It begins in the sixth grade with me on my knees in the bathroom at Scranton Middle School, head held face down in the toilet, stall number three. The water is a vortex pulling downward. I keep my eyes and lips shut tight, but the water still finds a way inside me. Nose. Ears. I've learned to hold my breath for the length of the flush, sometimes two. Finally I'm released. I can hear boys laughing as they run out of the bathroom. Holding myself up on the toilet's rim, I can see a variety of shit stains in the bowl. Now, every time I hear a toilet flush, I am back in that bathroom, thinking that my life is a film festival of rejected youth: Revenge of the Nerds meets Stand by Me .
Growing up I knew a girl named Danella. All the kids in school knew her. She was impossible to ignore: one of the unfortunates that swelled and smelt long before most of her classmates had heard their parents whispering about puberty and deodorant. At least a foot taller than anyone her age, she had grown too fast too soon and had the walk to prove it, that uncoordinated shuffle that put sports out of the question and left her in the bleachers at every middle school dance.
Danella and I should have hit it off. I had almost no friends and a personal bully for every grade. She had even fewer friends, and everyone made fun of her worst qualities. Physically, we were polar opposites on a continuum of social retardation: I, skinny; she, fat. But underneath that, we shared constant ridicule. I stuttered, making spit out of every ‘s' and ‘t.' She wore her pants up past her belly button, earning the nickname ‘camel toe.' I had worn the same shirt almost every day for the last two years—white long sleeve button-up with little black rodeo horses. We were twin geeks.
Of course, I didn't realize this then. I was developing along with everyone else, so I at least looked normal physically, and I was determined to use that difference to my advantage: Danella would be my ticket to social acceptance.
My opportunity came on a Tuesday. At the tetherball, Danella moved in a steady rhythm, fists alternating left to right. It was the only thing she was good at but she played alone, leaned into it with her right fist, stepped back and leaned again with her left. Other kids watched, bored with themselves and irresistibly attracted by her strange way of moving. She never missed.
Swing, fat girl, swing , they taunted.
I stood with them this time, quietly observing, slowly moving closer until I stood at the innermost edge of the crowd, facing her. With the next swing, our eyes locked. She had a strong, intimidating glance. I looked away, voices chanting around me. Fat girl. Fat girl.
Only hours before I'd been locked in the grip of three older boys, getting intimate with the bowels of the school plumbing. I looked around at the faces of the kids. I hated them and yet, I wanted to be a part of them.
“Fat. Fat. Fat girl,” I joined them. I struggled to hear my own voice.
“Fat girl!” I shouted. I'm not sure why everyone stopped when I yelled. Maybe I had spoken out of rhythm. My voice echoed in the tight circle of children. Danella stopped swinging her arms and looked straight at me.
“Danella, you blubber of shit,” I yelled. “You smell like my cat's ass!”
The crowd around me laughed, then hushed. I felt their energy collapse into me, spurring me on.
“You grease-guzzling bitch!” My pulse was pounding through the veins in my temples. A boy standing next to me touched my shoulder and said, “Good one.”
I hadn't stuttered once or sprayed my s's. I was making an impression, showing my allegiance to the group. I watched the other kids' faces, my glance darting from them to Danella, avoiding her eyes. They looked amazed, but their amazement only annoyed me. I wanted this moment to be unforgettable. I stopped shouting.
“Danella, you're fat,” I resumed, no longer shouting, out of breath. “You're fat and you're ugly and you stink. You don't fit in and you never will. You've been a freak your whole life. You're not normal. Nobody even likes you.”
I wasn't aware of what I'd said until I stopped to breathe and realized I was staring at her. She didn't look intimidating anymore. Her shoulders were hunched forward and it looked like she was about to say something, but she closed her mouth and stood motionless, staring back at me. I couldn't stand the silence.
“Whore!” I yelled, trying to think of all the dirty words I'd heard while eavesdropping on my older brother and his friends. “Cunt!”
Hah! I turned in triumph. The playground was silent. Everyone had heard and stopped and stared, but no one moved. I noticed a pretty girl from my class, one I'd had a crush on for years, looking from me to Danella and back. She was crying. No one was laughing. Even the boy next to me had stepped back. They didn't look impressed or awed. They weren't cheering or echoing my insults.
Then I looked at Danella, still staring at me. She wasn't crying. Someone asked, “What does ‘cunt' mean?”
“It means vagina, you idiot,” Danella said.
I swallowed hard and looked down. The pretty girl wiped tears and a trail of snot from her face. Danella said my name and I looked up. Here eyes were deep, but there were no tears. She stared until I looked away.
Twenty years later, I find myself teaching English at a private elementary school. While the kids play tag at recess, I practice at the tetherball. The motion of my fists is timed with the rhythm of each pass. I strike as hard as I can. Left. Right. A young voice eventually interrupts me. Her name is Grace. She's in third grade.
“I think you're bleeding,” she says.
I catch the ball when it comes back around. It's splattered in red. My knuckles are torn open, bleeding and raw.