I don’t know what St. Isaac’s school would be like, but Madison has been a big let down. I was uncomfortable from the first day I set foot in my classroom. When Mommy brought me to the door everybody else was already sitting down at tables that were just big enough for four students each. The room had bright fluorescent lights that made the whole room seem like every little bit of cozy had been bleached clean away. The teacher and Mommy exchanged a few words, and then the teacher motioned for me to come into the class. “Hello class, this is Laura. She’s new to the school,” she said.
I stepped through the doorway. Most of the kids glanced up from their tables, but nobody smiled at me. It was an uneasy feeling being looked at that way, like I was being inspected or something. It wasn’t like Darwin School where it felt like everybody was my friend. It was creepy—the blank looks on their faces, the way they sat almost like toy soldiers, the complete quiet in the room. The teacher sat me at a table with a dark-skinned girl. She was the only one at the table besides me, and she was trembling. Now I was maybe afraid some, but I wasn’t trembling. “This is Donna,” the teacher said pointing to the girl next to me, “and I’m Mrs. Claussen.” So I sat there looking at Donna and thought I really need a friend here, and I turned to her and whispered, “Will you be my friend?” and she just changed completely. Her smile was big and wide, and she stopped trembling, and she said, “Yes!” So Donna and I became friends, and for quite a while we were always together in school, like a pair of shoes.
I made friends with Norman a couple days later when we all sat on the floor near the front blackboard so Mrs. Claussen could read us a story. He has a strange way of walking because his right knee doesn’t bend, and when he walks, he steps forward with his left foot and then drags the right foot to catch up to the left. When he drag/walked over to a spot near me and plunked down, he accidentally bumped me with his bum leg, and I said, “I feel sorry for you.”
“Why?” he said.
“Because your leg is all messed up. Does it hurt?” “No, I was born this way. It doesn’t hurt.”
Then he squeezed in close to Donna and me and from then on we were always together—on the swings or the jungle gym or just rolling down the hill on the grass.
I wanted Donna and Norman to come over to play right away, but it took a lot of arranging because Kathy, Mary Ruth and I can only have friends over on Friday. And we have to ask a whole week in advance. I asked way ahead like I’m supposed to do, but Mommy kept putting it off for one reason or other. It was almost the end of October before they finally came to play. The three of us walked the block home from school, and when we came in through the front door Mommy looked us over and told us to play outside.
Well, the sun was shining. It wasn’t summer hot, but it was nice and warm. So we were okay outside playing with my plastic farm animals on our scraggly lawn for a while. Pretty soon Donna’s mom and Norman’s mom came to pick each of them up, saying a quick thank you to Mommy at the door. Then I was inside practicing the piano. It was almost like they’d never come to visit at all.
Later on I heard Mommy talking and laughing on the phone, not just to her friend Florence, who she complains to just about every day, but to three or four different people, “Can you believe it? Laura brought home a little Negro girl, yessiree a Negro girl. And that’s not all. Oh, no, she brought home a cripple boy too. Yeah, he’s got one leg so stiff all he can do is drag it. Doesn’t that just take the cake? Of all the kids in her class, these are the ones she goes for. Yeah, now I really know there’s something wrong with her. This is proof positive.”
Pretty soon after that Norman decided he loved me in this really strange way. He started chasing me around the playground trying to get me caught up against the school building so he could kiss me. I could outrun him because of his bum leg, but I felt really disgusted because Norman was my friend and all, but I didn’t want to kiss him. I didn’t want to kiss anybody. Then he asked me to marry him, and I said, “No, no, never!” because I was thinking I don’t want to get married, and if I ever do, it will probably be to Charlie. But Norman didn’t stop. He kept asking and chasing and saying that he loved me. Donna and I kept telling him to leave me alone. But he followed us everywhere we went, like gum stuck to the soles of our shoes.
None of the other kids paid any attention. It was just Donna and me on our own against Norman. I didn’t much like the way Donna, Norman and I were always together, never playing with other kids, but it didn’t really start to bother me until Norman got this crazy kissing thing stuck in his head. Then I started to notice that whenever Donna and Norman and I came up, other kids didn’t notice us, no matter how much we tried to get their attention. They’d go off to another part of the playground or huddle with their backs close together. It’s not like they said anything mean or even told us to go away. They just closed us out.
Kids did whisper strange things to me in line though, things I just ignored until Norman went off the deep end with his love thing. “Haven’t you noticed how stupid Norman is? Everybody knows he’s retarded,” a girl named Lindsey whispered to me when we were in the back of the classroom putting some watercolor pictures we’d just painted on a table to dry.
Then a boy named Andy started standing behind me when we lined up for recess. The first time he asked me, “Do you know what everybody’s calling you?”
“No,” I said.
“They’re calling you monkey lover, monkey lover,” he said, pointing to Donna and pretending to scratch his armpits and then making ooh, ooh sounds sort of like The Three Stooges might make. After that I never knew when he was going to sneak up behind me and call me monkey lover and make those awful noises, and if I happened to look his way during class he would do the armpit thing. It made me feel really creepy and choked up.
Then one day he got behind Donna in line and sniffed real deep at her neck, right where her snow-white collar met her deep brown skin. He made an ugly face like he’d just eaten raw oysters or something, and whispered to me, “Something wrong with your nose? She smells different, really bad different. How can you stand it? Can’t you smell?”
After that when I stood next to Donna, which was just about all the time at school, I would find myself thinking that she really did smell different. The thoughts just drifted in, like a swarm of gnats in the summer. I tried not to pay attention, but the thoughts just kept flying in big as you please whenever they wanted to. Everything Donna did started to bug me, her smile, her soft voice, her long legs. I wanted to get away from her. I wanted to stop this buzzing line of thinking and feeling, but I couldn’t.
Kids kept on saying stuff—not every day, but often enough so I couldn’t forget that something was not right about my friends and me. The other kids were never loud. They never teased me or hit me the way Kathy and Mary Ruth do when they’re not happy with me. It was always a quiet thing, a quick tap on my shoulder, a little whisper in my ear that nobody else could hear.
Then one day Norman told Mrs. Claussen that he and I were getting married the very next day. She said, “Why Norman, that’s wonderful,” and she announced to the class, “Everybody, Laura and Norman are getting married tomorrow.” All the kids except Donna looked at me like I was suddenly cross-eyed. I hoped the whole thing would just go away. But the next day when I came into the classroom, there was Norman holding a veil he made from an Oscar Mayer wiener wrapper to go around my head and toilet paper stapled on for a veil, and a ring he’d made from a the foil part of a gum wrapper. I nearly fainted right there on the classroom floor. Then Mrs. Claussen got the whole class in a circle. She had Norman and me stand up in front of the group. Norman put the veil on me, and the ring. I was standing there feeling like my old Bozo the Clown punching toy that is all deflated down in our basement. Bozo has a hole in his plastic bottom that even Daddy can’t fix. Then Mrs. Claussen said, “There now. Laura and Norman are married.”
Everyone just stared quietly, and I could tell I was red in the face because my cheeks felt like they’d been slapped. When I got back to my table, I took off the veil and ring, and stuffed them underneath in this little cubbyhole thing that’s part of the table. Then at recess I took the veil and ring to the trash can, ripped them up right there in front of Norman and squished them down real good. I said, “I don’t want to marry you, and I don’t want to be your friend anymore either.” He finally got the message. He and I haven’t spoken since.
Then for a while it was Norman all by himself at recess, usually picking at little holes in the brick of the school building, me playing with Donna, and all the other kids playing in their little groups that slipped and slid away from us like mercury that had escaped from a broken thermometer. Then one day as we were lining up to go to morning recess Jillie stood behind me in line, pointed to Donna who was right in front of me and whispered in my ear, “Lots of kids would want to be your friend if you stop being friends with her.”
“Really? Who?” I asked.
“I would. I could even come over and play with you after school today.”
“Oh, I can’t play today.” “Why not?”
“I can only play on Fridays, and I have to ask a week ahead of time, and then most of the time it’s still not okay.”
“Wow. That’s weird.”
I thought about what Jillie had said, and I thought about all the other things kids had whispered to me about Donna. It struck me that as long as I was her friend I wasn’t going to be friends with anybody else, except maybe Norman, but I didn’t want to be his friend anymore. Then I did a really bad thing. I decided to dump Donna. It took me a couple weeks of trying until I could squish my heart to a place where I could ignore Donna like everybody else.
Then one day right after morning recess Mrs. Claussen called us all up to the front of the room so we could sit close together on the floor and listen to her tell us about how in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue all the way to America. She had three small wooden ships with fancy sails on her lap, which she said were just like the real ships he used. Donna and I were right next to each other, as usual. I decided then and there it was the time to act. I turned to her and said, “I don’t want to be your friend anymore.”
I crawled away from her even though it was hard to do because I felt physically drawn to her like a magnet. She crawled after me, smiling wide, thinking it was a game, but I said it again, “ I don’t want to be your friend anymore.” And I added, “It’s the truth.”
I crawled away again and she followed me. Then after we did this about five times, Mrs. Claussen told us to stop moving around. And she said to Donna, who was on the other side of the group from me, “Stay where you are. You can see she doesn’t want to sit next to you, can’t you?”
So Donna sat where she was, tears welling in her eyes as other kids near her shifted away just a little bit, and I tried not to look at her as I sat alone too, still as a fox about to pounce on a bird, afraid that if I moved one muscle I’d look over at Donna, and I didn’t want to risk facing her big, sad brown eyes.
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