“I have to write about middle school,” I say, “and I really don’t want to.” I flick the straw in my iced tea.
“You should make something up,” shrugs my brother as he demolishes his Pad Thai over lunch.
“What’s that guy doing here?” I ask, changing the subject. I tilt my head in the direction of the only other diner at the restaurant. He looks like a less affluent and less magical George R.R. Martin. “Doesn’t he have a book to finish writing?” My brother laughs.
My brother has been at home with our parents all summer. He’s starting his masters in fiction in the fall. He’s good at making things up. I used to be good at it too, just not on paper. I consider explaining to him why it’s so important for me to be truthful here, truthful from here on out always. But I don’t. He’s my brother, I don’t need to posture with him. I want to say, “I’m afraid,” but I don’t. I don’t have to. He’s my brother. I don’t have to posture for him.
"I'm serious --” he says. “Say that like, in sixth grade, you developed superpowers or something like that.” This restaurant wasn’t made for people to sit in and enjoy a meal. It’s a takeout place, really. I felt like apologizing for inconveniencing them when we walked in. The funny thing is, I did develop superpowers in 6th grade. I learned to lie. I learned to create a hard, lacquered veneer that would keep me safe from anything. From almost anything. I was my own alter ego.
Sixth grade. This is where it all gets a little bit harder. So I’m going to tell it in two parts. It’s easy to distance yourself from your babyhood, to write about it. There are moments, sure, that with hindsight you can point to as foreshadowing. But I also think you kind of have to be a bit disconnected from the world if you think it’s that easy to slap a literary device on your life.
I do think it’s possible to find in those moments flashes of who you were, are, and always will be that are vaguely reassuring. I can look back at myself and go, “Oh yes,” with a relieved sigh, “There I am. That’s ME.” But it’s sixth grade now and my intestines constrict at the thought. Because, I wasn’t me then. I started to change. Me was impossible to find. Imagine if you woke up and you were in sixth grade again. I do, and I’m clenching my teeth so tightly I can feel the crown on the furthest lower left side of my jaw crack, pop, and strain. It sounds to me like a ship sinking -- terrible, industrial sounds.
Sixth grade. Part one. I am back there. My hair is bluntly cut to my shoulders. It’s a little lighter from the summer months but soon, very soon, it will be dark again. The same color as my pupils. My glasses are big and round like my face. Early winter mornings, standing in front of the mirror brushing it into some static-crackling kind of order I will look at my hair and look at my eyes and think that both are appropriate markers for what I am: Dark, wicked, and poor.
When elementary school was over my parents moved me to a private school. I don’t remember conversations about it, really. I remember that I had to take a test and that I got a scholarship. I remember sitting in the headmaster’s office and being told that I had to play a sport each quarter. I remember the way the leather in the armchair in his office felt and how his head looked framed by the giant halo of the school’s logo.
“Why on earth did mom and dad think it was a good idea to send me to an all-boys school where playing a sport was mandatory?” I blurt this at my brother and we both smile. We also both know the answer: They wanted what was best for me. They wanted me to see the world as something attainable. They thought I was smart and they wanted me to succeed. They sent me to Montessori school for a hot second when I was a kid. I don’t remember it, but I came home with one fist all curled up, like I was holding something. “What do you have there?” My mom asked. “I’ve got Jesus in here -- and I can make him do whatever I want.” So you see, I have a history of misunderstanding the message.
The school was an all-boys school. Or it used to be. I started there not long after it went co-ed. There were two other girls in my class, Dana and Felice. I was stuck on a desert island. My friends were chosen for me. Dana was the queen bee. She listened to Nirvana. She had pierced ears. Her lips were full and glossed over teeth adorned with braces whose elastic bands changed with the seasons. She had freckles and dark hair and she was thin. She wore clothes from Express. She was in love with a kid named Pat. He was in our class, but slightly older than we were. Maybe he wasn’t smart. I don’t know. I barely spoke to him. But because Dana loved him, I loved him too.
Pat was rich. He lived in my neighborhood. I lived in a massive house, but my parents didn’t pay rent -- it belonged to the church that my father ran, its rectory. After school, I’d get my bike and cycle by the mansion where Pat lived. The road turned into a hill right before his house and I’d pump and sweat my way past, praying he didn’t see me, praying he did. He wore tight jeans from Structure, so Dana suggested we call him Structure -- which we often did. He had braces, too, he was tanned and had sandy hair and perfect eyebrows. I pictured him and I pictured Dana and I pictured them kissing and how perfect and right that could be. Where did I fit into the equation? How did I fit in?
I didn’t. Not at all. With my chewed sleeves and lack of makeup, with my crooked front tooth and no braces, I was poor and I was an oddity. It was sixth grade and I was unspeakably angry, I just didn’t know it. I started playing soccer -- the teams were co-ed. I played defense and, while I wasn’t fast, I was solid and hard to move. I was terrified every time the ball and the boys kicking it came running my way.
Leave me alone! I wanted to yell. Go away! I wanted to yell. But I didn’t. Instead, I crouched, I kicked, I shoved, I gritted my teeth, I felt my legs growing stronger. I hate this, I thought, as the ball went safely away from me, Pat chasing after it, Dana chasing after Pat. I looked down, my thigh was stippled with marks from someone else’s cleat. The blood was already starting to trickle down. I f*cking hate this.