TJ Larsen’s ears had so much earwax in them. It was all caked up in there, yellow-orange. He was a new student in the first grade and I sat next to him and stared into the clogged tubes of his ears. Everyone knew it. Someone, please, just tell him to use a q-tip. I wanted to stick one right up his ear. It would pop! through his ear drum and burrow till the cotton tip nudged his coiled brains. When I suctioned it out I’d be able to see straight into TJ Larsen’s head.
Apparently in high school TJ Larsen fucked a girl in a Macy’s changing stall. I’ve never had sex while standing up. I assume that’s how they did it. TJ hadn’t been earwaxy since sometime in fourth grade.
Laura Baumhauer had a waspy presence. Nobody really liked her. When people sat down for lunch they would always sit on the side where she wasn’t. So she’d be sitting on the end with the empty bench beside her and everyone piled up on the other side. In sixth grade, Margaret Bruge whispered that Laura stuffed tissues or maybe even socks into her bra. Margaret knew because she saw something fall out while we were changing for gym class.
Laura had acne and large pores that made her face look like a strawberry. In line at our sixth-grade classroom door I heard her boasting, “my parents have never had sex.” I told her that they must have had sex at least twice, because she and her sister existed.
Laura wore a East High T-shirt in her eighth-grade yearbook photo. She kept talking about high school. It would be a fresh start. Laura made friends at first and I think people liked her for a time before they realized she wasn’t cool.
Jess Adamson was my best friend. We walked the three blocks to Lady of Mercy together every morning and back home every afternoon.
Parents gushed over how small and polite Jess was. I felt too large. Jess had anxiety and bladder spasms. When a spasm came on, maybe on the walk to school or in the hall, Jess would crouch down on one knee. I’d crouch down next to her, and we’d pretend to tie our shoes.
Jess and I talked in the Quiet Area about how neither of our families went to church and we didn’t think God existed. Maybe there were spirits, though.
Jack—not Jack Strotman, the other Jack—Brezicki—he was pudgy and gluten-free. He threw up in front of the take-home folders in first grade. I thought he had just spilled some soup. He, Jess, and I were voted “sweetest personality” in the eighth grade yearbook.
Katherine Strauss was one of my secondary best friends. She taught me long division in third grade, which was the year her parents got divorced. She had nearly a hundred Littlest Pet Shop animals and a half-dozen Webkinz, which all went to her dad’s house. Her mom fed us carrot slices and had us make crafts such as hair-tie rugs or mosaic bowling balls. Katherine invented several languages that included code names for our classmates so we could gossip while they were still in earshot.
Sometimes Natasha Sangsorn’s father would be sleeping on the couch when I came over for a play date. Natasha had a ginormous house with a trampoline in the backyard and a walk-in snack pantry. Stuffed animals crowded her canopy bed. Natasha’s mother was overweight. Natasha went vegetarian and ate nothing but Greek yogurt at lunch and said she was too fat, but she wasn’t fat at all.
Natasha wanted us to be close friends but I didn’t like her. Once, she shunned me for a whole recess because I chose to sit next to Katherine instead of her at lunch. She had a sleepover for her golden birthday and ordered everyone not to be too loud. She created a system of strikes for our girly squeals. Natasha wanted to go trick-or-treating with Jess, Katherine, and I, but I didn’t want her to come. I made up excuses but later pretended it was all a misunderstanding when she called me on my flip phone and told me she was struggling with depression.
Emily Hagley locked herself in her room and wouldn’t come out. It was her birthday party and her mom pleaded at the door while we sat around the table staring at our uneaten slices of cake. Emily locked herself in there because she didn’t get to eat the first bite. I avoided eye contact with the other girls, my stomach tight. I was the one who had snuck the bite of cake.
When Emily came over to my house that one time she had us play Dog Show. She coaxed poor Luna up and down the stairs and pushed her through the hula-hoop. Emily sat next to me in U.S. History and kept stealing my colored highlighters. I wondered, is this bullying?
In sixth grade, Nick Nell’s hair was a blonde Justin Bieber swoosh. Every few minutes he’d twitch his neck sideways to toss the hair from his eyes. Freshman year he dated a senior and gave her a concussion against the back windshield of his car while having sex. He constantly flirted with Ms. Roderick in Western Civ sophomore year. That summer, he got into cocaine and went to rehab and came back hollow-looking.
Miranda Bellthorne annoyed me when we were paired up for badminton. She couldn’t hit the birdie. She was small, obsessed with Disney, and had her future planned out in detail. Jess liked her, though. They went to the mall together and talked about their crushes. Jess and I had never gone to the mall together because I didn’t like trying on clothes. Jess wasn’t supposed to like that stuff either. But a part of me wanted to go, too. Jess never asked me to come. I felt like she thought of me as a boy.
Oliver Raffburg was small but athletic and charismatic. He sang the song, “Build Me Up Buttercup” in front of our music class. He said that Miranda had the perfect face and body. Perfect proportions and symmetry. A long neck.
Story Walters’ desk was in front of mine in the third grade. She was absent for a week. When she came back, I saw the gauze on the back of her skull replacing clumps of her tightly curled hair. Story had a brain tumor. She was in a wheelchair at the end of fourth grade. Her face and body looked all bloated from the chemo. She died in fifth grade.
At recess once, I found a clay frog magnet in the woodchips and Story wanted to have it. She kept asking me for it, but since I had found it, I didn’t give it to her. I felt guilty about it and buried the magnet under the swings after she died.
A counselor lady came to our classroom once Story had moved to hospice. She asked us if we had any questions. “Is Story going to die?” Oliver Raffburg asked, timidly. The lady paused, then clasped Oliver’s shoulder. “Everybody dies,” she answered.
Mr. Paulson, the principal of Our Lady of Mercy, got a brain tumor a few months later and died. Mr. Paulson had a bald head and was a Bears fan and started a “walk around the world” thing where he’d walk around the neighborhood with a herd of students at lunch. If you went, you got a little plastic foot that you could put on a keychain. The feet came in all the colors of the rainbow plus brown, grey, black, and white. Some were transparent and some opaque and a few were even sparkly. He died before I could collect them all.
Caroline Lund was my other secondary best friend. She gave Jess a stuffed animal otter because “it’s a special day” (it wasn’t) and gave me an old wine bottle. I eyed the otter on the walk home. Freshman year, Caroline explained to us what masturbation was. She had discovered it for the first time with the showerhead.
Caroline got really into baking. Her cookies were the best. People would always comment on how slender Caroline’s older sister Ellie was—she could be a model! In eighth-grade she lent me a book about a girl with bulimia. I got bored and never finished it, but when I gave the book back I told her it was a good story. Years later I learned she had been making herself throw up.
During kindergarten playtime, Olivia Harris always took the role of Mother. I felt cute in my overalls until she told me in the stairwell that they made me look like a cowboy. Olivia’s older brother Tommy hung himself in his closet the night she starred in the eighth-grade play.
The next week the teachers gave us pamphlets on the signs of depression. Olivia still came on our pre-graduation field trip to Navy Pier. “Pirates of the Caribbean” played on the little TV bus screens. Mrs. Myler shut it off when the scene of the pirates hanging from seaside gallows came on.
Mrs. Firton liked having Garrett Teeler do the banana dance. He stood at the front of the class, gyrating his seventh-grade hips. At any one time, at least five girls had a crush on Garrett. When we all piled into the girls’ gym changing room for a tornado drill, Garrett pointed to the tampon dispenser and asked, “what are tampoons?”
Eva Peters was gone for a day in the sixth grade. Apparently her mom had a “girls’ day” with her because she’d gotten her period. I didn’t get my period until eighth grade. It was the night before picture day and I went to my mom’s bedroom and asked her what the brown stuff in my underwear was, even though I knew what it was. I wore a navy blue button-up shirt and khaki pants and a big pad in my underwear that felt like a diaper because tampons freaked me out and I didn’t understand exactly where my vagina was. While waiting in line for pictures, I felt the blood soak up the pad and through my khaki pants. I escaped to a bathroom stall and lined my underwear with toilet paper but I knew people had seen. I kept pulling my shirt down throughout the rest of the day. I wanted to tell Jess about it on the walk home and I knew she knew, but I never mentioned it and neither did she. Jess didn’t get her period until sophomore year.
When we dissected worms in seventh grade science class TJ made some joke about sex that offended Mrs. Myler. She scolded TJ’s offensiveness in front of the class and told us that sex wasn’t that great, anyways.
I remember when we got to that page in our science textbook with the diagram of the male and female reproductive systems. The book sat spread open on my desk and I didn’t want to seem like I wanted to look at it so I looked at the walls instead. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the little penises in the room pressing against their pants.
Zoe Windoza said she was goth and that Story had been the only one who had understood her because she had been goth, too. Zoe was tall and pretty and wore black arm sleeves and dyed her hair and later got gages.
There were problems with gossiping and girl bullying in seventh grade. Sherie Roane, the Youth Ministry Coordinator, took all the girls into the church and gathered us in a circle. She pressed an unlit candle into everyone’s hands and instructed us to share a special prayer as we transferred the flame from one candle to the next. Sherie lit her candle with a lighter first. “For Story,” she announced. Margaret started crying and then Natasha cried and then Laura cried and then more girls cried. The boys stayed in the classroom and held a paper airplane competition.
My dad got leukemia the summer after fifth grade. Everyone prayed for us. He died at the end of sixth grade. I came back to school after a week and caught up on most of my homework.
Kevin Jr.’s last name was Maloney so I associated his face with bologna. He came up to me in the back of the church at my father’s memorial service. He was standing behind square-shaped Kevin Sr., who I knew was making Kevin Jr. say it. “I’m sorry for your loss, Paige,” he mumbled, looking at the carpet. His face looked especially like bologna then.
Junior year, Katherine got pregnant and decided to keep the baby. She named him Evan. A year later, she gave him up. She moved to Florida with some drug dealer. Now she’s with another guy. Katherine’s mom, Susan, took me out to lunch last summer. We drove to Pizza Brutta and sat on the stools facing out the window to the street. We chatted for a while before I asked about Katherine. Susan had joined a support group for the family members of drug addicts. She still got to visit Evan. She hadn’t heard from Katherine in over a month. She started crying but quickly dabbed away the tears.
Jess’s home phone number was the only one I had memorized. We would always count down from three at the end of a call so that we’d hang up at the same time. Sometimes neither of us would hang up and we’d have to count down over and over again. At some point near the end of middle school, Jess stopped the counting. I kept up with it for a while, counting down even after she’d hung up. Eventually I stopped, too.