When I woke, dad was bustling around the room. He had the windows open and the sun – like surge waters breaching a dam – flooded in. Layers of cardboard had been stripped from the ceiling lamp, and, for the first time in memory, it was lit.
“Wakey, wakey,” dad exulted, “eggs and bakey.” He brandished a tray loaded with sausages, cereal, oranges – everything, in fact, except eggs and bacon. He smiled and pranced, but his bright words belied the frigid tenor of his voice; belied the way his eyes searched my face; the way he hung back from me cautiously.
“What time is it?” I asked, groggy and drunk with sleep. The normality of it reassured dad.
“Time for your first day back at school.” He dumped the tray on my chest as he commandeered the bedside. “Let me get a look at you, boy. You’re a damn handsome kid, just like your old man.” He patted my cheek and inspected my eyes and ears. “That suit – that mask – they were holding you back.”
Prominent on the tray was my lambent vial of pills. Dad watched eagerly as two tiny pills slid back into my throat.
“C’mon now, your mother’s washed your jeans.” The pills down, he swept the tray away before I could eat anything. “I expect you to walk through that door this afternoon with no less than two girls.” And, in a whirlwind of precariously balanced good cheer, he was gone.
In the closet, my suits were conspicuously absent. I pulled on the jeans and examined myself in the mirror. I was tall, broad-shouldered, fair-haired, and the beneficiary of countless hours exercising in the dark. I filled out my t-shirt and the mirror as well. Even for a schizophrenic, I was always extraordinary.
As I crossed through the kitchen, both my parents looked on, eyes brimming with hope. Dad winked and with both hands swept out the hourglass shape of a woman in the air. Smiling, I flung the door open – the rustling breeze cooled my face and tossed my hair. The day was upon me. The battle, by my orange vial of pills, had been won.
I sidled onto the schoolyard, casting nervous glances to either side. I was ready for some collective act of rejection, for ridicule, scorn, and persecution. I was ready to be hated – I had earned their hate.
I wasn’t ready to be overlooked.
Not a single set of eyes turned up; not a single chuckle, not a single hidden whisper was lobbied. I exist, I thought, but the crowd was indifferent. It opened to receive and, swallowing me whole, was unchanged.
It was a bright, spring morning; the breeze whipped up an echo of the chill of winter past; an ardent sun reflected a thousand times in dewy prisms beading on the fresh-cut grass, on the leaves of oaks and maples newly budding. It was the kind of weather that brings a smile bubbling to your face, effervescent and coalescent like the head of a Coca-Cola rising.
Students, teenage boys and girls, were occupied with all the boisterous pursuits of spring. A pick-up game of soccer rolled from one end of the lawn to the other; on the sidelines kids stretched out on blankets in the grass. Boys eyed the girls from afar and the girls pretended not to notice.
But not one of them was concerned with me, though I’d grown up with them all. Not one noticed me.
I wormed my way deep behind their lines before anyone spoke to me. Out of the anonymity, a cool, haughty voice took me from behind; a voice like a lioness might have – golden and proud. “What’s your name?”
I found my heart galloping and turned slowly. A girl! Just like dad said! My heart raced up into my throat and no words could be forced past it. I sputtered, I stammered, I started and stopped and started again. Finally, I spat, “Jack.”
“Jack?” Like a clever hound, she could smell fear. She cocked her hip to one side and rested an arm against it. She was so deliciously feminine I thought I’d go mad – well, madder than I already was.
I nodded, cooling my thoughts, willing my heart to not thump so loud. “Just Jack.”
Her expression never softened. It was self-justified and proud. “Hello, Just Jack, I’m Janice – Just Janice.”
Before the school bell rang I had joined a high-brow coterie I’d never been privy to before. On Janice’s account they received me – the guys with barely veiled jealousy, the girls sometimes as well.
I walked to class with John and Nick, captain and vice-captain of the football team. They introduced me to the daylight sights and sounds of Lemellen Area High as we went.
The bustling halls were an anthill busy with the work of a thousand man-sized ants. There was a chaotic clockwork, a riotous order, to the activity of the students. Not one of them knew me, though. The suit had – best of all – contained my identity besides photons as well. John and Nick treated me like a new kid and I did nothing to disabuse them of the idea.
“That’s the Fro-Monster,” John, pointing to a hairy young lady at her locker.
“Most hideous girl in a 10 mile radius,” Nick.
“That’s Mrs. Havisham,” John, angling his chin at a dusty skeleton of a woman.
“Meanest teacher in a 10 mile radius,” Nick.
“And that’s Joseph O’Hare.”
“Biggest dork in a…”
“No, dude, “ John stopped short. “We like him now.”
“We do?” I guess Nick missed the memo.
“Yeah, he let me copy his chemistry homework.”
“Oh, yeah – well, best chemistry kid in a 10 mile radius,” Re-form ranks! Forwards, march!
I was seeing high school from a whole new perspective, the perspective of an insider. I was no longer periphery but connected, intrinsic. Crowds no longer milled, but flowed. Halls were no longer corridors, but hang outs. Class no longer a destination, but a biding of time. Now that I was connected everything revealed its purpose, its position, in a vast, working symphony. The hustle and bustle of students became a movement as wild and orchestrated as any movement of Mozart’s. Strings whined and friends chatted, drums beat and teachers taught, horns, hotties, cellos, jocks, flutes, nerds, reeds and unpopular girls each in a precise time and place; and everything – everything – was a load bearing part, an element of a greater whole, and all society but a bottomless fugue.
And it was as I marveled at these things that I saw it – or thought I saw it: a skittering flash – a streak – of lambency darting across a row of lockers and into an open classroom. I stopped cold. It had been weeks since I’d seen any of them. My heart raced and an instinct rumbled in my depths like rumors of a distant war. Like the flash of falling bombs on the horizon and the far-away chatter of automatic rifles.
“Jack, you okay?” John nudged me. “Jack?”
“Did you see that?”
“See what?” John.
“We didn’t see nothing.” Nick.
A rough and tumble baritone saved me from having to find an explanation. “Boys.” It was the kind of voice that was heard discoursing in sports bars on Monday nights and from armchairs on Sunday afternoons. It belonged to a bearded walrus of a man; a man wide enough to sweep us all together in his arms, but the kind of man who’d never dream of doing so.
“Coach Mike,” John supplied by way of greeting.
Nick whispered aside, “Best damn football coach in a 10 mile radius.”
“Football tryouts today, boy,.” To Coach Mike it was an observation as immutable and unattainable to mortal men as the whims of heaven above. He might as well have said, “Poor weather today,” or, “That’s a fine mountain, there over yonder.” He even ventured the saying of it with an eye cast upwards to the fluorescent lights as if searching for a stain of clouds there.
“Yes, sir, we’ll be there. Count on us.” In Coach Mike’s presence John’s whole demeanor changed, like a cog re-ground to specification, re-set and re-oiled.
“Good, knew I could.” For the first time Coach Mike looked directly at me. “Who’s this?”
“That’s Jack, sir.”
“Newest kid in a …”
“Well, bring him along. The Lemellen Lemmings can always use strapping lads.” Staring at me, speaking about me, Coach Mike nonetheless addressed John.
“Yes, sir, we will,” John.
“That’s lucky for you, Jack,” Nick.
Once Coach Mike passed on John murmured, “Tryouts are after school on the field.” Suddenly the cog’s familiar squeakiness was back.
For my part, I wasn’t particularly fond of football, though, and maybe my face showed it. John continued, “Janice has cheerleading practice out there – maybe she can show you the way.”
Perhaps football could be an acquired taste. “I’ll be there.”
John’s posture relaxed. The world was grand when it fell into line with the will of Coach Mike. “Good, glad to hear it, old pal. Listen, I gotta run to class. Catch up to you later,” he jogged off.
“Old pal,” Nick grumbled to himself, “best compliment from him in a 10 mile radius.”
The difference between football practice and a sound beating is academic. Given a choice, I’d take the beating: a beating doesn’t last two hours. After a beating you don’t have to shower with twenty other guys. After a beating no one tries to whip your bare ass with a twisted towel; well, usually they don’t, but I suppose they could.
Every time I was tackled I wanted to quit. But the route off the field led directly past the cheerleading practice. So every time I dragged myself back up, against my better judgment.
Finally I hobbled out of the locker room feeling faintly violated. My ribs were bruised and every inhaling breath stung my sides. There was a welt on my ass cheek from the towel. I told myself, “These are the rites of passage common to the young American male – the rituals by which normal society are formed.” It was a cold comfort and the coldest part was that I had made the team. Beatings were now scheduled for 4 PM everyday, with games on Sundays. The stars – like my name on that list – augured calamities for my health.
After a beating, though, the captain of the cheerleading squad rarely ever waits for you outside the locker room.
I walked Janice home. On the way, as we passed my house, dad popped out of a window and awarded me a thumbs up.