Once I watched part of a movie with Mom that was about this guy that had all these lumps all over his face, so his face was more lumps than normal face. I was little, so I was scared at first, but people kept making fun of him, which I thought was sad. There was one part where people were doing really mean things and he told them “I am not an animal, I am a human being.” That was when I asked Mom what the movie was called, and she said it was called Elephant Man. I asked if he wanted to be a human so bad why’d he have an animal in his name. She told me I had a smart mouth and had to go to bed.
She never used to get like that before Dad died. Before, she used to laugh a lot and try to explain things to me. She’d say things like “A watched pot never boils” and “A stitch in time saves nine.” She’d make chocolate chip cookies and let me lick the bowl even though other moms wouldn’t, on account of germs. Now she feels sick a lot and tells me to go away.
I feel sick sometimes too, but a sort of sad sickness, kinda. Not like a stomach ache or a flu or anything. Lower, duller, like pressing a bruise.
The feel of the nurse’s skin as she hugged me to her, and the cold hard moon of her stethoscope. The alien smell over everything: too clean and too new. A long white sheet. My mom gone and then back and then gone again. That’s all I remember from the day Dad died. The rest is just whiteness.
The sadness comes in waves. Sometimes I’m perfectly okay but other times it feels like a suckerpunch to the gut, which is how it felt today. So I put my head down on my desk and when Ms. Tarbell asked me what was the matter I told her I felt queasy, which was in my estimation about sixty percent The Truth and forty percent Not Quite, and she wrote me a pass to the nurse in her daddy-longlegs writing. The chairs outside the nurse’s office are the color of teeth, and the only other kid there was a girl in a starchy pink dress whom I’d never met but who I knew was named Kandi. And the moment I sat down, the spider feeling came back.
The thing is that I have this fascination with saying things that don’t mean anything. It’s like blinking—you need to do it or your eyes feel like they’re shriveling up. I need to say my words or my throat feels like spiders are crawling down it. But if I say them in class Ms. Tarbell will get mad and write a nasty note on my report card that Mom will blame herself for. Like one time I did it and I couldn’t stop and it was for about five or ten minutes maybe, and by the end of it Ms. Tarbell was almost crying. Nothing came out of her eyes but I could tell because when she yelled at me her voice was all scrunched up. It was on account of I didn’t stop and she told me to lots of times, in her stern, teachery voice, and she was terrified the rest of the class would realize they could just do things and not stop, because really she couldn’t do anything to us, not even punish us if we didn’t accept her punishment, because she couldn’t even hit us or anything or else she could get her ass sued off, as my mom once said.
But when I did that I accepted my punishment. I stayed after school and wrote lines on the board, which was a punishment I had thought was made up on account of I’d only seen it in The Simpsons, never in real life. And she sent me home with a letter to my mom telling her basically how horrible I was. When she finished reading the letter, Mom sighed and put her head in her hands and told me that sometimes I made her so tired she could about die. Then she held out the letter so I could see it, only I couldn’t read it, all I could focus on was how much Ms. Tarbell’s writing looked like spiders, crawling over the page and down my throat.
I don’t blame Mom even though it’s her fault a little bit. Usually when I get the spider feeling is after she’s had a big yell at me. The next day I’ll walk around school with my throat all itchy and needing to say my words, but I won’t be able to because I know I’ll get in trouble for it and Mom will find out and get very quiet and sad, or sometimes yell at me more and make it worse. But keeping it in is the worst. Sometimes I tell Ms. Tarbell I need to use the bathroom, but really what I do is I stand under the monkey bars and cover my mouth with my hands and say those spider words. That helps a little bit. I think Ms. Tarbell knows I do that though because last time I asked to go to the bathroom she looked me dead in the eyes and said not unless it was an emergency in a very angry way, like there was a period after every word. So that’s why I asked to go to the nurse today instead.
Kandi was sitting next to me. I asked her why she’d gone to the nurse and she told me matter-of-fact that she had a 24-hour bug, and I told her she couldn’t know it was a 24-hour bug if it wasn’t over yet, and she gave me a look like I was gum on the bottom of her shoes. “Hey,” she said. “Aren’t you the kid whose dad died?”
That’s when I knew I didn’t like Kandi one bit. I didn’t like her dumb pink dress that looked like what a cartoon character would wear. I didn’t like the way she sat in her chair, all perfect and straight like she was being graded for it. And most of all I didn’t like the way she’d looked at me when she saw me going to sit down next to her, like she knew I was The Kid With The Depressed Mom and The Kid Who Says Made-Up Words and The Kid Who Leaves Class And Stands Under The Monkey Bars Alone. And that’s when I decided it was perfectly okay to open my mouth and just say whatever because I didn’t care what people thought of me, not her and not anyone.
“Kirxi plat en.” It felt delicious. “Mikiniket eilicht gehonmin. Pfa lefichm.”
“What are you saying?”
“Tahaflin fi mai echtinam. Perheflermat aldos al fentriopt.”
“You’re weird.” She twisted the bottom of her skirt.
“Finiheitman ew picraitim. Enti fiachlap—“
“Umrichintau alf huoppi—” I felt like I’d breathed in the gas from a balloon. I grinned at her and she curled away.
“Tefti fichtem yo uolep te divruch—“
“Mihivacht ei mei moytura.”
“Stop it! Stop! Stop!”
But I wouldn’t. I grabbed her wrists and pulled her closer to me. The words spilled out like juice out of a bug when you step on it, and suddenly I had so much to say, so much more to say, and everything just felt so wonderful and full of light.
They called my mom. They sent me home. They told me not to come back until next week. They told me they would review my case, which made it sound very official and like a Very Big Deal.
But when Mom got to school she wasn’t upset. The principal told her what I’d done and Mom told him she didn’t really see what the problem was and that considering my situation I should be given Special Considerations. The principal said to come back Monday. He said he’d think about it, which in my experience generally means no.
When we got to the car Mom said I could sit in the front seat, and then she sat down and closed her eyes and said nothing for a while. I told her I was sorry and after about a minute she said I didn’t do anything wrong.
“That girl just completely overreacted.”
“Her name was Kandi,” I told her.
“Wow, talk about a trailer trash name.”
“Spelled with a K and an I,” I added. I knew this because her backpack had her name embroidered on it. Mom guffawed. She used to collect those kinds of details, do impressions to make me laugh. Pet phrases, a tilt of the head, eyes wide and spooky or pressed into angry slits. Ms. Tarbell, the principal, the neighbors across the street. Dad.
“Yeah, fuck Kandi.”
Mom said not to swear and I asked her why. She sighed and said never mind, she didn’t really care anyway. She smiled at me tiredly and told me I was a Good Kid. She touched my face. Then she started driving.
On the way home I barfed two times. Mom pulled the car over and held my forehead, cold in her warm hands. She took a tissue and dabbed at my mouth and smiled again weakly and I thought maybe, maybe, she had finally passed it, she had finally come out the other side of the wave, that maybe she would go home and make chocolate chip cookies and let me ask her questions without getting tired or frustrated and she would help me with my homework and afterwards we would watch a movie together like before, and it could be any movie, even one of the ones with subtitles she used to like, the ones I can’t read fast enough to understand, because anything, anything, would be better than the mom that I’ve had since Dad died, which isn’t really any kind of mom at all. I looked at her and thought all this and then I barfed again.
When I got home Mom told me to go lie down and rest, so I went to my room. But I didn’t want to nap. I had to finish something.
I took out a notebook, found a good spot, and started writing. For some reason I knew exactly what I was going to write, and it filled up my head until I couldn’t think about anything else. It wasn’t made-up stuff anymore; my spider words had morphed into something real. I just kept on writing the same thing, and when I filled up a page I flipped to a new one.
I am not an animal. I am a human being.
I am not an animal. I am a human being.
I am not an animal. I am a human being.
I thought I understood it before but I really understood it now, I had hit this little silver phrase, like when you dig through soft dirt down to the clay as wet and smooth as the skin of a frog. It wasn’t what the words were but what they were to me, the feeling and not the meaning, something underneath and impossible to explain. It was The Truth, for the first time I knew something that was really The Truth, and I just kept writing it over and over, again and again, until I was done.