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The best way to avoid being picked on by high school bullies is to kill someone. Anyone will do. Accidental killings have the same effect as on- purpose murder. Of course, this is just my own theory. My sister Delta would say that my sample size isn't big enough to draw such a conclusion. But I bet I'm right.
Because now no one jerks my braids so my neck snaps back and I bite my tongue; no one pulls my backpack off and scatters my textbooks in one hallway, my notebooks in another, and leaves the bag in the boys' bathroom toilet; no one spits at me from the school bus; and Gorilla Arms Manning doesn't pretend to point with his right hand while grabbing my crotch with his left. Not since eighth grade. Not since I killed theDaddy.
He wasn't my real daddy. My sisters and I had to call him that when our little brothers were born so they would know what to call him. Before that I just called him Umm. Like "Umm...remember you said you would let us watch TV this weekend?" Or "Umm...do you want any more rice and plantains?" That's because Ma never told us what our name for him was.
A couple days after my fifth birthday Ma returned to the apartment we shared with Uncle Andre and Aunt Jacqueline and three of my cousins, and made my sisters and me put on matching pink-and-white girly dress-up dresses the kind with the frilly decorations that scratch your neck and the giant bows in back that never tie to quite the same size, so you end up looking like a crippled-winged angel. Then we went to a church and there was a wedding and we moved out of Brooklyn to a red and yellow house in a place full of white folks called Chestnut Valley and never went back to Uncle Andre's apartment. Ma called her new husband Gaston. But my sister Enid got slapped when she tried that.
The Daddy was only a shade lighter than black as dirt. According to Ma, there are two ways to be considered black as dirt. Your skin could really be black as dirt, or you could be any shade darker than Ma and piss her off. Since Ma is the color of Haitian eggnog, as light all over as the palm of my hand, and since it's almost impossible not to piss her off, most people, including all us kids, are from time to time black as dirt.
But the Daddy was honest-to-goodness almost black as dirt. And so fat he spent most of his time tugging his pants up. Augustin, who worked as a tailor and lived in our basement, made him a few pairs of pants. Tents, they were, really. Tents with crotches sewn into them. My little brother Gerald once suggested it would be easier if the Daddy wore a dress, like one of those big, no-shape, huge-pockets-on-the-side dresses my aunts had to wear after living in New York for a few months. We all were afraid the mark the Daddy's fist left on Gerald's mouth would forever be black as dirt, but sure enough, it went to purple, then green, then yellow, and back to normal red pink again.
Daddy-black-as-dirt-and-too-fat-for-his-pants had two things my mother liked. He had a desire to live in houses with backyards, houses with white people next door, houses nowhere near subways or bars on school windows or around corners from thieves who stuck knives to your throat and took your money as soon as you stepped out of the bodega/pharmacy/ check-cashing store. And he had no wife.
Daddy-black-as-dirt didn't want most of what Ma had three fatherless daughters, plus four sisters, two brothers, twelve nieces, and seven nephews waiting patiently and hungrily just outside of Port-au-Prince for their chance to come to America "the greatcountry of New York," they called it and touch snow. But Ma did have a green card and skin the color of kremas, so they married.
I can tell you the whole story about how the Daddy died, if you'd like to hear it, but don't think you'll turn me in. No one would believe you. What the kids at school are saying are only rumors, high school gossip. Maybe it started because of something I whispered to Gorilla Arms Manning the very last time he cornered me at my locker. I don't know. But anyway, I was only fourteen and the Daddy was mean. I have the pictures to prove it. I'll say it was self-defense. Or I suffered psychological trauma. Or maybe I'll just sit there while the cops and the shrinks try to question me and say nothing at all.
Before I start, though, let me ask, you do understand English pretty well, right?
You have to understand, I didn't just up and decide to kill him one day. It's just that 1986 turned out to be quite a year, with Enid almost getting killed and then me meeting Rachael Levinson and then the whole thing with the Daddy. That was only a couple years ago now, but I'm darn sure there are lots of other people in Chestnut Valley, New York, who won't be forgetting that year either for a long time. I guess if I had to pinpoint exactly when it all began, I'd say it was the last day of seventh grade. That was the day Mrs. Mahajan told me if my grades and behavior didn't improve in eighth grade, she'd recommend to the high school guidance counselors that I be placed in learning-disabled classes.
At first, everything was going okay that last day of school. We spent most of the day preparing the classroom for the following year's seventh graders. My sister Delta would be in Mrs. Mahajan's class. Delta is two years younger than me, but ever since Miss Smarty-pants skipped the third grade, she had always gotten the same teacher I had the year before. It really sucked for her because they always called her Karina practically until Halloween or Thanksgiving. Delta and I look alike in the face and everything, but she's a total shrimp, only half my size. I think the teachers did that on purpose so they'd have one less name to remember when school started. Delta said the teachers did it because I was the weirdest kid they'd ever had in a class and they'd have nightmarish flashbacks when they looked at her. That wasn't a very nice thing for Delta to say. I mean, I admit I'm not a teacher butt kisser like Delta, and I have...you know, moments, but I don't think I'm so weird.
There were only a couple hours left to the day when we'd finished cleaning up the classroom. Mrs. M. assigned us a one-page essay: "How I Plan on MakingMy Summer Vacation Productive." She said she wanted us to read it out loud so we could get ideas from one another on how to keep our minds active and incorporate our seventh-grade lessons into our summerlearning experiences. What a crock. Like we'd go brain-dead from three months in the sun unless we turned every little thing we did into a learning experience?
The only learning experience I'd ever had over asummer vacation was when I got bored and taught myself the alphabet in sign language. I learned it from the encyclopedia. And the one time I incorporated it into the summer was on a drive to Brooklyn to visit my cousins. I signed H-E-L-P M-E and C-A-L-L P-O-L-I-C-E over and over again out the back window. Right after we passed through the George Washington Bridge tollbooth, the lady in the car next to ours started slapping her husband's shoulder and pointing at me. Then she started making all these crazy signals with her hands. I freaked out. I slid down in the seat and put my head in Enid's lap. Enid licked her fingertips and smoothed down the hair at my temples. "What kinda stories are you dreaming up now, Katu?" she asked me. I ignored her and concentrated on stopping the pounding in my chest. Finally I thought I should get up and sign J-U-S-T K-I-D-D-I-N-G, but by the time I did, the crazy lady's car was gone. I spent the rest of the summer expecting cops to show up at our house, but they never did.
Anyway, that September I had the best "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" essay. I made up a sad story about finally being able to communicate with my lonely, retarded deaf cousins and their poor, sweet deaf parents. I threw in a bit about finding a boy lost in Coney Island, surrounded by useless people who couldn't make out his frantic hand gestures, and how I managed to interpret what he was signing and lead him back into the embrace of his grateful and weeping mother. The kids in my class sat drop jawed. Jay Rosenthal's trip to an Israeli kibbutz and Renee Zondervan's campout at the Grand Canyon couldn't compete; they did that every year. Even my teacher was impressed. I left out the part about pretending to be a kidnapping victim.
This afternoon in Mrs. Mahajan's class I wanted to make up a story about planning to visit Disney World. But most of the kids in my class had already been there. I'd have to do research to make my September essay believable to them, and I wasn't about to give myself a summerlong homework assignment.
For a split second I actually thought of writingthe truth. How I planned on spending the entire summer, like every other summer, cooped up on Fairview Avenue. And it wasn't even the whole darn block, to be really honest. It was just as far as Ma could see from our front yard. That meant we could roller skate between Alaska Street where the convenience store and the neighborhood pervert Mr. Hollings's house were and Ridge Lane. Ridge Lane was at the top of the Fairview Avenue hill, and we weren't allowed to cross it because then we'd be on the other side and out of sight. Once, we spent the entire summer in the backyard because somebody was going around snatching little blackchildren off the streets of Atlanta. Ma said a person that crazy probably wouldn't even bother to find out that we were Haitian and not black, and he would snatch us, too. I thought of explaining to her that Atlanta wasn't in any part of New York, but then I figured what's the use. When I'd tried to tell her Chicago wasn't adifferent country, she'd still spent a whole month and a half getting us all passports to go to my uncle'swedding.
I ended up not having to do the stupid essay, though, because right after she assigned it, Mrs. Mahajan called me to her desk.
"The middle school teachers will be having their annual meeting with high school counselors at the beginning of next semester," she said.
Mrs. Mahajan had a perfectly round, pencil-eraser-size red dot sitting between her eyebrows. It was red because the flowers on her sari were red. The day before her sari was mostly yellow and so was her dot. The dot doesn't move. Even when her eyebrows are twitching one going up and the other moving sideways at the same time.
"Do you know what that means, Karina?" she twitched.
By this time most of the kids had stopped working on their essays and were listening to me get chewed out. I shrugged and silently repeated my name the way Mrs. M. pronounced it, rolling the r as if she were Puerto Rican: Ka-rrr-ina, Ka-rrr-ina, Ka-rrr-ina. I crossed my eyes hard until I could see the tip of my nose, then raised my head slightly and watched two red dots bounce across Mrs. M.'s forehead.
"We will be discussing track placement for all of the following year's ninth graders," her two mouths said in unison. "I'm not so sure at the rate you're going you could handle work at even the below-track pace."
"Ooooh!" cried someone from the back of the room.
Then the entire class erupted into laughter. I was so used to hearing kids laugh at me I didn't bother turning around to see who had started it all this time. I crossed my arms and yawned. Mrs. Mahajan took off her glasses, and I stepped to the side to let her give the class her best evil eye.
"That's enough," said Mrs. M. The laughter turned to giggling and hushed snorts.
I thought she had to be kidding about the below-average classes. Sure, my grades weren't great. But that was because Mrs. M. put so much weight on homework. That had never been my particular strength, but I did just fine on all my tests. That should count more than doing work at home, where you could get your older brother or sister to do it, right? Anyway, I thought placements were made using the Iowa standardized tests we took every year. That year the test results had shownme reading at the college-sophomore level, same as Delta. My mom called all our relatives and hung the results on the refrigerator door. I thought college sophomores must be pretty dumb, but I kept that to myself.
Mrs. Mahajan waited for me to respond. I uncrossed my eyes and let out a breath hard enough to flutter the stiff scarf teetering on her head like a half-closed umbrella. Mrs. M. let out a breath of her own, then smoothed out a copy of my report card with both her bony hands.
"Considering these grades and considering your incorrigible attitude, perhaps the best placement for you would be in a special-education class," she said.
Bang! Just like that she went from putting me in below-average classes to classes with retards! I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Over and over again Ma had warned that something like this might happen to me. With every bad report card I took home, she'd remind me that she had to work as hard as she did because she didn't have an education. "In New York if you have a high school diploma, you work at a sit-behind-a-desk job," she'd say while licks of the Daddy's belt sliced my back. "I didn't come to this country to kill myself in the factory just so you could join me there!" And Gorilla Arms Manning was in the retard class. It was bad enough I was the weird kid in school, but now on top of that Jeffrey "Gorilla Arms" Manning and his friends wouldn't even have to wait until recess or lunch to kick the crap out of me every day.
I don't remember how I got back to my seat after Mrs. M. handed me my report card. I remember I could hardly breathe when I sat down at my desk in square five, at the back of the class. And I remember thinking something bad was probably going to happen pretty soon.
The only good thing about being in Mrs. Mahajan's class that year was that Suzanne Ryan and I sat in the same square, our desks right next to each other. And the worst thing about being in Mrs. Mahajan's class was that David Pelletier sat on the other side of Suzanne.
The only ones who weren't still laughing at me were Suzanne and David. David was giving her thisnotebook-paper-wrapped Happy Summer Vacation present, and Suzanne was pretending to be so happy about it, even though she hadn't opened it yet. You know, like when adults tell you to say thank you for a birthday present even before you open it, so maybe you're saying thank you for a really crappy present? Like that, only Suzanne was also making these lovey eyes at him. It was gross.
I thought Suzanne was the prettiest girl in the school. She had these sparkly braces on her teeth, and the tip of her nose and two little spots on her cheeks were always red. But she didn't wear makeup. They were just like that. And her hair was so shiny blond it was practically white. Her lips were the coolest, though. They were always pink and shiny. She wore bubble-gum-smelling lip gloss that came out of a little tiny jar, not a tube like regular Chap Stick. And when she put on the lip gloss, she used her middle finger instead of her index finger, and she put her lips way up in the air into an O. It seemed to me her lips were always in that O.
Like when I told her earlier that year that my grades had improved, and she said, "Oh, Karina, no they didn't. Three Ds and a C last report card, and three Ds and a C this report card."
I pointed to the rest of the report card, where you get marks for being at school on time and behaving well with others and following instructions and all that stuff. I had gone from mostly twos and threes to almost all ones and a couple of twos.
Suzanne said, "Oh, number grades don't count, Karina, because we're almost in high school. You should know that."
Well, I did know that then, and even though we had had that conversation, like, two report cards ago, I really wanted to let her know right now that I knew that. But Suzanne had her back to me, making goo-goo noises at David. Her hair was lying on her back, not in a ponytail like usual, and I thought maybe if I could just touch her hair and smell her bubble-gum lips, I could breathe again and Mrs. Mahajan and the high school counselors wouldn't put me in the retarded class with Gorilla Arms and then Ma wouldn't be so ashamed she'd have to give me a beat-up and maybe I could be like all the other kids and wear shorts to school on hot days and have best friends and get notebook-paper-wrapped Happy Summer Vacation, See You Next Year presents.
I must have started breathing okay again, because next thing I knew, Suzanne and I were rolling around the floor, and she was screaming and kicking at me. I looked up when I heard Mrs. Mahajan yell, "Let her go! Let her go!" I looked to where Mrs. M. was pointing and saw Suzanne's white blond hair twisted around my fist.
Have you ever heard Enid call me the fainting queen? Well, she used to. I don't know why it happens, exactly. Sometimes when I get real upset or nervous, I try to pretend I'm someplace else, then boom! suddenly I'm on the floor wigging out. Mr. Cohen tried to talk to Ma about it once, but she told him that I was faking it. I don't think he believed her, though.
When Mrs. M. sent me to Mr. Cohen that afternoon, I was actually really glad to go. Mr. Cohen was a very nice principal and a really good listener even though his ears were full of hair. He wasn't like the principal we have now at the high school, who stands in the hallway, clasping his hands behind his back, rocking back and forth on his heels and giving everyone the evil eye.
There was a purple chair right outside Mr. Cohen's office. Next to it was a red chair. The red chair was where you sat before you got called into his office. The purple chair was for afterward, when he sent you back out for some quiet time to yourself. I didn't get a chance to sit in the red chair that day. Mr. Cohen was standing at the door waiting for me.
"The problem this time, Karina. What would it seem to be?" Mr. Cohen talked funny that way, and real slow, too. That's because he didn't learn to speak English until he came to New York straight from a concentration camp, and he was, like, ninety years old. David Pelletier said that Mr. Cohen was so hungry when he was at the concentration camp that he'd had to eat dirt and bugs. And he said that Mr. Cohen always wore long sleeves so no one would see the numbers the Nazis tattooed on his arm. But I think he wore long shirts because old people are always cold. My grandmother is. Even if it's summer, no matter if she is inside or out, it's long sleeves and sweaters. And I know she doesn't have any Nazi tattoos.
"I couldn't breathe," I said.
"Breathing now. It's good?"
"Yeah." I panted a little to show him.
"Maybe next time you raise your hand, like this, to tell teacher you can't breathe?"
I raised my hand too. "That's a good idea," I said.
Mr. Cohen suggested I go out to the purple chair to practice raising my hand and think about not attacking my fellow students whenever I'm short of breath. I didn't move.
"There is more?" he asked.
I wanted to come right out and tell him how unfair Mrs. Mahajan was being, making plans to send me to special ed just because I didn't always do my homework. I wanted to ask him what was so educational about clothes hanger collages depicting the destruction of the environment or shoe box replicas of the solarsystem, anyway. I wanted to tell him about the things that usually kept me busy at home after school, the things we weren't allowed to tell anybody, especially white people. And I would have told him all that, plus how my mom would feel like a failure if I ended up packing boxes at the factory, but instead I cried.
Don't think I'm a sissy or anything, because I'm totally not. It was just turning out to be a very, very bad last day of a very bad school year. And Mr. Cohen, being the nice concentration-camp-survivor type of guy he was, wasn't going to write my mother a note about my behavior on the last day of school so that I'd start my summer vacation with a beat-up. Not especially if I cried.
Now, my summer and the beginning of the next semester would be even worse than seventh grade, and it would start with the Daddy that very afternoon, but Mr. Cohen didn't know that, and I didn't know it then either.
"Is this because of the special-education class?" Mr. Cohen asked after watching me cry for a while. I should have guessed he already knew. Mr. Cohen was the boss of the middle school. He knew everything. I nodded. Then my crying turned into hiccuping, and not being able to keep my mouth closed made me drool onto my jeans, and that made me cry even louder.
"Oy, okay, okay. Oy, okay," said Mr. Cohen.
He put his hand on my back and led me out to the purple chair. "Sit and think how to stay out of special education, Karina. No more class for you today."
Mr. Cohen left me alone in the hallway and returned to his office. I wanted to make a to-do list for staying out of special ed and put on it things like "Do homework every single night" and "Do all extra-credit assignments" and stuff like that, but all I could think of right then was that if I wasn't going to be allowed back in class, it would be three months before I saw Suzanne again. That wasn't fair. I wanted to say sorry for grabbing her, and besides, I had my own Happy Summer Vacation, See You Next Year present to give to her. I hadn't thought of using notebook paper to wrap it in, though. It was just sitting at the bottom of my backpack.
As soon as the end-of-school bell rang, I ran into the classroom and grabbed my bag. Mrs. M. was there alone. She called my name, but I ignored her and ran out to the buses. Suzanne was just about to board the number 23 when I called her name. When she saw me coming, she grabbed her head and started backing away.
"I'm not gonna do it again, Suzanne. That was an accident before."
"Oh God, Karina, you say that every time."
David walked by with his best friend, Bobby L., and fake sneezed "Freak!" into his hands. Bobby L. nearly snotted all over the place laughing, then pretended to accidentally bump into David, who then shoved me into the side of the bus. I didn't even fall. I'd gotten real good by then at bracing myself when those morons were around. I just rolled my eyes and turned back to Suzanne.
"I have something for you," I said, and pulled a brand-new jumbo-size pink and silver pen out of my backpack. Hanging from the cap was a string of purple yarn tied into a loop large enough to hang the pen around your neck.
"I don't want it," Suzanne said. But she said it while she was staring real hard at the pen, so I knew she was lying.
"Check this out," I said, and scribbled onto my palm. "It writes in silver glitter."
"Oh, so what?"
I shrugged. "I thought it was cool."
Suzanne let go of her head and took the pen from me.
"What's this?" She pulled out the folded piece of paper I had stuck underneath the pen's clip.
"It's my address. You can use the pen to write me letters over summer vacation, and I'll write you back. What's your address?"
Suzanne didn't look at me. She was really into the jumbo glitter pen, so I said, "That's okay, I'll get your address from the envelope when you write."
I thought maybe I should hug Suzanne good-bye, and I even saw myself doing it and giving her air kisses and rocking back and forth and saying, "I'm gonna miss you sooooo much!" like the girls always do to one another on the last day of school. Instead I took a great big step back away from her. I knew what happens when I start to imagine things; without me even knowing it, I'm suddenly doing for real what I saw in my mind, and then girls are screaming and kicking me.
I didn't need that again.
Copyright © 2007 by M. Sindy Felin