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One February day in the seventh grade, I was apprehended in the girls' bathroom at school, trying to cut my arm with my Swiss Army knife. It is always February in the seventh grade, that terrible border year, that dangerous liminal interlude.
I was apprehended in the girls' bathroom, in the act to be precise of wearing at my arm with the saw blade of my Swiss Army knife.
Until the moment of my apprehension, I didn't once think, People will find this odd. How could they? Is there nothing more fascinating than our own blood? The scarlet beauty of it. The pulsing immediacy. The way it courses through its endless circuit of comings and goings, slipping and rushing and seeping down to the cells of us, the intimate insider that knows all the news, that's been down to the mailroom and up to the boardroom.
In Mr. Davidson's biology class, the air dry with winter heat and pricked by the smell of formaldehyde and decay, we had been peering at mounted samples of unknown origin pressed flat between glass slides -- papery shreds of tissue and muddy blotches of long-dried blood. And I got the idea that it would be more interesting to examine my own blood under the microscope. Blood still wet, still rich with urgent color. I imagined lively, plump little corpuscles tumbling against each other like a miniature game of bumper cars.
Everything is perfectly clear when looked at in the right light; I chose the school bathroom for my theater of operations because if you want your blood to be fresh to the task, you have to be handy to the microscope when you bring it forth. I had brought my Swiss Army knife to school precisely for this purpose. It was recess. I would cut, and then I would quickstep down the hall to Mr. Davidson's classroom -- with its shelves crowded with chunks of rock and skeletal remains and things floating pickled in Ball jars -- and screw down the probing eye of 1OX magnification onto the very essence of my own self.
I found this plan so compelling it blinded me to other thought. The idea of the blood beckoned to me, hypnotic and seductive. How often do we know the blood of our veins? It reveals itself to us only as the herald of bad news: the injury, the illness, the sudden slip of the paring knife or the prick of the doctor's needle. Why should we meet only in disaster?
It wasn't as big a leap as you might imagine. I'd never been blood squeamish. I proudly displayed my scabs and scars, vaguely envious of my older sister, who seemed to garner all the really good injuries, the satisfyingly dramatic ones that needed stitches, and constructions of gauze and splint and tape, and shots and salves to ward off deliciously hideous consequences: lockjaw, sepsis, gangrene.
The key to success is to envision the thing in your mind. Draw the bright chrome of the blade along the slender rope of vein wrapping sinuous around your left wrist, and everything parts obediently beneath your command, like the Red Sea before Moses.
Except it didn't. The knife blade was worn too dull, as dull as the dun walls of the bathroom where I stood. With my arm braced against the warm metal shelf over a radiator, I could see the veins meandering blue and purple and green like a road map beneath the thin cover of my flesh. Only the frailest membrane of tissue keeping self from self. Yet who would have thought that skin could have so much substance, so much resistance?
I attempted and discarded in quick succession the can opener, the leather punch, and the flathead screwdriver. I settled at length on the saw blade, an unhappy compromise. It scraped back and forth like a fiddler's bow against my arm, chafing the skin red and raw. Little white clumps of flesh gummed up the blade, and the stubborn shelter of my skin refused to give way.
The radiator clanked and hissed. The bathroom smelled of disinfectant and body functions. I stood there and sawed. I wasn't doing a very good job of it, because sawing on your arm hurts. It burns. Disappointingly clumsy and painful and blundering, it was nothing like the swift, precise operation I had imagined.
To compound matters, I gathered a tiresome audience of other girls. You know, the popular girls. The typecast antagonists of the after-school movie. The ones who have always found that life just happens to be in perfect agreement with their opinions.
"Eeeuhhh. What are you doing?"
"I'm trying to cut myself," I said.
"Because I want to."
"That's really disgusting," said one.
"She just wants attention," muttered another darkly.
But still they stood about, like rubberneckers at a train wreck. After so many years of recesses, after all, what excitements are left? You have fifteen minutes, and you have to kill them somehow.
"You're going to get in trouble for this," announced the ringleader at last, rendering her verdict with a self-satisfied toss of her confident head, before guaranteeing the outcome by retreating to alert the authorities.
In the intricately nuanced grade-school hierarchy I wasn't one of those popular girls, the ones born to straight teeth and straight hair and genetically predetermined self-confidence. I wasn't one of the outcasts either the pale kids with the weird health problems, or the ones who always said the wrong thing at the wrong time and didn't even know it, or the ones whose mothers made them liverwurst sandwiches for lunch. I had always occupied the shifting territory of the middle ground, sunk low by my hopeless ineptitude at all sports involving a ball, raised up by my standing as one of the smart kids.
I'd slid by on smart. I'd made smart do in the place of industry and application. As far back as nursery school my teacher had noted on my report card that Caroline loves to volunteer information, but Her attention span is quite easily distracted and She has no incentive to accomplish a finished or well-done paper. I never took naturally to the linearity of school, the ordered progression of hours and ideas. My mind has always raced about with the distracted enthusiasm of a dog chasing squirrels, pursuing one idea, then whirling after another, and sometimes losing itself staring up along the endlessly branching pathways down which the last idea has fled. I stared out windows, daydreaming. I doodled. I read books tucked surreptitiously within the covers of whatever textbook we were meant to be following. I got by on last-minute efforts : and what's worse, I knew I could.
I got my comeuppance in sixth grade, when I was demoted to the slow-learning section for having what my school termed "a poor attitude." They didn't call it the slow-learning section, of course B1 is what they called it, as distinguished from A, or, more direly, B2 but we were none of us so slow-witted that we couldn't figure it out.
I remember feeling at the time of my demotion that some inevitable truth had at last come out. I come from a family of scholars and educators, and I think I've long suffered a sneaking suspicion that I've never quite measured up to the high standard of intellectual rigor valued above all else by my relations.
I can't remember a time, in fact, when I didn't think I was coming up short in one regard or another. Through no fault of her own my sister, two years older, had served as the measure by which my inadequacies were perpetually thrown into relief. She was better at sports, better at board games, better at drawing and painting and projects, more musical, more popular, and, of course, smarter.
"Oh, you're Julia's little sister," her former teachers would say to me, the first day I entered their classes at the beginning of a school year, and though I felt a swelling of pride by association, I could see already how there was no hope of proving adequate to all the expectations implied by that statement. In the first grade, according to the report by the administrator of an IQ test I took then, I kept repeating, "Oh, stupid me, that's wrong," and "I'm stupid and I can't do this."
The demotion to B1 had the quality, therefore, of a long-expected if dreaded inevitability. I even remember reassuring my parents, when the school informed us of my new class placement, that it was probably the best thing anyway.
For the better part of the day they sequestered us, the hopeless and the hapless of the B1, in a subterranean cinder-block dungeon of a classroom, its walls painted a psychosis-inducing shade of dingy yellow, its only window a narrow slit high in the wall, through which we could see the occasional passage of a knee-socked leg on the playground above. Our teacher had tried to invest the room with some faint cheer by taping up those droll little posters of bedraggled kittens and antic orangutans, captioned "Don't bother me, I'm having a bad day" or "No more monkeying around."
We were all, always, having a bad day in B1, or so it seemed. We snarled and sniped at each other, flinging invective, muttering mutinously. Every few weeks or so we were treated to a visit from the headmaster or the middle-school director, whose sole purpose in coming was to lecture us on our utter failure to live up to even the most nominal and rudimentary standards of decency and respectability, and the imminent likelihood that our entire school's reputation would be laid low by our sorry collective performance.
I have no memory at all of what we did to earn ourselves such administrative enmity, but I felt marooned in a savage land. Though mine was a small school, I swear I never saw or spoke again to any of my former comrades in A, and at the same time I felt as though my B1 classmates regarded me contemptuously as a fallen member of a corrupt aristocracy. I'd been exiled by the unforgiving academic caste system: a student without a country.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. Copyright © 1999 by Caroline Kettlewell. All rights reserved.