Chalk makes a grating sound; I know it well. I listen to its gravel talk daily as it etches numbers into memories I’ll nightly make no sense of. The room reeks of sterility, or wheat flour, or quicksand. I fear its dusty, dry residue I slip and sink slowly beneath.
It has become a ritual—a daily perspiration. Trying to keep up to avoid the smoke on Ms. Gurney’s breath, hot as coals as she leans close to my face and reviews my paper. Stern instructions hang in the air, and in the meantime, I wait. If they could make fly swatters for this, I would swing my arms madly. Catch fleeting directives, pin down their weight.
It’s not that I can’t remember. I always remember, really. Every word. The cosine is equal to the adjacent over hypotenuse. Vectors are multidimensional, and their product is the product of their magnitudes times the sine of the angle. Find the area under the curve from 1 to x, x being arbitrary, as these details sound, too. I collect them on paper.
Ms. Gurney shifts; she shuffles through the buzz, rises to a stand and begins to make her rounds. She calls on students sometimes, asks them to perform problems nice and tidy at the board. There is the tall boy with his matchsticks. There is the fat girl with her chewing gum. There are the eager children with answers. There is the sweat pooled at my fingertips.
It’s not terrible being alone, I figure as I stare at one, angular and messy, sketched in grit on Ms. Gurney’s board.
I glare at my pencil. My paper’s corners are curled, sporting dirt from nervous palms. My knee shakes, shakes a bit faster beneath the smooth and cool table.
The bell rings and I watch her, gray hair spooled above her head. She stands by the door. I try to shrink past. We both know it’s her job to see me, to stop me, to ask me. Each and every dull day, she watches me back.
“Antoine,” she insists, lifting a single, creaky finger. She coaxes me closer. “Let me check, before you go.”
Should I have been slighter, perhaps I’d pass unimpeded. Perhaps if my feet weren’t heavy, so disobediently large. I curse unruly limbs, with their noise and their space. I am reminded of my folder in the main office, how it, too, is aching and stuffed. I think of metal cabinets and sticky notes and diagnoses sketched in pen. I think of payment plans and IEPs and scribbled notes to quiet parents. I think of cigarettes and smoking them and how I never, ever will.
Individualized education plan. My treatment begins. She is prescriptive, diagnostic. We recite.
I hand Ms. Gurney my paper and she lays it on a desk in the front. She tells me to sit. Her wasp of a head buzzes close and my left cheek bristles as air brushes my skin. She smells faintly of tar.
“We talked about your notes, Antoine,” her words float. “This isn’t how we’ve written it. The content is correct but the order just isn’t.”
I stare at her scrawl. I try to tell the difference.
“Sorry, Ms. Gurney,” I say. “Can’t I just take a picture?”
She sighs and withdraws, one soft strand of gray floating to the shale of the desk. I resist the urge to blow lightly and watch as it sifts to the floor.
“Yes, you may,” she says. I have made her unhappy. “But next time let’s work on writing notes right yourself.”
I nod and I stand. We will recite again tomorrow. We will recite again next week. I think about her “help” and how it never ever does. I snap a photo with my phone, slide it deep in my pocket. I wrinkle my body to its usual hunch. I slide into the hall and try not to run when I see the water fountain at the other end, lineless and free.
Her name is Yerania. I know because it sounds like Uranus, a fact others won’t forget and I wish I could. She has brown hair and freckles. She eats French fries with tea.
I think I think she’s pretty but I am not really sure; I’m sure only of my lungs and their tight, shallow breath. My lungs clench at many things, like lunch bells or egg timers or eye contact with friends. She is new at school this year. She is new at school this week. Her parents moved from Sydney, and she sits with a posture that suggests this is cool.
Sydney is in Australia and has a large building with arcs that remind me of wings. Sydney is a place with accents, and Sydney stirs awake only once we drift to sleep. Sydney is also a name, and I wonder why hers isn’t more normal, like Morgan or Jess.
I walk into math class as she sits in my usual spot. She is perched upright in the back.
My nerves tense all over; no alternate plan. Next to the girl with the gum, perhaps, or behind the boy who is bad.
Yerania sees me, and I realize my eyes are fixed on her wide. She is sitting up tall and has one eyebrow raised.
I walk toward her slowly. “Sorry. It’s just, you’re in my seat.” I move my gaze so that it’s fixed on her neck.
She moves her head back like an ostrich, meets her eyes back with mine.
“Well, that’s alright,” she says, “because there are like twelve seats left open. Teacher said I can sit where I want.”
She gestures toward Ms. Gurney who is looking at me, solemn. Sheepish, I resign and descend to a new seat, beside her.
I take out my homework and set it on the gray desk. I turn my hips forward so I am facing the front. My answers are all wrong—I know this. I know many things. I know the capital of Austria and that it’s expensive to live there. I know Ancient Romans became Ottomans and so Eastern culture shares with the West. I know I sat behind this homework last night for two hundred and ten quiet minutes. I know I ate carrots and celery sticks I dipped deep in ranch. I know ranch is called ranch because it was invented on a dude ranch called Hidden Valley. I know I skipped dinner for almonds and that my mother did not care. I know that she is used to this. I know almonds contain fiber and magnesium, and that magnesium is a mineral that’s supposed to make you feel happy. I know my mother expects that my nightly studies will never be enough.
I don’t know how to piece together trig equations or evolve steps to find x. I don’t know how I don’t know, and I don’t know that I ever will. I don’t know what Ms. Hatchworth thinks when she looks at my papers. I stare at my loose leaf with its scribbles and—snatch!
Yerania has my paper, she’s yanked it from my desk. Her hips are turned toward me and she leans forward and looks down as she reads what I have written.
“Sorry,” she says. “I’m trying to figure out what this class is doing.” She sighs and turns back to her desk, still staring at my scrawl. “I took Calc II at my other school, but they don’t offer it here. Want to see where you guys are at. How much you all need to catch up.”
She turns the sheet over, brow scrunched as she reads. “What are you doing, vectors?” She points at one, drawn. “That’s what that is, right?”
“Uh, I don’t think you should ask me,” I say. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
“In life, or just with math?” she asks and returns my paper.
I grumble, scrunching over it and my desk. I flatten the crinkled sheet, trying to right my wrong. “Just math,” I say. “Otherwise I’m just fine.”
“You seem it,” she says, sarcastic. “But how would I know?” She leans back in her chair and contemplates me. I don’t like it, being looked at. I stare stoically at Ms. Gurney and her glasses. I try to ignore as Yerania still glares. Her words hum in my ears. I stare forward.
“You know, all loose marbles roll downhill. So you better not lose yours.”
I look toward her. I turn my hips now so ours are facing each other, legs swung to the side of our chairs.
“Hey, you know, that’s a good one,” I say, pausing. “Witty.”
“That’s my dad,” she says. “He always says it.”
“I’m Yerania,” she says, hand outstretched.
“Antoine.” A light shake.
She is waiting, so I work hard, conjure details. “I’m not from here, either,” I say. “I’m from Georgia.”
“Like the country, or the state?” She is serious.
“The… the state. People aren’t really from anywhere at this school. Like, everyone is from D.C.”
Her nose scrunches. “Oh.”
I shrug. It is quiet, and my still hands do not sweat. My shoulders lower slightly. I sit back.
She shakes her head softly, as if waking her mind. “So you really don’t understand this stuff, huh?” She points to my paper.
I look away. “Not so much.”
“Well, don’t worry,” she smiles at me. “It’s like sex. You don’t understand it until one day, you just do.”
Eyes wide, I nod. My jaw tries to clench, but I nod and I laugh because I am supposed to understand normal things, too.
The first time I understand sex, I am by myself. Not that I hadn’t had it before then – itchy, ick encounters in cold, quiet cars. Upholstery is unkind, really, and I think that was the problem. The first time I understand sex, I am kind to myself.
Sex is all my classmates think about, staring through each other’s shirts. They stare through each other’s shirts and hear through each other’s words and think that if they can bore down closely enough, if they can stare with enough vice, they’ll drill holes to each other’s insides and uncover secrets that smell like their own. I know they cannot.
But it’s not so terrible being alone, I figure as I try not to think of mine. Eyes on it, everywhere. If I could worm from my skin into a wrinkled heap on the floor, I swear that I would. Like a wet towel or thick, matted pile of paper mache.
My shoulders shift. I am wearing my backpack slung to one side. My waist presses to my pant buttons and arms stress at my sleeves. My mother says I am slender and waifish for our family and does not know that hearing her say that feels worse.
I am standing in the hallway, uncomfortable and unsure where to walk. I know that it is short, that couple of minutes between classes when peers bounce through the halls like loud cicadas buzzing free. Ironic, really, their pre-picked destinations and no choice but to go. My hip falls to the side. I notice.
After math class is chemistry. Hall 5, Classroom 2. It is comforting to know all these numbers and names—a clear path, a system.
The first time I understand sex, I am by myself. The first time I understand math, I am the same.
Alone is how I think straight: independent of others, no judgements or glee. I am alone every night and read new books, learn old things. I wonder why some old books don’t teach new things, too, and sometimes try my luck at writing something new of my own. I am bad at this, I am told. I am told that words should sound pretty, and mine never do. Still, writing is honest, an honest conversation I don’t ever have to have.
Math is honest, too, with its logic and charm. My math is much prettier. I look at a problem and twitch, move to solve it. I am excited and eager and my pencil scribbles fast. Sometimes, I let clarity slip like sand and then I race it to an answer until I have arrived and am free. I can sit there, pleasant and happy knowing I have done the right thing. It’s methodic, rhythmic. Plug in the same number and you’ll get the same thing.
People say that when I speak, it sounds pretty. They like the way my y’s roll, the way my a’s dip and dive. But I don’t have to think hard to know this is a misnomer, that pretty is not really what they mean.
I can talk a person’s ear off to spite them, prattle logic and charm. Methodic, algorithmic. Plug in the same words and people will say the same thing. They’re predictable, people. They run by set scripts. My power is in deciding. I solve their equation, I choose my result.
My limbs, light and airy, try and hurry to class. I know it will look better if I don’t. And so I drag my slim feet.
I don’t know you, I think as I face a wall of white faces and I walk into the room. They have no qualms with blank staring, mouths agape and gazes fixed. White as sheets, blank as boards, cool as cucumbers. I wave. You don’t know me.
“Yerania,” the teacher proclaims; I require no introduction. “I’m so glad you made it. Why don’t you have a seat?” She gestures to the open room and I scan for a chair.
None appear too friendly, but I decide on a corner seat at the very back. I toss my hair to one side and my backpack to the floor. I open it slowly. The blank faces have followed me. I squirm in my seat.
I wonder how I look to them—brand new and shiny. A diamond to look at, a penny to hoard. I open my notes.
“Can you introduce yourself to the class?” I look up.
“Sure,” I say, though it’s clear I don’t want to. A power move, a trick. Ms. Percy pulling a chair out from under my thin legs. She thinks she can look at me and know what she’ll get.
I stand. “I’m Yerania,” I say. Someone snickers. “I moved here from Sydney a couple weeks ago. We’re trying our luck at D.C.”
Trying our luck is one way to put it. Testing the waters. Hoping we’ll stay. I listen as my accent wipes down fresh ears like a Q-tip.
I don’t say I was born here. I don’t say we moved away when I was 10. I don’t say we moved back from Sydney because I needed to run, that though we’re back, it’s all relative, a “we’ll see” if I make it. I sit down.
“Well, welcome!” Ms. Percy says. “If you need anything, anything at all during these first couple of weeks, you let me know.”
“Of course,” I say, knowing neither of us means it. Ms. Percy smiles and turns to the rest of the class.
“She’s not that cute,” I hear someone whisper from a desk somewhere up front. My stomach churns. I think of butter and molasses and mother’s chocolate cake. I think of carrots and ranch dressing and how I won’t eat either thing. I think of mirrors and wonder where the nearest one is I can find. I think of cute boys and chemistry and how it’s absurd to think of either. I think of Sydney and summer, of rough hands and game nights and don’t write one word in my notebook. I hear someone’s tongue click, and it reminds me of a lock.
I try hard to focus on my pen, its tap tap on my desk.
The first time I understand love, I am at summer camp. It is a cliché and I hate it, but it is both cumbersome and true. I work as a counselor and the camp is in Illinois. It’s a program they have there—they bring in counselors from abroad who would like to travel and see the USA. I know I am from there, but I really don’t care. It is a chance to leave home, to leave parents behind at a time when I needed to. I take the spot eagerly and spend the whole summer.
He is from Las Vegas, and he cooks and he hikes. He also drinks, and so I drink. He bikes, and so I bike. We go on long treks with mountain bikes through the woods, legs aching as we shove our pedals downward to make our steep climb. We stop intermittently to guzzle water and spray each other with water bottles. We laugh madly. We kiss lightly. I am fickle; experienced, but shy.
When my trip ends, I say I love him, invite him home for a week. He says yes. He wants to travel. I am from Sydney and the rest of his summer looks bleak. He comes home with me, and we sit together on airplanes as if love is so certain, as if we have known each other for more than six weeks.
Sydney is fun with him, at first. I show him around, he asks me questions. My mother laughs at his jokes and we all sit together for tea. And then he starts noticing. And then he starts saying something.
“What’s that?” he’d say, pointing at a bruise on my thigh. I’d shrug at him politely and walk faster to the train.
“Yerania,” he’d warn me. “You need to be more careful!” Here he would point to another. The point is that he noticed. The point is he wasn’t selfish. He said something kind, and that was the problem. Kindness can spin clues, can find words. We can’t have that in Sydney. We can’t have that anywhere. I withdrew.
Suspicion plagued our dinners and warped into fights. My father grew angrier, threatened to send him home. I was warned, breath hot as coals as he leaned close in dark closets. Then he did send him home, and I knew that I would not see him ever again.
At school, I silenced. At home, I cocooned. Warm blankets, deep breathing, a counselor on the weekends to help me feel okay.
Mother noticed, and we lied to her. I was too soft, he said. Squirmy. Thin skin insisting on leaving a mark.
It was someone else, we said, someone else. Left him nameless. My mother’s frantic fear, a father’s somber nod.
“We have to get away,” my mother said. “This place isn’t good for you. The memories, they leave a plague.”
“Yes, Mom, I agree. It will be good for me to leave. Let’s go back to America. I can live normal if we leave.” I lied through my teeth. I nodded, conceded, and she booked our flights to D.C. We left, the plague didn’t; it landed with us, hard as nails, our locked box.
It is time. My weekly meeting, my check-in. My hour of support that’s supposed to support me.
The hall floors are sticky, always covered in grime. I never know when there’s a rough patch, never foresee a stumble. I only use one backpack strap because I notice this seems cool. Zachary does it, and Kyle. I wonder if they understand sex, and if they’ve ever had it. I drag my thick feet.
When I walk into her office, she is eating spoonfuls of yogurt. Low-fat, strawberry. Its saccharine smell lingers in the office air. I breathe slowly.
“Hello, Ms. Hatchworth.” I sit.
“Hi, Antoine,” she says, hurriedly taking her last few bites. “Sorry about the yogurt, my lunch started a little late.”
I shake my head. “No problem.”
Her lips smack. She takes another bite and uses her spoon to scrape the container. I wait.
“So how’s class?” She has finished so I look up at her, more confident I can stomach it.
“You’re taking Chem?” she says, looking down at a sheet of paper. “And Calc.” She frowns.
“Yes,” I say stoically. I wonder why she asks about things she already knows are true.
“And how are you handling it?”
Her glasses slide slowly down the ridge of her nose. Her chiffon blouse cascades atop her large desk’s linoleum. She will poke me and prod me until I say something new. “I don’t like Calc much,” I say. “Or Chem. But it’s fine.” I look out the window. Tap tap goes my knee.
“Remember at our meeting this year, you said you would share more during check-ins.” She is right. I remember. The folder and the table and the chairs filled with adults. My teacher, Ms. Hatchworth, my mother, the man from SPED. My father waiting at home with a stiff drink and torn shoes. My hands clammy and shaking. Sweating, discussing with strangers my warm, rotting brain. My eyes narrowing shyly beneath the window’s harsh light. My mouth moving slowly with promises I don’t keep.
“Yes, Ms., I’ll try.” I grind my teeth. They feel crooked.
“Are you using your accommodations? You know, when you need them?” She means my exceptions; there are rules I’m allowed to break. If I need time after class, I can stay and copy the board. If I can’t keep up during Chem lab, I can perform a computer simulation instead of the real thing. I can exclude and decide, I can choose to look weird. I will not make this decision. She already knows I have not. I again wonder why she asks when my teachers have told her the things she wants to know.
“I don’t ever feel like I need them.”
She nods, lips pressing together tersely.
I think about my retainer and how I wish I had it with me to pop in my mouth. I think about brackets—of income, on paper. I think about how I wish things were in order, shoved tightly into line. Of how other kids struggle, too—with math, chem, and life—but they’re all outside now and I am stuck smelling strawberry.
For the rest of the hour, we do things as planned. She checks our quick list. We discuss test grades and study hours and lunch periods and crying. We talk about how to make things easier for me, how to breathe right, how to score well on English papers. We talk about next year and college and applications and trying. I stare at the walls. Their gravel etches me dry, wrung raw, tired; I leave her room swollen, eyes swimming with me.
And I see Yerania there, sitting demurely in this small hall, perched in an old, woven chair. Its cushion threads have come loose, white balls of fluff peeking from its sides. The flowered, dim pattern peeks through the gap in her legs.
She sees me and looks surprised. I wonder at her sitting there. She shouldn’t be surprised. I should be. This hallway is not for all students. This hallway is for me. This hallway is where I feel safe. It is for students like me.
“Hey,” she waves. “I get to see you here, too, huh?”
I look around, as if for witnesses. As usual, there are none. I look to read the label on Ms. Hatchworth’s office door. It’s no use to lie.
“IEP,” I say, gesturing towards her room, to its stiff air and yogurt smell. “I have to every week.”
Yerania nods. She is quiet.
“What about you?” I ask, though I know I’m meant not to. She can do math, can talk slowly. She speaks her mind and keeps distance, she does well in school.
She crosses her legs then thinks twice, letting her feet ground to the floor.
“Well, I lost my marbles,” she says and smiles, just a little too sadly.
I arrive to Chemistry class to see a small pouch at my desk. It is soft, cloth, and gray, full of lumps. A string attaches a note to the neck, ties the pouch tightly shut. I lift it. It is stuffed full with marbles. I unfold the note.
In carefully penciled cursive are two neat lines: “Don’t be silly. They’re right here.”
I suck in a deep breath. I hide the bag swiftly, stuff it beneath the fabric of my dress.
It is time. My weekly meeting, my check-in. My “Are you sure you’re okay?” that’s supposed to check me. Sweat drips, I am hidden in sick, tired thoughts. Downhill, rolling, all of them. Chest thick like cement.
I’m light on my feet regardless, summer dress floating. I correct my poor posture. I hold my head high. I walk into Ms. Hatchworth’s office, its gravel walls, its ticking time.
“Hello, Yerania,” she says loudly. I cringe. “You may close the door behind you.” I do as she asks and the latch clicks, makes a din.
“I’m so glad you came in today,” she starts. My mother has briefed her. She knows, knows what she thinks is everything. I fake a soft smile. I count to four and breathe in.
“I know you’ve been through a lot, and I want you to know that you don’t have to be in here.” But I do. “If I’m not helpful, that’s okay.” But it’s not. “I am glad you are here, though, and I think these sessions can be a safe place for you to come and speak your mind.” But I can’t.
Ms. Hatchworth is young like me; I notice her slimness. My thighs shift in my seat as I try to spread their sweat, a thickening layer between skin and ceramic. Sit quietly, she won’t notice. She has shiny, white teeth.
I prepare all my lines. I’ve practiced, after all.
“Mom,” I’d said earlier. “I’m really worried people won’t like this dress.” My mother smiled and brushed back my hair. She said, “You look great, sweetie,” and gave my head a quick kiss.
“Mom,” I’d said earlier. “What if the kids at school don’t like me?” And she matched my fake pout and gave my left shoulder a squeeze. “Just be yourself,” she said, “and if they don’t like you, I don’t like them.”
I’ve practiced these scripts, put my own to the test. I did promise my mother I’d live normally if we left. I did promise my father I’d live normally if we left. As I speak to her, he smiles, in our trite little home. I give a sweet smile here, and it’s almost choral, this charm.
My seat feels small. I run my right thumb along the hem of my dress.
“So how are you feeling today? Are you feeling comfortable at school?”
I smile. “For the most part,” I say. “I just hope people will like me. What do you think of this dress?”
“I think you look great,” Ms. Hatchworth replies. Algorithmic, methodic. She smiles to support me and I slide in sweat down my chair.
I see her there often, in the hallway where I am safe. She talks toward me, not away. Her hips always face forward. I think she knows I prefer this, that things are direct. Upholstery is unkind, the feel of tired, woven chairs. I think maybe, just maybe, kindness is not simply something one only finds alone.
The first time I understand math, I am in fact not alone.
She sits with me, sometimes. We talk through equations. I show her my scrawl. She sits and explains as I wonder what time she will need to leave for her appointment. Ms. Gurney’s door is often quiet, its latch locked I’m sure. It chides its label at us, its report card we’ve failed. I do not like when she points at it. She still does so often.
I lend her my best pen. It has an eraser and thick ink and doesn’t bleed through thin paper. She knows this, understands this. She thanks me and smiles, rests the pen back in my lap.
“You’re the one with the homework, anyway,” she says as she opens her backpack.
With fumbling fat fingers, I start to point and ask quietly. Through the wall of thick air, her words reach me and I talk back. Her breath smells of soda. I prefer to drink tea.
We don’t talk much in class. We only talk here. I learn more about her, and I now know many things. I know she tutors on weekends and won’t offer to tutor me. I know she tells me things anyway, lends her notes, teaches math. I know she likes popcorn and patterns, the flowers on her dress. I know she hates carrot sticks, hates my dip deep in ranch. I know I eat them anyway. I know to turn away from her sneer as my crooked teeth snap them. I need to feel the crack of them, feel their toughness giving way. I know she understands this. I know she doesn’t care. I know she takes pen to her skin, etches small words and doodles in the crevice of her elbow. Chem homework. Tutor Bradley. Ms. G’s @ 4 p.m. Written reminders, written schedules that impress. She etches spirals, a heart, a peace symbol, an eyeball. I wonder why she does this, why she doesn’t plan someplace more normal, like paper or a desk.
“You know,” she says one day, “we should do something next week. Like, outside of school.”
I freeze, carrot suspended inches from my agape, tepid mouth. She sits on the floor beside me, floats her legs out in front of her. She leans back. We rest against white bricks on the cool, shining wall.
“What is it you like to do, anyway, when you’re not stuck hanging here?”
I think hard on this. I do. I like watching poker and ping pong on the TV in my room. I like large puzzles, to read, to relace my shoes. Most often I like silence, but I like noise certain times when I’m alone and askew. Beethoven. Jim Morrison. Madonna because my mom played it, way back when, when she talked to me more too. I think of time spent, how it stretches, how I must sit to work on homework every day after school.
“Well, I hang at home, mostly.” Watch professionals bounce tiny white balls with their paddles in a dimly lit room.
She looks disappointed.
“Hm,” she says. She looks down at her shoes. It is silent for a second. She is thinking, I can tell, with her small face scrunched like a Q. I feel the quiet gather, can feel it fill the humid hallway.
“You can come over.”
“No, you weirdo,” she responds sharply, shifts her eyes to meet mine. “And you’re not welcome at my house, either.”
I stammer. “Oh. Alright.” Pick up another carrot. Bite loudly and chew.
“I want to do something new. Something fun, or cool,” she says. My chest hammers. I hear its knock, knock, it hurts. “I am new here, after all. Would be nice to figure out some of what people at this school normally do.”
We stare, both blankly. I am an old, creaky door of thick, dense, rotting wood. Her, too, I have let down, curse my thick brain and its rules. My knocking continues. It grows louder, and will grow louder still. Until I open up, and I answer it. Struck by something, I speak.
“I’ve got a car,” I say, though I don’t. I have learned to drive, though, and sometimes go for groceries my mother forgot in my sister’s old Subaru.
I offer to drive her somewhere, pray I’ll figure out where, because I know I am supposed to know normal things, too.
He is weird—this I know. There’s a cramp in his side, an impropriety he can’t suppress. It’s nice, though, to hide there. I let his odd, encumbered gait and eye-wells and stutters fill silent spaces I often hate.
I am weird—this he knows. He gets it, I think, all life’s rhythm and sound. And though the kid can’t do math, he can keep metronomic time with the tick of his foot.
I wonder if he tells her things. About his math homework, his anxiety, his manic cravings for green tea. There’s a lot he does know, sure, but just because he knows doesn’t mean he understands. Like calculus, or conversation, or nutrition, or me. He doesn’t understand why I asked him for a drive, why I need someone just blind enough to occupy a scratchy seat.
The hours with Ms. Hatchwork pass that way, painless. A giggle here, a sniff there. Methodical acting, a secret best left hanging. Our meetings will go this way. They will go this way for weeks. Each time, it gets easier, her nuts and bolts more apparent. She is couth, prim and proper, and asks me questions that land in palms like warm bowls of soup. She wears scarves and smiles kindly and believes my excuse for my poor work at school. I can play this like a fiddle, silly fickle little me.
A vector represents force; its numbers indicate direction. Up 2, right 3 always looks like (2,3). We can calculate its distance, its limited time. Real life isn’t so tidy, but one can play that way, pretend it’s so. Physics is a soft science, after all.
Count the clock ticks through breakfast and make them always the same. Compound each breath and movement with direction, know which rooms to avoid and in which are fun to hide. Plug in the same action and you’ll find the same product. Just keep counting numbers, just keep killing time.
I do well in Calculus. I volunteer after school. I tutor for Ms. Gurney and buy nice clothes, laugh at boys. I get home late and wake up early and attend my weekly meetings, strict script still in hand. I get home later and later. I get slimmer and slimmer.
It grates slowly, the hiding. Nothing methodical is ever smooth or ever easy, it’s like a clock tick that bothers, and I sit in class some days and linger. I catch myself sometimes in musings or slippage, in the fear of my thigh sweat when I rise from a desk. At times, my skin crawls with things, these secrets that move.
I learn I can suppress, I can map time and numbers, can control what’s let inside. I smile small at teachers; my tone is cold as gusts of air, cold as the silent whoosh as an unlocked door opens.
Until one day, she notices. Until one day, she sees me. I wear a short skirt and it’s too short; I invite a gaze up my thigh.
Ms. Hatchworth asks subtly, testing the water with a tiny toe. My bland heart beats madly, my big ears whoosh wildly, and in a voice I don’t recognize with a shape I can’t explain, I hear myself say it:
“Antoine,” I say. “Antoine did it. He hurt me.”