This Is Not About You
by Laura Lark

1

It’s about—or you think it’s about—the pair of wide-wale, giraffe-print knickers and vest with brass insignia buttons and braided frog closures you insisted your mother make for your first day at the new school. Your chocolate brown knee socks match your chocolate brown turtleneck, and your hair today isn’t greasy.

It’s sunny and windy and September. It’s 1972.

School district 306, for reasons beyond your comprehension, has wrenched you from Birchwood, where you attended grades three and four.

Now you’re a Pinewood student.

After your parents sit you down to discuss the transition a few weeks before, you go in the bathroom and lie with your face pressed to the cool tile floor for over an hour. Before this talk you never even knew about Pinewood Elementary. So you never thought of being a Pinewood person.

Your desk is arranged in a horseshoe of twenty-five. A carnation pink tent of folded construction paper spells out your first name in big block letters. The wide-wale corduroy giraffe print knickers zip when your legs rub together. You wonder, as the other fifth graders trickle in and feel their inquisitive gazes, why you insisted your mother make this outfit. In this material. After school today you hang this outfit at the very end of the rod in the corner of your closet, behind a snowsuit and a witch costume.

DEBBIE G. (DEBBIE W. has not yet arrived) is directly across from you. Her outfit’s smart. Pleated navy skirt. Cotton blouse with a Peter Pan collar and tiny yellow flowers. Probably new from the girl’s department at Sears. DEBBIE surely has slumber parties and a mom that lets her eat as much Lucky Charms cereal as she wants.

DEBBIE G. avoids your gaze and straightens her cardboard tent.

You don’t like DEBBIE G. You feel stupid. You look stupid, and you have no one to blame but yourself. You’ve developed a hot feeling at the base of your skull as the rest of the students identify their name-tents and settle in. This sensation comes on a lot lately. Whenever it does you imagine you’re melting into a pool of your own sebaceous oils. There’s always some of your thick arm, mustache, and eyebrow hair floating around in there.

It’s a searing bubble of shame, and one you can barely squeeze a thought through, but it bursts at the sound of a ruckus down the hall. It’s laughter, but louder. Menacing. More raucous. A girl’s voice shouts, Fuck you, Tony!

 

Dinner the night before is tuna fish casserole and Bird’s Eye frozen vegetable medley.

Busing. That’s what your parents are talking about.

You don’t get the big deal. You had to move from your old school to this stupid new school, and now so do a bunch of other kids from some other neighborhood. What’s the difference? Why doesn’t your mother just say that they should like it or lump it like she always says to you?

But really, who’s paying attention? Hasn’t the world had enough frozen vegetable medley?

Your mother leans in to make eye contact with you. You stop chewing.

You are not, she says, to treat any one any differently than you would any other of your friends at Pinewood.

Mouth full, you point out that you don’t have any friends at Pinewood.

This is not about you. She waves her index finger like a windshield wiper. Just you remember that.

You swallow.

No differently! She stabs her fingertip at your nose. Don’t you ever forget that.

Your sister, who is in second grade soon and who gets to stay at Birchwood, pokes at a crinkle cut carrot with disdain and says, But what if they act differently?

 

Your fifth grade teacher, Miss March, toting an acoustic guitar by the neck, floats across the classroom. She’s heavy but somehow graceful, a cloud of pink and orange tie-dyed scarves. The fracas from the hall fills the room when she yanks the door open wide. From the group outside she pulls in a tall, thin girl who is laughing and punching at someone.

She’s Fuck you, Tony.

You lay your cheek on the cool, faux wood grain desk and view everything sideways. Miss March sets her guitar on a counter and marches the girl to the desk next to yours. The class is silent. MARY JEAN, a blonde in pink overalls, stares, mouth open.

You shut your eyes. The chair adjacent to yours screeches in. You open your eyes and slowly straighten to see, in profile, a lanky, light-skinned black girl. Her hair is twisted into two softball-sized puffs. She writhes, mutters, folds her arms over her chest, and slides down until her chin is level with the desk and her legs jut into the desk-horseshoe.

The only other black student, across the configuration of desks, is BLAKE. He’s far darker than the new girl and sits at his seat, posture perfect, in a starched, pale-yellow button-down and khakis with sharp creases. A Kelly green cotton pullover is looped about his neck. Some in the room glance from BLAKE to the other girl. Without looking up, he sharpens pencils and lines them into a perfect row.

Her name, according to the yellow construction paper tent at the front of her desk, is CARLA. You like this, decide it suits her.

From her regal slouch, she scans you from head to toe and smiles. It might not be an I’m mocking you smile. You smile back and eye the diagonal grid pattern on her powder blue and red pullover vest. It’s somehow familiar. She’s somehow familiar.

I have a shirt just like that, you say, pointing at her top. Let’s both wear them day after tomorrow.

She eyes you coolly.

We’ll be twins, you say.

She nods, turns in the direction of Miss March, who, hams spread on the counter, strums her acoustic guitar.

 

You know that you don’t hate Pinewood now because of Carla. You’re the only one she whispers to or passes notes to. You haven’t really said it, but she’s your best friend. Your only friend. A little part of you is certain she’s yours.

Carla doesn’t know anything about TV shows like everybody else. She doesn’t bring a lunch box or even a lunch at all, and when you offer her some of yours—a cookie, half a sandwich—she waves you away and pats her stomach like she’s stuffed. And every time she shows up wearing something just like something you have at home and you tell her to wear it the next day so you two can be twins, you’re both really disappointed because you can’t find yours and she always forgets or says it’s in the wash.

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