High Low

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High LowSong: “Popular” by Nada Surf

1995

I.

Don’t put off breaking up when you know you want to
Prolonging the situation only makes it worse

In June, I’m carted off to church camp for a weekend. I don’t tell anyone how scared I am to be away from home. Later in life, I learn there are camps that last weeks, months. Camps where people French kiss and give handjobs in the woods. No, this camp isn’t like that at all.

Here, we play flashlight tag and freeze tag and have horseshoe tournaments and three church services a day. They don’t call them worship services. They try not to scare us away. We eat deli sandwiches on soft white bread and branching out means trying mayonnaise for the first time. We sit around bonfires in cliques telling inside jokes and singing hymns and popular Christian Rock songs.

Here, a girl I like from church is smiling at me, I notice. For the full first day, I play that flirting game, the one where you stare, mouth open, eyes drooped and hopeless, and look away the moment you get caught. You flash a smile. You’re bashful.

I have no grand plans, not yet. I am wedded to my chastity, have never kissed anybody before. But I want something. I want her to know me. So I tag along with her group through the dense pine clusters of those lush woods, peel thick strips of bark off birch trees and roll them into scrolls and make jokes that no one laughs at about bringing back papyrus as a medium. I hear whispers from her friends that she has a crush on James. It’s a secret, their coded language, and yet I roll around the possibility in my mind: my middle name is James.

II.

I’m head of the class
I’m popular

My heart and stomach flutter the rest of the night. I masturbate in my sleeping bag while everyone else eats make-your-own sundaes in the mess hall.

I’m fourteen, and I know it’s not death that scares me. Not isolation, either, but abandonment. I am fine alone, can entertain myself for hours, but want to know that what I put out in the world will come back: that when I need help, when I need saving, people will be there. That I am loved.

On Saturday, we play a game of flashlight tag in the main building, a labyrinth of classrooms and hallways and stacked milk crates and taxidermied foxes and songbirds. The overhead fluorescent lights are covered with black construction paper to make it more spooky. I’m gung-ho. I’m trying to impress and I want to win so I can prove something to her, to them. But instead, at a full-run, I smack into a concrete wall. My big toe bends nearly backwards. The toenail will, weeks later, fall off looking like a burnt potato chip you find at the bottom of the bag. I buckle and howl like a wild dog.

Church counselors turn on the lights, bring me to a cot to rest. The game starts back up again without me. No one comes to see how I’m doing. Later that night, hobbling toward the bonfire, I see her with James, a popular church boy that everyone likes. James and I used to be friends, but he got good looks early. He left me behind for puberty. I choke back, swallow hard. Fine, I think. I move along the outside of the group and find a place to sit. Everything’s fine. Their jokes are lost on me. I’m not in on them at all. Night birds call and sing and swoop. I can only feel the warmth of the fire.

III.

Being attractive is the most important thing there is
If you want to catch the biggest fish in your pond
You have to be as attractive as possible

Mid-summer, I’m outfitted by the orthodontist. Braces will come in December, but for now it’s a whole thing:

First, I have surgery to remove a cuspid from each side of my lower jaw, baby teeth with no adult teeth burrowed underneath—“Forever babies,” the oral surgeon calls them, grinning, spot-skinned and wide-eyed. Scared, I opt not to be put under, but sedated instead. I can’t feel the actual surgery, but the white-hot pressure of his hands and his tools in my mouth chipping the teeth into pieces, extracting the roots one by one, feels like the pressure of the deep azure ocean crushing my skull.

For days, I can’t help but run my tongue over the stitches, tasting blood. I barely eat. I’m starved for companionship and love and sex and yet I’m still such a child.

IV.

You don’t need date insurance
You can go out with whoever you want to
Every boy, every boy, in the whole world could be yours

Other than close friends, I haven’t told anyone at school that I do puppets at church. I’ve been doing it for a few years already, but now the secret is weighing me down.

Puppets—a Puppet Ministry, they called it—had been a new idea when I was in middle school. The Youth Group wanted a way to reach out to more people, more students, especially, not just in our church, but in churches throughout Michigan and the Midwest. As a child who was sheltered, sidelined, the thought of going to some other church, meeting other kids—that new blood I found so mysterious and alluring—was wildly exciting.

V.

I’m the party star
I’m popular

Once my mouth heals, I have a spacer installed that simultaneously pulls my back teeth forward, closing the gap, and splits apart my palate, getting my teeth and jaw into optimal alignment. This is achieved by a small turn-key that’s inserted into a mechanism along the roof of my mouth. My tongue is cut up and rough from flicking it throughout the day. The key is twisted nightly, separating my bones just so, by the soft pink hands of my mother, her delicate fingers turned into instruments of pain, needles that stab and poke.

Before my braces are put on, before everything is cinched back together, I can fit two quarters, a dime and a nickel between the gap in my front teeth. It’s a party trick in the halls at school.

Look how much money I can put between my teeth!

Hey K____, wanna see what I can do with $0.65?

When I do get the braces—which I’d go on to wear for 65% of high school—I learn to

smile with my lips closed, pressed firmly together. At home, I stare in the bathroom mirror at the brackets darkening my teeth, the wires connecting them, how crowded my mouth has become. My face looks gaunt, more childish, even though that year I’ve begun to sprout sideburns, some facial hair. I hate the way I look.

Gone are my childhood toothy grins, found in every family vacation photo, hidden now by playful palms placed in front of my face, or me ducking behind others, out of sight, always finding a way to not show my teeth, these twinkling ugly reminders of how far I had yet to go. I stop making eye contact in the hall. I loathe my classmates who don’t have braces, will never need them. I move to the back of our group of friends when they debate which movie to see on Friday night. I learn to put up with whatever else they want. I don’t offer up my voice. I have no voice at all.

VI.

My mom says I’m a catch
I’m popular

I’m good at puppeteering, but this isn’t something I can or want to brag about. Even the church girls, the only girls I talk to regularly, think it’s lame. So I start to move away from the church and its teachings and these puppets. I ask hard questions at Mid-Week Classes and Sunday School about dinosaurs and evolution. I push away childhood pursuits and beliefs. I question everything.

When I have my first kiss a year later, as a sophomore—a late bloomer, my friends joke—we’ll be at her house in the basement playing point-and-click games on her computer, alternating between Sam & Max and Myst. She’s more popular than I am, but still not popular. I have no idea why she’s interested in me. There, in the cluttered basement office with its fake wood paneling, before we’ll go upstairs into the dark garage and sit in her parents’ minivan, before I’ll rip my glasses off like Clark Kent and nervously meet her lips before anyone can catch us, I watch her play these games ravenously. She’s wearing shorts. I put my hand on her bare thigh. It’s covered in moles and I think it’s charming. She turns to me and says: “Tell me about yourself. I want to get to know you before we make out.”

I’m petrified and excited. “Okay.” I say. “Like what?”

“Someone said you did some stuff with your church or something? That you used to do some traveling thing?”

My stomach tightens. I swallow. We’ve been holding hands in the school hallways and people have started to take notice of me. I’m not a doorstop, but a guy with a girlfriend. I’m suddenly legitimate.

“Not really,” I say. “Not worth mentioning at all.”

VII.

And if you see Jonny football hero in the hall
Tell him he played a great game

I have my parents install a fancy clear-glass basketball hoop in our driveway. I hate basketball, am terrible at it, but I want my house to be the focal point.

There’s a group of us that started hanging out earlier in the year. I have crushes on the girls, one by one, but every time I’m sworn to secrecy about their crushes, on other boys in the group—the boys playing basketball, who already know their bodies, how to move them, are confident in their skin. I’m awkward and lanky. I wish their crushes were on me, but I don’t harbor any ill will—I know, even then, these relationships are fleeting. But still, this one Saturday in early spring, I practice shooting hoops until I’m sweat-drenched and out of breath, collapsed on the couch, hoping that maybe, next week, I’ll have something to show for it.

That night, in my room in the basement, I’m surrounded by posters on the wall I designed myself, doodles and sketches taped to my door. Nothing is store-bought—everything’s been made by me. But I never let this part of me be known. I don’t offer this up or nurture it.

Suddenly inspired, I pick up a pen and paper and draw a comic about a weird, awkward teenage boy who solves crimes at night. He never kills anyone. He doesn’t wear a costume so everyone knows it’s him when he saves the day. He gets invited to the popular parties but isn’t pressured to drink, since he doesn’t want to. He has a cleft chin and a barrel chest.

I spend hours on the comic, coloring it in with markers, stapling the pages together. I flip through it in bed, late into the night. I run my tongue over my braces, my chapped lips, my crowded mouth. I think about my left eye, larger than my right, my big ears, my ample forehead. On the last page, the hero’s playing basketball with a bunch of ordinary people in a tournament. There are towering lime green pine trees colored hurriedly in the background. Everyone has a big silly grin and beaming eyes. The hero is smiling, always smiling.


Photo used under CC.

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About Author

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Robert James Russell is the author of the novellas Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing), and the chapbook Don't Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press). He is a founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find him online at robertjamesrussell.com and on Twitter at @robhollywood.

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