The carpool line takes forever, like a distracted snail.
Those of us who aren’t bus kids wait in the gym for our names to come over the PA system. I walk the perimeter, the reflectors on my sea-green backpack rasping against the wall. My eyes watch the basketballs bouncing off backboards, arching downwards. The pounding drowning the called-out names.
I turn, abruptly. My backpack swings heavily to the right, bumps someone. “Hey,” says this someone. I don’t turn. The reverberating basketballs are too loud; I don’t have to hear you.
I run across the grass toward the silver van with the scratches above the right-side rear wheel. My coat is slowly falling off my left shoulder, my backpack strapped over my right side, the bottom bumping into me with each propelled lurch.
“Hey, handsome” my mother says. “How was picture day?”
“You took forever,” I say, my voice muffled as I bend in half to get to the backseat.
“If you took off your backpack it’d be a lot easier.”
I collapse into the booster and yank the seat belt too hard. It jams. I glare at her rear-view mirror reflection of downturned eyebrows.
“I liked picture day,” my sister quips. Layla is in preschool, and so she only goes to school half the day. Layla’s car seat is in the middle row, in front of my seat. She has her bright pink coat covering her like a blanket, pink sparkly shoes poking out, swinging.
“Shut up, stupid.”
“Layla’s an idiot. Nobody asked her what she thinks.”
“Whenever Reuben comes in the car he makes everything smell like farts,” Layla says, retaliating.
The drive home is silent, interspersed with me kicking the seat whenever Layla begins to hum a song out of her head.
The door locks with a soft reassuring click. The bathroom, set between my bedroom and the linen closet, is long and narrow.
I take off my pants, smell the seat of them. Dirty. I slowly slide down my underwear. I pull them taunt at the front when it reaches my knees so I can see the back. It’s damp. I poke it with the index finger of my left hand, smell it. I let it fall to the beige tiled floor, step out of it gingerly.
I scoop up a few armfuls of laundry out of the hamper; drop my dirty underwear and pants inside, stuff the laundry back in.
I slide Layla’s bathroom stool away from the toilet and sit, finally, on the familiar plastic seat.
I breathe; rest my head in my hands.
“Reuben,” my mother says, her voice raised; her knuckles knocking on the door. “Are you okay in there? You need to come do your homework.”
“I just got in here,” my voice pitched to match hers. I glare at the wall; grind my teeth.
The brown paint reminds me of the stains in my underwear.
After my hands are clean I turn the lock slowly, silently. My eyes peek out the door, and I shift along the hall, back against the wall, bandit style. My dresser is on the left side of my bedroom door, and when I reach it I gingerly open the top drawer and take out navy underwear. I have three colors of underwear; navy, grey, and white. The white pairs are shoved to the side, camouflaged by the undershirts. They’re still rolled up tight, straight out of the packaging; skinny clear tape still intact. I step into pants, zip them up, and saunter out of my room.
“What were you doing in there?” Layla says. She has a sheet of stickers in her left hand; shiny, puffy ladybugs. She is sticking them onto the outside of her bedroom door in rows.
“Your lines are crooked.” I poke a ladybug, puffy, spotted wings giving way to pressure.
“Get away,” Layla says, her voice raised in hope of parental interference. She swipes at my hand. I leap away before she can touch me.
“I don’t have homework.”
I poke my head around the kitchen doorway as I say this. My mother glances up, her hands washing the breakfast dishes, her body up against the sink; a wet stain creeping across her stomach, like ivy.
“What?” She is not wearing her glasses, and so, she cannot hear.
“I already told you,” I say, bellowing with a guttural voice. “Why do I always have to repeat everything?” I turn around and slide the full length of the wooden dining room floor in my socked feet.
There is a straight, dark, hardwood floor from the dining room, through the front entrance, until it becomes buried under the living room rug; black curlicues curling upwards in hope of grasping more wood. I never manage to slide past the point where dining room becomes front entrance; Newton’s Law, I guess. The big toe on my left foot bends instead of remaining straight like the rest of those digits. I stumble.
“I hate this house.” I yell out the pain. I hobble over to the couch, sit. It’s dark green, easy to sink into; kicking off all the cushions and pillows, I holler, “I hate this couch.” Then I slide down until I have fallen into the cushiony mush pot I created.
“Reuben, what happened?” My mother’s fingers have dropped perfect tiny circles of water across the floor, matching her stride.
I set my jaw tight and crawl my way out; eye contact is pointless if I don’t care to answer. I make my way to the desk catty-corner to the couch. There are colored pencils and other crafty things in there. I find a black pen, ruler, and paper. I sit on the floor.
“Don’t grind your teeth.”
I proceed to draw rows of straight lines.
By the time my father comes home, steps out of shoes, hangs his coat on a dining room chair, turns back around to see me, I have surrounded myself with a moat compiled of various pieces of paper, either with complete or incomplete grid lines.
“Hey, man,” my father says. “Busy day?”
“What does it look like?” I lean over, my legs folded underneath me and begin to color in a set of grid lines; green and blue crayons pressing hard leaving no trace of the white underneath.
“Layla,” my father says. “I like your ladybugs.”
Layla skips into the living room. My eyes are level with her red, sparkly feet.
“Guess what,” she says, toes wiggling. “They match my tights.”
I watch as Layla’s red, sparkly knees replace her feet as she bends onto the floor, hands outstretched toward the crayons I am using.
“These are mine,” I say, propelling myself forward. I lean over too far, my left knee skids through the moat; the barricade crumples under pressure.
“I don’t want those crayons,” Layla says forcibly. “I’m using the smelly markers.”
“What’re you going to draw?” My father brings himself to eye-level squatting; he hands Layla a small stack of white copy paper, a buffer between us.
“A family picture,” she says, matter-of-fact.
“Great, hang it on the fridge when you’re done.” My father stands up, crisis averted. He takes his phone out of his right pant pocket, holds it at half-arm’s length away from his body, at a slight angle. As his phone flashes, Layla glances up. I look away.
He pauses before leaving the living room. “Does someone in here need the bathroom?”
I press the crayon to my grid so hard it tears.
After he leaves, making his way toward the kitchen to find my mother, I sit, legs splayed, my left foot damming the hole in the moat. I bend from my hips, leaning over to finish my grid. I peek at Layla’s paper, wondering how she will draw me.
Every evening, when the dishes are done, the counters and table have all been wiped down, floor swept, my mother announces the kitchen is closed, and turns off the light. I wait until after the announcement has been made, letting the hum of the fridge guide me through the darkened kitchen. In the middle of the fridge, supported by four round, blue magnets is a family with elongated torsos, truncated arms, long, crooked legs with oval feet. I am at the end of the row, my feet standing on top of impossibly green grass that smells like sour apples. My pants smell like blue raspberry, no trace of a brown marker anywhere.
My mouth is a small, red straight line.
Layla’s feet patter up next to me. She has turned her toes a bubblegum pink; a failed attempt at painting her nails.
“It looks just like you,” she says, exuberant. She points to my caricature, as if I cannot find it. “See your mouth? That’s because you never smile.”
When I sit in bed that night, warming my feet by sliding them back and forth against my sheets, I listen to my parents talk about their day, and as usual, they discuss me.
“Reuben hasn’t had homework for the past week.”
“Did you check his backpack?” My father’s words fight their way out through crunching chips.
“Do you want some chips?”
“I don’t think he uses the bathroom at school,” my mother says, determined to understand me. “I keep finding dirty underwear and pants in the laundry.”
“Maybe he’s constipated.”
“Maybe,” my mother says, not entirely convinced.
“I took a great picture of the kids coloring earlier,” my father says while crinkling up the chip bag. “Do we have more chips?”
I cover my head with my blanket. I rub my feet faster, until they burn, drowning out their words.
There is a picture of me and my sister in a photo box in the living room. The photo was taken two years ago in winter, or maybe it was that blurred season of when fall and winter intertwine before winter overpowers the world like a damp blanket, frosty breath blowing in your ears. We are starting out on a walk, burning our energy so that it puffs out like smoke from lips stiff with cold. My mother motions for me to stand behind my sister who is strapped in the green umbrella stroller with black handles, her hands warm inside the mittened sleeves of her white coat. My mother takes out her camera from the depths of her coat, waving it at us; this moment has been deemed important enough for eternal memory. I smile. It’s not a wide smile, but it’s there; my eyes crinkle up. I imagine that when the picture is developed I will be surrounded by scorched grass, my smile melted into a frown.
It is my mother’s favorite picture.
Every morning I wake up at seven. Apparently, my mother says, I have an excellent internal alarm clock. It takes me fifteen minutes to get dressed, including shoes; fifteen minutes to eat breakfast, always Honey Nut Cheerios, the box on the table, angled so I don’t see my sister eating, the word search on the back facing me; fifteen minutes to use the bathroom. I hear my sister whining; her tights bother her feet when inside her shoes. My mother repeating, here, like this, you fix tights like this. I hear my mother stomp into the kitchen, pot clanging on the stove to heat up water for coffee, hurry up, she says, to anyone and everyone. Stomps stop at the bathroom door.
“Come on, Reuben,” my mother says with rising annoyance at anyone and everyone. “Layla needs to brush her teeth.”
“I know,” I say, yelling with pointed annoyance. And I stand up, without doing anything.
It takes fifteen minutes to put on my coat, get into the car, turn right out of the driveway, turn right again, turn left; drive straight, turn right along the perimeter of the parking lot to swing gently into the semi-circle drop-off at the front entrance. I know where we are even with my eyes closed.
My school is a two-story, white brick building, set at the end of a freshly tarred road. There is no sidewalk along either side, which makes the road dip until it makes contact with the yellow, matted grass.
It is raining, and so the fifteen minutes is turning into twenty.
“Hurry up,” I say, emphasizing my words with a kick at the back of Layla’s seat.
“Reuben,” my mother says. “People drive slower in the rain.”
“Go faster anyway.” Each word is accompanied by an additional kick. Being late is like walking into school with a new haircut; everyone stares.
“You know that it’s not Layla’s fault that it’s raining, right?” Tired eyes look at me through the rear-view mirror. I fold my arms across my chest and close my eyes as the left-turn signal gives its final click at our completed turn. I lean to the left, keeping myself from feeling that the car will fall into the mini ditch off the road.
I get to my locker when the bell rings. I shove my backpack on the bottom, and as I hang up my coat I hear, “There’s the stinker. Good thing I don’t sit next to him.” I don’t turn around. I wait until the laughter fades around the corner, basketball pounding the floor with each dribble. An adult voice says, “Put that ball in your locker until recess.” I shut my locker; turn so that my right side is pressed against the metal, my elbow angled so that it hits each combination lock as I walk to my classroom at the end of the hall.
A few months ago, after the air conditioning had been turned off, but before the heat began pouring its dragon breath through the vents, I saved my class from a bee. Our teacher had opened the row of windows along the side wall, to keep the room from getting stuffy, she had said. Looking outside is more interesting when the window is open; everything is sharper, stationary branches, limp, immobile swings. Trying to command the wind, I forgot to worry about what I would do if I needed the bathroom.
A lazy bee, on a breathless wind, wandered its way through the open window next to my desk. I watched it twirl around, exploring this unintended environment.
A few girls noticed the bee simultaneously. They screamed, jumped out of their desks. Boys began swinging their heads around; their necks turned into pendulums whenever the bee hovered near their faces. Two girls ran out into the hall, hugging each other. The teacher clapped her hands, “hey, settle down,” she said. “The bee will fly out the window.”
But it did not.
As the bee circled its way back towards my side of the classroom, I stood out of my desk holding a pen. Pinching the pen at the bottom between my thumb and forefinger, I tossed it, like a Frisbee, at the bee.
The bee dropped to the floor, landing between the desks of the screaming girls in the hall. Our teacher stomped on it, threw it away. “Girls,” she said. “Get back in class,” and proceeded to close all the windows.
When she reached the window next to my desk she said, “Reuben, don’t throw a pen next time, you could take someone’s eye out.”
As she shut the window, the lunch bell rang, giving me an excuse not to answer. I jumped from my seat joining the swarm of feet attempting to squeeze themselves all at once through the doorway. Joining the growing mass of limbs and feet in the hall in their stampede towards the cafeteria I began to shuffle to a slightly slower beat, easing myself to the right like a car changing lanes as the bathroom next to the cafeteria doors came into view. As I shouldered the bathroom door open, two boys shoved their way inside. I stumbled, caught my balance on the wet counter next to a sink clogged with a darkened blob of paper towels.
The bathroom during lunch is usually crowded; the door constantly opening and closing, voices outside the door giving the impression that their owners will walk in any minute. The only stall available was the first one in the row. I entered it gingerly, locked it, frowned at the slight gap between the door and the side of the stall. I turned, let out held breath when I noticed the seat was clean, slid my pants down to just above my knees and slowly sat down, my eyes slightly averted from the gap at the door.
I listened; jaw clenched, eyes straight ahead, to the flow of voices, interrupted by laughter, burps, the short squeak of sneakers on wet tile. Someone banged open a stall door forcing mine to reverberate against its lock. I shot out my hand, leaned forward slightly, fingers pressed to the stainless steel, my other hand clutching my pants in place.
I stood up suddenly, hands shaking, turned away from the door as I pulled up my pants. Standing on my right leg, I flushed with my left foot even though there was nothing in the toilet but water. Pinching the lock hard between my left thumb and finger I opened the stall door, then pushed it with the back of my hand. Hey, yelled the stall occupant next to the one I just left. I heard his lock slide back into place as I made my way to the row of sinks. The water was cold, pink runny soap unable to produce bubbles, paper towels jammed in the dispenser. I flicked water at the mirror making my reflection rain. Wiping my hand on my pants I left the bathroom headed towards the cafeteria, my eyes blinking rapidly. Standing in line to get lunch, a girl’s voice said, “He’s the one that killed the bee.”
When I got home later that day my underwear was too dirty for the laundry, and I threw it away.
No one had made fun of me that day.
Today I cannot hear my teacher. I know she is talking because her lips are moving, hands writing in a green marker on the new dry-erase board. We are in the middle of a grammar unit; sentences are written in green, subjects underlined once in red, predicates underlined twice in blue, verbs circled in black, adjectives in purple. Her lines are never crooked, her circles are perfectly spaced. I sit perfectly still. My eyes straight ahead, my teacher never leaves my line of vision. My head throbs. I need to go to the bathroom. My head throbs to the beat of the second hand above the classroom door.
The bell rings. My teacher clicks on the top of the dejected black marker, unable to take part in the sentence dissection. I close my notebook, the page still clean. I hook my pencil into the thin metal spiral. I turn my body sideways so that I can stand up out of my desk. I am the last student to leave the classroom. I walk far behind the class, and I watch them swarm down the hall towards the double-glass doors to the playground.
The boys’ bathroom is catty-corner to the playground doors. It has two entrances, one from the hall, and the other leading directly into the gym. I push the door open as I watch the class holler as they enter the playground. I walk past the three urinals. I check for feet in the stalls.
I am the only one here.
I lock myself in the stall furthest from either entrance. It is the handicapped stall, and too bad, because I got here first. It is the only stall where no one can see your shoes, unless they peek their head under the stall to the right.
My underwear is still clean, and I smile to myself. It is quiet in here except for the soft ding of water hitting the porcelain sink from a leaking faucet; it has no voice, and so it doesn’t count.
Right before I stand up to pull my pants back on I hear a basketball approaching the bathroom from the gym entrance. I stay seated. I move my feet closer to the base of the toilet. The person who pushes his way into the bathroom makes sure the door is fully closed before walking toward the row of sinks. He doesn’t do anything and right when I begin to realize that I will have to leave the stall and see whoever it is in order to not be late for class, he farts.
I stand up, pick up my pants, and leave the stall.
“Hey,” he says, eyes reflecting back at me through the mirror above the sink with a mixture of surprise and fear. His basketball held against his stomach like a barrier. He has the same voice as the boy at my locker this morning.
And I smirk because I am not the one who stinks. I pull open the door to the hallway, and I saunter out on my way back to class.
Recess is fifteen minutes.
I slide into my desk chair, reopen my blank notebook page, unzip my pencil case. I take out an unused mechanical pencil, its eraser white, symmetrical. I lean forward, my elbows creating a barrier around my notebook. I copy down a sentence from the board; underline once, twice, circle the verb. I lean back, frown at my crooked lines, wobbly circle. I turn the page, fold it underneath; hide the evidence, begin again. I take out my ruler and drawing compass. I press too hard with the compass. It pokes a hole through the paper. I clench my teeth, lean back, frown; wishing sentences didn’t have to have verbs. I use my ruler to draw a straight line through the whole sentence. Near the end I lose my grip on the ruler, the pencil veers downward sapping the lead.
I rip out the paper, crumble it, hide it in my desk, shove the ruler inside, the drawing compass banging against the metal. I lean back in my chair, arms crossed. I glance up. Everyone is staring at me, the teacher’s right arm suspended below a new sentence subject, green marker in her hand waiting patiently.
“Reuben,” she says. “Are you okay?”
I wait a beat, nod my head slightly, my arms still crossed.
“Good.” She turns back to the board. Her hand loses its tight balance; green line morphing into an arch.
I click down the eraser of my pencil three times; fresh lead for a clean piece of paper. I lean forward again, my head resting on my left hand. I write my name all over the paper, ignoring the blue lines. My handwriting becomes loopier as I make my down the page. Signatures are supposed to be messy.
“Where’d you get that bruise on your arm?”
I am in pajamas, a white short-sleeved undershirt and blue-checkered pants. My mother is making sure I get into bed. I shrug without looking at her.
“Was school okay today?” she says, eyes pleading.
“It was perfect.”
Her eyes reform into surprise. “Oh,” she says.
“But don’t ask me details.”
My mother tilts her head, trying to find my eyes. I turn slightly, moving my pillows closer to my head. My mother turns toward my bookshelf, searching for a book I might find interesting.
“No one ever makes me laugh.”
My mother pauses her search, hand hovering over my stack of comic books. “That’s not true,” she says, turning towards me again, her voice catching, uncertain.
I burrow into my blanket.
“Reuben.” My mother folds the blanket away from my head. She cups my cheek in her hand, turning my head to face her. My mother’s eyes are warm, like melting chocolate.
My mother scratches my back, kisses me on the forehead. “Goodnight, handsome.”
When my mother’s footsteps fade into the hall I roll out of bed and shuffle to my dresser. I untape a pair of white underwear. I hold it up and watch it unroll, the sides still curled inwards. I lay them in the middle of my drawer, on top of the gray pairs.
Chaya Kahanovitch‘s writing is inspired by the emotional rollercoaster of raising children; she has five. Chaya holds a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and English with an emphasis in fiction from Southern New Hampshire University, and she is pursuing a Master’s in History from the same university. Chaya writes, or more accurately, forgets to write down the bits and pieces of stories, in her non-existent free time.