin’s teammates who Darrin would kill when he found out. Come Wednesday, Mikell showed me a broken emergency door that led to the next level of popularity. Not even a week into my freshman year and I’d graduated from the Stroll to the Park, a lot behind the Wal-Mart. Now I know high school is a game, I thought, holding Mikell’s scrawny hand. This is like in Mario Brothers when you hit the right mushroom and wa-pow! New level. When the first joint was lit, I knew to clear out. Back in the day, I could get home before Mother and Darrin did and wash the weed smell from my hair, but now that Darrin was driving me to and from school, he’d likely get her belt and spank me himself.
Convinced security had memorized my face and would tackle me before the old lady up front could welcome me to Wal-Mart; I headed back to school, my flame red stilettos paining me all the way. I did my first detention that night, and afterwards had to hobble out to the street to wait for my parent or guardian. A school volunteer waited with me, to make sure I didn’t escape back into depravity. “You sure know how to push the envelope,” she remarked. “You should carry flats next time you skip school.” I nodded slowly as if I was considering it.
After thirty minutes or so of standing around, the same nun who’d challenged my attire earlier asked me to come back into the school. The volunteer smirked and headed to her car in the parking lot. “You’d better come in dear,” said Sister Mary Agnes, “there’s a problem at home.”
Following the willowy young nun, panic revved up and down in my chest. Had they found Darrin’s stash? I didn’t know a kilo from an 8-ball but I figured: drugs + football hero + ghetto apartment complex=media firestorm that would ruin Darrin’s life.
Darrin didn’t look ruined sitting across the desk from Principal Greene. He was wringing his hands, but he did that the way some people tap their feet or twirl their hair. I kicked off my shoes and sat down for this impromptu conference, hoping Darrin would save the profanity and threats of “a whopping like you’ve never heard about” for home. I landed right on a fissure in the burgundy vinyl and shifted uncomfortably to the left and right as Darrin put his arm around me and Principal Greene shoved a tissue box at me. When they told me my mother had died that afternoon, I blurted, “No shit, Sherlock, she’s been drinking herself to death longer than I’ve been alive.” Nerves, the desire to shock, even genuine happiness replaced the panic in my belly and tickled its way through my chest and out of my mouth. “Happy, Mother?”
Darrin looked at me sideways, his green eyes first expressing “What the hell” and then saying “Oh, I know what the hell!” and began to laugh too. Principal Greene’s round face looked concerned and Sister Mary Agnes, Catholic casual in a summer camp tee, a kerchief, and loose jeans, dabbed her eyes. “They’re in shock, Lynn,” she whispered.
“Oh my fucking God, oh, excuse me Sister Mary Agnes, oh, excuse me Father, but, but, we’re orphans!” Darrin exclaimed. “Oh, no!” He threw his hands up as if warding off a blow.
“Woe is us,” I guffawed. “Whose gonna take care of us?”
“Us? Shoot, I’m worried about me.” Darrin pointed out that “Shay still got a daddy somewhere. Mine found out what IED’s were the hard way, remember?”
All laughed out, Darrin and I leaned shoulder to shoulder and sighed. Sister Mary Agnes was searching her pockets, probably for her mist bottle of holy water. I wasn’t possessed exactly; merely possessed of the fact that I’d been an orphan for a long time.
We didn’t get to Columbus until January when they took me off probation. When Wal-Mart security finally took me down in late November for helping myself to their lingerie, I pleaded the fifth rather than tell them Darrin was my guardian. They turned me over to the police, who merely asked for my year of birth and shoved me into the juvenile facility until dinnertime. When I was handed a plastic tray of gelatinous I don’t know what, I turned stool pigeon. I decided I’d rather let Darrin skin me alive with the belt than miss Monday Night Football and Hot Pockets.
Darrin was high on his own supply when he picked me up, a good sign. Another good sign was how the door closed softly behind me instead of slamming (even when pissed, my brother is a gentleman. He wouldn’t dream of letting a woman open a door for herself). Yet another good sign appeared when Darrin slung an arm around my shoulder and let me shift the gears for him. Even as we drove against the fat falling snowflakes, I waited on the hammer to drop. Would he drop me off at a group home instead of letting me live on campus with him? When he did brake in front of a strange house, a chill flooded me. “What we doing?” I asked, anxiously.
“Stopping at a red light, goofy,” said Darrin. “Why you all knotted up?”
“Cause!” I whined, dissolving into tears at long last. The Victorian house we idled in front of “You’re leaving me! I’m too much trouble and you’re leeeeeeeeeeeaving!”
“Shit,” Darrin groaned, banging the horn. “Typical teenager. Don’t want me to watch you, don’t want me to leave. Swear you hate Mother but went and made that big ass scene at her funeral. Do you know how friggin’ normal, and, and, and, and, banal you are? Do you?”
I crossed my arms and pouted, still sniffling. I tried to rouse myself to anger, a balancing emotion that would keep me from tipping into a well of tears. “I am not banal!” I protested finally, punching him in the leg. “I don’t even know what that means!”