Dear Cruel Universe,
Sometimes we literary dissidents, we harbingers of truth, are required to mete out a temporary sort of armistice with the world, the intellectual and moral decay of which we are so bitterly and continually locked with in struggle, and instead throw ourselves on our metaphorical swords, which is to say, our pens. Sometimes one’s personal life becomes so crowded with untimely misfortunes, so clouded with pain and confusion, that to focus on one’s vocational labors or the quotidian trivialities of existence seems all but impossible. One half-heartedly lifts her brows above the trench line, surveys the desolate no-man’s-land of this life, and, utterly lacking in the emotional wherewithal to charge the enemy, decides instead to hunker back down among the mud and helmets and discarded ammunition shells, and navel-gaze (much the in the manner of the self-pitying footman Thomas in the second season of Downton Abbey).
School began again last week, and, much to my excitement, I returned to Van Buren Middle School a newly christened eighth grader. I was, as I say, enthused to return to school because I am, first and foremost, a scholar; because I always look forward to resuming my educational journey, taking up once more the everyday pleasure of learning, and donning again the mantle of my long-term quest to gain admittance to MIT. To my mind, school in session is always preferable to school not in session. But, I must admit, I was also enthused to return to school specifically as an eighth grader, not because I expected any such matriculation to cause a marked increase in quality of any particular facet of my social life. I did not, for example, expect to suddenly find myself a member of a thick clique of girlfriends, or expect to wake up the morning of the first day of school magically without braces. Rather, I entertained the more nebulously defined hope that in moving up to the top class at Van Buren, the general discomfort one experiences as an underclassman would concurrently abate. While I still expected to be teased for this or that social misstep or fashion faux pas (my being in orchestra; my collection of berets), I thought that at the very least I would no longer be teased for being a lowly sixth or seventh grader. When one is continually tortured in this way, a relinquishment of any of the various devices of torture, no matter how minor, seems like a benediction of the highest order. Having finally reached the top of the dung heap, as it were, I thought I would at least find a little fresh air up here.
I thusly resolved, whilst bouncing down the avenues toward school on the creaking chassis of my father’s ancient rust-crusted Volvo, that this year—this year!—I would not confine myself to the bathroom on my lunch hour. This year, I would not allow myself to be corralled, sheep-like—which quality I so despise in others—by social stressors and fear of rejection and mockery and derision into that handicap stall which had been my rock and my shelter for nearly all of seventh grade. I ought to mention here that my resolve was shored up by the fact that I knew my best friend Laurence DuPlessus and I had been at long last assigned the same lunch period, and that I could thus count on having at least one person with whom to sit.
And so the first day of school proceeded apace. The first classes were predictably drowsy and pointless, being that we spent their durations entertaining our teachers’ slow fumbling through first pronunciations of names during roll call and slightly nihilistic explanations of the overambitious syllabi that everyone, including the instructors, knows will be impossible to complete. But these classes were pleasant nonetheless, just by dint of being classes, and at the third-shift lunchtime bell, I met Laurence at the appointed spot in front of a certain stairwell, and we walked down to the cafeteria all atwitter about our various homework loads, the books I was excited to read for English and the strange knobby growth protruding from the face of Laurence’s French teacher, which, he said, might make it difficult to concentrate on learning the pluperfect.
Dearest Laurence! I believe he remained unaware of my prior lunchtime bathroom hermitage, and thus likely had no reason to suspect that crossing the cafeteria threshold would in any way hold potential for me as an anxiety-inducing event, yet whether intentionally or no, he kept me so engaged with the spewing forth of the contents of his lively mind, our conversation flowing naturally, as it always does, that before I even had time to whip myself into a neurotic trembling frothed cappuccino of apprehension, I found myself ensconced at a linoleum expanse of cafeteria table, a tray of squashy peanut butter and jelly and condensation-beaded milk carton stationed before me. I paused for a moment mid-sandwich, in part to dislodge with my tongue an enormous piece of white bread that had become ensnared in a bracket of my braces, but also to subtly survey the cafeteria and all its human contents (having noted Madison Lauren’s presence audibly, in overhearing her relentless bullying cackle, and not wanting to catch her eye in any way, I contented myself with determining her exact location—sitting on top of the cafeteria table, holding court above all her friends, of course—in my peripheral vision only), and I said to myself, This isn’t so bad! Why was I—of what was I—so afraid?
What did I learn on the first day of school, you ask? Only this: the minute one proclaims a situation “isn’t so bad”—the very moment one begins to get comfortable and shed one’s propensity for fear—at the first letting-down of one’s guard—this is the precise time your antagonists will attack.
“Gotta hit the loo,” Laurence said (he is entertaining the idea of Anglophilia), and with this scant warning he jumped up from the table and disappeared into the scrum of students.
“Okay,” I said to no one, suddenly feeling myself very alone at one end of the long table. A group of well-dressed Pakistani girls at the other end paid me no mind; they never pay anyone any mind except each other, probably because they are ten times as beautiful as any other girls in the whole school. Suddenly the little hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Instinctively I knew that someone was examining me, and furthermore, that the gaze was withering. I almost turned around to determine the veracity of my instincts, but having a very good guess as to whom, if someone were indeed bearing down upon me, the aggressor might be, I then decided the best course of action would be to pull The Mill and the Floss from my bookbag and bury my nose therein, in hopes of deterring conflict by seeming blissfully unaware of the outside world altogether.
This, however, was not to be. A shadow fell across my book, a shadow as long and dim and coolly threatening as if it were cast by the whole bulk of the Soviet Union and I were wee West Berlin. I did not look up.
“What ya readin’ there, smartass?” I heard Madison Lauren say. Her voice had something new in it: some heretofore unannounced edge, some fresh kind of evil. In prior years—ever since the end of our friendship—she would make fun of my clothes, my big backpack, my bushy hair; she would laugh at me when I missed the last stair and half-fell to the hallway floor, or (best of all) she would just ignore me, but never before had I heard her use this sort of tone. Never before in her slinging of insults had I heard her use a curse word—for she was, I knew, a goody-two-shoes at heart, once more fearful of drugs and R-rated movies and growing up in general than even I, but, when faced with the terrifying onset of puberty, instead of burying herself in nineteenth-century novelists and cello sonatas, instead of choosing to keep her head down, as I had so done, she had taken a different tack: she had used bald bravado and fevered social climbing to tamp down her fears. With general loudness she hoped to drown out the protestations of her meek inner voice. She laughed at you before you could laugh at her. She had, I realized with a thunderclap, shoved and pushed her way up the opposite face of the dung heap, and now she planned to rule the fetid roost.
I clenched my jaw and shut my book. I was not going to be bullied out of the cafeteria for nine more months. No, by God, I would not.
“What,” I said, looking up and narrowing my eyes, “does it matter to you? You’re so illiterate you can’t even spell your own name.” (This had been true for a time, actually. In first grade, she persisted in writing her name as Lauren Madison at the top of all her worksheets, though whether out of wishful thinking or sheer stupidity, I know not.) I heard one of her minions make the quick choking sound of a suppressed giggle, watched as Madison snapped her head back for a look over her shoulder like a little Stalin making a mental note as to which cabal member to later send off to the gulag and expurgate from all state portraits.
“I don’t give a shit what you’re reading. Just thought it was kind of pathetic that as soon as your boyfriend gets up you have to pretend to read, ‘cause nobody else wants to talk to you.”
“Yeah, your boyfriend,” one of her minions squawked like a domesticated macaw.
Thrown a bit by the fact that she had seen through my ruse (she gives such a convincing performance of stupidity that I often forget she might in fact be rather smart; we were once best friends, after all, and I have never been able to be emotionally intimate with someone who is markedly intellectually inferior to myself), I blushed, and stupidly blurted, “He’s not my boyfriend.”
“No, of course not,” Madison said with vicious tilt of her head, a faux-sympathetic pout coming across her face, and I knew she was about to finish me off with some extra-cruel jab. “After all, everyone knows you’re in love with Shane.” She thumbed across the cafeteria at Shane McManus, who of course chose just that moment to lift up his bandana’d head and cherubic face and gaze in our general direction.
Now I triple-blushed, ducked my head back down to my closed book and listened to her gaggle of idiots move away in a phalanx formation, bleating merrily over their triumph, like a flock of adolescent Canadian geese. I hated her with all the fullness of my heart, for both she and I knew it was true: in fifth and sixth grade—when I had still been friends with Madison—I did love Shane. Over time my crush had dissipated, mostly because we had been in the same history class the last two years and this experience had revealed to me both the abominable lowness of his IQ and the weariness of his constant imitation of Justin Bieber’s pseudo-urban speech patterns, but his cuteness still unnerved me in a manner of which I was most ashamed. In this way Madison Lauren continually used my secrets against me, just as I, I must now acknowledge, had only a few moments earlier used her secrets against her in insinuating her illiteracy before her friends.
This was the moment, of course, that Laurence chose to throw himself back down upon the cafeteria bench. “You’re in love with Shane?” he exclaimed, half-guffawing, half-alarmed with incredulity. “Tilda, tell me it’s not true. He’s an absolute Neanderthal.”
“Come on, Laurence, not you, too,” I choked out, near to tears, and snatched my paperback and my bookbag and swept off to my bathroom stall.
Safely entombed, I cried into a wad of single-ply toilet paper. Even the Pakistani girls had laughed at Madison’s barbs. How could Laurence believe any of the bile she spewed forth? Didn’t he know—wasn’t he the only one who knew—all the cruelties she had perpetrated upon me? Worse: what of the insult with which I just had attempted to lacerate her? In my lashing out, in my scrambling defensiveness, had I not in fact sunk to her base level of discourse? I could not decide if my throat burned with shame for my own contribution to the cafeteria cruelty of the world or with disappointment for the fact that my attempts at a pointed personal attack had apparently glanced off her person with nary a nick to her armor of unabashed self-esteem. Worst of all: did Shane know I had been in love with him? Likely as not he did. Waves of embarrassment passed through me like nausea. I wished for a burqa to don before reentering the hallway. I wished for a trapdoor to open in the floor, through which I could descend into a magical passage that would lead directly to my bedroom. But of course, no trapdoor ever did open, and soon enough the bell sounded and I reentered the halls, my eyes a bit puffier, my load a bit heaver, but I reentered them all the same. Laurence was waiting for me just outside the bathroom but I rushed by him, partly because I was late for class and partly because I did not want to be tempted to resume crying.
I have heard that my peers use such nonsense toys as “diaries” and “journals”—simulacra of real writers’ tools, with their chintzy Chinese-made brass locks and Jonas Brothers covers—to record such traumas as these, but on the walk home from school that day, I found myself desirous of my desk, of putting pen to paper, of drafting an open letter, that tried and tested format for the venting of emotions and opinions that I have come to know and love. To whom shall I address this missive, this record of the day’s ignominious events? Is it of any consequence? For no matter what I write, or to whom, I am never heard—nay, neither my letters nor my dignity as a person is ever recognized. I am a no one, a nobody, ignored, except to be occasionally a target for laughter. If a girl cries alone in a bathroom and no one is there to comfort her, does she make a sound? If she writes a letter and no one reads it, did she create anything, feel anything at all?
I will tell you one thing, however, whether you choose to heed me or not, O cruel, unfeeling world:
I will be back in that cafeteria tomorrow.
Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.