Julie's dad touches her and she can cry on cue. Kristi's mom hits her, so every angry song on the radio she'll claw her hands through her hair and sing real loud. Like it's all about her. Just Kristi, Kristi, Kristi.
My dad, he's never laid a finger on me. I'm so out of the loop.
Seriously, it's like a part of my life is missing. My mother, she died when I was two, but that's like, eleven years ago. To use that, to be all, I miss my mommy, I'd only look like a baby. Attention's only wanted if it builds your rep. I need something current. Something ongoing.
So one night at dinner, I say to my dad, I say, "Dad?"
"Do you think maybe you could slap me in the mouth?"
"Would I slap you in the mouth?"
"Maybe make it bleed?"
"Make it bleed?"
"Any swelling, that'd just be a bonus."
"And why would I do this?"
I tell him because he loves me.
"That's why I won't hit you."
"Please? Julie and Kristi's parents hit them."
"Well," he says, "if Julie and Kristi jumped off a cliff, would you?"
"Hello? Duh. They're like, the most popular girls in school. Anybody who's anybody knows that."
He wipes his mouth and says, "I'm sure they earned their popularity through exercise and good dental hygiene." He says, "Why don't we try aerobics and braces first?"
My dad, he's always just, "a better future," completely ignoring the shitty now.
"Please, please, please? Just one good slap?"
"Eat your dinner," he says.
"It's not fair!" I tell him. I say, "I hate you! I'm never speaking to you again!" He keeps eating and I jump up and show my disgust with equal parts spitting, screaming, and stomping about.
So, I skipped the bus and I'm like, walking to school or whatever and trying to think about the perfect messy childhood when I get this flash—poof!—like a charm-ringed backhand to the face. If my father won't abuse me like any normal abnormal father would, I'll do it myself. Like what we learned in social studies, when the government or whatever starts a war to boost the economy, I'll beat myself to boost my popularity.
So what I do is, I step over behind the Wallaces' hedgerows and crouch down. I slip all my rings onto my right hand and turn my fist toward me, like I'm talking to a sock puppet or something. Then, I swing hard but stop just short of my chapped lips.
This is harder than I thought.
I close my eyes, real hard, and imagine us all in third period. Everyone watching the teacher and suddenly, the door opens and the school counselor peeks her head in and says, "I need to see Kristi Strode, please." Thinking about this, about Kristi sliding out of her desk, head all down, and walking out, soaking up all those stares, my jaw is twitching. I mean, she's my best friend and all, but she can be a real bitch sometimes.
I clinch my fist tighter and get it into position. I'm ready. I mean, people do worse for attention.
I count to three, then slam my fist into my mouth. The first thing I taste is lip skin, and when I touch it with my fingertips there's just a smear of pink. God. Not even enough for an arm around your shoulder.
Outside the hedgerows, cars zip down the street. A bus squeals and hisses in front of the houses.
I ball my fist again and turn my face slightly sideways, where one of my crooked teeth is making my lip knot. I swing again, the sound like slamming your palms together inside your head. Again. Then again.
No one said being popular was easy.
After a few more licks, I stop. Test it with my fingertips. This time, we've got something to build on. There's some funny feeling in my lip and, looking down I can see the blurry bulge under my nose. I even taste a little tooth, or what tooth tastes like when you chip a sliver off.
Smiling, I stand and step out from behind the bush wall, headed toward school. For the stage and spotlight. Break a leg, I think, and wonder how much sympathy something like that would get.
This thing I did, I just keep doing. Behind the Wallace's hedgerows, before school, I'm creating my very own childhood trauma. If I want a black eye, I black my eye. If I want an earring ripped out, I just hook my finger through the loop and pull. A fractured elbow, I smack my arm against the Wallace's brick wall until it cracks and dangles.
No one said being popular was painless.
As of two weeks ago Tuesday, I only do it on Mondays, and there are two reasons why: One, one might assume my dad went on a drinking binge over the weekend and my face is the result. And two or whatever—healing time. Swiping my dad's old senior ring, I knocked out one of my front teeth and put a hole through my lower lip. After that, sympathy became strange looks became being avoided and I knew I had to pace myself.
Seriously, I'd be in the hall talking to Julie and Kristi, going: "And I told Laurie, I go, ‘Alli needs to chill with all the drama,' and she goes, ‘Wouldn't you just, like, know it? I mean, wouldn't you just?' and I go, ‘She is such a snobby bitch.'" Picture me telling them this and they're all glancing down at a tail of bloody drool seeping through my lip, the whole time trying to like, smile or whatever.
So now, it's once a week. At school, I get teachers asking about a bruise on my wrist. A split lip or eye laceration. Asking is there anything I'd like to talk about. All loud, I lower my eyes real slow like and say, "No ma'am. I just fell."
Or: "I ran into a door."
Or: "I rolled off my bed's all."
At home, when Dad asks what's happened to my face, asks if I'm O.K., I'm all, "Duff." Duff as in Hilary Duff. Duff being "cool." Duff being "fine." Or, I'll just say I got into it with Emily, that bitch of a bully. I caught an elbow in gym class. Tripped in the hall. Just back-and-forth, soaking up the spotlight. Not just part of the in-crowd, but the whole bitching thing.
This Monday, I burned my forearm with a cigarette lighter. I stapled the palms of my hands. Last week, I popped a few ribs falling sideways on the Wallace's water spigot. Two Mondays before March, I like, rubbed off a patch of hair on a brick edge.
And as soon as I get to school, I have them lining up, asking me if I'm all right. Asking me what happened. After the first two weeks, I learned how to cry, even though I'm not sad. With all this attention, how could I be? I even claw my hands through my hair when angry songs come on the radio. Now I'm the tortured soul. The hard-luck princess. I bought the book, Family Abuse: You Can Live With It, But God Does It Suck and read it front-to-back. I took notes. I'm so ready for anything.
And one day in third period, the school counselor slips her head through the door and says, "May I see Lindsey Doyle, please?" To keep from screaming, Yes! I bite my tongue so hard I taste blood. All eyes like, turn toward me, and I slip out of my desk. Head down, I peek at Kristi and Julie, at everyone's head following me toward the counselor. Wishing they were me. Wishing their lives were tragic. At the door I shoot a shy smile at the class, letting a little blood slide over my chin and hit the floor.
In her office the counselor, Mrs. Tate, says, "Let's just get to the point, O.K.? Does your father hit you, Lindsey?"
When a counselor says, "Let's get to the point," they like, get to the point.
But I know how to play it, though. I tell her my dad's a good man.
"Does he touch you in any way that makes you feel uncomfortable?"
"He's only doing the best he can without Mom." Here, you keep your eyes down. Feet flat on the floor. Act all bored or whatever.
She asks if I'm ever afraid to go home? And low, I say, "Home is where the hurt is?"
"The hurt?" she says.
"I said 'heart,' not hurt."
So it goes on like this for like, ever, and I work it perfectly. Giving a sip when she's wanting a gulp. Parceling out fragments of my own constructed nightmare. Mrs. Tate's practically eating out of my hand and, though I'm not sure she's crying, I pretend she is. She says a bunch of junk about Family Services and having a meeting with my father and on and on. Just blah, blah, blah.
At lunch, I sit down by Julie and Kristi, and they're acting all bitchy and whatever. They should be happy I'm even talking to them. I mean, seriously, they're no me. Sure, they did it first, but I do it better. The early bird gets the worm, but the early worm gets eaten.
Kristi goes, "Look, it's counselor girl," and Julie's like, "Ooh! Isn't she special."
And I'm all, "Oh, Mrs. Tate wanted me to give you a message: She said she would've called you to her office but you're like, so five minutes ago."
Kristi says, "You're such a little bitch."
"And you're so ugly now," Julie says.
"Like she was ever pretty, anyway," Kristi tells her, smiling.
And I go, "I guess I'll just eat with the popular people," and Kristi says, "Duff," and Julie's like, "Duff with me," and I'm all, "So totally Duff."
Tonight's the night. Like Cinderella's Ball, I'll be glowing when the night's over. It's parent/teacher conferences, when all these lies will play off each other. Making me even more the victim. Making this tragedy take a turn. Maybe a big scene will play out. Julie and Kristi and all the students with their parents circled around as I break down, saying I can't take it anymore. Yelling, "I'm just a kid!" Screaming, "I just want to be loved!" Everyone with their hands over their mouths. Some even crying. I mean, it's child abuse; you'd cry too.
And I'm prepared. This morning, I made a special trip behind the hedgerow. My body shaking with excitement, I got down on my hands and knees, closed my eyes, and slammed my face into the brick wall three times. The first, my cheeks went numb. The second, blood slimed away from my face in strings like stretched bubble gum. The third I guess knocked me unconscious, because I missed first period and some of second.
So, we're in the car and Dad's feeding Kleenex up my nose to staunch the blood still oozing. I'm a little dizzy from blood loss and I've been passing out off and on like, all day. The surface of my nose looks like Manwich meat.
"Just how," he says, tossing tissue into the back seat, "are we going to explain this?"
All goose nasal, my head thrown back, I say, "Just tell ‘em you are only human."
"I mean, you don't even look like you."
"Look them straight in the eye and tell them you are not a monster."
"I'm not a what?"
"What would your mother think about this?"
"Yeah, bring Mom up. Say how I endured her death or whatever, then throw in something about how strong I am."
"That I've endured so much in the last few months. Tell ‘em I've had to grow up before my time. That'll look great."
"Are you kidding me?" he yells. "Are we completely out of Kleenex?"
We get to the school and he walks me in, arm around my shoulder. I keep my head down, passing everyone in the halls. Out of the corner of my eye I see people stop in their steps and stare. One lady says, "Oh God!"
People do worse to be the center of attention.
Kristi and Julie are all hand on hip and curled lip. Shaking their heads in that bitchy way only second best does.
We go into the classroom, and instead of my teacher, Mrs. Tate sits behind the desk. It takes me a minute to figure out we are in the counselor's office. Her mouth is wide and dark, her eyes wide and white. She stares at me. My dad, he says, "She, uh, she tripped outside in the parking lot."
Mrs. Tate says, "She trips a lot, doesn't she?"
"Yeah, actually," Dad tells her. "Especially on Mondays."
I keep my head down, eyes up. After a minute, I look back and see several of my classmates and their parents lingering around the open doorway. Clawing their way to see Miss Most Popular. See how the story ends, how the hero wins the day.
I throw my head back, clench my eyes, and fake sneeze as hard as I can. My head goes like, really light, and blood sprays the papers on Mrs. Tate's desk. My dad, his face is as red as the blood and, still smiling, he wipes my nose with his shirtsleeve.
Mrs. Tate sighs.
We sit sort of still a second, Dad and Mrs. Tate not breaking their stare. I can see in his eyes, he knows she knows my nose is broken.
"Sir, may I speak with you," Mrs. Tate says. "Privately."
"Sure thing," Dad says, and tells me he'll be right back.
But I know he won't. I've done my homework. He'll be arrested and I'll get some serious attention. It's all right there in the book I read. Step by step, you learn everything you need to know. And it's sad. Really, it is. Someday I may even come to like, regret all this. This living a better now. No one said being popular's without sacrifice. Jesus gave his life or whatever, and look how popular he got.
Kristi and Julie step in behind me, bitchy looks and all.
"My dad's getting arrested," I tell them, a blood bubble swelling and popping from my mouth. "Jealous?"
They look at each other and everything. Smiling, her eyes squinted, Kristi says, "Whatever. Abuse is like, so yesterday."
And Julie says, "Besides, our parents love us, now."
"Yeah." Kristi says, her palm held out in front of me. "Family love's in. God," she says, "how lame are you?" She twirls a curl of hair with her finger and walks away. What a bitch. Like it's always about her. Just Kristi, Kristi, Kristi.
Julie, she slips a mascara mirror from her purse, pops it open, and holds it up in front of me. "Besides, we told you. We don't hang with ugly people," she says, and clicks the mirror shut before I ever see me staring back at myself.
Copyright © Kevin Brown 2008.