Her principal’s office reeks of insect repellant. You can smell it from outside the door.
Sonya imagines that her principal keeps a diverse supply of repellents in the locked drawer beneath his desk. That after he leaves the teacher’s lounge—making sure his cup-o-jello hasn’t been invaded by foreign spoon—he massacres the ants that crawl up the side of his shelf. And he yells in the act, violently enough for Judith the secretary to flinch in her chair and accidentally press SEND on an aggressive email to an ex-husband. When her principal drums his blue pen and mechanical pencil to “Eye of the Tiger” against the desktop’s gel pad, he remembers the rat trap at his feet and omits the foot pedal. For Sonya, his office reeks of her tepid success. She lounges with her legs sprawled.
Her principal is not an ugly man. Up close, Sonya thinks, you can tell how naive he is. It’s in the way he looks at you. In one glance, Sonya knows to treasure his innocence. How sad he might be without it. Her principal has thick, reddish sideburns. They sway, as Pushkin’s do, like the bristling teeth of a blue whale. Other students call him Principal Sideburns, but Sonya prefers to address him by his first name. Hello Lewis, she says, sinking deeper into the chair and popping a blown-up piece of raspberry bubblegum. You like my work?
VANDALISM IS VERY BAD I WILL NOT DO IT AGAIN, VANDALISM IS VERY BAD I WILL NOT DO IT AGAIN. VANDALISM IS VERY BAD I WILL NOT DO IT AGAIN. VANDALISM...
Her essay on vandalism crowds his desk. 6,000 words. No staples. He takes the cluster and breathes out. Chutzpah, he says. You have chutzpah. Sonya smiles in the afterglow of this Yiddish word and pulls her hoodie over her ears. She has overheard the other Yiddish word Lewis knows and gets the feeling he uses both in questionable contexts. For instance, when he—after three to five treacherous minutes of tentative pounding—spritzes his exasperation onto the stomach of his wife Shirley. Or when he catches his neighbor spritzing onto the stomach of his wife Shirley. Or when he overhears his neighbor’s wife making Shirley spritz onto the floor of his walk-in closet.
Mazel Tov! He calls out with shock. Freakin’ chutzpah, Shirls.
A wrinkled “Miami Vice” poster sits above Lewis’s head. The light from his blinds catches it and dances nicely across Don Johnson’s face. While Lewis flips through her manifesto, Sonya fiddles with the art on his desk: a fermented daisy, a bobbling statuette of Ronald Reagan (bobbling and bobbling and about to slam the liberal opposition with a good Yo Momma joke), and a framed picture of himself in a jacuzzi with his goggles on.
Sonya’s brother Mikhail was also her boyfriend. Sonya called him Mickey. When Mickey was seven, Sonya was twelve. When they were alone together in the pool of their apartment complex, he would practice french-kissing on her. His kisses were uxorious: slobbery O’s opening and closing on her cheek, behind her ear. Shrimp-sized bite marks on her wrist. Cashew-shaped pinks on the inside of her bicep. Mickey never learned how to swim so he drowned in their pool on the last day of summer, two years ago. Mickey always tasted like Chef Boyardee. Sonya can sometimes still smell the beef ravioli on her fingertips after she touches an earlobe. Now, the pool is drained and covered in graffiti. A rectangle from Mickey’s melted ice-cream sandwich haunts its edge, like a silhouette on the laddered trek of a Candyland game board. Sonya is fourteen. Because her brother’s death made local news, she is forced to meet with guidance counselor at Hoover High. She opens up about the deflated water-wings but not about the hickies.
Oh, I see your point. Lewis furrows his brow at the third page of Sonya’s essay. Sonya immediately apologizes for its unconventional style. She makes a joke he doesn’t understand about the avant-garde, about her being a struggling artist.
VANDALISM IS VERY VERY VERY VERY BERY BERY BERY BERY BAD BAD I WILL NOT DO IT AGAIN AGAIN. VANDALISM IS BAD BAD BAD BAD I SHALL NOT DO IT IT IT, AGAIN.
Sonya is not a regular in the principal’s office. In fact, she is mild in comparison with her peers. She finishes her homework. She sits at the back of the classroom. She fools her teachers by pretending to take notes on her laptop when she is really playing a pirated version of “The Sims 4.” She is pragmatic when it comes to romance, but on Sims she is hopeless. She falls for whoever woos her with subtle embrace, for whoever listens to her while she confesses her love for novels or the thrill of the steal. She is poised, obviously, and doesn’t WooHoo with anyone during school hours.
Mr. Romero, her English teacher, doesn’t allow laptops in class. He is old-fashioned like that. He doesn’t want distraction from the text. Mr. Romero, or Manny, as Sonya calls him, is passionate about English! He seems unaware that the majority of the class doesn’t own copies of the books he assigns. Sonya thinks his enthusiasm is distantly sad. Because it is distantly sad, Sonya often excuses herself from his lectures. Manny was a creative writing major at the University of South Florida. Sonya believes that Manny probably never Killed His Darlings because he wouldn’t because he couldn’t because he loved them. He gave up on writing years ago. The future of writing is with YOU, he says, gesturing to Sonya and her peers. This gesture usually leaves a big, yawning silence that he reads as contemplative. Sonya once enjoyed a writing activity. Manny gave them printed-out copies of famous texts and black markers. He wanted them to cover whole lines with the black markers and find the poetry. FIND THE POETRY were his actual directions on the board. Hers was Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus.” Her final poem was the most garish but most real thing she has ever written: First: Hold, foggily, the pool’s myopic edge. My blood: fresh fruit. Sweating, tennis, and zipped and unzipped edginess.
When she excuses herself from class, she usually likes to admire the seafoam stalls of the girls’ bathroom. How dull the color is. Last Monday, Sonya excused herself from their discussion of “Catcher in the Rye.” Manny kept asking how they felt about certain sentences. As she walked out of the room, Sonya overheard Manny say, Holden, upon his brother Allie’s death, says, I slept in the garage and broke all the goddamn windows with my fist.
In the girls’ bathroom, Sonya stared at herself in the full-length mirror beside the sinks. She stared at herself for the remaining forty minutes of English class. She stared a dead, ghostly stare until she could picture her own eyes dilated at the bottom of the pool of their apartment complex. In the mirror, Sonya began to undress. She tore at her sweatshirt, wiggled out of her jeans. She undressed until she was nothing but pancake nipples and pink underwear with pineapples. She stood there nearly naked. Thinking ribald things about her body. Scratching her forearms. Wanting to sharpie the mirror, SONYA V. IS A SLUT, SONYA V. IS A SLUT. Naked, Sonya noticed the graffiti to her left.
On the white tile next to the mirror was a contoured, Lynchian Spongebob Squarepants (with a fat dong for a nose) ejaculating onto Principal Sideburns’ face. Signed SpongeRob.
(INSERT DRAWING OF SPONGEBOB W NOSE EJACULATING ON MAN’S FACE HERE)
SpongeRob is notorious at Sonya’s high school. He is a junior. SpongeRob’s real name is Roberto. His family moved into Sonya’s apartment complex the summer Mickey died. He used to high-five Mickey on the balcony where their apartments intersect. For all of July, he let Mickey play “Halo” on his Xbox with him. Sonya was there too, although she preferred to watch passively with a bowl of Cheez-Its. Sonya knows SpongeRob casually, has seen him at his worst, his most awkward. He had bad acne, you could smell the ProActiv on his face. He had a horrible temper, it was not vanquished through Halo alone. Personal details about Rob, Sonya knows, give her a sort of crude street cred at Hoover High. Although she hasn’t, she feels entitled to approach him and his “cool” friends. Sonya’s friends aren’t cool. She has two, and Sonya’s mom thinks they’re squares. Your friends are squares, she tells her. Sonya has seen SpongeRob shirtless. His bedroom faces the pool, and his curtains are rarely drawn. Sonya’s mom caught her looking once, when SpongeRob was playing video games in his bedroom without a shirt, his back facing the window, glistening with sweat. Be wary of Latin boys, is all her mom said. Her mom doesn’t trust Roberto’s family. She is skeptical of all people, places, things happy or kind.
Sonya had never seen Rob’s art before the girls’ bathroom. It left her with a strange feeling. Last week, Sonya knew two things about SpongeRob. He lives in her apartment complex and has detentions after school for the rest of the semester for vandalism. Today, she knows three. He lives in her apartment complex, he has detentions after school for the rest of the semester, and Sonya thinks … but it sucks! and it suuuucks because she hates boys and she would rather be a lesbian like Wanda Sykes or Jeanette Winterson and IT SUCKS because she thinks but isn’t positive but is pretty sure … that she has a crush on SpongeRob.
That Monday, for English homework, Sonya decided to write a Neo-Marxist analysis on an episode of “Spongebob Squarepants” instead of an inner monologue in the voice of Holden Caulfield:
The Spongebob Squarepants episode “Squirrel Jokes” is a roman a clef, French for novel with a key. Raveled in the episode is a deep and dark superstructure. When the protagonist is conscious of the objective social domain or the mode of production itself (in this case—comedy), Marx’s superstructure becomes alive and illuminates the complexity of the of the protagonist: Spongebob.
Mr. Krabs is the State Apparatus. His uniform and status as owner of the Krusty Krab place him at the top of hierarchy. His subject of exploitation and Commodity Fetishism is Spongebob Squarepants. If Krabs’ mode of production is money and power, Spongebob’s is humor. In “Squirrel Jokes,” Spongebob is a stand-up comedian.
Humor is a form of capital in relation to the superstructure. Spongebob employs “a deeply ambivalent humor, and just what is being satirized is never entirely clear, making it distinctly darker than is generally presumed” (Coletta 2). Whether arrogant or self-deprecating, stream-of-consciousness or humor aware of itself as humor, whether flat and outrageous or hopelessly grim, comedy in “Squirrel Jokes” reinforces the superstructure not by asserting itself against the unkindness but by asserting itself as the unkindness of real circumstances. When “injustice, personal despair, and the ideas of social transformation are all mocked—that is what constitutes dark humor” (Coletta 6).
As Spongebob commodifies Sandy in “Squirrel Jokes” it leaves the viewer in a confused state: as Virginia Woolf puts it, “laughing so hard we feel as grave as corpses.” He commodifies Sandy because she is a woman, because she is not a sea creature, because she can’t breathe underwater, and because she is from the South. With humor, Spongebob embraces the superstructure to emphasize his superiority within his ce peu de realites of Bikini Bottom.
Lewis breaches the tenth page of Sonya’s essay on vandalism.
VANDALISM VANDALISM VANDALISM VANDALISM IS IS IS IS IS IS IS IS BAD BAD BAD BAD BAD BAD BAD BAD BAD I I I I I I I I I SHANT WON’T EVER DO IT AGAIN.
That Monday afternoon, Sonya went to the store to pick up a black spray can. She didn’t have I.D. so she paid the tattooed drug dealer out front to buy one. He came out with it and a Dr. Pepper. When she walked into the apartment that evening, her mom was sitting on her boyfriend Alex’s lap on the armchair. They were watching “Russia Today.” Syria, maybe, Putin, maybe—a plane crash in the Urals. Sonya’s mom is Russian. Sonya’s friends think Sonya’s mom is hot. Your mom is hot, they tell her. Sonya doesn’t think her mom is hot. But she does think her mom has nice plush pillowy red lips. Nice, when they’re not perforated by Alex’s tongue (gross!) or by a saggy “Russkiy Still” cigarette (grosser!). Alex is a body builder in his twenties. He has a tattoo on his shoulder of two serpents intersecting like an abstracted swastika. When Sonya told Alex that his tattoo looks like an abstracted swastika, he became defensive. Sonya’s mom calls Alex “Sasha” when she sits on his lap on the armchair. When Sonya walked into the apartment, Alex hunched over to snort a line of chocolate muscle milk powder from the coffee table. Sonya’s mom didn’t look up from “Russia Today.”
Где былa? (Where were you?)
В школе. (At school.)
Но уже темно. (But it’s already dark.)
Я знаю. (I know.)
Ну … ладно. (Well … okay.)
Alex doesn’t speak any Russian except for the fact that Sonya taught him how to say Fucking Bitch—Yobanaya Soochka—and now it is his favorite thing to add whenever Sonya and her mom speak in Russian.
Йобаная сучка. (Fucking bitch.)
Сучки, (Bitches) Sonya corrected.
Alex is balding and has beady eyes. He works at the gym on Cedar Street. He says he has his own place, but he sleeps with Sonya’s mom every night in their dumb converted motel with a purple roof. Mickey used to joke with Sonya that even Alex’s muscles have muscles. Alex has muscles because he uses steroids and works at the gym on Cedar Street. Sonya thinks it is noble how open he is about his use of steroids. Before shooting up in front of the television, Alex often insists that the rumor about steroids and penis size is untrue. He insists with vigilance. When the needle goes in, he squints and calls to Sonya’s mom in the kitchen. Isn’t that right baby? Sonya’s mom puts the lid on something on the boiler and pantomimes a yardstick with her hands. She says Yes into a cigarette. If she feels frisky or is unconcerned with the boiling pot, she will throw in a This how beeg you have. They eat lots of starchy foods, pastas and baked breads and pelmenis. Sonya’s mom makes Sonya do all the grocery shopping. We have not thees much een Russia. The way her mom avoids coke bottles and cup-o-noodles, you would think she was in Leningrad during the blockade. Mikhail and Sonya used to ask about her life before Florida. When she speaks in English, everything sounds philosophical. Life eez hard, All family eez dead. When they were young, Sonya and Mikhail asked about their “real” father. His name was always Maxim, but his occupation changed every time: war hero, political refugee, olympic athlete, KGB. One time, when Sonya’s mom came home late, wasted on vodka tonics, she referred to Maxim as “that dumb Jew.” This left Mikhail befuddled.
Alex and Sonya’s mom are bonobos. Sonya has begun to organize personality types into categories of chimpanzee. A “bonobo” is a type of gracile chimpanzee that has sex to avoid conflict. Alex and Sonya’s mom have conflicts, but they end in watching “Y Tu Mamá También” and sixty-nining on the armchair: her mom is stupendously acrobatic for a woman in her forties. Sonya often catches her doing squats in the kitchen while the boiler is on. I vaz strong back een Russia. Sometimes, Sonya feels bad for her mom. It’s always, Back een Russia, Back een my country. Her mom has no realm of existence apart from comparison. The truth is, she was an outsider in Saint Petersburg. She is an outsider in the U.S. too, but at least the title is fitting. Sonya is sure that when her mom did live in Russia that she was ecstatic when the wall fell. She is sure that her mom dreamt of candy wrappers, Coors light, cup-o-noodles, coke bottles. Her fix has always been nostalgia for something she has never had. Sonya’s mom had forgotten to love Mikhail. When he died, her grief took the form of guilt and honest solipsism.
Sonya made pasta with butter and parmesan for dinner. She ate with Alex and her mom in front of the TV watching “Russia Today.” She listened intently. “... 60-я победа Шараповой и фиаско Хачанова: итоги пятого игрового дня Australian Open!” A reporter talked to Sharapova in English, and their conversation was dubbed in Russian. This sounded familiar to Sonya. When Alex and Sonya’s mom stumbled off together to her mom’s bedroom, Sonya grabbed her spray can and a flashlight and went downstairs to the pool of their apartment complex. She hadn’t been inside the pool since Mickey died, since it was drained.
The pool is SpongeRob’s studio. Sonya often hears the CHHHhhh of his spray can from her bedroom in the early morning hours. She hears Rob alone or with friends, the dialogue between them as they pass around a pipe. The deep end is an elaborate shrine to Bikini Bottom, a devout map with ineffable detail. (The Krusty Krab, Kelp Forest, Glove World, Goo Lagoon, even the Chum Bucket.)
Sonya descended the steps to the shallow end with caution, as if she carried something fragile inside her chest. Sonya’s flashlight landed on a caricature of Patrick Star smoking a blunt, Patrick’s head evanescing into the flame that lights Spongebob’s bowl.
(INSERT DRAWING OF PATRICKS HEAD ON FIRE LIGHTING SPONGEBOBS BOWL)
Sonya started nervously with her spray can. Soon, she took it in a frenzied rush, though still scrupulous, the CHHHhhh sound making her veins shudder. Sonya channeled all of Pushkin and Kandinsky. The black paint was her heartbeat.
Spongebob and Patrick exude personality. They exist as individuals. Often, their individualism leaves no room for other fish. Sonya’s History teacher in the 8th grade described the concept of Liberty with a metaphor. He stretched one of his arms out as far as he could without touching the student demonstrator and said, My rights end where yours begin. This definition of Liberty is at complete contrast with “Spongebob Squarepants” and the whole history of U.S. political intervention. Spongebob’s and Patrick’s perturbing lack of self-regard represents an unquantifiable Americanness. Spongebob himself, Mickey considered dour and overwrought. Spongebob could make him laugh, but could he make him think? Squidward, an asexual cashier with no prospect of occupational advancement, he found intriguing. In the episode “Squidville,” not only does Nickelodeon choose to portray Squidward’s dream suburb as “boring” or “dull” or “a tragedy of repetition and systemic conformity,” but they insist on rendering Squidward as “heroic” for not conforming to the drab lifestyle at the center of squid life. Sonya understood this as the reason for Mickey’s obsession with the episode. The squandering of Tentacle Acres, Mickey knew, meant capitalism wins again and for all eternity.
Sonya decided that writing Gulag—Stalin’s barbaric system of labor camps in the Soviet Union from 1930 to 1955—in Russian, ГУЛАГ, would be her signature tag.
When Mikhail was five, Sonya’s mom started him in tennis lessons. Every Tuesday and Thursday evenings at the Y. Mickey was bad at tennis, admittedly worse than the other five- and six-year-olds. Sonya walked him to the courts and stayed on a nearby bench, watching or playing Tetris on her phone. Most lessons, Mickey stood by the fence plucking the strings of the racket like an air guitar. He would lean back and twist its head downward. Mickey had graceful but fierce fingers. One session, an eight-year-old came to the tennis clinic. While Mickey was in line to hit the ball, the eight-year-old shared an anti-semitic joke with him. The Holocaust pizza oven one. Mickey told Sonya later that day that he was offended on behalf of their maybe father Maxim and his parents who, he postulated, were tragically interned in Poland during the war.
The week Mikhail was fished from the swimming pool, Roberto came nervously to Sonya’s door and rang the bell. Sonya let it ring twice before opening it. Is … is your mom home? Roberto asked. Sonya looked behind her as if to check. Her mom hadn't left her room in four days. Though, sometimes, when Sonya turned off the TV and went to her bed at night, she could hear her mom tiptoeing out to refill a water glass and grab an untoasted slice of rye bread from the cabinet. She didn’t say anything to Sonya. But then. What could she say? Something in English? Life eez hard, All family eez dead. Once, that week, Sonya’s mom left a note to her on the fridge saying that she wanted Kefir next time Sonya got groceries. It was pinned with two ten dollar bills under the Elvis Presley magnet. Sonya’s pizza bagels dinged in the microwave with Roberto still at the door.
No, Sonya said, She’s out. Roberto scratched his neon orange beanie. OK, well. My mom made this for you. It’s … um, it’s called boliche mechado. It’s Cuban. Sonya caught him looking past her, into the apartment, and she closed the door a little. The place was dark and filled with clutter. Nothing stirred except for the ding of her unfrozen pizza bagels and an episode of “Spongebob Squarepants.” It was the one in which Mr. Krabs chastises Spongebob for playing on the fishhooks. Mr. Krabs warns him, but Spongebob is too naive to imagine the consequences. Roberto handed her two containers, still warm. You eat meat right? He looked down at his fingers, as if remembering something. Oh, and my mom said to tell you it has onions. Sonya didn’t say anything. She stared a dead, ghostly stare at him. He was rambling, The other container has plantains … I think. He began to turn away from Sonya at the door and then stopped. Hey, I’m … I’m really sorry about your brother. Sonya watched him walking back to his place across the pool. As she shut the door, she could hear his mom yelling to him, Did you tell them about the onions?
SORRY is the last line of her essay on vandalism. 6,000 words. No staples. Lewis looks up at her and flares his nostrils. Sonya grabs the back of her chair and twists: k-k-k-k. Her back cracks, unapologetically. She twists to the other side: k-k. Lewis fans himself with her essay. He presses his tongue to his cheek so it looks like there is a ping-pong ball stuffed inside. Sonya flashes him an awkward, sheepish grin.
Days after she graffitied over Bikini Bottom, Sonya revisited the pool of their apartment complex. The sun was going down. The orange of the sky made Bikini Bottom appear as if it were going up in flames. For a while, she sat and relished her work. By the ladder that Mickey used to clutch to keep from going under—where he almost mastered floating and holding his breath—letting his eyelashes skim the surface, Sonya noticed, was a message from SpongeRob. The message said, “Gulag = Detention. Meet me.” She took the message as an invitation.
Sonya’s friends think SpongeRob is going nowhere. He is going nowhere, they tell her. He is a “bad investment.” She says, Keep your voices down, we’re in the cafeteria. But they ignore her. In a few years, Megan says, he will have face tattoos and a bad rap album. Or else, Lindsey adds, a pregnant girlfriend and a job at a second-rate scuba shop several miles from the peninsula.
Sonya’s friends are tragically middle class. They talk about credit scores and financial stability. They want accountants as boyfriends. Sonya often sits between Megan and Lindsey in the cafeteria as they discuss savings accounts for future children, or prospective colleges and the prospective colleges of their future children. Sonya nodded her way past Lindsey’s enthusiasm for mutual funds. Sonya said “wow” when Megan revealed that her father had to inherit the student loans of her uncle after her uncle threw himself in front of a FedEx truck. Sonya can handle all that. She smiles politely. What Sonya hates most is that Megan and Lindsey refuse to separate art from artist. At sleepovers, they will no longer watch Sonya’s favorite film “The Parent Trap” after learning about Dennis Quaid and his crippling addiction to cocaine. Sonya regrets that she let it slip in the cafeteria about her crush on SpongeRob. Her friends hadn’t known her to be so baleful.
Manny gave Sonya an A+ on her Neo-Marxist analysis of “Squirrel Jokes.” In the margin he wrote in an inky red pen, YOU are the future.
Last Friday, Sonya brought her spray can to school. She kept it in her left hand the whole walk there. Everybody stands out in the courtyard before the bell rings, it’s a morning ritual. SpongeRob and his friends stood in a circle next to the entrance smoking cigarettes. Sonya’s friends leaned on a pillar with their binders open. Math quiz, Sonya bet. Sonya had her hoodie up as she approached Hoover High. When she got to the entrance, she paused nonchalantly and looked back. With one swift motion she scrawled ГУЛАГ onto the door, the CHHHhhh sound making everybody turn her way. She then pulled the door open and went inside followed by several variations of Who was that? and Hoorah!
Sonya builds a life with Rob in her head, maybe an overfed cat and an easel and a big television. Maybe their firstborn is called Mikhail. Maybe they date sporadically through their twenties. Maybe it’s casual. Maybe they get ready for his junior prom together and never go. Maybe they spend the prom money on fresh lobster and melt butter in Sonya’s microwave. Maybe they eat lavishly in the deep end. Maybe she tries to flirt by throwing a jilted crab claw at him. Maybe he looks at the jilted crab claw longingly. Maybe Sonya mentions the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Rob makes a witty comment about a hypothetical romance between Nikita and Fidel. Maybe they admit they’ve never really like anybody this way before. Maybe they sit in silence. Maybe they laugh about the ocean.
Lewis looks at her from across the desk. She pulls her hoodie up so far it covers her hairline. She crosses one leg over a knee cap. Lewis says, I hate to break it to ya. He holds one finger up as if to ask her to wait. He fumbles to open the drawer with the lock on it. When he does, he emerges with two stress balls. He hands Sonya a yellow one with a smiley face. She rolls it around in her palms. His stress ball is earth: blue and green with protruding land masses. His index finger is on Russia and then America and then Russia and then America: spin, squeeze, squeeze, puncture, spin. Lewis breathes in a ghastly breath and Sonya thinks about the life she has with Rob in her head … maybe an overfed cat and an easel and a big television, maybe their firstborn is called Mikhail … and he breathes out.
Lights Out Issue | May 2019